Discovering story through setting:
I’m from Oklahoma. I grew up there and came back for college. I thought I knew the place pretty well, but I’d never given any thought to the panhandle.
I found myself there by chance. I was in the car, for the first of what would be several trips through the region. The landscape was stark, nothing beside the road but fencing and flat land. It was more desolate than any other part of the state I’d seen. I pulled into Boise City and tooled down the main drag. When I reached the town square, I saw the Cimarron County Courthouse standing in the center of a roundabout—an imposing brick building, around a hundred years old, I guessed, and far bigger and more ornate than anything else around it. I’d driven through small towns, even ghost towns, but Boise City seemed different, like a mirage in the desert, like a place that had been imagined. I figured there was a story there, but I had no intention to write about it then. I was just curious how this place in the middle of nowhere had become a place at all.
Boise City was founded by fraud. In the early 1900s, a couple of crooked businessmen printed pamphlets and sold lots in what they claimed was a city with paved roads, rail service, thriving shops, and all the other modern trappings. Buyers arrived to discover that what they’d been told wasn’t true, but somehow the town still took shape. I imagined the determination and stubbornness that must’ve taken. I wanted to write about that.
My first efforts failed. I could render the landscape well enough, but setting is more than atmosphere. It’s place, coupled with time, and characters spring from there. I had to learn more.
I read first-hand accounts and flipped through photographs. I learned the history of the region, how prosperous wheat farming had kept people in a place they’d been tricked into coming to, how overworking the land set the stage for one of the greatest environmental catastrophes in human history. I read magazines from the ’30s to get a sense of the politics and culture. I listened to music and watched movies. Eventually, I felt like I understood the place, the time, and the people, and when I considered the hopes that they’d had, the hardships they suffered, and how so much depended on the weather, a story unfolded from there.
JONATHAN BOHR HEINEN’s writing has appeared in the Cimarron Review, Florida Review, The Boiler, Arroyo, and Tusculum Review, among other places, and has received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. He teaches at the College of Charleston, where he serves as managing editor for Crazyhorse, and is a staff member for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.