Student Log In
33 Years of Success!

Tel: +44 161 819 9922

Return to E-zee Writer back issues

This month we have expert advice from Simon Whaley on how to connect with other writers using conferences. Ten Top Tips covers how to create a sense of place in your writing, student successes are as pleasing as ever. Inspiration does its job and Useful Websites covers the tricky world of online profiles.

Ten Top Tips For Creating a Sense of Place

When writing a story it can be easy to expend so much effort on developing an exciting plot with memorable characters, that we neglect the setting in which it takes place. But it is the setting which establishes the mood of the story – whether that’s suspense, mystery, terror, humour or romance. Carefully chosen, a setting can also be used as a counterpoint. Setting a ghost story in a bright, modern interior, or a comedy in a mausoleum, for example, produces the frisson of contrast.

‘If we believe in the place, we can believe in the characters,’ as P. D James writes in her book Talking About Detective Fiction. So, how do you create locations which feel real to the reader?

1. Put your fictional characters and events in a real town. Be as accurate as you can, down to street names and actual buildings. This way your readers can visit that town and visit all the places that appear in the story. Ian Rankin does this in his Inspector Rebus books, to the extent that Edinburgh has become such an integral part of the novels that it almost seems to be an additional character.

2. Invent your own places. A completely fictional town allows you far more freedom to mould it to the events which happen there. You can take the invention as far as it suits your story: from a single village, to other villages and towns which surround it, to the county within which it sits – even up to whole countries, or the entire world in which your characters live. Fantasy novels are the obvious example here: Narnia, Discworld, Earthsea, all of which are so well-realised that we can imagine them long after we have finished reading, and you or I could set our own stories in those worlds.

3. Use a hybrid. Base your setting on a real town but give it a fictional name. Use as much or as little of the real place as you need to. It gives you a firm basis in fact while leaving you free to change elements of the original however you like. David Lodge based his University town Rummidge on Birmingham, but said: "Perhaps I should explain, for the benefit of readers who have not been here before, that Rummidge is an imaginary city, with imaginary universities and imaginary factories, inhabited by imaginary people, which occupies, for the purposes of fiction, the space where Birmingham is to be found on maps of the so-called real world." Similarly, Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge was based on Dorchester, while his fictional county of Wessex started in a small area of Dorset but ‘grew’ over the course of his novels to cover a large area of south west England.

4. Draw a map of the place and add to it as the story grows so that you know exactly where all the various scenes and places described lie in relation to each other.

5. If you are using a real place as your setting, or as your starting point, visit it and get to know it well. Take photographs and make notes which you can use when back home writing.

6. Design the physical features of the place. Is it coastal or mountainous? Urban or rural? Does it have a river running through it? Is it low-lying or set on a hill? These details will bring it to life.

7. If your story is set in the country, set some scenes in the local larger town or city; if it’s a mainly urban setting, send your characters to the countryside. The contrast will add variety and interest.

8. The man-made features too are important. Remember that the architecture of your town would not all be from one era, normally. Towns grow over centuries and this is reflected in their buildings. But be careful to avoid anachronisms if you’re writing a historical.

9. Try not to idealise your invented location. Even the prettiest village will have its down at heel areas.

10. Describe the facilities of the place, such as libraries, shops, playgrounds. This is background detail that helps to make your place feel real.