Day 6: It’s extremely lovely to be introducing Laura Barnett, number-one-best-selling author of The Versions of Us and Greatest Hits – and the newest member of the CBC teaching team. Laura joins our six-month London-based novel-writing course as a guest tutor this Autumn – teaching three sessions – so do take a look if you’re a fan of her novels. Now, to business: We’ve all had that amazing feeling at some point, on reading a novel or short story – that we’re not just reading a book – we’re actually there in the scene. Laura’s tip and task are about the importance of a sense of place in your fiction …
How do writers work to create a convincing sense of place? Consider the essential elements that distinguish a room, landscape, city or country from another: the sights, smells, sounds & textures that really bring a place to life on the page.
Find an artwork representing a particular place: eg a Turner seascape or Hammershoi interior. Now imagine your character is there in that setting. Write their impressions in a mini-scene, using more than one of the senses (maybe all five!)
This is another task that’s worth doing for yourself, at greater length – as well as taking part in the twitter challenge. Really take the time to imagine yourself in the scene of the artwork, and list all your impressions, perceptions, thoughts about it. Then bring your character into the scene, and try to experience it again through their perspective – making use of the list you’ve already made for yourself, but thinking now about how your particular character would interact with this environment. That way, the reader of your scene will learn about the setting and the character at the same time.
As writers, we need to do more than merely describe a scene. We can work harder to bring it to life viscerally for the reader – and use of sensory experience is a key part of that because sense memory is so strong and evocative. Writers will understandably use sight in their work more than other senses – we’ll delineate what an overgrown garden looks like, or a pile of rubbish in an alley – because for most of us (though not all!), sight is what helps us make sense of the world. But think about the intense immediacy of smell – the pungent tang of wild garlic in that garden; the reek of urine in that rubbish pile. Or sound – perhaps there’s a vaguely ominous clanking in the back of that alley – old lead piping metal loose in the wind and bashing against the brickwork of the buildings. Maybe in the overgrown garden, a wood pigeon is calling – close by but not seen, repetitive and a little lonely.
Think of how you’ve tasted the blackberries in a lusciously written Autumn scene; felt the sting of cold in a snow-scene. Sometimes the setting in a novel is so strong and individual that it’s almost like another character. It’s easy to think of this as the icing on the cake, when it comes to writing – something decorative that isn’t essential to the story. But sense of place can make a novel truly unforgettable.
A word of warning, though: Be wary of working through the five senses by rote. I see this a lot as a reader of unpublished manuscripts (and even published novels) – and the moment I spot it, the scene drops dead for me. Think it through carefully, when writing – and work sensitively and in depth, rather than mechanically. If you get it right, sense of place can really bring the ‘Wow’ factor to your writing, and make people want to read on.
To find out more about how to evoke a sense of place in novels, enrol on one of our six-week online writing courses that’s focused on helping you to develop the writerly tools that get you through the first draft of your novel: Starting to Write Your Novel or Write to the End of Your Novel.
Or browse our full set of creative writing courses to see what works for you and your writing life