In the Pacific Northwest “place” doesn’t yet qualify as a religion but it’s close. It’s a well-established article of faith among Northwesterners that where we live defines us. Our broad vistas and differing landscapes of high plains, mountains, ocean views, rivers and broad valleys, fertile farmland and moonscape volcanic lava fields make us who we are. And it also makes anything possible.
It’s not a modern phenomenon. For as long as humans have inhabited this part of the earth, their lives have been determined by what’s here. Native Americans didn’t have to chase game all over the west to survive like their Plains neighbors did. European settlers found what they couldn’t find in the old country or the American East or Midwest. I found what I wanted, too, even though when I first moved here from Philly, I thought there were too many trees and not enough history.
Now I know better. I have become who I am because of where I am. So I set my novels in Portland, Oregon and try to bring some sense of this special place into what I write. Most of my characters come to the city from another state just like real Portlanders. And like the actual inhabitants, they love Portland’s quirky charm.
In this live-and-let-live atmosphere, Nike execs, cowboys, hi-techies, artists, anarchists and entrepreneurs, locavores, microbrewers and loggers coexist. Sometimes it’s even hard to tell them apart. We all have closets full of fleece vests, Tevas, khaki shorts and battered backpacks. Except for the bicycle riders. They like Spandex or hipster dress. Or they ride nude. (Might want to reconsider buying that used bike in Portland.)
Like good Northwesterners, the characters in my novels are shaped by where they live—in “Beginning Again,” Liz and Collins, two Californians, find artistic freedom in NW Portland and the Wallowa Mountains, respectively. Sam, the city cop in the next novel, moved from Eastern Oregon but couldn’t leave his jeans and cowboy boots behind. Amanda, his love interest, came to Portland for college at Reed and stayed. No one smokes. Everyone has a favorite food cart. They eat, drink and listen locally. That means Washington County strawberries, micro-brews, pinot noirs and Pink Martini, Chris Botti and Storm Large.
I’ve thought about setting my stories in other interesting parts of the country, regions where I’ve lived or enjoyed visiting. But my characters insist that Dorothy got it right: “There’s no place like home.” And home is here, where we’ve found our place. Who am I to disagree with my characters?