She returned with her mother to their logging camp on Orofino Creek in the Clearwater National Forest, where her father worked as a lumberjack. For the next twelve years, she and her family lived in the small communities and cedar camps of northern IdahoPierce, Headquarters, and a number of places along the North Fork of the Clearwater River. In 1970, the family moved to Lewiston, Idaho, where Barnes graduated from Lewiston High School in 1976.
Barnes received her BA in English from Lewis-Clark State College in 1983, her MA in English from Washington State University in 1985, and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana in 1995.Barnes teaches creative writing at the University of Idaho, and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain in Idaho. They have three children.
The subject matter of Barnes's creative work includes the American West, religious fundamentalism, women's issues, logging, and the environment. In A Country Called Home, one of her main characters has the condition known as synesthesia and sees color when she hears music.
Her work has appeared widely in anthologies and journals, including The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, MORE Magazine, and the Pushcart Prize anthology.
She is the recipient of two grants from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. In 1995, she was chosen to receive the PEN/Jerard fellowship given to an emerging woman writer of nonfiction. In 1997, she was honored with a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award for In the Wilderness, which was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Visions Award.From 2004-2007, she served as Idaho Writer-in-Residence.