Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Summertime, and the livin' is easy . . .

Over the first weekend in November, I traveled from my current home on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, back to my old haunts in northeastern Ohio. The occasion was the Buckeye Book Fair, an event held each fall in Wooster. I’d been a faithful attendee before we moved away, and I remember walking the aisles of the auditorium, lined with tables, fingering the hundreds of books spread out before me—a bibliophile’s dream. But at the same time, surreptitiously, I studied the faces of the folks sitting behind the tables: the authors, members of that elite group to which I craved admission. I chatted with many of them, asking questions without, I hope, seeming too desperate for the answers.

Now, on a bright autumn Saturday, I settled in . . . behind Table #20. I had arrived.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about. My husband and I stayed at my stepson’s house, about an hour away, and the drives to and from the venue were spectacular. I had been wrong to expect the trees to have been stripped bare by the end of October, which often happened when I lived up there. Instead, they seemed to have peaked at just the precise moment our plane glided over the undulating Ohio countryside to touch down in Cleveland. Not only that, but it was actually warm! High fifties to low sixties every day, with bright sunshine and cloudless skies.

Oh, I knew it wouldn’t last. Nearly fifty years of living just a few miles from Lake Erie had taught me that. Soon the Alberta Clipper would rear its ugly head, bringing lake-effect snow and whiteouts and winds that no amount of insulation could keep entirely out of the house. We developed a winter siege mentality, preparing for the days when we might not be able to get down the driveway of our 3-acre haven tucked away in the country. Did we have enough oil for the furnace? Water in the cistern? Food in the pantry?

And that got me to thinking about how setting—our own or our stories’—plays such a huge role in our writing. My Bay Tanner mysteries are set in the SC Lowcountry, principally Hilton Head, Beaufort, Charleston, and, to a lesser extent, Savannah. It’s not only a different setting from the one in which I grew up—it’s like a whole other universe. My characters move more slowly, especially in the languid, humid summers when our area is packed with tourists. I talk a lot in my books about traffic because it’s often integral to the story. Emergency vehicles have to negotiate choked highways. A trip that should take no more than half an hour becomes a two-hour odyssey. Of course, there are no blizzards in my narratives, but hurricanes—and the threat of them—have played a significant role.

The ambience is so different, too. The culture, the history, the land itself—all of which I consider part of the setting—affect the telling of the tale in a way which I hadn’t really thought that much about until that weekend in Ohio. Here in South Carolina, generations of families have lived and died in the same town, often in the same house. Who are your people? is one of the first questions asked on being introduced to a new acquaintance rather than the more Northern, What do you do?

Setting is a big part of the atmosphere of a book, the creation of a mood, like lighting or backdrop in a stage play. To some extent it governs the actions of the characters as well as their reactions within the story. Julia Spencer-Fleming and Steve Hamilton write about cold places, and their characters demonstrate a physical as well as mental toughness that partially comes from the harsh weather they have to deal with. Carolyn Haines sets hers in Mississippi, and the lush foliage and steamy nights set a tone that lends itself to her darker stories of passion and betrayal.

Just one writer’s musings on an unusually chilly morning here on my island paradise, one which has reinforced my decision: I have no desire to return to my frigid roots in northern Ohio or to write about them. I’ve become a convert to the subtropical climate of my books. Fifty degrees is now leather jacket weather, and anything below that is just too damn cold. It was nice to visit, to go back “home” again, but I couldn’t live there anymore. Or write about it. Both my physical and literary blood has thinned.

Maybe I’ll set the next Bay Tanner book in Tahiti. Hmm . . . I wonder . . .

Kathy Wall grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. She and her husband Norman have lived on Hilton Head Island since 1994. Her 8th Bay Tanner mystery, The Mercy Oak, will be released in May, 2008, by St. Martin’s Press.

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