You’re not in Kansas …

I’ve been toying with the idea of putting together a writer’s workshop focusing on how sense of place can add depth to stories. Mostly because I can’t think of anything else I’m aware of that I purposefully do when I’m crafting a story.

So how do we add a sense of place? Every writer probably thinks of this process differently. Some may not think of it at all. They just do it without realizing it. I think I add place by purposefully employing all five of our senses.


This includes general things like describing the architecture of the town or city. The flora and fauna and terrain are most likely unique to the story’s setting. How sight can add a sense of place can be as simple as identifying the color of the walls in the heroine’s bedroom.


Traffic, wildlife, weather. What kind of music is playing on the radio? Hotels, private homes and apartments all have different sounds that help a reader put him or herself into a story.


They say smell is the strongest sense for triggering memories. It’s also critical to creating a sense of where we are in a story. Cooking smells, pollution or lack thereof, the scent of flowers and trees. Are we by the ocean or in a forest of evergreens? Nothing can take me to a place quicker than this sense.


This one’s a little tough to nail down, but I the weather plays such a huge role in feeling where we are. What season is it? Is it hot, humid, cool, windy? Identifying textures can help, as well. Is the hotel expensive with luxuriously soft bedding or is it a dive with rough towels?


Cooking again, plays such a huge role in place. I love including foods that are unique to the area I’m writing about. It’s easy to employ this tactic when your story takes place in a foreign country, but even on my little Mirabelle Island, set smack dab in the middle of the U.S., food plays a part in developing sense of place. Historically, that area was settled by French fur traders, so the oldest inn on the island serves French food.

I know all this sounds elementary, but I put a lot of effort and research into creating a sense of place in my stories. I tour facilities, like this Dallas track for my NASCAR books. I read about restaurants and traditional foods, track weather reports, and even get on Google Earth to see if I can find actual pictures of the streets I’m writing about.

As a writer, I think sense of place is critical to creating a well-rounded, layered story. Place becomes a character. But as a reader, there are times when I get overwhelmed by too much detail. I find myself skimming over paragraphs or flipping pages to get to the good stuff.

So how much is too much?

As a reader, how important is sense of place is for you? Do you like a lot, a little, or something in between? What’s your favorite way to get pulled into the place in a book?

As a writer, do you think about sense of place in your stories? What’s the single most important thing you do to create place in your books?



About Helen Brenna

Helen Brenna is the RITA award winning author of romances for Harlequin's Superromance line. Three more books in her popular Mirabelle Island series will be release in July, August and September of 2011. For more information, check out her website at
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