I’ve lived in some adorable places (Maplewood NJ, Andover MA and Portsmouth NH) and some interesting places (Silicon Valley in the late nineties), but never had any success describing them. I was so close to all of them that I couldn’t get perspective.
Moving to Cambridge, England in 2006 changed all that. It’s one of the most physically exquisite places I’ve ever been, and rich with honest, passionate, unsnobbish intellectual curiosity. My foreigness gave me instant perspective. I suddenly found words for the place that I was living, and created an American protagonist to describe and explain it:
From my novel, The Whole World:
[Nick disappeared] just around what would have been Thanksgiving. Home was, no doubt, drenched in crackling, flashy leaves. England does the season differently. Students at Cambridge are discouraged from having cars, so autumn comes with a flurry of bicycles. Leaves barely bother to brown before falling listlessly—the bikes make up for that in their number, variety, and motion. They swirl everywhere, as if blown into little cyclones by the wind.
I used to live in New Hampshire, which is all spectacular falls and knee-high winters, and summers thick with humidity and mosquitoes. It’s a parade of nature there; that’s what makes it special. But here in Cambridge, instead of trees and mountains and extremes of weather, there are buildings, all these towers, like something cartoonishly Atlantean that you’d put in a fish tank for guppies to swim through. Everything is made of stone, not clapboard. This city is like people, instead of God, made the world, and turned out to be good at this creation business.
The University has thirty-one colleges, which house, feed and tutor students. The University departments provide lectures and exams. The older colleges downtown, founded by Plantagenets and Tudors, dominate the shops and houses like tall ships in a busy harbor. They’re huge and solid, and walled, each with an arched entryway giving a peep of courtyards beyond. There’s usually a sign telling whether or not they’re open for tourists, and always a sign remonstrating that the courtyard grass is not to be walked on.
I love these old buildings because they’re still in use. They haven’t been made into museums. There’s something so sad about people filing through a famous, rich person’s bedroom, to ogle a made, never-again-slept-in bed. These college rooms are all lively with activity, just as they were built to be. They’re as different from museums as a wild animal is different from taxidermy.
Researching Magdalene College (pronounced like “maudlin”) was easy. A close friend was doing his PhD there, and the Assistant Bursar is a writer himself, so was sympathetic. I was given access to “formal hall” (very fancy dinner), student rooms and other private places. Peterhouse College, on the other hand, was a closed door. My request to see inside the buildings wasn’t just rejected, it was ignored. So, when I needed to describe a room in St. Peter’s Terrace, I parked myself on a low stone wall and waited in the January cold. Eventually, a female student towing suitcases and two male friends finally appeared. I tried to sound like a not-crazy person when I asked if I could see her room. Amazingly, she agreed, and showed me around the building, despite having just come from the airport after Christmas break. (Hilariously, her bed was *missing*!!)
It’s handy that my husband is both British and a Cambridge graduate. I can come to him at odd hours with questions of British vocabulary and Cambridge specifics. Also, because I don’t drive over here yet, I use our romantic times away for research that requires a car. I’m sure he doesn’t mind that his brother’s offer to babysit so we can go out to dinner turned into a dark drive all over the county to help me choose the route that gets a character lost; or that our B&B weekend last Valentine’s Day ended with a quest for body-dump locales on the way home; or that for my fortieth birthday we’ll all go to Bristol instead of some more dreamy locale, so that I can research a new character’s traumatic backstory. I think it keeps our marriage interesting!
My kids love helping me research too. In the course of homeschooling them, I get to attend lots of lectures, activities and events put on by the University. They’re also willing to help me brainstorm. When I was trying to motivate a character to do a very bad thing, I asked my then six-year-old what might make a person so upset that they make a bad decision. He thought very hard, and suggested:
1) Maybe their house burnt down.
2) Maybe their pet died.
Or, the best:
3) Maybe their favorite restaurant closed down. (He was serious. Hee hee!)
My question to you: Can you imagine a situation where the closing of a favorite restaurant would drive a character to desperate action? Or…can you creatively explain that Peterhouse student’s missing bed??