Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hey, Hon

by Libby Malin

I can't get it out of my head: Oh, oh, oh/Woke up today/Feeling the way I always do. . .

Yup, the first lines to "Good Morning, Baltimore!" from Hairspray.

Tonight, hubby and I head to Lancaster's American Music Theater to see a touring production of this musical, the tickets a Christmas gift from our son.

Going to see this show means we'll miss watching the Baltimore Ravens face off against the Baltimore, er, no, the Indianapolis Colts.

As a Baltimore native, it hurts to write "Indianapolis" in front of that sports team's name (sorry, all you Hoosiers!). I remember the heartache the city's residents experienced when, in the middle of the night, March 29, 1984, Mayflower vans moved the Colts from Charm City to the Midwest.

That pain cuts deep. At my father's funeral two years ago, a cousin reminisced about that day, the bitterness still in his voice. It was a fitting tribute. My father had been a big Colts fan, idolizing Johnny Unitas. He would have enjoyed the conversation and joined in the indignation.

The Colts are gone, but I have no trouble rooting for the Ravens, the only NFL team I know that's named after a character in a poem! That poem's author, Edgar Allan Poe, is buried in Baltimore, and for a half century, a "mysterious stranger" has left a partial bottle of cognac and three roses at the gravesite on the anniversary of Poe's birth.

When I grew up there, Baltimore was a real smokestack town, with a Bethlehem Steel plant near the harbor at Sparrow's Point (if someone mentioned they worked at Sparrow's Point, you knew they were a Beth Steel employee) and all sorts of industry crowding up against its waterways, including the always-fragrant McCormick Spice company (once located where the glittering Harborplace stands, now moved to the north of town).

A lot of those businesses have left, but a drive through the city to the south toward DC still takes you through areas crammed with trucks, containers, and light industry. Baltimore is a working man's town, a tough little city with its own architecture--street after street of rowhomes with marble steps and religious paintings on window screens--and even its own accent (John Travolta does a pretty good job of it in the movie version of "Hairspray.")

People who speak Bawlmerese say "hon" a lot -- "I'm goin' dannie ocean for vacation, hon" -- and there's even a diner-like Cafe Hon in the old mill section of the city called Hampden. Cafe Hon recently was at the center of a signage controversy over huge pink flamingos adorning its building. Hampden itself is host to an annual "HonFest" where big hair, lycra, bowling shirts, and leopard prints are encouraged.

That's not the whole story the city has to tell, though. Baltimore is also home to high culture and great intellectual endeavors and philanthropy -- Peabody Conservatory of Music and the world-famous Johns Hopkins Hospital and University.

The University nestles against a couple of the city's oldest and finest neighborhoods, where once Baltimore's high society could find their names listed in an exclusive "blue book."

To bring this back to writing, my affection for Baltimore leads me often to putting the city into my novels. Three of my young adult novels are set there, as is my very first humorous women's fiction. Fire Me is set just a hop, skip, and jump down I-95 in DC, with the hero's family located in Baltimore. The protagonist in My Own Personal Soap Opera was raised there. And the hero of my work-in-progress is a professor at a university in Bal'mer.

Robin Kaye blogged about special places earlier this week. Are there any special places you find yourself writing about often? How do you choose where to set your stories? And do you like to get a sense of a place from the novels you read?


  1. One of the things that I enjoy about reading is the places that authors take me to I haven't travelled very much at all. I haven't even travelled all around Australia yet I have been to a couple of the other States but not all of them.
    So when reading historicals contemparies or parnormals I like to get a feel for the places they are set, and I thank you authors for taking me on great travelling adventures.

    Have Fun

  2. I loved living in Portland & Tigard (Heart of the Wolf), Oregon and the surrounding areas (Seduced by the Wolf) and seeing Mount Hood in the vista, visiting it, the St Bernard sleeping by the fireplace at Timberline Lodge, the skiers soaking in the hot tub with snow covering the decks. Eventually, I was a skier swimming in an indoor/outdoor pool in the Colorado snowy night after a day of hitting the slopes. I loved the Oregon beaches (To Tempt the Wolf), and the quaint silver mining town of Telluride, Colorado (influenced my pretend Silver Town in Destiny of the Wolf and Wolf Fever). So yeah, it's fun writing about places I've lived and have so many wonderful memories of.

  3. terry, I know what you mean. We lived in Vermont for 16 years, so writing stories set in Baltimore was a way for me to revisit the area.

  4. Hi Libby~ I live just outside of Baltimore but to me it feels like a foreign country. Cities make me nervous if I don't know my way around. I'm one of those people who need to know where the neighborhoods are and what they're like before venturing out. Put me anywhere in NY or even in Philly and I'm good to go. That's probably why most of my books are set in Brooklyn or Manhattan. I know the people and the places, it feels like home.

    I also spent 10 years living in Boise, ID and loved every second of it. My next book takes place in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Idaho (Boise and an old mining town called Three Whores Bend). It's a bit of a departure but I think it works and it helps me with my home sickness.

  5. Robin, I know what you mean about homesickness. For much of the time we lived in Vermont, I was homesick for Baltimore, or at least for the mid-Atlantic region. And Vermont was a gorgeous place to live (except for the cold!). I really love Lancaster, though. It's just an hour and a quarter from Bal'mer and the weather is great.

  6. Libby: My settings are fantasy/historical worlds, and come mostly from my imagination, but my imagination is partly a product from where I've lived...Okinawa, Guam, Massachusettes...those places and people will always be a part of me.

  7. I write Regency historicals. When I write about England in the early 1800s, it's like visiting an old friend. How I wish I had a time machine!

    I loved reading a little about Baltimore. I live in Texas, so its quite a change.

  8. One place that I always think about is New York. The 5 months I lived there in college were unforgettable!

    Great post :)

  9. I've read some stories where the setting didn't really matter -- it was the characters' struggles that gripped me. But I do love tales where I'm transported to a different place and feel a sense of living there during the story.

  10. Hi Libby,

    The most I know about Baltimore is from research I did on Betsy Patterson--Jerome Bonoparte's American wife. Their story is fascinating. I remember that through inner-library loan I was able to borrow some books from--I'm thinking it was called the Pratt-Whitley Library--not really sure of the exact name now. Apparently in the early 1800s the town was really into ship building and shipping. I'd love to visit Baltimore some day.


  11. Amelia, was it the Enoch Pratt library?

    Baltimore was also where the Duchess of Windsor -- Wallis Warfield -- was from.

  12. Loved reading about Baltimore. I've never been there, but it always sounds like it has successfully fought off the generic-ness that seems to afflict so many of America's cities.

    As for me, the area I'm drawn to write about again and again is coastal North Carolina.

  13. Coastal North Carolina -- mmmm, that's a lovely area. I have a sister-in-law who lives on the Outer Banks. It's gorgeous!

  14. It seems like it would be easiest to write about the place where you grew up, but when I moved to Wyoming it seemed like such an exotic locale that it's become the center of my fictional universe.
    Being an outsider, I think it's easier for me to see the quirks and oddities that make it unique - and there are enough quirks and oddities here to keep me writing for the rest of my life,so "Cowboy Trouble" is just the beginning!

  15. Libby,
    I LOVE Baltimore! We lived just south of there in Severna Park for three years when my husband was in the Navy and spent tons of time in the city. In fact, I set Love at First Flight there. We moved JUST as our three-year-old daughter was starting to call everyone "hon."

  16. Joanne, I bet Wyoming is a great setting for a book -- I look forward to learning about it through your book.

    Marie, We thoroughly enjoyed "Hairspray" last night. They really nail the set -- the formstone fronts to those rowhouses!

  17. Glad you enjoyed it, Libby. I had to have a little go-round with the SB copy editor who wanted to make rowhouse into two words. I said, no way, HON. LOL

  18. I loved Baltimore and the Inner Harbor! I lived in Glen Burnie when I was stationed at Fort Meade! When the wind blew just right, we could hear the lions roar. :)