Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Setting

“All description is an opinion about the world.” ~ Anne Enright

conceptSetting is integral to any story. Applying the methods to your memoir that a fiction writer uses to create memorable settings will strengthen the writing and draw the reader into your story.

However, creating a sense of place doesn’t mean heaping on details about scenery, clothing, or period decorations. As readers, we’ve all endured paragraph-on-paragraph or page after page of endless description, even from our favorite authors. And what was the usual result? We skimmed these passages or flipped through pages looking for the place the actual story picked up again.

Besides causing the reader’s eyes to glaze over, the main problem with detail dumping is that it creates a detachment from the point of view character (or the subject of the memoir). If a reader is engaged in the story, he can become disconnected when he encounters a high level of detail, because at that point the character isn’t the one speaking from the pages, it’s the author. Even if the surroundings are not essential to what’s happening in the rest of the scene, you still want the setting to be expressed through the eyes of your character – and no character will normally notice pages worth of detail about wall hangings (unless she’s a seamstress).

This naturally leads to the question, “How much detail is enough and how much is too much?” And the answer is…it depends. If more description is needed to understand or present the story, use more. If less is needed, then less. In other words, whatever it takes to serve the story – and knowing when to do either one often takes time and experience. But instead of dwelling on “how much,” determine why this particular place is important to the character and how she feels about it. The answers to these questions will steer the writing and help to unveil the character’s life and world.

In the article “The How of Where,” David Rocklin discusses the difference between writing a setting that holds no meaning to you and one that bears witness:

Find a room…[that] holds nothing of your past life. You don’t know its contours, or how it looks on a cloudy morning. You can literally find one and occupy it, or find a picture and imagine yourself into it. Describe it. Tell the readers what we see. What we could touch, if only we were really there.

Now, describe the same room a second time. This time, give the room a story. This is where someone died. That chair was where a husband sat as his wife told him that she was leaving him. Out that window, a single mother watched a moving van pull up after losing the house to foreclosure.

What just happened? The room’s physical description changed, didn’t it? That’s not merely a bed. That’s not simply a street outside. The walls and their peeled paint have something akin to a voice. This setting isn’t just an edifice or a space anymore. It bears witness.

In many ways, writing fiction is much easier than writing memoir. In fiction, if you can imagine a place, you can create it, but a memoirist is expected to work with what she, or the memoir’s subject, has been handed in life. Even so, that doesn’t mean you’re limited only to what you remember.

Tracy Seeley writes in “Creating Memoir That’s Bigger than Me, Me, Me” that “even a little historical research can take you beyond the limits of your own memory” and “looking up events that coalesce around a certain date can elevate your story into something beyond the moment of a limited self.” Seeley has more to say about how research adds depth to your story:

The location of events matters. For every place has a multi-layered history and unique character. Everything from its geological formation to its climate, history and local stories has contributed to that character and even to who you are….

Digging into the history of a place can also help ground your story in more than your own past. For example, who lived in your house before you did? Was your subdivision once a dairy farm? A munitions dump? A town on the Pony Express line? What stories can you unearth about people who used to live in your town? Before it was even a town, who was there and what happened? And what does all of this suggest to you about the meaning of the place, and your story in it?

In writing the settings in your memoir, make your story immediate and real by using just enough sensory detail so we smell the hint of rain in the air, see the storm clouds rushing in, hear the crack of thunder, feel the wind and the lashing rain – and more than that. Why is this storm important to you? Did it bear witness to something in your life? What else might have happened in that same place and under similar circumstances in history? Let us experience your story through your eyes.

What are some of the settings you remember most vividly from your favorite novels or memoirs?


5 thoughts on “Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Setting

  1. Pingback: Write a Memoir like a Novel Using Ten Fiction Techniques | Cate Macabe

  2. And here I thought I was being a little dishonest by doing some research about places I had been and events going on around me. Yes, I remembered what I was doing but I felt I needed things, landmarks, events that were more interesting. Thank you for this post. (and so many others) They have been of great help to me.


    • Your welcome, JT. I see research as a way to fill-out the story. And it could help you (and your reader) understand what was going on in the background of life that might have contributed to the whole — or, like you said, make it more interesting.


      • I feel bad sometimes because I get comments like “I can’t believe the detail you can remember from so long ago.” hmmmm. But without it, the story is pretty bland. At my age I’m lucky to remember my own name. :)


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