Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Write What You Know – Using Your Childhood to Shape a Story

One of the things I loved about crafting Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty is that it’s set in a fictionalized version of my hometown. Dumbarton is Huntington, New York.

I’d discovered long ago when I wrote “The Last Gift”, the one-act play that was eventually produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, that my background is a rich source of material with which to texture a story. My grandmother’s American Foursquare home in Ozone Park, Queens, was the model for the home that my heroine reminiscences about, complete with the slanting row of stained glass windows that followed the stairs up to the second floor.

The central motif of Exiled is “the Castle”, where the major tragedy of my heroine’s life occurs. In real life, the Castle was the old Ferguson Castle overlooking Huntington Harbor. It belonged to Mrs. Juliana Armour Ferguson, the heiress to the Armour Meat fortune. By the time I was a child growing up in Huntington in the 1950’s, the estate had been long abandoned and taken over by the Township for taxes. “No Trespassing” signs hung along its poison-ivy covered walls, but they were no deterrent to a kid determined to explore its grounds.

Details count and that’s where one’s background becomes a gold mine. For me it’s things like the poison ivy, the signs, the gatekeeper’s house and the “tunnel” through the wall. Plus the quiet magic of a summer day on Huntington Harbor, with boats bobbing at their moorings, the swish of waves along the shore, the pounding of hammers at Knutson's Boatyard, and the sound of a radio from the deck of one of the boats moored in the crowded harbor.

There was a legend among us kids that there had been a terrible tragedy in the castle. After I’d done a lot of research, I discovered we had the Ferguson Castle confused with the Boldt Castle in at the outlet of Lake Ontario into the St. Lawrence River. But our mistaken rumor was enough to inspire what happens in Exiled. I promise a separate blog on Ferguson Castle, because the truth is even more fantastic than the stories we made up about it.

Dumbarton Combined High School is another major setting in my novel. The building itself was inspired by what is currently Huntington Township’s town hall. The town hall has been through several iterations and has been the site of various schools since early in Huntington’s history. The first school on that site, which overlooks the village green, was the Huntington Academy, built in 1794. It was replaced by Huntington High School, also known as the Union School in 1857.

What is now the Town Hall Annex was actually a separate school constructed next door and known as “Main Street School”. Built in 1898, it is the oldest part of the structure and originally housed kindergarten through 8th grade students. By the time I was a student there, it was the home of the school cafeteria (downstairs) and the math department (upstairs).
By 1910, the Union School building had grown too small for the needs of the growing farm community and had been replaced by a much larger “Union School/Huntington High School”, which was renamed the RL Simpson High School in 1950, after one of the township’s outstanding educators. By 1958 the school had again become too small for the area’s needs and a modern new high school was built about a mile away.

In the meantime, the township had outgrown its junior high and the old RL Simpson High School structure was renovated to become RL Simpson Junior High. It was linked to the old “Main Street School” – now called “the Annex” -- by a covered passageway, known as “the Portico”.

This is the setting for Dumbarton Combined High. Originally, I described the school as a junior high, with a much-younger Sophie as part of the 9th grade class and her little sister Viola starting 7th grade there. When I changed Sophie’s age to make her much older, I needed a school that allowed me to have the two girls on the same campus. A critique partner mentioned that she had attended a “combined high” housing grades 7 through 12. The two-building structure of RL Simpson Junior High was perfect. I could put the high school kids in the “big” building and the junior high kids in the “Annex.” Dumbarton Combined High was born.

The metal lockers jutting into the hall, the desks set in pairs in each classroom and the seat outside the guidance counselor’s office are exactly as I remember them, but I had to make up the Vice Principal’s office. I was never quite bad enough to merit a trip there.

The current Huntington High, which I attended in the mid-1960’s, much expanded, still serves Huntington’s students. At one time it boasted the largest auditorium on Long Island, seating about 3000. I remember particularly the huge overhanging balcony that shaded the seats below (and was a source of a major "scandal" that got all the honor students in serious trouble), the knobby upholstery, and the two, long sloping aisles that seemed to take forever to get down. I’ve “transported” this auditorium to Dumbarton Combined High, where, in a smaller version, it serves as the setting for some of the novel’s most crucial turning points.

But there are smaller details, as well. A return visit to Huntington reminded me of the cemetery and the old library (now part of the Historical Society museum), where Sophie snubs Joseph.

It wasn’t until I started writing that I remember clothes-pinning playing cards to the spokes of bike wheels to make a clicking sound as you rode, shaping“poppers” out of fallen maple seeds and how cherry Coke really was made. These are the details that make Exiled come alive.

What are the rich memories of your own childhood? I encourage you to explore your past. There you’ll find more texture for your scene than you can ever possibly use.

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