By Margaret S.
Several years ago, I wrote “Dealing at the
Dump” for an exotic location anthology. Because I only write about places where
I’ve spent a fair amount of time—I can’t watch HGTV and learn enough about a
faraway setting to give it credibility—I made a list of places I’d lived in New
England, New Jersey, Ohio, Atlanta, and northern and southern California. I
could have written another New Orleans story, but a Cape Cod setting appealed
to me, not at the fish pier, beach, or a seafood restaurant. I would set my
story at a town dump.
For most of my life, I spent all or part of
every summer at my grandparents’ cottage on Cape Cod. In addition to checking the
family mailbox at the local post office, where I studied the FBI’s most wanted
posters, we made a daily trip to the dump, throwing our household trash off the
cliff into the landfill. I describe a modern transfer station in the opening
pages of the story:
Haven dump had morphed from the stinking mounds of garbage and shrieking
seagulls of Kathleen’s childhood into a twenty-first center transfer station,
offering every kind of recycling imaginable, including composting food waste.
Furniture and household items went to new homes from the swap shop, magazines
and books free for the taking. Solar panels generating power covered the closed
portion of the old dump. In fact, very little garbage was collected and
compacted for transport to an off-Cape commercial incinerator.”
While promoting The Long Call, Ann Cleeves
described the process of creating a new character in a setting she had known as
a child. Certain things about a place—the clouds in a spring sky, longer
daylight hours as the spring equinox approaches, the resident seabird
population—never change. Though I had last visited the Cape in 2006, I could
draw on my memories of March visits. Spring comes late to the Cape, the
snowbirds returning from warmer climates, and cottage owners opening up their homes.
Cape Cod towns come to life by Memorial weekend, though Fourth of July is the
traditional start of the two-month summer season.
Once I had a setting and time of year, I needed
a crime. Finding a murder victim at the town dump seemed rather prosaic, but
drug dealing did not. My story opens when an elderly woman offers to sell
prescription opioids to Kathleen, the new dump caretaker. Kathleen refuses and
contacts the police, who have long-suspected the dump is the site of illegal
Kathleen is on the run from an abusive husband
and his girlfriend, hiding in plain sight in the caretaker’s cottage. She teams
up with her childhood friend, Jack, to assist the police in identifying the
members of a local drug ring and arresting them.
I added a second setting, where Kathleen and
Jack run their dogs on a Nantucket Sound barrier beach:
jetties had done their intended job, trapping and holding the sand on the
barrier beach in front of the marsh. The tide was receding, the waves gently
breaking on shore…She watched the sanderlings and sandpipers feed as they
scampered along the water’s edge.”
During one of my childhood summers, new
jetties were constructed, which involved bulldozers digging up great chunks of
peat and leaving them scattered on the beach. I was one of a pack of children
who built forts at the top of the dunes using blocks of peat, and then staged
battles, hurling the pieces of peat at the kids in another fort. In an enlarged
photo Jack gives Kathleen, she’s the only girl in a pack of boys, holding a
clump of eel grass and wearing a devilish grin. Me, age ten.
I’ll continue to write about Kathleen McKinnon’s
sleuthing adventures with her goldendoodle, Floyd. Her job as a dump caretaker
gives her access to a large cross section of the local population, offering
many possibilities for criminal activity.
Though my story wasn’t accepted for the
original anthology, Lyn Worthen will publish it in her Fall 2020 Cozy Villages of Death
Readers, do you enjoy learning about new
locations when reading? Writers, do you write about familiar locations, or
research new and different locales to set your stories?