Creating a Sense of Place

Creating a Sense of Place



Forest with sunlight. The sun rays through branches of trees

When it comes to the setting of your story, consider yourself your reader’s tour guide. Your job is to introduce and guide your reader through the world of their ancestor.   Demonstrating to your reader all the necessary details about the setting and, helping the reader to understand what he sees.  But like any good tour guide, we don’t want a laundry list of descriptive details, more importantly, we wish to capture the culture of the place.

Purpose of Setting

Often setting gets overlooked. All new writers feel like they get setting, it’s one of the easy elements of scene.  But what they don’t realize is that it isn’t  just about a description of where your story is taking place, it is about “the sense of the place.”

The setting can bring so much more to the story than just a place for the story to happen. The real task is to make that place pulsating and dynamic for the reader. The setting of your story can set a mood, invoke an emotional response from your protagonist ancestor and, therefore, your reader as well. When setting the scene for your family history story, consider what meaning the place brings to the story.

You might think your story takes place on the farm, or in the mountains or the city. Therefore, your story will be filled with adjectives to describe it. While that is certainly one aspect of setting, it isn’t the full scope of setting. Setting is the soul of your story and our emphasis of should be on the sense of the place,  rather than a straight descriptive list of the place. We are trying to touch your reader’s emotions.

For example, if we write: “This story happens in Chicago…” and then add a string of city characteristics, that’s fine, we have identified the place.

But the sense of the place isn’t there, the culture, the soul, hasn’t emerged, and if the sense isn’t there, then our story remains two-dimensional.

So we have to add that third dimension, put sense in sense of place and hook the reader emotionally.

Setting is the condition of the house. It’s the drawl in the local shop keeper’s voice.It’s the thick sunshade of the leaves that allows for only slivers of light to seep through over the tree swing.

Setting is that thing that anchors itself into readers’ imaginations and helps them sink into the story, to not just see the setting but feel it as well. It’s your background characters. It’s the smells, the colors, and the weather. It’s all those details that by themselves amount to nothing more than interesting facts, but collectively they add compelling depth to your novel.

Consider this excerpt from Angela’s Ashes as Frank McCourt sets the scene of Limerick

From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes from mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week’s wages. 

The rain drove us into church – our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from  our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers and candles. 

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain. 

Consider how Frank has not only painted a scene for us but offered up a sense of place.  Now, I understand there is only one Frank McCourt but we certainly can strive to offer more than just straight description when writing our settings into our stories.

How to Put Sense in Sense of Place

Use image provoking words to convey feelings and the vibrancy of the place where our story is set.

Don’t use a laundry list of details, name, size, colour, dimensions, founding dates, etc.

Think about the sense of place, its emotional content and connections, its effect on the ancestors and how they deal with it.

What is its appearance? What is its behaviour? What do you want the place to say to your reader?

Use literary devices to describe the location, such as metaphors, personifications, and similes.

What does the ancestor like or dislike about the place? What is important about the place?

What is significant about the place? How do you want your reader to feel about the place?

Write is significant about the place.

What universal truth embodies the place?

Use concrete and specific details. Remember as many significant details about the place as you can.

Look for unusual details. Reader’s will fill in with their mind’s eye the expected details, but it is the unusual, quirky details that they will remember.


Setting Exercise

Write a short scene set in a landscape that your ancestor hates. Perhaps she hates the heat and lives in Australia, or the cold of a Northern Canadian winter. Help us to really see the setting through your ancestor’s eyes. Remember the following as you write:

Use the questions above to help you create your scene and establish a sense of place.

Reveal the surroundings to the reader, through your ancestor’s thoughts and actions.

Set an emotional landscape as well as a physical one.

Feel free to share your short scene in the forum.