From Dan Brown to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Tomie dePaola to Odds Bodkin, New Hampshire is home to all manner of great writers and storytellers. It’s also home to some great stories, no doubt a product of the state’s rich history; unique character; and scenery ranging from gorgeous fall foliage to desolate winter deathscapes that make everything from horror writers to poets to children’s book illustrators all feel right at home, whether they live here permanently or make NH their writer’s retreat getaway.
New Hampshire is my home state and I grew up amidst a wealth of its stories: from anecdotes of yesteryear to historical sites to Native American/First Nations folklore to the urban legends told by older kids in the neighborhood to ghost stories picked up over the years. The Granite State has influenced me in a thousand immeasurable ways, as a writer and as a person. It has shaped my politics, my language, my experiences, my view of the world, my culinary preferences, my values, and how likely I am to judge my West Coast friends and relatives when they complain about “the cold”.
It’s no surprise that New Hampshire also influences my work. Sometimes it does so in a roundabout way, such as which environments and archetypes I find interesting. For example, I have always loved epic fantasy and the often stubborn, independent-minded North found in many a fantasy world always spoke to me, for obvious reasons. Thus, I often feature similar lands in my work, though mine draw more from New England than from northern England and Scotland or Northern Europe, as I suspect more classic works of fantasy do.
Sometimes I find New Hampshire sneaking into my work without me realizing, such as in the case of the book I wrote for my senior thesis. The book was set partially in the fictional town of Black Keal Bay in Canada (Labrador, to be exact). In this fictional town there is a small, cramped library, not unlike the one I regularly visited as a child. I also described the town as “half picturesque postcard and half scrap heap”. I was not consciously thinking about my own hometown when I wrote this, but after looking through pictures I had taken of local fall foliage, I realized that description perfectly described it.
Sometimes the influence is more direct. A mislabeled building here, a repurposed church there (I often joke with my boyfriend that New England has what I call Schrödinger’s Church, where all buildings both are and are not a church until you go inside). I often have New England settings or characters from New England, both because I enjoy writing about them and because I feel it is something I can do accurately and authentically. And I just think New England and New Hampshire have a lot of stories worth telling.
I recently wrote a short story called “Iron River” that began with a New England setting and turned into a love letter to New Hampshire and the various types of people I grew up around there, including the people of the Concord Unitarian Universalist Church (who also shaped me quite a bit). In addition to the affectionate rendering of many facets of New Hampshire life, writing “Iron River” allowed me to vent some of my frustrations with tourists and people I’ve encountered who are woefully misinformed about the state. Written for a horror anthology, “Iron River” is a horror story all about how people who aren’t from New Hampshire and don’t know anything about New Hampshire can get themselves into trouble by underestimating how much they don’t know (perhaps some politicians should take note).
The story could have worked in any rural environ with a unique cultural microcosm and inclement weather, but, by placing it in New Hampshire, I got to have all kinds of fun with the archetypes and factoids I was already familiar with. I wove in a great deal of my own experiences, which makes for good fiction the way telling the truth makes for a great lie. Being set in Northern New Hampshire allowed me to draw from recent monster sightings and accompanying folklore from Maine, as well, albeit very, very loosely and with a large dash of creative license.
“Iron River” is so named because I wrote a song of the same, inspired by walking along the Contoocook River in Penacook on a grey day. The song then sat gathering metaphorical dust in an untouched file for months, as I had nothing to do with it. I realized partway into writing “Iron River” that by tweaking the end of the song a little, I could incorporate it into the story and make it part of the fictional New Hampshire folklore from which the horror elements of “Iron River” spring. In the story, the song is about another New Hampshire river and takes on a more sinister tone, but I think the song’s origins still lend it a sense of authenticity. It’s always satisfying when things come together like that.
Here’s an excerpt from “Iron River”:
Twenty minutes later the four adults were sitting in a cramped but colorful living room full of folk designed pillows and old rugs and tin soldiers on broad, white windows with the original molding intact. Phoenix lay on the floor playing with a toy robot Kenneth and Peggo had pulled from their suitcase to present to him. One reluctant bedtime, seven cups of coffee between them, and a game of charades later, Gwendolyn had broken out the ghost stories.
One needn’t bother with superstition to believe that New Hampshire is home to all manner of ghosts. From the old, creaky buildings to the moaning wind to the fact that any wrong turn can spit you out in Revolutionary-era farmsteads or forests just begging for an Abenaki hunting party or a mob of witchhunters to come rushing through. Once the local ghosts were exhausted, Gwendolyn told a story she’d heard in Maine about great wolfbeasts that stalked unsuspecting lambs and inattentive travelers.
The night ended in blueberry jam and butter on bread Gwendolyn and Phoenix had made that afternoon. By the second bite Peggo and Kenneth couldn’t bear to answer that they would only be staying a few days. Perhaps this might just be their soft place to land after all.
Of course, it’s easy to love New Hampshire in the fall. Just as it’s easy to enjoy ghost stories in a warm living room with coffee and company. It’s quite another thing to really, truly feel them on a dark winter’s night as the skeletal branch on the banging window sends shivers down your spine and deep into the quick of your bones.
Still, Peggo and Kenneth weren’t thinking about frozen pipes or poison wells or power lines gone down for days as cleanup crews clear 200-year-old trees snapped five ways from Sunday out of the road before they can fix it just in time for the next Nor’easter to come blasting through. They were thinking about pumpkins and hand-knit sweaters and apple cider fresh-pressed at the crafts fair. They were thinking of the shops for summer residents and fairweather tourists.
Kenneth was thinking of all the writers New England had turned out in its history…
And, on that note, NH Writer’s Week is a weeklong event put on by the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. Governor Hassan enocurages “all citizens, schools, businesses, and organizations to observe the week with appropriate activities and educational events in celebration of New Hampshire writers, their contributions to our state’s long standing literary tradition” (“Governor Hassan Issues Proclamation: NH Writers’ Week“). The event runs from November 3rd through December 6th. More information for the general public will be available once the official page on the New Hampshire Writer’s Project website goes live. In the meantime, writers and bloggers can get involved here by sharing an event to the NHWP calendar, offering to be available for local book clubs who might want to read your book, sharing a blog post on the New Hampshire author website tour, or sharing the NH Writer’s Week 2014 poster in your neck of the woods (or your neck of the internet).
I encourage all the NH writers, bloggers, storytellers, and other book-related folks to get involved. I likewise encourage all of the book-loving people of NH to likewise get involved and check out some of the events going on that week or take a gander at the local author shelf at your friendly neighborhood bookstore. Or, if you don’t have an indie bookstore near you, you could take a peek at this anthology featuring yours truly, now available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Or you could check out any number of other books available on Amazon by fine NH writers if my shamelessly self-promoted work isn’t quite your speed. Writers and readers of the Shire unite! And to all of the writers out there participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck and may the word counts be ever in your favor.