I love to read books with a strong sense of place, ones in which I can imagine the setting so vividly that it seems real. I think the best books are those which not only describe the physical setting, but engage all the senses to draw the reader into the story. Alluding to the smell, the sounds, the feel of a place, all help to make it come alive. For me, a story with a strong sense of place helps the story to linger in my memory long after I have finished the book.
Laura Ingalls Wilder achieved this beautifully in the Little House books. Her descriptions of the places she and her family lived were so richly detailed with the sounds and smells and feel of her surroundings that it was easy to feel a part of her world. The way she describes the little log house in the big woods of Wisconsin, the enormous, empty prairie, with the great blue sky above it, the small town of De Smet where Laura and Carrie went to school, truly bring the stories to life. I could almost feel the penetrating cold of the blizzards, hear the birdsong and the whispering of the wind through the grasses, see the wildflowers, the fields of Pa’s crops, the furniture inside the little log house.
In Don’t Let Me Go by Catherine Ryan Hyde, most of the story takes place in an apartment building. The story revolves around a young girl, who is neglected by her troubled mother, and who seeks help from the building’s occupants. The lives of the residents become intertwined as they are brought together in their bid to help 10-year-old Grace evade Social Services. The strong sense of place is central to the story not only for Grace, but also for another of the building’s residents, Billy Shine, who is agoraphobic and has not left his apartment in years.
A tiny island off the west coast of Ireland is the setting for Casting Off by Nicole R. Dickson. Rebecca Moray goes to the island with her young daughter, Rowan, to research a book on Irish knitting and to seek refuge from a painful past. Nicole Dickson has created a strong sense of place as we learn the history of the island and meet the many colourful characters who inhabit it. I think I enjoyed this book so much because it is the sort of place I would love to visit.
One of my favourite books I have read lately has been Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann. The chapters alternate between Amanda, who runs a vintage clothing store in present day New York, and Olive, a young woman in turn-of-the-century New York. When Amanda finds Olive’s journal sewn into a fur muff, she learns what life was like in her own neighbourhood more than a hundred years ago. Throughout the story there is a strong sense of place in both modern day New York and early twentieth century New York. With the wonderful descriptions of the city in both eras, and of the department store in which Olive works, I felt as though I were right there with the characters. Also, I love that there are many old photographs in the book of New York City as it was in Olive’s era.
I always try to create a strong sense of place in my own writing. I ask myself What would I see, hear, feel, and smell if I were the character?
In Where the Moths Dance, much of the story takes place in an old graveyard, surrounded by gum trees, whose gnarly old roots encroach onto the pavement leading up the hill. The graveyard is Jessie’s sanctuary, where she talks to the dead, and can navigate her way around the gravestones in the dark like a night hunter. She finds comfort in the sound of the wind through the gum trees, the cawing of the crows as they fly between the branches overhead, the smell of eucalyptus after it has rained. But Gum Tree Hill Cemetery harbours something more sinister, and when Jessie’s sanctuary is threatened, the graveyard becomes vital in Jessie’s battle to protect those she loves.
Scrappy Cupcake Angels is set in Kerrigan, a small New Zealand town with a gold-mining past. The story revolves around a scrapbooking shop, in a converted Victorian house, down a small lane. As the aroma of coffee swirls tantalisingly through the shop, drifting out the door to lure in passers-by with the temptation of warmth and comfort, Angeline teaches the folk of Kerrigan to embrace their creativity and make beautiful keepsakes. For four women, it is the friendship, and the chance to escape from life’s hassles for a few hours each week, that keeps them coming back to the cosy, little shop, where problems seem to mysteriously sort themselves out.