Sense of Place

When you write, how do you choose your location – and I don’t just mean the choice between the background chatter of a coffee shop or the secluded quietness of a study – I mean, how do you decide on where to set your story and find a sense of place?800px-Balloonreflection

With the deadline looming for my short story competition, I scratched a few pages out in the week past, but time, may I say, just keeps on getting the better of me. To be fair, my ‘free’ time has been caught up with journalism, but there has been little time for the more creative. However, for me, scribbling a few lines just as I’ve decided it really is time to hit the sack, often turns into a spurt of inspiration, which almost makes up for the lack of dedication throughout the week…

I was chatting this week to a young poet (El Gruer – no stranger to this blog!) who is taking part in the 4 Corners Festival in Belfast this Saturday. This year’s festival is focusing on the importance of storytelling, particularly in Belfast, given the troubled background the city has and the myriad stories people have to tell as a result. The brief for El’s event is as follows:

‘Where there are people there are stories, where there are stories there are songs, where there are songs there are people searching – for where they belong’.

El, being Scottish, will speak of how a sense of place influences her poetry and how her perspective on storytelling differs because she is, in effect, an outsider living inside somewhere else. Place affects our writing.Eljpg

With this in mind, the question is – what influences where you place yourself in a story and how you settle on a place from which to tell it? How much do we draw on our own experiences and how much do we try to distance ourselves from them in our storytelling? Can we really distance ourselves from them?

One of my new followers on Twitter has published three very successful novels and has travelled the world researching the sense of place for his tales. I heard an interview on the radio last week with a crime writer who also said he would categorically never write about anywhere in his books which he hasn’t visited in person. Readers can tell right away if you’re being authentic, he said – they know if you have truly created somewhere the way it really is.

I would agree that it adds authenticity to writing if you can describe in great detail, or simply describe in a realistic way, places which feature in your stories. It also, dare I say it, makes writing a little easier, because you don’t have to conjure up a whole new location – you simply draw on your own memory of a place and your experiences of it.

This is good and it is what I have drawn on for my short story entry. It is inspired, but is not completely true to, events I myself have experienced, and in a place that I know very well. In my children’s novel, too, I set my character in a place close to where I live – her home is akin to my home. However, being a fantasy adventure story, the tale soon takes her out of the ‘real world’ and into a world which I had to create myself – which was both freeing and fun.

A sense of place is key to any story, but I think that as long as it is evoked richly and takes readers to where you want them to be, does it really matter if the actual place exists? You can draw on real experiences and apply them to a made-up place. You can create an entirely new place and make up how you think someone would live there. You can write about somewhere you’ve visited or where you

As for how you place yourself within the tale, well – I’ve touched on this before in an earlier blog – but placing yourself on the periphery and looking in, is a good approach. Distance yourself enough from the story to see it as a reader might. Don’t become so immersed that you lose yourself in the writing and therefore lose your own sense of place within it.

Ultimately, in any book we read, we are all searching for a sense of place – whether it is a place we wish to explore, somewhere we want to escape to, or somewhere we really don’t want to be but are curious enough to visit it because we know that it is not real – as real as it may seem on the page…

So, how do you find your sense of place in writing? I think that often, it might just find you.



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3 responses to “Sense of Place

  1. With the exception of one series of poems based on the Mediterranean, but viewed largely through visits to art museums, the locations in my works are places I’ve either lived or visited frequently, no matter how much I might abstract them. You can’t invent the details that crop up in real life, even if you can elaborate or redraw them. (I just saw a photo of circus elephants walking toward the Empire State Building and now wish I’d put a circus train in my Subway Hitchhikers novel, for instance.)
    As I read others’ work, I love the details of place that support the character of the interactions … and I do believe locality affects that in daily life, as well.

    • Yes, I think that no matter how hard we try, our own experiences always influence what we write and subsequently bring it to life. With fantasy writing, this also comes through, I think, although there is perhaps more scope for creating truly unique places… or is there? These too will be influenced by those places we have been to, seen in paintings, read about in other stories… I used to debate this with a work colleague – he erred on reality at all times and didn’t like the concept of fantasy writing because it isn’t based on real life. But I think it is definitely inspired by it and contains ‘real’ elements, which just happen to be embellished to fit a fantasy world.

      Thanks for visiting the blog and commenting – hope my response isn’t too rambling!