It’s the smell of the place…

One of my worries about writing that I don’t have confidence in the way I describe places, in the settings in which my characters romp about. I do write descriptively, of course I do, and I do make and effort, especially when editing, to not take it for granted that readers can see into my head and know where everything is taking place!

I’ve been on a couple of forums and read blogs about describing places, and someone just asked for other people’s thoughts on a place she had never visited but wanted to use as a setting, someone else used Google Earth and following on from that someone else used Google Street View.

What a great idea, I thought! Supposing I wanted to write about my great-grandfather who was born and brought up in Tasmania… OK I couldn’t see a satellite image of Hobart 160 years ago, but I could see pictures of the surrounding scenery… Or supposing my characters in ‘Radwinter’ wanted to go to the far reaches of what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire in search of distant relatives, I could look up maps of Radyvyliv in the Ukraine, I could find out where someone from England might fly to, and see pictures of the airport, follow the roads, I could even find pictures of the place…

Yes, it would be possible… but what would the place feel like? What would the air be like, what would it smell of? As I went into people’s homes, or into shops or into churches, what would I smell? I could imagine, furniture polish, baking bread, incense, wax… but more than that, what would I distinguish in those aromas, what memories or thoughts would it trigger, what similes would jump into my mind or onto the page?

My settings are imaginary, but Easthope is by the sea, it is a little rather old-fashioned seaside town… I know towns like that, I’ve visited them. Strand is a small city with a harbour and small port… I know places like that, Strand has an old town with tiny winding lanes, I’ve wandered in places like that, taken coffee in ancient coffee-house, and camel Wood,where so many things happen, I’ve walked in woods since my childhood in all weathers at all times of the year… I know woods like that.

When I went to Iceland (yes, I know I keep going on about Iceland, it made a big impression on me!) I couldn’t have imagined the feel of the cold air on my face – it was different from English cold air; I couldn’t have imagined the smell of the February streets, or the exact sulphuryness of Geysir, or the quality of silence on the glacier…

Am I building up to having a great case for visiting some distant place in the name of research? I think so!

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