Writing a Book with a Strong Sense of Location or Place
Karen Cushman asked Ann E. Burg, “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, Flooded, Requiem for Johnstown?”
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?
Burg: In most of my books, place is a character as well as a setting. In my most recent book Flooded, Requiem for Johnstown, the industrial town of Johnstown PA sets the entire story in motion. If there had been no Johnstown PA in 1889, there would have been no story.
In 1889, the South Fork Dam, 14 miles above Johnstown collapsed. 2,209 people died including 99 families and 396 children. This was a major historical catastrophe and yet I had never heard anything about it. How could that be? I ventured to learn more!
Q: How/where did you find the details that brought your place to life?
Burg: My research included two visits to the Johnstown museum in the town of Johnstown as well as visiting the grounds of both the South Fork Dam Memorial and Grandview Cemetery. However, what was most meaningful was the pitifully brief entries accessible online as Dr. Beale’s Book of the Dead, a listing of those who had died in the flood. Many of the entries had been recorded from scraps of paper and in Dr. Beale’s book, there is entry upon entry, of hastily scribbled lines, describing the dead, many of whom were never identified: female, 8 years, gingham apron, grey dress, light hair. Ring on right finger; male, 10 years, brown hair. Black clothes with patch on trouser knee. New shoes…
Who were these people, I wondered? What were their dreams?
Q: Did the place enrich the story, or did it create limitations? Did you have to change details about the place?
Burg: The place absolutely enriched my story. The river was so real that it became a character with her own voice!
I didn’t feel the need to change any details, only to learn as much as I could about life in an industrial town in 1889. We study the titans of the Gilded Age, but not those working in the foundries and factories.
Q: What would you like us to know about the place you chose for your book?
Burg: I am a firm believer that each of us is more alike than different, but I also recognize that the place we call home helps to shape us. History has much to tell us about our lives in the here and now.
Johnstown was an industrial town with hard working immigrants trying to make a better life for themselves and for their families. Unfortunately, the negligence of those who were wealthier and more powerful led to a great tragedy. I wanted to remember and honor Johnstown and its residents, those who survived as well as those buried beneath the nameless white tombstones in Grandview Cemetery.
Thank you to Ann Burg for her insights into her new book. Can’t wait to read it.
Learn more about Ann E. Burg.