Establishing a Strong Sense of Place

Today our first page critique raises an important aspect in making many a good mystery or thriller – a strong sense of place. I always think the challenge in creating a sense of place is to make it instantly fully realized as well as believable. A reader truly needs to ‘be there’ and to have full confidence that the author has done their research.

A strong sense of place can be a tricky prospect for a first page: too much and the reader starts to yawn; too little and the story can seem generic and bland. If the set-up seems too contrived or deliberate, a reader starts to feel awkward; if the writer gets crucial facts wrong, the reader immediately disconnects from the story.

I think the first page we are reviewing today manages to instantly capture a great sense of place. Although I might tighten it up a wee bit (see my comments after the piece) all in all this first page grabs me – in part because the place itself resonates and intrigues.
So here it is – the first page of the novel, 65 below.
Richardson Highway
East of Fairbanks
17 December 1600 hrs
“Damn! When it gets dark out here, it is dark as death.”

Eugene Wyatt drove as fast as conditions allowed down the Richardson highway in his big beige Ford F250 Crew Cab Diesel pickup, with the brown and white Tanana Valley Electric Cooperative logo emblazoned on the doors. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon but the late December sun had already long descended, leaving the land in total inky blackness. His three-year-old golden retriever Penny sat on the passenger side of the wide bench seat. She ignored her master’s Oklahoma drawl and stared out the window as they drove along. The dog’s breath shot a burst of steam onto the frigid glass a few inches away every time she exhaled. Her tongue hung limply over the teeth of her open mouth.

On any typical evening, there would have been brightly lit signs atop tall poles in front of the gas stations, or neon beer advertisements pulsing blue, red, and yellow from within the windows of busy bars as he passed through the small city of North Pole then the even smaller town of Moose Creek. Tonight though only the glow of candles and oil lamps flickered dimly between the curtains of the handful of homes along the highway. The power was out, everywhere.

Eugene looked at Penny who stared transfixed at the truck window. The frost from her breath created a ring of ice crystals on the glass that she seemed to be studying. The area had warmed up significantly in the past few days though after an unseasonal cold snap that held the land at negative fifty for several weeks. The red mercury line on the thermometer now hovered at a livable zero degrees Fahrenheit.

Eugene remembered a line a comedian had said on TV the night before.
If it is zero degrees, does that mean there is no temperature?

The humor of the line dissipated fast. There had never been an outage like it in his thirty years in Alaska’s electricity business. At first, the authorities thought it was a local failure within the Tanana Valley Cooperative area. It was not long though before they discovered it was much bigger. The phone company went out at the same time. Cellular towers failed. The whole of the Interior region of Alaska, an area the size of New York State, was thrown back into the 19th century in an instant.

My comments:

  • First off, I liked how the author started the book with dialogue – it instantly set the tone and introduced us to the character.
  • The details (car type/age of dog) on the first paragraph might (perhaps) be tightened up but I thought this and the second paragraph set the scene really well. The success I think in this first page is that it establishes the scene with a minimum of backstory and explanation – we know all we really need to know at this stage: It’s Alaska, the power is out, the main character (an outsider from Oaklahoma) is out on the highway with only his dog and there is a sense of foreboding that promises much in the way of suspense.
  • I thought the final two paragraphs set up the problem well – that there had never been a power outage like this, that Alaska was now a total ‘frontier’ land, and the reader now gets a strong sense that something awful/shocking is probably about to happen – Just what you want the first page of a good mystery/thriller to set up!

So what do you think? Did you get the immediate, visceral feel of Alaska like I did? Did you feel the set up was there and, more importantly, would you read on?

I know I would.

15 thoughts on “Establishing a Strong Sense of Place

  1. I think I got lost in the details on this one. Things like “big beige Ford F250 Crew Cab Diesel pickup” are a pet peeve of mine. Too many authors try to dump so much detail into one sentence. Trust me, I’m not going to remember this. If any of it is relevant to the story, I figure it out when he opens the rear door, or he gets into a discussion about the differences between a F250 and a F150. For now, just tell me that it’s a “beige pickup with the electric cooperative logo on the side.” And yes, it should be “side” instead of “doors” since there are four doors and it is likely to be only on two of them.

    I also had a problem with the mixed details about the dog. The talk of the frigid glass and the reference to seeing the steam from her breath indicates that it is cold, but her tongue hanging limply over the teeth indicates that she is hot. Maybe Alaskan dogs like to be cooler than mid-western dogs, but I’ve never seen a dog with its tongue hanging loose in sub-zero temperatures. I’m sure the truck is warm inside, since it is a Diesel and he wouldn’t be running down the road if it weren’t, but Eugene needs to turn the heat down.

    Then there’s the question of how Eugene would be able to see the dog’s breath against the window when it is not only dark, but the power is out. I don’t think that the “glow of candles and oil lamps” is going to provide enough light for him to see that. About the only light he would have available to him would be the dash lights, which he might see glinting off her eyes and the metal on her collar.

  2. I enjoyed this page. Unlike Clare, though, I’m not a big fan of opening with dialogue, especially a word or phrase that ends in an exclamation mark (I think exclamation marks invoke a forced sense of drama. In general, they should be used very sparingly in dialogue. They’re the punctuation equivalent of overheated verbs that are intended to replace the verb “said”–shouted, yelled, pleaded, cried.)

    I agree with Timothy about the need to shorten the description of the truck, and the visibility of the dog’s breath being problematic, especially since we’ve just heard in great detail about how dark it is. Maybe it’s so dark the driver can hear the dog’s breath, but can see only his dim profile in the glow of the dashboard instruments.

    I would like to get a sense of tension from the narrator during the third paragraph, so that we know it’s not just that the power is out–the narrator has to figure out why it’s out.
    I would cull through this page and tighten, as Clare suggested. (And look for bits that don’t add to the narrative, such as “busy bars.”)

    Overall, I’d keep reading!

  3. Good points Tim and Kathryn – I obviously didn’t even think of how he could see the dog’s breath in the dark! I too think a culling of details would help the flow but I did enjoy it nonetheless.

  4. More detail than I would have put in, but I did like the sense of foreboding created by the description of the blackout. For that I would probably read on. If the tendency to over describe some things continued it might lose my interest.

  5. Methinks I…er…the writer might have been imagining the new truck he saw on the car lot and was salivating over as my…er..his old truck was falling to bits while he wrote this story.

    How about this idea for a trimmed rewrite:

    Eugene Wyatt’s F250 sped down the Richardson highway as fast as conditions allowed. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon but the late December sun had already long descended, blanketing the land in inky blackness.

  6. I agree- losing some of the extraneous detail would make this opening much more powerful (for example: is the fact that his dog is 3 years old really relevant? Do I need to know from the outset that he’s originally from Oklahoma?)

    By cutting some of that detail, I think the reader would be drawn into what’s actually happening more completely.

  7. Ditto on the comments. On the opening page, one must pick and choose wisely the amount of detail. Does it serve the story in any meaningful sense? And drop them in with the action.

  8. Looks like we’re in agreement on dropping some of the unecessary details first off and maybe introducing them a little later but still I think this was a pretty strong start!

  9. I like the dialogue, the dog, and the dark. 🙂 I’d keep reading. I think I’d prefer to over write and have to go back and tighten it up rather than not have enough and have to go back and add.

    So much good feedback from everyone.

  10. Thankya Thankya folks. I do appreciate getting feedback on stuff like this. And yes, it’s mine. Did great as a podcast novel, but couldn’t seem to sell it to a publisher. And now, you may have shown me why that has been the case.

    Henceforth – a-tightening I will go.

    and he skips merrily to the keyboard with snips and shears, singing and dancing and drinking entirely too much coffee.

  11. Oh…and here’s a technical question that some of you might be able to answer.

    After writing and podcasting 65 Below I heard from a few different people who questioned the reality of certain aspects of the story. The questions they had were related to physics actually, such as
    1. the reality of a 9.4 earthquake (happened in 1964),
    2. seeing the dogs ice breath
    (utter darkness outside turns the windows into mirrors with the slightest amount of interior light)
    3. whether a person or machines can actually operate at -65 f.
    (I’ve worked at -70 and don’t recommend it to anyone except fictional action heroes cuz they can hack it)
    4. Houses that sink into the ground because the structure causes the ‘permafrost’ to melt.
    (seen lots of half buried homes in my life time, especially around Fairbanks)

    These are things I have witnessed in the Arctic. Thing is the majority of the reader market has never experienced the Arctic and may find some of the realities appear to be unrealistic.

    So question is: How do you overcome disbelief of strange physics? Or do you simply state things as they are as if they are fact and move along?

    Does my question make sense?

  12. Hi Basil- as to the weird physics, I would address it when necessary with examples like the ones you gave. For instance, “When he first moved to Alaska, Eugene couldn’t get over the sight of houses half-buried in the ground when the permafrost supporting them failed,” or something like that. I wouldn’t worry about doing it everywhere, though (especially not with the dog breath).

  13. Basil,

    Your questions go to the heart of my post here last Friday: that people read samples with a different mindset than that with which they read published fiction, asking questions they would never ask of an established writer(Dan Brown, anyone?).

    That said, a big honkin’ powerful New York editor once told me, “Never let the truth get in the way of good fiction.” His point was that it’s the writer’s job to make readers believe the relative reality of his novel. As long as the readers are on board, then everything works; if they’re not on board, then nothing works.

    Where you fear that you might be ringing your audience’s bullshit bell, I suggest you try to get ahead of it by adding some perspective or verisimilitude. Even a throw-away line such as, “Maybe Uncle Charlie WASN’T drunk when he told the story of the quake of ’64,” can put readers at ease. In fact, that’ll work even if there’d never been a quake of ’64.

    Little details help in this area as well. At -70 degrees, throw in a line about how the fuel has to be preheated, or how the equipment has to be kept running for months at a time to keep from seizing. Readers love little educational moments, provided they don’t bring the story to a halt.

    By the way, I was too swamped with work yesterday to comment on your submission, but I think it works pretty well. All of us can use some tightening (the submission last week about Harvey Rodriguez, the homeless guy, was mine–in exactly the form that has already been set in type and will appear on bookshelves in July), but overall the imagery in your piece worked for me.

    Even on a dark night, there are dash lights, so I bought seeing the dog’s breath, though the tongue thing is a bit counterintuitive. The stuff in my own writing where I get all wrapped around the axle are things like calling the dog’s breath steam. Everybody knows what it is when they read “steam,” but the reality is it’s condensate. But let’s stipulate that “condensate” probably is a word that should never appear on the first page of a thriller.

    I can kill long minutes chasing my tail on decisions like that; but as I’ve noted before, I tend to think way too much about stuff that doesn’t matter.

    At the end of the day, all you have to do is tell a great story that’s set in a world that makes sense to the reader.

    John Gilstrap

  14. I’d keep reading. The only comment I have is a request to remove an extraneous “though” in the temperature paragraph. The author has used this word four times on their first page so they might want to check the rest of the manuscript for overuse. A good opening though. 😉

  15. Re: Basil’s Technical Question

    Ooh, ooh! I know how to make those things believable. I was told by Steven James in a workshop to simply have an expert disagree with it. It works like this: we humans have a tendency to disbelieve experts (in novels only or also in real life?) so of course it must be true to the reader. Try it and see if it will work for you.

    And I’d call the dog’s breath either dog’s breath or simply breath.

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