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Creative Nonfiction: Writing about Place

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By Dave Hood

Why write about place or include setting in a piece of creative nonfiction writing? There are several reasons:  Setting or place creates a backdrop for your true story. It can also create a mood or atmosphere for the story. Sometimes, place can be an antagonist for the story. It provides context—-telling the reader where the story takes place.

As well, one of the most important techniques for  creative writing is to write in scenes. A scene in creative nonfiction is like a scene from a film. The scene includes vivid descriptions, dialogue, action, and a setting. The setting identifies the place where the scene and true story takes place.

Place is also part of our genetic  code. Most people seek the comfort and familiarity of a safe place.

And yet, according to Brenda Miller and Susanne Paola, who are the authors of the marvelous text ‘ Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction’, those who write writer creative nonfiction often overlook writing about the place where the story takes place.

In this article, I’ll explain what types of places you can write about and how to write about them.

Ask the Right Questions

So, let’s get started. How do you begin to write about place? You begin by to asking a few important questions, and then you answering them. Here are the questions you can writea about:

  • What does the place represent?
  • What is the symbolism of the place?
  • What is the significance for you?
  • What are the physical characteristics of the place? What does it look like? Describe the place?
  • What memories are evoked by a particular place?
  • How do you feel about the place? Do you like it? Why or why not?

You can begin by look around you. Describe the interior and exterior of the place that is your home, your neighborhood, your town, or city.  In other words, write about the physical attributes or characteristics of the place. What are the associations? For instance, the house where I am smells disgusting like an ash tray filled with cigarettes…Or I live in a house that’s like a prison where my spouse gives orders as if she’s the warden. My elderly mother sits in her chair sadly reminiscing about the past like a person grieving the death of a loved one.

Showing Readers the Place

When writing about place, you must show the reader. What does this mean? Showing the reader requires you to write vivid descriptions, use sensory imagery, deploy memorable similes and metaphors  to describe a particular place. It is not about telling the reader about the place, which is nothing more than a summary of the facts as you see them.

So, you show readers a place by  including concrete and specific details. You can also include vivid descriptions that are of significance . You don’t have to include all the details or descriptions–only those that have significance to yourself and your readers.  To write descriptions of place, you can also use sensory imagery, language that appeal to the sense of smell, taste, sight, touch, and hearing.

Writing with similes and metaphor will also create an entertaining description of place. For instance, the house looked like the city dump…. the shadows of the skyscrapers ….

Places to Write About

What places can you write about? There are several.

Home

Write about Home, the place called home. What is home to you? What are your memories of home? Life as a child growing up. Your life now. What did you celebrate? What holidays you took? What milestones or turning points were experienced in a particular place? Describe the physical characteristics, the mental associations, significance, meaning, and your feelings  about place.

City Life or Rural Life

Write about city life. What do you like about living in the city? What do you dislike? Describe using simile, metaphor, vivid descriptions.

Write about rural life, such as a small town. What do you like about living in a small town? What do you dislike? Describe using simile, metaphor, vivid descriptions. Include the significant physical attributes of the place.

Nature

Write about nature, such as the wild life, woods, rivers, mountains, birds, animals,fish, insects, other mammals of the habitat. Describe the physical characteristics, the mental associations, significance, meaning, and your feelings  about place. Observe nature, react to it, write about it. Does it transform you in any way? Write using personification to make the nonhuman personal, recognizable, understandable.

Place of Work

Write about the place where you work. Describe its physical characteristics. Describe it in terms of sensory imagery, simile, metaphor, and particular and significant details. What are your feelings about the workplace? What do you like or dislike about your workplace? What does it represent? A paycheque, your purpose in life, your meaning to live. Or is the place of work just a means to an end, the end being leisure time or the time to follow your bliss.

Travel

Write about travel, such as a trip, quest, pilgrimage, or journey. What places have you travelled to?  Describe the physical characteristics, the mental associations, significance, meaning, and your feelings  about place. Don’t  write as though you are creating a travel brochure, transcribing your trip. This is cliché. Include specific details and the significance to you. According to Tell IT Slant, “Successful travel writing mediates between two poles: the individual physical things it describes, on the other hand, the larger theme “about” on the other. That is the particular and the universal.”

The Environment

Write about the environment, which is a popular topic–air and water pollution, global warming, overpopulation, desertification, destruction of the natural habitat. How does the environment in which you live impact your mind, body, soul? Write about the issues or topics making news. Write about green peace . Write about the role of an environmentalist. Write about the how the government protects a particular place, such as the forest, sea, historic place. Write about how industrialization continues to erode place.

Witness to the World

You are a human being, living in a particular place within the larger global village. Look out to the world, beyond the world in which you live. What do you see, hear, smell, taste about the world? What is making news in the world related to place? Write about it. What are the topics on the minds of the collective consciousness related to place? Write about them. How has the place called the global village been changed or transformed? Write about technology and its impact on place–the smart phone, Internet, tablet, and so forth.

Other Things to Consider

You can also write about place in terms of its culture, language, cuisine, people, customs and traditions, religion, superstitions, norms, rituals, taboos, moral values, and the history of place.

To conclude, there are many places to write about. When you write about place, show the reader with vivid descriptions, physical details, imagery, simile, metaphors. Also include your own perspective of place–your thoughts feelings, likes and dislikes. Always ask important questions about a particular place: What is the meaning of place? What is the significance? What does the place represent to you? Share your answers with the reader. And remember: we all seek places of meaning, comfort, familiarity. But many of us are also curious–and want to explore the world beyond. 

Resources

  • Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
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