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Top ten books with a strong sense of place

Weekly meme by The Broke and The Bookish

The Broke and the Bookish

Description and setting in a novel

Today’s topic is all about creating a sense of place and about books with vivid settings. Most writers think: Location, location, location. The geography of a novel is important. A good writer can turn any location into a strong setting.

A good setting in a book is more than lines of pretty words strung together to create a jewel-like description. A good setting is the culmination of a lot of work and many elements that combine to create a world habitable not only for the characters but for the readers, as well. Often, the dynamics of a good setting seem invisible but they work to provide a strong netting that holds the novel together. Geography is important, landmarks and detail necessary, but an added infusion of culture will illuminate an otherwise flat landscape.

Emily Brontë's inspiration for her famous 1847 novel Wuthering Heights.

How to write vivid settings

A book with a strong sense of place lures the armchair reader into its world. If you want to write stronger settings, try this two-pronged approach. First, gain an understanding of the mechanics of setting through how-to books. Then read books known for their strong settings to see place in action.

Here are a few books on how to write a strong setting and ten novels that are known for having a strong sense of place.

 Books that give the mechanics of writing a vivid setting

  1. Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan —  Learn to use your senses and your powers of observation to create powerful settings.
  2. The Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty — Read how this celebrated poet uncovers the right words to evoke the images and sensory experiences he wants to convey.
  3. Description & Setting: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Believable World of People, Places, and Events (Write Great Fiction) by Ron Rozelle — Understand the various components that make up description and setting through the explanations and exercises provided in this book.
Hemingway's lauded work created a vibrant sens of Paris in the 1920xs.

Paris in the 1920s

The best settings are not static, unchanging places that have no impact on the characters’ lives. Instead in the best worlds there is a plot inherent to the setting itself: a place in turmoil (LORD OF THE RINGS), or a place that is resisting change but there are tensions roiling the calm (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD), or the sense of an era passing in favor of a new generation (THE SOUND AND THE FURY).

Basically: something is happening in the bigger world that affects the characters’ lives. Great settings are dynamic. – Nathan Bransford

Books that give the experience of a strong sense of place

The best books with great settings are those where the setting becomes a character and a source of interaction. Any work of southern fiction is self-identified by its setting and accompanying culture. Today’s crop of travel narratives led by Under the Tuscan Sun offers writers great opportunities to learn from creative nonfiction writers whose work is all about place. Fiction writers who mine particular locales become known for novels that create worlds where their readers not only want to enter but dwell.

It’s a given to say read Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling created a world that millions of readers slipped into and she made it seem so effortless. Read the books, study the writing. For more books with evocative settings, try these:

  1. The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition by J.R.R. Tolkein — If you want to experience an entire fictional universe, give this classic work a try.
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition by Harper Lee — She may have written only one book but it continues to set the standard even today. This is a great example of how a setting and the culture come to bear on the characters and plot.
  3. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurer — Once read, never forgotten, the story set by the sea in a mansion called Manderley continues to live and breathe in the imagination of its readers. 
  4. Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt — For many, McCcourt’s cold, damp and unrelanting Irish setting is as real as the stamp of poverty inflicted on the lives of his family members.
  5. The Bird Artist: A Novel by Howard Norman — Newfoundland’s unforgiving landscape plays a rich part in this dark family drama.  
  6. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx — This is a novel whose inspiration comes from the setting. Proulx makes great use of the landscape and locale and her Newfoundland resonates long after the book is closed.
  7. Crusader’s Cross: A Dave Robicheaux Novel (Dave Robicheaux Mysteries) by James Lee Burke — Burke has made an art form out of mining a locale and any one of his books set in the Lousianna bayou country will do. He captures the deep South and masterfully layers in the landscape.
  8. Lucky You by Carl Hiassen — Hijinks and humor accompany crazy plots and characters in all the Hiassen books, but don’t let that fool you. The Florida landscape is brought to life and provides real interaction.
  9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – This American classic sweeps the reader back in time to a day when the Mississippi River ruled.
  10. For the Sake of Elena by Elizabeth George — George’s books are set in England and are done so well you’d swear she’s British. Not so. Setting is of major importance in all George’s novels. In this novel she puts Cambridge under her literary microscope.

These are by no means the only books you can read–I’m thinking Snow Falling on Cedars: A Novel even now. Share your thoughts and your favorite books that bring a particular geography to light in the comments below. I’m always looking for a good read.



Thanks to the folks at The Broke and The Bookish for Top Ten Tuesday weekly meme and their Top Ten Tuesday image featured above. (Yes, I’m a bit late with this week’s contribution.)
Ready to read the classics? Join The Classics Club. My 5 year 50+ booklist is here: The Classics Club project. Short story lovers, check out The Short Stories Challenge.

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