Novelist Tim Pears has a nose for a story, literally. It was enlightening to hear him describe hopping Easyjet to somewhere in central Europe on a research trip with little or no plan of what he was searching for. His destination was where something or someone he wanted to write about had happened, lived, passed through, died. His reason for going there? “I needed to know what it smelled like.”
Well snap, Tim. How many of us, particularly on the trail of ancestors, have arrived somewhere to soak up the atmosphere in the often forlorn hope that something will click, that our DNA will somehow connect with this place? Armed with perhaps an old photo or postcard, we search for tenuous connections. I suspect we all have — and then perhaps busily scribbled some notes to try and justify what to an outsider would appear a complete waste of time.
But it’s not. We all know a sense of place is important elements in a story, and getting it right makes all the difference. If a novelist like Tim knows this, then for a writer of non-fiction memoir, it must be all the more important.
Every memoir writer will struggle with this at some stage. When you reach that point and you can actually dig into your memory bank for sensations of reality to show your reader, you’ll thank your good fortune that you remembered to observe with your nostrils as well as your eyes and ears.