Writing True Stories: 7 Ways to Capture a Sense of Place in Your Narrative Nonfiction Writing

An essential element of narrative nonfiction is creating a sense of place. The story should evoke the essence of the subject’s life and immerse the reader in his or her world. Your goal is to weave a sense of place into the narrative, not simply present a list of descriptive details.

Here are seven research techniques to help you achieve this:

1. Review research material prior to visiting a location. Prepare for onsite location research by checking records, maps, historical documents and material related to your subject and place.

2. Quietly Observe the People and Surroundings. It’s not always necessary to ask questions and interview people. Often you can obtain important information by simply remaining quiet and observing the natural flow of events without interruption.

3. Live in Your Subject’s World. Dress as the locals dress, stay where they might stay, shop where they shop, and eat the foods they eat. It is easier to “locate” a story when you have experienced it. You can even take this “world” back home with you to help with your writing process by purchasing local items, for example buy a local performer’s music to listen to while you’re writing or a regional food item to enjoy.

4. Talk to the Locals. Wherever you are – a café for lunch, a hotel for the night, the filling station for gas, the coffee shop, or dime store – talk to the owners and other customers to gain insight into local perspectives, beliefs, and behavior. 

5. Capture the Language. Record the language of the locals and your subject to effectively capture the syntax, slang, speech patterns, expressions and jargon of the area.

6. Read the Local Newspapers. Pick up the local and regional newspapers as well as the free zines provided at the mini-mart. You never know what intriguing and unique information you might glean from these papers.

7. Hang Out at the Community Hub. If you want to learn about the community, go where community members and leaders congregate. This may be the local church, the community center, or the downtown pub.