Author finds inspiration for novels in ‘home grounds’

Rani Gupta

A familiar place can provide more than a setting for stories, writer Patricia Henley told about 30 people in University Hall on Wednesday.

Henley, Northwestern’s fiction writer-in-residence, spoke on the inspiration location provides in writing works of fiction.

“Place can be a source not only of setting, but can affect many aspects of a story,” Henley said.

She spoke in rich detail about her childhood in Indiana, relating events such as picking blackberries on an Indiana farm.

But Henley said she wanted to leave home for more exciting places.

“I made up my mind to seek out mountains and never return to the flatlands of the Midwest,” she said. “A parenthetical warning: Never say never.”

Henley said her experiences in Maryland and in the West strengthened her writing, providing a variety of details and anecdotes from which she crafted stories.

“I thought I had found a near-sacred source for everything I would ever hope to write,” she said.

Henley said she noticed the importance of place while teaching at Purdue University.

She said the students’ stories took place in generic locations such as “a bar.” When she questioned students further about the geographical location, they told her it didn’t matter where the stories took place.

But Henley said it is important for writers to identify their “home grounds” and examine them for story, theme and character ideas.

Henley said writers should look at these places anew, “like a tourist,” so they can notice the “peculiarities” of familiar locations.

“You have to look beyond the Wal-Marts and Olive Gardens,” she said.

Henley said writing from these personal locations makes stories more real to readers.

“We’re most memorable when we tell the stories only we can tell,” she said. “A teller of stories may evoke emotions for someone who was not there. What a reader feels, a reader will believe.”

Henley said her 1999 novel “Hummingbird House” was heavily inspired by location, namely her trips to Guatemala.

“Guatemala had things Indiana did not,” she said. “I was drawn to the people, the region and the personal tragedy.”

But Henley’s writing was unexpectedly influenced by her hometown, which she said was becoming an important influence on her writing “without my consent.”

She said she was “pleased” with the passages in “Hummingbird House” written by Kate, a character from Indiana.

Henley advised students at the lecture, who were primarily English majors in writing, to search their home grounds for inspiration for their fiction.

“A lot of students don’t look beyond frat parties for their stories,” she said. “Certainly, that’s not the only world there is.”

Henley will be available to students again Thursday when she holds a reading at 7 p.m. in Harris 108. The event and following reception are open to the public.

Weinberg senior Jennifer Tinnin said she would use Henley’s ideas in her own fiction.

“Her ideas gave me a lot to think about in relation to my own writing,” Tinnin said. “I never thought of where I come from as particularly remarkable.”