If you’ve been reading this blog, you may know that I’m getting to know my new neighbors and this neighborhood, so different from where we used to live. You may also know that I’ve decided to write a book. I suspect I should be writing pages of the book itself, but on my walk around the neighborhood today I noticed a house.
There was something on the front door. Actually, it looked like two certificates or notices posted on the door. I’d seen something like it before when a house near ours had been foreclosed and empty. That earlier house had been vacated by the previous owners. When we arranged to see the house, it had been gutted. Every piece of molding had been stripped. The railing had been removed leaving passers by open to falling off the edge of the stairs. Even the kitchen sink had been hauled away. The notice warned of no water or electricity. It warned, sad, hollow.
But when I saw this house I didn’t think hollow. I thought–storybook. The house looked like it belonged at the heart of a story. So I decided to put it at the center of the story I’m writing. Lena will live there.
From my writer’s garret, I overlook the backyard of the house next door to us. They have a huge picnic table. The kind that belies permanence. It looks like it would fit three generations of a family. And this table is planted in front of a huge stone hearth–a cooking pit backed by a stone chimney and bounded by stone sides to hold firewood or another grill top. Early in the writing process I imagined Lena laying across that picnic table after school. And so I appropriated it. As of today that table resides behind the storybook house.
The house that truly belongs to the picnic table and hearth has been undergoing a complete remodeling for months. It remains empty and waiting for its new family. This squat green ranch has been gutted. Two large dumpsters have been filled and hauled away. Big muddy tracks have cut into the winter sick lawn like scars. Gradually the work crews have cut away the prickly cedar bushes that crept across much of the front yard. While there are stubs of trunk left behind now, there is also bare earth, ready for something more welcoming to grow. And so I imagine new flower beds laid out. Small, tentative blooms poking through. The house itself blinks through the eyes of newly replaced windows. Where an awkward entry once stood flanked by the garage on one side and the main house on the other, a new room has taken shape. With a big, friendly window to the front, I imagine a french doors to the back of the new breakfast room. I suppose the new room has made space for a piano in the front room of the original floor plan. And in the center stands a sturdy brick chimney, the kind from which homey smoke would curl. A clean, new roof in a warm brown tops the house. The siding lingered dark green and sad across the winter, with bits peeled away around the new windows. Today I’m imagining a sudden facelift as cedar shingles are applied, with cranberry shutters and window boxes, and white trim around the windows.
Little does Lena know that this evolving house next door could be symbolic of her own transition into a new house. While the changes next door are dramatically physical, her own house undergoes an emotional shift as familiar pictures and objects are unearthed, as the routine of planning the garden is undertaken, as a rope ladder is thrown across the broad lowest branch of the ancient tree behind the house allowing for an escape or a perch, a vantage point from which to watch, unnoticed.
And like with these two properties, I’ve been collecting bits and bobs of places and stories from my new neighborhood, to be woven together with fanciful inventions in the world of my story.
I sat in the sun and sketched a neighborhood in my notebook. I kept the winding and interconnected streets, but moved the bike trail closer. I wasn’t sure I wanted my middle school characters riding across a busy state road to the trail on the other side. I soaked in the soundscape and placed the sounds on the map of the invented blocks. Which dogs live where? Which birds populate the trees and sky? I watched the passersby, recalled those I’ve seen across the warm days since October, and created a rhythm and flow of movement through the invented landscape. Who will Lena see? Who could she meet? And then I sprinkled the friend I know she’ll discover just across the path and down a house or two, far enough to be out of sight, but close enough to hear her playing trumpet from her tree. And I wondered, who else will she need? Which neighbors will make an imprint on her story?
Maybe pages of the book will come next, but now I’m curious about Cookie Joe and the couple in the wind chime house at the corner. I want to hear the flavor of neighborhood exchanges when dog walkers meet basketball playing kids or pass each other around the curves of the neighborhood streets. I want to sneak a peek at the elderly shoveling gentleman…who may become Cookie Joe…when the snow is no longer coating his yard. What does he do when spring arrives? So maybe for now, I’ll wander the streets of the world I’m building and capture moments in small vignettes.
Lena is stretched across her table and watching from her tree. She’s still lonely in this new place, but not for long. It’s a fascinating world she’s living in, if only she could see it.
Writer friends, how much time do you spend sightseeing in the new worlds you create? Do your characters insist on telling their story in a gush, or do you catch pieces of it like overheard conversations? Do you wander up and down all the aisles open to possibilities, or do you shop with a mission, stopping only at the four places throughout the store where your pre-selected ingredients are shelved? Do you introduce your characters to the people you know they’ll need, or do you meet antagonists and allies as they do?