Friday, April 24, 2009


from Jacqueline

Go to any writers’ conference and the subject of “place” will come up time and again. How to create place, how to communicate a sense of place, and why place can be seen as a character as much as anyone with a name in the book.

I think about place a lot. I pay attention to the places I visit – it comes with the territory of being a writer. As a writer I am interested in the nooks and crannies of any place, I wander up and down streets where I probably shouldn’t even set foot, and I like to talk to people along the way, find out about their place in the place, if you see what I mean. Place is dynamic, it grows and changes and it contracts – for every big city, there’s a ghost town. I read today that in Flint, Michigan (yep, where that Michael Moore hails from,) they’re planning to demolish whole neighborhoods that aren’t working, to concentrate resources on making the rest of the town something to talk about.

Interesting. That idea says a lot about the place.

I like the way that, sometimes, one place can remind you of another. I walked out of the door this morning and the atmosphere outside – the feel of the air on my skin, a sweet aroma in the air, and the dampness from an overnight sprinkle of rain – reminded me of England on a July morning, and all manner of memories cascaded into my mind. Sometimes, in the hot, dry heat of summer, I’m reminded of being in Morocco, or Paris, even. Something inspires the reflection, and I remember all those details of that place at the time when the circumstances of my life moulded the memory.

Place is both personal and universal. As a writer, if you get the sense of place right, you can carry your readers right along with you, and even if they’ve never been to Florida, or Los Angeles, New York, or London, they will feel as if they’d known that place like a native by the end of the book.

So, how do we attain a sense of place in our writing? It’s all in the details, not just of that aroma in the air in a given season, or the sounds we’re exposed to, or even what the eye can see, but it’s in the experiences – which is why, as writers, we’re not just curious, we’re downright nosy. I’ve learned a lot about place by reading memoir. I remember reading one of Mark Doty’s books in which he described parking in San Francisco. He said that when you park in a perpendicular parking space on one of those hills, you get out of the car and hold on to the door – to stop it opening wide into the car next to it, and to save yourself falling down the hill. I loved that image, and I’ve parked on those hills. The interesting thing is that, although I’d had that experience – hanging onto the door to save both me and the other car – I’d never thought of it as a building block to creating place in a piece of writing. Another time I was reading an article about living in California with that well-chronicled earthquake risk. The writer noted that many city dwellers in L.A. and San Francisco said they increase speed when driving under or over freeway bridges, and more than a few kept a pair of walking shoes in the trunk, just in case the Big One hit and they had a long walk home. When I worked in the Bay Area, I would do that increasing speed thing as I drove into the city, but before I was a writer I would never thought about it as a habit that defined place.

You may wonder what’s brought on this rumination about place – after all, it’s not as if I’ve not written about it before on this blog. I’ve just been reading a book called Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History by Adam Nicolson. If you’ve never heard of Sissinghurst, it was the home of the writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson – they were members of the Bloomsbury Group and Vita was famously the lover of Virginia Woolf.

I know Sissinghurst very well, because I was born and raised in the area, and I’ve written about my country childhood in a not-so-great unpublished memoir. What has captivated me about this book (and Nicolson is a terrific writer – if you want to soak up good writing about place, read his work) is that so many of his reflections on growing up in the Kent countryside mirror my own. Here’s an excerpt from his book:

“I was thinking of this, this gift of place, with all that word means, as I sat and smoked that long afternoon, looking across a piece of England, of Kent, the Kentish Weald, which I knew better than anywhere on earth. I listened to the traffic booming on the road to the south and looked at the bobbled roof of the woods, on which the sun was just laying its coat of afternoon light, the scoop of hedged fields between them, the shadows of the trees drawn out across the stubble, almost from one hedge to another, the dust lying in pools on the track at my feet.”

And reading that, I can now see why I think it’s also useful for all writers to study a bit of poetry, though for some it comes quite naturally. I also think an insensitive editor would have had a field day with the red pen.

Nicolson ends his book with thoughts about the future of Sissinghurst - the house and the land that surround it - and the notion of place itself, which I think might interest you, if your ponderings ever take you in that direction:

“That is the word, I now realize, to which this book has been devoted: place as the roomiest of containers for human meaning; place as the medium in which natural and cultural, inherited and invented, individual and communal can all fuse and fertilize.”

Maybe I’m in a reflective and poetic mood, but I think that sums up just about all you need to know in the quest to give a sense of place in writing – whether that writing is your postcard home from vacation, a letter to a faraway friend (oh, and where did letter-writing go?), a memoir or a novel. Go on, fuse and fertilize (I know ...) tell us about your place.

And as always, have a great weekend, wherever you find yourselves, and whatever you’re doing.

This is where I’ll be, this weekend:


  1. Yes, everytime I'm forced to stop under an overpass I look around for escape routes. Some of the behaviors unique to a region are so ingrained that the writer has to challenge his/her own reality in order to draw them out. Maybe it's easier for an outsider to write about a place.

  2. from Jacqueline

    You know, I think you might be right, Patty. People often ask me if I could have written my books if I were still living in England, and the fact is, I don't know that I could - I needed that distance to be able to write about England at a certain time, and I think I would have been so immersed in the truth of the place now, that I would not have been able to distance myself - and look at the place as an outsider, as you say.

  3. I still think of myself as a tourist when I write about L.A.

    I don't think I could write about my hometown because I've repressed all those memories :O)

  4. from Jacqueline

    There's a few memories I'd like to repress, if I could!

  5. How do you feel about real versus fictional places in a real community or state? I think of Sue Grafton. Is there a reason for NOT using a real city, especially if it is smallish? When do you know whether to use the real or to invent? Obviously, I have been thinking about this and have lots of questions. Thanks. ST

  6. from Jacqueline

    Good question, ST. When I've invented a place, I have invariably brought in aspects of places I have known - the situation could be in a region I have a familiarity with, the layout of the town could be based on a real community. But you have to bring that made-up place alive, give it texture and depth in the same way that you translate the essence of the real, well-known location, so that the reader feels as if they know the place and are then carried along with the story. Just think of the work that Tolkein put in to breathe life into Middle Earth!

  7. I once heard Jan Burke say that she invented her town (based on Long Beach, CA, I believe) in the Irene Kelly series so she wouldn't get letters from fans telling her that Avenue X was one-way not two-way.

  8. Patty, I think quite a few authors do something similar - it's why I invented Ebury Place. "Ebury" is a name that turns up in that part of London, but Ebury Place is fictional. I've had emails from fans who have visited London and looked for Ebury Place, and been very upset when they couldn't find it - can you imagine the response from the people who lived there if I'd chosen a real address? I have made up several places, and for each location I have envisaged a real place, and added bits that I would have liked to have seen there.