“The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like the back of his hand.” Robert Louis Stevenson
When my first editor, the amazing Mary Cash, bought my first book KELLY AND ME, one of the things she said was, “We need more sense of place.”
“How do I do that?” I asked.
“Read,” she said.
And so I did. I found lots of books that painted worlds for me. But the authors I learned the most from for that writing exercise were Bill and Vera Cleaver. They wrote WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (Newbery winner). All their books (yes, I read them all) were so beautifully detailed that I fell in love. I’m STILL in love with their writing.
A Few Facts about Sense of Place
- If well done, setting can become a character (what one reviewer said about KELLY AND ME).
- Not just fantasy novels need world building–ALL books do.
- If you feel like the book you’re reading is a desert (when it’s not!), that’s because the author has failed in making the world real and visible. The author is your eye.
- When your main character talks about place, remember he will speak only about what he notices. YOU have to make him notice what allows the reader to believe they are there.
- Use all five sense when you write. At this moment I can hear the baby and, across the street, a lawn edger going. I can feel the cool air blowing in around my feet from the open window. Outside my window there are two trees, one with leaves the color of an almost-ripe lemon. The smells coming from the bathroom? Let’s just say the wintergreen smelly thing ain’t helping a lot. And then, of course, there are the keys under my fingers. All of this is part of my sense of place–of the world I am in right now.
- Don’t use all sense at once, like I did above. After you build a place, it’s your job to remind the reader where they are. And I don’t think it’s a bad idea to do that two or three times a page.
- The amazing Tim Wynne-Jones gave a great talk when I was at school at VC, about the emotion sense of place can give a book–how it can forecast doom or help readers feel joy. There’s a name for this, and try as I might, I can’t remember what it is. When I do, I’ll add it.
#32 Rewrite your book opening using sense of place.
#32.5 Do what Mary Cask said: Read for setting. How does the writer do it successfully?