Getting it Right: Places and Settings

Birch Creek Valley, Idaho

by Jacqueline Hopkins

Since I love to travel, geography, studying maps and taking pictures go hand in hand with my traveling. I like to study the topography of an area, see its natural features, and get to know its characteristics. I take lots of pictures and make lots of notes in case I want to put the place or setting into one of my books.

My book, Wilderness Heart, was set along Highway 14 in Idaho. Highway 14 goes east of Grangeville, Idaho, to Elk City, Idaho. As a teenager growing up in Lewiston, Idaho, we drove Highway 14 to Red River Road, then on to Red River Ranger Station in the wintertime, where we would grab the entire contents of our truck and pile them onto sleds to be pulled behind snowmobiles. We would ride about 15 miles all the way into Dixie, Idaho, where my parents had a cabin.

Along this highway, before the turn off on to Red River Road, there was a foot bridge spanning the river, and I always wondered where it went. It was wide enough to take people and horses. I set the opening scene, where my heroine meets the hero, on the far side of that bridge. I took lots of pictures of it so I could describe it.

There is a ranch along this route called The Little Ponderosa and I used this as the place the heroine grew up. Elk City, a real town not far from the turn off to Red River Road, is where I had the hero staying while he scouted the area for timber. Just past Red River Ranger Station, are some hot springs and a restaurant where I set their first “date”, and the hot springs was where their first love scene took place. Just before the turn off, there is a small lumber mill (or there was at the time I started writing the book) which I used as the one the heroine’s fiancé owns, which is then bought by the hero. The Dixie Bar I used in my book was real at the time. It was a place I frequented every winter, and later, when I was older, I traveled to my parent’s cabin on my own. I eventually took both my children there. The Forest Service Road leaving Dixie takes travelers to Mackay Bar and is one I’ve snowmobiled along.

I know or used to know Highway 14 like the back of my hand, and quite a few of the reviews I received on my book spoke about how real the places were:

“The facts about the Idaho mountains made them come alive in my mind.” F Murrell

“The dramatic Idaho wilderness is the perfect backdrop, wonderfully portrayed by Jacqueline – I could almost feel the crisp, crunchy snow beneath my feet and feel the cold, fresh and exhilarating air.” Beeshon

“I was drawn to this story. Some forty years ago my late father and some of his friends embarked on an elk hunt in this exact area. Dad told the story of how ruggedly beautiful the country is and the kind of hardships they endured on their hunt (inclement weather, poor choice of footwear – they wore cowboy boots rather than hiking boots). He also told about the colorful outfitter and guide who eventually helped my father bag a bull elk. Jacqueline Hopkins captures all this nicely…” RW Bennett

“Jacqueline Hopkins knows the world where she’s placed her characters. Her descriptions of the smells of coffee, forests, and horses in the cold dawns of Nez Perce National Forest are crisp and believable. I was transported to a world I knew little about until I read this book”. Conchie Fernandez

“Vivid descriptions give the reader a sense of being right there.” Sherrie Mitchell

My forthcoming murder mystery will be set in Sitka, and I am about to move away from there, so I need to get as much information as possible about the area. I will take lots of pictures and talk to as many people as I can. I want my settings to be real places, and I want the reader to be able to picture themselves there with my descriptions. Another of my books will be set in Alaska, and the only information I have will be taken from maps and pictures of the area when I flew over it in a float plane.

If, as a writer, you do not have the means to travel or go to other places, write about what you know. Write about where you live. Make the place you live real to the reader. Know everything there is to know about the town in which you live; know everything about it to make it credible. Take lots of pictures, know how far it is to drive from point A to point B – drive it if necessary, because a reader from your town will question it if you get it wrong; study the area, and if necessary, study maps and the history of the place. If you went to college in another city or state, draw on the knowledge of that place and from your memories of it.

Having been in the military (Navy) from 1981 to 1988, I have lived in Orlando, Florida; Iceland; New London/Groton, Connecticut; Monterey, California; and Idaho Falls, Idaho. My first husband’s last duty station was Hawaii, so we lived there for two years, and it was where my daughter was born. Because my parents loved to travel, as a small child I have been, since birth in Durant, Oklahoma, on a train to the Oregon coast where my father had hitchhiked to pick cherries; we lived in Sitka, Alaska – where my sister was born in 1961 – Evergreen, Colorado and Lewiston, Idaho. While growing up, we traveled back to Oklahoma every four years to visit relatives, and we would stop along the way to visit famous places and national parks. My parents loved to go camping almost every weekend and to different places, including places in Canada. While I was in the Navy, I drove across the US and all along the west coast, so I have lots of memories I can draw on to write about.

If, as a writer, you do not have experiences of different places, ask people you know who have been to them. For instance, my son was in the Army, and he spent a year of his four years in Iraq. So, if I wanted to set a book in Baghdad, I can ask him.

Interview people you know. Where have they lived? Where have they been? Taking pictures helps to preserve your memories so that you can describe the locality in your book.

I like to get lost in the books I read and be transported out of the reality of my life. If a writer is good with place descriptions, I can visualize the area. I can be there with the writer’s characters, experiencing the places and settings. It I ever get to visit somewhere I have read about, so much the better; it reminds me of that book. If I never get to visit the place, then the author has given me images to remember.

So, your turn. Where have you been? Who do you know? What fun ways do you use to write about the places and settings of your book?


Jacqueline Hopkins is the author of Wilderness Heart. She loves to travel and hopes that her writing reflects her love of details and the places she has been because she likes to bring where she has been and what she has seen to people who otherwise might not get to see those places first hand. You can learn more about Jacqueline Hopkins-Walton and her writing at her excellent blog and her Amazon author page. You can also find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

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7 thoughts on “Getting it Right: Places and Settings”

  1. Great article 🙂 I completely agree that a writer should try to find out as much as possible about the location they write about. That's why it's fun for me to research places I want to visit one day, look up photos, research local cuisine, describe the culture, weather and scenery. When my cousin came back from Peru, I sat her down and practically 'interviewed' her and wrote down her answers – LOL! She was so helpful and patient. Thanks to you Jacques for also sending me those maps of Alaska you had.

    1. Thank you, KR. I wish that I had interviewed my father more about his life before he passed away; I'd would have asked him what it was like to hitch-hike across the states from OK to Oregon to pick cherries back in 1954ish. I need to sit down with my mom now that I am taking care of her and pick her brain with what she can remember before it's too late.

      Like I said, I love studying maps and Alaska maps were fun because it is such a huge state. It was my pleasure, KR, sending to you and I hope they helped with the setting of your circulate series (did I get that right?).

  2. Locations are the heart of what I write – every single reviewer has commented on the locations of my three novels, and I think it's because they strike readers with authenticity.

    It's true, as you say, that a place will ring true and right if it sings with the personal experience of 'being there'. Authors owe it to their fans to keep coming up with the genuine feeling of a place, so travel is an important part of writing if locations form the backbone of your writing.

    Yes, yes, yes.

    1. I totally agree, Rosanne. Can you believe, though, that I know an author of historical romances who has written quite a few and quite successful, but she does not go anywhere, ever. She gets her location settings from reading other books. When I asked her I was shocked to hear her answer; I love her books and the seemed so authentic as if she had been there.

      Thank you Rosanne.

  3. As a reader and reviewer who likes to travel, I completely agree. Even if your story is set somewhere fictional, so the reader won't identify it with a real place, I think the added details and authenticity come through if the author has somewhere specific in mind. If the story is set in a real place that can be identified by the reader it is even more important. If I'm reading the book and I've been there, I'll notice if the details are wrong and it will bother me. It doesn't take too many mistakes before it will bother me a lot.

    1. Exactly BigAl. I find it hard not to nit pic a book if I have been to a place and the author got it so wrong. I feel there is no excuse if the author has been there or lived there. One of my biggest pet peeves is in how long it takes to drive somewhere from point A to point B, and the author is off in the distance or average time to get there.

      Thank you, BigAl for stopping by and commenting. 🙂

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