When a story idea springs into my mind and takes over my neural pathways for a time, the idea is almost always inspired by a setting – a place. Before I know anything about the characters, I already have a sense of the sights, sounds, scents and textures of the place where they will act out their lives, meet their challenges, be defeated, be victorious, be in love, be embittered will become real to me.
Why do settings become real first? For most writers, plot or characters come first.
Usually, the setting becomes real because I find myself walking through it. Sometimes a particularly arresting dream will inspire the setting. Sometimes, a photo or painting will spark a setting idea, and before long characters come to inhabit it. Sometimes the setting becomes real to me because I physically walk about in the place, and suddenly a story takes hold of me and demands to be written.
Today, a tiny hamlet on the Carquinez Strait whispered to me, “There’s a story here. You should tell it.”
To reach Port Costa you can choose two different routes. Both wind through rolling hills. At this time of year the hills are golden-brown and dry as tinder. Raging fires elsewhere in California are a reminder of how very dry California is after several years of drought. The hamlet’s downtown consists of 5 or 6 buildings at the very end of the main street, a few dozen feet from the water’s edge. During the week, none of the handful of restaurants, bars and the one antique-and-crafts store are open for business. The proprietors may be around. The doors of one or two stores may stand open, In the darkened rooms, it’s hard to make out the details of the furniture or merchandise. On weekends, the entire area comes to life thanks to motorcycle clubs, local bands and the Saturday farmer’s market.
Today, there is nothing to buy and nowhere to eat. Across the deserted parking lot just past the downtown buildings are two railroad tracks used by Southern Pacific and Amtrak. The Capital Corridor trains pass by about once an hour, connecting Sacramento and Oakland. The Coastal Starlight passes in the early morning on its way from Seattle, and at night on its return from Los Angeles. Freight trains pass the village at random but frequent intervals. Beyond the railroad tracks lies the Carquinez Strait. To the east, you can see the Benicia Bridge and the refinery in Martinez. The view to the west is obstructed by a long low ridge jutting into the strait. To the north, across the strait lie the cities of Benicia and Vallejo.
Port Costa will feature heavily in the fantasy novel that popped into my head today from wherever it is that stories live before they find a human host to incubate and nurture them. I suppose the story will be an urban fantasy, though the immediate setting is anything but urban. If not for the occasional “wifi available alerts” from nearby homes and businesses, I could have imagined myself in the late 19th or early 20th century, even though I was surrounded on all sides by a sprawling metropolis, home to about 10 million souls.
The railroad tracks themselves seemed to beckon me to step back in time, to a moment when this tiny village promised to grow into something greater, before the century moved onward, the train station closed, and Port Costa was nearly forgotten.
I eventually turned away from the strait and made my way back to the street. The old post office is at the front of a warehouse building that now houses a restaurant and bar. Though it wasn’t open for business, the door was open. I went inside, into the huge, dimly lit building.
Somewhere deeper in the interior of the building I could hear a woman’s voice, one half of a conversation about placing an order for supplies. A man worked behind the bar, taking inventory and doing some clean-up. He acknowledged me with a smile and a hello, but made no effort to engage me as a potential customer. However friendly and outgoing this community might be on the weekend, during the week the little village keeps to itself. As my eyes adjusted to the shadows, I noticed odd shapes dangling from low beams. Besoms, beaten metal stars and moons, a fuzzy, upside down stuffed bat, a cute, grinning old woman on a broom, these and many other objects suggested that the occult is embraced here with a lopsided grin. Against the back wall loomed a huge white shape that suddenly snapped into sharp focus. A polar bear standing on its hind legs, towering a good nine feet in height, looked down at me, its lifelike appearance a tribute to a skilled taxidermist.
Against another wall was a statue, also made of beaten metal. Her wildly tangled hair…wasn’t hair.
Medusa stared back at me. I imagined a wicked smile flickering across her face. I had foolishly looked upon her frightful image, but for now, I live to tell the tale.
The urban fantasy aspect of the story was immediately born. What strange gatherings might happen here on quiet autumn nights?
All these impressions and details swirl around in my mind, searching for characters, motivations and plot elements. A tall, plain woman of seventy or eighty years who lives in the house where she was born, taking care of her now-frail mother. A younger sister who lives across the continent somewhere in New England. The sister’s daughter on summer break from university visiting her aunt and grandmother, at turns bored out of her mind and utterly fascinated by tattered snippets of family history. A faded vintage photograph of a man in turn-of-the-century dress with piercing colorless eyes.
They have no names, yet, but their personalities already give them flesh.
This is where I get my story ideas. I literally find them in strange places.