Christmas is upon us and we can’t help but think about family and/or the past. And I can’t help but think about writing when I think about the past because the past influences my writing.
One of my favorite compliments about my writing is this, “You make a walk in the park sound like the biggest adventure of all.” That’s because I put my heart and soul into my writing, taking pieces of my own life experience (a simple walk in the park) and fictionlizing it into a bigger, bolder story (turning it into the biggest adventure of all). That’s what drives me as a writer.
The setting is also important to me having grown up in Southern California. My latest novel LETTERS ON BALBOA ISLAND mentions such settings as Balboa Island, Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Tijuana, and Route 66 but set in the 1950s/1960s.
Before I wrote an entire novel set in the past, I often had scenes flashing back to the past. In REAL WOMEN WEAR RED, we peeked into the love story of Millie and Monterey Jack.
In THE TOM JONES CLUB, we saw how the present day complicated relationships all began with Mona, Syd, Matt, and Red back in Bakersfield.
To give you an example of how my own experiences influence a scene in one of my novels. I thought I’d share my Bakersfield stories.
Bakersfield is a popular place to eat, well, breakfast, when you’re doing the L.A. to the Central Valley trek, although the old landmarks have disappeared.
Like the people in The Grapes of Wrath, California’s Central Valley was settled by those from Oklahoma and Arkansas during the Dust Bowl, including my dad’s family and my step dad’s family (my step grandma thought the movie was too harsh on the real people, although my own grandmother said it was pretty accurate).
My step dad charged out of the Valley and headed for L.A. when he was still a teen. He longed for bigger horizons than what the valley offered. But we used to do the breakfast in Bakersfield thing on our way to his old hometown to visit his family about twice a year – usually once in the summer during the grape harvest (his sister’s husband’s family owned a vineyard) and once over Christmas.
We’d leave our home in Orange County (just south of L.A.) at about 5 a.m. and arrive in Bakersfield in time for breakfast at one of those roadside cafes with a “Let’s Eat” sign blinking on top – it was the highlight of the road trip. And that experience inspired me to write the “Breakfast in Bakersfield” scenes in THE TOM JONES CLUB. Here’s a peek:
Matt seemed to disappear inside himself as his gaze never left the valley below. He never said a word. He extinguished his cigarette, got back in the car, and kept driving until two hours later when he pulled up in front of a small shack with a large, red-lettered sign displaying “Let’s Eat” on top of the weathered building.
Matt and Red hopped out of the car, and when Mona started to push the front car seat forward to join them, Syd pulled her back and said to the others, “We’ll catch up with you in a few.” She raised an eyebrow as she waited to see what Syd was up to.
She felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she realized for the first time that she was only interested in Syd when Red was, but she was always keeping a watchful eye on Matt, hoping somewhere that he would be her prize. Because when Syd reached out to her in the back seat of the Studebaker, announcing to the others that they’d join them later, she was afraid he was going to make a move on her. As much fun as they all had with each other, they never did anything more than drink too much and make out with one another. They never slept with one another. At least, she hadn’t slept with Syd. She didn’t know who Red slept with.
“Mona,” Syd began, “I think this trip is a great time for you and me to get to know one another better, if you know what I mean.”
She looked down at her hands placed in her lap, afraid to look at Syd. She could see out of the corner of her eye his right hand tapping on the seat in front of him, like he was nervous or something.
Mona found her voice. “What about Red?” She continued to stare at her hands.
“Red? Don’t you know? She’s with Matt now.”
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