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Creating a sense of place

Several years ago I attended an SCBWI-BI conference at which Marcus Sedgwick was a keynote speaker.  In one of his talks he spoke about creating a sense of place, and using place as character, saying that where a book is set can generate so many other aspects of a story. He has been quoted as saying, “a sense of place tends to come before anything else” in his stories.  The potential power of place as a fundamental shaper of story, fascinated me. I went home and read several of Sedgwick’s books, which revealed just how powerfully place can work for a story.   As an example, Sharon Jones, in a review of Sedgwick’s Dark Horse, described his creation of place in the following way: “It is a tale that smells of the raw fish and animal skins of pre-history and yet is timeless in the telling; a tale that evokes barren landscapes, crashing waves, and the cruelty of winter. The cold seeps through every page, held at bay only by the light of the campfire and the skill of the storyteller.

The idea of creating a story with a strong sense of place has drawn me ever since - and aside from the inspiration gained from the talk, it probably also owes much to my passion for photography.  Looking through the lens of a camera, one sees the world differently.  Not only that, one can take a moment in time and preserve it. Or one can take that moment and edit it to reflect a particular mood or emotion, a train of thought or flight of imagination.  Place, caught on camera and viewed later, takes on a new meaning – melding the real with the imaginary – to create something uniquely evocative.

My early writing reflected either made-up places (fantasy), places which I’d visited only briefly, or places that I’d researched intensely online (Google Earth and Google Images are so very much a writer’s friend).  But the novel I’ve recently finished and the one I’m currently working on are both set in places in which I’ve spent time, allowing myself the opportunity to absorb their essence, or their essence as I chose to see, feel and depict it. Photography has helped enormously in the process – allowing me to return to the place again and again, to relive – and reimagine - it. Focusing on place in this way helped to create an extra dimension to the story. It helped to drive the plot and to influence character creation, impacting on those who lived there and those who visited there. Both stories became bound by place to grow into what they are.  As the stories unfolded, place went beyond just a setting; it became character.  The multiple aspects of the South African landscape, weather and history helped to personify place, bringing it to life in very specific ways.   The sense of place infiltrated the stories with moods, threats, dreams and hopes, evoking the particular appeal required by the stories. 

Pat Walsh, one of my beloved critique partners, in reading a pre-submission draft of one novel, said, “I LOVED the SA setting - I've never read anything set there before. You know it so deeply, and clearly love it, and that comes across in your writing. I think this is a huge strength of this book.”

Having created fantasy worlds, having used the internet for research of real places, having had fleeting visits - or memories of visits - to a particular place, I can safely say that there is no match for soaking up a place over a period of time to make it truly come alive in a story. Place as it appears in a story will likely not be represented exactly as it is; it will – and should– be enlivened by the imagination of the writer, and may be a combination of several places brought together for the purpose of the story. But the essence of the real place(s) will always be there. Setting my stories in my home country - a first for me - and using a personally experienced sense of place, has added a depth and dimension to my writing I’ve not been able to achieve before.

This post first appeared on Absolute Vanilla, please read the originial post: here

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Creating a sense of place


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