This is the photograph from the cover of my latest novel, Phoenix Morrow. If you don't recognize it because you haven't read it yet, you should do something about that. Just sayin'.
A majority of Phoenix Morrow takes place in the fictional town of Bellton, Nebraska, nestled in the midst of quiet farm country. Bellton is the kind of small Midwestern town where everyone knows each other, many have been there their entire lives, and for every person who can't wait to get out of there one day there is another who will never leave. For the main character, Phoenix Morrow, it was the perfect place to start over after a life of abuse and abandonment.
While Bellton may not exist, Bellwood, Nebraska does. That is where this photograph was taken.
If you think fictional Bellton is small, the very-much-real Bellwood is even smaller. My husband's family is from there, and many of them still live either in Bellwood or in the surrounding area. For years the only times I had visited Bellwood was during the holidays, so I only ever got the see the fields of Nebraska bare and snow covered. (While I spent a chunk of my childhood in Kansas, we lived in the suburbs of Wichita, so away from the larger farmland.) One of the reasons that so much of Phoenix Morrow takes place at the bar of the hotel is an homage to Bellwood. The two bars in town are the only places to get anything to eat. My husband still talks about the looks he would get as a child when he would tell people about "spending time at the bar". The truth is that his aunt worked there, and would make sure the cook would fix him whatever he wanted. To this day, some of the best sausage I've ever eaten was at that little bar in Bellwood, Nebraska.
During the summer while I was in the middle of writing, my family took a three week road trip. We were starting the journey to seeing a game in every MLB stadium, but part of that trip included a stop in Nebraska for one of his cousin's weddings. We had been talking about wanting to see every stadium as a family, and the wedding was a good catalyst. I snapped this photograph standing on the front porch at my husband's uncle's house, where I would sneak away to write.
I had already decided that a large part of my novel would take place there, but one of the best things for Phoenix Morrow's story was that trip to Nebraska. Simply walking the fields and talking to the family about their lives during the summer enriched the story because it enriched my view of the little town Bellton was based on. Just as Phoenix got an education on what detasseling corn was, I got that same education during that visit. One of my husband's cousins was mentioning that his son had gotten a job detasseling corn, and I didn't have a clue what that was. In that moment as I was writing about Phoenix's journey to Nebraska, I knew that she was going to share those sorts of moments.
One of my biggest reactions to seeing Midwest farm country in its full glory can be summed up in this excerpt:
As the corn stalks and other vegetation became taller and taller, I kept noticing the same thing. Crops are kind of creepy. Row after row of perfectly spaced, perfectly even heights across acres and acres, gave me the heebie-jeebies like nothing else. It was a little too perfect in a weirdly manufactured way. Before moving out to there, I would have expected to find the natural beauty to be… well… beautiful. But it unnerved me like nothing else. I never knew plants could look like that. Such perfection isn’t natural.
Those words may have been told through Phoenix's eyes, but that particular passage is all me. All of it.
As proud as I am of my first novel, An Unusual Path, I believe one of the reasons Phoenix Morrow is some of my best work is the layers I was able to give the story after visiting where it is set. As I am working on my next novel, I have characters, argument, laughter, even death, but the story still needs a setting. Once I figure that out, my hope is to be able to go and spend at least a weekend there. Sitting in the local restaurants, walking through the parks, even roaming the local Target and overhearing conversations will enrich this new story the way Bellwood enriched the last.
To my fellow authors out there, travel. Go to the settings of your stories and see, smell, taste, and touch what they have to offer. Even if it is a city you think you know well, go and carry your characters with you. Listen to the conversations, and see if your characters would talk about the same things. What would they wear? How would they stand out?
Go find their story.
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