Sense of place, even in plot driven fiction, is a deal breaker for me. How can you write about a place you’ve never been and cannot visit? First, a little learning theory.
We all have a dominant sensory perception as well as a weakest one, the sense we use most to process data from our environment. Have you been asked to do that writing exercise where you give each of your senses a colour, then go through a bit of writing and highlight them accordingly? You end up with a colour coded inventory of how you write through your senses.
Dominant sensory perception doesn’t necessarily mean which sense is the most acute. It means the sense through which you understand your environment. For instance, my weakest perception is visual, although I have 20/20 vision with my specs on. This means that if my highly visual son wants to hide a circular pan from me, he only need put a rectangular one on top and I don’t perceive the circle. I SEE it but I don’t understand it.
I’m kinaesthetic, which means I know my environment via touch and movement. This makes it essential that my characters are grounded in place for my own suspension of disbelief to take place. Why, then, would I take on Afghanistan?
The story stayed with me on too many levels to let it go. The award ceremonies, the repatriation parades, the singing wives and surprise reunions and crisp uniforms, a neat and tidy way of ignoring slaughtered children. Someone needed to tell the truth here. So if you’re thinking about a setting that you can’t physically be in, make sure that you’re completely invested in the story. That’s 50% of overcoming the obstacle.
Next, get the facts about your location. I started with photographs of Camp Bastion, floor plans of the hospital, then drew maps of how staff walked from one location to the next so I mentally made the trip from Point A to Point B, following my characters where and how they moved through their day.
Once I knew where they were going, I needed to know what they were going through – weather, air conditioning, furniture, terrain. If your dominant sense is something else, then that’s where you would start. Ground yourself in the location through your dominant perception. Watch videos, listen to sound tracks, taste the food, smell things that come from there.
To write fully in the experience, though, you’ll need stimuli for all your senses. I initially used other people’s experiences and I did it scene by scene, rather than try to get all my information at once. This was only possible because I have live-in access to that information, so could say over dinner, If you’re walking from the Cook House to the NAAFI, what would you see? Ask during an ad break, If you’re awake at 0200, what would you hear? Come out to the garden to pose, If you’re in ITU, what’s the dominant smell? Can you give me an example of where there’d be water?
I consider place as a character in a scene. Not surprisingly, then, I consciously choose where things happen – is this discussion better placed in an office, at the Cook House, in the Bath House, in the dark? So if you don’t have live-in access to someone who knows your place, plan your locations in advance, then go to your informant with detailed questions. Always, always, always use more than one informant if you can. It diversifies your information.
My experience interviewing people for research has been positive. I think it’s that whole thirst we all have for creativity, so other people do enjoy participating. My interview subjects often come up with creative ways to give me the information, such as letting me smell a shamagh that had been used during dust storms or asking work mates who are doing a transport to be mindful of the smells and sounds on an aircraft so they can report back to me. When writing about a place you can’t go, DO talk to people who’ve been there. Always ask them to compare there with here, wherever here is for you.
However, this type of research isn’t always practical or socially appropriate. The technique that I sometimes use to extrapolate from an interview, is the negative hallucination trick. For instance, as I type this, I’m looking out the window into a North Yorkshire autumn. There are the brilliant colours, the dulled light and, though I cannot feel it from here, I know the air will have a texture that’s damp and cool. So what is here that isn’t in Afghanistan? The most obvious thing to me is the air moisture (because I’m kinaesthetic) but you may say the colour, so let’s go with that.
I know from asking my sources that as my characters go from Point A to Point B, the world has only shades of beige, most of the people dress in camouflage, but periodically they’ll see coloured ISO containers and contract workers in faded clothing. What would my reaction be to seeing random spots of colour?
I once lived in Australia which has wonderful colours, but not the particular shade of green our grass had at home. While in Australia, I didn’t notice this but when I went home, the green seemed garish. It actually jarred something in me to look at the grass. Use a memory of your own experience if you can because it will be authentic.
But keep this authenticity consistent with the character. What is that person’s dominant sense? (Will I never let that go? Nope, not gonna do it.) If my character is visual, then seeing bits of dull blue or green will make an impact. If my character is auditory, they may not even notice or may not know why they notice. Different characters taking the same route at different points in the story can have different experiences which give a fuller picture of the setting.
If you don’t have a sensory experience to help you imagine a negative hallucination method, then read about the brain and how it works. These type articles often have specific examples to help you understand them (and to steal for your own purposes).
Now that you have your information, accept that you’re not going to use most of it. If you describe your setting in minute detail, then you risk burying the story you wanted to tell. Also, the more detail you give, the less believable it will be. Use a sketch pen, not oils when conveying your setting. Think of Degas’ work when he was losing his sight, how the vagueness itself evoked the image. This is what you want to do, to evoke. Ah, be evocative! Exactly.