Author Guest Post: “Home is Where the Heart is: Lessons for Writing About Place” by Margaret Finnegan, Author of Sunny Parker is Here to Stay


“Home is Where the Heart is: Lessons for Writing About Place”

If you’re going to tell a story, you’re going to need characters, and to understand those characters, you’ll need to understand the world where they exist. That world is often called the setting. But I don’t like that word. It seems passive—like the backdrop of a play. I like the word place, as in the place where you live. The place where you live is anything but passive. Houses settle. Schools hum. Mountains fall and rise, and then do it all over again. The fact is, the world is its own character. And in our favorite stories, the place—the setting, if you must—is a character. It grounds reality, propels action, and enlivens conflict and drama. Sometimes, it’s an impediment to the protagonist. Sometimes, it’s a savior.

For example, my new book Sunny Parker is Here to Stay takes place in an unnamed but affluent community. There is a country club up in the hills, and most people live in large houses. In fact, a lot of the smaller homes have recently been replaced by McMansions.

Can you picture it? Are you getting a sense of its character? Are you getting a sense of how place affects lives?

Okay. Smack in the middle of town there’s a wide boulevard, three lanes in each direction. Just off the boulevard stands The Del Mar Garden Apartments. It’s an affordable housing complex, a pretty decent one, with balconies and a grass-filled courtyard, but it’s a little neglected too. Sunny Parker, our protagonist, lives here.

This new detail complicates things, doesn’t it? Suddenly, this world seems a little less predictable and a little more fractured. But maybe it also seems more interesting, because like any good character it is multi-faceted, and that makes it fun. After all, you never really know how a multi-faceted character is going to act or what it’s going to do.

Helping writers and readers understand that world building is character building can not only help them grow as writers, but, with the right scaffolding, it can prompt them to think about their own world as more than a place for them to exist, but as an active presence in their own lives, one that they help shape, and one that shapes them in return.

With that in mind, here are two lessons about place—one for writers and one for readers.

Writing About Place

  1. Start with a blank piece of paper. Draw the world you know, in this case, the room/place where you sleep (although other spaces could be fun to play around with too). Be sure to label the furniture, windows, etc.
  2. Add sensory details (as words or pictures) so that you can better visualize what things look, sound, feel, smell, and maybe even taste like.
  3. Look at your picture. What contradictions might exist here? Maybe your side of your room is perfectly clean, for example, but your sister’s side looks (and smells) gross. Or maybe the contradiction is outside. Maybe inside the room/place it’s warm and dry, but outside it’s cold and wet.
  4. Now write about what you’ve drawn, especially the contradiction. Be sure to use those sensory details and other words that give a sense of life and action.
  5. Share your writing with a peer. Have them answer this question: What do you think this writing tells you about the person/people who live here?
  6. Reflect in writing for one minute more by answering this question: Did your peer say what you thought they might? If so, what? If not, did their response surprise you? Why?

Reading about place

  1. Start with a book. Identify passages that describe an important place in the book.
  2. Draw it out on a piece of paper. No need to be fancy, but do try to get those sensory words in there.
  3. Reflect in writing on your drawing. What is your picture trying to tell you about the personality of the place. For example, is it warm, cozy, scary? What clues does the personality of the place tell you about the people or animals in the story?

Published April 23rd, 2024 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

About the Book: A determined girl spends the summer before middle school learning to stand up for her low-income community in this funny, fast-paced read just right for fans of Kelly Yang’s Front Desk.

Sunny Parker loves the Del Mar Garden Apartments, the affordable housing complex where she lives. And she especially loves her neighbors. From her best friend, Haley Michaels, to Mrs. Garcia and her two kids—developmentally disabled son AJ and bitter but big-hearted daughter Izzy—every resident has a story and a special place in Sunny’s heart.

Sunny never thought living at the Del Mar Garden Apartments made her different—until the city proposes turning an old, abandoned school into a new affordable housing complex and the backlash of her affluent neighborhood teaches Sunny the hard way that not everyone appreciates the community she calls home. Her dad, the Del Mar’s manager-slash-handyman, wants Sunny to lay low. But as hurtful rhetoric spreads and the city’s public hearing approaches, Sunny realizes that sometimes there’s too much at stake to stay silent.

With her friends behind her, Sunny Parker is determined to change the narrative—because she and her community are here to stay!

About the Author: Margaret Finnegan is the author of the Junior Library Guild Selections New Kids and UnderdogsWe Could Be Heroes, and Susie B. Won’t Back Down. Her other work has appeared in FamilyFun, the Los Angeles TimesSalon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, where she enjoys spending time with her family, walking her dog, and baking really good chocolate cakes. Visit her online at or on Instagram at FinneganBegin.

Thank you, Margaret, for sharing these setting reading and writing tips!

2 thoughts on “Author Guest Post: “Home is Where the Heart is: Lessons for Writing About Place” by Margaret Finnegan, Author of <i>Sunny Parker is Here to Stay</i>”

  1. Beautifully capturing the essence of what makes a place feel like home, this article offers valuable insights and lessons for any writer looking to create vivid and heartfelt descriptions of their surroundings. A must-read for those seeking to evoke a sense of nostalgia and warmth in their writing.


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