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The setting that keeps cropping up in my writing is the town where my dad grew up and where my grandparents lived. I’ll just say it’s in the Northwest, and this is where I learned my severe fear of rattlesnakes. That’s me with my brother and grandparents up above.

The town looks like this:

Here’s a funny thing. I tried Googling the town for a better photo and this is actually the photo that turned up on a real estate page:

I guess the town is what it is – big and flat and brown.

This is my grandparents’ house:

I’m pretty sure that’s my dad in the photo. According to the stories I write, I’m very taken with this particular door. I don’t remember there being a tree. Anywhere. But there are two in this photo.

Of course there’s a downtown:

The unusual amount of traffic is because the photo was taken during a wedding at the courthouse.

Now, imagine you’re a colorful little girl and like to wear bows and cut your own hair; and you don’t especially like exerting energy except to chatter about books or Peter Frampton.

And the big activity when you visit the grandparents is to go to the family cemetery to clear the brush and rattlesnakes out of it. We always took rifles with us. I hope we were also armed with tetanus shots because many of the grave markings are made of rusted metal.

Besides snakes, the cemetery is full of stillborn children. One stranger was struck by lightning and buried there.

There is a hotel in town. Last I heard, there was still a community toilet, sink and shower. No TVs in the rooms.

The reason there’s even a hotel in a town this size is because there’s good hunting in the area. Recently, my dad had his high school reunion, but because 11 had rsvp’ed, they had to move the reunion to a larger, neighboring town. The reunion featured such activities as chokecherry picking and a ride past hay bale sculptures. My dad was the only one no longer living in the state, not to mention the only one with a Ph.D.

This place has never captured me because of love. It was a place where a girl who likes to go off in her head can suddenly find herself in the middle of danger. It’s a place where you better get things right the first time. It’s a place where the wind and the gumbo and the pure nothingness of it will humble you. Until I married, it was the place I feared I’d be buried.

Your turn. Tell me about the place you can’t stop writing about.

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SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

21 responses to “Places That Capture Us”

  1. Peter Ristuccia says:

    I’m from Athens, Georgia, a southern college town.

    The Oconee River, brown and langorious, was practically in my backyard. There were woods of gigantic oak and hickory back there that seemed to go on forever, and slabs of granite worn smooth by rain and floods offered themselves up as places to sit and watch the water course by. Best of all, our conduit to the forest was the Tree Bridge. A natural wonder, the Tree Bridge grew across a deep ravine and enabled us to cross over into adventure. It was our world tree, our very own Yggdraisil. To this day, I dream about the woods.

    All of my schools were on the same street, Baxter, which started with the Elementary school and, in sequential order, dead ended at the college. I realized this one day as I was walkng across North Campus and thought, “Oh my god, I’m in 13th grade!”

    During college, I lived most of my life in the historic districts attendant to downtown. There were elegant houses in Queen Anne, stately Neo-Classical manors (almost none of which were private residences), craftsman and American foursquare. The avenues, paved for the traffic of trollley cars, were wide. But what was once a suburb of the city (or town as the case may be) had, for the most part, been forgotten. The middle class long ago moved to outlying neighborhoods thrown up over the past few decades. As the artistic crowd colonized the area, there were varying degrees of chaos erupting in what was once carefully manicured order: flowers exploding out of their beds, trees planted with love now forgotten-you can find a copse of chestnut trees growing wild and unidentified, mature pear in the lot of a millhouse and so on. Ghosts lurk in these places, you can almost see them during the day as well as at night.

    Memory endures in Athens, the Village Spring that was once paved under asphalt again sees the light of day. People know the names of the streams: Tanyard, Trailhead, Brickyard. They know why the streets bear their names. One that stands out is Magazine Street, named for the sale of gunpowder in the old days, it ran along the city graveyard. The street no longer eixsts as it has been annexed by the university grounds.

    This town, with its fabulous history, slow pace of life, sense of identity and thriving university always evokes itself in my writing. I love my hometown-it’s a boy’s love, the love a young man has for his mother.

  2. JB says:

    Suburbia. It’s a huge component of my adult neurosis. I grew up thinking, I’m white, boring, irrelevant. Of course, I still think this, as it’s quite the motivator. But now I’ve lightened up (not skin tone) and I realize that it’s a fascinating environment that sometimes gets misrepresented in movies and books (I.E. American Beauty, DeLillo’s White Noise, etc.).

    Cheers,
    JB

  3. I loved this, Susan. My first thought on seeing the first picture was, “Wait, that’s a town?” I was born and raised in Jersey, and while there are somewhat rural areas, one is rarely more than 45 minutes from either Manhattan or Philadelphia. I drove from Jersey to LA a few years back, then to Denver and finally back to Jersey, and man, those long stretches of open road punctuated here and there by towns quite a lot like the one you described were eye-opening. And I was on major highways, too, so I didn’t see all the ones way out in the middle of nowhere.

    So far I’ve tended to write about Manhattan when I’m not writing about suburbs that could be pretty much anywhere but are, for me, Jersey. Then again, The Prodigal Hour takes place in 2001 New Jersey and Manhattan, 30-ish CE Jerusalem, and 1923 Munich, so really I’m all over the place (and the time, for that matter); I think it’s mainly because I primarily jibe to story, so setting becomes secondary, and I end up thinking mainly in terms of scenes than places.

  4. Billy Bones says:

    The man who types up my stories thinks about that Atlantic quite often. He spent several childhood years living on a bluff overlooking Boston Lighthouse. So ships, whales and sun-bleached sails creep quite often into his work.

  5. sandra says:

    All the areas of my life that I denied with vehemence in my youth appear in my writing: motherhood and marriage foremost on the list, said I’d never do, have done, am doing.

  6. I grew up spending time either in my suburban neighbourhood or the Melbourne CBD; both places very reminiscent of England, I’m told.

    I was writing a piece a while back where the narrator spends some time walking through quiet streets, and I realised afterwards that I knew exactly the streets he meant; the places where I would walk at night, that would be transformed (in my eyes) by the sunset from just regular roadways into something more.

  7. Ric Marion says:

    Late to the party, as usual. I think where we grew up, spent those formative years, always appear in one’s writing. Back when we had hours upon hours to explore – not by car, but on bike, or on foot, where the nuances of seeing things like sidewalks, an odd porch, an architectural delight up close and personal. Those images remain the brightest – so most of my stories and books are set in and about the small town where I grew up. (My Dad saw me reading his copy of Peyton Place (First edition) and said, “You don’t really need to read that – the people in this town are way beyond anything in there.” It took ten years to discover he was spot on.
    I have tried to capture New York, which I first saw at seventeen, and think I did well, but, by then, the raging hormones and pace of the city itself, tend to not allow the hours of easy discovery we had as children.
    I agree with Peter – hometowns hold an amazing sway we can never quite escape.

    • LitPark says:

      That’s a great point that I never even thought of — maybe part why our childhood settings stick with us so much is because we were on exploring in on foot and not racing past it in a car.

  8. I’m so caught up in your little town I can’t even get my mind clear to think about places I love to write about! Wow, Susan – I am very very eager to read anything/everything you write about this place. That sense of danger is potent but also very alluring.

    • Most of my poetry and short stories wandered back to this place. And originally, there were 5 chapters in UP FROM THE BLUE that were set here, but I cut them all (and the characters that went with them) to streamline the plot.

      I’m pretty sure the new book wants to be here, though I’ll have to update it a bit to accommodate the storyline.

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