How much description needed for sense of place?


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Thread: How much description needed for sense of place?

  1. #1

    How much description needed for sense of place?

    I am writing a novel as well as a collection of memoirs about "homesteading" on 10 acres of raw land in my 20s.

    My background and life has always been on Canada's west coast, with lots of long narrow channels between islands, the forest fragrant with the strong smell of evergreens wafting over the water, rocky shores, kelp beds, seals, whales and seagulls. For me a lot of smells are significant, like the scent of a freshly cut down tree, the stench of rotting salmon on a river bank after spawning and the mixed fragrance of percolated coffee and diesel exhaust on the deck of a fishboat just to name a few.

    The population I grew up with and I worked with was sometimes rough around the edges and unusually capable of taking on just about any task to survive.

    But in my writing I include very little of this, sticking in just hints here and there.

    I am always uncertain if I am describing the setting and people adequately. Am I leaving too much description out assuming the reader will like me, automatically feel the sense of place? I'm so close to it in my memory that I can feel and smell the ambience and maybe I'm forgetting to describe it enough.

    I've been corresponding with another member here about this.

    She said that an English teacher once told her to write the story that needed to be told--no more and no less than what needed to be told. Well, she phrased it better. In other words, let the story determine the amount of description that is appropriate.
    Last edited by MichelD; May 27th, 2019 at 08:34 PM.

  2. #2
    If the setting is crucial to the story then more description would be appropriate so that the reader understands the plot. There are no rules like you quoted above. If the above were the case then Dickens and Melville would never have sold a book.

  3. #3
    Glad to welcome an 'Influential writer' to the site, I am inclined to agree with you, most people round here know my attitude to rules Perhaps if you don't include much background then it is because it isn't your strongest point in writing? On the other hand if you can still smell the forest maybe you could write it up a storm! Write what you are good at.
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  4. #4
    Thanks for the welcome and your agreement with my response. Of course, there have to be some rules or parameters with writing but I like to believe that since writing is a creative art, the rules are meant to be broken

  5. #5
    I'm a sucker for location and culture, but if it's in a fictional sense, I like it balanced with plot and relationship development etc. Some writers can get a setting over in a few sentences, some can really take you there with a lot more, but both have been gold-star reads. It's when there's not enough or too much that's the issue. The Goldilocks effect, lol. All readers are different, so it's learning to write what you love to see in a story first, then testing it out with readers after that.
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  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by MichelD View Post

    I am always uncertain if I am describing the setting and people adequately. Am I leaving too much description out assuming the reader will like me, automatically feel the sense of place? I'm so close to it in my memory that I can feel and smell the ambience and maybe I'm forgetting to describe it enough.

    I've been corresponding with another member here about this.

    She said that an English teacher once told her to write the story that needed to be told--no more and no less than what needed to be told. Well, she phrased it better. In other words, let the story determine the amount of description that is appropriate.
    I think one of the best ways to get this sense of place onto the page is to first get that sense of place in you. If you live there, or if you read alot from that area (I did this with Stephen King, who fornmed my early-teenage sense of what America was like, long before I ever went there) you will pick up the sensory things (scents, as you say, sounds, heat, and so forth), the regional quirks of speech, the things that are important to the people. I'm a big fan of geograhpy. Get a good feel for the salient points of the land and let them feature. Once they are in you, you will have an easier time expressing them in your writing.

    Concerning your correspondence with the other member, that's sound advice but I dunno, it is a little too reductive for me. "How do I write with a sense of place?" "Focus on the story!". How do you determine what is "needed"? Technically, very little of it is needed - I mean, you could sum up the story in a line, a paragraph, a synopsis, or you could just leave it untold - but I am guessing you want something a little more immersive. I am a little wary - sorry, unnamed other member! - of advice whose general thrust is "cut, cut, cut!", particularly around first draft stages, because I have seen many writers excise every last ounce of magic from their text way too soon, way before they really get going, simply because it was not part of the bare bones, only to be left demoralised and staring and a page that while not blank still somehow manages to have very little on it. So I would say, and thinking of those early drafts, let it fly, let yourself overwrite, do the land justice and honour it via your writing as you try and capture it just so, just right. Take joy in that process. Let it free as an artistic expression of a place. Then, hopefully, whatever little quirks of the area you have picked up and made part of yourself will flow out.


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  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by MichelD View Post
    I am writing a novel as well as a collection of memoirs about "homesteading" on 10 acres of raw land in my 20s.

    My background and life has always been on Canada's west coast, with lots of long narrow channels between islands, the forest fragrant with the strong smell of evergreens wafting over the water, rocky shores, kelp beds, seals, whales and seagulls. For me a lot of smells are significant, like the scent of a freshly cut down tree, the stench of rotting salmon on a river bank after spawning and the mixed fragrance of percolated coffee and diesel exhaust on the deck of a fishboat just to name a few.

    The population I grew up with and I worked with was sometimes rough around the edges and unusually capable of taking on just about any task to survive.

    But in my writing I include very little of this, sticking in just hints here and there.

    I am always uncertain if I am describing the setting and people adequately. Am I leaving too much description out assuming the reader will like me, automatically feel the sense of place? I'm so close to it in my memory that I can feel and smell the ambience and maybe I'm forgetting to describe it enough.

    I've been corresponding with another member here about this.

    She said that an English teacher once told her to write the story that needed to be told--no more and no less than what needed to be told. Well, she phrased it better. In other words, let the story determine the amount of description that is appropriate.
    I think the key to achieving good setting is for you, the writer to really see it yourself first.

    I find that if/when I can achieve a really clear image of the location, and not just a visual one but in terms of sounds, smells, etc. that achieving a vivid sense of place is sort of easy because it flows through other things, often in ways you won't necessarily realize because you will assume its obvious but that somebody who is not from the location will be impacted by.

    Things like including regional words, especially through dialogue, are very effective at this. Place names somewhat. Local fauna and flora. Depicting references to climate and local issues - economic and political forces in play. Local customs, avoiding super obvious cliches and stereotypes.

    Pretty much anything that is authentic to the way of life in the location you are depicting will achieve place. You don't need to necessarily describe the geography.

  8. #8
    Your personal style, the tone of the story itself, and the effect you want to achieve all are factors in your use of description. Sometimes a few carefully chosen words can convey a powerful image, or other times, based on your goal for the description, you might want to spend a few more words to get the right effect.

    The barn stood silhouetted against the setting sun, its roof slumped and sagging, shingles falling like autumn leaves.

    or

    The barn had been weakened by time and weather. Once strong and robust its sides now bowed outward, pushed by its atrophied frame, sheathing boards popped loose and pointing haphazardly, like twigs on a fallen limb. The roof, no longer straight and true, now curved like a saddle, shaped no longer by the hands of craftsmen, but contorted by wetness and rot, slumped by the weight of too many winters and too little care.
    “Fools” said I, “You do not know
    Silence like a cancer grows
    Hear my words that I might teach you
    Take my arms that I might reach you”
    But my words like silent raindrops fell
    And echoed in the wells of silence : Simon & Garfunkel


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  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Terry D View Post
    Your personal style, the tone of the story itself, and the effect you want to achieve all are factors in your use of description. Sometimes a few carefully chosen words can convey a powerful image, or other times, based on your goal for the description, you might want to spend a few more words to get the right effect.

    The barn stood silhouetted against the setting sun, its roof slumped and sagging, shingles falling like autumn leaves.

    or

    The barn had been weakened by time and weather. Once strong and robust its sides now bowed outward, pushed by its atrophied frame, sheathing boards popped loose and pointing haphazardly, like twigs on a fallen limb. The roof, no longer straight and true, now curved like a saddle, shaped no longer by the hands of craftsmen, but contorted by wetness and rot, slumped by the weight of too many winters and too little care.
    A lot of times people confuse 'the right effect' with 'the strongest/vividest/most dramatic effect' and that's been a real lesson for me over the last few years.

    Comparing these two examples of the barn: The first is what I would use to describe an object. The second is what I would use to describe a character.

    So...is the barn a character? Maybe. We see this all the time with descriptions of houses, boats, heirlooms and, of course, weather. It's powerful, but it's heavy on the stomach.

    When a story contains too many such descriptions it becomes overwrite.

  10. #10
    Sair field hinny.

    I guess it is like a description of a person because of the terms like 'strong and robust' which so often describe people. In the dictionary atrophied can be-: (of body tissue or an organ) wasted away or rudimentary.
    "atrophied muscles" ·
    or,
    having lost effectiveness or vigour due to underuse or neglect. (their example is of the economy)
    for example, and 'bowed is so often backs and legs. It is a bit overdone, but that is pretty normal when writing an example.
    Visit my website to read and connect to my 'soundcloud', where you can listen to stories songs and more
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