One of the most important things to remember about creating a sense of place is that the same location will appear very different depending on whose eyes we are seeing it through.
Parallax is a way of describing the shift in viewpoint that is needed when you step into someone else’s head.
A couple walk down the street holding hands.
If that couple are a white man and a white woman, then in most places in the Western world, that walk down the street is an unremarkable act. But what if that couple were a white man and a black woman? Or two men? Depending on the location, their experience of walking down that street could be completely different from the first couple’s.
Even if all three couples pass along the street unmolested, the way they perceive their surrounding will not be the same. What does each couple think as they approach a group of teenagers drinking lager outside a pub? A policeman talking on his radio?
Allow your characters their own biases, grounded in their experiences of the world.
(Here's a great real life example of parallax from a recent edition of the Guardian.)
Exercise 1: Going for a stroll:
Take your character for a walk through a landscape (or a townscape). Is it one that is familiar to them, or alien? How does a lifelong townie cope with a muddy field full of sheep? Or someone from a small village with noise and the traffic of a big city? What does a person notice on a walk they take every day of their life? What scares them? Surprises them? What do they wish they could change?
Even if character and place remain the same, how they perceive their surrounding will depend on their mood.
Exercise 2: What a difference a day makes:
Select a place where your character spends a lot of time (kitchen, office, favourite park). Describe that place as it seems to them at different key moments in their life. How does their office appear on the first day of a new job? Or just after they close the deal of the decade? As they await the arrival of administrators following bankruptcy?
Ref 1: Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward Writing the Other
Ref 2: Rebecca McClanahan: Word Painting
Exercise 3: Application of sensory detail
Take another place more than one of your characters might frequent in your writing. It could be a pub, playground, bedroom. Take your first character, Joe, for example, who spends all his time in his bedroom. Describe that place ensuring you include all five senses. Now take another character, Susan say. She's Joe's mother and is constantly asking him to clean his bedroom. Describe the place from her point of view including all five senses. How do the characters differ and why?
Exercise 4: Sensory interpretation
Look around you. Choose an object. Something innocuous, nothing with a particular meaning. Look up. Right now. What do you see?
Brainstorm associated words: eg, sash, pane, glass, latch, smudge, reflection, sill, open, freedom, prism, light, draught, escape, bluebottle.
Choose an emotion: eg, contentment, frustration, panic, infatuation, boredom, joy, grief, reconciliation, disillusion.
Write 500 words on the object without naming it, selecting the senses which attach that emotion to that object. Don't say why. Leave us curious.
Exercises by Triskele Books.
Images courtesy of Julie Lewis