Kate Flora here, about to say something that’s going to make you not like me very much. I am in Florida. Yeah. I feel guilty every time I say that to someone who is still back home suffering in the cold and snow. But as I’ve written here before, sometimes you have to go away to be able to see what’s around you. And sometimes writers have to shift their locations to refill their imaginations, tune up their powers of observation, and collect some new characters for the books that wait down the road.
We’ve been spending the month of March in Florida for a few years. This year, we decided to drive instead of fly, and that has been a very interesting experience. The first stop was in Philadelphia, where we visited with my friend, artist Barbara Schaff http://www.barbaraschaff.com. I met Barbara when we were both fellows at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, http://www.vcca.com. VCCA is an incredible place for writers, artists, and composers to have undisturbed time to concentrate on their work. Fellows get meals and rooms and studios and weeks on a gorgeous Virginia farm to do nothing but practice their craft. (During one residency, I wrote 163 pages in 11 days!) Barbara and I bonded over an illicit lunchtime martini and became fast friends.
After showing us her condo, which would make any sentient being green with envy (art, pottery, color, taste, sunlight, quiet), she took me and my husband Ken downstairs, where her building has an amazing amenity: Garces Trading Company restaurant http://philadelphia.garcestradingcompany.com on the ground floor. More martinis, happy hour bites including flatbread pizzas and boar meatballs that were off the chart amazing.
For those of us who live pretty far from urban settings or many good restaurants, this was fabulous. Watch the well filling with art, downtown Philly architecture, food.
Then we scooped up my husband’s high school buddy, a Philadelphia lawyer, and went to his house, where I learned how to actually pronounce Bala Cynwyd. (It’s kinwid, btw) Some hours of reliving high school stories and then out to dinner at a local restaurant, Al Dar Bistro. The food was fine, the company great, but what stood out was how our host and hostess knew everyone in the restaurant. First, the staff, including their background and stories. Then pretty much everyone in the room. You might expect it in a small town diner. It was unexpected here. And doesn’t that lend itself to a scene in a book? Watch the well fill with how old friends interact. With the ambiance and camaraderie of neighborhood restaurants.
Onward from snowy Philadelphia south to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a quick visit with our younger son. An elevator ride up to our hotel room with a group of Germans who were embarrassed when my husband addressed them in German. It’s easy to assume that Americans know no other languages. The city was stuffed with people there for a basketball tournament. Last time, it was people there for NASCAR. Given that our son will be in his Ph.D. program for about five years, we’re going to have a lot of time to observe North Carolina. It was 8 degrees when we left New England. Eight degrees when we left Philadelphia. A balmy 14 or so when we left Charlotte and headed into South Carolina. Watch the well fill with religious billboards and huge ads for gun shows. With ethnic diversity and the beaming woman behind the desk in that golden jacket holding her tiny, pink-blanket-wrapped grand baby.
On that part of the route, two things were striking. First, people stayed in the right lane except to pass unless they were from New York. Who ever saw that happen? Second, as a result of the ice storm, the roadsides were devastated. Snapped-off trees, a chaos of broken branches, and trees bent nearly to the ground. As we drove, we watched the thermometer climb. Up to 30, then 32, and then to dizzying heights in the 40’s. Then, suddenly, shortly before the Georgia border, there was green grass in the median. Watch the well fill with changing seasons, with the physical impact of a devastated landscape.
When I notice these things, I think about the differences in my characters. Joe Burgess is a close observer of the natural world; Thea Kozak has taught herself to be an observer of people. Both wonder about human psychology. Both use the cues in their environments.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be sitting at a different desk. Typing on the same keyboard. Reworking a novel that I love that has never quite worked. Son and wife and 5-year-old and skittish hound Daisy will visit. Cousins will visit. Good old friends will visit. My sister-in-law will visit. Back home in Maine, the first baby in the next generation has been born and I’ve become a great aunt.
And then I will drive home, again charting the changes in the season, the ads on local billboards, the driving habits and bumper stickers of the people we pass. I will have a bunch of new characters, habits, and voices for my stories. And I will probably not have a tan.