Thursday, June 21, 2018

Creating a sense of place is essential for your memoir


In your memoir, you’ll introduce readers to significant places. Since readers were not there, you’ll need to develop those places well.

That’s why we’ve been looking at how to create a sense of place in your memoir, how to create a setting readers can visualize.

Effectively doing so can be a fun exercise for you, the writer, but it’s more than that. Creating a sense of place is essential if you want readers to experience your story with you.

Last week we considered descriptions of entrances and rooms. (If you missed that post, click on Must-know info about your memoir’s sense of place.) Have you enjoyed working on the settings in your memoir since then? I hope so.

While you continue working on your memoir’s places, include sensory details—what would your readers see, touch, taste, smell, and hear?

Think back: Was the room dusty or polished, cluttered or tidy, warm or cold, old or new, welcoming or unfriendly?

Did the place smell like a florist shop, or overripe cantaloupe, or something worse?—maybe stale cigarette smoke, trash, or chemicals?

What unique sounds resided in that place? Could you hear foghorns signaling to ferry boats and cruise ships and supertankers on foggy days? Did you hear construction noises, or students practicing the flute, or people in prayer? Could you hear wind in the trees? (If so, name those trees—Aspen? Palm? Cedar?)

Spend time recollecting the other sensory details of your place—sights, textures (or feels), and tastes.

For your inspiration, study how Marilynne Robinson created a sense of place in her book, Lila. It’s fiction, but the art of describing a place is the same, whether fiction or nonfiction (memoir is nonfiction—it’s always true). Note how she included dialogue to create that sense of place.

“When they were children they used to be glad when they stayed in a workers’ camp, shabby as they all were, little rows of cabins with battered tables and chairs and moldy cots inside, and maybe some dishes and spoons. They were dank and they smelled of mice…. Somebody sometime had nailed a horseshoe above the door of a cabin they had for a week and they felt this must be important….

“They were given crates of fruit that was too ripe or bruised, and the children ate it till they were … sick of the souring smell of it and the shiny little black bugs that began to cover it, and then they would start throwing it at each other and get themselves covered with rotten pear and apricot. Flies everywhere. They’d be in trouble for getting their clothes dirtier than they were before. Doane hated those camps. He’d say, ‘Folks sposed to live like that?’…”

Your task, then, is to recreate your memoir’s rooms
buildings, and entrances to them. 

And be sure to come back next time 
because we’ll continue with this important writing skill.

Happy writing!




Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Make our memoir come alive through a sense of place


Today we continue creating a sense of place within your memoir, a setting for key scenes. (If you missed Thursday’s post, click on Must-know info about your memoir’s sense of place.)

Why is a sense of place important? Because it helps draw your readers in—it gives them a sense of being there with you.


“And then there are other manuscripts in which setting is occasionally mentioned in passing, but almost as an afterthought…. [H]e throws out a few token lines that objectively name the place or sketch a vague description and moves on.

And that’s a shame, because a writer like that is missing out on a great opportunity to bring his [story] to life. The more real a place is to readers, the easier they can be transported there to experience the story.” 

Your goal: Make those settings tangible for your readers.

Look for spots in your manuscript that leave yourself, your memoir’s characters, or readers floating in space. Make revisions to anchor each key setting

And remember to use sensory details (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste).  


There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

Come back Thursday for more on 
how to create top-notch settings for your memoir.



Thursday, June 14, 2018

Must-know info about your memoir’s sense of place


Have you ever read a book that left you on the outside, not welcomed in? Maybe the story felt a little cold. Unsatisfying. The problem might have been the story’s sense of place—or, rather, lack of it.

In writing your memoir, you need to establish a setting, a sense of place, because that helps draw your readers in—it gives them a sense of being there with you.

Think of all the settings within your story—
  • a significant room or home or office,
  • or a geographical location with its features and weather,
  • or a culture with its unique smells and sounds and sights,
  • or a group setting with various personalities and voices and appearances.

We’ll look at all of those in coming days, but today, let’s concentrate on creating a sense of place within a room or home or office.

Good writing is good writing, whether fiction or nonfiction (memoir is nonfiction), so let’s look at how New York Times bestselling author Rosamunde Pilcher created a sense of place in her novel, The Empty House.

Pilcher writes of Virginia approaching a solicitors’ office in England:

“Smart, Chirgwin and Williams … were the names on the brass plate by the door, a plate which had been polished so long and so hard that the letters had lost their sharpness and were quite difficult to read. There was a brass knocker on the door, too, and a brass door knob, as smooth and shining as the plate, and when Virginia … stepped into a narrow hall of polished brown linoleum and shining cream paint … it occurred to her that some hard-working woman was using up an awful lot of elbow grease.”

Pilcher has you standing beside Virginia, doesn’t she? And you conclude the brass plate, knocker, and doorknob were old, and the place’s owners had enough money to hire cleaning help, probably a woman, and that she took pride in her work.

What kind of people do you envision Virginia will encounter after she turns that brass doorknob, steps inside, and makes her way down the hall?

I expect that Smart, Chirgwin, and Williams wore black suits, starched white dress shirts, and gray-striped silk ties. And the men drank their morning tea in gold-rimmed china cups. And they spoke precise, proper English.


Contrast their setting with that of a tough ex-convict, Socrates Fortlow, in an abandoned building in Watts:

“He boiled potatoes and eggs in a saucepan on his single hotplate and then cut them together in the pot with two knives, adding mustard and sweet pickle relish. After the meal he had two shots of whiskey and one Camel cigarette.” (from Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by New York Times bestselling author Walter Mosley).

You don’t see any of Joanna Gaines’ touches in Socrates’ smoky room. Do you picture him eating out of the pan? And wiping his sleeve across his mouth when he finished eating?


Let’s go back to Pilcher’s story with Virginia in a later scene in a different place:

“She went down the steps and along the dank pathway that led along the side of the house towards the front door. This had once been painted dark red and was scarred with splitting sun blisters. Virginia took out the key and … the door instantly, silently, swung inwards. She saw … a worn rug on bare boards. A fly droned, blundering against the window-pane.”

Stop and think. You’re walking beside Virginia, aren’t you? You’re seeing the splitting blisters on the red door, and a worn rug, and bare wooden floors. You’re hearing that irritating buzz of the fly tapping against the window glass.

There beside Virginia, you notice a stained kitchen sink and “the sitting-room cluttered with ill-matching chairs,” and “looming pieces of furniture.”

Pilcher has succeeded in creating a sense of place for youyou’re discovering this room alongside Virginia.


Here’s another example, this one from Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

“They were on the east side of Pittsburg, in an old factory building that had been converted into a progressive preschool. Light fell through the long windows and splashed in motes and patterns onto the plank floor; it caught the auburn highlights in Phoebe’s thin braids as she stood before a big wooden bin, scooping lentils, letting them cascade into jars.”

Edwards created a vivid picture: tall old factory-style windows (which I envision need a good cleaning), sunbeams shining on dust motes, the wooden floor, and auburn braids. And you probably heard those lentils spilling into glass jars, didn’t you?


What about the settings, the places in your memoir? 

Scrutinize your rough draft, asking yourself, “How can I enhance a sense of place—a setting within a room or home or office in my memoir?”

Ask yourself how the above examples generate ideas you might use in your memoir.

Look through good literature on your bookshelves or the library’s shelves and study how other writers create a sense of place for their stories.

All of these steps can make you a better storyteller. So, make revisions in your memoir using sensory details (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) to make your places tangible for your readers. Your goal is to help them experience what you experienced.

If readers enter the places in your memoir, they can:
  • feel a connection with you and your experience,
  • feel grounded in your story,
  • discover the mood, atmosphere, and emotions of the event in that place,
  • and, in the end, take away from your memoir important lessons and inspiration for their own lives.



Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: Do you want to become a better storyteller?


If you want to grow in storytelling skills, start with dear William Zinsser's advice: 




Come back Thursday when we'll take an in-depth look at a memoir's setting, its sense of place.

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: Are the words in your memoir just ... b-o-r-i-n-g?


Priscilla Long, author of the delightful The Writer’s Portable Mentor, writes of those who approach “language passively … using only words that come to mind, or words he grew up with, or words she stumbles upon while reading The New York Times… He strives for expression with rather general, conventional diction [word choice] that has little to offer in the way of echo, color, or texture.”

On the other hand, “... writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words…. They savor not only the meanings, but also the musicality of words. They are hunting neither big words nor pompous words nor Latinate words but mainly words they like…. They are not trying to be fancy or decorative.”

At Gather “crackly” words for your memoir, you’ll discover tips on using words to delight your readers, words that keep them involved in your story, words that make your places, characters, and experiences come to life.

And you’ll have loads of fun gathering and using just the right words!

 There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

“What have you got to lose, except all that your family could gain?”


Have you ever asked yourself who will be poorer for not knowing your stories?

Your stories are important. They can offer wisdom and hope and character and faith to your readers—stuff they need to know!

Today Cavin Harper challenges us to take our roles seriously and be intentional about writing our stories for the benefit of our kids, grandkids, and great-grands. He asks us, “Have you written it down?”


Have You Written It Down? 
by Cavin Harper, 
Founder and President of Christian Grandparenting Network

Let this be written for a future generation, 
that a people not yet created may praise the Lord.  
Psalm 102:18

Why am I who I am today? What forces have shaped my life and the way I see the world?

These questions are not only important to me, but to those who follow me. My stories are my family’s stories, but, even more than that, they are part of God’s story and the legacy that will be left for future generations. Our stories tell those who come after something about why they are the way they are and reveal the tapestry of God’s sovereign hand woven in our stories. So, why do we not take storytelling more seriously?


Who am I?

Obviously, as a Christian—a follower of Christ—the Gospel has profoundly shaped who I am and how I view the world. Still, things like why I love cornbread and beans smothered in ketchup, for example, can be explained only by my story as a member of the Harper family. The stories each of us have experienced from birth shape us and form the bigger story that comprises the legacy we leave to the generations that follow … if they know the stories.

The Psalmist has made it very clear that we are to tell the stories of God’s praiseworthiness and faithfulness, His power and the wonders He has done (Psalm 78:4). But it is our personal stories that bring context to God’s bigger story as it is played out through our family tree. And part of telling those stories involves writing them down.


Our Stories are Treasures

The importance of writing our stories to preserve our legacy is the subject of Lana Rockwell’s book, Passing On a Written Legacy. Lana believes the stories of our lives written for others to read help our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren gain some valuable perspective about who we are as members of our family. They also help us tell the story of God’s faithfulness and ongoing work in our lives, both the good times and the bad. In her opinion, these stories are “treasures from God, a special gift from God for another generation.”


So, what keeps us from writing these stories down? Lana believes there are any number of reasons, all the result of misinformation or faulty thinking. We don’t think we can write well enough, or we don’t think we can remember anything worth telling. First of all, we’re not writing to get on the New York Best Seller list. Just start writing something and see what happens. Stop making excuses. This is about telling what you know so another generation may benefit from it.

Secondly, ask yourself who loses if you don’t tell your stories. How many of you feel you lost something important because your grandparents or parents never preserved some of their stories that tell who they were and maybe something about ourselves? Don’t make the same mistake for the generations following you.

Thirdly, order a copy of Lana’s book, Passing On a Written Legacy, and make the decision to give it a try. And in case you’re not sure if it would be worth your while, listen to my podcast with Lana on Family Impact. I think she may convince you to take the plunge. What have you got to lose, except all that your family could gain?



Thanks, Cavin, for sharing your post with us. I haven’t bought Lana’s book yet, but plan to do so soon. It looks like a valuable resource for all the memoirists here at SM 101.

Originally published as Have You Written It Down? Reprinted here by permission.





Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: Will your readers get bored?


Let’s be realistic. We can’t force people to read our memoirs.

Our lives have many distractions. Perhaps the worst nowadays is the cell phone. Just think: The memoirs you and I write compete with cell phones. That’s daunting. And our books compete with Netflix and the most popular TV shows and sports events. The list goes on and on.

Your memoir must be more intriguing than—or at least as intriguing as—those and other pastimes and distractions. People will invest in only what promises to be worth their time and effort.

Click on Will your memoir be intriguing enough? and follow links that will help you spiff up the emotional depth in your memoir and add details, including sufficient sensory details.

Like dear Cecil Murphey says, “We have to persuade people to read us and assure them that the time they spend with us will be rewarding.”

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.