Do not underestimate the importance of place in your personal history. Many writers do. Readers need to be able to visualize what it was like to live in a particular locale at the time you lived there. Places should be more than mere names on the page (“I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, when I was fifteen”). Let us see Charlottesville the way you remember it.
Most of us would agree that the places where we’ve lived our lives shaped who we are to a great extent, likely shaped key decisions we made, shaped our attitude about many things, even shaped the way we feel about ourselves. Develop your settings with care, the way you develop a character in your story. Here are four tips to help you get started:
• Describe places the way they were when you lived there. My parents courted in San Diego, California, during WWII. My father was in the Navy, and San Diego was a Navy town in those days, the harbor jam-packed with ships and the streets teeming with sailors waiting to ship out. My personal history needs a description of San Diego as it was in the 1940s. Merely writing, “My parents were married in San Diego, California” just doesn’t do it. My children are Californians and have had many occasions to visit that city, but their memories consist of weekends spent at the zoo and Sea World, of eating hamburgers and pizza at Horton Plaza or one of the city’s myriad fast food restaurants. So, if I want them to visualize San Diego as it was in the 1940s I have to write something more like this:
“My parents were among thousands of couples who courted in San Diego, when the city swarmed with white-clad sailors on leave from ships docked in the bustling naval harbor. On weekends my parents strolled down sidewalks jammed with couples like themselves as the music of Jimmy Dorsey and Glen Miller drifted from the doorways of noisy restaurants, and clanking, screeching streetcars transported the foot-weary.”
• Include the five senses. Write with your nose, your ears, and your fingers, not just with your eyes. Too many writers limit their descriptions to what things looked like. What sounds did you hear when you sat on the porch on a summer afternoon? What scents did you smell when you went fishing at the local pond? Include sense details and your readers will feel like they know the place as you do.
• Focus on the memorable. You can’t write everything you remember about a place or your descriptions will begin to sound like an encyclopedia entry. What stands out in your mind? What aspects of that place influenced you the most? What made it home for you? What would a stranger notice the first time she visited that place? What do readers need to know to visualize the place the way you remember it?
• Notice how novelists describe places. Learn to read with a critical eye. Underline phrases that work for you. Notice how writers anchor events and conversations in a particular locale. What kind of “sense” details do they use? Learn from the pros.
Writing Exercise: Choose a location where you spent your childhood. Make a list of what you remember about that place. Decide what readers need to know to visualize it the way you remember it. Make a list of everything you think is important, including “sense” details. Now write a description of that town.