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In this novel writing step, we’re going to investigate techniques for developing locations.
We’ll look into the following methods and techniques for ensuring our locations have depth, realism and consistency.
- Photographs and Illustrations
- Maps and plans
- Listing the senses
Further to that, we’ll look at how you can use locations as tools to:
- build mood and atmosphere
- develop character
- foreshadow plot points
Researching and Developing Locations
How well you can gather detail about your locations depends a lot on your constraints – including time and money.
Many people write about where they live for exactly the reason that they have an intimate first-hand knowledge of the place.
In an ideal world we’d all be able to fully immerse ourselves in our settings. But just because you don’t live in New York doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to write a novel set there. That would never work, because nobody would be able to write books set in the past, the future or any fictional location.
Though of course if you’re writing about a real place, there is more expectation that you’ll be accurate and capture its spirit, and completely failing at this is more likely to cause you problems and alienate your readers.
So, if you’re able to visit your locations in person – do it.
Take copious amounts of photographs, and make reams of notes about everything you can see, smell, taste, feel, hear. Take samples of sand, pebbles, dried leaves - whatever you can. Try to look at the place through the eyes of your characters - what would they notice? What would they ignore?
Photographs and Illustrations
However, if you can't visit your location in person, you will need to fall back on more remote methods.
Luckily for us, we live in the era of the Internet.
Online you should be able to find information on any real locations in your novel, including photographs and, for popular places, even videos.
The Internet can also be a great source of inspiration for fantasy settings, as there are countless incredible fantasy artists out there sharing their work. You can use their images to add detail and depth to your own ideas.
Here is a quick exercise which demonstrates how powerful it can be to use imagery from the web to aid your location descriptions.
Imagine one of your locations is an old-fashioned sweetshop. The kind with shelves packed with glass jars filled with sweets. Take ten minutes now to write as detailed a description as you can.
Now click on the links below and take a few minutes browsing the pictures. If you want you can also find your own pictures.
Now, repeat the exercise, and see how much richer your description is.
(all links were working at time of publication, please let us know if any are broken when you come to use them)
Google images is a great first stop for finding pictures of pretty much anything
DeviantArt is an artist’s community which is great for location and character inspiration
Pinterest is very useful for finding good quality images of places (and everything else)
Maps and plans
It can be incredibly helpful to have floor plans and maps detailing the spaces your characters are moving around in.
By having this information defined, you can avoid having rooms changing size, furniture moving around, or characters travelling from one location to another in unrealistic time.
Not only that, but the details of the surroundings will influence how your characters move, and can contribute to conflict or connection. In other words, rather than creating the location to facilitate your plot, the location could influence the action.
Knowing which rooms adjoin could give opportunities for eavesdropping, a table could be used as a barrier to make a nervous character feel less exposed, a window beside the front door could give warning of the approaching police.
You could sketch out plans by hand, use existing ones found online, or base the layouts on real life rooms.
List the senses
It can be a very useful exercise to methodically go through each of the senses with respect to each location.
Ideally, you’ll answer each of the questions from the POV character.
- What can you see?
- What can you smell?
- What can you taste?
- What can you feel?
- What can you hear?
You probably won’t use everything on the list, but by analysing the details deliberately from each of these angles, you may find yourself coming up with new and interesting particulars.
Then, when you're writing the actual scene, you'll have this box of colours, ready to dip into without having to break your flow.
Using Locations as Literary Devices
Building mood and atmosphere with locations
The words and images used to describe your locations should reflect the mood you’re trying to elicit in your reader.
So when you’re describing a house, you might start by thinking about how big it is, what colour it is, how many windows it has etc. But if you want to take your writing to the next level, you’ll filter all of that through the lens of atmosphere.
For example, the house could:
- gleam brightly with a fresh coat of whitewash
- have aging, peeling, lead-heavy paint
- or give the impression of a gaping skull with sightless windows as eyes and a door forever gagging its silent scream
Likewise, the sea could:
- roll heavily
- recline in reflective tranquillity
- or froth with lively white horses
And of course, how the house, sea or whatever else appears will change throughout the story. The same location could be bright and happy one day and dark and sinister another – to reflect the character’s mood or the rising tension of the plot.
Try to ensure every word of description supports whatever mood or atmosphere you are trying to build in that scene.
Developing character with locations
How do your characters respond to their surroundings? This can give the reader a lot of information about your character without you having to say it outright.
For example, one character stuck overnight in a forest will build a bivouac, take a few slugs of whiskey and settle down with their heavy boots up on a stump. Another character might collapse into a weeping huddle, hysterically swatting at the creepy crawlies.
An ex Navy SEAL might enter a posh restaurant and immediately scan for exits and suspicious characters, even if it’s her wedding anniversary. Her husband, by contrast might immediately notice exactly what brands of which fashion labels each other couple is sporting, which will then have an impact on how inferior or superior he feels.
Think about what a character notices in their surroundings and what they ignore. Consider how those things make them feel – relaxed, anxious, angry, indifferent?
Describing a character’s house or bedroom can be an excellent way to get across their personality though their tastes, purchase and décor choices and photographs.
Don’t just describe a teenager’s bedroom as messy. First of all, not all teenagers are messy – but even if yours is – what is the mess made up of? Is it old mystery paperbacks? Broken musical instruments? Unread fashion magazines? Deliberately ripped clothing and ground down black lipstick? These details can bring your character to life.
Foreshadowing plot points with locations
The key to great foreshadowing is to slip it under your readers’ noses, and location descriptions can be an excellent opportunity for this.
For example, if in the climax of your novel, your main character knocks out the baddie with a bag of marbles, it’ll be much more satisfying if you mentioned that bag of marbles in passing back in chapter one when you described the character’s bedroom.
In the Novel Factory, go to the Locations section and click 'Add Location'. Complete the details for your main location. Repeat for each major location.
Or, use your preferred note taking method.