Sense of Place

When you’re writing, how do you know if you’ve successfully created a sense of place? Crafting a story involves a multitude of ingredients and once you’ve settled on the period and the place where your story takes place, how do you create this world?


Lake Ullswater, Cumbria, England.


The first obvious solution is to visit the place in person. Grab your notebook and walk around the streets of the village or town, soak up the atmosphere. Take a seat in a cafe, drink a cup of coffee and while away the time as you watch life all around you; be observant. As you sit, conjure up all the senses and make notes. What do you hear, smell?

Are you writing historical fiction? You could visit the local museum and check out the tourist information office for places of interest. After that, there will undoubtedly be local historians and other experts who will be more than happy to assist.

Research is essential. If you are writing in the present, then there is not much research to be done, although ‘field trips’ are still useful if you can make them. If not, use the internet. There is a wealth of information at your fingertips and Google Earth is rather useful for places that are just out of your reach. It’s amazing how much more informed you can become by gazing at an online map.


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Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle


Finally, after the research, it’s time to write. Your characters will need to be dressed appropriately for the period unless of course it’s the present day. But if it’s in the past, then everything needs to be right, including the interior of homes, lighting, cooking, cars and other means of transportation, hair styles, make-up, perfume, music, essentially every detail.

Speech is another consideration, in my opinion (which is subjective so you can disagree). We’ve all heard the ‘period speech’ of the Georgian period, for instance, having watched many dramas over the years. However, when it comes to reading about such times, I have no wish to be bogged down in such archaic language. Using the odd phrase here and there is fine, but I believe that speech ought to feel natural and flow. Clearly the language will always be different to the present day, just not riddled with archaic language. And many great authors have decided against replicating the language of the period, simply because they had no wish to alienate their readers. So it’s worth considering.

Another issue with dialogue is flow. Being grammatically correct is all well and good, but do we all speak like this?

“I will go to the shop later, as I am planning to visit Jane.”

No, we don’t. I for one favour contractions and so would say:

“I’ll go to the shop later, as I’m off to see Jane.”

Now, you can see from the example above how stilted that first line is. It simply doesn’t flow, and it’s not music to my ears. So, it’s up to the individual writer, but I’m for the most natural sounding speech. I read a book recently, by a very well known author who had used this type of speech pattern throughout for one particular character, and I decided it must have been her way of differentiating the voice. I loved the story but the dialogue was frustrating and so out of place and I found myself grumbling each time I read that particular character’s speech.

So, to sum up, natural dialogue will not kill your historical story, and it’s still possible to use certain words or phrases to give it a little authenticity without overdoing things, and as long as your world is depicted in all its original glory, then the reader will gain a sense of place.

And one last tip – get a great book for some good advice, such as, “Get Started In Writing Historical Fiction” by Emma Darwin. I can highly recommend it and I’ve found it very helpful. Happy writing.