A sense of place

How important is the place where you set your book or story? Very important I would say, vital even in some cases.

If varies from book to book of course but there are novels where the place where the story is set becomes almost an extra character in the drama – and perhaps my book Song of the Sea God is one of those.

A strong sense of place is a fine thing to have in a book I would say. It’s not achieved by never-ending descriptions of the scenery, but by allowing the feel of the environment to permeate the people and the story, allowing  the nature and character of the setting to have a bearing on the action.

41eMuQLZJSL__I had a think about books where this works particularly well and one which immediately springs to mind is Waterland by Graham Swift. This book, set in the Fens area of South East England is a modern classic and I would urge you to give it a look if you have not done so already.

The spirit of the fenlands issues from the novel so strongly that you can almost feel the damp chill rising from the page. The place in the book is beautifully drawn and affecting but more than that, it influences the people who inhabit the story – it provides some of their motivation, explains aspects of their character.

41mjW4FdUGL__SX385_There are many other examples of course. Can you imagine Gabriel Garcia Marques setting his magic realist masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude in a council estate in Birmingham? It needs its heat, its jungles, its clouds of butterflies, and of course its solitude.

housekeepingAnother good example is Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Housekeeping where the emptiness and open spaces of America, the small towns, the yearning to leave, the ability to just disappear like a ghost into the big country, permeate the book and its characters.

In Song of the Sea God I chose the island where I was born to set the book – Walney off the coast of Cumbria in the UK. It is a place I know well but a 432px-William_wordsworthremembered place rather than my current home.

Wordsworth, who lived a few short miles away in the Lake District, talked about poetry being ‘emotion recollected in tranquility.’ and I suppose my impressionistic view of Walney Island in the book is based on that idea.

I took the stark, often beautiful scenery and put it in the book and I remembered the way the bleakness, the isolation, the rigours of the place, can affect the people, lending them a certain stoicism.

What are your favourite books with a strong sense of place? Please tell us about them in the comments.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

22 thoughts on “A sense of place”

      1. Although, interestingly, nobody can agree exactly where Milk Wood can be found. Perhaps this shows that ‘place’ in this context does not have to mean a specific geographical location.

        1. I know very well the need to be vague about place names – real people can get upset for one thing. Perhaps he took several places he knew and blended them into a kind of essence of coastal Wales?

  1. Oh goodness, Chris, there have been many, but the one that springs to mind for me is The Grapes of Wrath, which begins in the dustbowl of the American plains. In fact, Steinbeck evokes place with exceptional skill. Another one is Disgrace by JM Coetzee, the South African writer. This book is set in the eastern Cape province, an area I happen to know well, and I could smell, see and feel the ‘place’ when I read the book. I’d like to read Waterland now as I can imagine the Fens is similar to our Zeeland here in NL and that has a particularly powerful atmosphere.

  2. I don’t like a lot of description but do like to feel the novel is taking me to a real place. Thinking of stuff I’ve read recently, Wreaking by James Scudamore isn’t set in a specific town (unless I missed it) but does manage to successfully evoke an abandoned psychiatric hospital (having worked in such settings I can vouch for him, and found very few mistakes).
    BTW my dad was from Walney Island and great to see that you’ve set your novel in such an underrepresented part of the country

    1. Evoke is a great word for this isn’t it? The books which do this best not only summon up the place but use the spirit of the place to say something about the people and the story.
      That’s interesting that your dad was from Walney! My book is set there but I am always veeeery careful to say I just took the geography and the book has nothing to do with the real island or the people who live there. I wouldn’t want to upset Walney people who are very proud of where they are from and very sensitive to the idea of someone ‘doing the place down.’

  3. The Shipping News – that’s the first to spring to mind. Then – Brick Lane, Shalimar the Clown, Illywacker, The Colour – as you can see, I love books with strong settings (including those you mentioned!)

    1. Yes – The Shipping News, love that book, someone mentioned it the other day in a string I did on Facebook about favourite book characters. I’m not aware of Shalimar the Clown, will have to check that one out.

  4. A blogpost after our own heart! When location is a character in its own right, it can really transport the reader in a new and inspired way – we love to experience a locale through an author’s eyes. We have just read Pure to evoke 1780s Paris, Slow Train to Guantanamo for Cuba, Dead Line for Marseilles, Afterworld for Louisiana (had better stop there, we could go on for ever….!)

  5. So many to choose from but here are three:
    Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse
    Human Traits by Sebastian Faulks
    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    1. Thank you Sharon – how kind of you to say so. I’m very glad as it’s something I admire in a book and think is important. And thank you also for taking the time to write a review which is very much appreciated!

  6. Hi Chris,
    Great idea for a blog post. I think also when stories are set in a landscape that’s in sharp contrast to the mood of the plot it can be brutally effective. One of my favourite books is The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. By setting most of the tale on the lively and chic Amalfi Coast, it makes this cunning tale of jealousy and murder just a bit more complex and menacing.

      1. Thanks Chris,
        My books are travel memoirs set in Greece so of course there’s more pressure to give a true sense of the country, and it’s a challenge, too, because of the economic crisis. I have found it easier to give a sense of the place through the characters in it, rather than lots of physical description which I find harder. I think that setting a novel in a place not your own might be easier because there are fewer restraints. Less research at least!

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