I have taken to soliciting on Twitter for blog post ideas, and today’s is an excellent one from @kilerkki.
Your books often have a really strong sense of place—how do you build the setting? (How do you keep yourself from getting lost in blueprints while your characters are wandering London’s back alleys/some fancy manor’s corridors?)
First things first: if you want the reader to feel a sense of place, you have to have it yourself. Seems obvious, but it’s very easy to plonk your characters into Generic Village or Generic Stately Home without really thinking about it beyond “there were some houses” or “there were some rooms”.
The easiest way to get your own sense of place is of course to visit a real location, so you actually understand what the landscape looks like, how much sky there is, how it feels. I like to steal stately homes from reality because it means I have mental and actual pictures, a ready-made floor plan to adapt, and a general sense of “this is the right age, right sort of place for this area”, plus there’s usually some delightful quirk that triggers a plot idea. Peakholme in Think of England is based on Cragside, an incredibly technologically advanced house for its time, and its special phone system and electric wiring were plot crucial. Crowmarsh in An Unsuitable Heir is based on Baddesley Clinton because it has a moat, dammit.
Of course, it’s not always feasible to make a trip. If you’re an American writing Tudor England, that’s a long way to travel in time as well as place. So use maps and, importantly pictures. There are a quite staggering number of resources online with searchable collections of watercolours and engravings, and loads of old maps available online/as reproductions.
These things are important because they will give you a sense of place which you can then convey to the reader. This does not mean you should write paragraphs of detailed setting: nobody cares about your research. You need to know because that means you’ll write with confidence, and also there won’t be snafus of the kind that readers inevitably pick up. But accuracy is worthless if it’s not conveyed in good, effective writing, and nobody’s romance-reading experience was ever enhanced by a paraphrase of the Wiki entry on Chatsworth House.
Obviously you can make up a fictional town, or house, or battleship. But you do need to make it up in enough detail that your characters aren’t just walking through a vague indeterminate fog.
So how to create a sense of place without fly-tipping your notes onto the page?
Practical details: what do you need?
Consider what the reader actually needs to know about the place on a practical level, and think very hard before supplying much in excess of that. Take stately homes. In Proper English, the layout of the house is crucial to the murder mystery and the reader’s understanding. In Any Old Diamonds, the actual layout is almost completely irrelevant. I’d hazard that a reader could sketch much of the floorplan from Proper English accurately because of the level of detail I put in, whereas for Any Old Diamonds the most you could say is “there’s a dining room, a drawing room, a billiard room, and several bedrooms.” I knew what the house layout was, at least enough to ensure that the billiard room doesn’t migrate around the building, but I couldn’t find a reason to trouble the reader with those specifics. (We do however know a lot about how the Any Old Diamonds house is decorated, and also about the exterior, because those were important.)
Descriptive detail: where the devil is
I mentioned needing a reason to tell the reader stuff. Practical information is one reason to put information in. Atmosphere—the sense of place—is another. So let’s look at that.
In my 1920s Will Darling Adventures, Will owns an antiquarian and second-hand bookshop in an easily ignored side street off Charing Cross Road called May’s Buildings. Here’s more or less everything we learn about May’s Buildings across three books:
- It’s only accessible to cars at one end and it’s not yet lit with electric (important practical details for plot)
- There’s a pub at the Charing Cross end (practical detail for plot) called the Black Horse (actual historical fact, which matters to literally nobody but me)
- The next-door shop sells umbrellas and walking sticks.
This last point is not plot relevant (though I am now kind of wishing I’d done a fight in a walking stick shop). We learn it in the following sentence:
Will went next door, demanding, “Can I use your telephone?” His neighbour, Norris, purveyor of umbrellas and walking sticks, waved an uninterested hand.
I could have said “the shop next door” to the same practical effect (it’s just there to give Will access to a phone). What do walking sticks and umbrellas add? Why put that in?
Well, a walking-stick-and-brolly shop is very niche. It’s not going to have high footfall or attract customers from miles around: people buy them, but they don’t buy many, or often. It’s exceedingly British, with a rather musty and dusty feel and there’s a delightful class marker in ‘purveyor’ rather than ‘seller’.
“A little alley with an antiquarian bookshop next to a purveyor of walking sticks and umbrellas” gives you a vibe. You know what it feels like, if not exactly what it looks like. If asked what the shop on the other side might be, you might speculate a very old-fashioned toyshop, or a place that sells clocks, or a specialist in cake pans. You would not say a fishmonger, or a trendy dress shop buzzing with Bright Young Things.
That’s a fair bit of atmosphere, dropped in not as part of a descriptive paragraph (face it, people skip descriptive paragraphs unless you make them read), but on the fly. It keeps the reader conscious of Will’s surroundings without labouring the point. We don’t get an actual description of Norris’s shop; we don’t need one. But its existence adds to the sense of place.
Because sense of place is more than physical description of geographical features. You can build it up with references to much more—smells, how crowded/empty it is, what people wear or do, how they look, the food you can buy.
Here’s another from Slippery Creatures, since I’m on a shop roll.
Maisie worked at a milliner’s on Lexington Street, which had a fancy French name and served women who, she said, needed to look at exciting hats while they bought boring ones.
I could have gone into detail about what sort of street Lexington Street is, what’s the nearest Tube, what the shop looks like—the rows of hats, how the exciting and boring ones are displayed, the way the staff dress, the level of snootiness. I didn’t, for three reasons:
- The reader doesn’t need to know. (Crucial)
- Will, our viewpoint, doesn’t know anything about hats. (Important for character)
- I don’t know anything about hats. (And am too lazy to learn)
But you can tell the kind of shop it is—expensive, fancy but not with cutting edge clientele. You don’t have to know where Lexington Street is to guess that it’s in the right area, but not on the really fashionable circuit. It’s a little detail that lightly sketches in a bit of Will Darling’s London. But frankly, what we really learn here is that Maisie is a shrewd woman who has more to offer than her current employer is using. I’m just slipping a bit of place in with that.
This is important. Because remember how I said that readers skim description? Well, they really do, unless you make them need to read it. And a great way to do that is to couple your descriptive parts with other things–character-building, or plot-establishment, or building atmosphere in a way that snags the attention.
God, That’s Pathetic
The pathetic fallacy is a literary term for the attribution of human feeling to things found in nature. Mountains are cruelly indifferent, summer rain is kindly, an old house frowns. (Pathetic here means ‘having to do with feelings’ as in sympathy or empathy, not ‘pitiful and ridiculous’, btw.)
Here’s Piper, the house in The Magpie Lord.
Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls like deep-set eyes. The front was covered with ivy, and the woods encroached too closely on what had once been elegant gardens. The gravelled drive was pierced by weeds. Magpies screeched and cawed in the trees, and a trio of the birds strutted in front of the three men.
Practically speaking, it’s an old house in poor repair. But emotionally speaking, what do we get?
- The scary house is looking at us in a sinister fashion
- The scary plants are surrounding us and pushing in (‘encroaching’, ‘pierced’)
- The scary birds are pushy, even aggressive (‘screeched’, ‘strutted’).
The description gives us a strong sense something is wrong with the house, and it’s wrong in a menacing way.
The sense of place here comes as much from the pathetic fallacy as from the practical description. Let’s try it without.
Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls. The front was covered with ivy, and the woods were growing up around what had once been elegant gardens. The gravelled drive was full of weeds. Magpies called in the trees, and a trio of the birds hopped in front of the three men.
That’s a perfectly adequate description, but it doesn’t have what I’d call the sense of place. You could skim that without missing anything.
(For a laugh, let’s run it again with a different set of feelz.
Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls, catching the sunlight in friendly winks. The front was lush with ivy, and the vibrant sprawl of the woods was reclaiming what had once been strict formal gardens. The gravelled drive sang with wild flowers. Magpies called greetings from the trees, and a trio of the birds danced in front of the three men.
Aw. Let’s hire it for a holiday home!)
The pathetic fallacy—loading your description with your character’s feelings—can do a ton of work in character development, and is more engaging to read as description than purely factual. It can however be overdone very easily so watch yourself.
Figures in a Landscape
As noted, it’s ideal if your writing is trying to do two for the price of one. If your description both conveys the surroundings/place and reflects the viewpoint character’s mood, you’ve got a better chance of keeping the description-skippers engaged while saying what you need to convey.
Here’s a longish bit from The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen (the first of my Doomsday Books duo, coming from Sourcebooks in 2023). It’s the opening chapter after a somewhat turbulent prologue that’s established Gareth is both highly strung and very wound up.
Gareth arrived on Romney Marsh four days after that. It was bleak beyond words.
The stage stopped at a coaching inn, the Walnut Tree, high on a ridge. The land stretched out before them, grey-green, blotched with black scrubby trees, and cut with silvery lines that looked for all the world like streams except that many were unnervingly straight. He couldn’t see much in the way of houses on the flat land below, or of anything except the sea beyond. An icy wind whipped up the ridge. He shivered.
The road from the ridge took a steep descent to the unfathomably flat land of the Marsh. There were a lot of sheep, Gareth noticed. And there was a lot of water, because the straight lines were indeed streams, except they had to be man-made. Canals? The channels looked steel grey as he passed, like blades cutting through scrubby grass, and scrubby trees, and scrub.
Why had his father wanted to live here? Why would anyone?
The coach traversed a wearisome six miles through nothing, emptiness dotted with sheep and the occasional flurry of cottages huddled against the wind. At last it came to a halt at Dymchurch, his destination. This was a town, though only just, with a squat Norman church and a long high street. The stage passed an alehouse called the Ship and then stopped at a public house halfway down, one that was adorned with a ship’s figurehead on its wall but was called the City of London. Someone should have thought harder about that, in Gareth’s opinion.
He got out, stretched his aching legs, and looked around. It didn’t take long: there wasn’t much to see. He was used to bustling crowds, dotted with bright bonnets and smart coats. Here there was just a handful of drably-clad people who looked like they had hunched up against the weather at birth and never quite uncurled again. Farmers and shopkeepers, he vaguely supposed. An elderly gentleman wearing an old-fashioned periwig was speaking to a pretty young woman in a brown skirt and mannish black coat.
What have we got here?
Well, we’ve got factual description of Romney Marsh including your actual pubs and town, and the important fact that this isn’t wild or waste land: it’s a man-made working environment. We establish that it’s very flat and not highly populated, and the people it does have are provincial, a bit old-fashioned, not rich or visibly exciting.
But it all comes with feelings. Everything is dismally low: flat, hunched, squat, huddled, scrubby (for trees). It’s featureless: bleak, drab, nothing, emptiness, scrub again. It’s miserable.
Or is it? Because we’ve also established that Gareth is uncertain, even fearful (unnervingly, shivered, unfathomably). He’s tired (wearisome, aching). He’s snarky, too, with very much a city-boy-comes-to-the-country vibe. All of this description of Romney Marsh is coming through the eyes of a nervous exhausted man with a tendency to snipe. We’ve learned about the place, but we’ve learned a fair bit about Gareth from how he views the place.
Which (I hope) means that later in the book, when Gareth finds his feet and indeed his love interest in the Marsh, the change in tenor of the descriptions will give the reader an entirely new view, both of who he is and of where he is. We learn about Gareth by seeing him as a figure interacting with his landscape.
Don’t think about sense of place as requiring detailed on-page description for its own sake. Think about a place’s vibe, and about how your characters interact with their world. Because if you can convey that, your settings will be, not background, but a living part of the book.