A few years ago, the childhood home of Kurt Cobain, the tragic lead singer of Nirvana, hit the auction block. I followed the story with interest, mostly because he and I grew up in the same town. And we were impacted by that— sometimes in similar ways, sometimes very differently.
Recently, the home town we share, quiet little Aberdeen, Washington, celebrated Kurt Cobain Day, in honor of his birthday. It is hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since he took his own life.
How our hometowns shape us as writers
In a novel, the setting sometimes has deep meaning—to the characters, plot and theme.
In Cobain’s relatively short, troubled life, the little logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, the town The Bark Peeler’s Daughter’s Harbor City is based on, was everything he despised. He walked the same gray, rainswept streets I did. We even went to the same elementary school and high school (at different times).
And though he left soon after his high school years, that little town impacted him enough that he later sang about the muddy banks of the Wishkah River. I felt his angst (though I know nothing about being kicked out of my home, as he was, and sleeping under the North Aberdeen Bridge, that crossed the Wishkah in one spot, as he did).
In Aberdeen, it is damp and cold and misty for most of the year. The weather can alienate you and make you hunker down inside yourself, even if you have some place to call home. If you don’t, ‘under the bridge,’ conjures murky water and trolls and a deep-seated loneliness. If, on top of that, you are you a depressed, unfulfilled creative, as Cobain was, Aberdeen can be a very dark place.
When setting matters in story
Setting can impact story in complex ways. It can even, in some cases, become a character itself. Viewing the world through the grittiness of a town like Aberdeen can color the way a child looks at the world—and his or her hope for a place in it. It did for me:
In the 1960s, Harbor City, Washington was a small mill town of weather-beaten clapboard houses. The fog drifted in from the Pacific Ocean as religiously as the tides, and hovered over the muddy river and pasture lands. The clouds gathered offshore, seeding the rain that moved in a wave from the sea, to the river, to the town, with no mercy, from Advent to Easter and into the summer.
The grass was squishy with mud, and spirits weary from the constantly hovering rain clouds. Saturating the ground and mixing with the warm air, the rain bred the mold that invaded houses and made rooms smell musty, even with the windows open.
Gabrielle came to identify the visitors by the umbrellas they carried. If you were a true Harborite, you had no use for an umbrella. Most days, the residents cheerfully moved from place to place in the drizzle, hatless, blissfully unaware of their dripping hair and squishy shoes.
Like Cobain, Aberdeen made my novels’s main character want to move away. And she ran from it the first chance she could get. Because she knew if I she stayed, she would end up waitressing at Duffy’s Restaurant or ringing up diapers at WalMart.
And as I wrote my novel, I found myself constantly drawing on the pain and the utter aloneness I felt growing up there.
It just seems to be one of those books where the land, the town, the place becomes one with the story.
What about you?
Have you ever read a book that has such a strong sense of place that the characters seem inextricably connected to it?