Sunday, 16 November 2008

Creating a Sense of Place

I read in one of those "How to Write" books that to create a full picture in a reader's head of a room, you only need to mention 5 things, not everything in there. For example, I am sitting in a room, not my room, with a huge wood fire in a red brick inglenook, there are 7 candles burning on the hearth and a large, black cat slumped on one of the comfy, sagging sofas. An empty mug of tea is on a travelling chest beside a jar of wild flowers.

This below shamelessly borrowed from Debut Dagger.

Ways to let your reader know where you’ve set your story.
The simplest way is to put it at the beginning of the chapter. Arizona 1870 or Rome 44 B.C. does the job. But it’s a method that is generally only used when you’re moving between several time periods and need to let the reader know which one we’re in at present. Besides it’s a bit lazy. So let’s look at other means to get the message over.

Remember most people these days have access to the television and films. They already have preconceived ideas about many places; you just need to tap into them. Suppose you write “She shivered as she passed through the shadow of the Empire State Building.” Your reader’s imagination will instantly supply skyscrapers, yellow cabs, and Central Park, so you don’t need to add much more in the way of description in that chapter. Same for ancient Rome, a pacific island, the world war one trenches.

If, on the other hand, you write “He noted the sweat stains on his new silk shirt with annoyance. The stage was four and half hours late. A record even for this village in the backside of Schleswig-Holstein.” Well you’ve established this is historical and the weather is warm, but since most people (including me) have no idea what the backside of Schleswig-Holstein looks like, you’ll have to work in a few more details; is it a dusty plain, a wooded area, mountain foothills? Don’t go mad though, you’re not writing a travel brochure.
If you’ve set your first chapter indoors, what can they see through the window? Or use something in the room: “a particularly ugly cabinet carved from the trees that used to cover this side of Barbados”. And don’t forget to use their other senses. A foghorn suggests you’re close to the ocean, whilst the chatter of parrots could indicate somewhere tropical. The smell of orange blossom drifting through an open door should alert your readers to the fact this is unlikely to be set anywhere in a northern climate.

Here’s how three professional writers tackle this aspect of writing:
First, Alex Gray. Alex’s novels are largely set in Scotland.
In my novels there is always a very strong sense of place particularly of Glasgow. I often go to locations with a notebook and a camera to make sure I have the details correct and this pays huge dividends as my readers tell me how much they enjoy reading about real places that they know.

How do I achieve this sense of place in my writing? Well, there are several ways of doing this creatively. One is to combine atmosphere with location. At the very beginning of “A Small Weeping” I write ~

“There was something appropriate about the fog blotting out everything beyond the station, thought Lorimer as he made his way through George Square. It was as if the natural world was trying to obliterate whatever waited for him behind the swirling curtain of mist.” The centre of Glasgow (George Square) has a mention as does the scene of crime, (Queen Street) station.

In the third chapter of “Shadows of Sounds” I establish location in a similar manner ~
“The blue lights of Buchanan Street lent an eerie glow to the hill that sloped down from the steps of the Concert Hall all the way down to Saint Enoch’s Square.” This is especially important given that the action centres around Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

But there are other ways of establishing place. One is to use a character within a setting, a local person with local knowledge. “The Riverman” begins like this ~

“The riverman knew all about the Clyde. Its tides and currents were part of his heritage. His father and others before him had launched countless small craft from the banks of the river in response to a cry for help.”

Yet another way (and this is not confined to Glasgow by any means) is to use dialect within the dialogue. This immediately pinpoints location for if a story begins with dialogue, the reader can “hear” the local accent. I do use dialect both to establish place and also to show the sort of character I am trying to describe.

You can find out more about Alex and her novels at here.

Now Louise Penny.
Louise was short-listed for the Debut Dagger and subsequently went on to win the CWA New Blood Dagger, the Arthur Ellis Award, and the Dilys Award for her first novel Still Life. Her books are set in rural Canada.

I know with certainty if my first book didn't have a strong sense of place it wouldn't have been published. My books are set in Quebec, and I decided to also make the environment a character. That helped establish location. I wanted people to use all their senses as they read, to slip further and further into this world. But it was necessary to do this so that people barely noticed - so I sprinkled descriptions of Quebecois food, the scents of autumn, the startling colours of the leaves here and there.

I wanted there to be no doubt where the book was set. The first line reads, 'Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday.'. Within two pages you know it's hunting season, you know the setting is a quaint and quiet Quebec village, you know there's a strong sense of community and belonging. It's a lovely, gentle place.

I deliberately created a place of light, and into that light I poured dark. So that the contrast would be stunning.

The second scene of the book is set in the bistro of the village. This allowed me to talk about croissants and cafe au lait, to have the main character notice the headlines on an abandoned newspaper at the next table. It allowed her to look out the window and briefly reflect on the enchanting world she saw, telling the readers not only about the village but that Clara is a content, happy woman. And it allowed me to sprinkle in a few French words for atmosphere.

You can find out more about Louise and her books at here.

Finally Meg Gardiner.
Meg sets her stories in California.

Novels can’t exist in a vacuum any more than people can. Stories need a sense of place. Without it, they seem to occur in a void, and readers feel unmoored. With it, readers feel that they’re on the streets of a living, breathing world, sharing the characters’ experiences.

How do you create a sense of place? You start by knowing the world of your story inside and out. It’s where your characters exist, and it shapes their lives. A novel set in New Orleans will differ from one set on the Arctic icepack. They may both deal with murder, love, and death, but will play out in different ways.

The most important thing in creating a sense of place is particularity: precisely observed details rather than generalities. Anchor your story in a specific place and time. Setting a novel in “a city” or “Asia” is as vague and useless as setting it “on earth” or “in the past.” Bring descriptions to life by being precise. Don’t mention “restaurant aromas.” Mention curry, BBQ, or the yeasty smell of beer.
Give readers a few vivid markers to spark their imaginations. And you don’t want description to be static. Weave information about the setting into the story. Put it to use. Make it affect what’s happening. Is the night so cold the hero’s tears freeze? So humid that sweat darkens the back of his shirt, making it impossible for him play it cool? Are the alleys in Marrakech wide enough for a fleeing motorcycle, but not a Mercedes?

Describe your setting via all the senses. Sounds: horns echoing between skyscrapers; steel drums; the murmur of waves on the beach. Tastes. Smells. Dialogue can also define a place. Do cabbies say, “Thanks, dude,” or “Cheers, mate”?
My novels are set in California. Crosscut opens in the Mojave Desert. Here’s how I introduce heroine Evan Delaney’s hometown:

The wind skipped over me. I stood in the parking lot, shielding my eyes from the setting sun. The heat was a wall against my face.
“This was a bad idea. Let’s get out of here,” I said.
Out on the highway an eighteen-wheeler rumbled past. Dust spun into the air behind it, blowing across the razor wire that marked the edge of the naval base.
Jesse looked at me as if I’d blown a cylinder. “Are you nuts? You can’t back out now.”
I peered over the roof of the Mustang at the strip mall. “Nuts isn’t backing out. Nuts is going in there.”
He pulled off his sunglasses. “Let me get this straight. Evan Delaney is chickening out of her high school reunion?”
The invitation read China Lake’s brightest nightspot hosts our festive gathering. The nightclub sat between the adult bookstore and the auto wrecking yard. Beyond that was a million acres of absence: the Naval Air Warfare Center, where mirages hovered over the desert floor and the horizon flung itself up into mountains at every turn, purple and red against a huge sky.

The scene creates the sense of a place that’s isolated and foreboding, where a killer can easily hide out. Your novel will be different. Distinctively so, if you create a vivid sense of place.


PJ Nolan said...

Wow - useful post - thanks!

KAREN said...

That's really useful, and made me look again at my first chapter. I think I need a bit more 'setting' in there :o)

Women Rule Writer said...

Place is so important in fiction. I love to get a real feel of where I'm reading about. I read once that setting = time + location + tone, which is an apt formula, I think.

bfs said...

Excellent! Thank you!