Creating a Sense of Place

When readers begin a new book, they not only want to be pulled into the story from the start; they not only want to encounter strong and compelling characters; they want to become part of that world; to feel comfortable – or even uncomfortable – and familiar with that world. Creating a sense of place is key to setting the mood in your story.

Readers want to walk the same streets, halls, hiking paths, or mountain passes as the protagonist. They want to smell the same paint, mud, flowers, or body odor as all the other characters in the book.

All great books pull you into the protagonist’s world. They make believe you’re tasting the same food, smelling the same air, talking to the same people, touching the same cloth. Now, this doesn’t mean you write a dozen pages describing a town or a room. You can write sparingly and yet make a place live in the readers’ imagination.

For instance,  The Passage, by Justin Cronin, began with this paragraph:

Before she became the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Belafonte.

The reader immediately wonders what kind of world this is. It’s obvious that we’re about to move from “normal” to…what? Later, Cronin really begins to build his world through a letter written in the book:

Greetings from the jungle of Bolivia, landlocked armpit of the Andes. From where you sit in frigid Cambridge, watching the snow fall, I’m sure a month in the tropics doesn’t sound like a bad deal.  But believe me: this is not St. Bart’s. Yesterday I saw a snake the size of a submarine.

Okay, so we’re in for a bit of the exotic, but things still sound relatively normal. Another letter:

…At first I thought maybe I was imagining things. But look at the image, Paul. A human being, but not quite: the bent animal posture, the clawlike hands and the long teeth crowding the mouth, the intense muscularity of the torso, details still visible, somehow, after – how long? How many centuries of wind and rain and sun have passed, wearing the stone away?  And still it took my breath away…

Now we’re getting somewhere – and the reader is hooked into this strange trek from normal to fantastic.

A different sense of place example is from Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë:

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. “Wuthering” being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.

In this short paragraph, you already have a bleak image of the weather and the dwelling. Later:

On opening the little door, two hairy monsters flew at my throat, bearing me down, and extinguishing the light; while a mingled guffaw from Heathcliff and Hareton put the copestone on my rage and humiliation. Fortunately, the beasts seemed more bent on stretching their paws, and yawning, and flourishing their tails, than devouring me alive; but they would suffer no resurrection, and I was forced to lie till their malignant masters pleased to deliver me…

It’s clear that our protagonist is in some pretty rough company.

Both of these authors, although very different in style, continue with sharp rainbow bursts of description that solidify the worlds in which their stories take place. It’s not an easy thing to do. But it’s a lifeline to your book’s success.

Resources for creating a sense of place:

Down the Writer’s Path

Blue Zoo Writers

The Writers’ Workshop

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