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Creating a sense of place in a novel

I’ve been thinking about how to create a sense of place in a novel and whether it works better if you write about somewhere you know, or have at least visited, or whether it is possible to conjure it up through a combination of research and imagination.

I’ve just read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey which is a tender, magical book set in 1920s Alaska. The story itself revolves around a grieving middle aged couple called Jack and Mabel who have chosen to live on an isolated, rural homestead, partly to get away from the sound of children and happy families, having lost their only child to stillbirth ten years before.

What I found really set this book apart was the very real sense of place, so very detailed in its descriptions of nature and the rhythm of the changing seasons. These seem to be things that you couldn’t get from just research; the sticky cottonwood buds, harvesting cranberries, the mountains which turn periwinkle at dusk, descriptions of Bohemian waxwings, ermine and caribou. It has some of the most beautiful descriptions of snow I’ve ever read. There is also a memorable set piece of slaying and dismembering a moose which could only be written from experience.

So when I finished the book and read about the author, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she herself was born and still lives in Alaska; she and her husband hunt for bear and deer, harvest salmon, and are raising their family largely living off the land. As well as her author blog she has one called Letters from Alaska.

Conversely, the author of The Tenderness of Wolves, Edinburgh-born Stef Penney, had never set foot in Canada where the novel is set. Instead she researched what it was like to live there in the late 19th century in the good old British Library.

Again, like The Snow Child, the landscape is beautifully described and the whole novel is totally rooted in its place but this was achieved entirely through research and imagination. The novel won Costa Book of The Year back in 2006. Her second one The Invisible Ones is on my wishlist.

So far in my own writing, I have not strayed far from home territory. The first novel I wrote is largely set in London, with some scenes in Bristol and Weston Super Mare but I wanted this to be any generic out of season seaside town. However the entire middle section moves to a film set on location. It was a toss up between Hungary and Croatia because I know these two countries are used by the film industry a lot to double as elsewhere and for the specific mechanics of the plot. I’ve used a combination of Google Earth, The Rough Guide, photographs and the internet plus my imagination but I still don’t feel this middle section reads as well as the ones where I am writing about somewhere I know well and I can’t really justify research trips at this point!

What novels have you read where the sense of place is all pervasive?

If you’re a writer, how do you get your sense of place?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. My first novel is set in London, Reading and NZ. I live in the first and have visited the latter, but I’ve never been to Reading. I did though spend part of my childhood in High Wycombe, which I considered close enough. The reading scenes are mainly inside a house, anyway.

    I do feel I needed experience of NZ to capture the sense of vastness and underpopulation. The fauna and wildlife I could have researched in libraries or online, but it was that sense of atmosphere I needed to feel for myself.

    My next book is set in London and Wales. I do hope to spend a few weeks in mid Wales to remind myself of the sensation the black mountains evoke. The farm I write about may be harder to have hands-on experience of, but I hope to fill in the gaps by chatting to friends who have lived on one.

    Thanks for a lovely post.

    March 21, 2012
  2. Thanks, Suzy – that’s really interesting what you say about needing to capture the sense of vastness of New Zealand. I can’t imagine being able to create that without having gone there. It’s those sensations – like the feeling that the mountains in Wales evoked in you – that will bring something to life I think.

    March 21, 2012
  3. It’s an interesting topic for discussion isn’t it. In my experience, the advice given is generally to write what you know. But I think (and I could be wrong) that it was Annie Proulx who said scrub that – work out what it is you want to write about and then make it up.

    I don’t do nearly enough creative writing, but like you, I think I’d probably feel more comfortable writing what I knew. Perhaps it’s an interesting exercise to push your imagination though?

    March 22, 2012

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