Last year I attended a lecture by Silas House on creating a sense of place in your work. It resonated with me since so many of the authors I enjoy have this wonderful ability to submerge the reader in where the story is unfolding. To clarify, a “sense of place” can be thought of as setting, but it goes deeper than only setting. It involves not only the description of what the characters are seeing (and naming where they are) and moves beyond that into experiencing a location. We want to, in some instances, make the setting a character and force on its own. We want the place to be truthful in its portrayal, to not be a distraction because of an inability to render it as full and real.
Depending on what your current project is, you may find that your “place” in the novel is modeled off of your childhood hometown or your current place of residence. For instance, I live in Washington, D.C. now and there are a few things I would immediately recognize in a novel that had D.C. as its place—the restricted skyline with the Washington Monument taking center stage, the presence of the Potomac, the constant stream of tourists, the vibrancy of Georgetown, Dupont Circle (including this fantastic mussels/beer place), and the outlying areas of Arlington close to the Pentagon, the incredible busyness of DC residents, as well as their focus on fitness, the trials and triumphs of passengers on the Metro lines, how you’ll frequently hear that someone works on “the Hill” or in Defense, or how there are so many different cultures represented. There’s a certain energy in the city that is easily recognizable once you’ve really been here, and if I wrote a piece in D.C., it would be my job to convey the sense of place beyond a superficial treatment.
Similarly, growing up in Mississippi, I know the heat and the accents, the tension and the kindness. I remember once standing in line in the china department at Belk’s and two women, perfect strangers, commiserated with one another about the struggles of menopause. This ability to share all the things feels very Southern to me and is very recognizable, just as recognizable as the veiled insult in “bless your heart.” This sort of camaraderie is as familiar to me as Jackson’s buildings and the history of its old haunts and hotels. There’s the money in Eastover, the continual push to revitalize the downtown areas, the love of football which goes across all the counties.
What we need to do when we’re really crafting something believable is to provide an all-encompassing depiction of the place. And if you feel like you want to know more about your work in progress’s location, go there. Experience it. Read books about its history and read the newspapers; have drinks with the locals. Check out the recently elected politicians to understand the political climate, and listen to how the residents talk to one another, how they interact verbally and nonverbally. In other words, harness your hearth—current or past—by becoming a part of its fabric. Your diligence will show in your writing.