Writing Your Way Home: Capturing a Sense of Place

08 Nov 2015 3:23 PM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)


Led by Nina Sichel & Patricia Linderman

By Beth Hoban

Edited by Dounia BertuccelliWith thanks to the sponsorship of Summertime Publishing and the Parfitt Pascoe Writing Residency.

“Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

This quote is a favorite of mine and especially reflects my global nomad lifestyle. Our sense of ‘home’ is complex. Home may be where we are from, where we have lived, loved, or even lost. Capturing a vivid sense of place through the written word keeps home in our hearts and gives us the power to take a homecoming journey when we read them again. In this hands-on session, Nina and Patricia facilitated a series of guided writing prompts and shared their personal tips to create a vibrant, intense description of place.

Nina Sichel is co-editor of Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global (2003), and Writing out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011).  Her work has appeared on-line at the Children’s Mental Health Network, and in Among Worlds, International Educator, the American Journal of Nursing and elsewhere. Nina grew up in Venezuela and ‘repatriated’ to the USA for college and beyond; she is a writer, editor, and leader of memoir-writing workshops in Virginia.

Patricia Linderman is co-author of the Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad (2007), co-editor of Realities of Foreign Service Life, and editor-in-chief of the online expat literary magazine Tales From a Small Planet. She is the currently elected president of the American Association of Foreign Service Workers, the US Foreign Service family member association. Patricia is American and first lived abroad as a graduate student in Germany. She has lived in six different countries including: Trinidad, Chile, Cuba, Germany, and currently resides in the DC area. Helping authors develop a strong sense of place in their writing has been one of her passions.

Session Kick Off

Patricia began the session by inviting us to close our eyes and visualize ourselves as a ‘glowing dot’. “Now think about all of the glowing dots that are together in this room. Visualize the journey lines that brought us all together. You are here in this room. Do you smell anything? Feel anything? Think of the richness of details” you would use to describe this place.

The places we have lived in or traveled through are infused with emotional meaning. They tell us where we’ve been and who we are at a specific point in time. They inform and enhance our evolving cultural identity. Rich, descriptive settings give your narrative shape and meaning to your work with specific detail, and how to capture a vivid sense of place.

“Through describing smells, shapes, colors, sounds, textures, light, touch and movement, we give the experiences of our senses to others.” – Tristine Rainer.

Nina shared this quote and invited us to pull our readers into our stories by tapping into our senses. Nina challenged us to “write through your senses and look past the obvious”. She went on to say creating context through the senses “establishes an emotional connection so the reader can be in that place with you. It’s much richer.”

Tap Into Your Senses

Patricia and Nina suggest the following prompts to tap into your senses as you write.

Visual – What does it look like?

  • Landscape – geology, seasons, light, architecture, street scenes, art, design
  • People – physical details, facial expressions, body language, clothing, what they carry with them, health
  • Flora and fauna – plant life, insects, birds, pets, agriculture, wild animals, habitats
  • Spaces – intimate/ public, distance between people, close/ distant views

Sounds – What do places sound like?

  • Nature – birdsong, insects, wind, thunder
  • Human activity – traffic noise, machinery, crowd sounds
  • Language – dialect, accent, pitch, dialog, slang
  • Intimate/ public – music, songs, prayer, lullabies, clock ticking, tapping of keys

Smell/taste – What smells stand out to you?

  • Outdoors/ indoors – familiar, exotic, attractive, repulsive
  • Personal – body odor, soaps, perfumes
  • Food and drink – aroma, flavors
  • Local smells- plants, rain, pollution, the sea

Tactile – What do you feel? 

  • Skin, air, clothing, texture, humidity, touch, intimacy

Cultural/ historical references – What context is important?

  • Historical context – news, politics, holidays/ festivals, cultural manifestations, environmental changes, crime
  • Trends – fashion, music, transportation, appearances
  • Families – size, nuclear/ extended, traditional, religion, education, values
  • Ethnicity – Language, ethnic groups, immigration, TCKs
  • Values/ Beliefs – aspirations, social recognition, religion, superstitions, work, taboos, sayings, reputations, stereotypes
  • Technology – communications, household, transportation, public spaces

Prompt #1 – Physical

Think of a place you’ve called home. Dig deeply into your memories of this place and time, and write down some vivid, specific details. Start with visual images, and then move through your other senses. What sounds do you identify with that home? What smells? What physical sensations? What tastes?

Prompt #2 – Emotional

Think again about the place you chose for your first prompt. Why did you choose this place to write about? Did something significant happen there? How did you feel in this home? Is it a feeling you want to recreate as you move into a new space? Write down some of the feelings and turning points you experienced in this place, as well as the emotional factors that made it home for you. Then write down some ways in which you can carry this sense of home with you in the future (totems, possessions, photographs, traditions).

My Response

As I responded to the prompts, I was transported back in time 10 years to my first expat home in Seoul, Korea. I remembered nervously arriving at my new home on a cold, windy, December evening. I got out of the embassy transport van, with my four-month-old son tightly bundled in blankets in his basket car seat. My community sponsor led me up the dim walkway and unlocked the heavy, grey, metal front door and took me inside. I slowly entered my new home, a cement block duplex house built in the early 1960s. I could feel the rough texture of the brown industrial carpet in the living room. The hard cement walls were freshly painted a bland eggshell color and the paint smell still lingered. The dark cherry wood Drexel furniture seemed formal and reminded me of my grandmother’s living room. Every item in the house was brown, tan or cream. There was not a spot of vibrant color to be seen. I hesitantly thought to myself what have I gotten myself into? Then I looked out the window and in the distance I saw the lights from Seoul Tower glimmering on top of the mountain. I smiled to myself and began to wonder what this city had to offer.

Tips for Budding Authors 

  • Take 10 minutes to write everyday
  • Write about whatever you want to
  • Take yourself seriously – others around you will see you as a writer
  • Don’t judge your writing – just write and then come back to it



Tales From a Small Planet www.talesmag.com


Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global, Faith Eidse and Nina Sichel (Editors), Nicholas Brealey America, 2003

Writing out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids, by Gene H. Bell-Villada and Nina Sichel with Faith Eidse and Elaine Neil Orr (Editors), Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011

Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, Melissa Brayer-Hess and Patricia Linderman, Intercultural Press, 2007

Realities of Foreign Service Life, Patricia Linderman and Melissa Brayer-Hess (Editors), iUniverse, 2002

The New Diary: How to Use a Journal for Self-Guided and Expanded Creativity, Tristine Rainer, Tarcher, 2004 

Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer, Tarcher, 1998

Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, Alexandra Johnson, Bay Back Books, 2002

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott, Anchor, 1995

Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, James Pennebaker, The Guilford, 1997

The Way of Transition, William Bridges, Da Capo Press, 2001

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, Michael Gelb, Dell, 2000

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser, Mariner Books, 1998

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