Category Archives: location

The Fifth Season

It’s still winter in Orford, New Hampshire    — if you don’t look down

I started out with the idea of a novel set in rural New Hampshire. There’s no such thing as a novel set in New Hampshire that excludes the weather. I decided to spread the plot out over a year – up here, you can’t leave out a single month and still cover the territory.

Fate gave me a freebie: the full-year idea fit well with a problem my protagonist faces. She’s stuck at home, probably for good, after years of regular escapes to Kenya.

Today’s weather reminds me of why I changed my plan.

Last fall was lovely. Dampish now and then, but the beeches, oaks and maples all came through with October fireworks in yellow, red and russet. Winter sidled in with a little snow but then appeared to give up. Open ground could be seen in January and February. We had a storm or two, sure, storms that people in D.C. would call blizzards. But nothing you’d mention. Nothing we would, anyway.

Snow gone at the end of February. Temperatures scaling toward 60 every now and then. And then… BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HA!

And from the back door….

Arrives the blizzard that breaks the records. With nine days to go till spring, parts of New Hampshire got more snow in a single day than at any time since Cain discovered writing. (He wrote crime fiction.)

Now we’re back up to March’s ordinary 40-degree highs, on one day out of two anyway. And today is the kind of day I’ll end my novel on. I could stretch it all the way around the calendar, ending on a June day of glorious sun, leaving out the black flies. Or I could end on a July day of glorious sun, leaving out the deer flies and the humidity. But no. My heroine will triumph on the first day of Mud Season.

My fairy footprints

The frost goes deep here. Even calling it “frost” is misleading. It’s a rock-hard layer of frozen earth that can go down five feet. We like it. Foresters can work in the woods all winter with heavy, heavy equipment.

But when the warmth creeps back, the ground unfreezes from the top first. The layers farther down don’t feel a thing. They don’t absorb moisture, either. So for weeks, meltwater mixes with topsoil and sloshes around — and slides and squishes and slops — on that impervious surface. This is Mud Season.

I took the dog out this morning. Winter is still mounded to either side of our forest road. You can’t walk over the plow piles because you’ll go straight down in and never get out again. The road, though, is all spring, from the surface to about two inches down. This new-born world is gluey, gritty, rich and brown. Runnels of melt water dig channels on the slightest slope. A blazing sun picks out sparkly grains of marble in the 3-inch gravel that is trying to hold the our forest roads in place against strong odds.

Dog prints, coming soon to a clean floor near me.

Pfeffernuss the dog is a 90-pound black Lab with feet almost as webbed as a duck’s. They sprea-a-ad out under her weight and then snap back into place like little backhoes, storing up hours-worth of pawprints for my floor tiles.

My knee-high muck boots go so deep you’d think “muck” is what they’re made of, not what they cope with. The sound they make on the upstroke is indelicate, nay, carnal.

This is what resurrection looks like in New Hampshire. The delicate blossoms and tender grasses come later, as an afterthought. When Mud Season arrives, you know you have come through the dark night of the New Hampshire soul and back out into the light.

 

 

Descriptions are for Feeling

I’ve spent this week altering plot points in an important scene in my mystery novel. Since first I wrote it, the characters have evolved, their motivations have changed, and clues have moved, both geographically and logically. But when I surfaced from the job, I found that I had written almost nothing but plot. The reader was getting far too little help visualizing the scene precisely, getting the details that make places and events real and memorable.

Back to my trusty pocket notebook. It contains much plotless writing about things that have seized my eyes and my mind for reasons I wouldn’t even try to explain. None of them are directly relevant to my book. Still, reading these passages fills my mind with the experience of just noticing, of Being There. Maybe they’ll inspire me to find the details that will make my not-too-bad scene really good.

Here are a few of my pocket-notebook inspirations. I’d love to read some of yours.

At a meeting of our local weekly discussion group:

V_____ (a husband) talking, making sense, but pretty platitudinous. J____ (his wife) listening with unchanged expression and posture, but the hand holding her off-V_____ elbow was massaging it, tightening and loosening regularly.

G___ (a husband) discussing photos of galaxies in a book he owned, which he had already discussed with R______ (his wife.) He was addressing the rest of the group with the same arguments he and she had already gone over, but his eyes were usually on her, reliving their own discussion. A committed couple.

At a writing conference:

Up on stage, an author on a panel yaws his orange, desk-style chair rapidly left and right in a short arc. The other authors, in identical chairs, are perfectly still.

A writer teaches a class. As he speaks, in time with an upward lilt at the end of each sentence, his face first rises straight up, then straight out, always maintaining its vertical plane. With the adolescent (he’s not one) intonation, the gesture seems to mean, “You do see, don’t you? Am I being clear? Do you agree?” Sweet, if a bit phony. Yet somehow the gesture also seems mildly aggressive, snakelike.

In the room where I write:

A bird flew into the glass of the door to the balcony behind me. There was a softer thump than usual. I hoped that this would be one of the occasions when the bird just flew off with a headache. But when I went to look, he was lying on the balcony floor. I knelt to look, and saw that his eyes were open and unblinking. (At least I thought they were, but what color are a sparrow’s eyelids?) He wasn’t still. He lay on one wing and his little body was rocking quickly on its longest axis, backforth, backforth, backforth. I saw that he was not convulsing. There was no other movement, no movement of any part. Just his whole body, backforth, backforth, backforth. How could he do that without pushing any part of him against the floor? Then I realized that his heartbeat was moving him. In back and forth, I saw systole and diastole. Bismarck (my cat) came to the door and chittered. When I wouldn’t let him through, he sat and watched. I left, and when I returned, the bird was gone.

Months later: I am working at a card table. My elbows are braced on the table, coffee mug between my hands. My knapsack-purse stands across the table. I am motionless, but one strap of the purse, the looser and closer one, trembles. Why? I am seeing systole and diastole, my own.

A fruit fly remains on a piece of white paper where I put some grapes. A single fruit fly casts a shadow, even on an overcast day.

In the summer Music Tent in Aspen:

A description of Finns. I call them Finns because I think they might be, but more because the first of them I saw made me think at once of a Scandinavian gnome. He was an old man of middle height. We were sitting two rows up from him in the Benedict Music Tent, so I couldn’t see whether white hair sprouted from his ears. But his face was such that I was sure of the ear hair. His skin was a dark brown, but it looked weathered rather than tanned. Or perhaps “tanned” in the sense of leather. Large wrinkles divided his face into subsections. His eyebrows were wild, almost long enough to obscure his vision. His nose was large and long and bulbous, three lumps separated by two none-too-narrow narrower places. His mouth was wide, his lips not especially so. He was smiling, nodding, and talking energetically with the people who accompanied him. They were Aspen Standard, as far as I could see. I can’t remember whether I saw that his teeth were scraggly or assumed it. He was wearing standard old-guy-in-Aspen clothes, a vaguely Western sports shirt and slacks.

The woman was sitting in the row behind them. She came in later with other people, but they all seemed to know one another. My first thought was that she was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. But at the same time, her face was welcoming. I had to work not to stare, and then not to be caught staring. She was the man’s age and about the same height. Her skin was almost as brown as his, very smooth but speckled with large age spots. Aside from the old-lady, nose-to-chin wrinkles, she had almost none. In profile, her face made a perfect convex curve. Her chin was well back, but not receding in a slant; it looked firm, and she didn’t have the feeble, chinless look of a Bertie Wooster. Like the man, she had high cheekbones and a very notable nose. Her nose curved like a raptor’s beak, but not like a witch’s: it didn’t curve back in, but ended at its outermost point, with the septum horizontal to the ground. Not small, but neat. Both man and woman had large ears, his relatively larger than hers, but her hair framed her ears and made them stand out. Her hair was long but not full, clipped back with barrettes behind the ears and straggling down her back. From the roots to her shoulders, it was a slightly grayish white. There, in a visible line, it became a faded, reddish light brown, as if some instantaneous shock had flipped a switch in her scalp. She too was smiling and talking, and her expression made me want to know her.

Now, back to my scene. I’m going for three, very short details with the feel of these passages. I suppose “short” will be the hard part.

You Belong in the Upper Valley If…

…your first thought when you need to buy something is, ‘I’ll just run down to Dan & Whit’s.’

Dan & Whit's General Store

Dan & Whit’s General Store

If you live in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River, you don’t think twice about Dan & Whit’s Country Store of Norwich, Vermont. You just go in and get stuff as thoughtlessly as you open your fridge for a Coke. Or you explain where somebody lives as ‘about ten minutes from Dan & Whit’s.’ Maybe that’s why we locals sometimes forget how quintessentially Vermont D&W’s is.

The principle

The principle

In fact, you can’t get absolutely everything there, as the front window is careful to point out. But you can get all the important things:

The application

The application

 

 

 

Once you’re in, you encounter what looks like a small grocery store. You can get Spaghetti Os and Tide, sure. But you’ll also notice a high percentage of Vermont-made food items. Not all of them are kale:

Adds 3/4" of Vermont to your hips

Adds 3/4″ of pure Vermont to your hips

The Red Door Bakery of Marshfield Vermont does not make mimsy, everything-free baked goods. These are cookies that intend to be cookies. And succeed.

Across the aisle, you’ll find a product so packed with Vermonticity, you’ll be glad you moved here. The Cabot Creamery Cooperative is owned by the farmers whose milk it processes — a very Bernie Sanders set-up.

Cabot co-op cheese for your apple pie

Cabot co-op cheese for your apple pie

Cabot does make more than one product. It’s just that cheddar cheese drives all thought of yogurt from a Vermonter’s mind. Remember, come-heres, that cheddar is not an ingredient for dainty pastry puffs. It is meant to go with apple pie, eaten with a knife.

Now the grocery aisles are fading out. As you wander, the goods morph toward pans. And salt shakers. Thread. Glue. Cartoon stickers for the kids. Cork screws. Exactly what you imagine was spread from a Yankee peddler’s pack around 1850 (ex the stickers), enticingly open on the back porch.

The gizmo department fades away in turn. Clothing appears. Yes, you can get a Dan & Whit’s sweatshirt, if you insist. You can also get a big, touristy mug that proclaims all the traits that identify Vermonters.

Inevitable tourist kitsch. The part about hunting on your anniversary is true.

Inevitable tourist kitsch.

(Many of these statements are true. Especially the one about taking your wife hunting for your wedding anniversary.) On the other hand, real Vermonters come in looking for these:

Only real Yankees can wear these out.

Only real Yankees can wear these out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is where Dan & Whit’s becomes eerie. As you circle back around the little office, a door appears on your right. Another on your left. You pick one. You wander through a corridor that seems to have left the building. You turn right, left, right again. Stairwells gape in unexpected places. Physicists at nearby Dartmouth College have demonstrated that Dan & Whit’s back premises exist in hyperspace, and the store’s inside is larger than its outside.

After your first right turn comes proof that Dan & Whit’s does indeed carry all the things you actually need:

The first of the back rooms. These fall in the same category as beer: you need it, Dan & Whit's has it.

The first of the back rooms. These fall in the same category as beer: you need it, Dan & Whit’s has it.

Just remember that real Vermonters install these things themselves.

Press on, past topsoil, bird seed, dog food and above all Halite for winter sidewalks, 50 pound bags of it stacked almost to the ceiling. You will need this. Buy several.

Another doorway. The floor has been roughly — very roughly — horizontal all the way, but you know you are now in an underground environment, the bowels of Mother Earth. Here you find just what She believes you need.

In the suburbs you had grass in the back yard. Here, you have vegetables.

In the suburbs you had grass in the back yard. Here, you have vegetables.

Please do not disgrace yourself by asking for “green bean” seeds. There are seven varieties available. Also, please read the instructions on your new pressure cooker carefully before canning. Newbies may experience poisoning or explosions. It ain’t easy becoming a Vermonter.

What you do with all those vegetables

What you do with all those vegetables

 

 

You’ll find your way out eventually. (If you turn right one door too early, you will find yourself, embarrassingly, standing behind the meat counter.) Plunk your pressure cooker down on the counter, pay for it, and remember to take your new socks out before you use it.

Welcome to Vermont. Welcome home.

 

 

A Different Kind of Character

View through a ruined abbey

View through a ruined abbey

On the advice of Umberto Eco (in Reflections on The Name of the Rose), I’ve just decided to give more weight in my novel to its setting. Thinking it over, I realized that one way to do this is to include a new, non-human character: the plucky little newspaper that serves my fictional town of Oxbow, New Hampshire. I dredged from my files the clippings I’ve accumulated from our real local paper, the illustrious Valley News of Lebanon, NH, mainstay of the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River. The News is living proof that rural life provides all the opportunity you need to spread yourself out in life, to let anything happen. Up here, it eventually will.

Exhibit A, from the Valley News “Local Briefs” section:

NAKED PEDESTRIAN STROLLS THROUGH BURLINGTON [VERMONT]

 A naked pedestrian strolling through Burlington this week has caused quite a stir.

The man was first spotted Tuesday walking through the city’s Church Street Marketplace completely nude, with exception of sneakers and a bandana on his head.

Bystanders say they were amazed to see him walk around the busy shopping and dining district.

Burlington Police Lt. Paul Glynn said that while the man’s nakedness is “inappropriate,” it’s not necessarily illegal as long as he left home naked and isn’t disrobing the public [sic] or harassing people.

The man turned down a request by WCAX-TV for an interview.

Burlington police sleeve badge

I love the first sentence. It could only have been written by an experienced small-town reporter. You can’t imagine it appearing in the New York Times. I like to picture the interviews of the bystanders: “How did you feel when you saw the man?” “Well, amazed, I guess. I was just amazed.” Reporter writes down, “Witness amazed.”

The typo is nice, too. And the sun protection of the bandana directs one’s thoughts to all the possibilities of sunburn.

Best of all are the scrupulous liberties of the People’s Republic of Vermont. (We Granite-staters don’t always see eye-to-eye with the Vermonters just across the river.) Vermont law says that you may not take your clothes off in public. But that’s all the law says. So…. What would constitute harassment in this case? Touching is out, obviously, but what about, “Look at this”? If you only said it once? Only once to each person? Panhandling in a non-harassing manner is allowed. If you didn’t even ask for cash, just for one moment of human attention before you moved on, who could object to that? He didn’t want to appear on TV, so it’s clear he isn’t an exhibitionist. Not in Vermont, anyway.

Local TV covered the story, too, if you’re feeling voyeur-ish.

Last February 5, “Local Briefs” reported a near-tragedy. Here are the essentials. (Unhappily, the Valley News website doesn’t include the paper’s archives, so I can’t send you to the original articles.)

Fire officials say a heat lamp used for chickens caused a fire that gutted a small barn. All of the chickens escaped unharmed.

These would not be generic chickens. Here in the Upper Valley, we like to buy our eggs from our neighbors, and we know the chickens almost as well as we do the neighbors’ dogs. Miss Bossy, for instance, is a Rhode Island Red who lives out in Orfordville. I heard about her from

Miss Bossy?

Miss Bossy?

the lady at the feed store, who is her owner (though Miss B. might not agree about that.) Miss Bossy is the smallest of her tiny flock, which she rules with an iron claw. Her fellow Rhode Island Red is named Thelma. The two Buff Orpingtons don’t have names – I guess compared to Miss Bossy and Thelma, they’re such wimps they’re hardly there at all. You can see why, when fire threatens a barn up here, the Valley News knows what’s important. All the chickens got out.

The paper does a good job of selecting and condensing national and world news stories for its “World and Nation” page (two pages, max.) We get several serious items a day from the top news bureaus plus a small feature summing up lesser stories in a few sentences. Sometimes, on a slow news day, the editor favors us with oddities that just struck his fancy. E.g.:

Meerkat Expert Cleared of Assault in Zoo Love Triangle

London, AP. A former meerkat expert at London Zoo was cleared Tuesday of assaulting a monkey handler in a love spat over a llama-keeper….

Meerkat, marvelling

Meerkat, marveling

Or, if your favorite sin is anger rather than lust:

West Palm Beach, FL. Joshua James, 24, is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon …after throwing an alligator through a Wendy’s drive-thru window.

The point to notice about these stories is their datelines. London, West Palm Beach, what can you expect? If they weren’t already crazy, they’d live here. The news(wo)man’s inverse-square law states, “The farther from home, the weirder.” James got off with nothing worse than probation.

Local papers set the tone, but all our media report scrupulously on what matters to, or reliably annoys, people like us. War and pestilence were raging around the globe, as always, when the public radio station gave us this bulletin:

A tractor-trailer full of cheese caught fire on the interstate. The driver escaped, and was able to detach the truck from the trailer, but the trailer and its contents were destroyed.

Use all the senses, the writing mavens tell us. Think how grounded, how riveted, your reader would be if you could convey to her the sight and smell of 17 tons of smashed and smoking cheese! Consider the plight of the cars immediately following. The report didn’t say, but if it was Velveeta, it would qualify for HazMat treatment. And if, like me, you write mysteries, who set that fire?

Baby’s First Rewrite

I think I passed a milestone this week.

It wasn’t literally my first rewrite of a scene. My writing group would never let me get away with that. All kinds of changes have rippled through my manuscript, usually to remedy total howlers in the plot, but also to remove unlikely remarks by a character or make my subplots more like a braid and less like railroad tracks.

This week is the first time I forced myself to abandon a scene totally and write another to do the same work in the book, better. Be warned: it hurts.

If only my red pencil were as sharp as the Geisha's blade! (Geisha's Blade Philippines Samurai Sword Shop)

If only my red pencil were as sharp as the Geisha’s blade!
(Geisha’s Blade Philippines Samurai Sword Shop)

Two criticisms forced me to it. Our group’s homicide detective told me that interviews of witnesses would never be conducted with other witnesses present. You isolate them and get each one to tell her own story. Even weightier, there was a sad consensus that ‘it all went on too long.’

Even I could feel the latter problem. While I never used the dread locution, ‘and then,’ I might as well have. On plodded the scene, until slept the mind. I resolved on surgery.

I work in the Scrivener writing program. It’s hugely useful, letting you switch from any scene to any other with a single click, showing links to notes, outlines and subplots on the main page. Unhappily, that makes it so easy to tick back into your original draft, to tinker with it instead of starting fresh, to cheat by leaving your new text to lift just one or two sentences – such clever prose! – from the old.

Somehow, this time, I realized that I had to resist. I stayed with the blank white screen of the new version. When I needed to analyze the old scene for necessary information, I did it in longhand on a yellow pad. I changed the location of the scene, narrowed the point of view, pushed beloved characters into the background.

Lo and behold, it worked. When I checked back with my yellow pad, I found that the new scene did all that the old did, more briskly, with more conflict in the present and more tension about what is to come. The new scene is 25% shorter.

The exercise wasn’t without losses. On my yellow pad, I had drawn two columns: Needed and Good. The latter listed five brief passages in the original scene, a few words or a sentence or two at most, which I liked very much. Four of them showed characters acting characteristically. When I had forced my way through the new scene, these vignettes were gone. The course of action just didn’t allow them to happen.

Were they darlings? I still don’t think so. I’ve stored them in a file called ‘fragments’ for possible reinsertion in a final smoothing. Deep in my heart, though, I don’t expect to see them again.

Dancing About Architecture

Donald_Swann

Donald Swann in full voice

Singer and composer Donald Swann once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. You can walk around that simile for quite a while. The writing is pointless? Music is bigger, more impressive, more lasting and hence more important? The one can’t substitute for the other?

At the moment, I’m writing about architecture, and Swann’s dictum haunts me. I need to take my readers into a house that is as real to me as my own. I know that each reader will blend my descriptions with her own home, her family’s homes, her feelings about home in general and god knows what else. But I need her to see some parts of the house clearly, and I want her to experience much more than an architectural plan.

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A possible model for Fallowfields

The fictional house in question, recently named Fallowfields by its snobbish owner, was built in the late 1800s in rural New Hampshire. It is an uneasy blend of Victorian-era ostentation and New England tradition. Both aspects are important to my plot and to the personalities of my characters. So both have to come through.

My plot requires that people sneak around the place, in and out, upstairs and down, undetected. So I designed Fallowfields on the model of ‘big house, little house, back house, barn.’ Farm housekeeping in the nineteenth century required more than one structure. The little house was usually built onto the back wall of the big house, which was where the humans lived. It might be a summer kitchen, a dairy, a woodshed or all three. A third structure, the back house, would share the back wall of the little house and shelter a different activity. One way or another, all the space that made up the house was formed around the chores and the home production of goods that supported the family.

The Fallowfields barn now has an apartment built into the old hay loft. My heroine has converted the tack room into a home laboratory for her botany experiments. Readers need to notice that proximity. The little house has, unusally, a second story and an internal flight of stairs. There’s another flight at the front of the big house. Before we can do exciting scenes of rushing up and down and dodging round the house, I must lay the routes out for the reader in the course of their ordinary use. Needless to say, my writing group read the early drafts and scratched their heads. “Wait! She was in the barn. How did she get to the bedroom?” Time to revise.

I want much more from Fallowfields than these mechanics. My heroine is facing forced retirement from work that took her around the globe. Unless I can convey her growing contentment with a life in northern New England, she and the book will come to an unhappy end, which is not my intention. Fallowfields and the rest of her home town must convey the possibility of that contentment.

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A view of Peacham

Parts of Fallowfields are based on my grandfather’s house in Peacham, Vermont, purely for the pleasure I take in recalling it. To a five-year-old, its little house was Aladdin’s cave. It held pairs of rubber boots tall and thick enough for Jack-in-the-Beanstalk’s giant, or to survive a universal deluge. There were thin bamboo sticks as tall as my father and balls of bright green twine that would stake vines in the garden next summer. There were little, square wood boxes streaked inside with bright crimson, waiting for yet another year’s raspberry crop. There was a tub of something called paraffin, which I was forbidden to touch. It felt smooth and slick.

Grandpa’s back house was a chicken house. Every egg we ate in that house was less than 24 hours old. At Fallowfields, the old chicken house has been converted into a paradise for a pair of pet ferrets, but hovering sharp and dusty in the air, somewhere between a scent and a memory, is the smell of the feathers, droppings and dirt generated by a flock of healthy chickens. Even today, one breath of that scent takes a half-century off my age. Can I manage to show that? Because telling just won’t do.

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