Every scene needs a setting—a place—into which characters are set down to move about their lives as the story unfolds. Some writers only write their characters into places with which the authors are intimately familiar. Some people put their characters into places they have visited, but don't know very thoroughly. Others use places they've never visited, never seen in real life. What makes scenes come alive with the sense of "place," the setting surrounding characters as they live out their story?|
If an author picks a place with which she is very familiar, she needs to be sure to use that place to its fullest potential. We may become "blind" to areas that we see often. We may miss some of the sensual opportunities that would help a reader be in the scene with the characters. Whether the writer knows a place or not, she should always remember to include details like sounds, smells, textures, colors, tastes of a particular area. Is she at the seashore? Is the air salty, wet, heavy with fog? Is she in the mountains? Is it crisp, cold enough to burn lungs? Is the sun dappled through the trees warming on the skin? Does the pine smell remind the character of incense? Is it quiet before a storm or noisy with birds chirping loudly immediately after one? Details such as these give the reader a real sense of place in the story. Is the scene in a city slum? What are the sounds, smells, textures, colors, tastes of that experience? If you've been to the seashore, or the mountains, or a slum area, you might well know exactly what those sensual experiences are.
What if you've never experienced a particular area? Can you do more than imagine what it might be like? In this age of modern technology, there are, indeed, ways to experience areas of the world that would have been impossible to earlier writers, except by two means: visiting themselves, or asking someone who had visited for a first-hand accounting.
Interviewing someone still remains a viable alternative to get to know a "place." I grew up in a somewhat large city of about 100,000 people. I had no idea what it was like to live in a town of 1000. But over the years, I've learned what small-town life is like from listening to a few people talk about their experiences. They were quite different from mine. However, I now feel I could write about small-town life from what I've learned from my friends. Don't know anyone who has had the experience you're looking for? There are experts all over the Internet just dying to share their knowledge. Try www.allexperts.com or put the phrase "free expert advice" into your search engine. It will return a list of places to get specific advice about romance or pets or a wealth of other information.
We do have the advantage of living in a technically advanced world. We have the world at our fingertips on the Internet. There are places to be toured, lists of businesses in a given area, maps, and a wealth of information to be had. An example, using Google, is to put "Portobello Market London" in the search field. This yields the information that this famous area of London has two sections: a market area and an antiques section. One site lists all the shops, businesses, boutiques, and antique shops. It also has information on the Portobello Antiques Dealers Association. On another site, the viewer can take a tour, hear shop keepers interviewed, look at their wares, look at local signs and vendor tables to get a sense of what it's like to enter the area and walk around. There are plenty of maps available, some with locations of shops in relationship to Tube (London Underground Train) stops. Armed with this information, the author can put her character on the train and take the reader from the station to the Portobello Market area to begin a great adventure.
In The Heart's Longing, one of my main characters grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts. At the time that the story takes place, however, she is living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. Since I grew up in Southeastern Massachusetts, I'm very familiar with the distances between those two places. But when this character ends up in a tricky situation trying to get information from another character, they have a conversation about Boston, England, and Plymouth, England. I had no idea how far one was from the other in the United Kingdom. Google Maps UK to the rescue! Requesting the information told me that, by car today, it would take 5 to 6 hours to travel from Boston to Plymouth. This set up the perfect dialog between two characters. One speaking of how long it would take to travel from place to place in England at the end of the 15th Century, while the one from Massachusetts thinks that it's not very far at all (in Massachusetts in the 21st Century).
If you have the luxury to be able to physically travel to an area for a quick visit, I recommend taking a camera and a notebook. Write everything: sights, smells, sounds, and textures that you experience all around you. Standing in the area in which you're interested, look off into the distance (or up or down). What do you see? You'll need to know that, too. Just knowing the immediate area may not be enough.
I visited a rose garden as research for a book one time. Anyone can easily conjure up a rose garden in their imagination. Granted, this particular one had a few interesting features, but it was still a rose garden, with rows and rows of rose plants. However, sitting on a bench in that garden, I realized that I could look between the trees in the distance, and from my vantage point in that garden, located high on a hill, I could see sailboats in the bay in the distance—something I might not have known without touring (real-time or virtually).
Lets go back to the possibility of interviewing someone who may know a place intimately. When asking about the place of interest, be sure to ask open-ended questions. That way, the interviewee may drop some valuable gems at your feet in the way of anecdotes. In addition to learning about "place" you may gain some nuggets to include in your story. I'll use The Heart's Longing, again, to illustrate this point. I knew early on when I began this story, that I wanted one of the main characters to be a pastry chef. I know nothing about being a pastry chef, so I did a little exploration on line and found out about culinary schools, duties of pastry chefs, and more than I wanted to know about the range of attire chefs have at their disposal for purchase. However, I also had the advantage of having two friends who have, at certain times in their lives, trained and worked as pastry chefs. When I asked them about their experiences, they offered plenty of information about duties, types of pastry chefs, and their various experiences. As they shared their knowledge, each of them offered me a personal story that I was able to incorporate into The Heart's Longing by giving the scene to one of the characters. One scene was instrumental in moving along a pivotal point in the story. The other gave one of the characters a humorous story to share with another to break some tension. I couldn't have made either of these stories up. They came from real-life experiences and were little gifts I discovered as I tried to gather a sense of place—what it was like to work in a particular environment—for my story.
Let's go back to Internet resources. Lets not forget the gift that Google gives us with Street View and Satellite View. By using these two features, the viewer can see what neighborhoods look like. It's possible to stand in a particular place on a street corner and look in four directions. It's possible to "walk" up and down a length of street and see what the neighborhood looks like, or see what shops are in a particular area.
I wanted to put my London solicitor (lawyer), Sidney Wycombe, in an upscale area. After searching Google Maps and the Internet for a while, I settled on the St. John's Wood area. "Walking" up and down the street using Street View, I was able to look at all the shops and restaurants on that street. I started to imagine a door between shops that would lead to offices above. One of those offices would be Sidney's. After a little more searching, I discovered there was just such a door between two shops—with offices or residences above. I found the address of the two shops, and located Sidney's office right between them! I don't know if that address actually exists or not, but if someone goes looking for it, they'll find a door right between those two shops. I have no idea what type of facility is beyond that door, but it's there. Finally, using Satellite View, I was able to orient myself to the neighborhood, locating parks, Tube stations, and a hotel for the character who comes to London to meet the solicitor.
Want to put your character up in the fine hotel? Go online and research the amenities. Then it's back to Google Maps to orient to the neighborhood and the area. That will give you plenty of detail to incorporate into your scenes.
So don't forget to flesh out a sense of place for your characters. There's a wealth of information out there online in the way of video tours, maps, specific sites with information about areas, and neighborhoods, and Google Maps, in all its various forms. The writer can locate story and character in places she's never gone before and get the information to enable her to sound as if she knows the area intimately. Discover "place" by experiencing it physically, learning about it online, or through the eyes of someone who has been there. Then take your new knowledge and flesh out your scene with a rich tapestry of detail that will make the reader sit up and take notice.
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist); The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles; and The Heart's Longing—Book Three of The Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write (JAW) and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.