Friday, July 4, 2014

Saying goodbye to a city

I admit that my first impression of Helena, Montana, was not a good one. I was approaching the city on Interstate 15, bound for a job interview, when snowflakes the size of silver dollars began peppering the windshield of my Nissan Sentra.

Coming from Boise, Idaho, I knew all about January weather. Trouble was, it wasn't January. It was May. May 2000. While most of the country was preparing for a long, hot summer, Montana's capital was just emerging from winter. I almost turned around.

I still don't like winter in spring and summer. There's something very wrong about watching a baseball game in a heavy coat and scraping ice from the inside of a window on Labor Day. But even the long winters couldn't dampen my enthusiasm for a town I quickly embraced.

When I brought my family to Helena, I didn't plan to stay for more than two years. I preferred the warmer and more populous parts of the Pacific Northwest and wanted to return to those parts as soon as I could.

What I didn't count on was falling in love with things like confectioneries, quirky architecture, walking malls, and nature trails. I didn't think outdoor concerts, ski areas, theater schools, and trout streams could influence career decisions either, but they did. I stayed in Helena because it was a great place to live.

It was also a great place to write about. So when I considered settings for The Mine, I naturally included a city I knew well. I decided to introduce the novel's protagonist, a Seattle man, in my hometown -- not his. I wanted Joel Smith to explore Helena's historic downtown, hear a few "hons" and "howdies," and drive like a bat down Highway 12, just as I had on countless occasions.

I wanted Grace Vandenberg to see Helena too. So when I wrote The Show, I added the city to the heroine's itinerary.

I set more than twenty Northwest Passage chapters in Helena and vicinity because I wanted to showcase places that had become central to my life. I wanted readers to see what I saw every day.

There will be no more Montana chapters or books, at least in the near future. My focus will soon shift from the Rockies to Dixie, where I will spend at least the next few years. My next novel, September Sky, will be set in Galveston, Texas, a city built on nineteenth-century cotton and not nineteenth-century gold.

That doesn't mean I'll forget this community between the Missouri and the mountains. One doesn't forget cities with fire towers, art houses in jailhouses, and streets named Last Chance Gulch. It's just that my attention will be directed elsewhere.

Which is just as well. By the time I leave Helena later this month, the "Symphony Under the Stars" will have come and gone -- as will the best days to camp and fish. Then a few leaves will turn and the comforting summer breezes will take a chilly edge.

Winter will be just around the corner.

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