Good details can make all the difference in whether you draw readers into your story—and pull them in you must.
Think back: Do you remember reading a book in which you felt you were in the story with its writer? You tasted what he tasted. You smelled odors she smelled. You saw events he witnessed. You heard sounds she heard. You felt the textures or temperatures he felt. We call those sensory details.
But if you’ve ever read a book that kept you at a distance—a story that made you feel like an observer on the outside, unable to get in—then you know how much richer it is for a reader to live inside a story.
That’s what you want to do for your readers—write your memoir so they get “zipped into your skin,” says memoirist Mary Karr.
You can also zip readers in by including historical details of the era. Besides establishing your story’s historical backdrop, such details help create a sense of place and time—
- prominent values/philosophies
- that time period’s passions and culture
- the nation’s or culture’s major turning points (Pearl Harbor)
- the place’s and era’s economic conditions
- scientific, technological, and medical advances
- political leanings
- the nation’s struggles or victories
- major stories in the news, and so on.
You are a witness to history. So am I. By age 25, I’d witnessed man’s first walk on the moon, Sputnik, JFK’s death, the Civil Rights Movement, rock ‘n’ roll, the Beatles, the hippie era, the feminist movement, and the Vietnam War. They all influenced me and shaped me.
Your historical setting influenced and shaped you, too.
And have you ever thought of this? You influenced and shaped history, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ways. Like Biff Barnes said, you are “part of the sweep of history.” Don’t overlook roles you played in molding and sculpting history.
Let me tell you about a fun tool you can use to enhance your story’s historical context:
Check out a website from The Atlantic called Life Timeline.
When you enter your birthday, you’ll see a list of historical events that occurred during your lifetime. And you’ll find links to articles about that event.
Use this fun tool to enhance the vibrancy and power of your memoir.
But wait! I have more for you—another way to enhance your story’s historical context. Have you created word lexicons? Word lexicons = collections of words and phrases.
In her delightful book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long describes the enjoyment and value of word lexicons. Especially significant are word lexicons that pertain to a specific piece—your memoir, for example.
Priscilla can tell by reading a person’s writing whether he or she collected words and phrases—what she calls The Lexicon Practice.
“Writers who do the Lexicon Practice have left in the dust what I call ‘conventional received diction.’ Writers who don’t do it . . . are pretty much stuck with television words, newspaper words, cereal-box words.”
Priscilla, a writing instructor at the University of Washington and a widely published author, collected words from her childhood for a collection of stories she planned to write: “greenbriar, dirt road, Neil Lindsey’s pig, 4-H Club… calf barn, gutter, manure pile, manure spreader, marsh grass….”
Each memoir—your memoir—has its own lexicon, its own unique set of words and phrases. Use them to define your story, to enrich it, to make it come alive for your readers.
Which words and phrases belong in the lexicon for your memoir?
You’ll want to compose several lexicons because, Priscilla points out, individuals have lexicons, places have lexicons, and “every craft, trade, profession, or job….”
I especially enjoy her lexicon for the Pacific Northwest, my home: “crow, Puget Sound, Steilacoom Tribe, western red cedar, Smith Tower, Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar, Starbucks, Northwest jellyfish, geoduck (pronounced gooey duck), Stillaguamish River….” She nailed it with those words.
Now it’s your turn: Choose sensory details—details readers can smell, feel, hear, see, and taste.
Think about these possibilities for your story’s historical setting and physical location:
- iconic geographical references (rivers, mountains, deserts…)
- prominent buildings
- popular restaurants
- food trends
- lingo (“That’s a swell hot rod you have there.”)
- clothing and hair styles (poodle skirts, saddle shoes)
- popular songs
- popular hobbies/sports (hula hoops)
- specific car models
- typical sounds (birds, insects, factories, trains, children’s laughter)
- vegetation and wildlife, and so on.
Collect other words and phrases for main characters in your memoir, and professions/occupations.
Create as many lexicons as you need to enrich your memoir and draw readers into it.
If you're age 65 or older... I mean or better, you'll love Words and Phrases Remind Us of the Way We Word by Richard Lederer. And his post will give you a head start on compiling your own lexicon.
Just remember: avoid “television words, newspaper words, cereal-box words.”