1. Shaezy
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    Shaezy Member

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    Importance of "Sense of Place" to you

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Shaezy, Feb 8, 2012.

    How important is it to you to understand and visualise the greater location of a story? I know fantasy and similar genres require complex worlds, but what about in other genres such as mystery, where the plots and characters are driving the story and a geography of the landscape isn't really essential? My current work is a comedy mystery set in an urban environment - standard suburb/s, on the outskirts of a city. There is specifically a wealthier end of town, but otherwise (so far) I haven't felt the need to explain the layout. I have specific sites ie the MCs workplace, home, the victim's home etc but I have not identified a town name, streets, landscape etc. I'm not adverse to creating this but I don't know how much it will benefit my story and whether it is something that is necessary to engage a reader. In looking over my favourite books, it seems to be a mix of complex detailed design, or simply "blahblah-town" and individual sites. I feel like I engage with both.

    How do you feel about a sense of place, and is it necessary for you to engage in the story? And at what level? Can you engage with the story just through characters and plot or do you prefer to "know where you are"?
     
  2. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    No genre - Fantasy and Sci-Fi included - necessarily needs a great sense of place. It depends on the plot. Dislocation can be a brilliant plot device. I've read a few works where an author mentions a street name and I wonder, "Did I really need to know that?"
    If your story only takes place in a few places, you can just describe that it's <character's> house, or work place, or whatever. But in most cases, you won't need to know the exact layout of every location, and you should only need a cursory knowledge of your location even if you do need to know it.

    If you're writing a fantasy where travelling is a big part (like most fantasies we're used to), then knowing where places are in relation to each other is good. But, then again, in David Gemmell's Drenai series, it was nigh impossible to figure out which countries were located where in relation to each other, and it was harder to figure it out when you knew that it was set on Earth in a distant time.
    That said, it didn't detract from the story because you knew what was going on, and if you know what's going on, knowing where you are isn't the most important thing ever.
     
  3. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    there are no one-size-fits-all answers to your questions... it all depends on the individual story/novel and the talent/skill of the writer...
     
  4. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Not sure I agree. Off the top of my head, I would think that most historicals would require a firm sense of place. Michener and Uris both evoked a very strong sense of place in their works. So did Elizabeth Kostova in "The Historian" (and I wouldn't even call that a historical).
     
  5. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    A man is in a small, dark room. He has no idea where he is. He gets tortured. They want to know what he knows about the JFK assassination. By the end, he finds out that they shot JFK but are attempting to record him admitting to it.
    Right there, that's technically historical, but location doesn't matter, and would likely hinder the plot of the man being tortured in the room.
     
  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    A historical reference does not necessarily make a historical novel, and I doubt the entire novel would be about what went on the room. If the novel was a fictional treatment of the JFK assassination, I would think you would need a sense of place...Dallas, the grassy knoll, the book depository, etc...

    Hawaii, Centennial, Mexico, Texas, Poland, Chesapeake, The Source, The Covenant, Alaska, Caravans, Carribean, Return to Paradise, The Bridge at Andau, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Exodus, The Haj, Trinity, The Plot Against America, The Informer, Shogun, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, The Hope, The Glory - all historical novels with a strong sense of place. Other novels that incorporate history but don't quite fit the genre and which have a strong sense of place include The Novel, The Historian, Welcome to Havana, Senor Hemingway, All Quiet on the Western Front, For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Serve Them All My Days, most of the 11 volumes of the Strangers and Brothers series, The DaVinci Code...etc etc.

    It's true that not every single novel needs a strong sense of place. No one said they did. But if you are writing a novel about the history of a place, I don't see how you can do without it. Maybe someone can. Good luck to them.
     
  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    While it may be true that a sense of place isn't strictly necessary, it can be used to add immeasurably to the reader's experience of the story. One master of sense of place was Arthur Conan Doyle. His Sherlock Holmes stories derive a lot of their power, in my view, from the way Doyle conveys what it was like to live in Victorian London and other parts of England. In The Hound of the Baskervilles he creates a real mood from the setting on the lonely moors. This sense of place Doyle was so good at really enhances his stories. I think the Sherlock Holmes stories would not be anywhere near as popular as they are without that sense of place Doyle gave them.
     
  8. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've spent a lot of my learning curve so far studying this very subject. As has been said, it depends on the story and to some extent, the genre. But if you'll permit, I do have a bit of specific advice.

    Creating a strong sense of place depends less on the volume of description you use, and more on words you choose to set your scene. Never forget that your reader's mind is a more powerful tool for creating the scene than your words are. The trick is to let their mind do most of the work, that way they will be more invested in the world. Your job is to inspire their mind to create the world in their head, not innundate them with blueprints and construction plans.

    eg.

    The room was a twelve by twelve cube painted with an awful institutional green that was chipped and fading and had water stains on the north wall... Please God just shoot me.

    Ed shivered as he stepped inside the small room. Water stains marred the faded hospital green walls... Ok it's not great but you get the idea.

    Ok I'm done preaching now. Carry on :)
     
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  9. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, definitely. And the temptation for a novice writer will be to picture the scene in his/her mind and then describe what (s)he sees. I still do that sometimes, but at least now I know as I do it that a lot of it is probably coming out on the first couple of edits.
     
  10. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Location description for me is based on necessity (if the scene is in the desert versus the middle of a big city) and on need to create mood. I want the reader to have a frame of reference, but, like character descriptions, I want to leave most of it up to their imaginations.
     
  11. RoseTHuman
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    RoseTHuman Member

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    My opinion is that it depends on the style of the piece. If it was a work of realism, I would say that a sense of place could be very vital to the story. In something more abstract, maybe something dealing heavily in an abstract philosophical concept and written in a postmodern style, on the other hand, almost seems like a sense of place could harm the overall picture.

    All in all, though, it really is dependent on the theme of the work and the depth of the other elements of the story.
     
  12. Yoshiko
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    Yoshiko Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's very important. I just can't get into a story if I can't visualise/believe the setting. Also, I only ever read novels set in the real world (fictional towns within real countries are okay, but I prefer real towns to be used). However, there are exceptions to this. Eg: if the character, for some reason, simply doesn't know where they are.
     
  13. UberNoodle
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    UberNoodle Senior Member

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    Since I appear to be highly phobic about committing to real world locations for my speculative fiction writing, I always present vague locations.
     

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