Writing Place


I’m in Nashville today for the Southern Festival of Books, a city I’ve never visited before, a trip I’m taking alone. These last two factors are crucial because, since I know no one here, they force a species of crucial writerly research: where am I going to drink? Or, at very least, where am I going to have dinner?

You know when you are reading a story that’s well anchored in a location because the city (or village, or planet or whatever) feels real in its details, and those details are not wheeled out like an encyclopedia entry but scattered knowingly about like crumbs by the author with apparently careless abandon. It may be research, but it doesn’t feel like research. It feels like the author has lived there all his/her life or—depending on the narrative point of view—that the character has.

This is tough to fake, and it’s one of the reasons that the old Write-What-You-Know mantra still has currency. When you know a town in the way Jim Butcher knows Chicago, say, or Anne Rice knows New Orleans, the reader can feel it. Locals may quibble over fine points, but for the rest of us it grounds the story, makes it seem more palatable and plausible. It gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name, and the story feels real as a result.

But writing what you know is risky, especially for writers who are just starting out, because sometimes the mere fact that you know something to be true feels like a good enough reason to include it in the story. It’s not, of course, and detailing every store on the block your hero walks down is likely to feel show-offy, irrelevant and increasingly annoying.

So how do you get the balance? You want to add enough specifics that the environment is credible, familiar even, without it overwhelming the story.

Last night I spoke to the concierge at my hotel, got a little map, and set off walking a few blocks to an area of Nashville where there was a decent concentration of bars and restaurants. Once there, I peered in windows, considered menus, and selected a barbecue place called Puckett’s Grocery, where they smoke their dry-rubbed ribs for eight hours and serve them with a little corn pancake, sweet baked beans and a potato salad which has enough mustard in it that it looks like scrambled eggs. I got there at happy hour and had two local brews served in moonshine jars, while watching the staff set up the stage for the band that would be playing later. It’s Nashville, of course, so there were signed guitars on the walls, but the clientele were dominated by Steelers fans in town for the Titans game, though it was easy to spot the locals, especially the women. There’s clearly a Nashville ‘look’ where hair, make up and spangly jeans is concerned. It’s both bold and prim, a little Jersey shore goes country.

I’ll spare you more detail, except to say that I feel I could set a scene in a place like that and make it feel like I’d been going there for years. I’d hold on to the map for reference, maybe pull a few online reviews to see what dishes people get enthusiastic about, or if they note a recent change in the service (though I’m unlikely to say anything critical about a real place). I’d probably want to go back (and not just for the ribs) to ask the waitresses a few questions, eves drop on a few tables, and gather a few more physical specifics of the place and its people, but it wouldn’t be hard to make the place feel like it was alive and that my sense of the place wasn’t merely that of a tourist.

Again, the environment I want to write is alive and interesting in its own right, but it’s still basically a set whose purpose is to provide context for the action of the scene. The story is about the people and what they do in that place, and if the setting starts to steal focus, I will pare the detail back.

So next time you are at a loose end and looking for a way to make a scene in your book feel distinct, interesting and real, take a walk. Sitting for an hour by yourself in a strange place makes you rely on your senses in ways you don’t when you are somewhere you already know or when you are with other people. It’s a great way to anchor a scene and—by extension, if you have enough of them—the setting of an entire novel.


10 comments to Writing Place

  • bonesweetbone

    This is something I’ve been struggling with despite writing about the city I’ve spent my whole life in. I think that can make it difficult because over time, you can lose an appreciation for it. I’m not much of a visual person either, so I’m hoping to try and tap into those little details to come up with something a little stronger and deeper. Thanks for showing your process! Haha, now I have I better idea of what to look for!

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting this for two reasons:

    1. It came at me sideways to partially fill in a hole that I didn’t realize was there. I’ll think back on this post when I’m to that level of worldbuilding on the WIP.

    2. You can never know of too many places where you can get good ribs.

  • My problem, and the reason I tend to create fictitious towns or cities, is that where I live/what I know is not all that awesome. It’s definitely not in the top ten US cities to take a trip to visit…unless you really like cows, corn, and orange traffic barrels. However, I’ve walked through the city of New York and can fudge it with Google Earth, some pictures, and a few key location researches. I’ve walked through the French Quarter of New Orleans and with a little research could fudge that. And I can definitely mash elements of multiple cities together and make something that feels slightly familiar to a reader, but still new, a place you’d want to visit…if it actually existed. Of course, all this is also why I write a lot of sci-fi and fantasy and very little real world settings.

    Maybe one day I’ll actually be able to take trips and do research, but for now I’ll have to be satisfied with the internet and my imagination. :\

  • That sounds really neat, AJ. So focusing on a few key details can bring it to life without overwhelming the story?

    I’ve got an interesting situation. My new WIP is set in a city in Florida I will probably never get to visit, but I’m trying to make it as authentic as I can. (Long story, but I can’t change the setting.) I lucked out – two people in my NaNo writing group were able to help. One is a Vancouverite who has spent months working in Florida, so I was able to get some of the setting, and the other person has family in that exact city, and has visited often. I’ve mined them for info and little details to help make it authentic. I’ve also had lots of fun with Google Maps (and the street view). My MC is from Vancouver, which I can definitely write about, and she’s never been there before. I just really hope I can still pull off that authenticity.

  • Nice post, A.J. Wish I could come and see you in Nashville, but of course this is the weekend I’m away for a con in Huntsville.

    I am working on revisions for a book that is set (at least the second half of it) in Las Vegas. I was in Vegas about a year and a half ago as a tourist, and since I am writing the story through the POVs of two characters who don’t know the city all that well, it is the perfect perspective for this book. All this by way of saying, Yes, this. There is so much that can be gleaned from taking just a bit of time to explore, to observe, to absorb. That’s what writers do, right? Even when we’re not at our keyboards, or sitting with pen and paper, we are gathering material for the next project, or the one after that.

  • Vyton

    A.J., I really like your post. The part that struck me is your being in a new town by yourself, and how that sharpens your senses. And,it also allows you to focus on the surroundings rather pay attention to the conversation at your table. It’s also easier to talk with the staff. Thanks for this one.

  • Totally agreed. I’m working on edits for a novelette set in a catholic boarding school in rural North Carolina, so I’m having fun figuring out the details. A short trip to Wilson was enough to make me better able to flesh out the setting.

  • Bone,
    yes, familiar places can be hard to write about because you can’t see what an outside would think makes them distinctive. Try looking at comparable passages in books you like and then emulate their strategies, filling in their specifics with analogues from your own environment.

    agreed on the ribs thing 🙂

    yes, this works equally well for imaginary places. You just need to keep the details specific so that they don’t FEEL imaginary.

    Laura, yes, I think that’s the right way to boil it down: a few choice details (the more unique the better) can make a place feel real without swamping the narrative. Have to say though that I think you should visit your Florida town…

    agreed. The hardest thing to pull off is a character’s deep knowledge of a place which the author doesn’t really know, but more superficial knowledge, the kind you can accrue from experiences like mine last night, is much easier to make feel authentic. And yes, the idea of the writer being a writer even when he/she isn’t writing is spot on. Listen. Observe. This is especially important for fantasy writers who can spend so much time in their imagination that their work can sometimes float away from reality entirely.

    glad it helped. Being in a bar alone no longer means you are a pathetic loser with no friends. It means you are doing research for your next blockbuster 🙂 Works for me.

    Good to hear. Find the quirk and you often find what makes the place feel both distinctive and real.

  • Welcome to my hometown of Nashville, AJ! I didn’t know you were in town. If you have any questions about the city, feel free to drop me a line. 🙂

    As to your post, you are so right that in order to really bring your fictional cities alive, you need to spend time in real ones. If you ar ewriting a story set in a big city, take a weekend get-away to the nearest big city and stroll the streets. DOing so will make your descriptions pop to life with the little things that make a 2D fictional town come to life in vivid technicolor 3D.

    Some writers in this day and age have taken to faking it. If they are writing a story set in Atlanta, they live in say Harrisburg, PA, they hop on the interwebs and Google Map Streetview their way through Atlanta thinking this will be enough to write about it. While Google Maps is great and Streetview is emersive, it cannot replace your feet walking down Peachtree in downtown Hotlanta. Google cannot tell you how the air smells, what the locals wear, what the road feels like, or what is in that little dark alley next to The Underground.

    Like you say, writing should not be a solitary endeavour. The more you get out, the more your writing will grow.

  • Vyton

    *Find the quirk!* That’s great.