New England: The Perfect Setting by Katharine Britton
I used to wish I hailed from the south. All those live oaks with their Spanish moss, the sultry summer afternoons spent on front porches, sipping glasses of sweetened tea, beaded with sweat…. It seemed as if stories must almost write themselves. To Kill a Mockingbird is a favorite novel of mine. The image of summers so hot that ladies, by day’s end, were “like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,” remains seared in my mind.
But I hail from New England. And happily so, because our landscape, weather, and architecture also offer ideal settings for mysteries, love stories, and dramas.
New England writers, like our southern counterparts, often use weather, or the seasons, to amplify a mood. Spring in Vermont comes right after maple sugaring. Last year it was a Wednesday, the joke goes. What Vermont has in place of spring is mud season. No one has described it better than Chris Bohjalian in Midwives. “…wet or dry, the mud was everywhere for two weeks in March of 1980. The dirt roads became sponges into which automobiles were constantly sinking and becoming stuck… Yards became bogs that slowed running dogs to a walk.” What a great set-up for a story about a trial in which the protagonist will be mired for months.
New England summers bring wildflowers: lupine, daisies, moth mullein, Queen Anne’s Lace, cornflower… Like first love, they are unexpected, delicate, and short-lived. Summer, at least in northern New England, also brings black flies. Love, as we know, isn’t all picturesque meadows filled with blossoms. Here are a few opening lines from Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, a tale about a very long, and not always happy, marriage set on Cape Cod from World War II to the present. “Twice a day behind their house the tide boarded the sand,” Dillard writes. “Four times the seasons flopped over. Clams live like this, but without so much reading.” What a great line.
Fall flames in, and the days grow shorter; mice invade houses, birds (and a percentage of the population) head south, cluster flies gather in attic windows. No author has delivered a more poignant treatise on New Englanders’ campaigns against the ubiquitous cluster fly than Howard Frank Mosher in the delightful Northern Borders. “…[R]ecovering from her latest bout with her gall bladder, my grandmother charged through the house with the vacuum cleaner, from downstairs to upstairs and back downstairs again, in relentless pursuit of her tiny adversaries… One step at a time, she heaved that behemoth of a vacuum cleaner up the winding attic staircase, with me unwinding the extension cords behind her… She switched on the Hoover and made straight for the nearer, west window. Past the ruined horsehair sofas and heaps of disabled wooden chairs and tables. Past the antiquated foot warmers and bed warmers and the porcelain washbasins and pitchers and the vast old chamber pots my grandfather insisted on calling thunder mugs.” Mosher decorates the field of battle with artifacts that reveal so much about New England and this character: clearly not a woman who would sip lemonade on her front porch, fanning herself to keep her facial powder from melting.
A practical, no nonsense, make-do attitude is what characterizes New Englanders. Many are complex, forthright, and outspoken. They are descended from those who set out for years in whaling ships, and hewed farms from topsoil-less, boulder-strewn hillsides, clearing New England’s forests by hand, stacking boulders into long fences, many of which still stand. Those stone walls speak volumes when they encircle an old cellar hole or an overgrown, family cemetery, the inscriptions on the lichen-covered stones worn nearly smooth by time. New Englanders know what they’re about and won’t hold back telling you so. An excellent recent example of an iconic, no nonsense New Englander is the eponymous Olive Kitteridge in the book of connected short stories by Elizabeth Strout.
Houses in New England are great places to set novels. Think, House of Seven Gables and Little Women. They’ve witnessed births, deaths, marriages, and farm failures. They’ve sent sons and daughters off to war and welcomed them home, hosted holiday meals, presided over bodies being prepared for burial, and soaked up the fragrance of fresh baked bread and apple pies. Anita Shreve set her trilogy, Fortune’s Rock, Sea Glass, and The Pilot’s Wife, in the same New Hampshire beach house generations apart.
New England is a wonderful place to be from. Our seasons are varied, our weather unpredictable, our population diverse, why would an author, especially one who hails from New England, want to set novels anywhere else?
Katharine Britton’s first novel, Her Sister’s Shadow (2011, Berkley Books/Penguin), is set on Boston’s south shore. Her second novel, Little Island (September 2013, Berkley Books/Penguin), takes place on a small island in Maine. She is currently working on a third novel, set in Vermont, where she lives. Connect with Katharine at www.katharinebritton.com.
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