A Sense of Place: Writing Home, at Home and Away

51651-tea-cupsAs I start a draft of this post, I’m sitting in a booth at a chain restaurant that calls itself a bakery, with the remains of a salad at one elbow and “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder—not his best song—playing overhead. There are three other people with computers or tablets glowing in front of them nearby.

I like to write in café noise. We are legion. Science reports that café noise boosts creativity; app makers of the world oblige with a portable café crowd.

I write at home, too, don’t get me wrong. My husband and I don’t have kids; it’s actually very quiet there, or it can be. Sometimes, the TV must be on. Sometimes there are video games that must be played.

I can deal with that. You know what I can’t deal with? The silent screams of the laundry in the basket or the dishes in the sink.

Or, oh, the squeaky toy my dog presses against my leg until I put down the laptop. My dog is the cutest. You would put down the laptop, too.P1020430

So while I wish for a room of one’s own, I do what I can with what I’ve got. I write during my lunch hours in sushi restaurants or campus coffee lounges. I write on my breezy back porch on summer weekends. On winter weekends, I write on the other end of the jostling couch while my husband reacts to hockey plays.

It doesn’t always work. Right now, back in the cafe? I forgot my noise-cancelling headphones at home, and another customer is clicking something in her hands two feet behind me. The sound is a snap-snap-snapping assault. She is enemy number one.

But then she leaves, or I get the word count done despite the incessant clicking. There’s always going to be a noise. There’s always going to be an excuse.

What’s more interesting than where I do my writing these days is where I write about.

I wrote The Black Hour, a mystery set on a Chicagoland college campus, while working on a Chicagoland college campus. I borrowed a few things. Lake Michigan, for instance, serves as the eastern border of both the real and imagined campuses. But it was important to me—and to my job—that the campuses remain separate. Story University moved up the lake shore several miles and gained a statue and a big event that Real University can’t claim. I gave the fake university a donor family name—and then gave that family a role to play in the novel.

Though I was careful not to borrow much from my host campus, I borrowed landmarks from Chicago liberally. “Borrowed” makes it seem as though I have no right to Chicago. I’ve lived here twelve years. The Black Hour is my Chicago book. I’ve already written about Indiana, the place I can’t keep myself from calling, still, “home.” But I’m also returning there daily as I write my next project.

I haven’t written about Chicago for the last time—but I might have to move. The least kept secret of writing is that leaving a place is the best way to start trying to recapture it with words on paper. Leaving a place is the best way to start appreciating what you gained from a place you’ve called home, and what you’ve lost from leaving it behind. You gain, actually and figuratively, the distance necessary to write it, to try to get it right.

Do we ever get it precisely right? The attempts are part of the writing journey, and you know what? They delight the folks back home.


What place inspires you to keep trying to get its details right?



Photos: http://www.cobblehillpuzzles.com and Lori Rader-Day

Author: Lori Rader-Day

Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

17 Replies to “A Sense of Place: Writing Home, at Home and Away”

  1. I need quiet to write. I am duly annoyed by anyone doing public things in public places because DON’T THEY KNOW I’M WRITING? I have wanted to try going into a cafe though to do some of my non-writing work, just to, you know, have a reason to get dressed.

    1. I definitely get annoyed by people making noise in public. I try to remember that they’re entitled to do so, but there are times when they could be more courteous. Like when they take phone calls in a totally quiet space, or are talking far louder to the person across the table than the noise in the space requires. I think violent thoughts.

  2. I’ve tried and tried to write in cafes but what I really like to do in cafes is eat scones. So for now I’ll keep writing at home and doing the rest of my business of writing in a cafe because that’s where the scones are.

  3. I couldn’t agree more that we need the literal and figurative distance from a place to write about it. I have a “Miami” book that I started writing while I was still living there and finished about ten months after I moved to Texas. Those ten months were the most productive and most essential, because being away from Miami helped me see it as more of a character rather than just a setting.

  4. Oh, I’m the biggest coffeehouse writing ‘ho ever. Love to discover new cafes and take pictures while I’m there. I love the white noise — and I’m so glad to hear that it boosts creativity!

    Anyone ever try libraries? I do that during my lunch house (danged day-job)…It’s okaaay. It doesn’t take much noise to be too-loud a noise. Like the dude who is always sniffling…always. I want to clobber him. (Yes, Lori, violent thoughts…:-))

    1. I find libraries too noisy for silent, or too silent for how I normally like to work. I can work there, but I usually use the headphones for music in that case. I have trouble with total silence.

      SNIFFLING. Death sentence.

  5. I love writing in cafe’s. And drinking their coffee. And while I don’t mind the noise, I’ll confess I’m shaking my head that there’s actually an app for that! As for the sense of place – the novellas I’m just polishing up draw heavily from my childhood home. It’s taken me a lot of years and a lot of moves to come around to that.

Comments are closed.