Jane Rusbridge Author of The Devils Music and Rook

PIECE on PLACE: ‘Place and the Elusive Sense of Belonging’ by Karen Stevens

Here to share a particularly evocative PIECE on PLACE  is guest writer Karen Stevens, Senior Lecturer in English & Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. Karen specialises in teaching writing for children and young adults and also reviews children’s books. In 2009 she was short listed for The Daily Mail Novel Writing Competition judged by Fay Weldon, and her short stories are widely published.

Karen is also the editor of a collection of inspiring essays published this year by Palgrave & to be launched at the Festival of Chichester this June 2014. In  Writing a First Novel: Reflections on the journey  both new and established writers such as Alison Macleod, Lionel Shriver and Hanif Kureshi talk about the experience of writing a first novel.

‘Place and the Elusive Sense of Belonging’ by Karen Stevens 

I was born at home on the 4th of January, 1965.  It was apparently unusual to have a home birth in the 60s.  Also unusual was the midwife’s decision to allow my young aunt, aged only 19, to stay and watch the birth.  My father was away at sea in the Merchant Navy and my aunt was my mother’s support.  She was given the task of disposing of the placenta and remembers the terror she’d felt when presented with the unexpected responsibility of carrying the wrapped bundle.  She had to walk to the end of our long back garden in the dark depths of winter and endure the physical difficulty of digging a hole in my father’s frozen vegetable patch.  Later my grandparents, who lived only three doors away from us, arrived to inspect their third grandchild.

  ‘Only a hundred years ago,’ Michael Morpurgo says, ‘it was more than likely that you would die in the very house you were born in, in the same bed even, that your home was your place for a lifetime.’  Our family lived in close proximity: grandparents, children and grandchildren, all living in the same rural lane of council houses on Hayling Island in Hampshire.  I went to the same school as my father, scrumped in the same orchard and bought my sweets from the same corner shop.  This was how it once was: we stayed close to our roots.  Now we can choose to stay or leave where we were brought up.  At the age of 16 I escaped my family and have since lived in many different places: caravans, flats and various houses.  I have also lived in different locations: Gibraltar, Spain, Portugal, Lancaster – to name just a few.   A curse or a blessing – I have come to see that writing is my attempt to capture an elusive sense of belonging which connects to my troublesome childhood home.  As Morpurgo points out, our childhood home may be a squalid and hopeless place, or a place of warmth and companionship.  It is our shell.  We were born into it.  It is the heart of us.

  Chika Unigwe, in her excellent essay ‘Setting’ says that ‘setting is not just the time and the place of a story, but also the mental landscape of the characters who inhabit a particular narrative.  It is therefore often linked to mood or meaning.’  Part of the atmosphere of a story is its tone, and in recreating events and moments from my childhood, or incorporating a tiny detail from my family home into a completely fictional narrative, I am creating an atmosphere, a mood or tone that links irrevocably to my early childhood home and feelings.  What is this tone?  It’s difficult for me to describe – yearning, maybe.  And certainly, many of my characters yearn for that elusive sense of belonging in both direct and indirect ways. Place for me, as for all writers, is the heart through which pumps the life-blood of a character’s story.


Here’s a writing exercise on place that I particularly like to do with students (taken from Unigwe’s essay):

  • Choose a room in your house as the setting.  Your childhood home, preferably, or somewhere you have lived at any stage in your life.
  • Imagine you are seeing this room for the first time.
  • Write down everything you can see in the room.
  • Repeat for smell and touch.
  • In one word, write down the sort of mood you want the room to evoke in a reader.
  • Carefully choose and discard the details you need/do not need to evoke the particular feeling.
  • Write an opening scene for a story.


This exercise on setting prompts memory and helps students to access material that is unique to them, demonstrating that the self is a writer’s greatest resource.  It encourages students to start thinking about the choices they have in fictionalising and shaping material.  It naturally prompts students to draw on syntax, rhythm and word choice that connects intrinsically to mood or tone.  Most of all, it makes students aware of the atmosphere of their story, which is vital, for without this their characters simply won’t breathe.

 Further reading:

Writing Fiction: a Guide to narrative Craft (7th edition), Janet Burroway & Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Short Circuit: a Guide to the Art of the Short Story, Vanessa Gebbie (ed.)

Singing for Mrs Pettigrew, Michael Morpurgo

Festival of Chichester launch event at Waterstone’s Monday 23rd June at  6.00pm. All welcome

Join Karen Stevens and others for the launch of Writing a First Novel – Reflections on the Journey , a collection of essays offering unique insight into the experience of writing and publishing a first novel. Some of the contributing authors, including Alison MacLeod, Jane Rusbridge, David Swann and Isabel Ashdown, discuss the anxieties and discoveries that shaped their first novels.

£3 of the ticket price is redeemable against purchase of the book.        Tickets here



Posted in General | Written By May 7, 2014