“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry Thoreau–
Imagine a place that holds significant meaning or memories for you. What emotions does it evoke? How does it smell, sound, look? What stands out? How do you and others interact with it? Are there historical or contemporary narratives associated with this place?
I took a break from working on my novel last week and wrote an essay to enter a Writing of Place competition, the aim of which is to explore the writers relationship with some aspect of the Australian landscape. One of the interesting things about writing an essay is that it draws on your personal lived experience but also opens the writing to historical perspectives, artistic works, science and philosophy. My research has been wide ranging and I have had to refresh my memory for referencing!
But I’m a fiction writer, so why am I bothering with this you might ask? Because place is such an important element of writing fiction (often referred to as world building) that I think it’s worth some focused practice.
In fiction, we incorporate a characters interactions with the environment, what they see, how they see it and what emotional impact it has on them to help develop the character and plot. Understanding our own responses to a place can help to develop our skills for writing place in our fiction.
The idea of place is an elastic and subjective one, constructed through our personal perspective, our cultural lens and the values we attribute to it. Suburban Melbourne beats in the heart of many of Peter Temple’s novels and he uses place to capture the socioeconomic and cultural tone succinctly, as in this excerpt from Shooting Star. On reading this I imagine a working class suburb in the west of Melbourne filled with small houses in disrepair as the owners cannot afford the maintenance.
“The house was in a street running off Ballarat Road. Doomed weatherboard dwellings with rusting roofs and mangy little patches of lawn faced each other across a pocked tarmac strip. At the end of the street, by the feeble light of a streetlamp, two boys kicking a football to each other, uttering feral cries as they lost sight of it against the almost-dark sky.”
Place can be natural or man-made environments and it can be about the minutiae of a particular tree in a forest, or an ant hill, or a room, or extend to the grand scale of a planet, or the universe. Writing about place incorporates our sensory experience of it and aims to open it up and bring it alive in a way that enables a reader to feel, see and understand it in the same way as we (or our characters) experience it.
In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde uses the senses to immerse us in the location of the opening scene and evoke a sense of how the character feels about their environment. I am transported to an English summer country garden and the overwhelming perfume of flowers drifting in through casement doors thrown open to the warm day by this passage.
“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”
In writing about place, detail matters and the language we select to etch the detail on the readers mind will determine the resonance left with our audience. Too much detail might be accurate, but it can also be bland. Being selective about descriptive details, but making use of all the senses, creates a feeling of intimacy and mood that immerses the reader in our stories.
In the Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood uses the detail of Offred’s room to generate a powerful, disturbing and dark world. Her use of simile induces a sense of desolation and loss for the character observing the room. And the staccato sentences ooze desperation.
“A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.”
A strong sense of place transports the reader into the world of your story. Practicing how a location looks, feels, smells and sounds, and trying to give it a voice helps us to understand how we can use it in our fiction and give place a living voice.
What do you do to develop your skills in writing about place?
Main image: Cairns in the Yarra