I recently got back from visiting my home town in Oregon. A pleasant little village called Cottage Grove. I was there for both the wedding of a dear friend and a high school class reunion. Going back always filled me with nervous energy and anticipation. Of what, I’m not quite sure.
Hometowns are funny things. Whether our memories are pleasant or distasteful, they are always there, hovering in the backwash of our minds. We’re imprinted with place in our growing years because our senses are on fire. Whether it’s the freshly cut grass on a June morning, or the earthen musk of fallen leaves on an October evening, or even the steely wetness of silent, falling snow, our childhoods were made for memories.
But I’m always taken back by how powerful some of the images are that still linger. Part of that is that I recall them for purposes of story. But it’s also a little of the chicken or the egg thing. I will find myself writing a scene and the characters will be moving around on wooden floors in a gray, clapboard hut, filled with tools and I’ll suddenly step out of the story for a moment and think, ‘wait-a-minute, where is this place? I’ve seen it before.” And sure enough it’s the small shack that used to be the business of a plumber I knew back when I was a kid. I think I was in there once, maybe twice with my Dad. But I hadn’t consciously thought of that little spot on Gibbs Avenue, down from the First National Bank in over forty years. But my mind (and often my heart) never forgot.
That’s why I think setting and place are so powerful in fiction. Faulkner had his little county in Mississippi no one can pronounce, Stephen King has the dark woods of Maine, John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen bring out the full bloom of both the coast and inland waterways of Florida and even our beloved Mr. Tolkien had his English countryside shimmered into the Shire we all know and love. When we think of their stories it’s often while recalling their ‘places.’
And me, well, I keep returning to the hills, back roads and quiet streets of the little town that formed me. Not always directly and often I mold it into a place that suits the writing at the time. But the Grove is always there, like a beacon. Never insistent. Simply patient. As if it’s waiting for me to call again.
And I’m grateful it is.