Take Your Readers Somewhere...The Importance of Place
Written by
Kendra Bonnett
May 2012
Written by
Kendra Bonnett
May 2012

Kendra Bonnett is a partner at
 Women's Memoirs. This is her final day as guest editor on She Writes.

Yesterday I wrote about sensory detail and the five senses. Today I want to leave you with a few thoughts about Place and it's importance in our writing.

"Geography is about maps, but biography is about chaps."

It's a line from one of English novelist and humorist Edmund Clerihew Bentley's own
 clerihews...four-line poems with a biographical theme. 

While on the surface, Mr. Bentley's distinction is neat and tidy and makes for a simple rhyme, as a writer I have to say, "Not so fast."


Use Place for Detail

We're all from somewhere, and for all of our technology, media and travel, we all bear the tell-tale signs of home. It's in our speech patterns, shoe styles, clothes, colors, food tastes, sports preferences, word choices, even the flowers, fruits and vegetables we grow.

Where we live makes a difference between whether we're worried about keeping warm or staying cool. And for some, it's the difference between having a wood stove or a swamp cooler, wearing dark colors or light, huddling around blazing scraps of wood in an old metal drum or luxuriating in the comfort of central air.

With the speed of modern travel, in a matter of hours, I can go from a place where I speak like almost everyone I know, to standing out in a crowd as the one with an accent, to being unable to understand a word being said.

From the smallest town to the most remote village to the biggest cities in the world, locals everywhere have idioms, inside jokes, and references that outsiders don't understand.

"Have you ever been to The Game?

"No, but I've been to The City."

The Game is a reference to the Harvard-Yale football game. Although because I grew up in Connecticut, my friends and I have always gone to the Yale-Harvard game. The City, with it's initial caps, is a reference to San Francisco. New Yorkers never use capital letters. No, they're just The Big Apple.

Did you know that in the Northeast you can "barbecue" just about anything as long as it's on the grill? But you can pinpoint a southerner's home within several hundred miles just by the ingredients in his/her barbecue sauce. Mustard vs. tomato vs. vinegar vs. peppers vs. molasses...they may not be fighting words. But can anyone say, "Cook off?"

English actress Denise Van Outen claims, "In LA, I live on sushi or salad," which brings up the whole food thing. In New York, Washington and Miami it's about steak and cigar bars. New Yorkers have a bagel and schmear with their coffee. Downeast Maine is known for lobster and low-bush blueberries. New Englanders grow more Macintosh apples more than any other variety. Florida and California have their citrus crops; Georgia and Texas grow the most pecans. And Oregon is home to the hazelnut.

Clothes may make the man (or woman). They also tell a lot about where a person is from, where she went to school, where he lives now and in what country they're traveling. Forget boxers or briefs. It's about Church and Johnston & Murphy vs. Bean boots and Topsiders vs. flip flops and huaraches; Italian suits vs. Brooks Brothers sport coats vs. boardshorts; and black vs. pastel vs. bold color.

Place is important in our stories. It gives context. It sets the stage. It defines and gives focus.


Put a Perspective on Place

While attending graduate school at UC Santa Barbara, I took Professor Roderick Nash's environmental history class. I remember one of our assignments was to write about the environment...how we saw it...the impact it made on us. The papers ranged from essays about the forest, the beach, Big Sur and the Colorado River to the city, the farm and the woods in back of one student's childhood home.

I decided to change my perspective and write about a tidal pool. Not the rocky beach or the pounding waves. Not sailors and waterskiers. Not the fish I could catch for dinner or the sunburn I was sure to get. I put on my diving mask and stuck my head into a pool of salt water only three feet deep.

The pool formed in a depression worn away in the granite base rock that runs along much of the Connecticut coast. I watched a hermit crab search for a new home in an empty snail shell. A horseshoe crab no larger than my thumbnail moved slowly across a few grains of sand. Tiny minnows darted about and sometimes touched the water's surface, sending out tiny waves in concentric rings. Along the sides of the pool, where starfish and mussels clung fast, the rays of the sun shone on bright green seaweed. Near the surface, in a clump of rust-brown rockweed, also known as bladderwrack for the tiny air bladders that keep it afloat, hid a small striped bass. No doubt it was trapped, forced to remain a prisoner of the tidal pool until the tide came in.


Place is One of Five Essential Elements of Writing

Adding Place gives your writing greater dimension. It can help you dress your characters, establish their dialects and word choices. Place will give you ideas for planting gardens, setting the table, sending children to school and even controlling the weather. Your readers will forget that you were sitting at a desk with a pencil and paper or computer screen for composition. It will take your readers--and you--somewhere.

This week I've written about character, emotions, dialogue, the five senses and time and place. ("Writing Alchemy and the Element of Time" is posted on Women's Memoirs.) These are what Matilda Butler and I call the Five Essential Elements of Writing. Using each effectively in your stories and memoirs is the subject of our new book,
Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep.

It's been a pleasure to share these thoughts with you here on She Writes.


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  • Kendra Bonnett

    Thanks, Nissi. Yes place is important...for establishing a context for your story, and so much more.

  • Nissi Mutale

    Great great post! I am a fanatic of place in writing. I believe it tells so much about the character so subtly.

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Joanne, I think your points are all well taken. It's up to the reader to make a story, any story, accessible to the reader. Personally, I find it a pleasure when a writer lets me into his or her world. That takes detail artfully used and skillfully woven in. It's not enough to name Time and Place in the opening paragraph. You put it exactly right: "I know well that when place is well rendered, there are no boundaries." Thanks, Joanne.

  • I am from Antigua in the Caribbean, and place is very important in my writing - in terms of context and character, mood, atmosphere etc.... of course one of the challenges is making the world of my story relatable to people who have no direct contact with it (and, given that my stories are largely set in the Caribbean, that would be quite a few). I lean heavily on detail, drawing deeply on the five senses in helping readers to interact with that world, the characters and how they interact with the world plays a great part as well.  I also have to remember to contextualize language and/or references that may leave the reader a bit lost. I actually had a conversation with a local reader today who, while being quite excited about my new book wondered how readers outside of our context were responding to it. Fingers crossed that Oh Gad! - my most international publication to date - connects across geographic boundaries. As I said during a presentation at the Assocation of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars conference in Suriname (which I've been blogging about here at shewrites.com) "...what I’m doing, I hope, is not taking my writing to the wider world but allowing the wider world to come inside my Antigua and squat for a while."

    As a Caribbean reader who grew up mostly reading books from outside, and mostly from the US and UK, I know well that when place is well rendered, there are no boundaries.

    Thanks for an interesting lesson...which I intend to share/link to on my blog if you don't mind.

  • Kendra Bonnett

    In the interest in keeping this post short (by my usual standards) I omitted any thoughts on Time--the companion of Place. I'm working on another post about Time and will provide a link to that later today.