A Sense of Place


Let's avoid the obvious when creating settings.

I was watching the BBC travel show today. Tony Giles, a blind man, is attempting to visit every country in the world. He says, ‘I see a place through my senses. I see a place by the sounds, by the smells, by the textures. The hustle and bustle, people shouting, ‘buy this, buy this’…I feel the atmosphere, I feel the energy …the buzz.’ I was fascinated by how Giles perceives a sense of place.

As writers, we try to convey places that our readers cannot see. We too often appeal to the senses to make impressions as vivid as possible. And often the other senses work better than the visual.

The late Helen Dunmore, in an essay accompanying what was sadly to be her last novel, ‘Birdcage Walk,’ says we should be wary of the zealously researched novel whose author wants to make very sure that readers appreciate the detail he or she has taken so much trouble to obtain. … A photographic, laboured accuracy… kills the spirit. A common mistake is to overemphasise the visual detail, when so often it is smell a taste, a sound which best conjures up a place.

In ‘Great Expectations,’ Dickens describes the Essex marshes through their texture: Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders' webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. The mist is so thick that it is almost impossible to see, hence we feel the damp clamminess of Pip's  surroundings through our sense of texture.

In ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Dickens describes the Cratchits’ house on Christmas day by appealing to the reader’s sense of smell: Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding!

I’m sure there are places equally vividly shown through sound or even taste.

So when we describe places, let’s approach them like Tony Giles... take Helen Dunmore’s advice... and use the senses like Charles Dickens. Then, I suspect, they’ll come alive.