Memory Palaces

I've been having a discussion with other writers about memory palaces recently. This technique, credited to Cicero, was a device favoured by rhetoricians of the ancient world who had to speak for long periods without notes. The process is to pick a place you know well, and attach notes to objects and views within it, so that as you 'walk' through your talk, you pass them in a logical order. Each note should be the next item in your talk.

The reason I know so much about this concept is that part of my training as a mediator involved 'anti-Stockholm syndrome' techniques, which means that if you were spending a lot of time with people who might be hostile to you, or try to convert you to their cause, you had an armoury of devices to keep your mental and emotional balance. We were asked to 'walk' through our primary school or first home, or grandparents house, whichever was our happiest memory, remembering every piece of furniture, every smell, sound and emotion. A series of questions like 'where did you hang your coat?', 'what was your favourite time of day here?' etc grounded us in the experience.

Once we had 'visited' our place a couple of times we were all astonished at how much we could remember: our mother singing, our teacher's perfume, our third birthday, the time we lost a milk tooth ... and all the vivid details of childhood came back in concrete detail. We discovered it was entirely possible to live in a memory palace in real time - to spend as long watching a favourite TV show in memory as we had in reality. This, when a mediator is held against their will, or isolated with zealots, is how they cope with solitary confinement, harangues, insults and fear.

What has all this to do with writing? Well novelist Maryanne Stahl confirms that she uses a similar technique when writing fiction. I do too. Before I write about a person or place, I walk through their life; feeling, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching every aspect of their reality. Then I can write with confidence because the scene I describe isn't 'made up', it is 'remembered' and that makes all the difference.