Friday, March 14, 2014

Alaska on My Mind

When my first novel was published, my local Homer newspaper wrote an article about me, which then got picked up by the big-time Anchorage paper, where it went online and people got to comment on it. That’s when things got interesting. Someone sniped about the fact that I’d set the series in Southern California rather than Alaska. “Is Alaska too real for her?” they wondered.

Well, first of all, that’s just silly. Every place is real to those who live there. And I’m writing fiction, so frankly, none of it is “real.” I stated my case at length with that commenter -- completely in my own head, of course, since I’m not one for online arguments. Salient points: I started writing the series before I moved to Alaska. I wasn’t slighting my new state – I just didn’t know it well enough yet to set something there. Also, for that series I wanted the setting to be the kind of environment that SoCal offered. Something that wouldn’t take the focus away from the characters, the story and the romance.

The fact is, when you set something in Alaska, it’s hard to make Alaska stay in the background. It dominates, with its extreme weather and its magnificence and complicated characters. If your story takes place in the summer, you have to mention the endless daylight, and vice versa for winter. You have to know exactly where the story takes place – the harsh Interior? Rainy Southeast? Above the tree-line Nome? They’re completely different. There is no such thing as a “generic” Alaska setting. How do you incorporate all that rich, fascinating detail without Alaska becoming a full-fledged character in your story?

Once I moved to Alaska, my friends often asked me if I was going to set something here. “Sure, someday,” I always answered. What was I waiting for? “But I just moved here. I have to get a feel for it first.” But I’ve set other stories in places I don’t know intimately. I can learn enough from brief visits and from cruising the Internet, reading websites and scanning photos. Hey, that’s what Google Earth is for.

But Alaska … feels different. As a relative newcomer of only seven years, I don’t want to set something here until I feel that I can do this place justice. I want to get the details right, but much of that can be determined by doing research. More importantly, I want to get the spirit right. I wouldn’t want to write a book set in Alaska that feels as if it could take place anywhere with snow. There’s something about Alaska that sinks into your soul and fills you with awe. I think it’s a mark of respect for the state that I haven’t set anything here yet. I have no doubt the time will come when I write an Alaska story. Every day I spend here brings me closer to earning that moment. 

What do you think? How knowledgeable should an author be with the place where his or her books are set? Is it better to live there, or can enough be learned through research?

Jennifer Bernard's latest release is FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FIREMAN. Click the cover for more.


Jae Awkins said...

Great post - write what you are comfortable with I say. Sometimes it just takes longer! :o)

Tiffinie Helmer said...

There is something about Alaska that makes her another character in your story. So yes, you need to be ready for her. I understand exactly! I love your fireman books and would never make a comment like that person did. But yes, Alaska is special and story set here needs a lot of work. You HAVE to know your subject, feel comfortable in relating all her moods, for she has many.

I have read many books set in Alaska and you can easily spot the ones who used Google earth or researched the subject and those who have lived here. Breathed her 40 below air that freezes your nostrils and lungs, and yet were sunburned by her endless nights.

I see you setting a book in Alaska. :) When it's time.

Now I sound like a wine commercial.

Jennifer said...

ROFL Tiffinie! As a wonderful Alaska writer yourself, I know you know exactly what I mean. :-)

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great post, Jennifer. I agree that placing a book in Alaska involves making the setting another character. And not every story needs that. When you write your Alaska book (or series) it will be as wonderful as your fireman books. :-)

Tam Linsey said...

Well said.

DeNise said...

Jennifer, you are soooo spot on. Alaska can't be faked. And you can't assume the weather in Juneau is the same as Fairbanks, either. I have traveled a little and feel comfortable describing the gulf coast of Mississippi. That would work in Alaska, on that day, at that time of the day, but you better know what else is going on, too.

Lizzie Newell said...

I like what you've said here.
I set my stories on another planet so I can't visit the place. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable setting a story in a real place. There are so many details to get right and surely someone knows more about the place than I do.
My reluctance to use real settings comes from seeing how my home town of Aspen Colorado gets portrayed. No one gets it right, especially not the national news.

Morgan O'Reilly said...

You've so eloquently put into words what I've tried convey not only with my books, but to the people who want to set a book here. It's easy to spot someone who has never been here, or only stopped in Anchorage to change planes.

When you're ready, I'm sure you'll more than due justice to Alaska. You'll bring it alive in a way few can.