For the last two weeks, I’ve been creating a fictitious northern California town setting for my current story. I’ve driven all over Sonoma County, taking pictures of buildings and streets, farms and wineries, bridges and old train stations. I’ve spread all these pictures across a table and drawn out the streets, businesses, town square, and roads into town, blocked out areas for farms, ranches with happy cows and “free range” chickens, hop fields, vineyards, redwoods, the hills and the coast line.
Well, sort of. I’m not much of a cartographer or artist. So my “map” is out of whack, out of proportion, and missing elements that have to be arrowed in. Since this story will be historical, there are no Starbucks, computer stores, cable companies or cell-phone towers. I’ve had the pleasure of erasing thousands of acres of vineyards and “replanting” Gravenstein apple orchards. The hilltops are covered once again with oaks instead of 4-6000 square foot houses. The out-stretches of our spreading northern towns are gone and “my” town has shrunken back to the days of tree-lined neighborhoods filled with American bungalows and craftsman homes. I love houses with front porches. I have to have at least one character who sits in a rocking chair and visits with neighbors out for an evening walk. Maybe she’ll serve tea and homemade cookies.
I can use family names for streets. Since my brother is working on the family tree, I have lots from which to choose. Sometimes I combine street names for characters. Franklin Waltzer, perhaps? Douglas Peterson? Marina Rodriquez? Furst Secondus? I don’t think the last one will fly.
I can put this fictitious town further north, snuggled comfortably by a winding river with embracing hills covered with pine and then populate it with all kinds of people who are visiting me in my (day)dreams – and a few in my nightmares.
Creating a fictional setting allows me to create a town I’d love to live in – maybe something like the one I knew as a child with a population of 3500, where we kids wished ourselves into bigger cities and then wished ourselves back to small farming villages. I can step back in time for a year or two while writing a story out of this time and place with people who come alive inside my head (and hopefully will come alive in a reader’s mind as well).
I have a story map, too, also full of missing elements and open ends, a question with no answer, and considerable misgivings about whether I’ll find my way. Maps just start an adventure. I’m not a point-A-to-point-B girl. I write like I drive. Start out on a freeway, exit onto a blue road, turn onto a byway, get lost in the landscape, wonder what’s around the next curve or over the next hill, wondering if I’ll ever make it home.