How to Write a Novel

Step Eight: Locations

It's time to take a closer look at locations.

Locations are more than simply a stage for your puppets to walk around on - each location is an opportunity to:

  • build mood and atmosphere
  • develop character
  • foreshadow plot points

In this section we’re going to explore the points above, and then look into methods and techniques we can use to make sure our locations have depth, realism and consistency.

Building mood and atmosphere with locations

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. The sea could roll heavily, recline in reflective tranquillity or froth with lively white horses.

If you're trying to build a sombre mood, make sure the park isn't filled with cheery colours, just because that's what was there the last time you went to the park. Make sure 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.

Of course it can be more subtle than that - as much as what they notice and don't notice, what they touch, how they move around the area.

Foreshadowing plot points with locations

Every element of the locations you describe should be relevant, and have a justification for its inclusion.

For example, if you're describing someone's bedroom, not only should every item accurately reflect their character (see above), but it should also be relevant to this particular story. If they're going to reach for that bag of marbles to knock out the intruder in chapter 9, it'll be that much more satisfying if you mentioned them in passing in chapter 2.

The photographs in your character's house and room can be an excellent opportunity to expose their character and history - but don't get too heavy handed about it.

So how do we make our locations come to life?

How well you can gather detail about your locations depends a lot on your constraints - time and money.

Ideally, you'll immerse yourself in each setting - including in each relevant time of day and season. However, this may not be practical (particularly if you're writing a steam punk novel), in which case your imagination will have to pick up the slack.

If you can go to the actual places that you're going to use as locations, then go - 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?

However, if you can't go there - you'll need to research - and lucky you, you live in the era of the Internet. Get online and find pictures, even videos - of places and buildings that are as close as possible to what you envisioned. Study the pictures and you're guaranteed to find more delicious detail in real life (or some artist's imagination) than you could have come up with on your own.

A quick exercise to prove this if you're so inclined:

Take ten minutes now and write a description of a sweet shop, without doing any research online - no cheating! You know, one of those old ones where all the sweets are in jars. Go on, go right ahead and do that.

Done? Now go and spent ten minutes searching for images of these old style sweet shops. Keep the pictures somewhere handy. Now, constantly referring to the pictures, spend another ten minutes describing the sweetshop.


Draw maps and plans

It's hard to overstate how important it is to have floor plans detailing each of the places your characters visit.

You should know exactly which rooms are adjoining, where the doors and windows are, where they lead and what can be seen through them and what furniture is where. This really anchors your characters, rather than giving the impression they're drifting around in space.

Having this information will add realistic detail to your story as you will see what in the environment the character can interact with, where they bump into each other and things, how they enter and leave.

List the senses

It's time to get analytic about the abstract. Prosaic though it may seem, go through each of your locations and make a list for all of the senses.

What can you (or better, your point of view character) see?

What can you smell?

What can you taste?

What can you feel?

What can you hear?

Just make a list. You probably won't use everything on the list. You may use hardly any of it. But when you're writing your scene, you'll have this box of colours, ready to dip into without having to break your flow.

Task Eight: Note down descriptions and details on all of your important locations.

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