Today we have the opportunity to explore together one of my favourite, most heartfelt topics: the sense of place. The only reason I was ever published, I’m certain, is because of sense of place, so this is a very personal topic. Place was a large part of my motivation for writing, and whatever immediacy or authenticity my books have comes from making the most of setting.

I would have to define sense of place as a strong sense of association or closeness with a place, or great knowledge of it. Matter-of-fact, daily familiarity with a place would rank on the beginning end of what I’d call the “sense of place continuum.” At the other, more esoteric end would lie the almost supernatural, extra-sensory sort of attachment which I once heard Elizabeth George call a “psychic link.”

If we want to be the best writers we can be, the importance of sense of place can’t be underestimated. Even at the left-hand end of the spectrum, where for instance Iain Pears sets his art-history mysteries in Rome or Venice but the landscape offers little more than a setting, it is essential to give our fiction a realistic backdrop. A place provides a direct link to feelings, sensations, sounds, smells – the stuff of which good fiction is made. The way the light falls at a certain time of day…the feeling that emanates from a place the way an attitude emanates from a person…the people, buildings, or activities that occur in it…these all lend reality to fiction.

There are other more calculating motivations for treating place with importance. If you set a series on Nantucket, Nantucket enthusiasts will be drawn to it. If you set a series in London, the world’s population of Anglophiles is your oyster. You do, however, need to be authentically interested in your place of choice, because if you don’t live, eat, and breathe it you could possibly make an error…and we all know the law of mystery writing: no errors whatsoever allowed.

At the opposite end of the continuum, the setting not only generates plot but characters and relationships. The setting becomes more than a background; it dictates all that happens. It almost seems alive. The place pulls you, the author, along with it. Whether you use place or it uses you, an authentic sense of place will help you write an absorbing novel. But how do we tap into this great creative force?

Today we have the chance to do a little investigating of ways in which this can be done, and even practice it for ourselves.

  1. First, I’d like to provide some examples of truly great writing that has come from a sense of place. We ignore the masters at our peril.
  2. Then I’ll break these down into two categories – the merely close to the heart, and the sublime woo-woo psychic-link stuff – so we can study them more closely.
  3. Next I’d like to show you from my own work how place has generated plot and enriched it.
  4. We’ll experiment with tapping into our own personal places.

First, the examples. Note that even when the setting isn’t the inspiration for the whole work, most of the authors are able to work sensations into their prose that arise from the setting. This brings the whole work to life.

Margi Coel, The Eagle Catcher, p. 70
The sun crested overhead, and white fluffy clouds floated across the sky like cotton blowing off some giant cottonwood tree. On the western horizon, the Wind River Mountains shimmered in the iridescent yellow light. The breeze was steady, bending the wild grasses alongside Circle Drive. It never stopped blowing on Wind River Reservation, it seemed. He was used to it now.

Elizabeth George, For the Sake of Elena, pp. 5-7
Five days of fog dripped off buildings and trees, made wet lattice on windows, created pools on the pavement. Outside St. Stephen’s College, a lorry’s hazard lights flashed in the mist, two small orange beacons like blinking cat’s eyes. In senate House Passage, Victorian lampposts reached long fingers of yellow light through the fog, and the Gothic spires of King’s College first rose against then disappeared altogether into a backdrop of gloom the colour of grey doves. …Descending the slope of the weir, she midjudged the angle and felt the slight pull of a muscle in her leg. She winced, but kept going…The pavement narrowed to a strip of tarmac with the river on its left and the wide, mist-shrouded expanse of Sheep’s Green to its right. Here, the hulking silhouettes of trees rose out of the fog, and the handrails of footbridges made horizontal slashes of white where the occasional lights from across the river managed to cut through the gloom. As she ran, ducks plopped silently from the bank into the water, and Elena reached into her pocket for the last wedge of morning toast which she crumbled and tossed their way. ..Ahead, the river separated into two parts—main body and murky stream—as it flowed sluggishly round Robinson Crusoe’s Island, a small mass of land thickly overgrown on its south end with trees and brush and its north end given to the repair of the colleges’ sculls, canoes, rowboats, and punts. A bonfire had been lit in the area recently, for Elena could smell its remains in the air.

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, p. 65
The drive twisted and turned as a serpent, scarce wider in places than a path, and above our head was a great colonnade of trees, whose branches nodded and intermingled with one another, making an archway for us, like the roof of a church. Even the midday sun would not penetrate the interlacing of those green leaves, they were too thickly entwined, one with another, and only little flickering patches of warm light would come in intermittent waves to dapple the drive with gold. On we went, over a little bridge that spanned a narrow stream, and still this drive that was no drive twisted and turned like an enchanted ribbon through the dark and silent woods, penetrating even deeper to the very heart surely of the forest itself…

It was disturbing, like an enchanted place. I had not thought it could be as beautiful as this.
The sky, now overcast and sullen, so changed from the early afternoon, and the steady, insistent rain could not disturb the soft quietude of the valley; the rain and the rivulet mingled with one another, and the liquid note of the blackbird fell upon the damp air in harmony with them both. I brushed the dripping heads of the azaleas as I passed, so close they grew together, bordering the path. Little drops of water fell on to my hands from the soaked petals. There were petals at my feet too, brown and sodden, bearing their scent upon them still, and a richer, older scent as well, the smell of deep moss and bitter earth, the stems of bracken, and the twisted roots of trees. I held Maxim’s hand and I had not spoken. The spell of the Happy Valley was upon me. This at last was the core of Manderley, the Manderley I would know and learn to love. The first drive was forgotten, the b lack, herded woods, the glaring rhododendrons, luscious and over-proud. And the vast house, too, the silence of that echoing hall, the uneasy stillness of the west wing, wrapped in dust-sheets. There I was an interloper, wandering in rooms that did not know me, sitting at a desk and in a chair that was not mine. Here it was different. The Happy Valley knew no trespassers.

Susan Howatch, Absolute Truths, p. 197
From the journal of a bishop’s wife who had just died of a stroke: Oh God, please don’t let Starbridge destroy Charles as it destroyed Alex. Please, please, PLEASE. We should never have come here, never, never, never. Fatal, lethal Starbridge. Demonic, destructive Starbridge. So vilely, so hideously beautiful. I HATE IT. (And this is a very restrained series.)

p. 413
Silence fell at last, but beyond the jagged panes of the window the Cathedral seemed to crackle with a force no eye could see and no scientist could measure. No longer was it a mere sullen lump glowering beneath the dull white sky. It was radiating malignancy, the scaffolding on the slighted west front as monstrous as a magnified scab, the spire resembling an open sore which had begun to fester. The entire building seemed deformed and rank.

Superstitious dread stirred in me suddenly, but I repressed it. I walked up Canonry Drive towards the Deanery, but once I turned to face the west front the scaffolding reminded me again of the ruin in my nightmare and suggested a swathe of bandages which concealed some gross deformity. The west front itself was in deep shadow, a fact which rendered the maimed façade even more unfathomable. Beyond the roof of the nave, the tower, foreshortened by the angle from which I was observing it, suggested primitive myths and threatening archetypes. The spire was as lean as a lance. …the Cathedral seemed to ripple past me as if it were a living creature, a monster from some medieval bestiary, a Leviathan hostile to mankind.

Deb Crombie’s book – opening chapter quotes… marked page.

Francine’s book – place and its character as series idea

And now for the master: Willa Cather. Because someone was kind enough to ask me—a Willa Cather fan and native Nebraskan – to share my thoughts with you today, you will have to endure a non-mystery author, because she’s the best for sense of place. I will point out as compensation that Cather’s work is imbued with plenty of suspense and twists, not to mention murder. READ quotes

Now to contrast the everyday, matter-of-fact use of place with the sublime, knock-your-socks-off variety. I couldn’t give the whole picture without telling you my own experiences with both types. For me, two places have the power to compel and then support fiction-writing—(1) the England of the first five years of my marriage, and (2) what I will always consider my home, the Nebraska of my pioneer great-grandparents. I’m going to tell you a little bit about the inspiration from each of these places because they illustrate two different kinds of power that sense of place can provide—the two ends of the spectrum. First, the practical sort of matter-of-fact knowledge comes from long familiarity and experience. This is the sort of thing that made Francine set her first series on Nantucket, and put mine in London. Because we have affection for a place and know how it smells, sounds, and feels, down to the tiniest details, it makes a totally authentic place to set a scene or a book. We make use of our knowledge of the place, make it illustrate the story we want to tell.

Everyday example #1: Chorleywood
For example, some day, when I want to tell the story of a sort of wistful woman feeling slightly bereft, I might use a beautiful but melancholy setting that I remember well from the little town we lived in in England. It was a rural village, and there was a long walk from the train station up the hill to our home. On cold damp winter night I would get off the train from London, metal heels clicking against the concrete, and feel pleasantly melancholy at seeing all the established homes in the village. There were families in those homes where someone had cooked a meal, the lights were on invitingly, coal smoke billowed from the chimneys – you couldn’t see it but the smell is unforgettable – and I was on the outside, my heels echoing in the mist. There was a longing to be a part of one of those homes somehow. This story hasn’t been written yet, but it’s waiting.

Everyday example #2:Unprintable, Clerkenwell
Another area I knew well, the neighbourhood of my second job in London, was such an excellent setting for a book that I used it to the hilt. Its past seaminess added a bit of intrigue, its Socialist and Communist heritage made it perfect for a political plot, its past use by the printing trades made it excellent for a printing/publishing plot, Charles Dickens’s own setting of Oliver Twist there gave literary weight, and its burgeoning trendiness dictated a real estate developer’s plot. The name Clerkenwell comes from the Clerks’ Well, from a time when a monastery was in countryside outside the Square Mile of the City of London. The Clerks were officials of the church who would put on passion plays near the well, where people would come to take the waters. So of course the well, very dark and deep and unpleasant, but a popular tourist attraction, was an excellent place to stage a disaster. An old restored prison in the neighbourhood, also a popular tourist attraction, begged to be used too. The fact that I’d been told the River Fleet flowed through the cellar of our office building dictated yet another part of the plot. It was nearly magical the way the setting wrote the book – right down to the extremely relevant, artisan letter-press printer who was one of the main characters.

But you’ll notice I said nearly magical, not magical. The sort of conscious use of setting is very unlike the other variety we’re about to discuss. The sort of sense of place Willa Cather had was the kind that grips you and won’t let you go until it tells its story. This is the spooky, eerie sort of thing that you may have experienced in your own writing, a feeling that you’re stepping into another world – or maybe someone has stepped into your head, taken over your pen. It’s as though whatever you’re writing exists only to reveal the spirit of your chosen place – and I mean spirit as atmosphere, not an animist spirit.

In my personal experience, this happens when I write about rural Nebraska. Nebraska is my heritage – something built into my soul. When I studied Willa Cather in depth in college and realized someone else felt as I did, that the land had a sort of personality and power of its own, I was immensely excited. Now there is a group called Women Writing the West that has many members who feel the same way; I am not alone. But I still haven’t been able to write my “Nebraska” book, because I feel it must be so profound, something almost sacred about it, that it would almost be impossible to set down in mere words. Every time I try I end up scrapping the chapters, but I DO keep trying. The place compels me to write about it.

Sublime example number one:
An example of this is a place I keep seeing in my imagination in rural Nebraska. Granted, I’ve been feeding this imagination regularly for nearly twenty years with pilgrimages to the general area. I’ve made repeat visits to Willa Cather’s stomping grounds in Red Cloud, and made the Sand Hill Crane pilgrimage. I’ve read everything she ever wrote, and dedicated six months to a senior honors thesis on the subject in college. But I have never seen the exact place of my vision in real life, to my knowledge. It’s hillside, near a farmhouse shaded by trees, and a barn. It has dictated the plot for my Nebraska novel, and the characters arose out of it. Like all fiction writers, I’m hesitant to say too much about what’s not yet published, but this is a magic world. The buildings, the people, the plot…they all came out of the vision, which is a sort of distillation of all I’ve ever seen and thought of. It’s the video that plays in my head while I’m writing. This is all a little spooky, but this place and its people are real to me. I like to think that there’s something to it.

Sublime example number two:
Susan Howatch has also obviously had this same experience – far more successfully – with her novels in the Glittering Images series, most of them national bestsellers. She’s the one who made the cathedral come to life. She used to live in Salisbury, which she called Starbridge, near the cathedral, and somehow it got into her blood. She spent nearly twenty years of her life writing this series – now my absolute favourite – about the people who lived in proximity to the cathedral (not counting London houses of course) and how their lives intertwined. As you read this series, you can no more separate, from book to book, the people from their environment than you can separate them from one another. “It’s all a unity,” as Howatch likes to say. You can tell that she has spent so much time in this area, and absorbed everything there is about it, that she can reflect it perfectly. The bizarre thing is that in reading it, you have a feeling that this can’t be a single human being writing. You have a feeling that it’s the entire place, and all the years she’s spent in it that have made it so fantastic – a cooperative effort.

Now, the troubling thing about this subject is that I don’t know how to tell you how to get this divine sense of place if you haven’t experienced it. It might just be something that happens. But as is so often the case in life, especially with writing and getting published, you definitely won’t know unless you try.

It’s time to get out pen and paper. While you’re doing that, think of your own place. It might be a place you’ve always been fascinated by, a place you’ve always wanted to go, the place you’d most like to be right now. A young mother deprived of time alone might imagine a resort in Mexico or the Caribbean. Or her own empty house for a whole day. It might be a place you’ve only dreamed about, like my hillside in Nebraska. It might be where you lived as a child, or where your grandmother lived. It could be her house. Go with what gives you the strongest emotional reaction.

Take a moment to envision this place, then describe what you see happening in it. Make sure to tell us what it’s like, without burdening us with details. If you can, let it dictate the characters. Weave in the particulars as the characters notice them. Something to consider might be Howatch’s and Cather’s use of anthropomorphism to make the environment of their characters irresistibly immediate. I’ll give you ten minutes. Any questions?

Concluding treat: Cather on writing artistry