W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

No 18. Writing about Place Part I

This is the first of two parts on writing about place. What is it like for writers who have always lived in one location? Next issue we will talk with ex-pat writers who find themselves far away from their home. We'll look at how location combined with experience can help or hurt us as writers.


When I was growing up in a small New England town, my mother claimed she was English although our ancestors left England around 1635. She never got closer to England than a few waves into the Atlantic. She pushed our WASPishness (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) background against my Father's Frenchness, which was not considered acceptable. Because we concentrated on being so English I didn't think I had an ethnic background. That was the norm. I envied the Italians in town who ate spaghetti with every meal instead of periodically and my friends with names of O' something when they step danced. At the time I didn't think that my grandmother baking beans in her grandmother's bean pot every Saturday night, carefully balancing the mustard to the molasses and salt pork much as our Pilgrim ancestors had done, was ethnic.

In the same way, I thought school closings in winter were normal. Everyone had Robert Frost stone walls around their land, and went to Saturday football games and tried out for the baton squad.

I felt the same way as many writers I've met who've always lived in the same place. What can be interesting about things that are so common we don't even see them.

I was wrong. Place can often serve almost as another character in another dimension to a story.

The lesson was reconfirmed when I was doing my masters at the University of Glamorgan. I had written a scene where children ducked under their desk as an anti-atomic bomb drill when the town's siren went off. My seven cohorts, all raised in the UK, thought it was exotic, in the same way I envied them the details in their writing about vicars, jumble sales, A-Levels, gap years, the pub and dart games. These details would not have worked for a book set near Boston MA.

An anthropologist friend of mine said good anthropology can't be done in a person's own culture because people are too close to it. How sad it would be if that were true for writers. However, if it were true you wouldn't have wonderfully regional writers like US Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor, Australian writers like Janet Turner Hospital, etc. Not to mention the great English writers like Waugh or Lawrence who captured their own home areas to such a degree that readers feel we are living in the environment.

To truly reflect the regions that we come from, we need to almost pretend we are newcomers. What are some of the details that writers can use to create place:

Geography - Is the land flat, hilly, forest covered, near a lake or sea? A book set in Louisiana needs a bayou, and Paris without the Eiffel tower isn't really Paris. The question is - is it trite to mention it? Can another famous landmark be used? And if the region isn't famous, what in the landscape can make it vivid to someone who will only be there in their imagination.

Food - What are the local dishes and can you mention them without stereotyping? Catfish and grits come from the US south, lobster from New England, but MacDonald's exist almost everywhere (but not in Syria). If you are trying to write about another area make sure you have the local favourites down. An English writer once talked about Shoe Fly Pie as a Boston favourite. It is a traditional Amish dish in Pennsylvania, a good five hours away by car.

Weather - Despite climate change, a blizzard in Puerto Rico would seem out of place, but if you have a novel set in Maine in January, it is almost necessary. If it isn't there, then its absence says something.

Accents - How to write good accents could be a book in itself, not a mere paragraph in a newsletter. If overdone, it turns the reader off. Think of reading page after page of a Boston accent. I think I will pahk my cah in Hahvahd yahd while I get a Hoodsie, and watch the Sawks and eat candy bahs while waiting for my Awnt and Uncle. (Note: You can't park in Harvard yard, because it is grass covered and the Harhavhd police will arrest you). A sprinkling of an accent can give flavour. Likewise expressions can trigger local feelings. In the TV show mystery "Murder She Wrote" Jessica solved the crime because the person who claimed he was from the area didn't know that Maine is known as "Down East".

Class - Place should also include the socio-economic status. A good choosing of details can tell a lot. Do the people work in a factory, or commute to Wall Street leaving their SUVs and boats behind. Do they mine opals? Have an air boat that ducks alligators? Place can be a neighbourhood as well as a town or region.

Environment - As humans we are affected by what is around us. If a character lives far out in the country does he long for a chance to visit museums? Likewise does a person feel trapped in concrete canyons of a major city and yearn for a garden and raises tomatoes in a garbage pail (bin if he's in London). Does the person who lives near museums but not go. Use the place to develop the character for your readers.

Limited place - a story can take place within a house, a room that has no bearing on which part of the world the character lives in.

Transportation - SUVs aren't popular in Europe. In fact big cars aren't appreciated what with gas prices at about four times those of the States. If your character has a bike, is he in step or do people think he's weird. If the setting is Holland, it would be normal, but someone biking to work in Los Angeles, might not ring true or be a wonderful character detail.

Clothing - As a child I read a series of books about twins all over the world and they always wore native costumes. Although you will still find Bavarian women in Dirndls, and farmers in jeans, clothing is a way to show about location and climate. A bikini is not worn outside in January in Montreal, but a person could put on a sweater, jacket, scarf, hat and mittens and still be cold "showing" something about the place and temperature without having to "tell" the reader anything. Or if something is based in Ocean Grove, NJ, bathing suits can't be worn anywhere but the beach.

Smell - Seasides have a certain odour, as do fish markets. Mud smells different in spring, a factory can ooze smells, as does any place near a bakery. The NECCO factory in Cambridge, MA used to leave a smell of caramelized sugar in the air. NECCO are round coloured wafers sold in rolls. I'm not sure if they are still made, but it is a detail that could add a special feeling to a story set in that city where MIT and Hahvahd students predominate.

Mores - What we consider normal, other people might consider exotic. A bonfire is normal to celebrate many occasions in various localities. Do people drop in unexpectedly or is it necessary to make plans well in advance?

Sometimes newer writers give too many details about a place. This was common in literature of the 1800s where every piece of furniture might be described until a reader wanted to yell, "Enough all ready!" It isn't necessary to describe each turn in the road to get from place A to place B. Choose the details that make the place jump out in the minds of the readers.


Example 1

"We've got a ranch house. Daddy built it. Daddy says it's called RANCH 'cause it's like houses out west where cowboys sleep. There's a picture window in all ranch houses and you're in one of them out west, you can look out and see the cattle eatin' grass on the plains and the cowboys ridin' around with their lassos and tall hats. But we ain't got nuthin' like that here in Egypt, Maine. All Daddy and I got to look at is the Beans. Daddy says the Beans are uncivilized animals, PREDATORS he calls them."

Notice how Carolyn Chute in the BEANS OF EGYPT MAINE, has used language. We immediately are in the scene with a narrator that is not highly educated. Interestingly she gives a picture of what isn't there.

Example 2

"Hazel Motes sat forward on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the edge of the farthest woods. Nearer the plowed fields, curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked liked spotted stones."

Here Flannery O'Connor places us on a train, we feel the material and see the colour of the seats to get an interior sense of place as well as the exterior sense with red sons and a country setting. The name of the place isn't important, but readers feel it.

Example 3

"The Chamber of Commerce defines Cape Cod as comprising fifteen towns divided into countless villages, 365 lakes and ponds, long ribbons of good road and 399 square miles of land forming a strong flexed arm reaching out to grab a hunk of the North Atlantic. Nary a word about Marshfield, although when asked to describe the town, most locals hesitate only a moment before responding, 'down the Cape.'

"Marshfield, the so called 'Irish Riveria,' isn't exactly Cape Cod being that land divided from the mainland by the Cape Cod Canal with Bournedale, Cedarville and the Cape Cod Canal and Buzzards bay tacked on to gain access to lovely Sagamore Beach and including of course, those two famous islands, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, refuge of rock stars and presidents.

"Marshfield's too far north to qualify. Wrong county. A working class neighbourhood dotted with small, mostly neat cottages a half mile walk from an eroding beach.

"I am not talking 'summer cottages' as in Newport or the Berkshires. I am talking no loyer, walk smack into the living room, one or two bedrooms max…"

Here Linda Barnes narrows her place from region, to town, to type of cottages, to a tour of one of them all the while throwing in class comparisons.


  1. If you live in a town go to the centre. If you live in the city go to a park. If you live in the country go to a quiet spot. Make a list of everything you notice,
  2. If you have always lived in the same place, find a newcomer and interview them about what they note as different from the place they come. (In Boston I was amazed when an exchange student was fascinated by all the different colour trucks he saw. I never had noticed.) If you are new to a place make two lists comparing the old place to the new.
  3. Find out something about the region you've lived in all your life that you didn't know. If you are living outside your home region, go back and find out something you missed while you lived there.


In Europe it has been the hottest summer in summer. The French use the word La Canucule to describe the heat wave. Although I love the way the word sounds as it rolls off my tongue, I hate what it is doing to the continent. Forest fires are ravaging France, Portugal, Canada. The Danube has lost two-thirds of its water, revealing a German ship hidden from view since WWII. Wherever you are, please work to help conserve this planet, before we all destroy it.


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