3 Tips for Using Sensual Detail to Create a Compelling Setting

Posted on Posted in Editing and Revision

For me, the setting of any novel is a crucial element of the whole story telling and reading experience.

It is not simply the backdrop to the action, but a real and dynamic environment which impacts how the characters react to the challenges I am going to throw at them.

When I read for pleasure I want to be carried away to a location and a time and become so immersed into the culture and traditions of that place and the people who live there that it feels normal to speak Sicilian and carry a machine gun or live in a walled castle enclave and talk to dragons.

I have been fortunate enough to travel widely both for holidays and for my former day job and I probably spend way too much time researching every location and working hard to capture the spirit of the place.

For me, that means visiting a town or area in person and finding out how it ticks. Not just what it looks like to a casual visitor, but the dialect the people speak, what the weather is like at certain times of the year and the types of food and drink served in the local bars and restaurants.

Layers of sensual details are crucial to making the experience come alive, so here are my top 3 tips for linking your story to a unique setting or location.

The Smell of the Place.

*What does the air smell like first thing in the morning, when the breakfast fires are lit and wood smoke curls up into the cold winter air above a French vineyard in December?

*Do the hero and heroine stroll through fields of lavender late on a summer’s evening and become intoxicated by the aroma as their feet crush the stems as they walk?

hampshire lavender

*Or when you walk into a bakery first thing in the morning?

Here is how my hero Jared Shaw describes his first impression of the Austrian bakery run by the heroine Amy Edler in my first Harlequin Romance “Always the Bridesmaid“:

‘A bell tinkled over his head as Jared Shaw swung open the door onto the terracotta-tiled floor of Edlers bakery, just in time to hold it open for an elderly couple who were still laughing as they thanked him, their hands crunched around the handles of Edlers Bakery bags, before chortling their way down the street.
As he turned back to face the counter, his senses were hit with a solid wall of lively chatter, bright lights and the aroma of baked goods.
Spices and vanilla combined with the unique tang of burnt sugar and buttery pastry and fresh baked bread.
The overall effect was overpowering compared to the metallic bitter diesel fumes from the black cabs and London buses on the other side of the glass, and as he inhaled a couple of times to steady his senses, he picked up some type of perfume – and not from the flowers he was carrying. Roses? Oranges?
He glanced around the room, his property developer brain taking in the cream and navy paintwork, broken up by pale wood shelving.
It was a world away from the dingy brown wallpaper and cracked wooden shelves of the old Edlers bakery he remembered. Yellowing torn posters for Hovis flour and fizzy drinks had been replaced with clean smooth walls in warm colours. ‘


The Feeling of Danger and Excitement and Alarm which makes your skin tingle?

*Do the mosquitoes bite your ankles more at dusk or dawn in India?


*What do Greek spiders look like when they are making sheets of cobwebs between the trees which mean that you have to go through them to walk forwards?

cephalonia insect life

*And do your eyeballs start to freeze when you are standing on the deck of a ship above the Arctic Circle watching the Northern Lights [ yes, they do.]


*What does the wind in a paraglider’s canopy sound like? Does it crackle or snap as though the fragile lines are likely to break at any moment?

paraglider chamonix

Use tantalising details of taste and touch

* Why does fresh seafood always taste ten times better when you are eating by the sea? Especially on a Greek Island. Salt in the air. Floral and pine aromas. Oil and herbs.


*What does ice covered metal railings feel like on your skin [as you hang on for dear life]?

mont 28mont 25

Along the way I have found some very special places where I am happy to revisit year after year, always hoping that the things that I love best about that location will not have changed.

Whereas, of course, the place probably has not changed, as much as the people observing it through warm-memory tinted glasses.

This is why I have been visiting the Ionian Islands for many years. Cephalonia [ Kefalonia] and Paxos in particular, have this amazing sense of serenity which is totally beguiling.

But what about you? Do you have a special holiday destination which will always be close to your heart?

 “Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and shadows will fall behind you.” ― Walt Whitman

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