The Real Setting for my Story World

Taken from the corner of the fuel doc on 12-1-2014

The west corner of St. Helens Marina taken from the corner of the fuel dock on 12-1-2014

One of the main settings in my novel Checkmate First Mate is St. Helens Marina, Oregon. It’s a very real and dynamic location even though the characters, homes, and businesses in my novel are all creations of my imagination. It’s been at least ten years since I visited St. Helens Marina, until today. This picture shows one of the river homes amid the moorage slips. It also shows the steep hillside with homes facing the river, but the one I created in the novel doesn’t really exist.

path up the hill

The path that leads up the hill from the marina still winds through overgrown bushes with uneven rock steps.

The family ownership aspect of the marina was spawned by a conversation with a lively old local seaman, many years ago. I do not remember anything else of his story, it may have been a historical fact or rumor. It’s really more a memory of a story and was probably from one of our first visits to the marina.

It was one of our favorite excursions, navigating Multnomah Channel from the Willamette River to where it joins the mighty Columbia at St. Helens.

There are two scenes in the novel which feature the path up the hill and I was happy to see it is still there, and as raw and overgrown as I remember.

cropped town

Cropped town hallThe old town section of St. Helens looks as charming as I remember with the historic buildings and classic movie theater. For a Monday afternoon in December there were a lot more people and cars in the historic district than I expected. It also felt very spruced up and cared for with pride.

Two enticing shops were stocked with local crafts and antiques. There was a catering/bakery with enough aromas sneaking through the cracks, of tightly sealed doors, that my mouth watered in the brisk winter air.

The smell of buttered popcorn surrounded the entrance of the movie theater even though it was closed. The windows were sparkling clean and the interior featured red velvet and gold braided ropes reminiscent of the luxury and magic of attending the cinema. It has not been turned into a high tech multiplex.

Now you know St. Helens and the marina are a real place you can visit even though the people and places featured in my novel are fiction.

The one factual piece in the novel relates to the cabin cruiser “Clown-N-Around” which was the boat we owned from 1998-2005. I was driving when the drive shaft broke and we were actually caught in the channel with nothing but a tiny oar. We did need a rescue but the current had taken us almost back to where we launched so it was more like a 20 minute tow, and there were lots of recreational boaters out that day, and no big barge was barreling down on us. Nor did we try sculling or harnessing the wind.

As of this week I am finally able to work on companion stories for some of the cast of characters introduced in Checkmate First Mate. I needed the inspiration of a road trip to local settings and some sections of St. Helens will probably appear in this new story.

Here’s some other scenes and views of the area that readers of my novel may recognize and enjoy!

Melanie and her mom Angela have a fun scene at a pavilion in the park and it looks bigger and better now.

Melanie and her mom Angela have a fun scene at a pavilion in the park. This one is bigger and more square than the one I featured.

Looking west, with a large cargo ship in the channel on the Columbia - probably half a mile from where I took the picture.

Looking west, with a large cargo ship navigating the channel on the Columbia, I think it is probably a quarter of a mile from where I was standing.

Looking north-east from the park in town. That's probably Washington and some of Sauvie Island.

Looking north-east from the park in town. That’s the Washington shoreline and a point of Sauvie Island.

Sounds of Music but No Story

We were excited to view the live remake of the Broadway version of The Sound of Music as Ed and I only know the 1965 movie, however, we know it really well. The videos of our first tour through Salzburg in 1992 includes visiting the gardens and gazebo from the movie with me in Maria (Julie Andrews) poses. Ed even spliced in clips from the movie so our young daughters would recognize where their parents were in those same movie scene locations.

Ed and I were in Salzburg again in 2008 and took the “Sound of Music” tour and loved it, especially singing all the songs on the bus. The Austrian locals are amused by tourists, who are so in love with the movie and songs, as they feel the true story is more interesting. But the Hollywood version has helped fund a lot of estate repairs and garden maintenance in the past four decades, so it’s an extra layer of story for locals and movie fans to discuss.

This Thursday was a live TV event so we made movie-night-plans and that’s why we watched all the way to the end. If we were alone and at home Ed and I would have given up after the first, or second, commercial break. But our niece Kathy, and her children (ages 8 & 10) had planned for this special evening with pillows and popcorn, all week. Kathy has theatrical training and is a professional singer, Ed is a Carrie Underwood fan, and I was hoping for some story flavor relating to the Maria Von Trapp memoir I’d read years ago.

We were all disappointed.

It’s sad if this epic fail is hung on the talent of the actors. That’s wrong because they were doing their best to live up to legendary heroes. It’s the directors, and writers, and objectives of the producers (maybe ad dollars to cover the $9 million cost?) that need to be questioned as to how a story this strong, and an amazing cast, would present three hours of lame and confused entertainment.

It’s good that I have no memories of the original Broadway musical but I’ll now have nightmares about bobbing heads under the bed singing about the goat-herd romance. There was no relationship building, no romance, and no story value to the historical events.  Even worse, the passion and purpose for living that was threatened with The Third Reich regime was lost in bad acting and awkward scene staging.

Kathy’s children were wide awake and totally confused by the end of the show. Fortunately, the Hollywood movie version will answer most of their questions.

As I have edelweiss both preserved in glass and in paintings on my walls, I was not pleased with the fake daisy-like flowers Carrie clutched at one point.

The irony of all this is today I was communicating with Kristina McMorris – bestselling author of Letters from Home, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, and most recently The Pieces We Keep to create  a workshop about weaving historical and factual character details into your story in fresh, succinct ways to maintain pacing – and her novels are framed by WWII.

Our history includes greater horrors than wars and it can be silly when those stories are portrayed through a romance with song and dance. Maybe Carrie Underwood fans will be curious enough now to learn some history and why the Von Trapp Family story was worthy of being “remade.” Maybe they’ll be engaged in news worthy events to suddenly hear the name Nelson Mandela.

There’s a reason for everything, and I always try to put a positive spin on the hypocrisy of spectacles I observe.

A Discovery of Witches – A Novel

I always love when a book with a tantalizing title also has “A Novel” in tiny text on the cover. This is important to note as it means there’s truth between the pages, and the potential for emotional journeys and entertainment for the reader.

A Discovery of WitchesMy sister recently read A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness and handed it to me as a “must read” with the qualification that Ms. Harkness is a historian with a variety of scholarly credentials and an award winning Wine Blog! That’s a triple score for me. I promised a friend she could read it after me so I started reading on Sunday morning, without even a glance at the blurb, and by the time I hit page 200 I had to pause and laugh because:

1. Nothing had really happened yet in the story

2. I was reading a vampire romance (I don’t!)

3. There’s all kinds of history and science references discussed – in a library (No Action!)

4. I was having the most enjoyable reading experience!

I finished this book on Tuesday afternoon, an hour before leaving for grandson activities. I’m a fast reader but I closed the book for a leisurely excursion with Ed on Sunday, and took care of all kinds of home/work tasks while in the flow of the story. This is a book that does not grab-you-by-the-throat-to-keep-turning-pages-in-nail-biting-need-to-find-out-what-happens-while-you-burn-dinner-can’t-sleep-  BUT it does tantalize in the opening paragraph and continues to do so, with every word.

It’s a book to savor, and I will many times, because as a writer I reread and review. Stories that improve with each reread – remain. And this is one I will reread soon, when I get it back from my friend, and before I lend it to my daughter.

The final chapters revealed that this stage of the story is over, in only 579 pages and with no surprise tornado, and all the characters wandered away to rest and regroup for when the next stage of the story will begin. Fortunately book 2 is already available, but it’s a trilogy and according to the author’s website the final part is still in process.  I’m content with book one.

Here’s what the story is about that makes it timely/or timeless:  forbidden love. Two species may not mingle. Witches and Vampires cannot be friends – or marry. This basic plot has been part of the human social order during my life whether it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry, or Jew-gentile, same sex partners, or even those forbidden marriages between Catholics & Christians! What makes A Discovery of Witches unique is it includes the forbidden marriage between science and magic.

I love characters who know their stuff when they discuss technology, philosophy, science, history, magic, and moon phases. I’m a really picky reader with lots of go-to authors so I will pass by many books unless someone I trust says, “You’ve gotta read this.”

I’m glad I did.

This story includes libraries, a family homestead, herbal teas, cookies, and a variety of great wines – all my comforts. I’d add most of the characters to my Christmas Card mailing list even though their addresses exist in the 4th dimension. Sigh.

A Novel can take decades to create and be read in a few hours or days by a reader. Yet when a classic plot is transformed to explore a social truth in a new way, the reader benefits from that point of view.

The story begins with an old book and I have a collection of old books from my dad. Now I’m fighting a sudden urge to go inhale their dusty scent and feel the energy of the covers. Now I also have this truth repeating in my head:

A Novel is only created in a Write Mind when Time has no hold on the story.


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