As we pull into the little town, a wall of heat and sun falls like a weighty blanket on our heads. We’re in Middlebury, Vermont, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the town green. Vince and I sit in a band shell and wait, gulping the breeze gratefully, though it’s pretty capricious.
At lunch, Frances and Marty mention that they’ve seen a few covered bridges in Vermont and want to go back to a couple they found especially interesting. I’d never thought of covered bridges as part of my research, but I begin to realize that they are part of the landscape. They might not be part of the story, but any good description of Vermont will likely have to mention them, so we decide to join the hunt.
When we arrive in Brandon, only a few miles south of Middlebury, I am thrilled. I knew it would be the right size (thanks, Google Earth), but I’d only hoped it would have the look and feel that I wanted.
To qualify: the new novel doesn’t take place in Brandon, but in a little community to the west of it, closer to Lake Champlain. However, this village doesn’t really exist. It’s called Salmon Creek. As the days of research march ahead, SC takes shape. The Lilac Inn gets enlarged and moved. Parts of Orwell stand in for my village, as does an empty field overlooking the lake.
Brandon can be herself. She’s the closest (and largest) town to Salmon Creek.
As for the Lilac Inn, it turns out that this place was once a private retirement residence. I am shocked by the serendipity of it all! With its arched porch, gardens, banquet rooms, grand staircase, old-fashioned lift, and bar, it’s utterly perfect.
We hunt through the Brandon Cemetery, stroll through two covered bridges. One is a railroad bridge. The train tracks are now ripped up and replaced with gravel and wood, but the covered bridge still looks magnificently ineffectual.
Nearby, I find my sunflower garden, a critical part of the novel’s opening. Just as I’d hoped, the sunflowers are enormous, with fat green leaves and huge brown faces and yellow bonnets. We spend an afternoon under the arches while rain pours onto the fat leaves and clatters on the roof. Thunder echoes in the distance. This is exactly what I came here to do: experience life in Salmon Creek. Later, as I synthesize everything, I begin to hear Rosie’s voice. To understand her better. To be able to write her story.
Both evenings, we have sumptuous meals at the Café Provence, somehow appropriate that Mary Jo and Ken, who went to the south of France with us years ago, are here too. We listen and talk to the locals, with their very indistinct accent – almost Southern Ontarian, we joke.
I drink in the scents, ask Vince to photograph plants, trees, flowers and rooms.
And then I find the book on a shelf in the common room. The Mystery at Lilac Inn by Carolyn Keene. A Nancy Drew Mystery. Serendipity flies again!