Place Names Can Inspire Plots

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Sleepy Hollow in New York State is a real place that inspired a classic story. Chances are there is such a place in your backyard.

I know of a small piece of land in Massachusetts tucked under an overpass, adjunct to an off-ramp, adjacent to one of 13 villages in a township near Boston – that absolutely has the greatest name. Every time I pass it, I pledge to use it in a book. “Hemlock Gorge” was probably dreamed up by the Department of Parks & Recreation or maybe it was passed down in local history. Either way, it always conjures up images of mystery and finality. There’s something foreboding in the name, yet alluring – as good plots should be. The name hints of darkness and danger, secrecy and deception.

Of course this piece of property is just a bit of green public land along a charming river bed, but like “Alligator Alley,” “Lantern Lane,” or “Coyote Gulch,” I’m drawn to it.

Many years ago, on a cross-country excursion, we drove through a town named “Shell.” As I recall, the population was 3 or 13. We were told it was named for the Shell gasoline station located there. I see in online search, there’s a Shell, Wyoming.  That name supposedly comes from the fossil shell beds in the region. Could be the same place, different story.

I’ve always liked Gorda, on the Pacific Coast Highway, en route north to Big Sur. There was a time when the entire town could have been purchased by a single buyer. Now it is a destination site – in fact, a resort. I, however, always imagined myself ensconced in the cliffs of Gorda among the orange coreopsis, overlooking the ocean, awaking to the sound of surf … a temporary hermit, writing my great novel.

For those seeking a compelling setting, or even the spark that ignites a story, I suggest scouting your region for names of interest. Here on the East Coast, our pond and street names are rich in Algonquin language; on the West Coast, there is a distinct Spanish influence.

It’s easy to imagine peaceful native villages and survival plots when you hear names like “Popponesset” in Massachusetts or “Mooselookmeguntic” in Maine.

In California, bustling missions, rich in ornate religious artifacts, come to life among the agaves off El Camino Real when you hear names like “La Purisma” or “San Juan Capistrano.” One name that jumps out to me does so because it was such a surprise, tucked away in the dry landscape of Arizona. Tumacácori dates back to 1691 when Father Kino visited an O’odham village and established a mission there. If that doesn’t suggest dramatic possibilities, I’m not sure what would.

If nothing strikes your fancy, try combining names. Some years ago, I noticed a “Dead End” sign near a local church. I quickly wrote a poem called “Dead End Church,” but I could see it becoming more of a Cannery Row. (Thank you, Mr. Steinbeck)

As an exercise, think about the places that influenced your childhood. Chances are, you will recall some pet names created by friends. In my small town, we always had “The Knoll,” a space on someone’s farm that was great for sledding. For years I never knew exactly where it was located in the context of the community, but with a few shortcuts over rock walls and between apple orchards, we could find it.

Aside from the rough and rigorous names, there are other names that evoke a sense of peacefulness and calm. Take “Baby Beach” in Aruba or “Mother’s Dock” at a lake in New Hampshire. Don’t you just see a turn-of-the-century plot unfolding where women carry parasols and wear bouffant bustles?

So, as the New Year gets underway, let’s stroll away from Main Street and Elm, and go to far-off and exotic places – or nearby haunts that just sound that way.

What’s in a name? It could be your next plot.

The Little Shoe

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It might seem trite to say that every item has a story, but surely, some items have better stories to tell than others – and for a writer, this is a magnetic pull that wants to be drawn out.

So it is with a little shoe I found at an antique shop in Prescott, Arizona. Truth is, this isn’t a shoe but a wooden shoe mold, style 600, size 6 ½ E – most likely intended for toddler feet.

In that Prescott was a lively ranching and gambling town at the turn of the century, I sensed that this mold shaped shoes for the children of local farmers and homesteaders, shop keepers and adventurers– children who no doubt grew up being part of the nation’s historic fabric.

Prescott is home to “Whiskey Row,” the 100 Block of Montezuma Street that at one time, as I recall, boasted 18 saloons… establishments with names like the Bird Cage, Hooligan’s and Jersey Lilly. This shoe mold may not have been crafted there but perhaps transported from Lynn, MA, where the shoe industry began.

That’s another piece of history lost to most of us: Jan Matzeliger, born in Dutch Guiana (Suriname), invented the shoe-lasting machine which could produce 150 to 700 pair in a day. This innovation forever changed the industry and turned Lynn into the “shoe capital of the world.”

But I digress…

Regardless of origin, this little shoe carries mystery with it, and for writers, mystery means intrigue, and intrigue means good reading.

I’m currently using “concealment shoes” in a book I’ve been writing for the past 12 years. This is the kind of manuscript that’s complete in my head but requires a vacation by a lake or solid block of time to be typed out.

In this context, old shoes were sometimes entombed in Colonial homes to ward off evil spirits. Perhaps it was thought that they contained the essence of the people who wore them – a human quality that would surely scare away ectoplasmic intruders.

The point here is that we writers should be aware of our surroundings and nurture the ability to look at everyday things with a sense of curiosity.

An old door key is one item that stands out. Ditto for a letter from a soldier. A seashell can conjure up images of pirates landing on a beach; grandmother’s sewing kit brimming with jet buttons and souvenir needle cases from a World’s Fair certainly tells of another time; that gnarled piece of roadside metal might well have fallen from a space ship or a car wreck that changed someone’s life.

Imagination is the lifeblood of writers, and just as a ‘medium’ is said to be a conduit to ‘the other side,’ intriguing objects can be a path to a plotline.

My little shoe makes me think of a small grave on a grassy hillside where the Great Plains spread out to accommodate Conestoga wagons.  I see a tow-haired boy in patched overalls; I feel the dust in his throat and behind his neck. But I also hear the squeals of a little girl in gingham as she scampers after her siblings, unaware of a danger about to befall.

This little shoe suggests hearth and home; a hard life, simple joys… but perhaps it is just the beginning of a bigger story that tells of celebrity or crime. Perhaps it is literally “a first step.”  Who wore this shoe – and what ever happened to the other one?

Hoist the Baggywrinkle, Boys

There’s nothing quite like a trip to an historic location for an infusion of long-forgotten words. So was my experience on a recent visit to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

The day was glorious with bright blue skies and just a hint of breeze.  Arriving early, the grounds were quiet and the water was still. We approached a mooring and learned that the Emma Berry was a smack.   I didn’t know the term, but apparently that’s a kind of sloop, in this case, a Noank Smack made in 1886, and it’s one of the oldest preserved commercial fishing vessels.

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As we looked around, there were tall ships in the distance and dories at the dock.

Soon we found ourselves visiting the Rope Walk — an impossibly long assembly line where rope was made. After that, we had more appreciation for the craft as we strolled into a shop where rope was sold.  The proprietor (looking much the part), explained that hawser was a thick rope used for anchoring or towing. He talked about the difference between manila and true hemp. We saw a canister of oakum and learned that this kind of rope was mixed with tar and used for caulking.

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When I expressed an interest in words, the merchant shared his favorite word, pointing to what seemed to be frayed rope strung across the front of some wheels. He said it was called “Baggywrinkle” and was used to cushion against friction, just as one might use Bubble Wrap® today.

We strolled the paths, visiting the cooperage, bank, printing office and inn.
A parlor garden at the Buckingham Hall House caught my eye, all quaint and reminiscent of another time, a “riot of color,” as they say, with nasturtiums overflowing a picket fence. Here’s a more expansive gallery.

We boarded the Charles Morgan, the last remaining whaling ship, now under restoration. Descending  narrow stairs and ducking through low doorways, we tried to imagine married life in the Captain’s quarters, but any idea of romance and adventure vanished at the thought of whale blubber rendering on deck.

Perhaps the most vivid image was conjured up by a woman dressed in period garb (bustle, parasol, and a small hand bag suspended at the wrist). She appeared randomly in the crowds. She nodded demurely and made her way to the docks. Occasionally she’d pause at a store window or slip around a corner to a side street. I wondered for a moment if she were real or perhaps a ghost that had arrived to check on her ships.

Emerging from the glory days of seafaring, the walk to the parking lot was uninspired. I glanced behind me, hoping to see the vintage woman gathering her skirts and quickening her pace in order to catch up.  No matter. She was where she belonged. I knew at twilight she’d be pacing a widow’s walk , praying for a mainsail on the horizon.

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Other colorful nautical terms can be found here.

The Man in the Mill

I’ve run into people who appreciate words. I’ve met them at bookstores, classrooms, podiums, and theaters.

Maybe that’s why I was so surprised to meet a word enthusiast in such an unlikely setting – an 83 year-old gristmill, off a quiet country road, on a random Saturday morning.

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You see, this man was a guide at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA. The Inn dates back to Colonial Times (built in 1716) and was later (1863) immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his “Tales of a Wayside Inn.”

In 1923, Henry Ford bought the building and surrounding 3,000 acres of land in hopes of turning  the Wayside Inn into a living museum of Americana. During the years that followed, he imported a one-room school house, built a fully functional gristmill (1929) and constructed the Martha-Mary Chapel (1940).

Although there were only five of us inside the mill that day (including a Mom and two smart, earthy children), the miller/educator gave us an in-depth presentation, focusing not on the mechanics of the mill (as others have done in the past), but on the origins of the words related to milling.

Quite the entertainer, he shot questions out to the kids, challenged them to be smarter than “us adults,” and took divergent twists and turns in his thinking.
First, he pointed out the differences in the colors of wheat product …brown whole wheat vs white wheat flour. He dispelled the myth of bleaching, and showed instead by sifting, how removal of the bran would leave the finer flour white.

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He posed a trick question and asked what part of the wheat was most nutritious, delighting in the fact that most people got it wrong by saying the bran. Hah! Bran is cellulose and non-digestible, he explained, so while it was “good for you” in terms of providing fiber, there was no nutrition in it at all.

(And so we’re reminded about the power of Marketing)

Much like a teacher (though he claimed he wasn’t), the miller asked if we knew the difference between “flour” and “meal.” We all came up with reasoning relating to the grind. Nope. He explained that “meal” was a Franco-German derivative that simply meant “grain” – as not to be confused by the term “Indian Corn” that was neither Native American or corn, per se. He explained that “corn” used in this context, also drew from Germanic roots, and also meant “grain.”

Here are more wheat-related terms for those interested.

I learned a lot that morning, not only about the by-products of milling, but about how words can convey a passion – and breathe life into something that could have been mundane. This experience offered a bridge to the past. There was a connection and energy in the conversation. Something bigger than the items at hand. Simple household goods like bread and cereal suddenly possessed historic importance. The humble work of milling rose to the stature of science.  Through this man’s story-telling expertise, it became clear that bread sustained life – in more than a few ways.

As I moved out into the light, my mind was heightened with word-awareness. I kept thinking about the importance of precision in writing and about wheat (or the metaphor of it) in much grander terms:

Up from the earth, the wheat sprung. Absorbed sun, rain, and blue skies. Grew sweet, plump and yellow until the heavy heads drooped. Enter mankind… with nimble fingers, blades, and threshers. Usher in industry, silos, and conveyor belts. Add one small grain to another to sustain a society. Granaries.  Groceries. Bakeries. Worn kitchen tables with striped bowls and the smell of yeast rising… wooden cutting boards and checkered cloths. Melted butter, spilling over crispy crust.

Ah, bread, “The Staff of Life.” … and words, the crux of communication.

Bad Weather Good For Writing

Today is a raw spring day  spring-rain-2011-leafy-sky-sm-dsc_04253
in New England.

Yellow forsythia blooms in bright sprays across the yard, but there’s a chill in the air. The ground and sky are equally gray and soaked
with water.

I can’t help but think of that short, famous poem by William Carlos Williams about the Red Wheelbarrow in rain, next to the white chickens. Some say it has been analyzed more times than it deserves, but the image is so rich, so saturated, that it sticks in the mind and seems comfortably familiar.

spring-rain-2011-forsythia-road-sm-dsc_04281Shooting photographs on a gray day is equally rewarding. Instead of  colors being “burnt out” by the sun or crossed with shadows, the lighting is “flat.” Tones are consistent. There’s a subtle weightiness in what you notice and what you choose to capture. No frivolous seascapes here; no desert mirage. Mental sailboats and date palms are replaced by heavy frigates and Conestoga wagons.

Gloomy days evoke emotion and channel things from the past. For a quick step back in time, follow John Quincy Adams on Twitter. Well, not the dead president – but daily posts from his dairy of 1811. Walk with him to the paddock. Imagine dining with the dignitaries he knows. Pause to appreciate the slow simplicity of life 200 year ago.

Sometimes we try to resist the lure of a murky afternoon by feigning interest in household chores. Bah! Better to bake cookies and reminisce … wiser to write down memories that can add detail to a story. Is the kitchen in your mind post-War era with Fiesta Ware lining the cupboard and a cherry-pattern apron wrapped around the lady of the house? Or is the kitchen Colonial and centered near a beehive oven?

There are puddles forming  spring-rain-2011-daffodils-driveway-sm-dsc_04311
in our backyard and along the drive. Drops of rain hang like pendants from the crabapple tree, finally leafing out and promising rose-colored petals.

A solitary car makes its way up the road, sending a plume of water into the air. The soft “woosh” of tires on macadam fades away, leaving only the sound of a cardinal high up in the trees.

Grass is greener now. Day lilies push their shoots higher. The click of computer keys is challenged only by the occasional snap of the fireplace.

I once had this discussion with an editor in San Francisco. I told him the weather was too temperate there – too uninspired — that bad weather offered drama which fueled the creative muse. Of course, he insisted, a good writer should be able to write anywhere, and that’s true — but sometimes it’s nice to indulge in a bit of angst and a cup of tea. Ahhh, Constant Comment… how fitting.