Our Writerly Roundup series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
In this month’s Writerly Roundup, we explore creative ways authors have immersed themselves into their characters’ worlds. From Google Maps to historical cookbooks, we examine innovative ways to explore characters’ outer environments and inner lives.
Please enjoy and share. If you have a current piece of writing you would like us to feature in our next Writerly Roundup, please send it our way to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craft Capsule: On Google Maps, Poets and Writers, Julia Sanches
Author and translator Julia Sanches shares the joys and challenges of being a translator during the pandemic. Despite the glamour that some attribute to her profession, Sanches often writes of distant places from her Providence home. Sanches, who translates works in Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan has found a useful tool in visualizing the often unfamiliar places she writes about:
Working on these translations hasn’t exactly given me wings, as the cliché goes, though it has forced me to navigate the geographical makeup of real places I’d never laid eyes on before, whose streets I’d never felt beneath my feet.
She describes turning to Google Maps when trying to envision the setting for a current project, set in the Canary Islands. A click of the mouse and she is dropped into the characters’ world:
When I struggled to visualize this place at the center of the narrator’s world, I turned to Google Maps, dragging the little canary-yellow Street View icon onto one of the veiny white roads and going for a wander. Suddenly the plants and flowers that are peppered throughout the book and give it such a strong sense of place came to life—the verode bushes, the bright-yellow sourgrass, the cactuses and their prickly pears, the pine trees whose light-brown needles blanket the sides of the road
Google Maps can serve as a source of inspiration, retracing a character’s journey, exploring their hometown or revisiting your own.
House as Home, Writing the Places that Raised Us, Brevity, Beth Kephart
In her essay for Brevity, Beth Kephart examines the meaning of home, and how we write about it. She explores the beliefs around homes and what they say about where we came from and who we are now:
We have been shaped by the houses and the land of our past. We remember, through them, what we have gained and what we have lost, what we were offered and what we were denied, what we have decided about transience, permanence, and most things in between. As memoir writers we must ultimately wrestle with our beliefs about home. We need to answer questions: Is home an act of creation? Is home where we know and are known? Is home where we find ease? Is home where we tell the truth or keep our secrets? Is home what we must finally leave?
Kephart urges the memoir writer to explore other aspects of way our houses looked and are remembered including colors and proportions. Further, she urges the memoirist to explore not only the visual memories of home but also the sounds of home:
But story lives equally within the province of sound—the way the roof whistled when the wind blew, the inherent creak of the fifth stair, the front-door squeal, the hush-swirl of the water draining from the tub. “My aunt’s bedroom was large, industrial, and cold…,” Mary Gordon writes in “My Grandmother’s House.” And then she gives that house a new dimension: “Each footfall, even your own, sounded ominous in your ears.”
These craft tools can work for any writer looking to create a vivid setting. Kephart describes our past homes as “theaters in the round” in which “we learned proportion and relationship, color and shine, function and dysfunction, echo,”
The Joys and Challenges of Writing About Food, Writer’s Digest, Annabel Abbs
In her essay for Writer’s Digest, Annabel Abbs describes her process when writing her recent novel Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen: A Novel of Cookery and Friendship, a work of historical fiction based on the first modern cookery writer, Eliza Acton. Abbs herself researched historical ingredients to recreate some of Acton’s dishes, consulting food historians tracking down ingredients and cooking the dishes herself.
Cooking and eating were such an important part of Eliza Acton’s world that I began to think of her ingredients almost as characters. I scoured her two cookery books, cooking from them regularly, but also writing lists of the ingredients she used.
Abbs also immersed herself in eating the dishes Eliza cooked and exploring how her characters might have tasted or enjoyed the dish. She also wondered how the tastes and serving practices might be different for the contemporary person enjoying the same dish. Abbs worked to “build a vocabulary of tastes” with a goal of immersing her reader in the lives and kitchens of her characters:
I wanted to write a novel that made readers feel so hungry they would be impelled to pause frequently—in order to visit the fridge. So as well as cooking and eating Eliza’s dishes, I had to build a vocabulary to describe them in as evocative and mouth-watering a way as possible.
Exploring the foods your characters eat or their food likes and dislikes is another tool for getting into your character’s head. What foods do you recall eating as a child? How did you experience mealtime? What unusual foods do your speculative fiction characters eat? A good place to start may be diving into this delectable-sounding novel!
City, home, kitchen, country–these are the places, the streets, sounds and flavors that inform who we are. Immerse yourself in these places and senses in the way your character might. You may find yourself thinking about them in a new way.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!