Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Sentimental Settings

By Annette Dashofy

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about setting. Location, location, location. Some books provide such a rich description of the setting, I feel like I’ve been there. Or make me WANT to go there. Remember Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? I longed to go to Savannah for months after reading that one.

Thanks to Joyce, I’m currently on a Julia Spencer-Fleming kick. I want to write like her when I grow up. She makes me believe I know that rural community of Miller Kill as well as if I’d grown up there.

My current work in progress is set in a fictionalized version of my own rural township. I fictionalized it so I could borrow bits and pieces of neighboring communities and throw them in without being lambasted by the locals. There are a lot of family farms and old coal mining towns. I noticed the names of the kids in the homecoming courts. The last names are the same as the kids I went to school with. There isn’t a lot of emigration. Even less immigration. Everyone knows everything about everybody. Or so they think. Which makes this place the perfect location for my story.

Getting more specific, there is a house that tends to show up in every novel I write. I moved it to West Virginia for the two manuscripts set there, and now it’s back in its original Pennsylvania home. This particular house has been the residence for two of my protagonists.


Totally selfish reasons. I grew up in this house. It was my grandparents’ home and my great-grandparents’ before them. In its day, it was a showplace. And that’s how I wish to remember it. So, I write it like that. In two stories, I had the protagonist refurbishing the house. In my current story, a different protagonist lives in half of the house, sharing it with the elderly owners of the place.

Here’s what it looked like over 80 years ago.

Here's a picture of my brother celebrating Christmas in the house, early 1950s.

And here’s what it looked like back in the 70’s.

That's me in the yellow pants in the last one. And that’s how I want to hold it in my memory. Not the way it looks today.

I intended to slip inside and photograph the room the birthday party pictures were taken in. But I’m a chicken. With holes in the floor and gaps in the ceilings and roof, I chose to stay outside. Especially since I was by myself. No one to rescue me if I ended up in the basement with the house collapsing around me. Trust me. It doesn’t look anything like it used to.

My grandparents’ farmhouse isn’t the only thing I revive from the Great Beyond in my stories. The cats and horses in my manuscripts are all based on those I’ve loved and lost throughout the years. It’s my way of immortalizing them…of keeping them a little closer to my heart. Sometimes I change their names. Sometimes I don’t. I’m not sure WHY I changed their names. They aren’t about to sue me.

Maybe I’ll change them back.

Do any of you use sentimental locations or pets or even long lost loved ones in your works? And how do you choose your setting? Do you pick it because it’s a place you know well or because it fits your story? Or both?


PatRemick said...

Interesting post -- and sad to see what's become of the house.

I heard Anita Shreve once say she uses the same house in a lot of her books, but I can't remember why. That had never occurred to me before.

My WIP has a town like the one I live in now and my dog with a better name. It does make it feel more comfortable but thus far, my characters have been all created from people I know -- I've been too afraid to use a real person. I need to keep my day job....

Barbara Kingsolver spoke in my town last night and talked about how her books all answer big questions for her -- and Lacuna took years and years of research. Easier for me to use what I know...

Annette said...

By the way, the house is right across the road from where I live now, so I have to look at it every day and watch its gradual collapse. You have no idea how angry I am at the guy who owns it now and has chosen to let it rot. He may find his way into a future story of mine. Mwahahaha.

Joyce said...

Any chance you could buy the property back?

I love old houses. It's so sad when they're left to rot. There's one house I've mentioned before that was a stop on the underground railroad that is now unoccupied and deteriorating because the owner died last year. It's even on the National Register of Historic places. No one has paid the taxes on it this year, so I'm hoping it goes up for Sheriff's sale and someone will buy and restore it. If I ever hit the lottery--that house is mine.

I use a combination of fictional and real places. In my first two books, my protagonist lives in a Craftsman style bungalow that she inherited from an uncle. Her kitchen is vintage 1950s--white metal cabinets, linoleum floor, chrome & formica kitchen table. The house is just something I dreamed up--it doesn't really exist. In my WIP, my protagonist lives in a row house in a fictional small town. The setting is entirely made up, but some of the characters are based on real people. Kind of.

Joyce said...

Annette, how about a story where the house gets back at the guy?

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Guilty of all! I love dabbling in the past and inventing new from pieces of what is. By the end, I start to think it's real!

Jennie Bentley said...

Gorgeous house. What a shame.

Setting has always been important to me. As it should be. The right setting can make or break an otherwise decent book, and no setting at all - or a book that could be set anywhere and not lose anything - is boring. That's speaking in larger terms, though: a city, a part of the country, even a part of the world, one that isn't like another part somewhere else. Setting should become almost like a character, and should influence the book. If not, what's the point?

Annette said...

Joyce, I couldn't afford to buy it back. He won't sell anyway. It's a tax write off for him. I think he's waiting for a big developer to offer him megabucks for it.

He (the current owner) also has stated that the house is haunted. Ha! If it is, that's my grandfather's ghost haunting him specifically for letting his house fall apart.

Annette said...

Jennie, I figured you would appreciate the house!

My cousin and I at one time wanted to buy the place back and turn it into a B&B. We both regret not having done it when it was still salvagable.

jrlindermuth said...

A shame a house with so many memories for you is deteriorating before your eyes.
I'm fortunate to be living in the house my parents bought in the '40s and where I grew up. The house was built by a man who rode with Buffalo Bill. A lot of history and good memories to inspire me.

Annette said...

John, that is so cool! Gosh, I love old houses! If only they could talk.

Anonymous said...

Nearly 10 years ago now, I went back to visit my homes and those of my relatives after 30 years away from Indiana.

My first home was just the same. My second home was under a new two-story shell, the pine trees had planted along the front and most other trees were gone, with the driveway in a completely different place. And my grandparents' place was all modernised, with the orchard where I used to collect peaches with my grandpa replaced by an 'estate' with a big house.

I prefer my memories, too, Annette. I'm glad I'm not close to see all those changes like you are.

Jan in Australia

Donnell said...

Annette, my grandmother's house in Florida reminds me of your family home. I too prefer to leave it in my mind's eye the way it was. It's crumbling now... very sad.

I choose places for setting that mean something to me. And a story you haven't read yet (I hope to run through critique) is based on a 100-year old building that is on the C.S. Historical register that my engineering firm restored.

I fell in love with that place so naturally I had to write about it. Great post!

VR Barkowski said...

Great post, Annette. Regardless of what the current owner does or doesn't do with the house, it will live on through your memories and through your words.

My settings have to be physical places I can visit, even if I end up fictionalizing them in the end. I never use real people in my stories, although I do use my pets. So far, they haven't complained. :)