All this week, I’m discussing writing vacations and writing-related things you can do on family vacations.
Today: Creating a Sense of Place.
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As writers, we want to create a sense of place in all we do that leaves readers thinking, “Man, it’s like I was right there!”
It’s not a hard thing to do when we’re writing about something in our own backyards, but I’m always amazed by writers who can bring other places to life as though they were locals.
It’s not such a hard thing to do if you take a trip to the places you’re writing about.
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We’ve all heard the advice, “Write what you know.”
While some people take that as instruction to write autobiographical stories, I’ve always seen it as meaning, “Include enough things you’re familiar with so all the stuff you make up doesn’t seem out of place.”
- My first novel was a humorous coming-of-age story about a family traveling cross-country in a possessed station wagon. While I’ve obviously never been in a possessed vehicle, I’ve endured the hell of being packed into a car for days with family, and I’ve written enough about roadside attractions to sell the story with authenticity.
- The second novel I wrote takes place in Chicago in the late 20s. I wasn’t alive then, but I grew up in the area and remember listening to stories from grandparents about the times. (Should I ever take the novel off the shelf and dust it off, I’ll definitely make a trip home and spend a lot of time at the Chicago History Museum.)
- My latest novel takes place in the north woods of Wisconsin. I never lived there, but I spent time up there when I was young and can sell the feeling of the area that the story needs.
I don’t know about my next novel, though.
My next novel may take place in parts of the country I know very little about. While I will have no problem selling the emotions that will make the story, and while I can research online, a trip to East Coast may be in order.
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If your story is set in New York, Paris, or the middle of nowhere, you owe it to your readers (and to yourself) to do all you can to go there if you’re not familiar with the locations. Listen to the way the locals talk and don’t be afraid to chat with them; you might be surprised by how willing they are to share information with you when they find out you’re writing about their hometown.
Friendly locals will direct you to the places tourists rarely see–the kinds of places characters in your story might frequent.
Take pictures and detailed notes so you have specific references for a later date. If you’re pressed for time, try finding the tours that go a little deeper than just scratching the surface of the location.
And don’t forget to visit the local library for research!
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When I read a novel I love, even more important than how well the words are put together is the overall feeling the book creates.
Simply thinking about certain books takes me back to the feeling I had when I read them, even years later. They are always the books that don’t sound overly researched; they are the books that make it clear the author is comfortable with what they’re writing about.
They are the books that create a sense of place.
Create a sense of place wrapped around real emotions and you’ve done your job.
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Tomorrow, it’s all about finding your inner Thoreau.