Writing a Book with a Strong Sense of Location or Place
Karen Cushman asked Bill Harley, “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, Night of the Spadefoot Toads“
Harley: I’ve come to believe that the geography of a story is one of the characters; where someone lives affects how they act. My most recent novel, Now You Say Yes, tells of a road trip across the country by Mari, a fifteen-year old girl and her nine-year-old brother. For that book, I drove across the country, charting the route I thought they would follow, taking notes and pictures along the way to try and capture the geography. But of all my books, the one that most trades on a sense of place is Night of the Spadefoot Toads. I know a lot about where it takes place because it’s my home—southeastern Massachusetts. The book, because of the story and its careful description of the habitats in southeastern New England, has ended up in curriculums across the country.
The genesis of the book was a late-night excursion I took with a naturalist/teacher friend of mine to ponds and vernal pools in my town, Seekonk, and the neighboring town, Rehoboth. On a rainy April night, we waded through muck and wetlands, listening to and catching American toads, spring peepers, wood frogs, and finally, in the middle of a thunderous rainstorm late in the night, the eastern spadefoot toads, an endangered species in our area. Standing in the middle of the shallow vernal pool, the wind whipping the trees, the rain pouring down, and all of nature singing in wild abandon, I decided I need to share what I was feeling and experiencing. I spent the next couple of years traipsing through areas most people would avoid (sometimes illegally) and talking to naturalists, state officials, lawyers, and realtors, trying to understand all the forces that would prevent these little critters from surviving. When the main character, Ben, wanders down a path in the woods behind his house and eventually finds the house of his science teacher, I was writing about walking through the woods from my house to my neighbor’s a mile and a half away.
I hear from people all the time about how the book has affected them, but the biggest beneficiary of the book has been me. Because of writing it, I know where I live much better than before. I track the coming of spring by the appearance of buds and flowers on one tree after another in succession, and the sounds that spring brings—the phoebes and Carolina wrens singing, the reappearance of the red-breasted grosbeak and oriole, and the calls of our amphibians—first the wood frogs, then the peepers, then my little spadefoot toads on one rainy night each year.
Thank you to Bill Harley for his look at nearby locations; setting a book there taught him more about where he lives.
Learn more about Bill Harley.