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What's in a place?

Illustration by Julia Ogden (

Place. For me it’s one of the most important—and enjoyable—parts of writing fiction. This is where a writer can let loose with sensory images; tap into a character’s mindset, memory, or motivation; reflect or amplify a theme; create or enhance a mood; and drive the abstract—a character’s needs or desires—by giving it a concrete home.

The barn in this illustration plays different roles for Kira, the protagonist in my novel, The Wild Impossibility, and her grandmother Maddalena, who is a teenager at the time her story is revealed. For Kira, the barn holds mystery, importance, comfort, a sense of communion with the grandmother she never knew. For Maddalena, the barn represents freedom—it houses her horse, her transportation across miles of California high desert to the people she loves, her escape from the constraints of chores and a controlling mother.

Here’s an excerpt from the novel:

Alone with the dog, Kira let the barn swallow her. Dizzy, drunk on animal smells, she leaned against an old feed bin, its boards soft and gapped with time. Men’s voices drifted in from the fields. A hayloft loomed overhead; on her right, an open door led to dozens of cattle stalls. Kira followed the dog into another part of the barn, which held a wall of tack, two large wooden grain bins, and three stalls, one holding a swaybacked white horse. The dog looked at Kira expectantly.
“There’s something about this place, huh, pooch?” Kira touched a bridle, the leather seasoned with oil and sweat, the silver bit scored with teeth marks. A Western saddle sat on a two-by-four rack, topped with a few smelly-looking pads. Kira sat in one of the empty stalls and breathed it all in, leather and sweat and horse and hay, the almost-taste of dung. She wanted to sleep cocooned in the thick air, wake with hay dust and the scent of horse embedded in her skin. The dog settled next to her, sighing. Nothing moved but the horse’s tail, a restless swish and fall.

A horse barn was an important part of my childhood, so that may be one reason writing this scene was so pleasant and visceral for me. I still love the smell of a barn. How about you? Where's your "happy place"?


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