A few years ago another Laura Ingalls Wilder fan and I made a pilgrimage to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Other faithful followers will remember that tiny town as the setting for On the Banks of Plum Creek as well as the TV version of the books.
Our favorite experience of the day was visiting the Ingalls Dugout Site. I’ve been to a lot of places with historical relevance, all around the world—but almost none of them have given me as much keen pleasure as this one. Other than a wooden bridge across Plum Creek and a simple sign, there is almost no evidence of human habitation. You feel as if you are seeing the spot exactly as it was when Laura ﬁrst set eyes on it nearly 140 years ago—but without any fear that somebody wearing a sunbonnet is going to spring up and start churning butter as some kind of recreated history.
We had the place completely to ourselves. We happily dabbled our toes in the waters of Plum Creek. We planted ourselves atop the sod roof of the dugout (now just a depression in the side of the creek bank), and sighted across prairie grasses that stretched far away to the horizon. We reveled in a serenade of songbirds. For one whole hour, we lived between the covers of a book. And then we got back in our car and drove home to the city.
One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from author Faith Sullivan. I share it here for you to pass along to your students. When you are writing about a story’s setting, don’t leave the reader feeling like a distant observer. Don’t go on for paragraph after paragraph with static setting details and boring descriptions. Instead, have your character interact with the setting. Give the reader small, telling details of the setting as the character engages with it.
In other words, show a character running through the tall grasses, pushed along by the sneaky prairie breezes. Give us a character who’s shivering because icy ﬁngers are trying to poke their way through the walls of their sod home.
Writers who describe their setting in this way will make us feel, for that hour or two that we are reading, like we are living between the covers of a book.