A Tourist in a Familiar Place: Making Our Settings Distinct

Cathy and I live in a suburban subdivision that was supposed to have Trick or Treat last Thursday, but, because it was cold and rainy, our homeowners’ association took matters into its own hands, and we decided to postpone Trick or Treat until Saturday. So yesterday evening in sunshine and much warmer temperatures we sat in our driveway prepared to hand out candy. Across the street at our neighbors, I noticed their oldest daughter dressed in khaki pants and a polo shirt with a wide-brimmed straw hat on her head. She was wearing white sneakers, a fanny pack around her waist, and a camera around her neck. Cathy guessed she was in costume as a tourist, which indeed turned out to be the case when we went across the street to ask her. She and her fiancé were going to a costume party later, and they were both going to be tourists.

“I hope you enjoy your visit to our fair city,” I told her.

“I’ll be sure to post lots of pictures,” she said.

This makes me think about the fact that sometimes we can be so accustomed to our surroundings that when we write about them we neglect to dramatize what makes them unique. I seem to recall reading something John Irving said about the pats of butter at a cafe in Paris being the things that brought his native New Hampshire into sharp focus for him. Indeed, sometimes we have to get a bit of distance from our native lands in order to see them more clearly and to be able to make them come alive for our readers.

“I like to spread myself out,” Irving said. “I like to describe people and rooms and plot. I don’t like to write novels about gray people floating through the mall and you can only decipher who they are through the brand of their tennis shoes. I don’t care to write that sort of thing.”

Neither should we. The generic becomes the inconsequential and the invisible. It becomes easy for a reader to dismiss a setting lacking in distinct detail. We have to take the time to see our worlds clearly. Rather than rushing a plot onto the page, we have to let it build from the landscape and the particulars of the setting, the particulars that matter to the characters who live among them.

Take the barber shop of my youth, for instance. It had a row of fold-down wooden seats that looked like they’d once been in a theater or auditorium of some sort, smoking stands at the ready, Police Gazette magazines and Archie comic books to read, a large ceiling fan to move the air in hot weather, a squeaky screen door, a pop cooler, the smell of Butch Creme, and Wildroot hair tonic, the sound of a straight razor being honed on a strop, the dust of Pinaud Clubman Talc. The barber was also a woodworker and sometimes the scent of pine would drift in from the back where he did that sort of work. Or the grocery store with the oiled wooden floors and the narrow aisles and the meat counter at the back where Spec Atkins would gladly slice you off as much bologna or Braunschweiger as you’d like or sell you a shotgun if that happened to be your preference.

I could go on and on about the particular details, many of them unexpected—the barber who was also made fine furniture, the grocer who sold guns—of my small Midwestern town, but you get the point. We have to know our worlds, but sometimes as writers we have to forget we know them. We have to be those tourists dramatizing the details as if experienced for the first time. We have to be eager to be surprised by what we encounter.


  1. Nita Leland on November 2, 2020 at 9:30 am

    Thanks for this post. I am grateful that one of my early readers, who liked my memoir draft, told me that sometimes I wasn’t “there.” I learned to see myself in the story before I started to write. It was so exciting to have visual and physical sensations while writing. There was always too much, but editing helped with that.

    • Lee Martin on November 3, 2020 at 12:21 pm

      Nita, I love how you say you learned to see yourself in the story before you began to write. I agree that daydreaming our settings can be a big help.

  2. Dave Cook on November 3, 2020 at 9:15 am

    Lee, that was the most awesome barber shop I have ever experienced and I was never physically there.

    • Lee Martin on November 3, 2020 at 12:20 pm

      Hey, Dave. Glad you liked that description of the barber shop. I absolutely want you to feel like you’re there even if it’s impossible for you to be there physically. Plus, a barber who also made furniture? How cool is that?

  3. Carter on November 13, 2020 at 12:19 pm

    I wonder if the details of settings in our past were richer in specific details that the modern ones? Things seem somehow homogenized now. Like malls. One could be in any town.

    • Lee Martin on November 13, 2020 at 1:18 pm

      I do think you’re right about things seeming to be homogenized right now, but I think showing unique settings is a matter of being close to our point of view characters who will notice distinct details if we let them. Thanks for the comment, Carter.

    • Lee Martin on November 30, 2020 at 7:24 am

      Yes, good point, Carter!

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