Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Creating a Sense of Place

Lowood Institution.




When I think of creating a sense of place, Jane Eyre comes quickly to my mind.

As I watched the 2011 version of Jane Eyre I was transfixed by the power of setting.  The filmmakers, in my opinion, had an excellent vision for capturing the sense of place.  Each place throughout the movie is its own character. 

I want to create settings so real that you merely have to name them and the reader can immediately bring them to mind.

When I think of Lowood I see a dank, dreary, dimly lit institution.  Not a school, but an institution. 

I think of alienation, loneliness, fear, rejection, and the single ray of light shed by Miss Temple and Helen Burns' loving kindness towards Jane.

Gateshead (the first house in which we find Jane) seems enormous and empty. 

 I picture the first scene of the book where Jane is boxed in the ears by her cruel cousin.  I feel Jane's bitter anguish as she is sent away to Lowood to be educated into the ways of humiliation...then years later heartbreak as she finds her dying aunt has hidden away the fortune that rightfully belongs to Jane. 

Yet there is an ultimate peace in Jane's forgiveness of her aunt and the fact that the estate of Gatewood becomes a chapter of her past.

Thornfield evokes complex emotions as only a great writer like Bronte could yield. 

Loneliness is a force in Jane's life as she is isolated with few companions.

The moors outside Thornfield are mysterious and moody like a petulant child ready to throw a temper tantrum at any moment.

When Jane helps a coarse, brooding man on a horse in these moors this reader was terrified yet transfixed.  Who is this mysterious man?  

Thornfield brings intense fear of the unknown, a desperation to know the truth, an intense uniting of two souls, the joy of intellectual conversation and friendship, and tragedy. 

In the eyes of Charlotte Bronte, each of these settings has become a character of its own.  They immediately evoke not only a description of the setting, but bring an intense emotionally stirring to the reader.
I have read hundreds of books and even for many well-written books I cannot remember the name of the setting or bring it easily to mind.  Even fewer bring emotions to mind.
What is the setting of your story or a favorite author's story? 
What emotions does your setting evoke?


Theresa said...

My own story's setting is a bit ambigous at the time. I almost feel threatened to think I have to create one - I am having trouble just to keep my story going.

My favourite author has a great way with setting. Mr Tolkien writes his settings so visually, sensually, that you have no doubt in your mind what it is like there. The warmth and joy of Rivendell, the fading away of Lothlorien. And of course, the absolute desolation of Mordor. The best part is that all the characters from the different locations suit their locations. Arwen from Rivendell is full of life - she will live very long yet. The Elves of Lorien are fading just like their realm.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I just read one that I loved...The Outside Boy about a young boy in Ireland living as a gypsy with his family. I know I loved it b/c the setting was...outside. Were you surprised by that one? ;)

Setting can be a weakness for me. I'm working to strengthen my places.

~ Wendy

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Setting is definitely a weakness of mine. I tend to like dialogue and action. I usually skim over long pieces of description, so I tend to not write them. There's got to be a balance to where you paint a scene that is vivid, yet not suck the reader into boredom.

Nice post...I haven't seen the new Jane Eyre, but will have to put it on my list of TBW.

Laura S. said...

I like when places are like another character in a novel. Tara from Gone with the Wind comes to mind! Also Hogwarts from Harry Potter.

Julia M. Reffner said...


I know what you mean. Setting doesn't really come naturally to me either, that's why I decided to take a class in it this Spring.

Oh, yes, Tolkien is a master at creating settings and like with Bronte they evoke emotion and are great characters in their own right.

Julia M. Reffner said...


The gypsy plot sounds intriguing and I love Ireland as a setting. I'm going to check into that, you always sound like you are reading the most interesting books :)

Setting is something I'm working on (well, I have lots of things I'm working on)...but setting comes less naturally than some other areas like dialogue.

Julia M. Reffner said...


Yes, I have to admit I prefer writing dialogue and action myself and definitely there are some that push the reader into boredom (JE might be one of those for some I'm afraid);)

Oh, I have a feeling you will LOVE it. I was reluctant because I didn't see how they could make a good JE movie only 2 hours long but they pulled it off well through flashbacks.

Julia M. Reffner said...


Great picks! I love Tara and Hogwarts is definitely memorable. Interesting thoughts about picking the names of our places carefully.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

What a great post, Julia! After reading this, I think I'm going to have to pick up a copy of Jane Eyre. Haven't read that classic yet. Haven't seen the movie either. That will come second.

I love writing story world, but I haven't yet mastered the art of making places another character in my novel. I want to improve in that area.

For those of you who love writing dialog (one of my weaknesses!), I love Anne of Green Gables and the following books. LM Montgomery manages to help me picture the setting through dialog (i.e. when Anne talks to Matthew on her first ride to Green Gables about The Lake of Shining Waters, the red roads, etc). I could picture the places with vivid images when I read the books. Some of the later books do fall into the verging on boredom with setting description, but I love series.

Thanks, Julia, for a thought provoking post!

Julia M. Reffner said...


I hope you'll love Jane's world as much as I do. I agree about the books first, more scope for the imagination that way as one of our favorite redheads would say.

Always glad to find more Anne fans.

Miss Good on Paper said...

In my favorite book, The Things They Carried, the setting (Vietnam) is its own character. Without setting, it is difficult for the reader to stay engaged. A story has to take place somewhere (even a room or the front yard).

Enjoyed this post (and I love Jane Eyre, too).

-Miss GOP

Peaches Ledwidge said...

A good reminder for our writing. I have different settings in my book because it addreses relocation or displacement.

Angie Dicken said...

Great post, Julia! I love your examples from Jane Eyre. And it's compelling to think about how setting can provoke emotions almost as strong as a character can. Having a degree in Landscape Architecture, I put a lot of weight into the the descriptions of settings authors give...perhaps that is why I was intrigued to write a maunscript in the jungle? ;)

Angie Dicken said...

My next book is going to be about a gypsy! I'll have to read the Outside Boy.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Miss GOP,

Definitely agree that the best settings help us stay engaged. I love your example, this book sounds interesting although it isn't one I read.


I love that idea of using setting to show displacement of a character. Good luck on your writing!

Julia M. Reffner said...


I never knew that was what your degree was in. How neat!! But I'm not surprised because you are very descriptive in your writing :)

Jungle is a great setting for a novel, I haven't read too many set there I must admit.