You know what they say about real estate, right? Location! Location! Location! Well, I think the same can be true for novels. Where we choose to set our novels is important but we each come to this decision in a different way. Today, multi-published author, my friend, Yona Zeldis McDonough, give us her thoughts on a sense of place for fiction, and how she chose the setting for her new novel, The House On Primrose Pond. I
I was lucky to read an early copy of The House On Primrose Pond and was immediately swept away—first to Brooklyn and then to New Hampshire, in the present and in the past. Yona’s writing is vivid, her characters realistic, with relationships I could relate to — she wrote people I wanted to know. For me, that’s quite often the mark of a good read.
Please welcome Yona to WFW, and tell us about the setting of your book in the comments!
A Sense of Place
by Yona Zeldis McDonough
I’ve set my six prior novels in and around New York City. This was less an active decision on my part, and more of a default position. In my view, the setting in a novel can function almost as a “character,” and to make that “character” come alive, you have to know it well—the sights, sounds and smells of a place, the nuances of the neighborhoods, the landmarks and the hidden spots that are off-the-beaten track. I was raised in New York and, with the exception of my four years in college and a year of European travel way back in the 1970s, I have lived here for all of my life. So writing with a New York setting came effortlessly to me. I did not have to dig for the material; it was all there, ready and waiting. I just had to reach for it.
When I began thinking about my next novel though, I found myself chafing at that very ease and wanted to push my own boundaries. I decided to set a novel somewhere else. But where? That was the all-important question. The answer came pretty quickly. I turned to New Hampshire, because it’s a state I have come to know and love. My husband is from Portsmouth, NH and we have spent time there during the course of our marriage. And for many years, we rented a cottage in an enchanted, lakeside spot that for me is heaven on earth.
It was that lake and that house that I chose for the setting of The House on Primrose Pond. I knew the place intimately, and so I could write about it with confidence and passion. I wanted to make it come alive to the reader, and in order for that to happen, it had to be fully, gloriously alive to me. I had experienced the cottage in drenching rain, brilliant sunlight and even in snow and ice, since one winter we went up to celebrate my father-in-law’s 90th birthday. I knew my stuff, and I was ready.
I had my characters in place—a recently widowed mom in her late thirties who moves, with some reluctance, from Brooklyn to a lake house in New Hampshire. Her husband has been killed in a bicycle accident, and her life’s been upended. She does not want to leave her New York home, and teen-aged kids don’t want to leave either, and so she has to contend with their resistance. But there are all sorts of practical reasons to make the move and so she does. The other central character is a woman in her seventies, also widowed, who is her neighbor. At first it seems like this woman—cultivated, worldly—might become a friend, but when she seems to turning my protagonist’s daughter against her, all bets are off.
Yet this story line and conflict between characters did not feel like enough to me. So I turned back to New Hampshire—the “place” that I wanted to function almost as a character—for inspiration. After some research, I came upon the story of Ruth Blay, who, in 1768, was the last woman hanged in the state. Blay, an unmarried seamstress and teacher in her early thirties, was accused of murdering her newborn daughter. A five-year-old named Betsey Pettingill had found the dead baby while playing in a barn on a hot day in June. The particulars of what happened next are not recorded, but it is known that the bailiff was called, Ruth was taken to a jail in Portsmouth, NH, and she was ultimately convicted of concealing the birth of an illegitimate child—a “crime” for which she paid with her life.
As soon as I read this, I knew I had to incorporate it into the novel. Now the sense of place had expanded, to include historical events. In addition to making the present day New Hampshire come alive, I had to evoke the New Hampshire of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This involved research of the kind I love best: poring over photographs and books, and making museum visits to see the dwellings and objects particular to the time. In the Portsmouth Historical Society I was able to see a dark blue petticoat, possibly made by Blay herself. Other collections yielded silver, furniture, samplers (I mention one in the novel) and paintings. All these things helped me imagine the place as it was centuries ago. Along with my intrepid sister-in-law, I also made a trip to South Cemetery in Portsmouth, where we were able to find the spot where Ruth had drawn her last breath. There was no tombstone; though she had been buried there, nothing was erected to mark the spot.
It is my belief—or at least my ardent hope—that the weaving of this material into the story deepens not only the sense of place, but also gives fuller life to the characters that inhabit it.
Yona Zeldis McDonough’s novel The House on Primrose Pond came out from New American Library on Feb. 2, 2016. Visit her at: http://www.yonazeldismcdonough.com