MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Using Word Choice to Create Atmospheric Setting

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The MG at Heart team is back again with a mid-month post about our August pick, Cindy Baldwin’s Where the Watermelons Grow. A heartfelt story that explores mental illness and its effects on family.

Twelve-year-old Della Kelly has lived her whole life in Maryville, North Carolina. She knows how to pick the softest butter beans and sweetest watermelons on her daddy’s farm. She knows ways to keep her spitfire baby sister out of trouble (most of the time). She knows everyone in Maryville, from her best friend Arden to kind newcomer Miss Lorena to the mysterious Bee Lady.

And Della knows what to do when the sickness that landed her mama in the hospital four years ago spirals out of control again, and Mama starts hearing people who aren’t there, scrubbing the kitchen floor until her hands are raw, and waking up at night to cut the black seeds from all the watermelons in the house. With Daddy struggling to save the farm from a record-breaking drought, Della decides it’s up to her to heal Mama for good. And she knows just how she’ll do it: with a jar of the Bee Lady’s magic honey, which has mended the wounds and woes of Maryville for generations.

She doesn’t want to hear the Bee Lady’s truth: that the solution might have less to do with fixing Mama’s brain than with healing Della’s own heart. But as the sweltering summer stretches on, Della must learn—with the help of her family and friends, plus a fingerful of watermelon honey—that love means accepting her mama just as she is.

The entire setting of the book is in Maryville, North Carolina, and every word in the story points to the character and atmosphere of the little Southern town. Besides the Southern drawl of the characters, lines like “Anybody who knew Mylie knew that she had been born with mischief in her hands and big ideas in her head” and “I could see where Thomas got his springtime smile from, Miss Lorena’s liked to light up the whole town” immerse the reader in the setting. (And I’m not even talking about the lovely symbolism of the heat throughout book.) Della’s observations are seeped deeply in Southern lingo, which helps the character of the town come alive. Couldn’t you hear the drawl as you read?

Using the right descriptive words is important. I feel that, in middle-grade novels, it’s especially important. A budding scientist wouldn’t use “doodad” in her internal dialogue much like an aspiring fashion designer wouldn’t say “that pink thingy you’re wearing” (or similar 😉 ). Those words aren’t part of their world and definitely are not part of their vocabulary, so they wouldn’t be on the page.

I feel like the Holy Grail knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Choose wisely…and your words will immerse your reader in the world you’ve created.

And while you weigh your word-choice options, enjoy Where the Watermelons Grow, where Cindy Baldwin utilizes this art to the very best.

One thought on “MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Using Word Choice to Create Atmospheric Setting

  1. Cindi’s word choice instantly transports the reader to hot and humid North Carolina; you immediately feel the heat and the stickiness that surrounds Della, her family and her community. Her words help you to imagine the caracter’s and to understand their personalities. It’s a big reason her story has stayed with me, even though I read it several months ago! – Susan


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