A Sense of Place – Or why floating dialogue always sinks

Many good writing habits are about avoiding seasickness. Just as securing the reader in the reality of your point of view means not jumping from head to head whenever you feel like it, so creating a sense of place for the reader is about keeping their feet on the ground. A convincing physical reality to your story allows the reader to invest in its emotional reality. Not to provide one creates a nebulous feel that stops the reader believing in the characters and world. For those of us who love dialogue and build our fictional world around it, that’s not as much fun as it is for those whose comfort zone is description, putting the solid ground down before peopling it. It doesn't matter where you start, though: a sense of reality balances people and place.

In real life, our conversations are most deeply invested in when we are physically comfortable. If we’re hungry or in pain or being rained on, we aren't involved in the same way as if we comfortable. The physical body contains the emotional life; there is no mental without the corporeal. As the body houses the mind, so location houses character, theme and story in fiction and non-fiction.  

Location, location, location

The moral and emotional implications of London or Bath versus Derbyshire in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are tangible in the parts of the story where we haven’t even visited them. The reality of the chase through the City of London in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday makes London as diverse and unknowable as the created universe it comments on. Everybody has their own approach to place, starting as setting but ending as character.

There’s an essential truth to Hardy’s Wessex that he wouldn't have achieved had he over-worried about setting his stories in the exact physical locations of England. However, another writer will achieve their own, equally strong,sense of reality by pursuing exactly that photographic realism. Linking setting to story must be done, but it must be done your way.

Place and time

A sense of place is also helpful in measuring time. As I type this, a cup of strong black coffee sits beside my laptop. I am aware, in the background of everything as I think and type, that I don’t want it to be cold by the time I let myself drink it at the end of this paragraph. All helpful for building my setting, and for information about the character so you won’t be surprised if, in the next chapter, I reveal that Rachel is lactose intolerant or doesn't like soya milk. You also know, from the fact that Rachel has left the coffee for so long, that she’s against a deadline. 

Place is character

When E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Webb opens with a girl asking her mother where Papa is going with that axe, you know this children’s book is set firmly in the real world of farm life and no amount of Charlotte the spider writing words in her web to save her friend Wilbur’s life will take away the gritty, wider reality. Farm life, the difficulties of adult life and the reality of life death are all there, firmly and unpatronisingly; so is the magic.

Place is theme

Speaking of life and death, it’s well worth following the river in Judith Allnatt’s A Mile of River. It follows two generations’ lives, hides and reveals their secrets and sparkles with implications not only of nature but of natural justice. Another great sense of nature hinting its way in where human beings won’t be honest with themselves is when the tree splits after Rochester’s proposal in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I won’t say anything else other than go and read it now if you haven’t.

Place is Place

Freud might or might not have said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. If place is just a place, you've really got to ask yourself what you’re missing. Nothing in a good story exists in a vacuum. The reason for the location, the opportunities of a setting, the way the five senses register background information at all times, that’s how real people live in the world. You can’t get every detail in there, but you need to acknowledge it’s there to make good decisions about what to include. We may have made it out of the sea, down from the trees and into the office, but we’re still a very corporeal species. Our physicality houses our mentality and everything we will ever feel is, fundamentally, within a physical reality.

Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer, director and teacher. She runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym, resident at Waterstones Piccadilly, for writers of all genres and levels of experience. As Green Ink Theatre, she produces an annual Sponsored Write and new writing showcase, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. She teaches Creative Writing, Speech and Drama from home and in theatres, schools and universities. Visit her website here.