Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Take a Story Vacation by Karen Barnett

Narnia, Middle Earth, the Hundred Acre wood—those of us who love to read can easily rattle off the favorite places we’ve visited thanks to the pages of a great book. I still think of Catherine Marshall’s Christy whenever someone talks about Appalachia and Huckleberry Finn’s raft when I hear references to the Mississippi.

One of my writing goals has always been to make my novels’ settings so significant that readers fall in love with the place as much as the characters. How do you accomplish this?

Put the setting to work

Rather than just choosing an intriguing location (who doesn’t want to set a novel in Hawaii or Paris?), think of how the setting can create tension for your character. How will they interact with their environment? A city boy might chafe at small town existence, while a rancher might think the same community is overcrowded. A woman who escapes her busy life by cruising the Caribbean might find herself caught in a hurricane. A lonely girl finds solace in a forgotten garden (sound familiar?).

In other words, the setting should be more than a lovely backdrop. It should create rewards and challenges unique to each character.

Breathe life into your location

Readers no longer have the patience for lengthy paragraphs of description. You can avoid the glazed eyes by showing the character interacting with the environment instead.

  • The sun beat down on her bare arms. Another hour and she’d move from glowing to “extra crispy.”
  • How was a man supposed to sleep with the unceasing drone of cicadas?
  • She breathed in the familiar scent of damp moss and pine needles. 

Use sensory detail to bring your setting to life. Smells, sounds, and tastes will solidify the place in readers’ minds.

Real place or fictional?

Many readers dream of visiting the fictional towns of Mitford (Jan Karon), Cedar Cover (Debbie Macomber), and Blessing, North Dakota (Lauraine Snelling). There can be certain advantages to designing your own location. No one will question your accuracy and you can create a community as loving and supportive—or as dark and mysterious—as your plot demands.

If you set your novel in a real location, anyone who has visited will automatically feel a sense of connection with your story. Reading your book might feel like going home, assuming you get it right. Plus, if a community falls in love with the story you’ve written about them, they’ll recommend it far and wide.

I write novels set in the national parks, and I frequently receive notes from readers who are delighted to read about a park they love. A unique setting can intrigue readers, even before they meet the characters. Opening that first page can be a bit like heading off on vacation.

In fact, a story-vacation sounds pretty good right now! I’m in the mood to visit a fascinating location via a great novel. 

Can you suggest a book with an intriguing setting?


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KAREN BARNETT, author of the Vintage National Parks novels, worked as a ranger and outdoor educator at Mount Rainier National Park and Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park. When not writing, Karen enjoys photography, hiking, and public speaking. She lives in Oregon with her family.


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