Place has always been important in the books I write. My new novel, a literary psychological thriller called Hard little thing, is set on a back-to-land commune that became a cult in rural Maine, where a group of children are driven to a horrific, desperate act in a final attempt to save the only home they have ever loved. More than two decades later, the same group of five middle-aged friends are blackmailed together again and in the countryside, forced to reconcile how what they did has shaped who they are and who they want to become.
I’ve put my three latest books in fictional versions of places I know well. Mine New York Times best selling Bittersweet—about a naive Little Red Riding Hood who becomes a victorious Big Bad Wolf – located on a lush, secluded lakefront property on Vermont called Winloch, based on a piece of land I’ve been to since I was a child. June– about a secret Hollywood love affair in the Midwest – is located in a haunted, dilapidated mansion in the small town of Ohio, based on a home that my grandmother spent time in when she was a little girl (the family that owns it a century later even let me hang out for a week, armed with a tape measure and camera so I could get all the details right). And the municipality in Hard little thing, called Home, is set to an imaginary version of a lake I first went to in my late teens, where the family of my then college boyfriend (now husband) has owned land for decades. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. I have spent many long, lush summer days hanging out in the hammock and exploring in a kayak. But if it knew all these places very well, it became easier to catch on the side, making it much harder to love them, if anything. It is a challenge to turn beloved spots into settings of novels where some beautiful miserable things occur.
But just as I was never ready to start writing a book until I knew a lot about my people’s dreams, needs, and physical characteristics, I have learned that I simply cannot write about a place until I know it well. I need to know what the book’s world sounds like when it rains, what trees and plants are growing there, and what populations of birds and insects they support. I need to know what it smells like on a hot day and what the place remembers. Understanding attitude in this deep way does not just make a novel more believable; it’s another way to build tension, which is the propulsion motor with forward momentum. That is, I have discovered that knowing a place from the inside out means that I can write a page-turner about it.
I have written more than one book about murder, grief and long-buried secrets that lie in places I know and love …
Now that I’ve written more than one book about murder, grief, and long-buried secrets in places I know and love, I’ve discovered a few tricks to encourage this transformation – from my happy, lived experience to what my characters go through while you are in the same country. The first trick is to exploit the intimacy of a place – especially when the natural world is involved – to illustrate the darker parts of the narrative.
Saskia, the narrator of Hard little thing, first arriving home from New York when she is twelve. She is enchanted by a place that is so cluttered with nature, and by the fact that the isolation of the home allows her to be cut off from the outside world; she has her own reasons for being happy to be cut off. The day Saskia arrives, she explores and observes, “Wind floated the trees and ground cover relentlessly. I now saw that there was as much movement as in the city, only here it was not cabs and bicycles and buses; this was a live drum in a language I did not yet speak. ”
But much later, after learning a lot more about the reality of how the home works and what it requires of her, Saskia moves through the same forest: “The ghost whites are from Batula papyrifera moaned. White crystals whipped into my eyes and my breath clouded the air. In the biting cold, away from the others, I threw the ax, my eye on a knot. It hit its mark without a doubt. ”
These two sections illustrate Saskia’s change as a character and how her relationship with the home has also changed. At the second passage, she is no longer enchanted by the shining unknown; she understands all too well the information about the brutal, physical demands of the wilderness. In fact, she knows so much that she refers to paper birch by her Latin name and has become so adept at living there that she can effortlessly straighten an ax in the knot of a tree. In other words, she has become an expert on the home for better or worse in developing an intimate, unhealthy connection with the country just as she could with a different character.
The weather has also changed – at the second pass we are no longer in the dappled sunshine on a June afternoon. The weather is another powerful way to increase excitement. The seduction ability of lapping water in a bay on a beautiful summer afternoon becomes something much more threatening when a thunderstorm moves overhead (as it happens in a crucial scene in Bittersweet), just as the effort to live year-round without electricity on a land of Maine takes on a new reality when a reader finds their protagonist in the middle of winter. Seasonal changes are inevitable in many places in the world, which can offer a gift to readers who have marked a book’s journey from sunshine to storm clouds. Bringing a blizzard or the sound of rolling thunder signals to a reader that the good, dark things are coming; the moments when someone like Saskia has to prove what she’s made of, because the world does not allow her any other choice.
Finally, the daily habits of a place beyond offering grounding can provide a metaphorical drive to history. IN Hard little thing, the lamentations of the lambs out on the lake haunt the Nights of the Home, a cyclical, lonely sound that marks Saskia’s journey as she begins to think of the home as her home. Marta, the old woman who teaches Saskia the names of all the Unthinged Worlds plants and animals as she feeds her, instructs Saskia on the mycorrhizal relationship between fungi and trees – a symbiosis that benefits every species. “They are more than friends,” she explains, intertwining her fingers. “They need each other to survive.”
This notion of interdependence is central to the issues at the heart of Hard little thing: Do we actually need others? What are the dangers of that need? Can one be independent and yet also part of a society? And if this balance is reached, then how can it free us from both addiction and loneliness? I know I could not ask these questions if it were not for the special pine forest right by the lip of a quiet little lake where I have been lucky enough to spend more than a few quiet afternoons dreaming of another the world.