The inspiration for the setting of “Where the Ocean Smell Comes From” came from a visit to the Barnacle Historic State Park in Coconut Grove, Fl. Ralph Munroe built a house in 1891 when the Biscayne Bay areaof South Florida still lacked many roads. He hoped the weather would help his wife overcome her tuberculosis; sadly, it did not. Nevertheless, Ralph fell in love with the climate and people of the Bay and settled here. The historic park consists of his home and part of his estate. The original mansion still stands in its original location—one of the oldest houses in Miami-Dade County.
The “atoll” of grass where Haley and Ryan sit took its inspiration from the location on the left. Similarly, the dock on which they lay takes its form from the dock found there and similar docks from a nearby marina.
Two major thematic elements run through the story: the ocean and cornfields. Yet, their representation varies according to the characters' perspective. Haley views the ocean as a place of freedom and eternal peace. She harbors happy memories of time with her father, pretending the undulating cornstalks were waves on her imaginary sea. This sentiment is further reflected in her love for the smell of the ocean and geographical nearness to the ocean (she lives with her aunt near the Bay; this is hinted at the end when she walks outside to breathe in the salty air). In quite an explicit way, she describes Ryan's features using ocean imagery. For Haley, the ocean represents new opportunities.
Ryan, on the other hand, sees the ocean as a place of troubles. The deep waters of the sea represent the struggles he has faced. These struggles overwhelmed him, giving him a sense of drowning and treading water. The "salty waves" remind him of his bitter past and lack of direction. The most obvious way Haley and Ryan differ with regard to their perspective of the ocean relates to its "smell." The smell of the ocean brings joyful memories to Haley. On the other hand, it reminds Ryan of rotting plankton and bacterial growth. Haley summarizes the ocean imagery best when she says, "Talk about perspective."
Yet, they both agree on one theme: cornfields. For Ryan, cornfields represent relief. In Indiana, a state known for its corn growing, he meets Haley, with whom he experiences happiness for the first time in a while. His poem tells of finally being rooted like a cornstalk, no longer being tossed by salty waves. He feels at home. The same place Haley calls home.
In the end, Ryan decides to give the future a try. He doesn't quite have a direction, but he's convinced by Haley's optimism.
I’ve been asked a few times whether or not this short story is based on my life. In the vein of Hemingway, one of my favorite authors, the inspiration pertains to some aspects of my experiences. I like to put it this way: about 70% of the story is true and 100% of it is fiction. The sections that I drew from experience do not occur in any chronological order. An amalgamation of at least five to six specific experiences compose portions of the characters, setting, and plot—a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I hope the inclusion of parts of those experiences lends authenticity to the piece as a whole.