A little while back, I started reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I'm only about 100 or so pages in, so the story is just getting cranked up, but holy hell -- Gillian is a great writer.

Her descriptions, in particular, are exceptional.

I came across one passage the other day -- very brief, easy to miss -- that really stood out. And it helped emphasize to me how important it is to establish a strong sense of "place" in your writing.

Let me explain:

... we did the obligatory visit to their strangely perfect, overflowered, overmuffined house for brunch and baby-meeting...

"Overmuffined house."

Think about that phrase for a second.

On the surface, it doesn't seem like it should work as a primary description for the house. For one, "muffined" is not a word. Two, it focuses on something seemingly small and inconsequential -- seriously, the amount of muffins lying around the house? Three, it's hyperbole. What are we talking about, really... a tray of muffins on a coffee table? Maybe two? Does anyone know what "over-muffined" actually looks like?

But despite all that, despite this being about as unconventional a description as you're likely to see, I'll be damned I can't picture that house.

It's big. But it's also emmaculately clean. It's well put together, as if by a professional interior designer. It's brightly colored and full of the latest Pottery Barn sensations.

And more than the house, I can picture the people that live there. A stodgy husband, all power suits and business talk. A mousy wife who bakes and cleans and ships the kids off to school. I can feel the tension between them. Maybe she resents him. Maybe she fears him. Either way, they look a lot happier from the outside than they really are. Fake smiles drop like anvils as soon as guests leave. And on and on and on.

All of that from "overmuffined".

What this kind of short, visceral description does is help the reader draw on their own experiences to create a sketch of the landscape. We don't need to know how many sofas there are and how they're arranged and what the drapes look like and what's sitting on the coffee table. We've seen houses like this before, and all we need is a contextual clue to help our mind fill in the blanks.

The way I imagine it will differ from the way you imagine it. And that's okay, because what the place looks like isn't actually important.

It's what it feels like that matters.

I'm starting to realize that that's the essence of creating a sense of place in your own writing.

So, inspired by Gillian Flynn -- and there are dozens of examples from this book, I just chose to highlight this one -- a big point of emphasis for me going forward will be creating a sense of place in the essays and stories I write.

  • Where are we?
  • What does it look like?
  • What's the mood there?
  • What does it feel like to be there?

And the challenge is not to lean on forensic, tangible details. Anyone can drone on and on about the texture of a carpet, or the way the sunlight glints off the ocean.

It takes real skill to sum up a place viscerally, in a way that evokes memory and emotion.

Doing it in one word?

That's a true master at work.