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Lazette Gifford,
Margaret McGaffey Fisk,
Assistant Editor

Issue # 55
January/February 2010

Table of Contents

A Sense of Place

By Susan Petroulas

Copyright © 2010, Susan Petroulas, All Rights Reserved

Where a story takes place is often essential to the tale an urban fantasy just isn't the same if it takes place on a farm. Okay, then it's a rural fantasy, but we recognize Gotham City is as much a part of Batman as the Batmobile. We think of world building when we write science fiction and fantasy, but it's important to make the story location seem real wherever it's set.

Casablanca wouldn't be the same set in Paris or Boston, for instance, and New Orleans is practically a character in A Streetcar Named Desire. The details that create a contemporary world aren't much different from what a science fiction or fantasy writer uses to create her world.

A while ago, I read a blog that included a quick checklist of good writing. I've looked for the blog and I can't find it now, but among the items were characters that we care about, interesting plot twists and a sense of place. And it's that last, a sense of place, that's stayed with me, niggled at me and occupied my writing thoughts.

Here's a bit of what I've been considering:

A place and how it's described can reveal a lot about the POV character, since we're seeing it through his eyes. Emotion, memories and the way your character thinks, can all be illustrated by what he notices. In this paragraph, a character from one of my books, Guerre, notices the woman in the scene more than he notices the details of the landscape, but that's part of who he is:

Other travelers were already there at the crossroads, several young men showing off for each other. Silently, the woman offered water and asked for the penny it cost. I looked across the landscape; we were far from the river and I didn't see a well. She must have walked leagues to bring the water here. And she had no shoes. Even as a slave I had worn shoes.
How a place is described can set or reflect the mood of a scene. Therefore, deciding on what mood you want is necessary before you describe the setting. In fact, two different descriptions of the same place can show very different moods.

Wind whistled through the bare branches, shivering in the night air. Shadows danced as clouds crossed the moon's face and Talia kept looking back over her shoulder.
Or another way:

The warm breeze caressed her shoulders as she crossed the road toward the stand of trees. Branches, bare except for buds, danced in the moonlight and she strained to see if he was waiting, but shadows cloaked the hill.
How you handle description can add to tension and conflict. As you're describing a place, you can pick out details that add tension what Donald Maass calls "telling details." Picking out a specific detail can also be used to foreshadow something that will be important later in fact, when I'm working out the plot, I'll often glom onto a detail that hadn't meant anything when I wrote it. Later, it becomes something very important to the plot.

His room was dark, as expected, and Kenyen was tired. Maybe that's why he was well into his room before he heard the noise. It wasn't much of a noise, actually. It could have been a shifting of weight, or the release of a breath, but it was behind him and to the left of the door, where no noise should have been. Immediately he whirled around, the knife he kept up his sleeve holster drawn and ready.
Describing a place can also help in grounding your story in culture, time, technology, especially in the early chapters. You can distinguish your fantasy, war drama, thriller from every other fantasy, war drama or thriller out there by making it specific.

Shadows danced at the edge of the room and the air was heavy with pipe smoke, cheap scent and sour ale. Kristava plastered a smile on her face and slipped past a quartet of amateur musicians singing in the corner for coins thrown their way. She winked at the baritone; he worked for her father.
It boils down to this: Be specific. The details make it real.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
-- Oscar Wilde