Setting In Memoir

by Karen Ulrich

The setting of a story is the place in which it occurs and the time at which it happens: the time of day, month, and year, and the wider historical context. What was happening in the world, in culture and society, at the time of your story? Place includes the big picture and the small—country, city, village, or town—where your story is set. Is it a mining town, a mountain village, or an industrial city? Place includes inside and out. What interior spaces feature in your story? Dark bars, airy barns, or stuffy classrooms? How do these settings affect your characters and the choices they make?

Remember that setting is anything that contributes to the environment: the weather, the light, the feel of the air, the ambient sound, and the textures of the surfaces with which the characters interact (plush couches or hard-backed chairs). When you write about setting, think about how it affects your characters—are they comfortable in their space or ill at ease? Is the setting an antagonist, which somehow prevents the protagonist from achieving her goals (for example, a small town that suffocates her creativity)? How does setting make the characters feel? Is your protagonist happiest with her family at home or when she’s alone? Considering how your characters interact with their environment—a woman obliged to stay in a job she dislikes, or a boy prevented from going outside because of a snowstorm—will help create drama.

Joseph Mitchell was a New York reporter and feature writer who also wrote four books, now published collectively as Up in the Old Hotel. The first essay of his first book, “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,” is a portrait of a place. The author’s choice of protagonist is not a person, but a bar. He includes dates, but the items within the room also offer historical context. You can picture the flickering shadows and cobwebs that contribute to the sleepy atmosphere. The people are described not as individuals, but as fixtures, as constant as the irregular clocks.

Here’s a passage:

McSorley’s occupies the ground floor of a read-brick tenement at 15 Seventh Street, just off Cooper Square, where the Bowery ends. It was opened in 1854 and is the oldest saloon in New York City. In 88 years it has had four owners—an Irish immigrant, his son, a retired policeman, and his daughter—and all of them have been opposed to change. It is equipped with electricity, but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door. There is no cash register. Coins are dropped in soup bowls—one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves—and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox. It is a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the walls have not been in agreement for many years. The clientele is motley. It includes mechanics from the many garages in the neighborhood, salesmen from the restaurant-supply houses on Cooper Square, truck-drivers from Wanamaker’s, interns from Bellevue, students from Cooper Union, and clerks from the row of second-hand bookshops just north of Astor Place. The backbone of the clientele, however, is a rapidly thinning group of crusty old men, predominantly Irish, who have been drinking there since they were youths and now have a proprietary feeling about the place.

Indeed, the setting can act as a character in your story.

Try listening to music from the time period you are writing about. Not only does this help bring you back to the mood of the time, but it can also trigger memories—the song that was a hit at your school dance, the tune that marks a friend or lover’s departure, your wedding song, or the music that got you through a difficult time. Listening to music from another period in your life, especially if it’s music you don’t listen to any more, will bring that time back to the surface and bring you closer to the feelings you experienced then.

To use music as a time line, you can start by making a list of the musicians who shared the different phases of your life, beginning with your first single or album or with the first musicians you heard on the radio.

What was the culture that enveloped or inspired these songs? How and when did your taste in music change? Who shared your taste at each particular period and how did your relationships change along with your musical preferences? Perhaps certain people introduced you to new music: who were they? The answers to any of these questions might provide you with a situation or relationship to write about. Creating a musical timeline may even help you structure your story.

In his essay, “When The Negro Was in Vogue,” Langston Hughes writes of Manhattan’s Black Renaissance in the 1920s. In this passage Langston Hughes describes the performance of Gladys Bentley to give the reader a sense of the vibrancy of Harlem in the 1920s:

Gladys Bentley, who was something worth discovering in those days, before she got famous, acquired an accompanist, specially written material, and conscious vulgarity. But for two or three amazing years, Miss Bentley sat, and played a bit piano all night long, literally all night, without stopping—singing songs like “The St. James Infirmary,” from ten in the evening until dawn, with scarcely a break between the notes, sliding from one song to another, with a powerful and continuous underbeat of jungle rhythm. Miss Bentley was an amazing exhibition of musical energy—a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard—a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm. Music often brings us together, serving as an umbrella for various political, social, racial, or cultural movements. Depending upon the time you’re describing, you may choose to use music as a background to your story, to illustrate the mood of the time, social or cultural tensions, or personal conflicts. Music also separates one generation from the next, and you may want to use it to define your generation. Maybe you strongly identified with the lyrics of a song at a particular point in your life. If so, you might choose to use an excerpt from a song within your story. Whatever your relationship with music, there are numerous ways you can use it to inspire or illustrate certain aspects of your life, whether it’s to extract an emotion or memory, link characters together, or depict a specific scene.

This article is excerpted from Karen Ulrich's book How to Write Your Life Story.