Writing About Somewhere : Getting Started

So you want to write about a place? A place that you know, you've been to, that you've stopped in or passed through? Great. Clearly the place means something to you, good, bad, ugly, beautiful: you care – but how do you get someone else to? You tell them about it, you write it.  But there's so much you could write about any place, so much you could say, isn't there? In this post, we're going to look at that, at how you can introduce a place. 

The two key concepts here are who tells and what details are told.   Perspective: Who's telling?   The place you want to write about is a place you've seen. You, literally you. Because all places exist, in a sense, only because someone has been to them. Yes, of course, they do exist without anyone having been there but the reader only knows what the writer saw. The writer, a person is the teller, the narrator, and he or she can choose to be visible or invisible.   Let's see how that works. 

First, take a look at this extract, from  “One Day I Will Write About This Place” by Binyavanga Wainaina, published in Granta: 

“I walk past the line of jacaranda trees that line government houses. I turn off the main road and follow the path, avoiding the path of Baba’s morning drive to work. There is a small faded house here, right at the corner, with a large rocky garden that stretches downhill to border State House.”   


It's pretty obvious who is seeing this place, isn’t it? It’s the “I”, the writer. He makes it absolutely clear when he says “I”.   There is another way. 

Take look at this extract, from “36 Hours in Zanzibar” by Rachel Boyle in the New York Times : 

“The name Zanzibar conjures up visions of sultans’ palaces, paradisiacal beaches and winding alleyways leading to spice-filled bazaars. Indeed, this coral archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 23 miles off the eastern coast of Tanzania, still has many of the features that it did when it was an important trading center and its historic Stone Town served as the capital of an Omani sultanate. Zanzibar’s largest island, Unguja, is home to most of the cultural attractions, many of them found in beguiling Stone Town, which was awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 2000”   


There is no “I” here, is there?  At the same time, while this writer is, in a sense, “invisible”, she's still there, in the piece: the details written about are those that strike her, the palaces, the alleyways, the bazaars, the fact that Zanzibar is an archipelago. The piece, in other words, introduces what the writer sees without ever  saying “I saw” “or “I walk”. But she’s there, it’s her perspective.   

So, there you go. Two writers writing about places, two positions (or “perspectives”):  a very present “I” and an “invisible”, hidden narrator.   

We'll try this out in a bit. First, let's look at what the writers choose to tell. Familiar or Exotic: What to tell?   Writers can’t tell everything, it would take forever!  So they pick out details that strike them, details that “make” the places in their eyes, and, by extension, in our, the readers', eyes.   Look at the first piece again. The writer talks about the jacaranda trees, the government houses, and the “small faded house … with a large rocky garden”. Everything he mentions is simple, ordinary, every day, details that he (and you or I) might notice. They are the “familiar”.   

In the second extract, things are quite different. It’s all quite unusual, wonderful, exotic even. There are “sultans’ palaces, paradisiacal beaches and winding alleyways leading to spice-filled bazaars”. Notice that the buildings aren't just houses, they are “sultans’ palaces”, the beaches aren't just sandy, they are “paradisiacal”, the paths aren't just roads, they are “winding alleyways”, the markets aren't just places to buy things, they are  “spice-filled bazaars”. Everything is, in other words, is unusual, extraordinary. And by mentioning and even exaggerating the unusual, the writer conjures up an image of a place as she sees it. Unlike in the first piece then, the place is seen and imagined through details that are “unusual”.   So, who tells and what do they tell?   

Let's summarise these ideas. When writing or introducing a place, you can write :   

1.) Using “I” and “familiar “details 

2.) Using “I' and “unusual” details 

3.) Using an “invisible” narrator and “familiar” details 

4.) Using an “invisible” narrator and “unusual” details   

Time to try it out. Choose the place you want to write about, your hometown, city or village, a place you have visited or remember.  Next, think about what you want to show the reader. The familiar or the unusual? Choose some details, not too many, two or three – and begin.   

Now let's write.

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