by Philip Martin
“Every story would be another story, and unrecognized . . . if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.”
– Eudora Welty
What do great stories do? They take you to another place. Place is where everything happens. But it is not just a platform for stage action. Place influences stories far more than many realize.
Think of great novels you know and love. For instance, consider the role of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series. From the beginning, Hogwarts plays a tremendous role in the story. It is the place where magic is learned and friendships formed. More than that, Hogwarts stands for what must be saved; it represents the ideals of those who practice magic for the good. With its strange denizens and ever-changing hall, the school of wizardry is a powerful thread linking the multi-book series, as each installment follows Harry and friends through another year. If Hogwarts were not so unique, the Harry Potter series, despite its endearing characters and complex plot, would be more commonplace.
Place also plays a key role in nonfiction. Consider how Place (the “Where” of a story) helps shape the elements of Who, What, even Why. Good journalists know that painting an evocative picture of a story’s setting always draws readers into a scene and creates an aura of authenticity.
In short, stories that lack a “sense of place” seldom advance from the depths of the slush pile. In contrast, stories with a strong sense of place do.
Let’s look at steps to build a stronger Sense of Place in your stories.
Step #1: When describing a key place for the first time, choose a point of view.
First, you must choose whether you will present the place from an insider or outsider point of view. Is this a place your main character knows well, or is it newly encountered?
Charlotte’s Web is a wonderful story, delivered in E.B. White’s beautiful prose. In it, most conversations between Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider take place in a barn. This place is first introduced with the following lyrical passage, written from the point of view of someone who knows the barn very well.
The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell – as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.
The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood wide open to the breeze. The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns: ladders, grindstones, pitchforks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children like to play in. And the whole thing was owned by Fern’s uncle, Mr. Homer L. Zuckerman.
E.B White starts with short sentences and builds slowly, introducing the sense of tired, sweet patience. We encounter diverse scents, and learn who shares the space (cat, cows, horses, sheep). But there is almost no visual description until the second paragraph, when the big doors are thrown open. Then we see details: the organization of the stalls, the clutter of objects. Finally, it is summed up as a warm and enjoyable place for animals and children alike.
Imagine, on the other hand, introducing a place from the POV an outsider. What would a city person notice and feel if they stepped for the first time into the darkness of Zuckerman’s barn? This sense of curiosity, confusion, uncertainty, and speculation can be as valuable to a story, and is often used in genre fiction like mysteries, where the powers of immediate observation (and the question of how reliable those impressions are) are crucial.
Step #2: Be selective in details to create interest.
As Jane Yolen once wrote, “Remember . . . what you don’t put down can be as important as what you do. Lao-Tse in his Tao Te Ching wrote that in a vessel of clay, it is the emptiness inside that makes it useful.”
As when describing a character, the fewer things that are pinned down, the more readers are free to flesh out the picture themselves. This often creates a fuller picture, paradoxically, than a detailed description. Also, fewer details creates intrigue, as the reader realizes that those being given are somehow significant, having been chosen by the author for a purpose.
Notice how Tolkien’s The Hobbit begins with a simple description of place. As we travel into the well-appointed hole, we begin to get a glimmer of the character of the inhabitant.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors.
I love those details! A round door, painted green, with a bright yellow knob in the middle, leads into a comfy dwelling. The few but important details of what we find inside present the character of the hobbit long before we actually meet Mr. Bilbo Baggins.
Step #3: Pan in from a distant shot to a closer perspective for drama.
A specific technique that helps readers enter into a story, as Tolkien has done, is to move from a broad view of the place (the hobbit hole) to a closer examination of a few features of interest (the round green door, the hallway inside).
Here’s an example by the beginning of Jack London’s White Fang. First we get a broad fly-over shot, then he zooms in to examine a curious item in more detail:
Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. . . . It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.
But there was life, abroad in the land and defiant. Down the frozen waterway toiled a string of wolfish dogs. Their bristly fur was rimed with frost. Their breath froze in the air as it left their mouths, spouting forth in spumes of vapor that settled upon the hair of their bodies and formed into crystals of frost. Leather harness was on the dogs, and leather traces attached them to a sled which dragged along behind. The sled was without runners. It was made of stout birch-bark, and its full surface rested on the snow. The front end of the sled was turned up, like a scroll. . . . On the sled, securely lashed, was a long and narrow oblong box. There were other things on the sled – blankets, an axe, and a coffee-pot and frying-pan; but prominent, occupying most of the space, was the long and narrow oblong box.
Step #4: Use a variety of senses to develop depth.
Using a variety of senses can create a stronger image of a place, replete with mood, smells, sounds, tactile elements, and, as always, the curiosity created by what someone chooses to notice and report. Here is the opening page from the fantasy novel Alphabet of Thorn (2004), by Patricia McKillip, winner of many awards for her rich prose.
On Dreamer’s Plain, the gathering of delegations from the Twelve Crowns of Raine for the coronation of the Queen of Raine looked like an invading army. So the young transcriptor thought, gazing out a window as she awaited a visiting scholar. She had never been so high in the palace library, and rarely so warm. Usually at this time of the morning she was buried in the stones below, blowing on her fingers to warm them so they could write. Outside, wind gusted across the vast plain, pulling banners taut, shaking the pavilions thrown up for the various delegations’ entourages of troops and servants. A spring squall had blown in from the sea and crossed the plain. The drying pavilions, huffing like bellows in the wind, were brilliant with color. The transcriptor, who had only seen invading armies in the epics she translated, narrowed her eyes at this gathering and imagined possibilities. She was counting the horses penned near each pavilion, pelts lustrous even at a distance after the rain, and as clear . . . as figures pricked in a tapestry, when the scholar finally arrived.
Note the feeling of warmth, the implied sea-scent of the breeze, the bright colors of the pavilions, the snap of the billowing tents, the luster of the wet horses, and above all, the sense of amazement by the young scribe who is not in her usual place and therefore all the more observant and impressed by what she sees.
Step #5: Use place to show or develop character.
In Willa Cather’s 1913 novel O Pioneers!, the story is set in the town of Hanover and out on the surrounding Nebraska prairie. The main character, Alexandra Bergson, is a tall, strong young woman of twenty at the novel’s start. She lives on a prairie farm with her immigrant parents and three younger brothers. All changes when her father falls ill and, dying, entrusts the farm to Alexandra.
Here, at the end of the book’s third chapter, is a quiet pause as Alexandra sits on the back stoop and looks out at her land. It sketches in a few details of the prairie setting, but note how Alexandra sees it through her own special eyes, giving us a glimpse into her strong personality, full of intention.
That evening, after she had washed the supper dishes, Alexandra sat down on the kitchen doorstep, while her mother was mixing the bread. It was a still, deep-breathing summer night, full of the smell of the hay fields. Sounds of laughter and splashing came up from the pasture, and when the moon rose rapidly above the bare rim of the prairie, the pond glittered like polished metal, and she could see the flash of white bodies as the boys ran about the edge, or jumped into the water. Alexandra watched the shimmering pool dreamily, but eventually her eyes went back to the sorghum patch south of the barn, where she was planning to make her new pig corral.
This kind of information about character in other stories might be revealed through a conversation with a best friend. Here, the land is Alexandra’s friend, indeed, her love. We discover her character by seeing how she pauses to relax and reflect on the beautiful, ever-changing, ever-challenging landscape.
Step #6: Use place to anticipate mood.
Well-placed, evocative description of place is a simple way to foreshadow what is to come. This stems from the reader’s awareness that the author is selecting details carefully, so a textured description of place is suggestive of what lies ahead.
Throughout the novel Watership Down (1972), author Richard Adams often uses descriptions of place, seen from the point of view of his protagonists (rabbits), to begin chapters. Each passage sets a mood: concern, hope, change. It is generally little more than a faint background cue, like soft music in a film. But the rabbits are sensitive to their environment, so we become ultra-sensitive too.
It was early morning and the rabbits were beginning to silflay [to graze], coming up into clear gray silence. The air was still chilly. There was a good deal of dew and no wind. Five or six wild duck flew overhead in a swiftly moving V, intent on some far-off destination. The sound made by their wings came down distinctly, diminishing as they went away southward. The silence returned. With the melting of the last of the twilight there grew a kind of expectancy and tension, as though it were thawing snow about to slide from a sloping roof. Then the whole down and all below it, earth and air, gave way to the sunrise. As a bull, with a slight but irresistible movement, tosses its head from the grasp of a man who is leaning over the stall and idly holding its horn, so the sun entered the world in smooth, gigantic power.
Something, the writer is suggesting, is about to happen.
Step #7: Use place as a setting for action.
Almost any description of action, whether a barroom brawl or a drive across town, requires a keen sense of place. If the setting is complex, whether a small town or even a house more than a few rooms, many writers find it helpful to create a map, to understand the spatial geography of the characters’ movements.
All action scenes ask the reader to visualize what is happening, so that we can imagine the hero swing from the chandelier, then crash against the small table in the dark corner of the bar. But beware not to get bogged down with too much detail. Especially in action scenes, the details of place need to be crisp, appropriate to the pace of the scene.
The dark bulk of the castle loomed in front of us. The cloud cover was so low that I could barely make out the highest towers. Between us and the fortification wall lay first the river, then the moat. (. . .) We slipped one by one into the river and swam beneath the surface to the far bank. I could hear the first patrol in the gardens beyond the moat. We lay in the reeds until it had passed, then ran over the narrow strip of marshland and swam in the same way across the moat.
The first fortification wall rose straight from the moat. At the top was a small tiled wall that ran all the way round the garden. . . . Kenji dropped onto the ground to watch for patrols while Yuki and I crept along the tiled roof to the southeast corner. (. . .)
I knelt and looked upwards. Above me was the row of windows of the corridor at the back of the residence. They were all closed and barred, save one. . . .
– Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn, 2002
Step #8: Help your characters develop a relationship with Place.
If your setting is to have a “sense of place,” the characters in your work should feel it first and foremost, and deeply. Is Scarlett O’Hara simply the owner of Tara, or is she in a more complex relationship with her home? For her, place is far more than just a physical space to be inhabited. It is something that she interacts with on a deep emotional level. As one of the great writers about place today, Barry Lopez, winner of the National Book Award, wrote: “Many of us, I think, long to become the companion of a place, not its owner.”
There are, of course, some places that characters are afraid of, as found in any horror or gothic novel. In other cases, the characters are deeply in love with the place they call home. Again, from O, Pioneers!:
Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so keenly through the frosty autumn air. She always loved to watch them, to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march. It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security. That night she had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it. (. . .) She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.
Alexandra has fallen in love with the Nebraska prairie. As she does, so do we.
Step #9: Allow the Place to Come to Life.
With a great character, his or her role might grow beyond mere description or involvement in plot. At some point, such a character might begin to speak on his or her own behalf, affecting the course of the story in unexpected ways. In short, a great character becomes alive.
Likewise, the Place in your work can come alive, to achieve what might be called “there-ness.” There-ness is the sense of awe, and impact, and respect that we (and the characters in the novels) have for the prairie in O, Pioneers! or Cannery Row in Steinbeck’s novel, for the great north in Jack London’s tales or the barn in Charlotte’s Web.
How does a writer create there-ness? In the same way you allow a character to come alive: listening carefully to what the place really is, at its core, beyond the superficial stereotypes. Although a great place is not a person, it can come to life, if you allow it to.
Mostly, this happens as an act of listening, and caring. You can achieve it if you spend time with the place in your story, and allow it to have its own voice instead of just being a stage to step upon.
As Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote in Cross Creek (1952), about a country road:
Folk call the road lonely, because there is not human traffic and human stirring. Because I have walked it so many times and seen such a tumult of life there, it seems to me one of the most populous highways of my acquaintance. I have walked it in ecstasy, and in joy it is beloved. Every pine tree, every gallberry bush, every passion vine, every joree rustling in the underbrush, is vibrant.
I have walked it in trouble, and the wind in the trees beside me is easing. I have walked it in despair, and the red of the sunset is my own blood dissolving into the night’s darkness. For all such things were on earth before us, and will survive after us, and it is given to us to join ourselves with them and to be comforted.
In the words of another writer, Paul Gruchow, writing of the Boundary Waters canoe country in northern Minnesota, describing the difference between scenery and place: “Scenery is something you have merely looked at; place is something you have experienced. (. . .) This voyage into place ultimately leads toward memory, the great leavening agent of our lives.”
To be a better writer, look for ways to develop a sense of place. Think of how to make the place someplace that a reader would want to visit and linger in, to enjoy being a companion, for a while, of that special place that anchors your story. A great sense of place can set your story apart. It will offer new kinds of insights into the characters. It can test them, support them, change them. It is, as Paul Gruchow said, the great leavening agent – that will make your stories rise above the rest.
This article is by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary (www.GreatLakesLit.com) and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.