There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better,
Some have gone, and some remain.
--In My Life by Paul McCartney and John Lennon
My husband and I were having a Mexican dinner the other night. "Remember the Forest Cafe?" I asked him. "That funky Mexican place on Mass Ave in Cambridge?"
He didn't. As I tried to describe it to him, however, I realized that I wasn't seeing the actual place in my mind. What I was seeing and remembering was my fictionalized version. There is a scene in my novel Incognito set in this restaurant. Now when I try to recall the place, how it was laid out, its atmosphere and decor, it's that scene that comes to mind. The fiction has become more vivid for me than the reality.
I've blogged before about the fact that I'm very place-oriented in my writing. Nearly every story I've written is set in a specific locale, often a place that I know well or have at least visited. I never realized, though, how persistent my mental images of my settings become--strong enough to override or distort actual experience.
Raw Silk includes a scene in a luxury Bangkok hotel called the Montien. The hotel actually exists; many years ago I may have entered the lobby once or twice. Now when I think about that hotel, I clearly recall going up the elevator to the hotel room itself. I remember the thick carpets that mute my footsteps. I can picture the layout of the room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, the king sized bed where Kate finds wrist cuffs and a collar awaiting her, the mirrored vanity where she watches as Gregory takes her from behind. I could draw a map. It's as vivid as if it happened yesterday--although it never happened, not in the real world at least!
Other authors talk about the way they imagine their characters. I suddenly understand that I see the places where they act out their passions, more clearly than their faces. It's quite bizarre.
I could offer many examples. I just finished writing a Christmas story set in western Massachusetts, where I lived for many years. The two heroes own a house that's mentally borrowed from one of my neighbors, a two-hundred-plus year old farm with the typical rambling barn and so on. However, I added a few touches: a row of evergreens in the yard, a big oak tree, a hot tub on the (non-existent) deck, just out of sight of the street. Now, I can almost feel the alchemy happening, the imagined details distorting my memory of the real ones. I'm willing to bet that in a few months, I'll believe that our thrifty, staid neighbors actually did have a hot tub where they lounged naked under snowy skies!
Sometimes, when I haven't looked at one of my stories for a while, I'll forget the names of the characters. But I never seem to forget where they met, or kissed, or fought. Those scenes are etched clearly into my brain. I rather wonder what this says about me. In any case, I guess it explains why my work has such a strong sense of place.