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Author Margaret Pinard talks about “dream destinations”

4th April 2015

‘Dream destinations’ Why do we search out certain places for the books we read?


The Scottish Highlands (www.cntraveller.com)

As a TripFiction visitor, no doubt you’ve learned that the setting of a book in the City of Lights is no guarantee of its quality, even if you love Paris. But perhaps you seek out books set in Paris, again and again…

I think it’s because we have these fantasies we’ve made up in our head, and the book makes them real, or we are hoping it will. Thinking of the phrase ‘dream destination’ may give us something to ponder on then… how much of a place is our dream of it? How much of it is reality?

This is my theory as a Reader. As an Author, setting seems to take on a similarly subconscious, unrealized-dream kind of quality. My own unrealized dream involves the Highlands of Scotland. It may be a fairly common one, and tarnished by an avalanche of stories unworthy of the setting, but it’s been going for some years, and doesn’t seem to be losing its brilliance with me.

I’ve read widely on the Highlands, taking in nonfiction from different eras and genres, such as Johnson & Boswell, Geddes MacGregor, Liz Curtis Higgs, and Adam Nicolson. I’ve also leapt into the fray when it comes to fiction, meeting some truly terrible romances, as well as some truly touching ones, and adventure stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, literary fiction by Julia Glass, mystery by Josephine Tey, and that strange Gothic fantasy by James Hogg.

Reading such a variety has shown me bits and pieces of the place. Of course some pieces have contradicted others, but that is to be expected. While Alexander McCall Smith is not my favorite, he is a good example to set up at one end, with the Gothic-Romantic James Hogg at the other, to show the staggering breadth of ‘setting’ one can have in a single place. Writing about that place then, is an exercise in marrying together the right bits in the moment, to give the reader the sense of really being there.

Have you wondered what life was like for island peasants in early 19th century Argyll? I picked up this particular time and place because the spark of change was in it, and the possibility for a drama worthy of the place and its vanished people. Ever since high school, I’ve been drawn to the lost stories, the hardship journeys, the romantic view of the losing side in history.

What happens when we visit that place then? I’ve visited Scotland twice in the past five years, and plan to do so again this year. How much do I interpret with my own particular lens? How much do I miss that is real?

I won’t make any recommendations on how best to experience a locale, or choose a book, as we are all so individual that it would be fruitless. However, I will share with you a couple of my favorite examples of authors guiding me to my own idea of Scotland, however imagined or distorted that may be.

For accent/dialect, I had a baptism by fire: Lewis Grassic Gibbon (James Leslie Mitchell) writing A Scots Quair channeled the farmer-talk of the region called The Mearns in the beginning of the 19th century. There was a lot of head-scratching, let me tell you, but by halfway in, I just let the turns of phrase and jerky syllables wash over me.

An early naturalist read that was more detailed and scientific than I could have imagined was Sea Room, by Adam Nicolson. I am no lover of, or sharp observer of, birds, but he talks a LOT about them in Sea Room: from what they taste like (there was even a chart of comparison), to how they behave like humans in their colonies on the outer Scottish isles. I’m reading another nonfiction book that touches on the same subject (The Old Ways, A Journey On Foot, by Robert MacFarlane) when the author describes the secret voyage still made by the guga hunters of Ness. Apparently both authors agree that gannets, or guga (the chicks), taste absolutely awful.

One of the beautiful literary treatments of a part of Scottish culture came in Three Junes, by Julia Glass, when her narrator remembers caring for his mother’s Border collies as a child.

“I loved rubbing liniment into a sore limb; loved, once a week, carrying out the tin of meat drippings Mum reserved by the cooker and pouring it onto the dogs’ kibble, to keep their black coats as glossy as pressed coal.”

New words for an American: tin, drippings, cooker, and an unfamiliar but vivid simile.

This passage from Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands, would make anyone yearn for a retreat in the Highlands:

“He spent his days by the Turlie, happy and relaxed about the brown swirling water. The water was as clear as beer and its froth foam-white; it filled his ears with music and his days with delight. The damp soft air smurred his tweed with fine dew, and water from the hazel twigs dripped won the back of his neck.”

There now, Tey has given us a new color for water, a delightful rhyming sentence, the new dialect word “smurr,” and a native plant: hazel. All of these small drops form the river that washes over and immerses the reader in another place.

I especially love reading about smells, which are like clown cars, giving so much more information about social rank and situation than the small detail might indicate. And I love hearing the language of a certain region flick off the tongues of the characters, even if at first I stumble with meanings or rhythm of the dialect. It’s so specific, making me as a reader feel like I’ve met real people, and visited a real place. Perhaps with enough research trips to Scotland, I’ll be able to achieve the same for my readers. 😉

Thank you to Margaret for sharing her passion for locale and especially Scotland.


Margaret Pinard has spent her first few decades traveling the globe in search of adventures to incorporate into her writing, including living in the lands of the Celts, the cities of European fashion, and several dolce far niente Mediterranean cultures. Her two full-length novels are Memory’s Hostage set in England and Scotland, and Dulci’s Legacy set in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She resides in Portland, Oregon. You can follow Margaret in Twitter and via her website.

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  1. User: aditi3991

    Posted on: 21/04/2015 at 9:37 am

    Now I want to visit Scotland more than ever after reading this article! 🙂