Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Creating a Sense of Place

One of my readers said to me that she really liked the sense of place in my books, the way I make the setting so vivid.  This thrilled me enormously as it's something I try hard to do.  I love reading books where I can imagine myself in the place because the writer has brought it so brilliantly to life.  Whether it's a haunted house or a distant planet in another universe, if you can imagine yourself there, then that story will live with you long after you've put the book down.  I read Dune decades ago but Arrakis still feels like someplace I've actually visited in real life.  

Every writer needs to give some thought to the setting of their stories so, today, I thought I'd talk a little bit about that.  When I'm starting a novel, I create a folder for my character sketches and my outline.  Pictures of places similar to the ones in my head go into it, too.  We don't have any Great Houses from the plantation era in the British Virgin Islands but I've been to a few on other islands such as St. Croix, Barbados and Jamaica so the photos I took went into the folder I made for Jessamine.  They helped to give me a feel for how the Great House would have been furnished and decorated.  I also did a Google search for Great Houses and found a few pictures from the American South which fit the feel of Jessamine, if not the exact look.  (Great Houses were the houses of the plantation owners.)

YouTube is also a great reference for this.  People go to visit historical sites and they record what they're seeing or, if you're lucky, you might also find a documentary or a National Trust website which will have not just pictures but offer some commentary or history as well.  Of course, if you're writing a contemporary then both YouTube and Google Street View will be immensely helpful.

Landscapes change over time.  A Caribbean island of two hundred or even one hundred years ago will look very different to how it looks today so another thing I often do is try to go back to original accounts - journals, travelogues, even old newspaper articles.  A lot of visitors to the Caribbean often paid attention not just to the people and the customs but also to the environment and wrote about the plants and animals they saw, smelled, heard and even ate.  Many of these old books are now available online so they're easy to access for a writer living far from a major library.  They are invaluable.

Then when I'm writing I try to use what I've learned - what is my heroine seeing, smelling, hearing in this scene?  Is she touching anything?  Tasting?  Sometimes I add this in as I'm editing if I think the scene needs more texture.  Not everything deserves lengthy description and many readers, nowadays, prefer a fast read, nearly devoid of description so it's up to you how much you use.


Charles Gramlich said...

I love a good setting. Dune was a favorite of mine as well. I work hard on the setting for my tales as well.

John Brantingham said...

It's amazing the number of primary resources that have been downloaded to the web. Youtube isn't just a place for kids bands, but full of an extraordinary number of videos that can help the writer. Still, there's nothing like being there, but the web is the second best thing! And boy does it help you to remember someplace you've been.

Jewel Amethyst said...

There is a balance one has to strike between describing a scene and having your story bogged down with description. An author who can strike that balance makes the story come alive. Unfortunately too many lean to the far ends of this balance.

As for resources, aren't you glad you're in the digital age? I told my nine year old about going to the library and researching info in an encyclopedia. She asked me what an encyclopedia was before asking me if that was the stone age.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

Description is so important, isn't it, Charles? Whatever the genre.

Living in the digital age is great in many ways and the ability to conduct research easily and quickly is definitely one of them, John. Seeing a video or Street View is the next best thing to being there.

That's funny about the encyclopedia, Jewel. Soon the word itself might become nothing more than a quaint holdover.

Liane Spicer said...

Setting is as important as character and plot to me and I give it just as much thought. Imagery in the form of sights, smells, sounds, tastes, textures and movements plays a big part in creating the setting. This part of the process comes easily to me unlike, say, creating conflict which I have to really work at.

As a reader, I have no issues with description. Badly done, it can be boring and superfluous, but handled well it is a tool that immerses the reader fully in the place and time. I don't get the idea out there that description is 'bad'. Pages upon pages of straight dialogue is much more irritating to me. A novel is not a screenplay!