Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

Newbery award-winning children’s book author

Karen Cushman

Kirby Larson

Writing a Book with a Strong Sense of Location or Place

Karen Cushman asked Kirby Larson, “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, Hattie Big Sky?”

Eastern Montana (photo: Carol Highsmith, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

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?

Larson: The setting grew out of an event that captured my imagination, which was my great-grandmother homesteading by herself in eastern Montana shortly before WWI. The homestead was near Vida, Montana which is where the story takes place.

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

Larson: I began researching the story in 2000, and it was not as easy to access digitized information at that time. I relied on sites like USGenWeb, and any other place I could scrounge up old photos or maps. I am completely indebted to the many historical societies which published early homesteaders’ journals. These diaries provided rich details, including two in particular that ended up in the novel: the incident where Hattie “baptizes” her chicken, and the incident where a hungry wolf chomps off Violet’s tail (she’s Hattie’s “contemptible” cow). At some point in the research project, I bought a $99 Amtrak ticket to Wolf Point, Montana so I could see/smell/experience the place for myself. I was able to locate the site of my great-grandmother’s homestead, as well as unearthing other fabulous details while spending three days in the smoky “morgue” of the Wolf Point Herald newspaper office.

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

Larson: The place completely enriched and informed the story, along with setting boundaries I was required to work within. One small example: the first draft of the cover showed a charming split rail fence, something that was non-existent in eastern (treeless) Montana. Hattie’s claim was a good distance from town so I had to figure out feasible ways to get her to and fro, without slowing the story down. I did not change any details about the place. Thankfully, my research uncovered maps and photos of the town and of some of the homesteads so I had those to help build the stage for Hattie’s story.  

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

Larson: Put Yellowstone out of your mind! Eastern Montana is flat, flat, flat, with tiny little cacti snuggled in with the prairie grasses — imagine walking on those barefoot as many homesteaders did all summer. 


Thank you to Kirby Larson for this look at Eastern Montana and Hattie’s homestead.

Kirby Larson
Kirby Larson, author

Learn more about Kirby Larson.