Tag Archives: Linda Lappin

My Secret Map – Writing Exercise

Linda Lappin’s guest post a few days ago, on “the soul of place,” struck a chord with me (if you haven’t read it yet, back up a post before you read more here). She spoke on maps and how – often – the physicality of layout eclipses a greater meaning.

“We all have our private maps of the neighborhoods, houses, rooms and other places where we have lived.”

“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.”

The writing exercise at the end of her post asks the writer to choose an environment, or a space in time, and explore feelings and experiences associated with that time or place. I read her post and her exercise, and then I pulled out a memoir piece I wrote well over a year ago. The piece is a short essay that grew from writing prompt entitled “where I’m from.” I wrote about the house where I lived from the time I was eleven until I moved out at twenty.

My memories of that house stick with me like the warm sun on the first Spring day, or like the weight of a heavy stone I’m forced to carry. Once in a long while, I drive by the house, to make sure it’s still standing. To remind myself that it was real. To stretch my neck and peer into the windows, looking for life inside.

I worked Linda’s exercise with that memoir piece – that house – in mind. Choosing a few significant places in the house and drawing a sketch of the layout was easy. The bigger challenge came in drawing a line from site to site and writing down a verb that described that connection. I knew each line marked a passage, to safety or discovery. Eventually, I wrote down these verbs: discover, hide, open, close. Another word that rose to the surface – not a verb but still significant – was “secrets.”

After Linda’s exercise, I took two paragraphs from the original piece and rewrote them.

The original text:

That house seized me the first week we moved in. My bedroom wasn’t finished yet, the fancy wallpaper still had to be hung. So I slept upstairs in the exercise room at the other end of the hallway. The room felt huge, with just a bed and no other furniture. There was a door that led to the attic. Strangely, the door could be locked from the outside. To keep something in, I wondered?

That door, in partnership with a large oak tree right outside the window, filled me with fear most nights. I would stand at the doorway, one hand on the light switch and the other pulled back in a running stance. I would click and run, one-two-three steps, then dive onto the bed. I had to time it just right, so that milliseconds after the click I would be safely under covers. If I looked over at the window and saw the tree, I was doomed. So I pulled up the covers and stared at the ceiling until I fell asleep. I hated that room.

The new version:

From the first week we moved in, that house seized me.

My bedroom sat empty at one end of the hallway, the walls chalky and unfinished. The floor bare of any furniture. It smelled of new construction, but it was uninhabitable. For the first several weeks, I slept in the extra room at the other end of the hallway – a space that would later be termed the exercise room.

The exercise room took up twice as much space as a regular bedroom. A window looked out onto a large oak tree that blocked my view of the back yard. Under the shadow of night, the tree morphed into a series of crooked arms.

Opposite the window was a door that led into a walk-in attic. The attic housed some sort of HVAC unit and one of the bull horns for the house alarm system. After we first moved in, the alarm went off at the slightest provocation. If I was in that room when it sounded, I didn’t stay long. One piercing howl from the alarm sent me bolting out the door and down a flight of stairs in two jumps.

And, for reasons unknown, the attic door locked from the outside.

To keep something in, I was sure.

At eleven years old, I stood at the doorway of that room at bedtime, bookended by a crooked old monster and a cave. My only refuge was the bed set up in the middle of the room. I stood at the doorway, one hand on the light switch and the other pulled back in a running stance. I had to time the click of the light and my run to safety just right, so that milliseconds after the light went out, I would be safe under covers.

I focused on the bed, my target. I took a breath. I flipped the switch.

In one-two-three long strides, I was close enough to jump the remaining distance to the bed and slide under the covers. If I looked over at the window and saw the tree, I was doomed. If the house alarm went off, I slept downstairs.

I pulled up the covers and stared at the ceiling until I fell asleep.

Did you try Linda’s exercise? What discoveries came to light as you sketched your secret map?


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 www.theetruscan.com)

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: www.lindalappin.net and www.theetruscan.com For information about workshops see www.pokkoli.org.


In Anticipation of Wednesday

Wednesday, as you know, is my designated “Face off with Wordsmith.org” writing challenge day. While I love, love, love the word of the day challenge (really, I do), I’m taking a break this week.

The purpose of Wednesday’s Word of the Day challenge is more about a commitment to write – without a plan, on the spot, even when I don’t feel like writing – than on being a die-hard fan of Wordsmith.org. Though Mr. Garg’s theme this week – words on food and drink – will be tough to ignore, another exercise awaits me (and you) on Wednesday. And, the hope is that you will be inspired to participate as well.

Linda Lappin, courtesy of pokkoli

Back in October, I wrote a post wondering how other writers develop a sense of place in their stories. Do they simply visualize the place or actually draw it out? In that post, I referred to an article in The Writer, by Linda Lappin, called “See with Fresh Eyes.” Linda wrote that creating a “deep map” of the setting not only draws more material for the story, but also gives the story a deeper level of meaning.

I am honored to host Linda here tomorrow, at Writing Under Pressure.

Linda will explain how creating a map of a place can help the writer discover the spirit of that place. She will also share a writing exercise from her new book, The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place.

For someone like myself, who’s in the middle of a novel rewrite, Linda’s visit comes at a perfect time. While writing this introduction, I thought back on a post by Mary Campbell about treating setting as another character, about how a well-developed setting is critical to the success of a story.

Tomorrow, Linda shows us how to bring setting to life.

Come back, read her guest post, try her writing exercise, and add another dimension to your story.


To Draw or Not to Draw

A week ago, I sat down with the first draft of my novel and started an official re-write. I didn’t just talk about it or think about it. I actually moved things around and added content where content was due. Since then, I turned to other pieces of writing with more critical deadlines and managed to get a hefty cold. So, the rewrite sits. And, waits.

In that week’s time, however, I received my November issue of The Writer, in which several authors focus on the art of developing a sense of place in a story. Phillip Martin (in “Power Your Story with a Sense of Place”) emphasizes that “[p]lace influences stories far more than many writers realize.” It can make or break a story. Linda Lappin (in her article, “See with Fresh Eyes”) suggests creating a “deep map” of a neighborhood to draw material for a story.

Jennifer Neri recently posted about people in landscape, where several writers commented on the art of describing a place. But, Phillip Martin and Linda Lappin seem to imply more than just good, vivid descriptions of a setting for a scene. I’ve heard of authors who map out a whole city where a story takes place. Some draw or paint pictures of a character’s dwelling. For my story, so far, I have a vision of the apartment where my main character lives, but I’ve yet to put the image down on paper. And, I don’t have a city map that mirrors how the story unfolds.

What’s your tactic? Does every story need an intricate and detailed layout of floor plans and elevations and street maps? Do you sketch your images in a notebook separate from the one with character development and story time lines?

I love to draw -my friends say I’ve developed quite a style in the stick figure arena. I’m curious, though, as to how much time an author should spend on creating a visual sense of place versus time spent on developing the story itself?