Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 13: Where are you?

Welcome back! Over the next many months we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison‘s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read all the segments by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on the drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month thirteen:


“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 13: Where are you?

Magicians and novelists have something in common. They must learn “sleight of hand.”  You know, the old smoke-and-mirrors deal. Magicians pull rabbits out of hats. Novelists pull their readers into landscapes and time periods.


If we’re out in the audience, we probably don’t have a clue how that rabbit got into the magician’s hat, and, in a really well-written book, we don’t quite understand how the author so successfully plants us into a time and a place. For magicians the secret is often roomy sleeves and quick hands. For novelists, the twin secrets are subtlety and visualization.

Let’s take a look into a novel that does a great job of transporting us into time and place. That novel is FALL OF GIANTS by Ken Follett. In the hardcover edition (page 31) Follett describes a gray house. He doesn’t come right out and say, “The house was gray.” That’s too easy, and more importantly it doesn’t touch a reader’s soul. Instead he tells us that the house is named “Ty Gwyn.” He says that Ty Gwyn is Welsh for White House (aha! we’re in Wales), but he then tells his readers that the name is ironic, because the house is covered with coal dust. It’s so dirty that it discolors the long skirts of women (time period hint) who brush too closely as they walk by.

Follett knows his readers well. They’re the folks who love big fat thick historical novels packed full of story and facts. In this paragraph, those readers receive a visual image of a dirty gray house, but they also see women in long, full skirts, they learn two words in Welsh, and they discover that this particular house is located in Welsh coal country. Now that’s the way to write setting.

So  we’ve seen the fantastic finished product, but I still haven’t addressed the how-to angle. Here’s a few ways that I help myself write settings.

1. I watch a video or a movie set in the area I’m writing about.

2. If possible, I visit the location.

3. I talk to/interview people who live there or who have visited the area.

4. I read travel books and magazine articles about that particular location.

5. I look up statistics on Wikipedia or in my handy old-fashioned set of Encyclopedia Britannica.

6. I purchase maps and study them ardently.

7. I pinpoint the location on a globe. My globe has raised areas where mountains and highlands are located. I love the tactile aspect of exploring my setting with my fingertips.

All of those ideas will help you, but here’s the best-kept secret about performing the magic trick of producing an effective setting — or any visual image — via words. Before you write it, see it in your mind. Close your eyes and imagine that place until you feel as if you were there. If you the writer have a fuzzy image in your head, then it will also appear “fuzzy” to your reader. I don’t know why it works that way, but it does. (I told you it was all about smoke-and-mirrors!)

Once you have succeeded in placing that image in your mind, then you are ready to write it for your readers.

How do you help yourself visualize settings for your stories or novels?

Strength to your pen!


(Photograph Copyright 2012, Krystal Harrison)

*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy, and a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you come back March 27, 2014, for part 14.


7 responses to “Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 13: Where are you?

  1. Great post Ms. Harrison! 😀 Great advice!


  2. Nicole L. Bates

    Great tips, Sue! I really appreciate the concrete advice. With science fiction and fantasy, it’s a little harder to research or visit the actual location so visualization is really important to me. I spend a lot of time playing the story in my mind before I write it down so that I can (try) to immerse the reader in that new world. I hope writing is going well for you!


  3. Thank you, Nicole. I had to smile when I thought about trying to visit locations used in science fiction and fantasy novels. I love that you visualize your setting. Can’t wait to read your finished product! My writing is going well. I love winter. I have so much more writing time due to being stormed in!


  4. Setting is very important in my novels and I try to write about places I’ve been too. But memory can be fuzzy, so I pull out my photographs taken when I was there and it helps tremendously. I like the idea of closing my eyes and thinking I’m back there, that would help as well.


  5. Photos are a great way to center yourself within a setting before you write! Thank you for good advice, Darlene!!


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