Making unreal places feel real
Another great and thought-provoking post, Simon!
Immediate place that pops to mind is New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station (China Miéville). Yagharek's arrival allows description of the city in incredible detail, but the real sense of place is simply the way that Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin inhabits it in his everyday life and work.
Favorite scene build: Besides the obvious choice of Arrakis, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles was so real to me as a New York kid I felt like I knew it when I moved there.
Place is tricky, and I've found for me it always comes down to the viewpoint/viewpoint character. Those places the viewpoint character is overly familiar with are just there with minimal description. When the viewpoint character ends up somewhere new/exciting/different there's more discussion of it.
So, I guess that means trying to switch up the viewpoint to an "outsider" every once in a while. Which is, unsurprisingly, another way to highlight culture.
I really like to establish “place” by taking things for granted.
For example--I used to live in the surrounds of washington dc. Seeing the washington monument or the capitol building would not inspire a sense of awe in me the way they would awe a tourist visiting for the first time.
In this way, you draw a contrast between what, to the reader, is a completely new experience; and what to the character is boring and old-hat.
Great article, Ive been thinking a lot about place recently so this is timely!
The Lost Boys is my go-to for scene-setting. So much so that my book BLOOD ON THE BOARDWALK is based on it. But I like to use it as a way to better set the scene. Movies allow you that look around without pausing the plot that writing tends to do. So how do I move my characters through the scene while capturing the scene itself? My go-to is my MC or POV character walking through the world and noticing. Everything. Anything. When the Emersons are driving into Santa Carla, Sam remarks “It smells like someone died.” Brine can smell like that, but the visceral response is immediate. Then the opening is the family moving through Santa Carla on their way to Lucy’s dad’s house and they’re noticing everything. As someone new to a place, you get have that excuse to pile more information in. For someone who lives there, the world will exist more in the periphery. They might not smell that dead body smell because they live there. But a waft of dank in otherwise “clean” air will hit them.
I'm just at the editing stage of From Within, A Darkness, my next Ray Adams book, which appears to have been an invaluable time to read this. Good stuff, Simon.
This was a fantastic read! Your pointers are super useful. I’m reading A Long Way to A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers right now and it has a fantastic sense of place. Every new planet or ship feels lived in and real through her evocative prose.
On the subject of travel, I’d highly recommend checking out this travelogue by Carson Ellis (Slowpoke) in which he describes, illustrates and photographs his journey across Japan.
This makes a lot of sense and your checklist is similar to how I approach my scenes (but I'm not organized enough to actually have a checklist so thanks!). I have a tendency to be a little wordy in my first drafts, so when editing my drafts I find myself removing things from the descriptions of the scene opting to let the reader fill it in unless it's important to the story - leaving enough but not too much. Anyway, nice points and I especially like the idea of having ordinary interactions like cantinas or markets. I did that without even realizing I did and it makes me think about that schwarma cut scene from the first Avengers movie (I think).
I guess PARIS must've slipped under the radar. But the detail of that page...? I'm gonna go look for that and pick it up. I used to draw when I was younger, I mean real young, in my teens. I know that if I draw a picture every day, I might be able to match yours...in about FIVE years!
I've had my eye on that Paris book! Will check it out. Another graphic novel with incredible sense of place - This One Summer by Mariko & Jillian Tamaki
I agree with the drip feeding of information. My novel’s protagonist lives in a city in contemporary Northern California but suddenly also has access to a fantasy magical forest. I emphasize the physical contrast between these two worlds but equally, like with the donut shop or scenes of people eating, it’s the sameness of familiar actions (eg eating, markets etc) that make both worlds real to the reader.