Hunting and Gathering

copy{writer} fiction & publishing


I’m working on another novel. Here’s the recipe I’m using: one part note-taking + one part reading + one part drafting. So far it seems to be working, but I find that any time I reduce an element of the ratio, the formula goes wonky and the work tends to get off track or—worse—to stagnate. The note-taking and the reading are just as important as the drafting, because I have to keep filling the beakers in order to create new catalysts.

It’s like hunting and gathering. I keep my eyes and ears open all the time, and I carry a little black notebook—Moleskine style, makes me feel cool. I try to write down observations that I suspect might feed my story in some way. It might be a phrase or expression. (“Would you mind fierce?” said a woman in the grocery store asking a man to reach a box of cereal on a top shelf. Fierce! Then there was the woman I was speaking to who had learned her insurance company had deemed her financial losses “catastrophic.” She sucked on a cigarette and squinted at the sky. “So, yeah. I’m a catastrophe,” she said. Wow.)

Or it might be a situation. (Like the way I was coming home the other day and the railroad crossing arms out on SR-16 were stuck in the down position, and that lone cop was directing drivers, one after another, to disregard the flashing lights, drive around the crossing arms and cross the tracks. Just to the left, where a train could be oncoming, the tracks disappeared around a deep blind curve. Could the cop be trusted? Should we take the risk? And then what happened? And then what?)

Or it might be just a small fact or phenomenon that I know I want to research later. (Have you heard of “ground resonance”? We have a friend named John who is a helicopter pilot, and he said the other night that in some instances a ground-running helicopter’s rotor can become unbalanced and lose its center of gravity. Then the blades begin to rotate off kilter, hitting parts of the frame, and before long the entire craft can violently disintegrate right there on the pad. “It’ll beat itself to death,” John said. I could barely get my notebook out fast enough. What a metaphor! Grounded ambition, loss of control, self-destruction. I’m not yet sure where I’m going to use this, but it’s tucked safely in my notebook, and it will eventually make its way into the new novel. PS: thanks, John.)

Or it might be a moment in another writer’s story or novel—one of those awe-inspiring lines that makes me determined to work harder, read more, push further. Moments that make me remember why any of us are in this game in the first place. Something like this, from Bret Anthony Johnston’s remarkable story “Soldier of Fortune”: “The edges of her curtains were again framed in moonlight, and in the shallow glow, our skin looked new and smooth and unblemished, ready for the scars that were lying, somewhere, in ambush.” Dang. Just—dang.

So yes, the notebook is hugely important. I keep it by my bedside, too, because when I wake with ideas or questions in the middle of the night, I know from heartbreaking experience that if I don’t write down a few notes that will jog my memory in the morning, those fleeting REM-laced ideas will be long evaporated by dawn.

Reading, watching, listening, absorbing, hunting, gathering. Sometimes scraping up just the scantest berries, sometimes bringing down the entire mammoth. I love this part of the job.

4 thoughts on “Hunting and Gathering

  1. Joshilyn Jackson (author of Gods in Alabama, etc)says to watch yourself if you spot her in a cafe or restaurant, particularly if you’re in the next booth or at the next table. She’s listening in on your conversation and making notes. If you say something to hook her, it will show up in one of her books.

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