Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wildcard Weekend - Trish Milburn

Please welcome Trish Milburn for the weekend, with a post on using your setting as character!

I’m a big fan of the outdoors, road trips, and parks, and I try to bring those things into my books as often as possible. I think they add richness to the setting, often making the setting a character in and of itself. Plus, it helps add authenticity to a story when you’ve been somewhere, seen what it looks like with your own eyes, experienced the scents in the air.

For instance, my first young adult novel came out this month – Heartbreak River written under the name Tricia Mills. I’ve been asked a lot about how I came up with the idea for the book, about a teenage girl whose family owns a river-rafting business in Colorado. Well, the beginning of the idea came as I was riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr train through Colorado. For about 200 miles through the western part of the state, the train meanders along the Colorado River. During the warmer months, the river is full of people rafting. I wondered what it would be like to run one of those rafting businesses, and what it would be like if you were a teen who lived much of your life on the river. Add in the fact that I think that part of the country is beautiful and my own fear of water (which plays a part in the story), and I had the makings of a story.

For my first book, A Firefighter In The Family (Harlequin American, September 2008, written under my own name), I focused on an area where I love to vacation – the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle. The sugar-white sands, the clear blue-green water, the pastel-colored beach homes – they all spoke romance to me. It was fun to create my own small town, Horizon Beach, which has bits and parts of several of the communities I’ve visited along the coast. Plus, sometimes I mention actual places, like the Gulfarium, a marine show aquarium in Fort Walton Beach, and Gulf Islands National Seashore. The latter is a unit of the National Park Service, of which I am a huge fan. These parks are wonderful settings to use, either primarily as mystery author Nevada Barr does in her Ranger Anna Pigeon series, or as a secondary backdrop.

Sometimes I keep things a little closer to home. For my former full-time job as a magazine writer and editor, I traveled all over the state of Tennessee. One of the loveliest places is the mountainous northeastern part of the state. It has the same natural beauty as the Smoky Mountains without the crowds. So it was here that I set my May 2009 Harlequin American, Her Very Own Family . I used the lushness of the vegetation and the soothing sounds of the mountain streams to help create the setting for my heroine’s new café, which she opens inside an old gristmill she and the hero refurbish. It was an outward contrast to the city life she had known prior to coming to my fictional town to start her life anew. Once again, I was able to use a park — this time Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park — in one of my scenes. It’s a lovely place that seemed perfect for a picnic lunch for Audrey and Brady.

My upcoming books also depend heavily on the outdoors as not merely scenery but as a living, breathing character. I’m working on a rodeo story for Harlequin American that takes place in Wyoming. The fictional town is near Cody, a part of that state that I love.

All this devotion to visiting the setting aside, I have to admit that my second young adult novel, Winter Longing (Summer 2010), is set in Alaska — somewhere I’ve never been. Because of that, I had to do extensive research because I wanted to be able to bring the setting to full, vibrant, authentic life. So I picked the brain of a friend who’d lived there, read books, Googled a lot, and set my TiVo to record every program about Alaska that I could. From what my editors have said, all the work paid off. I’ve always wanted to visit Alaska, and hopefully I’ll be able to do so soon.

So, I’m wondering — is setting important to you as a reader? Do you like it when the setting seems like a breathing, three-dimensional character all on its own? Who are some authors you think do this well?

Trish Milburn is an eight-time finalist and two-time winner of Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart award. She writes for Harlequin American under her own name and for YA publisher Razorbill (Penguin) under the name Tricia Mills. Her new release is Her Very Own Family, out in May from Harlequin American.
Please visit her Web site and blog at


  1. Hello Trish,

    I like it when an author can describe a setting and I can actually feel like I'm there. Right now I'm reading "The Winter Lodge" by Susan Wiggs. The way she describes the mountains blows me away. Have a great day.

  2. Thanks, housemouse88. I haven't read that book by Susan, but I read one of hers that I really enjoyed. Hmm, what was it called? (Trish Googles to find out.) Ah! The Lightkeeper.