Putting Oyster Creek on the Map
I have always loved books that had maps as endpapers. It probably began with Winnie-the-Pooh, and it has run through Little House on the Prairie, Lord of the Rings, Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner with no sign of letting up: poring over that map, tracing the rivers and paths, imagining the bustling life around the harbor and the calm pattern of fields over the hills-- is a huge part of my pleasure in reading. Before I ever thought of writing stories, I drew maps of fictitious towns, with houses and schools and the mail route carefully sketched in.
When I was offered a writing fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, I could hardly believe what I saw on the map: it was as if one of the communities I dreamed up had come to life. Provincetown is at the very tip of the long, curling peninsula that is Cape Cod, eighty miles out into the ocean, and three miles across at its widest point. In the summer it's crowded with tourists; in the winter it's a bare bones fishing town, storefronts boarded up and halyards ringing in a stiff wind off the water-- a place fit for an old salt like the man I met here and married.
And, after thirty years, it's a place I know well enough to write about. Both of my most recent novels, THE HARBORMASTER'S DAUGHTER and THE HOUSE ON OYSTER CREEK, are set in the same outer Cape Cod town, invented out of all I know and love about this place, the people who live here and the landscape --beautiful, wild, and sometimes dangerous--that many of us make our living from.
THE HARBORMASTER'S DAUGHTER was set in motion by a murder that wrenched the town apart some years ago. A three year old girl woke up one morning to find herself alone with the body of her mother, who had been stabbed to death in the night. It was the dead of winter, and days before anyone found them.
My own daughter was only seven at the time and I couldn't get my mind off that child, left so alone with the rest of her life ahead. I tried to imagine how anyone could be resilient enough to grow and thrive after such a blow, and what could help them. We all survive hard things, sometimes unthinkable things. We feel our way through the tunnel of fear and sadness toward some light ahead, and often we manage to get there. I wanted to follow that journey, to reassure myself of all that was possible for this little girl.
What came of it was a book about mothering a teenager, about all the things that divide people, even neighbors in a small town, and all that brings them together. And as I was writing I had the map of the town in my mind, so I knew that when one character walked down the Main Street to catch the bus, she would see into the window of another character and understand something she had missed all along. That's how life proceeds in a small town, which is part of why I love living in one-- it's like walking around in a novel. To quote the Al-Anon handbook (most appropriate, on Cape Cod and it seems in every seaside town) "Life, for all its agonies.....is exciting and beautiful, amusing and artful and endearing....and whatever is to come after it-we shall not have this life again."
Oyster Creek Inspirations: a gallery of images on Pinterest
copyright Heidi Jon Schmidt, 2012