“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?
Last month I read The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge. Absolutely phenomenal. It weaves together character, storytelling, action, worldbuilding, and social issues flawlessly. The character was so smart and I loved watching her in action. She captured so well all the things I felt growing up but could never put so eloquently. For example:
“There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too.”
I love it! All through the book I was just in awe, wondering if I’d ever write something that brilliant. But another part of me didn’t care, because I was just happy this book was in existence. That made me think…will I write something that someone will feel that way about? Is there a story in me that needs to be told, and that someone else needs to read? And if so, what am I doing to make sure that story comes into existence?
Following the excerpts above, write either place or description that breathes life into your story.
Feel free to share.
1. I need a new pillow. Mine, I think, has been giving me headaches (sometimes wake up so sick I puke–like this morning). I’ve used several kinds–including expensive ones–but can’t find anything that helps. Suggestions? Please?
2. We are thinking of having a dance/writing activity for charity purposes. We want to do it before the conference (www.wifyr.com). Anyone have any suggestions for a venue? It needs to be free and we need to charge at least a $10 cover charge.
3. Today, notice sense of place. Really notice it. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, touch?
How do these experiences make you more aware of the environment you are in?
How would you write your experiences in an original way? For example, lots of people have been cold. How do you make being cold your own–original? Not, I was freezing. How would you say that?
I’m doing it! I am! The book is winding to the climax and then end!
I love this part of writing. When I feel the end is near and I love my characters and the sh!t seems to be mostly gone and I am hurrying to the close of something. I love finishing a novel. And the right-before of finishing a novel.
I’m glad I am doing it with you all.
(I am NOT done. I can just see the finish line. This may still take some time.)
Another thing I love? Hemingway’s short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.
I read it as a young teen. Loved it as a young teen. Cried over it.
You can read it here:
It’s a nice break, reading this story. See what Hemingway does right (or should I say write?). Maybe you don’t love it. That’s okay. We each find the masterpieces we love. We each have our masterpiece lines, novels, moments.
I’ll be back in a few hours.
PS There are several typos in this copy of the short story
PMS There are too many exclamation points in this post. But, I am very happy.