If I asked you to pick your favourite book – the one that sticks out most in your mind – what would it be? A literary classic, something funny, a tearjerker, or a board book from your childhood days?
I’m terrible at answering this question – not because I don’t have favourite books, but because my favourite book is quite often the one that I’ve just finished reading. It is the most vivid in my mind, and often this is as much to do with the setting as it is to do with the characters or plot.
After all, how often do we sit back from a movie and think, “Wow, that scenery is fantastic!” Or walk into someone’s home and immediately find our eyes drawn to the photographs on the wall, the furnishings and the view out of the window?
It’s the same in fiction. When I think about Anthony Doerr’s stunning read All the Light We Cannot See, I am also thinking about the descriptions of France and Germany – the homes, buildings, and journeys through the cities and countryside. For me, Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train is less about clever plot or interesting characters, and more about the realistic recreation of commuter life in modern-day London. Room by Emma Donoghue would not be the chilling novel that it is without the vivid descriptions of the room in question. (No spoilers!)
The question facing every writer is: how do I create a sense of place that is both believable and unique?
After all, the task of the writer is to encourage the reader to suspend their disbelief in order that they can lose themselves in the story. If, in Chapter One, The Girl on the Train had (for legitimate reasons which were vital to the plot) caught a direct train from London to Edinburgh and back in under an hour, readers everywhere would have raised their eyebrows. Some might have stopped reading. More might have taken to social media to express their confusion. And more still might have decided that actually the story wasn’t so believable after all. If the writer has a real-life detail of the location wrong, then it doesn’t really matter how important it is to the plot – all it will do is damage the reader’s trust.
The places in your writing don’t have to be real, of course. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is the perfect example of novels which twist and tweak real-life places for the purposes of fiction. However many of the same rules apply even in a hugely altered or imagined reality: your setting has to be consistent and rich enough to convince the reader that it could be true.
Place, therefore, is incredibly important in your writing. But how then do we go about creating a memorable and atmospheric setting which sticks with the reader long after they put down the book?
Where to begin? Honestly, I could write another ten thousand words on this topic alone – but perhaps the easiest way to begin is to think back to the book which you thought of, right at the start of this blog post, as your favourite book. Where is it set? How did this setting influence the telling of the plot and the atmosphere of the novel? What about it made it unique? Take a few minutes to brainstorm and see what you could learn.
Kerrie McKinnel is one of the tutors on the upcoming course, Writing Place: Creative writing sessions at Shambellie House.
Book onto the course NOW to find out more on writing about place and to learn more through tips, writing exercises, group discussion and a one-to-one discussion with an experienced tutor about your writing.