Capturing the sense of a place
‘It feels very rooted in its landscape’ – Bryan Wigmore
‘Take this book to the Glens of Antrim and read it with the waves crashing on the shore’ – Annie Rose
In my first reviews of Waters and the Wild, a theme is emerging of how strong the sense of place is within it. I’m pleased about that, and relieved. I love books with a really strong sense of place* and hoped to achieve the same when I set out to write Waters and the Wild. I hoped to capture not just the look of the Antrim Glens but the feel of them too.
How does a writer go about capturing the land in a book? How do they make it real enough that a reader can imagine being there?
Here’s what works for me:
It’s not enough to just describe. To pull a reader into the story enough that they can feel part of the setting, the writer has to play with the senses.
Take this passage from Waters and the Wild:
‘The hill was bleak, the wind raw. What heat there had been from the sun was gone. Rain started, a ferocious downpour that quickly soaked Amy to her skin. A smell rose from the ground, heavy and cloying. Her breath came in quick gasps, her chest rising and falling. The smell grew stronger.
Someone’s old, cold breath, close to her; someone watching her. She shuddered. Puddles pooled on the path, reflecting the dark sky and scudding clouds. The sense of breathing circled her. Something touched her behind the ear, on the back of her neck. She didn’t dare look behind. To look would be to know this was real, not a voice that could be dismissed. She strained her ears for the sound of movement, for the whisper of a word, but there was only the noise of the pouring rain. She opened her mouth to say no, to plead for her freedom, but no words came out.’
In that passage, the senses are touched in just about every way: getting soaked through; a smell that’s old and cloying; a touch on her skin; the noise of the rain. The only thing not touched on is taste – but it might be, in another scene. The excerpt isn’t just about what Amelia sees and thinks, but what’s around her and what she is experiencing. It’s the old ‘show, don’t tell’ advice – and for drawing us into a scene it is absolutely needed.
Avoid purple prose. Sure, it’s nice to get a great metaphor in there (I still love the line in Inish Carraig when John describes the sea at Ballycastle as a moving slab of rock, because on a grey day that’s exactly what it is like) but it’s also easy to overpepper the narrative and lose the very thing you’re trying to make shine. Choose your descriptors with care, give people enough to be able to see the scene with clarity, and then move into the character. Speaking of which:
3. Blend your character actions with the scene.
The moment the character or narrator pulls back into ‘telling’ description, any sense of place is eroded.
Instead, when you’re writing the scene, ask yourself what you can use to further the character and scene requirements but also enhance the setting. A shaft of sunlight? Let your character sit on a sunny rock and tip their head back to the sun, rather than telling us there is a sunny rock. A shadow falling – the air chills, doesn’t it? Have your character show that. If it’s a spooky scene, you can use that to build tension and those accepted hints that something is going to go wrong. Horror films use that all the time, leaving us shrieking at the screen, ‘don’t go in there!’ Why? Because, for building tension, it works.
4 Don’t be afraid to paint the scene.
I know, I know, I’m saying above to use character actions and not just describe. But if you have a place that forms part of a longer scene the last thing you want is your reader being pulled out while they reconfigure what is what. If you need a gate to be there, mention it. Use the above tips, for sure – a ray of light falling on the red-painted wood, whatever you want – but make sure that gate is placed. Because when (as has literally just happened in the last scene I wrote) your character falls through that gate escaping a fairy horde, you don’t want your reader stopping to figure out where the gate came from.
5. Use the character’s voice, and give context.
All through The Time Traveller’s Wife, Henry mentions the El. He doesn’t stop to tell me its a transport system or what type it is – it is assumed by the fact he goes to the stop to catch the El, by the fact it makes him late for work, by the sliding doors, that I will work out what it was, and I do.
I turned myself in knots about this over Belfast Lough. When I say lough I mean either a large lake or a sea-inlet. When others outside Ireland and Scotland hear lough, they think only of a lake. But Belfast Lough is a sea estuary. Do I stop the action and tell my readers its an estuary, that looking down it you could make out the mouth of the Irish sea? My characters don’t think that – they think ‘there’s the lough’. What to do? (In the end I stuck a stranded passenger ferry on it and hoped that would be enough to give the all important context.)
I suppose, finally, for me the last piece of the puzzle is to have my characters feel something for the land that matters to them. Something that makes it real. Because once it’s real to them, it can be made so for the reader.
* To this day, I’m pretty good on geography questions about Malaysia, not because I’ve been there but because Noel Barber’s Tanamera was slavish in its capturing of the place. Sometimes, in a sudden downpour, I’m reminded about how he described the rain in KL, how it soaked to the skin in moments in a warm torrent.