Home and Away and Writing
I’ve had the pleasure recently of visiting Ithaca, New York, and from my brief stay, I’m totally intrigued by the region. The Finger Lakes and the numerous and dramatic waterfalls themselves tell a story that goes back for centuries and centuries. The wineries and local food eateries that have sprung up more recently tell another, perhaps related, story of how people respond to the environment in which they live and work.
We talk a lot about sense of place when we talk about writing, and for good reason. If characters drive the story, then perhaps setting drives the characters. When I read a story that is set in no place in particular, I often feel that something essential about the people in the story is lacking. When the setting of a story or novel pulses with it’s own heartbeat, the characters within that story have more depth. And some stories couldn’t exist apart from their setting, as so many people are rediscovering this summer rereading To Kill a Mockingbird.
It makes me wonder how people can write about a place and the people who live in that place without having spent much time there themselves. I know that there are skilled writers who can do so . . . What are their tricks and tools for absorbing the essence of a place enough to capture not only in the descriptions of the setting, but also in their characters? This has long been a worry of mine, since I never felt that I came from anyplace. As a child I lived with my grandmother in Florida, who told me often enough “Kentucky is our home.” She’d lived more years in Florida than Kentucky, but she carried with her the traits of her birthplace in her speech, her cooking, her sense of propriety. I loved Kentucky, but it was never my home. My mother and I eventually landed in a college town after she got her masters—a town where no one was from. I don’t feel like I inherited a culture from the place; I always felt like an outsider. And in fact, I could not get out of that town fast enough when I graduated from high school. It’s only since I’ve been away from “home” for a good twenty-plus years, that I can begin to see how my own hometown shaped the essential me.
Extensive research about a place, rounded out with empathetic imagination—whether it is a storefront in a dusty, dying strip mall or a fierce and angry waterfall carving through shale and sandstone—are the essential things a writers must bring to the table when sitting down with pad and paper. A little local cheese and wine helps, too.