Often, writers will use a fictional locale for the setting of their novels. It makes sense given that readers are quick to spot inaccuracies. However, if the locale is all in the writer’s imagination, there is little chance of this happening. Although I created fictional aspects of Placerville for my Apple Hill Series (Bella Cucina restaurant and Hangtown Café), the town is real.
Apple Hill sits just above the town of Placerville, California—in the heart of Gold Country. I’d like to say it was the history of this location that drew me, because that would seem more writerly (it’s really a word, I promise) than sentiment, but that would be a lie. When I was ten, my grandparents had their retirement home built in the middle of fourteen acres just off of Apple Hill Drive. For my sisters, brother and I, it was paradise. We traded suburbia for the country.
My brother (older by a year) taught me to fish in the year-round creek that ran through my grandparents’ property. Grandpa was often frustrated with Mike, because he had a knack for catching pregnant trout. I never quite figured out how Grandpa expected Mike to tell which fish were pregnant and which weren’t. But it didn’t matter, because we all adored our grandfather. He and my grandmother grew all their own vegetables and had a pear orchard. It was there I learned the love of gardening and how to properly pull a weed (did you know there’s a wrong way to do that?)
Grandpa (Rudolph Frederick Duncan) was quite the character. Someday, I’ll write a book about his life. He was born at a U.S. naval air station in the Philippine’s, near Manila, but moved to the states when he was six. He longed to see the world and wanted to join the Navy, just like his dad. But his father wanted him to go to college and become an electrical engineer. So, when he was sixteen, he went to a navy recruiting office in San Francisco and joined up. He lied about his age, lied about where he was born, and told the recruiting officer that his parents were dead.
The way Grandpa told it to me, his father was a customs inspector who roamed the docks. Everyone knew him. So, that night, when Grandpa showed up at the dinner table, his father addressed Grandpa’s mother and said, “You know, Valeria, we’re supposed to be dead.” After a rousing discussion about spreading false rumors, his father capitulated and took Grandpa down to the recruiting office so that he could legitimately join.
Summers and holidays were spent picking blackberries, creating fantasy worlds in the woods, and riding Grandpa’s lawn tractor. But the most memorable times we had were gathered around Grandpa’s piano while he played for us. We’d shout out requests like, Alley Cat, Mack the Knife, or Sentimental Journey. He was an exceptional pianist who never learned to read music. He could hear a tune once, and then play it. For eighteen years, while he still worked at the naval air station, he was the piano man for the prominent Pleasanton Hotel in the Bay Area.
My grandparents were married for sixty-two years before my grandmother died of cancer. At the age of 85, Grandpa remarried and continued to live a full life until his death at the age of 100. When he was 89, I interviewed him for a humanities class I was taking. That eighteen-page paper earned me an A, not because of my excellent student-skills, but because the subject matter was so interesting.
It’s a bittersweet experience to think back to those days. The passage of time moves much too fast and the losses we experience can be heavy on our hearts. But the beauty of writing is that we can relive days gone by, the emotions they invoke, and recreate the stories on our hearts.
Susan K. Beatty
Where in the World is Waldo?
Where’s Waldo (also known as Wally and other names) became a popular series of pictures, books, and games in the late 1980s, spreading to the far corners of the earth.
Did you follow Wally’s adventures around the world? It was fun to spot him in new settings.
We’re curious people wanting to know about other places and other times. It’s probably one reason why we enjoy reading fiction. Where do you want to go? A different geographical location? A different time in history?
Time period and geography are important to the story in any work of fiction. I love to read historical fiction set in far away places I can never get to unless someone invents a reliable time machine. Or modern day stories in locations I’d love to travel to. (Rural English villages anyone?) But I also like to read modern day stories in real settings that are a preview of what I might see if I could travel there now.
I even like to read stories set in my area so I can point out landmarks, streets, or familiar vegetation and say, “I’ve been there!”
My stories are all set (so far!) in modern day Orange County, California, where I live. I know the area well (I should hope so after forty-eight years!), and can easily do a research trip when I need to. “Researching” downtown Orange for Isobel’s Mission of Courage was a blast. I visited the iconic drug store featured in the novelette, including “researching” the taste of their sodas. Yum!
As I’ve traveled across the United States (I’ve been to all but four states) and met many people, I found they were interested in knowing about California living. And particularly about Orange County, I think, because I’m only a few miles from Disneyland. Of course it’s not as true today as it was when I began traveling decades ago. Twenty-first century folks are more mobile and then there’s that new invention called Facebook.
But I still find my out-of-state, online friends are curious about life in the world of Disneyland. I even include Disneyland scenes in my upcoming novel Faces of Courage.
I try to include enough details (but not too much!) to give the reader the feeling of being in Orange County.
For example, my novelette House of Courage takes place in the rural canyons of Orange County on a small farm with a tiny orange grove. So I slip in things like, “A faint sweet scent of orange blossoms tinged the evening air although it was early October. In spring the trees intoxicated the air for miles.” I hope you can almost smell the orange blossoms.
Or: “The coastal sage scrub next to the door crackled as the dog swiped against it. Surveying the yard for Dante, all she saw was dry, brown leaves and limbs. Fire season. Time to get the brush cleared.” Can you see and hear how dry the canyon is?
And to reveal a sense of how important weather is to the setting: “Powerful winds shook the trees, limbs knocking against their home … Santa Ana winds blowing in from the east was never a good thing in the already dry canyons this time of year. Especially when another canyon was under fire.”
In Isobel’s Mission of Courage, I had fun adding little descriptions of the picturesque and historic town of Orange. Things like: “The palm fronds swayed gently as she set out toward Old Towne Square.” “She stumbled on the sidewalk’s uneven red bricks … “stood at the edge of the traffic circle. In the center, a fountain splashed in the town square.”
Writing about various settings and including local Orange County color is great fun for me as an author. I hope reading about them is as enjoyable.
In upcoming releases, we’ll visit neighborhoods with classic California homes, the beaches, a local ski haven, a fancy beach resort, and more. Maybe Knott’s Berry Farm, Calico Ghost Town. (The ghost town and ski resort are technically not in Orange County, but really close.)
Have you heard of any Southern California sites that you’d be interested in reading about? Let me know. I’ll try to include some of them in one of my books.
Who knows where Waldo will take us?