A few years ago Allan and I took a midwinter vacation to the southwest. We wanted mainly to see the red rock area of Sedona, but I also wanted to visit Sante Fe and the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. Since there would be some driving involved, a friend suggested listening to some audio books to pass the time. In particular she recommended the Navajo mysteries by Tony Hillerman that take place in the area we would be visiting. While these stories wouldn’t have been my first choice, it was wonderful to hear the descriptions from the text and look out the window to see nearly the same thing. It was a little like living in a picture book. The characters I met in those books helped me to more deeply understand life in that area.
Something similar happened while I was visiting Kill Devil Hills, NC this past spring. I started reading The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, and immediately I felt an appreciation of that place where so much happened years before and where I now stood.
Last week while visiting Chautauqua Lake in New York, my friend suggested I read Clear Skies, Blue Water, written by her friend and fellow resident, Beth Peyton. This memoir is a celebration of the power of place and community to heal and restore. I’m glad I started the book while I was there and able to see first-hand the lake she loves and read about the people who touched her life in such a special way. It helped me feel so much more as I read.
Sometimes we are drawn to read about places we are preparing to visit, or have visited. But the experience of reading about a place while you are there, perhaps for the first time, is powerful for me. While well shaped characters and an interesting plot are important to any story, an author’s ability to develop that sense of place is equally essential. I think this is something to keep in mind as we work with our young writers.