I write nonfiction. As such, when I don’t have a lot of detail, I can’t make things up to fill in the blanks. But even seemingly mundane facts can offer ways to add meaning to your narrative.
Here’s one example. Let’s say you’re writing about someone you don’t know well — perhaps you’re writing a family history and have some, but not a lot, of information about a grandparent, a great-aunt, etc.
One piece of information that’s generally easy to find is where people live or have lived. Yay for public records, right?
Street names can hold some strong metaphorical possibilities. Streets are named after flowers, trees, people, places, landmarks, and even golf courses (Mankato, Minn., has streets such as St. Andrews, Pebble Creek, Augusta, and Inverness. What does that say?).
Let’s take a street like Spruce Street.
What are the characteristics of a spruce? Large, strong, hardy, likes the cold. Its wood makes excellent paper and musical instruments. It’s a popular ornamental tree and Native Americans used it to make baskets and canoes.
Could any of these characteristics apply to the person you’re writing about who lived on Spruce Street? Or if they don’t apply, then you can play with opposites or irony, i.e. the weakest person in the family lived on Spruce Street.
In my current project, I’m writing about a place on MacArthur Boulevard. The street was named after World War II General Douglas MacArthur.
The story I’m writing is filled with violence, so I can make parallels between the people I’m writing about and the fact that we tend to name streets and places after people who played major roles in acts of aggression.
Michael Moore does the street thing really well in Bowling for Columbine. Toward the end of the movie, he recounts the school shooting in Flint, Mich., in 2000. Flint was a highly economically depressed town, yet Moore points out streets named after Ivy League Schools — Princeton, Harvard, Yale, etc. People there dreamed about success for themselves and their children. The scene is about the crushed dreams of a town.
Now, if someone lived on First Street or Third Avenue, it might seem there’s not a lot to play with. But think about it. What connotations does “First” have? Did this person always have to be “first” in his/her life? Was this person far from a leader, so to live on “First Street” is rather ironic?
Try this technique, and let me know how it goes!