Writing a Book with a Strong Sense of Location or Place
Karen Cushman asked a number of authors, “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. A number of gracious authors thoughtfully answered these questions. If you haven’t read them yet, please do. Now it’s Karen’s turn to share some insights into place in her own story, War and Millie McGonigle.“
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?
Cushman: The setting—South Mission Beach, San Diego—inspired the book. For nearly fifty years I’ve heard Phil’s stories about growing up there. It seemed a peaceful and comforting sort of place, so its juxtaposition with the coming war was intriguing.
Q: How/where did you find the details that brought your place to life?
Cushman: A lot of research is how. The publications of the San Diego History Center were invaluable. eBay provided specialty items like an old history of the San Diego Zoo, a 1940(ish) Zoo tour guide, photos of polio patients in iron lungs, and a plane-spotting manual. The internet offered memoirs of the war years by San Diegans, photos of wartime downtown San Diego, and a wonderful, colorful, 1940s map of the area. While I was writing, Philip and I visited San Diego and walked along the bay with its soft waves and gentle splashing.
Q: Did the place enrich the story, or did it create limitations? Did you have to change details about the place?
Cushman: The place was the heart of the story, and, yes, it did create limitations. It’s a real place with a real history. I couldn’t create a bridge where there wasn’t a bridge in 1941 or sail warships into Mission Bay. I had to change some things about 2020 Mission Bay to make them more accurate or realistic for 1941.
Q: What would you like us to know about the place you chose for your book?
Cushman: The Mission Beach and Mission Bay where Phil grew up don’t exist any more. Since his time, Mission Bay was dredged, redesigned, and developed into a splendid resort with hotels and restaurants and multi-million-dollar houses. And countless tourists. Milly would not recognize it, but the tides still come and go, seagulls still shriek, and the breeze off the ocean can still soften the air and the spirit.
You’ll find a slideshow with photos from Phil’s childhood on South Mission Beach here.