By Susan Wilson
Guest Columnist
Oak Bluffs, MA, USA

On November 12, 2019, my eleventh novel, The Dog I Loved, was published. This was one of the more difficult books I’ve written, partly because I got carried away and found myself in the weeds, so to speak, not only in the number of points of view that I had inflicted upon myself, but also because the story has some pretty hard things to write about such as women in prison; physically and emotionally wounded warriors; PTSD. It also touched upon homelessness 19th century style and things that go bump in the night. It was the first time, in my recollection, that I had to ask for a deadline extension. Thankfully, my beloved editor brought me to my senses, and I peeled away many a page and character’s far too in-depth-back-story to bring the thing to heel. 

Susan Wilson

One of the problems I was dealing with had more to do with the setting than the plot. For once, I had chosen an actual place. Typically, I invent New England towns in which to set my stories—Hawke’s Cove, Cameo Lake, Moose River Junction, Harmony Farms. I have shied away from locating my books, with some exceptions, in real places because I don’t want to get the geography, topography, and local customs wrong. It’s easy to reference a big place, Boston, Providence, Holyoke, or New Bedford, and it’s relatively easy to pop a character into that kind of setting without having to bend over backwards to do more than create the idea of it. 

This time, however, I’d chosen to set an important part of the story in Gloucester, Massachusetts, specifically in a place called Dogtown. I’d learned about Dogtown and its complicated history from a fellow writer who had done a brief history of the place twenty years ago. This long-abandoned settlement became infamous in the early 19th century for having been home to widows, harlots, and “witches” whose protectors and companions were the dogs they famously kept. It seemed sufficiently sinister and historic to provide a cool setting for a woman suddenly released from prison by a mysterious benefactor and left to oversee the renovation of an antique house. Add the arrival of a mysterious dog and you see why a place called Dogtown was a tempting locale for the crux of the story’s arc. 

However, the one thing that I was determined not to do was to pretend I knew everything about Gloucester and environs. There was a lot I could invent, but at the same time I didn’t want to get the important things wrong.

By way of explanation, I live in a place popular as a summer resort. It is so popular that any number of authors have used it as a setting for their books. Some with more success than others. Some authors actually live here; most do not. Typically, those who do not live here manage to get enough of the details right to be plausible for the reader who does not know the place intimately.

For instance, the well-known landmarks and where the boats come in; the salt air and the spectacular scenery. Others delve so deeply into the minutiae that the story is obscured by the flaunting of the writer’s newly acquired familiarity with the place. I’ve read books set on the Vineyard that read more like Waze directions than a novel or with so many nods to “insider knowledge” you can figure out whom the writer consulted with for local color. But, for goodness sake, be careful. It may not matter to the average reader that the author has put an elevator in a one-story hospital, but it very much matters to the reader who lives in the town with that one-story hospital. It matters to the local reader that the heroine has driven to Edgartown by way of Chilmark. And, when you glom onto a bit of local vernacular, you are not required to use it at every opportunity. Yes, we may, tongue-in-cheek, occasionally refer to the mainland as America, but chiefly, we say we’re going off-island. 

So, not wanting to get it wrong (or at least not woefully wrong), I was very careful about how I described Gloucester, what landmarks I mentioned, and used only one local expression gleaned from conversations with my local sources—and only once. 

On my brief end-of-season research trip to Gloucester, we made it the focal point of the journey to visit Dogtown. Pamphlets and websites and, yes, novels, can only suggest the mystery and, frankly, eeriness of these acres of what is now conservation land. Once deforested, the trees have grown back, and the remnants of the houses, that once were home to—mostly—female outliers and their companion canines, are merely depressions in the ground, marked by numbers. 

Susan Wilson's beloved Bonnie

The trails are narrow, and the walker comes upon the pet project of Roger Babson, the wealthy magnate who lent his name to Babson College. During the Depression, Babson put out-of-work stonemasons to work carving mottos on massive boulders: “INDUSTRY,” “GET A JOB,” “HELP MOTHER.” I’m sure it made more sense when there were fewer trees, but coming upon these random carved-in-stone slogans is a bit freaky. I tramp about the woods near home almost every day, but these woods were different. Maybe it was the power of suggestion, and maybe the time of year, but it didn’t take a practiced novelist to imagine the sadness and difficulty of lives lived on the outskirts of town. Of being outcasts. Of having only dogs to keep you safe from harm. Perfect for my outcast character, my protagonist, Rosie. 

Again, I wanted most of all to be accurate so, as there are no longer houses of any kind in Dogtown, I had to move her to the edge of Dogtown. As we walked through the woods, we could hear the sound of the commuter train; as we left the woods, we heard the fairly unnerving sound of target practice at the local shooting range, sounds and sights I worked into Rosie’s experience. I didn’t think that it was critical to give the exact mileage from her imaginary house on the edge of Dogtown to Gloucester proper, but it was important to acknowledge the rotary that swings the driver toward downtown or away from Gloucester toward Beverly. It was good to have her eat in a restaurant where we’d eaten. 

My goal was to express the essence of the place, to give the reader in California a taste of this venerable New England fishing port; and, equally, to respect the local reader’s own sense of place. So, did I get it right? I don’t know. I will say this, the next book is set back in my imaginary Harmony Farms. At least there I know where I am.  



Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine. Her latest novel, The Dog I Loved, was published in November 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.