Writing a Book with a Strong Sense of Location or Place
Karen Cushman asked Sharon M. Draper, “My newest book, War and Millie McGonigle, started with a place: South Mission Beach, San Diego, where my husband grew up. You, too, have written books set in a place alive and rich. Will you share some insights into place in your story, Out of My Heart?”
Draper: When I decide to write a story, the characters probably emerge first, then the location in which the characters reside, then the story, which is, of course, influenced by a strong sense of place.
I like describing sunsets and starlight and other weather events. Every good book I’ve ever read had a powerful thunderstorm or a cleansing rain or a golden sunset at some point. Good writing has to include lots of sensory imagery so the reader can feel the place as much as the characters.
Sooo, to answer your questions…
Yes, place is vital, because without making sure the reader can feel or smell that location, it’s flat. The reader must become emerged into the setting along with the characters.
I sent Melody to summer camp in Out of my Heart, partly to remove her from the “ordinary” of her daily life to the “extraordinary” world of freedom and possibility in a summer forest, far away from the security and restraints of doting parents. And yes, it was planned—transformation needs fresh sights and smells and experiences. I truly enjoyed experiencing camp with Melody.
How did I find the details? I went outside and looked up at the bright sun, and spent a lot of time talking to the moon at night as well. I live near a wooded area, so the various shades of green, and the changes in weather, and the sights and sounds of a forest under moonlight was not just imagined. And yes, I burned a fire in my back yard. My grandkids thought is was the “best night ever!” I have also spent a lot of winter evenings observing the millions of colors in our home fireplace, as well as other sensory input like the smell of burning wood, the sound of crackling flames, the feel of a chilly wind in the darkness.
The place, Camp Green Glades, although 100 % fiction, became real to me as I described it so it became real to the readers as well. We were there together. I’ve been to many summer camps as a child, and even worked at a camp for kids with special needs one summer when I was about sixteen. The best fiction comes decorated with reality. I have no limitations when I’m writing, except to create fiction that seems like reality. I use whatever I need—like the crackling of a fire or the song of a bird—to make that magic happen.
In the thousands of books I’ve read over my lifetime, the ones that stand out have had powerful characters, a strong sense of place and time, and a plot I could not put down. The descriptions, when done correctly, were seamless, invisible, and unforgettable, which reminds me how good those stories were.
Thank you to Sharon M. Draper for sharing the way details make the locations in her books so unforgettable.
Learn more about Sharon M. Draper.
Learn more about Out of My Heart, as well as the book where we first meet Melody, Out of My Mind.