Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The power of your place

“To understand my family,” writes Sarah White, “you just have to understand Winona Lake.…”*

Sarah’s referring to the power of place.

The places of our lives mysteriously shaped us and now define us and still anchor us and live in us. The places of our lives nurtured our souls and spirits.

Because of that, place plays an important role in memoirs.

In an interview over at Tales from The Reading Room,* Dinah Roe, London-based author of Rosettis in Wonderland, said,

“Good biographies are as much about time and place as they are about individuals. I love biographies which evoke a sense of place.… Hilary Spurling’s Burying the Bones: Pearl S. Buck in China does this brilliantly. She really makes the case for how important China was to Buck’s writing and to her identity. I had thought of Buck simply as an American writer until I read this book, and then suddenly I realized how wrong-headed this had been. Spurling evoked the place so beautifully that I felt I was right there with the missionary community in China.” (emphasis mine)

I still remember the sense of place David Guterson created in Snow Falling on Cedars—even though I read it over 13 years ago—because of his mastery of writing place into his novel. (Here at SM 101 we’re not writing novels, but, whether fiction or nonfiction, compelling writing is compelling writing.)

Part of his success came because, behind the scenes, all unseen to the rest of us, Guterson practiced what Priscilla Long* recommends: he gathered words.

He collected words about places that, coincidentally, mysteriously shaped me and now define me and still anchor me and live in me, places that nurtured my soul and spirit.

Guterson collected words that describe his place and my place, words like: 

creosoted pilings
ferry terminal
sea cucumbers
tube worms
alder sticks
steamer clams
the odor of salmon bones
purse seiners
one-man gill-netting boats

Guterson writes, “They had passed autumn afternoons when they were nine years old in the hollowed-out base of a cedar tree, where they sprawled on the ground looking out at the rain as it pummeled the sword ferns and ivy.… They already had a history together that included this beach, these waters, the very stones, and the forest at their backs, too. It was all theirs and always would be.… She knew where to find matsutake mushrooms, elderberries, and fern tendrils.”

He also writes: “The path looped around the head of the bay, then down into a swale … ground fog shrouded its thimbleberry and devil’s club, such was the clammy, low wetness of the place—then climbed among cedars and the shadows of spruces before descending….” and “… there was a wall of honeysuckle just past blossom, salmonberries hanging in among it and a few last wild roses blooming—Hatsue cut into the cedar woods.… through a dell of ferns where white morning glory blossoms dotted the forest floor. A fallen cedar log hung with ivy.…” and “green-tinted light entered from the cedar forest. The rain echoed in the canopy of leaves above and beat against the sword ferns, which twitched under each drop.”

I encourage you to invest a little time in what Priscilla Long calls The Lexicon Practice—a “deliberate, ongoing gathering of words and phrases.”* (from The Writer's Portable Mentor)

Last Saturday we discussed collecting words that describe a particular era in your memoir’s stories. Today, begin a lexicon (word book) with words that describe important places in your memoir—places that mysteriously shaped you and now define you and still anchor you and live in you.

Remember, you’re looking for “neither big words nor pompous words nor Latinate words,” says Priscilla, “but mainly words [you] like.” Words that don’t require a dictionary. Words that will help your readers smell, feel, hear, see, and even taste your places, those important places that nurtured your soul and spirit.

P.S. Hop on over to Rhonda’s blog post, Giving thanks for heritage, roots centered on the prairie,* to see how she crafted a sense of place

Note, too, that Rhonda created not only a physical, geographical place, but also an emotional place in her Aunt Esther's home.

Get out your WIPs (works in progress) and add words and phrases that will enhance your stories' sense of place.

*Links and references:

Sarah White,

Dinah Roe’s interview at Tales from the Reading Room,  

Priscilla Long, and my blog post, Gather “crackly” words for your memoir,

Priscilla Long, and my blog post, How long will your memoir’s readers stay engaged, charmed, and beguiled? 

Priscilla Long’s book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor,

Rhonda’s Giving thanks for heritage, roots centered on the prairie,


  1. I love this, Linda. As a writer, it spurs me on, reminding me that words are a paintbrush, an artistic medium that can make far-off places come alive for those who read. These pictures, then, reach the heart and mind, expanding, enlarging, allowing the Creator to enter quietly and do His work. That, at least, is my hope and prayer.

    Waving and smiling,


    P.S. - Thank you ever so much for your gracious mention.