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A Sense of Place

Last week Bob and I spent a few days at the beach in conjunction with a talk I gave to members of the Amelia Island Genealogical Society. (To view photos of this event, click here.) We relaxed and spent time with our good friend Liam, and by slowing down and experiencing a new place, I was reminded of how important it is to capture the essence of where our stories unfold.

Many times we focus on the people or events in the stories we write, as we should, but adding a bit about the stage on which those events take place deepens the reader’s experience. You don’t have to go on for pages and pages, describing every little detail of the location, but providing a sense of the place, a feel for the immediate area gives your reader a sense of being there.

In Amelia Island, we stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast right on the beach, the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge (How we were able to stay at such a nice place is a story I’ll tell you some other time.) which appeared to be an old, converted house with creaky wood floors, a wraparound porch, a library of classics and nooks and crannies everywhere calling for a cup of tea and a good book. Photographs of sail boats and ships from another era decorated the walls, and vintage furniture and unique coverings for a bed I had to jump up to get into filled each room.

I longed for information about this house and its original owner, possibly a sea captain whose wife and children watched the horizon from the upper floors, hoping for a glimpse of their beloved’s ship, returning home. The information I found told another story. Warning: spoiler alert! This boutique hotel was built just twenty years ago to have the look and feel of an old, Nantucket Shingle home. They succeeded. As soon as I walked up the wide front steps, across the porch and opened the beveled glass door, I felt as though I had gone back in time, and I loved it—authentic or not.

We saw the sun only a few times while there, and that was just fine with me. I enjoy rainy beach days and watching storms roll in over the ocean. In the early mornings, the sun tried to make an appearance, but the heavy clouds prevailed. Pods of dolphins cruising the shoreline looked for breakfast, and dazzled me with several SeaWorld-style jumps completely out of the water. A couple of babies traveled with the group, tucked in close to their mothers’ sides.

Cool temperatures, unusual for the middle of August in Florida, allowed us to open the windows and enjoy the salty smell of the ocean, feel the heavy, seaside air and be lulled to sleep by the sounds of a quiet ocean finding its way to the shore.

On our last morning there, Bob ran into the room and called me to the window. A submarine was being escorted into the Kings Bay Nuclear Submarine Base just north of Amelia Island. Two large frigates flanked the sub while a number of other small boats protected it front and rear. We learned that this sub, part of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, was armed with Trident missiles and had been at sea for six months. I said a prayer for the men and women abroad, thanked them for their service and wished them a wonderful return to solid ground.

When writing about a place, focus on what you find interesting and unusual but don’t ignore the obvious. Choose details that support the feeling of your story and allow the reader to experience the area as you do. Including photographs, as I have in this article, add to the reader’s understanding, but don’t rely on images to do the work your writing should accomplish.

Here are a few categories of description that are often included in bringing a place to life:

  • Objects – trees, clouds, cars, tables, chairs, ashtrays, etc.
  • People – friends, family members, children, street vendors
  • Ambiance – sounds, shapes, colors, odors, light
  • Atmosphere – gloomy, tense, joyful, threatening
  • Weather and climate – hot, cold, arid, windy, calm,
  • Terrain – flat, hilly, densely populated, sparse
  • Time – year, season, period, fashion, modes of transportation
  • History – pertinent factual information about the area, e.g historical events, people, landmarks – Warning: do some fact checking, don’t rely solely on your memory or at least qualify the statement, saying something like, “As best I can remember…”

Make sure to appeal to all of the reader’s senses, not just sight. Include what you hear, smell, feel and sometimes taste as well as what your eyes take in.

What other elements do you find effective in describing a place? Does place currently play a large role in your stories? What place do you enjoy writing about the most? Describe it here and allow everyone experience it with you.

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