A Sense of Place:
We’re Lost Without It

Winterfell from Game of Thrones

A novel doesn’t begin to glow until its setting comes to be accepted as true. — Eudora Welty.

By PJ Parrish

I am bingeing on Game of Thrones. I know, I know…I’m the last one to the ceremonial beheading. But that’s the way I roll these days with television. I’m in season six, about halfway through. SO! Don’t any of you DARE include any spoilers in your comments or I will hunt you down and run a Valyrian Longclaw sword up your gut.

Now, I didn’t read any of George R.R. Martin’s books, but a writer friend of mine read them all, and he tells me he has learned a lot from analyzing how Martin sets up his characters and builds his worlds in just a few pages. Martin made his chops as a short story writer before hitting it big with A Song of Ice and Fire, so that tells you something there. And if you watch GOT, you get whiplash from trying to keep everyone — and every place — straight. There’s even a Game of Thrones For Dummies.

Sometimes, the internecine family story lines feel disjointed and the subplots suffer from kitchen-sink syndrome. I had planned to write today’s blog about what happens when you have too many subplots — as GOT often does — but I couldn’t get my brain wrapped around it. Besides, James already wrote a good post on that years back — click here. 

I want to talk, instead, about GOT’s sense of place. It’s pretty darn amazing. I’m not a  fantasy-phile. (Although I really do have a mad crush on King Arthur). But I have totally bought into the world GOT lays out.  The world feels vaguely medieval  British-Isles-centric, with seven warring kingdoms with knights, ladies, eunuchs, whores, and more rolling royal heads than you can shake a broadsword it. But it’s also got dashikis, deserts, and dragons, oh my.

And don’t even get me started on the blue-eyed zombies living out there beyond The Wall as everyone cryptically mumbles that “winter is coming.”

A short digression: I love great opening TV credits, especially the ones that act as intros to the episode. (Six Feet Under might be my favorite.) The opening of Game Of Thrones is brilliant, not just for its dark throbbing cello score, but because it underscores how important PLACE is in the story. In his piece for Thor.com, analyzing GOT’s sense of place, Brad Kane points out that the opening shows each of the warring kingdoms popping up in a whirring montage of mechanical gears and castles. They are game pieces on a world map (read chessboard).  There, in mere seconds, the complex, conjured world is literally built before your eyes — and if you’re clever, you’ll catch imbedded clues of what’s to come in the plot.

Even if you’re not a GOT fan, go watch the opening for a second to see what I mean:

Sense of place is dear to me. I love books that have it.  I try to write books that honor it. I never start a new book until I can see the world where it takes place.  This has meant actual traveling, down into the Paris catacombs, through San Francisco’s dive bars and the Florida Everglades and up to the farthest tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It has meant cyber traveling into ruined Scottish castles, British police stations, and into the dark tunnels below abandoned mental asylums. It also meant one really long Google Street View ride across America on I-80 from New Jersey to Oakland California.

All because I had to see it to make you believe it.

Eudora Welty understood the importance of world building. In her essay “Place in Fiction,” she argues that a sense of place is as important as character or plot or symbolic meaning. She tells of how she was struggling with her short story “No Place For You, My Love” — until she took a trip.

“What changed my story was a road trip with a friend down south of New Orleans to see that country for the first (and so far, only) time. When I got back home, full of the landscape I’d seen, I realized that without being aware of it at the time, I had treated the story to my ride, and it had come into my head in an altogether new form.”

“Full of the landscape I’d seen.”  What a great turn of phrase.

But Welty is full of such wisdom. She says the primary responsibility of the writer is to “establishing a chink-proof world of appearance.” Couldn’t help but think of Game of Thrones after reading that line.

Which, at risk of turning off you non-GOTers, I must now return to.  If you read the books or watch the series, you will understand immediately what I mean when I praise GOT’s world building power.  If you’re not a fan, I’ll let Brad Kane explain it. Martin and the TV series create three distinct and disparate worlds — and they have nothing in common. But, as Kane points out:

Yet they are all part of the same story. And that’s the genius of George RR Martin. You’d never confuse the barren lands of Winterfell with the towering peaks of the Vale. You’d never mix up the volcanic crag of Dragonstone with the dangerous shores of Great Wyk. Every story world in Westeros and Essos feels visually, culturally, and thematically distinct—and yet it all ultimately fits together.

He accomplishes this through close attention to detail. You may have read fantasy books where nations are defined as “the people who build ships,” or the “folks who smoke the good tobacco.” Not so in Game of Thrones. The world of the Starks is very different from the world of the Lannisters, which is very different again from the worlds of the Targaryens or the Greyjoys. Local attitudes, ways of speech, tools of war, sexual mores—they all change radically from country to country.

The telling details. Specifics. Verisimilitude. That is what goes into the best fictional world building. It doesn’t matter if the world you’re building is as small as a rural Virginia police station, or as grand as a ninth century Venetian dukedom. Our jobs as novelists is to make that Virginia cop shop sound, smell, feel, look, like no other place on earth. Our jobs as novelists is to make the long forgotten world of the Venetian doge feel, smell, look and sound as fresh and believable — nay, relate-able — as our own neighborhood of today.

If you make the place come alive in your readers’ minds — if you make them feel it with all their senses — they will follow you to the ends of the earth.

Or at least as far as Winterfell.

 

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22 thoughts on “A Sense of Place:
We’re Lost Without It

  1. I have yet to watch. Don’t get HBO. But … go back to season 5, episode 8 and see if you can find my daughter. She was one of the wildlings. Only one with long blond hair. http://bit.ly/2YbE0sZ
    And yes on everything you said about sense of place. Even my made up locations are based on real places, although I confess I haven’t visited all the locales for some of my Blackthorne Inc. books’ opening gambits. But we’re rarely there for long, and I try to get the basics down–the right climate, flora, fauna, etc. Google Earth is my friend.

    • Ha! Your daughter was a wilding! Hope she was one of the ones who John Snow saved from the zombies. 🙂

      • All I know was that she spotted herself in episode 9 which meant she got on the boat. She also discovered that apparently she had a husband and child.

        • There’s a lot of familial “discovery” in GOT. You never know who is whose bastard child via their sister. I am not kidding.

  2. I read to the end of book three, and loved the places and characters. I stopped reading because of the plot. There was too much going on and yet not fast enough. I especially hated that I had to wait a hundred or more pages to get back to Bran Stark, and have so little time with him.

    I doubt anyone can go to the length and detail that Martin has. At the end of each book he has each families genealogy and exactly where they intersect, who married who and had how many children and died when, on top of how many bastards each had and, as you said, vastly different mores.

    Place is especially hard for me because I can’t use google maps or pretty much any map. I have to rely on recreating somewhere through facts and the places I’ve traveled–which, honestly, is more varied than most people but still not enough. The hardest part is knowing which geographic elements go together, or if I’m just squishing too much into one place.

    • AZ: I have the same trouble with GOT at times. As I said in the post, there are too many fussy subplots going on about characters I don’t care about. But the main plot lines are strong enough to keep me interested. I feel the same way about plot-fussy books. Some writers don’t seem to trust their main plot, that is is juicy enough for 300 pages, so they lard in extraneous plots. I especially dislike gratuitous romance subplots in crime fiction.

      I get what you’re saying about using your own travel experiences. Whenever I travel, I take a lot of notes and photos of locations because, unlike Eudora Welty, my brain does not seem to keep hold of the memories well enough. Photos help immensely.

  3. I’m currently re-watching Mad Men, which was rightly praised for its minute attention to detail in recreating 1960s office and suburban milieus. Just as important, of course, is the mix of characters, orchestrated for conflict. Boy, get those two things right and you’re 80% home. Then all you have to do is add plot twists and dazzling dialogue!

    Easy, right?

    • Yes…Mad Men was spot-on in that way. I still remember vividly one snippet that was sooooo authentic to the times. Jon Hamm’s family went on a picnic and as they were clearing up the blanket, they just dumped all their trash on the grass and walked away. You’d get killed for trying that today. Shoot, I yelled at some kid on our bike path the other day for shucking off his Red Bull can into the trees. He stopped and picked it up.

  4. Because of the kind of stories I’m writing, I play around with forests and deserts and military bases. A time or two, I’ve delved into Afghanistan and Iraq.

    I’ve yet to get into Asia, either major OR minor–except as a symphony one of my characters is writing.

    Now I’ve never been to any of the foreign countries I write about. (Because I can longer travel great distances, I do a lot of YouTube watching and research the flora and fauna of each country.)

    But you’re right. Sometimes I play around with the concept of, “What if this all took place in a Southern California desert, instead of the Appalachian Trail?” For some reason I can’t quite describe, the story feels different if I change locations. In the Coachella portion of the Colorado Desert, you can see for miles, but you still can’t see danger coming sometimes. If you waited a couple of days to eat the service station sushi you bought on your way to the Appalachian Trail and you need to go off the trail but a couple yards to use the choogugii (don’t ask me what language that is, but I do know), you could get lost. In parts of the Appalachian Trail country, you can see for feet.

    So I get the sense of terror has different dynamics and feel in different places. That was a major find for me.

    (By the way, if you want to be terrorized by the Southern California deserts, especially the Otay Mountains and Lake Otay, you should read former border patrolman agent Rocky Elmore’s book, Out on Foot: Nightly Patrols and Ghostly Tales of a U.S. Border Patrol Agent. I promise you, after reading it, if you need to use the choogugi, you willl do so inside in bright light.)

    • I really believe good writers can make places come alive they haven’t visited. It’s a real talent. Your point about switching locations sometimes is well taken. It can really re-juice what might otherwise be a meh plot. I often tell writers in my workshops who struggle with place to always go against the obvious. If you write about Manhattan, don’t show us tourist NYC; show us a side no one else sees. If you write about Paris, leave the Effiel Tower et al out of it. But that’s good advice for creating characters as well — go against type.

  5. I’ve never watched Game of Thrones, but I agree about the importance of a strong sense of place. The trailer confused me. Maybe you need to be a fan to understand it?

    Loved Six Feet Under! Amazing intros, talented actors, perfectly plotted … they did everything right, IMO.

    • Yeah, maybe the GOT intro makes no sense unless you’ve watched it. But what it does is every episode, it lays out — again — the geography of all the warring kingdoms on a map. I need that to remember where the heck I am sometimes!

  6. Most don’t realize how important setting is to mysteries, but you can guess the type of mystery by the settings.

    Small town/Americana– a cozy mystery
    The wealthiest part of the town and the poorest–noir
    Travel to various international seats of power–thriller
    Travel to multiple types of dangerous locations–suspense
    Big city streets–procedural

    Feel free to add more.

    • huh…interesting concept. But you could turn a couple of those around and go against type:

      Small town = great police procedural. (One good one I read is Ron Corbett’s “Ragged Lake” an edgar nominee for first novel.)

      Wealthy vs poor parts of town = cozy. Think of the possibilities! You could set a great one in Palm Beach county, which includes the rich island folks (Mar-a-Lago!) and the cattle people in the west of the county.

      • Reader genre expectations will only allow a certain amount of latitude. Those who read cozy mysteries with a dog or cat on the cover with a Victorian house in the background will not be happy if you stray too far from expectations. P*ssing off readers by changing the rules of that subgenre is not a good career move.

  7. I love creating and expanding my setting.

    Have you noticed GOT opening credits change with the show season? The team that created the openings were so creative.

    Six Feet Under – the opening where the man is pulling out of his driveway, opens the door to grab the paper, falls out and gets run over by his car -I was so glad I had taped it. I watched it 3 or 4 times before I continued the episode. Another reason one should always wear their seatbelts.

    • I didn’t realize the GOT credits change every episode until the 6th season. Big doh. Then I started watching closely for the clues. 🙂

      The Six Feet Under credit intro was very clever. It was a short story all by itself.

  8. Hi there.
    I have a question:

    Say your novel starts in media res. Say it’s in third-limited PoV. Say the protagonist is distressed, has other things in his mind. He wouldn’t notice the scenery, with which he’s more than acquainted anyway.

    How’d you go about establishing that fabled sense of place from the get go?

    Thanks in advance!

    Cheers

    • Excellent question!
      I had one of my books start this way. It was from the victim’s POV (third person intimate) and she’s running for her life in the beginnings of a hurricane, so terrified she’s willing to jump in a boat in the dark to get away. So I made her sense of her surroundings VERY fragmented, sketchy, very filtered through her adrenaline-fueled senses. You’re right…the sense of place would be VERY different in this situation and you would be right, I think, to have it almost hallucinatory and sketchy. You could then easily come back in the next scene or chapter, when the mood is calmer, to properly ground your reader in the geography or exact place. This is what I did with my victim. Chap 1 was her intense flight, with only a sense of dark, cold rain and what little she could see of the raging gulf waters. (The row boat was a bobbing blob of white in the raging dark water.) BUT…in chap 2, I switched to my protag, after the hurricane had passed, and he is assessing the damage to his beach, which gave me a perfect chance to show readers where we were — before he comes across a skull washed up in beach debris. 🙂

      So, without knowing your exact plot, I’d say keep the intensity high with limited focus on where we are with your protag at first. Just sketch in enough details to ground the reader in reality. (Desert? Dark alleyway? Abandoned English mansion?) Stick with feelings and action and later, when the mood is less intense, fill in with details as needed.

      Does this help? Others might want to weigh in.

  9. I haven’t gotten to season 8 yet. I’m waiting for some time to come my way before I start bingeing it. Once all the books come out, I’ll binge those too. I’m not a huge fan of epic fantasy (urban fantasy is my jam), but the grimdark aspect of it captured my attention.

    You’re right about the settings. Somehow, they all fit together very seamlessly. In one of the novellas I’m writing (a side-story to a main story), a couple of the characters spend most of their time in Pakistan, specifically in the Mianwali area. I’ve never been, but Google Maps has helped tremendously in being able to help me get my bearings (and realise how green it is; not very desert-like at all).

    Ahhh. Technology.

    • Amen. I am a Luddite thru and thru but I love me my Google Street View.

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