The lure of PLACE … more than just a setting

Every story has a setting – it’s what fixes its characters and its narrative in place, making the reader part of the action and sucking us deeper into the story. And when an author successfully carries off this sensory blending of atmosphere and environment, without showing the harsh edges, it’s enough to make your heart sing.

Take for example, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book – ‘The child stepped out of the house a little hesitantly. The fog wreathed around him like a long-lost friend. And uncertainly at first, then with increasing speed and confidence, the boy tottered up the hill.’ The reader knows what evil stalks the adventurous, unaware toddler and we urge him on, wanting to hide him, like the protective cover of fog.

In Stephen King’s novelette, The Body, (later made as a brilliant movie starring River Phoenix, Stand by Me), the main character, a 12 year-old-boy describes a treehouse built by him and his mates. ‘When it rained, being in the club was like being inside a Jamaican steel drum … but that summer there had been no rain.’

King draws the reader into the characters of these four Louisiana boys in the 1960s, and the hot, dry, dusty town where nothing ever happens … and into a sense of foreboding of what lays ahead for them. This story, along with Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, two of four novelettes in King’s Different Seasons, stands out from all the horror stories he’s re-known for.

But what I really wanted to discuss on this blog is PLACE – that sense of somewhere significant in your own psyche, memory, senses, history, whatever.

A number of stories I’ve written (published and unpublished) are set in real places  – like north-west Queensland’s Mitchell-grass plains, a sub-tropical rainforest and a dreamtime mountain in the Gulf country.

I’d been painting impressions of these half-remembered landscapes of my childhood for years without wondering about the repetition. It wasn’t until I got involved in writing that someone asked me why I used the landscape as another character in my stories.

I probably kept a blank face, not wanting to show my thoughts. Just like in the art world, it always intrigued me the way people see different things within paintings. Does this happen with your writing? That people perceive more than what you thought you wrote? Like some undercurrent?

All I know is that until I get the setting right, using all five senses plus more, to imagine and feel it, plus knowing the history and pre-history of that place, I can’t write my characters into it.

Before that happens I need to go back to the landscape, with notebook in hand, to absorb the sights, smells, sounds and feel of what is there; to wander alone with every sense zinging and receptive.

What do you do to get your ‘setting receptors’ zinging? Do you feel confident? Or do you feel more comfortable exploring the landscapes of humans – the characters?

Pray tell!

Moonrise over the Mitchell-grass plains
Moonrise over the Mitchell-grass plains. Elliot dinosaur fossil dig site near Winton, Qld.

19 thoughts on “The lure of PLACE … more than just a setting

  1. It is difficult, Seachanges! I struggle with it most of the time – some days my brain is in environmental stimulation overload mode but other days it’s a desert! Mind you, our deserts here in Australia are pretty awesome (ie beautiful).


  2. Yes, I so agree: setting is hugely important and part of the mesh. Your thought that setting is like character is really spot on, what a great way of putting it. It’s so difficult to get it right though, is n’t it?


  3. I’m not very good at describing place – it’s in my head but often I forget to transfer it to the page. Because I write history, one of the things I like to do to put myself in the same setting as my characters is to concurrently read primary sources, fiction and non-fiction, written by people who were alive at the time. I find the language, terminology and style – especially if there is a cultural aspect – helps me step back in time.


  4. Hey Sheryl

    I agree about setting. Sooo totally.

    I had a book that was about 40k in, but it was so flat I wanted to give up on it. Then I changed the setting, and suddenly the whole thing bounced into life and wrote itself. Setting is important, especially if you are drawing from memories, as you have that extra something special in that you write a little of your essence into it as a writer.

    I like the idea of the landscape as another character.

    Bye 4 now


  5. Kat, I know Lark Quarry dinosaur stampede really well. In fact that’s where some of my book is set. And yes, those colours and the shapes of the mesas and the circles of blue-grey spinifex up the slopes. And that blue in the sky – like nowhere else on earth. Mmmm, could eat it!


  6. With setting, I find comfort in familiarity. But I love looking for different words to describe it, so it’s sort of unexpected – like a startling fresh glimpse. Some settings spark off a feeling or emotion, and you think, ‘this would be great in…’ – but when you go away and go to use it later, little uncertainties rise. A revisit confirms impressions/perspective. The beauty of the digital camera is that you can snap, snap, snap, from all different angles (sometimes looking like a contortionist in the process) and capture so much more, so that it brings feelings and senses back at a glance.

    Off the track… Winton – dinosaur… those two words to me spark visions of Lark Quarry and the landscape enroute. The searing colours – burning red, such an intense, clear blue and those deep, dusty greens… So rugged, but so rich with colour. LOVE that landscape and those memories.


  7. Sheryl, setting has always figured as atmosphere for me- but this week in the picture book writing course I am doing setting is the topic- hope to learn heaps more.


  8. Thanks for your comments re the post, Dale. I can imagine you in that environment – I’ve never been there but have seen photos. Excellent that you were compelled to create something on the spot! 🙂


  9. Great post!. Your picture reminded me of when I was out at Willandra National Park some years back for a writers’ retreat. I planned what I was going to write before I went but the sense of place was so strong, I ended up writing lots of poems and a story about the place instead.


  10. My books tend to focus on ‘place’ in the domestic sense. I often begin by imagining the kind of bedroom my character might have. Kids don’t have a lot of power when it comes to decorating the public areas of their home. However, they often have a big say over their bedroom. For this reason, a child’s bedroom says a lot about them. In my new book, “Don’t Breathe a Word”, Kenzie has a four poster bed hung with green velvet curtains she found in an op shop. She’s an outgoing girl, but there are times when she likes to draw the curtains around her and spend time in her velvet cave just thinking. Imagining Kenzie’s bedroom was an entry point into understanding her character. It’s also been a way of conveying her inner landscape to the reader.


  11. An excellent post, Sheryl. I find setting hard to develop – i am an intutive person, with my focus on events being much about emotion – sometimes too much because I don’t always pay enough attention to where my characters are or where they need to be. The idea of seeing setting as character is intriguing. You’ve got my thought processes moving.


  12. Another fascinating post Sheryl. You have such an artistic way of expressing yourself. Developing a vibrant, consistent setting is never easy, but seeing it as another character is a great way to do this.


  13. YES, YES, YES – just like my junior fantasy, Decibelle – the first story in The Decibelle Trilogy!
    Forgive my cries of glee at your words, Chris, but I’ve been trying to do just that with this story (currently out there in submission land).


  14. Katherine, your post reminded of something Judith Ridge recently wrote about, to do with the lack of an identifiably Australian landscape in fantasy writing. I wish I could recall the detail, but why is it that fantasy writing defaults to a pseudo-European medieval setting? If you must choose, why not choose the road less travelled and contribute to some ground-breaking fantasy rooted in our great southern landscape?


  15. A post with perfect timing, Sheryl! I’m presently redefining the setting (or place) of my mentorship novel before plunging into the next draft. For a while I’ve known that parts of my setting are contradictory. But it was only recently I understood why. The fantasy world I’ve created has a mixture of Old English landscape and Australian outback. When I was overseas, something struck me: I spent equal parts of my early childhood in England and Australia, meaning I have a strange mix of experiences/memories of climate and landscape that I was unconsciously drawing from. Now I just need to chose one! Walking around Europe helped, in the same way that you like to visit your actual settings. A great post!


  16. I sometimes cobble together settings from a variety of places in memory combining the time/climate of one with the smells of another and the physical landscape of another few together. But other times I take myself to the place and stay there until it’s embedded in my subconscious and lets me walk the plot through it.

    And I too, like the idea of setting as another character


  17. Sheryl,
    What a fabulous comment on your writing for someone to picture the landscape as another character. You must have the touch of blending with your words like you do with your painting.
    Meryl. 🙂


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