Inspiration = Sense of Place

Places inspire me.  I love to travel.  But I also love to fall into a book and explore many different places through a story.  If I can’t travel in real life, then I’ll travel vicariously through a good book that brings to life an interesting place and time.

All this stopped cold when I went to university, feeling pretty much confined to one single place — deep in the stacks of the library.  The academic experience was stimulating in other ways, just not for my fiction.  It actually stifled my creativity.

About a year after emerging from the library stacks, I finally got to travel again and  experience something totally different from my academic work:  the beauty of Oregon’s forests and mountains and rugged coast.  It wasn’t research.  It was just… for fun!  After that trip, I went home overflowing with inspiration to write creatively.  Now, I have learned that I have to periodically renew my well of inspiration with regular trips that include nature’s beauty.

So, what do I take away from this?

Wikipedia describes “sense of place” as “…often used in relation to those characteristics that make a place special or unique…”

Even if you don’t know the characteristics of a place that make it special, no worries.  You can still write with authority about your setting.  You can still give a wonderful “sense of place” that transports a reader if you remember three simple tips:

  1. Details.  Use telling details that define a place, rather than generic detail.  For example, aspen instead of tree.  The more specific, the better.
  2. 5 Senses.  Besides what the place looks like, what does the place smell like?  What are the sounds?  What do the things you touch there feel like?  What do you taste?
  3. Character.  When your character moves through his/her setting, responding and interacting with it, both the character and the place will come to life.

And what if you don’t know a place well enough to find the telling details or answer those questions about 5 senses?  The worldwide web is a wonderful resource for armchair traveler researchers.  Sometimes we just want to stay home.


5 thoughts on “Inspiration = Sense of Place”

  1. Timely post, Sue. A lot of the comments I’ve been getting about my drafts say, “You’re not using your setting to it’s full potential.” I’ll have to take a few road trips, it looks like. 🙂


  2. I love to travel! For me, college gave me the opportunity to travel; until then, our family did a lot of camping within a few hours drive of home and took one trip to Disney, but that was pretty much it. When I got to college, I was able to spend three weeks in Brazil with a friend, travel to a conference in Nashville, and do a semester abroad in England. In grad school, I traveled to present at conferences in Kansas City and Ft. Lauderdale. Since then, I’ve continued to add to my experiences. And yet, I struggle to write setting well. Your three tips are wonderful! Thanks for sharing.


  3. Pamela, your trips sound very interesting. I have a warm spot for all those places you mentioned, for various reasons. I used to live in Brazil, and my daughter and son-in-law live in England. Hope those 3 simple points help your settings!


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