A while ago, I wrote a little piece on my return trip to Berger, Missouri, where I spent the first ten years of my life. It had been twenty years since I really stopped to take a look at how the town had changed.
I set out on a walk down Market (Hwy. B), with my camera in hand. And I was quickly reminded of how much time had passed when a man standing near the old Woodshed stopped and shouted across the street: Where are you from?
It was in that moment that I realized: Either he or I that had changed. Because in a town of 200 people, that's just not a question that gets asked much.
My response, of course, was: Here.
The visit was bittersweet. A lot had changed. But then again, a lot had stayed the same, too.
And many of you shared some wonderful stories in the comments to that piece. The stories spanned decades and generations, but in the end, each person shared one common interest: home.
That being said, those same comments reminded me that I still have a few photos of Berger that I've been meaning to share. These photos are from a book my dad purchased when it was published, back in the 1970s. The book was a project done by a group of journalists from my alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia. As the book states inside its front cover, exactly twenty-six photojournalism students descended onto Berger during the 1976 Labor Day weekend. Their task was to document a way of life in the river town. What they created was a beautiful, and now historic, depiction of life in Berger during that time.
And I love these photos because it's easy to forget the life this small town still quietly holds. When taking a stroll down its sidewalks today, it's easy to forget that there are whispers and secrets and laughter from generations constantly bouncing off its walls and streets and river bottom dirt. But I think, most of all, these photos remind me of just how much the little town where I grew up and that old saying have in common: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Regardless of your generation, when you close your eyes, is this how you see home?
Read my previous piece on Berger here.
I've had some of you ask me what my inspiration was for A Bird on a Windowsill, and it made me stop for a second to think about it. I've been writing and then editing and then working to get it into your hands so much so that I don't think I could have come up with a coherent answer to that, until now.
As with all my books, there's not really a one-word answer. Within 400,000-ish words, there's quite a few people, places and events in my life that have inspired the pages.
"But what were the people, places and events that specifically inspired Salem and Savannah's story?" you ask. Well, here are a few:
Small weekly newspapers. sweet text messages. the ocean. Sullivan's Island. my hometown. Missouri. creek slabs. old, wooden docks. first loves. little, country churches (the one-room type that seat 90, at best). that one, old guy who knows all the town's gossip. my own fascination with the sky. small towns. Hale-Bopp. old trucks. being young. the river bottoms. trains. summer. Polaroids. young love. open letters.
And there are many more! And I just wanted to say that I do really love this story. As I write, the characters really do become real to me. And that's especially true for Salem and Savannah. Often times, as I'm writing the first draft, I use placeholders for certain characters' names, so I can go back and change them later. BUT...that rarely happens. I rarely go back and change the names, simply because that's his or her name! They are who they are; I just can't bring myself to call them by another name! So, Salem and Savannah were always Salem and Savannah. It's as if they've always existed! And maybe they have!
It's a love story. It's a story about young love and first loves and second chances. It's about choosing the past or the present. It's about holding on and letting go. And I'm so excited for YOU to read it! And I can't wait for you to meet the two people who I've fallen in love with over the past few months! Until then, happy reading!
The population hasn’t changed much in the last two decades, but it seems as though everything else might have. It’s been twenty years since I ventured back to this place. And twenty years ago, people were still shoveling away inches of river silt and washing away flood lines from all the walls left over from a long, hard flood.
But those stained walls and silt-covered, gray fields and highways aren't really how I remember the place I spent the first ten years of my life. For that, you probably have to go back more like twenty-five years. And to be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect when I passed that city limits sign a couple days ago. But as I did, I realized quickly that I was in a town that felt warmly familiar and yet so strangely foreign, all at the same time. In fact, some places looked just the same as when I had left them--small, simple, well-kept. For instance, the ball fields had just been cut and the water tower shined in its usual silver. And the trains--they still roared down the tracks every so often. And the big grain trucks still kicked up dust on dirty, gravel roads in the river bottoms.
But then again, other places were eerily different--as if just skeletons of the things they used to be. For example, the same school swings that I swang on twenty-five years ago still dangled in the summer breeze. The only difference was, there were no kids in their worn seats, and it looked as if there hadn't been for quite some time now. And where there was once sand for little feet, tall weeds grew up and fought the chains for room under the metal crossbars.
And as for the Wood Shed in the middle of town, where I remember old men on squeaky bar stools, now there is no one. Even the woman behind the bar who would always take a dollar in exchange for a big bag of ice has vanished.
And although the four walls of the tiny gas station still stand at the corner of town, gone now are the 3Musketeers and PayDays that used to line a little shelf in front of a counter that was no longer than a TV dinner table. And gone, too, is the lanky man who always sat behind it.
And where there were once 4-H kids laughing over cheeseburgers and fries and Ketchup, they are gone, too, now. There are no tables. No wooden chairs. No Mac's Cafe.
And just two miles outside of town, there isn't so much as a piece of concrete left of the little sidewalk that led to the little white farm house that kept dry the purple bedroom and the pencil marks that climbed the walls as three little girls grew.
And gone, too, is that little white farm house. ...And the matching playhouse. ...And the big gray barn. ...And the tin shed where a little girl kept her treasured rock tumbler. In their places now stand rows and rows of tall, brown corn waiting to be taken up into big green combines.
It was almost as if time had carved out this little place's soul and left only the swings and the tracks and some of the walls of what used to be. And yet, as I drove out of town, I could see kids playing hopscotch in front of that red-brick school. And I saw old men laughing on squeaky bar stools in that tiny bar. And as for that little white farm house, I saw that, too, standing tall amid all that brown corn. And best of all, I saw myself looking at those purple walls lined with books and teddy bears right before I closed my eyes and turned out the light.
And as I glanced in my rearview mirror, I couldn’t help but see the ghosts of the people and the places that had long ago woven themselves into my story. And it was just then, in my rearview mirror, that everything looked the same again—just exactly as I had left it twenty-five years ago, still the same painting that I had always...and would always call...home.
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Karen Cernich of The Missourian, a great newspaper close to my hometown! We talked about everything from my childhood to what you can expect from my new release, When Cicadas Cry. You can check out the article here!
And don't forget to pre-order your copy today!
What does a water trough, an abandoned farmhouse and a 250-pound pig have in common?
I'll tell you today on Justin's Book Blog! Check it out here!
Sometimes photos or events or certain people inspire my characters. And if you've read By Way of Accident, you've read about River's grandpa. In some ways, his grandpa reminds me of mine. So, this post today is a little story about the guy I called Grandpa and the man who helped to bring to life River Asher.
My grandpa was a raccoon-trapping, frog-leg-eating, small-town Missouri farmer–the type who had worked in the fields since he was eight, served his country in World War II and was a member of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars most of his life. He was painfully quiet, but when he did find some words he felt worthy of sharing, you could sometimes catch him talking about his time in World War II. He was drafted near the end of the war in 1944. He had received a postponement of induction from the United States government that allowed him to finish his harvest before reporting to duty. And it was on a cool, sunny afternoon in December when he reported to boot camp at Camp Wolters, just four miles northeast of Mineral Wells, Texas.
Upon arriving, he was shuffled into a line full of young men, mostly in their late teens and early twenties. He was twenty-one at the time. All the men were waiting to give their names and birth dates and other pieces of information to a man holding a wooden clipboard and a fountain pen at the front of the line.
“Name and birth date,” the thin, blond-haired man said in a monotone, gruff voice as my grandpa reached the man’s fold-up chair.
Grandpa stated his name and birth date and waited as the man scribbled it onto a little white card attached to the clipboard.
“Nationality,” the man echoed back when he was done scribbling.
Nationality? Grandpa said he stood there and thought about it for a moment. He was suddenly a little rattled. It had been generations ago, but his family had originally come to the United States from Germany. He even spoke the language. But not only had he never been asked that question before, he was also quite clear on whom the enemy was, and he was even more certain that his light brown hair and bright, blue eyes matched its description pretty closely.
“I don’t know,” Grandpa eventually said. The words came out timidly as he shrugged his shoulders. He was an American. He prayed this man would see this. After all, this state they called Texas might as well have been a foreign country. It was by far the farthest my grandfather had ever traveled from his bed in rural Missouri.
The man looked up from his clipboard for the first time. He eyed my grandpa up and down once, settled on his eyes and then silently returned his attention back to the clipboard. He then checked a couple boxes and handed the card to Grandpa.
“Give this to the man in the next line,” the thin, blond-haired man said, gesturing him onward.
Curious to know what the thin man had checked, Grandpa glanced down inconspicuously at the white card now in his tanned, callused farm hand. His eyes jumped over his name and birth date scribbled in the pen’s black ink, then quickly caught the word nationality and slowly read what was followed by a single black check mark: American Indian.
Well, German American or American Indian, he was just Grandpa to my two sisters and me. He called the same place home his entire life. He wore overalls or coveralls...and on most days, an old, leather cap. And this is just one of the many memories he left us.
Grandpa passed away a month before his 83rd birthday not too long ago. But today, he still inspires me. And I think you might even be able to see a little of him in River's grandpa too.
I write about rain on tin roofs, gravel roads, old trucks with holes in the floorboards and small-town summer nights. I grew up on a farm in a little Midwestern town. Now, I live in Kansas City, Mo., with my weatherman husband.
Laura Miller's first contemporary romance novel, Butterfly Weeds, hit the Amazon Best-Seller's List and Top 100 in October 2012. The sequel to Butterfly Weeds, My Butterfly, released in June 2013. For All You Have Left, By Way of Accident, When Cicadas Cry and A Bird on a Windowsill followed. Look for The Life We Almost Had, available now!