Two weeks ago, I had the unexpected opportunity to travel to a small city in South Louisiana that I haven’t visited in nearly 16 years. The town – in the heart of sugarcane country – serves as the inspiration for the setting of the novel I’m writing. And while my main purpose for going there had nothing to do with research for my novel, I found myself noticing details about the place that will only enrich my writing.
Sugarcane fields are a central element in my story. In my younger life, I’ve driven past them frequently. I’ve walked through them a handful of times. I’ve even sucked the sweet juice out of a piece of cane freshly cut from the ground on more than one occasion. But I was young during those experiences. Back then, I didn’t pay attention to how lush and dense the foliage is when the plants are nearly ready to be harvested. I didn’t stop to watch and listen to the way the wind swept through the leaves as a storm rolled in. I didn’t notice the bits of broken oyster shells littering the compact dirt at the edge of the fields.
Or perhaps my memory of finer details has simply faded with time. I had forgotten how deceptively razor sharp the cane leaves are. I had forgotten that birds follow the plows to search for bugs in the churned up dirt, which I incorrectly remembered as being more brown than grey.
It’s true that I have spent a fair amount of time looking at photos of sugarcane and sugarcane fields that people have posted online and on social media as I’ve been writing my story. But being back in that small town proved better than any research I could have ever done online from 700 miles away. I was reminded of what being in a sugarcane field sounds like and what it smells like. I felt the dirt beneath my feet and the slender leaves in my hands. Those sensory details could never come from any photograph or uploaded video.
Thanks to this unforeseen visit, all of those details will find their way into the pages of my novel as I move forward in my writing. And all of those long-forgotten memories of the time I’ve spent in sugarcane country, now fresh in my mind, will find their way into the lives of my characters.