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Grounding Your Memoir in Space & Time

Pub Date: May 29, 2015 | Columnist: Lisa Dale Norton, author and gifted memoir editor and developmental writing consultant

 Lisa Dale Norton

by Lisa Dale Norton 

June, 2015

I’ve read thousands of manuscripts and worked with hundreds of writers over dozens of years in myriad venues, and the one habit all but the most practiced of memoirists fall victim to is lack of attention to the space/time continuum.

“. . . the one habit all but the most practiced of memoirists fall victim to . . .”
—Lisa Dale Norton

What is the space/time continuum? The foundation of the world you create with your writing, the one readers let loose the ordinary bonds of daily life and agree to explore when they pick up your memoir.


That world unfolds in locations, and happens at moments in time, whether chronological or a patchwork of memories across time.

Whatever structure your memoir uses, the reader needs to be cued about where the action takes place and when it takes place.

And, that reader needs to be cued often, especially when either of those variables change.

This seems obvious once stated. Yet many writers forget to do it.

Most writers don’t even realize they are forgetting to mention space and time. In their minds the story makes sense; they see it all in their own heads.

Yet, they fail to realize the reader does not have access to the same mental pictures the writer sees, and instead must be told about settings and movement through time.

Unconsciously, the reader is always watching for signposts that will help him stay oriented in your story world.

It’s easy to do: just drop in a small reference to where you are at any given moment. Are you in the next service station down the road? At a deli on the corner of 84th and L? A closet under the oak staircase?

And how does that location relate to what came before?

Perhaps that is obvious in your writing, but if not, help the reader understand the relationship.

Such careful writing will win you readers.

Same thing with time; it’s easy to say something like: “Three weeks later Will joined the expedition and that’s when I began to notice the maps weren’t stored as they should have been.” The point is, read

ers search for orientation points in a story, and two of the most basic are space and time. “Where am I? How does this relate to what came before?” the reader asks quietly as he moves through the pages, as if focusing up a sheer rock wall looking for the next place to catch a finger or hook a toe.

The wise writer provides these handholds long before questions about the wisdom of going on a story journey with you rise to the surface.

Lisa Dale Norton

Lisa’s book of literary nonfiction,A Great Romance, is forthcoming. She wrote Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir and Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills both published by St. Martin’s Press.

Lisa is a gifted Memoir Editor and Developmental Writing Consultant who works with a select group of writers seeking help perfecting manuscripts for submission and publication.

Learn more about Lisa and her workshops and editorial services at