A Sense of Place

A Sense of Place.

When I was starting out as a writer I set one of my scenes in a diner. My workshop leader’s comment was that I didn’t need to describe the diner, as every reader would know what a diner looks like.
This was a new concept to me, but the criticism was correct. You do not need to describe a diner if it’s a run-of-the-mill diner. The long winded descriptions of the banal items just interfere with the progress of the story, and bore the reader.
However I came from a learning tradition of over-describing. Describe every detail, the theory went, and then take out what you don’t need. I was praised for my vivd descriptions of setting, and what we get praised for stays with us as we progress. How many of us are here today because teachers said encoring things about our writing?
With that in mind the first purpose of today’s lecture is to try to formulate some guidelines for how much description you need without suffocating the story.

The second purpose is to inspire you to be more adventurous with where you set your stories––but we’ll come to that later.

So, here are some general rules on setting:

1: You need to say something about where the action is taking place. Your scenes need to take place somewhere so that your readers can visualize them. You might say nothing more than, Janet and John were in the diner, but you DO need to state that much. If you just write, Janet and John were having a conversation, then your scene will never come to life. 

2: Sometimes just the name of a location is enough to give a sense of place. Locations such as Hogwarts or Mirkwood, get plenty of description, but the names themselves are sometimes all you need.

3: If something about the setting is essential to the plot, then you will need to provide a little more description. For example if your diner scene were to take place at night in an isolated rural location––and that isolated location is essential for the plot––then you are going to have to build that landscape into the scene––PLUS––you are going to have to put this description close to the start of the scene…which brings me to another guideline: 

(4: Set things up before you need them. Does Janet need a surface-to-air rocket launcher? Mention it in passing long before she actually grabs it. Perhaps there’s one propped up in the doorway of the diner…this is foreshadowing).

So might just say that, Janet and John met at ten PM at a diner in an isolated rural location… and seriously, this might be the best solution under some circumstances. On the other hand you might want to use this opportunity for a little lyricism––which would give tome to the story: Franken’s Diner slumped like a forgotten robbery victim partway between the townships of Mold and Windscale. The farmland surrounding it had been planted with something that had failed––and probably failed years ago. Nevertheless Janet was addicted to their broccoli omelette. She stuck her fork into a burnt home-fry, and wondered which of the customers had left the Bazooka leaning up against the door jam.

But as with everything, don’t overdo it.

Okay, lets look at some examples from literature: 

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.

There used to be a town of Green Lake as well. The town shriveled and dried up along with the lake, and the people who lived there.

During the summer the daytime temperature hovers around ninety-five degrees in the shade—if you can find any shade. There’s not much shade in a big dry lake.

The only trees are two old oaks on the eastern edge of the “lake.” A hammock is stretched between the two trees, and a log cabin stands behind that.

The campers are forbidden to lie in the hammock. It belongs to the Warden. The Warden owns the shade.

Out on the lake, rattlesnakes and scorpions find shade under rocks and in the holes dug by the campers.

Here’s a good rule to remember about rattlesnakes and scorpions: If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.


Being bitten by a scorpion or even a rattlesnake is not the worst thing that can happen to you.

Louis Sachar. “Holes.”

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. He moved over to the window: a smallish, frail figure, the meagreness of his body merely emphasized by the blue overalls which were the uniform of the party. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended. 

1984 by George Orwell.

“I was going to say something,” he said.

“So say it,” she said.

He was quiet, keeping his eyes on the road. In the darkness of the city’s outskirts, there was nothing to see except the tail-lights of other cars in the distance, the endless unfurling roll of tarmac, the giant utilitarian fixtures of the motorway.

“God may be disappointed in me for even thinking it,” he said.

“Well,” she sighed, “He knows already, so you may as well tell me.”

He glanced at her face, to judge what mood she was in as she said this, but the top half of her head, including her eyes, was veiled in a shadow cast by the edge of the windscreen. The bottom half of her face was lunar bright. The sight of her cheek, lips and chin—so intimately familiar to him, so much a part of life as he had known it—made him feel a sharp grief at the thought of losing her.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber

THE HILLS ACROSS the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.

Ernest Hemmingway, Hills Like White Elephants.

THE SALINAS VALLEY is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.
I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.
I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding—unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the two ranges of mountains.
From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer. The river tore the edges of the farm lands and washed whole acres down; it toppled barns and houses into itself, to go floating and bobbing away. It trapped cows and pigs and sheep and drowned them in its muddy brown water and carried them to the sea. Then when the late spring came, the river drew in from its edges and the sand banks appeared. And in the summer the river didn’t run at all above ground. Some pools would be left in the deep swirl places under a high bank. The tules and grasses grew back, and willows straightened up with the flood debris in their upper branches. The Salinas was only a part-time river. The summer sun drove it underground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only one we had and so we boasted about it—how dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a dry summer. You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden.

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

Bianca walks toward me, under too much sky. The white-hot twilight makes a halo out of loose strands of her fine black hair. She looks down and fidgets, as though she’s trying to settle an argument with herself, but then she looks up and sees me and a smile starts in her eyes, then spreads to her mouth. This moment of recognition, the alchemy of being seen, feels so vivid that everything else is an afterimage. By the time she reaches the Boulevard, where I’m standing, Bianca is laughing at some joke that she’s about to share with me.

As the two of us walk back toward campus, a brace of dark quince leaves, hung on doorways in some recent celebration, wafts past our feet. Their nine dried stems scuttle like tiny legs.

Neil Gaiman: Coraline 

CORALINE DISCOVERED THE DOOR a little while after they moved into the house.

It was a very old house—it had an attic under the roof and a cellar under the ground and an overgrown garden with huge old trees in it.

Coraline’s family didn’t own all of the house—it was too big for that. Instead they owned part of it.

There were other people who lived in the old house.

Miss Spink and Miss Forcible lived in the flat below Coraline’s, on the ground floor. They were both old and round, and they lived in their flat with a number of ageing Highland terriers who had names like Hamish and Andrew and Jock.

Haruki Murakami. “The Elephant Vanishes.” 


The winter cold diminishes with each passing day, and now the sunlight hints at the subtle scent of springtime. I trust that you are well.

Your recent letter was a pleasure to read. The passage on the relationship between hamburger steak and nutmeg was especially well written, I felt: so rich with the genuine sense of daily living. How vividly it conveyed the warm aromas of the kitchen, the lively tapping of the knife against the cutting board as it sliced through the onion!

In the course of my reading, your letter filled me with such an irrepressible desire for hamburger steak that I had to go to a nearby restaurant and have one that very night. In fact, the particular neighborhood establishment in question offers eight different varieties of hamburger steak; Texas-style, Hawaiian-style, Japanese-style, and the like. Texas-style is big. Period. It would no doubt come as a shock to any Texans who might find their way to this part of Tokyo. Hawaiian-style is garnished with a slice of pineapple. California-style … I don’t remember. Japanese-style is smothered with grated daikon. The place is smartly decorated, and the waitresses are all pretty, with extremely short skirts.

Not that I had made my way there for the express purpose of studying the restaurant’s interior décor or the waitresses’ legs. I was there for one reason only, and that was to eat hamburger steak—not Texas-style or California-style or any other style, but plain, simple hamburger steak.

Which is what I told the waitress. “I’m sorry,” she replied, “but such-and-such-style hamburger steak is the only kind we have here.”

I couldn’t blame the waitress, of course. She hadn’t set the menu. She hadn’t chosen to wear this uniform that revealed so much thigh each time she cleared a dish from a table. I smiled at her and ordered a Hawaiian-style hamburger steak. As she pointed out, I merely had to set the pineapple aside when I ate the steak.

What a strange world we live in[…]”

Nick Lake. “In Darkness.” 

I am the voice in the dark, calling out for your help.

I am the quiet voice that you hope will not turn to silence, the voice you want to keep hearing cos it means someone is still alive. I am the voice calling for you to come and dig me out. I am the voice in the dark, asking you to unbury me, to bring me from the grave out into the light, like a zombi.

I am a killer and I have been killed, too, over and over; I am constantly being born. I have lost more things than I have found; I have destroyed more things than I have built. I have seen babies abandoned in the trash and I have seen the dead come back to life.

I first shot a man when I was twelve years old.

George Saunders. “Lincoln in the Bardo.” 

On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen. Now, I know what you are thinking: older man (not thin, somewhat bald, lame in one leg, teeth of wood) exercises the marital prerogative, thereby mortifying the poor young—

But that is false.

That is exactly what I refused to do, you see.

On our wedding night I clumped up the stairs, face red with drink and dance, found her arrayed in some thinnish thing an aunt had forced her into, silk collar fluttering slightly with her quaking—and could not do it.

Speaking to her softly, I told her my heart: she was beautiful; I was old, ugly, used up; this match was strange, had its roots not in love but expedience; her father was poor, her mother ill. That was why she was here. I knew all of this very well. And would not dream of touching her, I said, when I could see her fear and—the word I used was “distaste.”

She assured me she did not feel “distaste” even as I saw her (fair, flushed) face distort with the lie.

I proposed that we should be…friends.

Daniel Orozco. “Orientation.” 

Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual. There are no personal phone calls allowed. We do, however, allow for emergencies. If you must make an emergency phone call, ask your supervisor first. If you can’t find your supervisor, ask Phillip Spiers, who sits over there. He’ll check with Clarissa Nicks, who sits over there. If you make an emergency phone call without asking, you may be let go.

These are your in- and out-boxes. All the forms in your in-box must be logged in by the date shown in the upper-left-hand corner, initialed by you in the upper-right-hand corner, and distributed to the Processing Analyst whose name is numerically coded in the lower-left-hand corner. The lower-right-hand corner is left blank. Here’s your Processing Analyst Numerical Code Index. And here’s your Forms Processing Procedures Manual.

You must pace your work. What do I mean? I’m glad you asked that. We pace our work according to the eight-hour workday[…]

Isaac Asimov. “Foundation and Empire.” 

Bel Riose traveled without escort, which is not what court etiquette prescribes for the head of a fleet stationed in a yet-sullen stellar system on the Marches of the Galactic Empire.

But Bel Riose was young and energetic—energetic enough to be sent as near the end of the universe as possible by an unemotional and calculating court—and curious besides. Strange and improbable tales fancifully repeated by hundreds and murkily known to thousands intrigued the last faculty; the possibility of a military venture engaged the other two. The combination was overpowering.

He was out of the dowdy ground-car he had appropriated and at the door of the fading mansion that was his destination. He waited. The photonic eye that spanned the doorway was alive, but when the door opened it was by hand.

Bel Riose smiled at the old man. “I am Riose—

“I recognize you.” The old man remained stiffly and unsurprised in his place. “Your business?”

Riose withdrew a step in a gesture of submission. “One of peace. If you are Ducem Barr, I ask the favor of conversation.”

Ducem Barr stepped aside and in the interior of the house the walls glowed into life. The general entered into daylight.

He touched the wall of the study, then stared at his fingertips. “You have this on Siwenna?”

Barr smiled thinly. “Not elsewhere, I believe. I keep this in repair myself as well as I can. I must apologize for your wait at the door. The automatic device registers the presence of a visitor but will no longer open the door.”

“Your repairs fall short?” The general’s voice was faintly mocking.

“Parts are no longer available. If you will sit, sir. You drink tea?”

“On Siwenna? My good sir, it is socially impossible not to drink it here.”

The old patrician retreated noiselessly with a slow bow that was part of the ceremonious legacy left by the aristocracy of the last century’s better days.

Riose looked after his host’s departing figure, and his studied urbanity grew a bit uncertain at the[…]”

Brandon Hobson. “Where the Dead Sit Talking.” 

I have seen in the faces of young people walking down the street a resemblance to people who died during my childhood.

Saki. “The Treasure Ship.” 

The great galleon lay in semi-retirement under the sand and weed and water of the northern bay where the fortune of war and weather had long ago ensconced it.  Three and a quarter centuries had passed since the day when it had taken the high seas as an important unit of a fighting squadron—precisely which squadron the learned were not agreed.  The galleon had brought nothing into the world, but it had, according to tradition and report, taken much out of it.