I’m writing a book about a woman who makes porcelain portrait dolls, each a one-of-a-kind portrait of a real girl. The first two dolls she made were for her daughters – Janey when she was a toddler, and Vanessa a few years older. Janey dragged that doll around with her everywhere, and when she was four, both she and the doll disappeared. Forty years later, the doll comes back.
Early on, I decided the story took place in the south. I envisioned the characters living in the historic section of Beaufort (BUE-fert), South Carolina, a stately town set in the crook of the Beaufort River. I’d been there twice and it’s one of those incredibly picturesque places that stick with you.
I wrote half the book, coasting on memory and, as it would turn out, running on fumes. A few weeks ago I made a trip to Beaufort, hoping to absorb enough ambience and history so that my version of the town wouldn’t embarrass me. I stayed in an inn in the part of town where I imagined my characters living.
What I discovered was a town that is not only beautiful and varied, but one that has a rich colorful history, some of it so wild it defies fictionalization except by a genius writer like John Berendt. For instance, his voodoo priestess “Minerva” in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is based on Valerie Fennel Aiken Boles who lived in Beaufort. The city named its McTeer Bridge for a famous sheriff who was widely believed to be a white witch doctor.
Beaufort was just as picturesque as I remembered. Live oaks dripping with Spanish moss lined the main streets. Shrimping is a local industry, and shrimp boats like the one Officer Dan jumped off in Forrest Gump (filmed in Beaufort), fish up and down the river. Oysters grow in clusters so plentiful that at low tide, masses of them are visible at the edges of the river and on pilings. At low tide, people walking in the marsh’s pluff mud risk having their boots sucked right off their feet. The tide there rises and falls 9 feet, so if you get stuck in the mud for long enough you'll be a goner.
I realized in short order that I couldn’t possibly learn as much as I needed to in order to do justice to Beaufort. So I did what writers do – search and replace! Beaufort became Bonsecours. Like Beaufort, Bonsecours has a gorgeous historic old town, bridges, marinas, live oaks and magnolias and pecan trees. Its modern police station has a “fallen officers” memorial outside. Its historic center is also home to a state university campus, tucked into the elbow of the river. But I hope calling it Bonsecours gives me license to invent a fictional place inspired, truly inspired by Beaufort.
Here’s my description of Vanessa Woodham arriving in Savannah and driving to Bonsecours:
The women at T. F. Green airport departure gates had been clothed in shades of gray and black, most of them wearing jackets and sweaters and boots. In Savannah women were in short sleeves and bright colors, and the FlipFlop Stop was doing a brisk business. The car Vanessa rented was a nondescript gray compact which fortunately had New Jersey plates and honked when she pressed the remote or she’d never have picked it out in a crowd.
She entered the hospital address into her phone’s GPS. Found a country and western music station, cranked the volume, and drove, trying not to think about what she’d find when she got to the hospital.
We’re not in Kansas any more she thought as she passed billboard after billboard on the Interstate hawking fireworks (“Buy One Get One FREE!” “Get the best BANG for your buck!”) You could get arrested in Rhode Island for just having a sparkler in the trunk of your car.
She continued on, exiting the highway and continuing across the vast Port Royal Sound. She’d forgotten how much sky there was here, blue in all directions with turkey vultures teetering high overhead. Live oaks arching across from the sides of the road were the first hint that she was getting close. Their spreading branches dripped with pale gray Spanish moss which hung indiscriminately telephone wires and fences, too.
Hoping this will pass muster with my southern friends.
Today's question: How important is it that the setting of a book ring true to the people who live there? Have you had that experience where a single oh-so-wrong detail yanks you right off the page?