Cowboys, Corn, and The Mile High City

SageNo writing for two weeks, but a lot of driving–3236 miles in fact–through a half dozen states to visit Wyoming and Colorado. The road trip was prompted by a desire to see family, friends, and the familiar prairies. I suppose it’s true that home calls us back. For me, it’s Casper, Wyoming, where I lived until I was twenty. Then, it was college (CU) and Denver for twelve years.
I try to go back every two years or so. I look for a patch of prairie covered in sagebrush. My uncle used to whack off a few stems for me to bring back, dry, and set on my desk. He’s not on his ranch anymore, so now I find a lonely turnoff and walk out onto the prairie until I can breathe in the scent of sage.
Not everyone loves sagebrush (it’s right up there with tumbleweeds to those who find it a nuisance), and, if they saw me, they’d probably think the woman with the Kentucky license plate was a little loco. But, when I rub it between my fingers, and release the fragrance, it transports me back to my uncle’s ranch and impossible starry nights with no city lights to obscure the display in the sky.
Besides the obvious benefits of breaking routine and “going home,” the drive provided inspiration for several short stories, suggested a few titles, and definitely gave me ideas for fictional characters.
Interstate 80. I drove past endless cornfields and wind farms in Nebraska and Iowa, but I saw only scattered farm houses and buildings. Few humans or animals in sight.
In Wyoming, I sat at a bar, eating a loaded baked potato and drinking a beer, and watched a trying-to-be-patient woman tend bar and deal with some rowdy oil field workers. I watched a pregnant waitress at the same bar, holding her side and trying to check out her tickets, saying all she wanted was to go home and rest before she “keeled over.”
In Colorado, I soaked up the atmosphere of one of the oldest and most famous (or infamous if you study the history of Colorado crime families) restaurants in Denver. I’d eaten there years ago, and it’s still a favorite. It’s been recently remodeled, but it still has the vibes. Also noted the Mile High City was . . . well . . . high.
Writers are frequently advised to write what they know and not choose settings or places unfamiliar to them. To an extent that is good advice, but you don’t need to have lived on a farm in Iowa or Nebraska, or rounded up cattle in Wyoming, or skied the Colorado slopes to pick up enough information to describe a viable setting in any of those places. True, without firsthand experience, you’re better off to describe unfamiliar places with a light touch, but look at a lonely, two-story farm house–sitting in the middle of acres and acres of corn fields–and you can construct a life for one of your characters in that very house.
Or park your car for a moment beside a blue highway in Wyoming–with nothing in sight for miles except sage, birds, and antelope–and listen to the wind, breathe the clean prairie air, and imagine a fictional character gazing at the immense sky overhead.

Back to normal; back to work. Upcoming event: a workshop in Bowling Green, Kentucky on September 5: The Soap-On-A-Rope Mistake: Why Editing Matters
and The Regional Author’s Showcase on September 6. (see Events page for details.)

Advertisements

Poppies, Pimps, and Everything In-between

Thinking about writing and travel, and somewhat bored with the biography I’ve been reading, I pulled out my copy of The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux (1975).  At the time, he was young, intrepid, and wickedly humorous: a talented writer with the ability to observe closely and recount with precision.
As I traveled abroad, Theroux’s travel books and anecdotes often came to mind. I fell into the habit of using an expression he’d coined, “duffilled.” I would urge my travel companion, “Come on. Hurry. We don’t want to be duffilled.”
It was a reference to a pathetic man named Duffill who, at a train stop in Domodossola, Italy, failed to get back on the train and was left standing on the platform as the train sped away with his belongings.
In the same book (Railway Bazaar) Theroux has a conversation with a pimp that’s stayed  in my memory long after the book yellowed on the shelf. In Chapter 7, The Khyber Mail to Lahore Junction, Theroux is only looking for a drink, but a street pimp tries to interest him in a prostitute. The pimp, with limited English, is attempting to describe how “good” the service will be. Theroux responds in kind, wishing the pimp the same “good” experience, much in the spirit of “Good morning to you, too.”  That humor, mixed with gritty reality, made the scene come alive. Whether political or playful, Theroux’s travel writing is always engaging.
It’s occurred to me that if we could observe and relate human behavior as accurately in our fiction as many of the travel writers do in their accounts, we would be ahead of the game.
It’s not easy to develop a fictional character that resonates with a large percentage of readers, but when it does happen we have a Scout, a Harry Potter, a Miss Daisy, or the vampire, Lestat. Even harder, perhaps, is give our characters traits that lead to original, interesting dialogue. If we invent a compelling character, we need to make that character authentic for our readers.
I admit it would be difficult to conjure a character like the one Theroux met–a Thai who called himself Pensacola–not to mention inventing a story like the one the Thai told (a tale of holding off a gang of smugglers in an opium poppy field). It’s a tall order, but suppose we think like a travel writer who is meeting intriguing people: what are the physical, psychological, and situational characteristics that make them worthy of being noted and, eventually, included in the traveler’s journal, essay, or book?
Imagine that you are on a public conveyance and seated next to the character you’ve invented for your work of fiction. What are your first impressions? Heavy cologne? A mustache trimmed with military precision? A heavy sweater when the temperature outside is pushing triple digits? Now look closer. Crooked teeth or a toothpaste ad smile? Shiny hair or greasy locks? Open-collared shirt or chokingly tight necktie? Stilettos or trainers with Velcro fasteners?
Start a conversation with your character. What conversational traits do you notice? A slight lisp? Clipped enunciation? Peppered with four letter words? Are they loquacious? Reserved? Secretive?
Objectivity, close observation, and attention to speech patterns and gestures–trademarks of good travel writing–enable us to create original, memorable characters. Travel books are inspiring-give one a shot the next time you create a character.

Those Short Shorts

Stories, not Daisy Dukes, although they do have a lot in common–covering the bare necessities, making a point, and leaving an impression. Increasingly, contest promoters and on-line publications call for short shorts, ranging all the way from postcard shorts (stories that can fit on a postcard) to NPR’s Three Minute Fiction category. Usually a word or time limit is suggested, and the writer is expected to turn out an acceptable story with a starting point, development, and resolution.
In a previous post, I talked about the discipline that comes with having to cut a story down to a prescribed length. It can be daunting, but it can also lead to a more cogent, succinct work. But, suppose you write a very short story and want to use it as the bones of a longer story. Will it work in reverse?
I had a chance to try it when I ran across a short story contest. Besides a word limit, the submitted stories had to contain a reference to a haunted house in the first sentence. I couldn’t resist; it would be fun since there was little expectation of “winning.” It’s like trying to hit a target at a carnival stall–you know you haven’t much chance of connecting and walking away with a stuffed toy, but it’s fun to exercise your throwing skill.
The deadline was the next day, and I was pressed for time, so I scrolled through my short story collection.  I found one that had been awarded first place in the Green River Mean contest. Complying to the “haunted house” requirement, I focused on how guilt dominated my character’s life. The promoters of the publication didn’t choose my entry, but the challenge of expanding on my original idea was worth it.

If you have a collection of  short stories, poems,  or partially-developed ideas stored on your computer (even those that didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped), consider revisiting them from time to time. You might be surprised at how useful they can be the next time you’re facing a blank page.

The two variations of For Sale by Owner (© Jennie L. Brown) follow:

Version 1
When Elroy stole the chain saw, he didn’t think much about it; his new neighbors acted like people who wouldn’t notice. When they first bought the little house, he dropped by to shoot the breeze. He was disappointed to find they were hurried, preoccupied with renovating the place. He missed jawing with the full-hipped woman who’d lived there previously.
Besides, it was their own fault for leaving tools in a garage that didn’t have a lock. Shoot! He could’ve taken the riding lawn mower, or a whole slew of bigger items, but all he snatched was that little chain saw. He figured they’d buy another one right away. But when he saw the new owner, Richard, out trying to cut down a sapling with an undersized hand saw, it made Elroy feel wicked. After Richard gave up and drove back into town, Elroy took his own chain saw, finished the job, and hauled away the wood.
That should have been the end of it, but then he saw the big, shiny, new lock on the garage door. He was shamed. Finally, he couldn’t drive by their house anymore, and took the long way into town. When he lost weight and couldn’t sleep nights, he put up a sign: For Sale By Owner. He packed a suitcase, waited until full dark, then drove the familiar road for the last time, flinging Richard’s chain saw into a ditch filled with spring runoff. Some things ain’t for keeping.

Version 2
Rumor was the house was haunted. The city people bought it anyway. Elroy scoffed at the stories that went around. He didn’t believe in ghosts and, as far as he was concerned, it was just a rundown place on a hill that got too much wind.
At the Community Hall’s pancake breakfast, to benefit the volunteer fire department, his neighbor, Albert, cornered him.
“Hey there, Elroy. I been wondering about the folks who bought Liz’s old house? Think they’ll see any of them spirits?”
Elroy slathered more sorghum on his pancakes and shook his head. “I think that spook business is a bunch of hooey. The only problem they’re going to have is fixing up that place. It’s been hard used.”
“Liz used to swear there was haints up there,” Albert said.
Elroy laid down his fork. “The only haint up there was Liz, but she was a good one while she lasted.”
Later that week, when Elroy stole the new owners’ chain saw, he didn’t think much about it; they acted like people who wouldn’t notice such a little thing. When they’d first bought the house, he dropped by to shoot the breeze. He was disappointed to find they were hurried, preoccupied with renovating. They were polite, but made it clear they didn’t want to stop what they were doing to visit with him–or offer him a cold, sweet tea. It was then he realized how much he missed jawing with Liz, missed her full-hipped body.
Besides, he figured it was their own fault for leaving tools in a garage that didn’t have a lock. Shoot! He could’ve taken the riding lawn mower, or a whole slew of bigger items, but all he snatched was that little chain saw. He figured they’d buy another one right away.
But when he saw the new owner, Richard, out trying to cut down a sapling with an undersized hand saw, it made Elroy feel wicked. After Richard gave up and drove back into town, Elroy took his own chain saw, finished the job, and hauled away the wood.
That should have been the end of it, but when he saw the big, shiny, new lock on Richard’s garage door, he was shamed. Finally, he couldn’t drive by their house anymore, and took the long way into town. He stopped answering his own door. When he lost weight and couldn’t sleep nights, he put up a sign: For Sale By Owner.
He accepted the first offer he got, and turned over his house, furniture and all. He packed a suitcase, waited until full dark, then drove the familiar road for the last time. Just before he got to the main highway, he flung Richard’s chain saw into a ditch filled with spring runoff.
“Some things ain’t for keeping,” he said to his dog. “I’m glad to put the whole disagreeable business behind me.”
Years later, in a cold, northern city, a police officer shook his head.
“This is the damnedest suicide note I’ve read in a long time. What do you think that poor slob meant by “The haints followed me?”