Quick-Tip Tuesday: Travelogue and Narrative

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David B. Coe/D.B. JacksonIn 1987, I drove across the country with a friend. We camped and hiked and saw some amazing places. One of our favorites was Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in southern Arizona, where we witnessed what remains to this day one of the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen. We camped in the monument for a couple of days, explored some of the backcountry wilderness, took lots of photos, found some amazing wildlife. And, because I was keeping a journal at the time, I wrote page after page about the place, recording my impressions of the terrain, the climate, the night skies.

Six years later, in the spring of 1993, my wife and I spent several days on a barrier island along Georgia’s Atlantic coast. It’s a place that has an arrangement with Nancy’s university, and we were able to stay there for free. It’s an island wilderness, with overgrown woodlands, tree boughs draped with Spanish moss, small fens that teem with birds and butterflies, and some of the most dramatic shoreline I’ve ever seen. As it happens, I didn’t take any pictures on the island, nor was I still journaling at that point. But my memories of the island remain vivid.

Two very different places, visited several years apart. What do they have in common?

As it turns out, what they have in common is that both figure in books I’ve been working on in recent months. The Georgia island appears in my very first novel, Children of Amarid, which was first published in 1997, and which I have been editing for re-issue. For those of you who might know the book, or who plan to buy the new edition coming out later this summer, the island is the model for a place called Phelan Spur, which figures prominently in the closing chapters of the novel. Here’s an excerpt from the revised novel:

The strand on which they stood stretched for miles in each direction, its white sands littered with the worn, bone-white trunks of ancient, gnarled trees. Huge breakers, their crests swept into a fine mist by the wind, pounded at the shoreline, crashing down on the sand like the fists of some pitiless giant. And opposite the surf, on a tide-ravaged ledge that rose some thirty feet above the beach, loomed a shadowy wood of towering, weather-beaten pines. Misshapen by cen­turies of ferocious, brine-laden winds, brutalized by season after season of ocean squalls, the trees seemed to shy away from the sea, as if afraid of joining their brethren, whose bleached skeletons lay below.

The beach didn’t look exactly like this — the forest was actually on the same level as the beach rather than high above it. But pretty much everything else is as I saw it and described it to myself at the time.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument plays a crucial role in my most recent release, Shadow’s Blade, the third book in my Case Files of Justis Fearsson. Jay Fearsson is trying to find and protect a woman and her children who are being hunted by dark sorcerers. He finds them in the campsite at the monument, the same one I camped in nearly thirty years ago.

Miles to the west, in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, the Growler range rose from the desert floor, its worn peaks stark against the azure sky, the deep folds in its mountainsides casting dark shadows across the rocky faces.
Closer to the road, huge saguaros grew beside equally impressive clusters of the organ pipe cacti for which the monument was named. They shared the desert floor with brittlebrush and creosote, mesquite and paloverde, chollas and ocotillos and prickly pears, creating a stunning palette of soft earth tones. A woodpecker flew across the road to one of the larger organ pipes, its wings flashing white and black, and a covey of quail ran along the roadside, the curved plumes on their foreheads bobbing comically. Ahead, beyond the entrance gate, the sheer, rugged cliffs of the Ajo Mountains appeared to glow red in the late afternoon sun.

Some of those images are lifted nearly verbatim from the journal I kept in my twenties, others are drawn from memory and from my photos of the monument.

Children of Amarid, by David B. CoeShadow's Blade, by David B. CoeI first wrote that scene from Children of Amarid in 1995, only two years after our trip to the beach. I wrote the scene in Shadow’s Blade late in 2014, some twenty-seven years after the fact. And that’s the point I want to make here. We never know when we’re going to draw upon experiences in our lives, be it for setting or character, plot or emotional content, dialog or action or romance or any of the myriad other narrative elements that come, at least in part, from our own lives.

We writers are pack rats. We hoard everything. Maybe not in a physical sense (though I’m that kind of pack rat, as well), but certainly in a conceptual sense. As another friend of mine has said, everything is grist for the mill. Every memory is fair game when it comes to writing. Every sensory experience can satisfy an eventual narrative need. This is why I encourage aspiring writers to keep journals. It’s one of the reasons why I take so many pictures while traveling. It’s definitely why, when I experience something — anything, really — my first impulse is to “write it” in my mind, to imagine how I would put the experience into words. Because, chances are, at some point I’m going to commit that moment to the page.

Keep writing!

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4 comments to Quick-Tip Tuesday: Travelogue and Narrative

  • […] and as we move into summer travel season, it strikes me as a good time to discuss such things. The post can be found here. I hope you enjoy […]

  • sagablessed

    Nice too know not the only one who hoards memories and perceptions.
    Like hire you wove the scenery into the works..albeit in Amarid a bit altered.

  • Two wonderful descriptions that brings those places alive! Your writing shows something in addition to memories, photos and/or notes goes into creating good descriptive passages. You pinpoint what makes each place unique, separating the Island from beaches we might have visited, and the desert floor, from desert scenes we might have wandered upon. Looking forward to reading more of both books.

  • LOVE this, David. I use places too and alter them just enough to make the story work. Now if I can use use Ireland