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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sense of Place ~ by Guest Blogger J. Mark Bertrand

Crime novelist J. Mark Bertrand is the author of Back on Murder (2010) and Pattern of Wounds (2011), the first two installments in a series featuring Houston Homicide detective Roland March. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. After one hurricane too many, he left Houston and relocated with his wife Laurie to the plains of South Dakota.


Forget about plot and character—what’s missing in so many stories is a sense of place. Mastering the art of setting can turn flat backdrops into scenic vistas, adding depth and flavor to your fiction. Unfortunately, setting is one of those topics we tend to rush through, thinking it’s just a matter of writing pretty descriptions.

It’s not.

A sense of place enriches characterization, showing us how characters feel about their surroundings, and how their setting shapes their choices. It also puts an indelible stamp on plot. Some stories can only emerge from certain milieus.


What we call “sense of place” is really writing that uses carefully observed physical surroundings to impress a story’s inner world on the reader’s imagination. Consider this famous description from the first chapter of The Great Gatsby:

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

Writers attempting to capture a sense of place often clog their stories with long, static descriptions. They gum up their sentences with flowery language, which only calls attention to itself (particularly if the overwrought prose is confined to scene-setting). The result is too much precious and not enough presence. We associate this kind of excess with Victorian writing. Fitzgerald’s description isn’t like that at all. The details are well-observed, the language concrete. The scene ripples with motion. What’s needed, Fitzgerald knew, aren’t the prettiest words, just the most accurate ones. And the more succinct your scene-setting, the better.


On the other hand, the movies have misled us in the opposite direction. Today’s cinematic style of writing tends (ironically) to strip away the visuals, forgetting that films don’t take place on a blank screen. They use setting to sell the story, only it comes in the form of images not words. Some directors—Terrence Malik, for example—build stories almost entirely out of images, without relying much on character or plot as conventionally understood. Forgetting this, we front-load descriptions into the literary equivalent of an establishing shot, giving impatient readers something to skip over. This kind of over-articulated, static preliminary snapshot is precisely what authors yearning for a sense of place in their writing need to avoid.

To capture a sense of place in your story, begin by choosing the right setting. 

[This is Mark's work space.] 

This is as significant a decision as selecting the narrative point of view. It will dictate so much that follows. Choose a place that adds texture to the story. In other words, the best settings change the way everything gets done. Their beauty (or lack of it), their climate and geographical peculiarities all dictate how people feel about where they are. Choose somewhere the reader might like to go. And if possible, find a place that serves as a metaphor, so your setting can deliver thematically and not just aesthetically.

When I decided to write a series of detective stories, I knew the right setting would be crucial to the stories. I decided to set my Roland March books in Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States, mainly because very few authors in the crime genre had mapped the place out, and it struck me as a perfect metaphor for everything people hate about the modern American city.

Every detail—from the oppressive humidity to the gridlock to the endless swath of suburban sprawl—elicits a strong response from people who live there. Writing about a man who’s sworn to protect a place so many of its inhabitants would just as soon leave struck me as a promising start. It didn’t hurt, either, that in real life, Houston has had an ongoing and very embarrassing series of problems with its crime lab, which dovetailed nicely with one of my pet themes: the unreliability of the supposed “facts.”


Once you’ve settled on a place, rethink your plot and your characters in light of their setting. How will the location influence what happens? How will it affect the outlook of the people you’re writing about? If you answer these questions right, then your sense of place will come through in the storytelling and you won’t be stuck having to dump atmosphere into static establishing paragraphs.

The best descriptions capture things in motion. Either the environment is moving (as in The Great Gatsby), or we are moving through the environment. Or both. Don’t describe everything, just the one or two things that matter. Telling details give emotional color to the action without slowing it down. The key to this kind of lean description is to select suggestive images, glimpses that fire the reader’s imagination so that she paints pictures of her own in the gaps the author leaves behind.

Regions come complete with their own outlooks. People who live in certain places see the world differently, a fact you won’t discover in most travel guides. As important as details of locale are to capturing a sense of place, the intangibles of perception are even more essential. If an author channels the worldview of, for example, Scandinavia or the American South, the story will ring with more authenticity than one that only manages to get the landmarks right.

Released July 2010

Roland March is a disillusioned homicide detective with one last chance to save his career. All he has to do is find the beautiful missing girl every cop in Houston is already looking for. He has an inside track, a murder scene nobody else thinks is connected, but he's battling a new partner, an old nemesis, and the demons of his past. Getting to the truth might just cost March everything. Even his life.

Releases July 2011

For Detective Roland March, his latest case has become personal. March doesn't know the young female who was stabbed to death, but he thinks he recognizes the crime scene. Nearly ten years ago, March gained national fame as the subject of a true-crime book. But now this crime scene bears eerie similarities to that one. And whispers begin to emerge that March may have put the wrong man behind bars. Worse, Houston may now have a serial killer on the loose. As more cases emerge that seem connected, and threats against March and those closest to him build, he must solve the case--rescuing not only the city but his own reputation as a homicide cop.


  1. This one gets copied, pasted, reread, highlighted (liberally), and filed in a safe place.

    Excellent stuff, Mark. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is great stuff, Mark, worthy of reading many times. Thanks!

  3. Great stuff to think about as I enter into my revision mode. Thanks!

  4. Mark, thank you. This post really puts the sense of place in proper perspective. Like Michael, I'm saving this lesson for future reference.

    Also, thanks for your Bible Design and Building blog. I believe a goat-skin Bible just landed on my Christmas list.


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