Tuesday 14 February 2023

Getting lost

 Summerlake Oregon

 When I was doing research for my middle grade novel, Red Fox Road, I drove down to a writers' retreat in a beautiful, windswept region known as the Oregon outback. There I spent two weeks in a cabin gazing out across a dry desert lake called a playa, and listening to the fierce wind attempt to tear the shingles from my cabin roof. Between periods of writing, I explored the lonely hills and caves that have been used by humans for fifteen thousand years. 

On my drive back home to Canada, I did what I always do on long trips, which I sometimes call writing while driving. I daydream. I compose sentences. I work out plot details. One issue was giving me a bit of trouble. Why did my characters take the shortcut that would lead to them getting stranded on a remote road in the Oregon wilderness?

I needed gas, so I pulled into a small town gas station. I went in the store and bought a bag of chips. Then I drove for about an hour, when I noticed a sign that said I was heading west. I was supposed to be heading north. In fact, I realized, I was not even on the same highway I thought I'd been on. I pulled out my paper map, which I luckily had, since there was no cell service, and I quickly realized my error. I hadn't noticed that the gas station in the small town I'd stopped at was at a crossroads, and when I'd driven out, I'd taken the wrong exit and started down the highway in a completely different direction. 

Checking my map, I noticed a skinny line that should take me back onto another road that would then connect with the highway I meant to be on. I considered the shortcut. Did it go through mountains? Could it be muddy or snowy or gravel? I had no idea. 

So I decided to spend the extra hour and backtrack to the gas station where I'd made my error. I didn't want to end up lost or stranded like the characters in my book. Frustrated with the waste of time, I cursed myself for daydreaming while driving. Until I realized that I had solved my problem of how my characters get stranded. I used my mistake to explain their detour in Red Fox Road.

How scary is too scary?

West Coast trail ladder

I'm reading a novel for middle grade readers that focuses on disasters caused by climate change. I like a good adventure novel, so I'm not usually put off by scary things happening in books. Worrying whether everything is going to turn out okay keeps me turning pages. Usually.

In my own writing, disaster and survival situations act as metaphors for the hard things we have to tackle in real life. I think I've always liked reading adventures and survival stories because they help me see that even extreme situations can be managed. My own problems pale in comparison to being lost at sea, for instance.

But there is a line for me in survival stories, especially those meant for kids. Reading this climate change novel, I felt like the author crossed that line at times. Dead bodies in burnt-out vehicles or floating in floodwaters -- it was kind of relentless. I wondered if it was necessary. Yes, it made for a page-turner, and I could see why the writer's books are best-sellers. But I began to lose interest, because it started to feel like I was being manipulated by the writer. And it seemed too hard to envision a way that the scary situations could be managed. I want a sense of control being regained, a sense of hope. 

I visited a few middle schools recently and asked kids what they thought about scary scenes in books. Only a few kids admitted to closing a book when it was too scary. Most said they liked it, including (maybe especially) the "jump-scare." What do you think?