Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Uniqueness of Place

I’m guilty of neglecting place when it comes to writing. A couple of broad brush strokes, and I’m straight to the action. But place is important. We are all products of our environment, after all, and that includes our characters.

It doesn’t matter if your novel is set inside a cardboard box. You have to make me feel like I’m seeing a cardboard box for the first time. You have to own your setting. You have to make it unique by showing it to me in a new way.

I’ve been working on developing place lately. For me, this is using what I know: humidity, saltwater, the dry rip of a heavy palm leaf tearing from the tree, the scream of a bat, the heart-stopping crash of a mango on a tin roof in the middle of the night, and the smell of a hot road the minute before the rain hits.

I’ve been getting out more, and taking notes, because this is my cardboard box and I want to show you guys what it’s like.

I said to my sister (and co-author for my current WIP) Kath the other day: “I’ve got a great idea.”

I laid out the bare bones, and she agreed it had potential.

“The only thing is,” I said, “we need to do a field trip.”

I tried to explain about place. It would be very important for this story, which so far is made up of these as yet unconnected elements: A Picnic at Hanging Rock; paranormal; a ghost -- probably; an unhappy ending -- almost certainly; and (inspired by last month’s Monsterfest) a very scary and, as far as I know, uniquely Australian phenomenon called the Min Min Light.

“A field trip?” Kath asked. “To Boulia?

Actually, the old Min Min Hotel is 73 kilometres west of Boulia.

The old Min Min Hotel. It burned down in 1912 or 1918, depending on which source you believe.

And Boulia is 961 kilometres away from Townsville.


My maths skills are hopeless, but however you add it up that comes out to a very long, very boring drive. I have a feeling I might be on my own.

Having said that, I’ve got a few months to convince her, because there is no way I’m heading west in the wet season. Research is one thing -- getting stranded on the side of the road for days, possibly weeks, waiting for the rivers go back down, no thanks.

How far have you gone to research place?


  1. Some years ago when I was doing my PhD - on the Aborigines Inland Mission and the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board, we decided, for the very same reason that you have given, that to see and feel a place is to know it enough to write about it. So we travelled from Melbourne to Brewarinna in Central NSW to see the old mission site and the fish traps in the Darling River and to Walcha on the New England Plain to imagine the long, long walks the missionaries made from the towns to the settlments. to It was worth every minute and kilometre. We probably travlled 2000 or more kilometres in the trips we made.

  2. I've been pulling from the places close to me. Portland and the coast. I've lived in quite a few places so I use those too. But, there's nothing like taking your notebook (or laptop if you lucky) and writing while you are in the middle of it all.

  3. That's a bit tricky for me. Hitch a ride to another planet? Or do you know a nifty travel catalogue that specialises in extraterrestrial getaways? I have to extrapolate from what I know here on Earth :(

    For a palace steeped in antiquity I dredged memories of stately homes, the Paris Opera house, and my old Oxford college.

    Want to picture what it's like on a starhopping battleship? I based it on photographs, plans, and visits to WWII ships.

    Well...you get the idea :)

  4. Quite a friendly town Boulia is – the first thing they do is suspect you’re going to trash the place. :P

    I haven't traveled much for research, but I have stuck my head out the window while speeding down a back road at night (and no, I wasn't writing about a dog).

  5. Christine - that sounds like a big trip! I've decided that if I'm going I might try and convince some friends to come with me. Kath is going to be a hard sell...

  6. Hi Jenny, that's what I've been doing lately - I love writing my surroundings into my stories - but I'm going to need some local knowledge for this one, and I've never been that far west. My mother was born out that way, so I might have to pick her brain first.

  7. LOL Botanist -- but you still use place. You just get to use it differently, by picking and choosing and drawing on your experience and using your imagination to fill in the gaps. And I'll bet you still have a particular landscape in mind for every new world you create...

  8. Hi MC! It says on Wiki that the population is about 200. I bet if they find rubbish on the ground they line the whole town up until someone confessess...

    I've never stuck my head out of a moving car. I have a fear of ending up named in the Darwin Awards, so I refuse to tempt fate!

  9. This makes perfect sense... to have first-hand knowledge of the place one should be there, in the flesh (if possible)...
    Good luck with your travels...

  10. I think describing the culture of a place is another important element to describing setting, too. Great post! And good luck with that long drive... :D

  11. Have you ever read "ROOM" by Emma Donoghue? It' ALL about place. And it's from the perspective of a 5 year old boy who's never spent even one second outside of that room. Amazing.

  12. Jen... A big trip needs good company, good food, good wine and a spacious tent. You never know where you will end up. Have fun!!

  13. I went as far as Edinburgh. Granted, I was going to Carlisle for a wedding anyway, so staying a few more days in one of my favorite cities is no hardship. Still, I'm pretty much up for a road trip anytime. You are making me want to go to Boulia, cuz it's an awesome sounding name. ;)
    By the way, I left you an award and a nice picture with roses on it on my blog. http://bit.ly/urtSRC

  14. So far, just a couple hours into the mountains, but I love a field trip!! I hope you get what you need. Good luck with place.

  15. That is so awesome that you drove forever to get to the place! There's nothing like being on location. I haven't gone far for any books. :( My last book's place was in the future-- post apocalyptic. I'd give anything to go do research there! Alas, it's impossible. Sigh.

  16. @ MISH, thanks, it's just the getting there that will be a pain!

    Hi Nisa! I know...that a LONG drive... I think it's necessary though, just to get a feel for the place.

    @ Nancy, I've heard fantastic things about The Room, and it's on my TBR pile. Literally, I mean, on the stack of books besode my bed that just keeps growing taller.

  17. @ Christine, I like the way you think! My problem is that with good company, wine and a tent, I might not want to get back in the car!

    @ Hi Magpie, and thanks! I'd love to see Edinburgh. Sadly, my one and only trip to the UK so far was a week tacked on the end of a Europe trip, and I spend most of it in Wythenshawe. Seriously. Not high on the tourist list for so many reasons... :)

    Also, Boulia is pronounced Bull-ya. Because we don't believe in spelling things phonetically here.

  18. Thanks, Shannon! Google Maps just can't beat first hand experience.

    Hi Peggy, thanks for following! I haven't taken the trip yet, but I think I'm almost looking forward to it! I just need to rope in some unsuspecting friends to join me.



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