Writing a Book with a Strong Sense of Location or Place
Karen Cushman asked Linda Sue Park, “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, A Long Walk to Water?”
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?
Park: This book was unusual in that I collaborated with the subject of the story, Salva Dut. So I would have to say that character definitely came first here.
Q: How/where did you find the details that brought your place to life?
Park: The initial details came from Salva himself, of course. He had written down some of his memories; I read those pieces and interviewed him for many hours. I also did the usual research on the internet, viewing endless photos and videos of South Sudan. Hurrah for Googlemaps!
But the most important resource was the trip my husband made in 2007, traveling with Salva to the places in the book. My husband brought home hundreds of photos and hours of video, and I made extensive use of those materials while writing the book. Then Salva read the manuscript and double-checked it for accuracy.
Q: Did the place enrich the story, or did it create limitations? Did you have to change details about the place?
Park: In so many ways, the setting in Long Walk is the story. As a young boy, Salva had to escape from a war and walk for months through hostile lands to reach safety. Because I have not visited South Sudan myself, Salva’s perspective was crucial. We worked together to choose the setting details that would deepen the experience of the story. Whether an island in the Nile besieged by millions of mosquitoes or a stretch of desert inhabited by lions, the exotic settings provide a contrast to the universality of Salva’s emotions, which young readers can easily relate to.
And Nya’s life is circumscribed both literally and figuratively by the place where she lives. She spends her days fetching water for her family’s survival, which means that she has little time for anything else, including education.
Q: What would you like us to know about the place you chose for your book?
Park: Our world is so interconnected. We’ve been shown beyond any doubt that when people in remote parts of the world are suffering from ill health, those misfortunes can eventually march right into our own homes. I’m hoping that young people will grow up learning that nothing is more important than caring for one another and for the planet.
Thank you to Linda Sue Park for a closer look at this book which has made a difference for so many readers.
Learn more about Linda Sue Park.