How Not Just Setting, but Sense of Place Influences My Writing / Author Sylvia Dickey Smith

Sylvia Dickey Smith

Sylvia Dickey Smith

My Sidra Smart mystery series is set in Orange, a small Southeast Texas town said to carry its own gravity. You either get out early or you don’t get out at all.

I got out early—shortly after high school—and that was many years ago.

When I started writing the first draft of Dance On His Grave, (number one in the series) my husband was adamant. Do not set the book in Orange, Texas.

You see he isn’t from Orange. Isn’t even Texan. His hometown is in south Florida. Add to that, he traveled the world during his thirty years in the Army. So Orange holds no magic for him—gravity, either. He jokes he would only move there when he lost the will to live.  He further jokes that everyone who lives in Orange and can read—all ten of them—has copies of my books.  (Good thing my hometown folks know he’s kidding!)

However, when my muse stomped her foot and refused to work with me if I didn’t follow her lead, I learned real quick to do what she says. I set my books in Orange and have never regretted that decision.

In case you are not familiar with that part of the world, traveling east on Interstate 10, Orange is the last get-off before crossing into Louisiana.

Mystical swamps, bayous and the Sabine and Neches Rivers meander through a part of the state that sleeps under the threat of hurricanes. Where mosquitoes seem as big as dragonflies. Where crawfish boils and Cajun music entice and entertain.

Setting is not just important to my writing. It is the backbone of the work. It encapsulates both my characters and my plot. When I fail to capture the flavor of that setting my writing seems bland, watered down—an imitation of story.

If I do setting and sense of place well, I put the reader there like nothing else can. It makes the difference between telling a story and taking my reader on an exciting journey.

Some writers start with a plot or with characters in mind, and then decide on the setting. My setting comes first, and the other comes later.

The key ingredient is to be in love with the setting, whether it be a real place, or one I create in my mind, or a mixture of both. If I can’t fall in love (or hate) with my chosen setting, I go back to the drawing board.

"Swamp Whisperer" by Sylvia Dickey Smith

“Swamp Whisperer” by Sylvia Dickey Smith

My goal is to capture a sense of place and weave it into the setting by tapping into the senses. I judiciously lace snippets throughout the story in such a manner that the reader isn’t even aware that is what I have done. Too much too quickly and I create an info dump that ends up boring the reader—the last thing I want to do.

Setting is important, but equally so is a sense of place. It sets the stage. It confines the characters. It forces interaction.

If you struggle with how-to, try having your character reflect on their surroundings. This can fire up the character’s passions and fuel their actions. The story and the theme grow deeper and richer. And as always, practice, practice, practice.

Sylvia Dickey Smith is a novelist whose fiction has won the hearts of readers everywhere, especially in the South. She has published stories and essays in anthologies, and her Sidra Smart mystery series received terrific reviews. Her most recent release, A War of Her Own, is a historical novel set in southeast Texas during WWII. Read more about it at

(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (  To be a part of this series, contact Beth at

About Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker ( and founder of Killer Nashville ( As a writer himself, he has over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print in over 14 languages. Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” ( and the music CD “XO” ( A champion of writers, Publishers Weekly has identified Stafford as playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13)
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3 Responses to How Not Just Setting, but Sense of Place Influences My Writing / Author Sylvia Dickey Smith

  1. That was an excellent post. Thanks for sharing it. I really enjoyed it very much.

  2. Excellent post about the importance of place and how it can influence everything about a book.The interactions between plot, setting, and character are subtle, yet affect how the book comes across and Sylvia seems to understand that completely. Funny how her muse knew exactly what to do and had to have a little tantrum to get her way 🙂

  3. Thank you for this post, Sylvia. A sense of place is so important in a series, and it looks like you’ve really mastered that.

    By the way, the cover of THE SWAMP WHISPERER is stunning. I love the shadows and reflections on the water.

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