Monday, August 27, 2018

A Map of My Heart - #geography #home #settings

Massachusetts map
Adapted from

By Lisabet Sarai

I don’t just write stories. I write places. That’s one of the signature characteristics of my writing—my tendency to set my tales in specific locations, and to bring those settings to life. One of my readers said once that in my books, the setting is almost another character. I think that’s a reasonable observation.

In most cases, I have some experience with the places I choose, either as an inhabitant or a tourist. My first novel was set in Thailand, my second in Boston, my third in Los Angeles, my fourth in Pittsburgh—all places I’ve lived at one time or another. I’ve also published novels set in France, Guatemala, India, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley, and, recently, a series of shorts called Asian Adventures.

Very little of my work unfolds without at least a mention of where it’s happening. I enjoy the variety of writing new places almost as much as I like traveling. However, I find myself returning again and again to locations in Massachusetts, the state where I grew up and where I lived for several decades before moving to Asia.

In Miranda’s Masks, the heroine lives in the nineteenth century Boston district of Beacon Hill, more or less in the same apartment I rented there for a glorious year and half. When Miranda admires her surroundings, she’s basically echoing my own feelings:

Miranda felt delightfully free as she strolled down Charles Street, enjoying the afternoon. It was only May, but already the trees were in full leaf, dappling the brick sidewalks with patterns of shadow. Girls passed her in tank tops and shorts, legs and arms bare and already burnished with sun. She felt warm in her long-sleeved pullover and denim overalls.

She loved this district, with its historic buildings and narrow lanes. Most of the townhouses dated from the middle of the nineteenth century. They offered a delightful jumble of architectural detail—wrought-iron balconies, fanlight transoms, stained glass, mullioned windows, Corinthian columns. Many of the brick-fronted buildings were draped with ivy. Some were traversed by aged trunks as thick as her wrist, twining around doors up to the many-chimneyed roofs. The tall windows offered glimpses of chandeliers, Oriental carpets, Siamese cats, and bookshelves that stretched floor to ceiling.

In Beacon Hill, gas lamps lined all the streets, burning day and night. Her own apartment looked out on a private alley, flanked by ivy-hung brick walls and lit by gas lights. Miranda appreciated the irony of her living in an environment that dated from the same period as her research. Perhaps, she sometimes mused, I had a previous life as a Victorian matron.

Most of Beacon Hill was residential, but Charles Street was lined with shops and cafés. There were many vendors of books and antiquities. Miranda loved to rummage through the crowded, chaotic shops, savoring the atmosphere of the past, although she rarely made a purchase.

She entered one of these places now, a dim, comfortable space half below street level. She had to duck her head as she entered. A silvery bell tinkled to announce her arrival.

The proprietor, an energetic, fussy old man with wire spectacles, knew her by sight.

Hello, hello,” he said as he emerged from a backroom. “Can I help you find anything today?”

Miranda smiled. “No, thank you. I’m just browsing at the moment.”

Well, if I can be of any assistance, just let me know.”

Miranda wandered happily through the shop. It was much larger than it first appeared, with several rooms stretching backward into the building. The front room, near the street, was crowded with furniture of obsolete categories, armoires, commodes, carved dressing tables surmounted by triple mirrors. There were other rooms with porcelain, jewelry, cutlery, iron fittings, tarnished brass.

There really was a shop like that, just down the street from my front door. I loved browsing there.

The Witches of Gloucester is a love letter to another of my favorite Massachusetts areas. Cape Ann, north of Boston, is a rugged promontory jutting out into the frigid Atlantic. The Essex River estuary and the complicated coastline create multiple beaches, inlets, bays and swamps. The city of Gloucester itself has a long history as a port and trading hub. It still has an active fishing fleet, manned by the Italian and Portuguese inhabitants whose families have lived there for generations.

Emmeline, one of the witches in the title, has fled to the city after a messy breakup with her boyfriend. The place she lives is based on a picturesque little cottage on Inner Harbor that I noticed on one of my trips to Gloucester.

Emmeline perched on the rail of her tiny porch, watching the gulls wheel and swoop among the masts crowding the sky. A man in a knit cap and tall rubber boots balanced in a dingy, shouting to someone who looked like his twin back on the wharf. One of the town’s many churches rang six PM, but the sun still rode high above the inner harbor. Honeysuckle blossoms growing across the narrow bay scented the air, mingling with the closer odor of raw fish.

She loved the sea, always had. Renting a cottage right on the water, a space of her own where she could work on her dissertation in peace and privacy – that had been her one dream after the nasty break-up with Tim. Okay, so the place was hardly more than a shack, one room plus a cramped bath with a cold shower, but it was painted lemon yellow and had pansies in the box beneath its one front window. Not to mention this back porch, the ideal place for her to hang out and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the ocean. At night, little waves lapped at the pilings that supported the rear half of the building, lulling her to sleep. It was hard to imagine an environment more conducive to study.

My gay paranormal romance Necessary Madness is a much darker book than either of the above. Kyle, the eighteen year old hero, has devastating prescient visions he cannot control, about disasters he cannot prevent. His uncontrolled power is slowly driving him insane. The story takes place in the gritty, industrial city of Worcester, about fifty miles west of Boston, and in the hamlet of Petersham in the Quabbin Valley, a rather haunted locale.

Here’s a snippet set in Worcester:

It was still early. The sun was just peeking over the roofs of the apartment blocks and triple deckers that lined the street. Only one or two cars passed him as he made his way along the sidewalk. Crisp leaves fluttered around his ankles, then scattered in a chill gust that sliced through his jacket as though it were made of paper. He hardly noticed. Darkness was brewing in his mind, black whirlpools flecked with points of flame. He knew the signs. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the package store up ahead, the light in its barred window indicating that it was open despite the hour.

A pint of Seagram’s, please.” When he saw Kyle’s money, the grizzled clerk didn’t bother to ask for ID. In two minutes, Kyle was back on the sidewalk, drinking deeply from the brown-bagged bottle. The vodka seared his throat, familiar pain that made him feel slightly better. The monstrous shapes shifting behind his eyelids subsided. He headed up the Belmont Street hill towards the downtown area. Somewhere he’d find a quiet bridge or a vacant lot, where he could hide and drink until he drowned the demons cavorting in his brain.

By the time he reached the I-290 overpass, he was staggering. He tripped and slammed into a wizened black woman toting her groceries, knocking her hat onto the sidewalk. “Ah, sorry, ma’am,” he slurred, giggling as he tried to replace the absurd pillbox on her grey curls.

Crazy honky bum! Get your filthy hands off me!”

Um, really, I apologise…” But she was already gone. He fell against the railing, still chuckling, and leant over to watch the cars whizz by, blurs of bright colour. He tilted the bottle to his lips, then realised it was already empty. “Fuck!” His drunken hilarity evaporated. He held the useless thing over the highway and released it. The clash of its shattering, the squeal of brakes as cars tried to avoid the spray of broken glass, gave him an odd satisfaction. Maybe for once I’ll cause the disaster, instead of being a helpless spectator.

And here’s a bit from Petersham, which hopefully captures a bit of the slightly creepy feeling of the place (which I am sure Sacchi will know well):

The afternoon was clear but cold. There’d be frost tonight. Kyle could tell by sniffing the air. He swung out the driveway and turned left, heading back up Quail Hollow Lane towards the village centre.

He strode along the gravel road, snug in his warm clothing, humming a Christmas song. His breath hung in white clouds in front of his face. He reached Main Street—Route 32—and considered turning around. The shadows were getting longer by the minute, though a few rays of sunlight still slanted through gaps in the trees. Moving felt so good, though—his lessons with Elspeth involved long hours of virtual immobility. He kept going, driven by restless energy, past the Congregational and the Baptist churches, the shuttered country store and the white-shingled houses clustered around the village green.

His eyes adapted to the dimness as dusk approached. He didn’t realise how late it had become until he heard the bell in one of the churches behind him chime five.

Damn! Elspeth will have my hide. Kyle wheeled around and began to retrace his steps at a faster pace.

The two-lane road was lonely and mostly empty. A pickup truck clattered by, laden with metal scrap, then vanished into the gloom. It was much colder now that the sun had disappeared completely. Kyle hurried along, his shoulders hunched and his hands in his pockets.

I even set one story, Almost Home, in the rural western Massachusetts town where I lived for twenty plus years. This MMF holiday tale takes place during one of New England’s famous blizzards, in a house modelled after my neighbors’ place across the street.

Suzanne had never seen stars so bright. The night sky was a black bowl above them, studded with blazing jewels. The snow blanketing the yard gleamed with some faint inner radiance. At the edges of the property, evergreens clustered in deeper shadow like silent sentinels.

She took a deep breath of the crystalline air, so cold and sharp it hurt her lungs. The tiny hairs inside her nose stood on end. Her earlobes felt like icicles. From the neck down, though, she was bathed in delicious warmth. The bizarre contrast almost made her giggle.

Smooth, hard muscle brushed her thigh. After a moment, roving fingers skittered across her lap and burrowed into her pubic fur. A fiery bolt of lust struck her core.

Gino!” she scolded. “Behave!”

Why should I?” asked her lover, rubbing his body against hers under the surface of the water. “Harry doesn’t mind. Do you?”

The lanky blond on Gino’s other flank grinned. “Not at all. Long as you keep up what you’re doing over here, that is.”

Harris had untied his ponytail. His golden locks flowed over his shoulders, darkening to sepia where wet. With his thin face and chiselled features, he looked like some warrior ascetic, a knight on a quest for some sacred prize. Suzanne could understand why Gino found him attractive. She wondered whether he really was one-hundred percent gay.

Leaning back against the redwood wall and closing her eyes, she allowed the peace of the night to enfold her. Her limbs were heavy. Her heart felt as though it was about to overflow.

The growl of motors and a rattling of metal reached her ears. Gino’s solar-heated hot tub was at the back of the house, away from the street. Still, the faint noise shattered the intense quiet of the snow-smothered night.

Ploughs,” said Harris, cocking his head in the direction of the sound. “At last.” He pointed to the cloudless sky. “Looks like they were wrong about more snow, though.”

These aren’t my only stories set in Massachusetts. Chemistry takes place in Cambridge. Mastering Maya is another Boston tale. The Understudy is set at a summer theatre in the Berkshires, the range of hills on the western border of the state. Rough Weather takes place on the beautiful island of Martha’s Vineyard. I’m sure if I thought a bit more deeply, I’d come up with other examples.

Living overseas, I don’t really miss much about the United States, but the New England landscape is an exception. Even though I left Massachusetts more than fifteen years ago, it still has a place in my heart. Not to mention in my fiction.


  1. Thank you for bringing me to a lot of the places I've lived too with your writing.
    I don't think I write about place in my poetry and short stories but a midwestern friend says he thinks of me as an LA writer so place much slip in there even though I live smack in the middle of Silicon Valley! I do pop down to LA several times a year.
    I just finished watching an eight episode series on TV called Sharp Objects, based on the book by Gilian Flynn. The town of Wind Gap, Missouri where the story unfolds definitely becomes a character in the story. I need to learn from them and you how to do that better. I tend to live inside my character's heads as opposed to where they physically reside. I did just finish a poem What To Do When, inspired by a fire down near Santa Barbara. Anyway, you're writing is so vivid and compelling Lisabet. And you're so prolific. You remain a great inspiration...

    1. Hello, Mary -- Writing places is not something I've set out to do deliberately. It's just that places get into my head.

      Are you working on a new collection of poems? Be sure to let me know when it comes out.

  2. As New Englanders I think our environs compel us to write about them, as evident by those who have gone before us: Hawthorne, Lovecraft, O'Neill.

    1. I'd forgotten that O'Neill was a New Englander!

      When I come back to the US, I'm always struck by how distinctive New England is. So much of the United States looks the same - generic. New England doesn't.

  3. I've been through Petersham a few times, but I'm really oriented farther south along the west side of Quabbin Reservoir. The site of your blizzard story, though, is fairly close, and I've roamed along that nearby river many times while a friend was fishing there. I've also explored the trails at the lower end of Quabbin that were once farm roads, passing the stone foundations and other remains of once-active farms that weren't, like so many others lower in the valley, submerged by the reservoir waters, but still had to be sold to the state and abandoned because of being in the watershed area. Intriguing, and sad.

    1. I would never have known about Petersham, except we had some friends who lived there. It's really off the beaten path.


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