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    Thursday
    Jul052012

    A Sense of Place in Writing About the Past

    Does the setting in your book give your reader a sense of place?

    That’s much more than just a description. LuAnn Schindler, in a recent post, Adding a Sense of Place to Writing on the Women on Writing Blog observed, “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but without an emotional connection, it's difficult to develop a sense of place.”

    What does that emotional connection look like on a page? Let’s take a look at a wonderful example from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird as the author introduces the town of Maycomb:

    Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalk, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oak trees on the square.

    In that paragraph you connect with the place. You can feel what it’s like to be there.

    What makes Lee’s description work? Look at the vivid sensory details she chooses to include. Any writing teacher will tell you that effectively engaging the reader’s five senses is a key to creating a sense of place.

    Lee had an advantage that some writers don’t have. She grew up in Maycomb. She could rely on observation. But what if you can’t observe directly? You often hear fiction writers talking about world building. This is particularly true for sci-fi and fantasy writers who can create places out of their imaginations making sure to include the sensory details that give their readers a sense of place.

    But what if you’re writing about a real place that existed in the past? Authors of narrative history, historical fiction and family history all face the challenge of world rebuilding with the added requirement of being true to the historical setting. How do you create a sense of place when you can neither simply imagine it nor observe it first hand?

    One way is to return to the location. Sometimes it’s possible to get a feel for the place as it might have been at some time in the past. But not always. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Wallace Stegner described his return to the town of Whitemud, in the Cypress Hills region of Saskatchewan, where he had lived as a boy in an essay, The Question Mark and the Circle in his book Wolf Willow :

    My town used to be as bare as a picked bone, with no tree anywhere around it larger than a ten-foot willow or alder. Now it is a grove. My memory gropes uneasily, trying to establish itself among fifty-foot cottonwoods, lilac and honeysuckle hedges, and flower gardens. Searched for, plenty of familiarities are there…[but] I cannot find myself or my family or my companions in it.

    So if one cannot observe a place directly, one must rely on the observations of people who could. That means broadening the historical research for your book to include a search for accounts of the sense of place provided by people who lived there at the time the events you describe occurred. Journals, diaries, and letters often offer wonderful glimpses into the world that was. Local histories provide valuable insights. Newspapers can also help you grasp a place’s emotional tone. Rather than looking for a particular event or story, peruse the entire paper. The general tenor of what’s reported, the things noted on the editorial page, and in the letters to the editor, and even the advertising can help you get a sense of the aspirations, fears, and points of pride of the place. You can then select both language and physical details to suggest the tenor of the times.

    As Stegner found a visit to the place you’re writing about may not help you to observe it as it was. Instead the key to the past may lie in the local library, museum, historical society or genealogical society. If you are dealing with the somewhat more recent past interviews conducted by regional or university oral history projects can help you find a sense of place.

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