What a beautiful, sunny Spring day it was yesterday. Even so, when my partner, David, suggested driving up into the Wolds for a walk, I have to admit to being a little unenthusiastic. Having been suffering with a heavy cold all week, I was looking forward to spending Good Friday lazing in the conservatory. However, I agreed to go and, despite spending a good deal of the journey sitting in stationary traffic (the 30 minute car journey took an hour and a half), it really was well worth the effort.
It was as we were walking through the woods that I found my thoughts turning to how we, as writers, ensure our books have a real sense of place. I thought about the books I really enjoy reading, and what it is about them that makes them come alive. Certainly, it is about characters that we connect with, and about engaging storylines, the twists and turns of the plot that keep us turning the pages, but it is also about how the writer ensures that we feel as if we are there with our characters, taking those steps alongside them. And it is that sense of place that really makes our stories sing.
And, with this in mind, as we walked through the stunning woodlands yesterday, I began to really take note of my surroundings. I thought about how I would describe this to a reader if this was a scene in one of my books; what senses would I use to describe the scene?
With this new awareness, I looked around with interest. The path we were walking along meandered at the bottom of a heavily wooded valley, possibly a dried up riverbed from hundreds or possibly thousands of years ago. The ground rose steeply at either side
of the path and, because of the season, the trees were mostly bare of leaves, ensuring that we could enjoy this rare sunny morning. As I was snapping a couple of photographs, there was a sudden movement just at the edge of my vision and I turned to see a young deer leaping down one side of the valley, swift and sure-footed. It crossed the path just a few feet in front of us before making its way up the other side, the white of its tail flashing through the trees until it disappeared over the top. All this happened in less than a minute but it was such an unexpected moment of beauty. Unfortunately, I was too busy watching this lovely animal to think to take a photograph.
So, thinking about how else I could describe the scenery yesterday, what did it smell like? I was struck by the heavy fragrance of wild garlic. Despite the fact that there were no visible signs of the white flowers of the garlic, the air was full of the strong, instantly recognisable scent. As we moved further along the path and into the more densely wooded area, the wild garlic diminished somewhat and was replaced by other scents. The breeze brought a brief whiff of decay, a sickly sweet smell which instantly took me back to my childhood. Living on the edge of a wood in the middle of nowhere, I spent much of my early years tramping around the woods with my brothers. One of the things I remember clearly was the row of dead stoats and weasels the gamekeeper would hang from a fence after catching them in traps. I still don’t really know why they were hung on the fence, but I do remember the distinctive smell, and it was this that I smelt again yesterday. Probably just a dead and decomposing animal in the wood, but that one scent had the power to instantly transport me back to my childhood. There are probably more pleasant scents to recall but this just happened to be one of those that I experienced yesterday.
What did it sound like? There were a few other people enjoying the woods; families with small children, couples with dogs and others, like us, who were enjoying a quiet, peaceful walk. There was a definite sense of peace in the woods yesterday, and this was in no way diminished by the happy sounds of children playing, jumping over fallen trees, exclaiming in excitement at whatever interesting object they had just found, of owners whistling their dogs to heel and just the general, half-heard conversations of passers-by. There were no sounds of traffic, and the light wind could often be heard rattling the bare tree tops although sometimes the soft breeze dropped and there were moments of utter stillness. During one of these moments, a bumble bee suddenly appeared and buzzed around us curiously for a while before obviously losing interest and zig-zagging his way somewhere else.
What did it feel like, in terms of touch? The rustic wooden bench where we caught our breath had been worn smooth by years of use, the wooden handrail along the winding steps up to this seat was pulling free from its moorings and needed securing, lending a sense of jeopardy as we used it to pull ourselves up the steep path, the handrail now probably high on the list of the ranger’s ‘things to do’. As we made our way along this high path through the evergreens, the path was soft and springy with many years’ worth of fallen pine needles.
All these things I observed, smelt, heard and experienced during a simple walk on this first, real day of Spring; such a pleasure after so many months of cold, grey weather. We eventually made our way back to the car and, as I did so, I turned and looked back at the journey I had taken today – not just the physical journey but the journey of new awareness I had experienced. While I would probably not use all the descriptions above together in one passage of a book, it had really made me think about how I will tackle sense of place in my books in the future. Where I can, I will always visit the setting of my book as this is invaluable in terms of how places ‘feel’, of how it makes you feel. But, even where I can’t visit the places in my books, I will work hard to ensure I capture that sense of place by using all five senses.
I’m so glad David persuaded me to venture out yesterday and, although it had certainly not been intended as a writing related visit – probably just the opposite – it had the unanticipated outcome of re-inspiring me in the never ending quest to improve my craft.
Wishing you all a Happy Easter and an enjoyable Bank Holiday weekend.