Faraway Places With Strange Sounding Memes

Place is character. And all writing is regional. — John Dufresne.

By PJ Parrish

Man, do I need a vacation.

Like most of you, I haven’t been much of anywhere these past 18 months, and my itch to travel has gone from wanderlust to wander-horny. I love to go places I’ve never been before — anywhere! Be it the wooded path in Michigan I’ve never jogged down before to the Camargue in southern France.

We were scheduled to go to Provence last fall but that was cancelled. So I’ve had to content myself with binging on Escape To The Chateau and Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy.  And I’ve read a lot of books.

Nina George took me to favorite old haunts and beyond in The Little Paris Bookshop. Georges Simenon took me to a Normandy fishing village in Maigret et la Vielle Dame.  Stuart Neville took me to northern Ireland in The Ghosts of Belfast. And I have just embarked to Newfoundland, piloted by Jim DeFede who recounts the true story of the villagers of Gander who took in 7,000 passengers stranded in the wake of 9/11 in his book The Day The World Came To Town.

These journeys and many others have helped keep me sane. The books have also gotten me to thinking about what makes for a great location in a novel. I’m a sucker for sense of place. I can almost forgive poor characterizations or lazy plotting if the location is well rendered.

I think sense of place is often neglected by writers who are just finding their feet. Maybe they believe that like description, it slogs down the plot. I believe, however, that if you don’t ground your reader in a sense of place, the characters never truly come alive.

As John Defresne says in his splendid writing fiction book The Lie That Tells The Truth:

“Place connects characters to a collective and personal past, and so place is the emotional center of story. And by place, I don’t simply mean location. A location is a dot on the map, a set of coordinates. Place is location with narrative, with memory and imagination, with history. We transform a location into a place by telling its stories.

The chapter that passage comes from is titled: “You Can’t Do Anything If You’re Nowhere.”  No place, no plot, nowhere man.

So, let’s try to get practical here. What can I tell you that might help you as a fiction writer, get a better sense of your place? That’s tough. I can only go by my own experience writing and reading. Place is often my jumping off point. In my Louis Kincaid series, I move him between southwest Florida and Michigan. But within that macro, I try to find specific mini-locations that speak me and help me put a frame around my character. These mini-locations have been: The Everglades, an abandoned insane asylum, a remote island in the Gulf, the vast emptiness of the Sleeping Bear sand dunes, and the rugged loneliness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with its abandoned copper mines. I have a thing for abandoned places.

For our stand-alone A Killing Song, Paris was the macro-location. The mini-location was the creepy network of catacombs beneath the city. We also took our readers to the Arab enclave called La Goutte d’Or, the strange park Buttes-Chamont, a dive bar tucked behind the Pantheon called El Melocoton.

We didn’t take our readers to the Eiffel Tower, the Tuileries gardens, or Cafe Deux Magots.

Why? Here is the best piece of advice I can give you regarding creating a sense of place: Don’t go with the obvious. Steer clear of all clichés. The more well-known and iconic your setting is, the harder you have to work to find within it the telling details that make it come alive in your reader’s imagination. Make your setting FRESH.

Writing about New York City? Take me places I haven’t seen in TV. Writing about Hong Kong? Give me the smells and sounds that movies cannot. Miami? Stay away from South Beach and Little Havana. San Francisco? No Wharf, Alcatraz, cable cars and go light on the fog. Stay away from tired place memes that are over-used so much they lose all emotional impact.

Your postcards from the edge must have an edge.

Okay, enough beating you over the head about cliches. What else can I offer?

Write what you know. This does not mean you have to visit all your locales. It helps. Boy, does it help. I’ve got a very good working knowledge of Paris but I had never been to La Goutte D’Or. I traveled every inch of its streets via Google Street View. But you can create a great location if you do your research the people, language and culture. Remember: What may be colorful and exotic to you as a writer is just normal life to the people who live there.

Compare and contrast. If your character is a stranger in strange land, use his experiences and memories of his normal world and contrast it with what he is observing. I did this often in The Killing Song with my American Matt, a Floridian who had never been abroad. I used his naivete, frustration, and fears to create the same feelings for readers.

What is the scene about? You need to pin this down before you begin piling in details of location.  Don’t just say to yourself: I’m going to set a scene at Muir Woods because I was there once and the old trees were cool. Figure out what needs to happen to your character FIRST and then make the setting enhance the plot and the mood. Watch this great scene in Vertigo where Kim Novak wanders among the ancient trees, says she’s thinking about “All the people who have lived and died while the trees went on living.” The haunting setting reflects her confused mood.

Use All Your Senses!

This is a tenet of all good description but especially for creating settings. The smells of an exotic street bazaar. The sounds of shrieking wild parrots in the palm trees of Miami Beach. The fusty smell of cold earth in a graveyard.  The simple sense of feel became critical in our book The Killing Song. Near the climax, Matt is forced to crawl through the narrow tunnels of the catacombs. He is claustrophobic, due to a childhood accident, and he’s terrified.

Shivering, I got up and moved on. I was dismayed to see the passageway starting to narrow again, and before long I was forced to my knees. The passageway continued to shrink until I was flat on my belly, looking into a hole about the size of a large heating vent.

I wiggled forward and twisted my body so I could shine the flashlight into the hole.

Bones. As far as I could see.

A brown, jagged carpet of them in a passageway no larger than a coffin.

I closed my eyes, fighting back nausea. I pulled in a deep breath and slithered forward into the hole. Eyes closed, I started a soldier’s crawl across the bones. I could feel the sharp edges rip at the sleeves of my jacket. I could hear the dry crunch, like beetles being crushed, as the bones broke under the weight of my body.

Don’t Overdo It.  It’s easy, during research, to fall hopelessly in love with your setting. You must know what to leave out. Dan Brown, who some might say never met a location he didn’t love, puts it this way: “Readers are interested in your characters and plot, so information about your world is best conveyed through a character’s sensory experience or through action.”

Use Visual Aids. I did this often with our Louis books. I made many treks into the Everglades or locations around Ft. Myers and took hundreds of photos that found their way onto an inspiration wall as I wrote. I found this photo of a “cataphile” while researching the Paris catacombs and it inspired the scene above with Matt:

I also keep old fashioned fold-up physical maps handy, which oddly give me a better sense of where I am in a book than any Google Map ever could. I often created my own maps of places I had made up, like the grounds of the abandoned insane asylum.

Imagine Your Story Is a Movie

Some of you have actually screenwriting experience. I do not. But I often can visualize my scenes as movies. I can see in my mind an establishing setting shot, long, medium or close up. If you can visualize this, you can really get your reader grounded in a reality of location.

One last example before I leave. I also re-read To Kill A Mockingbird this past year. I had to go back and find this for you, but it still strikes me as one of the best opening descriptions of place that I can remember:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop, grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then . . . bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

This is, of course, seen through Scout’s point of view. It not only establishes Maycomb as a tired place, but it is written as a recollection of Scout as an adult. We get a sense of poverty, idleness, and oppression that comes to underscore the story’s themes.

I’m off to research things to see near St. Remy de Provence. Yes, we are planning to go this fall. So I’ll let John Defresne have the last word:

“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to write, so let’s write. We’ll chat later. Get out your pen and paper or fire up the computer. Pour yourself a coffee. Unplug the phone. Once you start, you can’t stop. Give yourself a half hour. Relax. Don’t think too much. You’re starting a journey, and you don’t know where you’re going. But you do know you’re going someplace you haven’t been before.”


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

30 thoughts on “Faraway Places With Strange Sounding Memes

  1. Thanks, Kris. I often think of the location of a story as a character, sometimes major, sometimes minor, but always influencing the twist and turns of a story…

  2. As always, a rich and informative post. I especially like your reference to mini locations and the “compare and contrast” advice.
    In 2019, I took a trip to the British Isles (squeaked that one in a few months before everything hit the fan), and I just got back from a vacation in Croatia. The first trip inspired Heather’s Chase (and to be practical, travel for research can be written off–consult your tax preparer), and having the characters “strangers” to the setting allowed for delving into details to enrich the settings.
    I’m going to be working on a book set in Croatia once I finish the current wip, and as I mentioned in previous posts, my characters will definitely be experiencing the setting and all its sensory hits as first-timers. Ten days isn’t long enough to be comfortable writing local characters coming from such a different way of life.

    • Have long wanted to visit Croatia! My mother in law took a trip there all on her own when she was 79 and loved it. In France, I feel comfortable cuz I can manage the language and don’t feel like such a fish out of water. When I was in India for my nephew’s wedding…whew, that was eye-opening.

      • If you’re still interested, my son’s travel agent is putting together a small charter cruise along the same route we took next summer. It’s really a trip of a lifetime.

  3. Great stuff, Kris. I especially appreciate the underused sense of smell in descriptions.

    I’ve visited locations and taken pics and copious notes; I’ve also made up locations and details (saves time!). And then there are times when I go to YouTube and blogs and travel books to get details for places I haven’t been. In the latter case, I try to find a local (Chambers of Commerce are good for this) to review those pages.

    • I don’t know what is more fun — actually visiting and using real places or making up stuff from scratch. The latter is more challenging, I think.

  4. Thanks, Kris, for a great post. Great ideas and advice.

    In my Mad River Magic fantasy series, I play with anatomical systems as setting, thus far the brain, the DNA, the skeleton, and the heart.

    Your upcoming trip to St. Remy de Provence reminded me of the TV series, A Year in Provence, based on Peter Mayle’s 1989 book. It inspired me to learn and play petanque.

    Have fun with the research.

    • Oh my…petanque is huuuge in our house. 🙂 When we had a big yard in Fort Lauderdale, I surprised my husband one year and built a court for him under the mango tree. We had so much fun. We still play on the grass of our place here in Tallahassee.

  5. Know your locations idioms. I live in St. Louis. Our newspaper likes to call it the Lou. They are the only one. We also have a habit of calling things what they were. If your story is set here, be prepared to have someone tell your hero to go to Kiel Auditorium. The sign out front has said Enterprise Center for about five years. Most of the people who talk about Easton Ave. are gone or over 80. Easton has been MLK Drive for about 40 years.

    Google maps and street view can save you from 100 angry emails because 8th street and Victory Way never cross so there can’t be a bakery on that corner.

    One of my favorite location stories is from the X Files TV series. They wanted an episode to take place in “mid America”. They folded a map of the US in half. Bingo, Olivette, MO. Nothing in the episode looks anything like anything in Olivette, a St. Louis suburb.

    • Very good point about “location idioms.” (useful term, that). If you write about Michigan, you know that it’s Mackinaw City but Mackinac Island. Both pronounced “macki-naw.”

      And never ever call it Frisco…

  6. Great information here. I’m still shivering from your scene with Matt in the catacombs and can see how the photo inspired it.
    Most of my books have been set near where I grew up except for the Natchez Trace books. For that series I traveled to Natchez and explored the area until Covid shut travel down. I love it when someone familiar with Natchez tells me I got it right.

    • Yes, exactly — when someone tells you that you got it right. I will never forget when I met my French editor, Robert Pepin, for the first time. He’s a crusty typically contrary Parisian. After he bought our Paris book, I was truly terrified to meet him in person but couldn’t get around it when we traveled there. He frowned at me and said, “Well, you got it exactly right. Would like a kir?”

  7. Boy, does this hit home.

    ‘Writing about New York City? Take me places I haven’t seen in TV […] Use Visual Aids’

    I’ll do you one better, PJ/K&K. My debut historical novel about the birth of NYC was totally inspired by one image of Manhattan. This one:
    … which I ended up licensing and using for my cover (© 2009 Markley Boyer, The Manhattan Project)

    If you’ve ever been to NYC, this is the ultimate Before & After/Compare & Contrast, non? And in terms of Writing What You Know, I think swimming around the island counts.

    • Oh my, what a truly awe inspiring image! And you SWAM around Manhattan? I am impressed…

      Actually, taking anything but a car when you are traveling for research is a great idea. NYC looks completely different from the water, as does Paris via the Seine. And walking neighborhoods gives you insights you can never get via car.

      • Yep. Swam around it, nonstop. Nothing like seeing the Statue of Liberty from actual water level. Or the GW bridge from underneath while swimming backstroke. Of course, I also walked all over and explored.

  8. I love visiting the places I write about, and inevitably the book is stronger for it. My phone is filled with videos of out-the-way places. Perfect for body dump sites. 😉 Plus, it’s fun to cruise around and search for murder sites. For the last couple years I’ve been kicking around an idea for a story set in Kenya. Shortly after I formed a complete premise, a new neighbor moved to our mountain. Turns out, he’s from Kenya and worked the exact job as my anti-hero. Serendipity!

  9. This is great stuff, Kris. Avoiding the bog-standard part of a setting can really help that place become more unique to the reader. Setting is one of those things I work on in revision, because like you noted about scene construction, I need to get the story and plot down first. These are great tips for bringing your setting to life.

    • Glad they might help Dale. And yes, sometimes the setting comes alive in rewrites. Some writers, like you, do a skeletal construction first, like a sculptor works first with an armature.

  10. I moved my Jung-meets-Hitler book from the Berghof (blown to gravel by the Allies) to Kehlsteinhaus, which still exists and has a 400′ entry tunnel, a metaphor for plunging deep into the mind of Der Failure. I moved Kehlsteinhaus to near the (real) town of Bludenz, which reminded me of blut, the German for blood, because WWII was all about blood. Another real location on the route back to Zurich is named Schattenburg. What student of psychology could resist a location named “Shadow Fortress” for a final showdown with Himmler?

    Google street view has proved invaluable for looking over possible locations and routes.

  11. It’s funny to read a novel which is practically a travelogue. It’s so blinking obvious that this was an author vacation that will be used as a writing expense on her taxes.

    I’ve traveled a bit, mainly with the extended family. I’m a very poor traveler with a bad back, insomnia, and an inability to readjust to time changes. I spent almost a month in South Africa and never did get my body adjusted to the new times. If I ever write about that trip, I’d call it ZOMBIE ADVENTURES IN SOUTH AFRICA. Instead, give me a week in a nice house on the North Carolina coast, my state, and I’m a happy camper.

  12. Thoroughly enjoyed your writing, Kris. As always, you have given me much to think about.

    Since I set my novels in a fictional town, I have the advantage of making it look the way I imagine it and populate it with the kind of people I want there. I do have to be careful of the topography, the flora and fauna, and the seasons since it’s set in a general region of the country.

    I would like to take my main characters out of the country for the next book. We’ve done a fair amount of traveling, and Scotland would be an appropriate place for a murder mystery. Your post has inspired me!

    Loved the clip from Vertigo. It’s one of my favorites.

    • Do you keep a sort of journal for your made-up location? I would think I would get “lost” in a totally imagined world. For our book set in the asylum, I had to draw indicate maps of the ground and the fictional town where it was set.

      • I have begun to keep notes in Scrivener. My WIP is set on a university campus in my fictional town and I had to map out the placement of the buildings.

  13. Love this post, Kris!
    Banking off of your reply to Kay, I find it FAR more challenging to write with real-world settings than fantasy.
    With fantasy, all I need worry about is keeping track of place names, etc, which I do with my own maps and notes. And I get to make up my own flora, fauna, growth habits, etc. I find that fun, not a chore.
    But working off of real places? That’s daunting! I would forever be worried about committing a faux pas like what Allen mentioned. The locals WILL notice!
    But it doesn’t mean I don’t borrow from them. Heh.
    My husband and I had a blast on our last trip to Morocco. Everything had a place in my story, from burnoose-hooded figures shuffling down a shadowed Fez alley, to tumbledown ruins glimpsed from across the roofline view of Chefchouen. The smells, the sounds, the food…it was all a sensory delight that went straight into my WIP.
    I do what Sue does: my phone is chock full of photos of settings, people, etc, that are fodder for the story.
    And, as you discuss, the real trick is getting it on the page as complimentary to the story, not over-saturation

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