I know I tempted some of you last time with the indication that There Might Be Elk (in my work-in-progress, The Book of the Dead, and in a blog post), so here goes.
Several weekends ago, I used the second half of some grant money (thank you, Kentucky Arts Council) to visit the Great Smoky Mountains, where The Book of the Dead is set. Not only did I get to right some serious misperceptions about the park; I got great visual details, a sense of the geography, and an awesome four-hour meeting with my new heroine, the parks ranger who is the liaison to the Student Conservation Association. I’ll call her H. She talked to me about so many angles of the book–the plausibility of the horrible accident (it’s plausible; also, harrowing), construction aspects of the trail she took me to, and a part of the park where the book can best be set. I now have a location that’s remote, doesn’t get much foot-traffic, is near a stream, and has beautiful views. I owe her a serious debt. She totally rules.
So yes, amazing information, and, of course, the ersatz Santa Claus figure above. I just wrote him into a scene today, as a matter of fact. And when I stuck that photo into this blog, I realized,
Hey. The entire trip was one big Pan Fer Gold. Take up a heap of dirt–the endless amount of information that you gather; the interviews you record that you tell yourself you’re going to transcribe; the free newspapers you stashed somewhere–and then, over a long period of time, sift through them.
First put them through the big-gunk strainer and remove all the things you know you don’t want, like Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the city at the north of the park. Yegads! I’ve never seen anyplace so touristy in my entire life. It would be a great setting for something, but it’s not right for these characters even to drive through.
Then, of course, you put the info through more strainers to see what’s useful and keep yourself honest. For example, I strongly suspect that Mr. Pan Fer Gold will get cut. I love him, no doubt. But often, when you love something too much early on, it’s the thing that has to go (writers, back me up on this. True, right?)
One thing, though, that I think will make it through all the strainers is elk. The part of the park where the book is set is a huge gathering ground for elk. It would be a crime against writerliness not to include these huge, majestic, bugling animals in my book. But–
which character of the six is going to come upon this elk, and when? I’m not sure yet. I don’t know if it will be during a high moment–the reward of the elk!–or solace in the midst of bitter disappointment. Figuring it out, though, will be a kind of gift. In fact, I think there should be an elk, literal or metaphorical, in every novel: some huge visual gesture that carries a great significance. I’m grateful for H and everything that got me to the park and for the insight of elk-kind. May they continue to prosper on their remote area of the park.
There will be elk.
Next time: reports from the SCBWI Mid-South Schmooze, which was hugely successful!