Research for a Setting

In fiction I like a strong sense of place, where the environment has shaped people and their problems. Before I begin a story, I want to have a clear idea of the real place where I’m locating my characters. I may change the name, add buildings and roads, but I begin with something real.

For the stories set in central Massachusetts, I chose the town and surrounding area where my family lived for many years. This was a farm community that had once had an industrial base at the end of the nineteenth century. The mills, small compared to some in other area cities and towns, were small, and the empty brick buildings prone to decay, as well as fires. The village where my family lived is at the northern end of the town. I know the community fairly well, since I visited my family often, but I wanted a better sense of its history, the kind that comes from having grown up there. I listened to people’s stories, looked over historical maps, but the absolute best resource was something I came across by accident.

In 1923, the local Reunion Association authorized the publication of a history of the town, which appeared either in 1924 or soon thereafter, in a sturdy cloth-bound book. The history is interesting, but more interesting from my perspective are the notes. Someone took pen in hand and added names and comments on several of the homes and what happened to them. She (and I think it was a woman) added a few historical notes as well. There was apparently a toll on the road through the hamlet, and she’s marked that page and added dates.

Several buildings marked and annotated are no longer there, but the notes give me a good idea of what kind of tiny hamlet it was—more than homes and a church. The shoemaker’s shop is gone, but I know where it was, and the post office and store are also gone. A chapel was replaced by a library, and a small school disappeared. Not included in the book is the last business in town, a second-hand bookstore that closed down probably in the 1990s. The house is noted in the book, and I visited the bookstore, but now it is only a home.

The former bookstore was also the toll house. According to the writer, “The position of toll-taker was not free from danger, as some persons denied the right of the corporation to tax persons for the use of the highways and at times insisted on passing the barrier without payment of the customary toll. This led to bodily encounters which sometimes ended with the shedding of blood.”

The history is not without its odd characters. “Uncle” Calvin Mayo “insisted that Tully mountain was at one time located where the Lily pond now is, but that some great force of nature took it from there, turned it over and gave it its present location.” The note in the margin says “Can you beat this?” Another story concerns an old cannon that was hauled up a mountain to help the miners, and brought a quick end to their work and part of the mountain.

This little book is giving me more than I had expected. First is the history, some of which is obscure; second is the tone of the writer, Mrs. Ward, who graduated from the Salem Normal School and taught in Lynn, MA. And third is the writer or writers who added details on when a house was auctioned, and who lived in it more recently. One writer made several more personal notes, such as “We lived on this road.”

I’m not sure how much of this history will make it into the next Felicity O’Brien book, but it’s already giving me ideas for a few more stories. It also has me thinking about writing an historical mystery—with lots of humor.

Settings and Seasons

This morning when I went out to walk the dog, the temperature was 12 degrees. When the breeze came along, it cut. But it’s also dry. When I think about winter I prefer cold and dry to warmer and wet (think snow and ice).

During my walk I often compose sentences to add to whatever I’m working on when I get back to the house, or just because I feel like writing a sentence in my head. This morning the cold held my attention, and I began thinking about how this degree of cold would affect an amateur sleuth hot on someone’s trail. Snowy and cold would make the situation even worse.

Since I live in New England, famous for its winters, most of my mysteries, long or short, are set in pleasant, or at least tolerable, weather—in spring, summer, or fall. Winter poses challenges that my characters don’t have to face, challenges that could change the plot, the direction of the story, the success of the sleuth and the authorities. Perhaps the sleuth has only a few minutes to reach a location to rescue someone, but it’s snowing, the roads are icy, the stop lights not working because of a power failure, the streets impassable in some places. The weather certainly ratchets up the suspense. (Sounds like my drive home from work years ago.)

In a city the sleuth could travel faster and more safely by subway, but at least in my area (Boston), that means a different kind of problem—subway car breakdowns. (To be fair, in Boston subway cars break down in every season.) Or, this could be the start of a story—the subway car stuck in a tunnel. When the car starts up again and makes it to the station, the riders trip over a dead body blocking the exit. Is the killer still on the car, or did that person somehow get off and escape through the tunnel? Will he or she survive in subzero weather underground?

I will admit that when I go about choosing the setting in a warmish season, I’m really thinking about myself—how easy it is to get around, to get things done, to get anywhere I want to go. Winter is a chore for me. And on cold days, though I don’t actually mind them, having grown up in New England, I’m aware of how much effort it takes to make the transition to outdoors—scarf, hat, coat, boots or heavy shoes, mittens, sometimes even a hand warmer for a long walk. But now that I’ve thought up a number of scenarios relying on cold weather, perhaps I’ll make a change.

The weather is going to remain well below freezing for the next day or two, and then warm up. That gives me plenty of time to work out the basic plot of a story set in bitter cold weather, with all the worries and challenges that come with that setting. And I get to write the story while I’m warm inside.

As we head into Christmas, I hope all of you reading this are warm inside with your families and friends, good food, and a pet if you have one, enjoying the season and the freedom to write whatever you want.

My First DSLR

I was returning to India after a seventeen-year hiatus, and my husband suggested I take a digital camera. He gave me his. The first time I returned I took a film camera. The DSLR would be much easier—no film to load and unload throughout the day, not to mention the added cost to develop and weight in my luggage.

One of my favorite side ventures is photography, something that I first tried as an eight-year-old and then again as a college student, but didn’t pick up again until my forties. Since then I’ve had two solo shows, exhibited in juried shows, and sold a few images. But the camera I use has its own story.

Michael began working in photography in college, and immediately showed an aptitude for all things photographic. He began with a Pentax and remained loyal to the brand for practical as well as technical reasons. Every Pentax lens is interchangeable on a Pentax body, and over the years he accumulated lots of lenses. Before my trip he’d been having trouble with his current DSLR, and took it to a specialist, at Hunt’s. The two men along with a technician inspected, tested, retried, retested, opened, fiddled, and couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t register an image. The camera simply didn’t work. He didn’t buy it from Hunt’s, but the man offered him something reasonable for it. Instead, Michael brought it home and told me of the very disappointing visit. This is where it gets weird.

He came in and told me the whole story of his visit to Hunt’s, and his discussion with the owner, whom he’d worked with before and trusted. I picked up the camera, sighted it, and snapped the shutter. The image appeared and looked fine to me.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “It looks okay.”

Michael looked at the image, at me holding the camera out to him, at the image, at me. He agreed it did look okay. I’ll never forget the look on his face, though I didn’t understand why his expression was so odd.

“Why don’t you take it with you to India, along with the other one.” He was referring to a small pocket digital Pentax I’d given him a few years ago that he didn’t use.

I did, and took tons of photographs. The camera was the most reliable tool I’ve ever worked with. It always worked for me. I never had any trouble with it. It never worked for him again, no matter what he did. I use it still, though I now have access to his other, more advanced cameras and lenses.

At the time I said the problem with the camera was a matter of electricity. I had less in my hands, or body, than he had. My touch didn’t interfere with the operation of the camera. Maybe I have more than he has and that helps the camera work. I have no idea. But it’s one of those odd incidents in life that reminds me of how little we know about how the physical world around us operates. 

And it perhaps explains why some of us love our tools, as though they are a part of our body, an extension of our imaginative selves as we manipulate the physical world to fit our vision. Writers do it with paper and pen, or computer and printer; carpenters with hammers and chisels and wood; photographers with camera and lenses and paper and ink. It doesn’t matter what you use; the result is the same—a world remade according to the singular vision of one particular person, a lens into another mind and its world.

Writing and Rewriting

My Monday morning zoom partner and I indulge in wide-ranging discussions with no restrictions on our wanderings. We’ve discussed business architecture in Kolkata, the renaming of Indian cities, e.g. from Calcutta to Kolkata, Maya ruins, and the writing process, which fascinates her because she’s a techie and thinks differently, she tells me. More recently we’ve been exploring figures of speech after coming across a book of them by Mark Forsyth. In The Elements of Eloquence he examines over forty figures, with wit and erudition. 

In case he has failed to make his point, Forsyth ends with a final note. “Above all, I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.” Obviously not a fan of Hemingway’s work.

Even while reading through his work, I got his other message. Look carefully at what you write. We use these figures of speech all the time anyway, he points out, even if we don’t know what they’re called and how they developed and what some good examples of them are. So, recognize them, and polish the gems in your own work. 

Forysth’s book underscores that writing is rewriting, as Richard North Patterson said (or wrote), along with every other author who has ever given writing advice. Before I even begin a story or novel I craft a first line in my head. Until I understand how I’m going to open, to begin a journey, I can’t start writing. I know those who begin by writing scenes they expect to be in the narrative at some point, sometimes the final scene, but I’m one who has to begin at the beginning, and the beginning is the opening sentence. I draft it again and again in my head, and when I think I have something that will work, that places the main character where I want her to be, then I write it down. But even then it’s not done. This is just the first stab at the opening line on paper, and I rework the phrasing several times. Forsyth’s list of figures of speech draws out the faint opportunities I might not otherwise notice.

I don’t usually feel the need to recast every sentence, but sometimes a paragraph needs to be reworked again and again. My preference is to get a sense of the narrative and characters on paper, and then rework it. I don’t write fast, so I tend to rethink and redraft as I go along, editing until I consider a paragraph or scene finished enough to be allowed to stand. I know I’ll come back to it later, probably several times.

Working slowly also means that I’m more likely to make discoveries as I go along—a character whose back story turns out to be significant to the plot in an unexpected way; a twist in the timeline that I might not have noticed otherwise; and a digression I discover I can use later. But also I can spend time teasing out greater meaning by reworking sentences, building the idea by building the expression.

Forsyth’s book came along at just the right time, giving me another way to consider a passage and recraft lines in my WIP. Reexamining every expression, recasting every line, is all part of the writing process. The first draft is really just throwing the clay onto the wheel, loading film into the camera. Rewriting is the work.

Discoveries in the Back Yard

When my husband and I first moved to our current home, over forty years ago, we threw ourselves into the suburban backyard life. We planted flowers, veggies, added a terrace and three stone walls, and planted shrubs in lieu of a fence. Over the years we’ve moved the veggies, added shrubs, and coped with various pests. I pick up ideas from the summer garden tours and I’ve used poisonous plants as murder weapons in some of my stories. 

Some gardens are chaotic in color and placement of plants, and others are neatly arranged beds of one or two colors. Some include chickens, decorative pieces, and unusual shrubs. But most are neat and tidy. I admire neat and tidy because that’s a struggle for me.

This neat arrangement didn’t last long.

Over the years we neglected our gardens because of other demands–work, lack of energy, health. For a long time the uncontrolled mess out back bothered me enough to consider hiring a landscaper, but I never went very far with the idea. Then a few random comments from our neighbors changed my perspective. All around me are flat well-kept lawns leading up to a few shrubs by a foundation, and the occasional flowering tree. All very tidy. Our yard offers something different.

My neighbors look out upon trees, our trees, lots and lots of green, thick enough to block out most of the neighbors behind us and to entice deer and other animals. When I look out back I look into the edge of a forest, where a small path seems to lead deep into the dark recesses, the sunlight blocked by a thick canopy. The trees are ordinary but mature, the quiet is soothing, and animals scurry past me. My neighbors and I have seen a coterie of the usual and the not so usual—squirrels, rabbits, toads, mice, raccoons, skunks, voles, opossum, deer, coyote, and possibly a fox.

It took me a while to realize this is now a wildlife habitat. My unruly neglected yard has become something useful for the animal world. The National Wildlife Federation offers a sign declaring an area like ours a Certified Wildlife Habitat, if it meets certain requirements for wildlife: food, water, cover, places to raise young, and sustainable practices. The certification process is more complicated than this simple list may make it appear, with more specific examples of each criterion. The Federation website includes a certification checklist for those interested in applying.

The certification sign is really a fundraising tool, but an effective one. As I look out over my yard, where the drought has turned the grass to something akin to straw, weeds proliferate along the edges of the shrubbery, and the ground itself has turned lumpy, I imagine the area growing up naturally, with birds bringing in seeds and animals shaping the ground, with native plants, or weeds, emerging in unexpected places. All this happens slowly, but I can sit on my terrace and enjoy the view, and enjoy the visitors scurrying through my mini forest. And not feel guilty for letting the back yard return to a more natural state.