The sense of place

Online searches provide much detailed information about a place: layout, history, buildings and objects of interest, entertainments; and in the case of a university town or city, data about university life and organisation. There are maps, there are photographs, there are accolades. But if you intend to set part of your story in that place, no such wealth of detail is sufficient. You have to get your feet on the ground. You have to experience the location directly, see it, hear it, smell it, feel it, otherwise it won’t come alive in your writing.

This is why I’ve been able to attack the novel with renewed vigour since I returned from Durham. I’m not putting much description of Durham or its university into the text, but I’m adding occasional sentences, phrases, even particular words, that I wouldn’t have been able to supply if I hadn’t made the visit. The place is now clear and vivid in my mind, so I’ll be able to evoke appropriate images for the reader: a real live Durham for people who know the city, a plausibly imagined one for those who don’t.

It’s the same principle as the “back-story”. You have to know more about your characters than you ever put in the novel, otherwise their thoughts and actions won’t make sense to you and therefore not to the reader. Without back-stories, your characters don’t live. Without genuine acquaintance with location, neither do your settings.

And research of this sort is fun! My visit to Durham was a delightful short holiday, even though it was ‘work’. When I’ve completed the first draft of this book – by the end of the present calendar year, I hope – I shall go again, purely in the interests of recreation. It’s a lovely city.


  • So you’re saying to be a good writer… I would have to LEAVE THE HOUSE!?!!??

    Egads. Then I might as well have been an actor. (For what is a writer, if not an actor hiding behind the script? Though, of course, an actor creating the entire role, not just interpreting a role thought up by someone else. Or perhaps a puppeteer is more apt–pulling the strings of ALL the actors/characters in the writing? A firetruck! (No, no, I can’t be a firetruck.) Mayhap I’ll just go lie down a bit…)

  • Mark Henderson

    I know, Mishka. Having to leave the house is a traumatic experience, or prospect, or notion.

    The problem with a novel is that you’re not one actor, you’re several: first one voice, then another, then the occasional whisper from the back of a stage emanating from a minor character whose name you’ve forgotten, if you knew it in the first place. It tends to scramble the brain, so I’m told, but perhaps has less deleterious consequence for those of us whose brains are pre-scrambled. One does occasionally have to lie down.

    But not a puppeteer, methinks. Of course you always try to be a puppeteer, but unless the puppets come to life and break free of the strings or tangle them inextricably, it’s going to be a failed novel. You write a detailed plan before you start writing, but the plan is a cage and the best characters are continually trying to break out of it. It’s hard work to make them behave, especially when they’re stronger, more resilient and more determined than the author.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had an inclination to become a firetruck. I agree, it would be a challenge.

  • Ah, yes — I concur (puppeteer-wise) and retract that possibility… although now you’ve left me with the notion of puppets coming to life and breaking free to entangle ME in their strings — but I’ll get over it (and hopefully before bedtime)…

    Incidental aside: I was recently reading an introduction to ‘The Odyssey’ and it had a whole deal about writing vs. (essentially) storytelling that reminded me of you… though there did not seem to be any sort of consummate conclusion — still, now I’ll no doubt always associate you with Homer. And, of course, he also had a penchant for myths & folklore, so apropos for several reasons…

    • Mark Henderson

      I am much honoured by the comparison. Nevertheless, I recall a former colleague mentioning the conjecture that Homer wasn’t an individual but a sort of collective of poets, oral story-tellers, with at least one scribe. “You know,” she elaborated, “a group of guys who’ve drunk too much, sitting around a camp-fire telling lies.” So would I be more effectively creative if a group of me assembled around a camp-fire seeking to outdo each other in inebriated mendacity? One can but wonder.

  • Methinks such a happenstance couldst lead to fights — or one helluva good time! (Or both.)

    There are those who prefer to think that “Shakespeare” wasn’t written by Shakespeare, too. I guess, personally, I prefer to think (for either Homer or Shakespeare), in the absence of any certain evidence to the contrary, sometimes genius just happens.

    • Mark Henderson

      I agree! I’ve never known communal storytelling to lead to fisticuffs but it’s easy to see how it could. But a good time is generally had by all.

      I agree also about the genius sometimes happening, and we might as well call the genius Homer, or Shakespeare, or whatever name is appropriate as any other.

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