Writing Process – Creating a Sense of Place with Common Items

My story, Doll Trouble, takes place in Tokyo, Japan. Most of the action is in Yoyogi Park. I thought long and hard about all the ways to create a sense of place while avoiding the dreaded info dump. Raven introduces to the place when he quips, “Just another Sunday in Yoyogi Park” where he is busking. Passersby toss yen into his guitar case. Since this book is primarily directed at an American audience, I wanted to do a little more to bring it home on a visceral level that Raven was not in California or New York. So I chose a common item most have experience with on a regular basis – a bottle of soda.

Currently, most bottles of soda in America are plastic and have a screw-on cap. That is familiar and if Raven had screw off the cap and taken a swig of root beer, the reader might continue to place him somewhere in America. Instead, Raven sits down and takes a glass bottle out of his pocket. It contains a blue liquid. He removes a wrapper and pops down the glass marble sealing it shut. This is a Ramune soda, a common product of Japan. Now the reader must stop and reassess where Raven is located if they had not already honed in on the other clues provided.

Something as simple as opening a soda can also create a sense of time. Staying now within the confines of America, I can communicate much about when a story is happening based on how the character opens a soda.  Say I write that Sue opened a can of soda. It tells us nothing of place or time. But what if I wrote, Sue pulled the tab off the soda can. She added the discarded tab to her collection, gingerly wrapping the sharp end around the ring of the previous one on the chain that hung from the ceiling. It nearly reached the counter top. This establishes time (sometime in the 70’s) and context. I could also have written, Sue pulled the bottle of soda from the machine and popped the cap of using the bottle opener mounted on the wall. This establishes a different time frame – one before the advent of twist off bottle caps and probably placing it in the 1950’s. Finally, I could write, Sue took a swig of her coca-cola and sighed. “It just isn’t the same anymore.” She’d found it wasn’t nearly as refreshing since they’d taken the cocaine out of it. That would put it after 1929 and give clues about Sue’s age, depending on what other clues there are to date the story. Describing soda machines is another way of establishing a sense of place and time. Is the machine run on the honor system or coin-operated? What is the shape of the machine?


Doll Trouble is in the Holiday Magick Anthology, Spencer Hill Press, May 2013.