Published in The Ready Writer's E-Zine, by Vicki McCollum, 2009
We love to read stories by writers who stir our memories, stoke our passions, and draw us into their fictional world. We go gladly because we sense truth in their writing—we trust them because we see ourselves in their characters’ struggles, our values upheld in their themes, and sense that we may discover something more about ourselves in their writing. A writer’s sense of place comes from our past—our childhood, family, and faith, as well as from the location that rooted us. Our sense of place shapes setting, people, and themes that recur in our writing. One of my favorite teachers of descriptive writing, Rebecca McClanahan, writes, “Memory is an act of meaningmaking. It collects the disparate pieces of our lives and distills them. . . . We store up sights, smells, textures and sounds of our lives, and draw upon those experiences as we writer. This doesn’t mean merely transcribing the raw material of past experience, but transforming that raw material into a new shape.”
I interviewed two Christian writers about how the sense of place affects their writing: Sandra van den Bogerd, inspirational fiction, and Elece Hollis, moderator of FCW poetry critique group.
Sandra says place is evoked in the recurring themes in her novels. “Things are not always what they seem, and sometimes you just need to trust God and others, despite the way things look. . . . I think a large component for Christian fiction writers’ sense of place is formed by our faith and values and relationships as seen through God’s filters.”
Sandra lives in Canada. Her love for the outdoors can be seen in her lifestyle and her writing. Last August, she vacationed with her husband in Canada’s north woods. She packed her manuscript, Escape to Terror (along with other necessities for surviving three weeks in the woods in a tent: thick, warm socks and sleeping bags, boxes of chocolate, and gallons of bug spray for those bruising black flies) to revise for consideration by Steeple Hill. Escape to Terror is a romantic suspense about characters stranded in the middle of the Northern Ontario wilderness.
Describing her sense of place, she writes: “I like to use setting to convey my characters’ emotions more fully and to evoke a comparable emotion in the reader. For example, in Escape to Terror, the heroine feels abandoned by God. Lost in the woods, she reflects on this: ‘She’d been like one of these gangly pines trying to survive in a forest of trees, desperately reaching skyward for a glimpse of sunlight while her hope, like their lower branches, withered in the darkness. If God had given her a reason to believe He cared, maybe she wouldn’t have given up reaching for Him all those years ago.”
Elece Hollis’s love for the Lord and His creation are frequent subjects of her poetry. Life in rural, eastern Oklahoma where Elece lives and home schools her children is reflected in her writing. Elece says, “My writing tends to be about nature, specifically about the prairie. Whether I am writing fiction, poetry, devotionals, or science articles for home-school journals, I fill them with things I know and love: the grasses and wildflowers; the wind, water and the heat; the seasonal changes, and the birds and creatures. Our writing should be flavored by and colored with our places."
Elece’s poem, “Of a Summer Morning,” reflects the sights and sounds of the Oklahoma prairie:
Out in the field where the meadowlark goes / Red Paintbrushes stand on the tips of their toes / Butterflies—yellow ones, white, orange, and black / Weave melodies over the grasses and back / Out in the pasture where cows gentle graze / White egrets stalk silently through summer days / Grasshoppers balance—on hot grasses sway / To the melodies blackbirds and barbed wire play.
While God created each of us as unique individuals, we were all made in His image. We may believe that we have nothing new to contribute. But our experiences shape our perspectives, producing in each of us a writer’s sense of place. Take time to think about the people, places, and events in your life and allow them to influence your writing.
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Sandra Orchard, (winner, Daphne DuMaurier Award of Excellence in Mystery/Suspense, and Colorado Romance Writers Heart of the Rockies contest, 2009) has two titles under consideration for publication, Shades of Gray and Escape to Terror. She is writing her third novel, Murder by Marigolds. Sandra’s website: http://www.sandraorchard.com/
Elece Hollis is published in Humor for a Boomer's Heart, Howard Publishers, 2008; Follow Your Dreams, Graduates, Thomas Nelson, 2007; Blessed Among Women, Thomas Nelson, 2007; A Celebration of Family, Barbour ; and What’s Good About Home! A column for moms by email subscription: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reprint from December 2009, Just Fiction Column, Ready Writer’s Newsletter