While on a business trip to Chicago this past week, I was riding on the shuttle van between the airport and the hotel, minding my own business, thinking about my ‘day job’ that had prompted the trip, when my writer’s brain perked up and engaged. A woman in the row behind me on the shuttle asked the man sitting next to her whether he had ever visited Chicago, and he said he had but it had been thirty years ago.
It was dusk. The shuttle van rounded a corner. The skyline came into view. The woman behind me told the man beside her, “That’s the way to see the city, with the lights just coming on.”
It was a simple statement, but the tone of her voice spoke volumes. I knew from her statement that, whether she lives there now or lived there in the past, Chicago is the home of her heart. It reminded me of when my daughter lived on the west coast for her first year of college and I’d pick her up at the airport. Driving home, we would cross through Baltimore and she’d say, “I always feel better when I see the Baltimore skyline.” And then my mind wandered, as a writer’s mind is wont to do, to my characters and the places they call home.
Main protagonist Eileen grew up in rural Virginia. As the child of a struggling single mother, she learned to fix things like her mother’s old car and worked hard to get an education to make a better life for herself. When her life goes sideways, she doesn’t return to her hometown, but she does rely on the survival skills she learned there, and when she needs a new profession, she starts a vintage car restoration business.
Eileen’s new friend Sarah is a hometown girl. She grew up in the mid-size Virginia town an hour from Richmond where the three protagonists now live. Outside of living in Richmond while attending college, she has never lived anywhere else. The town is a part of her, so much so that even when the same old scenery and her childhood friends and most of all her mother are driving her nuts, there is no way she would ever move away.
And then there’s Maddie. I have to admit, I have a real soft spot for Maddie. She’s a Philly girl through and through, and is loosely based on a dear friend of mine who now lives in rural PA but carries a little bit of Philadelphia with her wherever she goes. Maddie is streetwise, a little tough, sometimes prickly, but she’s also smart and savvy loyal as hell to those she loves.
I don’t discuss the past lives and hometowns of my protagonists on the page, other than making minor references to them when they are appropriate to the ‘now’ of the story. But just like so many other things in the story, as the writer, I have plumbed the depths of my characters’ lives while getting to know them. Even now, well past the first draft and deep into revisions, I am still learning new things about them and the ways their pasts, including the homes of their hearts, inform the characters they are in the beginning of the story and the ones they will become by the end of it.
I never asked the lady on the shuttle bus whether she lives in Chicago or was just there for a visit. Instead, I continued to mind my own business, preferring to squirrel away that memory of her simple words and awed tone when she caught a glimpse of the city she loves. No doubt some piece of that memory – maybe some of the details, maybe just the feeling the scene evoked – will live on in one of my future fictional characters.
What city or town is the ‘home of the heart’ for your protagonist? Is there anything abouther hometown that informs your character and her choices/reactions in the course of your story?
I think this is a great tool for making distinct characters, too. We live in a mobile society, so it’s very common for people to come from all over.
I have a very strong sense of place for my hero, Hadiz. He’s a djinn from the middle East (probably Baghdad) and that shapes him, his dialog, his vocabulary, his worldview.
Perz? Not so much. She’s from Kansas City, but I don’t have a strong sense of her as a midwest girl. Maybe that’s part of her problem. I’ve got a feeling for her as a Greek goddess, but it’s mostly goddess, not the Greek, that shines through.
(-: Will have to think on this!
What ‘Midwestern’ makes me think (being from the east coast, so take it with a big grain of salt) is a character who is practical and no-nonsense. Perz’s Midwestern roots could show up through her being very practical and down to earth at unexpected times. And I think the best goddesses should have a practical side ;-)!
LOL, didn’t realize practicality was a midwest trait — I feel like a fish suddenly discovering water! Because, it really is, isn’t it? And that’s where Perz is, so I feel better about that.
My story will end with my characters in Las Vegas. However, today when I was scouting locations for them on Google Maps, I thought how Phoebe, my heroine, would never want to settle there. It’s too hot and dry, and she needs someplace wet and juicy. Maybe at some point after I’ve written “The End,” I’ll have her and my hero visit an old friend somewhere else, and they’ll move. 🙂
Portland? Seattle? What about the Dells in Wisconsin? Or south central Kentucky, north of Nashville (that’s beautiful country there). Does she need a city? Atlanta? Philly? Golly, this is fun to think about!
The hero has an electric car company, and at first I was thinking he would open a production plant in a state with a lot of sun, but juicy, so like Florida or South Carolina, or even Louisiana, where he’s from. But as I’m writing this here, I realize he could also open an R&D facility anywhere he likes. That might still be Louisiana, because he’s from there, but I think Seattle (I’ve been there a bunch, so good location for me) or Portland would be great choices. And I’m from Wisconsin, so also good for settings for me. I’ve never been to Kentucky, but I’d love to go, so there’s an opportunity! (We can discuss at RWA!)
Ryan doesn’t have a physical “home of the heart.” He has never lived anywhere more than a few years and has never become attached to one place. That initial sense of rootlessness is important to his character arc.
Your home of the heart can change, you know. I grew up in St. Louis and for years I felt that sense of homecoming every time I returned and saw the Arch. Eventually, though, it was no more special than anywhere else I visit, and I felt a real sense of loss about that. Fortunately for me, those few years of rootlessness were just a transitional phase. I now have exactly the same sensation when I fly into O’Hare and see the Baha’i Temple go by beneath us.
Mine has changed. While I grew up in Maryland (my first “home of the heart”), I lived for a long time in Atlanta (my current “home of the heart”), and now I’m in Phoenix (more my “oven of the heart” ’cause of the heat).
For myself, I love where I live in California, and can’t imagine myself living anywhere else. But when I go back to Wisconsin, I feel so Midwestern and Wisconsin—that “these are my people” thing—that it sort of shocks me.
“Oven of the heart”—ha!
We tied the record yesterday — 110F/48C. How do I know I’m finally used to the heat? I wore jeans all day.