Writing Place

An author speaking at a writing seminar I attended commented it surprised him whenever someone complimented him on how well he’d described such-and-such a place, the geographic location in which he’d set his novel. His secret—he hadn’t really described the place. He included a few key details, aspects of the environment important to his point of view character, and left the rest to the readers’ imagination. He didn’t believe in complex descriptions of place.
I’m the opposite. I love stories that describe place so vividly I’m transported to the location and feel as if I’m walking the streets and eating in the restaurants and shopping in the stores alongside the characters. When Poe’s narrator approaches the House of Usher on the “dull, dark, and soundless day,” with “clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens” and sees the “bleak walls,” “vacant, eye-like windows,” and “rank sedges,” I’m right there with him and share his “sense of insufferable gloom.” The place becomes a character. New York City is as much a character in “Law and Order” as the detectives who investigate its crimes. Nero Wolfe’s brownstone is a character in Stout’s series just as much as Wolfe and Archie. Mitchell’s Slade House and Carroll’s Wonderland are the stars of their stories.

Some argue detailed place descriptions aren’t needed in the modern era when traveling halfway around the world is as uncomplicated as pulling up an airline’s app on your smartphone. Back in the day, authors had to describe their novels’ settings in detail because a reader in rural Pennsylvania was probably never going to travel to downtown Paris. Nowadays, even if that Pennsylvanian can’t swing airfare to the City of Light, she can visit virtually. Google Earth will let her zoom in until she can almost read the menu at a restaurant along the Seine.

So what’s a modern writer who loves rich descriptions of place to do? Invent one. World-building isn’t restricted to fantasy and science fiction. If you imagine a village, as I did in my novel, Murder in G Major, you have some license to describe what you’ve created. Readers can’t find satellite images of a fictional locale so you have to tell them where the pub is and whether the church is next to the post office or the school. When I write, I visualize my characters interacting with their setting, like watching a movie in my head, and put on paper what I see in my mind. I have difficulty writing without a sense of place.

One caveat. Internal consistency matters. Just because a place is fictional doesn’t mean the bus station can be on Tenth Street in chapter one but move to Fourth Avenue in chapter twelve. Unless, of course, you’re writing speculative fiction where moving bus stations is a plot element. I sketch maps to help me keep track of what’s located where.

Do you believe less is more when it comes to describing places or that less is less? Do you prefer locations real or imaginary? Or either so long as the writer transports you?
 (This blog post originally appeared on Club Hen House)

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