Writing from a Strong Sense of Place

A town house, well over 150 years old

I live in an area that’s been long-settled, with a long mist of history trailing behind each building. As you drive down the roads and thoroughfares, you can almost see the ghosts: the tall masted schooners by captain’s homes, the workers trudging to the lumber mills, the passengers waiting at the old railway station on Main Street.

The buildings remain, leaving stories in their wake. Living and writing in an area of long established structures and abodes of historical significance—as in Maine—has its upsides and its downsides. One of the upsides is that there is an endless source of stories: from the historical buildings and their surroundings, from the stories of the people who built the houses or lived in them through the years or the people who still own them as a long-held family house.
The old railway station on Main Street
This strong-sense of place can lead to setting-centric writing; this is my natural tendency anyway—part of my search for what feels like home. Although I’m a relative newcomer to Maine (“only” 14 years, take my word for it, I’m viewed as “from away”)—I often find myself writing as though Maine is truly my home; that I belong here; or that I long to belong.

This small cottage engulfed in overgrown woods,
hugging the rocky coast of the bay, is the setting for
one of my WIPs
As I write, I tend to describe in great detail what a house looks like as well as the feelings it evokes in the person who lives in the house, in a supporting character visiting the house, or in the casual eyes of a passerby. In some things I’ve written, the house even becomes the main character.

In tomorrow’s blog I’ll explore the strong sense of place derived from a natural setting when I look at how the coast of Maine inspires my writing.

Do you write in an historic place that is distinct in its own voice? Does it affect how you write or what you write about? Is your writing driven by setting? Or is it character driven? Plot driven? Action driven? Or some combination?


Cheers,
Julia

Comments

  1. Good blog, Julia. Place is a powerful force in creating character don’t you think? I love books that submerge you in a place and deep understanding of it.

  2. Oh, Julia… Just in the few words you wrote, you transported me to that setting (and I can’t WAIT to read your fiction for that very reason). I love setting-as-character and am employing that technique (hopefully) in my current WIP. My novels are character driven, but setting plays such an integral role. I “get” how connected you are to the physical space around you (like you in Maine, being an outsider after 14 years, I feel the same way in Arizona. I’ve been here 13 years, am ‘not’ considered a local, but feel like I, too, am meant to be here.) I am so, so inspired by the area in which I live. How can I not let that enthusiasm seep into my writing?

  3. Liz says:

    Ooooh, what about ghost stories?!?! I refuse to watch scary movies or live in an old house because I’m sure there are ghosts that also live there, but I LOVE hearing historic ghost tales from old towns.

  4. Nisha says:

    Nice read, Julia.
    Oh, I always say, every place or building has a story to tell. Sometimes even smaller things have something to tell. Like a photoframe or a candle?
    What do you say?

  5. I love stories with a strong sense of place, because I love when I feel like I’m being transported to new places I’ve never been before as I read. We might not all have the chance to travel around the world, but with a strong setting in a book, at least we can feel like we visited for a short period of time.

    Place is so important in my writing, too. I didn’t realize how important until I moved away from Miami, where my novel is set. Surprisingly, the distance actually made me feel closer to my hometown as I wrote about it. So I guess sometimes it’s good to step away, both literally and figuratively!

  6. I just wrote a reported essay that is both place and character driven. However, I have to admit that describing place is a struggle for me. I really have to train myself to focus on what’s around me.

    I’m excited to read tomorrow’s post about Maine and your writing!

  7. Katherine, Thanks for the comment and the visit to my blog! I love books that are deep in place as well!

    Melissa, I’m soooo surprised about you feeling like an outsider in Arizona! I always think of the southwest as being somewhere that anyone can just slip in and be accepted! I know from reading your blog how inspired you are from your surroundings, too…. one of the things we share in common!

    Liz, Yes, ghost stories too. Maybe some day I’ll write about the ghost of Mr. Michel who I swear lives in our house :)
    If old houses creep you out, you would hate my neighborhood — the youngest houses are built in 1950! Let me see if I can wrangle up a ghost story for a future blog!

    Nisha, I agree that all items can have a story to tell; one of my daughter’s friends used to name all our new appliances — I don’t go that far, but I agree that stories are in many objects! p.s. our stove’s name is officially Flora

  8. Jen, Oh how frustrating it is to use blogger so I can’t reply directly to your comment! :) I agree that writing about place can be very challenging. I said I do it, but I’m not sure I’m always very good at it! Only time will tell, I suppose!

  9. Natalia, (ditto on my comment to Jen…so frustrating that I can’t reply directly to your comment with blogger, sorry about that!) I agree that it’s great to read books to transport us to places we’ve never been; in fact I’m reading a book right now that takes place in Maine and it’s very weird to be familiar with a lot of mentioned places! I also know exactly what you mean about places we’ve lived in the past–I feel much more able to describe Colorado where I used to live but also form a closer connection! Great comment!

  10. Love your post, Julia. Even as a child, my favorite books were all about “place”–Little House on the Prairie, The Boxcar Children, Anne of Green Gables….That love of place has carried into adulthood and into my own writing as well. My family and I lived in an old slave quarters from the time I was six until eight. This slave quarters plays a crucial role in my novel, as does the tobacco plantation surrounding it.

    I have always loved everything about Maine, and I will be sure to buy your book whenever it comes out! :)

  11. Jolina, Thank you so much! You named some of my very favorite children’s books too! Absolutely loved Anne of Green Gables and Little House–I wanted to be IN those stories so much! I am fascinated by your story about the old slave quarters; can’t wait to read it! I am always fascinated to travel to and read about new places. p.s. I am happy to know I have someone in line to read my book — I better finish up so I don’t disappoint any customers! :)

  12. Ann says:

    Your two most recent posts remind me of Anne Rivers Siddons. Wikipedia states that she is a novelist who writes stories set in the Southern United States…she describes a very strong sense of place, as you did.

    Your blog is lovely…and I could almost taste the salt air! I’m from the deep south, so the idea of wearing a jacket of any kind in May sends shivers up my spine! As do clams (seafood allergy).

    I’ll be subscribing and looking forward to your next post! Thanks for a good read…

  13. Erika says:

    Oh, it’s such fun to see places I know so well–and yet, even if I didn’t know where they were taken, your post would have certainly put me in the setting regardless.

    I often wonder if the tail wags the dog or vice versa when it comes to what inspires my novels–place or character–unquestionanly, my characters are driven by their place so it would seem that I chose them because of setting, to represent places I know and cherish. I have yet to write about a place I haven’t known, even briefly, and wondered if I could be authentic enough otherwise, and yet, I’m drawn to writing about places I don’t know anything about. Hmmm…

  14. Deborah says:

    Visiting here, having followed your message to SheWrites – and you’ve hooked me already!

    I love books with s Spirit of Place, and always try to create it in my novels. I blog about where I live in Provence, France, and it’s also the setting for my new book.

  15. Ann, Thank you so much for the visit to my blog — feel free to come back anytime! You gave me a few absolutely huge compliments in your first comment here, and I thank you wholeheartedly. I cannot hope to hold a candle to Ms. River Siddons! As for the sounds and scents of Maine–that I can do. Thank you for making my day!

    Erika, I love having you read my blog, and I must admit that I do at times pick photos wondering if you’ll especially enjoy them! I so agree about what comes first — I sometimes see something that I absolutely must write about, such a strong feeling! Then other times it springs from a character! (p.s. tune in all week, it’s Maine week!)

  16. Great post, Julia! As a child I was always drawn to books about place — Little House on the Prairie, The Boxcar Children, Anne of Green Gables — and I have carried that love into my adulthood and into my own writing.

    My family lived in an old slave quarters from the time I was six until eight, and it plays a crucial role in my novel, as well as the tobacco plantation surrounding it.

    I have always loved anything to do with Maine, and I will be sure to purchase your book whenever it comes out!

  17. Deborah, Welcome to my blog! So glad you visited and left a comment, too! I don’t know if Maine can hold a candle to Provence, but I am very very glad you have chosen to follow my blog! (I had a chance to visit yours very briefly and I will be back soon–the lavender was AMAZING!!) So glad you dropped by!

  18. Chris Fries says:

    Great post, Julia!

    From what I recall, a certain Mr. King seemed to do just fine having many Maine-centric stories. So you can rock it, too!

    “Go for what you know, and just let it flow!”

    Besides, peoples is peoples — no matter the place. Strong characterization is what drives a good story, IMO, and that’s what allows use to connect with a multitude of settings, from the room next door to galazies far, far away.

  19. What a nice read, Julia! Can’t wait to read more tomorrow. I’m not a fiction writer, but I find that being able to write with certainty about my locations makes my writing more accessible and easier to relate to. Never thought about that before, so thanks for inspiring the insight!

  20. Julia, I agree with those who have said they like to be transported to a place they’ve never been. Place as character can do that. And Maine is ripe with character. Would also love a ghost story blog if you can squeeze one out for us. Lovely photos!

  21. Julia, this especially resonated with me: “The buildings remain, leaving stories in their wake.” I’m somewhat obsessed with my grandparents’ hometown in the Czech Republic – their house is still there, well tended, and even though the family hasn’t lived there in 65 years, I have a need to go back again and again.

  22. aanna says:

    I’ve spent the past week working on setting, millieu, and settings as character. It’s been fascinating to dive into this aspect of my manuscript, deepening the history and adding layers to the story. I have to admit, it is one of my favorites parts of writing and reading. Can’t wait to hear more from you about this.

  23. Leah says:

    So what’s the downside? You write as if Maine and the places are characters. I feel as if I know your state and I’ve never set foot there. It just feels beautiful and peaceful. I would love to write there too. Maybe I should move to Maine?!

  24. Chris, Mr. King….yes, definitely we’re in the same league… :) You are so right about people being people, nonetheless all areas have their quirkiness

    Billie, Thanks for the compliment and the visit to my blog! I hope you find today’s post interesting as well. I will definitely check out your blog–although I’m finding the flipside of the blogathon is I don’t have as much time to READ :)

    Cynthia, I’ll see about that ghost story…I’ve got a couple but do I want to dwell on them (especially the one involving MY house?), I’m not so sure :)

    Annette, Thanks so much for the visit to my blog and for the comment! I’m so glad the blog resonated with you–I can definitely see how you would want to visit your grandparents’ home again and again (I feel that same way about a house of my grandmother’s in Ohio).

    aanna, Thanks for dropping by and commenting! I love hearing about how other writers work on their manuscripts and their views on setting. Interestingly, that’s one of my favorite parts of the process! Thanks for the comment!

    Leah, There are many a downside, don’t worry! If you do ever think of moving to or visiting or if you’re just plain curious, I will be happy to give you a “behind the scenes.” Plus, it’ll come up in future blogs, no question. One of my first neighbors in Maine once said to me: “People move here thinking it’s Disneyland. It may look like Disneyland, but it ain’t.” :)

  25. BIKE LADY says:

    I love Maine and love reading about it, so if you can capture a sense of place and it includes Maine, then I’m there. Love it. I think I do tend to focus on place, though, more than some of the other senses. I have a really hard time with smell–unless I sense a really strong odor. Then I can capture that. But the subtle ones, I have a hard time with.

  26. Place is completely relevant to all of my posts, I think. Sometimes it’s the place I’m writing in or about, but running alongside that is the place I come from and the places I’ve been. They all somehow shape how I’m seeing and thinking about where I am and my impression of what is happening there.

    I really liked your comment about being able to see the ghosts of those who’ve been there before. I think our memories or knowledge of the people and events that occurred in a place before we encounter it – whether on tour, living there or growing up there – “walk with us” in effect to further shape our understanding of the place and therefore ourselves.

  27. Bike Lady, Thanks for the comment and for the visit to my blog! I know exactly what you mean about description of smells, me too! Especially the subtle ones! Me too! I was trying to describe one of those car air fresheners (in a mystery story, as a clue) and I really had trouble! p.s. I will do my best at describing Maine!

    Joan, That ghost business is so haunting :) (sorry couldn’t resist…)
    Seriously, I completely agree about the memories in place….I feel it everyday when I walk through my old house and think about the people who lived here before me. Very very interesting sensations! Thanks so much for the comment and the visit to my post!