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Sprouting Ideas by Sharon Dean

Hello, all. Please welcome author Sharon Dean to the blog. Sharon is visiting in support of her newest novel, Calderwood Cove, her third Deborah Strong mystery. And it’s set in one of my favorite places–Maine!

About the book

When Deborah Strong accepts an invitation for a reunion with high school friends who will all be turning fifty, she anticipates a lovely Fourth of July weekend in Maine. Her friend Brenda’s summer house is rustic and beautiful, but from the moment Deborah arrives, something seems wrong. Old rivalries flare between Brenda and Rachel, and Krista plays the role of peacekeeper the way she did thirty years earlier.

Soon, a murder disturbs the quiet of the summer homes that dot the isolated cove. Deborah’s suspicions follow her like the Maine landscape—plenty of sunshine, plenty of fog, and plenty of evening mosquitoes that, like the questions now plaguing their reunion, arrive like the sparks of fireworks. Where is Brenda’s husband? Where have her caretaker and cook gone? Who is the thin young man who keeps appearing? Is one of them a murderer? Or could it be the old woman who lives across the street; her son, who runs an oyster farm in the face of global warming; or the poet-tenant who lives in her apartment? Deborah even suspects each of the friends she grew up with. Her idyllic summer retreat has turned as deadly as contaminated shellfish.

Take it away, Sharon!

Springtime means flowers and vegetables sprouting in our gardens. It’s also a season when ideas often germinate for our writing. But ideas can sprout anywhere––in a coffee shop or bar with an overheard conversation, in a line at the grocery store where a tabloid heading catches our attention, in a library where the title of a novel or a line of poetry inspires a plot, in a park where a homeless man wearing a firefighter’s helmet talks to the trees.

Some writers start from plot, others from dialogue or character or setting. For most of us, these come together as we compose. But where does the novel begin? I used to tell students in my introduction to college writing classes that they could write the first paragraph last. “How can you know what you think until you see what you say?” was a mantra that circulated among writing instructors.

Now seven novels in, with two more in my publisher’s pipeline, I could amend that mantra. “How can I know where my characters are going until I know where my characters are.” I realize that I always begin with a sense of place––a campsite along Mississippi’s Natchez Trace, a porch on an island hotel that dates to the nineteenth century or a porch on a New England farmhouse that had been on The Underground Railroad, a cemetery, a village library or one on a university campus.

These places all spring from my sense of nostalgia, but out of that sense springs a novel that has little to do with my past. I don’t write science fiction or historical fiction unless 1970 counts as history. I write what I know and the imagining gets embedded as my characters move through the places I know.

A writer I know cautioned against beginning with setting. It’s too static, he said. But opening scenes that begin with setting don’t have to be static. My characters emerge alone from a tent, talk on porches or in front of a gravestone, or are surprised by something at a library. The prologue to my first novel, Tour de Trace  invokes a mockingbird rising into the fog against the grass wet from an evening’s rain. The mockingbird and its surroundings are part of the setting. So, too, is the hawk that swoops down and kills. Setting, action, not a human character in sight.

Setting looms in the opening to my newest novel, Calderwood Cove––a chilly wind off the Atlantic, the smell of salt air, a hedge of perfectly deadheaded roses, a mailbox with the Calderwood crest painted on it, a red x and a visor with its helmet down making the crest look threatening.

“How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Seeing what I’ve written in this blog, I’ve thought more about how writers use setting. They may foreground it or keep it in the background, but people exist in places, whether those places are real or imagined. Hemingway’s “Hill Like White Elephants,” a story that is constructed almost whole of dialogue, opens with a long paragraph that sets the scene in a train station with a bar behind a beaded curtain and a table where a couple sit in the only bit of shade. The parallel lines of the train tracks suggest what is to come––the couple’s parallel responses to their relationship and the woman’s pregnancy. Hemingway doesn’t have to tell us anything. The setting, as it were, sets us up.

I’ve written novels set in spring, in summer, in fall, in winter because all those seasons inspire me. I create where I lived for most of life even as I write from the West that I’m learning to call home. Whatever the season, whatever the place, setting is the seed that sprouts into my ideas.

Readers: Do you have a preference for a particular season or a particular place? How much do you like setting in what you read or want to use it in what you write?

About Sharon

Sharon Dean

Sharon L. Dean grew up in Massachusetts where she was immersed in the literature of New England. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of New Hampshire, a state she lived and taught in before moving to Oregon. Although she has given up writing scholarly books that require footnotes, she incorporates much of her academic research as background in her mysteries. She is the author of three Susan Warner mysteries and of a literary novel titled Leaving Freedom. Her Deborah Strong mysteries include The Barn, The Wicked Bible, and Calderwood Cove. Dean continues to write about New England while she is discovering the beauty of the West.

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