The Sense of a Place


Today’s topic was inspired by a great post over on Girl Tries Life about setting. I’ve covered writing about setting before, either discovering a place vicariously or the politics of choosing setting, but a particular sentence and caption Victoria wrote caught my eye and had me agreeing emphatically. “We all feel we know NYC from movies, TV and books, but does that mean we can write it?” And, “Setting is more than just the buildings on a map. It’s the sights, sounds, smells and energy of a place.”

As some of you know, Kate and I attended Sirens in Washington this year. We landed in Portland and met up with a local who is also a friend of Kate’s. Upon request, she provided us with a speedy yet amazing sight seeing tour in her little blue car. I’m a truck person, by the way. All cars are small to me.

Time was not on our side but I saw a lot of the places that will be integral to my WIP, which is set in Portland and the surrounding Colombia River Gorge. I got an idea of how downtown is constructed versus suburbia. I got an eyeful of architecture. I saw the different types of pedestrians as we went from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.

Prior to our trip I had done a ton of research on Portland. I had neighbourhood schematics, laws, and pictures, to name a few. I’d Google Mapped it to here and beyond in order to get an idea of the place. Looking out the car window and snapping pictures with my phone made me grin because I felt like it’d hit the nail squarely on the head.

Then we got out of the car.

We had to park ten blocks from Voodoo doughnut, our destination, due to some navigation issues as traffic got heavier. This little hike was eye opening beyond belief. Everything was safe and warm in the car. On foot? Completely different story.

Pictures can’t tell you how the air smells in certain places. That the mixing scents of different restaurants in some areas marry into a cloying stew that does not induce hunger. Mix in the humidity and I could feel it in my pores. Nor do images focus on the cigarette butts and gum that littered sidewalks. Or that downtown you can walk ten blocks and meet a dozen homeless people on your side of the street alone.

What was especially fascinating for me was that I didn’t feel safe there. But I know my main character wouldn’t have the same reaction about her safety at all. She’d notice everything I did, but her sense of safety wouldn’t be impacted like mine was.

Don’t get me wrong, Portland isn’t a bad or gross place. I enjoyed my jaunt there and especially loved the little borough, Beaverton, where we spent the night. I just had unrealistic expectations because it was a fantasy place in my head. It’s a warm port city compared to the interior or east coast. That attracts a certain transient population just as it does in Vancouver and other places up and down the west coast. My mind chose to forget those realities until it saw it first-hand.

After visiting Portland I don’t think I could have chosen a better place for my character or WIP even though it didn’t live up to my personal  ideals. There’s a darker, seedier side to it that my research didn’t reveal. An important sense that would have been lost had I never gone.

Looking back I wonder if trying to find an online newspaper would have helped.

No matter where you set your story it’s important to have a total sense of a place. If it helps, list the five senses and mind map them out. If you don’t truly dig up the dirt on your setting you’re going to miss details that might just deepen your story. I almost did.


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  1. Thanks for the link to my blog! Glad you enjoyed the post. Interesting that you picked up on pieces of Portland, but recognized that your character would not – still important to note. I’m reading a book right now that’s set in Hanoi, Vietnam. The author has done a tremendous amount of research (she’s Canadian, but I imagine she temporarily lived in Hanoi) and has brought to life the smells, words, layout, etc. So vivid.

    1. Thanks for the great post! My character carries a far greater sense of badassness than myself, lol. I love when an author is able to bring in the senses of a place authentically. That’s my goal! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  2. Yes, the setting and ‘feel’ is important, I think too. Odd the feeling you got in Portland, Oregon. I felt that way in Jackson, Mississippi. When I saw the guard wandering around the parking lot of the motel we stayed in – I didn’t feel the locks were enough and didn’t sleep all night.

    1. I don’t travel much but that’s the first time I’ve ever felt very uncomfortable in a place. At least it passed, unlike your discomfort in Mississippi. As a Canadian just the idea of a guard is very alien to me.

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