In your memoir, you’ll introduce readers to places where you experienced significant events. Since your readers weren’t there—and since reading your memoir will likely be the first time they’ll experience those places—develop them well.
Why? Because readers need to identify with you, they want to live your experience with you.
“Whether you write fiction or non-fiction (especially memoirs), you’ve got to completely engage your readers,” writes Sheila Bender. “Create vivid scenes using images that appeal to all the senses….”
So then, be deliberate in describing the place, the setting, of major events in your memoir: Include sensory details—details pertaining to the five senses: seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing.
Step back in time, look around, and describe the place as if you were seeing it for the first time.
If your scene is indoors, take your readers with you into a building or a room. What did you see, feel, taste, smell, and hear? Was it dusty or polished, cluttered or tidy, warm or cold, old or new, welcoming or unfriendly?
If your scene takes place outdoors, what did you see, feel, taste, smell, and hear? Include weather, seasons, time of day, the landscape and geography—ocean, desert, rain forest, island, mountain. Describe plants, animals, and maybe even the place’s culture, traditions, folklore, races, languages, and mood or atmosphere.
Below you’ll find examples of well-developed places. (The first two are from works of fiction, but the art and craft of describing a place is the same whether fiction or nonfiction; nonfiction—memoir, in our case—is always true.)
Here’s an excerpt from Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist:
“They always went the same way, south along the Wenatchee River until its confluence with the Columbia. The Wenatchee River was narrow and familiar, clattering and riffling, surrounded by evergreens and then, later, rocky gravel banks, but the Columbia was different. It was kingly. Serious, roiling, wide. It looked as if it was not flowing very quickly, but Talmadge told Angelene that it was. No matter how many times she saw the Columbia, she was always struck by it. She sometimes dreamed about it, about walking along it and staring at its strange opaque quality, or trying to cross it by herself….”
This is an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila:
“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?’…”
Here is an excerpt from my second memoir, still in rough draft:
Our mission center “was into the dry season and the sky was a clear, clean blue with hardly a wisp of a cloud. Daytime temperatures soared to over a hundred degrees in the shade—cruel, withering.
“The green scent of rainy season had given way to the spicy fragrance of sun-dried grasses. As far as the eye could see, immense open stretches of deep emerald had disappeared, leaving the llanos stiff and bleached and simmering under unrelenting equatorial sun. Most lush greens had turned a parched blonde. Leaves had gone brown and fallen. Even my favorite tree dropped its leaves—the young one with delicate fern-like leaves.
“Muddy paths and one-lane tracks turned rock-hard and, with use, changed to dust. Yards and airstrips and open fields turned to dust, too. From sun up to sundown, a stiff wind blew across the llanos from central South America, a gift from God because it offered a little relief. On the other hand, dust blew through jalousied widows and into homes and offices and we used rocks and paper weights and other heavy objects to keep papers from blowing away. Dust settled on our counters and furniture and in cracks and crannies and on our necks and in our armpits and up our noses.” (Linda K. Thomas, Oh God Don't Make Me Go Don't Make Me Go)
To help you recall details about the culture and geography of your place, look up sites on the internet like “You might be from Seattle if….”
For example, if you’re from Seattle you:
- know what Lutefiske is
- know lots of people who work for Microsoft and Boeing
- know more people who own boats than air conditioners
- know how to pronounce Sequim, Puyallup, Issaquah, and Dosewallips
- know how to pronounce geoduck, know what it is, and how to eat it.
And Jeff Foxworthy says that if you’re from Seattle, “You can point to two volcanoes, even if you cannot see through the cloud cover,” and “You notice that ‘the mountain is out’ when it’s a pretty day and you can actually see it.” (And I would add: You know which mountain is “the” mountain.)
Recreate your memoir’s places for your readers. Think about the five senses and ask yourself, for example, what were the sounds of those places? Whispering, yelling, praying, arguing? Construction noises? Traffic noises? Or only wind in the trees? (If so, what kinds of trees were they? Douglas fir? Aspen? Palm?)
Spend time recollecting the other senses pertaining to your special places: the sights, the textures, tastes, and smells.
Reconstruct your key scenes’ places
and invite readers to experience them in the way you did.