Rock Stars and Writers: How Our Hometowns Shape Us

kurt cobain

Late last year, the childhood home of Kurt Cobain, the tragic lead singer of Nirvana, hit the auction block. I followed the story with interest, mostly because  he and I grew up in the same town. And we were impacted by that— sometimes in similar ways, sometimes very differently.

Today, the home town we share, quiet little Aberdeen, Washington, celebrated Kurt Cobain Day, in honor of his birthday. It is hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since he took his own life.

How our hometowns shape us

In a novel, the setting sometimes has deep meaning—to the characters, plot and theme. And so it is with memoirists, except, perhaps, even more so.

In Cobain’s relatively short, troubled life, the little logging town of Aberdeen, Washington was everything he despised. He walked the same gray, rainswept streets I did. We even went to the same elementary school and high school (at different times, of course).

wishkah bridge

And though he left soon after his high school years, that little town impacted him enough that he later sang about the muddy banks of the Wishkah River. I felt his angst (though I know nothing about being kicked out of my home, as he was, and sleeping under the North Aberdeen Bridge, that crossed the Wishkah in one spot).

In Aberdeen, it is damp and cold and misty for most of the year. The weather can alienate you and make you hunker down inside yourself, even if you have a home. If you don’t have one, ‘under the bridge,’ conjures murky water and trolls and a deep-seated loneliness. If, on top of that, you are you a depressed, unfulfilled creative, as Cobain was, Aberdeen can be a very dark place.

When setting matters in story

Setting can impact story—whether it’s a novel or a memoir or a song— in complex ways. It can even, in some cases, become a character itself. Viewing the world through the grittiness of a town like Aberdeen can color the way a child looks at the world—and his or her hope for a place in it. It did for me:

In the 1960s, Aberdeen, Washington was a small mill town of weather-beaten clapboard houses. The fog drifted in from the Pacific Ocean as religiously as the tides, and hovered over the muddy river and pasture lands. The clouds gathered offshore, seeding the rain that moved in a wave from the sea, to the river, to the town, with no mercy, from Advent to Easter and into the summer.

The grass was squishy with mud, and spirits weary from the constantly hovering rain clouds. Saturating the ground and mixing with the warm air, the rain bred the mold that invaded houses and made rooms smell musty, even with the windows open.

I came to identify the visitors by the umbrellas they carried. If you were a true Harborite, you had no use for an umbrella. Most days, we cheerfully moved from place to place in the drizzle, hatless, blissfully unaware of our dripping hair and squishy shoes.

Like Cobain, Aberdeen made me most of all want to move away. I ran from it the first chance I could get. I knew if I stayed, I would end up waitressing at Duffy’s Restaurant or ringing up diapers at WalMart.

And yet, as I write my memoir, I find myself constantly drawing on the pain and the utter aloneness I felt growing up there.

It will just be one of those books where the land, the town, the place becomes one with the story.

What about you?

Have you ever read a book that has such a strong sense of place that the characters seem inextricably connected to it?

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  1. Di Mace February 20, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

    Although different town, continent and hemisphere, I recently read a book called Mr Wigg that was so vividly evokative of my own hometown, Orange, that I had my mother read it as well – to see if my head was making connections that weren\’t there! Set in a rural stone fruit growing (and later vineyard) area, the descriptions of seasonal changes, surroundings and lifestyles brought back all my childhood memories. Although not from a farming family, my hometown was a rich rural setting (volcanic soil goodies) with true seasons and strong connections to Mother Nature. Reading the book warmed me to the core of my soul as I re-experienced everything good about my childhood home and its surrounds.


    • Judy Lee Dunn February 21, 2014 at 8:58 am #


      Isn’t it a wonderful thing when the setting of a story reaches you in deep ways? I have read a few books like the one you describe, too: stories that I’m thinking, now how diode this writer place me in the setting in easy that connected with me on en emotional level? It is almost like they grew up in the same place I did. Nowadays, as writers we are told to drop the lengthy descriptive passages from our books, but I love those parts! I just need to be careful that they don’t slow the story down. Is Mr. Wigg a novel or a memoir?

      And your hometown has the name of “Orange”? That is very cool.


      • Di Mace February 21, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

        Mr Wigg was a novel, although both Mum and I believe the writer had definitely lived in the area I grew up – there were too many similarities to be otherwise – so shades of memoir perhaps. Even more amazing was that the cover was orange – yes – the same colour as the name of my hometown. Ironically though the climate there isn’t suitable to grow that fruit! It was named after a Duke of Orange of some note (so much so that I can’t remember what) 🙂


  2. Hal February 21, 2014 at 5:35 am #

    I have been a voracious reader all my life. The one book that meets the criteria
    of place and character for me is “The Big Sky.” Published in 1947 (I believe) I first
    read it in high school in the early sixties.
    I grew up in a more rural area than you. There was no town, the closest being about 25 miles away. And it was not easy to get to town, a trek through the mountains,
    an all day trip.
    “The Big Sky” is about the mountain man era, those who went to the Rocky Mountains to trap beaver between 1820 and 1840. I don’t believe most people would get the sense of true freedom that comes from plot and character in this
    book. I connected with it because I felt I knew the characters and how they thought.
    On the first reading, as an immature kid, I wanted to live as the mountain men lived.

    Sometime in the late seventies I reread the book. To my surprise, as an adult I still
    made the connection. This time I considered moving to Alaska.

    Now I’m old. I have traveled a lot during my life, discovered places I would like to
    live but for reasons with family and work I never moved to one of these beautiful

    Among many other things I record audio books. Last year, I recorded “The Big Sky.”
    Again, even as an old man, I connected with the book.

    This book is reminiscent of my life in a metaphorical sense. Obviously, I don’t know the nature of life in America, especially the west almost 200 years ago. But I sense that it was not much different than my own love of the outdoors and my childhood adventures.


    • Judy Lee Dunn February 21, 2014 at 9:06 am #

      Hal, wow. That book definitely had an impact on you if you remember it to this day. And it is always fun rereading a book we loved as kids, to discover if we think differently about it now. That is amazing that “The Big Sky” still connected with you.

      Actually, I did grow up in a house in a rural setting (while Cobain lived “in town,” as we used to say). We were close to the Wishkah River, about seven and a half miles from Aberdeen proper. So, yes, I totally relate to rural settings.

      And you narrate audio books? You have to have a good, rich voice to be able to do that. I’ve always wondered: do people get special training to do that? I bet you were very good in drama class when you were in school.

      Thanks for sharing your story here. Very interesting.


  3. Kaarina Dillabough February 21, 2014 at 8:22 am #

    Although I can’t single out a special book/story, I believe that the more a writer can describe the setting – both in what is said and what is left to the imagination – the more compellingly bound are the characters, time and place. Cheers! Kaarina


    • Judy Lee Dunn February 21, 2014 at 9:11 am #

      Kaarina! Boy, we have been missing connections lately. Need to synchronize our paths so we can start working on that big project!

      What you say about leaving parts of the setting to the reader’s imagination is so important. I want to say, this is what it was like. But readers sometimes want to create a picture in their own heads. I do that a lot when I read stories.

      I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.


  4. Steve Olson February 21, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

    It wasn’t a particularly great Hemingway novel, at least per the critics, but Islands in the Stream evoked for me such a feel for place. I wanted to be able to write like that. I’ve been trying ever since. I read this in college one summer break. I can still see the bar Tom and his pals hung out at, the boat, the lagoons they cruised into. Yet, it was all hung with a melancholy that belied the setting. Phenomenal.
    As for effect of place, I could write so much more, but stuck at work now and will craft an essay this weekend. Put it this way, moving to Edmonds WA just a few short miles from where I’ve spent most of my adult life has been a breath of fresh air.


  5. Judy Lee Dunn February 21, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    Oh! That’s one of the few Hemingway books I haven’t read. I need to pick that one up. I just finished rereading his memoir, “A Moveable Feast” and have started “In Our Time,” a collection of his short stories.

    I think that one of Hemingway’s strengths was infusing his stories with a strong sense of place. When an author writes like that, I just feel I am right there with him or her.

    It sounds like you have some stories of your own to tell. I would love to read one of them someday.


  6. banu February 21, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

    Judy, this is an awesome post and a topic. Do u plan on submitting it online? Love ur blog and how you share yourself. Thank you!


    • Judy Lee Dunn February 22, 2014 at 7:14 am #

      Banu, Wow. Thanks for popping in and reading my post! I’m not doing a lot of other online writing (besides my blog). Trying to put all my energies into finishing this book. Again, it’s great to see you here.


      • Banu February 22, 2014 at 9:59 am #

        Nice! Sounds like you are happily busy! Keep it up! I really like reading your work. Have a great weekend!


  7. Imelda Dulcich February 22, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    Nice piece. Pat Conroy’s Beach Music always pulls me. ““Carolina beach music,” Dupree said, coming up on the porch. “The holiest sound on earth.”
    ― Pat Conroy, Beach Music


  8. Judy Lee Dunn February 22, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    I love Pat Conroy. I need to put some more of his books on my Kindle shelf (as if I don’t have enough!). Thanks for the suggestion.


  9. Jack February 27, 2014 at 3:36 pm #

    Hi Judy,

    The first thing I thought of when you mentioned how places can affect a person are the two places that had the biggest impact on my life, outside of my parents’ home.

    Sometimes when I tell people about them I feel frustrated at not being to show them just how big an effect they had upon me. There are people I don’t like much at all who understand pieces of me better than others because they shared those experiences.

    Places help to mold and make us, no doubt.


  10. Judy Lee Dunn February 27, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    I know exactly what you mean. It doesn’t even have to be your hometown. It is a locale where you felt connected and at peace. I feel that way about Ocean Shores, Washington because the waves and the rocks just called to me. And, yes, people who might not be your best friends understand this.

    It is a strange world we live in. Not sure where you are living now, but I sense that you get this.


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