Creating a Sense of Place

Have you ever read a book – fiction or non-fiction – in which you felt you had been transported to another world? You could almost feel it, taste it, touch it and smell it. How did the writer achieve that?

  1. They used their senses.
  2. They focused on a few choice details.
  3. They used imagery.
  4. They established power relations between the narrator / character / reader and their environment.

Using your senses

This is fundamental to any creative writing. Whether you’re crafting a non-fiction travelogue or describing a fictional world, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are the primary tools to use when evoking the atmosphere of place. I cover this extensively in my creative writing course, but briefly: it is through senses that we connect with the real world. So by evoking one or more of the senses in a passage, your reader should connect with your written world. That way, reading moves beyond the intellect and into the body itself – it becomes a physical, ‘lived’ experience. This is called somatasthesia – soma (body) + asthesia (feeling).

Consider how Markus Zusak uses the senses of sight and touch to describe the first impressions of a house in this passage from The Book Thief:

The house was pale, almost sick-looking, with an iron gate and a brown, spit-stained door. From his pocket, he pulled out the key. It did not sparkle but lay dull and limp in his hand. For a moment he squeezed it, half expecting it to come leaking towards his wrist. It didn’t. The metal was hard and flat, with a healthy set of teeth, and he squeezed it till it pierced him. Slowly then, the struggler leaned forward, his cheek against the wood, and he removed the key from his fist.

Focusing on details

You cannot and should not describe every last detail of an environment. It will be too much for the reader to absorb and will simply obfuscate your writing. Rather choose a few telling details that are representative of the world you are describing.  When the picture you are sketching is a huge one, it helps to focus the reader on something small. Consider the opening passage from Terry Pratchett’s Wintersmith. Note how simply the mention of a primrose evokes the whole spectrum of spring. Note too that the vastness of the winterscape is thus amplified in contrast to the flowers and the ‘little cluster of thorn trees’.

When the storm came, it hit the hills like a hammer. No sky should hold as much snow as this, and because no sky could, it fell; fell in a wall of white. There was a small hill of snow where there had been, a few hours ago, a little cluster of thorn trees on an ancient mound. This time last year there had been a few early primroses; now there was just snow.

Imagery

Sometimes an environment or the essense of a place can best be described through imagery. A place is more than its physical presence: it is a landscape of meaning, feeling and emotion. Consider this passage from William Horwood’s Duncton Wood:

August is an untidy month in Duncton Wood, when the leaves of the trees have lost both the virgin greenness in which they gloried up until June and their rich rustling maturity, which was one of the pleasures of July. Now they are past their best. Here and there, passing August rain brings one or two leaves down, green but limp, on to the wood’s brown floor to die among the great blowzy fern and insinuating ivy into which they have fallen.

Power relationships with place

The moment a character – fictional or real – comes into contact with a place a power relationship is established. Is that character in control of the environment or does the environment threaten to overpower the character? Sometimes this relationship is neutral, in which case the place is merely a background to the action that takes place within it. However, the best writing allows the environment to contribute to the action or the emotional sub-text of a passage by setting it either ‘above’ or ‘below’ the character in terms of power. For example, a man standing in the face of an avalanche is not in control of his environment. But take that man, give him a flag and perch him on top of a mountain, and he is a conqueror.

Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland shows a character struggling to establish control over her environment.  Of course, this is a metaphor for a girl trying to establish control over her own life. Similarly, the vastness of the desert in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient threatens to overcome Almasy and he only temporarily rises above it when he is in his aeroplane. The bedouin who rescue him from his plane crash are in a neutral or symbiotic relationship with their environment.

In this passage from Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, what power relationship exists between the character and the environment? How has Smith communicated this?

Then we went down to the shafts and were shown what to do. They put us in cages, beneath great wheels, and these cages shot down as fast as hawks falling upon their prey. They had trains down there – small trains – and they put us on these and took us to the end of long, dark tunnels, which were filled with green rock and dust. My job was to load rock after it had been blasted, and I did this for seven hours a day. I grew strong, but all the time there was dust, dust, dust.

Can you think of any books that memorably evoke a sense of place? If so, please share them with us in the comment box below.

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2 comments on “Creating a Sense of Place

  1. Jim Murdoch on said:

    Another trick – and I find myself doing this with descriptions of characters too – is to dribble out the details throughout the whole book rather than have everything in a clump, that way they’re hardly noticeable. It is amazing how little you can get away with.

  2. Pingback: Just Write Blog Carnival October 10, 2008 Edition - Incurable Disease of Writing

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