As a reader, I love novels that have a strong sense of place. As a writer, though, I kind of suck at imbuing my stories with this sense - I tend to write something that resembles driving directions! What's your technique?

Also, do you think it matters whether you've been in one place for a long time, or moved around a lot? Sometimes I think the amount of traveling I did as a child made me focus less on places and more on the people therein. Could be a bad excuse, though. What are your life experiences? Where do you set your stories most often, and what made you choose those places?

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I think the trick is not so much to give a detailed account of streets and layouts, but a feel of a place. No one outside of a town is going to have much context for place names and such.

I set a lot of my writing in Los Angeles, and there are things that I can point out that scream this city. A lot of them are almost cliches, of course, because there are stereotypes of Los Angeles that everyone knows. Hollywood, South Central, Compton, Mulholland Drive.

But there are other things that are less well known that can give the reader something they might not know. A murder in a karaoke bar in Koreatown, a scene set on our miniscule and underused subway. But more importantly, I think, is how the people react to these things and how they live their lives.

You might want to think of the things that make the location unique and bring those things into the book. You don't have to hit the reader over the head with it, just drop little bits and pieces. Small town or big city? What sorts of trees are there? What kinds of bars? Is there a movie theater? Big or small? Regional slang? Do the houses butt up against a forest or an alley?

If you seed these things in your descriptions and dialog, you can get a pretty good sense of place without turning it into a travelogue. They need to be there to support the story, not detract from it.
I've lived in a number of places--TX, CA, Alaska, WI, OK--and traveled for my energy job to many many more. I tend to pick venues I have lived or personally experienced. And it's way more than streets or locations picked. I think some locales demand the more touristy havens, like my debut novel is set in San Antonio and I talkabout the Riverwalk. I think the reader would miss it if I didn't mention such a prominant spot.

But since it's my hometown, I also bring new locations to the reader's attention--places that were meaningful to me as a kid--and some of the seedier areas of town. To fill in the gaps, I bring up food, the Hispanic culture & other influences, regional expressions, the hill country etc. TX is a big topic and putting your readers in the scene takes some thought, but be sure to use all the senses when you do.

I don't sacrifice pace with long narratives, but if you plan out your scenes, you can add real local flavor. Don't let the action take over without some thought to what your character might see. For example, in a car chase scene in San Antonio, I had my heroine cop chasing a guy down a back street in a section of town I knew well. I used the image of her car bottoming out on a low water crossings and when she whizzed by an old horse stable (a memory from my childhood), she disturbed a quarter horse behind a fence. A reader of mine told me just the other day that my use of that horse stable always stuck with her. I didn't even remember the detail, but she sure did. The action still happened but it's the little details that can stick with someone.

I recently finished a book set in Brazil and have never been there, but I did plenty of research and worked with a Brazilian friend of mine to set the tone and the language--then drew from personal experiences in MExico and other foreign trips in Europe to pull out details that might work. Really use your imagination and draw from personal experiences to make your narratives seem authentic. Again, it's more about the senses.

In the instance of Brazil, I stuck to the feelings my American hero might be sensing being in a foreign country for the first time--things I felt before. Sights, sounds, smells in the air. I looked up local music, foods, types of cars, religious influences, geography, etc. A foreign place demands this. I know this seems like a lot of work, but the research was interesting to me. You get one shot at a first impression with the reader, so I pay particular attention to the setting at the beginning of the story. And pictures from actual places in Cuiaba Brazil helped to give the impression I'd been there.

Like you, I love a good setting and want my locales to become a character in my story.
I think it's important but I hear you about the driving directions. What Stephen and Jordan said is right. There are also aspects of a place that color the action. I couldn't write about Panama without writing about the canal or the heat and rain or the desperation that comes from too much money in too few hands and a whole lot of poverty.

I threw in history, too, but only because it was necessary for the plot.

MY WIP is set in 1941 DC and I couldn't possibly do the place justice without looking at the two cities, black and white, and the old money vs the New Deal. And all around the actors are men in uniform and what I hope is the lowering clouds of war.

That's what place is to me.
I LOVE what you said about money and poverty--and that you first compared these two things to desperation. That description is the mark of a good writer for me. This type of perspective serves more than one purpose. Through your character's unique point of view, you can add voice and color to a book. But you can also reflect the essence of a place AND the character's nature by how he or she can be so deeply affected by that dichotomy. Love it, David. I'm taking notes.
Wow. Maybe I'm better at this stuff than I thought.

Thanks, Jordan.
This is one of those discussions that work better over a Labatt's Blue, Margot. I've got one with your name on it.

And I agree that a writer torn between two cultures is aware of the difference--very much so. I'm Hispanic but raised outside that culture, although I am completely drawn to it. It's a constant source of material for my writing.

And it also looks like I might need to buy David's book. I'm a sucker for a guy blowing his brains out, but if he can write too? I'm in.
Ya'll are turning my head.

Thank you for such nice words Margot. It's always gratifying when a reader takes the time to tell you she appreciates what you've spent so much of your life creating.

And Jordan, I have a money back guarantee on BAPM. You don't like it, I'll buy it back. That's a promise.
Hey, I didn't you had a Brazilian novel. Excerpted from WHOO??

Kell Thomas looked out the window as the train slowed in its approach. At first glance, it
looked like any other logging town in Michigan’s north country. As the train came to a full stop,
Henry (Hank) Bellows woke with a start, “Gibblezark,” he snorted and shook his head, “Where the hell we at?”

“We’re home, honey,” Kell answered as he reached above his head for his suitcase. “Our new home away from home, we finally got to Seney.” He retrieved his heavy typewriter case from under the seat then stepped back to allow Gil Stankey to exit the train ahead of him.

Kell sensed a distinct difference, a feeling that he stepping off into the past, to the lawless
days of Tombstone or Dodge City. A visit to the last frontier. He half expected to be greeted by the law and told to drop their ‘hardware’ off at the sheriff’s office.

“Feel that Hank?”

“Yeah, we just went back in time. Or we’re out in the Wyoming territory.”
In my novel, I have a character tell a story about the town. Trying to set the mood for my book, the old woman talks briefly of a gunfight late at night on the nearby frozen river, ice boats filled with men shooting at each other. No one called the cops, even the next day with four dead bodies on the ice. I think it's about emotion--or feel, as Stephen said. I try to make my details catch the story as well as the town. Try being the operative word.
One of my major challenges when writing fiction is establishment of a sense of place. I've always struggled with getting description to dovetail well into narrative along with the plot and the dialogue. It's ironic that my most successful fiction piece to date got written as a direct result of one of my attempts to address this short-coming. Anthologist-Par-Excellence Michael Bracken announced that he was taking submissions for a themed anthology called CITY CRIMES, COUNTRY CRIMES, where the sense of place had to be strong enough that the setting felt almost like yet another character.

I thought this might be a good exercise for me to work on my "sense of place" short-comings, so I wrote a short story set in 1870s Montana called "Counting Coup." Bracken accepted it, the anthology got shelved by Wildside, and I got restless and went ahead and submitted "Counting Coup" to AHMM, which had just passed on my second submission to them. When they accepted "Counting Coup," I had to do some fast talking to Michael, who very graciously agreed to release me from my contract with him so it could be placed with AHMM (I really didn't think that Linda Landrigan would buy it).

The kicker? CITY CRIMES, COUNTRY CRIMES is still on the shelf with Wildside, and if/when it sees publication, "Counting Coup" is back in the line-up, so I'll have gotten paid for it twice over. How's that for a short story doing some heavy lifting?

As far as the description in the piece goes, I received good feedback from my first readers, who pretty much agreed that I had a much stronger sense of place here, and that whatever I had done, I ought to keep doing.

So what I do now is get the first draft written, heavy on plot and dialogue, light on all but the most perfunctory of place-holder descriptors. In the second draft I go back and add the description, and in the third draft/final polish, along with the cutting of the unnecessary detritus, I work hard to make the description flow along with the narrative.

As for where I most often set my stories, I set them where the story fits. I write historicals mostly, so I've got one set in 1960s Vegas (lived there for a while, so that helps), my current work in progress is set in 1844 Washington, DC, I've got one on the drawing board set in India at the height of the British Raj, and another set in Washington Territory during the 1870s (I'm a Washington native). It helps to have visited a place, but the internet, travel books, National Geographic go a long way toward filling in the gaps in my own experience.
Writing is about world building. Putting the reader in the world you've created, allowing them to use all their senses. There are writers who have successfully written books based on characterization and dialogue, but for me, I lose interest if there is not enough substance in the narratives to complete the picture. It doesn't have to be a lot. In fact, if there's too much, I find myself skimming. There has to be a balance with pace.
My stories tend to have a strong sense of place now, which wasn't the case when I was growing up. Even now, I really have to stop and think about what things look like, what the weather is like, how the atmosphere of a place will affect my characters' moods and actions.

I've set stories in Ireland, Italy, Argentina, Australia, and in Arizona and Maine in the US. The one in Maine was somewhere I'd actually been, so I had photos and memories of physical details to work with, and I'd been to Arizona, but not to the place where I set my stories. Ireland, Italy, Argentina, and Australia all had to be backed up by research into the culture, history, and geography. Lots of reading, lots of looking a photos. The one I'm working on now is set in Hawaii, also somewhere I've never been. Again, lots of research to make it feel real.

Like Brian, I do tend to go back and add in details. I'll get enough in in the first draft that I'll remember what the setting is, but the fine details sometimes get edited in later.


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