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?”
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.
Learn more about Kirby Larson.