Enhancing the Sense of Place

There is a n article in the Writer’s Digest by Jonelle Patrick of November 3 last year, which has some good ideas on how writers can make their descriptions of place more powerful to the reader. One of her ideas, in particular, is quite good.

Jonelle Patrick is the author of five novels set in Japan. Her newest mystery, The Last Tea Bowl Thief, was published by Seventh Street Books in October 2020. She’s a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Language Institute, and also a member of the Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. She divides her time between Tokyo and San Francisco.

Jonelle Patrick
Jonelle Patrick

Ms Patrick says: “Creating a sense of place can be so much more than a painterly description of the sea, or the comforting smell of coffee in the kitchen. Places aren’t just sets to be described. They exist in time. They have a history. The same place can be comforting or menacing, depending on who’s experiencing it, when they’re experiencing it, and what else is happening while they’re experiencing it.

“Let’s start easy: What’s the weather like? A chapter that takes place in a thunderstorm will feel very different from one that takes place in a heatwave. Extreme weather—like a blizzard or a hurricane—creates tension that can amplify what your characters are feeling, spur them to action, or cause them to make decisions they’re either proud of or regret. What’s the temperature like? Heat and cold can slow down your characters’ ability to make decisions and act on them. Tempers flare with discomfort, characters relax and are lulled into complacency when the temperature is balmy. Does your character suddenly go cold, even though the room is hot? Do they flush with shame, even in a snowstorm?

“A setting seen through the eyes of a child isn’t the same when seen through the eyes of a basketball player—a room looks different from three feet above the ground than it does from six. A small person (or someone who is sitting) will notice different details than a tall one (or someone who is standing). A space that dwarfs the viewer feels different from one where the viewer feels cramped. A character’s experience level also alters the feeling of a place—imagine how differently an alien from another planet would describe a church, compared to a vicar who preaches there every Sunday. If you describe a place from a position of long experience—making the reader take small leaps and guesses until they catch up to the character’s level of experience—you can make your reader feel like an insider. And the opposite technique—making a character guess wrong about what a familiar place is used for—can do the same.

“Knowing what happened in a place—either recently or in the distant past—changes how a character reacts to it and how a reader feels about it. A cave that was sacred to Native Americans feels different from one that harboured escaped slaves, even if it’s the same cave. And a room where a murder occurred feels very different from a room used to store copier paper, even if it’s the same room.

“A place where someone waits for their lover feels very different from a place where someone fears they’ll meet an accuser. A sense of place can be enhanced by describing it in terms of what the character expects to happen there.

And the most interesting idea: axe the adjectives and adverbs.

“Finally, I’m going to tell you to forget what you learned in school. Use adjectives sparingly, and insert adverbs only when nothing else will work. Your writing will instantly feel much more professional. Consider this paragraph that probably would have gotten you a solid “A” from your sainted high school English teacher:

The dark church is scary at night, with only two flickering candles on the shadowy altar. When the bell begins to toll at midnight, the candles go out, and the room grows colder. A ghostly blue cloud begins to gather near the peaked ceiling. As the phantom figure grows more distinct, I recognize its face as a long-ago vicar whose death had been blamed on my grandmother.

“A perfectly workmanlike description, right? You can picture the place, maybe even feel a shiver of apprehension. But look what happens when we deliver the same information without any adjectives or adverbs:

I shiver as the bell begins to toll. …nine…ten…eleven…midnight. As if on cue, the altar candles flicker and go out. He’s here. I can feel him. His presence sucks the warmth from the room, makes my hair stand on end. Before the shape even begins to swirl and coalesce between the rafters far overhead, I know it’s the vicar. The vicar who had died because of what my grandmother did.‘”

This is a very good example of effective writing which uses only the most effective nouns and verbs!

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