Recently I completed the tenth story in my proposed collection of 11 stories set in the small town of Astoria, Oregon. It’s titled “Texas Two-Step”. All of the stories in what I hope will become my first-ever published book deal with the supernatural – life on and beyond the far reaches of normal. Initially there was no book or collection of stories in mind. I was coming from back a visit to Trillium Lake with my son Cameron, daughter-in-law Alison, and grandkids Logan and Savannah, and we detoured off Route 26 somewhere between Rhododendron and Sandy to follow signs for a “trout farm”. Just to check it out. When we got there, deep into the woods, we found a rather strange setting, and on our way out were accosted by a female worker who was neither warm nor fuzzy. Back on the road we all laughed about it, and brainstormed – spontaneously – about what a story of such a place might be. A few months later I sat at my keyboard here and began writing a short story that eventually became (no surprise) “Trout Farm”.
A month or so later I wrote another short story – “Deprivation Invitation” – about what too much late-night coffee might do to a guy. This story had nothing at all to do with the first, other than this: it was set in Astoria. At some point very soon after the idea showed up to write a collection of stories set in Astoria, and to name the collection “Astoria Strange”, which is the title of the newspaper column the main character in “Trout Farm” writes monthly for the imaginary Astoria Times. Thus began the undertaking.
The first two stories totaled some 12,000 words – they’re short stories – but the third story in the collection – “Art Theft” – blossomed to over 30,000. I didn’t plan that, but a host of new, interesting characters showed up to help tell that one, and the story demanded the space and breadth to allow them their say. These characters – three homeless guys, a part-time artist, and a large African-American Sergeant on the Astoria Police Department – joined my columnist Ted Davis and his niece, and freshman at Clatsop Community College, Darcy Hendricksen, to form what would become, in the later stories, a most strange fellowship of ‘watchers’.
My initial intent, after I accepted the idea and challenge of a collection of weird Astoria stories, was that each would stand on its own, a common zip code the only connection to any other. Like the first two stories. But, it hasn’t gone that way. Against my intention, characters have returned again and again, and I have come to know them better – and appreciate them as people – more with each tale. Reading the ninth story now, “Mary Anne”, a 26,000 word ode to righteous retribution, would lose, I think, a lot, without reading six of the previous eight. They can barely be considered stand-alone anymore.
Which brings me to number ten, and the purpose of this post, which is my after-the-fact attempt to explain my writing process – or lack thereof. Like every other story, after the second, my plan was for Ted Davis to tell the story to you in first person. (The book, when it’s done, will begin with the word “I”.) But like the eighth and ninth stories, Ted never shows up. At all. That’s not what I planned, really, it’s not what I wanted. But it is what happened, which means that “Texas Two-Step” is told from a third person perspective. The story begins with a paragraph that can be found again much later in the story. (My wife Susan, who is my primary “reader”, says this is confusing at first, cool later on.) I didn’t make this decision to bring this paragraph forward until well into the writing, and I made it 3000 miles away while watching my son Spenser graduate from his school in Florida. The real story begins next, the way I wrote it from the beginning, and without needing the designated spoiler alert, I’ll simply say that it describes a rather old woman way out in the woods of Astoria who does some very nasty things to other, unwilling participants, and the determined efforts of a stranger from Texas to put an end to her evil ways.
I’d just, myself, come back from a trip to Texas, visiting my son at Fort Hood following the birth of my newest grandson, Carson, a trip in which Cameron taught his old man to fly fish. So Texas and fly fishing were on my mind when I began this story. There was, initially, a long introduction about a guy from Massachusetts who hit on a lottery ticket and ended up buying an old motel on the Astoria riverfront, but after a few weeks I cut that out – some 2000 words – because it didn’t matter. Here’s what did and does matter, and what I hope makes a point regarding my writing process. Other than there’s a bad old woman in the woods and a guy from Texas (whose hiding his true identity and purpose) coming to deal with her, I had not one idea how this story would go – or what, exactly, would happen.
I had no clue that the three homeless guys and the artist and Ted’s niece would be part of this story, or that the main character from the sixth story – “Turnaround Place” – would return (ever), never mind take a lead role. Those things just happened. Or that Astoria Police Officer Ruthie Thompkins, a most minor character in two previous stories but a big player in the previous “Mary Anne” would not only be back, but would be a pivotal person here. It just happened, I guess, because it could. Because by now, Ruthie was real, flesh and blood to me, and because – somehow – she had become one of my favorites.
Stephen King, in his most wonderful book, “On Writing”, suggests that the writer come up with some characters and put them in a situation (say, like, a writer moves to a town in Maine filled with vampires) and see what happens. I get it, and that’s how I do it. If fiction writing involved a rock solid story line, all plotted out and outlined, right down to how many buttons were missing on the hero’s jacket in the final scene, none of my stories would have been written. Astoria would have remained just a beautiful little town at the confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific. But that’s not what happened.
Here’s another thing, another piece of writerly advice offered by authors highly read and beloved – Kill Your Darlings. That’s been hard for me to do. People have been killed, but with one exception before this story, they’ve generally been the bad guys. And the exception didn’t involve a death, so much, as a transformation. I think it’s been hard for me to do because at heart I’m a romantic and because I watch the news and the movies and read lots of books and I already think there’s too much killing of darlings. (As I write this, nine more of our darlings have been killed in South Carolina). Enough, all fucking ready.
But I did kill a darling here, not someone I planned until just before it happened. But a good person. The story took me there.
It’s why I’ve titled this post “Just Following Along”. Because that is how this story, pretty much all these stories, have been written. A character or two, a general situation, and see what happens. For all I know this won’t be acceptable and readers will find these stories lacking or, I hope not, lazy. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, regardless of what anyone thinks of my story-telling style, life in Astoria will go on – strangely – and Ted Davis will write a new column every month describing some of it. Darcy will graduate from CCC and head off to OSU, the homeless dudes will continue to linger on familiar street corners, Bonnie may even begin to sell a few of her paintings, and the police, in particular Sgt. Moss and Officer Thompkins, will continue to keep the town’s streets and parks and riverwalks and forests and spooky houses safe.
Well, as safe as can be. I honestly don’t know how it all turns out. I’m just following along.