How Does Where You Live Affect Your Writing?

Chatham, Cape Cod

Our surroundings are constantly affecting us. But how much does where we live affect our writing?

Southern writers like Robert Penn Warren are known for a certain cadence, a more languid or lingering tone. His writing feels like sitting out on a front porch on a humid night with cicadas buzzing in the background. Irish writers also bring a sing-song lyrical feeling into their writing.

A certain tone is hard to pinpoint and I don’t know if my writing has anything like that because of where I live. It’s probably more because of what I read and the rhythms found there. But Cape Cod definitely contributes to the overall feeling of my writing, either through descriptions or something more mysterious.

Descriptions of the ocean and sky are always sneaking into my stories. The changing seasons find their way in because I can’t help but be affected by them. If I lived in the tropics, I’d probably keep looking for new ways to describe the heat.

Hancock tower, BostonI used to live in a Boston apartment. Boston is full of edges and angles, like this photo. I loved the energy of the city and being able to walk everywhere, but my writing ended up sounding depressing because I’d describe things I happened to encounter like gum splattered all over a sidewalk or the smell of an alley. I remember trying to describe that particular subway smell: a strange mixture of sweat, popcorn, greased metal, and feet. I could never really fully describe it. Maybe the fact that it can’t be described makes it sound even scarier.

Of course, the fun of writing is in using our imaginations. But our imaginations build off of our surroundings. While living in Boston, I’d be more likely to describe the way the light hit a certain building to make it glow or the sound of different accents and languages mingled together on the city streets. Now that I think about it, I miss Boston. Even that strange subway smell.

Boston street

How does where you live affect your writing? Have you ever tried to describe an indescribable smell?

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40 thoughts on “How Does Where You Live Affect Your Writing?

  1. Great Post – making me think! Living Out West certainly helps my writing, especially creatively at times. The landscapes are so varied on my travels and adventures – urban to rural and desert to ocean and stepping back in time to modern. Happy Writing:)

    • Thanks Renee! That’s true, our adventures become a part of us too and end up leaking into our writing. I love those desert landscapes and colors from out west because they’re so different from the usual things I see around here.

  2. Hi there, I loved this post as well. I’m Irish and living in Ireland and think that there is a whole cultural influence on me anyway in terms of how I tend to think and write. Even the language I use seems to be very ‘Irish,’ especially when I read it through other countrypeople’s eyes.

    Like you, though, the sea has a huge impact on me. I live right beside the ocean and can’t but be affected by everything to do with it.

    Thanks again and best wishes with your writing.

    • It’s great to meet you! I love Irish writers because of that lyrical sound. I wonder if those ocean rhythms help us with the sound of our writing too. Even if they don’t though, it’s still a good excuse to get out and take a walk on the beach as often as possible.

  3. Interesting. I hadn’t ever thought about this before, but it makes sense. I love your pics of Boston, and those subway smells would be a terrific practice to describe.

    • Thanks Char! Yes, I’ve never smelled that smell any place else. Even subways in other cities didn’t have the same mixture of smells. 🙂

  4. As always, you’ve got me thinking of something I haven’t thought about before. I think it affects me in that it restricts me to write about places I’m familiar with, otherwise I risk having poor setting description (which is not my forte anyway). I tossed about whether to set my current WIP in Cleveland or not, and I finally decided to because it fits well with the story. But it’s not a very exciting locale…

    • I don’t know, Cleveland sounds exciting to me. I don’t really know much about it, so maybe that’s what makes it exciting. The good thing about locating a story near wherever you live is that you know that place in a different way than most people and that kind of thing really shows through in the details. I agree it can be restrictive too (and so can the write what you know rule), but that’s when the imagination can really take over and hopefully make everything more interesting.

  5. I live in Massachusetts as well and love describing the seasons changing and the busy bustle of life. As a reader I find myself drawn to Irish writers, something about the vibe they present speaks to me differently then local writers. It certainly is a rewarding challenge to describe scenery and the feeling of an area.

    • It sounds like we have a lot in common! I love Irish writers too. Now I’m wondering if that has something to do with living in Massachusetts or being near the ocean. Maybe all those rhythms go well together.

  6. Hi. This is not something that I’ve really thought about before either but now that I have, whenever I am picturing a location to write about, it’s always based around somewhere that I’ve either lived or live now. I guess we go with what we know? I live in the UK so don’t have the beauty of the tropics, we mainly have rain! Great post – thanks.

    • Rain is always fun to describe. We get a lot of that here too. Then whenever that happens, I’m trying to find new ways to describe it. It does seem to help to bring more details into a setting if you’ve lived in that place. It can be fun to use the memories of a place too, then it’s a way of revisiting it.

      • That’s very true. I have a lot of dreams that take me back to previous places and I try to jot them down so that I can remember them and use them as material in the future. We’ve had a lot of snow recently as well so there’s been plenty of white stuff to talk about!

  7. I live in a small New Zealand land locked city and sometimes when I need more quiet and relaxing surroundings I borrow a friend’s beach house. Fortunately my writing lately has been memoir / life stories and I’m back in the city I grew up in, so that suits my current work.

    • That’s great that you can do that. It makes me wonder if you see a difference in your writing if you’re going back and forth between two different places like that. You’d think the writing that’s done near the ocean would have a more relaxed feel to it than the writing that’s done in the city, but if you’re describing the city when you’re in both places then maybe not.

      • Much of the school memoir had been written already as anecdotal notes, so at the beach I locked myself away to assemble all the stories, fill in the gaps, make sense of it all. I focussed on myself as a kid as I walked in between writing. Yes, I was more relaxed, that helped the creativity flow.

  8. Sheila
    Loved this post, I agree totally that we are effected by where we live. I know when I lived in the city my writing was very different to now, living in the wide open spaces.

  9. My writing began after moving to the DC area, and my stories are all set in Virginia, DC, and Maryland. Maybe that’s not particularly original, but I do create some fictitious settings within them. But the sights and sounds around me do find their way into the text and hopefully add an air of verisimilitude to the tales. Okay, I just had to work that word into this comment. 😉

    • That’s a great word! It’s one of those words that you end up forgetting about because you don’t hear it enough, so thanks for bringing it back into circulation. :)The DC area sounds exciting to me. It reminds me of New England but it also has that southern feel to it. I love all the history that your stories have in them from living there.

    • Hahah – thank you! It’s hard to describe when there are so many smells competing for attention. There might be a few more smells mixed in there too. 🙂

  10. Looks like you tickled a lot of people’s minds with that question. If you think about it, most writers write about what they know best. They often set the scenes of their novels in familiar places. Stephen King novels mostly take place in Maine, and it allows him to describe the scenes with a lot of details. Mary Higgins Clark set her novels in CT and NYC. Most people from the South set their novels in the South and use the expressions and dialects, which make the story more realistic and believable. I’m glad I’m not planning to write this type of novels because San Diego doesn’t make for a very exciting background, unless it has to do with the military. Top Gun, anyone? 😉

    • It does make sense that we would write about whatever we see around us, even though it can be more fun to use our imaginations. I think it can sometimes go beyond the descriptions, that maybe the feel of a place can be felt through rhythms in the writing. Maybe someone living in a city has more of a chance of writing a faster-paced novel. It’s funny that a few people have said wherever they live isn’t exciting. To me, places like San Diego are exciting because they’re different from where I live. Maybe we always think any place else is more exciting, but then at the same time most people write about where they live.

      • It’s not that San Diego is not an exciting place to live, but I’m not sure it would make a great setting for a novel. There’s nothing really extraordinary about it (it’s a tourist town, let’s say it), and the landscape is mostly desert or brush, so there’s so much you can say about it.

      • I guess the trick is to try to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. 🙂 I can’t think of any novels with a San Diego setting though. All I can think of is Tourist Season but that’s in Florida.

      • I can’t think of any novels in San Diego either. I can only think of two movies:Top Gun, and Devil in the blue dress (a small part of it is in San Diego). I guess we have to look for San Diego writers and see what they’ve published.

  11. When I moved from the country to the city 12 years ago I could not write a word, Sheila! I felt stifled. It took me about 4 years to get back into it – now I’m back in the country again and not writing (well, I’m trying to move a house) so I don’t know if I actually need to ‘settle in’ to a place to get my mojo back, or if I’ve just been too busy thinking of other things. But I know I certainly feel more like writing when I’m near the ocean 😀

    I’ve never had to describe an indescribable smell – so I’m going to put my mind to it now! 😉

    • That makes sense to me. I feel like writing whenever I’m near the ocean or walking through the woods and living in a city can feel like the opposite of that sort of thing. With all you’ve got going on with the RUC, I don’t see how you could get any writing done – but you’ve got those muscles going for you! 🙂 It looks like a great place to find inspiration once you’re all settled in – or even now because those giant grasshoppers look pretty inspiring too.

      • I’m sure there are several muses in the RUC because I feel overly inspired every time I walk in there. Once I’m living there the sky will be the limit! 😀

  12. I think where we stay contributes to making us who we are and who we are informs what we write and the way we express ourselves. If you stay in a city you will have a different outlook from people who stay in country areas or by the sea. I have stayed in all these places and my experiences there inform my writing, give depth to my characters. Hopefully!

    • That’s very true. It’s probably best to try to experience as much as possible and then hopefully those experiences and feelings will find a way into our writing.

  13. Somehow, I missed this post. I’m sorry! Anywho, I have wondered about this, as I tend to write a lot about nature, water, beaches, salt marshes, small New England towns, mountains, forests, countrysides, and the magic found in these places.

    Now that I have read your post, I’ll be paying more attention to the connection. 🙂

    • Hi Kate! Don’t worry about missing any posts – I know we’re all busy! It’s a good thing we live near so many things that are fun to describe. Nature and the outdoors is filled with inspiration, and now at least we might be able to get out there more often without freezing. 🙂

  14. What a great idea for a post and eloquently stated, too!

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