Revisiting the Past
by Sara Dobie Bauer
My new novel, We Still Live, takes place in a small fictional Ohio town called Hambden. This is the home of Hambden University, a place shrouded in darkness following a tragic shooting the spring before our story begins. Yes, Hambden is fictional—but the setting of We Still Live (and subject matter) is very, very real.
There are those who say, “Write what you know.” Eh, I’m not a big fan of that old literary adage. Sometimes, though, sometimes, I completely understand writing what I know, especially when it comes to setting.
I attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where I earned my creative writing degree and probably lost half my liver. (It’s a party school and annually hosts one of the biggest Halloween celebrations in the country.) When I considered the setting for We Still Live, Athens came immediately to mind, although I didn’t want to set the book literally in Athens because I don’t want the horror of a shooting to linger over any school—even if the shooting is fictional.
As I wrote, I time traveled. In my crazy brain, I went back to Athens for We Still Live. Granted, I pay my alma mater a drunken visit every two years or so. I know the place better than I know Cleveland, where I currently live. Still, I conjured memories of Athens, Ohio …
The way Ellis Hall (the arts building) smelled.
How my favorite tree (a white sycamore on College Green) changed with the seasons.
The scent of wet leaves and clove cigarettes as Halloween approached.
The frigid wind of winter.
The wicked spring rainstorms that made rivers run down Court Street.
The weeping angel statue in the cemetery up the hill.
Many of these references make their way into We Still Live because setting in a book is almost as important as character. In fact, the setting can be a character. I love when I successfully invoke a place—its sights, sounds, and smells—for my reader. Athens (Hambden) was easy to invoke due to my familiarity, and it was fun revisiting a favorite place from my past.
I’ve done this with other books, too. The Bite Somebody series is based in Longboat Key, Florida, where I’ve vacationed every spring for years. Destiny’s Dark Light is in Charleston, South Carolina, where I lived and lost and loved. Of course, I’ve imagined places, too. In the Escape Trilogy, for instance, I couldn’t literally travel back to New Orleans in the early 1800s—but I could research. I could also dream.
That’s why I’m not big on the “write what you know” thing. Writing is about imagination. Most of the time, it’s fun to not write what you know and see what new things you learn.
What setting from your past deserves to be immortalized? Or what new setting would you like to create? Continue reading