Writing about place and setting in genre fiction

Newcastle settingAs always, this article isn’t meant to be a “How to” piece. It’s simply a personal reflection on an element of writing that I think it’s important to focus on. Take it or leave it; read it or ignore it. There’s no right way and no wrong way in writing; there’s only the way that suits you as an individual.

Sometimes a story can be made or broken by how the writer chooses to describe the place or location where the action is taking place. This sense of place often seems particularly important in genre fiction, because of the need to generate a certain atmosphere. To take an obvious example, Stephen King’s novel It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if he hadn’t conjured the fictional geography of Derry, Maine so skilfully and vividly.

As a writer, I’m always trying to convey a sense of place in my work, especially in my novels. Even if the location is a fictional place, it needs to feel genuine. In terms of the horror genre, one of the most effective methods of disturbing a reader is by creating atmosphere. Place and atmosphere are linked; you can use the setting of a story to convey emotions like dread, terror, or isolation. It’s also possible to show the reader how the characters are feeling by their responses to their surroundings.

Ramsey Campbell uses his native Liverpool to superb effect in his work. Stephen King does it with Main. Ian Rankin utilises the distinct geography of Edinburgh to give many of his Rebus novels an almost supernatural edge. In her collection “Close Range”, Annie Proulx evokes the desolate landscape of rural Wyoming with such an unerring eye that the place becomes a character in the stories, haunting the human characters like a ghost.

Recently I read a short ghost novel called Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. In this book the Arctic setting is so beautifully and vividly described that I became immersed in the world of the story. I was right there, with the members of the Polar expedition, and once the supernatural elements kicked in I was genuinely unsettled. I’d invested completely in what was going on, because I believed it. And I believed it because it all seemed so real – the sea, the ice, the cold, the vast Arctic wastes. It was real to me.

But sense of place isn’t necessarily all about the panorama of geography. Sometimes it’s essential to narrow the focus and concentrate on a smaller setting: a warehouse, a bar, an office, a small room. It’s the same thing, only compressed, microscopic rather than macroscopic.

A writing exercise I used to employ many years ago always helped me in my efforts to use surroundings in a story. I’d sit in a room and try to describe a character’s emotional state by using only what was around me: the furniture, the radiators, the windows, the view outside; the sounds, the smells, the feel of the wood grain on the desk…by limiting myself to describing the location I was forced to hone my skills in terms of characterisation.

Describing a location isn’t as easy as it seems. A writer needs to pick out which details are necessary to flesh out the place and which ones to ignore; we need to utilise those unique traits that bring a specific place alive in terms of the prose. As with most aspects of writing, it’s all about making the right choices. This can only hope to be achieved with constant practice – there are no short cuts, there’s no easy way to create the magic.

Read the best, study how they do it. Carry a notebook with you everywhere and write down what it’s like to stand in a certain place: what’s the light doing, what’s around you, how does the earth feel beneath your feet, what can you smell, what does the air taste like? Then find your own way to imbue your story with that essential sense of place.

GARY MCMAHON