Writing Challenge: Sense of Place

Lots of what we are seeing on the YA book shelf is the dystopian novel (like Suzanne Collins wonderful book The Hunger Games) or the goth novel (like Cynthia Leitich Smith’s* most recent book Eternal–review of this book to come next week). Both ideas are based on bits of truth–like all fiction is–and blown up into a legitimate world for the reader.

Sense of place can make a dystopian or goth world become real. Here’s a bit from Smith’s book Eternal.

Tuesday night’s ice storm savaged the trees, breaking limbs, splitting the trunk of a century-old oak.
The paved entry splits into three gravel roads, and I choose the one in the middle, unwilling to step on a grave until I have to. What kind of freaks meet girls in cemeteries?
“Lucy!” I search for the angel statue she mentioned.
As I stray from the path, the historic cemetery is eerie in its silence. A cloud shrouds the moon. I keep going. . .
(Smith, Cynthia Leitich. Eternal. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2009, page 23.)

Look at the description. Can you see the picture Smith paints? How does she do it? What words does she use? What verbs? What senses are used in these few words?

Your Writing Exercise:
In less than 250 words, see what you can do with a dystopian or goth setting. Using the five senses, paint a picture for us. Make it real. Then, if you want, post your piece.

*Author interview tomorrow.

P.S. Are you an author? A reader? A non-reader? We want to interview you. You will have to talk about your personal problems and give out your bank account information but it is well worth it. Let us know if you’re interested.

P.P.S. We are also graciously accepting book donations for our review pile!


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36 responses to “Writing Challenge: Sense of Place

  1. Amy

    Hi ya AnnDee! You know where this excerpt comes from. I’m still plugging away at my story. Hope to wrap it up in a couple of months and submit for publication 🙂 (Hoping I’m not being overly idealistic.) Is this ok for a submission in your contest? Does it have too much conversation? I’ve got other pretty good descriptive pieces, but I like this one…and you’ve read some of my longer ones 🙂

    Eve tucked her hands beneath her back, embarrassed. An involuntary gasp left her mouth as her eyes were opened to the infinite universe. The heavens stretched above them a sea of midnight adorned with innumerable twinkling points of brilliance. The sky lay so close Eve could almost feel the stars kiss her skin.

    “How did you know?” she breathed.

    “I come out here on clear nights when I’m stressed. You’re like a wild bird trapped in a cage. You need space or you’ll fly away. And this,” he gestured upwards, “is space. Besides, it’s in your blood. You can feel it can’t you? Calling to you?”

    “Yes,” she whispered in awe. “It’s beautiful.” The stars pulsated and Eve’s heart throbbed. Her soul longed to fly from her body and become a bright point of light in eternity. But her body bound her to the earth. Then the wonder and awe gave way to a dull ache that swelled in her chest.

    “Rowan it hurts. Why does it hurt?” she choked on the words and swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.

    “You’ve never felt it before. The power of the universe. It is immense and unending. Infinite. You’ve been trapped in the city, surrounded by electricity, blunting your feel for it. You didn’t grow into your abilities like someone raised here. It’s all fallen on you like a landslide. You will get used to it with time and it won’t hurt any more.

  2. Amy

    Ok, sorry, my first entry didn’t exactly follow the guidelines. Sorry I was so excited to enter that I didn’t read carefully…this one is better because it uses more of the senses…

    In the darkness, she could just make out a doorway. Rowan grasped a substantial iron ring and pulled. The hinges groaned under the weight of the heavy oak door but did not break. Eve trailed her fingers over it as she passed through. The wood was dry and without splinters, polished smooth by a few centuries of use. Her fingers throbbed as if they wanted to absorb the ancient history held there.
    Rowan reached around her and pulled the door shut. Eve could taste the dust that blew into the air as it closed with a solid thump.

    • Amy, I love both of these. You know I think you are so talented. I am glad that you have kept going. Polished smooth wood . . . I can feel it.

      • Amy

        Thank you so much! You know it really was your encouragement that really helped me think that I could make something of this. I thought I might get laughed out of the conference 😉 It has been an agonizingly slow process, but I work on it almost every day. I still have no clue what I’m doing but whatever it is, I’m making it happen.

  3. Yay for challenges!! Do we get to read CLW’s and ADCD’s exercise? Dang, Ann Dee, you were almost ACDC. That would’ve been cool.

    Coming soon… a tale of gothness with lots of place sensoriness.

    • Umm, where is it Lucinda? You have like four hours left if this was like an official contest and you could win a major award. I mean who knows? Maybe we have a sexy leg up our sleeve (please get that reference, please).

      And I had not realized how close I was to ACDC. A true revelation.

  4. CLW

    I’ll put something up. Maybe. I’m rewriting right now. Have to pages in to my agent yesterday.
    (Sigh.) If there’s something in there–it is a dystopia, after all (one I’ve been working on a million years.)–I’ll post it.

    And I just so happen to know that Ann Dee DOES have something she could put up.

    But she’s naughty.

  5. Okay, here’s the thing. Sense of place? Not my thing. Goth and/or dystopia? I’m even worse at it (which makes me really really sad because I love me some Goth). When Carol wrote up this challenge I thought, sheesh, so hard for the first one. But I’ll play.

    Hot. Hollow and hot and she couldn’t breathe.
    It’s okay. It’s okay. Everything is fine*.
    But the hot kept getting hotter and sweat started to drip down her face. Her eyes had started to adjust to the blackness and she realized that the room was bigger than she thought. Maybe, if she twisted her body the right way, she could get into a kneeling position.
    But then what? Rip through the rope? Hop on her knees to the door? Something else here but I don’t know what?
    Breathe. Breathe.

    Is that Goth? Or dystopia? I am so bad at this.

    *ha ha ha ha ha

  6. CLW

    Mmmmm, thas reel good, sistah!
    And I like the way you mentioned your own book in your writing. I’ve done that before. 🙂

  7. CLW

    Okay, here’s mine. I want a leg. And this is from a book I’ve been writing.

    The hot water spilled over my shoulders. I tilted my face under the warmth, trying to erase leftover bits from my dream. Then I rubbed the bath puff filled with special-made lavender soap over my body. Oh, it was so nice to have hot water.
    Bubbles traveled down my wet skin and puddled on the cream-colored tile before being pulled away through the drain. I washed my whole body first, letting the water soothe me, saving my chest for last. I always do this. From habit, I guess.
    Creature of habit.
    But it’s true. Long after the staples were out there had been pain. And even now that the scar was pink and healing, even now there could be sensitivity.

  8. CLW

    Carol!!! I love your post. You are so smart. I cannot wait to read this novel. Please finish writing it. Maybe you will get a 7-figure advance, too, and then can star in your own movie.

  9. Ann Dee, can I put ACDC for your abbreviation, even though it’s not correct? It would make me feel special.

    Alright, here’s my gothiness and sensoriness entry. I want to win a leg lamp.

    A scarlet pool of blood spread across the white tile. I dug the crystal shard into my arm, again, and again. It wouldn’t stop the noise in my head, the heat in my chest. The brass doorknob rattled.

    “Charlotte, are you alright?”

    “I’m fine. Leave me alone.” I yelled. I didn’t mean to yell, she would think something was wrong. My insides were stoking over a fire of violent memories. The singe choked in my throat.

    “I’ll be out in a minute. I’m fine. Sorry.” Lies, they were all lies. I didn’t know how to let the truth fall from my lips anymore.

    The pink flowered hand towels hung perfectly from the wall. Vanilla scented candles lined the sinks marble backsplash. Nothing was out of place. No dust in the corners, no sign that life had ever entered the door. A museum of the life they wanted others to see.

    I dug in again. Crooked streams of blood ran down my arm and dripped from my fingers. Splash. Splash. Could I do it this time? Could I strike my arm where it would end it all? No more feeling. No more pain. It sounded so easy, so peaceful.

    The crystal shard, broken from mothers finest stemmed glasses, sunk into my fingers as my grip tightened.

  10. Sorry I only spen 7.4 minutes on that. I know because my 4 year old was asking me every 11.8 seconds if I could cut his apple for him. I’m supposed to be a mother too? Time to build something cool with Legos.

  11. Amy

    Nice job Anndee and Carol! I have similar scenes to each of those in the book I’m working on. Suddenly not feeling so creative. It’s weird because I find parallels in almost everything I read. I keep reminding myself that Shakespeare wrote every story worth reading and that now all the rest of us get to do is come up with new versions on the same old themes…

    • Amy, I’ve been thinking about your reference to Shakespeare and how all good things have been written and we just tweak it. I actually find beauty in that. I think writer’s are there to touch different perceived realities. Sometimes we read a principle over and over and not until it is said in a specific way or by a specific author do we get it. How beautiful is that? It kind of reassures me that every voice is valuable.

      Batman’s dad said, “Why do we fall Bruce?”

      • Amy

        You know, that’s a great way of putting it! I’m still really insecure at what I do…it’s easy to get down about it. But at the same time, I’m still enjoying doing it 🙂 All I ever really studied was science and I hated writing…but they never asked me to make stuff up…

        About the Shakespeare thing, you’re right, you know there are these universally compelling things or themes like love, hate, greed, desire, hope, etc. that are the skeletons,and as a writer we get to come up with the infinite number of circumstances to flesh them out.

        Sorry if I sounded a little down in the previous post, it’s just that I’m so new to writing, at this point I’ve been doing it for a year…writing a novel can seem like such an overwhelming task. But even though I have moments of writers block, I can’t give up on this book. I’ve invested too much, and I like my characters too much 🙂

      • I’ve never met a “secure” writer. Though I’m currently eating chocolate rocks and I seem to be feeling happy.

        Maybe if Ann Dee let me borrow the 20 bucks she borrowed, I’d feel more secure, financially.

  12. Here’s my snippet. you decide what it is.

    There would be blood.
    And people would panic.
    Maybe I would stop feeling nothing.
    Maybe it would be worth it.
    But then I think about how painful it would be.
    With all that blood.
    And the people panicking.
    And the EMTs with a stretcher.
    And then the sterile, urine smell of a hospital.
    The beeping.
    The beeping.
    The beeping.
    Plastic tubes.
    Bags of liquid hanging from a metal pole.
    And machines that sound like Darth Vader with a cold.
    The machines breathing for people who can’t do it themselves.
    Breathing for me.

    I can’t do it. I know if I tried, I would fail. I would live.
    And I would feel the hot blood seeping out of me and pooling on the cement around my skin.
    I would feel the stabbing of my nerves after the cracking of my bones.
    I would feel it.
    I would feel.
    And maybe I would be happy for a moment.
    A moment of feeling.

    And then it would be gone.
    This time with morpheme or some other drug being pumped through my body via the needle taped against my hand.
    And some people will visit the white room.
    With the beeping.
    And the little window that looks out onto a grey street with people going about their busy days.
    They will visit in groups as big as the nurses allow.
    Because no one wants to walk in a hospital alone.

  13. CLW

    Okay–so now how many of you–who started fresh, on something you’ve never written before–think you may keep what you’ve done and use it in a book?

    Good job everyone!

    Remember, one of the ways to keep the reader grounded is to have strong sense of place.

    • Actually, I was surprised at how easy that was to write. Is that scary? I have issues I think. My mind hasn’t stopped forming the story around it.

      Thanks for the challenge Carol. Keep em coming.

  14. Vicki

    My daughter Amy directed me to this blog. I keep coming back to it, and yesterday I began thinking I might be able to compose a paragraph…

    Sylvia opened her eyes with effort seeing nothing. The damp odor of rotting leaves assailed her nose at the same time a heavy chilling mist settled upon her. Where are my legs!!! Arms!!! Why can’t I feel them? Fear tainted bile assaulted her tongue as she blinked and willed herself to see something. Anything. An oppressive black shroud held her bound which no glimmer of light penetrated. Whining of mosquitoes and vague rustling noise of something small slithering close to her ear made her shiver in full panic filled anticipation of pain. But ominous silence rained down around her. Where am I? Why can’t I move. What is happening? She squinted her eyes tightly shut. A dream? A nightmare?. Profound, heinous nightmare! This cannot be real! She inhaled deeply but was powerless to scream. When she opened her eyes again, she would be able to see.


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