A Sense of Place

I’m currently reading Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, by Robert A. Caro, the multi-Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Robert Moses, who changed the urban landscape of New York with his massive bridges and freeways, and Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Jack Kennedy as US President after JFK was assassinated.

In his book, Caro says that a sense of place is critical in the writing of biography and history–as important as it is in fiction, but sadly often overlooked in life story writing. By creating a sense of place, a biographer can help the reader to visualise the physical setting in which a protagonist’s story is unfolding or in which the action is occurring. It can help the reader see the action, in sufficient detail so that they feel as if they are present in the scene where the action is occurring. In this way the action becomes vivid and more real to the reader, deepening the point the author is trying to make about the action or its significance.  

Caro believes that if the place is important enough in the protagonist’s life—if the place played a significant role in shaping the protagonist’s feelings, drives, motivations, self confidence and insecurities, then by making the place real to the reader the author will have deepened the reader’s understanding of the protagonist. The reader will not just understand the protagonist but will empathise with them and feel with them as they live their life.

I encourage you to read Robert Caro’s book (https://www.penguin.com.au/books/working-9781847926050) as it gives important tips on interviewing to create a sense of place. He says that when interviewing you should ask the following questions of the interviewee:

  • What did you see?
  • What was he/she doing?
  • What was he/she saying? What did they mean by it?
  • What would I see?
  • What was it like to be doing x, y, z?
  • What was it like to be sitting/standing there?

You can either ask these questions yourself or a qualified memoir writer from Life Stories Australia can do it for you. If you would prefer to have someone write your story for you, please feel welcome to contact a Life Stories Member in your State.

Gabriella Kelly-Davies
Vice President, Life Stories Australia
Founder, Share your life story

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