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Sunday, January 25, 2009
Sharon Wildwind - Home is the Place You Just Left
Sharon Wildwind is a northern writer with roots in the south. Or maybe she's a southern writer with her heart in the north. One way or another, she believes that while the past overtakes everyone, it doesn't have to overwhelm everyone. She spends most days at her computer, trying to get her characters to believe the same thing, while they go merrily about their ways figuring out who done it.
Home is the place you just left
If you live in North Carolina, I have bad news for you. The sky is not Carolina blue.
If you don’t live in North Carolina, or have no connections to the University of North Carolina, you probably don’t care. Unless you’re a professional artist, in which case you might want to know what we’re talking about here is Pantone reference color 278 or 282.
And, if you live in Alberta, as I do, you know that that beautiful, crystalline sky color we get in the fall and winter—shown below surrounding ruins of the old General Hospital in Calgary, with bits of modern Calgary peeking around the side— is Alberta blue.
This is, after all, a matter of perception and geography.
Decades ago, when I lived in North Carolina, I decided to write my first novel. Did I follow in the footsteps of Tarheel authors who choose the Blue Ridge Parkway’s color-drenched fall foliage or Cape Hatteras’s subtle tones of shifting sand, or the cool, gray stonework and lush green lawns of the state capital as the background against which to set my book?
Of course not. I picked a setting in northern Alberta, and for a very good reason. I wanted to do a snow story, something where the weather was part of the plot, where the climax took place in a blizzard, where characters discussed when would it snow, was it snowing, and how much more snow was expected.
There was one tiny problem. I’d never been to northern Alberta. I had no clue what the geography looked like. I had seen snow, first in Kansas, then in Western North Carolina, but how would prairie and Appalachian snows translate to snow in a tiny community an hour north of Fort Vermilion, Alberta?
This was long before the Internet existed, and though libraries cheerfully offered interlibrary loans, I never found a book with photos of the place my imagination wanted to go.
I didn’t care. Imbued with the energy of finally writing a book, I sat in North Carolina and wrote about the imaginary town of Whiskeyjack, Alberta, where bad things were happening, people were dying, and my heroine was the only one with enough insight and courage to save the town … only first, she had to learn to deal with snow.
Eventually I finished the book. And finished it again. And finished it again. And got a degree in creative writing. And immigrated to northern Alberta, where I finally got a look at the place I’d written about for almost a decade.
In case you’re curious, this is what a small town in northern Alberta looks like
at sunset on a winter day.
What I found amazing was the surprising number of things I’d gotten right about living in a small community that existed nowhere but in my imagination, and how much people did talk about the weather, and some, but not all of the effects snow had on everyday life.
And I learned that the sky color I had mistakenly, for years, called Carolina blue, was in reality called Alberta blue. At least, around these parts.
Fast forward almost a quarter of a century. I’m living in Alberta, I’m a published writer, and where are my current books set?
North Carolina: Asheville—Madison County—Fayetteville. I’m looking at the snow-covered ground outside my window, trying to recapture what Fort Bragg felt like on a summer evening, just at that point where blistering heat turned into almost bearable temperatures, the sprinklers came on in front of the Officer’s Club, and the odor of barbecued steak drifted through the stucco and red-tile roofs of senior officers’ country.
At least this time I have photos and memories to go by.
What I learned from living in one place and writing about another is to never underestimate a writer’s imagination. Yes, research is important, and eventually—preferably before a book goes looking for a publisher—a good writer must do some. If you don’t believe me, ask Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols (AKA P. J. Parrish) about loons.
Sometimes knowing too much about a place kills spontaneity. Sometimes we have to trust ourselves as story-tellers and dive head-long into creating a place we know nothing about. The late poet, Richard Hugo, favored what he called triggering towns, places in which some thing—perhaps just the name of the town seen on a map—planted a poem in his head. In many cases these were not places he’d been; in fact, he said that having been to the town often hindered him. If, for his poem to work, he needed a red water tower next to the railroad track, but there was no such thing, he’d be stuck about whether to honor th e reality or just put the darn water tower where it should have been in the first place. So here’s to imaginary red water towers everywhere!