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Scott Lax Blog

Fictionalizing a Small Town: An Act of Liberation

My first novel, The Year That Trembled, which was recently released by Gray & Co. Publishers in its second edition, and my new novel, Vengeance Follows, which is also being published by Gray in early December, are both set all or partly in a fictional small town in Ohio called Chestnut Falls.

I suspect I’ll be getting a similar question about Vengeance Follows as I’ve gotten about The Year That Trembled, which is some variation on this: You’re from Chagrin Falls. Chestnut Falls bears a lot of resemblance to Chagrin Falls. Why in the world don’t just call Chestnut Falls Chagrin Falls?

There are a few reasons, really, but here’s the main one: my novels aren’t set in Chagrin Falls…they’re set in Chestnut Falls.

There's a tradition of novelists fictionalizing small towns, with the most prominent examples being Mark Twain, who fictionalized his hometown of Hannibal, MO, calling it “St. Petersburg.” Next in line might be F. Scott Fitzgerald, who fictionalized Great Neck and Manhasset Neck, Long Island, and turned them into East Egg and West Egg on Long Island.

In the case of my novels the closer parallel might be to Fitzgerald’s, only because he uses fictional small towns set against the real city of New York City, specifically, the borough of Manhattan. I created Chestnut Falls and set it close to the real city of Cleveland, Ohio.

Cleveland, like New York, is a big place – not as big as NYC, of course, but Greater Cleveland has more than two million people. That’s a good place for a novelist to get lost in. Chagrin Falls, on the other hand, has just over four thousand people.

Like any novelist, I need to have complete freedom in creating characters. And I think it would be too distracting for readers to try to figure out who’s who in a real small town, especially if “who” is made up. The wonder of the novels is that the moment you read “a novel” on the cover of a book that means it’s made up. That's a profound thing: it allows the author freedom.

I also need that freedom to change the landscape, the direction of the streets, the names of things, whatever the case may be. I changed street names, locations of landmarks, and lots of other elements of Chagrin Falls, and in so doing, it became not Chagrin Falls, the real place, but Chestnut Falls, the novel’s place.

On the other hand, I kept a few interesting elements of Chagrin Falls. But I also added and changed things. In Vengeance Follows, for example, there’s an old telephone booth at one of the corners of the village park called Triangle Park. In the real Chagrin Falls, there’s no telephone booth in a park called Triangle Park. But I wanted one in my novel, so I put one in.

Another example. In Vengeance Follows, my protagonist, Sam Koppang, rents a small office on Main Street in Chestnut Falls, over a hardware store, in a former Masonic Lodge, overlooking the Town Hall. From there he can see the goings on that are important to the plot.

In real life, I rented a small office on Main Street in Chagrin Falls, over a hardware store, in a former Masonic Lodge, overlooking the Town Hall.

But I’m not Sam Koppang. He’s a person (or character) I wrote in the novel. So the real answer, if there is one, is that a novel is a parallel universe. If you’re an aspiring novelist, please know this: It’s your story. It’s your town. They are your characters. Do what you want with your place, with the time, with your characters.

In an increasingly intrusive world, writing a novel is an act of liberation.  Read More 
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Autumn in the Falls

Finn in slanted sunlight in brief autumn
A beautiful Sunday afternoon. I took Finn down to the village. Ice cream overlooking the cold clear water at the base of the falls, at the Popcorn Shop, then I bought him a little pumpkin at the Farmer's Market, then he ran on the paving stones in the park, and we covered the waterfront and the town and overall we had what my late father would have called, "a blast."  Read More 

Sunday in the Park With Finn

Holding a treasure
While Lydia and Angus went to the gym to work out, Finn and I went to meet a friend from work and his wife. We had some time beforehand, so we did the full autumn Sunday circuit: the park, where Finn ran through the leaves with the absolute, pure, new-to-his senses wonderment of a two 1/2 year old; then walked to the Farmer's Market, where he got the apple that he wanted so much (and a few other fresh items); a tour around the bandstand in town, as he and a new little friend ran "round and round and round" until they were dizzy; then we met my friends; then Finn and I ended up at the library, another of his favorite places. Finally home. Then I went to the gym to work out, in my determined effort to get back in shape after a brutal few years with a bad injury, one that had worsened as I aged, and finally peaked, so to speak, with major surgery in February 2013. I don't expect to be running marathons, but am moving a lot faster and next comes the getting in shape part, and I do expect to be running like a madman after Finn, because he is fast. Very fast.

Then, after the gym, home to Lydia's dinner with fresh food from the market.

I do love autumn. It's my season. I wonder if it's Finn's. He loved the snow last winter; and enjoyed his spring and summer. But I wonder if he perks up as I do as the leaves fall. Seeing Finn really experience it for the first time, at least the first time he can give language to it, makes it that much better. The other day we were driving and he said, "Oh, no, Daddy! The leaves are falling off the trees!" He was momentarily sad and concerned for the leaves. (He's sensitive, that's for sure.) I explained the seasons in terms of nature, the cycles and the symbols (Frosty the Snowman is up next), and he took it in, and was happy again. Thus, today, and this treasure he holds up.  Read More 
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Healing

“The soul is healed by being with children.” -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Milton J. Lax, November 21, 1922 - August 3, 2013

My father with our son Finn in 2011.
My father, Milton J. Lax, died peacefully this morning in the hospital, with a loving family member at his side. He was the finest man I've ever known. I'll write more in the near future.

A NEW NOVEL, A NEW EDITION, ANOTHER PLAY

photo by Lydia
It's summer. But soon it will be autumn. (This is as profound I can be on a balmy Saturday morning.)

In autumn -- late September -- I'll have a new novel coming out, the republication of THE YEAR THAT TREMBLED, my first novel, and the play of the same name will be produced in September (place and date to be announced).

Back to playing with Finn, who is busy eating a carrot.  Read More 

CLIMBING BACK INTO THE LITERARY WORLD

© Lydia Lax
This is a really exciting time for me -- my new publisher will soon be announcing the re-publication of THE YEAR THAT TREMBLED, as well as a my new novel.

Well, that one will be new to readers... not to me. I looked at the first page I wrote of it and it was date-stamped October 2001. Yes, it's been in progress for almost a dozen years.

Of course, five of those years were taken up by producing a movie version of my first novel. Then another year-plus writing the first version of the stage-play. And another year-and-a half producing a television pilot.

There were other years filled with more sorrow than I have ever imagined -- the illness and passing of my sister and only sibling, and the passing of my beloved mother, within six weeks of each other. I miss them both every day.

And there were times of great joy and momentous change: meeting my wife, Lydia, sharing time with her son Angus, creating a family. Then the blessing of our son, Finn Scott, who seemed to shift the axis of my world and set it on the right course.

Lydia always believed THE YEAR THAT TREMBLED should be published again, and this time so that more young people could read it, and in schools. She also believed in the new novel, and helped me find the real story.

Now they are both coming out, and much more on that soon. For now, I'm enjoying every possible minute with my family, teaching Finn baseball and realizing that I have to get in shape for my very athletic, energetic and joyful little boy.

And lots and lots of editing, which is a huge part of the creative writing process; and I'm fortunate in that regard, as my publisher has an outstanding editor working with me.

And reading, reading, reading - my friends' novels, and the books required for my MFA work in the NEOMFA program, as well as those required for my work as a graduate teaching assistant that I'll be doing at Cleveland State University.

I'm also rewriting THE YEAR THAT TREMBLED, the stage play, which is going to be produced once again this coming October. More on that, later, too.

Please stop back -- we'll have a new website, with lots of features that will help me connect with readers, and visa-versa; and there will be an additional blog, this one -- my fatherhood blog -- as a new one on writing, writers, and all things literary. Check back for updates, and see you soon.  Read More 

PICNIC WITH THE COUSINS

Finn's walking across a trampoline,
We had a sort of belated Memorial Day picnic with the cousins and extended family. Finn could not get enough of it. There were chickens (real ones) and lots of ball-playing and even a trampoline (he was watched like a hawk by Mommy and Daddy). He was full-tilt, until he wasn't, and it was time to go home and watch a little Mickey Mouse and wind down (which took a long time). Nothing like family.  Read More 

REMEMBER DANDELIONS?

Making a Wish
I grew up in a time when dandelions were part of having a yard, were part of every suburban, urban and country environment. Now they're hard to find. (Including in our townhouse community.) But Finn likes to hunt for them when they've gone to seed, and he has the same wonder as I did, as most of us (of a certain age) experienced as children.

I hope when he grows up the relatively modern idea of long expanses of chemically enhanced grassy lawns will have given way to more meadow-like environments, and family gardens.  Read More 

FINN AND FISH CONNECT AT ZOO; WONDER ENSUES

On a visit to the Cleveland Zoo, Finn enjoyed the animals with two and four legs. But it was only when we entered the aquatic area that he was most fascinated and joyful. Here he and a grouper seem to be eyeing each other with gentle curiosity. A few moments later he was jumping up and down in front of a fish tank, overcome with joy at the colorful fish. "There's another one and another one and another one!" he shouted out happily, as other little boys followed suit.
 Read More