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I’m flirting with Hemingway. He sits, perched on my aged-oak desk at the Carnegie Library in Wallace, Idaho. Before you imagine a leather classic of “The Old Man and the Sea” propped beside my laptop and charging phone, let me tell you, he’s real, and alive.
Hemingway is old; 73 by his own account. He wears a silver-belly Stetson stained from years of use with a general’s star and a Judaic artifact pinned to its crown. Random tourists on the streets offer to buy it. He won’t sell. You might say he’s leathered with tan skin deeply wrinkled and blue eyes hidden by aviator sunglasses. He wears typical modern cowboy garb – denim shirt, straight-legged denim jeans and black pointed-toe boots.
It’s a cold and rainy July day and his brown down vest is zipped. It has a few holes and as he talks, random feathers float between us on the breath of our conversation.
Hemingway tells me he’s been working on his book for 50 years. He’s studied the classics and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is among his favorite authors, as is Charles Dickinson and Ernest Hemingway. Decades ago, when it struck him to be a writer, he wanted to live the most outlandish life he could, experiencing first-hand wild places and life at its fullest. He’s been a soldier in ‘Nam, a miner, a cowboy, a long-haul trucker. He’s lived in Alaska and the sage country of southern Idaho. The Silver Valley called to him and he’s lived nearby in a mining town for many years.
I’ve heard that calling.
When our property managers gave us the boot from our rental because the owners felt the house would sell better empty, I protested loudly. I wailed loudly, too as the inevitable happened and our eviction day dawned. We bought a leaky trailer and bounced from squatting in our former driveway to hosting an airbnb property to accepting the charity of Lake RV who let us stay three nights for free. After the RV place inspected our leaking roof and advised us on how to fix it, we sought free camping in the national forest where we could hole up, repair and I could write.
Hemingway would say this is how a writer lives – in the thick of life’s experiences, not avoiding them.
And this is how I’m meeting real people with real stories. It’s interesting how the most generous in society are those who consciously choose to be empathetic or understand hard times from experience. Those who strive for security or feel entitled to something more than most live in fear of losing, thus are always winning, as if life were a game. But this is not the game of life. This is living. Something Hemingway understood and distilled into stark stories or real people. The author Hemingway, that is. My Hemingway is yet unpublished; an undiscovered American classic.
Here in the thick of my own life circumstances I’m surrounded by forest, birds, mines and stories. I’ve traded the barn cat of home for an aloof ginger who soaks up sun on the steps of the Snake Pit. I’m looking for the familiar among all that is new to me. I’m a story-catcher and I’m drawn to seeking stories about my new camp-home. On Monday I came to town to find internet and found all wi-fi places shut down for the 4th of July. Instead Todd and I cruised about Wallace as tourists, taking a trolley ride and going into a hard-rock tunnel to tour a silver mine with real miners. And I couldn’t resist buying a book on oral histories about the very river where we are camped.
In that book, I found Neva’s cherries. Actually Todd discovered her cherry trees. I found the story of the woman who canned the fruit when she lived in a summer shack where our trailer is parked. Neva described herself as an “old maid” in the 1920s. From Ohio she answered a pen pal post in a magazine and came to Idaho to meet and marry her husband. He worked on a narrow gauge logging train for the Forest Service and they lived in Enaville where the Snake Pit cat now resides. During the summer, Neva moved to a shack along the North Fork of the Coeur D’Alene River at the Forest Service camp known as Carters Station. Today, it is a primitive campground, but if you look closely you can see the old foundations of the station and surviving cherry trees.
To a story-catcher, knowing the name of the woman who picked these same cherries is an anchor. Meeting Hemingway in the library and giving in to flirting over shared literary ideas and writing dreams is another.
Hemingway goes outside to smoke unfiltered cigarettes and invites me to coffee if I want to follow. I can do what I came to Wallace to do – catch up on my writing duties or play hooky and explain my absence tomorrow. I could write about cats and cherries as I planned or go outside and find out what it is Hemingway is shy to ask me. I decide to live a little and leave my computer.
Outside, Hemingway tells me about his mother and that I’ve given him an insight he’s searched for all these years. It was a casual mention. How was I to know to his mother and I shared a commonality? But this is true of conversation and the relationship between story-teller and listener; writer and reader. We each make our own discoveries between the words and pages. In the time it takes me to go outside, Hemingway has penned a short story in his notebook and reads it to me. He tells me he wants to be a part of the writers in the Silver Valley, the ones called to be here.
At this point, he doesn’t know I’m a writer, too or that I’ve experienced this calling from Wallace. He just knows I’m a siphon, as he calls me, telling me I would make a good therapist. He says he needs someone to hold his hand to connect him to humans, writing humans. He wants this, but is too shy on his own. He’s confident in his decades of writing, but lacks the human connectivity. Cowboys rarely humble themselves like this, but I understand his sincerity yet vulnerability to connect. I’m thinking to myself, how is it that he’s asking for a personalized version of Carrot Ranch when he has no idea that I’m anything beyond a good listener?
That’s when I give him my card and talk about the group of writers who hang at the ranch. He says, “Oh, I’m just another dime a dozen writer to you…”
“No you’re not,” I say. He’s Hemingway. The stories he told me are incredible. But they are his to tell; his to write. I’ll share my experience but not his stories. They are yet his.
No writer is just a dime a dozen. Many of us have the calling upon us. Some spin stories; others catch them in flung nets to history or diners. We all have our reasons for being here. What’s important is that we show up to what inspires us; that we show up to the page.
It’s now pitch black and my camp is frigid. A large bonfire snaps with pockets of pitch exploding and hot embers burn orange. My laptop screen blazes bright as I peck at keys in the dark of night surrounded by forest and cherry trees and the ghosts of those who lived here in shacks before I arrived in my trailer. It’s a seasonal place and I’m tuning in to that seasonality. And I’m late in my response, but couldn’t resist flirting with Hemingway at the library.
And now, I’m going to put out a prompt I swore I never would because of what unicorns and rainbows once wrought! But I must pause to say that the weekly responses since that early prompt continue to amaze and inspire me. Writers can be shy creatures, unsure as the hummingbird that wants the nectar but hesitates when others are around. I don’t think I hold anyone’s hand at Carrot Ranch, but I hope I offer a hand up or a helping hand among the many who offer it in return. Writing might be a solitary act, but it is connectivity that results. May you live in such a way that you honor your literary art, let it breathe and live.
July 6, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a cat. It can be a cute and adorable kitten or it can be mean old tom that swipes a claw at unsuspecting humans. Cats are prevalent in the mining country – mousers and companions. Some survive in luxury with cushions in a sunny window, while others fend off coyotes. What cat comes to mind and how does it spark a story?
Respond by July 12, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Seeking a Living History Book by Charli Mills (from Miracle of Ducks)
Danni left Ike fishing at the steel bridge eddy. She doubted he’d catch trout with weekend river revelers invading. Turning on to a rutted two-track, she popped the clutch into 4WD. Hardly anyone climbed this old mountain road except loggers or prospectors. In the 1930s it was an old train track. If Danni was to connect the writings of the old journal to a definitive place, she needed an old story-teller willing to divulge tales. Atop the mountain she found his cabin and cats. He rocked on the porch smoking a pipe as if he’d been waiting for her.
Mr. Boots and the First Ride by Charli Mills (from Rock Creek)
“There you are Mr. Boots!” Sarah set down a tin of milk and watched the black and white cat lap the liquid.
“Rider!” someone shouted, and Sarah paused to watch the hustle. A handler readied a fresh horse, double-checking the cinch. Cooks to carpenters stood outside cheering the rising dust from the east. First ride of the mail ponies and Rock Creek was officially a stop. Cobb sat on his mule toasting everyone with corn liquor. He was officially a Pony Express Station Manager.
“So important,” Sarah grumbled to the cat that remained the only creature unimpressed by change.
Local lore claims they used to call the “girls of morning,” snakes. These are the women who sexually serviced the miners and loggers when the Silver Valley bustled with economic prosperity; when logs choked the broad Coeur D’Alene River and hard-rock miners extracted silver by the ton.
The prevalence of prostitutes in old west mining towns would suggest the service was a necessity.
Enaville, Idaho is no longer a town proper. It lacks a post office and no longer sees to the needs of loggers and miners. By 1954 the town’s old 1880s inn built of local timbers transitioned from a worker’s hotel to a sportsman’s bar and café. It is said that the new owners discovered a light switch upstairs to illuminate two bulbs in the skull of a bull mounted among elk and moose antlers outside in the apex of the building.
Red lights. The western invitation to red light service. Call girls. Soiled doves. Ladies of the evening. Girls of the morning. Whores. Snakes.
You can still see the bull skull on the tourist hot spot now known to foodies across the Inland Pacific Northwest as the Snake Pit. Unless you read the history inside, you might not even know this is Enaville. If you read history and absorb the wealth of memorabilia mounted throughout the timbered restaurant, you’ll find that those who came here over the years sought comforts of home – food, drink, stories, a place to sit, a place to warm up or cool down, companionship.
I had no idea I was headed to Enaville in my home on wheels. My camp trailer is something like a first flat, a place you need for shelter and sleep, yet a place you know is temporary. Like many first flats, this one is fraught with problems – the roof leaks, the lights don’t work and many previous breaks were hastily fixed with systems that baffle us. We have given up electricity and running water to have privacy and a semi-wilderness setting. A fair trade for the extra work it requires of us to meet daily needs.
Along a broad and rocky river, I’m re-writing my novel Miracle of Ducks. Day dreaming about my characters and plotting requires no electricity and flows with the river at my feet. If I charge up my laptop at the Carnegie Library 20 miles away or during breakfast at the Snake Pit, I can get two hours of writing time on battery. My first two hours revealed a solution to my biggest revision concern – I can rewrite my story to add a new plot crisis and setting change. It seems daunting to take a finished and professionally edited novel manuscript and decide to change it all up. Crazy, right?
Yet it feels more and more sane each day, as does living homeless. What I miss most is a home office. A camp office hardly suffices and the time limits of officing in an old mining town are frustrating, but our camp home is free. Places to park our camp trailer average $20 a night – that’s over $600 a month. Our idea to travel and stay with friends or family is hindered by the repairs needed to the trailer, cost of gas and the appointments I have set up for Todd through the VA system. We have two today.
And when you are homeless, needs are expensive. Hot showers at RV resorts cost $5 or more. Drinking water and ice for fresh food is another $5 per day. If you eat out instead, meals add up quickly. But you have to buy gas, water or food to use a flushing toilet. Bathrooms are rarely “public.” And we Americans are griping about which genders use which stalls? Give me a break! A greater issue is that of restroom access to those who are not paying customers. In other words, if you are homeless, it will cost you to empty your internal plumbing no matter what gender you identify with.
My current situation begs the question – why do necessities feel like luxuries? I can see how a man working hard in the isolated wilderness with few comforts of home would have needed sexual companionship. And the women? They needed a secure bed, a chamber pot, food and human connection. Yes, they were exploited for their needs. And so were the men. The logging moguls and mining barons overworked and underpaid the men who needed work. Necessities are a blend of physical and psychological needs to create security and comfort.
However, my current situation feeds the flesh of my novel re-write. Let me share with you an analogy for revision from a brilliant academic writer. Writing is bones, muscles and flesh.
Bones build the story structure, the plot, the hero’s journey. That first draft is creating bones. When you finish, look at the bones first. Are you missing a femur or metatarsal? Do your bones need rearranging to fit the skeletal structure you intend? If you don’t get the bones right, nothing else you do will improve your story, no matter how brilliant your word choices or snappy your dialog.
Flesh is adding meat to the bones. Here’s where you let your brilliance and voice shine. You can give your bones curves or you can leave them spare. Flesh is your artistry. Flesh can be built up, reduced or re-appropriated. But your flesh will sag if your story doesn’t have good bones.
Skin is what we see, what catches the eye of the beholder. Yet, skin is where writers can spend too much time superficially on their novel. Grammar and spelling matters, but you need bones and flesh first. Have a healthy body and then work on healthy skin. And don’t worry about zits as you write. Think of those spots as adolescent growing annoyances. Once you have bones, flesh and skin, then you can treat the zits. Unless you are a confident dermatologist, take your manuscript to a professional editor.
Miracle of Ducks went through all phases, yet until this analogy, I agonized over how to change anything. It’s flesh work! Now I accept the scalpel, ready to cut and reform the story on its bones. Yes, I will need to make sure scars of such changes don’t show at the skin level and I’ll need my trusty Write Diva Editorial Dermatologist once again. But it will be worth the work. It will be a beauty!
One important change is that of setting. I worked on Miracle of Ducks while I lived in the Midwest and set it in my favorite Lake Superior fishing village. Then I returned to my native west. I also discovered that I have more to say about the west than the Midwest, and there’s a group for such writers – Women Write the West. By changing my setting, I can join that organization and not have to wait until I finish Rock Creek. I feel like my two novels now have a better point of connectivity despite being different genres. It’s a relief to me. And my character gets to experience a topic I can write personal essays about, thus bringing notice to me novel.
This is all worth the scalpel work.
And Rock Creek? The analogy makes me realize I’m still in the setting bones stage. I had a major breakthrough in November because of important historic research I discovered and thanks to Geoff Le Pard who explained possible explanation regarding a historic incident and court dispute. I have flesh, too, but I see where I have to straighten bones before I can stretch the flesh. That continues, too.
And flash fiction is a valuable tool in addition to being an interesting form. I hope you are benefiting from its use. Again, I’m struck by the diversity of applications and creative results week after week. Mobility might be challenged, but the ranch is open and will support writers in all quests to finish those creations we form from bones to flesh to skin. Thank you to all who ride here, as readers, commenters, riders and ranchers.
So what’s up with the luxury price on necessities? Why do I have to buy a coffee to wipe my…you get the idea…? Water? Really? I have to BUY drinking water? What happened to public bubblers? The VA will help “re-home” us in a transitional motel or shelter or apartment. It might take 90 days or two years. Thanks, but no thanks…I do have a rental September 1. But what if I didn’t? 90 days to get into a shelter? No wonder Deborah Lee’s character is camping in a vacant house!
And trying to find a job? It’s a full-time job trying to secure needs. Some homeless people buy a membership at a club just to shower. Some use warm water filched from gas station bathrooms in water jugs and go to a secluded area to bathe. And many agencies won’t help you without a “valid address”! And if you do have an income, as I do, well forget help! We found out the HUD Dash program meant to help homeless veterans takes qualifying for…I disqualify us as a paid writer, no matter that rent is 75 percent of what I make. And renting has nothing to do with my ability to pay. I paid. Every month. I went without many comforts just to pay rent.
The problem is with those renting. The reason veterans can’t get housed when they do qualify for HUD Dash is because landlords won’t honor the qualifying letter. It’s a free market; they don’t have to rent to a qualifying homeless vet. With the growing Airbnb craze where any home owner can rent to the market of vacationers, rentals are diminishing and evictions are on the rise. Those who NEED security and elements of home (electricity, water, plumbing) are left outside because someone else can afford to take his family on vacation and pay triple the rates a long-term renter pays. Yet, Airbnb provides income for struggling homeowners, and I have friends and family who use this service to supplement their income in a difficult economy.
It’s so messed up, even I’m beginning to think I should elect Trump. But no, I won’t go so low. I’m not ignorant despite dirty nails. I love my friends and family – my love knows no gender, color, religion or even political stupidity. I love people. I just wish more Americans who were in power or had the power to help others loved people, too. Not just the ones they want to pass along privilege to. White privilege? Oh, I could laugh and say bunk. But it exists, and even homeless, I’m more privileged than persons of color or on the margins of society.
Wake up, America, Land of the Free. Wake up World. People matter. If you cast aside your humanity for what privilege you have, you are no longer human. No matter your own situation, be kind to others, even to the jerks who vote carelessly or out of fear; even to those who cast the shadows of fear. Feed your enemy a sandwich; give him a free glass of water. Remind him than humanity is not a privilege and all humans have it until they deny it. Don’t let anyone dehumanize you. And write. It’s where your voice lives and your heart beats. Bleed upon that page and make a difference in your corner of the world.
June 29, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that explores human needs. Not all needs are basic. Why would others put a price on basic needs, like water? Or perhaps you want to explore why a person might develop a need in order to survive a situation (like a miner needing the companionship of a prostitute). Think about needs and not having access or being in control of them.
Respond by July 5, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Plucking Boyfriends Like Fruit by Charli Mills (from Rock Creek)
“Your boyfriend was looking for you,” Nancy Jane announced when she entered the new cookshack at Rock Creek.
Sarah paused in sweeping. “He’s not my boyfriend. I’m his accountant.”
Nancy Jane laughed and plucked a plum from the bowl on the table. “I meant the other one!”
“Mr. Hickok! He’s certainly not my boyfriend.” She caught the plum Nancy Jane tossed to her.
“Sit down, Sarah. Eat a piece of sweet fruit when you have the chance, and consider how your needs could be met by having lots of boyfriends. Accountant to one, friend to another. It’s called security.”
Conflicting Needs by Charli Mills (from Miracle of Ducks)
“Ike, I need you to stay home!” Danni clicked her heels across the kitchen linoleum to fetch her apron. Cook. She had to calm her mind and if she couldn’t disappear into a research basement, she’d pound dough for calzones.
“Look, Danni, they need me over there.” Ike leaned against the refrigerator.
Danni snorted, measuring flour. “They have trained soldiers.”
“That’s the problem, Danni, they need help with training. I can’t sit back and do nothing. We need the money.”
“Get a job, Ike! A normal job. One without bullets!”
“You don’t get it. I need to do this!”
Some writers know exactly what genre they’re writing–mystery, YA, lit. It’s like knowing that Levis 501s will always fit. You don’t even have to go to that cold dressing room in the back of the feed store to see if Wranglers might be it.
When you write, just write. Don’t let these niggling thoughts of fit and function distract you. Write. But when you revise, you need to pause and consider the big picture.
Let me explain how I got to this point of looking at different genres on the shelf and why it matters at this point in revision.
When I began drafting “Miracle of Ducks,” the story seemed like one of faith. When I mentioned the word faith to a publisher at Rain-Taxi in Minneapolis, MN he smiled and kindly directed me to the Christian publishing house two booths down the row. With the reference to the Christian publishers–who were very welcoming and interested–I wasn’t sold that my story was Christian, but it easily could be with intentional revising.
In 2012 I completed the first draft. Revision has been slow for me. Much slower than writing, and I understand that I have tons to learn about mastering a project as long as a novel. It ain’t no 2,000 word profile on a cranberry bog or regional beer. And I’m in it for the long-haul, not the publish-quick-as-horse-spit fix.
Since this is not a quick process, I decided to crank out a NaNoWriMo project each year so that I’ll always have material to work. With my 2013 project, LuLu offered a free manuscript review to Wrimo winners. The DNA of my second project came back as a “sci-fi thriller.” That’s not what I expected!
However, when I read the reasoning behind the review results, it made sense. It described my writing style: expressive in dialog, rich descriptive passages, breezy language and kinetic motion. Accordingly, my manuscript placed a premium on plot and character, engaging the reader early and keeping the characters active. It is a common profile for mystery, thrillers and romance. The “sci-fi” tag recognized that my protagonist is a climatologist in the arctic.
More genres to try on: mystery or thrillers? No, I don’t enjoy reading them often so I wouldn’t want to write any. Romance? Yes, this cowgirl likes Julie Garwood and Jude Devereaux. And, according to the Romance Writers of America, it’s a mighty popular genre, generating over $1.438 billion in sales in 2012. I might have to kill off a character, though…tempting.
In order to progress, I’d have to make major structural revisions to craft “Miracle of Ducks” into a sci-fi thriller, romance or Christian novel. And what debuts as the genre, becomes the genre. Even Ann Rice writes about how difficult it is for even well-established writers to cross genres in their career. Not to mention, as I research agents and publishing houses, they are genre-specific. No use wasting my time or theirs with a genre-less orphan or a family of mismatched genre manuscripts.
But before I give up on the jeans, I have one more pair to try on: commercial fiction. According to AgentQuery.com, this genre “…uses high-concept hooks and compelling plots to give it a wide, mainstream appeal.” It also places a premium on plot and the characters are active. Sound familiar? But the best part is, “…commercial fiction maintains a strong narrative storyline as its central goal…” That’s what a storyteller likes to hear.
The zipper is closed on this shopping spree. I’ve found my genre.