How a Romance Novel Delivered the Home I’ll Never Have
Where do you feel most at home? Is your instinctive answer a town or a country, a family house, a room in your apartment, your bed? Why?
My lifelong love affair with the concept of home arose from weathering many moves as a child of parents who valued career opportunities (in their modest, service-oriented way) over location stability. As an adult, I extended the trend and continued to move around, drawn by the thrill of immersion in new environments and cultures. After all of those changes of address, the home experience I’ll never have is living in one place all my life.
When I meet someone who stayed, who remains where they’ve always been, I perk up and investigate. How does that degree of stability feel? The answer is often, “We’re just here, where we’ve always been,” accompanied by a shrug and a change of subject: “I’m more interested in your moving history. What’s the weirdest place you’ve lived?” For both of us, our own lives are normal, and the unfamiliar experience tantalizes. We yodel across the valleys of our paradigms and I come away no less curious.
To engage with my knotty feelings about home, I wrote a novel.
Since creativity and making things helps us grapple with our unanswered questions, I consider imagination a valid form of enquiry. In play, we access and learn from wisdom beyond the self. The sustained focus of creating something as involved as a novel allows me to explore and resolve large and gnarly issues deeply, emerging at The End with greater self-understanding (and a finished manuscript). In a very real sense, writing is therapy.
For my novel to explore home (and other issues), Story (an entity with whom I collaborate) delivered two main characters: Oliver, who lived in one house all his life, and Grant, a homeless man. The development of their romance allowed me to experience, from multiple angles, things I would never have for myself. The result is The Infinite Onion, a love story of a cranky man-child (Grant) and a snooty artist (Oliver) whose unwelcome attraction blooms on a playing field of barbs, defenses, and secrets.
The novel’s setting is Vashon Island, Washington, a real place where I lived for eight years in the 1990s (in multiple homes, of course). I adored Vashon Island. Setting the novel there allowed me to tap into and relive memories, feelings, and sensations from my time as a resident. I remembered, but I also reimagined and imagined further.
Two aids I developed during the years I wrote the novel were a hand-drawn map of the area around Oliver’s house and a floor plan of Oliver’s house. I’ve removed potential spoilers from both, in case you want to read the novel. If you’ve already read it, there should be enough context to allow you to fill in for yourself what’s not made explicit.
First, the map. I wrote The Infinite Onion when I lived in Tennessee and then Washington, DC, which meant reorienting myself to Vashon using paper maps in my possession, online maps, and photos, including photos of a similar island I lived on in British Columbia and nearby islands I’d visited. I started with a rudimentary map and added more details as the story developed.
Main roads and general island contours remained as in reality, but I took many liberties from there. I added and subtracted roads, trails, buildings, and landscape features to create the specific environment in which Oliver and Grant found, repelled, and gradually learned to appreciate each other.
I wanted to evoke, with Story’s aid, the feelings about home I most wanted to experience. I wrote the story I needed to read. Approaching the topic of home from the opposing perspectives of one main character’s lifelong stasis and the other main character’s homelessness provided plenty of options.
A floor plan now takes us indoors, to a setting replete with memories for Oliver. I tried and rejected multiple tools and platforms to create a floor plan, before coming across an article about using Excel (the spreadsheet software). The simplicity of using a tool I already knew well appealed to me. It took me a little experimentation to figure out the nuts and bolts of turning a spreadsheet into a floor plan, and to settle on my protocols for depicting features like windows and doors, but once I did, all the details of Oliver’s house that I’d been keeping in my head became visible.
The development of these two documents during the writing process circled back in many ways to influence the story, like when I realized something I’d written while in flow (not editing as I wrote, just getting stuff on the page) wouldn’t be possible within the world of the story unless I updated either the story or the map or floor plan. Also, the more specific the documents became, the more easily I could see, feel, and inhabit the story world, which allowed me to sink deeper into the writing of the story.
My original questions around home proliferated and turned fractal. The extent of conceptual possibility encapsulated in the notions of geography, geometry, angles, and viewpoints —all of which developed multiple meanings, nesting inside one another in shifting combinations — spurred me on. I still find it amazing that we humans can wield written language to concoct scenarios in a fictional space of plot points and subtext, and thus circle toward answers as we engage and learn.
As the characters of The Infinite Onion, I roamed long-familiar trails and lived in one house all my life. I discovered benefits of staying and lamented the traps. As I occupied those tangible/intangible fictional spaces, home for me outside the world of the novel became less charged, richer with positive context.
To my immense satisfaction, I realized the impossible, and the experience was good, very good. Then I packed up my belongings and moved across the country to Oregon.
And I wouldn’t change a thing.
Alice Archer is the author of The Infinite Onion and Everyday History, thought-provoking romance novels for strong hearts. You can subscribe to her newsletter to receive a free story, notification of new articles and books, and more.