Monday, October 27, 2014

Writing about Place

A country lane in Wales,
the setting of Honddu Vale, book 2
in my Glastonbury Grail series.
Place. Every story has one.

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:8-9).

Of course, now we are getting into plot—foreshadowing the central conflict to come, when the man chooses to disobey his Creator’s instruction not to eat from the tree and so destroys the trusting relationship they had. That’s called “the initiating incident” that sets the rest of the story in motion, what Sally Lloyd-Jones calls "God’s Great Rescue Plan" to redeem all of creation and save a people for himself. (And just wait until you get to that incredible climax in Revelation when the King reclaims his throne and evil is banished forever!)
But the whole thing begins in a place.
The author of Genesis is pretty specific about this place. Four rivers are named. We recognize two of them, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Two others, the Pishon and the Gihon, are unknown to us, but by the description of where they flow, we get the impression that there was a time when those, too, would have been recognized by listeners. Eden was a real place with a real geography.
Place gives a sense of reality, of groundedness. Those of us who write about places unfamiliar to most of our readers have a challenge to make that place feel real.
So how do we usher readers through the door into the place of our story?
Felicity's clock can be seen to the left, but not the figures.
First, we do it from the beginning. I don’t want to be two-thirds of the way into the book before I discover that the action is taking place in the suburb of a major city, not in a rural vacation community and the lake where they meet is Lake Erie, not a fishing pond in the woods. In chapter 1 of Donna Fletcher Crow’s A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary, we read:

At the corner of Cornmarket and High Street [Felicity] paused at Carfax Tower which marked the center of Oxford. Carfax was the Roman designation for crossroads, and surely this was the busiest intersection in the city … She turned to cross the street when the blue, scarlet and gold figures [of the clock] began striking the hour. She counted to six then the sound of bells drowned out everything else as all across Oxford, from seemingly every tower, a glorious cacophony called everyone to stop and look upward.

That Roman reference tells us instantly that we aren’t in Oxford, Kansas, and the pealing bells give us a feel for something a world away from the American Midwest. Knowing Donna, you can bet your life that in downtown Oxford today you would find the Carfax building at the busy corner of Cornmarket and High Streets and hear those bells. (There is nothing like an inaccurate detail to rip readers familiar with the setting from their reading dream.)
We show place with tiny details that give a clue to the larger picture. That’s where precise language comes in. If I tell you that my character sat down beneath a tree, each of you congers a different picture in her mind. But if I tell you the character sat down beneath an old oak, suddenly you are in deep forest in a temperate climate. I don’t have to describe the mossy bank. You already see it in your mind’s eye. What if I tell you he sat under a coconut palm? The tree is not the only thing to shift in your mental picture. Now you are running your fingers through hot sand. If I tell you he sat under an acacia (and you have some knowledge of Africa), you will picture not just an umbrella thorn, but the whole expanse of African bush country with maybe a zebra or a giraffe in the background.
"Death to Bandits" says this political graffiti
 on a street corner in Mozambique
during the civil war.
In my first YA novel, The Wooden Ox, I wanted to show the country of Mozambique as my family knew it during the Mozambican civil war in the 1980s. After beginning with action that introduced the characters and showed how bumpy the road was, I wrote,

The column of cars and trucks racing across the countryside stretched as far as Keri could see ahead and behind them. From time to time they passed a burned out vehicle at the side of the road—a reminder of what could happen if the Andersons pulled out of line. The coluna wouldn’t wait while you changed a tire or a fan belt ... There was not a herdboy in sight nor a sign of a cow or goat. Telephone lines hung in loose strands from poles at odd angles.

A burned out vehicle, loose strands of telephone wire—this is not a primitive wilderness, but a land made desolate by war.

Luke's view along the South-Western
slopes of the Snowy Mountains
We show place through action. Characters interact with those telling details. We draw them to the readers’ attention as they are drawn to the character’s attention. Donna’s character Felicity is walking down an Oxford street. Keri is riding in a military convoy. In Narelle Atkins’ The Doctor’s Return we get a feel for her native Australia as her character Luke cycles down the road.

The midmorning sun scorched his bare arms and legs, the weather unseasonably hot for this early in spring. He swiped beads of sweat off his brow, his hair damp under his bike helmet … A herd of brumbies galloped through the pine forest on the high side of the road. The wild horses raced up the hill, weaving around the pine trees.

We feel the heat through Luke’s sunburned arms and his sweat. Notice how Narelle shows me what brumbies are without an explanation that would be unnatural to Luke’s POV.

Rocky Mountains of British Columbia

We use place to reveal character. In her book The Man for Her Alice Valdal writes:

  A shaft of sunlight emerged from behind the mountains, striking harshly against her eyes.  She turned her face up.  A hawk, already on the hunt, circled above the meadow.  As she watched, it folded its wings and plummeted toward the ground, swooping in on its kill.  She turned her head away.  For all its beauty and bounty, this was a cruel land, culling without mercy the feeble and helpless.  She hefted her rifle over her shoulder.

In the raw beauty of this British Columbian mountain scene we meet a woman with her rifle over her shoulder who refuses to be either feeble or helpless.

Dawson, Yukon
We use place to set the mood of a scene or the whole story. Look at how Marcia Laycock shows the poignant mood of A Tumbled Stone when Alex Perrin returns to his old cabin in the Canadian Yukon.

It seemed strange not to be greeted by the cacophony of barking huskies. He noticed one of the dog chains was still wrapped around a tree, half buried under bits of decaying branches. Dry brown evergreen needles layered the ground between exposed roots, their gnarled lengths bending up and down into and out of the hard ground. … Here and there a bit of green moss clung to greying wood. The yard smelled of dampness and rot.

The abandoned dog chain, the dryness of the needles, the hardness of the ground resisting those gnarled roots set a dark mood. That bit of green moss gives us just a hint of hope, but even that is squashed by the smell of dampness and rot. And over all we feel the Yukon wilderness. What different details would Marcia have chosen if Alex were arriving at a new cabin in that same Yukon with an exciting future before him?

At the far left a younger me gets a taste
of Indian culture in 1965
along with friends and family members.
We show place with our senses. In the paragraph above, Marcia uses sound (or its lack), smell, and touch as well as some stunning visual images. Don’t leave out taste. It can be a very powerful sense. Here Christine Lindsey uses smell to evoke India in Shadowed in Silk, the first of her award-winning Twilight of the Raj series.

Tucking a strand of hair into her chignon, Abby savored a tantalizing whiff of overripe fruit, roses, marigolds and cloves, mingled with the acrid smell of dust.

Place grounds the story in reality. It makes me believe it could actually have happened to real people even if the place only exists in fantasy. That sense of place is something to be kept alive throughout the story. My story of the Mozambican civil war could not have taken place in the Canadian Yukon anymore than Donna’s liturgical mystery could have taken place in Australia.
Many of us write about places we know. The Internet with it’s photos, maps and travelogs is a fabulous resource for authors who haven’t visited the places they are writing about. Because readers fill in the blanks with their own knowledge your job is to be accurate even if you don’t know all the details. That way those who don’t know anymore that you do can fill in with their own imaginations. Those who do know will not be jolted by inaccuracies.
Modern readers won’t sit still for long descriptive paragraphs that characterized the classics we studied in high school. Our sensory details and feeling for place need to do double duty to set the mood, reveal character, foreshadow plot or advance the action.
What are your favourite stories that reveal a unique place?
What sensory details open a place to your imagination?


LeAnne Hardy had her first cross-cultural experience at the ripe age of ... Never mind. In 1965 her father took the family to northeast India on a three-month missions trip. Since then she has lived in six countries on four continents. Her fiction reflects her faith, her passion for storytelling that stretches the mind and soul, and the cultures she has experienced. Learn more at .


  1. Interesting post, LeAnne. Given the peripatetic nature of your life, I'm not surprised "place" resonates with you.

    1. Definitely! How boring to be all suburban USA!

  2. What a wonderful post, LeAnne! I love the way you made place a character in each of these examples. Gives me something to shoot for with my current WIP.

    1. Judith, place isn't always significant enough to be a character, but that's the kind of fiction I love best and with international it definitely is that important. All the best to you in your WIP.

  3. LeAnne, great post! Thanks for your kind mention of The Doctor's Return. I love reading books that use all of the senses to ground us in the fictional dream and vivid storyworld. It's that wonderful feeling of being transported to a different time and place where you can't put the book down and don't want the story to end.

  4. Setting is one of the most important elements of a novel for me. Thank you for this super article, LeAnne!

  5. I've always a 'sense' of place important, which might have been what put me off writing certain things. I have for instance never been to most of the places in Wessex, the stomping ground of Alfred the Great, such as Wantage or Athelney- and what on earth did it look like in a ninth century Minister church?

    However, I do confess to having been somewhat fascinated by the flooding of the Somerset levels last year- not to downplay the destruction and misery caused to the people who lived there.
    Yet, in Alfred's day, that whole area, that is now flat grassland, was flooded marshland permanently. Athelney, in Anglo-Saxon for instance means 'Isle of the Prince' but today it is a hill, yet in the tenth century it would indeed have been an island.