Tuesday, May 05, 2009

You Are Here

I'm sure you've all seen maps with a dot or arrow or other marker and the words, "You Are Here." That's because it's important to know where you are. That pertains not only to everyday life, but also to the writing life.

If anyone read my Where Am I blog yesterday at http://makeminemystery.blogspot.com/
the answer is -
Heading North on Interstate 39/US51 near Wausau, Wisconsin, with a west view of Rib Mountain. The snow's still on it because the sun doesn't hit that side of the mountain.

When you write a novel, one important aspect to consider is setting. You need to ground the reader in where the story happens. It's not enough to mention where everything takes place. You need to go deeper, and include sights, smells, sounds and taste.

You can go for the obvious by mentioning famous landmarks, such as Rib Mountain, near Wausau, and/or you can describe other scenery, such as office buildings, lakes, or farm lands. Don't forget sun or rain. You'll find lots more sun in places like Arizona all year round, than in spots like Illinois. Ireland and England are more famous for rain.

Smells are also easy. No matter where you are, you'll smell something. Hospitals have that antiseptic odor, fresh air has its own clean smell, cars, buses and trucks let off exhaust fumes. Bakeries have an aroma to die for. You get the idea.

Some ways to describe sounds are songs of birds specific to the area, such as the cry of the loon in the North Woods of Wisconsin. Cardinals, robins, sparrows, you can find in a lot of places, but you may not hear their songs in certain parts of the U.S. unless it's Spring or Summer. Jets zooming across the sky are a daily occurrence in metropolitan areas, but not as much around farms. The sound of a helicopter almost always means trouble, since they tend to hover around news scenes. School bells, boat motors, and other specific sounds can identify where you are.

Taste is also a great way to describe where you are. Certain foods are more popular in certain countries, areas and/or populations. On Taylor Street in Chicago, known as Little Italy, you'll probably find more people eating spaghetti than corned beef. More examples are popcorn at movies and hot dogs at baseball games.

Can you name other ways to identify location? Have you included such tips in your own novels, or perhaps you've noticed a great example in someone else's book. Please share.


  1. Anonymous8:16 AM

    This is a good topic. Food can be a great way to get some "feel" for where the story is, especially ethnic food, of course. Also, mentioning the time of year and the weather lets the reader know a lot. If it's January and warm, you're definitely not in Michigan! LOL

    Little things, all adding up, can give the reader the feel and sense of where they are without putting up a "You Are Here." sign.

  2. Anonymous9:20 AM

    Yay, I was right! At least, generally.

  3. Enjoyed this interesting and informative post. Thanks!

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  4. Cool post and something i'd never thought about.

  5. Nice post. Hope you are having fun!

  6. I like the idea of regional or ethnic food use as a way to solidify location. The NorthEast may be more amenable to seafood: lobster, crab, etc. The South may be more heavily laden with the smoky scent of sweet honey barbeue. Here in the Southwest we're big on chili and Mexican food.

    Another thing to keep in mind when being descriptive . . . does the sound have an accompanying visual? For instance, if you're walking through snow, it has a wet, powdery crunch underfoot, but if you're shuffling through it drier snow will tend to spray or fan out in front of you as you step through it.

    Out here in Arizona the summers aren't just hot. they feel like a chasm has opened exposing Hell.

  7. Interesting post! I hadn't thought about all the senses being involved in identifying location. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Houston and the greater Houston area host a multitude of annual festivals. Mentioning them might not mean much to others, but locals know which festivals take place in the Spring and which in the Fall.


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