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Setting Your Novel: There's Gold in Your Own Backyard

Aug 17, 2007
I started my first manuscript during my junior year at Virginia Tech. I had a couple of characters in mind, a flimsy skeleton of a plot, and one pressing question. Where to set the book?

At that point in my life, I hadn't traveled too far past the Virginia state line. And to me, the rest of the world sounded alluring in a way the town I grew up in couldn't compare.

So I considered my options. My story could take place on an island. An obviously appealing setting. Palm trees, sinking pink sunsets, water as blue as a robin's egg. And of course, glistening white sand.

Or what about Italy? A place I had always dreamed of going. Olive groves, the chiming of beautiful old church bells, faded stucco buildings.

I set my first few manuscripts in exactly that kind of locale. The only trouble was, I had never been to any of those places. And once I got past the generic descriptions, I found myself facing what felt like an empty reservoir from which to draw my story.

I had read the advice in practically every creative writing handbook. Write what you know. And I began to understand that they weren't just talking about plot and characters, but the place where the story unfolds as well.

What I knew was southwest Virginia. But what could the rest of the world possibly find interesting about it?
Despite my skepticism, I finally started a manuscript set in a small Virginia town much like my hometown. This was the first of my books to sell. No coincidence, I'm sure.
How did I finally come to see what was around me and what others might find appealing about it? By looking at where I've lived and what it has meant to me.

The physical beauty of Virginia is indisputable. Spring arrives with its paintbrush of green. Summer fills the orchards with apples and peaches, thickens fields with grass for hay. Fall dips maples and oaks in red and gold. Winter lays ice across our lakes and hides our roads under snow.

Those are the broadbrush strokes of my story, but I believe the details that bring a setting to life come from the individual places that populate a small community.
From the Main Street of my childhood, there was Ben Franklin and the Melody Shop. Kittinger's Drug Store, Brammer's Five and Ten and N. Morris Department Store.
Ben Franklin was a favorite. After digging out coins for the parking meter, we would head downstairs to the toy department. The snack bar was also on the bottom floor, and I can remember the delicious smell of steamed hot dog buns and french fries wafting up in greeting.

The Melody Shop was the place to buy 45 rpm records - yes, I know, I'm dating myself! Kittinger's for a cherry Coke. And at Brammer's Five and Ten, my sister and I stocked up on five-cent candy which we resold at elevated prices to our cousins in the pretend store we set up in my grandma's basement.

Country stores show up in my stories on a regular basis, and I'm sure their origin is the one owned by my great aunt and uncle. My sister and I spent many Saturday nights there with our grandparents. All the adults sat on stools in the middle of the store and talked, while we drank Sun-drop and ate Wise potato chips from bright blue bags.

Much of my love for the place where I grew up comes from my grandpa. He loved just getting out and looking at it. Bright and early on Sunday mornings, my sister and I would climb in his old blue and white Chevrolet truck and drive over to the local Quickette for the morning paper. We always took a detour of some sort, to check on cows, look at hay, see a pony he was thinking about buying for us. These were adventures, and we learned the county roads like our own backyard.

Pieces of these places have shown up in each of my books. I loved them, and I think that rings true with readers. I've traveled a bit since those first manuscripts, and although I may venture out in future books to other settings, it will be with a healthy respect for the gold in my own backyard.
About the Author
Inglath Cooper is the RITA Award-winning author of six published novels. Her books are often peopled with characters who reflect the values and traditions of the small Virginia town where she grew up. To read about her latest release, please visit her website at http://www.inglathcooper.com.
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