Ghosts of Norumbega was the original title for my second novel, In the Vanishing Hour, before I decided it could mislead readers to the wrong genre. But in the end, the novel really is about ghosts—not just the ghosts of those who are lost, but of the places changed by them.
Writers often have favorite settings that inspire the backdrops of their stories, and sometimes these settings are so potent they become characters. Setting and atmosphere have always been major players in my novels, and some locations even act as catalyst. Sometimes it’s simply nature taking over, from the outgoing tide in The One True Ocean to the river current of In the Vanishing Hour. Other times, a setting is manmade—a landmark or building infused with atmosphere that stirs up romance, nostalgia, or dark memories. A locale may not be the best channel for plot, but it can play a role. Whether a relic of the past or a new point on a current journey, place can motivate and change a character. And isn’t that what story is all about?
In the Vanishing Hour began with my fascination with a former amusement park site in Newton, Massachusetts—and the nineteenth century stone tower that shared its name. Norumbega tower was two miles from my childhood home, so my siblings and I would bicycle there and climb the spiral stairs to the lookout at the top. Across and just down the river, a large hotel stood on the opposite bank, but I never thought to wonder what once stood in its place. Thirty years later, I learned it was Norumbega Park. Built around the turn of the twentieth century, it was one of the most glorious attractions on the east coast. It featured amusement rides, restaurants, penny arcades, and an outdoor theater that later became an elegant ballroom. The park eventually declined and closed in 1964, and the Marriot hotel was built on the former site. The more I learned about the park, the more fascinated I became with its history. It amazed me that such a landmark had existed so close to home, and I wondered how it was possible that for all those years, I saw only that hotel across the water. After I learned about the park, all I could see were ghosts.
I have always been drawn to old places and to the remnants of former lives. My childhood home was 250 years old, so the house had its buried treasures. A typical Saturday included a family dig in the backyard beneath the trees at the edge of the lawn. We unearthed antique medicine bottles and horseshoes while we listened to our parents’ stories of our ancestors who once lived in the house. My father’s love for excavation continued beyond the yard, as we explored stone walls in the woods or a crumbling foundation behind a nearby gas station. He was a lover of history, genealogy, and maps, and always had a story. In nearby Waltham, he showed us concrete pilings in the river, which were the eerie remains of a dance hall that burned to the ground years before. This tale led to another one about another dance hall a few miles away—the famous Totem Pole ballroom at Norumbega Park.
The discovery of the park opened a treasure chest of inspiration for me. I was determined to include the place in a story, but I didn’t have one yet. Even with the pieces I had accumulated in my mind, I hesitated to write because I feared getting things wrong. I knew there were others out there who knew more about Norumbega than I did—those who had visited the amusements as children or danced at the ballroom as adults. But there would always be those who knew more, I reminded myself, and I needed to make it my own.
I wrote the book as I did The One True Ocean, which had a Maine setting loosely based on actual locations. I would create my fictional world from what I learned about the park and infuse it with my experience of growing up in the area. Norumbega Park became Riverside Park, named after the Green Line station, and the towns of Newton and Waltham became Norumbega. A familiar street took on a movie theater name, and a peninsula paid homage to a neighborhood. I played with the geography and architecture, placing my tower on an island, molding my supper club from bits and pieces of dance halls. I added a sprinkle of imagination, and voila—the pieces had turned into a map of places and stories, and my invented town was now real.
There will always be readers who call things out—the places writers get wrong, the dates, the omissions. They will tell you a store didn’t have a runway for fashion shows, that a ballroom didn’t serve alcohol, that the Ferris wheel came down in the 40s, not the 50s. And they would be correct. I suppose this is one of the reasons I write fiction, but even with fiction, balancing the “inspired by” with real-life history can be tricky. Locations have stories, hidden or not. Even a park bench has its ghosts.
I can repurpose locations and events all I want, but the real-life settings will echo beneath it all. These places live in my head and heart. I can still feel the limestone columns of the department store and the cold, rough stone of the tower. And there’s the Charles, a part of my childhood playground that will always be nostalgic to me. We fed ducks along the shores and took canoes through shallow turns under bridges. But as a child, I never gave thought to the river’s history—how it came to be, or how its landmarks were born. I didn’t consider events that took place on it, or the people lost to it. And I never thought about the river ghosts—until my father told me a story.
When he was a young adult, he took his canoe on the river one night, and found a body. At the time he told me, the story was more awesome than disturbing, so bone-chillingly fantastic, that I didn’t think to ask how he felt about it. Years later, I realize how it must have affected him. We often hear stories about a body discovered and the police angle that follows, but we rarely hear about the anonymous person who discovered it and how it may have affected their entire life.
And so began my novel, or at least the opening scene. It acts as a prologue and features a minor character who does not reappear until late in the book. But he embodies a major theme of the story: the things we carry that no one else sees. The river is his ghost.
I am haunted by places that echo with memories. My job, as a writer, is to excavate these settings and discover stories within. My dream is to bring ghosts back to life.
Poster for Norumbega Park, circa 1905
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