Monday, February 29, 2016

When a Place is Simply a Place: Thoughts on Proper Names, the Writing Process and Research

I picked up this book from the library the other day. No, I am not considering a new career in corrections. It's for research. I have this great looming question about a character in Swim Season that's been bugging me for ages and I finally had to put it to rest. 

Devon, my heroine's mother, is incarcerated. An Army nurse with two tours of duty in the Middle East, Devon came home with complications from a blast injury, chronic pain, opiate addiction, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Desperate, depressed, and in pain, she resorted to stealing drugs from her employer, from her patients who needed them. Once caught, she took a plea deal to three counts of felony falsifying business records in the first degree, and three counts of misdemeanor petit larceny. The felony charges carry a potential sentence of 1⅓ to three years in state prison.
In describing this situation I struggled with how to refer to Devon's whereabouts in the story. Was she in prison? A correctional facility? A drug treatment center for convicted felons? Jail? Every time I referred to her location I used different words. It confused me, and I knew it would confuse my readers, so I questioned the correct terminology. I’m a stickler for details and this was one detail I wanted to get right.
I thought coming up with the right terminology would be simple. I did some internet research and surprisingly couldn't find a satisfying answer. I then referred to my local library and came up with one book that I thought would give a simple description of the New York State prison system, the book in the picture. I checked it out and two minutes after I cracked it open realized it did not hold the answer for me either.
In the meantime, while waiting for the book to come in, I had an epiphany: Since I was having so much difficulty describing where Devon was perhaps Aerin, my heroine, was also struggling. After all, she's just a kid, and the thought of her mother locked away in prison is more than she can bear. Perhaps she can't bring herself to speak the words prison, correctional facility, drug treatment center, jail. Perhaps the best she can do is refer to the place that holds her mother as simply that: the place.
This was not a new idea. Jack Harmon, my hero in Blue Hydrangeas, faced the same quandary. Confronted with placing his beloved wife Sara in an assisted living facility, Jack can’t bring himself to speak those words, and refers to Sara's new home as the place.
This approach relieves me of a troublesome problem. I'm no longer tasked with figuring out the proper terminology of describing where Devon is (correctional facility is the proper term I finally learned) and Aerin's inability to speak the words adds an additional layer of tension to the story and deepens her characterization. She mentions correctional facility once and from then on it's the place, conjuring all kinds of images and emotions.
This is the depth and length of thought and research that goes into my writing. Something that seems so simple and inconsequential becomes a time-consuming, analytical issue. In the end, the solution seems so simple it's hard to believe it took so long to get there.
Funny thing is, it's the best part of writing the story. 
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