Writing Right with Dmitri: Where is Home?
He drifted in and out and dreamed a bright dream of a home. It had a coldwater spring rising out of rock, black dirt fields, old trees. In his dream the year seemed to be happening all at one time, all the seasons blending together. Apple trees hanging heavy with fruit but yet unaccountably blossoming, ice rimming the spring, okra plants blooming yellow and maroon, maple leaves red as October, corn tops tasseling, a stuffed chair pulled up to the glowing parlor hearth, pumpkins shining in the fields, laurels blooming on the hillsides, ditch banks full of orange jewelweed, white blossoms on dogwood, purple on redbud. Everything coming around at once. And there were white oaks, and a great number of crows, or at least the spirits of crows, dancing and singing in the upper limbs. There was something he wanted to say.
Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
What does 'home' mean to you? Is it a mountain cabin? An urban housing project? A suburban home with plastic flamingoes flocking1 in the yard? What sights, smells, emotions are connected with the word to you?
When you write about someone – someone factual, someone fictional – you need to figure out where they're at home. You need to know whether that home is a comfortable place for them. You need to know whether they're trying to get back there, or as far away from there as possible. You don't know your subject until you know who they are when they're at home – and whether they want to be there.
Charles Frazier's character goes on a long and harrowing journey to get back home. He's a Civil War Ulysses. I recommend the book. Even if you've never stood where Inman stands, by the time the author is through with you, you'll know this place.
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.
I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family's table.
Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides
Home is more than landscape, architecture, and furniture. Home is also activity. What do your subjects do there? How does it shape them? What attitudes, values, meanings do they derive from their surroundings and the things they do? Do they do these things willingly? Reluctantly? Joyfully? With dread?
Pat Conroy is a skillful writer but an unreliable narrator. Read him, I suggest, with this caveat: do not trust him. He's trying to prove something. Don't let him suck you in, but let him show you the tricks he knows in the storytelling trade.
In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This was in 1947, and one of the pleasant features of that summer which I so vividly remember was the weather, which was sunny and mild...
...I was out of a job and had very little money and was self-exiled to Flatbush – like others of my countrymen, another lean and lonesome young Southerner wandering amid the Kingdom of the Jews.
William Styron, Sophie's Choice
Another good book to read if you don't believe everything the author says, particularly about himself. He's unreliable, but boy, is he good at vivid. In fact, he's so good that the story will capture your imagination even as you read him resistantly – meaning, you may end up with very little sympathy for the narrator. You may also feel that he doesn't understand the situation.
But there's a lot of texture to this story, and it starts with the recognition that the narrator is a fish out of water. I have observed that generation in exile, and that part of the story rings true. I knew a couple who ran back to Arkansas at great economic risk rather than spend another year in New Jersey… not all members of the Southern diaspora were as resilient as my parents, who were good at being at home anywhere.
Go hunting in your personal library, or the public one, or try out the Open Library, which is a free service (they'll take donations if you're feeling generous). Find some books to read during your winter downtime. Go exploring to see where the characters are at home, how far they are from home, and how that aspect of their story affects their journey.