Writers seem to grasp that every memoir needs well-developed characters and actions, but the same is often not true when they consider memoir setting.
Too many writers omit to tell us enough of the setting of their story to make their memoir feel solid and real. It is as if we are reading about spirits who do not inhabit a tangible world.
1. Setting places your characters in a context and makes them “real.”
The memoir setting is both where and when your story occurs.
- The where is the place in which the story occurs. It includes interiors and exteriors of buildings, the landscape, and the political demarcations (town, county, country, etc.). A story set in the prairie provinces of Canada will require different adaptations of its characters than one set in the bayous of Louisiana. A story set in the inner city of Detroit will call for different responses than a story set in the countryside of Ireland. Too often, writers fail to make us experience the physical context in which characters live.
- The when of your memoir includes the calendar time—July 9, 1977—as well as the history of the characters and of their community (family, group, nation, etc.).
2. Memoir setting, like character, is best established with sense details.
Always place your story in a recognizable setting. That is, use descriptive writing to show us where your story occurs! Let us see the double Cape, with its faded red paint and two dormers directly above the downstairs windows. Give us a view of the living room inside, to the left of the front entrance, where you were sitting in one of the stuffed wing-backed chairs. Let us notice you passing your finger over the worn arm rest as you come to a frayed upholstery cord and thoughtlessly pull it. Point out the full-leafed maples and oaks (not just generic trees) outside the clear window next to your chair and hear the car that is crunching stones in the driveway. Let us taste the pastries—cobblers and brownies and molasses cookies—that you are being served on large oval china that belonged to the grandmother of your hostess.
Without the sort of tangible physical setting provided in the paragraph above, your story remains an ethereal piece—inhabited by phantoms in a conceptual space. You story needs to have a sense of place that is very real. Descriptive writing full of sensory details will do that for your memoir setting.
Your character also inhabits intangible settings that are not physical. Writers must pay attention to these spiritual, historical, cultural, and economic settings in order to effectively convey full characters!
- What is your character’s cultural community: Yankee, Jewish, Lithuanian, African, or Chinese? Show us how the person interacts with this background.
- We need to know about the person’s economic status: is she the wife of an upper-income lawyer or a single woman who works as a secretary at a hardware store in a small town; is he the third son and sixth and last child of a mill worker and a store clerk or the only child of a heart surgeon father and corporate lawyer mother?
- The reader needs to know the education levels, religious affiliations, and spiritual affinities of the people you are writing about.
Without these details, your characters will otherwise remain stick figures without any contexts–or, to use another image, fish out of water. You can succeed at writing for a larger audience.
As you become more adept at writing, you will realize that adding these details is not necessarily a matter of adding lengthy descriptions and footnotes—although both of these may be used. Much of what you need to add can be done with phrases and single sentences
- … her voice maintaining the Italian cadences of her youth. [This person is not from the dominant culture.]
- My eyes scanned the worn linoleum rug in our livingroom as the visitor asked for a donation. [This person is poor and is probably in an embarrassing situation where she will have to say “no.”
- … scents of cooking wafting from both the upstairs and thee downstairs apartment. [This is not a suburban setting!]
As part of the memoir setting, we need to know the entire context that surrounds your character. These include: physical, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, economic, educational, professional, occupational, personal and public. These aspects of your characters must be presented—and explored—through descriptive writing.
The memoir setting is a very important aspect of your memoir. It can change your story from a parochial one that is of interest only to family and friends to a story that captivates the reader with its depth of psychology and its exploration of human nature becomes the voice of a generation and of a shared experience.