Monday, October 04, 2010

You're not in Kansas ...

I've been toying with the idea of putting together a writer's workshop focusing on how sense of place can add depth to stories. Mostly because I can't think of anything else I'm aware of that I purposefully do when I'm crafting a story.

So how do we add a sense of place? Every writer probably thinks of this process differently. Some may not think of it at all. They just do it without realizing it. I think I add place by purposefully employing all five of our senses.


This includes general things like describing the architecture of the town or city. The flora and fauna and terrain are most likely unique to the story's setting. How sight can add a sense of place can be as simple as identifying the color of the walls in the heroine's bedroom.


Traffic, wildlife, weather. What kind of music is playing on the radio? Hotels, private homes and apartments all have different sounds that help a reader put him or herself into a story.


They say smell is the strongest sense for triggering memories. It's also critical to creating a sense of where we are in a story. Cooking smells, pollution or lack thereof, the scent of flowers and trees. Are we by the ocean or in a forest of evergreens? Nothing can take me to a place quicker than this sense.


This one's a little tough to nail down, but I the weather plays such a huge role in feeling where we are. What season is it? Is it hot, humid, cool, windy? Identifying textures can help, as well. Is the hotel expensive with luxuriously soft bedding or is it a dive with rough towels?


Cooking again, plays such a huge role in place. I love including foods that are unique to the area I'm writing about. It's easy to employ this tactic when your story takes place in a foreign country, but even on my little Mirabelle Island, set smack dab in the middle of the U.S., food plays a part in developing sense of place. Historically, that area was settled by French fur traders, so the oldest inn on the island serves French food.

I know all this sounds elementary, but I put a lot of effort and research into creating a sense of place in my stories. I tour facilities, like this Dallas track for my NASCAR books. I read about restaurants and traditional foods, track weather reports, and even get on Google Earth to see if I can find actual pictures of the streets I'm writing about.

As a writer, I think sense of place is critical to creating a well-rounded, layered story. Place becomes a character. But as a reader, there are times when I get overwhelmed by too much detail. I find myself skimming over paragraphs or flipping pages to get to the good stuff.

So how much is too much?

As a reader, how important is sense of place is for you? Do you like a lot, a little, or something in between? What's your favorite way to get pulled into the place in a book?

As a writer, do you think about sense of place in your stories? What's the single most important thing you do to create place in your books?



Cindy Gerard said...

great post, Helen.
I have a post it note on my screen. it says simple: scent, taste, touch, sound, sight.

A reminder to always include the 5 senses. And I feel that place is always crucial to drawing the reader into the story. how much depends on how heavily the setting is involved in the plot.

and you're right - first hand knowledge is the best. I set my book in remote and sometimes exotic places but you're not likely to find me in Myanmar, El Salvador or Sierra Leone any time soon :o) Now Peru ... oh, I'd love to go there :o0

Leanne said...

This is a GREAT post, Helen! I'm taking notes from it and may even print it off. THANKS! xo, Leanne

KylieBrant said...

I love it when reviewers say my setting was almost a character is my stories :) But as a writer that's easier to do when you're writing about a picturesque place, like a Denver blizzard or the Willamette Forest. Bringing an urban center like Philadelphia to sensory life is more difficult for me.

Michele Hauf said...

Great reminder, Helen! I like to cruise the internet for those details as well. Because sometimes your characters eat and smell things you've never experienced. So it can be a challenge.

Helen Brenna said...

And I've never been to Peru, The Bahamas, or Argentina, Cindy! Heck, my November book goes to Rome, Athens, Istanbul, and Moscow, all places I've never been but would LOVE to go! Guess going in my head is the next best thing!

Helen Brenna said...

Glad I could be of service, Leanne? lol

Helen Brenna said...

I think you're right, Kylie. Although every place has a uniqueness about it that we can bring out to our readers. City, small town, exotic or mundane. You may not think of the city as exciting, but it can still be a part of what takes the reader away.

Helen Brenna said...

Oh, that reminds me, Michele! I'll usually try to go to a restaurant that serves the types of food I'm writing about. A different kind of field trip!

Kathleen Eagle said...

I'm trying to remember whether I've ever set a book in a place I've never been. Can't think of one. I made up a Caribbean island once because, while I'd been to the islands on a cruise and I lived on an island when I was a kid (Pacific--a little different) I didn't want to use a specific place and get it wrong. But that's just me. Nothing pulls me out of a book faster than reading about a place I really know and realizing this ain't it. Wolves running around in the Black Hills? Nope. (Although there's been talk of introducing them.) Pickup trucks in North Dakota? Nope. Just pickups. Setting errors made by Kathleen Eagle? No doubt. But if I'm going to use a setting I don't know first hand, I've almost certainly visited, and the viewpoint character would also be a visitor or a newcomer.

The Internet is a Godsend for checking details. What's that prairie grass with the wheaty-looking head? What's the difference between sage in Minnesota and sage in the Dakotas?

Yes, riders, this is why I'm late on this book. But I just read a passage in a book that was supposedly set on a cattle ranch. The cows were chewing on the hero's vehicle. Seats, windshield wipers, mirrors. I showed it to cowboy Clyde (because even after 7 years on the ranch, I could have missed something) who nearly laughed his cowboy ass off.

You don't want to overdo the detail, and little ones go unnoticed all the time. But a whole scene? Be mighty careful there, little lady.

Christie Ridgway said...

Perfect post for me today, Helen! I'm thinking of going back to a setting I made up for a book that came out in 2000. I'm reading said book and noting all the things that make there, there.

In that book, the hero is blind, so I used a lot of smell and texture cues. More than I normally would!

Keri Ford said...

ooh. my cp's ding me on lack of setting All. The. Time.

and I know it's because as a reader, I don't read for setting, I read for characters.

The biggest thing I usually do is--try and capture the big picture look from a character who is new to the area. It bugs me when someone who has lived in their house for years walks in notes the carpet, wall paper, lamps, ect.

Helen Brenna said...

I hear you, Kathy, and I always worry about that as I've not been to a lot of the places I write about or done many of the professions of my characters. But I do my best. A reader can't fault me for that, at least.

Helen Brenna said...

Christie, since there will be at least 7 of my Mirabelle books when all is said and done, I keep files on all kinds of things I know I'd forget from book to book. I even have a map of the island drawn on the white board in my office!

Helen Brenna said...

Keri, I don't read for setting, either. I read for characters and action, so it was difficult for me to develop this sense of place. But I am an extremely visual person. I do think it's important to include a bare minimum of the surroundings so readers can visualize the setting.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Keri, excellent point about showing setting through different viewpoints. Fiction is all about character, and we use setting to reveal character. For me, a place is as much about the people who live there as the details of climate, flora and fauna, etc. Setting influences a character's way of speaking and thinking and moving and being. It's quite a challenge to build a person from scratch, and setting is really helpful.