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From Real Life to the Written Page: Using Where You’ve Lived

The old adage “write what you know” definitely has value, especially when you use places you’ve experienced.

Lived in a dry climate? You know the feel of grit blown into your eye and the scent of freshly rain-dampened dirt. If it’s a cold dry climate, you may have experienced snow sublimating—going from the ground to the air without melting.

Lived in a humid climate? You’re probably familiar with stepping outside in summer feeling like entering a hot steamy bathroom.  And maybe the smell of mildew.

Take a moment and write about your climate. Those details can be used for the setting of your story. 

Use All Your Senses  
Don’t just stick with the sense of touch and smell. Note down what you hear. In my current locale, I love the Pacific tree frogs croaking in the spring. We’re close to a fire station, so often hear sirens. In Kansas, I did not enjoy the noisy cicadas. But I did like the thunder from frequent summer storms. We also lived near a launching point for hot air balloons and when outside could hear the whoosh of the burner when a balloon was close enough. As a child I heard crickets chirping at night and by day remember the faint click of a grasshopper leaping through dry grass in the nearby field. Don’t forget bird sounds or nearby animals. Mourning doves’ wistful cries, calves bawling, and clucking chickens take me on a mental trip back to the country. The growl of the garbage truck is an urgent reminder of, “Did we put the trash out?”

There’s still taste and temperature you could and should note down. And the easiest, what you see. Evergreen or deciduous trees? One is good for climbing the other is not. Neither is a cactus. What you take for granted in your neighborhood could be unusual in someone else’s. I once wrote a story based in eastern Washington where it is dry. However, because I referenced sage brush, the editor assumed Arizona. Many in rainy Seattle joke about that bright yellow circle in the sky, “What is it?!” My daughter had people in the midwest look at her strangely when she referenced a cloudy day as “a nice gray day.”

Using sensory details from a specific place you live, or have lived, and putting it on the page, gives your characters a real place to exist. You won’t need as many of these details for a short story versus a novel, but they still will be necessary if your character goes outside.

Take It Inside
Let’s move inside your house or apartment. Everyone has a basic picture of “house” or “apartment,” but what sets yours apart from the neighbor’s? And what is different about your character’s home? You won’t share everything, but a few unique details can give a hint of your fictional people’s lives. In the movie The Blind Side, one scene almost makes me cry. Michael says, “It’s nice. I never had one before.” Leigh Ann asks, “What, a room to yourself?” He answers, “A bed.” Does it rip your heart out too?

Think back to your childhood home. Would any of what you took for granted as a child make for an interesting setting for a character? My house had wood heat only. Someone was always running down to the basement to stoke the furnace. On cold winter mornings, I dressed under the covers. My husband lived in a house of hoarders. His bedroom was used for storage of so many things that there was hardly room for him and his possessions. I remember a friend’s home as dark, except for the kitchen. The windows were small and covered with roll-up blinds that weren’t ever rolled up. Each of these homes says something about the occupants.

Use Your Personal Culture
Some people assume Americans all have the same culture—if you’ve ever met someone “not from here,” wherever you live, you know how untrue that is. Words can have different meanings. What’s available in one part of the country is not available in another. We eat different foods. For example, a friend of my daughter’s stayed for dinner one night. While we were eating, she said, “I didn’t think I liked stew.” While it was a staple in our house, she had never had it at her house. And, take my oldest grandson. He’s a vegetarian and wouldn’t eat my beef stew at all.  We have different practices—even in the same country. I remember a friend’s young child freaking out about going outside without his mom. We lived in a safe neighborhood—they lived in a New York City apartment where he was never allowed outside unattended. Once a neighbor child asking me if we had any “kosher juice.” At the time I didn’t even know what that meant. Think about what makes your household unique and use some of those details for different characters.

Put Your Details to Work
Now that you have a selection of facts for your setting, how do you use them in your story? I like working them into the action—it’s much easier on the reader than blocks of description. Say my character Samantha is sneaking out of the house. I might write:

The stair creaked under her foot and Samantha froze. Had he heard? She checked the gap under the bedroom door. No light had come on. Good. Samantha waited a moment until her husband’s snore rasped the air again, then moved on down the wooden stairway.

I could continue with her tripping over the dog, who whines, and her struggle getting the swollen front door unstuck. I don’t remember sneaking out of my house, but I’ve experienced the others.

Even with dialogue you can naturally work in some description. Let’s look at a first person example this time:

I wiped the sweat off of my forehead with the back of one arm.“I wish this heat spell would break.” I poked another hole in the thin soil of the garden. An ant crawled across the toe of my ragged sneaker. “How many more seeds we got to plant?” I asked. Jimmy shrugged and stuck a seed in the newest hole.

Perhaps this character will get his wish of cooling off with a rain storm.

Whether you’ve lived in the city, the suburbs, or the country, you’ve got material from real life to use in your story settings.


SM Ford writes fiction and nonfiction. When she was thirteen, Sue got hooked on Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense books. Sue has been an eclectic reader as long as she can remember. She loves assisting other writers on their journeys and is a writing teacher, speaker, mentor, and blogger about writing.

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