Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Keeping It Local


          One thing I’ve learned from my experiences as a writer is that “write what you know” applies to setting as much as, if not more than, any other element of a story. I’ve learned that it’s quite common for writers to set their novels in places where they live, used to live, or visit often. In other words, they write about places they know.

            My first novel, Secrets of Hallstead House, was no different. I set the story in the Thousand Islands, the region of New York State where I grew up.

            Now I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up I didn’t think much of the area where I lived. It was mostly a place to mark time before I moved away to what I thought would be bigger and better things.

            But here’s what I realized the minute I moved away: I was darn lucky to have been brought up in northern New York. And I missed it as soon as I didn’t live there anymore.

I still miss it.

            I didn’t appreciate the history of the region until I was an adult. Though I know the area very well, I still did my fair share of research for that first book and what I learned was that there were some incredible, history-making, jaw-dropping things that took place within a few miles of where I lived for the first eighteen years of my life. And though I may have known about them somewhere in the recesses of my young mind, I didn’t fully appreciate them.

            I think this is actually a common phenomenon (please correct me if I’m wrong). The place where a person grows up is often the last place he or she wants to learn more about. It’s human nature to want to learn about the far-away places, the places one sees on television or in magazines. It seems to people that the place where they’ve spent their lives is boring compared to all the other places out there in the world (there are exceptions to this, of course, and I’m making broad generalizations here).

            But what I’ve learned these past almost-four years since that first book came out is that there are interesting things to learn about every place.

            And finally I get ‘round to the main idea of this post. My husband has been on my case urging me to write a book set locally. We live in southern New Jersey, so when he says “local,” he is referring to Cape May County.

             My Work-in-Progress is one I started a few years ago, set aside for a while, and have resurrected. It’s a story set in the legendary seaside town of Cape May, though the story takes place long before the town was legendary.

You may have heard of Cape May—it’s known for its Victorian architecture, for being a home-away-from home for several U.S. Presidents, and for its prominence in many songs from the early twentieth century.

But, like the area where I grew up, my first thought was, what’s there to know that I don’t already know about Cape May? And how can I make a story about it different from what’s already out there?

As it turns out, the answer to the first question is Plenty and the answer to the second question is The history of this area lends itself to some pretty amazing stories that are totally different from the books that have already been written.

With those things in mind, I’d like to share with you a few of the things I’ve learned about my little part of the world.

First, the name “Cape May” is a misspelling of the name of the man after whom the town is named, Cornelius Jacobsen Mey. A clerical error waaay back in history forever changed the name to “Cape May.”

Second, though Cape May is now known for its tourism, its original industry was whaling. Dutch whalers settled in the area between their sea-going journeys to hunt whales.

Third, the Lenni Lenape, a Native American tribe, was the first to inhabit the area now known as Cape May. And just as many people do now, centuries later, the Lenape summered there.

Fourth, pirates. Enough said.

Fifth, residents of Cape May County played a critical role in the Revolutionary War. I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea.

This part of New Jersey is rife with history! And I’m enjoying every minute of learning more about it. With my WIP, my goal is to share some of that knowledge, to excite the people of Cape May County when they realize how much history has taken place right on the ground where they now walk.

Here’s what I want to know. What fascinating things do you know about the place where you live? Have you written a story or a book about it? And do you agree that people tend to find “other” places more interesting, or was that a mistake made just by me?

The photos in this post were all taken by me and are places around Cape May County.

          Oh! I almost forgot! Today is RELEASE DAY for my new novel, Murder in Thistlecross! It's the third book in my Malice series and it follows the story of Eilidh, one of the characters in the previous book, Highland Peril. If you'd like to check it out, you can find it here.


Maggie King said...

I love Cape May and look forward to your finished story. I agree that we're more interested in where we used to live than in where we do live. Human nature, I suppose.

Amy Reade said...

Maggie, I actually wrote this post with you in mind. I think it's wonderful that you set your books in Virginia, and I know that you haven't always lived there. It's wonderful how much you've learned about the region and that you share that knowledge, even if you don't realize you're doing it, in your books.

Liane Spicer said...

Congratulations on the new release! I'll add it to our New Releases sidebar.

My first novel was set in Trinidad where I grew up, and the second in Miami where I lived for some years. The first 13 years of my life were spent in a little town in a tiny valley not far from the capital of Trinidad--and I could not wait to get the dust of that little place off my feet! There was a big wide world out there, and it began with the place we moved to which was a much larger, brighter, busier town miles away from that first place.

The irony is that now, many decades later, that first little town in that narrow fvalley has become so fascinating that my most ambitious novel to date, long in the making and yet unfinished, is set there. My current thesis research was triggered by my questions about my family's origins in the murky past that haunts that place, and is tied up with big events in the fascinating history of these islands.

So yes, writing what you know has been mostly about setting for me in every sense of the word--geographical, historical and social.

PS: You've given me a great idea for my next NS topic!