Adding a Sense of Place to Writing

Thursday, June 21, 2012
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but without an emotional connection, it's difficult to develop a sense of place. 
As writers, we rely on descriptions to bolster our work. We toss in adjectives - and too many adverbs - and whip up what we believe is a solid piece filled with amazing accounts.

But lately, as I've been reading, I've noticed a lack of connection in some pieces. Those adjectives and adverbs fluff up the piece, but I don't see a marriage between story and the people or places written about.

What's missing? A defined sense of place.

Without a strong sense of place, a piece of writing lacks a certain rhythm.

What's the remedy?

We writers need to do more than merely observe. Instead, we should be savoring flavors, colors, and textures. We should be noting the fine details that weave through a story and in reality, add more information about a person or place than any darn ol' quote will.

When I taught high school English, I developed a sensory detail web for students to use to create concrete images. It focused on these questions:

  1. What would you hear?
  2. What would you smell and taste?
  3. What physical sensations did you note?
  4. What else do you see beyond the immediate range?
  5. What other details do you note that are important?
  6. What emotions do you have about this place or the situation?
That last question brought the best responses and ultimately tied together a story or profile or article. And, it can be the most difficult to get a handle on.

Yet, without that emotional connection, writing falls flat.

A strong sense of place maps the invisible landscape and adds the fine points of a culture, a person or a spot on the globe. And, it makes your story a place worthy of visiting.

by LuAnn Schindler. Photo by LuAnn Schindler (the view from my deck on a frigid January evening in the Nebraska Sandhills). Read more of LuAnn's work at her website


Angela Mackintosh said...

Gorgeous photo! Until you said "frigid January evening" I thought the picture looked warm because of all the orange and red hues in the sunset. Upon closer inspection, I see the trees are barren and scraggly.

Great points! But I have a question... The other night I started working on a personal essay about my cat who recently passed away, and I don't think I mentioned where all the events take place. In fact, I intentionally left some of it out because I thought it would veer off course from the topic or be too much information. The story was about her experiences with different veterinarians over the years, but during that time we moved to several cities, and I figured the information about where we lived would detract from the story. Do you think it's absolutely necessary to include those details every time?

I guess a sense of place could be just the vet offices we went to. I vividly grounded the essay in one place in particular for the second half of it, and I plan on giving the essay to veterinarian who helped Noodle the most over the years.

Anyway, I'm rambling, but nice post, Annie! :)

LuAnn Schindler said...

Hey Ang,
I take a lot of photos from our deck...lots of great colors from the sun setting over the sandhills.

About your story...I'd try to use the vet offices as the sense of place since it will play prominently into the second half of the story. The different moves would distract, but that common element -because they probably all had some different sense that stood out - will pull the narrative together.

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