3 People Stories Near Water – 2 Peculiar and 1 Miraculous

There are story ideas everywhere from real life.

Near the Water Story #1: About six weeks ago, my husband and I decided to walk part of the Battle Creek River Walk, starting at a small playground with about six parking spots. We were the only vehicle. (Yay! Not crowded.) We walked about twenty minutes upstream and then returned to a crowded area. Two cars besides ours! A woman played on the playground with a preschool girl. We assumed it was her daughter. A man in his mid-twenty’s paced near the river, avoiding eye contact, twitching, and biting his lips. His body language made me nervous enough that I didn’t want to leave mom and child alone in the area. (Can you say Amber Alert?) My husband later commented that the man’s face “seemed weird.” So we strolled nearby, pausing long near the river, man, and mom-and-daughter. We figured it was a natural thing for a couple to do, for who doesn’t like watching a flowing river? But our senses were on alert. Suddenly the man moved quickly to the parking area and got into the back of a newly arrived vehicle with two people in the front. We went to our van and got in, but lingered still. I nonchalantly glanced at the car at the very moment there was an exchange over the seat. The man immediately got out with his small package. The new car drove off. So did the man. Had we just witnessed a drug buy, or is my fictional writing brain overactive?

 

Near the Water Story #2: A couple weeks later, we walked part of the North Country Trail along the Kalamazoo River, about twenty miles east of Battle Creek in Marshall. We saw turtles in the river, birds in the trees, bugs enjoying our presence, and a clowder of cats. We’d witnessed the other animals before, but never the cats. At first there were only five, sitting under a picnic table. About thirty paces past them, a black cat laying on a fallen log near the trail eyed us. Then we saw another lurking in the woods. We hurried on to the street bridge crossing and decided to walk part of the dead-end road parallel to the trail. We hadn’t gone far when we spotted a woman bending over into the back of her station wagon parked near the woods with – seriously – about forty cats near the car, most laying on the pavement, nearly all watching us. (Can you say Crazy Cat Lady?) We were rather committed at this point to passing by her. With her back still to us, she took a five-pound bucket in one hand and a three-pound one in the other and started into the woods. There was no trail entrance there; just trees and shrubs. Without any noise from lady, the cats all rose and followed after her. One of the buckets tipped just enough for me to see inside. It looked like birdseed.

 

Near the Water Story #3: It was my first free day to go along Lake Michigan to do my annual distribution of my summer books. I had five places to visit, and then my husband and I would be free to play at the beach…or walk on it. And we did. When we returned to the van, couldn’t find my key fob. Not wanting to take a purse to the beach, and wearing jeans with only two pockets, I’d put glasses and ID in one pocket and iPhone and fob in the other. Naturally, I took photos! I’d never lost a key or fob before. The only thing I know about fobs is that they open and start vehicles, and cost hundreds of dollars to replace. (I suppose that’s three things.) As my husband had his fob, we searched the van. Normally I only look through things once. This time I searched everywhere (more than my two pockets) three times. No fob. The sky threatened its forecast of thunderstorm, so we snatched our raincoats and slowly backtracked toward the beach. I was picturing every spot I’d stopped to take a photo. A park employee rode a golf cart on the sidewalk from the beach to the parking lot. I flagged him down and asked if he’d seen a key fob on the beach. Jeff later explained that his disinterested attitude was probably from being asked that many times before. However, a passing woman said, “Was it small and black?” She measured with her thumb and finger. “YES!” What happened was that earlier a man walked near her beach blanket and without a word to her, placed the fob on her blanket and walked on. She was with six children and had never seen a fob like this one before. She thought it was a bomb. (!) She was going to toss it high into the sand dune woods, but instead laid it in some weeds. Going from nervous to hopeful to skeptical and back to nervous, we followed her. She pointed from a distance, still seemingly unsure that it might be a bomb. My fob. My short-lost fob was found. Thing is, if I had only searched my pocket, or the van just once, the woman wouldn’t have been passing at that exact moment to have heard me asking the employee about it. (Can you say I believe in miracles?)

End of Year Writing and Marketing

2017 was busy; hence, my long silence on my blog. Two of my books were published this year: THE POWDER HORN OF MACKINAC ISLAND (MG time travel, published in March) and WAR UNICORN (upper MG fantasy re-published in October through Books We Love Publishing). Both books need reviews, if you’re so inclined, since reviews on Amazon are like golden nuggets to a book.

I took a sabbatical this year from my War Unicorn series (I’m now working on the third book) to write what has turned into my memoirs. Hopefully, it will come out before Christmas. Yes, I’m talking Christmas of this year! It has the shockingly long title of THE ROAD LESS-TRAVELED OFTEN INVOLVES SMACKING FACE-FIRST THROUGH SPIDER WEBS (subtitle: A Life of Animal Encounters). It includes wild boar, bear, moose, otter, cattle, ticks, snakes, hawks, and bees, to name a few…and me, of course…and often my family. The book is 50K (50,000 words). That’s a lot of animal encounters!

Each of these books require a different marketing plan, different bookstores to contact, online sites, blog hops, ways to promote, etc. I am so foolish, and would never, ever recommend another author to do so. Why, oh, why didn’t I stick to just one genre and age group of readers? Why?

My end of the year writing and marketing tip: Stick to one genre and age group of readers and keep on writing.

Survivalist Skills, Research, NaNoWriMo

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day learning how to skin a rabbit and tan its hide. Yesterday I spent most of the morning learning about saltpeter – mining and leaching and how to turn it into explosives. The paranoid part of me worries that these survivalist skills will be noted by concerned government watchdogs. The winning part of me knows I need to know these skills if I am to write about them. Write what you know.

Now I must admit that I never actually skinned a rabbit, and I never actually mined for potassium nitrate, and I really ought to have been putting more words in my NaNoWriMo project, but I spent hours on the internet doing research – for my WIP (story). My story takes place in a pre-electricity fantasy world. There are cities, of course, and fortresses, and an agrarian culture, but what if I stuck my characters not in the city, nor working on a farm, which I have? The in between wilderness is where they need to survive, so I spend my days with bloodied and charcoaled hands, but not in reality as would be much, much better, but only in research. I do know the ultra-soft feel of rabbit fur and leather against my cheek, and I have walked through a saltpeter mine in Mammoth Cave, so I’m not flying completely blind on what I research or write about.

Writing Tip: Write what you know, but also prepare to spend many more hours in research for even the briefest reference in your book.

Now, back to writing for NaNoWriMo – I’m at a sloppy 15K now. (Whoo-hoo.) Only 35,000 more words to go by November 30th. Keep on writing!

 

National Parks Birthday – 100 This Month! (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)

In celebration of our national park’s 100th birthday, here is Stu Patterfoot at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Bison and wild horses roam the park. It was here in a parking lot, where I overheard a man asking a park ranger if he could put his granddaughter on the back of one of the bison walking though the lot so he could take a picture. I was very impressed by the young ranger’s calm no and explanation why not. Me, on the other hand, standing behind the grandpa, had popped open my eyes at his comment and dropped my jaw to the pavement. It would have taken me he’d asked that question, it would have taken me several minutes to respond.  But then grandpa complained that the animals weren’t fenced in and why did they let them roam around if they were so dangerous? Well, they are fenced in, only the fences are miles and miles long. So: No sitting on the bison! Really. Don’t even get close. (In the photo below, Stu was only this close because he was inside a van. See the side mirror over his shoulder? Yeah. Don’t get close to wild animals. People are gored every year.)

Inside the park, it’s not just the animals, nor the human history of the area, but also the land itself. Just when you (I) think you’ve (I’ve) seen about every rock formation in the world (across these wide and varied United States), along comes an interesting sight. Take a gander at the size of this perfectly round naturally formed “pebble”.

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National Parks Birthday – 100 This Month! (Devils Tower National Monument)

Here is Stu Patterfoot visiting Devils Tower National Monument in the Black Hills of Wyoming. You can see this unique rock formation rising dramatically from the prairie for miles as you approach it, growing larger and larger and larger.

Climbers have tackled this formation for a couple hundred years. Although during the month of June, most climbers honor the Native Indians and do not climb these 30 days for related Indian ceremonies and prayers. Stu didn’t get much past the crumbled base.

Using US National Parks for writer inspirations for settings has existed before there were even National Parks. Devils Tower was used as a backdrop for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but visiting it after seeing the movie was a bit disappointing in that respect. Spoiler alert: FYI, you oldsters or old movie buffs, there are no aliens from other planets on the grounds. But I can’t guarantee the same if you look up.

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The Chipmunk Horrors of Honey Lane

If you are anything like me, you might be of the opinion that chipmunks are very cute. They are perfectly striped critters, with amusing antics. They’re small and darling enough to hold in your hand if you could. When gathering seeds, they can stuff their chunky little cheeks full with nearly their body weight right in their mouths. It’s also fun to watch them in early summer, quickly darting and zigzagging, chasing each other around in early summer.

(Plot twist: the cute transformed to horror.)

These cute little creatures just chased me out of my backyard, into our house.

I find it very unsettling when normally wild creatures, who really ought to be terrified of giant humans hundreds times their size, come within a few feet of said giant, weave around you faster than you can follow them, and even charge at you, running along the fence tops or pausing in the bushes next to you. You saw it go into and climb the bush, watched the branches move, and then freeze at eye-level, your eye-level.

There used to be squirrels in our backyard. We had lots. There were your typical Battle Creek black squirrels as well as the more common grays or browns. But since the 20 or so chipmunks have invaded this year, I’ve not seen a single squirrel here…nor a single strawberry from our ample-leafed patch.

Black squirrels used to be the most aggressive rodents in our backyard animal menagerie; well, and blue jays on the feathered front. That distinction has now been passed on to those cute little chipmunk horrors. At least the squirrels and birds scattered whenever I went outside.

My concerned husband went online to identify humane ways to rid one of chipmunks. Our jar of fox urine (fox = natural predator to rodents) arrived after a couple of days. I sprinkled the elixir around their most popular haunts, as well as near the entrance to their holes in the ground. This appeared to do the trick. For two days. Until it rained and washed away our magic potion. So I redid the ritual, naturally singing softly, “What does a Fox Say?” It wasn’t forecast to rain that night, but it did. Chipmunks! Again!

Further scientific observation made me realize I’d only spotted one or two of these furry little things in our front yard. The difference? Let’s just say that for the next week or two I hope our birdies are not offended, but smart enough to find food elsewhere. After all, it’s partly their fault. You see, our feathered friends like to share the wealth, or they are messy eaters, or perhaps picky eaters, dropping the seeds they do not like. Whatever the case, this scientist will not feed wildlife of any sort for a while. Now to think about how to protect my fruits and veggies growing back there when the little chimpies search for other food.

Wish me luck.

Plot Twists from Animal Encounters, Part 7, NY Erie Canal

Plot twists don’t have to be concerned just about circumstances, like the surprise at coming upon a wild animal. It can involve other senses, like smell. (So don’t forget to include your sensory awareness in your writings.)

When we lived in New York, and our boys were old enough to be in school, and I had a day off at the same time as Jeff, we would play!

One school day we went canoeing just the two of us along the Erie Canal. We took a side creek and paddled up that for a while through some farmland. I was in the bow with Jeff in the stern as usual. The creek became shallower and shallower, about shin deep, as well as narrower and narrower so we knew we wouldn’t be able to turn around.  We ducked under bushes and branches to proceed through. On either side was a slight hill only as tall as our eye level. Beyond the brushy creek area was farmland – a large pasture with barns in the distance seen over the dip to the creek. It was quite an adventure… until…

I suddenly smelled something “funny.”

We were already paddling very slowly and cautiously around and over the branches that a butterfly could easily have circled us. Being a whole seventeen feet behind me, Jeff couldn’t smell anything unusual. As the smell developed, I told him to slow down even more. Then I threw my hand over my mouth and nose, hardly able to breathe. And then I saw it, half in the water and half out…

The decaying carcass of a very large dead hog.

It seemed about half the size of our canoe and the tip of our canoe bow was coasting to nearly touching it.

“Backpaddle!” I screamed, gagging on the breath required in order to yell out that one word.

Jeff was confused, but only for a moment as the stern of the canoe came into the aroma cloud of decomposition and death.

We moved surprisingly quickly, considering there was no space to turn around and all the branches necessary to recross. We were very soon out of the range of the smell which was bad enough that my eyeballs would have melted were we to have remained that near it any longer.

Side adventure over. When the creek allowed, we turned around and stuck to the familiar urban waterway of the Erie Canal.

Plot Twists from Animal Encounters, Part 5 — Wisconsin

In the continuing examples of thinking of plot twists pulled from personal experiences, here is another story of a character (me) trying to reach a goal (a river) with a twist and conflict thrown in.

I’m an early bird, rising with the sun and watching the world awake, while my husband’s a night owl, thinking best in the evening or night when there are fewer distractions. We’ve learned to work around our personal clocks.

The spring of the first year we were married (1979), we took a week’s trip to state parks around Wisconsin. We camped one night at Merrick State Park along the Mississippi River. That next morning, I heard a bird call I’d never heard before. It sounded like a cat stuck in the tree above us. I got dressed, left my sleeping husband, and grabbed the binoculars and bird book. Only one other person was awake in the campground, and he was several sites away. I sat at our picnic table and located the bird crying so pitifully and uniquely from its nest and then looked it up in the book. It was a cat bird. Well named!

I looked through the binoculars back at the tree to confirm the markings, following the trunk up towards the nest and noticed movement. A snake was climbing the tree. Who knew? I’d always thought they were ground creatures. Then I recalled that snakes ate eggs. No wonder the cat bird cried so. I could have thrown a rock to knock the snake off the tree, but it would then be on the ground, near me. Besides, there was always the next morning for the snake to make another egg-snatching attempt when I wasn’t there to be guardian of the eggs. I decided not to watch that horror unfold and took a walk alone down to the Mississippi River.

A narrow trail went out through waist-high grass and over mushy, swampy ground to the point extending out into the river. It wasn’t a long trail, about one hundred yards. I imagined that fishermen took this trail to get to the river. I watched the beautiful sunrise-lit bluff on the western side, and stretched up occasionally on tip-toes to try to catch a glimpse of the river. I let my feet be my ground eyes, feeling and judging when the soggy ground would become too wet to support me. I was nearing the end goal and my hiking boots were suddenly sinking in deeper, a couple inches, three inches, uncertain ground. I stopped. I didn’t want to sink up to my knees and be unable to get out with no one knowing where I was so early in the morning. I sadly acknowledged that I wouldn’t reach the very edge of the river, that it was flowing under the tentative ground upon which I stood. I remained still in the soft earth for a quiet moment, reflecting on God’s glory of the early morning, of the quiet, of water all around me, being both a part of water and land. Then, for the first time of the soggy morning hike, I looked down. I needed to turn around and get my bearings of the trail direction through this swamp grass.

To my horror, there at my feet and stretched across and all along as far as I could make out through the curved grass trail were brown snakes with thick diameters of two inches…and long. Hundreds of them, and those were only the ones I could see crisscrossing the narrow trail. What about in the grassy sides to my left and right?

I didn’t pause to measure exactly how long the snakes were. I didn’t even pause a heartbeat to tell God what glory there was in his variety of creation. I did a high-step, sploshy run back to the campsite, only occasionally looking down to try to not step on one—a nearly impossible task. I bolted up the dry hill to our campsite and sat cross-legged on the picnic table until Jeff finally woke up.

Finding out that snakes climbed trees had been difficult enough to swallow. Discovering from a park ranger later that day that these are harmless bullsnakes didn’t calm my heart much. Imprinted in my mind for a thousand years to come was the image of hundreds of large slithering brown snakes, blocking my way to non-snake safety.

Plot Twists from Animal Encounters, Part 4 – Iowa

In the continuing saga of memories of Carlson animal encounters, and how these are never sought after, but add an interesting twist to our average, ordinary, normal lives, which is exactly how we writers need to think about plot twists in our stories…here is another Carlson true animal encounter story.

When I was five months pregnant, in August, with my first child we had moved to a church in Fort Dodge, Iowa. We moved into the church-owned manse (parsonage, rectory) because we didn’t have the money to afford a down payment on a house of our own, and weren’t familiar enough with the town to know apartment areas. They’d been trying to sell the house for over two years with hardly a nibble or even low bid.

One of our first nights in the manse, while Jeff was off to a night meeting at his new job, I attempted to get the house all ready for the new baby. I’d been working for two or more hours and realized I was exhausted. I sat down on the couch in the library area, and rested my head back. And a bat flapped to within inches of my head, darting off into the living room.

I was concerned about rabies and being pregnant. I was so new to town that I didn’t have any new churches phone numbers, and since this was pre-cell phone era, I couldn’t call or text my hubby. I bolted next-door to my new neighbors to wait for Jeff to come home. Her husband was also gone for the evening. Neither of us felt brave enough to investigate. Besides, she had a sleeping five year old she didn’t want to leave. So we waited until I saw Jeff’s headlights head down the alley and go into the garage.

I explained to Jeff what I’d experienced and we made a quick search of the house. I did not want rabies! During our search, I’d put a sleeping bag over my head and had a badminton racket in my hand to swat the invader away. My husband carried a fishing net at his side. We then did a thorough search of the house closing rooms off that we had checked. We finally thoroughly checked our own bedroom and shut the door to the hallway. We’d found nothing. Being the informed reader that he was, he had read about the nervous conditions and hysteria of pregnant ladies. He was going along with me on this bat search, but he wasn’t exactly believing me without the evidence.

It was a warm night. Our bedroom windows were open, screens in tact. We slept with just a sheet over us. About 5:30 in the morning I heard a sound of wings flap over our heads. I threw the sheet over both of our heads and screamed to Jeff, “We locked it in here with us!”

Now Jeff has never been a morning person and it took him a while to figure out why is she was over his head and why his hysterical pregnant wife was yelling at him. We carefully peeked over the sheet. There was no bat. Again, poor new husband was worried about his wife emotional state, but groggily agreed to search the room…again. This time we found it. I wasn’t hysterically crazy after all. The night creature clung inside the folds of the curtain between the curtain and the window screen.  Jeff tried to shake it loose, but it was clinging pretty tightly. We finally decided to take the screen off the window pulled the curtain over the open window where Jeff then whacked it out of the house with the badminton racket. The only place we figured it could’ve come in was down the chimney.

For good or bad, we didn’t stay in that house for much more than a month after that when we were forced to move, and after all my moving boxes had been tossed and things all ready for the baby. The church had finally, with us moving into it for that “lived-in look”, sold the house.

I often wonder if the next owners also had some bat encounters, and if they figured out how the sneaky night creatures could enter human habitation.

Plot Twists from Animal Encounters, Part 3 – SD Black Hills

Plot twist are the unexpected. They are what keep the story interesting. A plot twist happens when a character is heading toward his goal when suddenly something or someone unexpectedly appears and changes that course.

Opportunities for plot twists can be observed in real life. This is a story which happened to my husband when we lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

He had a day off when I did not, so he decided to do some mountain biking in the Hills. (Consider this a character goal.) He drove about 45 minutes from our house, got on his bike, and started on a remote mountain trail. He had  the only car in the two-car parking spot along the side of road near the trailhead, and to his knowledge, the only human on the trail that day. Peaceful. At one point the rocky trail became quite steep, so he got off his bike and walked it upward.

A bit of background: When he was a young teen he had hunted with his father and brothers. He was used to being left alone in the forest and listening to the minutest of wilderness sounds. The slightest scratch on tree bark, the sound of moving stones or the soft crunch on pine needles would make him aware that he was not alone.

Back to grown-up Jeff, alone, walking his mountain bike up the trail…

He heard a quiet sound and stopped. He expected to discover a tree which was creaking or spot a squirrel or chipmunk. Those rodents often stop for a first moment of freeze, and then return to their tree climbing or nut searching. But nothing sounded nor caught his eye Since the scurrying had stopped he continued up the trail. He heard a noise again and turned in that direction, but still saw nothing. He was getting a little disturbed when it sounded a third time. He stopped and determined he would not move again until he could identify what made the noise. It certainly wasn’t from a single tree. Then he saw it. About fifteen feet from him. Cougar eyes peeking from behind a boulder.

Jeff’s first thought was how beautiful the animal was, and so close to him that he could see the individual whiskers. His second thought was that even though his mountain bike was between them, that he, walking alone in the hills was in the process of getting stalked by a wild, maybe hungry, certainly overpowering beast.

With this second realization came action. Jeff spun his bike around, leapt upon it, and raced down the trail towards the car. Rocks and pebbles spun out behind him as he swirled around larger boulders. Riding speedily over the rough terrain made for an awfully lot of ruckus in the normally quiet hills. He only looked back after he’d reached the vehicle and strapped the bike on the carrier in a few seconds record-time before climbing into the safety of the car. But there were no more cougar sighting. He figured the noise and the flying pebbles might have discouraged the feline.

In this real life story, our hero didn’t reach his goal of mountain hiking to the top of the hill on little-used trail. But the reason for him not reaching it makes for a great story and was an adventurous twist. A plot twist. He waited for another time to do that particular trail, and to take with him a traveling companion. The cougar’s goal was foiled once. With more human company along and support, the cougar’s goal would mostly likely fail again. Long live wise heroes!

Now as a writing challenge, go think up some plot twists you can toss in the way of your character.