In my little writing world, I live two different lives: one in Regency England for my Pemberley Variations series and the other on modern-day Cape Cod where my Woods Hole novels, The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice (aka Pemberley by the Sea) and Morning Light, take place. For contemporary novel month, I’m going to tell you my personal Cape Cod story and how I ended up writing novels set there. This story has a lot in common with my novels. It starts out promising, then gets angsty, then has a happy ending. It’s the old ‘girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back’ plot line, except that the boy in this case happens to be a lovely windswept peninsula in Massachusetts.
Despite growing up in the Northeast, I didn’t discover Cape Cod until I was in my twenties. It was serendipity that brought me to Woods Hole. I’d first heard of research community there as a child when I read Madeline L’Engle’s books, since several of her characters are peripherally involved in research there. Somehow I came out of it with a mental image of a romanticized lab with lots of wooden filing cabinets (L’Engle’s character does a lot of filing) deep in the woods somewhere.
Fast forward to 1984. I’d just finished a post-baccalaureate program designed to prepare college grads in the humanities to go to medical school, and was already accepted to start med school the following September. In the meantime, I had a few months to kill when I stumbled across a prospectus from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, looking for grad students for their summer research program. I practically started drooling as I read it. Applying for the position was a ridiculously long shot, but I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. I had the very minimum requirements and no background in marine biology, but, as serendipity would have it, they had a last-minute opening that just happened to include a full fellowship. How could I refuse?
I discovered when I arrived that Woods Hole wasn’t in the woods at all, but on the southwest tip of Cape Cod, with salt water in almost every direction. It’s a village of typical Cape grey-shingled houses interspersed with lab buildings, chock full of world-renowned scientists. Cassie Boulton, the Elizabeth Bennet-like marine biologist heroine of The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice, describes it like this:
“Well, that’s Woods Hole for you.” Cassie gestured toward the window with her fork. “Half the population has a doctorate. There are probably enough advanced degrees in town to sink a battleship. You’d better be careful about how you talk to any odd looking old men muttering to themselves, because they just might be a Nobel laureate. It’s a world unto itself, like summer camp for grown-up scientists. One little town, and it has the MBL, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the National Marine Fisheries, and a half a dozen other research groups.”
It was a fabulous summer and, like many others, I fell in love with Woods Hole. My future didn’t involve marine biology, but I kept returning to Cape Cod for vacations whenever I could, eventually making a family tradition of renting a house there for a two weeks each summer. We stayed in a different area of the Cape, but every year we spent a day in Woods Hole, and always ate lunch in the same restaurant that appears in my books. My kids thought of the Cape as a second home. I couldn’t wait to get back there every year.
In 2002, a terrible thing happened while we were visiting the Cape. My son, then 8 years old, had a catastrophic accident in the sand on our favorite beach. I was able to resuscitate him (med school does have its uses), but he already had brain damage. The trauma doctors didn’t expect him to live. Somehow he managed to pull through, but the damage was such that the doctors said he’d never walk or talk again. But after a long hospitalization and months of intensive rehab, he proved us all wrong. He’s now a junior in high school, has a black belt, takes classes in marine biology each summer in Woods Hole, and the rehab doctors call him “the walking miracle.”
Although the end of that story was better than any of us could have hoped for, we all carried scars from the accident. None of us could face going back to Cape Cod, the place where all of this happened, so we stayed away. I was terribly torn. I couldn’t go to the Cape, but I couldn’t stand losing the place I loved so much, either. I did the only thing I could think of, which was to start writing a Pride & Prejudice novel set in Woods Hole. That way I could have the Cape in my mind, but not have to face reminders of the accident. It worked better than I could have hoped, and that novel eventually became The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice. It’s my personal favorite of all my books, and it took on a life of its own, with three other books (two of them still being written) using the same characters and settings. My editor once said that the setting of the book functioned almost like another character, and that rang true to me. It kept me company in those years I couldn’t go to the Cape.
But I promised you a happy ending, didn’t I? Well, after three years away, my family timidly went back to the Cape for a week. This time we stayed near Woods Hole where we wouldn’t face painful reminders all the time – also very convenient for my research for Morning Light. I got to know West Falmouth, the town just north of Woods Hole where Cassie’s salt marsh is located, quite well. When I wrote Morning Light, I placed the heroine’s house in a very particular location, half-way up the ridge overlooking Buzzards Bay in West Falmouth and surrounded by woods, right where I wished I could live.
In June of 2008, my husband and I decided to celebrate our 20th anniversary by inviting various far-flung friends to join us on the Cape. One night we were talking about how several of us had fantasized about eventually retiring to the Cape, but we’d never be able to afford it given the inflated housing prices there. One thing led to another, and for fun we decided to look up on the interet just how expensive houses there were. They were more reasonable than we expected, since this was in that brief interval just after the housing market on the Cape collapsed and before the stock market had followed suit, but still the prices were out of our league. Except, perhaps, for this one house that had just been listed that day for way below market value– a house that was half-way up the ridge in West Falmouth and surrounded by woods, and built in the style that my husband and I liked.
I knew I had to find out what was wrong with this house to make the price so low or the missed opportunity would haunt me forever. We went to see it the next day. It needed some work and updating, but nothing unmanageable, and the seller was desperate, which was why he had lowered the price. And – I’m not making this part up – there was a charming old boat buoy sitting beside the house that had my initials on it.
In the single most financially irresponsible decision of our otherwise frugal lives, my husband and I bought it for our eventual retirement. Meantime, we rent it out to tourists most of the time to help with the mortgage, and we go out there several times a year to work on home improvements. I just got back from spending a week there with my daughter re-tiling the kitchen floor and refinishing the countertops. We love it dearly, and I can walk to Cassie’s salt marsh whenever I want. Just think how easy it will make the research for my next Woods Hole book – and yes, the name of the house wi-fi network is Pemberley. 🙂
If you’re interested, I’ve made a virtual tour of the settings in The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice. It’s out of sequence since I haven’t learned to organize the photos yet, but you can visit it here.
Woods Hole is my very special spot on earth. I’d love to hear about yours!
Addendum: I’m adding a few things to answer some of the amazing number of questions I’ve received about this post.
About Woods Hole/MBL:
1. Yes, I did some of my research in the salt marsh!
2. The Children’s School of Science in Woods Hole offers fabulous classes in marine science for kids age 7-16. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
3. I love giving on-location tours of sights from the books. The first time I did that was when I went back to the Cape after my son’s accident, I went without my family, but fellow Austen Author Heather Lynn Rigaud accompanied me in case I couldn’t cope. We stayed part of the time in a B&B half-way up the ridge in West Falmouth that we referred to as Pemberley by the Sea.
About my son:
1. Yes, he does still have some deficits, but they’re minor enough that you’d have to be looking to see them, and some secondary medical issues. He has to stay physically active on a regular basis, since 3+ days of rest of any particular muscle group will cause his muscles to atrophy (this is because he’s using converted sensory neurons as motor neurons and they lack certain functions to preserve muscle tone). He still has some minor scarring in his brain and there’s still some sand in scar tissue in one of his lungs.
2. The doctors weren’t wrong about his prognosis. I saw the MRIs and I agreed fully with them. The MRIs were unequivocal. Medical science was wrong about how much healing his brain could do. When my son first started regaining function, one of his pediatric neurologists got up in church and cried as he talked about witnessing a miracle. We still have to go through the routine with every new doctor he sees, telling them that they really are looking at the correct chart, and sometimes they still won’t believe me until I make them call the peds neurologist. It’s that inexplicable.
3. Yes, it was that bad. At the Boston hospital he was med-flighted to, they had an organ donation team standing by to harvest his organs.
4. Bystander CPR is important. He wouldn’t have survived without it. And don’t tell me you couldn’t do CPR on your own child. When you’re standing there and the choices are CPR or your child never breathing again, you don’t stop to think about whether it’s too weird or not.
5. He was nowhere near the water when it happened. He was building a sand castle and it collapsed on him and smothered him. Sand burial is much more common than you think and it’s usually fatal – there are a number of deaths from it most years. It’s the hazards that you don’t know about that are the problem.
1. Yes, buying it strained our finances severely, but it was worth it. Sometimes you just have to go after your dreams and hope that it’ll all work out.
2. The countertops are laminate and were formerly bright blue. My talented daughter with some help from me painted them in a faux granite pattern and then we put a clear coat on top of it. You can find instructions for it here. Here’s a close-up of ours: Abigail Reynolds, Cape Cod, Morning Light, The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice, Woods Hole Quartet