Friday, January 18, 2013

Your memoir needs a sense of place

A couple nights ago, after six weeks of illness, I craved something warm and comforting so I sat down with an old Rosamunde Pilcher novel. She did not disappoint me. 

I also noticed how she uses fiction techniques memoirists can employ in writing true stories. 

Let’s look at the way Pilcher develops a sense of place within homes and buildings.

She 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 turned the knob and opened the door, she stepped onto a narrow hall of polished brown linoleum and shining cream paint and it occurred to her that some hard-working woman was using up an awful lot of elbow grease.” (The Empty House)

With those few words, Pilcher invites readers to enter her story’s setting and place

Pilcher bids readers to stand beside Virginia as she approaches an aged entrance (“polished so long and so hard that the letters had lost their sharpness and were quite difficult to read”), a building owned by people able to afford brass hardware and a cleaning woman that kept the place shiny and smelling like floor polish. Readers envision that down the hall, Smart, Chirgwin and Williams wore black suits, starched white dress shirts, and gray-striped silk ties. We expect they drank morning tea in gold-rimmed china cups. We assume they spoke precise, proper English.

Contrast that with the setting and place 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.” (Walter Mosley, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned)

Socrates inhabited no well-to-do solicitors’ digs. No Martha Stewart touches adorned his smoky room. Readers suppose Socrates ate right out of the pan and, afterward, wiped his sleeve across his mouth there in his small, dingy room. We wonder if he had tangled hair and stained jeans.

Establishing a setting, a sense of place, is important for your memoir because it draws readers in. It gives them a sense of being there

Notice how Pilcher’s details, in a later scene, carry you alongside Virginia as if you are walking with her:

“She went down the steps and along a 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.” 

Virginia noticed the stained kitchen sink and “the sitting-room cluttered with ill-matching chairs,” and “looming pieces of furniture.” 

Did you feel you were discovering this place with Virginia?

If readers can enter your places, they will:
get to know you,
feel connected to you,
feel grounded in your story, 
discover the mood, atmosphere and emotions of that place and time, 
and, in the end, take away from your memoir important lessons for their own lives.

Examine your rough drafts. Look for ways to enhance a sense of place, a setting within buildings or homes. Make revisions using sensory details (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) to make your places tangible for your readers.

Your goal is to help readers experience what you experienced.

C’mon back! Next week we’ll look at a sense of place for outdoor scenes.

You’ll enjoy this additional reading: 

Walk with Ann Kroeker through her grandmother’s home   

Your story is important, but will anyone read it?  

Include the slime and grime in your memoir 


  1. Thank you for sharing this! It gives me much "food" for thought.
    GOD bless you in this new year.

  2. Linda, This is such an important post and reinforces the need for memoir writers to use fiction techniques to invite the reader into their experience. Your examples are so vivid. Excellent! Thank you for sharing such valuable pointers.