Three ways to capture sense of place in a travel story

In my last post I mentioned how I spoke with Thomas Fox Averill‘s writing students at Washburn University — and specifically about how you can use travel experiences to improve your “sense of place” descriptions, in fiction as well as nonfiction. Of course, mere travel isn’t the only way to improve your sense-of-place writing chops — it’s also useful to use research information and creative juxtaposition to enliven your descriptions of place. From the pages of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, here are three strategies and examples for creating a stronger feeling of place in a story:

From Chapter 9: Evoking sense of place using direct description and contrasts

“Driving along the desolate and gorgeous Sandover Highway northeast of Alice Springs, there are only two sure indicators that life exists in this parched red-orange landscape. One is the curious ubiquity of pink cockatoos, which dart out of the bush and swoop over the Land Cruiser, occasionally exploding into the grill in a suicidal puff of pastel feathers. The other is an abundance of junked cars — sun-bleached Ford Falcons and rusty station wagons that have been abandoned at the side of the road by Aborigines going to or coming from their isolated homes in the outback. In the heat of the afternoon, when the horizon shudders like a mirage and towering dust devils swirl across the highway, this place can feel like the end of the world. Perhaps seized by irony or optimism, the German immigrants who tried to settle this area in the 1920s named it Utopia.”

From Chapter 12: Evoking sense of place using historical context, description, and sense of time

“Compared to the marquee islands of the Cyclades — Santorini, Ios, Mykonos — Sifnos doesn’t have much of a reputation. According to Herodotus, the Classical Era gold and silver mines on this 30 square-mile island made it the richest in the Aegean; a century later, Sifnos won notoriety as the site where the Spartans met with the Persians to plot against Alexander the Great. For the most, part, however, Sifnos has existed as a nondescript suburb of an island, with 2000 or so inhabitants, known more for its poets and pottery than political or geographical distinction. During Ottoman rule, the Turks never bothered sending a garrison to the island, and though pirates periodically haunted the Cyclades, the patron saint of Sifnos, Panaghia Chryssopighi, is best known for protecting the island against grasshoppers. “Despite such lack of distinction, however, my boat-mates and I immediately fall in love with Sifnos. The tourist crowds have left with high season, and we have the island mostly to ourselves. Renting motorcycles, we cruise up intricately terraced valleys to the central plateau, where the houses of Apollonia town lay scattered like big white dice among blue-domed churches and olive groves. We wander out to the far coast and swim on empty beaches under ridges dotted with almond trees and clumps of wild juniper. We explore the mazelike alleyways in the hilltop fortress of Kastro, where bright pink bougainvillea creeps over shuttered windows, and stray cats blink in the sunlight. In the evening, we sit outdoors at wooden restaurant tables and dine on tzatziki, olives, stuffed peppers, lamb, and local white wine. After dark, we hike up to the empty monasteries overlooking the harbor, where we listen to the sound of the wind and the tinkling of goat bells. One day on Sifnos stretches into two in this manner, and two days stretch into three.”

From Chapter 10: Evoking sense of place using the people who populate that place

“The best belly dancing in Egypt, it is said, costs $50 a show and can be found at five-star hotels like the Meridien Le Caire or the Parisienne. At the Palmyra club, which is within walking distance of the Sultan Hotel, admission is about $1.50. The performance value (I suspect) is calibrated accordingly. “When our disheveled traveler posse arrives from the Sultan to take a table in the back of the Palmyra, a man in a djellaba and two women in chadors are happily shaking their moneymakers on the dance floor. At first I think this is a prelude to some kind of Islamic-themed striptease, until I realize that these people are just overzealous customers. The real dancer — a big-haired, large-breasted girl in a faux snakeskin jumpsuit — is at the back of the stage, idly joking with the accordion player. As my eyes get used to the darkness, I take in the surroundings. The club features tall ceilings and textured rock walls, accessorized with red curtains. If the lighting were improved and the velvety curtains replaced with, say, country knickknacks, this place could easily pass for a family restaurant in Minnetonka, Minnesota. “The crowd, however, is decidedly non-Middle America: Bedouins in red-checkered kaffiyehs and long gowns wave 5-pound notes (each about $1.45) at the edge of the dance floor; Egyptian office stiffs with wrinkled neckties leap up from their tables to clap along with the music; fat men with thin mustaches sit alone in corners, sweat stains growing out from their armpits. The band looks straight out of a David Lynch movie: the melancholy lute player who blinks and stares at the floor as he strums; the grinning, leather-faced bongo drummer who wears brown pants over white, patent-leather shoes; the keyboardist who stops playing in the middle of the song to light a cigarette. The music is rhythmic, dissonant, deafening. “Eventually, the girl in the snakeskin jumpsuit starts to dance again, humming to the music into a cordless mike. After 30 minutes of this, she yields the stage to a dull-eyed blond with feathered hair and a sequined evening gown. This new dancer is so amorphously plump that her rear end seems to start just below her neck. As she dances, the slightest wiggle sends her sequined extremities into a gelatinous fury of motion. For those of us at the Sultan table, the effect is mesmerizing and somewhat disturbing. The Egyptian men, however, go nuts, shouting along to the music and periodically jumping onto the stage to bust a few dance moves and shower the blond with 1-pound (30-cent) notes.”