RSS Feed Print
Sense of Place
Lucy Silag - Book Country Community Manager
Posted: Friday, October 3, 2014 10:51 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

I was thinking this morning about how all my favorite books--no matter what the genre--have such an evocative sense of place. I love to do a bit of armchair travel when I am reading, and right now I'm reading AMERICANAH by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie--it takes place largely in Lagos, Nigeria, and it just transports you there.


Have you all read Jessica Hawkins's book COME UNDONE here on Book Country? I loved how she subtly used the setting of glitzy Chicago to make the book even more of a vacation for the mind.


How are you using a sense of place in your book? Where does your book take place and how are you conveying it to your readers?

Posted: Saturday, October 4, 2014 2:32 PM
Joined: 7/18/2014
Posts: 120

This is one of the problems I have with my novels, in addition to keeping the reader informed as to passage of time. You can see it to some extent in the latest thing I've got up for review, Danielsford. 


I know what the town looks like, how the people are dressed, etc, but for some reason have difficulty relaying it to the reader. I am working on it and, thanks to an excellent and informative review from Alex Seise who pointed these problems and some others out, I'll be focusing on them.


It's odd to me that I 'space' or have problems in this area because I'm also dabbling with screenwriting which is all about describing each scene, down to a coffee cup or ashtray on a table. 

Posted: Saturday, October 4, 2014 3:37 PM
Joined: 11/13/2012
Posts: 13

It's funny that you posted this (and thanks for the shout out), because I did my "Kindle read through" for my next release last night, which was the first time I got to experience it as a real, finished book. I'll expand on why this is funny in a minute...


World-building is hard! I don't know if everyone is this way, but I want the reader to have as true an experience as possible, and that requires some intense research. For Cityscape, I really wanted Chicago to be a character, not just a setting. And (shh) I've never been there, so for Come Undone (and my WIP, which is in Los Angeles), I live by Google Maps, venue websites and Yelp or other forums where people talk honestly about their city/neighborhoods. I pick up all these minuscule details that often, I don't even use, but that help create or strengthen the picture in my mind so I can build something stronger. It can be SO tedious. Which way to turn down a street, or what's the nearest grocery store to this park... and I didn't even name the park I used as a model, but I still wanted it to be real. Honestly, there are times I want to throw my arms up and say "Who cares if there's actually a parking meter there! It's fiction!" but that doesn't last long because I know how important that armchair travel is to me (btw, love this new-to-me term).


For my WIP I actually went to Los Angeles for an afternoon/evening with a list of things to see. I went to the hotel where many scenes happen and took notes, pictures, even recorded video. (Side note: the readers love to be a part of this, so I compiled a quick video teaser of my time in the hotel and shared it with them.) I had this scene I desperately wanted to happen in a parking garage, but after searching the hotel website and combing Yelp reviews, I concluded the hotel didn't have one. So I had to write around it. Imagine my excitement when I got to the hotel and there was a small, hidden entrance in the back for the self-park underground garage! After, I made a friend drive me the route the characters take while I took more notes. On that drive, I even decided to change the hero's car.


Anyway, what's funny is during the process, it feels like a HUGE mess. I'm sure I'm getting all the details wrong, or I'm not describing it right, or I'm being too nitpicky, whatever... but when I did my Kindle read last night, I was amazed by how it all came together. Not to toot my own horn but after all the laboring over tiny things I wasn't sure mattered, I really do think they created the atmosphere I was going for. That gives me encouragement to keep improving my world building skills because like Lucy, I love to feel immersed in setting while I read. It makes all the difference. I've even gone as far as to pick travel destinations because of books & movies I love.


Thanks again for posting, Lucy! Very relevant to what I'm going through and actually, a confidence boost that I'm headed in the right direction.

Posted: Saturday, October 4, 2014 3:47 PM
Joined: 11/13/2012
Posts: 13

Chuck, I also have trouble with those things sometimes, especially the passage of time. I try not to overuse phrases like "The next day..." or "A few hours later..." so it can be hard for me to convey time in an organic way. That's actually a note from beta readers I have to work on. 


I recently attended some workshops at a writing convention and walked away with some great info, but here's one I've been using that might help you too. Your mention of an ashtray and coffee cup made me think of it. The workshop was about applying screenwriting tactics to novel writing. One of the speakers said to imagine you're walking into a setting (a room, for example) through a camera lens. Since we don't have the luxury of relying on images like film, you have to pick the most important details so the reader enters that room with you like a camera would. I don't remember her example exactly, but it was something like walking into a place with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, parmesan shakers, a stack of cardboard to-go boxes, etc etc... so you know you're entering a pizza parlor without ever saying it. I like this method so far because it's been forcing me to put the most important details first. It seems obvious in theory but in practice it's made a difference for me! Hope it helps you too!

Posted: Monday, October 6, 2014 5:32 PM



I write historical Westerns about people forced to make dangerous decisions to survive. Specifically, my first four novels are set in what is now southwest Montana during the Montana gold rush between 1862 and 1865. It’s a complex and multi-layered period in our history that fascinates me. It also gives me headaches making it clear to readers. You’ll see why.


About 25,000 people came to a wilderness gulch carved out over the eons by a pretty creek later named Alder Creek. There were no amenities whatever – no buildings, no shelters other than the ones the gold seekers could put up themselves. Some used caves, others built brush teepees called wickiups modeled on those the natives built, some called their wagons home. Of those 25,000 people, approximately 90% were men, 10% women. Of the 2500 or so women, maybe half of them were prostitutes. The rest were wives and daughters of the goldseekers. I’ve found record of one woman who worked her own gold claim.


There was no law. By that I don’t mean that it was lawless as some other Western places were lawless, meaning plagued with people who didn’t care about the law or even common decency. To explain the absence of law in the Alder Gulch region, I have to introduce another layer of complexity.


That region was part of Idaho Territory from March 3, 1863 until May 26, 1864, the height of the gold rush. Idaho was created from four other territories: Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Dakota. Normally, when a territory was carved out of another territory, the parent territory’s laws and legal system, starting with the Constitution, automatically passed to the child territory. In the case of Idaho, Congress did not designate which of the four parents would pass its codes of law to the child.


Consequently, Idaho had no codes of law, no jails, no courthouses. It did have the miners meetings.


All these people I mentioned earlier staked claims on the banks of Alder Creek, so that it came to be called the “Fourteen-Mile Town.” There were between 5 and 7 mining districts in that 14 miles, and each one governed itself by means of the miners meeting. Each one also had a settlement that eventually became a town in its own right. Using the Common Law of England, a tradition of laws and customs that had grown up in England, the miners meetings turned themselves into courts. With the mining district president as judge, they tried criminals and passed regulations that governed that mining district. Miners voted guilty or not guilty whether or not they had heard all the evidence or not, whether they were drunk or sober. They voted for one of three punishments: whipping, banishment, and hanging.

To hold court, a knowledge of the law was not a requirement. Two of the more prominent mining district presidents were doctors, a third was a merchant.


Capping all this, everyone who came had an opinion on the Civil War that raged at home. Some were veterans of the Union or Southern armies who wore parts of their former uniforms. But veteran or not, they nearly always sided with North or South. Miraculously, there do not seem to have been any gun battles over politics, though there were no doubt plenty of arguments.

They had a more dangerous enemy to combat.


With no law and a fortune in gold lying in the streams, it’s no wonder the area attracted men who decided to get the gold the easy way. Diaries and letters reveal the thoughts of miners who figured their only safety was to lie low and mind their own business because robberies and murders were so frequent. Not knowing whom they could trust, men kept their mouths shut and their fingers crossed. Until early December 1863.


A well-liked young man was found murdered, and his unusually cruel death proved to be the catalyst for a trial that resulted in hanging one man and banishing two others. The trial led to forming the Vigilantes of Montana, as they became known.


These men made dangerous choices to hunt down and rid the region of murderers and robbers. They succeeded, and are controversial even now, 150 years after these events.


That’s the setting of my first 4 novels. Between 1863 and 1865, Montana Territory was formed, and a settlement grew from a gold camp to a town that still exists.


Within this eventful time, the characters act with honor and dishonorably, fall in love and prostitute themselves, murder and hang murderers, and establish the law where there was none. It’s a wonderful world to try to recreate on the page.


And sometimes it drives me bonkers.


Posted: Monday, October 6, 2014 5:43 PM

Hi, Jessica,

I know what you mean about obsessing over tiny details. For Virginia City, MT, it's especially mind-numbing because the town changed so much from week to week. There is so much motion in a town that it's hard to grasp hold of.


Fortunately, I lived for awhile as a kid without running water or electricity, so I know how it feels, but because my parents did all the work of pumping water and doing laundry and cleaning kerosene lamps, I still had to look up the details.


You're right about the details making all the difference. A reader said in a review that she got cold reading the book. Fortunately, living in Montana I have plenty of experience with winter! 



Posted: Monday, October 6, 2014 5:51 PM

Hi, Chuck,


I grapple with depicting the passage of time, too. In one scene a character remarks that the protagonist has been a married man for two days. That tells the reader that it's a Monday because the wedding took place on a Saturday. In other scenes characters comment on current events -- that it's election day in the "States," or how many weeks or days left before the Court convenes or the Legislature meets. The protagonist's pregnant wife counts the days until he comes home again, and he chafes at a delay of three days because the legislature did not meet on new Year's Day, 1865.


Details like this spread out through the novel can ground the reader in the story without being too didactic about it or calling attention to the passage of time. Trust your readers.To a great degree, they'll figure it out.





Posted: Tuesday, October 7, 2014 12:28 AM
Joined: 7/18/2014
Posts: 120

Good points on time passage, CarolIBMT. Just today I caught an error in my latest script.


I've written myself into a corner - again - so went back to do editing on what I've got done. That usually shakes something loose, allowing me to continue. My character has been on the run about a week. While editing I found several references to two weeks, along with a veritable host of other problems unrelated to time that I hope I fixed.


I know readers pick up on things like that, just as when I read a book and find the protag or someone else using a firearm incorrectly, or a caliber that doesn't exist, flicking the safety off a revolver (they don't have safeties) and similar inaccuracies. No matter how good the book, I'm immediately turned off.


--edited by ChuckB on 10/7/2014, 12:29 AM--

Posted: Tuesday, October 7, 2014 1:56 PM

Chuck, Do you outline your plot? Before you write, how long do you take to know the characters, the setting, the times? It may be that you may want to slow down and prepare more before you launch into telling the story.


Have you read John Truby's Anatomy of Story? Or Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction, Writing 21st Century Fiction, and Writing the Breakout Novel? I've found all of them very helpful to developing a strategy for writing my complex historical fiction. 


For me, writing a novel is never an exercise in writing straight through, but preparation is helpful. My current WIP, The ghost at Beaverhead Rock, has gone through 4 revisions of the detailed plot outline, and as I write the book, I'm still revising it as the novel reveals itself to me. All told, I've been with this thing for more than 3 years.



Lucy Silag - Book Country Community Manager
Posted: Tuesday, October 7, 2014 2:50 PM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359


The backdrop for your novels is fascinating! How did you find out about this interesting and yet relatively obscure period in US history?


Also, my curiosity is piqued--how did the Civil War veterans end up out there when the war was still raging? Were they injured and unable to keep serving?



Posted: Wednesday, October 8, 2014 10:28 AM

Hi, Lucy,


Thanks for your interest!


In the Montana curriculum we all study Montana history in the 8th grade, and the Vigilante period, which coincides with the Civil War, stayed in the back of my mind until the late nineties, when my husband and I decided to move home to NW Montana. Then I began researching that period in Montana history in earnest. Right off the bat, I discovered that one of the Vigilantes was a lawyer. What on earth was a lawyer doing in a group of vigilantes, I asked. One question led to another, until I've now spent 17 years digging into the period 1862-1865. Thank goodness for the Internet, because many of the places I could not go hold material in their archives that I discovered through online searches into libraries and historical societies on both sides of the continent. From August 17, 1864, a newspaper called The Montana Post was published in Virginia City, MT. It helps a lot with world building, by the way, because it covers local issues and war news. It has been digitized and is in the Library of Congress. Instead of traveling to Helena (the state capital, 250 miles away) to find original copies, or ordering the microfiches through my local library, I only have to call up chroniclingamerica.loc.gov and search the relevant dates.


I don't know all the veterans' stories, but I do know two in some detail that I'll sketch out for you.


Wilbur Fisk Sanders was a radical abolitionist who raised a unit of volunteers from Ohio and took them into one of the Union Armies. He himself rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel and was an adjutant to a higher ranking officer until one of two things happened. The most usual account is that he resigned his commission from ill health, but I ran across a comment that the family legend says he resigned his commission because he would not support the Fugitive Slave Act. (That Act required police and military to capture and assist in returning slave "property" to their rightful owners. Horrible, isn't it?) 


Sanders's uncle, Sidney Edgerton, was a founding member of the Republican party, and a radical abolitionist also. When president Lincoln appointed him Chief Justice of Idaho Territory in 1863, Sanders went along. (Their wives and children and others in the extended family with them.) Sanders was the lawyer in the Vigilantes that brought up the original question.They came in wagons.


The second veteran, Alexander Davis, was from Missouri. He signed on with Sterling Price's State Guard (at first known as the Home Guard) to resist the invasion of Missouri by the Federals, as they termed the branch of the Union Army. He stayed with "Price's Army" after Price was driven into Arkansas and rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel. When Price sent him and another ranking officer, Thomas Thoroughman, on a recruiting trip into Missouri, both men were captured and imprisoned. After six months, the governor of Missouri, a friend of Davis's, paroled him and set him free. Parole meant he gave his word to leave Missouri and not come back until hostilities had ceased.


 Davis walked to the gold fields.Along the way, he became so destitute that he could not buy food and was close to starving to death. A man at a stage stop caught on to his situation and bought him a meal. Davis survived to reach Alder Gulch, and began to practice law.


In a letter to his sister, Wilbur Sanders wrote that he was "the only lawyer of the Union persuasion" in the region.


When the Vigilantes formed, Sanders became the group's prosecutor and legal counsel. Davis adamantly opposed them, to the point that he challenged them to hang him if they wished because he would not join.


They didn't hang him. Instead, when they had finished wiping out the criminal conspiracy that had plagued the region, the Vigilantes set up a People's Court and persuaded Davis to be its judge. He held the post until he resigned May 15, 1864. (He had freed his inherited slaves before the war began, but he bitterly opposed the "Union invasion." I've discovered that many people were outraged by Union troops being sent into their states, whether they owned slaves or not. Robert E Lee joined the Confederate States Army to resist the invasion of Virginia. He, of course, owned slaves, though.)

Posted: Wednesday, October 8, 2014 10:31 AM



I forgot to mention that of course there were deserters, too, from both sides, and refugees. They walked, took stagecoaches, used wagons.

Lucy Silag - Book Country Community Manager
Posted: Wednesday, October 8, 2014 10:53 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

Carol--Fascinating stuff. Your research is impeccable! I don't know much about this time period but this makes me eager to know more--exactly the type of place-immersion I hope for as a reader that I was getting at above. It almost doesn't matter the place--it doesn't have to be one that I'm already predisposed to--the author just has to have a passion for it.


We have a research discussion board over here; would be curious to know more about the library archives you looked through. Was using them challenging? I've never found library databases to be very intuitive, though I suppose that is changing, too.


Jessica--I am SHOCKED that you have never been to Chicago!!! Absolutely SHOCKED!!!!!!!!!!!!! )))

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Thursday, October 9, 2014 5:58 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Wow, so much work for a historical novel. I write fantasy myself, so world building a bit different for me. Since this about sense of place, I'll tell you about the difficulty I've had doing just that.


One of the complaints I get on my novel HANDS OF ASH is that readers have difficulty keeping track of all the places. HANDS is essentially an epic fantasy with one group of characters on the road gaining support against the baddies, and another group staying in place to stage an active resistance with very little resources. It's hard enough giving a sense of culture, especially since I decided to do away with the cliche medieval setting, but describing every little location my road group of main characters can be tedious. Especially trying to remember where they're at. Sadly, having to do this wrecks any of the nuance these locations can have since my characters don't stay in one place longer than maybe a couple days. It doesn't help that the starting locations are all but a pile of rubble for most of the books.


How do I fix this? Well, that's one of my weaknesses. I don't do descriptions of places well. I give it the, "what is relevant" treatment and usually move on. I admit, when I read my book I don't see Adlar as a living place, but that could just be me. I've gotten mixed critiques on it from "just the right amount of detail," to, "needs more." I'm of course warry do add more because I've just managed to get it whittled down to under 200k words.


If any of you have any advice on handling a lot of travel, I'm open to it.

Posted: Thursday, October 9, 2014 11:35 AM

Hi, Lucy,


I'm thinking about the post on searching online historical databases, trying to narrow it down to something that other people might find useful. Later ... happy


Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2014 1:29 PM
Joined: 11/13/2012
Posts: 13

Thank you, Lucy! As you can imagine, I'm desperate to go (I have a signing there in 2016). I am also looking forward to one day using NYC as a setting - it just has to be the right fit so I can attempt to do the city justice.


@Carol, I loved reading your posts! Fascinating stuff.

Posted: Tuesday, October 14, 2014 3:19 PM

Thank you, Jessica!


World-building, creating a convincing setting, or whatever it's called is similar in fantasy and historical fiction. We both have to decide whether the setting is an active character that shapes other characters, or just a stage backdrop. Both have to be prepared to give the reader a full experience of the ambience of the story.


The difference is there are actual writings and pictures from the from a historical period, photographs and daguerrotypes and tintypes from the 19th century, and paintings and other artworks further back. There's none of that in fantasy.


I think you're freer to work out the world in which your characters act, but do you have to do a lot of work to imagine that world? it would seem so, to me.

Posted: Tuesday, October 14, 2014 4:03 PM
Joined: 7/18/2014
Posts: 120

The first 3 paragraphs. Setting, place, especially mood...... From an H.P. Lovecraft story that I never knew about until a couple of days ago.


Somewhere, to what remote and fearsome region I know not, Denys Barry has gone. I was with him the last night he lived among men, and heard his screams when the thing came to him; but all the peasants and police in County Meath could never find him, or the others, though they searched long and far. And now I shudder when I hear the frogs piping in swamps, or see the moon in lonely places.

I had known Denys Barry well in America, where he had grown rich, and had congratulated him when he bought back the old castle by the bog at sleepy Kilderry. It was from Kilderry that his father had come, and it was there that he wished to enjoy his wealth among ancestral scenes. Men of his blood had once ruled over Kilderry and built and dwelt in the castle, but those days were very remote, so that for generations the castle had been empty and decaying. After he went to Ireland Barry wrote me often, and told me how under his care the grey castle was rising tower by tower to its ancient splendour; how the ivy was climbing slowly over the restored walls as it had climbed so many centuries ago, and how the peasants blessed him for bringing back the old days with his gold from over the sea. But in time there came troubles, and the peasants ceased to bless him, and fled away instead as from a doom. And then he sent a letter and asked me to visit him, for he was lonely in the castle with no one to speak to save the new servants and labourers he had brought from the north.

The bog was the cause of all these troubles, as Barry told me the night I came to the castle. I had reached Kilderry in the summer sunset, as the gold of the sky lighted the green of the hills and groves and the blue of the bog, where on a far islet a strange olden ruin glistened spectrally. That sunset was very beautiful, but the peasants at Ballylough had warned me against it and said that Kilderry had become accursed, so that I almost shuddered to see the high turrets of the castle gilded with fire. Barry’s motor had met me at the Ballylough station, for Kilderry is off the railway. The villagers had shunned the car and the driver from the north, but had whispered to me with pale faces when they saw I was going to Kilderry. And that night, after our reunion, Barry told me why.

Julie Artz
Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2014 10:28 AM
Joined: 11/11/2013
Posts: 43

I've enjoyed reading through everyone's comments on this topic! 


I think people often discount the importance of world-building even in contemporary works. I recently read a critique partner's novel, set in the contemporary American south, and was able to point out to her that, as a northerner, there were plenty of places that I didn't understand the rules and social customs of the world because I've had little exposure to that area. So it makes sense that world building would be important in historical and certainly in sci-fi/fantasy, but really, it's important in all stories. Barbara Kingsolver is, in my opinion, a master at this sort of contemporary world building because setting (whether the desert southwest, Appalachia, or even Africa) is a strong and vibrant character in each of her stories.


My books and stories, which so far lean toward contemporary fantasy, are inspired in part by settings I've encountered in my travels, so part of my research/preparation includes surrounding myself with my own photos and travel journals to try to put myself right into the places I'm writing about even if it's been a year or more since I've been there. And of course google is a huge help for filling in gaps, verifying maps and spellings, etc. If I can put myself there as I write, I hope that I can translate that feeling--the smells, sights, tastes--to the page for my readers. 

Lucy Silag - Book Country Community Manager
Posted: Monday, October 20, 2014 11:41 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

Yes, Julie, absolutely! I think I've only read one of Barbara Kingsolver's books (THE POISONWOOD BIBLE)--it was over 10 years ago--but that book had an incredible sense of place. I remember the African setting much more clearly than the book's plot. Though the characters were very good, too, especially the eldest daughter.



Lucy Silag - Book Country Community Manager
Posted: Friday, October 24, 2014 2:21 PM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

Hi Julie--I just recommended a member to you--I saw that one of her favorite authors is Barbara Kingsolver.

Jump to different Forum...