How to Anchor Your Reader in Time and Place

As I proofread my memoir The Only Way Through Is Out one last time, I smiled as I noticed (and double-checked) all the time and place "anchors" my book coach had encouraged me to include.

Like this anchor on page 1:

"Evan, my ever-so-patient husband, said in our Montauk, New York, living room one fall afternoon in 2012.“

The reader knows exactly when and where this opening scene takes place.

Like this anchor on page 20:

"Eighteen years into our marriage, the argument was likely about ..."

Here, the date was less important, but the reader needed to know when this argument took place in the context of a long-term marriage.

Or this anchor on page 22:

"The kitchen table was littered with circulars from the Sunday papers, empty coffee mugs, and a white paper bag from the Hot Bagel Shop, the best bagels in Houston in 1990."

Here, the time anchor appears organically in the scene, rather than me writing, "In Houston, in August of 1990, at the kitchen table ..."

Why Anchors Matter

Your reader needs to know at all times where they are in the story in terms of time and place.

Time and place are important because when the reader doesn't know those things, they become confused. You don't want readers wondering where or when a certain scene is taking place. You don't want them asking: “Did x happen before this or after?” "Are we here? Or there"? 

When a reader is confused, they are taken out of your story.

When a reader is taken out of your story, they may stop reading.

And that's exactly what we don't want to happen.

You, the writer, want to keep your reader immersed in your story. Keeping your reader grounded in time and place is foundational to engaging them, to making sure they keep turning the page.

The Curse of the Author's Knowledge

Remembering to anchor your reader can be especially difficult for memoir writers because, of course, you've lived these events. You may not even think about the necessity of cluing your reader into where and when a particular scene is happening because it's "oh-so-obvious" to YOU.

This is what we call "the curse of the author's knowledge." The things we know so intimately about a character or a story that we naturally assume the reader knows. And guess what? Your reader only knows what you've put on the page.

This is why it's important to get feedback from people who don't know your story intimately—beta readers, editors, book coaches, people in a writing group—so they are only reading what's on the page, not filtering the words through their "off-the-page" experience of you.

How to Anchor Your Reader

There are many ways you can ground your reader in time and place, including the following:

1. Put a timestamp and location at the top of each chapter: This is how Keri Blakinger handles time and place in her memoir Corrections in Ink, which has a dual timeline (her time in prison and the events that led up to her imprisonment).

In her memoir Replacement Child, Judy Mandel also uses time stamps at the start of her chapters, which are useful because the story is not told in chronological order. Using timestamps is not the only way to anchor a reader, but they are particularly helpful when writing a fractured narrative or a narrative with multiple timelines.

2. Tie the time to another important event in the story: Another way to anchor your reader in time is to choose a couple of pivotal dates that you peg other events to.

Example: In my memoir, The Only Way Through Is Out, I write something I call “the unspeakable,” a key moment in my story, and throughout the book, I anchor events back to that unspeakable date. Instead of writing  “In March 2016,” I’ll write “One year after writing the unspeakable."

3. Give the reader straightforward context right off the bat in the chapter. Jessi Hempel uses this anchoring technique effectively in her memoir The Family Outing.

Look at this example from Chapter 4:

"Shame gets the better of my dad the first time he's sent to see a therapist and learns that he is capable of lying. He's less than a month into his first semester at boarding school. The Stony Brook School is a cluster of brick buildings set around a chapel on a leafy campus on the Bayside of Long Island. Boys can start there in seventh grade."

See how clearly the author grounds us in time and place? We don't know the exact year, but that doesn't matter. We know her father is a young teen, he's in boarding school and he's never seen a therapist before. We have the information we need to stay in the story.

Anchoring in Revision

In your first draft, you're Iikely to have many places where the reader isn't anchored in time and place, and that will be one of the things you will look at closely in revision, either on your own or with the help of beta readers or a book coach.

I added many time and place anchors to my manuscript through my many revisions, all the way through the copy edit, when my copy editor asked: "Was this trip to Houston before or after you moved to Montauk?" Oops. Another case of the curse of the author's knowledge.

During my proofread, my final pass through my manuscript, I discovered the opposite problem: some time anchors that no longer worked or were no longer necessary. This happened in a number of cases when I had tied the time to another event in the story (see #2 above) and I ended up writing the events out of chronology.

Here's an example:

I mention wearing a pale orange sweater (stay with me: when you read my book, you'll understand why this matters!) and that I will wear it again in two months at my son's graduation. Yes, this was literally true; his graduation was in June. But the first sweater event isn't tied to April, in fact the date is intentionally not specific because I've massaged my timeline a bit. When I came across this anchor during my proofread, I found the precision of the two months to be confusing, so I changed it to "in a few months."

Pro tip: Consider your time and place anchors in every draft. It's possible that you may find that you have "over-corrected" in earlier drafts and added more anchors than are necessary.

Pro tip: Want to learn more about how to anchor your reader? Pull out some of your favorite novels or memoirs and study how the author keeps the reader grounded in time and place.


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