There are parts of the world that are special. Often it is due to a past cultural event – something that gives the region a sense of identity. But other times it can be a place of fear, or a blessed spiritual place. All these ‘sense of place’ feelings can be worked into a novel to build an emotion about the people and the environment.

The bond between people and place can be powerful, lasting generations and becoming an intrinsic part of who they are. From the initial fighting to claim a new land, perhaps wresting it away from the original inhabitants, a new people settle in and it is theirs. Patriotism grows – and out of that – the need to defend that land. They fought, the very earth is soaked with their blood, the ground contains their beloved dead. But it is land bought at a cost – that of the original inhabitants. Their legends and loss too can become a part of the landscape, sitting uneasily next to the invaders. Since the dawn of agriculture, the bond with the land has become a dominating part of what it is to be human.

It can be done in scifi as well. Star Trek explored this in DS9, where the wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant was also the home of the Prophets, and holy to the Bajorans. The mix of spirituality and science made for some interesting viewing. In an episode of Voyager, they found a planet where a beacon forced them to relive a past massacre as people from that time. Janeway restored the beacon when leaving, to keep their history – their memories alive. Picard also lived an entire life in a village doomed to die, one of the most gut wrenching episodes of the Picard series.

But it’s not all fighting. Another part of the environment is the spiritual bond. A sacred mountain becomes a focus of pilgrimages. The mountain is always there, part of the background, and becomes part of the religion of the people. Was the mountain once home to a sacred relict? A few books have rediscovered Noah’s Arc or the Garden of Eden in remote sacred mountainsides, often guarded by a mysterious cult. Authors such as Andy McDermott have nailed the literary versions of Indiana Jones.

A mountain may also be the home of the Gods. Mt Olympus, home to the ungodly antics of Zeus and family. The remoteness and difficultly in access then lead spiritual hermits to live there, communing with deities and away from annoying human concerns. The hardships and primitive lifestyle enhances their aura of spirituality. Hermits didn’t just do mountains- if there was no handy mountain, a dank forest or a cave also worked. In a way, the very denial of comfort and the benefits of the world increase the perception of piety. David Morell used the remote spirituality of the monastery to contrast with the impending danger as the sinning ex soldier must once more fight for what he believes in.

Another sacred place can be a spring. A never dry source of water is magical enough, so it is easy to see why they would be the home of the Gods and need offerings. Many springs and wells in Britain have had offerings thrown in – broken good quality swords, jewellery, and even clay body parts as hurt people ask for healing. We still throw coins in fountains today.

But there is a darker side to a sense of place. For the sensitive or psychic, a place where death has happened can leave a lingering sense of coldness, fear, or horror. Kerry Greenwood in one of her Corinna Chapman mysteries talks of the feeling of foreboding that hangs around the convent. A place where young girls, often pregnant and destitute, faced pain, torment and death in a work house laundry. Ghosts are also said to cling to the place of their death, never leaving due to unresolved life issues.

So dark emotions can cling to a place, and this can be used to add a sense of horror and danger. An Agatha Christie character discovers a body, and ever after the smell of jasmine triggers a sense of fear and panic. Chris Cymri used an old church that had seen death by strangulation to give her characters a particularly harrowing journey to another world as they were enmeshed in past emotions. I’ve used it myself to add a sense of expectation of torture and death to an altar stone in Druid’s Portal.

But a place may not even be real. It’s impossible to read Narnia, Harry Potter or Tolkien without developing an image of it within your heart. In a way, the whole concept of Narnia is like a bewitchment, the characters (except Susan) never really lived in the real world again. Many readers probably feel the same – what’s your Hogwarts house or are you an inner hobbit, elf or wizard? I’ll bet you have thought about it. A fictional place can take on a life of it’s own and become as real as any other destination.

So, a place can provide tranquility and uplift the spirits, or offer a dark window into the past. It can foreshadow upcoming danger or reveal a past sin that needs to be forgiven or avenged. Beautiful and evocative writing about a special place can get readers through some dark times and provide hope that these times will end. All strong and deeply human emotions are the stuff of power and keep the reader turning pages.

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Word Building: A Sense of Place
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