Posted by: kimberlysullivan | April 27, 2012

A sense of place

Maybe it’s all the fault of my travel addiction,  but a sense of place  is so important to me as an author. Also as a reader. As I wrote in a previous post, Context reading , when I travel, I make an effort to take along novels  set in my destination. It helps the destination to come to life for me.

Likewise, when I travel, locations tend to inspire me and to continue living on in my mind even after I leave  a place.  Maybe it’s just a way to stretch out  my vacation, but I often find that a place I’ve visited returns to my imagination as a story takes shape. I start to see my characters speaking and carrying out their actions on the same streets I visited weeks or months earlier.

Caves , the short story I wrote that recently won the SnoValley Writes! Competition grew out of an idea I had when I was in the beautiful southern Italian town of Matera, in Basilicata.

The manuscript I’m working on now takes place in an Abruzzo town where I spend lots of time hiking and skiing. I’ve fictionalized it to make it a bit more isolated than the actual town, which is actually a bustling ski resort in the winter,  but the nature and the mountains are recognizable to anyone who knows the region.

The same manuscript has a second setting in Pescina, a town in Abruzzo that was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1915. I was determined to set a story here after visiting this town one summer and being struck by the sense of peace amidst the ruins still standing from almost one century earlier.

A manuscript I need to return to for revisions  has  a substantial segment taking place at the spectacular Dečani monastery in Kosovo that I visited and  afterwards it remained etched in my imagination.  The 14th century frescoes took my breath away and I knew I needed to write something set in such a beautiful place.

I know many authors are successful in conveying a sense of place without necessarily having ever been to the location, but I could never manage that. I need to see the place through my own eyes, walk the streets, see it in the different lights of day, hear the language and the sounds around me. Perhaps all those sensory details won’t make it into my writing, but I need to observe them first-hand to feel comfortable about committing a place to the written page.

Or maybe it’s all just an elaborate ruse to convince myself I need to travel more…

And you, fellow writers, how important is a sense of place to you in your writing?  Do locations you’ve visited or lived in tend to work their way into your writing? Or do you feel that too much of a sense of place takes away from your characters and story?


  1. You write your descriptions in such a beautiful way! I love reading your work because you do have such a sense of place. For me personally, I like to make up all the towns I write in, but they are places I’ve been to, to start out with. I add new details as my imagination makes them. That said, if you are writing a story set next to the ocean, I think it is important that you actually know what the ocean smells like, how the tides move, that kind of thing.

    Hey – great post! I need to travel more too! I’ll tell my family😉

  2. I revisit places I have been in my writing because usually they are locations that have had a deep and resonating effect on me, so I can call them up and retake the journey and see and smell and hear what is around me. I also think it is a call to travel, because if I have imagined a place, I research it and definitely feel like I want to go there, it will have a richness and depth if I have experienced it first hand, and then it is a total pleasure to write.

    1. Thanks for the comments! Hi Chantel, imagined locations truly require a sense of place since you have to build the locale in your mind. I’m always impressed by this. And Claire, it seems travel addicts think alike. : ) I agree that when a place resonates with you, committing it to the page is such a pleasure.

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