Our first workshop at Max Gate, ‘A Sense Of Place’ (held on the evening of 1 October), was a great success. Fortified by the best efforts of the Whale Caller vintners and the Kettle Chips makers, we gathered round Hardy’s dining-room table and spent a couple of hours examining why place is so important in writing, and how best to go about incorporating it into one’s own work.
‘The novel that fails,’ said the writer Flannery O’Connor, ‘is a novel in which there is no sense of place.’ Stories can’t exist in a vacuum any more than people can. Storytelling means transporting the reader, which in turn makes the ability to create a believable setting one of a writer’s most important skills.
We began by looking at the ABC of place: anchor, belonging and conflict:
Anchor. The most important thing in creating a sense of place is particularity: precisely observed details rather than generalities. To Kill A Mockingbird, for example, is shot through with such details: the racial tensions, the heat, the smalltown setting all anchor it to a very specific point in time and space.
Belonging. So much of your characters’ actions, responses and behaviour can stem from their relationship to their setting. Someone who’s lived in a remote fishing village all their life will have a very different worldview from someone who’s grown up in a big city: and of course when the city-dweller goes to the fishing village or vice versa, that sense of being an outsider offers rich dramatic potential.
Conflict. In The Lord Of The Rings, Tolkien underpins the theme of good vs. evil through his descriptions of the bucolic Shire and the forbidding Mordor. There can also be conflict between setting and character. Are your characters in charge of their environment or at its mercy?
So much for why place is important. Next to how: the methods we can use to maximise this sense of place. The obvious answer is description, but this must be qualified. Don’t slam in long paragraphs of description at the start of a scene and forget about it. Drip details in throughout each scene, making sure each detail is telling. Why should a beautiful antique mirror just hang on the wall, when your heroine can also catch a glimpse in it of something she wasn’t meant to see?
Don’t just list a place’s measurements or outline its basic geography – you’re a writer, not an estate agent! Instead, use your senses. We connect to the world around us through our senses, so it makes sense (if you’ll excuse the pun) that your reader will connect to the world you’ve created in the same way – and in doing so, that reader will experience your writing emotionally rather than just intellectually.
Sight. Describe what your characters see, again ensuring you use telling details – the height of a building may be less interesting and relevant than its state of repair, for instance. Use colours: skies can be azure, cobalt, cornflower or many other shades rather than just simply ‘blue’.
Sounds. Cities are a cacophony of noise: traffic, chatter, building works, police sirens. The countryside echoes to the sounds of animals and farmyard machinery. Foghorns, seagulls and crashing waves suggest a beach: cicadas a hot summer night. Don’t forget dialogue: the way locals speak, their slang and pronunciation, is very resonant.
Smell. Smell is the sense most closely connected with memory, which is always useful for your characters. Damp leaves suggest autumn woods, disinfectant a hospital, brewing coffee a café. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, those who helped clear up New Orleans said some of the worst smells came from abandoned refrigerators full of food in sledgehammer summer heat – and I bet you just made a ‘that’s disgusting’ face when you read that!
Taste. What kind of food do they eat in your place? Asian cities, for example, often have huge, vibrant open-air street food stalls. Pickled herrings suggest Scandinavia or Russia: dried biltong meat instantly means southern Africa.
Touch. The surfaces of a city are very different to those of the countryside – and of course touch doesn’t have to come through just the fingers. How does the wind, sun, rain or snow feel on your characters’ faces?
We also discussed how best to go about researching these details. Google Earth, online images and maps are all very useful, but a proper research trip is still best. I’ve tramped the streets of London, Aberdeen, Moscow, Kazan, Pittsburgh and New Orleans for various books, and never once felt the trip hadn’t been worthwhile.
Thank you to all those who came. A workshop is just that: a collaborative effort where everyone’s participation is vital. We had uniformly terrific participants, all of whom made thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions – special mention to Jean from Ireland, who announced with a twinkle in her eye that she didn’t think much of Hardy’s stories. Round these parts that’s fighting talk!