Writing with a sense of place

There are various facets to this. In the real and potentially messy world of actual writing, these are likely to interact with each other. For clarity, here, I will try to keep them separate.

An earlier post has briefly covered the idea of a place for writing: the particular location that works for the person trying to get down to a solid day’s work of producing new text or editing previous writing, or simply mulling ideas over and over before writing anything. This post looks at the interplays between content and place, mostly within fictional writing.

Most writing courses and ‘how-to’ books talk about the importance of creating a strong sense of place for the reader. Writers are also encouraged to jump straight in to some key bit of the action as soon as possible. So how much scene-setting is preferred? If go for a long introduction, the reader may turn off before the plot can grip them. If start with the action, is it feasible to backfill the setting at some later time without losing momentum? Or is it possible to embed sufficient detail into the ongoing action so that a sense of place is built up as one goes along?

Certainly it needs a bit more than some basic ‘It was a dark and stormy night …’ opening to a dreary melancholic tale. And probably less than the multiple pages of long detailed descriptions of landscape, weather, foliage, wildlife etc. that are common to the long, slow build-up beginnings to some novels from years ago.

There is a view that readers today are a bit impatient and want the interest to get going as soon as possible. This may be true of some readers, of a certain type of book. There may, equally, be readers who want to take time, to go slowly, to soak themselves into the characters in their setting. – and this remains a feature of certain types of book. Maybe therefore there is not one approach but a number of choices depending on the tone of book, the target audience, the view of commerciability and the inclinations of the writer.

Letting the momentum flow at an appropriate pace whilst embedding things that create a sense of place is a feasible option. It is possible to weave in emblems, symbols, local foods, language, birds unique to the area etc., so long as these are easily absorbed and accepted by the reader rather than feeling like stuffed-in blockages to the flow of the reading experience – and so long as it doesn’t reach the stage where an appendix has to be provided to translate each item.

There are particular difficulties with trying to create a sense of place through the use of local accents and dialects. In a national or international world of literature there are few strong forms of language that travel easily. It is the balance between creating the imagery of a specific location and having a worldwide readership. As a child I borrowed local dialect books from the local library and enjoyed reading them because people in my close community spoke with a legacy of that same dialect. This would not be true in the same way today. There are some dialect publications but these are seen more as low-readership and heritage-related, rather than as books for a wide readership.

The main aim for many publishers is for a relatively universal reader to be able to stay with the story and to have that experience enhanced by an appropriately-developed sense of the place where any action is taking place: enough for the reader to create images in their mind as they read; and done in a way that lets the reader become aware of the setting without realising it.

This involves more than simply stating the name of the place (‘It was a dark and stormy night in Vancouver …’), or blandly opting for urban or rural (‘It was a dark and stormy night somewhere in the endless plains of Alberta…’). It involves more than simply dropping the text into some place and leaving it there to fend for itself.

A sense of place comes from those things that turn a physical space into a social place: the numbers of people (crowded urban, sparsely rural); the physical nature (high-rises, suburban sprawl, barns and dust-tracks); the transits (train junction, traffic snarl-ups; fast-moving highways, ambling bicycles, shuffling pedestrians, wanderers and roamers); the poverties and the wealths; the shops (malls, family stores, street-side handcarts, quirky backstreet shops). There are the monuments, the signposts, the smells and the sounds. There is the feel of the place – menacing, gloomy, looming, laid-back, frenetic … In particular, there are aspects of the local culture that go a long way to defining a place.

These details, woven in where they make sense, add to the sense of place as the action is underway.

There are other considerations. Does that location hold any particular significance for the plot or for any of the characters? Has the place shaped a character? Or a character shaped the place? It is a home, or a transit camp, or a place of freedoms, or a psychological prison?

Is it that at least one key character is moving through the place, observing it, reacting to it, being part of it, being transformed by it …? Will the place be the making of them? Or the breaking of them? Or the death of them?

The more the place and characters and plotlines interdepend, the more the tale gets honed down to a certain form: Change the place and you get different character; change the characters and they will be more likely to act in particular settings; changes in characters/places reshape the actions. Maybe this is one of the ways in which a book starts to write itself.

One other potential limitation may be deep inside the writer. To what extent are a writer’s childhood experiences of growing up in a particular location key to how they are able to write, the kinds of settings they get drawn to write about, the kinds of locations they set their characters free in? Do places visited, or lived in, become the basis for settings of writings?

Can a writer only write about a place they have strong personal experience of? Delving into one’s own memories, one’s own histories, is not necessarily autobiographical as such but can be using one’s own emotional memories as a platform on which to construct varying degrees of fact or fiction.

Sometimes that is not enough to satisfy a writer’s feeling that all the details need to be correct. In a piece of my own writing it became important to know the route to Barcelona’s Diagonal thoroughfare from the small secluded square where the action began. Checking a city map was enough for that. It is easy to get more with internet searches for details of a place, photographs, street views, landmarks, dates and events.

Research (online, through books or in libraries) can pay off and be used to create feelings of authenticity. Successful novels have been written without the author ever having physically visited the place where the story is set.

The place doesn’t even have to be real. Writers down the ages have created very believable places purely from imagination: amalgams of idealised villages, cities, planets… easier done for closed worlds that the writer is free to design, describe, map and populate.

If the past is a different country then writers of historical drama have the much more difficult job of trying to transport the reader across time as well as place. Some use substantial research to create a sense of being there. In other cases, a set of hints are all that may be needed – leaving the reader to fill the gaps with their own imagined images. Done well, and with readers with enough imagination, this can work well in the same way that radio listeners can believe that the sense of place is better self-generated than the version fed to them by television.

At the end of the day, proportionality is the guideline. Too much or too little research can spoil any text. Research can be useful for stimulating the writer even if it doesn’t contribute to the final wording. When doing a doctorate on the sociology of a peripheral housing estate it felt vital to capture the ins and outs of the historical development of the small piece of land that eventually got developed into the housing area. In the final write-up almost all of it was jettisoned but it did form the basis of a free-standing account of the History of Castle Vale that now sits on the www.thewordsthething.org.uk website…

Throughout the above I have been writing not as any expert on creating a sense of place but as someone reflecting on my own writing around this topic. So how have content and place come together, in different ways and to varying degrees of success, in my own writing?

In one case, a piece of writing that sits on the www.thewordsthething.org.uk website arose been because of a visit to Vancouver and a personal interest in the public art there. It was based on a day’s wanderings and photography transcribed as a fictitious character’s experiences.

On the same website are two pieces of writing on New York which arose from a writing workshop exercise of walking around Birmingham. These two writings describe the routes taken by fictitious characters, the sights they see. It wasn’t until several years later that I visited New York for the first time and was able to retrace one of the walks in reality.

My ebook ‘It’s Murder on the Eleven’ is a light murder mystery set around the Number 11 bus route that runs for twenty-six miles round the Outer Circle route of Birmingham (a bus that I use often). The main part of that book is the fictional story but there is an added end section that is a nonfiction account of that bus route.

The main character in another ebook (‘Another Glorious Day’) is fixed in a box for the whole of the story – not something in my own experience. Even so, using a few recurring descriptions, there was a chance to set the feeling of what it was like for that person to be endlessly in that setting.

An ebook I am currently editing centres around four men temporarily thrown together in the ward of a 1950s Manchester hospital. The sense of place derives not from description of the physical layouts but from the daily routines that define ‘hospital’. As part of the editing I will need to ask myself if that is enough or whether there is more to put in about the crisp starchiness of sheets, the disinfected smell and so on. At the moment I don’t think so. It is, after all, a story of men and feelings not a descriptive text on hospitals.

Some of the poems in the ebook ‘Made in Birmingham: The Poems’ try to capture the sense of abandoned railway lines, a dank cave, agricultural areas as seen by a city-loving evacuee, and so on.

In the ebook ‘Made in Birmingham: The Tales’ – a collection of around seventy very short tales – the quirkinesses of the person in each tale depends to some extent on the location and setting they operate daily within.

The above four ebooks are detailed on the Amazon site at https://www.amazon.com/author/geoffbateson

 

As stated earlier, the above is not meant to be the definitive guide to writing with a sense of place. It is a reflection on my own approach to writing, but may still be of wider interest to others. I hope so.

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