Place-based Writing: A Sense of Place

Gayle_BozemanFamilyChristian_smallThis post by Gayle M. Irwin

I recently learned about place-based education as I interviewed and then wrote a story about a new program called Teachers on Public Lands, developed and administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The article, about a Casper, Wyo. teacher who is participating in the program, appears in the Casper Journal.

I recently traveled to some places and was blessed to spend time in areas new or fairly new to me, including Albuquerque, NM and Colorado Springs, CO. My friend Stacy and I visited a nature center near the Rio Grande River in Albuquerque, filled with flowers, trees, birds and bees. I was also fortunate to share time with fellow Writing Wranglers and Warriors blogger Doris McGraw who uses setting and place beautifully in her writings, both poetry and prose. She took me to Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs and provided me with snippets of area history. I felt awed and inspired!

Garden of Gods2Garden of the Gods – Colorado

Places are important – whether that’s home, a forest, a river, an ocean, a garden or a wilderness. We can write about places and we can find inspired writing time in different spaces. Place triggers the senses: pine or rose, rain or dirt, cascading waters or buzzing bees. One fond early memory for me is sitting beneath a burgeoning red cedar tree in Iowa, listening to an owl hoot, and inhaling the sweet fragrance of fresh rain, more aromatic due to the scent of cedar. I grew up on a small farm in southeastern Iowa and the smells, sights, and sounds still occasionally flood my memory banks like the Mississippi River itself. So do recollections of times spent in Yellowstone Park and hiking mountain trails in Montana with my parents. My special place and unique writing space now is our cabin in the mountains above Casper where pine squirrels race among fallen logs, deer graze on lanky grasses, and chickadees twitter from lodgepole branches.

Irwin Cabin

I will soon embark upon an excursion with my dad, visiting national parks in southern Utah as well as the Grand Canyon. Red sandstone, Native cliff dwellings, and prickly pear and saguaro cacti await us as well as crimson sunsets and speeding lizards. I look forward to soaking up sunshine and experiencing sights, sounds and smells foreign to my space in Wyoming.

Setting – an important component to one’s writing. Whether a novel, short story, or essay, the setting or sense of place and space can be integral to a writer’s muse. Perhaps that place is part of the story or the inspiration thereof. Perhaps the place is the writer’s space, where one feels most comfortable composing the stories which readers will read. Just as place-based education can and often does enhance student learning, so place-based writing impacts the author … and often the reader.

Crazy MtnsThis year I’ve been blessed to write a few essays for WREN (Wyoming Rural Electric Network) magazine, each with a heightened sense of place: “Setting Aside for Solace” speaks to the need of the human soul for quiet, whether that be a ranch along a river, a mountain stream in a wilderness, or a flower garden in the city; “Making Memories” recalls many childhood outdoor experiences shared with my parents, including camping, fishing, and hiking; and “Joy of Discovery” showcases the numerous outdoor treasures found at my current forest haven/cabin – all three articles embrace a strong sense of space.

Do you bring a sense of place into your writing? Is setting a strong component of your stories and books? Do you have a favorite place, an amazing space, that touches your heart? Do you have a special writing space? I’d like to hear your thoughts on the sense of place in your life and your writing.

Happy Trails to you! I’m looking forward to my next trail with the amazing places I’ll share with my dad later this month! More space- and place- posts to come!

Mom and Dad_RockyMtnParkGayle’s parents


Gayle & Mary outsideGayle M. Irwin is writer, author and speaker. She is the author of several inspiring dog books for children and adults, including Sage’s Big Adventure, Walking in Trust: Lessons Learned with My Blind Dog, and Devotions for Dog Lovers: Paws-ing for Time with God. She is also a contributing writer to editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul, including the latest dog book The Dog Did What?, released August 19, 2014. She also writes for WREN (Wyoming Rural Electric Network), Crossroads, and Our Town Casper magazines, as well as for the Casper Journal and River Press newspapers, and she’s had articles published in Creation Illustrated magazine. She’s also authored a guidebook for owners of blind dogs, available on Kindle. Learn more at


SageBigAdventureFront-small     SageLearnsShareFront-small   Dog Devotion Book_Cover_Final    Chicken Soup_DogDidWhat_Cover    Walking_FrontCover_small


19 thoughts on “Place-based Writing: A Sense of Place

  1. Sense of place? A tad different when writing in the fantasy genre. Yet similar as well. If I’m doing a hike through mountains, I find I think back to backpacking trips I did in Glacier and Yellowstone back in the early ’80s. If I’m doing a cityscape scene in a dockside area with elements of both ancient Roman and Medieval, I have to do some online delving including some VR/3D looks of places long gone. But when it comes to smells, I have to just use my imagination and memories of other writings I’ve read — descriptions of American cities in the late 19th century with horses dead on the streets in the hot summer, etc.


  2. A sense of place is important to my Inzared series, as she is from North Carolina but travels the lower states with the circus. I have often included place in my songwriting when I get inspiration from somewhere I’ve been or something I’ve seen. I love weaving time and place into my writing. Great post Gayle. Have a wonderful time on your trip with your dad and be sure to do a post on the trip so we can all share in your new experiences!


    1. Thanks so much, Linda, for your comments and good wishes. Yes, I got a very good feel for your sense of place in your Inzared series — you did a GREAT job! And, yes, I plan to post about the SW with Dad experience(s)!!


  3. I hope you and your father can still enjoy your time together. My dad passed away a little over a year ago. Even now, when I read something that might interest him, for example, I find myself making a mental note to mention it to him but then realize I no longer can.


    1. Hi, Abbie — both of my parents were in the hospital at the same time in 2009, so I cherish each moment I have with them because I know one day they will not be here. I wish I lived closer/they lived closer, but since that’s not the case, I visit whenever I can and I try to do something special at least once a year with them, such as meet in Billings or go to Yellowstone. Each venture is a cherished moment!


  4. Gayle,
    Thank you for sharing my love of Colorado Springs and the wonderful place I live. The sense of place is what brings memories, both real and imagined, to us and our readers. Have a wonderful trip and enjoy the gifts we have been blessed with. I look forward to reading of them. Doris


  5. I share your sense of space and try to take in all the smells and sounds when I am anywhere enjoying the moment. I love walking through abandoned buildings, imagining the space used by people who were there, the smell of the place is unique sometimes. Good post! Neva


  6. Place plays an important part in my novels (but not my shorts). For me setting is another character, either positive or negative, that has to be dealt. And it very much informs the characters that live there. People in WY have a very different outlook on life than those in big cities on the East Coast.

    I have two special places (neither of which I’ve used in my books) – the ocean and the redwoods. I love sitting on a bluff overlooking the ocean and watching the sun set. I also love riding my horse in the redwoods near us. The cool, quiet and deep greens soothe my soul.


    1. There are many spacial places, Kate, and we are very blessed to be so enriched in this country by the open as well as the city scapes. I know what you mean by “soothing the soul” — I feel that way about my cabin/mountain acreage. I do enjoy exploring and visiting spaces and incorporating place and space into my writing. May each space you visit enrich your life and your writing.


  7. Lovely evocative post, Gayle. You’re going to have a great holiday I think- enjoy! Place is important in my novels, too. it’s easier to express those places in my contemporary novels, especially ones I’ve been to where they made a great impression on me. My historical settings take a bit more imagining, but its been said that I’ve managed to make my characters very believable in a realistic setting – all back some 2000 years ago. It’s in the details, adn getting the amount just right and not too over described, I think.


    1. Place plays a large role in most historical novels because readers have to understand where that setting is, to view it in their mind’s eye, in order to have a greater understanding of the characters, and you bring that sense of place alive quite well in your works, Nancy! Thank you for your kind comments and well wishes!


  8. The answer to all of your questions is Yes. LOL. I have a favorite place, which is Blackwater Falls, WV. (We went there on our honeymoon). I love to write either in my hammock or on the front porch swing (doesn’t happen often). I’ll be attending a writer’s conference in October and perhaps one of my panels will be on setting and I’ll use some of your blog. Thanks. Cher’ley


    1. There are so many places and spaces we can enjoy — your Falls sound lovely, Cher’ley! (I so enjoy waterfalls!!). Although my writing space in town is my home office, I love being at my mountain cabin — I find it so inspirational! I love nature, I love exploring and seeing new places, and I love bringing “space to life” in my writing! Thanks for your kind comments — I will look forward to hearing how people respond to your conference panel!


  9. Great post, Gayle! And interesting that you talk about place not only in terms of setting in writing but also in terms of the place(s) where we write. My books are urban fantasy, so not all my locations are real. Even so, I want to provide a sense of those locations, so that my characters and their actions are anchored somewhere. In terms of writing places, I most often write in my living room, but I like taking my laptop to a local coffee shop sometimes too, just for a change–and sometimes that gives me more writing energy.


    1. Hi, Stephanie — setting does help anchor a story, I believe, because readers need a point of reference, an understanding of the place, no matter what genre one is writing. I am the opposite of you — I need quiet in order to write so a coffee shop doesn’t work for me. It’s fun to learn how, when, why, and where writers write — our individuality shines forth, that’s for sure! Best to you and thank you for your comments!


  10. Loved your post. I always try to place the reader in the woods, in a boat or wherever I may be. I think our connection with nature starts when we are young and stays with us throughout our lives, often growing stronger.


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