I’m in Florida, but I’m still spending hours every day sitting at the dining room table, writing my daily five pages and praying that I’ll get enough done to turn in the fourth Joe Burgess mystery, And Grant You Peace, by sometime in May. Right now that feels uncertain, as the book is refusing to come together, but I’ve never missed a deadline yet.
As those of you who are regulars know, I’ve been writing a lot lately about process. About the steps we take as writers to tune up our ability to observe the world, and to find ways to use our observations, and what we read, to make our own books better. Right now, that thought process is making me acutely aware of the divergence between what is outside my head and what is going on in the story I’m telling.
In the book, it is April in Portland, Maine. We all know about those shoulder seasons. In some parking lots, there are still huge, dirty, slow melting mounds of snow. On a sunny day, the sun’s warmth is surprising and welcome, and we like to stand and turn our faces up to it like hopeful flowers. The grass is starting to green up, and where it is warm and sheltered, crocus, snowdrops, and daffodils are starting to appear. Where the snow has melted, though, it also leaves drifts of sand, the lightest bits of which will rise on a cold wind and blow like tan smoke through the air. And melting snow also reveals discarded cigarette butts, decomposing lottery tickets, and beer, soda, and sports drink containers emerging from the dingy crust like ancient mastodons.
As April warms, we will get the first earthy smells of a world reanimating, and on one surprising night, Burgess will stop his truck and roll down the window, listening to the chorus of the first peepers filling the night with sound. Birds will grow more active, and anyone pausing to think will be struck by their voices. Inside my head, Joe Burgess moves from a disgusting crime scene out into the crisp April air and turns his face to the sun. Only for a moment, because there are warrants to write and people to see, and an autopsy to attend. But for that moment, I need to imagine April so that he can feel it. Soon the trees will bud and then start leafing out, and I will be challenged to describe, through his eyes, those many shades of green.
Outside my head, I’m in Florida. The vegetation doesn’t look anything like Portland, Maine. There are towering silvery palmettos and tall palms and blooming hibiscus. There are leaves in every imaginable shade of green. Matte leaves and shiny leaves. Striped leaves and mottled leaves. Leaves like swords and leaves like fans and leaves like big, flat dinner plates or catcher’s mitts.
It’s a distraction. It’s also a benefit, because looking a new landscape reminds me to fully imagine the landscape I’m writing, the one my characters are passing through.
Outside, a pair of osprey are shrieking to each other as they prepare of their late afternoon fishing expedition. In Portland, Maine, outside Burgess’s window, tiny chickadees are flitting through the underbrush. Both are with me as I sit at the table, typing.