Location, location, location ~ How important is a sense of place in a novel?

Is a strong sense of place important for a novel’s success?

Good characterisation is vital for a successful novel, as is a sense of the time period. In fact the era, whether a modern setting or in the past,  needs to seep into every nook and cranny of the plot, dialogue, setting and language too, but I also believe that the best novels are rooted firmly in a clear sense of place. A good novel transports you to somewhere else, allowing you to travel without leaving your favourite  armchair. The reader should be able to picture the location in their mind and live with the characters as their lives weave through the plot.

Which places are associated with authors and which authors use a sense of place as part of their identity?

Crime and mystery novels use the setting to give atmosphere, tension and contrast; the latter being the key…. danger and safety……. dark and light……the sandy, sunlight beach and the gloomy alleyway for example, but to make a series there also needs to be consistency to draw the reader back. You associate Peter James with Brighton, Ian Rankin with Edinbugh, (whose latest novel is ranked number 12 in the Amazon top 100 today) Colin Dexter with Oxford (Inspector Morse!), Stieg Larsson with Sweden……the list goes on.

Then there’s the popular fiction of the late Maeve Binchy, rooted firmly in Ireland and more recent successful authors like Victoria Hislop, who I will always associate with the deep-blue seascapes of Greece, although her latest novel is set in Spain, I believe.

Jodi Picoult’s successful books are challenging and thought provoking. She chooses topics to be controversial and stretch the reader’s understanding of their own values and sometimes highlight their misconceptions, but ‘place’ is important in each of her novels, whether it be a prison, hospital or courtroom. I loved ‘The Tenth Circle’ as much because its descriptions of Alaska and the way of life of modern Eskimos was describes so vividly, that it took me out of my comfort zone and transported me to a world I know nothing about.

Certainly the classics, which influence many writers, reflect this view of an identity with ‘place’…. Daphne De Maurier’s Cornwall, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and  The Bronte sisters’ Yorkshire. Mind you, although Jane Austen is associated with many places including Bath, her characters went all over England and I can’t count the number of towns where I’ve seen claims of connections with Dickens.

Should you only write about a location you know well?

The advice is to write only about a place you are truly familiar with but, if you don’t live there, certainly you need to spend a considerable amount of time on location, researching, walking and observing, noting down characteristics, descriptions of places, atmosphere and associated events. It is helpful to keep a map to hand and check details as meticulously as you can.

In the first edition of my novel Riduna, I was coloured by childhood visits to the island of Alderney. We called the town ‘St Anne’s’ and not ‘St Anne’ and pronounced Saye Bay, ‘Say’ Bay and not ‘Soy’ Bay, as the locals do, and they have since been quick to put me right. As I’ve visited regularly as an adult, the island has seeped deeper into my psyche and I am influenced more by experience than memories.

Does it matter if you don’t get the facts right? After all it’s fiction.

Yes it does actually. Having said that, it doesn’t pay to be defensive if someone tells you that you have made a minor error. Embrace it and be pleased to receive feedback. It means that the person has read your novel and has cared enough about it to contact you. Local people are understandably defensive about their own patch and you need to reach out to them and gain their trust. I’ve met some wonderful people when I’ve been out and about, who have shared all sorts of memories and personal stories over the last few years. Build bridges and not fences. When I was researching for Riduna a local historian remarked, ‘There’s so little actually written down about Alderney in Victorian times, and much that was written was destroyed during the occupation of WW2. Mind you,’ he said with a sudden thought, ‘why don’t you write about the previous century. You could virtually make the story up since records are virtually non-existent!’

If you don’t know a place well, then why not create one?

An alternative is to dream up a totally imaginative world, the most famous being Tolkein’s Middle Earth, but more recently Bernard Cornwell’s series, although set in Viking and Saxon England, contains a world so far in the past that it has a huge scope for pure imagination and creativity. This requires as much planning, and time consuming cross referencing, as visiting a real place, if the finished result is to be authentic and believable, but it does have the advantage that you have no need to travel away from your front room.

Can a place be as powerful as a character?

Yes, it certainly can. A place can be compelling, drawing the characters and the reader forward to their goal, or repelling and driving them away. It can live deep within the heart of a hero or heroine, as moving as any love affair, ever pulling them back. The word ‘home’ is an extremely emotive word. Where is home? This is an important question to ask. The character may be a  lost soul, with no true roots, but even then they may have a desire to be rooted, which moves the story forward, or a desire to cover their tracks at all costs and start a new life anew, reinventing themselves.

Does your narrative paint a picture in the eyes of the reader?

If you see a photograph, what captions or stories do they evoke?

 A church ruin on an icy evening

A single traveller on a cruise of a lifetime

An exotic location; an island of mystery?

With each photograph my mind races with ideas for a novel or story, but does your novel transport the reader to an exciting destination as powerfully as a photo. I believe it should do, but does it have to?

Does there need to be a sense of place in a novel? A personal view.

I have enjoyed books where ‘place’ is not so important and the plot shines, weaving it’s way through the lives of the characters, but I don’t find them nearly as memorable, however well written, exciting, funny or compelling they seem to be at the time of reading. It doesn’t matter whether it is a place I know well, or have visited on holiday, or dream of going to one day. For me, it is the setting of the novel which tends to be the deciding factor in whether the book remains on my shelves or be taken to the nearest charity shop. If it is given a home then the book reminds me to look out for the author’s next release, otherwise it just joins the thousands of stories in the ‘library of forgotten book.’ Now that was in a great novel wasn’t it….. what was it called?


Filed under Book reading, Planning a novel, Reading a novel, Research, Writing, Writing a novel

2 responses to “Location, location, location ~ How important is a sense of place in a novel?

  1. I agree that a sense of place is hugely important in a novel. Am currently working on the second in my series of cosy crime novels set in the Kent countryside – as yet unpublished 🙂 And while the pleasant rural setting is the main source of ‘cosiness’, it also creates a interesting juxtaposition with the murders. My village of Lower Parden is a fictionalised amalgam of several places in the area in which I grew up. It was the wonderful sense of place in The Book of Ebenezer Le Page that first drew me to Guernsey, as you know. Interesting that that writer, too, was exiled from his childhood home… I’m currently really enjoying Christopher Fowler’s dark and witty Bryant and May series in which London itself is so significant it’s virtually a character. Really interesting piece – thanks, Diana.

    • I must read Ebenezer Le Page. Thanks for reminding me. Look forward to your murder mystery. Funnily enough I’m having a break from The Riduna Series and writing a murder mystery too. We’ll have to share notes. Glad we’re in touch:-)

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