Eight more days until our National Parks 100th birthday. Here are some photos of Stu Patterfoot in beautiful Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming. (Need a different, inspirational setting for your WIP? Visit a National Park!)
One fall, my husband was at a conference in nearby Jackson (which used to be called Jackson Hole until the millionaires in the area decided they didn’t like that historical reference). I’d taken the day off for a photo shoot. Before I’d left the motel, my husband ran through the checklist: driver’s license? wallet? keys? cell phone? Yes, yes, yes, yes, plus jacket and water and snacks for the day. See? I was prepared.
I was just inside this park’s boundary, with the edge of Jackson about three miles behind me when I stepped out of the van to snap my first photo of the day. (See the unedited version below with me holding Stu by the sign.) It was early morning. Very little traffic. And nothing here except a sign, about ten parking spots, and a gorgeous view. What I hadn’t counted on was the wild wind whipping through the valley. The open door banged my elbow. The van door shut. I thought nothing more about it because I was on a photo shoot, not until I went to get back in the vehicle. The wind and my elbow had collaborated to lock the door. Because it was a frosty morning, I’d had all the windows up. I was prepared for the day. What I hadn’t been prepared for was all my valuables just out of reach, but within sight on the passage seat along a very lonely, hardly-anyone-stopped-here, side lot. I could have walked to Jackson, but I was counting on my faith in humanity (and someone to stop help a maiden in distress). Plus, there was my open purse.
45 minutes later, someone stopped. They didn’t speak English. 20 minutes after that someone else stopped and lent me their cell phone so I could call AAA. An hour after that, a man came and in two minutes he got me back into my van and I was off for the rest of day taking photos.
Grand Tetons – a stunning place year round, but in the fall…oh, my, the fall is gorgeous. Just remember to take your keys with you when you stop at lonely wayside lots.
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.
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.
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 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.
Plot twists. Every editor and reader wants them. How do we think up all these plot twists? Life. Experiences. Experiencing the unusual, the unexpected.
I’ve lived in many places where deer have also lived. Here in Michigan, there are three to five of the critters which pass through our yard now and again. If I don’t actually see them, I often see their hoofprints in the snow or mud (or nibbled down veggies, hostas, and other plants).
One spring when we lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota, we had a herd of about forty deer make their residence in our fenced-in backyard. We were the only people in the neighborhood without a dog. We were the deer Haven of Rest. I remember one morning running out our door and off our porch waving my arms and screaming. I expected the deer to scatter. As a herd, they turned their heads and stared at me. Knowing any one of them could crush my skull with one little kick, I turned and ran back to the porch waving my arms and screaming. Each afternoon after they’d left, I’d go out and scoop up the numerous piles of “raisins” and dig them into our garden. That particular summer my garden totally flourished.
I love catching sight of deer in the wild. However, with all our modern roadways and speedy vehicles, traveling along interstates or backroads have often included daily roadkill sightings of the large beasts. Once while driving through the hills of Pennsylvania, we came to a stretch of about twenty miles where there were fourteen dead deer along the road. Fourteen. After a while I closed my eyes and prayed for hunting season to come quickly for swifter deaths for these majestic creatures to thin the herds.
Thankfully, I’ve never run into a deer while driving, nor has anyone else in our family. But one time a deer ran into me.
I was heading to work (teaching elementary school) in the dark pre-dawn hours, the only car going down a 4-lane road in Rapid City. I was in the left lane, traveling about 45 mph when in my peripheral vision I saw eyes immediately outside my driver’s window. A running deer. One moment it was running perpendicular to the car and inches from my window, the next it had turned sideways. But it couldn’t stop its forward momentum. The deer slammed its full body against our little Sidekick car, shoving it into the shoulder of the far right lane. I stopped as soon as I could, certain there would be a dead deer in the center of the road, but the deer had vanished. When I got to school I climbed out of my car to find myself shaking rather badly. I checked the side of the car expecting to see it crushed in. There wasn’t a mark, and my logical mind has no idea why not. I was thankful to be alive, for this story could have ended much differently. But I shall never forget those huge, wide brown eyes about a foot away from my own.
So when you’re writing your stories, include the unusual, the unexpected, and you shall have your plot twist.
I attended a living nativity this year for the first time. I had never been to one before was because my opinion of them was…boring, even though every one I’ve heard of was free. And because I become so involved with hundreds of other holiday events that I never took the time to go to one. Perhaps it was my virgin experience of attending one which had such a profound effect on me. But I can’t stop thinking about this wonderful experience of a live nativity.
The setting took place in a barn. The audience sat on bales of hay. The youth of a church were the actors. The shepherds carried goats. (Sheep this time of year would have been too heavy for 12-year-old boys to carry.) Throughout the performance, a cow mooed, a rooster crowed, and the sheep and goats and donkeys and ducks were silent.
I was also impressed with the historical accuracy when the wise men (astrologers from Asia) came to visit, and there was a two-year-old boy acting as Jesus.
Afterwards, there was a petting “zoo,” and tons of homemade cookies and fudge.
The experience got my husband and me thinking about rural values and the work ethics of country folk, and how politically incorrect the live nativity was on many levels. But this bloggster found it all adorable and charming.
I took several photos, but our new computer has not yet been trained to ready my iPhone. Next year I hope to return to the event, and by that time, should have figured out the whole photo to computer to blog post deal.
The minimalist attitude (lack of accumulated material goods) is a hot topic of late.
This week, I got out my guitar for the first time in months, played it a little, then let it sit outside its case in the livingroom. Each time I passed by, I thought to play it some more. Sometimes I did. Often I didn’t. I used to play it every day, for hours. Priorities change.
While I paced the house and procrastinated writing, seeing my old guitar setting there got me thinking about past days. There was a time in my twenty’s that I figured I could travel anywhere with just seven items: my toothbrush, toothpaste, a hairbrush, a clean pair of underwear, a book, a sleeping bag, and my guitar, with it all packed into my guitar case (except for the sleeping bag, of course). In fact, I’d often travel like that on weekends.
Later, during my seven and a half week camping honeymoon four decades ago, inside the little Pinto car, besides our clothes in two suitcases, we packed: two tents (one canvas and a nylon one for backpacking); two backpacks; two sleeping bags; mattress pads and pillows; a blow-up raft with life jackets and two collapsible oars; a cooler; a two-burner stove with pots and plates and silverware and a can of white gas; a backpacking stove; two folding stools; two cameras with multiple lenses and heavy tripod; my guitar; and a bunch of dried food, including fourteen jars of peanuts. We used it all–except for some of the peanuts, which are a topic for another post.
Fast forward to the present. I wondered if I were going away for a weekend, what seven essential items would I take this time? If I were packing for seven weeks away from home today, what items would I make sure we had?
Your turn. A getting to know your character writing challenge:
If your character could only take seven items for an overnight, besides the clothes on his back, what items of importance would they be? If your character traveled for a week (business or vacation), besides the clothes she wore, what would be vital that she pack?
Have fun writing.