Location, location, location: how I started writing beach reads – Jamie Brenner

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By Jamie Brenner

If you had asked me a few years ago what component of a novel really gets me going creatively, I would have said first plot, then characters. This changed when I began working on my third novel The Forever Summer, and setting edged its way into the foreground, altering not only the way I looked at that particular novel, but how I looked at the entire writing process.♥

My starting point for The Forever Summer was the idea of two young women who learn they are half-sisters and how this discovery changes both of their lives. At first, I assumed this would be another Manhattan story; my previous novels were set in New York City. The Gin Lovers was a historical family drama taking place in the 1920s. My next novel, The Wedding Sisters, was contemporary and centered around an Upper East Side family coming apart at the seams as they planned for three weddings at the same time.

But as I began plotting The Forever Summer, I realized this book was taking me out of my geographic comfort zone. The women needed to go on a road trip, some journey to help them bond. But a trip to where? Around the time I was trying to put the pieces of this story together, I watched a CBS Sunday Morning segment on Provincetown, Massachusetts. Provincetown is at the very tip of Cape Cod. It’s two miles long and three streets wide and framed by water on three sides and known for its stunning natural light.

But it wasn’t the physical beauty that sold me on the place: it was observations from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham, a longtime resident. He called Provincetown “an eccentric’s sanctuary.” He said it’s one of the very few places he knows of that “prefers peculiarity.” His interview gave me the idea that Provincetown was a setting where my characters could not only come to terms with their unconventional family but fully embrace it.

Of course, I had to see Provincetown for myself. One week after watching the CBS Sunday Morning show, my husband and I made the six-hour drive from New York City. I tried to keep my expectations low; how often have you seen a place online or on television and then you get there and it’s not quite how it was represented? That was the opposite of my experience arriving in Provincetown. I was utterly charmed by the place and the people, the sense of community and the pervasive culture of art and artists.

I discovered a waterfront hotel called The Anchor Inn Beach House that gave me the idea for the grandmother in my story to run a bed-and-breakfast. An art installation on the wharf entitled, “They Also Faced the Sea” taught me about the town’s rich history of Portuguese immigrants. The colorful tiled mosaics everywhere became a leitmotif of The Forever Summer. By the time I left, Provincetown had defined my story for me. This type of intense and immediate inspiration brought on by setting was something that had never happened to me before when writing, but something I hoped to find again. I had a new favorite setting for novels: beach towns.

When it was time to write my new book, The Husband Hour, I again started with a premise: The young widow of a war hero retreats from the public eye but is tracked down by a documentary film maker determined to learn the truth about her husband. I needed a location, and since I’d had such a great experience with a beach town for The Forever Summer, I wanted to find one for this novel. I knew that whimsical Provincetown wasn’t the right fit. Instead, I looked closer to home, to the place where I had the best memories of my childhood: Longport, New Jersey. Longport is on Absecon Island, a barrier island on the Jersey Shore.  It’s the place where I spent every summer growing up and to this day associate with happiness and a sense of security. I needed a place for my heroine to lick her wounds and rebuild her life, and what better place than the town that had given my childhood summers such a happy foundation?

Once again, setting shaped my story.  The Shore’s miles of boardwalk edging the beach gave me the idea to make my heroine a runner. Landmarks like Lucy the Elephant and regional food like the cheesesteaks and “hoagies” gave the book character. A local café called Hannah-G’s became a fictional restaurant called Nora’s (of course, I then had to create the “Nora” of Nora’s).  One idea led to another, until a fully populated story began to form. Writing certain scenes, like a Fourth of July fireworks moment shared by three generations, brought me back to my own experiences standing on that very boardwalk. My nostalgia helped imbue this story with emotion.

The thing about writing novels, whether it’s your first or fifth, is that it’s never easy. It’s always a puzzle. Allowing setting to be my guide for my beach books has helped me put the pieces together a little more easily – and given me the perfect excuse to discover new places and revisit ones close to my heart.

Jamie Brenner is the author of the national bestseller The Forever Summer (Little, Brown), a novel People magazine calls, “A captivating tale of family secrets and strong women.” Her new novel, The Husband Hour, publishes today, April 24 (Little, Brown). Jamie lives in New York City with her husband and two teenage daughters.



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