posted on September 30, 2013 by Jessica Topper

On Creating a Sanctuary from Words and Memory

louder-than-loveI’m so excited to visit Writerspace today, and thought I would share a bit of insight behind writing a “space” for my characters – more specifically, creating a sanctuary for them to find themselves and help them grow.

The theme of existence runs through my debut novel, LOUDER THAN LOVE. That may sound heavy, but I kept it pretty simple: After losing her husband in a freak train accident, Katrina Lewis can’t imagine staying in the place where he existed one day and not the next, so she flees Manhattan back to the town where she existed before she knew him. Set four years after the accident, the novel opens with Katrina surrounded by her best girlfriends in her small, quirky hometown of Lauder Lake. I knew I had to create a safe place for her and her daughter to begin to heal and move on. So I looked no further than my own memories to find such a place.

The ink on my graduate school diploma was barely dry when I moved straight to New York City for a job. At twenty-three and living on my own for the first time, I felt Alice in Wonderland-small, taking a bite out of the really Big Apple. But knowing my best college girlfriend was just a Metro North ride away somehow made the big city seem a little smaller, a little less foreign. She was between college and a job, living at home with her parents in a small Westchester town called Mohegan Lake. And so began my “country weekends,” escaping the city for doses of domesticity. I don’t think I realized, at that carefree and reckless age, that I was recharging my body and renewing my spirit with each visit. It was just a comfort I craved at the time.

The dock at Lake Mohegan – photo credit: Anastasia Fisher

The dock at Lake Mohegan – photo credit: Anastasia Fisher

At the heart of my memories of this place beats the ticking of all the clocks from my friend’s living room, kept in perfect time with the lapping of the small waves from the lake at the end of her road. In my mind’s eye, I see myself walking to where the pavement becomes gravel, then dirt, and finally sand. The houses and pine protect the best-kept secret in this suburb.

On one occasion, my friend walked us past a small, unassuming cottage on a neighboring street. The house had once been Estée Lauder’s summer home, she explained, as we made our way to the small lake that all the narrow roads in the enclave seemed to lead to. I remember thinking at the time: how wonderful to know that even a glamorous cosmetics queen like Estée Lauder had, and needed, a piece of this simple tranquility to escape to.

Fifteen years later, as I began to create my “version” of a place my characters come home to, I knew I had to name it Lauder Lake as homage to that memory.

As writers, we get to not only play God, we get to play Donald Trump: adding real estate to the landscape wherever the heck we want to! I gave Lauder Lake practical conveniences that its inspiration lacked: a commuter station right in town, just an hour’s ride from Manhattan, and a walking Main street where the girlfriends could gather in the cozy coffee shop, where the widow and the rock star could cross paths in the local library and have that bizarre first date in the Thai restaurant, etc. But at the heart of it all is still the best-kept secret and the grounding force: the lake.

Here is one of my favorite scenes, when Kat and her five-year old daughter Abbey bring Adrian down to the lake for the first time:

Abbey grabbed both of our hands and practically dragged us down the street after lunch. “Wait till you see my lake!” We paused at the wet sand to peel off socks and shoes, then rolled up our jeans and walked around the bank of pine trees until the lake came into view. The beach was deserted, not surprisingly. Abbey ran ahead, yelling insults at the gulls and galloping to the edge of the water.

“This is lovely. I had no idea it was so close to your house.” Adrian bent to pick up a smooth stone and effortlessly skipped it toward the dock. “You’ve got a nicely kept secret out here.”

“More like a forgotten secret. Lauder Lake used to be a resort community, before all the wealthy New Yorkers moved on to more luxurious digs in the Catskills.” We sat on an area of sand that had been dried by the emergent sun and watched Abbey scavenge for interesting bits of shell and pebbles along the shore.

“Their loss.” Adrian dug his toes into the wet sand.

“When I was little, I assumed everyone had a lake at their disposal within walking distance,” I admitted. “I spent every day of every summer here. Except when I was twelve and I tried sleepaway camp, which I hated.”

“I think I would come down here every day, too, if I lived here. Even in winter. Growing up in a port town, you learn to appreciate the grounding, calming effect of water.” He had been squinting out across the lake before turning his gaze on me. “‘For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.’”

“I like that.”

“It’s not mine. Cummings.” He tossed his hair back. “I’m glad you have this sanctuary here for you and for Abbey.”

Mohegan Lake as inspiration for Lauder Lake – photo credit: Anastasia Fisher

Mohegan Lake as inspiration for Lauder Lake – photo credit: Anastasia Fisher

I looked down at our sandy toes. “All those years I lived in the city . . . this place was never far from my mind.” We gazed past the sand, dimpled from our steps, to the gentle push-pull of the small ripples and the lush thicket of green that bordered it far across the surface. “Like a reminder it would always be here for me when I needed it.” It had certainly been a comforting constant after my heartbreak and homecoming four years ago.

(Excerpt posted with kind permission of Berkley Publishing and the author. Louder Than Love copyright © 2013 by Jessica Topper.)

Thanks for having me at Writerspace today, and for letting me let you in on one of the best-kept secrets of my novel, LOUDER THAN LOVE!

Jessica Topper

Jessica Topper

Jessica Topper is an ex-librarian turned rock n’ roll number cruncher.

She can trace her love for the written word back to age three, when she memorized Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice in its entirety.After her daughter was born in 2001, Jessica left the Manhattan library world and began working for her husband’s music management company. He offered her a part-time bookkeeping job so she could “stay home for the baby’s first year” and pursue her dream of writing.The baby is now eleven years old, and Jessica has been working her “full-time, sold-her-soul-for-rock-n-roll job” as Office Manager for veteran jam band moe. in their Buffalo, NY headquarters. She may have traded in books for bookkeeping, but the printed word is never far from her mind, or her heart.LOUDER THAN LOVE, her debut women’s fiction effort, is set to release September 17, 2013 through Berkley/Intermix (Penguin).

Jessica is a member of the Western New York Romance Writers and a PAN member of the Romance Writers of America.

Author photo courtesy of Jay Blakesberg.

2 thoughts on “On Creating a Sanctuary from Words and Memory”

  1. Thanks again for having me over to chat. Hope everyone enjoys the little walk along the lake today…

  2. What a lovely story! I really love this book and I’m so glad Jessica shared a little background about this fictional place I was so curious about.

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