Earlier in the week, I pulled up photographs of Boalsburg, the village where I used to live in Pennsylvania. (If you google anything followed by the word “images”, in most cases you get a page with a couple of hundred pictures.) Boalsburg is so small that in half the pictures I knew where the photo was taken or what the event was. In a few cases I was even surprised to see that I knew the people in the picture.
Was this merely nostalgia wallowing on my part? Somewhat, yeah. I miss the village, in spite of how lonely I was there and the fact that I spent the last two years looking for work. You may have noticed that the human mind works in such a way that when remembering something which was both good and bad, the bad eventually disappears. Trips I’ve taken to Europe all shimmer in my memory with golden sunlight on a cathedral across the square where I sit drinking wine. It certainly wasn’t always like that. Like arriving after midnight in Russia with 20 students—who I was responsible for—and only two suitcases showed up. But I do remember so many good things.
By now I’m looking back at Pennsylvania from almost a year away, and with the passage of time and distance the hills grow greener, the arts festival more festive, the little towns more charming, the Amish more Amishy, the cafes more quaint. I miss it quite a lot, and an argument might be made that this is the reason why the next novel I’m beginning will mostly take place in Boalsburg and that area. There is something to that, except for the fact that the idea for the book began while I was still living there, and I was already making notes and thinking about it before I moved.
So it has really only occurred to me afterward, as I contemplate working on this book, that writing it might become a way to deal with some of my feelings about central Pennsylvania. This past week, after a year of preparation, or of not doing anything at all, I finally decided to flip the “on” switch and actually begin writing. I finished one chapter this week and I’m well into the second (they’re not very long, though).
For this blog entry I thought I’d include the current opening paragraph of the book. I know from writing novels that it could be wildly different by the end, a year or two from now, but this is where we are at the moment:
“It was a cold, sunny afternoon in November when Leola Summer Daye realized that she might as well be an orphan. It’s a basic truth of life that your parents should not leave you before you decide to leave them, but compassionate truths often dissipate like smoke before the brutal reality of living. Her mother had not entirely left, as she was only an hour away in Altoona, Pennsylvania. But on that late November day, walking out of the hospital where her mother had gone after a nervous breakdown, Leola felt certain her mother was not coming home. Heather Day was not simply taking time to feel better before returning to the village of Boalsburg, to which she she recently moved them. Leola watched a little girl crossing the parking lot, holding her mother’s hand, and felt a coldness more harsh than the wind on her face.”
That paragraph has undergone quite a bit of revision. Some of the things I dealt with: (1) Originally I used the phrase “November day” but because Leola’s last name is Daye, I didn’t like the repetition and used the word “afternoon” instead; (2) The second sentence started out as the opening of the paragraph, but the new first sentence referring to Leola begins with drama about the character herself, which I think is more likely to interest the reader; (3) The paragraph does not say that Leola’s father is actually dead, but to begin with it did. Then I figured that if I hold that information for a paragraph or two, perhaps there will be a slight suspense to find out whether he also simply went away, making Leola only feel like an orphan. (4) I added the final sentence, with the little girl, to imply a theme that will show up later in the book of children and how they are treated, and it also makes a nice contrast for how Leola is feeling.
A brief part of the book will also involve Washington, DC, as I am going to have Leola born here. She will make the opposite move of the one I made a year ago, and against her will she is going to move from Washington to Boalsburg. I’ve picked out the neighborhood where she grew up (if 16 years old counts as grown up), and tomorrow I’m going to take the train down into Washington to that neighborhood, to walk around, make notes, get a feel for it.
So tomorrow I’ll think about Leola. But tonight, now, I’m going to try to finish that second chapter, with Leola’s aunt Olivia. Olivia has her problems too, like dealing with Leola or being confined to a wheelchair. Life can be hard. Hopefully, literature can help make it more bearable.
[There are people who say you should never, ever start a sentence with the word “hopefully”. That last sentence is for them.]