Writing as a Lifeline

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Luna and Sasha

My last post was on December 12, 2015. I’ve missed major holidays and events. “Happy holidays,” “happy new year,” and “happy St. Valentine’s Day,” by the way. I missed my blogaversary. As of February 4, I’ve been blogging for five years—I can’t believe it.

And while this isn’t the longest break, it’s the first time I’ve seriously considered stopping. Blogging. Not writing. I’ve been doing plenty of writing. No. That’s not completely true. I’ve been writing. I kind of have been on a hiatus from fiction writing, too. For a while I had a technical writing contract, but that’s not why. I’ve also felt too distracted to write.

Why? A lot of life changes. Big and small. Now, the potential for a move to a new state. Away from Maine. Away from Maine? Where I raised two children. Said good-bye to two dogs. Owned two houses. Have lived the majority of my married life. Have taken hundreds upon thousands of photos and videos. Written millions (yes, I’ve calculated), millions of words.

It’s not definite. And if it does happen, it won’t be for a year (or so). But the writing is on the wall. Funny, that particular expression coming to mind. The fact is I can write anywhere—I know because right now I’m writing from a garrison in Newton, Massachusetts, overlooking not a tiny New England town but busy traffic on Walnut Street.

Right now it’s like I’ve stepped into another life—because in essence I have. I’m living with and caring for two dogs while their owners are on the other side of the world for the month. When I walk the dogs, I see first familiarity then confusion on the faces of neighbors. Who is this woman? Not the neighbor they expected. The dogs are the same, the person not. If they look carefully enough they’ll see reflected confusion in my eyes. There are times I feel like I’m not myself. Different house, different dogs (my own sweet dog gone over a year ago), different neighborhood, different people.

I miss my friends, I miss my life and routines. I know that if I moved to this area permanently, I’d meet new friends, I’d develop new routines, I might even get a new dog. This situation is temporary. The problem is that everything in my life feels pretty temporary right now, and it has for a little while.

But here’s what I’ve come to this morning. One thing hasn’t changed: my writing mind. My ideas, my thoughts. My writing. My blogging. Which brings me back full circle to why I will not close down my blog. The opposite. I’ll be blogging more. My goal is weekly (we’ll see).

Writing. It anchors me. It’s my lifeline. It’s what keeps me, me.

Cheers,

Julia

You Really Can’t Go Home Again

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Black Dragon Canyon Viewing Area in the Wasatch Range

I didn’t post a blog yesterday . . . and I almost didn’t post this morning. The truth is I wasn’t sure what to write. It isn’t that nothing happened on the road—far from it.

Bighorn sheep, more bald eagles, a coyote, two burros, and mile upon mile of gorgeous mountain driving, first in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and then in the Wasatch Range in Utah. That was just yesterday.

The day before, as we drove from Nebraska into Colorado, through Wyoming, I was overcome with deep emotion when we pulled off I-25 to drive into Fort Collins, Colorado—a place we called home for almost sixteen years.

We were there to see two of my best friends in the world, but to get to their houses—first one then the other—we had to drive through territory that looked so familiar yet as foreign as the Wasatch Range. My daughter drove while I, well, fell apart. In fact, I quite literally could not stop crying. Even writing this—some six hundred miles west, in a motel room in Beaver, Utah—I still have trouble stemming the tears. My poor daughter was puzzled then frustrated. She, trying to maneuver strange new rush-hour terrain, was helped not at all by her teary mother. There were a few sharp words on both our parts—the first of the trip—which made me even more sad.

After my daughter and I talked things out, my daughter—mature and wise beyond her years—said, “Isn’t this why you wanted to take this trip? To reconnect with your old self?” It gave me pause. And of course the visits were beyond what I’d hoped—we spent much-too-little time with each friend; and my daughter and her best friend (from pre-K and kindergarten!) reconnected, too. It was a wonderful day of talking and catching up in person.

As for the emotion, I’m still figuring that out . . . maybe that it was a place my husband and I graduated from college, started our newlywed life, welcomed two children, owned our first house . . . or was it that I was homesick for my now-home, over two thousand miles away? I’m still not sure, but I realized in those moments of teariness and in conversation with my daughter, my friends, and their families that in so many ways you truly can’t go home again.

Today, more home—to my hometown in California—then tomorrow to San Francisco and the big drop off.

Cheers,

Julia

Q&A with Alex George (A GOOD AMERICAN)

Last summer, writer friend Erika Marks (LITTLE GALE GUMBO) introduced me on Twitter to novelist Alex George—who was here in Maine researching the setting for his next novel.

Today I have the great pleasure to interview Alex in this post. We share a Maine connection, but the real reason I interviewed Alex was that less than two weeks ago his novel A GOOD AMERICAN was released to wonderful reviews—including being named #1 “Title to Pick Up Now” by O Magazine, February 2012!

I wanted to know more about A GOOD AMERICAN and the writer behind the book; specifically I wanted to ask Alex questions about his definition of home—a theme central to this blog and my heart. I also wanted to know a little bit more about what he thought of Maine as the setting for his next novel.

Finally, I am giving away one copy of A GOOD AMERICAN! All you need to do to be entered into the giveaway is leave a comment before Friday (February 24) at midnight EST!

Please join me in welcoming Alex George! 

Is A GOOD AMERICAN your debut novel? If not, is there a common thread or theme in what you write?

I’ve written four previous novels which were published in the UK and some European countries, but A GOOD AMERICAN is my first book published in the States – hence the “debut novel” tag.  However, this book is so different from my earlier efforts that it feels like a true debut in all respects, not just geographically.

There was no common theme in my earlier books, except perhaps for music – which also features heavily in A GOOD AMERICAN.  But this book is much bigger than the others, both literally and figuratively.  I remember, many years ago, reading THE MAGUS, by John Fowles, and being so completely consumed by the story that I failed to notice that the bus I was traveling in got stuck on the side of the highway in the pouring rain.  I never forgot that.  So more than anything, I just wanted to tell a really good story.  I hope I’ve managed to do that.

A GOOD AMERICAN is called “…a universal story about the families we create and the places we call home.” Because I grew up traveling around a lot, home is something I think a lot about and write a lot about. What does home mean to you and why is it something you wanted to write about?

Home, and what that means, is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, ever since I left England and moved to the States, nearly nine years ago. Of course, there’s the old saying, “Home is where the heart is,” but I suspect that may be a little too simplistic.  If it were that easy, then Missouri—where I live now—would be home, as it’s where my children are.  But it’s actually more complicated than that.  When I return to England, the past rushes up to me in ambush, and I am pole-axed by a longing to return there for good.  But I don’t know if that’s a function of simple nostalgia, unhappiness with where I am, or something else.  It’s very confusing.  What I do know is that you cannot deny the pull of your past.

It’s a topic I wanted to write about because it’s such a universal theme, one that applies to everyone.  We all have a home, even if we might be a little unsure where it is.  The characters in the novel have an ambivalent relationship with “home,” which I don’t think is unusual.  Many of them spend a significant time trying to escape it—but they all get pulled back in the end.  I don’t think that’s an unusual situation.

One of the things that drew me to your book was that your main character is described as “being an outsider.” Are there parts of being an outsider that you can relate to from your own life? If not, what drew you to writing about an outsider?

I’m an Englishman living in the middle of Missouri.  If you look up “outsider” in a dictionary, you won’t see a picture of me there, but perhaps you should!  Every time I open my mouth, I announce my otherness to the people around me, betrayed by my accent and my failure to grasp the rules of football.  But I think that your question touches upon a more universal issue.  I believe that, in some way, we all feel like outsiders.  Rightly or wrongly, we all feel isolated and remote at times.  And that felt like something worth exploring.  James Meisenheimer, the novel’s narrator, feels a little distant and remote from his family, although he loves them deeply.  I think that distance allows him to tell the story he has to tell.

I know you recently completed the U.S. Naturalization process and became an American citizen. I’m not sure how long you’ve been in the U.S., but how did you draw from your own experiences as a newcomer to the United States as you created your novel’s narrator, James?

My experience as an immigrant to the United States mostly informed the characters of Frederick and Jette, James’s grandparents, since they were the characters who made the journey from Europe to America, as I did.  Frederick is an unequivocal and passionate convert to the American way of life; Jette is more cautious, and, indeed, often feels homesick.  I think most immigrants experience a degree of ambivalence about leaving their home country and starting afresh elsewhere; Frederick and Jette personified those two contradictory sentiments. 

Every immigrant is afflicted by the same paradox: one wants to fit in with one’s new country, but one never wants to forget where one came from.  My mother was born and raised in New Zealand, but she has lived in England for more than fifty years.  She still calls New Zealand home.

On February 16, 2012, I became a citizen of the United States, less than ten days after the book was published.  There is a scene in the novel when Frederick and Jette take their oath and become citizens.  It is rather extraordinary that I should be undergoing the same process at the same time as the novel is being published.

What are your favorite and least favorite parts about becoming a U.S. citizen?

I’m looking forward to voting.  I’ve been paying taxes for the past nine years so I think it’s about time I had a say as to how they were spent.  As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system of government in the world, apart from all the others.  It’s an old cliché, but it’s a privilege to live in a country where power changes without a shot being fired.  Sometimes I think many people take such things for granted.  I will vote with pride in November’s Presidential elections.

I am devoted to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  I think they are wonderful, inspiring documents, and I am committed to the principles that they enshrine.  Freedom, equality, diversity, tolerance: these are all magnificent things for a country and its people to aspire to.

I love America, but I won’t deny that a small part of me was sad when I took the oath.  A friend wrote to me on the day of the ceremony, and told me I had an English soul—and that this was something that due legal process could not ever change.  I think they may have been right.

The book has a lot of music in it. I’m curious, did you have a theme song in your mind as you wrote it? Or was there any particular music you listened to while you wrote?

I love to write about music.  It’s always a challenge, since it exists in a totally different medium.  But I am passionate about it, and I can’t quite imagine writing a book without music in it somewhere.  But no, I had no particular song in mind while I wrote.  There are an awful lot of different types of music in the novel – it starts with an opera aria, and ranges from New Orleans jazz, blue grass, ragtime, and barbershop singing.  Funnily enough, the book critic from USA Today said she thought the book would make a great Broadway musical!  Music plays a variety of roles in the course of the novel, but its principal function is to act as a type of glue—it’s a way of forging bonds and making connections between people.

Generally speaking I don’t listen to much music while I write—it’s too distracting.  On those rare occasions when I do have music playing as I write, it can’t have words, for the same reason.  I listened to lots of solo piano pieces – mainly Scriabin, Beethoven, and Shostakovich.  And the Bach cello suites.

We met over Twitter over a mutual interest in Maine, and you’ve said that your next novel takes place in Maine. What drew you to Maine as a setting? Have you found challenges in having a novel set in Maine?

I love Maine.  I have only been twice, but as you know, the place has me in its spell, and I cannot wait to return.  It’s so beautiful, so very different to the landlocked tedium of Missouri.  It is, without question, my favorite place that I have been in the United States.  I believe that you do yourself a favor if you write about things and places you feel passionate about (for better or worse)—that passion will come out in the words on the page.

Mainers have an independence of spirit that I appreciate.  It strikes me as being something that is a good thing to write about.

There are obviously challenges in setting a novel in a place that you don’t know especially well.  A lot of research is required.  To the extent that this involves burying my nose in a book, this isn’t such a great thing.  (And I have a lot of books about Maine.)  But if it means (and it does!) that I have to keep returning there, and that I am able to claim those trips as tax deductible expenses—well.  Definitely a good thing.

Follow on question: What are some of your favorite places you’ve been to in Maine? What are some places you’ve heard about but haven’t gotten to see or experience yet?

I enjoyed Portland, but really fell in love with Maine when I went further north.  I spent a week in a cottage just outside Ellsworth last August.  My friend and I spent most of our days in Acadia National Park, walking and climbing and drinking in the beauty of it all.  It was one of the happiest weeks of my life.  We drove up Route 1 from Portland and wanted to stop in every town we passed through.  I’d love to go back to that area and explore some more.

Please leave a comment to be entered into the drawing to receive a copy of Alex’s book A GOOD AMERICAN! (Deadline: Friday, February 24, midnight EST) The winner will be chosen at random, but I would love it if you would tell in comments a little bit about what home means to you! The contest is now closed: Congratulations Nina Badzin, you won a copy of Alex’s book!

Cheers,

Julia



* * * * * * * *

Alex George is an Englishman who lives, works, and writes in Missouri.  He studied law at Oxford University and worked for eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris before moving to the United States in 2003. A GOOD AMERICAN has been named as the #1 Indiebound pick for February 2012, an amazon top ten book for February, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick for Spring 2012. You can connect with Alex on his website (alexgeorgebooks.com), on Twitter @alexgeorge, and on Facebook.

A Long Distance Relationship with Setting

North Miami - Sunset | 110522-5129-jikatu


Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to my guest Natalia Sylvester—I hope you’ll check out her blog (one of my favorites) here. Natalia and I met in March when we both blogged about cooking memories and writing. Since then we have often, quite by coincidence, written about similar subjects! But today, by design, I am very happy Natalia has written a guest post about the definition of home—a topic near and dear to both our hearts. Please welcome my wonderful guest Natalia…

I’ve never been much for the “write what you know” mantra, but I am a fan of its distant cousin: “write where you are.” Growing up, as my family moved from my birthplace of Lima, Peru, to Miami, Florida, to Central Florida and a couple more towns in between, I became fascinated with the definition of home.
As a child, I thought home meant staying in one place for longer than two years. I imagined that as an adult, I’d find a place and stay put.

Life doesn’t always work that way, and apparently, neither has my fiction. Looking through my previous stories and my current novel, I noticed a pattern: whenever I moved, my fiction moved with me. So imagine my concern when, three years and many drafts into my novel, my husband and I decided we’d be leaving Miami and moving to Austin, Texas.

I welcomed the change of setting in my life, but worried about what it’d mean for my fiction. My book is set in present-day and 1980s Miami. The cultural diversity, weather, and mood of a city that’s constantly in transition as people come and go, trying to create homes for themselves, is an important backdrop for the narrative.

Would writing about Miami from a distance dilute my ability to portray it?

           

I decided I didn’t want to find out. My move date became my deadline for the final draft of my book.

Every day, I’d wake up a few hours early and work on revisions and new scenes, then gather cardboard boxes and pack up our apartment. I told myself that before we left, I’d take pictures of the beaches, and the sunsets, and the buildings I passed on the way home every day. I’d go to city hall. I’d study old newspapers and pictures of the neighborhoods where my characters lived. I’d find out if their street had a traffic light or just a stop sign. I’d take note of the weather patterns from 1984-1989.

           

If you’ve ever moved out-of-state (and tried to hire movers only to realize you’d be better off packing and loading and driving the truck those 1,300 miles yourself) then you know I never got around to any of that. I arrived in Texas with a partially revised draft and a fear that memory alone wouldn’t be enough to help me finish it.

Several months and revisions later, I met my writers group—three women who had never been to Miami and called Texas home. I handed my draft to them for feedback and hoped that the details in my story would transport them further than the nearest gas station.

           

It did, but not for the reasons I was expecting.

They didn’t care what highway or exit my characters took to get from one house to another. They noticed the parrots that flew across a bridge at sunset, and the hot pink sky that I’d taken for granted. They imagined the air in the summertime, heavy and moist and foreboding, sticking to their skins. They paid attention to how the characters greeted one another—always with a kiss on the cheek—and said it helped them understand the city’s culture.

These things were so ingrained in my experience of Miami that I’d written them without realizing they were part of the setting. To me, they just were, in the way that home is a place that never leaves you.

When I look at it now, moving was a gift for my writing. This new life didn’t just give me time to complete my book, it gave me a chance to fall back in love with my hometown in a way I hope readers will.

Have you ever tried long-distance writing? What were the challenges or benefits?
—————-

Natalia Sylvester is a Peruvian-born Miamian now living in Austin. She studied creative writing and journalism at the University of Miami, then worked in magazines for a bit before deciding to freelance full-time. Her first novel, told partially from the point of view of a house that a woman inherits, was originally set in Orlando, Florida, before Natalia decided to bring it closer to home. Visit her writing blog at www.nataliasylvester.com(where she tries to make sense of this journey) or follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/NataliaSylv

A Walk Down Memory Lane

My grandmother standing in front of her house,
surrounded by just a few of the flowers in her garden!
Today I hope you’ll check out my guest post at Milliver’s Travels….


Last week I posted a blog about my grandmother and how I used to visit her in the summer—and how she taught me a lot about gardening and bird watching but mostly about home.
Well, as it turns out, my online friend Milli lives in the very next town over from Poland, Ohio, where my grandmother lived! Milli has a wonderful travel blog called Milliver’s Travels, and Milli offered to take a field trip to see what Poland (and my grandmother’s house) are like today! After the visit to Poland, which Milli found to be just as enchanting as I remembered—she suggested the guest blog on Milliver’s: “combo of old-fashioned vacation news with modern-day small town adventure,” to quote Milli.
I loved the photos Milli shared with me from her field trip to Poland. They caught me up on what’s been going on in the town I wanted to call home! So, please head over to my post on Milliver’s Travels to see more about Poland, Ohio

—and to see updates and pictures of places I wrote about in my post.


Cheers,
Julia

Two Weeks with my Grandmother

Black-eyed Susan

As a child I moved frequently. My parents busily pursuing their careers as college professors—including year-long trips to Kenya and Belize where they conducted research—we moved from place-to-place. It may sound glamorous—but to a child? This child? I had no place to call home.

The closest I ever felt to home was with my grandmother at her house in Poland, Ohio, on the banks of the Yellow Creek. A quick walk across the bridge to every small-town amenity you would ever need—thank goodness, because Grandma (“Ohio Grandma” as we called her) didn’t drive. We walked all over town together: Isley’s Ice Cream, the post office, the small grocery, the library across the creek, her neighbor Mr. Steinfield’s house with all its clocks. She was from a different age and time, and when I was with her, I wished and hoped with all my might that her life would be mine.

Her house on the banks of the Yellow Creek was surrounded by gardens: vegetable, flowers, fruit, lush vegetation. Everywhere some small plant was tucked, a lovely flower or delicious berry treat. And it was here, in her beautiful world, I learned gardening basics: what plants grew where and how to care for them. To this day I cannot see some of her favorites—Black-eyed Susan, Lunaria (money plant), Swiss Chard, or Queen Anne’s Lace—without thinking of her.

Queen Anne’s Lace
But more, my grandmother taught me about what growing things need: vegetables and flowers, small woodland animals, and people too.

Every night I would lie, safely tucked into the small Jenny Lind bed in the tiny bedroom under the eaves—and I felt like one of her little plants: safe and secure. My bedroom window looked out over Main Street as well as the bridge over the creek. As I lay in bed, I could hear cars rattle over the bridge and trace their headlights across the flowered wallpaper, the same wallpaper my mother grew up with. With each set of headlights, I’d wish with all my might that it really truly was my home.

In the morning, we’d sit and eat our toast at her kitchen table. Together we’d watch the birds on the birdfeeder outside the window. She loved all the birds that came to the feeder (and even the squirrels that raided it, too!) and so began my lifelong interest in birds. Chickadees, Jays, and Cardinals—these favorites remind me of her.

Later, after a day of gardening and building dams in the small creek, we walked into the small village of Poland.  Hand-in-hand, down Main Street toward the center of town, my grandmother would stop to greet each person by name and introduce them to her granddaughter. As we walked she told me stories about my mother when she was my age, about her friends and all their adventures.

For two glorious weeks each summer I was lucky enough to be a part of my grandmother’s life. And during those two weeks she taught me about gardening, bird watching, cooking, and a little bit about life, too. 

But mostly? She taught me about home. 




Do you have special memories of your grandparents? Of things they taught you? Are there places or things you associate with home? How do these feelings or memories affect your writing?

Cheers,

Julia

The Ghost of Mr. Able, Part 1

Earlier this month I wrote a post about what it’s like to write from a “strong sense of place”—how, in an old town, history trails behind every building. Somehow, out of that blog, came a request—and a promise—for a ghost story. Through this post, I attempt to fulfill that promise. Although I call it a ghost story, I don’t really believe in ghosts. Or do I? After you read this story, you tell me what you think.

When you live in an old house, like I do, there are certain things you just accept. For starters, when you sign the contract: the deed may say the house is being conveyed from just one individual to another—but that’s not at all true. The truth is, when you go into a contract to buy an old house, you are agreeing to stand in a long line of previous residents.

You agree to walk the floors they walked, peer through the same windows, weed and water the garden they planted. Before we bought our old house, it already had a long succession of owners: from the woman who built it in 1895 to Mr. Able who lived in it until shortly before we moved in.

But I need to start at my beginning. When we first moved to this small town, there were no old houses for sale. Don’t ask me why we had kind of an obsession with buying an old house, but we did. Something with character, personality. When I lamented the lack of “antique” real estate to a friend, she suggested we do what she did: approach people who owned houses we liked and ask them if they had any interest in selling.

Initially unsure about this personalized, rather aggressive method of finding a house, I checked with a realtor friend who said it was pretty commonplace. Even my dad—an old-house owner himself—said that he had lost track of how many people had approached him with offers over the years.

So, I convinced myself (and MEH—My Engineer Husband—who was even less enthusiastic than I) that it was a great idea. And I honed in on the one house I had secretly coveted ever since moving to town.

It seemed like fate, when the very first time we drove by after making the decision, that an older man—I’ll call him Mr. Able—was there in the driveway, unloading groceries from the trunk of his car. We pulled over, got out of our car, and started chatting—eventually working around to the topic of how much we admired his house. Within seconds he asked if we wanted a tour. We were ecstatic!

Mr. Able told me to lead the way, to feel free to explore, while he followed a respectable distance behind. I felt self-conscious going room-to-room, trespassing on Mr. Able’s personal space—but he didn’t seem concerned at all, instead seemed to welcome the company. Although the house had “good bones,” it was hard to see how the years of neglect covered up a century of beauty. To say it needed work would be the understatement of the century. With each new room we entered, my heart fell. Old yellowed wallpaper stained by years of cigarette smoke—it reeked!—was the least of the problems. The kitchen was vintage 1960 schlock and the vinyl floor probably hadn’t been washed for five years. That’s okay, I thought, he smoked and hated housework. Not that unusual.

I was much more concerned that there was a small section of the house Mr. Able patently refused to show us. A closed door led from the kitchen to what Mr. Able described only as “his office.” The tour stopped abruptly at that door, and after several coughing spells, Mr. Able lowered himself to a kitchen chair and waved his arm toward two others.

“Sit down, please. Wish I had a cookie or something to offer you, but I don’t.”

We sat. For fifteen minutes, Mr. Able told us about his life—interspersed with frequent coughing fits, followed by several seconds of Mr. Able barely catching his breath—how his wife left him, how he bribed the local police department to keep his son out of trouble, that all he had left was his work as an international expert in nuclear power generators, and how his latest project required him to crack the whip with the “lazy foreigners.” After that, the conversation spiraled downward to embarrassing sexual innuendos and stories of dens of inequity around the world.

In short Mr. Able was a seedy character, and I sat silently listening, wondering where it was all leading and whether it was all worth it. He was possibly the most unappealing person I had met in my life. I could tell MEH (My Engineer Husband) felt the same way, his arms crossed, looking toward the door. Yet we laughed obsequiously at his jokes, asking questions, repulsed yet fascinated, and of course with the house always in the back of our minds.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Mr. Able’s mood changed abruptly. He stubbed out his latest cigarette and leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on the grubby kitchen table.

“So you want to buy my house?”

We were taken aback, it was the first time the topic had been openly stated.

MEH and I exchanged glances.

“I’ve always admired the house…” I said.

“Me too,” Mr. Able said, wheezing. “Especially that staircase, that’s what sold me on the house. Oh, and this old coal stove.” Mr. Able slapped the side of the huge black coal stove that stood in the middle of the kitchen. (It was summer, don’t worry, so the stove was cold…I said it was a ghost story, not a story about the Devil.)

We nodded. The staircase was pretty spectacular. We weren’t so sure about the coal stove; it took up half the kitchen.

A minute later, lighting up another cigarette, Mr. Able looked at us with narrowed eyes. “It’s too bad you aren’t that interested. I’d ’a told you to make me an offer.”

We wondered what to say. We hadn’t considered this possibility.

“Make me an offer.” Mr. Able stared at us across the table and repeated his statement, almost as a challenge.

Without thinking, I blurted out a number close to one that my friend had paid for her house several streets over.

Mr. Able snorted. “Nah. I can’t move anywhere for that. Tell you what. I’m going in the hospital next week. I might not make it…”

We both started to protest, but he waved his hands at us to shush.

He continued. “I might not make it. If you read my obituary, call my attorney. Then if my daughter doesn’t want the house—believe me she won’t—it’s yours. First right of refusal.”

We weren’t sure what to say—deer in the headlights comes to mind—but I felt a pang of unease as he matter-of-factly discussed his demise. Shortly after that, we thanked him and left. The next day I baked some chocolate chip cookies and took some over to Mr. Able to thank him for the tour of his house. When I dropped them by, alone, he thanked me profusely and invited me in. I declined.

Two weeks later, sitting on the couch reading the paper, MEH in the kitchen: I saw it. Mr. Able’s obituary. I paused briefly before running into the kitchen to let MEH know. I could hear Mr. Able’s words:

“I might not make it. If you read my obituary, call my attorney….”

The old free-standing coal stove was gone

The next few weeks were a flurry of activity as we set the wheels in motion. Believe it or not, that one tour of the house with Mr. Able was all we ever got. It turned out Mr. Able was in a bit of a financial fix, and the bank owned the house. If we hadn’t accepted the terms in the will, the next step was a public auction. Part of the terms were that we accepted the house “as is.” And so it was, fool hardy as it seems, the house was ours, every messy inch of it. Although the bank removed all personal possessions, all fixtures were to stay with the house. The daughter wanted nothing.

But everything didn’t stay. The day we moved in, we realized that the large free-standing coal stove had been removed from the kitchen. Gone. It was a moment of surprise, remembering Mr. Able’s fondness for the stove. We joked momentarily that he took it with him.

“That thing must’ve weighed a ton,” MEH said under his breath. “How the hell…”

Then, seeing my face, he stopped.

The parrot hung in the window
like a greeting card

We continued to explore the house, and we finally got to see what was behind the door Mr. Able excluded from our original tour. It led to a short dark hallway with two more doors: one led to the small old crumbling garage. The other to a cold, dank, vinyl-floored office, papers scattered across the floor, an old black telephone still connected to a wall socket, and a red, yellow, and blue stuffed cloth parrot hanging in the window like a greeting card.

As I stood there all I wanted to think about was how much work it would be to clean it all up, but that’s not what I was thinking. A door leading from the office to the back yard stood ajar, a slight breeze blowing in, shifting the papers on the floor. Was that cigarette smoke I smelled? Then I imagined—or did I?—Mr. Able standing behind me.  A shiver ran down my spine as I nervously glanced over my shoulder and moved a step closer to MEH.

Writing from a Strong Sense of Place

A town house, well over 150 years old

I live in an area that’s been long-settled, with a long mist of history trailing behind each building. As you drive down the roads and thoroughfares, you can almost see the ghosts: the tall masted schooners by captain’s homes, the workers trudging to the lumber mills, the passengers waiting at the old railway station on Main Street.

The buildings remain, leaving stories in their wake. Living and writing in an area of long established structures and abodes of historical significance—as in Maine—has its upsides and its downsides. One of the upsides is that there is an endless source of stories: from the historical buildings and their surroundings, from the stories of the people who built the houses or lived in them through the years or the people who still own them as a long-held family house.
The old railway station on Main Street
This strong-sense of place can lead to setting-centric writing; this is my natural tendency anyway—part of my search for what feels like home. Although I’m a relative newcomer to Maine (“only” 14 years, take my word for it, I’m viewed as “from away”)—I often find myself writing as though Maine is truly my home; that I belong here; or that I long to belong.

This small cottage engulfed in overgrown woods,
hugging the rocky coast of the bay, is the setting for
one of my WIPs
As I write, I tend to describe in great detail what a house looks like as well as the feelings it evokes in the person who lives in the house, in a supporting character visiting the house, or in the casual eyes of a passerby. In some things I’ve written, the house even becomes the main character.

In tomorrow’s blog I’ll explore the strong sense of place derived from a natural setting when I look at how the coast of Maine inspires my writing.

Do you write in an historic place that is distinct in its own voice? Does it affect how you write or what you write about? Is your writing driven by setting? Or is it character driven? Plot driven? Action driven? Or some combination?


Cheers,
Julia