Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 12 January 2014

A SENSE OF PLACE by Gill Stewart



A sense of place is (in my opinion) essential in a good novel.

But how to get that sense of place, to evoke a world where the reader wants to be or, indeed, feels they have been?  There are many examples of books that have done this successfully, obvious ones like Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series or Winterfell in Game of Thrones (although you wouldn’t necessarily want to be there!) but many other books that have a charm that stays with you long after the reading do so because of their clear sense of being there.

 So how can we do it?  Here are a few suggestions:

Know it - Either the place should be based on somewhere you are very familiar with, or you have created a fictional world that is complete and about which you know every detail (where this alleyway joins that road, what the tiles on the roof are like, what the people eat). If it helps, keep photographs and maps to hand.

Describe it – By this I don’t mean paragraphs of description, I mean small snippets dropped in when appropriate, but giving that essential backdrop to the story and the characters’ actions.  The reader needs to know how it feels to be here, what it smells like.  Think of the little details – is the road cobbled or tarred?  Where does the sun rise, the wind blow from?  What people eat and drink and wear is a crucial part of bringing this new world to life – but again, don’t labour these points.  Drop them in a little at a time.

Refer back to it – Refer back to things that have already been mentioned, as you would in life.  The balcony that A stood on when she first saw B, the water in the lake was so much warmer than…  This gives the sense of continuity, of this being a place that has existed and still does.

Make it integral to the story – the setting can add to the story, almost like another character, influencing the plot and the characters’ actions.

As a writer, getting to know this secret world is one of the joys, something that grows as the book and the details of the world grow.

I'd be keen to hear of suggestions and hints that other people have.

10 comments:

  1. Interesting post, Gill. I agree the author has to know the place intimately, whether it is real or imagined. I suppose it is a bit like with characters. We have to know our characters inside and and out even though we don't include all the information we have about them in the story.

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    1. You're right, we need to know characters, setting and everything. So pleased I've started keeping a note pad with me at ALL TIMES, it's really helping to keep track of things (so far).

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  2. I love sense of place, Gill. I had such self-indulgent fun with my 2nd novel walking the streets where my heroine would have walked and wondering what it might have been like in the early 1800s. It's certainly something readers like and tell you they like. Anne Stenhouse

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    1. Thanks Anne. It is great fun, isn't it, walking the streets and imagining.

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  3. Really makes a book, Gill, I quite agree. Anne - I would love to set a book in Georgian Edinburgh, but I'd have to do a lot of research. Imagine doing something when Charlotte Square was actually being built! What fun it would be!

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    1. But think of all the research! Maybe that's why I write contemporaries. Researching a place is one thing but I think I'd really struggle with the details of another era.

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  4. Very, very, important, Gill, and something it is worth reminding ourselves (and others) about ....:)

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    1. Thanks Linda, it is important, isn't it. And something you do very well in your books!

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  5. Great post, Gill, and something I need to keep reminding myself about when writing!

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    1. Thanks Rosemary. I'm interested how you cope when you are writing concurrently about different places (assuming you do write concurrently?). I think I might struggle with that.

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