Thursday, April 27, 2006

Writing What -- and Where -- You Know

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?


Colleen Thompson said...

I enjoyed the post, JoAnn. I love discovering new places through the eyes of writers. When someone's as passionate about the setting as you are for Ireland and the South, it shines throughout the work.

I spent time living in the Southwest Arizona desert and visiting the Big Bend area of Texas, so I love writing deserts. Sometime about the inhospitablity, the barrenness, the big sky, and the zillion-and-one defenses living things have to survive there speaks to me. I've written about several areas of my adopted state of Texas because ever corner of it is so remarkably different from the next. And perhaps because I came here (from the East Coast) as a young adult, everything about it stands out - from the way people speak to the foods to the manner of thinking - in sharp contrast to New Jersey, where I was born and raised.

Nancy Herkness said...

I live in New Jersey (and set my own books there) but as a reader, I really like to hang out in Regency (or Georgian) England and/or Scotland. When I can, I read romances set in the Thirteen Colonies but those are harder to find since publishers evidently feel they don't sell well.

That said, I'm willing to follow a good writer anywhere. She/he just has to firmly catch my attention and I'm off to wherever she/he wants to take me. That's the beauty of books!

Gail Dayton said...

I really enjoy reading about places I've never been (though I like them to be incorporated into the story, not travelogues). But I really get tickled when I read about a place I know--even semi-well--and can pinpoint locations or the Feel of the place. Like Stephanie Feagan's Midland, Texas setting for her Pink Pearl Bombshell books. I got the biggest kick out of reading about Midland.

As for writing, weirdly enough, I've never so far been able to set a book in my native Texas--maybe because I know it so well. Of course, my fantasies are set in far-far-away places that never-ever-were, BUT, they have mountains much like the Rockies where I lived as a child, and there's a lava flow desert like the one outside Idaho Falls in Idaho where I graduated high school, and there are broad, semi-dry plains for the characters to cross like the ones where I currently my places get in there...