Writing About Place
Techniques for writing about real places and settings effectively.
Regardless of genre, the use of setting in creative writing is of singular importance. However, there are further complications to the use of real world settings in your writing. Whether an author claims an alternative history, or a parallel world, there are particular expectations from readers about the way in which a setting in a real place is shaped. This following discussion is going to outline a number of recommendations for writers when considering how to best develop real settings.
Meg Mundell in her discussion of literary place-making comments that “every story takes place somewhere,” 1 and offers the five modes of place-orientated experiential techniques (POETs) as a structure for writers. Mundell’s model is a practice-based framework designed to help with the process of literary place-making. As a set of techniques it is well considered and offers useful advice specifically to those writing in real places.
The five POET techniques are Retrospective, Immersive, Collaborative, Vicarious and Nebulous, and will be unpacked in more detail through the following discussion. I will also discuss some perceived complications, adjacent values, and demonstrations of application. This discussion is designed to offer writing advice, but is not a step by step writing process, rather I invite the reader to take from it what would best benefit your own writing.
POET One: Retrospective technique
The first technique Mundell outlines concerns the harnessing of place-based personal memories. Both recent and older memories can be utilised and can often be a powerful source as our memories are not the visuals alone. Rather memories come with additional sensory and emotional information that can help an author provide a setting with more than just description. The retrospective technique, Mundell states, is drawing on autobiographical memories of place.
It is easy to see the value in starting here. Most authors will draw from their own experiences when developing their narratives anyway. This may not correspond directly to the plot or characters, but rather is often utilised in a myriad of ways throughout the stories. For instance, an author could consider the inclusion of a particular habit that takes place in a certain setting. Such as crouching down to run their fingers through the sand when they visit the beach. Or it could include a preference by a character for a certain season or time of the day. Even without noticing most authors will utilise their own preferences and memories to populate a narrative’s setting.
Memories, as mentioned, are incredibly powerful. It is not just the visualisation but the encoded states that accompany these. For example, when trying to utilise the setting of a windswept coast in the narrative, a writer may remember the coast line where they grew up. This will be encoded with polysensual information such as smells and tastes, the feel of the cold air on their skin, or how the salt stings sunburnt skin, or how cold the water is first thing in the morning. It will also be populated with corresponding emotions, such as pleasure, joy, or even grief and despair. This is a rich place for an author to draw from to help create settings that resonate meaningfully with the reader.
A retrospection does not need to rely upon memory alone. Photographs, video, even collected items from visiting these places can be useful. They can help clarify descriptive details, such as the specific type of blue of the ocean in the morning. They could also provide context for memories, such as exactly where something is located. This can be useful to then prompt further research into that place. They may also work to jog memories that have faded with time.
There is power in harnessing these personal memories. At times it can be easy as a writer to focus on the plot and dialogue, to the degree when a scene becomes merely talking heads in a vacuum. Retrospective techniques invite the author to immerse themselves within a place. To feel and exist in that place. Polysensual inclusions in writing are important, these refer to the use of senses in writing, but more specifically the use of multiple senses (as opposed to just sight, which is just description) when creating place. 3 By drawing not only on sight, but also on the sound of the crashing waves, the smell and taste of salt in the air, the feel of the breeze on the skin, all of this creates a more meaningful sense of place than simply describing a blue ocean.
POET Two: Immersive technique
The immersive technique is the direct encountering or experiencing of a place. This refers to the use of site visits by the author themselves. This has already the obvious limitation of access. A site that is difficult to access, especially in a Covid world, can limit the availability a writer has to the immersive technique. However, this limitation is confined to very specific places. For instance, I may not be able to visit a market in Delhi easily, but I can visit both in-closed and outdoor markets near my home. No, I am not going to be able to capture the resonance, the very flavour, of the real experience, but there are commonalities that I can access. To divide this into two categories I want to examine immersion in specific place and immersion in general place.
Immersion in specific places
Immersion in specific places refers to the ability to actually visit a location. Mundell refers to this as the primary purpose of this technique and highlights the importance of accessing “an immediate sensory and emotional engagement with place.” 4 This is a powerful experience, to be able to stand in a real place and just be in the moment. This can be especially powerful when we consider very unique opportunities, such as visiting the pyramids in Egypt or to go snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef. Such real experiences would be hard to mimic even through the viewing of film, documentaries and photographs of that place. It is also helpful when visiting such specific places to create your own documents that can be used throughout the writing process using the retrospective technique.
The immersion in a specific place can also be about capturing specific themes, tones and polysensory information that are unique to not just that place, but the specific time you are there. For instance, visiting the highlands of Scotland is very different in summer and winter to the degree that it can feel as if they are completely different places. The contrast of the place to also the writer’s own sense of place is very important. To understand and perceive a different cultural or historical location can be hard to experience without being there, without experiencing the “culture shock” for yourself. These are experiences that make it hard to replicate in any other way.
Immersion in a specific place is also about time. To visit the Cairo souks for the day may give a small snap shot of that place, but to spend a month visiting at different times and with different people would begin to help capture the essence of the uniqueness of these bazaars. Immersion can also offer the access of the collaborative technique, where talking and getting to know the people in a place can help shape an understanding of what it means, its very spirit. Finally, immersion in a specific place can also be a place the writer has lived their life, a place they have seen every season with, a place that is resonate already with their lived experiences. This is an immersion that is hard to replicate for any other writer.
Immersion in general places
However, as mentioned, a writer cannot always access a real place, and not always for a long enough period of time to develop a deep understanding of the essence of place. There are other techniques, such as retrospective if you’ve visited before, or collaborative by accessing other’s experiences, that can be used to off set this. However, this does not diminish the importance of drawing on immersive techniques.
A story is made up of a hundred small places. The larger setting may be Cairo, but there will be cafes, streets, museums, parks, waterways, farms, lounges, kitchens, bedrooms, and more. A hundred little places that all have their own construction and add to a larger real sense of place. An immersion in general places can help support the construction of these. What are the smells and sounds of a café? How does it feel to stand in a park in the middle of the city in the middle of Autumn? What ways do people set up their bedrooms and what does this say about them? An author can engage with real places in an immersive manner wherever they are.
What then is the act of the immersive technique? The act of immersion is captured well in its definition. It is first to have an “absorbing involvement.” 5 What does this mean? It means not being on your phone, not thinking about what to have for dinner. It means actively working through a set of observations: what do I see? what makes this place unique/special/important? what do I feel/smell/taste? what are the levels of sound present; obvious, ambient, distinct, uncommon? The writer needs to be absorbed in the place and focus only on the recording of the place. Later visits it can be useful to then picture how your character/s interact with the place, but for the first visits it needs to be an absorbed involvement.
Secondly, it is “based on extensive exposure to surroundings…that are native or pertinent to the object of study.” 6 This is more referring to being immersed in learning, but this can apply to the writer. We are making an extensive study of place. This refers to the need to return multiple times to the same place to learn its different moods. It is helpful also during these processes of immersion to keep autoethnographic (auto – personal experience, ethno – understand experience, graphy – to analyse) 7 notes of your own thoughts and experiences of the place and reflect upon your interpretation of place based on your own personal history. For instance the emotional tenor of your writing about a particular park could be impacted by the fact you were dumped here by your greatest love. This does not diminish the value of your observations, but it needs to be reflected upon that this could influence your construction of the sensory elements of that place. For instance, when describing the park’s dreary, miserable environment, this is perhaps not the place to set the most uplifting part of your story.
POET Three: Collaborative technique
The collaborative technique addresses some of the issues raised in the immersive technique as it utilises sources and people that already exist. Mundell explains this technique as “tapping into an accumulated stock of place-based cultural knowledge.” 8 This can include the access of intertextual sources such as written or visual artefacts or interpersonal sources such as interviews, conversations and so on. There are three great source accesses that all writers have for collaborative use, and that is the internet, already published stories, and the people in their lives.
This technique is also important as it is the first opportunity for the writer to move beyond their own perspective. Retrospective and immersive privilege the author’s own experiences and context, which is a valuable source for all writers, but is limited when considering the diversity of perspectives and experiences that a story should include. Place is a multifaceted thing, it belongs to everyone and it is not experienced in a singular, linear manner. Collaborative as a technique is important in addressing this concern.
There are of course limitations to this approach. Firstly, a writer needs to learn to operate outside their own echo chamber. A story where everyone has the same background, same point of view, and same experiences is not particularly interesting. A writer needs to read outside of their preferred genres, they need to watch different things, and they need to talk to different people. This can often be framed through the importance of research. Most authors conduct research for their writing. Not necessarily to the degree of being academic research, but they explore sources for historical information, cultural perspective, to find other experiences they have not had. A beginning place is often film and novels as these help show social uses of shared spaces that a writer can draw from. This is also the area where there is an opportunity to apply these techniques to a secondary world story. For instance, it is unlikely that a writer will have an opportunity to experience outer-space for themselves, but through accessing stories, film, even lived experiences of real astronauts, a writer can access shared understandings of this place.
Collaborative techniques also open opportunities to engage not just with place, but with the people that populate them. Ask five of your friends what the beach means to them and they are likely to give you five nuanced experiences. It is also an opportunity to make use of artefacts in the same way that is done retrospectively; that a writer can make use of artefacts such as maps, webpages and photos, to explore a place. To collaborate is to experience place through more than a writer’s own eyes, and this can only enrich a narrative.
POET Four: Vicarious technique
The vicarious technique can be understood through a number of points, but at its heart it is the act of empathising with place. The writer through their vicarious emplacement of themselves into a place, can “mobilise perspective-taking and narrative empathy to help emplace characters within the story.” 9 This is the act of feeling about a place by imaginatively inhabiting the place through the body of the character. We, the writers, feel how this place feels through their own context and experiences. This is where instead of the park being where you were unceremoniously dumped, it is the park the character remembers swinging on their father’s arm in. The place, its setting and environment, may not change, but the resonance of the emotion can change.
This technique is about considering how the place can be used to position the reader’s experience. Mundell refers to this as “how stories resonate for readers, as the body and emotions become shared sites of understanding.” 10 A character that inhabits a place that can be experienced sensuously rather than simple described, works to provide the reader with access to a real experience in that place in that moment in the context of the story. This is more likely to activate the reader’s own empathy and engage them in the story. This technique is largely a part of the act of narrative writing, however, Mundell is right in calling it out directly. A writer needs to actively consider not only the character and the plot in this moment, but the setting and place. How can the setting be used to help evoke the tone? For instance, if the character is scared, this means different things if they are standing in a darkened dead end alley, or are in their kitchen at home, or are on a train during rush hour. The place can inform the plot, but it will also influence the theme and tone of the scene.
POET Five: Nebulous technique
The final technique is nebulous, both in name and approach. This is the technique that refers to, as Mundell states, “such slippery phenomena as dream content, ‘pure imagination,’ subconscious formulations, intuition, the sublime, the uncanny, hauntings, and genius loci.” 11
Many writers have said they drew content for their work from dreams, and indeed the surreal mashups of our subconscious can yield a fascinating sense of place. This technique can also refer to the combining of places that a writer has experienced or researched, or the combining of other’s experiences into a single place. It can also be the changes made to an experienced place to evoke fantastic inclusions in place, such as the appearance of a set of stairs in the middle of a forest that lead…somewhere. The nebulous technique allows the writer to challenge the limitations of the real into what they need for their narrative. This is the opportunity to draw on retrospective experiences and combine them with immersive techniques and research from collaborative techniques to make a place feel new, unique and that it belongs to your narrative.
This is often the purview of speculative fiction, but it can also be used in realism, and is very effective in giving a sense of place the thematic elements needed for that scene. This is also an area important for consideration for genre writers (fantasy, romance, crime, etc.) where a reader has a particular set of expectations around tonal and thematic elements that need to be present in the setting. Although a writer can play with these archetypes and expectations, it is important to be clear in the promises made to readers about setting. For instance, a gritty crime novel means readers expect late night police stations/detective offices, nightlife areas, run down districts, rain or dark cold nights (note the repetition of night). If a writer is not planning on delivering this they need to be very clear at the start, for instance the TV show Death in Paradise already uses the title to call out this setting change. But even in this idealised, azure ocean, setting most of the above settings are still present. The nebulous technique allows for creative freedoms, but it is still embedded within the creation of place and draws from the writer’s experiences of the other four techniques.
Writing place is of central importance to all writers. It is more than a backdrop setting, a cardboard cut-out to frame the characters, it needs to be embedded deeply in a polysensual manner that helps resonate with the reader experience. Meg Mundell offers the POET format for approaching and considering the writing of distinct places. A writer who utilises retrospective, immersive, collaborative, vicarious, and nebulous techniques when developing the settings of their narratives will hopefully find a construction of a rich, meaningful sense of place emerging.
Writers and readers, what do you think about writing about real places?
- Mundell, Meg. (2018). Crafting ‘literary sense of place’: The generative work of literary place-making. The Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 18(1), 1-17. https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/JASAL/article/view/12375 ↩
- All images are sourced from Creative Commons ↩
- Westphal, Bertrand. (2011). Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Spaces. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230119161 ↩
- Mundell, pp.9-10 ↩
- “Immersion.” (n.d.). Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/immersion ↩
- “Immersion.” (n.d.). Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/immersion ↩
- Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., & Bochner, A.P. (2011). Autoethnography: An overview. Historical Social Research, 36(4), 273-290 ↩
- Mundell, p.10 ↩
- Mundell, p.10 ↩
- Mundell, p.10 ↩
- Mundell, p.10 ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.