Readers who want to be writers sometimes tell me that they’re at a disadvantage because they’ve never lived anywhere interesting enough to set a book.
Where Can I Set My Novel?
Aren’t we glad Agatha Christie, who set all her Miss Marple books in St. Mary Mead, a provincial village in England, never thought that way? Or how about Jane Smiley, whose many successful literary novels are set in America’s pastoral Midwest? Similar examples are legion. Every place is interesting if an author digs deeply into the culture, the psychology, and the unspoken convictions, and lets them seep into her novels.
Some places, though, are just instantly more interesting than others. And often they’re right around the corner. This summer, I visited, as I have half a dozen times before, Lily Dale Assembly, about ten miles away from my summer home in Chautauqua, NY.
Chautauqua, a non-profit educational and ecumenical center and community, isn’t your average American burg. Each summer during the nine week season Chautauqua draws some of the best and brightest talent in our wide world for lectures, concerts, theater productions and much more. As I write this, drifting in through my open windows are the sounds of our symphony, made up of professionals from symphonies nationwide, as they rehearse Tchaikovsky for tonight’s concert. From the other side of the grounds, applause drifts from the Hall of Philosophy, where a lecture about media’s influence on political tensions is underway.
What a great place to write this blog.
Lily Dale Assembly
Just a few years after the founding of Chautauqua, which started life as a teaching camp for Methodist Sunday School teachers, (1874) Lily Dale Assembly got it’s own start. From the beginning it was a far cry from a haven for Methodist Sunday School teachers. Lily Dale is the largest center for the Spiritualist movement, and every year in excess of 22,000 seekers arrive to enjoy the peaceful lakeside setting and experience spiritual healing or messages from loved ones who have passed to the spirit world.
Spiritualism is not a cult. As a religion Spiritualism, which blossomed about the time Lily Dale was founded, once had more than 8 million followers in the U.S. and U.K. Most of its believers were among the middle and upper classes. Today Spiritualist churches still believe that the spirits of the dead are willing to communicate with the living, and that they have important messages to share.
This year I went to Lily Dale to visit two writer friends who were there to enjoy it for a few days. We relaxed together, making time to visit a local winery (yes, chocolate wine exists and I now own three bottles), ate a great lunch in nearby Fredonia, and visited a message service.
My friends love the laid back atmosphere at Lily Dale, and spend their time attending classes if something intrigues them, or going to healing or message services. Neither is a Spiritualist, but like many other visitors, they find the grounds peaceful and healing.
The first time I visited Lily Dale I came home with an idea for a saga about a Spiritualist family over the generations. Apparently the spirits who sent me the idea knew as little about the publishing world’s future as I do, because even before the idea began to grow, sagas lost their place in the market, as did paranormal subjects involving ESP or clairvoyance—zombies and vampires won the day. After two strikes without even swinging my bat at home plate, I knew better than to move forward.
Another time, out of curiosity, I visited a medium for a reading who said he had contacted my grandfather—a man I never met—who wanted me to know he was sorry for the way he had lived his life. Since I’ve always felt that my own father’s problems probably related strongly to his father’s, I found this “encounter” to be a healing experience, even while I remain skeptical. The medium was a very kind man who told me his own life story—some of which helped me form a character in one of my novels.
Nothing is ever wasted on a novelist.
Just Ten Miles Away
Ten miles away from my summer home—which is interesting enough—there’s a little village of mediums and mystics busily talking to spirits and healing those who ask for help.
If you want to be a writer? Please don’t tell me you’ve never been anywhere interesting to write about. If you do I will sit you down and tell you all the books I’ve written in places not known for their local color. Then I’ll tell you to drive ten miles in any direction and write about whatever you find.
BTW, today I’m driving ten miles in a different direction to tour an old hotel at Bemus Point and have tea with one of the first people to welcome me to Chautauqua and Lily Dale. Surely there’s a book there, too?
Interested in knowing more about Lily Dale or Spiritualism? HBO created a wonderful documentary about Lily Dale several years ago. Among other places you can find it here. There are also non-fiction books and novels about Lily Dale and I found Nine Lives by Wendy Corsi Staub, who grew up nearby, captured the “spirit” of the place.