Saturday, June 28, 2014

A sense of place

It's almost the eve of our summer vacation, which this year is a trip to France and Belgium, including bucket-list items like staying on Mont-Saint-Michel. Not familiar? It's this place:

Yeah. This place. Swoon. 

And it got me thinking about all the ways that *place* matters in fiction. It was at a Dean Wesley Smith workshop where I first learned that "setting is the opinion of a character." Meaning, the setting that your characters are in can be reflected through the way they think about the place. Not just objective facts, but the subjective reality of each character's thoughts and opinions about where they are. 

This lesson was really driven home to me in a class I took with Mary Robinette Kowal (awesome classes, Dean's too, highly recommend if you can swing it. Both offer online classes.) Mary had us do one exercise of just free-write describing the room we were in. No rules, just writing. THEN after that free-write period was over, she had us go back and free-write the description of the room *from the perspective of a firefighter.* Different room, entirely. No more about the color and subtle lighting or the contents of the bookshelves. Instead it was points of entry/exit, flash points of flammables (all those books!) It was a fascinating exercise and one I encourage you to do. It may be the standard fare of creative writing classes in college, but I never took a creative writing class in college, I came to writing later in life. I needed the lesson! 

So places in fiction matter quite a lot. And the way our characters think about them is a great way for us to introduce aspects of character to the reader. I often make it hard for myself. Much of my books are set in space, mostly aboard spaceships and space stations. I can't easily weave in natural details of the foothills when I'm talking about a spaceship the size of a school bus. But again, the setting is the opinion of the character. Here's a bit from my novel CONVERGENCE, which is coming out in paperback this summer! 

Anya watched each person slip through the membrane, their bodies disappearing through the opaque barrier bit by bit, first a foot, a leg, one arm, a torso, last the trailing arm and wisps of hair. They membrane swallowed each person whole, like the belly of a jellyfish. Anya stifled a shudder. It would be her turn soon enough. 
Her parents went next. "Bowden, Madeline. Bowden, Zach," the door hushed. 
Swallowing, Anya prepared to go through. She eyed the membrane warily, wondering if it was all just a ruse and if she was going to find herself swallowed whole by some gigantic space-beast. She hoped the digestive enzymes would kill her quickly. She sighed and stepped up as the last of her dad's brown hair disappeared. 
Hopefully one of the things conveyed by this bit of description is Anya's overall wariness about the space station (the membrane is between the transport ship she arrived on and the space station proper.) Earlier paragraphs included much teen pouty-ness about being dragged off-planet to live on a space station. Poor kid, you feel for her already, don't you? :)

How have you woven a sense of place into your fiction? How do you find the characters illuminating aspects of their character by showing how they feel about their setting?


  1. Place/setting can be as crucial to a story as the characters, and can even be a character sometimes. It's doubly important when writing other-world fantasy. Nice excerpt, btw.

  2. Oh my gosh, have a great time, Karen! That vacation sounds incredible.

  3. But are you sure you still want to go to Belgium? What with that whole waffle debacle? (I joke...)

  4. Why are all my friends cool and I'm sitting in my yoga pants unshowered? Awesome post, have a great vacation!


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