It’s a setting I know well.

Blueberry Minnesota is about an hour straight north of Lake Woebegon (and this is where I can’t help but tell you I sang on Prairie Home Companion years ago). It’s the setting of a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo. Like its Prairie Home sister to the south, Blueberry is fictitious. But it’s enough like my hometown, Menahga, Minnesota, that you could recognize parts of it if you’ve spent any time there. Kind of like how I feel about Lake Woebegone.

I love being from Menahga. Even though I worked hard to change how I talked and wrote, to not end sentences with “with” (no, that wasn’t a typo), I love hearing it when I go home.

Last night I led a group of artists on a quest for Settings. We drew settings, blueprints, maps, turkeys… Turkeys? As one participant talked about the wild turkeys in her neighborhood, peering into her window, trying to get into her car, sitting on her lawn furniture, a story was born. And several were grounded. Made more real. Mapped out for characters to explore, to experience, to evolve (with).

Setting plays a role in our lives and writing as strong as any character. It’s not just the landscape or how heavily populated the setting is that affects your characters. Settings have their own cultures, their unwritten rules–much like extended families, especially if they’re small towns.

Menahga means Blueberry in Chippewa (Ojibwe). It’s a place where people might not immediately warm up to you (they’ll still be nice), but they’ll deliver hotdishes (casseroles) to anyone who experiences a death or serious illness in their family. It’s a place where dinners and dances to help out others become awaited social events. It’s a place where my mom would hear what happened on our 7th grade class trip before I even got home.

Menahga is a place where we could ice-skate or ride snowmobiles on unlimited trails in the winter and wake up and put on a swimsuits to spend our days at the “beach” in the summer. Poor in many ways, rich in others.

My friends Tim and Pete Odland grew up out-of-town, down the road from us. Tim was in my class of about 50 kids. Pete was a couple years younger. We rode the same school bus, and shared other experiences as well (Don’t tell them about that class trip, Tim). We have several intertwining connections, including cousins who married, and other shared relatives.

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Setting shapes us, and to give you a taste of how Menahga can shape someone, I’d like to introduce you to Pete Odland. Here’s his story, and because it’s a Menahga story, many of us feel somehow a part of it. That’s the way it is there.

What setting do you know best? Or want to know? What are the unspoken rules, values, habits? Start there. The characters will emerge. Go there. Take them with.