Setting the New Adult Novel: Why I Haven’t Set a Book on Campus (Yet)

Special thanks to the NA Alley blog team for allowing me the opportunity to post. I’ve been a lurker for nearly two years, when I discovered what I was writing was this new thing called New Adult. The discussions on NA Alley have been invaluable to me as both a writer and reader.

Now, let’s talk setting. Some of the most memorable books I’ve read include vivid locations that take on a life of their own. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING. Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. In each one of these books, the setting takes on a life of its own. It becomes a character, almost a living, breathing being with which the characters interact. Change the setting and the whole book is different. In New Adult fiction, setting is everything. New Adult is about 18 to 26 year-olds and those experiences that shape us from the time we graduate high school. These experiences might include leaving home for college, getting that first “grown-up” job, or learning how to keep the electric on and a roof over your head in your own apartment.

That first one is a gigantic stepping stone for teenagers the world over. No parents telling you what to do? Score one point for freedom! I adore college-set New Adult romances. The first NAs I read had characters who actively attended classes, recitals, and performances: Tammara Webber’s EASY, Cora Carmack’s LOSING IT, and J. Lynn’s WAIT FOR YOU. At least some of the characters lived in dorms, had roommates, and walked to classes. The college setting was vital to the plot and character development. I experienced college life vicariously through the protagonist’s eyes.

Vicariously, I say, because I never lived on campus, and only attended a few of my courses in an actual classroom. I was a non-traditional student, earning most of the credits for my Bachelor’s as a single, thirty-something mom taking advantage of the online learning platform. The idea of trying to write a story where campus life plays such a massive role in the daily doings of the characters terrifies me, because I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. I apologize for the shouting. I do that when I get nervous.

While the hero of my debut novel is a medical student, most of the on-campus action takes place around the university’s hospital. This I was comfortable with, because my son did a long-term pharmaceutical trial at a prominent southeast university’s hospital. A significant part of the story also takes place in Key West, and the book ends there. The second book in the series also starts and ends there, with a road trip in between. The third book is all Key West. I’ve been to Key West twice, and after my last trip three years ago, was determined to write a story set in this a one-of-a-kind place. I only hope I’ve captured some its essence.

My characters are living lives I’ve never lived, but they’re doing it in places I’ve known and loved. While one day I may write a story about a “typical” college student who lives in a dorm and eats dining hall food and is shaped by all of the things campus life offers, for now I’m satisfied with re-visiting where I’ve been. Wait for the story about the computer nerd who works at an “adult video” store to make ends meet while attending night classes at the local community college. Did I mention she lives in a trailer park? That’s the part I know personally. It’ll be a fun setting to explore.

I’d love to hear about your favorite NA books NOT set at college. I’m always looking to add to my reading list! I’ll start. Cora Carmack’s FINDING IT gave me so many feels, in part because it made me want to visit Eastern Europe, a place that wasn’t on my bucket list before. I must see the ruin bars in Budapest before I die!

About the Author

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A.J. Matthews wrote her first book at the age of six, a retelling of THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. Illustrated by her grandmother, the book was never picked up and was self-published instead, glued to cardboard with a cover fashioned from wallpaper scraps. Today, the Maryland native transplanted to central North Carolina writes stories featuring nice guys (or nice guys in-the-making) in between juggling jobs as a technical writer, a referee for two young daughters, and spoiler to a neurotic cat. Skills include eating nachos, watching sports, eating chocolate, drinking beer, and making her husband shake his head on the daily.

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  1. I am SO excited I stumbled upon your blog. YAY for Twitter for leading me here :-) A few years ago, I first heard of NA and did a dance for joy that even the dog found embarrassing. This is what I have been writing! I finished my first story and it led to a sequel, but the sequel had my characters now out of high school and into more mature situations. Yet, I wouldn't want my my 12 year old daughter reading this, so when I heard about NA, that made me so happy. I am going to pick my brain for an NA book that doesn't take place in college...thanks for making me THINK!

  2. Hi Heather! So happy you stumbled onto the post, and NA Alley. Looking forward to your non-college NA book suggestion.



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