When I was asked to write this piece, part of me wondered what I could say about writing location that wasn’t fairly obvious. But then I realised that when I first started writing I made mistakes that should have been obvious to me but weren’t. So please forgive me if I’m telling you what you already know, but this is a very brief rundown of ten things I think are important when writing location. Hopefully, there’ll be something useful in there for someone!
The location! It seems silly to state it here, but do readers want to know about the place you intend to feature? Does it fit the kind of story you’re telling? Does it have an integral role to play of its own? It’s often been said that when a location is written well it almost becomes an extra character and I think this is true. Use it to its full advantage to tell your story but make sure it’s the right place or you might well do the opposite!
Are you able to visit? It’s not always essential to see a place first hand and sometimes it’s impossible but it certainly helps to get a feel of the atmosphere a location has if you can. If not, then how are you going to convey this effectively through your writing? Perhaps you could explore it through food from the region you’re able to cook yourself at home or perhaps you know people who hail from that part of the world. You might have to be a bit creative when it comes to creating that sense of place and there are all sorts of ways to do that.
How do you feel about the location? Does it inspire you to produce emotive, evocative writing? Do you love it, hate it, feel scared or moved by it? If you have strong feelings about it you’ll be able to convey them more easily to your readers.
Research! Another obvious point but even if you think you know a place well it pays to check your facts. Failure to do this, sadly, has been my undoing more than once. It’s particularly galling when all the way through a manuscript you refer to a park in a town by a certain name (a town I grew up in and thought I knew extremely well) only to find out that it’s actually called something completely different! You might need to feature a building only well known to locals too, such as a police station, and research will help you to do this accurately. Unless, of course, you make your building up, but if it’s in a real town then the chances are a reader who knows it will call you out on this. You might need to know about laws and customs too. Again, research will be your best friend and help you get the story right. For instance, your story might feature a same sex wedding but if the country you’re setting it in doesn’t allow these then you’ll have to think carefully about how you make this storyline work. But you’ll need this information in the first place.
Does the topography and geography fit with your story? Can you make it work with the tale you’re trying to tell? If it’s a murder mystery are there enough pockets of danger or areas where one can disappear? If it’s a romance, is there enough beauty to provide a romantic backdrop to your emotional moments? Get it right and your location can be like window dressing for your story.
Maps are your friend. When I was writing about Rome so much of the story depended on how quickly I could get Kate from A to B and how she would do that. So I studied the distances on maps and researched means of transport. Even if you’ve visited yourself the time you take to get around a region can be different than what your story needs because your motivations in getting around will be different so it’s useful to have some concrete numbers.
Language can be a problem. I wanted to set a story in Rome featuring a cast of Italians but my own Italian is basic to say the least. This is where a public plea can help. I asked all my Facebook friends if they spoke or knew anyone who spoke Italian and got lots of valuable help that way. Google translate is all well and good but no substitute for an actual language speaker if you want authenticity. I also bought a stack of phrase books and found helpful blogs about chatting up strangers you might meet in Italy!
Guide books can never be underestimated! There are a wealth of very cheap tourist guides and if your location is an iconic one guide books can help to inspire which landmarks to feature for the biggest impact. Again, even if you think you know a location from personal experience it’s useful and interesting to see how others perceive it and every experience adds to your own portrayal. After all, you could visit, say, the Eiffel Tower on a murky afternoon in November and you may not have quite such a magical experience as someone who goes up there on a glorious spring morning and gets a marriage proposal at the top.
YouTube videos are amazing too! Watch everything! Tourists love to film their experiences and as with guide books, it can enrich your portrayal to see how others perceive the place you’re writing about. It’s also fun to see other people’s holidays! The same can be said for real time webcams and many large landmarks now have these installed. A quick Google search will usually throw a link to one up. I spent hours watching people come and go from the Trevi Fountain and I was able to call it work!
Take your reader there. I know this also sounds like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs but if your story is driven by your location then you want your readers to become immersed in it. Use sounds and smells as well as physical characteristics. Look at the food, the climate, the population. Is it dark early or sunny till late? Does the mist roll in from the mountains and linger in the valleys until noon or does the sun burn bright at dawn? You don’t need to tell your reader everything but you can choose to tell them things that transport them – the scent of lemon trees on a hillside, the chirrup of crickets in long grass – little details like that can sometimes convey more than a whole page of description and it’s far more fun to write.