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?

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Breaking the Writing Rules

Everyone uses clichés to some extent when they speak. They stick in our brains and it’s easier to let them out rather than try to think up some other descriptive phrase. If you listen to AJ Jackson tell a story, it won’t be long before you notice her use of clichés – phrases like, “yelled to high heaven,” “turn them out like clockwork,” and “drive like a bat out of hell.”

In normal conversation, clichés are fine, and in writing dialogue it’s also acceptable if that’s how a particular character speaks. But in narrative, using a cliché to describe something is considered lazy writing. Coming up with an alternative to a cliché can take some thought, but doing so makes a piece of writing unique and more fulfilling to the reader. 

For This New Mountain, I broke the rules a bit in regards to clichés. But if I didn’t include these kinds of common phrases as part of the narrative voice, the memoir just wouldn’t have been true to AJ. It wouldn’t have sounded at all like she was the one telling her stories. In this case, the way she talks and her internal dialogue are unique to her, clichés and all.

Another choice I made in breaking writing rules had to do with sentence structure. We’re taught in school that run-on sentences and sentence fragments are bad, bad, very bad. Again, in dialogue it’s normal. I did away with the run-ons, but I included sentence fragments in the book to make it consistent with AJ’s way of speaking. Sentence fragments also work great when trying to make a point, build tension, or move through an action scene. In the following excerpt from the chapter “Gone in Six Seconds,” one of AJ’s helpers has just talked AJ into letting her “steal” a repo, and AJ is watching and waiting from her car parked outside the owner’s house:

Cherise nodded her head, closed her eyes for just a second, took a deep breath, and jumped out of the car. I started counting.

One thousand one. Cherise was at the end of the driveway. One thousand two. She was at the driver’s door. One thousand three. She put the key in the lock. One thousand four. She was in the pickup. One thousand five. Still in the truck. One thousand six. No engine turned over. Faster, Cherise! I glanced at the light in the window. Nothing seemed to be moving inside the house. One thousand seven. The engine was still silent. One thousand eight. Now I knew something was wrong for sure.

From an early age, we’re taught that breaking the rules is wrong and can lead to some unwelcome consequences – traffic laws are in place for good reasons. If the rules are broken too often in a piece of writing, it can be distracting to the reader, but when it’s done with intent, it adds flavor to the writing.

Do clichés drive you batty? Is there something you’re willing to overlook in a story because the rest of it is so engaging?

Beginnings: The Voice of a Memoir

When authors start out on their writing journey, they’re often told to find their Voice – that thing that makes their writing unique among thousands of other voices in print. “Finding” isn’t really the right word, though, as if they had it once and then lost it somehow.

Developing an authorial voice is more what a writer does. It’s a long process, and it takes reading the masters in many genres. It takes sitting down and writing for years, getting comfortable with the true sound of words and cadence, experimenting with complexity of language, playing with the rules. When she “finds” this voice – this style – it flows naturally in a story and is found throughout an author’s body of work.  

Narrative voice is something else found in fiction – the voice of the point of view character or narrator that carries the reader through the story. The voice of the author and narrator are tied together. (For a more detailed discussion of authorial and narrative voice, go to this article by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake). 

To make This New Mountain as genuine as possible for the reader, I put aside my own developed voice and my own style in favor of writing the memoir in AJ Jackson’s voice. Doing so wasn’t as difficult as I first thought it would be. I listened to hours of AJ’s recorded stories (often more than once), had lengthy phone calls with her several times a month, and met with her on a regular basis. While stringing words into sentences and sentences into chapters, I heard AJ clearly speaking to me in my head. My goal as I wrote was for the reader to also hear her – as if she was sitting across the table, sharing a pot of coffee while telling her adventures in her own straightforward, unpolished style.

I hope friends and family will recognize the person they love in the pages of This New Mountain. And I hope readers who are new to Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson will quickly learn to love this country-wise woman with her unique voice.

You will find a bit of me in there, too – my own voice woven into the fabric of description throughout the book. I couldn’t help seeping in. After all these years, AJ is a part of me the way the lives of all true friends become entwined.

Of the authors you enjoy reading, and keep going back to, is it their style of writing, their storylines, or their characters you like the most?