I was walking on the shore just two short weeks ago along the Malibu coast in California, at my happiest to be in such a gorgeous place. As I walked, the surf tickling my toes, and the waves crashed on the rocks, I glanced over at the large beach homes that hugged the coast. I was struck with a spark, an idea…inspiration. An idea came to me for a book, a really good idea. I’ve been thinking about the idea ever since, but the idea of inspiration and place has also been on my mind.
Meanwhile, I have made what feels, like a massive career transition within those past two weeks as well. I left my former job and took a job in Chicago. I don’t live in the city, I reside within the commuter-belt, albeit a very far edge. So last week, I grabbed my high heels and stepped into my new life, doing a job that I have worked an entire career to get to. I won’t lie, it feels good, no great, to be here. I also know that although I have “made it” to this level, my work must be worthy for now and for forwarding advancement.
As exciting as this transition is, my new opportunity has put back downtown Chicago again. Chicago is my home city. When I travel the world and people ask me where I am from, I reply, “I’m from Chicago,” even though I don’t actually reside within the city. The first day as I stepped off of the commuter train, out of the station, and out onto the street, I thought about all of those who came before me and all of those who will come after me. Then I thought about my characters, doing the same thing I am doing, going about their daily lives in this amazing city.
So much of my work is set in Chicago, because it is the city that I love, and it is the city that I know. As I was walking to catch the train home yesterday, I walked in the exact footsteps where Ben and Rachel from McKinley Park had their first date. I imagined them walking under the EL on the hot summer night. I couldn’t help but smile, genuinely smile. I am sure the others on the street if they even noticed wondered why this crazy woman wore a big smile but I didn’t care. As I walked further, my newest book has a scene set in the State Street Macy’s, I thought of the two characters as I walked past. Chicago is a rich setting, and I think it is why I use it so much in my work.
I am a firm believer that place directly impacts not just where a story is set but the writer too. I remarked to my husband while we were in LA a few weeks ago, that one would almost have to reside in LA for an extended period of time to accurately write the area. Sure writing a trope of LA is easy, but if you really wanted to richly set a work there… In my opinion, you’d have to go there and stay for some time. For reference, when I mean LA, I am talking about the greater LA area. It is so vastly different from the coast, to Anaheim, to Santa Anna and into the mountains, you’d have to be there to accurately describe the setting.
This past fall I took a trip for a long girls weekend down to New Orleans. At the time I was reading the book Fat Tuesday by Sandra Brown, which is set there. I picked up the book before I travelled thinking it would be interesting to read a book about a place I had never been and was soon to travel to. The experience of reading a book set in downtown New Orleans, while walking the streets the characters had, was a decadent experience. There was so much more to see, hear, smell, taste that added a rich velvety layer of complexity to Brown’s story. Granted I can’t travel to every book setting but the experience stuck with me.
When I first started writing romance, then reading it – yeah I know I got that backwards, but it’s the way it happened, I read a series by Christine Feehan. The setting for some of the stories were set in the bayous and swamps in Lousiana, as a home base for the characters. I read an interview with her about her research for the books, and she talked about spending time there for the purposes of book research. She discussed how the beauty of place resonated with her. When I read her books set in the bayou, they felt detailed in a way that you know she had been there. She describes place so well, and I would argue that the place in itself was an inspiration and a character in the series.
The more I write the more I learn. It used to annoy me to no end when writers would drone on about “the process.” I naively thought to myself, just sit down and write. How time has a way of teaching each of us. Place is important, whether reading or writing, it matters. I get it now. I am grateful to walk in the setting of my own work every day now.