Several years ago, after A WOMAN’S HEART -- which would turn out to be the first book in my Irish trilogy -- came out, my son called me from a hotel in Florida. He’d just finished it, and having spent some time traveling around Ireland on his way to and from college at Oxford, he’d recognized many of the locations and thought I’d captured the scenery well. Since I’m one of those writers who believes in setting as character, I was pleased he enjoyed that part of the book.
Then he asked me how I’d nailed the Irish brogue so well. Had I, he wondered, recorded conversations during my trips to Ireland? Well, I hadn’t and his question surprised me because dialogue is one of those things I never really give a great deal of thought to. I just mostly write down the voices I’m hearing in my head. (Which is a lot cheaper than a psychiatrist and less emotionally exhausting than an exorcist. )
After I thought about it a bit, I remembered being sent to speech therapy in the second grade because no one in Southern Oregon ranching country could understand the West Irish brogue I’d picked up from my grandfather and mother. (Actually, my mother’s accent had a decided Brooklyn flair, which, when she got excited, made her even more incomprehensible.) I brought this up with my editor who said, “Well, that explains it, JoAnn. It’s your first language.” I’d never considered that before, but I thought then, and still believe, that she was right. It also may explain how, to this day, whenever I get really tired or irritated, my syntax suddenly turns Irish on me. You’ve no idea how many newly married arguments ended when I’d be trying to yell at my husband for something he’d done and he’d start laughing and say, “What the hell did you just say?”
I enjoy writing the Irish books because I know those people. They’re my family, and Brady, my heroine’s storyteller father in A WOMAN’S HEART is pretty much my own Granda McLaughlin, including the part about him kidnapping the woman he loved (my grandmother, with her permission) so her wealthier Irish family would be forced to let them get married. I feel as if I’ve come home whenever my plane lands at Shannon airport, so it’s a natural thing to place books there.
About eight years ago, we were about to buy a house in Dungarven, on the Southern coast of Ireland, when we discovered the government was actually serious about their six month pet quarantine. Since boarding my then ancient dog and equally ancient and very insane Siamese kitty wasn’t an option, the deal fell through, and looking for a new home, I landed here in East TN, which is the greenest place I could find in America. It reminds me a great deal of Ireland (except it has trees), which probably makes sense because the same mountains I receive inspiration from every day are, in fact, connected beneath the Atlantic to Ireland. It wasn’t until I moved to the South that I began to hear all the expressions I grew up with; family sayings that no one else I knew out west ever used. This is partly why, I suppose, I also feel equally comfortable putting books in the South.
So why is IMPULSE, my upcoming book, set in Wyoming? Well, because when Katrina hit the Gulf, I working on a book set in New Orleans featuring – oops – a killer hurricane, crooked cops, corrupt politicians, the mob, and a battle between good and bad voodoo. Not knowing at the time if the city would even be livable on the book’s May 23rd publication date, I came up with a new story set in Wyoming featuring a haunted hero, a hunted heroine, and a serial killer who thinks of himself as the “Man who was once the boy raised by wolves.” (For some dynamite Wyoming scenery, check out the killer video trailer at my website and be sure to turn up your sound to get the full chilling effect!) From a Southern hurricane to a Wyoming blizzard may seem like a bit of a leap, but having grown up in ranching country, I know Wyoming, and was able to make the shift.
But the one thing I’ve never been able to do is write about a place where I haven’t spent a great deal of time. Sure, the Internet offers myriad research opportunities, but I’ve always found that the people make a place. And given that my characters always come before my plots, I need to have a real handle on what makes them tick. And not just their day-to-day lives, but the entire history and backstory of their “people,” as we say down here.
I recently spent a week aboard an Authors at Sea cruise along the “Mexican Riviera” and listened to people planning stories they wanted to put in the cities – Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas – we visited. But while I enjoyed the opportunity to cruise with readers and writer pals, everything was too new to me, and our time too short, to even tempt my muses.
So, do y’all have a favorite setting for books? Ones where the stories and characters speak to something deep inside you and make you feel as if you’ve been transported there? Maybe even lived there in another life? Or are you more a reading gypsy, happy to go wherever a writer’s muse takes you, discovering new and exciting places?