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Talking Location With Author James Stejskal

8th September 2021

James Stejskal#TalkingLocationWith. James Stejskal, author of Appointment in Tehran (Iran) and A Question of Time (Berlin)

Writing Location, Setting, and Place in My Novels…

When I started writing fiction, I knew I needed more than just a story arc and character development to make the story come alive. While those are important, they don’t mean much if the reader is left in a literary desert, surrounded by an empty canvas of a backdrop.

In my previous life, I was a Special Forces soldier and then an intelligence officer. One of the most important things I had to learn was to read the terrain, the layout, even the ‘mood’ of a place to know what could be useful or possibly dangerous. Moreover, I needed to be able to describe what I experienced — all the small and unique details that would evoke a sense of place.

I also did freelance photography around the world. When shooting photos, I want to tell a story, to capture the proverbial thousand words in one picture. And I often try to shoot from a unique angle, to show the location in a way a conventional view never could. That style carries over into my writing.

My books transport the reader to many places — Berlin, Cape Town, and Zanzibar among others — and to describe them I rely on research, interviews, and the good fortune to have actually lived or worked in many of them.

With that background, I do my best to show the readers the place and highlight how it affects the characters’ state of mind and even their ability to control the situation. Being inside a Balkan-themed Kneipe (pub) in West Berlin is an entirely different experience than standing outside Evin Prison in Tehran. Sometimes the description of rusted barbed wire and barking dogs along the death strip in East Berlin tells the story, other times it is the smell of lamb kebabs cooking on a smoking brazier under a string of twinkling lights in Tehran that connects the reader to the place.

James Stejskal

Rudow U-Bahn station

I tend to drift back to places I have visited, my favorite places in the world, and bring them into my stories. Sometimes, it is necessary to describe places that no one writes travelogues about because they aren’t pretty or are too dangerous to visit. But then, those are the places where interesting things happen. If I’ve been there, I can write from memory, with perhaps a little refresh from on-line research or talking to someone with on-site experience. There are always those small details that will give the spirit of a place, good or bad, and show how it affects the individuals in the story.

James Stejskal

Stasi chief Erich Mielke’s office

Pulling out a map and photographs is one way I start to get my own sense of place. I remember where I visited and what I had seen. Then I begin to ask questions. What special detail would showcase the setting? What do the buildings look like? The animals and foliage? Maybe the loud song of the cicada in the distance? Or maybe the squeal of brakes as an S-Bahn train pulls into Pankow station? What visceral feeling does the character get from the location?

The Foreign Ministry, Tehran (Wikimedia CC/SA)

These are things that might seem small and inconsequential to people hurrying to work, or shopping, or who are otherwise wrapped up in a life where there is no time to stop and smell the napalm, but to me seeing and describing those details makes all the difference.

James Stejskal

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Enter the 2021TripFiction 'Sense of Place' Creative Writing Competition!

A story in which the location plays as important a role as the rest of your words.

2,500 word maximum, 750 word minimum

Judges include Victoria Hislop and Rosanna Ley

First Prize of £1,000 / US$1,350

Prizes total £1,750 / US$2,362 

Winning entry published on TripFiction site and publicised on Social Media

Entries close 6th November 2021