How to write location in your fiction


29 January 2021
The right setting is crucial for any novel but sometimes the location takes a more important role, as author Una Mannion explains
How to write location in your fiction Images

A few years ago, Robert Macfarlane tweeted his word of the day: dinnseanchas: the Irish poetic tradition ‘celebrating & manifesting the lore of place.’ Below it, Macfarlane posted a map of Inishmore, one of the Aran islands off the coast of Galway, drawn by writer and cartographer Tim Robinson.

Robinson, who died this past year, spent decades walking through Connemara learning about the place, the language, geology, social history, folklore, archaeology. He is considered both a ‘place writer’ and a ‘deep mapper.’ In the representation of place, deep maps draw on a vertical sense of a location, depth, the experience of being there, the thick layers of associations, senses and memory sedimented in place. Robinson refers to an ‘infinity of looking’ describing his approach to landscape and map-making. Look, really look, and a place will start to speak to you.

I think deep mappers engage in a practice that fiction writers can learn from when writing place. We know already that place shapes, moves, unnerves, spooks, fills and depletes us. And we use place as a way to shape story, create atmosphere, express loss. It is more than a backdrop. Place, deep mappers teach us, be it a pastoral idyll, a cityscape, a seemingly innocuous suburb, a wasteland, is more than just the surface coordinates. It must be seen from the inside. As writers, we know that this is what keeps the worlds from being generic or clichéd, finding the details that crystallise the scene, differentiate it, make the angle original.

I recently spoke to a photographer friend who made the analogy of the now ubiquitous drone photography with its panoramic, comprehensive, all-encompassing perspective and the photographer out in the field, scrambling through thickets or walking through wasteland, their sightlines limited because they are immersed in the place. The drone vantage point is almost like what writers would call an omniscient view and sometimes it’s useful to zoom out, to capture the entirety. But this is not how we experience place. We experience it in fragments, from our positionalities not just in the natural geography but within the social geography. We never see it just as somebody else does. Seeing it from inside is the work of the writer, honing in on the details, textures, stories, the omissions, memories, what’s been buried. Writing offers a unique form where we can present a dual perspective, outside and inside, omniscient and limited.

In Anna Burns’ Booker winning novel Milkman, place is evoked despite the fact that the text has been scrubbed clean of all referents, any identifying coordinates or details. Somebody McSomebody in an unnamed city puts a knife to the unnamed narrator’s throat. There are unnamed, unwritten rules and regulations, names banned because they hint at names – that are not named -  ‘from over the water.’ One of the effects, we could argue, is that it could be any place, any time, any community where there is armed conflict; but I would argue that the erasure in Burns’ novel intensifies our sense of place, that these erasures chart something else about this city and time. Burns’ mapping of Belfast in the 1970s is ‘deep mapping’, an examination of the experience of a place and its psychogeographies. Milkman captures the grinding reality of patriarchy, surveillance, paramilitarism and tribalism and its impact on the eighteen-year old narrator, Middle Sister, who has caught the unwanted attention of a paramilitary, the titular Milkman. ‘I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,’ she says, ‘by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.’

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Writing A Crooked Tree, my debut novel, I went back to my own first place, a neighbourhood on a ‘mountain’ in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. While Anna Burns creates anonymous codes, I couldn’t stop naming details, re-drawing the actual place where I had grown up, the trails I knew, the trees, route numbers, names of streets, nuclear power plants, military sites, shopping malls, stores, developments, historical sites, monuments, ruins. These are inflected by my own memories as well as gossip and oral history. Back then I had a sense of that place being eroded by encroaching shopping malls, developments and nuclear power plants and because it is a place that I am no longer connected to, I feel another kind of loss. Writing about it all these years later I was trying to represent something of that moment in the young narrator’s consciousness, her sense of losing something that she is trying to hold on to which is deeper than the landscape.

A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion is published by Faber & Faber on 28 January (£14.99 hardback / £7.99 ebook / £19.99 audio digital download).


Wanting to set your fiction in a particular location? Read what crime writer Nick Quantrill, author of the Hull-set Joe Geraghty novels, has to say about the importance of place in his fiction.