Last Words

Last Words

Earlier in the month, someone asked if I experience self-doubt as a writer. The short answer is “Yes.” The long answer is “Frequently.” Usually, self-doubt is something I do to myself. But there are times I have a bit of help. We’re pretty polite in Midwest America. Criticism rarely takes the form of, “Lovely day, isn’t it? By the way, there’s a million-plus people out trying for what you want, most of them better than you, smarter than you, and oh-so-better-looking than you. There’s no reason you should rise where so many have fallen. I think you’re a self-deluded, mukluk wearin’ mongrel. And you smell funny. Anyway, just thought you should know. Enjoy your walk.” It’s never that direct. When the subject of being a writer surfaces, it’s often met with silence or a small smile, a look of doubt–as if they’re awaiting the thrust of a joke, or an expression that says they’ve come across a once useful animal now dead in the road. I leave these conversations telling myself, “They’re wrong. They’re dead wrong. These aren’t mukluks.” You’d think after a good bit of grappling I’d have a handle on it, wouldn’t you? Maybe have the “should I do what I do” lesson learned and in the books. I don’t. It’s a lesson I have to learn each time I need it. So I do, daily, or several times a day, or late at night, or in idle moments while I’m walking the dog or buying milk, or whenever God and chance see fit to teach me. I’ve still no answers, really. Rather, I’ve another question. And...
Watermark

Watermark

No matter the story, my lead character always goes by the same name. Setting. Setting is the sun. It’s the star that draws plot and character and conflict into orbit around it. As a writer, my job is to hang that star in the sky. Sometimes I peg it in the first draft. Sometimes not. When things go awry, it’s usually because I’ve failed in the details. Setting worlds in motion doesn’t require a wealth of detail, but it does demand the right ones. They may be large as mountains, or small as scratches in the face of a stone–as they are here. In this scene from Gideon’s Inn, I’ve sent two characters through a passage in the cliffs near the Mississippi River. Not the best setting the book has to offer, but it showcases an unusual piece of my character’s world. A watermark. Have a look. *** The passage flared, as if the cliffs had formed around a massive pillar of ice that later melted and leaked away. Elspeth studied the walls. “I feel like I’m standing in the bottom of a jug.” Samantha could see it, with the walls narrowing overhead, sunlight shafting through a hole at the top. She pointed to the opposite wall. Someone had chiseled a slot in the stone. The date carved below it read: June 11, 1851. Several feet above it lay another mark. July 16, 1844. Samantha pointed out more dates. They ran from knee-level to far beyond reach. “Flood record. Grandpa Jake called it the Watermark. I’ve heard some of the old-timers reference it, but I think most people have...
Voices from the Past

Voices from the Past

Journal Entry–August 9, 1856 She is my sixth runaway in as many weeks. I tell myself she is unlike the rest. She is the first to look so tired, so young, and so great with child. In days past I have offered food and water and shelter here, and left them in the hands of God. I look at this woman, a child, really—scarred, frightened, hopeful—and I am unable to leave her in the hands of God alone. Away from the church and into the woods we run, as she is able. *** She calls me John McCallister knowing full well it isn’t my name. Since morning I’ve acted as guide, guardian, teacher. I have led her down creeks, up forgotten country roads, over rocky embankments, through field and forest and field again. We are come to rest at a fencerow overlooking an abandoned barn an hour’s walk east of the Mississippi. Yesterday I was a farmer tending an orchard in Calhoun County. Today I’m harboring a fugitive slave. Tomorrow I’ll help her run further from the law. We press on. *** The air is heavy and wet and hard to breathe as we snake through the corn. A small clearing. And we slide into the shadow of a weather-beaten barn. I urge her inside and away from the door. We will camp here overnight, I tell her, and move again at daybreak. The woman is tired and hungry and worn. She rests her hands on the swell of her child, and tells me the destination is a place too far. I find a lantern and chance a small...
U-turns

U-turns

I’d thought to tell you about the Underground Railroad today. It was a network of men and women who smuggled slaves north to freedom in the years before the American Civil War. I’ve a lovely photo of a friend making a rubbing of Civil War prison ruins by lamplight that I’d prepped to illustrate. My daughter suggested a U-turn. “Talk about my driving.” This, after I stepped away from the Wii to write my blog. “We’re doing U,” I told her. “Topic’s picked.” “You can talk about my U-turn.” At two-hours old, the U-turn is a bit more recent than the Civil War, and to a teen who sees her learner’s permit on the horizon, it’s far more significant. Since the teen is mine, I’d have to agree. U-turn it is. *** Easter Sunday was our daughter’s first time driving a car. Assuming things go as planned, she’ll be in a classroom this summer learning driver’s education from a book. The text will mean more, my wife and I reasoned, if she’s had time behind the wheel. Concepts theoretical become concrete after you’ve put them in play. So we did. We found a deserted track and put our daughter in the driver’s seat. We let her get a feel for the touch of the wheel, the drag of brakes and tread of tires, inertia, the reply of six-cylinders to petrol and spark. My wife sat in the passenger seat. I sat quietly in back. While my wife gave instruction, I thought of a drive the three of us had taken 15 years ago. I recalled the metallic click of...
Time Lines

Time Lines

Stave I: Wherein I Unwrap a Christmas Gift Most people would tell you this image came from an issue of Scientific American magazine dated a century ago. They’d be wrong. Had you asked me a couple years back, I’d have told you it was a gift from a friend I never met. I’d have been wrong, too. The lighting ad was given to me, in the days before Christmas 2003, by a man from Knoxville, Tennessee, who as luck would have it was Santa. It took me the better part of six years to find the ad wasn’t actually my gift. Rather, it was just the wrapping. Know me a while, and you’ll know I love Christmas. So it’s no great surprise that one of my works in progress is a story set in the holiday. Should that story make its way into readers’ hands someday, in the dedication they’ll find the name Bill Nelson. I never met Bill. I just know he was kind, and passionate about vintage light sets, and pleased to share the stories and wares he’d collected. Bill created a comprehensive web site that chronicled the evolution of  holiday lights, which is how I found him a few days after Thanksgiving. I interviewed Bill for a holiday article and asked permission to use images from his site. He offered several of his favorites, including an iteration of what you see here. I wrote the article, ran the images, and shipped sample copies and a thank you letter off to Tennessee. From that time forward, sometimes in winter, sometimes in the heat of July, Bill would...