Grounding Your Writing in a Place

“I think setting is, curiously, almost always underrated by the beginner or the amateur, and almost always of intense importance to the accomplished writer.  Why is that?  We only have space and time. I suppose that time happens of its own accord in a story: this happened and then that happened.  Whereas place must be achieved in words, it’s part of sleight-of-hand, finding the images and atmosphere to transport the reader to that far away.”

–Janet Burroway, as interviewed by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Make a list of ten-twenty places you no longer have access to (the crawl space under your grandmother’s front porch, your dorm room at the University of Colorado, your sixth floor walk-up New York apartment the summer you were 19).

Choose one and describe it in as much vivid detail as possible.

Repeat with another place on your list. And then do it again.


  1. Andrea Jones says

    The Barn of My Childhood

    Its age is apparent by the rocks piled together to form the foundation and the rough hewn, once red, siding that lets sunshine sneak inside. It is classically barn-shaped, almost a cliché, and it is immense in size. As I admire an unknown neighbor’s once domesticated, now fat and wild, rabbit seeking refuge under the foundation, my eyes are caught by the enchanting barn doors. First, two large, swinging doors on each end that provide an entry and drive-thru exit for a tractor hauling a ton of hay. Inside that door is a smaller door custom sized for cows and horses. Finally, a still smaller door to accommodate the humans. Everyone is welcome in the barn and access is guaranteed.

    As I step inside, the tack room is directly in front of me. The white paint on the screened part of the door is almost rubbed off and the hook that keeps it shut has been left open. Through the screen, I can see the shadows of several cats lounging on my saddle blankets and eyeing me remorsefully. They know they are getting the boot. I herd the cats into the main barn, latching the tack room door behind me. The afternoon sun squeezing through the old shingles and siding has created straight beams of dust motes that pin the lazy cats happily to the warm floor in penance for their breaking and entering of the tack room.

    The floor is made of 12 inch wide and 3 inch thick slabs of wood that have surely been here at least a hundred years, if not longer. The first open area houses my dad’s table saw, the requisite pile of sawdust, and many small scraps of wood left over from the last project. Residue of a carpenter. At the far end of this area is an old stall filled with bikes, motorcycles, various tools and old furniture. When I turn right after the table saw, I step down into the hay-lined sanctuary of the barn. Grass and Alfalfa hay half fill this room, stacked almost to the ceiling where our rafter fort resides. Our fort is only accessible by a rope ladder which is a difficult climb, but it ensures that you won’t have any unwanted visitors once you pull the ladder inside. When the barn is finally filled with hay, the ladder is moot. All one has to do is climb to the top of the stack, watch your head for bats, and step inside the fort. It’s okay though, because it is the farm kid’s prerogative to rearrange the bales and create an imperceptible, hollowed-out, interior hay fort whose secrecy defies discovery.

    I’m not here today to visit the fort, but to feed the baby calves on the other side of the barn. I walk across the hay strewn floor until I reach the far stall. The little Hereford with his white, curly forehead and chocolate body is leaning as far as possible through the small beams. He knows what the plastic bottle in my hand is and his baby-sized moos summon the other two calves that had previously not been paying attention. Three babies, three bottles, and two hands. Hmm? This explains the wire bottle racks looped over the beam. Now if I can get the hungry, hungry Herefords to back off long enough to slide the bottles in the racks. Sometimes they get so excited they get hold of the nipple and yank it off the bottle baptizing their curly heads with all the milk. Not today though. Everyone is settled in and the church-like quiet of the barn now echoes with slurping noises in stereo.

    With the babies eating, it is time to let Girley in. She is our large, Guernsey milk cow and she is waiting, right on schedule, outside yet another door specifically designed for her access. She lumbers up the step, into the stall, and pushes her head through the stanchion where I have hay, and a few scoops of grain waiting for her. I pull the stanchion closed, locking her in and get ready to milk. Girley will usually give us about two gallons of milk. Subtract the cup or two that you simply couldn’t resist squirting at the cats all lined up in a row and there was usually a little less. There was even less, as in none, if Girley got squirrely and stuck a foot in the bucket. This only happened when the cats were particularly diligent in their prayers.

    If I finish milking before Girley finishes eating, I will sit and let the smell of the hay, the filtering sun, and the animal noises wash over me. This is actually the most important part of any barn; the way it makes you feel. The calm, quiet, reverence that only a cathedral filled with hay, built with love, and soaked in time can provide. Is it any wonder that a major aspect of our spirituality includes a baby that was born in a barn, laid in a manger and watched over by the resident animals? Anyone that has belonged to a barn knows the peace of this hallowed building.

    • Debbie O says

      Andrea – I just posted and I am laughing out loud because I wrote about a barn as well. Just supports your point of how “anyone that has belonged to a barn knows the peace of this hallowed building” Amen.

    • Ilana says

      Thank you, Andrea. At the risk of repeating myself, it is so strange to find myself on the outside and yet feel so included. I can smell the hey. I can feel the reassuring noises washing over me. This is really beautiful.

    • Debbie O says

      I am back for my second, slower reading of all the posts. I am once again struck by your detailed descriptions! You can really “see” it all through your eyes.

  2. Rebecca Hudson says

    Before I start the actual topic, I want to say that the only place I still have access to is the crawl space, I’m so tiny and I’d like to take advantage of my size for good purposes. First, I did live in a two-bed room apartment with my mother and grandmother until we moved into a house; I no longer have access to that. The apartment we lived in wasn’t so great, but it was a place for shelter. The apartment was somewhat similar to the ghetto, loud people, playing loud music and cars slowing coming in and out of the parking lot with loud music along with the bass. My ears would bleed with the terrible music and the floor with make my feet vibrate because of the bass. People smoking marijuana, luckily, we didn’t have neighbors who smoked. At the age of eight, we moved into a house across the street because we created a bigger family. Second, I no longer have access to is the physiatrist hospital, but I don’t want to go into detail with that one since it’s personal. There were dorms in the hospital, so I basically did live in a dorm with a roommate but not directly on a college campus. Third, another place I no have access to is kiddie rides at the amusement park, I still consider myself a kid at heart, and I’d still like to get on the kiddie rides, but the attendants won’t let people get on the kiddie rides depending on their height. Fourth, I no longer have access to the inside of the dryer, my sister and I once played hide and seek, I hid in the dryer and it took her about thirty minutes to find me. Fifth, I no longer have access to my elementary school, I remember I use to get teary eyed on the first day of school; it’s always scary on the first day, Being scared of bullies and paranoid about getting a mean teacher. I no longer have access to middle school, those years were a bit harder, more and meaner bullies, and switching classes. Sixth, teachers can change a life and are heroes; I wish I had access to my favorite teachers in the past school years. Seventh, I no longer have access to Florida, Panama City Beach, we use to go every summer, but we haven’t been in five years since my grandmother passed away. Eighth, I no longer have access to my very first best friend’s house. We use to hang out all the time up until we were about ten years old. We use to have sleep overs, playing with bratz and games, doing each other’s hair and make-up. Ninth, I no longer have access to friendships, there aren’t that many people who are true friends, who would actually be there to care and never leave your side. I only stick around a few and the rest are there to just be there, I can hang around a lot of people or just a small group, but I won’t talk much if I’m not close to them and or if I don’t trust them. Tenth, I no longer have access to trust, I’ve had trust issues for a while. It’s hard to trust people, you tell them something personal or a secret then they go and spread it around. There are a lot of places that a lot of people no longer have access to, only in their minds, in their memories that they should cherish forever.

    • Debbie O says

      Rebecca, one of your lines stayed with me all day “Tenth, I no longer have access to trust.” Somehow as we grow older too often Trust seems to be a casualty of experience. Thank you for sharing this different perspective on places we can no longer go.

  3. Ilana says

    The date is January 5, 2012 the time is a little after 7:00pm. My eight year old daughter should be in bed but I haven’t done her reading homework with her yet. I’m the mom. I’ve got to make everything fit; get everything done, so I negotiated. She promised to read with me, without complaints, if she can first use my lap top to practice typing. I agreed. She is sitting on my bed with my computer in her lap while I hide in the adjoining bathroom soaking my hand and changing the bandages. A week and a half ago I sliced off the sides of two finger tips while cutting vegetables for my family’s dinner. I close the door to protect her from any uncontrolled whimpers or choice words I may utter as I go through the painful and complicated routine. I sink my hand into the burning mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water. Then I close my eyes and shut out the pain by sinking my mind into the memory of a time when I didn’t have so many responsibilities. A time when my own dinner was all I had to worry about, when I didn’t have to run a household or make sure that homework got done. Slowly, the memory envelopes me and the stinging in my hand moves to the periphery of my experience.
    The date is December 31, 1998 the time is 11:30pm. We’re sitting in my new boyfriend’s apartment; just the two of us girls. The guys went outside so her boyfriend could smoke and mine could keep him company. I’m enjoying this calm, relaxed feeling. I’m enjoying getting to know his friends. I look around and try to soak up everything around me. I want to remember this moment forever.
    It’s clearly a guy’s apartment and a cheap one at that. He’s a college student and his home is just what you’d expect. A soft blue glow comes from the tangle of Christmas lights that sits in the middle of the table. It is organized in some way, my boyfriend has proudly told me, by an elderly man who was trying to make him a Chanukah decoration by twisting blue Christmas lights in a series of plastic cups. The man’s generosity seems to shine through those lights onto me. This soft blue light is accented by several neon beer signs that are hung around the living room. These, plus the flickering television set, are the only sources of light. We have switched off the halogen lamp and the overhead florescent in the kitchen in favor of this soft, gentle glow.
    I am sitting in an easy chair whose age is hidden under a blanket, strategically placed to hide the warn upholstery. In front of me and to my right are the white makeshift shelves stuffed with text books, folders, notebooks and clip boards. Pens, pencils and highlighters peak out from the small nooks of unoccupied space. Across the top shelf his bicycle rests upside down on an old towel with a picture of Mickey Mouse. In front of me the television set sits on an old end table. We can see the people getting ready for the ball drop but we’re not listening to what they’re saying.
    Allison is sitting on the futon to my left. Its bright green cover, that matches nothing, screams “college apartment- guy zone” and I love it. I’ve spent the last three New Year’s Eves in hospital waiting rooms watching my cousin slowly die, telling myself that I was there for her. It didn’t matter what I wanted. Now it matters what I want. Now it’s all about fun and celebration. Each of us has a drink in our hands and a poster of Daffy Duck watches over us from the wall above her head.
    I love the feeling in the air. I love the organized chaos. I love the lower budget décor. Zander’s a saver, just like me. There’s no point in spending money on that kind of thing now. I’m in graduate school, he’s planning on a post graduate degree as well. One day we’ll have real bills to pay. There’s something different about this guy. I can feel it. It is my future he is saving for. Outside, unbeknownst to me, Allison’s boyfriend drags on his cigarette and says to Zander, “That girl in there, you’re going to marry her one day.” And his friend is thrilled rather than scared by the prediction.
    I pull myself out of the reverie and my hand from the pink hospital basin. Its solution has somehow turned into daggers that stab relentlessly at my injured fingers. Sighing, I go through the rest of the complicated ordeal of bandaging my hand. I put everything away and come out to find my daughter still engrossed in her typing. I take one more second to glance up at the poster of Daffy Duck that I have hung on the wall as a gift to my husband. He’d carried it around with him, from apartment to apartment all these years. Now it hangs next to our closet in our beautiful house. We are adults now; working hard to pay the bills, make the lunches, do the dishes, help with the homework and all the other hundreds of things that need to be done in order to raise three healthy children. But Daffy is there reminding us of what we once were. He watched us fall in love. Now I look at those huge white eyes and remember how I felt, how I still feel about the wonderful man I gave my life to all those years ago.

    • Ilana says

      Needed to lighten the load this week. Remembering the apartment my husband lived in when we first met was exactly what I needed. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • Debbie O says

      l really enjoyed the writing – I could see and feel the apartment you described. Love that you still have Daffy Duck!

      • Ilana says

        Thanks, Debbie. Would you believe I begged him to let me throw that poster out every time we moved? I never let him hang it until the one day when I finally did. He sure was surprised!

    • Andrea says

      I’m jealous as I read your story this morning. We don’t have a Daffy Duck but we have lovely framed Navy memorabilia from my husband’s time in the navy. I remember my apartment when we met, when I was in college. I wish I had your confidence in my husband’s and my relationship. We are in limbo and I would like to return to that apartment and start over.

      • Ilana says

        Andrea, I wish you strength. Limbo is my least favorite place to be. My certainty in mine and my husband’s relationship comes from years of being tested. He and I have walked through some pretty ugly places together and sometimes didn’t know if we were going to make it out alive. Somehow we seemed to manage it one more time. I pray that the limbo we are in now will end the same way.

    • Debbie O says

      Ilana – just coming back by to savor your writing again. I didn’t comment the first time but I hope your fingers will be okay! Not only did I enjoy the description of the apartment but my fingers hurt all day!

      • Ilana says

        Oh my gosh, Debbie. “savor my writing”? what a gift that you chose those words. Thank you! I only wish that your fingers hurting could have spared me some of the pain. LOL! Too bad it doesn’t work that way. Thanks for the laugh, though. 😉

  4. Debbie O says

    I remember the day we first met; the feel of the rough wood under my fingers weathered to a fine silver gray, the musty smells of disuse that infiltrated your senses as soon as you pushed open the squeaky old door. It was the barn on the old farm property my father had purchased out east from town. It sat away from the house, down three terraces full of fruit trees, grape vines and a garden patch respectively.

    It was the first building to catch my eye as we arrived in our “city” car to the old farm; being reintroduced to the bucolic lifestyle of our earlier life. For which, I realized years later, my father continued to miss and mourn. The barn was square topped with a peaked roof over a hay loft. As was the custom of that era, there was a wide center aisle with stalls along one side and feed and tack rooms opposite. At either end of the center of the barn entrance were swinging double doors set on massive hinges grown rusty with age. These doors could be swung completely open and secured back against the outside wall of the barn to allow passage of tractors, small trucks or a teenage girl mounted bareback on her quarter horse mare. Ah, but I get ahead of myself.

    Even the dirt in the barn was old. As you stepped into the filtered light of the interior, even the lightest of steps stirred up small swirls of dust into the air. These fine particles created the most amazing shafts of light when partnered with the sunlight sneaking in through the cracks of the walls. Unless both sets of swinging doors were thrown open wide, it always felt dark inside. The old barn was built in the days before it was assumed electricity should be everywhere. It was birthed in a time when daily lives were ordered around the more natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset.

    It was an old structure, but to a teenager – it feel truly ancient. That first day I had not yet fully realized the extent of work, and my sweat, it would take to make this space ready for the promised horse and required feed. I was struck by the stillness and quiet interrupted only by soft rustling of mice in the corners surprised by my presence. There was a sense of peace contained within its musty walls. A commodity in short supply everywhere else in my life. Even today, that smell of old dirt and neglected wood combined with a warm southern sun is more comforting that a thousand minutes of meditation.

    It would be come my place of refuge and reclamation. Refuge from the deteriorating dysfunction of my alcoholic family. Reclamation of my evaporating sense of childhood as I tended to my horse or mounted her back for an impromptu ride through the terraced pastures or over the dusty, red dirt roads. I came to love the dim light, the nooks and crannies where I could sit, undetected for hours, my only companions the spiders that endlessly spun delicate webs in the overhead rafters. It was in the embrace of these old, solid walls that I began to understand that solitude equaled peace and aloneness provided safe harbor from the emotional pain.

    • Andrea says

      Debbie, You know I chuckled as I saw your post. Another member from the Sisterhood of the Barn. I love how so many of the things we wrote about were the same. I can easily imagine being in your barn.

    • Ilana says

      Beautiful, as always, Debbie. I found it interesting that although I am not a member of the “sisterhood of the barn” (love the phrasing) I could still connect with how much it meant to you. Your last paragraph really spoke to me; aloneness providing a safe harbor and sitting undetected for hours. Thank you for your touching words.

  5. Bobbie Anne says

    I’m glad I no longer have access to this place. Its a musty old attic that I shared with my sister while in junior high and high school that was a makeshift bedroom. It would be freezing cold in the winter and hot in the summer. I’d wake up and roll off the mattress. If I stood up I’d hit my head. It wasn’t designed for teenage girls or adults for that matter. My sister would get sick. She also took drugs and drank. I didn’t, so she and another sister made fun of me. I had to raise my younger brother. He shared a room downstairs with my brother. I wanted to trade places. That never happened.
    I graduated school early. I went to college and my parents made me pay room and board. I did until I got a dorm room. It was like a gift from God. My roomate Barbie was hardly ever there. She gave me her spare blue jeans. She actually had a boyfriend named Ken. Then I was able to share a house with other students. I never went back to the attic. It was full of bad memories. Now I’m going to let go and let God. I’m releasing this old stuff.

  6. Bobbie Anne says

    As you get to know me by way of these posts, you’ll find I’ve made it a habit to stay positive. Sometimes that isn’t so easy, like in the above post. Mostly, I’ll stay on the positive path. I find that this helps me to survive cancer and the threat that it may strike yet again. God has blessed me with this life and I am forever grateful! If I can help, inspire, or motivate someone else to do what they have to do, then I’m glad to be of service. This is about a place I no longer have access to at that time during childhood.


    She’s remembering when
    her dad carefully traced
    around her slender foot
    the pattern of
    leather moccasins used
    for playingg indian princess

    Tiny tot
    dark glossy hair
    shining in the sun
    walking on tiptoe
    so as not to get
    those moccasins dirty

    Picture perfect
    she’s guarding her
    most prized possession
    stitched with blue lacing
    a gift from her father
    she proudly wore
    now look so small

    If only she could
    stay in them forever

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