Smell the Sagebrush

08 Jun

by M.K. Hutchins, guest blogger

I write science fiction and fantasy; I love fresh settings and new worlds.  But I’ve learned that sometimes the most interesting details to include in a story are those closest to home.

Flash back two years ago.  I was busy outlining a novel.  I’d pinned down a few things about the characters and the magic, but I was bleeding for a geography.  I read up on the Inca Empire and their supply lines.  People lived by the bridges to maintain them.  Nifty!  I’d draw from the Andes for my setting, and there could be battles on bridges.

Then I read the back cover for an upcoming book of a favorite author.  It mentioned “bridgemen.”  I groaned.  I sulked.  But I didn’t want to echo another author so closely (Ironically, I later read the book and learned his bridgemen were nothing like the ones I’d researched).

At the time, I was driving from Idaho to California for a wedding.  The scenery was something I’d seen a thousand times before: sagebrush and mountains, beautiful in its own way.

Why didn’t I just set my story here?  Idaho was familiar to me, but I’d never seen anything like Idaho in an epic fantasy book.

I still did a bucket of research, but thanks to a lifetime in Idaho and some gold stars in the fourth grade, I already had a solid foundation.  I let my magic system rest on star garnets, largely unique to Idaho.   Since geothermal heat is a valuable resource here, I created communities centered on magically-dug hot springs, which they utilized for cooking. Steamed buns became a dietary staple.  Mmm.  Idaho colored the story with a thousand other small, unique details.

I don’t know that readers would notice that I drew heavily from my home setting.  The book’s populated by fictitious nations, shaped by the influence of magic, after all.  But because I know Idaho, I like to think they’ll be able to smell the sagebrush.

Sometimes, what a story needs is a tidbit I know nothing about.  Sometimes, I spend too much time on Youtube learning how an archer wears a thumb ring or how to make charcoal.

And other times, everything I need is right at home.

M.K. Hutchins studied archaeology at BYU, which gave her the opportunity to compile ancient Maya genealogies, excavate in Belize, and work as a faunal analyst.  She blogs about books, board games, and fiction-inspired recipes at Her fiction has previously appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and Daily Science Fiction.


Posted by on June 8, 2012 in Idaho, writing craft


7 responses to “Smell the Sagebrush

  1. johannaharness

    June 8, 2012 at 5:17 AM

    Your setting sounds even more magical to me because of the familiarity. I’ve lost myself in research too. It’s one of my favorite ways to procrastinate. How an archer wears a thumb ring–that sounds like the perfect way to lose an hour or two.

  2. Liz Fredericks

    June 8, 2012 at 6:12 AM

    Hear hear on the research (and yes I spent hours tracking down the origins of the saying, leading me to another saying and so on and so on ~ still another interesting saying) and woohoo for 4th grade gold stars. I know the intent behind Idaho history as a shared curriculum in the 4th grade isn’t intended as an inter-generational bonding vehicle but from north to south and across decades if you were raised in Idaho, you probably know the ‘county’ song. M.K. your stories sound marvelous – would you care to share more info on titles?

  3. Janis McCurry

    June 8, 2012 at 7:09 AM

    “Lost in research” is a phrase echoed by many writers. It’s just so darned interesting! Thanks for blogging on Gem State Writers today, M.K.

  4. MK Hutchins (@mkhutchins)

    June 8, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    I do know the county song! I can still sing it up to Jerome…and often do when I’m trying to figure out which county a license plate’s from. I’ve done it often enough that my husband has stopped giving me funny looks for it.

    As for titles, the book I was talking about isn’t out. I’m getting ready to query it, actually, now that my writing group’s torn it apart and I’ve put it back together. There’s a bibliography of my short stuff on my website, though sadly none of it set in Idaho.

  5. Meredith Allen Conner

    June 8, 2012 at 10:50 AM

    I love how you take something familiar and yet put your own twist on it! That’s one of my favorite things. Thanks so much for sharing and blogging with us today.

  6. stephanieberget

    June 8, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    I love, love, love your ideas, especially the star garnets. What a great post about using what you know.

  7. Peggy Staggs

    June 11, 2012 at 7:52 AM

    Idaho to us is what we’re used to so it doesn’t always seem special. BUT it’s a strange new place to the rest of the world. Great ideas.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: