Steps to a Story: a better way to share information

My first writing task of my retreat weekend was to finish With Honor.  The next section was fairly straightforward to write.  I needed to share several very specific pieces of information with the reader, as well as finding a way to return to the relationship with Charlotte and Matthew.

My first attempt to complete this section was to have Matthew reflecting on the things that had happened and were going to happen, concluding with a conversation between him and the girl.  It worked, but not well.  It became a bulky, hard-to-follow mess, with time frame switching from current to past to future.  I wasn’t pleased with it, but when I went to bed it was at least completed.

In trying to fall asleep on the air mattress in my screened shelter for the first night, I had a lot of time to work on story stuff in my head.  Just before I fell asleep, I came up with a possible solution.  What if I made the entire section a conversation with Charlotte?  She can ask for the info that the reader needs to know.

Of course, I was trying to sleep so I just mulled it over and left it.  I didn’t want to drag the laptop out once again just to play with the scene; it seemed counterproductive to my efforts, not to mention the light from the computer screen kept drawing little irritating bugs.  So the next morning, after breakfast, I focused on With Honor once again.  It took some tweaking, since the information had to be broken down into different combinations, but it worked!  I’ll revise it once more before it posts, but I think the conversation between characters is a much easier way to share information with the reader.

A Truly Terrifying Thunderstorm

I have had three very scary encounters with weather, and all of them involved wind and rain.

The first occurred when I was camping in Big Bend National Park.  We were 5 miles up the mountain, having hiked all afternoon, and staying in a tiny tent.  Since we had walked in, we had brought only what we needed.  First it was incredibly windy, and after we had fallen asleep the storm blew in.  Rain pounded our little tent.  When my mind realized that I was trapped, since I couldn’t very well hike down the mountain in a downpour, I panicked.  On a mountain, in a tent, is not a very pleasant way to experience a night of pouring rain.

The second scary weather was Hurricane Ike.  I had moved to Houston just 3 months before the storm.  I’m sure I don’t need to explain the frightening aspects of a hurricane.  The hardest part was overnight.  The wind rattled the windows, the rain came down in sheets, and I tried (and mostly failed) to sleep with husband, dog, and parrot on the floor of our walk-in closet.

The second night of my writer’s retreat provided my third terrifying encounter with weather.  Again, this was a storm with wind and rain, and again, it occurred overnight.

As you know, I was entirely by myself on this retreat.  I was staying in a screened shelter, which is basically a stand-alone screened-in porch with half of the screens covered in wooden louvers.  While it was a bit more secure than a tent, it was still not a reassuring place to ride out a storm.

The lightning came first, flickering like a horror movie.  The sky was more light than dark for most of the night.  I called a friend to get a weather forecast (the radar was red and orange and heading my way) and I talked to my sister on the phone to help me calm down.  When the rain arrived, I thought I would be okay.  A little blew in through the screens at the front half, but none was reaching me.  I checked several times, but there were no leaks in the ceiling.  I felt like I could drift off, like my fears were silly.  I even started to draft a writing practice (in my head) based on the storm.

Of course, just as I started to fall asleep, the storm changed.  The wind picked up, blowing rain through the entire shelter.  At one point the ceiling was so wet that it, too, was dripping on me.  All I could do was huddle inside my sleeping bag and let it take the brunt of the water.  Thank goodness for my laptop case and the carrying bag for my sleeping bag; they sheltered my computer, the only major thing I was worried about getting wet.

After a bit, the wind settled.  Again, I started to fall asleep.  It lasted only a few moments before I was jolted awake by an incredibly loud, ground-shaking clap of thunder.  For about five minutes the lightning hit nearby, the thunder rattled my shelter, and I was sure that a tree was about to fall on my roof.  It was one of the few times I have been truly terrified.  Fortunately it passed, my stuff stayed (mostly) dry, and the next day I found the storm provided inspiration for the next chapter of Dragon Pendant.

After all of that, I’ve decided that thunderstorms at night are fine, but only if I’m inside something with four walls and windows that won’t break.

All By Myself

One of the things I was a bit worried about on my writer’s retreat was the fact that I would be all by myself.  Of course, I was also looking forward to it, but it was an unfamiliar experience.  I’d traveled by myself before, or in the company of strangers or acquaintances.  The difference with those was that they were structured trips; a trip organized by my school, a live-aboard dive boat, and professional conferences.  Even though I was solely responsible for myself, I was not responsible for setting the itinerary and keeping myself entertained.

My writer’s retreat was different.

There were only two things scheduled for the entire trip: arrive before 5pm on Sunday and leave by 8am on Wednesday.  Between those two things?  Nothing.  It was actually quite invigorating once I shifted into a slow-down mode.  A couple of times I caught myself planning ahead for the evening.  This I quelled at once.  Decisions were made spontaneously.  If I wanted to hike, I picked a trail.  What I was going to do after hiking didn’t matter and it wasn’t decided until the hike was done.  At one point I was sitting in my camp chair, looking at the lake, and I was trying to decide which of several choices to do next.  It took me a bit to realize that the reason I couldn’t choose is because what I really wanted to do was sit in the camp chair and look at the lake some more.  So I stayed put.

I made the whole trip really easy on myself, too.  I took only food that could be eaten as-is, so I didn’t have to cook.  As a bonus, all of my food was finger-food; there were no dishes.  Other than sleeping during the storm that rolled in on the second night, there was nothing I had to do that was unpleasant.  Of course, the point of the trip was to write, but that came easily and naturally and really reinvigorated my love of writing.

I did make one discovery about myself.  I talk to myself when I’m alone.  This isn’t really new information, but the extent to which I talk out loud when was quite surprising.  I talk to myself.  I speak dialog aloud.  I greet woodpeckers, scold noisy crows, and reassure startled squirrels.  I even have half-conversations with inanimate objects occasionally.

Apparently, for me, peace does not require quiet.  🙂

My First Writer’s Retreat, or what do you do in a state park?

I just got back from my first writer’s retreat.  I stayed in a screened shelter in Martin Dies, Jr. State Park.  It seems like a wilderness retreat, but to be fair, I had a roof, electricity, and a typical running-water restroom within easy walking distance.  There was no internet or television, but that was sort of the point, and I managed to survive without air conditioning.  I wouldn’t exactly call it roughing it.

When I went camping the last time, in October, my mom asked me what I do when I’m camping.  She couldn’t think of much to do in a state park, finally concluding that she would be happy to roast marshmallows over a campfire before getting bored and wanting to go home.  I’m the weirdo outdoors-girl in a family of indoor people, I’m afraid.

One of my friends asked a similar question, however, when he found out I was going camping for three nights.   He wanted to know if I was going to get bored.  Honestly, I was a little concerned about that myself, which is why I brought a magazine, two books, and my knitting as well as my computer for writing.

It turns out I found plenty to do while I was on my retreat.  I hiked and walked a lot; my best estimate is that I walked over 12 miles in the course of two and a half days.  I did a bit of birding, although if I couldn’t find the bird or didn’t know what a call was, I didn’t spend too much time on it.  I slept, not as much or as well as I was hoping, but I got to sleep in and nap.  I did knit some, and read some, although I finished the magazine the first day and then didn’t open a book until the last evening.  I relaxed, I rested, and I even did some personal reflection.

The bulk of my waking time, though, was spent writing.  Even while hiking I was working on stories and blog posts.  I finished With Honor on the first day.  I re-read the existing chapters of Dragon Pendant, so I could get back into the story, and ended up writing two and a half chapters plus three major upcoming scenes.  I finally resolved some plot troubles with that story, as well.  I wrote nine blog posts, including two Steps to a Story posts and this post that you’re reading.  Some of the posts I wrote were not related to writing, but rather journaling about experiences I had on while in nature.  I still plan to share them with you, as my experiences influenced the writing I did on the retreat.

With the exception of a few interesting moments (which you’ll get to read about in upcoming posts) it was a reinvigorating, relaxing experience that I hope to get to repeat in the future.

Issuing You A Challenge

May is going to be a crazy month for me at work.  It’s not so much that I have a lot going on (which I do) but my schedule is going to be really wacky.  Every week my “weekend” days are different, I’m working a couple different evenings, I’ll even be out of town for a few days on business.

This means that blogging everyday may prove to be a bit of a struggle.  So I’ve decided to enlist the help of some of my friends and family, and perhaps even you.  As a comparison of different writing styles, as well as a fun exercise for all of my writing friends, I’m issuing a challenge.

Create a character (or use one you’ve already created).  Writing first person, as that character, introduce yourself in 200-500 words.

A few folks have already agreed!  I’m hoping to intersperse 10-15 guest writers amongst my own posts for May.  I’ll be completing the challenge as well, with at least one but maybe two of my existing characters.  If you’re up for the challenge, send me an email to my author address – author.townsend@yahoo.com – and let me know!  I’ll need your writing and a couple of sentences introducing yourself (along with a link to your blog, if you have one) by May 5.

Not a big fan of writing by hand…

I am pondering my upcoming writer’s retreat trip to the woods.  (I’ll tell you that I am going, but not when I’m going, my standard response for travel.) For those who didn’t read about it when I came up with the idea, I’m going to stay in a pseudo-cabin in one of the fabulous Texas State Parks for a couple of days.  No tv, no Netflix, no internet, no dog.  The idea is that the lack of distractions will help me focus on writing.

The question I am pondering is preparation for writing.  I am definitely taking my laptop, but I do not know if I will be able to charge it at the park.  I believe there is electricity at my site, but what that looks like will be unknown until I arrive.  With the possibility of limited computer use, I may be doing a lot of writing by hand.  I’m really not a big fan of writing by hand, but if it needs to be done, it will be done.

The questions to resolve really revolve around what to print prior to my trip.  Should I take the entire manuscript to date for the new novel in a hard copy, in case I need it?  What about the research and background documents?   My mom’s philosophy is “better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” but it’s hard to justify printing every page of every related document when most of it will end up being a waste of paper.

Perhaps it boils down to this: review the manuscript and materials before I go, and take printed copies of the key documents I know I’ll need.  If something has to be left unfinished until I get home, that’s just how it will be.

With Honor, part 11

With Honor

by Leigh Townsend

Part 11

Matthew sat atop his horse, watching the darkening sky.  He had spent two full weeks at the White family farm before Captain Harlan had sent a wagon to bring him back to camp.  The second week had been pleasantly busy, his hands occupied with the work of mending tack and his thoughts increasingly filled with Charlotte.  Even now, the remembered image of her green eyes lighting up with a smile distracted him from his duty.

Irritated with himself, Lieutenant Lewis turned back to his watch.  In the month that followed his return to camp, as his leg completed its healing, the company tried and failed to catch Golden Wolf.  It was easy for the scouts to track him.  The man made little effort to hide as he moved about the foothills, but every time a unit would surround him the bandit leader would somehow slip their net.   While Captain Harlan had been convinced they would have to chase the Wolf halfway across the country before they captured him, their target seemed content to remain in the area.

A few days ago, one of the officers had discovered why.

During a questioning session with the captives, Lieutenant Fisher had identified the bandit’s second in command.  The man, referred to by the others only as Numbers, had loosely filled the role of quartermaster and finance man for the Wolf Pack.  It had fallen to him to make sure the supplies, food, and looted goods were dispersed fairly among the bandits; this was one way that Golden Wolf guaranteed the loyalty of his subordinates.  One of the duties Numbers had claimed as part of this task was hiding the bulk of the bandits’ stolen valuables.  Once the army officers had realized that Golden Wolf had been remaining in the area with the hope of freeing Numbers, it had been easy to create a plan to capture the Wolf.

Matthew blinked a few times to help his eyes adjust as the sun slipped below the horizon.  A torch flared to the south, accompanied by a spoken command passed quietly through the ranks.  At the edge of the caravan, Matthew urged his horse into a slow walk.  The handful of recently-wounded fighters had been placed strategically as decoys.  It was their job to fall behind, leaving a gap in the perimeter to allow Golden Wolf to slip through.

Unsure if the bandit would take the bait, Lieutenant Lewis kept his eyes on the fighters around him, trying to maintain the appropriate distance to create the hole.  After a few minutes, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye.  A dark shape passed through the gap, the legs of the horses in front of him shadowed for a brief moment before it was gone.

It was not Matthew’s task to spot the Wolf, or to fill the hole.  Their opening was merely the first part of a series of tempting situations; the trap lay in the middle, where Numbers and the other bandits were walking, shackled together, surrounded by guards.  Matthew kept his eyes on the horses near him, looking for the tell-tale darkening that would signal more individuals than just Golden Wolf.  It was quite possible that the man had gathered the remains of his scattered pack in the past month.

Matthew was still watching for others when the signal was sounded and torches lit throughout the company.  Tightening up their perimeter, the fighters near Matthew turned outward.  Although the horns meant Golden Wolf had been captured, they couldn’t risk a last-minute attack from other bandits.  After a few moments to secure the captive, the company turned back toward their camp.  With a watchful eye to the darkness on his left, Matthew followed, looking forward to seeing Golden Wolf finally in their custody and brought to justice.

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