Setting your novels in a place you love

It took exactly 12 weeks to decide I wanted to make a living writing – the 12 weeks I spent working as a soil scientist in Gainesville, Fla. I was 20, with a boss who told me every Friday, “Only 35 years to retirement.” Maybe that was his way of hinting that this was not the career for me. (Soil science involves a lot of digging – in the hot sun.)

Time for a new plan.

I got a column in the local paper and started journalism graduate school. After a series of part-time newspaper jobs, I turned to the ads in the back of Editor & Publisher. One week I applied for jobs as farm editor, religion editor and sports editor – all of which I was equally unqualified for.

One editor responded, from a small newspaper in a town in the Adirondacks in Saranac Lake, N.Y. I arrived for my interview in what seemed the dead of winter, stepping off the small plane at a tiny airport into a world that was white as far as the eye could see. It was cold in a way I’d never experienced.

They offered me the job as sports editor.

I took it.

Never mind that this was an area where sports were big – with three high schools, two colleges, softball teams, three-day sled dog races, canoe races, Winter Carnival competitions, rugby tournaments. With the Olympic Center nearby, there was luge, bobsled, biathlon, ski jumping, horse show competition, boxing, triathlon – and more. It was my job to cover them all.

Never mind that my sports experience was limited to competing in bicycle and running races, and writing a string of sports features. I’d been to exactly one college football game.

I worked the way you can work only when you’re in your 20s and have already flubbed one career and don’t want to flub another. I bought a book that detailed the rules of various sports. I went from event to event, shooting hockey from the penalty box, basketball from under the hoop, football from the sidelines. With this many sports to cover, understanding the nuances of game play was neither possible nor necessary. I took a lot of photos, got quotes from coaches and spelled names right. Some days I worked nearly around the clock, coming in before dawn on Monday morning to write features and develop film and lay out my pages. Nearing deadline, the press room guys would stare at me through the window in the door while I hustled through my last page.

Winters seemed brutal. Bit by bit I assembled an essential wardrobe: wool-lined Sorel boots, long johns, insulated gloves, head warmer, wool hat, thick coat. I learned to carry cardboard to stand on at outside events for insulation. I kept a sleeping bag in the car in case I got stranded. I put a lot of miles on my car and shot a lot of film. I discovered coffee. I ate on the run. I was thinner than I’d ever become from biking or running.

I loved it.

Toward the end of my second year, someone sent one of my bobsled articles to a magazine that reprinted it and sent me a check that was more than I earned in a week. Light dawned. I couldn’t keep up this pace and didn’t want to cut corners, so not too much later I resigned to write freelance. Then after a few years, I went off to other places to work at magazines, at other papers, as a book editor.

But I never forgot this place I loved and the people who made me feel I belonged for the first time in my life.

So when I sat down to write a novel, years later, this was where it had to be set.

Sara J. Henry was sports editor of the Enterprise from 1984 to 1986. Her first novel, “Learning to Swim,” opens in Lake Placid; the sequel, “A Cold and Lonely Place” (Crown, published Feb. 5), begins on the ice of Lake Flower during the building of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace. She lives in southern Vermont.