Sunday, August 15, 2010


Back during the Year from Hell, I spent a certain amount of time developing a community called Away. Nobody ever went there on purpose. You took a wrong turn, at a time when you didn't have any place good to go anyway, your vehicle broke down, and there you were, stranded.

The point of view characters were the children of a woman in the middle of a crisis - their mother broke down at the same time as the car, and the kids had to cope. The side of the road has ripe berries. The younger girl meets a woman who is getting too old to manage her house and suggests that they can stay with her and help with upkeep rather than paying rent. The diner wants a waitress and takes the older girl for the job.

The population, economy, and culture of the town are odd. Everybody is friendly, but nobody is gregarious. The place is off the grid, and though many people have generators none of them have phones or computers. The food served at the cafe is produced locally. Most people garden, hunt, or forage in the surrounding countryside. Many of them seem out of touch with modern life, exhibiting and sharing outmoded skills and ways of speech. Nobody except children exhibits any curiosity about the outside world. Many of the locals seem to exist in a dreamy state of passivity, with any direction imposed by the more active members of the community, who are cheerful, productive, and endlessly patient. The girls find themselves unobtrusively supported on all sides as they take care of their mother, who gradually improves in this peaceful, undemanding atmosphere. The whole place is like a giant emotional swimming pool with enough people on hand to notice when anyone loses buoyancy.

Some of the people in Away are still recovering from PTSD contracted during the Civil War, or possibly the Mexican or Indian wars. It's a pocket dimension that can only be found by people who need it. Aging slows down there (less for children), and basic needs are easier to cover. So broken people have the time they need to mend - all the time in the world.

I could sort of see the shape that the story would take, with the mother improving, but not as fast as the older daughter would need her to; the girls discovering the nature of Away gradually; and the mother and younger daughter eventually reaching the point at which, though not ready to leave themselves, they can watch her get into the car (which a local has taught her to repair) and drive away from them into the wider world.

But all I ever did with it was world-building, notes and maps and house plans, working out who the people in town were and what eras they came from and why they had retreated here. I never resolved some of the practical problems (where does the oldest daughter fill up the tank to drive the car out?) or even gave the protagonists names. This was during the period when I felt that I ought to be able to write and was pressuring myself to do so, and I realized that the basic concept of the story was my brain's way of telling myself to back off.

I couldn't have a novel-worthy conflict take place in Away. The whole point of the place was that it deflected conflicts and relieved pressures, stripped life down to the point that the people who needed to be there, the broken people and the people who were breaking trying to hold those people together, could deal with what they needed to deal with. Maybe a profound, lyrical, insightful book could be written about such a place - but I guarantee you it can't be written by someone who stands in need of one at the time of writing! Even now, I think, I'm dragging the weight of the Year from Hell around with me too much to find the still, strong place from which such a book might be written. Maybe when I'm 90.

In case I don't live to be 90, here you go. At least making the house plans was fun.

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