Between Two Continents with Dana Stabenow
From James Joyce’s Dublin to Bram Stoker’s Transylvania, readers everywhere have traveled to regions far and wide. All from the comforts of their own couch. As many of us know, setting is the element that takes a book from slush pile to best-seller list.
Today, we have the pleasure of hearing from one of our authors, Dana Stabenow! She discusses how she’s used environment to enhance her novels—from the beloved crime fiction Kate Shugak series to her historical fiction debut, the Silk and Song Trilogy. For all those Danamaniacs out there, as well as general fans of stellar scene setting, this one’s for you!
Blindfold Game and the Bering Sea
The US Coast Guard invited me to do a ride along on cutter Alex Haley in the Bering Sea in February of 2004. I was invited to write a daily blog from the ship so the shore-bound families of the crew could eyewitness, as much as possible, the lives their loved ones were living at sea. In that capacity, I poked my nose into every nook and cranny and interrogated most of the crew as to the particulars of their jobs. The USCG is the single most hospitable community in the world and nearly every door—in this case, hatch—was flung wide open for me.
After which, I came home and wrote Blindfold Game, a thriller set on a USCG cutter (it goes without saying very similar to Alex Haley). One of the things I found out during my tour of duty on Alex Haley was that the USCG was the first American service to promote women to command at sea. So in my novel, a woman was the first officer, who assumes command when the captain is killed. My ship, USCGC Sojourner Truth, was patrolling the north Pacific Ocean, which waters about both North Korea and Alaska, so a terrorist attack by North Koreans was a natural for the plot. (And more natural with each passing day. Accidental prescience is no fun.)
A Tale of Many Ride-Alongs
All my novels begin with setting. When I know where I’m writing, I find out who lives (and works) there, and, after that, what shenanigans they are getting up to. The Star Svensdotter series is set, serially, in lunar orbit, in the Asteroid Belt, and on Mars. The Liam Campbell series was inspired by a trip to Dillingham, Alaska, (Newenham in the novels) where I did a ride along with a cop and found out where the local drug dealers lived. All three of them. I did a second ride along with the USCG on board USCGC Munro in 2007 and wrote a second Coastie thriller, Prepared for Rage, wherein I tried to blow up a space shuttle. That was fun in a horrific sort of way.
Silk and Song and the Silk Road
Silk and Song is a road trip. The road in question is the Silk Road. The Silk Road is thousands of miles long and runs through vastly different geographical areas and hundreds of different cultures. If I was writing about the Silk Road, of course my hero was going to be a trader. Why not one related to the most renowned merchant trader of them all, Marco Polo? This helped set the time frame; which after way too much research, I wanted to include at least the end of Marco’s life, the fall of the Templars, and the ascension of Edward III to the throne of England—around all of which swirl plenty of controversies among legitimate historians tailor-made for the aspiring historical novelist. Westward travels Johanna, as with the trending arc of history, to coin a phrase.
Kate Shugak and a Change of Scenery
In contrast, the Kate Shugak series is set in a single, clearly defined place: present-day Alaska, in a generic national Park loosely based on the Wrangell-St. Elias Park. I had visited it just before I wrote A Cold Day for Murder. When I knew I was writing a series (which, in fact, was not obvious until I sold the first book and the publisher wanted two more), I knew Kate had to leave the Park. Keeping her in a single location would inevitably make the series static, and, well, dull. Fortunately, Alaska is a big state, and her job as a PI takes her everywhere: the oil fields of the North Slope, the Yukon-Kuskokwin Delta, Bristol Bay, the streets of Anchorage. One day, she’ll investigate a case in Juneau and then god help the Alaska state legislature. She’s mean enough to them already.
Thanks to prolific crime writer Dana Stabenow for shedding light on how environment played a major role in her novels. For more information on her ride-alongs with the US Coast Guard, check out these links: