Road Trip 2015: Collison and Westmont

Sometimes you have to leave home to find the things you need. I tested that theory at the end of June, when I took Betsy and Emily on a road trip through Iowa. Last week I told you about our time in the towns of Burlington and Denmark. Today I discuss our visit to Collison and Westmont, in the Iowa of my imagination.

Map of Iowa

Don’t bother to look at an Iowa map: You won’t find Collison or Westmont. But they are the true reason I went to Burlington this summer.

I am fascinated by the creative process. How do people come up with new ideas? Like crazy dreams, I’m convinced good ideas have their basis in reality and take flight from there. Lottie’s Gift is proof. Lottie Braun’s roots run deep in Iowa soil, but her talent—her astounding gift for music–well, that’s pure fantasy. But why does Lottie come from Iowa, when I do not? 

I think Burlington fired my imagination for three reasons. First, I moved there in my early twenties, while my memory was still in recording mode. I worked temporary jobs at several different companies and got involved in our small, active Bible church. My husband, fresh out of law school, served in the county attorney’s office. I got to know that town, and it was different enough from my own upbringing to make a deep impression.

Grandma Tucker with her son, grandson, and great-granddaughter
Grandma Tucker with her son, grandson, and great-granddaughter (Betsy)

I also got to know Jon’s relatives. Grandma Tucker lived a mile away in a little bungalow that backed onto an alley. She loved to go to auctions, and found several items of furniture for us that way. Grandma was raised in the country, out at Denmark, as they say. The oldest of ten children, her brothers and sisters gathered yearly for family reunions. I got a kick out of their stories, and admired their loyalty.

Those stories. Farm life during the Depression. Brothers who served in World War II. Traveling salesmen, and practical jokes, and boarding in town for school. When I finally decided to write a book, those stories were its seeds.

We only lived in Burlington for two years. I’m convinced I wouldn’t have written about the town if we’d stayed. I didn’t think it was so special at the time. In fact, I complained bitterly about one or two aspects of my life there. Our daily lives always appear mundane. It takes time and distance to see the magic in a place.

This is the church at the center of, Denmark, Iowa
This is the church at the center of Westmont….er, Denmark, Iowa

I took some geographical liberties in Lottie’s Gift. For one thing, I replaced Burlington with a made-up college town called Collison. For another, I replaced Denmark with Westmont, and gave it a bank, a gas station and a five-and-ten. These fictional towns exist among real-life cities, including Fort Madison, Columbus Junction and Des Moines.

In writing Lottie’s family, I tried to portray the bedrock Iowa practicality that I’ve come to respect.Most of her relatives are resourceful, loyal and kind. My characters aren’t copies of anyone, but I hope they’ll seem like they could be.

I visited Burlington and Denmark to experience the Technicolor realities on which I based my flights of fancy: The big old houses in town. The isolated farmsteads. The movie theaters and department stores and miles and miles of cropland. I needed to know if they matched the pictures in my head. I’m happy to say they did.

Time will tell if I got them down on paper the same way.


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