In the real world, I type my destination into my iPhone navigation app, and two pins drop—one for where I am, and the other for where I’m going. The journey is mapped out, and the techno voice guides me (hopefully) to the desired location.
Finding the desired location for a novel should be so easy. Maybe it is for some writers. Maybe I should take out a map, close my eyes, and pin the post-it arrow on the next setting. But I know I’m going to live in that place for a while (even if it’s only in my head), so I’m always very selective. For my earlier novels, I always picked a time and place that I wanted to research. That way, if I had never been published, at least I learned something! (That was a conscious rationale, by the way). Before the days of Google, I read tomes about London in the 1930s, leading up to and including World War II. Then I read about Vienna in the 1880’s, when anti-Semitism was festering, political upheaval was getting ugly and the art world was ideologically splintering…all to the tune of Strauss waltzes. Then I ventured out West to Denver in the late 19th Century. My last two novels have been set in places where I have lived: Astoria, Queens, where I grew up, and Southold, Long Island, where I spent summers as a child. These are places I have known and loved. They are places I can smell and feel. I want the reader to smell and feel the setting, too.
A setting has to have interesting traits, just like the characters. As an author, I wouldn’t be happy if I created real people and placed them in a two-dimensional world. If they are alive to me, then they need a place to live and breathe. I have to picture their home, their street. I have to feel the heat of the sun and see what they are seeing. Can they smell the seasons? Do they hear the clamor of traffic or the rustling of leaves in the breeze? What are the people around them doing?
If I want my characters to be alive to my reader, then I have to show them reacting (or not reacting) to their world. It’s as simple as that.
So I’ve decided where my next novel is going to be set. I’ve been to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a number of times when my sons were growing up, and my recent visit convinced me it would be the perfect backdrop for the story I want to tell. I can already picture the homestead, complete with its outbuildings and old pick-up truck. I can see the sailboats and the busy lobster wharves. I can smell the salty breeze.
There’s a beautiful church on a hill, visible from the harbor. There are interesting shops and good restaurants. In the summer it’s mobbed with tourists soaking up a Maine Coast experience. Off season, however, life goes on up the road from that waterfront, and those year-rounders are hardy folks. That is the Boothbay Harbor I wanted to explore while I was there. Their connection to the land and sea goes way beyond a Maine Coast experience or the aesthetic appeal of their lighthouses and sunsets. Their connection continues when the restaurants are closed and the sightseeing boats are dry-docked.
Which brings me to the premise of my story. It will be about going home…and why home is not always a place.