A PRIMER ON WRITING ALASKA
--- by Liz Selvig
Reading and writing about Alaska is extremely popular these days. Alaska is one of those “sexy” book settings—like London or Paris. Think New York with bunny boots instead of Jimmy Choos, Carhartts rather than couture, and Denali (Mount McKinley) rather than the Empire State Building. If you wrote a meme about the 49th state it would read: “I’ve never wanted to visit Alaska,” said nobody ever.
It’s true. Everybody wants to visit Alaska at some point. And that makes Alaskans just a little smug—because they know they’re part of a legendary place. And it makes those who’ve lived and been accepted as honorary Alaskans (like lucky me) even smugger. (I’m a writer; I can make up words.)
Alaskans are also very interested in and sensitive to books set in their state. They read with hope but a lot of skepticism the details included in these stories, and they’re wont to pick on mistakes in things like distances, weather scenes, snow conditions, light conditions, and descriptions of bush planes. To name a few.
This protectiveness is probably true of people who live in any setting a writer chooses, but because Alaska is so big, so grand, and so beholden to stereotypes, its native sons and daughters pray for the rare book whose writer didn’t fall into the trap of making stuff up based on Nanook of the North. (Yes, he was a Canadian Eskimo, but that illustrates the point: it’s another fact most people get wrong.) In other words, they look for writers who get the details right when they write.
In the next few months here at AKRWA’s blog, real, honest-to-gosh Alaskans will divulge their secrets to writing credible scenes about various Alaskan topics. I, as a non-native but adopted Alaskan, want to share my favorite facts about Alaska—the things I fall back on when I’m working on my Alaskan novels. These are just insights and basic helps. One thing I learned when I lived in Anchorage is that nothing, but nothing beats getting to know Alaska like talking to Alaskans. So if you need one to research with, contact me or any writer on this blog!
13 Random Things I learned about Alaska:
1. Alaskans are incredibly friendly and welcoming, but they are laid back. The whole state is laid back, even the largest city Anchorage. There’s a subtle, “hey, don’t worry about it, where’s it going to go even if it tries to leave?” mentality about every problem from making a hair appointment to fixing a broken pipe. Any place that isn’t Alaska is a long way away, so you might as well chill. (No pun intended.)
2. A new arrival in Alaska is a Cheechako. A full-fledged Alaskan is a sourdough. I lived there three years and was honored by several friends with graduation-from-Cheechako status, but I’m a long way from being a sourdough!
3. If you go somewhere not in Alaska you have gone “outside.” Outside ALWAYS means outside of Alaska, not outside your front door.
4. The two biggest tourist attractions in Alaska are Denali (Mt. McKinley) and the Inside Passage (where the cruise ships go) and they are NOWHERE near each other. You can’t drive from one city to the other, although you can get close – Anchorage to Haines, for example. But then you must fly or take the Alaska Marine ferry. (IMHO it’s really just quicker to fly the whole way.)
5. Mount McKinley is the highest mountain peak in North America. Alaskans never refer to it as Mt. McKinley. It is Denali. Or The Mountain. (And other names, too, but these two will do if you’re writing a book.)
6. When it’s clear, you can see Denali from Anchorage even though it’s 140 miles (as the crow flies) away. It’s about 125 miles from Fairbanks, so you can see it from there as well. But The Mountain makes its own weather so it’s only visible 30% of the time. Most visitors to Alaska don’t get to see Denali at all, which is a shame, because it’s stunning.
7. It takes five hours to get to Denali National Park from Anchorage, and nearly three more to get from DNP to Fairbanks.
8. Yes, moose DO walk down the busy streets in Anchorage. Many times I saw a line of cars stopped at a green light so a moose could saunter through the crosswalk. And, in a smaller town, like Homer, they are ubiquitous.
9. They use dollars and cents and USPS stamps in Alaska. I actually knew this before I ever got there, but I just wanted to clear this up. Seriously, when I came back outside to visit, several people asked me what Alaskans use for money. Seriously.
10. They don’t live in igloos anywhere in Alaska.
11. There are no penguins in Alaska and there are no polar bears in Anchorage. Or Fairbanks. Penguins live in Antarctica. Polar bears live in the Arctic. Never the twain shall meet except, possibly, in a zoo.
12. The scenery is spectacular, but the politics are the most interesting part of Alaska. If you’re writing about The Last Frontier (Alaska’s nickname) read the Anchorage Daily News online. There’s always something unique going on. Oh, and, it has been thoroughly established but I’ll reiterate: you can’t see Russia from Alaska.
13. The Iditarod. Someone will write an entire blog on this 1149-mile sled dog race, but if you’re going to use this event in a story PLEASE research the rules and check out a LOT of pictures. Long distance dog mushing sounds sexy. It ain’t sexy. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a VERY cool sport and I’m a huge, huge fan. But 70 men and women dressed in fur and ice, dealing with dogs and fatigue and no real showers for nine-plus days is not a great setting for a romantic scene—if you get my drift. A few master storytellers have tried it—but I promise you, the stories are not realistic.
I could go on, but thirteen is my lucky number. There are so many amazing facts and colorful details you could put in a book about Alaska. This little list is simply meant to whet your appetite for reading and/or writing about one of my favorite places in the world. And it should serve as a nudge to get you researching anything and everything about your book, your trip, or your fantasy rugged Alaska hero. Keep watching this blog spot for more info about State #49. And I beg you, if you EVER get the chance to visit do not turn the chance down. You will never ever regret a trip and you’ll have fodder for stories from now until the midnight sun sets!