Thursday, 3 October 2013

Writing Home by Dan Holloway

I spent four years of a doctorate studying Eros and the erotic. Not in the narrow sense in which it is sometimes used in a 50 Shades-ish context, but in the fullest sense of the inexplicable, urgent sense of longing that connects two people or things. I’ll never forget a question my supervisor put in one of our reading groups. “How is it,” he asked, “that we can be on a train, and turn a corner on the track, and on entering a particular valley or terrain we have never visited before we can just know that we are home?”

It’s a question we might initially dismiss as a bit of sentimental tosh, or a misunderstanding of the fact that “home is where those you love are.” But if we think about it a little more, it starts to eat away at us. Most people I know have had this kind of experience, this kind of moment of realisation, an anagnorisis or gestalt when, just for a second, every single detail falls into place. And for many of us, that has happened most frequently with places.

This happens so commonly that it’s even become a trope in books – people pull up somewhere they’ve never been before and know they *have* to live there. Interestingly for every Mr Blandings loveliness, there seem to be far more Amityville Horrors – the perfect house that is actually a nightmare, often because what makes it seem perfect is some kind of déja vu that relates back to some past happening (which, in itself, is fascinating because what makes somewhere feel “right” pulls on so many parts of our past).

The notion of “home”, however, is more than a suspense-driving or saccharine trope in books. The intense, almost physical, umbilicus that attaches certain people to certain places is the true emotional core of much great literature. It is more than a question of evoking a sense of place, though it can be a glorious elaboration on that – just think of the cuttings and countryside of The Railway Children. It is about a relationship. Sometimes, and to brilliant effect, it can be not only the key relationship in a book (think Tara in Gone With the Wind) but a key engine in the plot.
At this point, I should advise everyone to go away and come back (or, indeed, not come back because you won’t need anything from me afterwards) once you’ve finished reading pretty much everything ever written by Daphne Du Maurier. Or at the very least Rebecca, which is the locus classicus for “home as plot device.”

Now that you’re back, let’s take a look both at the ways in which the notion of “home” can be used to deepen and layer your writing, and some practical tips for how to accomplish that.

Home as a part, or an embodiment, of the soul

This is most familiar to many readers not through the notion of “home” at all but Philip Pullman’s wonderful depiction of people’s daemons, physical manifestations of their soul. And the power of the construct is nowhere more perfectly illustrated than in the terrifying severances of people from their daemons. Home can perform exactly the same task, and to the same effect. The connection between a character and their home can be so strong that when the home is under threat it is a direct assault on everything that makes the character who they are.

At its extreme, and with the home serving as both the embodiment of and a gigantic metaphor for the person’s soul we have the glorious guignol of Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. Less extreme, but no less powerful, are works such as the films Local Hero and The Field, or Conor McPherson’s award-winning play The Weir. These are works in which the home, often a piece of land, is the soil that nurtures a person’s being, and the notion of the person having their roots there is almost physical.

This can be an immensely rich emotional core for a story. When a person’s home is threatened, it is a threat to the person themselves. And it spans genres – from the unquiet spirits whose graves are tampered with in Stephen King’s works through Richard Harris’ craggy man of the land in The Field all the way to Meg Ryan’s bookstore owner in You’ve Got Mail.

The key to making this work – and thus making the reader feel the urgency and desperation of a threat that doesn’t actually physically threaten your protagonist – is making readers believe in the connection. Do it well and the character and their home, and all associated emotions, become transferable in the reader’s mind. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to make the home a peg on which to hang a character’s key emotional ties. That formative teenage summer when they first kissed under the branches of a tree that’s now going to be bulldozed, for example. Maybe they returned to it in times of deepest sorrow and it reminded them of innocence and happiness and lost love with a vividness that is achievable no other way. And with the tree gone, that link to a single place of safety in a painful world is gone.

Home as the place you can’t escape

The connection needn’t be a positive one. Just a real one. Home can be a trap as much as it can be an inspiration. It can be the one thing that keeps you from your dreams. This is a perfect core for an emotionally-centred saga (see under Jonathan Franzen). Often, as in Elfriede Jelinek’s devastating The Piano Teacher or Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, the link comes from the association between home and an overbearing parent whose clutches one spends the course of the book trying, but failing, to escape. Even when the parent dies, the association between them and home cannot be broken – the domineering parent lives on through the home. This can happen to terrifying effect as in Psycho or take the form of high melodrama as in The Godfather.

In such stories, the tension of the story comes from the character’s attempt to fly the roost. It’s a high risk strategy because even if you get it right, the reader will scream at the page “For goodness’ sake just leave!” And if you get it wrong the reader will instantly lose faith – “Why didn’t s/he just walk out of the door?”

What you need to do as a writer is make the shadow a home casts sufficient to make it believable that even though your protagonist could very easily physically leave, psychologically they can’t. The cheap shot way of doing this is to show a time in earlier life when they tried, and failed, and the home welcomed them back with, as it were, a sinister smile. A subtler but much harder way of doing it is to make their home stand for one half of their being in a war between two sides of them – the side we root for that stands for freedom and escape and the side that holds them back that stands for the sadness of the past.

Home as the place you want to end up

Just as fecund as the notion that home is the place you start out at is the notion of home as the place you want to end up at. The standout example of this, of course, is Homer’s Odyssey, which makes a whole glorious epic essentially out of what happens once the action’s finished.
The driving idea here is the conflict between restlessness and rest. Home, which may be a real place (The Odyssey) or some kind of ideal (Don Quixote, or any other “grail quest”), offers the promise of peace, of an end to troubles that stem from the feeling of not belonging.

This is the ideal heart for any kind of picaresque, anything where you want to send your protagonist on a series of external or internal quests, fighting internal or external obstacles in order to end up at an internal or external home. Often highly symbolic, this is a narrative framework in which pretty much every event is a metaphor for “coming to terms with who you are.”

To make this work, you need to make the reader believe that your protagonist really is in dire straits at the start of the book, and really would be better off if they arrived at the end safely “home.” Do that successfully and you give genuine drama and tension to the battle against the obstacles that stand in their way because you have raised the stakes. There are three ways you can do this. The first is the dual setting narrative. This is effectively what Homer does, switching between Odysseus on his travels and his wife, Penelope, and her travails at home in Ithaca. It’s also done to great effect in the movie The Truman Show, which makes us empathise with Truman’s desperate attempt to free himself from the artificial world that has been his life by showing us the outside world that’s looking in on him.

The second method is the ideal. This is employed by the grail legends, stories about El Dorado, and, by and large, by The Matrix. Home in these narratives is almost mythical, both in its significance for the protagonist and in the fact that no one knows whether it is real or symbolic. This is almost always used as a contrast to a present day that is unbearable – from the ravaged lands of the grail legends to the numbness of life in the matrix. This creates real disadvantages for you as a writer – you don’t get to tell the reader if “home” exists or not till the final page, so you’d better do an incredible job at making the stakes both high and the goal seem winnable (this is done best when readers know that even if the physical aim of the quest doesn’t exist, the inward transformation the character undergoes makes the journey worth their while).

Finally, and my personal favourite (because it lacks the “stagedness” of the first option and the credibility issues of the second, and plain appeals to my sentimentality) is the use of nostalgia. Home, here, is a place we distantly remember but the imprint of which has become indelible to the extent we spend our lives looking for a way back (again, symbolism figures high and the external and internal journeys mirror each other – this is done to wonderful effect, for example, in the film Citizen Kane). What adds extra poignancy is the way our memories fix events and places. Whilst sometimes returning to one’s home (as in the beautiful film The Straight Story) can give one a final peace, often we arrive to find that everything has changed and the bubble is pierced. In a great work of literature, this piercing of the dream doesn’t matter, because your protagonist has come to learn along the way that the physical trappings of the “home” they sought are of far less worth than the significance of the memory.

There are many other ways in which the notion of “home” can enrich, and clarify, your writing – home can be a motivating force for the protagonist who will do anything for it, or rather than be the place you can’t escape it can be the place you long to stay. But the key to all of these is to make the connection between character and home believable and important. Get it right, and it can give your readers a whole extra level of emotional investment in your story.

Dan Holloway is a poet and novelist and regular contributor to the Guardian Books Blog. He is also the host of the touring spoken word troupe The New Libertines, who will next be performing at Woodstock Poetry Festival on November 16th. Dan will also be a panelist at the Self Publishing Summit in London on November 9th.


  1. Having recently published "Hanna's Home" I relate so well to this subject "Home". My character, Hanna's suffering from dementia, eventually found her way 'home' although along the journey she was content that 'home' was the place where she found herself each day - despite the fact that she was lost.

    1. I think in life where we find "home" is something that has to come from within, and the wandering is much more internal than external. Conveying that inner journey as a writer is the holy grail!

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