When I was a child and I found myself in a museum, I’d start fantasizing about walking into the paintings, as the characters in Mary Poppins did when they jumped into the sidewalk art that Bert, the Chimney Sweep, created. I didn’t want to be with dancing penguins and galloping carousel horses, though. I wanted to walk beside the purple irises in Monet’s garden at Giverny or climb the red mountain peaks Paul Gauguin painted in his Tahitian landscapes.
Maybe this wish to immerse myself in a painting is what led me to fall in love with writing and photography, because the act of writing about or photographing something does, in a way, let you walk into a picture – you’re capturing that scene on your own terms.
Photography is only a hobby for me, but it’s a serious one. Since the age of six, I’ve had one camera or another in my hands, from the simplest of Kodaks to the string of Nikons that’s carried me through my adult life. Now that I’m writing books, I realize the value of having taken hundreds of thousands of pictures over my lifetime. I think they’ve sharpened the part of my mind that deals with visual images, making it easier for me to describe the places I create and to set the characters and the reader into those places.
For me, photography and writing are just two sides of the same coin. When I want to create a scene, I usually sit back, stare off into space for a while, and let the images appear and the details emerge. It’s like looking at a photo – I build the foreground, the background, create the time of day, the type of light, the weather. If I’m describing different places in a town, I gradually fill in the details over the course of the story, until the town becomes as significant as any character.
The fictional seaside town of Beacon, Maine, is the setting of The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café. When I thought about that town and how I wanted it to look, from its main street of small shops and businesses to its beach and country roads, the mental images I created were like a series of photographs I returned to again and again.
Ellen, the main character and a devout shutterbug herself, describes part of Beacon shortly after her arrival:
The morning air smelled of salt and a changing tide and I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm myself. Stopping at the sidewalk, I turned to look back at the inn, wondering why Brandy had ever booked me in there. With its three stories, white shingles, blue shutters, two chimneys, and a wraparound porch, the building sat about fifty feet back from the road, next to a gray house that was the home of the Beacon Historical Society.
After walking a couple of blocks, I turned the corner onto Paget Street, the main road through Beacon’s tiny downtown. On the right was a seawall with the ocean behind it, whitecaps glinting in the sun. A young mother and two little boys sat on the edge of the wall, looking at something in a pail—shells, maybe, or hermit crabs. Or maybe it was just a bucket of sand. I wished I had my camera. It would have made a lovely photo.
Visualizing Beacon, Maine and bringing it to life was the easiest and one of the most pleasurable parts of writing the book. It was like going through someone’s photo album and describing the contents, the only difference being that the album was in my imagination. I guess I can thank my camera and a lifetime of walking into pictures for that.