12 January 2019

Don't Mess With The Reader: 2 A Sense of Place

The festive break saw me catching up on my fiction reading, which led to an unexpected amount of eye-rolling and some muttering beneath my breath. The titles were a mix of mainstream, small press and indie, but it was the mainstream which made me stare. Were these novels signed off while the editors were on leave?

The problems I focus on in this short series should never have made it as far as a publisher’s editor; they should have been picked up by the agent lauded in the Acknowledgements, better still the author’s beta reader/s before it reached the agent’s desk.

The bottom line is, though, they should have been noticed by the author during the writing and corrected. It is the author’s name on the cover; it is the author’s responsibility.

Last week I started with Openings, this time it is A Sense of Place.

He trudged up the road and crossed the canal.
Trudged is good, it gives a sense of the character’s mindset: he’s reluctantly going to a destination. Or he’s tired and making himself find the energy to continue. Or… The reason he’s trudging will be contained within the preceding paragraphs. One set of words imbues a sub-text on another set, if they are chosen with care. Think of the difference had the line been... He walked up the road and crossed the canal. As is the original, it is an authorial statement, but its tone is flat; it give nothing away. There is no subtext.

Except… except the novel in question is a Historical set in the late 1920s.

He trudged up the road and crossed the canal.
Was he totally alone, or did he share the road with motor vehicles, horse-drawn carters, cyclists? Or was there a separate pavement? Was the road’s surface smooth or cobbled; did it carry tram-lines? What noises did he hear? What smells drifted his way? Was the road fronted by houses: rundown tenement or cared-for single-family homes? Was the road fronted by shops: were the windows crammed with goods, or were goods hanging outside, or stacked in boxes for show? Was the upper storey covered in painted advertisements? Did anyone step aside for him, speak to him, try to tempt him inside a shop or give him a desultory look? How did he cross the canal: metal bridge, humped stone bridge, or the narrow, boarded walkway above lock-gates spilling water? Was there a narrowboat: coal-filthy or brightly painted proclaiming its cargo of china? Was it engine-driven or horse-drawn? Were children playing on the towpath? Was the…? You get the idea.

No reader wants an ultra-detailed description, it slows the story and can easily wander into infodump territory, but readers do want snippets, teasers from which to build their own mental pictures so the glimpsed setting can be enhanced into a 3D experience. Far too often all I got from my reading were named voices moving from one whiteout vacuum to another. It was as if the writers had little idea of what constituted the setting in which their characters lived and how it was impinging on them.

A Sense of Place is needed for every genre and time period. It often comes from the five senses of the viewpoint character: sight, hearing, smell, taste, feel. Be it a busy office, a space station, an empty prairie or the inside of a car, there needs to be A Sense of Place for the reader to believe in the characters and their dilemmas. And think what subtext lies waiting there.

Next time: 3 Characters

Starting out? Reading A Writer’s Mind… covers everything from plot elements to the use of alliteration, rhythm and subliminal detailing. Paperback or ebook. Gain an insider’s view:

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  1. Your use of this "sense of place" is one of the reasons I love reading your works.

    1. Oooh thanks, Sharon. (Butt on chair time, then!)