Writing Places

Places have always riveted me. As a young girl, I would ride with my Dad in the car on our frequent trips from San Antonio to Taylor, a small town north of Austin, to celebrate Christmas Eve with family. I would read the mile marker signs and call out the names of towns we passed through.

I took my first trip out of the country (if we’re not counting childhood road trips to border towns in Mexico) when I was 20. It was a study abroad trip in Costa Rica, a country I explored for six weeks one summer. I traveled with a group of students, and we all met for the first time at the Houston airport. The company that arranged our travel had assigned us host families, and two of us stayed with each family. My roommate, the woman who shared a wing of the house I stayed in, had a bit more international travel under her belt. She taught me the difference between travelers and tourists, and turned me on to the Lonely Planet series of guidebooks.

Since that first trip abroad, I’ve made it a priority to make room in the varying budgets I’ve had over the years for travel. It almost doesn’t even feel like an option to me, though I know it is.

Perhaps because of my love of travel, I have always loved reading books in which the setting comes alive and almost becomes a character itself. Fiction, memoir, personal essays that drop me into a place—there are few things I enjoy more as a reader.

Mary Karr’s East Texas. Sandra Cisneros’ Chicago. Cormac McCarthy’s West Texas. Annie Proulx’s Wyoming. Faulkner’s South. Linklater movies. My favorite magazines are local: Austin Monthly, Edible Austin, Texas Monthly.

Curling up with a book, magazine, or even a bit of online writing that zeroes in on one place and gives me a sense of the people, smells, food, textures, and landscape of that place is so rewarding.

Readers have described my own writing as atmospheric and evocative of place as well. Over the years, I think my writing has been influenced by how I travel. When I travel, I find out who’s actually interested in receiving updates (usually my parents and a couple of close friends) and send email travel logs. I think I write these more for me than my friends and family, as a record of where I’ve been, who I’ve met, what I’ve eaten, and the feel of a place.

I’m a travel question magnet: Where should I buy chocolate in Belgium? Are pickpockets really a threat in Barcelona? Where can I find the best tacos in Austin? (Answer to that last question: It’s worth a drive—the best tacos are actually in San Antonio.) Sometimes these questions lead to the realization that I haven’t kept great notes, and I have to cull through old bank and credit card statements, or old emails: What was the name of that hotel with the record players available to check out and enjoy in your room in Astoria, Oregon? Where did we have those amazing fish tacos in San Diego? Those sessions of going back through old records to find names of places, then using Google Images to verify, “Yep, that’s the place. I remember.” almost feel like re-taking the trip.

That feeling re-taking the trip or re-experiencing the moment or dropping the reader right into a setting is exactly what I strive to do in my writing.

How do you do it? How do you portray the creaky floorboards of your favorite college coffee shop, that velvet couch you always hoped would be available when you got there for a study session?

I think the answer is, as with most other writing questions: practice. So, who’s in? Let’s write the hell out of some setting prompts this week.

Here are a few, if you’d like to join me:

  • Did you ever have to create a fire escape plan of your home for a school project? I remember drawing the floorplan of my home, like I was an architect, and then adding arrows to indicate escape routes. Even if you didn’t do this as a child, do it now. Draw the floorplan of your childhood home (and maybe skip the escape routes since you don’t need them now). Then, write about that floorplan: What rocked about it? Maybe your bedroom was near the kitchen, which meant you could smell coffee and pancakes on weekend mornings. What didn’t work so well? Maybe the bathroom was a little too close to the living room which left you feeling a lack of privacy. Describe that floorplan, and that home for your reader. Take us there for a birthday party, for a family holiday, or for a routine Wednesday morning.
  • Describe one of the most iconic spots in your hometown. It could be a tower with great views of the city, a famous park, or a centuries-old church or tavern. Give us the details of that place. Even make up a story if you wish. What kind of action has that place seen over the years?
  • And lastly, for fun: Think of your favorite vacation destination, the one you would keep to yourself, if you could. Now, use some sarcasm, dig into some irony. Write a brochure (or website) description of that place—only instead of writing with the intent of selling the place to others, your objective is to keep everyone far, far away. Describe all the most objectionable things about this place.
photo of a window with the west Texas skyline in the background and a writing desk in the foreground
West Texas: One of Jen’s favorite places

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