Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Tip O'Day #290 - Setting is Crucial

I mostly put up guest posts from other writers because I think we can learn a lot from the success and failures of others, even the least experienced. However, my “Wolf & Eagle” excerpts from the forthcoming thriller Montana is Burning have had the most hits by far over the last few years. For the success of a novel, I believe setting can be just as important as character and story. The following is my attempt to convey a sense of the Montana wilderness.

As shadows lengthened in the forest, a wolf waited.

He awoke at daybreak far to the north with an empty belly. The last surviving member of his pack, he’d eaten nothing but a few rodents the last few days. Alone, he had little hope of killing larger prey.

The wolf turned south and loped toward memories of slow-moving cattle that grazed away from human scents. He stopped to rest when the sun shone directly overhead. A swath of land denuded of trees stretched into the distance to both left and right. He could smell and hear much further than he could see, and sensed no men nearby. He sprinted across. He rested again and then urinated to mark his mission and direction of travel before continuing the journey. The wolf trotted over the Whitefish and Salish Mountains before a familiar scent stopped him on the edge of a grassy meadow.

The cattle still lay in his path but only after many hours’ travel through rolling sand hills. His stomach ached. The wolf ignored his hunger and waited.

Shadows stretched into the clearing below him, masking a swift stream in smears of gray and black. The wolf breathed deep of the warm air and smelled deer.

A female. Closer this time. Down-slope and upwind.

The wolf tensed his haunches in readiness.

The whitetail deer edged closer through the shadows, yet not close enough.

The wolf felt the weather change. A storm front was passing by. The humidity rose as clouds rolled overhead, smothering the landscape in featureless murk. Lightning crackled in the distance.

The lone male might as well have been blind. Yet he smelled the sweet fragrance of tamarack, pine and aspen, the loamy earth, the rich droppings left by beast and bird, and the salty blood coursing through the doe. Even through the noisy turbulence of wind and nearby stream, he clearly heard the prey set one hoof on a leaf.

The wind began to swirl. A fat plop of rain struck the cracked earth between his paws. Water sprinkled across the parched clearing. He sensed dusty treetops shuddering at scattered drops. A blanket of heavy, moist air settled around the hunter and now he sensed only water.

He stretched out on his belly and waited.

This is the first of three posts, to be continued tomorrow. Look for Montana is Burning on Kindle this summer. Suzanne Parrott of Unruly Guides designed the book cover.


  1. Hemingway was reported to have said, 'Don't forget the weather.' For myself, I usually get that part right. One thing you have done well here is to invoke the sense of smell, the one most often overlooked in textual description. I just have such a poor knowledge of flora and fauna that I get stuck using the same terms and appearing too bland to have any effect. Kudos, Dixon, on a well-written bit here.

  2. You write well. I wondered about point of view here. The wolf's, maybe, although "a wolf waited" suggests otherwise, and would the wolf know the names of mountains?

    I'd be interested to see how you incorporate this wolf scene into a thriller. My editor won't let me put in one word that is not directly pertinent to the fast-moving storyline :)


  3. A wonderful and thoughtfull description of the setting.