Place as Character

I grew up all over the place but I came of age in Los Angeles. I moved there when I was 22 and left decades later; older, wiser, and many shades blonder.

For years, Los Angeles was the setting of my first fiction: the crime stories, the urban fantasies, the dark tales I concocted for NoHo Noir, the serial novel I wrote for America Online, two episodes a week for a year.

Los_Angeles_RegionL.A. was my go-to location for stories, a backdrop as varied as the city’s neighborhoods but as familiar as my own bedroom. I drew inspiration for characters from the wide cross-section of people I interacted with every day—the recovering addicts dosing on methadone at the clinic next door to the drive-through Starbucks, the poly-lingual nursing student from Morocco who managed my apartment building, the wannabe screenwriters walking their dogs at the dog park with one eye out for possible celebrity encounters that could be turned into opportunities. Anyone who crossed my path got tucked away in the file drawer marked “potential” and when I sat down to write a story, I opened that drawer and rummaged through it pulling out little bits of character stuffed in there without much attempt at organization.

L.A. was a rich wellspring for my fiction. I found stories in every corner of the city—the quirky human interest news, the bizarre true crime reports, the random collision of culture that raises bloody blisters.

I was never short of material.

And then I moved.

I moved to a beautiful town in the Pacific Northwest that is laced with urban trails that thread through green spaces and parks and ramble past waterfalls and haunted cemeteries. I live in a house that faces a small stand of birch trees, a tiny wood that is home to deer and black squirrels and, if the local rumors are to be believed, coyotes as well.

At the height of summer, the air smelled like hot blackberry wine, the fruit hanging heavy in opportunistic brambles so thick they turned paths into impassible walls of green thorns.

I thought of “Briar Rose’ and “Cinderella.”

I thought of a lot of my favorite fairy tales and how I might re-tell them for a collection.

I jotted down notes but I haven’t yet written the stories.

I saw an anthology call for paranormal stories set in the Pacific Northwest (the title of the antho is Blood on the Rain, and I can’t wait to read it).

I wrote a first sentence for a story in which a murder victim is found in a ditch—a ditch that’s actually in my neighborhood. But I didn’t get any further.

And then the deadline passed.

whatcom-falls (2)I went out to my favorite city park, the one with a mossy old stone bridge over a waterfall and I soaked in the atmosphere and luxuriated in the smell of cold water splashing against old stone. I thought of Rivendell. I could feel the magic hovering but it was just out of my reach, like a glimpse of something seen from the corner of your eye that disappears when you turn to look at it full-on.

I know that waterfall has a story for me.

But I don’t know what it is.

I know the history of this place that is my new home. I have read about its maritime past and wicked ways during Prohibition when it was a conduit for illegal whiskey coming down from Canada. I appreciate the place it is now: a liberal community in a liberal state where neighbors look out for neighbors and buying organic is easy because the local farmers sell their produce directly to the grocery stores. Bicycle theft is a nuisance here and other low-rent property crimes as well. But this is a community that looks after its have-nots. Every single weekend seems to host a few charity events and during the winter there are food drives and warm coat collections, and opportunities to volunteer in every sort of way. . And they really like the Seahawks here, as you can tell on Fridays when everyone wears their Hawks gear during football season.

I bought a t-shirt.

I wear it on Fridays.

And I blend in like a native.

But I cannot seem to find the heart of a story here.

Sometimes I’ll look out my window and see the sun setting over the bay and marvel at the spectacle, a riot of colors more delicate than the pollution-driven technicolor sunsets of L.A.

Sometimes I’ll listen to the wind soughing in the woods behind the house or catch a glimpse of a doe and her dappled fawn and it gives me an almost physical ache to capture the feeling and the moment and the experience.

But I haven’t been able to do it yet.

If anyone asks me how I like living here, away from the hustle and the crush and the sheer meanness of Los Angeles, I tell them I love it, and that’s the truth.

But I can’t seem to write this place to save my life.

And until I can, it won’t feel like home.