Give your readers a strong sense of place.
March 19, 2016
WHEN WRITING, it is critical to develop a strong sense of place for your novel or short story.
As readers, we know the characters.
We are in the midst of the action.
We may even be falling in love.
But where are we?
Establishing the location for a story or even a scene is vital, and the story is told best when your narrative touches a reader’s senses, particularly what he or she sees, hears, and smells.
I set Deadline News back in a small East Texas town during the 1920a. I established the location this way:
HENDERSON WAS FULL of lies, half-truths, second-hand opinions, and more than its share of wicked little secrets when I arrived in the fall of 1923. It was a quiet farming town, haphazardly patched together alongside railroad tracks that had been bent and broken by the Great Depression as it stalked the dirt streets and ancient pine thickets like a grim reaper.
The 1920s had become unforgiving years of callused fingers, broken spirits, dying crops, wilted roses, and abandoned hope. Women gave up on their husbands, and men gave up on the earth that held their sun-burnt seeds. Those who had the means to leave simply left. And the rest, like Pauline Carter and me, hung on because we didn’t have any place better to go. The road out of town was no better than the road coming in. Other towns didn’t want us, didn’t need us, and couldn’t support the folks they already had.
The farmland had dried up and the money with it. Hard times will do that to a town, large or small, and Henderson was so busy trying to survive that its populace never bothered to concern itself with the prospects of growth, never expected the hamlet to grow any larger, and was somewhat surprised it grew as large as it did.
This the way a few other talented novelists established locations for their novels.
THE STEEP SOUTH FLANK of the Gros Ventre range sliced up from the distant coniferous canopy, timeless and severe, sharpened by God’s whetstone and left to protect the northwest Wyoming territory like a tyrannical king’s castle spire. Sheriff James Pruett stared out through the cold, misting rain. Across the expanse. Pruett land. Twenty-two coniferous acres scattered with a dozen sprawling patches of prairie, full of gorgeous wildflowers and on most days a wondrous, heavenly integrity of light.
The land belonged to the Pruetts since before Wyoming gained statehood. It contained a small family cemetery, marked on three and a half sides by a weathered, two-rail fence. Behind the newly refinished log house, the burial ground sat just past two oak trees that grew together as one in the middle, separating again as they prayed, open-armed toward the sky.
Against the land, the cemetery appeared austere; as cemeteries went, it struck one as describable and unassuming. The Pruetts buried three generations there, including his mother, father, and baby brother, lost in childbirth. They also buried several hired hands there—men from the ranching days who had no other family. Some were from a tribe of Nez Perce who came across the Idaho border in the early nineteen-hundreds—Deputy Baptiste’s kin.
NURSE PENNYPACKER WALKED silently into room 210, of Charity Hospital, on nurse-friendly crepe soles. The bony bundle tilted up in the bed did not open its eyes. Charity Hospital of New Orleans was known as the Hospital of St. John in the old days. The ward would have been a frightening scene to someone not acclimated to working on it. All of the bodies in the beds had ashen faces, blue lips, closed eyelids and seemed more like mausoleum residents than living beings. The only sound in their rooms was the clicking, whooshing and rattling of the machines at work to keep them among the living for a few minutes, hours or days longer.
Nurse Pennypacker went to the window and adjusted the blinds. A murky mist was rising up over the Crescent City. It did, in fact, resemble a steaming croissant, with busy piss ants crawling over it, absorbed in tasks or just looking about. New Orleans was a city of beauty and mystique, but at times it could take on a sinister light.
Sunlight now filtered through the cottonwood leaves and moved on the ground while he watched Fort Concho. Warm wind shook the tree branches and white, wispy, cottonwood blooms scattered through the air like tiny angels, settling on his blue jacket, on his hair.
Picking a bloom from his sleeve, Thomas twirled it through his fingers before blowing it upward. Ants swarmed over his pile of cornhusks, detouring around his red-checkered napkin, around the layer of blooms, and formed a line, carrying tamale crumbs toward a hole in the ground.
Clouds bellowed with unshed rain and lightning flickered over the river as Magdalena walked the path leading to her mother’s house. She could smell dirt, as if moisture were already percolating through the parched soil.
Ten ragged people waited to see Abuela. Men, women and children squatted under the brush arbor extending from the adobe house into the bare yard, women sitting cross-legged with babies on their laps, skirts carefully spread to their ankles. Dried juniper berries fell from the top of the arbor, where rope curled around the dead brush, littering the ground.