Guest Author, Linda Lappin

Please welcome Linda Lappin today, as she writes about finding the soul of place.


Linda Lappin, courtesy of pokkoli

I want to thank Christi for inviting me to contribute a guest post to her writing blog.  I am a writer living in Italy – a place which has provided endless inspiration for my work. These long years I have had time to research and absorb the local spirits of place and to investigate the ways in which certain places and atmospheres feed my imagination. I have been working this material into fiction, memoir, and poetry, and have recently completed a book of writing exercises called The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place, a section of which was published in The Writer magazine in November, and was mentioned here in Christi’s blog.

Christi has invited me to share a couple of exercises with you and ask for your feedback. If you feel so inspired, try the exercise and post your comments or questions here. Feel free to pass this material on to friends in your writing groups – but please cite where you got it from.

The topic I’d like to suggest for  reflection is maps.

Maps, like novels or poems, are replicas of the physical world, models of the human mind, and in some traditions — diagrams of the soul.  For me they have always been a source of inspiration:  one of the earliest toys I remember is a jigsaw puzzle map of Europe:  my favorite piece was the yellow boot of Italy –  prophetic perhaps, since  that country was to become my  home.

Maps to buried treasure, star charts, city plans, architectural blue prints  are forms familiar enough to us. But maps may appear in other guises: in the Buddhist tradition, mandalas are maps of states of consciousness; in Persia the patterns of carpet designs sometimes charted the unfolding of the cosmos or the pathways of paradisiacal gardens.  Maps  need not take a visual form and may consist of words or music. In Australia, the songlines of the aboriginal tradition investigated by Bruce Chatwin are actually  word maps of territory, transmitting both topographical  knowledge necessary for human survival:  the whereabouts of springs, trees, vital resources, and  sacred knowledge concerning the mythic origins of human beings and the cosmos. Maps may also be imprinted in the circuits of our neurons. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has noted that we carry the map of  our first environment within us as a bundle of buried reflexes developed through our earliest movements within our first home.

Some of the 20th century’s greatest novels are actually structured on maps. Critics claim that to get the  full enjoyment out of Joyce’s Ulysses, one should read the book with a map of Dublin and a clock in hand. Similarly, Virginia Woolf’s  Mrs Dalloway is, in a way, a map of London,  while Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye of New York City. In more recent times, Thomas E Kennedy’s masterpiece The Copenhagen Quartet, incorporates a map of and even a guidebook to that magnificent European capital. In my own novels, maps have played a significant part —  I  included a sketch of one in The Etruscan — the map followed by Harriet, the protagonist of the novel, on her photographic explorations of Etruscan country. (That map is viewable at

Mary Butts, who has been hailed as the “last great undiscovered novelist of the twentieth century,”  had this to say about maps in her celebrated short story “From Altar to Chimney Piece.”

“As happens to people who become imaginatively conscious of a great city, he came to have a private map of it in his head. A map in which streets and groups of buildings and even the houses of friends were not finally relevant, or only for pointers towards another thing, the atmosphere or quality of certain spots…  These maps are individual to each lover of a city, charts of his translation of its final significance, of the secret working of men’s spirits which through the centuries have saturated certain quarters, giving them not only character and physical exterior, but quality, like a thing breathed. Paris is propitious for the making of such magic maps.”

We might substitute the term “soul of place” for “quality,” as Butts is using it here. Since time immemorial all over our planet, people have believed that the accumulation of human presence in a given spot together with the influences emanating from the  land itself  saturate that place and influence human activity there.

We all have our private maps of the neighborhoods, houses, rooms and other places where we have lived. Butts suggests that in the creating of those “mental maps”  the physical features of the place are less important than the atmosphere, which is created partly by the secret workings of the spirit – that is of imagination and creative processes.  Such maps are uniquely individual to each lover of a place.  No two will be alike. Our private maps attempt to localize and identify the “quality” or  spirit of place as it has interacted with us on an individual basis and influenced our lives.


Choose an environment  OR a time space continuum  – It may a city,  town, neighborhood, landscape, house   or a period of consecutive  time, such as : “The winter  I lived in Florence” — or cyclic  “the many summers I spent at my grandmother’s house on the lake when I was a child.” Quickly write down a list of  five to ten significant spaces/places in the continuum. Interpret “space” freely – it can be as small as the space in a box or as large as the Grand Canyon.  You may also list dates if you wish for each space.

Next, circle  three to  five “spaces” from your list and for each one make a “sub” list  using the ideas below.   Your list may be as long or as short (even a single item) as you wish, and may include:

  • Objects  or people  related to the spaces ( landscape features, furnishings, food, clothing, etc,)
  • Sensations connected with specific places and objects
  • Feelings and emotions connected to specific places and objects
  • Events that happened there  to you
  • Seasonal indications if applicable

Now draw the map as detailed or sketchily as you wish.

  • Give each place a personalized name
  • Connect the places with lines, showing some progression as you experienced it. Interpret this freely, it need not be a chronological or logical.
  • For each line,  make a notation which includes a verb.

This is your secret map – now use this to structure a narrative or lyric prose piece of memoir or fiction.

I welcome questions, comments, and feedback.

© Copyright Linda Lappin.

Linda Lappin is an American writer living in Italy, author of four novels: The Etruscan (Wynkin deWorde, 2004), Katherine’s Wish (about the life of Katherine Mansfield, Wordcraft of Oregon, 2008), Prisoner of Palmary, and Signatures in Stone and a writing book The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place (all forthcoming).

She teaches American language and culture at the University of Rome and divides her time between Rome and a medieval Italian village where she organizes writing workshops dedicated to spirit of place:  Her websites are: and For information about workshops see



8 responses to “Guest Author, Linda Lappin

  1. Thanks for your insights, Linda. This is a thought-provoking post and challenging exercise. I can’t wait to try it.

  2. I agree with Cathryn, Linda. I love this line about the spirit of a place:
    “Our private maps attempt to localize and identify the “quality” or spirit of place as it has interacted with us on an individual basis and influenced our lives.”

    I wrote an essay a while back about the house where I grew up. I want to use this exercise with that piece in mind and see how I can rework that essay.

    And, once I finish my novel draft, I’d love to try the exercise with fiction in mind.

  3. Very interested in your feedback, Cathryn and Christi. Looking forward to more comments

  4. Dear Linda, I would love to do this, but unfortunately will be away this weekend. Leaving now.

  5. Hi Linda. Just some thoughts…As a lover of maps I maybe have a certain bias… but I think it’s interesting how, when we read a piece of lyrical or narrative prose, we decipher the map that lies therein.. and in a certain way the more ‘graphic’ or ‘vivid’ the map that is transmitted to the mind of the reader the deeper the emotional experience we take away…and the longer the atmosphere lingers in the memory. (This is the reverse process to your exercise above)
    Your Etruscan is a wonderful example of this. It will remain in my memory just like places and roads I’ve been on, in my own life! Isn’t that facinating!
    Like a writer, a painter paints something she has an emotional attachment to because it’s really the atmosphere that is mastered. The detail is there too but it’s the ‘spirit’, as observed by the painter, that needs to be expressed.
    Another thought…I think light is an important factor in writing as much as in painting. Light or lack of light creates atmosphere. As a reader, I always like to know where the window in the room is (if there is one)and whether the sunlight breaks through the foliage!

    • Val,

      I just wanted to say that I like your description of how the reader and the writer are connected, at opposing ends, through the story — maybe through the results of an exercise like Linda’s.

      And, I am drawn to the windows in a story as well!

  6. Val- thank you for taking the time to write this insightful comment –light and changes of light are so important for mood and atmosphere in my life and in my writing. As well as shade and shadows. I remember the first time I was a guest in a really old Tuscan farmhouse, with no electricity — they used kerosene lamps — and the quality of the shadows cast by the flickering lamps on those rough white walls of flaking plaster fascinated me. the way they trembled and danced. I tried to put that kind of atmosphere in Harriet’s house in The Etruscan, as a proper setting for an eerie story flickering between reality and illusion.
    Thank you also for your comments on that novel– to those of you reading this, Val edited the book for Wynkin deWorde publishers.

  7. Linda, I have a new post up ( where I talk about the results of using your exercise.

    Thanks so much for visiting this blog, for your inspiring thoughts on the spirit of place, and for your writing challenge.

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