Do you ever get a song in your head and can’t get it out? It happened to me the other day -- not just a song, but an entire soundtrack. I was doing a little yard work and stopped for a moment to appreciate what a nice day it was: a hint of Fall in the air, a cloudless blue sky, the sweet smell of newly-mown grass. And there it was, that fine song from the Broadway musical Oklahoma! Oh, what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day. So I went about my chores with a light heart and a quick step and all of those wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein songs from the musical bouncing around in my brain, like a ride in a surrey with the fringe on top.
I especially like the title song, which has the line, Ooooklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain. Hearing that, I could picture myself on a wind-swept stretch of prairie where you could see forever, as far as your imagination could take you. The song goes on to say, We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand! It occurred to me what a great sense of pride the song conveys – the pride of living in a good place where you can put down roots and put your heart and soul into making a good life. If the musical got it right, Oklahoma is a good place to live and a good state to be from.
When I get a train of thought going, it’s apt to take me all sorts of places, and this one took me to Dorsey Bascombe. He’s a character in my novel Old Dogs and Children – a successful businessman and mayor of his small southern town. On a business trip to New Orleans, he meets, falls in love with, woos, and eventually marries the lovely Elise. It is a far cry from New Orleans society to small town life, and Elise never fits in, never feels at home. Elise’s young daughter Bright – the heroine of my story – observes, She doesn’t belong here.
At one point Dorsey says, “When you choose a place, choose to live in it, you take from it and then you give part of yourself back.” Dorsey does that. He invests himself, his person and his resources, into the place where he lives, and does what he can to make it a better place. Elise, tragically, cannot.
Place is important to me, both as a person and as a writer. In the course of my life I have lived in a fair number of places, and I’ve tried to think of each of them as my home, to look for the things about them that make them unique and worth valuing, to invest some of myself in each of them. That translates to my storytelling, where place is crucial. My characters exist in a certain time and place and the where of their existence exerts a powerful influence on who they are and how they think and act. Some, like Dorsey, belong there. Others, like Elise, don’t. The way they fit in, or don’t, is central to their story.
I’m embarked on a new story, and again, place is essential. I have to understand the physicality and culture of it before I can truly get to know the people I have imagined to put there. How they deal with the where says a lot about who they are and where they’re likely to lead me.
I’m grateful for that beautiful morning I experienced a few days ago, the words and music from Oklahoma! it triggered in my heart and soul, and for the reminder of what the whole concept of home should be and how it impacts our lives. I’ll tell a better story because of it.