I am so happy to have as guest blogger today my friend Erika Marks—whose debut novel, Little Gale Gumbo was released just a few days ago! I met Erika on Twitter, and we quickly discovered something big we have in common: the State of Maine. Although we’ve never met in person, we’ve traveled the same paths at different times, making for some interesting and fun Twitter discussions! 

Erika has generously offered to give one lucky commenter (to this blog post) a copy of her wonderful book, Little Gale Gumbo (I’ve already read it and can tell you that you won’t want to miss it!). Simply leave a comment before midnight Saturday, October 15, and you will be entered to win a copy of her book! Then on Sunday, October 16, I will announce the winner on that day’s blog post.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Made in Maine: Little Gale Gumbo by Erika Marks
It has been such a joy getting to know Julia through Twitter. When we first met, I had no idea she was not only a fellow Mainer, but that she lives just down the road from where my parents live in Maine. (The tip-off was when she posted pictures of a very familiar dog park.) If you ever wonder why there are so many books set in Maine, look no further than Julia’s wonderful blog and her beautiful photos (and even videos!) of the Maine landscape for your answer. But it is Julia’s attention to the details of her home environment that make her posts such a unique experience for her readers and such rich tributes to Maine.

Photo courtesy of Erika Marks
When I chose to set my novel Little Gale Gumbo primarily in coastal Maine, I knew there would be an inherent challenge in writing a story with a popular setting. It is all too easy to assume readers have a built-in understanding of a place because it has appeared so frequently in books (not to mention movies and TV). But setting is as much a character in a novel as the people who populate it.

So how to make a familiar setting feel fresh?

Answer: make it yours.

In the case of my novel, I used pieces of my own experience growing up in Maine to set the stage, because for me as a reader—and a writer—it’s the details that make a setting authentic. Never think that just because a place is popular, it can’t be seen in a new light. The job of a writer is to bring a new vision, a new palette, to the familiar. To give it a twist, a spin. Don’t just smell the salt of the sea; thanks to the tides, the ocean’s aroma is constantly changing. High tide and low tide do notsmell the same. Show your reader those differences and you’ll keep their eyes from skimming over a description they may think they already know.

Most readers know what snow looks like—but what does it smell like?

Most readers have heard of Maine’s famous chocolate-cake-sandwich, the Whoopie Pie—but what about the equally well-loved, but not as well-known, Maine confection made from chocolate and potatoes, the Needham?

Most readers know about eating lobster—but what about eating steamers?

Instead of finding scallop shells on the beach, find razor clams. Instead of lobster dinners, have baked bean suppers.

In other words, don’t try to shape your setting to the one you think your reader already has in mind. Your reader wants you to set the scene for them.

I also had the benefit of having several of my characters get to know Maine for the first time. When Camille arrives with her daughters from New Orleans, it is a frigid November day and her youngest daughter Josie, toes and fingers numb with cold, is quite certain they have landed on the moon when their ferry glides up to the dock. When a character is a stranger in your book’s setting, that’s a perfect opportunity for you, the writer, to see freshness in the familiar. Much in the way when friends come to visit you in a new town and want the grand tour; let yourself be a tourist with your characters. Show them around. See the environment as they do, see the contrasts, learn what startles them, what makes them smile.

Maine is a remarkable and precious landscape—it is no wonder that its setting speaks to us as writers and readers. Even those of us who are sure we know it like the back of our hand. But thanks to the Bergeron women, I felt the damp chill of a misty Maine morning as if for the first time. I caught a whiff of warm blueberries ripening in the sun. I heard the crunch of snowmobile boots on a path of iced-over snow, and the faint crackling of sea foam as it clung to the beach, finally released from the surf.

These are the pieces of Maine that live in my heart.

I am proud, and grateful, to know they now live in the hearts of my characters, too.

How do you all “visit” a setting—familiar or not—when you’re writing? (And remember, leave a comment to be entered to win a copy of Erika’s book!)

Erika Marks lives in North Carolina with her family. Her debut novel, Little Gale Gumbo, is now out from NAL/Penguin. 

Find Erika on Twitter @erikamarksauthr, on Facebook, or on her website To buy the book, go to Little Gale Gumbo on


  1. Missy Olive says:

    Thanks for this! I have been reading all of your interviews and other posts about the book. I love that each one is different and reveals something else about the book.

    I also loved learning that you two met on twitter!

    Julia, I come to Maine 3-4 times each year. I visit North Berwick and Bar Harbor. Our girls visit Frye Island during the summers with their mom.


  2. I’ve been vaguely aware of you, Erika, for the past week or so when I decided to check out some new blogs. This has also been a week of mayhem at my place, so I haven’t yet caught up on “getting to know you”, but you’re bookmarked, so expect a new visitor soon. 😉

    I agree wholeheartedly on your take on description. Something else, though, is that we obviously love certain places. Maine isn’t one of the locations I’ve visited Stateside, but the kind of love in your voice (and in Julia’s!) is the same one I hear from my husband when speaking of Ohio, or sometimes myself with Western Australia. We who really get to know our places are so very aware of the things that make it special. Yes, including the different in smell of low and high tide. 🙂


  3. Alex George says:

    I loved this post. My new novel is set in Maine and so, as you might imagine, it was of particular interest to me! I, too, had certain misgivings about setting the story there for the very reasons you identify, Erika – people think they already know the place, and it can be a struggle to identify new and compelling things to write about, or a fresh perspective. But in the end I found I couldn’t not. I have only been to Maine a couple of times, but (as you both know!) the place has sunk its teeth deep into me.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have the advantage of having spent much time there (yet!) and so I don’t have such invaluable insider knowledge. Instead I am having to rely on an ever-increasing library of books, and visits back whenever I can manage. And you’re absolutely right – it’s the little details that make a difference. That’s why on my trips there I go into sponge-like mode, absorbing everything I can.

    Erika, I am deep into your book, by the way, and greedily relishing every page. It’s a fabulous story. I am bewitched.

  4. I enjoy making my settings amalgamations of places I know. They’re identifiable — and not. The small town I’m writing about now is a mix of Mayberry (from the TV show) and the town where I live, mixed with pictures that I found on the internet of lakes in central Ohio (where the book is set). I like writing places that I both wish I lived — and am glad I don’t. Does that make sense? I try to push the limits sometimes with stereotypes both for ridiculousness and comfort — because stereotypes can be both ridiculous and familiar. Great post — thank you. And now I must have a Needham. Must.

  5. What a wonderful and informative guest post Erika! (And thank you for hosting, Julia!)
    When I think of setting, I’m always drawn to the Dust Bowl of Steinbeck or Yoknapatawpha County of Faulkner. They are places that become ingrained in your memory as if you had been there.
    These are some great points to making your setting become another character in the story: use all of your senses and visit a place as if it was the first time.
    Great post!

  6. rosiepopsox says:

    this book sounds so interesting! and i loved the interview! 🙂

  7. There really are a lot of books set in Maine. I’m reading Eden Lake right now so I should keep my streak going! I’ve only heard amazing things about this book and I can’t wait to read it 🙂

  8. Yes, thanks for hosting Erika, Julia! You’re so supportive.
    Erika, I love that you chose to write about place as character. I often think we stop ‘seeing’ anywhere we live for long, with the eyes of a stranger to the area, and so it can be fun when someone visits, to show them around ‘like a tourist’. It can bring a freshness to our vision. You obviously adore Maine (so do I…many wonderful vacations spent there) and I’m certain that is reflected in your novel.

  9. What a great piece, Erika. I think your advice about setting, to “make it yours,” really applies to so many aspects of novel writing. It’s good advice for new and veteran writers alike. Julia, thanks for providing a forum for Erika to share her insights!

  10. Congratulations on your debut novel, Erika! I adore the title and the image on the cover. And your post has made me want to read it.

    I love how your post also gave me lessons in setting right when I needed some reminders. (I’m about to start rewriting a screenplay.) The lessons were so easy to take in because the writing itself was so delightful. You made me feel, hear, smell and taste Maine. I’ve never been there, but through your writing I felt I knew it.

    ~ Milli

    P.S. Thanks for the giveaway! I want to read your book so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

  11. Hi Erika (and Julia), I really enjoyed reading this interview. I saw the cover of your book, Erika, a week or so ago (via Julia) and love it! I always find it fascinating to hear about different writers’ methods. You are so right about making your work ‘yours’ and giving it authenticity while making it speak out in a different way too. I have a strong visual memory for detail, so I just close my eyes and I can ‘see’ in an undisturbed, uncluttered way, exactly what I want to see. I find this helps no end when writing about place or trying to set a scene. Really good luck with the book – it looks fab!

  12. Erika Marks says:

    Hi everyone! Thank you so much for all the outpouring of kind words–and thank you again, Julia, for hosting me here.

    Missy, I love how many of us have a connection to Maine, if not from growing up there, then certainly from visiting.

    Ashlee, thank you so much for coming by and I look forward to your visit. And I have such envy for YOUR homeplace. My husband and I have wanted to visit Australia forever. It’s lovely meeting you!

    Alex, to have one’s book bewitch its reader is pretty much the best compliment going, so thank you, kind sir. I know how anxious you are to get back to Maine–did you take lots of pics while you were there to keep the flavor fresh when you returned, since you are still writing your new novel? Lots of notes? I love hearing how writers keep the essence of a setting even when they come back from their research trip. Photos always help me.

    Oh Amy, needhams are incredible. But I am beginning to worry they are not as easily found in Maine as they were when I grew up there. I’m heading to the big board to get some answers. This is urgent.

    Thank you, Jackie–that’s what I love about YOUR blog, too. You, like Julia, are so great about posting frequent tributes to your landscapes. Your Brooklyn walking tours are so wonderful, so informative, and so telling of what it is that makes the city so special. (But I’m also partial to the Reggie pics, too.)

    Rosie, thank you for those kind words. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

    Hi Sara, Eden Lake is on my TBR list. I have heard great, great things.

    Cynthia–isn’t it true? I remember when I lived in NYC, I so loved when people would come to visit–because it was an excuse, an opportunity, to rediscover what I loved about the city, which sometimes gets lost in the day-to-day grind.

    Thank you, Jessica. We can all have different experiences of the SAME place, which I suppose, means it can’t be the same place, then? But you know what I mean…;)

    Milli, thank you for your sweet words. And so glad they helped. A screenplay–how exciting!

    Hi Abi–thank you! And you are so lucky that you have a knack for retaining details the way you do, uncluttered and clear. I think that’s why I rely so much on photographs in my research, because I often find my brain is too easily overloaded with details and I know I don’t want to lose a single one because those details make all the difference.

  13. Wonderful tips, Erika! I love how through these suggestions we can take a standard setting and transform it into something new. By the way, I thought Whoopie Pies were from Lancaster County where I was born! You really do learn something new every day! 🙂

  14. Absolutely LOVE this post, Erika and Julia. Setting is something near and dear to my heart (and so important to me in the fiction I read). I agree so much with all you’ve said: “Setting is as much a character in a novel as the people who populate it.” Yes!

    And, you’re so right – using your own eyes/experiences is truly the key to avoiding cookie-cutter, ho-hum, cliched description in any setting, but esp. with well-known geographic regions.

    Seeing your setting as an outsider is also such a great way to infuse a new take on the familiar (and -yay -something I have done without even knowing in my current WIP).

    Again – love, love, love this post. Can’t wait to read LITTLE GALE GUMBO, and to visit Maine in the flesh. The two of you have done such a great job of selling it, that a trip is definitely in my future!

    And the Needham? I need to know more! (We already know I know a thing or two about Whoopie Pies – or in our neck of the PA woods where I grew up, “sandwich gobs.” I did not know they originated in Maine!)

  15. Thanks for such a great guest post! The book sounds wonderful and I’m always looking for a fabulous new book to read! I’m heading over to check out Erika on her site too.

  16. Ann says:

    Erika – Congratulations on your book! I can only imagine how thrilled you must be!

    I like the way you re-discovered describing a familiar place. I have the same difficulties with my blog (which is strictly cooking). I frequently write that something smells good, but fail to describe the smell….

    ….you’ve given me a lot to think about!

    How wonderful that you and Julia know each other via the landscape! She’s the best, isn’t she? I’ve been a fan of Julia’s blog since the day I first posted. In fact, I think she might have been the first “blog” I ever read…..and I’ve been hooked ever since!

    Congratulations and best of luck with the book!

    (Hi julia!)

  17. I love when people meet on Twitter! (I don’t why . . . I guess helps me justify the time I spend on it.) Anyway, what a great post about setting. I especially find this piece of advice very useful: “In other words, don’t try to shape your setting to the one you think your reader already has in mind. Your reader wants you to set the scene for them.”

    I look forward to reading the book, Erika!

  18. Maine is one of the few states I have not visited. I will get there someday and feel the beauty from the pictures and words you and Julia share. Congratulations on the book!

  19. Erika Marks says:

    Thank you, Jolina!

    But wait! Could it be I was sold a false bill of goods? (Er, whoopie pies?) I always thought they originated in New England, clearly they didn’t! And here I was getting so indignant over the whole Whoopie Pie blasphemy of different flavored cakes (Pumpkin? Vanilla?) and they’re not even rightly mine to get upitty over! 😉
    Oh, but how I still love them as my own!

    Hi Melissa! Oh, my Whoopie pie shame grows! I really had no idea–but how cool is that that you and Jolina know the same area–it’s beautiful there, speaking of picturesque spots! Needhams (I am pretty certain) are a Maine original–I will find a good recipe and post it (which will involve some testing, of course. But for you, anything ;))

    Thank you, Leah! It’s really special getting to be a guest on Julia’s blog. And so amazing how we met on Twitter!

    Ann, your blog sounds right up my alley. I will have to visit!

    Hi Nina! You always have such fantastic advice for writers so I’m flattered by the compliment. And I feel the same way about Twitter connections. Especially when it’s someone who is from the same part of the world as I am–and we meet–not at the post office or the supermarket–but on Twitter. Just so wild.

    badluckdetective, thank you so much for the kind wishes. I hope you can get to Maine–and in the meantime, Julia’s blog is a great place for those of us who need a Maine “fix!”

  20. Thank you Erika for sharing some powerful information about writing. This is the kind of post I enjoy, were I learn something new. Many thanks!

  21. erikarobuck says:

    This is such a wonderful post. I think it was novelist Stephanie Cowell who once said that as writers we need to show our readers where to look. Your words expand on that sentiment and are well applied in Little Gale Gumbo, which I loved! You certainly inspired me to want to visit Maine and New Orleans.

    I wish you all the best with your launch!

  22. Just reading this post alone I’ve already learned so much more about Maine. Thanks so much for sharing, Erika! I’d never even heard about the famous Whoopie Pie (must add trying that to my to-do list!)

    It’s funny; I feel the same way about Miami, since my book is set there. It’s also a popular setting (though more in movies and TV than in books) and my challenge was showing a Miami that people aren’t so familiar with, but that is closer to reality. It’s not just about neon lights, perfectly bronzed bodies and thongs. The Miami I grew up in is totally different, so I hope that I managed to make it mine!

  23. Sally says:

    This book sounds great. I loved Erika’s advice on taking a setting and making it your own. I mostly write nonfiction articles but I think reading and paying close attention to fiction makes me a better writer in general. Lately I have been really drawn to books with a strong setting. A recent favorite was in Cape Cod and another was Bainbridge Island. I just love the way a book can transport you to another place, including one you have never actually seen. I agree that it is the little subtleties that make a location convincing. Thanks for sharing!

  24. Barb Riley says:

    “… don’t try to shape your setting to the one you think your reader already has in mind..”

    GUILTY! I have found when I went back to read my first draft of my novel, which takes place in Chicago (another popular setting for movies & books), lo and behold, I described things the way a tourist would, vs. the way a real true-blue, native Chicagoan would do. I fell into the lazy writing mode. You offer some great and applicable tips and things to be cognizant of here, so thank you! 🙂 Can’t wait to read the book!

  25. Country Wife says:

    Some of my favoritest bloggers are from Maine, and with this post and your blog, I want to visit even more! I just watched Delores Claiborne, which made me curious as to whether or not they did Maine good in regards to accents. Great post!!

  26. Another fantastic interview with Erika!

    One thing I love about reading is the opportunity to see in my minds eye a new place. Then nothing is more fun then going and getting to experience it yourself! So to answer your question I am visual. If I read it–I see it. If I write it–I see it.

    I’d love to win and read Little Gale Gumbo. I’ve never been to Maine, but would love to. I did live in Newport, RI for a year and loved it!!!

    Laura Kay

  27. Erika Marks says:

    Elizabeth–I’m so glad to hear it–and thank you so much for saying so!

    Hi Erika–Oh, my dear, we HAVE to get you to New Orleans and Maine. Are you with me on this one, Julia? 😉

    Natalia, I look forward to getting to read YOUR Miami. My father’s father was from there and my dad ALWAYS talks about the Miami he knew as a kid–now all of his family has retired there–but he can’t get over how the city has changed. Miami has such a rich history and influences–and so much character and wonderful neighborhoods–far from all the cookie-cutter developments. I love that city!!

    Thank you, Sally! And the Cape is another one of those amazing settings. I always enjoy books set there–and always look forward to unique descriptions of the landscape since it is another one of those locations that we all “feel” like we know, even if we’ve never been before.

    Oh, thank you, Barb–Chicago is amazing. I was lucky enough to live within a few hours of there a few years ago and visited often. I adored that place. Actually my next book has a tie to Chicago and I’ve been working hard to make the settings/neighborhoods convincing. It’s a unique perspective to write about a place where I WAS a tourist. I know how important it is that I make it authentic.

    Hi Country Wife! Isn’t Julia’s blog fantastic! (And Dolores Claiborne has its moments re:accents. There are worse ones out there, for sure!;) What’s your verdict on the accents in DC, Julia?)

    Hi Laura–thank you so much for coming by with cheer! I couldn’t agree more–setting is often a huge draw for me as a reader–either a place I KNOW I love, or a place I’ve always wanted to visit. Hey, until we all win the lottery, reading is the cheapest form of travel going, right?:)

  28. Thank you again to Erika for writing this lovely guest post for my blog!! I loved hosting her! Yesterday, I used to select the winner of Erika’s book: LITTLE GALE GUMBO. And the lucky winner was Jessica McCann!

    Also, Erika thank you so much for answering comments… here are some comment-backs to questions/comments left for me:

    Missy, You’re so lucky to get to Bar Harbor — lovely place! I’ve never been to Frye Island (would love to go!). Summer must be amazing there!

    Ashlee, Glad you can visit Maine through my (and Erika’s) writing — I think her book would give you a good look at Maine Island life!

    Jackie, My pleasure to host Erika! Glad you enjoyed the post!

    Cynthia, You’re so welcome, glad you enjoyed!

    Jessica, CONGRATULATIONS on winning a copy of LITTLE GALE GUMBO!!

    Melissa, I can’t wait for you to visit Maine either — you’ll love it here and I will love showing you around! It will be GREAT fun! 🙂

    Ann, Hi! 😀

    Nina, Meeting Erika on Twitter has been wonderful! Such fun to share the same location through our own individual experiences!

    Badluckdetective, Glad to give you a taste of Maine before you make it here in person!

    Country Wife, I need to find your favorite bloggers in Maine! Believe it or not, I’ve never met another blogger here!!

    THANK YOU all who left comments & please read Erika’s book — then come on back to wordsxo for a taste of Maine! I think it will help you get to know this state a little better!