My mother-in-law once told me that she is the kind of reader who will stop reading once an author makes a stranger’s mistake about a place. A character turns up a street that doesn’t really exist in downtown Chicago, or the Texas landscape is mutilated to satisfy a plot twist. She’s the kind of reader I keep in my head while I’m writing, the kind of reader that really makes me nervous.
A few weeks ago, my partner and I set out on our first real vacation together, which means we piled our camping gear, road trip snacks, an extensive AAA TripTik, several audio books, and my new favorite book into the car and headed west to relax, see some family, and tackle some research for my novel. We covered a lot of ground: our first destination was central Illinois, where we spent a few days exploring, and then we paused too briefly in Iowa City before crossing the river again, climbing through Galena and northwestern Illinois, skimming the Wisconsin state line to land in Rockford, then Park Forest, a stone’s throw from Indiana.
Parts of the trip tested the Uber-Planner in me—I’d made only a vague appointment with a museum administrator at a historic site, our camping plans were foiled by weather, and we had to weigh the pleasure of surprising my mom in Illinois against the possibility of maximizing our time with her—but then there were some things we couldn’t have planned: seeing the largest covered wagon in America; a moon rise over the lake ComEd built in the middle of a prairie that’s now the largest state park in Illinois; a helicopter lifting off from the bed of a truck; a beat-up book showcasing photos of farm families in southeastern Iowa, shoved on a shelf at Prairie Lights in Iowa City; encounters with waitresses, campground hosts, SaveALot cashiers, museum shop clerks. We wandered, we took photos, we ate a lot of ice cream.
Our wandering was fueled by a sense of wonder at our home state, much maligned on account of its governors and much overlooked in favor of its big city, except perhaps for the Lincoln sites, the very ones that had drawn us there that week in the first place. We spent most of our time in small towns (population: 300), which seemed so distant, both geographically and philosophically, from the big city. My novel is set in an imaginary Illinois town, but I wanted it to be like Manito and Petersburg and Athens and Bath: small houses, no curbs, a town square, Casey’s General Store, Lincoln monuments peppered throughout, the wave of agriculture just beyond the town’s welcome sign.
We spent a night in Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area (thirty miles from where we were supposed to camp) and found ourselves in a sanctuary for several rare plants native to loess hill prairie. I dawdled on our hike, photographing flowers and grasses so that my parents, native plant enthusiasts, could help me identify them, so that my novel could be sown with the right seeds of this place. Later, in Rockford, my parents took us around their own prairie, my mother pointing out plants, gently taking the stems between her fingers to show us her favorites.
I want Illinoisans to feel in my work the rolling hills of western Illinois. To see the moon rise over a manmade lake and still find it as beautiful as any natural one. To hear the subtle shift in accent driving from the Illinois River to the Mississippi and up across to the lake—a shift from a soft, almost Southern twang to the robust Wisconsin bay, finally to the harder notes of native Chicagoans. I want readers like my mother-in-law to recognize the Illinois in my novel, to find a home there among the native plants.