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Take a look at locations you know for your best stories

The possibilities for swamp stories are infinite

Like most starving authors, I can—on a bad day—be jealous of authors who have the money for multiple research trips to Scotland, Paris or Japan. On the other hand, I’m not writing global thrillers or looking to my highland ancestors for what if romances about Mary Queen of Scots. So, I return again and again to the places I’ve lived and worked for my fictional settings.

Writers often debate whether the old admonition “write what you know” makes sense or is foolish. Obviously, writers do a lot of research to fill in the gaps. Nonetheless, I think it’s much easier to write about a place where you’ve been or an occupation you’ve had or have been exposed to than to have to make everything up from scratch.

If you lived in a town for years, you know the streets, the ambiance, the trees and flowers to be found there, and perhaps some of the history. If you vacation at the same beach, resort or National Park every year or so, these are also prime examples of “what you know.”

In my contemporary fantasies “The Sun Singer” and “Sarabande,” I used Glacier National Park as a setting for the adventures because I worked there and later went back as a tourist. I placed some of the scenes in my magical realism novel “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey” in Glacier, but also used the Philippines which I saw while in the Navy and the Florida Panhandle where I grew up. And this year, I’ve been writing short stories which have been set in Glacier, a north Florida swamp, and central Illinois where one side of my family came from.

My fiction always has a strong sense of place

To some extent, each of these stories could have unfolded in a dozen other places, but since I always have a strong “sense of location” in my fiction, it was easier to plunk down my characters in places I know well rather having to start from scratch. I know, for example, that you’re going to find chinkapin trees, titi thickets and scrub oak in the Florida Panhandle, and that there are several varieties of Indian Paintbrush flowers in the Montana mountains.

What I know about each location isn’t earth shaking, like state secrets, smuggling rings, or hair-raising stories from years gone by. But what I know does give me a jump start. I may well use Google to fill in a few facts, but knowing a location helps you know what to look for when you do your next Internet search. Yes, I still have dreams about going to the highlands of Scotland, but until then, I can be happy with East Glacier, Montana and Tate’s Hell Swamp on the Florida Coast.

Perhaps you can, too.

One of my favorite Glacier flowers gave me a new story idea – NPS Photo

I just saw a screen saver filled with Indian Paintbrush: ah, that leads me to another Montana short story. A week ago, I started thinking of the chuck-will’s-widow that sang all night in the woods behind the Florida house where I grew up. Oh, good, another story idea about those woods and my old neighborhood.

In many ways, I am probably always on the lookout for stories I can tell in my favorite settings because, well, I know the territory and the kinds of things that happen (or might happen) there. If the location settings in your fiction play a role, then where you’ve been is a lot easier to bring to life in words than a place you’ve always wanted to see.


You may also like: World of Wonder about nature as my primary inspiration as a writer. The post appears as part of an inspiration series running on author Smoky Zeidel’s weblog through June 27.

  1. Smoky Zeidel #

    Excellent! 😎 I, too, write about places I know well–my two novels are set, respectively, on my aunt and uncle’s peach orchard, and the Virginia mountains and valleys of my father’s ancestors. I think the only thing I’d add is, if you write contemporary stories set in locales you haven’t visited in 20 or 30 or 50 years, it’s probably a good idea to do a little research as to whether the places are still as you are writing them.

    May 15, 2012
    • That research helps you make sure you don’t talk about stuff that isn’t there any more. 🙂


      May 15, 2012

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