When you read a great book with a flair for creating an inescapable sense of place, your imagination comes alive and you feel like you’re really experiencing the location firsthand. So we’ve selected 50 books – one for each state – that paint immersive and beautifully detailed pictures of their settings.
This mystery thriller about a young boy and his father who stumble upon the scene of a murder captures what it’s like to grow up in a Southern small town in the 1960s, in this case the fictional town of Zephyr, Alabama on the Tecumseh River.
Robert McCammon was born in Birmingham, and he paints evocative pictures with words of his home state.
A pioneer of creative nonfiction in the United States, John McPhee tackles the scale and grandeur of Alaska in “Coming into the Country.” This three-part book covers a lot of ground, familiarizing readers with the vast Alaskan wilderness, urban Alaska and life in the bush, all while introducing us to an unforgettable cast of characters.
Arizona: “The Almanac of the Dead” by Leslie Marmon Silko
You can almost feel the hot desert sun on your face as you read this sweeping novel that tackles themes of fate and conquest, as well as the multifaceted conflicts ever-present along America’s southern border.
While this novel by Leslie Marmon Silko, a major figure in the Native American Renaissance, takes place across the Southwest, much of its first portion plays out in Arizona.
Arkansas: “The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks” by Donald Harington
“The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks” follows six generations of the Ingledew family as they move from their native Tennessee to found a small town in the rural Arkansas Ozarks. Lyrical and funny, the novel’s fictional town of Stay More was loosely based on Drakes Creek, a small community in Madison County.
In a state as large and diverse as California, it’s hard to narrow down the literary selection to a single book. But this novel by John Fante stands out for its portrayal of Los Angeles in all its grit and glamour.
This American classic tells the story of Arturo Bandini, an Italian-American who moves to LA to try and make it big as a writer.
Colorado: “Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living” by Karen Auvinen
This memoir from award-winning poet Karen Auvinen recalls her time in a primitive cabin in the front range of the Colorado Rockies and the fire that incinerated her possessions, including every word she’d written. Leave it to a poet to paint a beautiful, desolate picture of Colorado mountain scenery through the seasons.
Connecticut: “I Know This Much Is True” by Wally Lamb
This Wally Lamb novel takes place in fictional Three Rivers, Connecticut, but the details woven into this heart-wrenching story of brotherly devotion will ring true to anyone familiar with the state. The fictional town is based loosely on Norwich, New London and Willimantic.
Delaware: “Cure for the Common Breakup” by Beth Kendrick
The fictional seaside town of Black Dog Bay, Delaware, “the best place in America to bounce back from your breakup,” sets the scene for this heartfelt and witty love story about a globe-trotting flight attendant.
If you can’t make it to the beach this summer, let this Hallmark Channel-esque novel, the first in the Black Dog Bay series, transport you to the Delaware shore instead.
Carl Hiaasen brings macabre humor and a sense of foreboding to South Florida during this wildly entertaining mystery about a community trying to keep a series of murders under wraps lest the tourists (and their money) stop coming. The zany book captures the essence of Florida and the importance of protecting its natural beauty.
Georgia: “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt
You’ll feel like you’ve walked beneath the moss-draped oaks and through the hauntingly beautiful cemeteries of Savannah after reading this true crime classic that reads more like a novel than a work of nonfiction. The cast of characters are as colorful as the setting, including a voodoo priestess, drag queen, con artist and the society ladies of the Married Woman’s Card Club.
This sweeping novel covers more than 150 years of Hawaiian history through the stories of islanders and invaders, queens and lepers. Kiana Davenport, an islander herself, renders the archipelago in riveting detail, making Hawaii a character in its own right.
This award-winning debut novel from author Emily Ruskovich follows Ann and Wade, a couple living in the rugged landscape of Northern Idaho as Wade’s memory begins to fade. The lyrical prose is as stunning as the story, bringing every small detail of the setting to life.
Illinois: “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson
“The Devil in the White City” transports readers through both space and time, taking them back to the Gilded Age during the Chicago World’s Fair. This piece of extraordinary historical nonfiction follows both the men building the White City and the serial killer who used the attraction as a way to lure his victims.
John Green’s wildly popular novel “The Fault in Our Stars” follows Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, two teens suffering from cancer, around the city of Indianapolis.
Reading this tragic love story doubles as a tour around town, with stops at locations like the “Funky Bones” skeleton sculpture in the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park, Monument Circle and Castleton Square Mall.
This 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning novel offers a meditative trip into the American heartland with John Ames, a terminally ill pastor from an Iowa prairie town, as your guide. The fictional town of Gilead took inspiration from the real town of Tabor in the southwest corner of Iowa, and the prose captures this peaceful, pastoral setting.
What better tour guide to take you through Kansas than Doc Holliday himself? This bit of historical fiction from Mary Doria Russell traces the early days of Dr. John Henry Holliday as he makes his way to Dodge City and strikes up an unlikely friendship with lawman Wyatt Earp.
If you can’t visit historic Dodge City for yourself, this is the next best thing.
Kentucky: “Shiloh and Other Stories” by Bobbie Ann Mason
Bobbie Ann Mason welcomes readers to Western Kentucky in her debut series of short stories. Her native turf comes alive through these explorations of the New South as it evolves from its rural past into the modern day, tackling issues ranging from feminism to the rise of video games.
Louisiana: “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole
John Kennedy Toole describes Ignatius J. Reilly, his protagonist in this comic masterpiece, as “a Don Quixote of the French Quarter.” Reilly’s humorous adventures take readers through the streets of New Orleans, introducing us to some of the city’s most eclectic (fictional) characters and real-life locations.
Maine: “The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories” by Sarah Orne Jewett
“The Country of the Pointed Firs” transports readers to coastal Maine in a series of short stories from the perspective of a visiting writer who has fallen in love with the small town of Dunnet Landing.
While the setting is fictional, the details evoke images of Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island, as well as what life is like in a Maine fishing community.
Maryland: “The Oysterback Tales” by Helen Chappell
“The Oysterback Tales” captures the culture and dialogue of Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore, even though its small town setting is fictitious. This collection of short stories by Helen Chappell were originally published in the Baltimore Sun before being released as a collection in 1994.
Massachusetts: “Illumination Night” by Alice Hoffman
This enchanting novel by Alice Hoffman takes readers to the island of Martha’s Vineyard on the night of the Grand Illumination, a real festival of lanterns held each summer.
The novel follows several story lines – an old woman trying to save her granddaughter’s soul, a marriage in crisis, a high school girl on the island against her will – set against the backdrop of the island’s Victorian charm.
Jim Harrison beautifully captures the essence of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula through the eyes of his protagonist Donald, a Chippewa-Finnish man dictating his family history as he’s dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The descriptions of the virgin forests and wildlife will make you want to book a trip to the North country someday.
Northern Minnesota has a strong cabin culture – almost everyone has a family cabin – and this cabin experience comes to life in Sarah Stonich’s “Vacationland.”
This series of linked stories peeks into the lives of staff, guests and locals at a cabin resort that’s not based on any one place, but on the nostalgia of old summer resorts that are getting harder to find in Minnesota’s Northland.
“Salvage the Bones,” the sophomore novel from Jesmyn Ward, takes place in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Ward grew up in the town of DeLisle, the inspiration for Bois Sauvage, and the literary world she weaves offers an authentic look at life on this rural coast.
Journey to the American heartland, in this case a farm in western Missouri, in “The Moonflower Vine.” This classic of American literature captures the feeling of rural Missouri in the early twentieth century as it chronicles the lives of the Soames family: Matthew and Callie and their four headstrong daughters.
Montana: “A River Runs through It and Other Stories” by Norman Maclean
The mountains of Western Montana are as much a character in these stories as the loggers, card sharks and fishermen who grace the pages. Reading through this collection is akin to taking a tour of the small towns and trout streams of the region, with intimate introductions to the people and culture of the Missoula area.
Nebraska: “Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps” by Ted Kooser
The series of essays in Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s book “Local Wonders” take readers to the Bohemian alps, an area near Seward, Nebraska dominated by rolling hills and Czech heritage. Settle in for a celebration of country life through the seasons.
Nevada: “Battleborn: Stories” by Claire Vaye Watkins
Claire Vaye Watkins has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx for her brilliant use of setting in this series of 10 short stories of the American West. Many take place in Nevada, transporting readers to Gold Rush ghost towns, remote desert and a Las Vegas hotel room.
New Jersey: “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz
Dominican-American author Junot Díaz was raised in New Jersey, and this influence is evident throughout this tale of a young Dominican boy with a love for sci-fi and fantasy as he grapples with a family curse. The town of Paterson, the setting for the novel, is known in real life for its diversity of immigrants, many from Central and South America.
New Mexico: “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo A. Anaya
This classic of Chicano literature is also one of New Mexico’s most iconic stories – a semi-autobiographical tale of the author’s childhood in rural northeastern New Mexico in the 1940s. Readers are immersed in the folktales and culture of the Land of Enchantment.
New York: “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann
New York City serves as the unifying backdrop to these stories of residents on a day in August of 1974 when a tightrope walker moved between the Twin Towers. Some of the people you’ll meet along the way include a group of Park Avenue mothers, a young artist and a young Irish priest working in the Bronx.
North Carolina: “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens
Take a trip to the wild North Carolina marshes while reading this evocative novel from Delia Owens. Part murder mystery, part coming-of-age story, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is brimming with detail of the natural world along the North Carolina coast.
North Dakota: “The Badlands Saloon” by Jonathan Twingley
This fully illustrated novel paints a vivid picture of a small North Dakota town with both words and paintings from author Jonathan Twingley. It’s a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the badlands in the fictional town of Marysville, inspired by the real town Medora. You’ll encounter plenty of quirky characters and local color along the way.
Ohio: “The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread” by Don Robertson
“The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread,” a coming-of-age novel from Don Robertson, takes place in Cleveland in 1944, on the day of the Cleveland East Ohio gas explosion. The story follows Morris Bird III, a young boy who decides to visit a friend across town, on his pilgrimage across Cleveland with his red wagon and little sister in tow.
Oklahoma: “The Honk and Holler Opening Soon” by Billie Letts
If you’ve ever driven down Route 66 through Oklahoma, “The Honk and Holler Opening Soon” will already feel familiar. This roadside diner along a once-bustling highway in rural Oklahoma sets the scene for a story of a Crow woman named Vena Takes Horse and her three-legged dog who come into town and shake things up.
While you won’t find the town of Neawanaka, Oregon on any real map, you will want to spend some time there (or at least on the Oregon coast) after reading “Mink River” by Portland author Brian Doyle. Both the setting and the cast of characters that inhabit it feel entirely plausible.
Pennsylvania: “2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas” by Marie-Helene Bertino
“2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas” follows three characters – a rebellious nine-year-old and aspiring jazz singer, a recently divorced fifth grade teacher, and the owner of a legendary jazz club – as they navigate the snowy streets of Philadelphia on Christmas Eve. At times, the novel reads like a love letter to the City of Brotherly Love.
Rhode Island: “Theophilus North” by Thornton Wilder
“Theophilus North” takes readers to Newport, Rhode Island at the height of the Jazz Age in the 1920s. Through the adventures of the eponymous main character, we get to see inside the elegant mansions of Ocean Drive, as well as the town’s restaurants, dives and boarding houses.
South Carolina: “The Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy
The family saga in “The Prince of Tides” takes place across New York City and the South Carolina Lowcountry, where readers are introduced to the shrimping towns, marshes, tidal flats and sandbars of the coast. Author Pat Conroy grew up in Beaufort, which was also used as a filming location in the movie adaptation.
South Dakota: “The Personal History of Rachel DuPree” by Ann Weisgarber
“The Personal History of Rachel DuPree” is set at a ranch in the badlands of South Dakota during World War I. The novel chronicles the difficulties faced by African American homesteaders in this beautiful yet harsh landscape.
While the main characters are fictional, the setting, as well as many events and minor characters, are very much real.
This multigenerational story set in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee introduces us to Myra Lamb, a young girl with “the touch,” a power passed down to her from her grandmother. It’s a stunning introduction to southern Appalachia, filled with beautiful imagery.
Annie Proulx is a master of setting, and “That Old Ace in the Hole” is no exception. This novel transports readers to the Texas Panhandle and all its cultural idiosyncrasies – these Texas flatlands become as much a character in the book as the protagonist Bob Dollar.
Utah: “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness” by Edward Abbey
Edward Abbey spent significant time as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah during the late 1960s, and this memoir captures the stark beauty of the American Southwest in vivid, poetic detail. It’s the next best thing to seeing these stirring landscapes for yourself.
Vermont: “A Stranger in the Kingdom” by Howard Frank Mosher
“A Stranger in the Kingdom,” a novel about a murder turning a small town on its head, takes place in the fictional Kingdom County and is imbued with very real details of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. It’s been compared to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” both for its themes and its vivid descriptions of small town life– only this time in New England.
The natural world of Virginia’s forested mountains and small farms comes alive in Barbara Kingsolver’s “Prodigal Summer,” set in the fictional Zebulon County. The novel follows three stories that each take place in a small Appalachian town over the course of a summer, and you can almost feel the humid heat as you read.
Anyone who’s been tide pooling along the coast of Puget Sound will appreciate thirteen-year-old Miles O’Malley’s connection to the sea in “The Highest Tide,” one of the best coming-of-age novels set in the Pacific Northwest. Readers unfamiliar with the area are in for a vivid introduction to the strange marine tidal life and the sense of wonder it inspires.
West Virginia: “Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life” by Chuck Kinder
Chuck Kinder’s bawdy and wildly entertaining memoir introduces readers to his home state of West Virginia. It’s complete with local legends, family stories, regional history and a cast of colorful characters that reside in this mountain state (including a paranoid Elvis impersonator named Jessico White).
Wisconsin: “Death Stalks Door County” by Patricia Skalka
This first installment in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mysteries introduces us to the natural beauty of Wisconsin’s Door County. This popular vacation peninsula on Lake Michigan in real life doubles as the backdrop for the story of a former Chicago homicide detective tracking a clever killer while facing down his own personal demons.
Wyoming: “Happiness for Beginners” by Katherine Center
Readers journeying through “Happiness for Beginners” follow protagonist and recent divorcee Helen Carpenter on a three-week trip into the remote wilderness of the Wyoming mountains. The story is charming and heartfelt, while taking readers on a vicarious camping trip – mosquitoes and all.