Friday, November 5, 2010

Setting: Beautiful Ohio

Home is where "normal" is.

I attended the World Fantasy Convention this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio, about 50 miles from Beavercreek, where I grew up. (For my impressions of WFC, please seen my blog posts of the past week at my personal blog, Although I left for college thirty-six years ago, the landscape of Ohio remains for me the default of what a landscape should look like and the norm by which all other landscapes judged.

the beautiful tree-lined Olentangy River
If you've ever driven across Ohio on I-70, you may think the concept of Ohio as beautiful exists only in the imagination of the composer of "Beautiful Ohio." But that stretch of flatness does not represent the rest of the state.

I drove from Columbus up north to Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, twice, first to pick up my niece for World Fantasy Con and again to take her back. It's a 40- or 45-minutes drive each way that starts in an older neighborhood of Columbus and then follows route 315, which for most of its length is a country road.

It was a wonderful, soul-quenching experience to drive through countryside like that I grew up in. Ohio was once covered with forest. Today, wherever the land is left untended, the rich soil sprouts trees again. And not just a few types of trees—like the evergreens that dominate some parts of Mississippi or the live oaks and cypress of southern Louisiana. Ohio's trees are many and varied, of various heights and shapes. Now in the fall, some are barren of leaves, and others are still green; the maples flame red. There are no easy paths through Ohio woods; thick underbrush fills empty spaces.

brick home built by my ancestor Daniel Miller in 1808 near Dayton
To one side of Route 315 the land drops down to the Olentangy River; on the other, forest and sometimes hills rise up. Ohio is a well-watered land, with creeks, streams, and rivers abundant, all eventually making their way south. One of my ancestors was one of the first settlers of Montgomery County, arriving about 1803. Three times he floated home-distilled liquor on barges down the Great Miami River to the Ohio River and then to the Mississippi, bound for Natchez and New Orleans. Not an unusual story for the time—except my ancestor was Pennsylvania Dutch, a religion that disapproved of alcohol.

Ohio is old by the standards of many states. Some of my ancestors were given land in Ohio as partial payment for service in the Revolutionary War. Other people came for the rich farmland. The various Indian tribes were pushed out to make way, and Ohio became a state in 1803. Today, Ohio, though small, is the 7th most populous state. Even so, along route 315, houses are far apart, and many 19th-century farmhouses remain, some helped by their stone construction to withstand a century and a half of snowy winters.

Hills roll through most of Ohio, thanks to the glaciers that gouged and carved the northern two-thirds of the state. Consequently, Route 315 rises up and down and curves pleasantly among the hills.

Although I haven't lived in Ohio for almost four decades, my drives on Route 315 I had a feeling of perfect "rightness." The woods were the "right" density and had the "right" variety of tree species. The underbrush was the "right" thickness, and the houses were spaced the "right" distance apart. The land was neither too flat nor too steep, but "just right." The old farmhouses at the end of long dirt driveways were what my eyes expected to see; the harvested fields were neither too huge nor too small.

Galloway cabin, built late 1700s, home of Rebecca Galloway
Although I didn't see any historical markers on my drives, Ohio is full of them. One near where I grew up sits in an empty clearing in a forest. It marks one of the places the Shawnee forced Simon Kenton to run the gauntlet in 1778 for stealing their horses; he survived that gauntlet and several others. Everyone who went to school in Ohio knows the importance of the Galloway cabin at right: Tecumseh, unwilling to lead a "white" life as his beloved Rebecca Galloway demanded he do if she married him, instead remained single and led a widespread coalition of Indians to fight to retake their stolen lands.

My meanderings about Ohio have a writerly point to make: People form strong connections with their landscapes. No landmark is meaningless; each gas station and dueling oak and rutted road has personal or historical meaning to someone.

I often see these human-landscape connections portrayed in fiction about places with strong personalities such as New Orleans and Los Angeles, but it's usually lacking in stories set in more "ordinary" settings.

My drive through the countryside of Ohio reminded me that every story setting is special, and the writer owes it to her reader to show her characters' connection to or alienation from their landscape, the meaning they derive from it, and the comfort or discomfort it causes them.


Charles Gramlich said...

I think every state must have some truly beautiful settings. Nature is so diverse and abundant. I just love getting out and seeing her.

Terri-Lynne said...

I never knew how pretty Ohio is. Too far from the ocean for my tastes! But very beautiful.

Way up on N. High street, nearer to the college, the side streets were so lovely. All those neat houses in rows. I was surprised! I guess I need to get out of New England now and again, eh?

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, I'm not sure about Nebraska and Kansas. What I've seen of them I did not think was pretty at all. But every other state I've been through has had some remarkable things to see.

TERRI-LYNNE, those of us who didn't grow up near an ocean don't miss it. But like you, my friends who did want to be near one.

I went up North High Street and on a side street, too, to get to route 315. I saw a beautiful neighborhood of late 19th century brick houses, well kept up. I never knew Columbus had neighborhoods like that. It sounds as if that was near the neighborhood you saw.

Shauna Roberts said...

(Please ignore this comment. I'm adding it only so that I can click the "email follow-up comments" box.)

Liane Spicer said...

I know I can't keep my deep connection to the landscape I grew up with from informing the stories that are set on the island. Even stories that aren't set in the Caribbean (such as my second novel) are shaped by it in that the main characters are Caribbean born and the nostalgic pull, the reference point, is always of the Caribbean.

I enjoy stories that demonstrate the strength of the connection - or of the disconnect - between the characters and the landscape.

Sphinx Ink said...

You said, "[T]he writer owes it to her reader to show her characters' connection to or alienation from their landscape, the meaning they derive from it, and the comfort or discomfort it causes them." How right you are! Often when I find a book tedious, I realize it's at least partly because the writer hasn't given me a sense of place. I like a story that's firmly anchored in geography, climate, flora and fauna. Not all authors can be a James Lee Burke (a master at imbuing setting in his stories), but every author should try. IMHO.

Shauna Roberts said...

LIANE, you're lucky to have grown up in such an interesting and beautiful place. A Caribbean setting by itself makes a story more interesting. That probably is not the case in most readers' minds for an Ohio setting.

SPHINX INK, yes, I too have found that books without many setting details have a harder time drawing me in. They have to have a whole lot going on to make me forget that they play out in a generic "room" or "forest" based on the Platonic ideal in my head, not on specific details the author provides.