So you can read my books

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Just how do you make the locale a character in your novel?

I am hardly an authority, having published no novels.

Yet, teaching classes in creative writing when I was a high school teacher has given me some insight.

What do they say? Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

If I were all that wise, why am I still not published? But what I do know I am more than willing to share. And what I know might just be so.

Just take what seems reasonable to you and fling the rest to the cyber-winds :

Each city whispers in its own voice. Your city. My city.

You know streets that whisper to stay away at night.

You know what scandal has stained some avenue beyond repair. You know what person's name is spoken in hushed tones long after he or she has died and been buried in your city.

Each city has its own personality. Like a human's, it changes with trauma, years of abuse, and moments of historic impact.

Lifting the veil from the distinctive features of the setting of your novel makes your whole narrative come alive for your reader.

But how do you do that verbal sleight of hand?

Some obvious to tourists. Some that you have to ferret out by research in the library, on the internet, or by listening to a local visitor to your setting.

How does your hero/heroine feel about those details? How have they affected the protagonist and those important to him or her?

Weave those details and emotions into a rich tapestry of irony and longing.

What shadowed corner of your setting is especially dangerous or emotion-laden to your central characters? Why?

Paint a passage where that tapestry flutters in the shadows, not quite completely seen but more evocative because of that.

What era is it in your setting? Has your protagonist lived through more than one era of time in it?

How has the passing seasons shaped his/her mind, opinions, and outlook for the present? For the future? How does your protagonist view his and the setting's past?


I worked on the streets of New Orleans for a time so the images, smells, and despair were fresh in my mind.

Which was a help and a hindrance. What one written detail brought into focus for me would not be in the memories of most of my readers.

I had to enter the blank slate of the reader's mind. Evoke in him/her an archetypal detail of touch, taste, and sight that would paint a landscape of the mind.

Every reading experience is a collaboration between reader and author in that way.

No two readers will take away the same mental images from the same author's words because each reader has his own distinct treasure-trove of memories and beliefs.

Still every author must bring his readers into the "now" of the novel's locale.

Not just by sight but by smell and by touch -- and even more important by the emotions evoked by each of those details.

Go from the universal to the specific with words. Meld detail with the characters' emotions.

In FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE I used actual quotes of politicians at the time of Katrina to ground the reader in the reality of the hurricane's aftermath, slowly melding the fantasy aspects so that the fantastic became more acceptable.

And at the same time, I used specific sensory details, blending them in with the main character's emotions to give the locale a personality of its own.

I like to think I succeeded. Only an accepting agent, publication, and the readers will tell. I hope this has been helpful in some small measure.
And here's a little glimpse of Paris :


  1. Very good advice. A trip to actually "experience" it is so totally worth it if possible.

  2. Interesting! I keep changing my mind on the setting and it shows!

  3. Ah Roland, I've been missing your wonderful posts. I'm glad I made it back.

  4. I've READ books where the city seemed like a character, but do you know it had NEVER occurred to me to do that on purpose? It seems like something attainable though, now that you lay out some details, but only for the handful of cities I am really familiar with--I have a trilogy though, that I am going to edit as soon as my cozy is done, that this would be VERY useful, as there are some kids having to get by with no adults for quite some time, and Portland is a city I know well enough to do this. Thank you!

  5. My town speaks to me, but as you say, being so close to it can have its own disadvantage. I must look back on my writing and see if I have given the town enough character and incorporate you very sound advice. Thank you.

  6. You are so right. In my current WIP the town is a character in its own right.

  7. It should be mandatory. Location should be the a character. It should breath. I know its how I see my story locations and how I view the places I visit.

    BTW Roland, I have a thank you on my page for you!

  8. Great advices...and I love the different characters of different places...and oh I love Paris...

    Hope your week is going smoothly.

    Cheers: Evi

  9. This reminds me of the movie Sin City.

    This is great advice for just about any genre, but for fantasy and horror and sci-fi, it is a requisite need for success. That's why you read these genres: to escape the present reality.

    If the setting doesn't pop and thrive and throb, then the reader has no reason to be in that particular place and time.

    - Eric

  10. What a great post. Yes, the locations of some of my favorite novels seem to be their own character.

  11. Great post. In the back of my mind I have vague memories of stories where the location was a character.

    Having a vibrant location with a ton of personality has a huge effect on the emotion and tension I feel when reading some stories.

    It's a great aspect to remember.

  12. Just wanted to say how much I liked your blog. I'm a new author and i'm in the process of writing my first book. It's been a journey. I am now a follower here and will be back for updates.

  13. Whoa, I never thought of that, but how necessary an element is this!! Thanks so much-wow! You're still a brilliant teacher, btw. Maybe we could get a petition and get some of your stuff, along with some others, published. Pick an agent and we'll get started! Oh, I'm sending a link to your blog to a young college student who wants to be a history teacher and a writer. He has a brilliant idea but no story, and a great idea for another story...I've told him about your blog and he seemed very interested. I hope that's okay.

  14. Oh goodie, more learnings! I've just introduced a place as a character and you've given us some juicy tidbits here. I'm a third of the way in to my ms and every day your posts help me be a better writer.

    I can't thank you enough! Olivia
    BTW, you do an amazing job of making New Orleans come alive and when you post snippets of Meilori's or Mesmers, wow!

  15. Nicely put Roland. I love it when a setting comes alive in a story and draws me in as much as the characters. Makes me feel as though I've traveled somewhere new; like I've had an adventure.


  16. Awesome post, Roland, I even jotted down some notes! Thanks for the information and the tips on how to make a setting more surreal and give the reader the feel that he/she is actually there.

    I am definitely going to look back now at the settings in all my works and see if I can work on the setting as a character as well.

    Write on!