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.

Words in the Air

This is the season when words dance in the air. I’m not sure if it’s the strains of holiday music that carry them, the spit of snow that punctuates them, or the crush of people that propels them, but there’s clear buzz around us.

The air is charged with energy that puts the brain on sensory overload. Sights, sounds, and smells conjure up old memories and set new ones in motion. For the writer, this means an infusion of inspiration.

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A recent trip to New York City landed me smack in the middle of Times Square at night. The place was pulsing with activity. Words called out to me from neon signs that snapped to life, teasing with bold graphics that appeared and disappeared. I stood there transfixed, trying to discern a pattern, attempting to predict a rhythm as if to unlock a code.

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Words rushed by me as I made my way through the streets. Some caught in my ears randomly. “Free tickets,” “taxi,” “showtime,” “wait up.”

Illuminated skyscrapers talked to me, placing
plot lines generously in my head: “She worked
the street like a chessboard …” “He had only
been in America three weeks when he learned
a lesson he would remember for life.” “The child
has been right there, holding his mother’s hand,
when out of nowhere came the speeding car,
the gun shot, and then, the deadly silence.”

My eyes turned up toward the towering
billboards. I was clearly in The Valley of Advertising. Mountains of messaging rose around me. Clouds of steam gushed from subway vents but failed to obliterate the sell. Words I hadn’t thought of in a while pinged my brain. “Chestnut vendors,”
“Hot pretzels.” “Girls.” They all came tumbling down, landing like pigeons
on Broadway.

The idea of Broadway drafted a cerebral screenplay.  “Like so many struggling actors, Lance sat on the stoop behind the stage door, hungry for food and for work.” “As she rose to her toes, applause replaced the pain.” “He never liked the guy at the corner — too jovial for a place where it’s better to lower your eyes than start a conversation.”

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Cars honked in the distance and brought me to attention. I joined the sea of tourists and climbed the red glass steps to admire the city. Words jumped like a Slinky® from tier to tier. Words with dialects. Words with slang. Words I didn’t understand.

There were unspoken words, too, as a couple nuzzled in front of me, laughing over a personal secret. Another argued over something seemingly unimportant.

I began making mental notes. I took a few phone pictures, too. In this setting, I was an observer — part of the story but also removed from it. A nice place to be. A good perspective.