The Crime Readers' Association

Crime Writing Tips: Location

25th November 2013 by in

Many crime writers are associated with the locations where their narratives are set: Rankin’s Edinburgh, McCall Smith’s Botswana, Donna Leon’s Venice. This aspect of novel writing isn’t exclusive to crime writers. A critic said of Hemingway “when he wrote about places, he seemed to own them.” The same is true of Steinbeck, and many many more authors. You can make your own list, and think about how the use of setting adds to the narrative.

Not all crime writers are specific about location. Agatha Christie’s settings are fairly generic, allowing readers to imagine their own version of the places she writes about. The image conjured up by ‘a large house’ must differ for a reader in England and his counterpart reading in China, yet both will serve the story.

Nevertheless, although not essential, distinct, vivid settings can add depth and plausibility to a narrative, where it is effectively written. So how do you set about creating a location in fiction so your reader feels as though they are really there?

Consider all five senses. Don’t stick exclusively to sight. Does your area have any distinct smells? Perhaps your character walks past a restaurant, or visits a fishing port. You might Include a detail about something your character touches – perhaps brushing past the rough bark of a tree in a park, or feeling the hard ridges on a park bench.

Think about the point of view from which you are communicating details to your reader. What kind of sounds might your characters hear? You can introduce these through your character’s reaction. This can tell your reader something about the character as well. Maybe he or she is extremely intolerant of the noise of children playing, or nervous of a barking dog.

Make sure you don’t overdo your use of the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Never try to shoehorn them all into one description. Your writing will appear forced and unnatural. The fussy detail will distract your reader from the narrative.

Don’t refer to sensual images just because you can. As with everything else in your writing, this is not an opportunity to showcase your brilliance. Your reader is interested in your characters, and their story. Flowery prose can become an irritating distraction from the world of the book.

A scene can assume a different atmosphere with the addition of one detail, or a single word – but such additions must serve a purpose. This is where your craft is needed. Think about the kind of atmosphere you want to create. Does your character feel comfortable? or threatened?

Whether it is included to create a sense of reality, to help build tension, or to communicate something about a character, description of your location should serve a purpose.

Leigh and Lee child

Leigh Russell writes the popular Geraldine Steel crime series. She teaches Creative Writing for The Society of Authors and The Writers Lab.

The Crime Writers Association Manuscript Assessment Service is open to all aspiring crime writers.

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