Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jane Roper shares some of the bricks of experience that became the foundation for her novel Eden Lake.
Searching my memory for Eden Lake
When you write a novel, you have to be prepared to spend a long and concentrated time in the world you create. So you’d better make sure that world is a place you actually want to inhabit, for whatever reason — because it thrills you or intrigues you or challenges you or transports you to a time or place you love.
My novel, Eden Lake, takes place at a fictional summer camp in Maine, very much like the sort of progressive camps my parents worked at and owned, and where I spent every summer from the time I was born until I was fifteen years old. I have vivid, mostly fond memories of those places, and one camp in particular.
And while I did draw on some more traditional sources of research for my novel — I Googled some particulars of current events and pop culture at various points of the book’s time frame, which spanned 1968 to 1998 — most of my “research” was a matter of mining my own memory and a few photographs to create the world of my novel, and the things that happen within it.
- Me as a baby, sleeping in a lime green baby backpack, head against my mother’s shoulder, on a hike to Chimney Pond on Mount Katahdin. There is a daisy (perhaps placed for effect?) in my dangling fist.
- Me as a toddler, being pushed in a wheelbarrow by the wife of the camp director, in front of her sprawling vegetable garden. I am in overalls, she is in a long, paisley cotton dress.
- My mother, young and beautiful with long, blond hair, wearing a peasant blouse, and cotton skirt, standing in a meadow, playing a guitar and singing to a group of children half-hidden in the tall grass and wildflowers.
- Group photos of the staff, in tiered lines (sitting, kneeling, stooping, standing) in 1970s and 1980s attire (short Adidas shorts, ringer neck T-shirts) and hair (long, big), all looking much, much younger than they did to me when I was a kid.
- The smells of lake water, old farmhouses (mouse droppings, dust, old paint), camp cabins (unfinished wood, Pine-sol, damp towels), starchy dining hall food, wood smoke, cotton candy and fried dough at fairgrounds, harbors in coastal towns.
- Cat Stevens and John Denver songs, the pop and spark of the campfire, acoustic guitar chords, the rusty clang of the camp bell, songs on the bus being sung simultaneously in multiple keys, the thump of fiberglass canoes against the dock.
- Bug juice, fireballs and candy cigarettes, eggs cooked in bacon grease over a campfire, hot chocolate, Dutch Apple Dannon Yogurt from the camp store, lobster and steamers (wet and briny, warm with melted butter).
- The burn of the reins through my hands as my horse leaned down to eat grass on the side of the trail, again and again, as the riding instructor yelled at me not to let him push me around like that; the strangely pleasant sting of hot wax from the closing ceremony candles dripping through the cracks in the paper shield onto the thumb-side of my hand.
Things that happened in real life that don’t happen in the book, but which informed it nevertheless in a way I can’t quite explain.
- Seeing a swallow smack into a window of the dining hall and fall, putty-colored shit oozing from its body, seemingly pressed out by its tail, which relaxed slowly toward the ground.
- Looking at the grass and dirt stains on the seat of the white shorts of a chunky girl a few years older than me as we hiked the trail to the lake.
- Walking in a mostly-dry, stony stream bed with a group of fellow campers; the boy I liked, a few yards ahead, asking via one of the girls if I wanted to “go out” with him; me sending the message back that I didn’t really want to go out with anyone. I was too scared. (The last part I didn’t say).
- Feeling a sense of dread as I got onto the Tilt-a-Whirl at the Belfast fair because it was quite evident that the grizzled, thickset man operating it was drunk. The bus back to camp was leaving in ten minutes.
Things that happened in real life that also happen in the book:
- The camp director dropping candy from his single engine plane
- The long-haired Dutchman made up to look like a zombie on “Halloween Night”
- Making houses for gnomes out of sticks and watching, waiting for them to be inhabited.