A strong sense of place

During the recent Brisbane Writers Festival, I attended a workshop called Turning Where into Who: Character as Place. I found the session quite insightful and I thought you might be interested to hear what I learnt…

According to the workshop facilitator, Australian author Ashley Hay, a vividly realised location makes a dramatic difference to the power of your writing. Some stories are so steeped in their location, if feels as if they couldn’t be set anywhere else, and the location becomes a character in its own right. That is the kind of fiction I want to write. I want my locations to feel so real that my readers forget where they are and begin to see, hear and smell everything my characters do.

Crocodile Adelaide River

The subject of my dreams... (Click for image source)

Contemporary authors who do this well (in my opinion) include Bryce Courtenay (with Africa and outback Australia), and Belinda Jeffrey (with the Northern Territory). The mood of their locations filters into every scene and you feel as if you’re right there in the location with the characters. When I was reading Jeffrey’s coming-of-age novel Brown Skin Blue – about a boy who works on a crocodile-jumping cruise boat on the Adelaide River – I actually dreamt of rivers and crocodiles, such was the power of the book’s setting.

But obviously, it’s a lot easier to identify authors who do this well than it is to bring your own settings alive. One piece of advice from Ashley that I found particularly useful was this: remember that you’re not trying to document a place, you’re trying to capture it. So you needn’t feel obliged to catalogue everything your characters see or hear in order to convey place, just the telling details. And if you’re using a real location, you needn’t feel compelled to adhere strictly to reality. You should feel free to imagine real places. If a fictional touch brings a real place to life, then allow yourself to go with that.

And of course, there was the piece of advice that is age-old but oh-so-true: rely on your senses. Don’t just consider how a place looks, but also how it sounds and even how it smells and feels. According to Ashley, touch is one of the most under-utilised senses in fiction, and it can be amazing for capturing place.

As I edit my novel-in-progress Tangled, I want to scrutinise how well I’ve captured my settings (Brisbane and rural Queensland) and hopefully make these locations as important to the book as my characters.

I’m interested in your views on setting – does it make a big difference to your reading experience? Would you choose whether or not to read a book based on where it was set? Do you prefer real or imaginary settings? How do you rate your own skills at capturing place? What books/authors do you think do a fantastic job in this area? Please share. 🙂



Filed under Writing, Writing craft

24 responses to “A strong sense of place

  1. This is a great post, Cally. Thanks for sharing what you discovered at the conference. I especially liked your comment about the under-used sense of touch. Excellent. I’m going to pay close attention to that!

  2. Kelley York

    Setting definitely makes a huge impact. Carrie Ryan’s THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH trilogy is amazing with setting. The entire world is a character within itself. While I think a story can be enjoyable without this feeling, it really does add that special flavor!

  3. I think it totally depends on the book. In some stories, the setting is crucial and needs to be strongly written, for example, if it takes place in a world much different to our own, one we can’t easily imagine. In other stories, the setting can take a back seat because it’s not the focus – everyone knows what high school is like, for example, so if your focus is really on character, the high school doesn’t need to be as strongly developed. Which is not to say setting should ever be ignored, just sometimes it’s more important to the story than others. Good point about touch being under-utilized. I think the same is true of taste!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Susanna. I agree that it’s okay for setting to take a back seat in some books – it’s not the make or break for every single book. In saying that, I think that most books can benefit from a strong setting, whether that setting is fantastic or real. 🙂

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever read an Australian novel before. Would you recommend that I begin with “Brown Skin Blue” or is there another that is maybe more “adult” because I don’t really read the “coming of age” stuff all that much anymore (I suppose that I could if anything…just to get a feel for the settings that you say are done so well). When I say adult, I don’t mean erotica or anything like that…just something that has issues written for non-teens…you know…regular everyday stuff–thriller maybe but set in Australia, murder mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, urban fantasy…but with a non-child protagonist. Something a forty year-old guy (me) could sink his teeth into and be like “this is a real page-turner.”

    • Oooh wow, this is a toughie. I want to recommend a great Australian book to you, but most of what I read is either YA or chick-lit, so not your cup of tea. I would LOVE for you to get a taste for Australian fiction though, so I’m going to ask Twitter’s advice and I’ll let you know what recommendations I get for you! Stay tuned…

    • Okay, so here are some recommendations from Twitter of Aussie books for adults (disclaimer: I haven’t read of any these so can’t attest to their quality):

      – Tobacco Stained Mountain goat- set in futuristic Melbourne sort of a noir – Alison Goodman or Isobel Carmody for fantasy – For Aussie fantasy, anything by Garth Nix but I recommend particularly the Old Kingdom trilogy: Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen.

      You can also check out the two Australian (non-YA) books I’ve reviewed recently:


      If you read any of them, let me know what you think! 🙂

      On Mon, Sep 26, 2011 at 8:41 PM, Cally Jackson wrote:

      > Oooh wow, this is a toughie. I want to recommend a great Australian > book to you, but most of what I read is either YA or chick-lit, so not > your cup of tea. I would LOVE for you to get a taste for Australian > fiction though, so I’m going to ask Twitter’s advice and I’ll let you > know what recommendations I get for you! Stay tuned… > >

  5. Until recently, I hadn’t realized how important setting really can be. I’ve been searching through my MS the last couple of days, making sure I take the time to give a taste of setting. As a reader, I’ve discovered that if there’s too much setting offered, I tend to zone out. Thanks for sharing!

    • I’m the same as you, Lindy. If there’s too much description of setting, I’ll skip it. So it’s difficult to know what just the right balance is. Hopefully we both find it with our WiPs! 🙂

  6. Setting is important to me in my work. I generally know where the story takes place before I know much about the characters or anything else. Sometimes, I do pick up a book because of setting, but more often it’s because I like the writing or have heard good things about the book.

    • Interesting to hear that setting is one of the first things you know about your books. That’s definitely not the case for me. Characters and plot kernel come first for me. I definitely read Australian fiction because it’s Australian, so I guess that counts as choosing books for their setting. 🙂

  7. T.F.Walsh

    Absolutely – setting sets the mood for the character and allows us to visit new places… I love books which offer rich, deep settings.

  8. Thanks for your Strong Sense Of Place. I too aim to get the reader out of this world into my fictional world, which I set in real places, making them authentic with descriptions that widely use the senses. Sometimes the place is more interesting than what my characters are doing and I can put them on the back burner. Then the challenge is to know what of the myriad features of the setting to show and for what purpose. Usually, I try to foreground my character, developing their emotions and behaviour from associated characteristics of the setting. For example, in Jane Eyre, the Byronic Rochester, heroic but flawed, has his moody character reflected from the brooding landscapes of the Yorkshire moors, with shifting lighting and fissured cliffs. This is an old device and at the Brisbane Writers Festival 2011, Trent Jamiesion in his workshop on characterisation, spent the last half on exercises using settings to develop character. There is a link to my write-up of his workshop, including exercises, on my blog martinknox.wordpress.com Cal, you always get me thinking. Cheers.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Martin. I really appreciate it. You’re right – it can be difficult to strike the right balance between setting and characterisation, but I love those books that manage to reflect the main character’s personality or mood in the setting.

      I tried to find the link to Trent’s characterisation workshop on your blog but was unsuccessful. Could you please provide me with the direct link?

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

  9. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing what you learned. I love feeling like I’m right there with the characters. I can’t wait to see what you have done with YOUR setting!

  10. I will be the first to say that I SUCK at making the setting into a character. That’s going to be my final edit on Fie Eoin – really making the setting feel real because as it stands I mostly have floating head syndrome >.<

    Definitely going to have to try a few tricks like the ones you suggested!

  11. Pingback: Do we remove sense of place when we change our novels to match the audience reading them? » A novel idea

  12. Andrez Bergen

    Thanks for the suggestion of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, Cally!

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