Writing the West

by Judith Kirscht

judy informalI am not a Westerner, by birth, so some would say it’s presumptuous to place my stories there. But the West shapes the imagination even for those raised East of the Mississippi. Chicago kids like me dream of the open skies of the Great Plains, the mountains beyond it and the sea—a fairytale land of space and freedom. My husband-to-be was from Oregon, and my first experience with the West was a train trip across the country to visit him, my first adventure, being snowbound (in that same train) in the Blue Mountains. Far from being put off, however, I loved the mountains, the space, the air.

When I began to write, some twenty-five years later, my writing coach said, “You write from place. It shapes your characters and your stories.” Now, some forty years of writing later, he has proved right. My first published novel, Nowhere Else To Go, is set in a fictional Midwest college town, based on Ann Arbor, Michigan where I raised my family. The story—a college town caught up in the turmoil of the Sixties—is clearly born of place and time. The second, The Inheritors takes place in Chicago, where I grew up, and at its core are the sensibilities of those who live in cultural, racial, mix of cities created by the great migrations of the Twentieth Century.

Chicago Street Scene 1By the time I actually moved west to California, my sensitivity to place was well formed. I had spent six years in Berkeley, so I already had a sense of California as the home of all those who escaped seeking a golden life—all of those like me. They were as rootless as the characters of my first two books were rooted. Santa Barbara was similar in that regard, but it was there that the power of nature took dominance. The beauty of that coast is legendary, and for the fifteen years I taught at the university there, I lived beside some forty acres of open meadow leading to cliffs above a mile of wild beach and the sea. I swore I would walk that meadow every day—and I did. And so Home Fires, my third novel takes place there and carries that sense of the almost unreal beauty of that place and the woman who breathes it in.CA Scenery

All of these places reinforced my sense of the power of place to shape story and character, but I think few are as aware of the power of nature as the Northwesterners, where the expanse of water and mountain dwarf all else. I think I was drawn to Washington, some ten years ago, because the combination of water and forest remind me of northern Michigan, Wisconsin,

Hawkins Lane Cover

Hawkins Lane Cover

and Minnesota—vacation country of the Great Lakes states. And here in the Skagit Valley I’ve found people rooted in a way the Californians of my experience weren’t. They are fishermen, hunters, farmers, wedded to the land and sea. And so the protagonists of Hawkins Lane, Ned Hawkins and Erica Romano, are brought together by their love of the mountains. They carry that love of the space and solitude of the wilderness, the escape, the self-reliance that has shaped the national imagination.But in Hawkins Lane the power of mountain and forest becomes a character—a dominant, powerful force to be contended with before all else.

Here are a few snippets.

“As March neared its end, the stream behind the Romero house rushed with melting snow, the crowds of skiers and snowshoers on the streets of McKenzie Crossing began to thin, and eagles passed over the house on their way to the river. Erica recounted every change in her journal, every new bare patch of lawn, every bird, and every change pushed her harder …”

A sheen of white glimmered ahead. A moment later they were staring without breath at the vast expanse of snow where the trail had been. He reached for Bonnie’s hand but it was gripping the pommel of her saddle. … tears running down her cheeks.

‘Bonnie …’

‘He’s in there, isn’t he? Archie.’”

“Over and over, he radioed her. Her line was open, but she didn’t answer. He was overwhelmed by the enormity of the woods, of the lunacy of their illusion that this mountain was their friend. The night belonged to the mountains, the wind, and the rain.”

 And finally, the image of a frightened child looking down a tree-roofed lane that gave birth to the story became this ending.

“   he stood looking down its tree-roofed length. It was stripped and naked, but nature would re-clothe it. In a month, the alders and evergreens would take up everything that had happened and fold it into their branches.”

North Cascades

North Cascades

Read more about Judy in this article from GoAnacortes, and you can purchase her books on Amazon.com. Check her website and blog too for more about her books.

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Free e-book from Craig Lancaster

Craig Lancaster, whose novels 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son have been featured here, has a new book coming out in December: Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, a collection of ten short stories.

Before the book’s release, Craig is making available FREE copies of the e-book version. To get your own copy, simply follow these steps:

  • Go to this link at Smashwords.  (Note: If you don’t have a Smashwords membership, you’ll have to sign up for one. Don’t worry: It’s totally free, and there are a lot of other e-book bargains there, too.)
  • Select the format you want and enter this coupon code at checkout: EY63S.

The offer is good Sept. 15 through Sept. 30. Feel free to pass this information along to your friends.

Here’s Craig with some more information about the new book:

Q: First of all, why are you offering free copies of the e-book?

After two novels, my experience is that word of mouth is the best advertisement for a book, so I’m hoping that folks who read Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure before its release will be kind enough to give me an honest review wherever they spend time, be it with friends, at Amazon.com, BN.com, Goodreads, LibraryThing (or all of those places!). I can’t emphasize the bit about honesty enough: I’m not trying to engineer good reviews, although I certainly won’t turn them down. The important thing is to get responses, good or bad, from people who are passionate about books, so other people who share that passion might be inclined to take a look.

Q: Why did you shift from novels to short stories?

It wasn’t a conscious choice. I write nearly every day, and last fall, after I turned over my second novel to my publisher, I hit a particularly rich vein of short fiction. I also managed to retrofit a couple of failed novel projects into successful short stories.

Fortunately, I’m not writing to fulfill a contract, so I have the freedom to follow where inspiration takes me. For nearly a year, I ended up with short stories. So … here they are. And now that this book is done, I am back to work on a couple of novel ideas. So there’s really been no shift – just a slight deviation.

Q: What’s the deal with the title?

It’s a little inscrutable, but I like the lilt of it, and I promise, there’s title justification within the body of the book. One of the ten short stories shares the title.

Q: Is there an overriding theme to the stories?

A few of them are connected, and all of them take place in Montana, where I live. If I had to identify a unifying theme, it would be this: separation. Not just in the marital sense – although that’s certainly in the book – but also in the emotional and physical senses. The stories vary in style and subject matter. I think it’s an intriguing collection.

Here’s the back-cover copy of the book:

A championship basketball coach caught between his team, his family and the rabid partisans in his town. A traveling salesman consigned to a late-night bus ride. A prison inmate stripped of everything but his pride. A teenage runaway. Mismatched lovers. In his debut collection of short fiction, award-winning novelist Craig Lancaster (600 Hours of Edward, The Summer Son) returns to the terrain of his Montana home and takes on the notion of separation in its many forms – from comfort zones, from ideas, from people, from security, from fears. These ten stories delve into small towns and big cities, into love and despair,into what drives us and what scares us, peeling back the layers of our humanity with every page.

For more information about Craig Lancaster and his work, please visit his website.

Review: 600 Hours of Edward

I have to admit I began reading 600 Hours of Edward with a bit of trepidation. This is fellow Montanan, journalist and friend, Craig Lancaster’s first novel and I wanted to like it. But, I wondered, 278 pages about a man with Asperger’s syndrome who obsessively-compulsively records the exact minute he awakes each morning? Someone who eats the same thing for lunch every day, drives to the grocery store every Tuesday, and makes only right-hand turns?

Well, I fell in love with Edward.

Rather than a comedic sketch of a person with mental illness, Craig created an endearing character who faces many of the same life questions and obstacles that the rest of us do: A shaky relationship with his father, a not-so-successful on-line dating experience, and an attempt to better himself through counseling. In the end, he faces a choice: Open his life to experience and deal with the joys and heartaches that come with it, or remain behind his closed door, a solitary soul.

This story is humorous and it is touching. It kept me eagerly turning the pages from the first to the last, and it is a story that stays with me long after I finished. I give 600 Hours of Edward Five Stars and highly recommend it.

If you are curious, as I was, about how Craig developed his character and how much of himself is seen in Edward, read this article on Carol Buchanan’s blog.

Published in: on January 1, 2010 at 11:32 pm  Comments (2)  
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Writing the West Into a Story

My guest today is Craig Lancaster, a fellow writer and Montanan, whose debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, has just been released by Riverbend Publishing of Helena, Montana.

Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Craig’s book!

WRITING THE WEST INTO A STORY

By Craig Lancaster

In my late teens and early 20s, as I began cutting my teeth on the literature that spoke most toLancaster4LM me with the most resonance, I found myself drawn inexorably West – into the seaside shanties and other-side-of-paradise locales of John Steinbeck’s California, into the mind of Wallace Stegner’s Lyman Ward, and into the shadow of Ivan Doig’s Two Medicine Country of Montana, among other literary destinations. I marveled at these great writers and their ability to cast a story against a backdrop so vivid that it became a character unto itself. They led me into places I wanted to see with my own eyes.

In the first few sentences of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck does this masterfully, setting the scene of the infinite sadness to come. His descriptions are full of color and the shape of the land. By the time the two itinerant workers at the center of the story, George and Lenny, appear a page later, they’re trudging through a world that is splashed brilliantly across the reader’s mind:

It’s conceivable that Steinbeck could have set the core story anywhere – a cattle ranch in New Mexico, a dairy farm in Oregon, a feedlot in deep West Texas. But it wouldn’t be the same. Central California, snug against the mountains separating the verdant Salinas Valley from the sea, is where the story belongs. Steinbeck made it so.

I suppose that those of us who write start out idolizing certain authors to the point of mimicry and then, if we’re lucky, develop our own voices and zero in on the stories we want to tell. In the 20 years that lapsed between my first reading of Of Mice and Men (or, for that matter, of Doig’s Dancing at the Rascal Fair) and my writing of my debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, I found myself drawn to an aspect of the West that is different from those that I had been absorbing through others’ words. As my main character, an obsessive-compulsive Aspergian named Edward Stanton, confronts the rapid changes that transform his life, he does so in a small city (Billings, Montana, where I live) that is very much his milieu. Edward is acutely aware of his place in the world – its rhythms, its geography (he doesn’t like left turns, and so whenever possible he plots a driving route that doesn’t include them), its politics (his father is a powerful elected official) and such. The West with which I’m most familiar – the one that plays out in this regional hub city that constantly strains as its borders – becomes part of the story’s fabric.

Here’s a small section of the story that illustrates what I mean. This comes about midway through the book, as Edward prepares for an online date that he has managed to wrangle as he begins to deal with the world that is crashing into his front door:

Here are a few things you should know about Rimrock Mall, so you’ll understand why I am dreading today’s visit there.

Rimrock Mall is the biggest mall in Montana. Because Billings is such a geographic oddity — atcover 100,000-plus people, it is the largest city in a 500-mile radius — it isn’t just Billings people who come to the mall. I read somewhere, maybe in the Billings Gazette, that half of northern Wyoming does its monthly shopping in Billings, and it stands to reason that a good number of those people end up at Rimrock Mall.

If you walk through the Rimrock Mall parking lot on a weekend — I would rather not, but I am setting up a hypothetical statement — you will see license plates from all over Montana and Wyoming and even other places. Montana makes it easy to pick out where license plates are from: The first number is the county code, and the counties are numbered by the population size of the counties when the system went into effect. Yellowstone County plates have the number 3 on them, because it was the third-largest county, population-wise, back when the system started. It should be No. 1 now, but that would make the people in Butte-Silver Bow County angry, so it stays at No. 3.

Anyway, when I am driving in Billings and someone in front of me makes a wrong or erratic turn, I get angry if I see a 3 on his license plate, as he is from here and should know better. If I see a 27 — that’s Richland County, an agrarian (I love the word “agrarian”) outpost in far Eastern Montana — I don’t get so mad. That’s someone who perhaps doesn’t spend much time in Billings, and I have to be a good person and remember that Billings can be confusing to outsiders.

I am dreading today’s visit to Rimrock Mall.

Setting isn’t just a place to drop a story. Done right, setting becomes something like a story’s center of gravity, an anchor to which plot lines can be tethered and held in place, allowing for a book’s architecture to stand strong. While I’m partial to the writers of the West, they certainly don’t have the market cornered on brilliant use of setting. It matters not whether you get lost in Anne Rivers Siddons’ Maine or Pat Conroy’s South Carolina or Larry McMurtry’s Texas. They’re all worthy destinations.

To order Craig’s book, 600 Hours of Edward, on Amazon.com

Craig’s Web site: http://www.craiglancaster.net

Craig’s blog: http://craiglancaster.wordpress.com

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