Guest Writer Midge Raymond on Writing About Place: Tips for You

Midge Raymond

Today I'm starting a new chapter in the life of The Alchemist's Kitchen (the blog, not the book) by introducing Midge Raymond, author of Forgetting English as my very first guest blogger. I love Midge's work where the borders of poetry and fiction seem to break down. Her stories are intensely lyrical and always take me traveling to other countries, other worlds. What could be better? Midge's book, Forgetting English has just been released this week from press 53. Press 53 is a small independent publisher that produces high quality books of poetry, fiction, and memoir.

Writing about place can be a tricky thing. There’s always the temptation—for me, anyhow—to let the exotic take precedent over the story. When I wrote the stories in Forgetting English, I worked hard to find that perfect balance: to let the setting—whether it was Antarctica or Africa—bring the story into sharp relief, to let the place enhance the story rather than overpower it.

Of course, this is probably why the collection took more than five years to put together.

Yet I didn’t start out with a collection in mind when I began writing these stories; I simply wrote them, and only later did I begin to see how they were coming together. During the years in which I wrote these stories, I wrote many others as well, stories for which place didn’t play as central a role. While setting is always important, I found that with these travel stories, the places in the book became almost like secondary characters, with traits of their own: Antarctica with its icy loneliness; Africa’s Serengeti with its lurking dangers under a veneer of breathtaking beauty.

Yet even as place becomes more central, I’ve learned that we mustn’t neglect the story. So I wanted to share a few tips I’ve learned along the way about how we can best write about place.

-       Stories are about emotional journeys even more than literal ones—and readers need to connect to both. Place will serve as a backdrop in your writing, a very important one, but you don’t want to neglect the characters within the place. For example, in “The Ecstatic Cry,” which is about a biologist living in Antarctica, I created a character that is at home at the ends of the earth (literally)—and this required not only researching about life in Antarctica but a lot of exploration as to what sort of person would feel at home there and choose to live there above anyplace else.

-       Always do your research, and don’t skimp on details. These details are what bring a place, and a story, to life. I remember a reader telling me how one of the tiniest details in “Translation Memory” stuck with her—the fact that one of the Japanese toys in the story is called a Gloomy Bear. I used that detail in part because my research revealed that it was one of the most popular toys in Japan at the time—and yet, as readers of the story often notice, it resonates thematically as well.

-       Don’t let setting take over completely. I often had to pull back on my descriptions, reminding myself that not every single minute detail was necessary to get across a sense of place. Rather than use lengthy paragraphs to describe a place, sprinkle your descriptions throughout a piece, giving readers a sense of the setting through a character’s lens rather than offering long passages of description. In this short paragraph, for example, my intention was to show a little bit about what it’s like to live on a remote island in the South Pacific through one of the story’s characters who has made her home there:

I look around, as if for clues that would make [my sister] less of a stranger. But her house is empty, except for the animals and her few spindly pieces of furniture. She’s always lived sparely because she likes to be mobile. She doesn’t believe in getting good at one thing and taking herself to the top; she sees jobs and homes as projects, as things she’ll finish and then move on. Here, she has no job anymore; she lives off her garden of vegetables and off occasional tasks she can do for money or supplies. And this dim, stuffy little house has been home for twice the time she usually spends in any one place.

-       Offer the unexpected. One writing exercise I use frequently in workshops is this: Think of the most beautiful place imaginable, then write about something tragic happening there—or, conversely: Conjure one of the most horrific places you can think of and write about something lovely happening there. I set the story “The Road to Hana” in Hawaii specifically because it’s a place for lovers and honeymooners—and yet it’s about a couple struggling with issues in their marriage. Always try to play with perceptions, to turn them around and upside down.

And finally, always remember that you needn’t go far to write about place. I always enjoy traveling new places because it takes me out of my normal routine, my usual way of seeing things. But I’ve also found that all it takes is a little focus to do the very same in the café down the street. Good stories, and interesting settings, are everywhere—we just have to open our eyes to them.

To find out more about Midge or to get more ideas on writing prompts, writing advice, and the writing life you can visit her blog - a great resource.