In Visitation Street Ivy Pochoda puts us smack in the middle of a place like few authors can.
"Music from Coffey Park is rolling down Visitation Street, signaling the kickoff of Old Timers Day on the backside of the neighborhood. Overnight, families from the projects have staked out plots of the park, jockeying to get prime real estate for their barbecues ... Men carrying foil trays of macaroni salad and slaw search out their families' tables. Kids chase one another between the grills. Grandmothers parade their visiting grandchildren."
It is no accident that our mouths might now be watering for macaroni salad and grilled burgers and chicken. This the ability to create what is called a sense of place, only happens with careful and often painstaking effort on the part of an author. That it is a learned skill is obvious not by its presence so much as by its absence. Who hasn't read a book with a plot that could have taken place anywhere? Where halfway through the book you have to stop and try to remember where the story is happening? Characters, even well-crafted ones, often float through a story anchored in nothingness. A book might very well be good, but without establishing a strong sense of place it is not likely to remain in a reader's memory for long. Locale completes our mental picture. We cannot imagine Harry Potter without Hogwarts.
Take a book such as Stephen King's 11/22/63 about a teacher who travels back in time to try to prevent JFK's assassination. A master at creating a sense of time and place, King obviously did extensive research to draw his reader into the world of the 1960s. And once there, the reader can actually see Lee Harvey Oswald's apartment and all the things of 1963 the cars, the clothes, the TVs, the lack of cell phones because King describes them in such detail it'd be difficult not to feel immersed in that period of American history.
Flight From Berlin by David John takes place in Berlin at the time of the 1936 Olympics. Again, while John places his characters in the midst of real historically accurate events, it is his skill at describing the tone, or feel, of a country in the schizophrenic grip of Hitler on the rise that keeps the book memorable long after reading it. One of the methods he employs to accomplish this is to see Berlin through the eyes of his protagonist. While Pochoda describes Red Hook through an all-seeing eye and King inserts sensory details in a way that feels like but is definitely not an afterthought, both descriptions are largely nonjudgmental. John's Berlin, on the other hand, is a decidedly sinister, dangerous place.
In Kim Barnes' In the Kingdom of Men the protagonist is an American woman living with her husband in an Arabian compound for oil company employees. Here the reader feels a sense of place via Barnes's depiction of the effect this foreign place has on her protagonist. The story depends upon interaction between character and location. It is yet another tool for successfully limning a city or country. Pochoda's Red Hook shapes the people who call it home. Barnes's heroine is powerfully affected by an environment that is alien to her.
There are as many ways to create a sense of place in writing as there are writers, and there are many books as well as writers' websites that discuss the topic. Here are a few:
Image of Coffey Park and Valentino Pier from Flavorwire by Brady Dale
This article was originally published in August 2013, and has been updated for the
April 2014 paperback release.
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