Writing from Afar

As some of you are no doubt aware, my wife and I split our time between two homes, spending half the year in Santa Cruz, California, and the other half in Hilo, Hawai‘i. I’ve lived in Santa Cruz since the mid-1970s, and my love for the locale inspired me to create my Sally Solari mysteries, which are set in the once-sleepy fishing and retirement community, now-bustling University town, full of trendy restaurants and tech start-ups.

Santa Cruz wharf and boardwalk beyond

Living in two places has many advantages, but it also has its downside. And one of the things that frustrated me when we switched to our dual-location life was that it seemed as if every time I started writing a new Sally Solari book, I’d be in Hilo—2,500 miles and an ocean away from the story’s setting.

I’m not alone in this. James Joyce penned his masterpiece, Ulysses, while living in Zurich, and in conjuring Dublin from far-away Switzerland, he famously wrote letters to friends back home asking for details such as the number of steps between various building and the types and colors of awnings and doors along the streets he was writing about.

Doors of Dublin

It’s of course far easier now than in Joyce’s day to recreate a location from afar, employing the likes of Google maps, YouTube videos, and online restaurant menus to measure the current pulse and goings-on of a city. And in preparation for my absence from Santa Cruz, I’d also take countless photos of the town—its historic fisherman’s wharf where Solari’s Restaurant is located, the busy shopping area, its beautiful beaches and coastal farmlands, the university high up on the hill. Images that I could peruse while in Hawai‘i, from which to draw inspiration and ideas for my new manuscript.

Now I find myself writing a brand new series, one set on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, and guess where I am. You got it: Santa Cruz!

But of late, I’ve come to realize that being away from the book’s setting while drafting a manuscript is not actually a bad thing. Because once absent from a place, the heart does indeed grow fonder, and I find myself eager to return to Hawai‘i in my mind’s eye.

And as I write about lovely Hilo town and its vibrant farmers market, its magnificent black sand beaches and active volcanoes, and its warm and generous people, the love and passion I feel for the place overflows onto the page (okay, computer screen) in a way it might not otherwise, were it possible to merely walk down the street and encounter all these lovely things in person. So perhaps being away from Hilo helps to make my writing more urgent and purposeful. We shall see.

Now, if only I could conjure a sweet Hawaiian papaya for breakfast…


Readers: Do you find that being away from a place you love makes it more desirable, more vivid in your imagination? Or is it more of an “out of sight, out of mind” kind of thing when you’re gone?

40 thoughts on “Writing from Afar

  1. Yes, I tend to think more fondly of places when I’m not there. A few years ago I visited Florida, a state where I once lived. I had forgotten how humid it gets until I went back. It was a good reminder of why I moved!

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  2. I definitely grow fonder the longer I’m away from a wonderful location. Case in point… all your photos and descriptions of Hawaii make me want to book the next flight out for a visit!

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  3. The fave of my Natalie McMasters books is Trafficked!, which is set in New York City. I went to high school in Manhattan in the 60s, and when not in school, my best friend and I roved all over Manhattan and the Bronx. I was great to virtually revisit The City when I was writing Trafficked! in North Carolina, although I confess I used an awful lot of Google street views to get the settings right. I also wrote a 1930s noir horror novel set in NYC, which presented an entirely different set of challenges. I’d never want to live there again for any number of reasons, but I do see future books set there.

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    1. I totally understand, Tom. I adore NYC, and have spent several months living there (even in the summer!). But although I look forward to returning there (we were just talking about it last night, as a matter of fact), don’t think I could live there full time. I’m definitely a town mouse, not a city mouse.

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      1. I would love to be rich enough to live in Manhattan part of the time. Even though I’ve only visited, I am a true NY-er, all elbows, impatience, and speed.

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    1. I’ve grown used to the slower pace of the South, as well as the innate courtesy of most people here. The thing I miss most about New York and New Jersey is the food…

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  4. I write about Cape Cod in my Cape Cod Foodie mysteries — obviously 😉 — and I miss it terribly when I can’t get there (which I haven’t been able to do since the pandemic started). I use my zillions of photos from around the area where my family used to live to prompt my memory, but I can’t wait to get back there this summer and take notes on all the little sights and sounds you tend to forget and can’t make up!

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    1. Yes, it’s things like sounds–and smells and tastes!–that are so hard to remember and recreate if you can’t actually visit a place. I hope you get to return to Cape Cod this summer, Amy!

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  5. Leslie, my friend, you have the life! I think your connection to a place determines whether or not you’re in an emotional place. My first ms was set where I live now – Los Angeles – and never sold because it was rather jaded. My two series set in places I don’t live right now did sell. People ask if I’m going to write about my experiences in show business and I say I don’t think I can do that until Hollywood is literally in the rear view mirror

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    1. I agree. Leslie has the life! Santa Cruz and Hawai‘i? Wonderful!

      (Ha! I can see why the L.A. ms was jaded, El. I would definitely read about your experiences in show business whenever you get around to it.)

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  6. It seems I only write where I am, but this is an interesting “problem” to have, Leslie! Oh, poor me, I have to be in Hawaii … I don’t feel bad for you one bit, my friend! ;-p

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  7. There are definitely a few places were absence makes the heart grow fonder. Disneyland is a huge one of those. Another is a state park in the redwoods where I grew up camping. I really need to get back there soonish. Sadly, it looks like this summer is out.

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    1. You just gave me a great idea for a murder mystery that takes place at…Disneyland! Okay, maybe that would be a bit weird. But it would be fascinating. I got to go “backstage” there when our high school marching band was in a parade, and it was amazing all the stuff there is behind the scenes.

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  8. I do much better writing about places I used to live. It’s not that I grow fonder, I think it’s that the place gets distilled in my mind. All the details, things that would get in the way of portraying it efficiently if I lived there, are gone, and I’m left with a place I can describe more easily. I don’t think I could write about a place where I live, actually. It’s my good fortune, sort of, that I’ve moved around a lot.

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  9. I love the pics you post from your bike rides, Leslie! Looking forward to your new Hawaii series!
    I started writing the Liv and Di series after we moved from Tennessee to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Writing about the fictional town of Dixie, Tennessee (inspired by some real towns) was therapy for a bit of homesickness for me as we settled into our new home!

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  10. Great post, Leslie! My first series is set in FL, where my parents lived for 30 years after I grew up. Now I’m working on a ms. set in my CT hometown (well…a fictionalized version). I’ve always thought that I used settings that worked best for my characters–but maybe they’re mostly for me. I just got back to NH last night from a quick trip to NYC, and today I’ve really, really been missing Brooklyn. I’m even nostalgic for the stuff I found so hard when I lived there, like tiny, walk-up apartments and people who don’t curb their dogs and having to navigate the 120-degree laundromat with 2 little kids. But details seared into memory? Definitely!

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  11. Leslie, it’s so lovely that you have two such beautiful places in which to live!

    True story: I tried to move my first book to the east coast (long story) which slowed me down for about a year. I had to keep looking up the tiniest details and double checking things. And it never felt right. As soon as I determined that the setting was going to stay in Colorado, then everything sped back up again. Funny how the book itself sometimes seems to decide.

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    1. Yes, the books–and characters–do so often tell us where to go, don’t they? And I love learning about Colorado (a place I’ve only visited via its airports) through your books, my dear!

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  12. Leslie, how wonderful that you get to call two beautiful locales home! (And that papaya looks amazing!!)

    For me, home is where the heart is and being away makes me love it all the more. I guess that must mean I’m in the right place. ❤

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  13. I look forward to reading your mystery set in Hilo. But what about the 5th “sense” Sally Scolari set in Santa Cruz? Local readers have been waiting for that!

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