Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

Newbery award-winning children’s book author

Karen Cushman

Angela Ahn

Writing a Book with a Strong Sense of Location or Place

Karen Cushman asked Angela Ahn, “My newest book, War and Millie McGonigle, started with a place: South Mission Beach, San Diego, where my husband grew up. You, too, have written books set in a place alive and rich. Will you share some insights into place in your story, Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field?”

Drumheller, Alberta

Q: Did you choose the setting first, before characters and plot? Did the story grow from the place or did the place grow from the story?

Ahn: Because the first nugget of Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field was based on a real road trip that my family had done, the setting (starting in Vancouver and then traveling to Drumheller, Alberta) and the plot are tightly woven together. They sort of came as a package in my mind. There are really three main settings: Vancouver, Drumheller, and in the car during the space between driving to the two physical locations. The story definitely grows from the place. Peter cannot experience his ultimate low without the setting and the road trip that brings him to Alberta.

Q: How/where did you find the details that brought your place to life?

Ahn: For Vancouver, that was easy. It’s been my home for more than forty years! I did make up a few details (like the name of a park) but for the most part, the places in Vancouver that I name are real and familiar to me. For the details about Drumheller, I scrolled through my old photos because I’ve been there twice. It was a matter of refreshing my memory. I did double-check everything on the Internet too, of course. One place that I remember from our last trip had closed down, so I made up a name for a place like the one I remembered. The road trip to Drumheller was something that we’ve done as a family, so getting the details right was pretty easy, but my editor made sure that when the family stopped, that the travel time was realistic for a family road trip. 

Q: Did the place enrich the story, or did it create limitations? Did you have to change details about the place?

Ahn: I think in some ways choosing Vancouver for the hometown of the Lee family doesn’t really add anything truly essential to the story. It’s about a Korean-Canadian family and that family could have lived anywhere, but it was and always will be important for me to write stories set on the west coast of Canada because not that many middle grade books are set here (even by Canadian authors!) and I would like to show readers that universally relatable experiences can happen anywhere. Why not in my hometown? I also think I might be a tiny bit lazy and to write stories in other cities would require me to do a lot of research. I’m always able to skip the research and head straight to the details when writing about a place I know intimately. 

In terms of the Drumheller setting, if you haven’t been to any of the Badlands (in the US or Canada) the landscape is really something else. I hope I captured some of the details accurately and vividly. I hope the reader gets to travel with the Lee family and experience just a taste what the family experiences. I didn’t want to change too much about Drumheller because it is a truly marvelous gem of a town and if you are even a tiny bit interested in dinosaurs, it is an excellent place to visit.  

Q: What would you like us to know about the place you chose for your book?

Ahn: When I chose Vancouver for the main setting, you could say that I was being either obstinate or foolish. Canadians have long read countless stories about American and European cities and though we may not have ever been to those places, the settings don’t give us a reason not to read those books. But I think for US publishing gatekeepers, settings like Canada do give them pause. Maybe there’s no panache or anything particularly alluring about Canada to US readers such as a city like Paris or Tokyo, but I didn’t cave into the potential pressure of making the location more accessible to US readers. It’s my home and it’s a lovely city that deserves to be the setting for at least some stories! I knew I was possibly slamming the door shut on ever getting picked up by a US publishing house, but I landed with Tundra and, happily, didn’t have to change anything! 

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Thank you to Angela Ahn for sharing Vancouver and Drumheller with us in Peter Lee’s story.

Angela Ahn
Angela Ahn, author

Learn more about Angela Ahn.

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