The Best Place To Be
Sometimes writers use settings of places they've never been; they do research, check out pictures, and some even make a special trip to see the place. In my book Blonde OPS, the setting was Rome, Italy. Since I'd never been there and I needed to get a feel for certain streets and buildings, I used Google Earth to virtually 'walk' me down the roads. (Very cool.) In my middle grade series, Evolution Revolution, I used the setting I knew best- my backyard. Some may think I took the easy way out, using a familiar setting, but it was the one that worked best with my story. The series centers around a squirrel. Yes, there are squirrels in every state, in almost every country around the world, but I had my main character, a squirrel who lived in the pin oak tree in my backyard, right there. Every day I could look out my window and see how he behaved in his own environment. Authors research to find out little tidbits that make their characters and settings come alive. With the squirrel living in my backyard, I didn't have to do much. In fact, I kind of experimented with him. (I have no idea if the squirrel was male or female, but I made my character a Jack.) Watching him, I could see what times he came down from the tree. Did he meet up with other squirrels? How did he feel about the cats in the window, watching him come and go? How did he react to the neighbor's noisy cars? Would he invite a girlfriend over?
It may sound boring- that my squirrel spent a lot of time in the backyard, not really traveling too far since I saw him daily, but when the setting is small, every detail is important. In fact, I wasn't observing the setting, I was living in it. My squirrel would sit in the branches, chittering madly when my kids played in the sandbox below and he wanted to come down. He sat on the patio table, eating the seeds, nuts, and in winter, the bananas which froze that I put out for him. After the leaves fell in autumn, I'd see his nest, way up high. Walking around my yard, I saw little holes where he buried nuts (and I'd find them in the spring when they sprouted into saplings in my gardens, flower pots, and lawn). It was almost like living in a bio-dome. When the tree had to be trimmed, the arborist knocked down his nest (no, he wasn't in it). But he disappeared, and never returned. My story follows a squirrel who fights to save his 'setting' (the woods where he lives in an old oak tree) but ends up losing it because of man and machine. Maybe that was the inspiration for part of the plot of my book (the tree had to be trimmed because it was endangering house, pool, and driveway with cars). But I still felt bad.
Illustration by Cathleen Daniels
So now the setting may look the same, with the exception of a new walkway, because the tree is still there and very healthy, but my yard feels empty without the nest and the squirrel. One little change can alter a setting and usually the change is not for the best. I think of my squirrel and hope he found another tree he liked as much, in a setting that didn't have the danger of tree trimmers...