Five Tips for Fiction Writers
From Shopping Mall to Beach Hut
The Mall of Berlin by KP Ivanov
Place Writing is often associated with non-fiction and creative non-fiction, but fiction writers can put ‘place’ front and centre in their work—it is so much more than simply a location.
If a certain place is essential to the story its authenticity will be under scrutiny so it should be as rounded and whole as any character. And when place is more than a backdrop it takes on a symbolic role; this can be depicted in a variety of ways—from its name to its architecture and climate.
Take a real place and fictionalise it: use personal experience, then re-name and embroider.
Short exercise: The above image is of a modern shopping centre. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, hold a creative pen for a moment… if a location like this was to feature in a story… where would it be? what would it be called?
Five tips for fiction writers
I encourage you to explore ‘place’ further in your own writing and here I offer five tips for you to consider when drafting your next piece:-
1. Character development: The places you choose to write about may be real, fictional, or an imaginative fusion of the two. Your characters will each see the same world differently. Let the reader appreciate fully rounded descriptions of place from the characters’ point of view. Responses to place will vary depending on, for instance, the time of day, seasonal weather conditions, or the character’s mood at any given moment.
2. Sensory perception: Help your reader feel as though they experience place alongside your characters, so give them more than a purely visual interpretation of the scene—let them feel it, smell it, hear it, taste it. I think Cormack McCarthy is a master at this. Take a look at this extract from All the Pretty Horses as the cowboy protagonists survey the natural beauty of their surroundings:
The grasslands lay in a deep violet haze and to the west thin flights of waterfowl were moving north before the sunset in the deep red galleries under the cloudbanks like schoolfish in a burning sea and on the foreland plain they saw vaqueros driving cattle before them through a gauze of golden dust.
As a reader, my reaction is visceral—my eyes sting, my throat tightens. (I’m also fascinated by the lack of punctuation.) I’d be interested to know what you think.
3. Place as anchor: A specific location, such as a meeting place, facilitates exchanges of dialogue and provides familiarity for the reader if used on multiple occasions. Zoom in on at least one—a playground, café, or hotel reception—and let your readers get to know it so well that they could describe it to their friends. Steven Spielberg’s film, The Terminal (2004), in which Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones star in a drama that is mostly set in an airport terminal, is a fascinating example of place anchoring action. I’m sure you can think of others.
4. Emotional triggers: Establish some significant locations in your story, where your characters can be set up to experience the good or the bad, or through which they can transition or migrate. Various states of being can be triggered by the resonance of place, and by mementoes associated with it. In literature triggers become trope-like through repetition; they can be visual, or aural, to evoke the precise emotions necessary for your story—a front door opens, a clock ticks, a carousel rotates to the sound of looped circus music.
5. Time travel: Daily events can be made to feel extraordinary when place is used to dramatise them. Place is a platform, a stabilising force, a base on which time stands still (if you want it to). As author, however, you are an instigator of time travel and place can help you move the story forward or backward along a timeline. Could a beach hut double as a time machine?
Beach hut by Marcus Link
Allow place sufficient room on the page to become the central character. Give place agency so that it prompts reverie or invokes fear. Let place drive the story and define your plot points. Let your reader become fully acquainted with your imagined scenes. Take your literary lens into crevices to find extraordinary detail, then zoom out to gain an overarching sense of time and space. Treat places like personalities; learn to love them, see them clearly in your mind’s eye, dress them, give them conflicting characteristics, and put them through hell and back.
I hope you enjoy thinking more about place when you next settle down to read or write. Let me know how you get on.
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Reference: McCarthy, C. (2002:95) The Border Trilogy. London: Picador.
News & Links
If you’re in the area don’t miss the Talking Place Symposium on 9th and 10th September 2022 in Manchester, England.
This update uses material previously published in LiveWriteThrive, a writers’ resource.
Next time: In the first of my guest interviews, we’ll look at place and poetry.
Bye for now!
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