The Orchid

The Orchid

Friday, 6 December 2013

Bringing a Town to Life

I thought I'd do a writing blog today, so if anyone has any writing queries, do comment and I'll do my best to  answer them. 

An important part of writing that can get overlooked amongst the more exciting characters and emotions, is the setting. It doesn’t jump around, rage or swear, it just sits there, looking pretty. Or sometimes, not so pretty. Imagine Lord of the Rings without the powerful setting of Mount Doom, or Jane Eyre minus the brooding moors, or Jamaica Inn missing the dark, grey forbidding tavern. In these books, the setting becomes a person in its own right; influencing the plot and the characters, foreshadowing and adding atmosphere.

To create a strong sense of place, the setting must be woven into the story. But what’s the best way to do this? A single paragraph at the start of the book isn’t enough and several paragraphs will generally lose you the reader—no one wants to trawl through pages and pages of description. The trick is to slot it into the narrative. Have your characters breathing in the salty sea air, hearing the cry of gulls above them, feeling the breeze against their cheeks. Every character has five senses and all of these should be used to bring the setting alive.   

It can help to have a picture of the scene you’re describing beside you. When I was writing my medieval romance, I had a photo of a forest on my desk and glanced at it while my computer was switching on to focus my mind. Even if your characters are sitting in the lounge, then I want to know what that room looks like. Drop little hints into the narrative, rather than a big block of text, so I can picture it.

I read a book recently where a ballroom was described as, ‘stunningly beautiful.’ Well, I’ll have to take the writer’s word for that, because she never told me what it looked like. It’s lazy writing and added nothing to the book. Don’t tell me what it looks like; show me.

In my novel Winter Storms, it was the setting that appeared first; a glimpse of wet cobblestones and the sound of a breaker exploding a seawall. From that original image, the town of Haven Bay appeared, nestled at the base of giant black cliff and surrounded by a raging sea that echoed the powerful emotions of Carly and Daniel.

Below, I’ve added an extract of Daniel’s arrival at the Bay after two years away. Read it, and see if you can picture the setting in your own mind.

Extract Winter Storms 
by Lucy Oliver

The powerful sea wind hit Daniel Edwards with the force of a gybing boom. Hissing between his teeth, he yanked the wet dinghy painter and cursed as it scraped red burns across his hands. It was tempting to toss the rope away and watch the hated boat bob off into the ocean, but his teammates would never forgive him; the Olympic racing craft was worth a fortune. He never should have brought it out in this weather. Seeing the lifeboat bobbing beside a fishing trawler, waves exploding over the deck, made him realise how stupid and how lucky he’d been.

The mast had snapped when he reached the jetty, another expense he’d have to pay for. Not that he cared very much, when his sponsors discovered he’d risked the boat in a storm, they’d cancel his contract anyway. They already had what they wanted—double Olympic gold medals—now he was superfluous to requirements.

Hauling on the rope, Daniel tied it fast and straightened. Pulling down his waterproof hood, he stared across the harbour at the cluster of shops glowing with Christmas lights; it hadn’t changed much in two years. Turning to look at the black cliffs standing like gateposts either side of the harbour entrance, he recalled her scream and shuddered. Should he have come back?

But Haven Bay was where he grew up and he couldn’t stay away forever, paying expensive hotel bills for his family to visit him. And after the Olympics, his urge to visit had grown stronger, pictures flashing through his mind like an old-fashioned projector, images of places and people, of a girl he had known.

Imogen, his ex-fiancĂ©e, said she’d suspected for months that something wasn’t right. Standing in the hallway of their luxury flat, suitcases at her feet, she looked at him, not in anger, but with something akin to pity.
           “There’s a part of you I can’t reach,” she said.
Daniel opened his mouth to protest, but she held her left hand up, showing a white ring of pale skin around her suntanned finger.
“I hoped our relationship would improve after you got the Olympic golds, but it’s worse, I never know what’s going through your mind. I keep expecting to come home to find the wardrobe half-empty and a note on the table telling me you’ve gone.” Putting hands on her hips, she stared at him. “I’m not the person you’re looking for."
Daniel gazed now at the lights of Haven Bay. Had Imogen been right? A face, pushed for years into the back of his mind, was emerging, growing stronger and less blurry each day. Two years ago, Carly had broken off their relationship with five hard words.
“I do not love you,” she said.
And, refusing to beg, he left town on the next train. Only later did he wish he’d demanded an explanation, but it was too late by then, his pride wouldn’t let him return. So what if Carly didn’t want to know him? Many other girls did. Until Imogen showed him the truth: that he couldn’t love anyone else.
Slinging a rucksack over his shoulder, he stepped across the floating jetty to the sea wall. A rank odour of dead fish, salt water, and rust hit him, scents he remembered from his childhood. Boats creaked at their moorings and faint music drifted over from a pub. Brick steps led up the harbour wall, slippery with rubbery, rotting seaweed and when he reached the top, he froze, waiting for the bright flash of a camera.


  1. Excellent post, Lucy. Very useful and interesting, thank you.

  2. Great post, good explanation to use the senses to describe the setting, I will use that one.

  3. Thank you, I'm glad it was helpful.