So here’s how it often goes: we go off blithely on a trip and I fall in love with the place. I go home and can’t get it out of my mind and so, since my family is most unreasonable and refuses to move to satisfy my new love for a place, I begin writing about that place. I find imaginary people to populate the place and they get to live there, even if I can’t.
And then, usually, I persuade the family that we need to go back to that place again. This time, my senses are on high alert. I end up scribbling notes in the margins of my calendar or on gas station receipts. I breathe deeply to identify smells. I drive around neighbourhoods to situate things. I justify the purchase of meals my characters would definitely have eaten. I take photographs through splattered windows of moving cars. I write more marginal notes.
I’m probably not the world’s best travel companion.
And then I go back and with the help of my sensory research, I write and write some more.
One of the best compliments my writing has ever received–and to be honest, I hear this quite often–is that people either want to visit or move to the places I’ve written about, or they do go to visit, or they feel like they’ve actually been there. A place is effectively a major character to me as a writer.
Not all places capture my imagination in that way. It is potentially safe for you to invite me to visit you, without worrying that your home or town will be immortalized in prose. Sometimes I just go and enjoy myself as a civilian. I went somewhere years and years ago that is finding its way into the book I’m labouring on right now–and I’m kicking myself because I didn’t save the receipts from that trip, because at the time, I remember thinking that there was no way I could write about that place, that it was too foreign for me to find a foothold for a story. (Memo to self: save the receipts anyway!)
The more common experience I’ve had is that after writing and writing about a place, my third visit to the real place is marginally disappointing because (and this feels wrong to admit), I’ve come to both believe in and like the fictionalized version more than the real one. I don’t mean by that that the fictionalized one is idealized, but I come to have a sense of familiarity with it and thus a fondness for it that is missing in the real-life version. It’s always a surprise to me when that happens, though.
Here’s the second in my video series from our December visit to Ithaca. Rumo(u)r has it that if and when Cayuga Lake freezes over, classes at Cornell are cancelled. I like that idea. It is true that every summer, a group of Ithaca-area women participate in a swim across the width of Cayuga Lake as a breast cancer fundraiser. They call it Women Swimmin’. And the nearest of the Finger Lakes to Cayuga is under threat currently from another environmental hazard–a proposal to store methane, propane and butane in unlined salt caverns on the shores of the lake.
But here is the lake itself. Isn’t it lovely? And because I had never been here before in December, I didn’t know that it was a migration gathering point for lots and lots of geese. If only I’d had a receipt at hand to note that.
And here’s the lake in summer at sunset: