Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Few Meditations on Place

By Susan
"No setting is to be underestimated ... What may seem to be a boring town, once you begin to analyze its history, its people and its stories, may become an amazing place."
- Josip Novakovich, Writing Fiction Step by Step 

Along the rail line on the way to Hillsdale. No clue where this went,
and wasn't about to explore it in a Ford Taurus.
The road turns to dirt six miles west of  Hillsdale, Wyoming, population 47. Roads lead away from the town in all four cardinal directions, but the only asphalt is to the south, toward I-80. From the Wyoming highway maps, it looks like that stretch of pavement wasn't laid down until 1961,

In 1917, this town's fledgling newspaper, the Hillsdale Review, boasted of the local hotel, grocery, bank, and lumber company. Only that first issue of the Review is found in Wyoming Newspapers. Either the paper folded quickly, or subsequent issues were lost. Also lost is evidence of the thriving businesses touted on the Review's front page. Hillsdale is one of many towns in Wyoming that dotted the rail routes, but were left off the main drag when America fell in love with the automobile and built the roads to prove it.

Durham was between Cheyenne and
Hillsdale. It has vanished.
Even as I seek out hidden places like Hillsdale, I know that too often I have passed by places without seeing them or, worse yet, lived in them and left them unseen. I grew up in Ohio, but was amazed when I moved here at how much history Wyoming seemed to have. I think now, Dayton's history was all around me and I just didn't see it.

At the WyoPoets conference in April, poet David Mason pointed out that Homer did not write about epic settings. Those places became epic in our minds because Homer wrote about them. And every story about place is in reality a story about the people within it.

I think about the people who moved to Hillsdale with high hopes in the early 1900s, and I wonder about the ones who still live here. It still has a post office. The Methodist church stands tall. Cemeteries stay in one spot even when towns vanish, but in ghost towns they're not mowed so neatly, nor are the graves as freshly decorated.

Put me on an interstate and I want to keep going, looking for the next magical place. "Omaha 494 miles." I wonder what it's like to live in Omaha. I could keep driving. I have a credit card in my purse. I could start a new life. I want to find some locale on some map that will make me feel complete, while entirely missing what my own place in life offers.

As I drive, I think I might go on into Pine Bluffs and find a place where I can get a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. Then I think, no. I'll go home to my own place instead of looking elsewhere. I'll make my own pie.

As a writer, I want to see a place intimately, whether it's one where I've lived, visited, or imagined. And then, I want to take the reader there.

On that note, I'm going to give you some of my favorite place-based links to explore:
And yes, I did make pie: strawberry. Delicious. I think I'm finally getting this pie crust thing down.


  1. Another very fine post, Susan. I found the same thing about the prairie and its critters as I volunteered as a naturalist at a Barr Lake State Park and then the Plains Conservation Center. The closer I looked, the more amazed I became. I discovered wonder, awe, and beauty in what I had first taken as boring plainness.

    I think it was Rachel Carson in Silent Spring who said that mastering a narrow discipline is like looking through a crack in a wall. The closer you put your eye to the crack, the more you can see, and what you see can amaze and astound. And so it is with a two-track going seemingly nowhere. It can lead one to beauty.

    1. Thank you, Art for your kind words.

      When I was a history major, I panicked when I realized that the work was no the grand, sweeping panoramas I loved, but looking through those cracks at the little pieces that build up the picture of the world. It's only now, many years later, I see the value and beauty in it.

  2. Great resources--thanks for sharing them. Lots of virtual road trips there...

    1. Thanks, Lynn! You know, now that I think about it, another good one is Google Maps. I've used street level view and area photos on it to get a good sense of a place before.

    2. To get the lay of the land, have you tried looking at the satellite view on Google maps? Google Earth is really cool, too. And if you want to know when sunset or sunrise is in a particular place and how the shadows will fall on landforms, go to http://photoephemeris.com/ (The Photographer's Ephemeris). With the latter two, you don't have to actually go there to be there which helps if you want to write about a place you've never been to. They can also help you scope out a place beforehand if you do intend to go there.

    3. I have, indeed, Deborah. My embryonic novel is set in a location somewhat like the Alaskan peninsula. I went up and down the coast looking at the geography. Also took a drive down the Needles Highway for another story. (I'd been down it, but was looking for something specific." Haven't tried the Photographer's Ephemeris yet. I'll take a look!

  3. Susan, I agree. Sometimes you just have to stop and look. We miss so much in our hurried world. The interstate is great if you need to get somewhere in a hurry, but it's much more enjoyable to take the "road less traveled".

    1. Given my druthers, I'd almost always take the back road. And almost always take a road trip instead of a plane, distance be damned. But I can't always carve out the time to do so. Thanks for stopping by, Gene. :)

  4. I always lamented that time, or rather the lack of time, forced me to take the more traveled road. And, I would glance back at the exit passing by wondering about places like Bigfoot Texas. I know in my heart their will come a time when I won't be so hounded by responsibilities.

    1. Me, too. Living out west with family a good thousand miles away means I fly over a lot of country I'd rather see from a car window. The time will come. :)


Writing Wyoming blog comments are moderated--yours will be posted shortly. Thanks for joining in the conversation!