Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader

When I read the first few pages of a novel, or a manuscript that crosses my desk for assessment, I want my senses to be immediately engaged and on alert. There may be intrigue, which grabs my attention, but if I don’t get a visual hit that stimulates my senses, and in particular, a sense of place, then I’m often disappointed. The first page of Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ (1861) delivers. Pip tells us:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea . . . the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates . . . the low leaden line beyond the river . . . the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea . . .

The alliteration in “low, leaden line” combines with words such as “dark”, “flat”, “distant”, “savage” to evoke a sense of desolation, isolation, and primordial savagery that is sure to inculcate many of the characters. In contrast, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) describes a more romantic, gentle place in the first long paragraph, which comprises the first page, of ‘The Mill on the Floss’ (1860):

A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace . . . It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank and listen to its low, placid voice . . .

Both Eliot and Dickens have given the reader a broad fly-over view before applying a magnifying glass to the narrative and its characters.

Moving on to the twenty-first century, author Geraldine Brooks writes a strong opening in her masterful narrative ‘Year of Wonders’ (2002). She tells readers on the first page that this story is set during ‘Leaf-Fall, 1666’, and that the first chapter is called ‘Apple-picking Time’.

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. . . thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood.

A place comes alive when the right sensory details are aligned on the page. As I wrote in a previous article, The Sound of Words, this introduction by Brooks allows the reader to hear the apples tumbling into bins; to smell the sap, the rotting apples and the wet wood; and to see the golden autumn light as the sun slips towards the horizon. Due to Brooks’ evocative writing, our senses are on high alert, and these autumnal sights, sounds and smells cleverly foreshadow tragedy, decay and death. For Anna, her English village is far more than just a physical space to be inhabited; it is something that she interacts with on a deep emotional level. At the end of the novel, Anna chooses to leave England and make a new life for herself and her daughters. She sails to the Middle East, far-removed from the dark, dank place of slow-death that was her home, to an exotic country exploding with life, light, heat, spices and colour.

And then one morning I awoke to a smooth sea and warm air spiced with cardamom. I gathered up the baby and went on deck. I will never forget the dazzle of the sunlight, glinting off the white walls and the golden domes, or the way the city spilled down the mountain and embraced its wide blue harbour.

I recently assessed of a Young Adult manuscript written by a talented emerging writer and I was impressed with the action-packed outer-space science fiction/fantasy thriller with a headstrong heroine setting the pace. Even though it’s important to allow young readers to imagine the setting, there could have been more attention given to describing the fantasy ‘landscape’ by ‘widening the lens’—or world-building. By establishing a visualisation of the inter-galactic world with its deep space and cosmic wonders, young adult readers would be able to orient themselves in the action through a sense of place that the characters inhabit. I suggested creating a space picture-map that designated the fictional planets and cities. In my younger days I spent many hours pouring over an illustrated picture-map of Tolkein’s ‘Middle-earth’, picking out magical places such as Gondor, Rivendell and Isengard.

Pauline Baynes' map poster of Middle-earth published in 1970 by George Allen & Unwin and Ballantine Books

Pauline Baynes’ map poster of Middle-earth published in 1970 by George Allen & Unwin and Ballantine Books

Of course, the ‘where’ of it all can be seamlessly woven throughout the narrative.  A writer recently admitted that she was afraid to burden her story with too much descriptive detail of places as she’d read too many Henry James novels and had been ‘put off’ by the extensive ‘mind-numbing’ detail. After some encouragement, she began to add more detail about the places in which the characters lived and interacted, details that would not only keep readers grounded, but stimulate their senses. Some writers forget that they have to play a movie in the reader’s head.

Whether the narrative is fictional or a memoir, the setting can be used to good effect in reflecting a character’s personality traits, state-of-mind and physical features. Describing a room in which the scene is enacted adds mood and drama. Grey walls, tattered curtains and unwashed dishes may reflect the predicament of the protagonist. In Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ (1852-53), there are a great number of broken-down interiors that reflect the mental and physical state of the characters. The Jellyby household is “nothing but bills, dirt, waste, noise, tumbles downstairs, confusion, and wretchedness”. The “dusty bundles of papers” in Richard Carstone’s room seems to Esther “like dusty mirrors reflecting his own mind”.

Writing descriptive passages depicting place awaken readers’ senses, immersing them into the picture so they can invest in the narrative and its outcome. Even if the reader isn’t aware of it, psychologies are rooted in the physical setting, and as these psychologies develop, a narrative will automatically kick in.


Manuscript Assessment

If you would like an assessment of your writing project, whether it is a complete manuscript or a work-in-progress, I would be delighted to ‘hear’ from you.

You can email me via my contact page or directly with a brief overview of your needs and I will respond with some ideas.



Featured painting (top of page): Gustave Caillebotte, Boulevard des Italiens, 1880, private collection

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