How to Find Location in Creative Writing

I’m in the midst of reading contest submissions for a literary magazine publisher, and when I read stacks of stories and essays in this way, four categories of location emerge. Locations appear to fall into (or straddle) these:

(A) not familiar to the author + not specific in occurrence
(B) familiar + not specific
(C) not familiar + specific; and
(D) familiar + specific

The same categories, but in a chart:

I’ve noticed that the contest entries I gravitate to feature locations in category (D). Meaning, a short story or essay that is more likely to get a ‘yes’ vote from me probably includes locations that (i) are specific in type; and (ii) appear to be familiar to the author such that particular details aid, complement, or challenge characters. Read more about writing the details of a location in Jack Gantos’s Writing Radar.

How does a writer find and explore a desirable (D) location? Here’s a suggested way to use the above chart, along with an updated diagram reflective of the following example:

(1) Write ‘Grocery’ on a sticky note. This is a non-specific location, so it’s an (A) or a (B). Since I’m rather familiar with this type of location, I’ll place the note in (B).

(2) Repeat the first step, but for ‘Tackle Shop’. Again, this is non-specific, but this time for me, this one goes in (A) since I’m not very familiar with tackle shops.

(3) Repeat the first step again, but for ‘The Burger King on Main Street’. This time, it’s a specific location, so it’s either a (C) or a (D). For me, it’s a (C) since I’m not very familiar with this occurrence of a fast-food restaurant.

(4) Explore if it’s possible right now to alter any sticky note to a (D) location, and do so. For me, I can cross out ‘Grocery’ in my (B) area, write ‘Jim’s’, and move the note to (D). N. b., if I had written ‘Publix by Campus’ on the note, I would’ve moved the sticky to (C). In that case, making the note more specific would’ve made it not familiar to me.

(5) Focus on a (D) location, and in a notebook, write ten smells, images, features, sounds, and tastes of it. Write how this specific and familiar location is helpful or unhelpful in a way that another place similar to it is not as helpful or unhelpful. Write how this specific and familiar location is important or unimportant in a way that another place similar to it is not important or unimportant.

(6) If desired, consider the remaining non-(D) locations. Which have the potential, through research, to become (D) locations? For ‘Tackle Shop’, I could find and visit a particular tackle shop, which could move the note to (C). I could then research and patronize the named tackle shop till it becomes familiar enough to move the note to (D). Similarly, I could patronize ‘The Burger King on Main Street’ till it is familiar to me and becomes a (D) as well.

Interested in me facilitating the above activity as a workshop for your writing group? Contact me here.

If you share the above concepts, thanks in advance for crediting me, such as by including a link to this post.

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