Sunday, September 28, 2008

Have Pencil, Will Travel

Ever since my husband died several years ago, I’ve been traveling to all of the countries we’d planned to visit together after his retirement. (He died suddenly the morning after he brought home his retirement papers.) Whenever I tell people I’m going to Ukraine or China or Poland, some of them say, “Oh, you’ll find a lot to write about there.” I smile and nod, but the truth is what I’ll write about will be things I learn and observe from the people I travel with.

One of the great Southern writers -- it may have been Faulkner -- said once that he could spend his entire life writing about a square foot of land in the town where he grew up. I’ve written extensively about my home town, the small farming community of Mink Creek, Idaho. Most of it is fiction, but I get my inspiration from the history and customs of that little village, and especially the people, whom I love dearly, both past and present. And so, when I travel, I watch and listen to my companions. I hear their life stories, the way they speak, their attitudes, their comments about the country we’re in and the towns they came from. I observe their mannerisms and how they relate to other people. I make notes in the little pad I always have with me. They, or something about them, may appear in my next book. Very likely they wouldn’t recognize themselves, because the characters I create are usually a synthesis of several people. Sweetie Farnsworth in my Blue Skye was an amalgamation of a warm-hearted woman I knew back in Mink Creek and a Scottish lady I met on one of my trips. Reanna, in Lake of Secrets,was in reality a flighty young woman I knew in high school with a dash of a girl who was part of my tour group in the Czech Republic.

That’s not to say I don’t use the countries themselves in my books, or rather events that happened in those countries. In the trilogy of books I wrote with co-authors Nancy Anderson and Carroll Morris, we had our three characters vacationing together in Williamsburg, Virginia, at the time the World Trade Center was destroyed. Nancy, Carroll, and I had actually vacationed in Williamsburg, but three years before 9/11. On the actual day, September 11, 2001, I was with a small tour group in St. Petersburg, Russia. We were to fly out the next morning, and we were attending a farewell dinner at one of the Romanoff palaces when we passed a vendor’s table and saw the first plane fly into a tower. The commentary was in Russian, so we didn’t know what was happening. It seemed to be an accident, so we went in to dinner. It wasn’t until afterward that we found out it was no accident. We asked the vendor what happened, and in broken English he told us New York was under attack.

Back at our hotel we flipped through the TV channels, trying to locate one we could understand. Finally we found a broadcast from Germany, with English subtitles. We sat there stunned, watching the horror play and replay. We heard that the United States borders had been closed. What was to happen to us? We were shut out of our own country. We would not get home the next day.

The hotel staff wept with us and put up a sign expressing their sorrow and sympathy. Luiba, our wonderful Russian guide, said she would make sure we’d have a hotel to stay in when we got to Warsaw, which was as far as we could go. She hugged us all the next day when she took us to the airport.

The small hotel near the airport in Warsaw had just opened, and the rooms were beautiful. The staff surrounded us with love and concern. The week that followed would have been a pleasure if there hadn’t been such horror going on back in the U.S. The hotel manager gave us a van and driver to take us around the city free of charge. We saw the triumphant rebuilding of the Warsaw city center, which the Nazis had totally razed in World War II. We saw the U.S. Embassy, surrounded by hundreds of people, many of them weeping, and mountains of flowers they’d brought. And we saw the lovely Latter-day Saint chapel, where several of us went to church on Sunday and found peace of mind and the assurance that we would get home safely. We were charmed and touched that one of the Sunday School classes was in English so that we could understand without the missionaries translating.

In the second book of our trilogy, Three Tickets to Peoria, Nancy, Carroll, and I had our characters going through the same emotions that I’d felt when they are stranded in Williamsburg. They can’t get home. But their solution was easier than mine; they simply changed the destination of their rental car and drove to Florida where one of the characters was living.

One need not travel to find inspiration for characters or ideas for events. To paraphrase Faulkner, or whoever it was, I could find enough to write about the rest of my life right here on my own block. In fact, one of my neighbors made an appearance in my book Shanny on Her Own as independent and crusty old Aunt Adabelle. You can tell her if you want to, but she’d deny it. She doesn’t see herself as I see her, and besides I stirred in a hefty measure of my own Aunt Mahalia.


Shirley Bahlmann said...

Wow, I had tears in my eyes reading about your 9/11 experience. That is so touching.
I'd never really thought before about writing what's in your own backyard, but it makes sense.
Thanks for sharing your insights.

Peggy said...

I am right proud to be your niece! I always enjoy reading what you write.

Jo Jo said...

I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world. Cheap Flights to Bangkok