Getting the “Lay” of the Land with Dee Burks


Hi Everyone! Linda Broday here. I was supposed to blog today but western author Dee Burks is taking my place.  Miss Dee has taught writing classes at Amarillo College for several years. And in addition to being a romance author, she’s the owner and publisher of TAG Publishing Company. We’re so happy to have her with us.  See her giveaway at the end of the blog.

YOurs_again_cover_with_vic_bannerThis is about a 1880s brothel madam named Tilly and the cowboys she plowed……

Just  kidding, but before you get all excited about this being some sort of historical take on “50 shades” let me assure you it’s not, although now that I think about it, the idea has some merit! No, this is a blog about an often underutilized aspect of a story’s setting and that is the topography of the area or “lay of the land”. As a writer it is natural to think of the setting of a story in terms of vegetation, season and general climate attributes.  But topography is another aspect to setting that can greatly enhance the buy in for readers. This is especially true in a historical novel as getting from one point to another was quite the challenge, much more so than in a contemporary setting. 

When I was researching the setting for my new River City Series, I revisited the area of Northern New Mexico known as the Enchanted Circle. This area rings Wheeler Peak (elevation 13,159 ft) and includes the towns of Eagle Nest, Angel Fire, Taos, Questa and Red River. This area was a boom area in the late 1800s as mining first took off and brought many new people to the region. I was very familiar with the reality of the topography of the area as my family went on vacation to Red River almost every summer in the late 70s.

One afternoon last fall, as my DH and I were tromping up a steep incline to yet another old cemetery on the former site of Elizabethtown, it occurred to me how much we were both affected by the attitude. We are from Amarillo (elevation 3700 ft) and I have to say the treadmill incline can’t make you sweat and huff air like a short walk up a hill in thin air! The first book in the River City Series (Yours Again) has a villain chasing my heroine from Boston all the way to these same mountains over a few days and I quickly realized that the altitude change would greatly affect him. There is no way even a grown man who is used to sea level elevation can tussle with a squirming woman, run though town and then ride off through the mountains without almost passing out!

New Mex Topography MapI worked this into the story using the effects of altitude sickness to add humor and make it easier for the hero to rescue the heroine. It seemed so obvious that traveling in and around a mountainous area would cause physical problems, but think about how many books you’ve read where is seems like everything happens on perfectly flat ground? No one has to slow horses down for steep inclines or slide though mountain mud on unsteady footing. Adding just that little touch of realism can be the difference between a reader feeling like they are ‘there’ and them just skipping over passages.

The good news is that thanks to the US Geological Service, topography maps are available online. You can access them through a quick Google search of the area you are interested in followed by “topographical map”.  You can even access historical topographical maps of certain areas. This is useful because it allows you to see exactly the type of terrain and environmental obstacles characters will encounter. Here’s an example:

Years ago, one of the first classes in writing I ever took was taught by the great Jodi Thomas and she was a stickler for having description within a story include all the senses: smell, taste, touch, sight and sound.  I still hold fast to that advice and remember that setting the scene is much more than simply creating a still photo in the readers’ minds; it’s about allowing them to experience the lay of the land as well. In this way they walk beside the characters every step of the way as if they are part of the story and not just an observer.

Whether your story is set in the mountains, by the sea or in the dusty canyons of the west, the incremental changes in topography and a writer’s ability to convey that scene in a real way, will add a tremendous amount of realism to the story and sweep readers off their feet with every turn of the page.



The Kindle version of Yours Again is on sale this week for only 99 cents! Get your copy here:HERE


Contest Giveaway:


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10 thoughts on “Getting the “Lay” of the Land with Dee Burks”

  1. Elevation would be 13, 159 feet, or real close. I sure enjoyed this post. Very interesting. I had a brother and sister who lived in New mexico for many years, and some of my family used to go to Red River, but never me. Please put my name in for the drawing. Maxie Anderson mac262(at)me(dot)com

  2. The elevation of Elizabethtown, New Mexico is 8, 481 feet . Thank you for this most interesting post.

    melback at cebridge dot net

  3. Hi Dee! Welcome to the Junction! We’re thrilled that you’re here with us. What an interesting subject. You’ve given me lots to think about in my own stories. I know myself when I go up into the higher elevations it’s really hard for me to walk and breathe. I cannot even imagine running.

    I love the cover to your new book! The colors and graphics are some of the best I’ve seen. And the story sounds like something right up my alley. I just loaded it into my Kindle and am anxious to read it.

    Thanks for coming!

  4. The elevation is 8481 feet according to Wikipedia. Yes, the facts of the land play a major role in the story, as does so many other facts to keep the reader fascinated in the story line, and in the right century. Good post.

  5. Hi everyone! Thanks for the wonderful comments. Thanks Linda for having me on such a great western blog.

    I agree Sherri, there is nothing better than an actual visit to a setting you are writing about. It is a wonderful way to really get the sights, sounds, smells, etc of a location. As you read Yours Again you will notice small things like the air smelling of wild sage after a rain that I’ve included. If you’ve ever been to this part of NM you will know that smell – its wonderful. While its not always possible to get to a specific place, I know it certainly helps me to try and visit.

  6. Fascinating post. I have visited Angel Fire and Taos. Beautiful setting. The elevation is 8481 feet. Where we live the air is dry and skies are blue due to the 1 mile up by the foothills.

  7. What wonderful reminders, Dee! I literally live at sea level so altitude is something I’ve probably never thought about…despite a series set in Colorado, sheesh. We actually visited Colorado last fall and I do remember the shortness of breath. Gotta remember these great hints. Thanks for spending the day with us in Wildflower Junction!

  8. Well, Melanie beat me to it. Elevation 8481 ft.
    I, too live at 3700 ft. With the Eastern Sierra out my door. I can attest to having to sit a bit just going to our favorite picnic place that is 8367 ft, just 10 miles up the road. Sorry I wasn’t the first one, but I don’t turn my computer on til afternoon.
    Great story, thanks.
    Mary J.

  9. For me, having an accurate description of the area is of importance in a story. We lived in Colorado Springs for 3 years and did a lot of hiking. It takes a bit of time to get used to the altitude. Many aspects of the story will vary depending on a setting which is another reason it is important to know where it is set. If an author has been there or done good research, it helps build the setting allowing the reader to experience the book the way they should to get the most out of the story.

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