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.)

To Curse or Not to Curse: Lesson Unlearned on a Wyoming Sheep Ranch

Deciding exactly how far you should go when writing dialogue is a dilemma, particularly if you are writing for a yet undetermined audience. You want to keep it authentic, but refrain from offending potential readers. What’s the answer?

Having spent my formative years (until about age 8) on a sheep ranch in Wyoming that my father was managing for his three bachelor uncles, I was totally familiar with a well-aimed curse–usually not at a person other than something mild like, “When in the hell are you going to get that fence fixed?” Generally it was a piece of farm machinery, a recalcitrant ram, or the gumbo that mired the truck. That is, until it was time for me to start school.

My great-uncle Bill, who did the milking and tended the garden, allowed me to tag along and help. When my entry into the first grade became imminent, he decided to take my education in hand and prepare me for the classroom. After extracting my promise that I wouldn’t tell my parents of his tutelage, he instructed me in the art of swearing. Having never married, he apparently hoped his niece would carry on his Wyoming sheep rancher’s traditions. (My apologies to those ranchers who refrain from cussing a blue streak.)

I lasted one morning  in school, answering every question I was asked, including my name and age, with an adjective or adverb that the lovely, elderly teacher–who for years had maintained serene control of her class room–had never experienced. I was escorted home in the afternoon; my shocked parents were told to clean up my language before I would be readmitted; Uncle Bill thought his joke was the best he’d ever pulled, and it took my mother a full week to deprogram me. It was not completely successful, but I have managed some restraint in my writing.

So, what is too much? What is not enough? What is authentic? What is offensive? What is gratuitous?

Some of the characters in my short stories and novel curse: some do not. A wisecracking hairdresser, a frustrated father, a woman who has exploded with hurt and anger cusses out the man who hurt her. My guide is circumstances and what would be a natural “voice” for my character in those circumstances.

When I taught writing, some students had either discovered a range of four letter words (mostly just one) or were experiencing the freedom of their first year or two in college. Either way, they seemed to revel in including a minimum of two swear words in every sentence. When I suggested there might be another way to say the same thing, they’d retort that they liked what they had written. “Okay,” I’d say, “but will your reader?”

That’s the fine line a writer has to walk. What is authentic and what is gratuitous? We all have a definition, depending on our upbringing, our values, the image we wish to project. My time on a sheep ranch, and later visiting on other ranches, inured me to finding “language” offensive; however, like anything else, the situation dictates the response. Most of us differentiate our behavior depending on how solemn or rowdy the occasion warrants. So must our characters.

It would seem unusual for a character, regardless how constrained and conservative, to utter, “Goodness, I believe I just injured the digit on my left hand,” when the jack just slipped and he smashed his finger. Or to have a driver utter, “My, my, that car is coming straight at me,” before a collision. You can supply the more typical responses.

It all comes down to knowing your characters, gauging their typical responses, portraying their level of emotional involvement, and keeping their dialogue real.

Note: Uncle Bill is somewhere laughing his . . . head . . . off.