A Sense of Place: Its Role in a Story and What to Capitalize
by Kathleen Watson
[NOTE: Stop by to greet Kathy at Barnes & Noble, 13719 W. Bell Road in Surprise, Ariz., from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 4, National Grammar Day.]
Panel members at a writers conference I attended several years ago were presented with this challenge: How do you integrate a “sense of place” into your stories?
Two authors described books they had recently published. One writer, dressed in a tweed, writerly looking tailored jacket, and his book were easily forgettable.
The other writer wore a baseball cap, jeans, hiking boots, and a dark T-shirt under a plaid wool shirt. According to my stereotype of that time, he appeared to be anything but an author. But he was so humble, so authentic, so ordinary, yet so witty and sincere.
Michael Perry’s demeanor charmed all of us, and afterward I bought his book Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. It describes the small town of New Auburn, Wisconsin, where he grew up.
Perry left New Auburn to attend college (where he earned a nursing degree) and to explore beyond his small town’s borders, returning 19 years later to become an EMT and a volunteer on the local fire department — and an author. Population 485 chronicles what he learned about small towns and their inhabitants, and the sense of comfort and belonging he found there.
I am not a fiction writer; I chose to delve into the specifics of grammar. Here is my contribution to sense of place: how to properly use words that refer to places, regions, and directions in your stories.
Almost everyone pays attention to the weather. We know that storms generally travel west to east, and we know that weather changes by the season. When it comes to seasons, regions, and directions, what needs to be capitalized?
Seasons generally are not capitalized:
- After a punishing winter, everyone hopes for an early spring.
- As youngsters, we spent lazy summers at the lake.
But capitalize a season when it’s part of the name of an event:
- We’re looking forward to attending Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier in Chicago.
- Purdue holds a fitness walk during its Spring Fling weekend.
Directions and parts of the country aren’t quite as clear-cut.
Don’t capitalize north, south, east or west when describing a compass direction:
- Sam is heading east as soon as he finishes his final exams.
- Tiffany found her phone at the north entrance of the building.
Don’t capitalize a general area of a state or city:
- Danielle hopes to buy a ranch somewhere in western Montana.
- They operate an Airbnb on the eastern edge of Portland.
Do capitalize specific regions of a country or of the world:
- Amy works in the Pacific Northwest, but her new job will take her to the Far East.
- Josh expanded his Midwest company’s reach to East Coast and Pacific Rim countries.
Do capitalize a region or location when it is part of a proper noun:
- Will Santa fly over the South Pole on his way to Wisconsin’s North Woods?
- The entire Western Hemisphere is in the middle of an unprecedented deep freeze.
Establishing a sense of place can create the foundation from which a story builds. I hope my Killer Tips help you clarify how to express your sense of place.
Kathleen Watson has nearly three decades of experience as an independent business writer, serving clients in both corporate and academic settings. Her weekly blog, Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor, offers practical word and punctuation tips, as does her recently published book Grammar For People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips From The Ruthless Editor. Contact her at: Kathy@RuthlessEditor.com.