How important is “place” in writing?

By Carol / May 24, 2016 /

My recent trip to Ireland has me thinking again about the importance of place to a writer. Ireland has a rich written history, including literary greats James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yates. Those names were prominent as we toured the Emerald Isle landscape that inspired their writing.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates' poetry.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates’ poetry.

At the 2,000-year-old Drumcliff Church, we visited W.B. Yates’ grave and then, as we drove through the countryside where Yates lived and wrote, we were treated by our guide Eilo to recitations of Yates’ verses.

After choosing subjects for his verse from a number of other countries, Yeats said:

“I convinced myself … that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end.”

In view of Benbulbin – Yates’ favorite mountain – I listened to the rush of a waterfall, gazed at sheep pastured in fields ringed with ivy-covered rock walls, and knew exactly why Yates came to the conclusion to center his writing on this place.

Woven into Irish place are centuries of conflict – British vs Irish, Protestant vs Catholic – aspects of Irish place that continue to influence Irish writers today. 

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

A treat during the tour was having lunch with historical fiction writer David Lawlor. We met via social media and I’ve become a big fan of his writing.

In 1921, at just age 20, Lawlor’s grandfather joined scores of IRA men in an attack on the Dublin Custom House. Lawlor’s grandfather survived; others did not.

Each day, Lawlor walks to work past the Custom House, a symbol of British rule in Ireland. The social and political history Lawlor traverses daily inspired his series of novels set in the years surrounding the Irish War for Independence.

Everywhere I travel, I am inspired. In fact, inspiration is one of the reasons I hit the road. But, as I left the emerald landscape of Ireland and returned to the green fields of Iowa, I was affirmed in my own decision to write stories based in Iowa, past and present. I also know that if I ever need more inspiration, it will be waiting for me in the homeland of Yates and Lawlor.

To read more about Lawlor’s grandfather and other ‘bit players of history’ visit Lawlor’s blog History With A Twist.

If you enjoy historical adventure stories, you’ll enjoy Lawlor’s book “Tan” and the subsequent books in the series.

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  1. M.K. Tod on May 24, 2016 at 11:25 am

    So glad you had a great time, Carol. Can we expect a novel about Ireland any time soon??

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 24, 2016 at 3:00 pm

      Your recent trip to Paris has inspired me to at least think about writing as story set in another country, Mary. So the answer is a solid “maybe,” though it won’t be soon. 😉

  2. Shirley Hershey Showalter on May 24, 2016 at 6:25 pm

    I think place means something special in Ireland. I came home from Scotland and opened up Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization again. That Celtic view of the world, preserved by the monks, illustrated in the scriptoriums of the monastery, but above all, practiced in daily life, made the invisible visible. Cahill says that seeing the whole world as sacred was something the Greco-Roman world could never have done. Your thought?

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 25, 2016 at 10:08 am

      Mary Gottschalk just mentioned Cahill’s book to me yesterday. The significant role Irish monks made to saving the world was news to me until this trip. I can’t comment on whether or not the Greco-Roman world could have done this, but there is something special about Ireland. Christianity was adopted there without bloodshed – amazing compared to the rest of the world. Were it not for the Irish monks, who knows how Europe would have come out of the Dark Ages, or if it would have? I’m still processing the 6,000 years of Irish history crammed into my 17-day trip. I’m left with a desire to know a lot more. That much I do know.

  3. David Lawlor on May 24, 2016 at 6:55 pm

    I’ve never been to Iowa, but I’ve fallen in love with it a little bit, thanks to the skill of your writing, Carol. The past and the landscape in which we live – be it city or country – shape who we are and what we write.
    It’s a pity we didn’t have more time to talk during your visit. I could have learned so much about how you write and why you chose your subject matter. Maybe next time… hopefully 🙂
    Thanks for the plug!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 25, 2016 at 10:11 am

      I’m glad I’ve been able to share a little of my homeland and history with you through my writing, David. That’s the beauty of books, isn’t it? We definitely needed more time to talk. I put my name in a drawing to return to Glendalough for the winter solstice. Maybe my non-Irish luck will hold and I’ll win the trip. Then I’d be sure to make time for another, longer, writer chat.

  4. Merril Smith on May 24, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    I think place can be very important. One automatically thinks of Ireland upon hearing Yeats and Joyce and others. It looks like you had such a wonderful trip. Even if you don’t write a book set in Ireland, I’m sure you might have been inspired in other ways.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 25, 2016 at 10:14 am

      Ireland inspired me in many ways. At the very least, it gave me fodder for a good many blog posts. Beyond that, I found some of the themes in my WIP novel to have played out in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Seeing what went on there encouraged me to go deeper in that writing and it will be the subject of a future blog post.

  5. Paulette Mahurin on May 25, 2016 at 8:45 am

    Although I have never been to Ireland I’ve heard and read it’s one of the lushest, most beautiful countries. I found a book once about the author (& her husband) hiking through Ireland. It was the most wonderful read, her love affair with the magical country and people. That photo you put up is exquisite. Well written prose can turn a place into another character, coming alive, appreciated. I’ve seen that in the way you write scenes so vividly. Welcome home and thank you for sharing.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 25, 2016 at 10:18 am

      Thank you, Paulette. Vistas such as the one I posted, were around every turn. I agree with you that place can become another character, and I’m glad you think I’ve accomplished that in my writing. That is a huge compliment.

      Hiking Ireland is now on my ‘to do’ list. David Lawlor urged me to walk the six-kilometer ocean-side trail to his home in Greystones. Unfortunately there wasn’t time in my schedule for that, but such an experience is exactly the kind of opportunity to dwell in place that was missing from our agenda-packed trip. Talking about the trip is allowing me to reflect in ways the schedule didn’t allow at the time, so I’m glad people enjoy hearing about all this via my posts.

  6. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on May 25, 2016 at 10:30 am

    Carol, I have lived in too many places to even know which one is home to me. Possibly I feel the most nostalgic about Paraguay where my family found a home for five years after four years of being homeless refugees. We left when I was nine years old, and I still have a longing for that place. I have lived in three different provinces in Canada, and the one I think of as “home” is Ontario, where we lived the longest (27 years) and where we are now spending a holiday with our daughter and family (four grandchildren live here still). We moved to Manitoba in 2008, but Ontario is still home to me. We also spent 15 years in Africa and that is another whole experience of its own. Yes, place is so important. I’ve just finished reading the novel “Annabel” by Kathleen Winter (2010, Anansi Press) It takes place mostly in Labrador and Newfoundland and the descriptions are marvelous.
    Just a few lines I found taped to my daughter’s fridge:

    What we choose changes us.
    Who we love transforms us.
    How we create remakes us.
    Where we live reshapes us.
    So in all our choosing,
    O God, make us wise;
    In all our loving,
    O Christ make us bold;
    in all our creating,
    O Spirit give us courage;
    in all our living
    may we become whole.

    Jan Richardson

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 25, 2016 at 10:46 am

      Elfrieda, your life journey makes me think of the saying, “Home is where the heart is.” You’ve had so many homes and formed a deep attachment with several. All the places you’ve lived are part of the patchwork quilt of your life. Thanks for sharing the poem on your daughter’s fridge. Wise thoughts for sure. Enjoy the time with your family – where your heart is.

  7. Christopher Hayes on March 5, 2024 at 5:10 pm

    Your descriptive, heartfelt post and its title remind me of the first paragraph of the Prologue of Pat Conroy’s PRINCE OF TIDES: “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” I still remember, 35 years later, my astonishment and delight when I read this paragraph at a friend’s apartment. My graduate school studies concentration was U.S. Southern Literature. These two sentences, I realized immediately, perfectly and gently capture a major theme in modern Southern Literature, perhaps most dramatically voiced in Faulkner’s ABSALOM, ABSALOM! when Quentin Compson replies to a fellow university friend, “I don’t, I don’t, I don’t hate it, I don’t hate it [the South].” During my three decades teaching at a Southern university, I often used this quotation as a writing prompt choice for English composition placement essays. I wonder whether your friend David Lawlor felt a similar cognitive dissonance as he walked past the Custom House every day. I have just discovered your blog. I’m sure I’ll learn much more from your writing and experiences. Thank you.

    • Carol on March 6, 2024 at 11:08 am

      Hello, Christopher. I’m glad you found my blog and that this post resonated with you. What an interesting prompt for your writing students. I’m fascinated by southern writers; their writing is so grounded in place. Having spent time in the South, I think the live oak trees and Spanish moss have a great influence on writers. At least they do with me – so evocative! Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Christopher Hayes on March 6, 2024 at 3:54 pm

    I appreciate your taking time to reply, Carol. I lived in Tallahassee for three years, surrounded by oak trees and Spanish moss, which, I think, subconsciously drew me toward Southern Literature as my primary literary interest, well, along with the influence of a couple of wonderful professors. The cover of your novel GO AWAY HOME brought to mind Willa Cather’s MY ANTONIA. But my next novel should be GO AWAY HOME or one of you other novels. I’m happy I fortuitously stumbled upon your blog. I’m curiously awaiting more books from you.

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