I grew up on a beautiful lake in Alabama.
Actually, until recently I would not have considered this what I loved most about being a teen. I never really thought about it, because the lake is such a part of me. I learned to swim when I was two, I learned to water-ski when I was five, and my mom set my brother and me loose in the water every summer day I can remember. I'm pretty sure she didn't even watch us. She was reading. She may have been in earshot in case we screamed.
But a few years ago, I was forced to take a harder look at the lake. One of my editors and I couldn't agree on what my next book would be about. I had an idea for a love triangle plot in a teen rock band. I had another idea for a complicated mystery plot set on a lake. My editor didn't like either idea (or the forty others I'd proposed first), and finally she told me to take the plot from one book and the setting from the other--use the love triangle plot and set it on the lake--and call it The Boys Next Door.
At first I was flabbergasted. I was so close to the lake that I couldn't even see it. My critique partner talked me through it. She explained that while I took my summers swimming and skiing for granted, a lot of teenagers would consider that paradise. And by the time I'd finished the book, I agreed. The lake is a character of its own in that book, and it's on my mind again lately because I'm writing the sequel, called Endless Summer.
Even though my other novels aren't set on the lake, you can see the lake reflected in them. The heroine of Major Crush lives on the same lake, but it's autumn so lake fun is over, and she's very dissatisfied living in her small town. Going Too Far is the only novel I've written that doesn't have some tourist attraction looming in the background of the setting, and that heroine is going to get out of her small town or bust.
In contrast, Lori in The Boys Next Door and the upcoming Endless Summer is perfectly satisfied to stay in her town. Why would she want to leave the lake? In The Ex Games coming out on September 8, Hayden is a snowboarder who doesn't want to leave her mountain. The ski slopes serve the same function in her life as the lake served in mine. And in Forget You, coming from MTV Books next summer, Zoey would be content living by the ocean forever.
In fact, growing up at the lake nearly was the death of me. Swimming is such second nature to me, I somehow got the mistaken impression that I cannot drown. I can drown, and I learned that lesson the hard way on my honeymoon in Hawaii. There were signs posted all over this beautiful beach that said BEWARE OF UNDERTOW, but I thought they were meant for other people--people who could drown. You can read about that experience in the opening of Forget You. Clearly I survived, but I did have a moment there where I wasn't so sure--my first ever in the water.
In short, I spent years thinking that in writing about my upbringing, I had nothing unusual to draw from--but it turns out that I do.
Haven't had enough of my hometown's strange and sudden tromp through the reality show circuit? In July, country superstar Alan Jackson played a concert on a barge on my lake as part of Aquapalooza. You could only see it by boat. If you're curious about the lake, one of the marinas, and one of the bridges that inspired The Boys Next Door, the restaurant where my mother attended her high school prom, and the lake cabin where Hank Williams Sr. got drunk and wrote his politically incorrect and culturally insensitive hit "Kaw-Liga," tune in to Country Music Television (CMT) on September 4 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, and September 5 and 6 at 9:30 a.m. ET/PT. Paradise? You tell me.