Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Fiction Writing – A Sense of Place

Photo Copyright Janet Cameron
When writing fiction, a sense of place is paramount. Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell knew this, and because their fiction is grounded in place, the Victorian era becomes real for us – and so do the characters in the books. Think of the bleakness of the marshes where the prison ships (the hulks) lay brooding in Great Expectations. 

Paradoxically, in Great Expectations, an old woman’s living death becomes alive for us today through Dickens’ evocative language, for who can forget Miss Havisham in her dusty room with her drooping wedding dress and decaying cake?
In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell contrasts the values of the industrial north of England and the rural south and these differences inform both plot and the development of her characters.
What is essential, and also most difficult, is to impart the sense of place naturally within the writing. Today, we write differently from the Victorians, tending to avoid lengthy blocks of description which can be off-putting, particularly when they appear early on in the work, a practice frequently explained away as ‘scene setting’. If the essence of place is worked simply as another thread of the story, like dialogue and characterisation, the narrative pace is uninterrupted while nothing is lost.
The scene does not need to set. It needs to live, to be a vibrant, integrated part of the writing, shaping and reflecting the lives, moods and emotions of your characters.
Being There
Ideally, spend time in the place you are writing about, but sometimes this may not be possible. For example, you may be writing of past times or even about inaccessible or imagined places as in fantasy writing. You can still do your research thoroughly, watch videos, discuss with friends who will share their perceptions. If, however, you can ‘Be There’ even if only for a short while, your writing may gain in depth, detail and colour.
Importantly, being there offers you the specific rather than the general. The sea is easily described, rolling against the seawall and up the steps. But being there eventually produced: ‘The tide is in and little waves rush at the steps, bounce up them, one, two, three at a time, precocious, as though they are very young and haven’t quite got the hang of it.’
Only standing, watching and reflecting produced that extra small perception and personification. A contrast and a connection was created between the young waves and the central protagonist, a middle-aged, mentally-ill patient who is as vulnerable as a small child and who feels inadequate to deal with the situation created for her. A sense of place closely related to, or contrasting with, your character intensifies the impact.
Of course, some writers manage to produce fantastic prose without actually being there, most touchingly, the author, Stephen Crane who wrote The Red Badge of Courage without ever going to war. But specific language is more easily inspired by specific observation. Remember, though, that smart sentences don’t always pop into your head at the time of the experience. Mostly, it’s a matter of taking copious notes, allowing them to germinate in the ether for a time and then reflecting on them later.
Concrete Imagery
A favourite exercises for developing concrete imagery in writing is to describe a place from the senses of smell, hearing, taste and touch. Sight is excluded. You are not allowed to say how the place looks, although, you could add those impressions later. They’re still important, but let’s fully explore all our senses, not just the obvious one.
Familiar smells of childhood can take you back in just an instant. How did your dog smell after it had been swimming in the garden pond? Try to do better than just saying ‘foul’. What foul ingredients can you conjure up to describe the smell? What did sherbet dabs taste like, especially when you stuck spearmint lollipops into the powder? Taste is tricky to describe, but it can be used as an abstract. You could taste the fear or you could savour the sweetness of your first lover’s lips. Now feel the loving caress of your mother’s fingertips tracing the contours of your cheek. The physicality of these sensations can help you to convey to your readers what you feel, sense what you sense and be wherever you are in your story.
Concrete imagery helps you to relate a sense of place directly from your character’s viewpoint or experience. Experiment with language and ideas. Experiment with colour and texture, with light and shade, with what needs to subtle and what works best overtly stated. Allow your reader to engage with the scene as it reflects the psychology, mood or emotional make-up of a character.
Your reader wants to feel as if they are there with you.

Adapted from: 'How to make your stories come alive' by Janet Cameron, Writers' Forum, June, 20

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