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Place: Writing What You Know

by Willy Doehring, River co-editor

The “Writer’s Workshop” blog posts are meant to be a collage of writer’s tips, tricks, and strategies, including the first steps to publishing, writing prompts, strategies for writer’s block, and a general jumble of ideas to help you in your quest to create and publish.


As writers— and really, as people— we are drawn to things that are new and different, exotic and interesting. This, it seems, is especially true when it comes to place in writing; we want to be introduced to a new place when we read, or to be given insight into a world which we are not a part of. This is often one of the main draws of fiction genres such as fantasy or science fiction, as they allow readers to explore worlds that don’t exist at all.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to read about or explore new places, but when it comes to writing about place this desire for the exotic can almost act as a trap (or at the very least, as a sort of distraction). Many writers (myself included) often imagine stories that take place far from wherever they live, in a place that seems much more interesting than their hometown. Besides, who wants to hear about where you live?

The secret is, people do want to hear about you live— not everyone lives where you live, and while it may seem boring to you it is likely incredibly interesting for an outside reader looking in. As someone who lives in Maine, I constantly forget that most people know nothing about Maine or what it’s like to live here (or, more specifically, to live where I live in Maine).

So, people want to read about it— why should you care? Why write about a place you know when you could write about some faraway land? The answer lies in the question: you know these places! And not just the details of the landscape or the buildings, but everything about the place; you know how the people there walk and talk and act, the things they structure their lives around, the things that only people who live in this place know. Place is linked to how it feels to be somewhere, and what experiences a place has to offer. As Dorothy Allison writes in her essay “Place” (included in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House):

“Place is often something that you don’t see because you’re so familiar with it that you devalue it or dismiss it or ignore it. But in fact it is the information your reader most wants to know.”

This isn’t to say that a writer from Farmington, Maine can’t write a story that takes place in New York City or Paris or wherever else, but the fact of the matter is that they probably don’t know those places in the way that they know Farmington, Maine. Of course, the places you know won’t just be limited to your hometown unless you’ve never traveled; in fact, traveling can serve as a fantastic way to research a place that you’re interested of writing about. But at the end of the day, there’s a reason why Stephen King sets most of his stories in Maine.

Of course, the whole point of these Writer’s Workshop columns is to try and help you improve as a writer. So next time you’re looking for a setting or place (or even inspiration for a story) see what you can find in the places you know— it might surprise you how interesting these places really are.

Until next time, happy writing!



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