4 Tips to Improve the Feeling of Place in Your Writing

(I love this quote, and couldn't agree with Eudora more)

My books are set in the Adirondack Park, and more specifically the Tri-Lakes area (including, for those interested, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, and Lake Placid); this place is important to me as a person and as a writer.

Numerous readers and reviewers have commented that the feeling of place in my stories almost makes it seem another character; this isn't anything I do intentionally, it's just an outgrowth of the pre-planning activities I indulge/engage in before I begin writing.

Having a clear picture of the place, or places, that my stories and characters will inhabit makes it much easier for me to write; the sense of place gives me something to hang the stories on.

Although in a writer's lexicon, setting includes time as well as physical location, let's talk about setting in terms of simply the location for a moment (since my books deal exclusively with the present, or very recent past).

The setting of your story provides the environment through which your characters and plot and conflict move and advance; if those other elements are well-seated in the setting, as in the diamond ring above, then your story has a much greater chance of success, and not falling out and getting lost (to truly abuse the metaphor).

There are four things that I do before, and while, writing every story that help to establish the story's setting, most especially in terms of the feeling/sense of place, which will provide a solid foundation upon which to build the rest of your story (think of them as the four prongs of the setting above).

I'll explain them below through the lens of a recent series of pre-writing exercises that I engaged in while preparing to start a piece of serial fiction I'm hoping to start the release of in January.

1) Site Visits: I've lived in, and explored, the Adirondacks for more than forty years, and am generally very familiar with the places that I write about, but I always take the time for site visits as early as possible in my pre-writing process (and then again as needed while writing).

Memories and drive-bys aren't enough for me, I need to get out and tromp around. The physical act of exploring a place that I want to include in a story helps my brain start doing the proper things needed to include details in the upcoming writing.

(I recently too a site visit to an abandoned apple orchard that the forest is slowly reclaiming ...
we got there early enough in the day for some lingering fog and dew on everything)

2) Sensory Exploration/Immersion: An important part of the experience for me is to find a way to experience the location using as many of my senses as I can easily (safely?) manage.

I like to feel the cold or hot on my skin, rub a finger along the bark or moss or glacial erratics and sit or roll around on the ground; to listen to the birds and beasts and bugs and the wind in the trees or grass; to stop frequently to breathe deep in the smells native to each place and reflect on why it smells that way; to look for colors, muted or bright, shadows, deep and dark or tiny, and shapes, tall and thin or squat and round or spooky or comforting ... I was going to say that I don't taste things in the places I visit before writing, but I do; the sharp/sweet taste of tiny unripe apples, the acrid grassy taste of cool moss plucked off of a boulder, the clean dirt taste of old twigs.

All of these things help me to build a feeling for the place, and eventually will make it easier to include it in my writing.

(I took this while exploring an area that my homeless protagonist lives in ... the morning fog and cold and feel and sound of the woods is all captured quite nicely in this picture)

3) The Buddy System: Whenever possible, I like to bring someone else along with me on my explorations, and talk with them about what we see and do while out in the field. They'll often see things that I miss, but even if they don't, we are bound to experience the place differently, and those differences are useful to me when taking notes after the fact.

When I visited the orchard with my son, he was drawn to the still mostly-open fields, while I was focused on the tree-shaded areas ... it provided a nice balance, and eventually helped me re-think some of my assumptions about wild places and open space and the edges of the places mankind tames and then lets go again.

(My son, Ben, came along with me on the site visit to the old orchard ... seeing it through his eyes, and hearing about it through description to my wife, was invaluable)

4) Aids to Recall and Writing: Clearly I take pictures on these field trips, but beyond simple recording, I try to capture images that will remind me of what it felt like to walk in those places.

There were a number of signs of long-ago farming in and around the old orchard, this milk jug among them (also some strands of barbwire fencing grown inches into large trees, stone walls enclosing ancient pasture lands, and so on).

Spider webs were everywhere, highlighted by dew and the sunshine coming in at a low angle ... I'm sure they're always there, but they felt even more present on that morning.

I'm a big fan of glacial erratics, and my protagonist will be living in a shelter built against this one at the edge of the orchard.

Beyond these, and other, photographs, I recorded some audio of the wind going through the leaves of trees and blades of grass at different points along our exploratory path through and around the abandoned orchard. I also took a small apple from one of the trees, and a tiny shard of mossy rock from an old stone wall. I wrote down a quick set of notes as soon as I got home ... my impressions of our walk in the woods and orchard and overgrown fields in the backcountry.

These things, taken as a whole, provide a powerful set of stimuli that make it easier for me to picture, and understand, and write about, this place; I get them out and take advantage of the recall they bring either before or during my writing time.

Some of these steps may be overkill, but none of them take much time or effort, so I'm content to make the investment; so far, it's been working for me in writing stories with a rich sense of place.


This sounds a bit trite, but is true nonetheless ... if you can paint a nice picture of a place with your writing, your reader will have an easier time with their suspension of disbelief and enjoy your story that much more.

As a result of following these four tips in establishing a feeling of place for my upcoming serial fiction project, I was able to create this cover image, which feels about right to me, based on the place I visited and hold in my head. I may alter the cover somewhat before publication, but this is pretty close to what I picture in my head.



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