Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Accidental Writer's Retreat

Nine months after Katrina, my family bought a lakeside cottage a couple hours' drive to the northwest of New Orleans. One of the most nerve-jangling aspects of evacuating for a hurricane is figuring out where to evacuate to. Horror stories of people driving 12-15 hours without finding accommodation are not uncommon, and when you have an elderly relative and multiple animals, that can quickly turn into a disaster. Hence our acquisition of what we affectionally called "The Bolthole."

But it wasn't long before we realized that our cottage was more than just a hurricane refuge. It was also a wonderful place to spend the weekend, far from all the sounds and nervous energy a city generates. And then I realized that I could go up to the lake by myself for a week at a time and write like crazy. It was that discovery that enabled me to turn in Why Mermaids Sing (the book I wrote while we were rebuilding our house ourselves) on time. I have written a hefty chunk of every book since then sitting on my porch swing and staring at the water. It's not uncommon for me to get 40-85 or more pages written in a week. At home, I consider it a good week if I make it to 25.

Why do I get so much more accomplished up there? Part of it is no Internet (my daughters have lobbied long and hard to get Internet installed up there, but so far I've resisted). Part of it is no piles of laundry, no dishes (except for my own), no plants to water, no lawn to mow (yes, I mow my own lawn--with an old-fashioned reel mower). At home, thanks to all the above-named distractions and more, I probably average six solid hours' writing time a day if I'm lucky, and I try to devote weekends to my family. At the lake, I write for 18 hours a day. So if I stay up there seven days, that's basically equal to a month a home.

When I look at it that way, maybe I'm not as productive up there as I like to think I am (I did say I spend a lot of time staring at that lake). And then, because I write by hand, I still need to come home and type everything up and do a preliminary edit.

But I've come to appreciate the opportunity the lake house offers me to simply live and breathe my story twenty-four hours a day, with only the occasional phone call from my husband and daughters checking in with me. I also cherish the peace that comes from watching the ducks cut a V-shaped wave across the surface of the water. I planted a hummingbird and butterfly garden across the front of the house, which brings a parade of little visitors to feed just feet away from where I'm sitting. I enjoy the hawks soaring over the treetops with wings outstretched; the squirrels chasing each other around the trunks of the pines; the chipmunk that lives under the back porch and loves to torment Huckleberry (the one cat I always take with me).

This past week, I had a new visitor. I was on the swing writing away when I heard a strange scraping rattle; looking up, I discovered that a big tortoise had crawled up on the porch with me. This guy is at least 16" long. (Unfortunately, I only had my phone with me, so the picture isn't the best, especially since the late afternoon sun was sending harsh shadows across the concrete). I didn't even know we had them up there.

And I can now say that Book Number 8 is coming along nicely, and I'm hoping that after one more trip to the lake in October, the rough draft will be finished.


Charles Gramlich said...

A lot of it is the "living and breathing" of the story, I'm sure. When I can do that, like in the summer, I get SO much accomplished. And when I can't it's slow, slow, slow

Steve Malley said...

That sounds pretty much like heaven. One of my goals for 2012 is to restructure my life to give writing bigger chunks. :)

paz said...

Loved your post! There is something about staring at a tranquil body of water, and the way the light reflects of it, that just cleanses my soul of all the silliness (and sadness) that every day life accumulates upon it.

I am also excited about the book update. When will book 7 be published and available?

cs harris said...

Charles, the funny thing is, there was a time I could think about my story in down moments all day long; now I find I can't do that. So getting away really is important these days.

Steve, I wish I could live there (although it would be very far from Whole Foods).

Paz, I have never been able to figure out exactly what it is about water that makes looking at it so peaceful, but it is definitely soul-cleansing. Book number 7 is on schedule to be released in March 2012. I'm going to go poke my editor and see if I'm authorized to release the cover yet.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes please - the cover would be GREAT (for #7); also any excerpt would be sincerely appreciated. I seem to recall you said this one would give the Kat storyline some satisfactory resolution. Can you give us a hint - is that still true? Sabena

Susan/DC said...

Since I look at the world through a very self-centered lens, anything that brings more Sebastian books more quickly is a Very Good Thing.

And in a more altriustic mode, I am happy that you're happy at the lake. My husband adores the ocean for the same reasons. He finds it good for both body and soul to breathe in salt air and watch to the waves as he walks along the beach.

cs harris said...

Sabena, I did say Kat would have a happy life, but she has a bit to go through before she gets to it. Kat and Yates both play a major role in the book I'm writing now, tentatively entitled Who Bells the Cat.

Susan, I would dearly love to live in a house overlooking the ocean...except for the hurricanes.

Anonymous said...

Can I ever relate to that! We stumbled into 10A w/ 500' of lakeshort in '84, eventually built our own cabin on it. It grows on you. Spend enough time there & Whole Foods will seem like a distant memory.

(too lazy to sign in)