Author, Actor, Playwright, Excellent Parallel Parker

Rules of the Lake and Ashes to Water are now available for Kindle and Nook!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Evoking a Sense of Place, or How to Make Setting Come Alive

I have this theory. But first, let me ask you a question. When you dream, where are you?

Well, yeah, in bed, but where are you in your dream? What state?

No, not what emotional state, in which state of the union? Work with me, here.

See, I live in Virginia, but when I dream, Florida is where I go. Here's my theory: if you've lived in a number of places, as I have, the place you go when you dream is your default setting, and your default setting is where you truly belong.

Like I said, just a theory.

I'm just back from visiting my childhood home in DeLand, FL. I visited St. Petersburg, Tampa, and my hometown, DeLand, where ASHES TO WATER is set, and my default setting. That got me thinking about setting in general, and how to evoke a sense of "place" in fiction.

Which leads me to another theory. In order to evoke a strong sense of place, a writer should do two things: goose the iconic, and engage the senses.

What iconic images come to mind when you think of Florida? Maybe palm trees, water, white sand, Spanish moss, bushes shaped like Mickey Mouse ears? To give your readers a specific experience, you have to tweek those cliches. As for engaging the senses, I'm amazed how often some descriptions are all about sight and hearing, as if the other three senses are subordinate. We have five senses, and need to engage all of them.

Let me show you what I mean, one sense at a time.

1. Sight.
Envision the palm tree, but resist the picture of the tall umbrella in the sky. Instead, describe it after it has been through a hurricane. That's what I mean by goosing an iconic image. We've all seen oceans and lakes, but what creatures lurk, unseen, beneath the surface? White sand on the beach is expected, but if we encounter it, not while sun bathing, but while trying to bury a body, its problematic qualities can ratchet the tension and thicken the plot. Spanish moss dripping from oak trees is a common sight and therefore best avoided. Instead, describe it as woven through an abandoned nest. That image is not only unexpected, but emotional. As for Mickey Mouse, I'll never forget the time I wandered off Disney's Main Street, and encountered a costumed character smoking a cigarette behind the scenes. See what I mean? Goose the picture postcard.

2. Hearing.
Weather evokes setting, and is often experienced through hearing. The pitter-patter of rain on a tin roof is ho-hum, but the symphony of rainwater dripping into buckets, bottles, pans and pails adds music to the scene. The duck goes quack, but more interesting is the phonetic recreation of a whipporwhill. We can easily imagine the rattle of a snake in high grass, but the sound of it stiking your thick leather boot is one your reader will not soon forget. Don't let your environment just sit there. Interact with it.

3. Touch.
With touch, you become intimate with your setting. We feel temperature, texture, and movement. We grasp, catch, hold, and break. But don't forget to experience touch with more than hands. Caress the briny coolness of an Apalachacola oyster on the back of your tongue. Work your sunburnt feet into the sand at the water's edge. Swim naked. Engage as much of your tactile real estate as you can .

4. Taste.
How do we evoke a sense of place with taste? Sure, you could describe some regional cuisine, but that seems an obvious choice. Instead, snatch a lanky reed, and stick the stem between your teeth. Open your mouth to a sudden afternoon shower. Taste the salt from your own sweat. When you sample your environment, it literally becomes a part of you, which is organically and emotionally satisfying.

5. Smell.
I've saved my favorite for last. Smell may be the most underutilized and most effective way to evoke a sense of place. Smell is a powerful trigger of memory. A single whiff of oily steam coming off wet pavement slamdunks me into childhood so fast, I get whiplash. The smell of sour lake mud or a fleeting scent of orange blossom brings back a specific place on a specific day, and with it, a specific emotion. Smell anchors you in the now, and grants access to the past.

One of the best ways to honor your default setting is to write about it, and try to make others experience it the same way you do. I hope you enjoyed my sensory tour of Florida. For a longer stay, drop by ASHES TO WATER. I saved a few surprises for you.

Off to bed now, where sweet dreams await.

I'll smell you later.


  1. When I'm in a specific place in my dreams, I'm in the apartment in Chicago where I grew up. I'll have daytime triggers to send me back to that place, the smell of olive oil and garlic (it was an Italian neighborhood) and chocolate (there was a candy factory 2 streets away.)Italian food is my favorite to eat and to cook, but I'm not that fond of chocolate. Go figure! Thanks for jobbing my memory.