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 have always appreciated authors who can create a character who has one sense or feeling for a place only to have that flipped on its head by the conflict in the story. The character who loves the university town's wild strip until they become the victim of a drunken mob. The one who is afraid of the dark woods until she needs to hide and uses the forest for cover. As far as my own work; if the place drives the conflict or resolves the conflict, I hit it hard with key details. If it is just some place my protagonist is passing through to get to the next scene, I try and stay in their POV. Would they notice or comment on their usual route or would it just flash by while they made a cell phone call, or tried to calm an anxious passenger, etc.
Or a certain aroma in the air might trigger a memory the character had long since forgotten. You're on target, Karyn. This is the good stuff.
As a reader I sometimes choose books for their setting more than anything else. It can be hard to locate a strong sense of setting in a big city, and authors so sometimes settle for a description of street names. I was in Boise, Idaho, for Murder in the Grove, and on our way out to a signing at a bookstore in a mall, someone said that except for the hills in the distance, we could be in any town in America. I added any town in North America, because the suburbs of any Canadian city are just a mess of one big box mall after another. My own new series takes place in a small town in the interior of British Columbia. and I'm spending the summer in Nelson B.C. (I am from Ontario) just trying to capture that bucolic, small town, laid back feeling that is the Kootenays. I've met some super nice people at the city police, and they've been helping me with policing details for the books. Last night I went out on the streets with the beat constable for a couple of hours. He explained to me how different small town policing can be from the cities where they're in the car running from one call to another. In Nelson they take the time to walk the streets, pop into bars and see and be seen. I think that's the sort of detail that can really add to a novel's sense of place.
Though visiting is a good idea, I don't think you have to be somewhere long in order to write about it. Whenever I research a location, I take notes and lots of photos, but in truth I use very little of what I've recorded, other than those practical "driving directions". Usually, if you've spent a couple days soaking up a town, a couple (because that's all that's needed) details will present themselves. Also, if it's a well-known place (Paris, London, etc), it's not a bad idea to see if the cliches of the place can be inverted and proven wrong. That brings things into pretty good focus.

I think your traveling as a kid will only help this. I seldom stayed in the same place, never put down roots, and it's those very similarities you begin to see in all cities that help you to pick out the one or two details that set it apart. Focusing on the people is an excellent way to go about it.

Also, within your story the ONLY thing that matters about a city is how your character relates to it. If s/he's jetlagged and can't see the beauty of the Hungarian Parliament building overlooking the Danube, then so much the better. Focus on the dirt.
I really struggle with setting. I set my novel in the NH town where I lived for 11 years as a teen/young adult. Still, as Sandra pointed out in her blog, there are truisms about a place that teens don't notice. I have very general random observations about these places I haven't lived in for 10 years, like the change in demographics to reflect people who work in Boston but live further and further away. Along with the fact that development has tried to accommodate them, and thus pushed out lower income people (college students, blue collar families, etc.).

Still - my protags are cops working a stressful murder case. How much of this stuff would they really think or talk about? In real life, sure, they'd be worried about the city council and the budget and whether they'd get a new contract... but I tried inserting a few elements to reflect that sort of thing, and they were sooooo awkward. Then I went back and re-read some Julia Spencer-Fleming. Somehow she can literally do driving directions and make them seamless - along with small-town political stuff.

So it's not the details necessarily - it's the making them seamless that I think is my problem!
i need some distance to really describe a place. i have a much harder time describing the familiar. i think it might be because when i look back at a place the high points jump out and are easier to grab. "yes, this is what i really remember most about this location."
I just got to teach a time & place class at the Book Passage mystery writing conference last weekend with the most excellent Katharine Wall. The thing I enjoyed most about our prep for it was picking out a few of my favorite quotes in which establishing setting in terms of both is done really well. For me what makes these work is the choice of specific, concrete, and unexpected/non-ordinary details--the discrete, finely observed bits of sensory data that recreate/evoke the original experience in the mind of the reader:

I looked around at the pilot. He was a short little man, his cap backwards on his head, wearing an oil stained sheep-skin coat and big gloves. Then the plane began to move along the ground, bumping like a motorcycle, and then slowly rose into the air.

We headed almost straight east out of Paris, rising in the air as though we were sitting inside a boat that was being lifted slowly by some giant, and the ground began to flatten beneath us. It looked cut into brown squares, yellow squares, green squares, and big flat blotches of green where there was a forest. I began to understand cubist painting.

Ernest Hemingway, “A Paris-to-Strasbourg Flight,” The Toronto Daily Star, 1922

Up to the farmhouse to dinner through the teeming, dusty field, the road under our sneakers was only a two-track road. The middle track was missing, the one with the marks of the hooves and the splotches of dried, flaky manure. There had always been three tracks to choose from in choosing which track to walk in; now the choice was narrowed down to two. For a moment I missed terribly the middle alternative. But the way led past the tennis court, and something about the way it lay there in the sun reassured me; the tape had loosened along the backline, the alleys were green with plantains and other weeds, and the net (installed in June and removed in September) sagged in the dry noon, and the whole place steamed with midday heat and hunger and emptiness.

There was a choice of pie for dessert, and one was blueberry and one was apple, and the waitresses were the same country girls, there having been no passage of time, only the illusion of it as in a dropped curtain—the waitresses were still fifteen; their hair had been washed, that was the only difference—they had been to the movies and seen the pretty girls with the clean hair.

E.B. White, “Once More to the Lake,” 1941

Then, bumping each other with our hips to make room, the three of us would press together in front of Mrs. Silver’s full-length mirror to comb our hair and practice looking cool. We wore our hair long at the sides, swept back into a ducktail. The hair on top we combed toward the center and then forward, with spit curls breaking over our foreheads. My mother detested this hairdo and forbade me to wear it, which meant that I wore it everywhere but at home, sustaining the distinctness of two different styles with gobs of Butch Wax that left my hair glossy and hard and my forehead ringed with little pimples.

Unlit cigarettes dangling from the corners of our mouths, eyelids at half mast, we studied ourselves in the mirror. Spit curls. Pants pulled down low around our hips, thin white belts buckled on the side. Shirts with three-quarter length sleeves. Collars raised behind our necks. We should have looked cool, but we didn’t.

Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life 1989 (1950s)

There were victim walls like this every few miles in the city now. They sprouted up in parks and at hospitals, on schools and on subway platforms—anywhere people could think to tape up pictures. As soon as one photo went up, people rushed from their apartments and houses to fill the entire wall with pictures. There could be no single photograph of the missing; every wall had to be covered, every space filled. And as a survivor, you had to stop and look at the pictures because that was what was required of you. Of course, these people weren’t missing people anymore; they were dead people now.
Last one continued:

Everyone knew they were dead. There were no stories of people from these walls being found alive (and still: the dream of amnesiacs wandering suburban hospitals) and yet Remy stopped and looked anyway, and as the walls made this quiet shift from the missing to the dead, he looked at them differently, mentally riffling the faces and pausing on the familiar—a glimmer of recognition and hope—until he remembered that he’d just seen that face on the wall in Washington Square, or at St. Vincent’s, and eventually Remy came to wonder if maybe he hadn’t known them all, every one of these people….

Jess Walter, The Zero 2006 (2001)
my focus on setting depends on its importance to the story. I've written a couple of stories set in New Orleans either during or after Hurricane Katrina because what I had to say was tied into that mess. I workshopped one of the stories and one of the participants told me she knew exactly what street I was describing and asked me how long I lived in New Orleans. I had to tell her that I've never set foot in Louisana, let alone the Big Easy. But I guess I fooled her.

When I set things in Maine, I do it out of familiarity; but I only focus on the setting enough to destroy people's impression of what they think Maine is like. I guess I just like pissing in that pool.


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