The Decatur I knew from many childhood vacations to visit my grandparents on West Wood Street no longer exists. My grandparents house, featured in novels The Sun Singer and Sarabande, has been torn down for reasons unknown.
The interurban trains and the streetcars are long gone and the old transfer house where people changed trains and buses in Lincoln Square is now an heirloom in a city park. Since I haven’t been to Decatur for years, I don’t know whether the pungent odors from the Staleys plant still blanket the city when the wind is blowing the wrong direction.
Fairview Park is still there–minus the passing interurbans–and I see from maps and park brochures that it has evolved over the years. It still sits a few blocks away from the place my grandparents’ house once stood. It was perfect for day trips and–a half century later–equally perfect as a location setting in my novels. As children, my brothers and I hiked in nearby Spitler Woods.
I’ve heard that the notorious Hell Hollow has been cleaned up, but that on certain evenings one can still see ghostly lights in Greenwood Cemetery. The Haunted Decatur website claims that the dead still walk and, quite frankly, that is something I would like to see. A few miles down the road, the trails of the widely known Allerton Park echo in my memory as well as in my novel The Sun Singer which was named after the famous statue in the park.
Childhood’s Magic Calls Me Back
As an author of contemporary fantasy–that is to say, fantasy mixed into real locations as in the Harry Potter series–I have variously used Glacier Park, Florida’s Tate’s Hell Swamp, Decatur and other locations as story settings. I have mixed the old and the new by tangling up personal memories and the histories of these locations in my work.
Robert Adams in The Sun Singer visits Allerton Park and has a psychic experience–as I once did–beneath the Sun Singer statue. In my upcoming short story “The Lady of the Blue Hour” for “Aoife’s Kiss Magazine,” I blend myths and history from the days when Illinois was a French Province with a young man who lives on West Wood Street next to my grandparents’ house. And, in my soon-to-be-released novel The Betrayed, I set much of the action at a fictional college and tangle that up with the streets and houses in Decatur’s West End Historic District (not too far from where the Transfer House once stood).
While I enjoy mixing contemporary fantasy, location setting history and personal memories together in my stories, I don’t necessarily advise other writers to do it. It makes it difficult at times to separate real memories from one’s fiction. The real location settings make fantasy more believable, I think. The real-life experiences–readers don’t know which events those are in the story–make fantasy more dear to the author during the writing process.
This quote from author P. L. Travers (author of the Mary Poppins books and a primary character in the new feature film Saving Mr. Banks) closely approximates my beliefs about the stories I set in Decatur: “We cannot have the extraordinary without the ordinary. Just as the supernatural is hidden in the natural. In order to fly, you need something solid to take off from. It’s not the sky that interests me but the ground. . . . When I was in Hollywood the [script] writers said, surely Mary Poppins symbolizes the magic that lies behind everyday life. I said no, of course not, she is everyday life, which is composed of the concrete and the magic.”
Naturally, my stories about ghosts, flying horses, magic avatars’ staffs and alternate realities and universes cannot be published under the banner of realism or mainstream fiction. So, while much of what I write about Decatur and Glacier Park and Florida Panhandle swamps is real, I’m officially a contemporary fantasy author. I don’t mind: I read a lot of fantasy.
And, when I read fantasy, I wonder how much of the magic is real and how much of it is truly fiction. However, since this is another of my “on location” posts, I assure you that Decatur, Illinois is real–or mostly real, depending on who you ask.