Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Places You'll Go

The daughter and I are headed to Albuquerque tomorrow for a Mom-n-me trip. I’m excited because neither of us has been there, and because we’ll get to spend the kind of uninterrupted time that seldom occurs in the rush of our regular lives. Jason and I take one trip per year with one child, alternating kids, usually to a spot they’ve chosen. Geneva didn’t have any ideas this year, other than to revisit New York City, which she loves. But the main rule of the trips is that you choose someplace new. I also wanted us girls to do something a bit different from our normal interests—shopping, seeing shows, dining out, etc. (We’re both city girls.) I suggested Santa Fe, which I have visited briefly. We thought about a train ride through the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina but seemed to have missed the best month (October) for weather and foliage. In a roundabout way, we came to Albuquerque. It has a zoo and aquarium, although the daughter says she may not want to go to those. It has an aerial tram at the east end of the city and is bordered on the west by the Rio Grande. You can see inactive volcanoes and Native American pueblos, take a ghost tour in the rustic Old Town, indulge with Southwestern fare. So.
If I’m honest, I have another reason to look forward to the trip. I’m percolating a new novel, which I believe will be set in the American Southwest. Where exactly, I’m not sure. But I’m definitely looking to soak up the scenery while I’m there, to immerse myself, to mine for sensory details. It seems that many things I write begin with the setting although it isn’t always a place I’ve actually visited. I know writers who enjoy the research phase of writing, often because it involves trips to the places they’ll be writing about. I know of books set in a certain city or country where the author has never set foot. Which is more valid? Does it matter? Some of the characters in my last finished project live in Bellflower, California. I knew nothing about the place, although I could imagine the flavor of it. Bellflower is a city at the southern end of Los Angeles County, one place name in a patchwork of similar cities. I could imagine the older, ranch-style homes of the neighborhood I wrote about, the mature trees and wide streets. I could see the strip malls and fenced-in elementary schools, the brick churches and shiny supermarkets. Maybe I had never been to Bellflower, but I’d been to many places I thought were similar. The final scene took place in a cemetery, and one Saturday when my son had a soccer game nearby, it seemed like kismet. I decided to take a look at the place I had mapped online. But when I drove towards the address of the cemetery, I found it was nestled in a neighborhood that was more modern than I’d pictured, and the burial place itself was smaller and less evocative than it had loomed in my mind’s eye. So I drove by and didn’t go in. The actual visit to Bellflower had only been distracting.

If characters are fictional and the story an author creates is a fiction, can the setting be something between truth and creation, between impressions and imagination? I think so. I suppose any place exists in a place between the tangible and our memories and impressions anyway. No matter where you go, you'll be there, the viewer, the interpreter, the lens.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka