Writing Tip: A Sense of Place

writing desk with keyboard, screen and printer in front of window
My home office

I’m sitting at my writing desk this spring morning in Sydney thinking about the need to ground our writing in a sense of place, whether landscape or cityscape.

How often have you heard someone say of a book they loved:  ‘I felt like I was there.’

Even if you relocate the poodle tied to a fake-cane chair, the sound of a game of tennis, the table of older men after their regular Sunday match at the café overlooking the tennis courts at Cooper Park that you drank a lemongrass and ginger tea at in Sydney into a café in a story in another state and time, the story will have originality and believability.  ‘But that café was in Sydney, I can’t transport it to Adelaide.’  But you can.  You can have flexibility with specific detail.  The mind is able to transport details, but using actual places that you experienced will give your writing authenticity and truthfulness.  It grounds your work in place, giving life and vitality to your writing, rather than a whole lot of exposition that floats in the air.

trees and house seen outside French paneled window
looking out the window from my writing desk

 If you don’t create evocative settings, your characters seem to have their conversations in vacuums or in some beige nowhere-in-particular. –  Jerome Stern

Creation of the physical world is as important to your story as action and dialogue.  If your readers can be made to see the hand-knitted socks or the row of vitamins on the kitchen benchtop, the scene becomes alive.  Readers pay attention.  Touch, sound, taste, and smell make readers feel as if their own feet are warm under the cold sheets.

Place situates the story in your reader’s mind.  Fiction that seems to happen in no particular place often seems not to take place at all. –  Jerome Stern

I hope this tip on creating a sense of place is helpful. Do you have any suggestions you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.

23 thoughts on “Writing Tip: A Sense of Place

  1. Good advice. I would add that locational descriptions, whenever possible, are best related through the eyes of the characters, rather than be written as if through the eyes of an outside observer. If written in narrative form, it can leave the reader feeling like an outside observer. Different characters will see the same place in their own ways, which not only helps to develop your characters, but also allows the reader more empathy to feel that they are a part of the story.

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    1. yes, David, i agree with you totally. much more interesting when seen through the eyes of a character and described in that character’s words. i don’t tend to use an omniscient narrator in my stories, the eye that sees everything from above. modern writing seems to have done away with the outside observer. good point you’ve made. many thanks.

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    2. Totally agree with David, I love writing about place, but it has to be through the characters eyes. I really enjoy writing details to hopefully engage the reader and these details can come alive and develop real or symbolic relevance to where the characters are in their story journey. Lovely article, Libby.

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      1. thanks so much for your comment Lynne. like you, i enjoy writing place, particularly if i can physically locate myself in the setting that i want to recreate. glad you enjoyed the post.

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  2. I’m sure the process is different for every writer but I am interested to know when, in the writing process, you, personally, create the “place”? Do you begin by describing the place in which you will then introduce the characters and their story. Or do you write the story first, then once you have sketched the overall architecture go back and “color in” the details of place and character?

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  3. Good question. I usually begin a story with a place already in mind. A real place. But I don’t describe it first up. I show my characters interacting in the place. My new novel-in-progress has the working title ‘Missing in Cooper Park’. So the park is very important to the story. My second book ‘The Crystal Ballroom’ is set in a fictional dance hall in Sydney. The dance hall is a character. Hope that answers your question 🙂

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    1. Yes, it is interesting to hear how others work. I guess writing is a little like taking a taxi to the airport. Every driver has his or her own preferred route, but they all get you there in the end. 🙂

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      1. very true. by the way, my short story in this month’s Quadrant magazine (available in newsagents) is set in Perth. i visited Perth a couple of years ago, made notes, and then created a story around the place. sorry to be blowing my own trumpet again 🙂

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  4. Great piece! I totally agree. It’s something I’ve learned the hard way. I’m in the process at the moment of developing descriptions of settings of scenes to help the reader become more grounded in the story—after I’d stripped them right down. Thanks for some great reminders!

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  5. This is really helpful: to base setting description on experiences. Even when our stories are set in completely fictional worlds they’ve got to be tied down to the sights, feelings, sounds the reader can relate to.
    I just love the gift of imagination! To think I can be sitting here in England, but just by reading something I can fly to any place or time I’m taken to…

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