I wish every teen in America could saddle a horse.
I’m not a champion saddlerer myself, but standing next to a gigantic animal (way bigger than your dog, so watch your feet) and strapping on a heavy leather seat is always a daunting task, especially if the horse turns his head to watch you; it never gives an encouraging look. Finishing, tugging confidently on the outfit, and then sitting in it, feels like you’ve done something that not many people have done.
That’s the point: I wish every teen in America could do something that not many of their peer group have done.
I worked with an organization in Colorado that provided backcountry hiking and mountain climbing trips to church groups. Most of the church groups were from Texas, which means that the teenagers who came were experiencing life at around a thousand feet above sea level one week and standing on top of a rock at 14,000 feet the next week. Getting those teens up and down, all in one piece, was challenging, but each one who made it to the top, and almost everybody did, had memories to last a lifetime. It broadened their horizons, convinced them that they were capable, made them feel strong, and gave them scenery not seen from the valley.
For most, it was a significant experience; they felt different returning home. They felt like they stood out, that they had done something that people around them had not. They felt special.
Climbing a mountain peak, rafting a wilderness river, hiking in Anasazi ruins hundreds of years old, exploring abandoned gold mines, eating fish fresh caught from a backcountry mountain lake – doing things like this removes the acceptance of some boundaries and gives teens a broader sense of options in what they choose to do. It gives a data point about what might be accomplished versus what might be settled for.
Our teens hear that they have infinite options in life, that they can be whatever they want, do whatever they want, whether they actually can or not. There’s always someone yelling “Follow Your Dreams” in their ears. But doing something adventurous, accomplishing something rather than being coached about it, realizing a goal instead of a dream, translates into reality better than slogans.
I write stories about teenagers who sometimes do extraordinary things and I hope my readers understand that they are not performing magic, that there’s no extreme giftedness involved, and that they are not inherently privileged for some reason or other. My three sons climbed mountain peaks, hiked slot canyons, guided their own rafts down wilderness rivers, drove race cars, and won adventures beyond their peer group.
Mogi and Jennifer Franklin, from my books, are no different. I want my readers to know that they can do those things, too.
Most of us visit more freely than we write, so here’s something that I do when I can’t get my mind to focus on my writing.
I write an email to someone. I talk about the weather, what’s happening in town, what my kids are doing, how I’m feeling, what’s lately been frustrating, successful, or unaccounted for. When I’ve said all of what’s buzzing in my mind, I quit. I don’t send it; that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to give my mind a venue to express itself, to get all those thoughts competing to be front and center in my consciousness out in the open and expressed, and to let my mind sort itself into a simpler state. It’s like straightening a cluttered room – my thinking will have more order, more sense of priority, more things taken care of, better mental acuity, and I’ll be able to focus more on the task of writing creatively.
John Steinbeck, when writing East of Eden, created a loose-leaf, custom binder notebook to hold his writing paper (which was large – like 11 by 14 or something). Every morning, he’d sharpen his pencils and then write a quick letter to his friend, the editor of his publishing house. He wrote the letter on the left-hand side of the notebook pages as they were laid out in binder fashion. He reserved the right-hand side of the pages (which we call the front; he never wrote his creative work on the back) for the novel he was then writing.
Writing these quick, informal letters was his daily warm-up and prepared his mind for doing the creative writing of the novel.
The editor would only get the letters whenever Steinbeck periodically mailed in a handful of papers to the editor’s office where the novel would be transcribed into typewritten pages, so the content of the letters could be weeks old. In case you’re interested, a large number of letters written across his life were compiled and published in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten.
I don’t write my letters as often as I used to, but I’ll do it if my brain is really fuzzed out or I’m can’t get my mind to settle down. I write to my mother, although she passed away years ago. I write her because I could say anything and everything to her, something that I find myself unable to do with existing friends; they always want to talk, whereas my brain just needs to dump information and move on.
If, by the way, I can’t get my mind to settle down and focus, I know that it’s not a writing day; I do something else.
I don’t remember when I first read a Hardy Boys book, but it must have been early. My family couldn’t afford to buy books very often, so I took advantage of the library or school or anywhere I could borrow them. When I did find a new one, I’d plop down and read it through in one sitting, ignoring other parts of life, like chores and responsibilities; my parents were tolerant of my obsession, so I was left alone to enjoy all that I could. I was, in that blessed way, captivated by books. I still remember being surprised by The Mystery of the Two Towers (Hardy Boys #1), finding that the towers of the house were not the tower referred to in the riddle. How clever was that!
Likewise, reading Nancy Drew and other similar series were just as enthralling.
When I considered writing my own mystery stories for young people, I set out to imitate what I thought were these types of books’ prime elements: 1) the characters never got older, so the allure of who they were and what they were capable of, especially as they related to me, never changed; 2) the characters had access, either through themselves or through their families’ friends, to cars, boats, airplanes, trains, busses, and basically any other thing they needed made them seem oh-so mature and grown-up, but yet I knew they weren’t; 3) the trust of their parents was complete, which enabled them to be involved in an amazing variety of experiences and locations; and 4) each book was devoted to only one mystery, had easily recognizable bad people, had surprisingly interesting mysteries, had lots of clues that had me attempting to solve the mysteries on my own, and lots of action.
And the good people always won in the end.
Over the last few posts, I’ve talked specifically about the writing of the Mogi Franklin Mystery Series. I hate being so obvious in using ideas, principles, and structures of story creation from people like Frank Dixon, Tony Hillerman, and Clive Cussler, but I can’t help but to want to recapture what it was like for me to find myself captivated by their words and story. Those literary devices give richness and depth to stories that it’s much like listening to a good speaker or story teller and realizing that it is not only the story that captures the heart and mind, but the methods used in their presentations.
There is more to say regarding my writing processes, and I will, but I think this series of comments has run its course. Thanks for tuning in.
One book critic said that you could always tell when something dramatic was going to happen in a Tony Hillerman novel – he’d start talking about the clouds! Tony had a gift for portraying people connected to nature. The Navajos live their lives connected to the earth through their beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, art, and daily living, and the Hillerman books never failed in drawing this portrait of a people immersed in their environment.
I’ve read every Hillerman novel and I am unabashed to say that he was a strong reason for my integration of the landscape, weather, and geography to give a strong sense of place in my books. The other reason was because I grew up with a strong sense of place in my life.
I lived the first twenty years of life in a small town in the panhandle of Texas, northeast of Amarillo. It was a fair-sized town (17k or so) that was a historical boom town because of the discovery of oil in 1926. The boom had already settled down by the time I got there, but it was still a vast country laced with dirt roads from all of the exploration that was done.
The town also sits on the bluffs of the Canadian River, whose riverbed in that area was typically a half-mile wide although the river itself was on the order of ten to twenty feet wide (except after rainstorms). The remains of the ancient river valley made the whole countryside one of sharp ups and downs, with gullies, arroyos, canyons, mesas, and rocky points a little higher than the rest, all dotted with cactus, yucca, buffalo grass, and canyon bottoms full of cottonwood trees. Add to that square miles of slowing rising and falling of grass plains and you run out of eyesight.
It was BIG country. You could see horizon to horizon and the sunsets stretched forever. I grew up attached to that country. The sky is huge; the billowing clouds are huge; riding the river beds in a dune buggy showed the river bluffs to be huge; the variations of the rocks, trees, grasses, vegetation, plus the antelope, the deer, the herds of horses, the army of cows – everything is huge. That country settled in me like it must have settled in the Indians and the first settlers.
The Southwest is bigger than Texas and contains colors and light like no other place I’ve ever been. Incorporating that level of scenery allows my characters to feel the country, feel the privilege of being in it, and reflect the uniqueness of living in it. My readers, then, feel the same sort of privilege and the same sort of awe, and that gives me an advantage in conveying the characters themselves.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.