Monday, June 20, 2011

Choosing the Shore

Given a choice on where to travel (or where to set my novels) I will always pick the shore. I’m not particular about which shore, but Maine’s close by, and so I get there at least once every summer. I love the way firs grow right out of the rock, down close to the water’s edge; the way seaweed drifts listlessly in the cold, green water; and how fog slides in and, even though it has no real substance, can alter an entire landscape. 

Cape Cod was another favorite summer destination of mine. Every August, when I was a child, we rented a tiny cabin, one of a dozen clustered around a small marina on the banks of a saltwater river that ran into Waquoit Bay. The cabin was rustic and had an outdoor shower, not because they were trendy (I don’t think we had trends back then, certainly nothing we considered trendy) but because there wasn’t room for one inside. I loved it. We spent all day in-and-out of the water, riding our bikes, catching minnows and crabs, and messing about in boats. There was no television, so we played cards in the evening, or went to the drive-in. I long for simple summer days on the Cape. We don’t get there very often now, because the traffic is bad and the beaches crowded. Perhaps it’s not Cape Cod that I long for, but the simple, summer days of my childhood. 

Every winter my husband and I now flee the Vermont cold for Sanibel Island, located off the coast of Southwest Florida. What I love about this little gem, besides the climate, is that two-thirds of the island is conserved for wildlife. The speed limit on most of the roads is 25mph, and drivers are required by law to stop for gopher tortoises. This just seems right to me. I haven’t heard anyone else complain, either. When I can rouse myself early, I go out on the beach and watch the sunrise. Sometimes the moon is still up, and that is quite a sight. Not many folks are up at that hour, and the few who are recognize that it’s not a time to socialize. We stand and stare in awe at the wonder of nature. Eleven hours later, up and down the beach, noisy groups gather to toast the sun as it drops back into the Gulf and to congratulate ourselves for having been lucky enough to spend another day in paradise. 

Writing is often a solitary undertaking, as is reading, but stories are meant to be shared so, please, leave a comment below. Where do you like to travel and why? (And, if you read my new novel, Her Sister’s Shadow, please get in touch and let me know what you think. Thanks!)

Places and People

I’m fascinated by the effect that places have on people. Landscape, culture, traditions… are all equally important to fictional characters. This place/character relationship is one of the things I enjoy most about reading southern novels, (maybe because I’m from New England). To Kill a Mockingbird gets top honors, but I also love the novels of Eudora Welty and, more recently The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The sweet, heavy air, the drooping Spanish moss, the language, and the history… provide a uniquely southern setting that shapes these uniquely southern tales. The atmosphere that Harper Lee creates in To Kill a Mockingbird is so vivid I can easily picture myself sitting in a rocker on Atticus Finch’s front porch on a hot summer day, a tall glass of iced tea by my side, as Scout’s story unspools before me. 

One can sit in a rocker on a porch in New England (where my novel, Her Sister’s Shadow, is set) and read in the summer just as easily, but one is very likely to be wearing fleece and sipping hot tea. The weather here is challenging and unpredictable. Scrub oaks and bittersweet have learned to adapt to coastal New England’s thin, salty soil, harsh winters, and constant breeze. So have its people. But it takes effort to put down roots in rock, and that effort sometimes shows. It’s not that New Englanders are unfriendly, we’re just self-sufficient and expect others to be the same. (It has been said of the residents of certain New England towns, “they will not ask why you’ve come, nor will they ask you back.”) Her Sister’s Shadow is a story of two sisters in late mid-life, estranged for forty years who reunite in their childhood home. Like the scrub oak and bittersweet, these two women, and this story, belong in New England. Were I to move them to Charleston or Atlanta, it would become a very different story. The social mores, the architecture, and the climate would all insist. 

Places are important to people. So tell me, where is your story set? Where are your favorite novels set, and why? Writing is often a solitary endeavor, as is reading, but stories are meant to be shared, so please leave a comment below, if you’re so inclined. (And, if you read Her Sister’s Shadow, please get in touch and let me know what you think.) Thank you!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Unexpected Story

Stories come to writers in unexpected ways. We spend a lot of time observing our surroundings, jotting down snippets of conversations, and noting unusual people and situations, and then we write a scene taken partially from these observations and dredged partially from our imaginations. We don’t know what we’ve written until we read the scene. When we read it, we sometimes (often) find that the words don’t express precisely what we’d intended to say. So we change one word, and then another, and, slowly, the scene takes shape. But, what’s this? The scene now leads the story in a whole new direction! The story we thought we were writing is not the one we’re now writing. 

Sometimes a writer will adjust a setting to fit a new plot element, and this can also lead to wholly unexpected outcomes. Say we need our character to make a quilt to auction at the county fair. We add a sewing room onto the house. Quietly, a character suggests that the sewing room might once have been a nursery. “Is this true?” the writer asks (somewhat shocked, somewhat annoyed). “Yes,” the character says. “I can’t believe you didn’t know that.” The writer, then, must dutifully supply the character with a present and a future to address that hidden past. Our characters will let us know if we get it wrong. The stubborn ones remain silent for days, making us guess at the error. The outspoken ones talk so fast we have to race to keep up. Again, the story we thought we were writing is not the one we’re now writing. 

The events in my novel, HER SISTER'S SHADOW, are fictional, presented to me, in part, by the characters, as I sat them in a room together and let them talk, and, in part, from my imagination, as I wandered the hallways of their childhood home, where my characters reunite after a forty-year estrangement. I invented doorways and opened them to see what lay behind; pictured a dressing table and started sifting through the clutter, surprised at what lay hidden. 

I hope you enjoy reading HER SISTER'S SHADOW as much as I enjoyed writing it. And, please, let me hear from you! 

(Adapted from my guest post on the blog, Pudgy Penguin Perusals.)