As a fiction writer, I’ve always like to visit the setting where my story takes place. For example, in my recent novel, Counting on Grace, the book really came to life when I found the site of the mill where my character had doffed bobbins in 1910. Many times I went back there to listen to the water sluicing over the dam, to stare at the same forested Vermont hillside Grace might have seen from the second floor window of the textile factory where she worked. That was the best way I knew to get into her head and to get her on to paper.
Now I’m writing a personal history about real people, my parents.
My father died in 1974, so to recreate his life, I’m relying on my own memories, the stories he told us, the letters he wrote and received, and finally, published accounts of his life as a journalist. But it’s been especially easy for me to reimagine his childlhood because I spent many a happy summer in my grandmother’s Connecticut farmhouse where he’d grown up.
With my mother, the challenges have been different. She was born in Gibraltar and lived there until she was thirteen years old. Although we’ve spent hours poring over her photo albums and recording her memories on tape and video, I hadn’t been to “the Rock” as it’s called since I was a young and bored teenager visiting my maternal grandmother.
So recently I traveled to Gibraltar to stand outside my mother’s childhood home, to walk down the path she took to school, to pay homage to her relatives buried in the graveyard next to the airport.
If you look at this map of Gibraltar, you’ll see that the place sticks out into the ocean. From the balcony of our hotel, I could look directly across the bay to Algeciras, Spain and if I turned my head to the left, I was staring at North Africa. Every day, from the roof of her house which clung to the side of this Rock, my mother saw this view. Two different countries, two different continents.
My father grew up on a dairy and shade tobacco farm in New England and my mother in a British crown colony surrounded by the sea. How did these two wildly different settings change their characters, their perspectives on life, their dreams for the future? What about these two individuals attracted one to the other? I think every child, on some level, wants to know the answer to this question.
For me, part of the answer lies in the setting. That’s why with every book I write, be it fiction or memoir, I try to walk the ground of the story even if that ground is on the other side of the ocean.