WRITING FEATURE Writing about Place (when you can’t go anywhere)

Let’s face it, writing during lockdown is hard enough, but how are we supposed to write authentically about place when we’re not allowed to go more than five miles from our front door? Caroline Deacon has a few suggestions which might help. 


Place is important in story-telling, but something that is easy to neglect, especially in these Covid days when our opportunities to sit and observe anywhere outside our own four walls is so limited.  


Why is place important? 

I’ve noticed from my time in crit group or creative writing classes that newer writers sometimes focus on plot or character but don’t often think about place. They’ll set a scene in a coffee shop or at home, but they miss out on the opportunity to enrich the story by using that setting in a creative way.  


Think about place or setting as another character in your story, and adopt the same techniques you would normally use to create a new character. For instance, if you like writing character sheets, then do the same for place. If you use Scrivener, it provides setting templates with space to list aspects such as role in story, season, unique features, etc. You can also add a photo onto the synopsis of each document, if you want, as a visual prompt. If you don’t use Scrivener, then why not create your own template? Specific details will bring a place alive; for instance if you’re placing a scene in the aforementioned coffee shop, mention the colour of the mugs and the texture of the floor covering, the way the sound of the espresso machine echoes off the tiles. And what type of coffee shop is your character visiting? Being specific will not only add richness to your story, it can also show character. Think about the difference between the person who would go to Starbucks, or to Costa, or only have coffee at their tiny indy coffee-shop. If your location is going to be rural, remember that wherever you go in the world, the chances are that it’s inhabited by people who affect that environment in particular ways. A field in England is different from a field in America or Switzerland. Drop in culturally specific, telling details to bring that setting alive.  


How to describe place  

You know this, but it’s worth re-stating; use all five senses. Everyone has a preferred sense and will tend to use this in description, although because of screens we all tend to focus more on the visual, so remember this and don’t forget to use sound and smell as well. During lockdown we are probably using remote tools for prompts; Google Earth for instance lets you visit anywhere you want to. Pictures, movies – there are plenty of resources out there, but it’s important to remember that these tools will only give you visual ideas. You’re going to need to fill in the other senses to really bring the place alive.  


There are also some great resources on the internet for sound. For instance during the first lockdown, an amazing set of recordings, ’Missing Sounds of New York’ was made available. Here you can listen to the New York Public Library, the rush hour – all sorts of human soundscapes. (It also works pretty well as background noise if you’re the sort of person who likes to work in cafes). Whatever you need, it’s probably out there on the web; bird song, traffic – just make sure you listen carefully and put that texture into your writing.  


New York Public Library (photo credit: Caroline Deacon)
Smell is harder to replicate, but arguably the most important sense to include in your writing. https://www.writerswrite.co.za/75-words-that-describe-smells/ is a good place to start, but there are many other resources available. (If you need to put taste in as well, I’d recommend Nigel Slater’s book Toast to discover how evocative writing about this sense can be.) 


One thing it would be easy to neglect if you’re trying to write about a place without being there is the weather; how hot or cold is the place? Is the air windy or still? How does this impact on your character’s body? (Did you know that sound travels further in cold air and can you use that?)

I’d recommend creating a mind map for your location and brainstorming some adjectives for those senses you’re unable to experience through remote viewing. I’m not suggesting you use those adjectives in your writing, but having them in mind should help you experience the place.  


Point of view will change your sense of place

A good exercise is to imagine seeing your location through the eyes of someone who has never been there before and write about it in the first person. Then write again about the place seeing it through the eyes of someone who knows it intimately. For instance, as an exercise, imagine your character arriving at their nearest airport and make some notes about what catches their attention. Then think of a completely new character, maybe someone who has only ever lived in Outback Australia, or the Sahara, arriving at the same airport. That character will notice different things. What are they? 


Everyone worries about ‘getting it right’ whether they are world building for science fiction or writing about somewhere really well known. So first off, you need to accept that you will probably get something wrong, and that’s ok. That’s why we have SCWBI critique groups, agents, editors and so on. Give yourself permission to experiment. 


And keep reminding yourself that you don’t need to be there to write about it. Did you know that Stef Penney had never been to Canada before she wrote her best selling novel The Tenderness of Wolves?  


 * Header image: Caroline in the Australian Outback before all this started, Caroline's own pic


Caroline Deacon is the author of several childcare books and has written extensively about place in travel features. She is agented by Lindsay Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates, Edinburgh. Find her on Twitter @writingdilemmas and at www.carolinedeacon.com Her monthly newsletter offers free writing prompts and feedback to subscribers.

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