Composing The Westerns
During my Suburban Phase, I earned a few extra dollars here and there, beyond the few extra dollars from time to time through contract technical engineering writing, by selling my hand-made quilts. One sales venue (which was scarcely a platform but it was a table!) was the Christmas Crafts Fair at the Sacramento District of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Back then, you could still call the event “Christmas,” before the Corps of Engineers became the Corpse of Environmentalists.
I sat there, at the folding cafeteria table, with my stack of Polyfil-batting quilts (the cotton batting was too expensive at the time for a profitable sale). I was engrossed in reading a Western by Louis L'Amour. One of my former-colleagues and always-friend was a “Mr. O”. He was quite the expert instrumentation specialist (his favorite trouble detection device was the piezometer). Mr. O came sauntering by the long cafeteria table. He slowly peered at me as I sat behind the stack of patchwork lap quilts.
He then stared at me staring into the paperback book, and he quipped: “I would think you’d be reading French.”
“Oh, I read that too. I’m taking a break from it.”
Mr. O thoughtfully nodded. I always kept him busy, trying to detect trouble within my bored but busy cranium.
I suppose that timing — of taking a break from the French — will replay itself. Once I am finished with composing L’AUBE, I will likely piece together, almost like a patchwork quilt, THE SILENT HEART, SILVER DAGGER, and then SHADOW, the medical drama set in the West that is less Western than the other two novels. My digital files are becoming rather sizable; and the Western research books are giving me sizable, if not weighty, stares from their storage bin in my Writer’s Room.
Typically, I do my most productive, prolific and even profound writing when I am in the midst of moving. My family can attest to the number of times “we” have had to move furniture within rooms or from room to room to satisfy my wanderlust needed for optimal writing. With the Westerns, however, The Plan is for the Milligan Residence to change to a completely different house! Plans, photographs, pictures, procedures, wishful thinking and the earliest stages of blueprints for that project are presently underway.
Building a new house alongside the Westerns was not my plan, but I do not always work true to plan. As one engineer advised me when I typed his plans and specs: “Goals in concrete, plans in sand.” I have, at times, had to recast those goals in better concrete (one cannot always have exposed aggregate); but the idea is roughly the same. A writer must at times revise her objectives to ideally work with conditions at hand!
Mr. O was a California native, complete with the culture of Sonoma Valley. “As God is my witness,” he vowed in an imitation of my voice, “I will never have to move again.”
He likely knew the irony of that statement. This Instrumentation Specialist helped my “spousal unit” and my young children move from my spanking brand new gilded cage in the Roseville suburbs to this “vintage” house, located on God’s little acre in Newcastle. I led the way in my teal green Ford Explorer. Mr. O dutifully drove behind me in his pickup truck, hauling more than his share of stacked boxes.
As I drove up the main drag through this little town, I accidentally signaled to turn left, onto the wrong street, a lane that was, in essence, a series of hovels.
“Very funny,” Mr. O later opined.
I explained it was accidental, but my most comical moments usually are!
After moving his quota of boxes into the house, Mr. Piezometer told me, “Debra, do not buy any more books.”
I felt, and still feel, no pressure to commit to that command! A major reason why I need a larger domicile is to house the Books — both for the reading and the writing of them!
On one point, Mr. O and I fully concurred: Never build a dam near a winery. The Sagging Continues . . .
I shall have to work that warning into one of the Westerns.
Mr. O, the Initial Fill Report for Little Dell Dam, and the writing of NORTHSTAR are all fondly inter-linked in my mind. I worked on a Satellite laptop at the time, and I very often felt in orbit, complete with primary-color-coded diskettes. Mr. O wondered aloud at one point if I had gone “screaming, out into the night,” during my work on this document. I came pretty close to it, but I never fully succumbed to the claustrophobic feeling from the reservoir filling while I was writing and editing this report on sharp deadline.
Mr. O and I shared many quips, and quotes, and quiet moments of laughter, creating the kind of camaraderie that I tried to capture among the resisters in THE DAWN. If only that damn dam had been built in the south of France . . .
Late April 2018
The Silent Heart Sings!
Moving to the Rental House, working on the construction of the Dream House, and dealing with the sale of the Master House have all helped THE SILENT HEART to sing!
My own heart, however, was not exactly singing during this laborious process. I griped quite verbally to Dear Husband on the morning of the Open House when we and Chance, the Handsome Hound, had to vamoose out of the homestead for the day, early one morning, to make way for the onslaught of realtors, onlookers, and potential buyers.
Firstly, I am not a morning person.
Secondly, this upheaval of my daily routine is not conducive to my creativity.
Thirdly, does anyone contemplate the fact that my work is contemplation?
Fourthly, my fiction awaits me in another house.
Evidently, my fiction was waiting for me in my Caddy that day as we all drove to various locations, wearing down the digital clock. I spotted “scenes” and “heard” dialogue. And I realized that this time around, the documentation of the draft of my novel, my very first Western, will have to be done while I am on the run, or in motion, between houses, or, more precisely, between the Master-House-for-Sale and the Rental House, and then between the Rental House and the Designed-for-Debra-House.
As I write right now, I have no pen, no paper, no journal, my books are all boxed up, and my fingers must depend upon the laptop. Whenever my fingers get itchy, there is a lonely 8-1/2 x 11 legal pad somewhere in a dresser drawer, but no desk to house it. I’m a horse without a rider, or writer!
I do have the first scene and the last scene composed. These ominous achievements mean there will be future scenes “rolling” in my mind. When, or where, I cannot say. Life will lead me to the fiction, but as of now, there’s a song in my heart called THE SILENT HEART!
A Horse is A Horse — Unless It’s Named Babieca
My beloved teaching colleague once told me that the most expensive gift you will ever receive is a horse. That truism is very true!
About fifteen years earlier, I was working to finish my B.A. and working as a technical writer/editor at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I was also working, subconsciously and consciously, on novels I wanted to write. One of those novels would be a Western that evolved from a picture of a horse that I spotted in a hydrological technical journal in my office.
I was granted permission by my supervisor to clip the pic once the Routing Slip had made its laborious way around Civil Design Branch and returned to my desk. I cut out this photo-pic of a horse in a snowy field and posted it with a push-pin onto the “fabric” cubicle divider that separated me from the Cost Estimator in the office, an area that really wasn’t an office. We called it The Bullpen because it was a huge, wide open space (fine with me!), div-ied up by hideous burlap-y synthetic partitions into Cubicle World. No one was happy with the arrangement, especially My Horse.
In time, my time became more my own, and I framed My Horse and set him on my desk In The Home. And, in time, My Horse received a name, Babieca, in keeping with the type of character who would own him, train him, love him.
The character also received a name, at about the same time, shortly after the first publication of NORTHSTAR in 1994: Riego Riley. The first name is directly derived from Riego Road in West Roseville, California. Riego Road at that time was a 2-lane, wide open country road through pastureland that I traversed often in my Chevy pick-up truck.
That area is now a solid mass of tract homes and office buildings; I did not realize at that time that I was driving through a by-gone era, and writing through it as well. Perhaps not coincidentally, my journeys along that road were inspirational to my fiction. I wrote the ending to NORTHSTAR while driving down Riego Road near sunset. I pulled to the soft shoulder of the road, stopped the truck, and scribbled down my laser-thoughts into my ever-present notepad. My toddler son was with me; he had by then become used to “Mom doing her writing” amidst being a Mom.
Babieca and Riego Riley have journeyed with me from place to place, town to town, desk to desk. They have been loyal, faithful companions and it is with a bit of wistfulness that I begin to part from them so as to render them into the “reality” of THE SILENT HEART.
Yet this inevitable point was always one that I had to reach, along with my Cast of Characters. That photo-picture was the genesis of THE SILENT HEART. It no longer is what it once was for me, a framed pic of a horse without a name. I came to understand that a horse is a horse unless it’s named Babieca.
There’s still a little pinprick that is visible in the middle of that framed pic, but it’s been noticeable only to me. Perhaps there’s still a little pinprick in the middle of my heart, a heart that is rarely silent. The image of that horse has expanded in my heart so much beyond a dapple gray in a snowy field in Colorado.
Although Babieca hasn’t cost me much in terms of food, keep, fencing, curry-combing, and daily exercise, he has eaten up a lot of time, energy, observation and introspection. From the first sight of that one visual “gift,” I sensed the momentary excitement, akin to a thrill, that told me:
“I am going to write a novel because of this horse.”
For over two decades, THE SILENT HEART has taken shape, gently at times, boldly at others. Dreams have informed me of several scenes; music has drawn the outlines of the plot and filled in the areas of this puzzle whose border pieces were first conceived during those drives on Riego Road.
During the summer of 2013 I was busily sorting through the files of this Western in its plastic storage box when I realized that THE GHOST was the next novel to be written. And so Riego and his beloved horse had to go back into the barn. Quite literally because my garage at that time was very much like a barn!
Riego and Babieca have awaited not inspiration from me, but my inspiration from them. The work of writing is now more a matter of unfurling the flag of fiction, permitting the characters to play their roles, in this novel, and in my life. It’s always an adventure, that’s for sure!
Solstice Silver Strike 2018
It’s a silver strike for me as I cull through my paper files of The Westerns for THE SILENT HEART. I believe that I am concurrently writing my second western, set in Truckee in 1888-89. SILVER DAGGER picks up in many ways where NORTHSTAR left off, except the plot takes place in Wild West Truckee, as opposed to 1980s Truckee.
The pages and files date back to approximately 20 years ago. As I sieve through what I need and what I do not need, I am astounded by the hefty weight and quality of the paper. I’ve read retail reviews by customers saying that a tee-shirt or dress is paper-thin.
Not this paper! The rag content exceeds most of my recently purchased clothes, sans the ubiquitous 2% spandex. Tearing up an ivory-shaded sheet of paper from 1998 almost feels like sacrilege!
I am also struck by the high quality of the pages from the catalogs and from the technical journals and magazines to which I once subscribed. American Cowboy is still in business but I’d wager that any paper version is not what’s in my hefty card-stock file folders.
A lot of my research materials are worth saving, just for the historic value.
A novelist discovers so much more than mere fiction during the course of her work. The process becomes a silver strike, an archeological dig, a geological slice of America during the bygone era of only 20 years ago. I’ve even discovered photographs, real ones, the kind made from photographic film — of horses in a pasture that became tract-home fodder.
I could not compose my books and other pieces of writing without a computer; and I would be hard-pressed to conduct historical and specialized research without the enormous quantity and quality of accurate information on the Internet. The paper world, however, remains a priceless commodity, and I hope that the day returns when pages in a journal, a magazine, a book, even a catalog, return to that wondrous state of being worthy of the reader’s fingertips.