When I was in the stage of getting feedback on early drafts of this book, more than one reader told me they wished I would just come out and say precisely when and where the story takes place. “It’s obviously American,” they said. “Why not just name the town? And why not just say what year it is? Why do we have to guess?”
Well, because I said so. But seriously, leaving the town unnamed and the year somewhat vague was a deliberate choice on my part, one I wasn’t going to go back on. Luckily, my editor never questioned this. In fact, she pointed out that in one scene I described a character as making a meal that recalled her southern ancestors and suggested I cut it, because even that reference was a little too specific. Nice catch!
When my readers enter the world of The Dream Peddler, I want them to feel on some level like they are walking into a fairytale. It’s winter as the book opens, so you know it’s taking place somewhere that has four seasons. And the dream peddler walks into town because he “has no horse or motorcar.” Another big clue—if he might be riding a horse, this is probably quite a long time ago. BUT, he might have a car, so you know it can’t be much earlier than the turn of the century.
I feel strongly this is all that’s needed to orient the reader, because it should feel as though, even though the details suggest this is all happening somewhere in North America, we could be anywhere. To some extent, I think it works—my editor told me a funny story about how different people at Penguin who read it felt as if it took place where they had grown up, even though their childhood homes were all over the map.
For my own sanity and the consistency of the story, of course, I actually had to settle on a specific time period. I couldn’t google what sort of technology would or wouldn’t be available if I had no idea what era I was dealing with. And I used a process of elimination to decide that. I wanted to stay away from any major historical event so that I didn’t have to bring any of that into my story—I cut out the two world wars, and I cut out the Great Depression because it would have necessitated a lot of details about how that affected farming life. I decided to place it just before the First World War, around 1910, and this also worked because it was considered the heyday of farming in America. Prosperity was the rule, yet it was still a time when men traveling with wares to sell or looking for piecemeal work would have been quite common.
Once I had this date, I knew how to build my world. I researched the seasons of farming, using the Midwest as a guidepost, so I’d know what kind of work was being done at each stage of the book. As for the rest, making that world was largely about building the scenery around my characters. The landscape is a character in itself in this story, holding the people, reflecting their feelings, sometimes bringing them together, other times hindering them. I was actually living in Pennsylvania during the bulk of the time that I worked on this book, so honestly all I really had to do was look out my window. We were outside Philadelphia in a very strange pocket of land—surrounded by horse farms, we only had to drive half a mile to find ourselves sitting in traffic. But the history of the place was everywhere…When I went walking, I would pass old stone farmhouses and outbuildings, many from the nineteenth or even eighteenth century. There was even an old graveyard next to a crumbling one-room church that I used to pass on my drive into the neighboring suburb where my children went to school. I’d stare at it as I sat in traffic, and it found its way into my story.
I hope the world I created feels real to my readers, even though it’s so long past, there is probably no one alive today who could remember that time. I hope it feels real and yet like a dream at the same time, like nowhere yet everywhere, sad but full of hope, propelled by the mundane tasks of ordinary farm life, yet suffused with magic.