The Winter Solstice is fast approaching. As the silver sun runs its brief and low course across the southern sky, it speaks to me not only of the dominance of dark over light, but of history and heritage. There is power in the solstice that spans the ages, which is why I set the climactic scene in my Scottish novel, The Bonnie Road, at a pivotal site of solstice wonder.
There is a type of Bronze Age monument unique to Scotland, called a ‘Recumbant Stone Circle,’ in which a massive stone slab lies horizontally on the southwest side of the circle, flanked by the two tallest uprights. The stones track the moon and solar solstice points.
It’s not only the ancient stones, however, that are illuminated by the solstice rays. Clues to the thoughts and beliefs of the people who built them 4,500 years ago are revealed in these ancient observatories. My stone circle became the vortex that effortlessly gathered together all the history, mythology, archaeology, plot points and characters of the novel.
In the same way, each pivotal setting in The Bonnie Road is a vessel of time and history that affects the characters every bit as much as plot.
To give another, deceptively simple example, the long stone pier of St Andrews harbor, along which the protagonist Rosalind, and Angus the archaeologist, take an evening stroll early on in the novel can be enjoyed simply as a scenic venue for a developing romance.
Or, it can be savored on multiple levels, as they walk over re-used quarried stones that once made up the walls of the medieval cathedral, which had been demolished following an exhortation by John Knox to destroy it, even as he lambasted Mary Queen of Scots in St Andrews, as part of his diatribe against that ‘Monstrous Regiment of Women,’ thus anticipating the time-honored clash to come in the novel between a Church of Scotland minister and one of the townsfolk who follows the Auld Ways. The pier also conveys centuries of use by the fishing community who rely on it to this day, linked inextricably by relations with town and gown, embodied by one of the primary characters. Multiple foreshadowings of key scenes to come take place on that same pier, of tempest and death and escape. It’s not merely a sort of stage set. There is an active intelligence in the location.
I wasn’t thinking of all that when I wrote the scenes. I just knew it felt right at the time. If the craft of writing were all it took to create a multi-layered scene, the details would be as complicated as an old clock’s mechanisms, and it would become a jumbled mess. Balance is all, balance of character and plot and setting and dialogue, each one working in tandem to move the story forward. There is a point at which the writer must cut herself free and fly on instinct.
When I wrote the pier scene (and all the others for that matter) I already knew its history. I was very familiar with every stone in its length, knew how the sea caressed or thundered against its walls, had seen the aurora borealis from its terminal, had shared that walk with lovers and friends and family. When I placed three key scenes on the pier, I let the setting take care of itself.
There is an alchemy that happens when personal experience of critical sites merges with history and plot. These settings are gifts to the writer, already dense with meaning. When everything in the novel moves to its culmination, and does so with the hidden finesse that these scenes, alive with personality, menace or destiny convey, the novel’s climax becomes as inexorable as that unconquered sun headed for the solstice stone in those ancient circles.
Suzanne d’Corsey is a writer, playwright, and author of the Scottish novel, The Bonnie Road.