Location, Location, Location: Writing About Place

Moderator Nancy Dykstra began by quoting Robert Caro on the importance of place, with words from his 2011 BIO conference keynote address. In fiction and nonfiction alike, conveying a sense of place helps readers understand character. Fisher noted the responsibility of the biographer to make places, some perhaps no longer existing, “as real to the readers as they were to the women and men who inhabited them.”

Location, he continued, “becomes a crucial element not only of setting or even historical context, but also of personal identity and self-perception, family dynamics, emotional development and career, and life choices.” For some subjects, their desire to leave a place might also be telling. Among his New England subjects, including the James family and John Singer Sargent, was a shared desire to get out of New England. The Bostonian expat community based in Rome, he said, was known as Cambridge on the Tiber.

For Eve LaPlante and all the panelists, visiting the important places in a subject’s life is a key part of the research process. But LaPlante goes even further; taking the advice of a military historian, she sometimes visits locations at the same time of year and day as key events in the subject’s life took place. For her biography of Anne Hutchinson, that meant going to a Cambridge bridge just before sunrise on the same day in November that Hutchinson set out for the second day of her famous trial. But today’s exploration of a subject’s important locations, she added, might not be as revealing as a detailed description of the place from the subject himself.

Carl Rollyson took something of a contrarian view to the importance some biographers set on place. “Not all readers want to read about places,” he said. He noted that Boswell gives very little sense of place in his Life of Johnson, and he said that some biographers “can make an absolute fetish of place,” perhaps a reflection of their desire to show off the places they visited and all they learned during the research process.

Still, while doing research for his current biography on Walter Brennan, Rollyson said he became “besotted” with Lynn and Swampscott, Massachusetts, where Brennan spent his youth. He read from a draft of the opening chapter of the book, which revealed a deep sense of place for Lynn, where Brennan was born. But Rollyson said some of those details could be cut before the book goes to print.

The Q&A brought up several additional points. One was that what a place looks like today might not be what it was like 200 years ago, so some small details the biographer wants to include based on personal observation can be wrong. LaPlante admitted, “You’re going to make mistakes.” The panel and audience members also shared other resources that can help provide information on locations, such as paintings from the subject’s era, old maps, fire insurance maps, and historical travel guides.