Tiny Islands Can Bite, But Robert Louis Stevenson Sailed On

You might think that’s a paddle for the kayak, but it’s a mosquito swatter

When I screeched in displeasure and slapped yet another mosquito (this time, the evildoer biting my bony knee) today, Robert Louis Stevenson sailed into my mind. That mind of mine has been salty of late, because the insects are winning here: “here” being a house-sit on a small, lovely island, Bequia, in the Caribbean.

Small, lovely tropical islands often have lots of small, unlovely pests, and the mosquitoes here have been ravenous, particularly lately, where my twice-daily bathings in Deet (not recommended if you want to handle power tools later in life, or perhaps play effective chess) are now failing to take effect. Well, they do have an effect: they make me feel ill, and they provide a slick surface for the mosquitos to ski on my skin, before they dip in their murderous prongs.

I thought of Stevenson, because while my aggrieved groans probably echo all the way back to Santa Cruz, Stevenson, a Scot, author of Treasure Island and other charms, was a dedicated traveler in an era when traveling itself—much less traveling to distant lands with no comforts—was complex and effortful. Stevenson was a sickly child (lungs) and a sickly adult, but he took up world travel early, and had a few bouts of near-incapacitating illnesses during and after his early journeys.

A Complication of Bones

Not long after his marriage in California he described himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For years after that, he searched for a region and climate that would aid his flagging health, but to no avail. So, rather than bunker up in Europe or the States, he embarked on a series of long, hard voyages to Pacific islands.

Now, I lived on a small Pacific island for a year, and they had many modern conveniences, though we felt the sting of deprivation when the island ran out of beer. Stevenson, chronically ill, was taking arduous sails to remote places where beer—and probably most of the foods he was accustomed to—was a fantasy. In the meantime, while he traveled, this mere complication of cough and bones was writing acclaimed works.

He journeyed the Pacific for years, finally settling on Samoa, where gentleman’s clothes were likely a nuisance. He was 44 when he died there, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage. (Oddly enough, with all those South Seas travels, some literary historians have suggested that Stevenson was inspired to write Treasure Island based on a stay in the Monterey, CA area, having spent time at shimmering Pt. Lobos.)

At Least the Mosquitoes Don’t Have Lawyers

What am I getting at here? This: I have been heatedly complaining to my boon companion Alice about the dastardly mosquitoes for days now. Spiteful things they are, but I’ve really got to buck up a bit. Mr. Stevenson was just a bag of bones and he wandered the globe in a time when wandering took some real gumption. Here, there’s plenty of beer (though I’ve been leaning more toward the rums).

I’ve been saving up the material of the many island stays I’ve had—there’s the wet clay of a novel amid all of that sweating. But in the one I’ll write, the mosquitoes will all be butterflies.

Writers: Draw Yourself Out of Your Corners

Harold doesn’t quite have Eve’s charms

When I was a little kid, one of the first books that grabbed my imagination was Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. That was just the first in a series of Harold books: Harold later gets to go to the North Pole, into a fairy tale, and on other adventures. The scheme was—and still is, for Harold lives on in my imagination—this: Harold uses his purple crayon to draw objects on the canvas of his life, and they become real.

Thus the post image above, where Harold has drawn himself a bounteous apple tree, but then, worried about someone swiping the apples, he draws a fierce dragon to guard it. But the dragon is a little too fierce, and Harold retreats backward, his dragging crayon accidentally drawing the line of the sea—oops! But luckily, he draws a boat to ride on its waves. And the boat ride leads to …

The books fascinated me as a kid, and still do, because of the freshness of imagination and the openness to possibility. There is a kind of “the world is new again because I draw it new every day” feeling in Harold’s work that is an invitation to snap up the window shade of your imagination, rather than clamp it down. Harold isn’t much for preconceptions or expectations. Or perhaps he’s an alternate definition of “preconception”: he hasn’t conceived—and thus fixed—his mind’s mooring, so it goes places that are unmoored, and exciting ones at that.

Writers Move Through Associative Worlds (and Words)

This is exactly what a writer does (or what a writer experiences—many times it seems there’s less a “doer” than the process of something being done). Most writers are very associative: a single word can magnetize other words in the vicinity; a single image can make for a flip book of cascading images. And if writers just have some glorified form of ADD, I don’t want any medication.

Harold’s purple prosody is also a drawing of the creative process, which can seem as random—and often as productive—as the wandering noodling of his crayon. What the source of creativity is, or what sparks it remains an elusive thing, though scientists have their clipboards ever at the ready for assessing brain-wave readouts and chemicals in spit.

The Beauties of the Brain

The brain is a splendid thing (even if mine commands me to watch bad TV now and then). Sometimes it’s very far off in its assessments, such as when you see a wiggling towel on the road when you’re driving, and your mind paints it into a wounded coyote. Processing error that is, but it’s a creative error, and just having a malleable landscape for creative error is a writer’s boon.

There’s a loveliness in daydreaming, in flipping through the cards of your imagination, putting them in odd combinations, and letting them fall into colorful mosaics on the floor, into patterns or combinations that are there born for the first time.

There’s beauty in the impractical, in things that can’t be immediately applied to solve a problem or that have an immediate return. Beauty in reverie, where the wool that’s gathered might turn into a short story, a paragraph in an essay, or just threads discarded, perhaps taken up again months later.

What this post is really saying is that letting your mind meander is a fine thing for a writer. Harold showed me that you can paint yourself into a corner, but you can crayon the corner over and turn it into a trampoline. Writers, keep meandering. But don’t forget to do the dishes occasionally as well.

Joel D Canfield: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Keyboard

I can’t speak for the past, but at this moment, Joel wasn’t doing anything illegal with his mouth

Let’s throw open the stage (I hope he’s dressed) to Joel D Canfield, an author pal of mine who has just released his second novel in his Phil Brennan mystery series, A Still Small Voice. Joel has multiple books in multiple series, but the real multiplications are for you: he’s giving them away for free.

That’s a good bingo right there, but the kicker is that his books are good. I’ve read a number of them, and helped out with some editing on more than a few, and they are chockablock full of intrigue, whimsy, deception, suspense and high-nutrient storytelling. Grab a few and settle back (or jump up tensely when the story turns)—you’re in capable writerly hands.

Here I’ve asked Joel a few questions about his trade and where he’s going with his work:

You have written and published many business books, but in the last few years, you’ve turned your writing toward fiction. What steered that change? Did you always write stories, but are giving them their full due now?

I’ve always been a storyteller but until a few years ago never wrote any of them down. My narcissistic streak loved the attention I got from spinning a good yarn so I listened to good storytellers and stole their best ideas. When my wife’s social media business took off, I took on the household chores and stopped worrying so much about making money, which is possible with a business book, but a right challenge for fiction authors. In fact, I’ve recently started giving away every one of my novels to anyone who signs up for my newsletter, and reduced the prices at Amazon as low as they’ll allow.

You used to call your novels something like “Raymond Chandler cozies,” though I think you amended that a little. How would you describe the genre and general flavor of your fictional work?

I like putting morally rigid people in ambiguous situations, forcing the best bad choice. I used to call them Chandleresque cozies. But they’re not cozies, which carry certain implications about happiness and light. I love noir, revere Chandler and Hammett, but my books aren’t quite as dark. Like Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” and other books, mine are more about people and their struggles than about a puzzle to solve. They’re as much literary fiction as they are mystery. Since calling them “literary fiction” would be like announcing that my restaurant “serves food” I’m sticking with “mystery” as the short answer.

From your research, you are probably more familiar with story structure, story beats, character arcs and the like than many writers.  What do you look for in an editor to help with the underpinnings of a story (or provide with story mechanics)?

I don’t think it’s hard to find an editor who knows a good sentence. Harder to find one who knows a good story. I’m far more concerned about developmental editing, feedback on whether I’ve composed a ripping yarn, or just a ball thereof. Just as important is working with someone who respects my style, balancing what a reader wants to read with what I need to write.

You have several mystery series going, with distinct settings and characters. Will there be more of all? Have you considered specifically pushing the existing characters harder, challenging their stable pictures of themselves or anything on a structured, outlined level? Or do you think ahead more in broad strokes?

After an artistic crisis at the end of 2015 I spent the first 9 months of 2016 deciding whether or not to continue writing. The answer was yes, which launched a heavy rewrite of A Still, Small Voice. It also launched three months of introspection which included the kind of inner-demon-wrestling authors love to foist on their characters. I’m not all the way through, but far enough to know the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the headlamp of an oncoming train. Having spit into the abyss when it stared back, I’m ready to ratchet up the turmoil and put each of my characters through an appropriate level of pain. They’ll thank me later.

Scotch or Bourbon? (Or for you, should I ask, Pancakes or Waffles?)

Irish. Particularly fond of Wolfhound. And waffles, please, topped with morally unambiguous toppings: butter and real maple syrup.

I can’t let Joel have the last word here, can I? The Bentley answer to that last question would be Waffles à la Wolfhound, with liberal dollops of whisky (or even whiskey) and syrup. Mmmm…

Writers: Drink the Champagne While It’s Bubbling

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!


There’s a lot of dreck you have to wade through as a writer, whether you’re working a day job and writing on the side, working on commercial writing for the dough and on creative writing for the love, or writing creatively full-time. Or maybe writing only a haiku every ten years.

You have to wear the high boots for the dreck wade because the obstacles are considerable:

• The vast numbers of entertainment options these days has most people reading less.
• Self-publishing opportunities (and their variants, like hybrid publishing) are excellent ways for underserved voices to get their works out there. But that means their works are out there competing for mind-time with yours.
• Very few people make a living with their creative writing. In fact, very few people can afford their daily lunch with what they make from their creative writing. (Once in a while I splurge on sparkling water.)
• Maintaining a writing habit, particularly with some of the hindrances above, is challenging, particularly when you get little recognition or praise.
• Some days you just can’t remember how apostrophes work.

There are a hundred and one other ways that writing is hard, but I don’t want to type them out, because they make my nails sore. What I do want to focus on is giving yourself a clap on the back when you take a writing step forward, dreck and all.

Shush the Grumbly Inner Editor
If you have a grumbly inner editor like mine, you hardly ever hear “That’s great! Good work! Do it again!” Instead, you might hear: “That’s how you’re going to phrase that? Sheesh, my cat could write a better line.” But that inner editor is a bully and a fraud.

Instead—and this isn’t at all a call to sugarcoat some writing realities—nod agreeably at that editor, and leave the room he infests. If you wrote 500 pretty good words, whether on an assignment, on a short story or on the novel you’ve been groaning through for six years, acknowledge to yourself that those are 500 pretty good words. Even if they took you a week to write.

They are still 500 pretty good words. And that ain’t moose urine.

Deep Feelings for Fiction
Since I’m the one sitting here, I’ll use me as an example. I am lucky enough to get a fair amount of things published, even enough to buy sparkling water. But almost all of my work that’s out there is nonfiction. And that’s great—really!—and I’m grateful for it.

But the fiction writing, the painting-in-the-mind’s landscape writing? Not so much. I’ve written three novels (well, two-and-a-half, since the latest is a collaboration), but I’ve only self-pubbed one of them and the rest wait for God. I had a small press publish a book of my short stories that has sold enough copies to buy some ice for the sparkling water.

So when any of my fiction gets accepted, it feels like a breakthrough.

Example: a couple of years ago, I wrote a creepy story about a woman who obsesses over her vast horde of realistic-looking dolls in her basement, arranging them having tea, sitting up in conversations on beds, having dinner with guests at tables. Her tenants go down for a look, and weirdness ensues.

I sent it out to a bunch of literary magazines over time, with no acceptance. But I sent it a couple of months ago to Catamaran, a lovely magazine I’d had a nonfiction piece in a ways back, and this week, goodness gracious, they liked it and want to publish it.

So, small victory. But a victory, nonetheless! One that crotchety inner editor can’t take away.

Two items here: celebrate the victories, and keep sending stuff out (and send it out again), because without doing that, no one will ever get a chance to accept it. As for the rejections, cut them into ribbons, mash them up into a malleable pulp, and make a Donald Trump voodoo doll.

(I wrote a post some years back on writing rewards that touches on some of the issues here, and it’s good fun: Tequila and Cookies: Writing Perks to Push Your Pages.)

Writers, keep celebrating the victories, no matter how small. Writers: drink the champagne—then keep writing, to prompt more celebrations.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Perhaps everyone would be  in a better mood if someone added a shot of whiskey...

Perhaps everyone would be in a better mood if someone added a shot of whiskey…

Out in the old Airstream office again, starting to work on an essay. “Starting to work” means looking out of the windows for a spell, straightening a counter that’s already ruler-straight, peeking at Twitter—but with eyes wide open, so that a peek becomes a stare—and on and on.

If you’re an at-home working writer, and one for whom discipline is a comrade who sometimes leaves early for lunch, you might shy from the tyranny of the page, and look for like cronies to complain to. But it’s been years since I’ve had office mates that could tolerate hearing my sighs about bad sentence structure over the cubicle walls. Sometimes my cat comes out to the trailer to discuss subject-verb agreements, but most of the time, it’s just me.

A great privilege it is to be able to work from home, and a greater gift to be able to work with words, the dizzying whirligigs that they are. Writers need to sequester their minds in order to stew, consciously or not, over their word soups, but sometimes the kitchen seems a little quiet. The habitual patter of your mind can be a little wearing, especially when it flies off center, and you start thinking things like “Tom, when you tilt your head just so, you look a lot like Madeleine Albright.”

When the Idea Salon Is an Asylum

But when you realize that the errant voices in your head are, shockingly, less crazy than the ones on the Internet, you know that going out in that uncivil commons is no way to relax and exchange ideas in the idea salon, finger sandwiches at the ready. I have a standing policy to not read the comments pages of many postings, because their curdled sourness doesn’t offer companionship to any but the crazed.

Even more crazed than me.

But thankfully there are a few spots on the InterTubes that can offer solace—and even fine writing advice, so you can coddle yourself into thinking you are working, sort of. One of the best is WriterUnboxed, with its daily postings on craft, marketing, personal writing foibles, the publishing industry and much more, written by a splendid range of seasoned experts, newbies and specialists. Equally as helpful as the sound writing advice is the collective community of peers and writing chums, who share comments in the sandbox that are insightful and warm, but without too much mush. (Mush causes mold.)

For writers like me, living in their hollow, echoing wooden heads, a place like WriterUnboxed is a godsend. Now and then, they even let me write something there.

Combat the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer: Collaborate

Another way a writer, who might be out in his ’66 Airstream with screaming orange plaid upholstery for eight hours a day, might reach out and still get some writing done is by collaborating with another writer. Rick Wilson and I have been working on a novel together, based on this short story, for a couple of years, and the final chapter is just a whimsy of words away from being done.

Working with Rick has been delightful, and in the many moments when I’ve staggered in the process and lost my oxygen, he’s opened the valves on new tanks of enthusiasm. And since Rick’s a dentist, I’m going to ask for nitrous for the home stretch. I’ll post more about the book in blogs to come.

Lastly, when a writer is feeling low or lonely, there are the works of other authors to lift and educate. Books are great companions too, and have been through my life. I just finished the delightful and hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I shock myself by never having read a Toni Morrison work before, so Jazz is next.

Books themselves are quiet company, even if the upholstery is too loud.

Tropical Breezes Are Best Accompanied by a Foot Fetish

SunriseWalk small

Bit of an infrequent blogger of late, and longer days yet since I’ve read one of my stories aloud here. I know how much my audience has been waiting for a story set on a tropical island. With the main character having a foot fetish. Make that both feet. Done.

Writing Ideas Are Spring Flowers for the Plucking

North Flowery Trail

I’ve written before about how writing ideas are everywhere. It’s a commonplace that people ask writers how or where they get their ideas, as though there’s a shortage of the little buggers. Hugely the opposite: whether you are a fiction or nonfiction writer, or both (like me), ideas will rain down on you like monsoon waters—you only need to stick out an empty glass to have it filled.

One of the keys to filled glasses is to Think Like a Writer, which is why I titled my latest book such. Thinking like a writer means that when you see an interesting snippet of news in a magazine article, instead of mumbling to the cat, “That’s interesting,” you go and write down a note to research it further. Writing it down is key, particularly if you’ve reached my state of age-induced somnolence. Ideas are everywhere, but they are like a puffed dandelion’s seeds, which will all blow away unless you capture them.

Wait—Was That a Falling Idea?

This past week is a perfect example of ideas falling on my noggin and me catching them while the bumps were still rising on my head. My sister-in-law was visiting, after having gone to a Mission Day event at Mission San Antonio de Padua. She casually mentioned that she saw an exhibit there from a company called Access Adventures, which provides outdoor recreational opportunities for disabled people.

They provide free “therapeutic driving events” and other special opportunities to people with restricted mobility. The company was founded by Michael Muir, great-grandson of John Muir, and a person who has lived with MS since he was an adolescent. There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

My Name Is 409 (and I Don’t Do Windows)

My galpal Alice and I had a little dinner party the other night. One of our guests is an old car enthusiast, as am I. He was describing how he is having the 409 engine for a ’64 Chevy Impala SS rebuilt. The guy who is rebuilding it has worked on 409s for thirty years, and nothing but. His name is Jack, but they call him “409.” There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

Last, I was skimming through the annual typography issue of Communication Arts magazine. It’s a beautiful design magazine, and I’ve had a mild interest in typography for years. But combine that interest with the one I have for distilled spirits and you have a story knocking: there’s an article in the issue on a design firm (with wonderful images) that designs labels for craft spirits bottles. I write about spirits now and then, and love the labels shown in the article. That’s another potential article I can drink to.

Writing Ideas Not Acted Upon = Dead Ideas

Of course, these are just article ideas. I still have to research a good publication that would be a good fit and that would pay. I have to write the query letter and get it out there. And probably get several query letters out there. Then I have to be on the lookout for new ideas. But as I’m trying to make clear: you don’t have to look that hard, as long as you keep your writer’s eyes open.

This same mechanism of idea and story association works for fiction too. Seeing a face might trigger a story idea (or perhaps more often, a story scene), or seeing a dark doorway, reading an article or having a simple conversation. Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it often provides the match to light the way of a story.

So get out there and look—and don’t get any paper cuts from picking up all those fallen ideas.

Denying Your Characters. Really, It’s for Their Own Good

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc


Denying your fictional characters something—even if they are the sweetest of souls—is an effective way to see what they are made of. Holding back something they crave can show their real faces—or at least their faces under stress, and thus show character, or lack of it. We’ll shoot past the given that your characters have to want something in your stories, even at unconscious levels, and sidestep the subtle ways you can introduce those wants. Let’s go to not giving it to them.

I have a character with the sonorous name of Pinky DeVroom, the protagonist of a novel on which I’m collaborating with a pal, Rick. Pinky is a newspaper man in Boston who has high literary ambitions. He’s written a novel that gets him tingling attention from a Boston agent, who secures a publishing contract. The novel being written and the publishing contract were deep desires of old Pinky. The matter of him being sharply smitten with his agent flamed new desires.

Those had to be thwarted.

The Thwartings
Sadly for poor Pinky, he offered his novel to the agent right when the Crash of ’29 happened. The warm handshake of the contract melted into delay and dithering. But at least a friendship with his agent, Elfred, is deepening, yes? No. Pinky can’t have Elfred, because Pinky himself gets in the way: his better instincts are always trodden by his baser ones, so that every moment of their apparent coming together is met by Pinky’s blunders with booze, his miscalculations on what wooing is all about, his flummoxed misinterpretations of Elfred’s attentions.

In other words, he’s a mess. And he’s a mess because Rick and I keep denying him things. His messiness and denied goals keep propelling the story forward, in both funny and frightening ways. Deny your characters and they have higher hills to climb, more veils in front that obscure any clear-sightedness behind, potholes that leave their heart’s tires airless and flat.

Of course, you can’t just create a bumbling caricature of a character, one who never has a fine moment or measured victory—readers will tire of sheer slapstick, of paddling in the shallows of the fictional pool, of defeat’s cold ash. Even a fine myth like Sisyphus loses its weight if we have to push that rock up the hill into infinity along with the poor boy. So it’s helpful to work out—organically, and not as a formula—a two-steps backwards, one-step forward motion, where Pinky gets to taste some sweetness midst the bile, where the sun sometimes warms the cold rooms in which we’ve put him.

He hungers for that relief, and I think readers do too.

Unwrapping the Prize and Seeing Tarnish
That notion of denial and its graces occurred to me because I’ve been denying myself of late. I came back from a recent media trip to Myanmar with a wicked belly bug, necessitating a round of antibiotics. Now I’m a fellow who likes a glass of wine, sometimes two, with dinner. Even more so a nice classic cocktail on the weekends. Antibiotics aren’t the best mixers for booze, so denied I was.

But it was interesting to me to observe my interest in making my sweetheart a cocktail (a Negroni, if you must know) last weekend. I loved to mix, shake and pour the ingredients into the frosted glass, and took a deep sniff. Ahh, very good. Not as good as drinking one though.

And I also went to a party, where I poured some wine for a couple of people, admiring its hue in the glass, catching a whiff of bouquet. So it was with great anticipation that when my antibiotic shackles were thrown, on my birthday no less, I went to one of my favorite restaurants and ordered a glass of wine, ahhh.

No—yuck!

Who Put the Goat Hoof in My Wine?
What was that bitter stuff? And what was the bitter substitute glass that I replaced it with? And the squinched-lip sips I took from two samples of other wines the waitress kindly brought? Either the antibiotics were still biting, or my entire constitution had changed. But that made me think further of fictional situations: what if the thing desired, finally wrought, was wrong?

Have to keep that in mind for Pinky, because that complicated weave has so many more threads than boy-meets-girl, boy loses novel and girl, and boy gets various plummy things. Boy might have no clue what he really wants after he has a taste of it, eh?

I have to say though, that I’m somewhat anxious about what might happen this evening. It’s the first Friday I’ve had being antibiotic free since my bellyaches. What if the Manhattan I’m thinking of mixing up tastes like goat hoof? Oh well, there’s always beer …

The Hero’s Journey (for the One True Salad)

Yeah, I added the fig leaf to the salad

Yeah, I added the fig leaf to the salad
[image courtesy of drowninsanity on morgue file.com]

Story-structure geeks (and I’m a mere dabbler) are well aware of Joseph Campbell’s work with the monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, where a story’s protagonist protagonizes in a most protagonistic way. To boldly summarize (where a zillion summaries have gone before), it’s the process of challenge and life change—and in the myths, these challenges are epic—where a vision, however cloudy, is followed to its consequence.

That consequence is usually the conquering of fear, the gaining of courage, insight, resourcefulness, resiliency, and a deeper understanding of self. And because that’s pretty heavy, you might also get a nice new pair of shoes out of the deal. Lots of heavyweights (even Homeric ones) have employed the monomyth gambit: witness Odysseus (or Ulysses), in Homer’s The Odyssey, Huck Finn in his eponymous tale, ring-bearer Frodo, Luke Skywalker’s skywalking, and in contemporary times, Cheryl Strayed in Wild.

The Narrative Wings in the Monomyth House
There are a whole lotta narrative wings in the monomyth’s house; there’s the Calling, Answering the Calling, Finding Guardians, The Challenge, Answering the Challenge, Returning Home and the presence of many archetypes, like Shadows, Shapeshifters and Tricksters. Obviously, it’s a lot like growing up with siblings.

No story has to venture into all of the wings, and no story has to stuff itself to bursting with every archetype, but the structure itself, the journey, is a critical storytelling component, in all its chills and captivations.

“Road” stories are a variant of this, like Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant (and scary and sad), The Road. I borrowed the frame itself for my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, where the protagonist is a callow just-out-of-high-school lad hitchhiking across Canada, caught in a series of picaresque escapades. His quest: to lose his virginity.

I know, I know, cheap monomyth, but it is a quest, after all.

Serving the Salad
And why is there salad at the head of this blogging meal? Because we traditionally serve salads first here. But really, because yesterday, part of our Big Island Hawaiian house-sit, we drove to Hilo across the Saddle Road from Hawi. What that means is that you drive in the saddle between the substantial humps of two volcanos: Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Because Mauna Kea is a seamount, it’s actually the tallest mountain on earth, bigger than Everest. (Though it’s a mere 13,796 feet above the ground.) Its cousin across the meadow, Mauna Loa, is considered to be the largest volcano on Earth by volume. So, they ain’t punks.

And, your hands around my dithering throat, what’s the quest, you ask? Well, the Green Papaya Salad at Tina’s Gourmet Garden Café in beautiful bayside Hilo. How on God’s heavenly body can that be an example of the hero’s journey? Easy: One of these volcanos, though snoring, is still active—we could have been engulfed in fiery lava! We also got lost on a road exchange—we became slightly tense! We were vaguely running out of gas on the way home—we became vaguely anxious! All surely monomythical in their challenge.

As for the salad, we’d had it recommended to us by a friend back home: “You have to try the Green Papaya Salad at Tina’s.” So, we had the Vision, we had the Challenge, we had the Return. And we had the Salad. It was worth the quest.

All salad silliness aside, the Hero’s Journey remains a solid structure for building—and building in some variants—around, if your story is seeking such. Try it! (Oh, lots of good stuff on story structure over at Shawn Coyne’s Storygrid site.)

Bottom o’ the Page Plea
Oh, and if any of you have read my Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, I’d love an Amazon review, no matter if you thought reading it was like changing diapers. The more reviews (and diaper changes) the better.

Contort Your Characters: Trip Their Expectations

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 Our Crib on Kosrae: We Never Did Get That Yard Raked

When I lived on the tiny Micronesian island of Kosrae, my girlfriend and I took morning walks, pretty much daily. We walked on the main road, not long after the sun came up, when the weather was merely remarkably hot and humid, rather than paralyzingly hot and humid. Kosraeans were up early too, and we often saw our neighbors and other people active in their yards. Coconut palms were everywhere on the island, and it was a regular sight to see a native woman raking the big palm leaves off the grounds surrounding the house.

This never made a lot of sense to us, because Kosrae has regular trade winds and frequent torrential rains, so that daily raking was a bit like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, only to see it roll back down again—rolling down the hallways of forever, forever. But it wasn’t exactly that our neighbors were fastidious. Not a palm leaf might be seen in some raked grounds, yet soft-drink cans might pepper the yard like, well, like unraked palm leaves. Many yards with food wrappers, too, and broken toys and all manner of other discarded miscellany.

We only received half a clue when one of our Kosraean friends scoffed at us for all of the palm leaves that littered our lawn. (Though nary a can was to be found.) Why didn’t we clean up our yard? Later, some other ex-pats suggested that leaving the cans and other things in their yards was a visible sign of prosperity for people on a poor island where easy cash was a scarce commodity. True or not, that memory makes me consider how expectations work, and how they can work in stories.

Cultures clashing seems a more raked-and-dried example of differing perceptions and expectations—one person’s troublesome palm leaves are another’s organic ambience. But in stories, there are more subtle expressions of expectations dashed that can work well to heighten drama. One brother in a family might always toe the line when it comes to decorum, the law, polite social mores; another might never see a law he wouldn’t scoffingly break. The brother with the halo might experience befuddlement, shame, or even an unbecoming rage at his brother’s “inexplicable” behavior. His expectations of propriety aren’t his brother’s, and a story’s plot might be impelled forward by the rift.

Not Even Spock Is Clean
We often remark upon the behavior of others—why did they do that, that’s not rational, what could have prompted that—when we know that no one is truly objective, not even our dear departed Spock. There are all kinds of psychological and critical-thinking categories that break out formal examples of things like cognitive dissonance and hasty generalizations, sharing some sets of behaviors: in the lofty tower of our higher thinking, the particular (and peculiar) way we’ve assembled our way of looking at the world presumes that others look at it in the same way, that others are motivated by the same desires and outcomes.

Stories can bank on such unrealistic expectations: a character will get angry or frustrated or resentful when his or her fellows “misbehave” by acting contrary to the character’s presumptions of how the world works. Why did that “nice” high school girl spurn her friendly classmate? What prompted the sullen office mate to start bringing treats for everyone in the office? Why did the ever-stingy uncle bequeath his lavish estate to the nephew he’d spoken with twice? These kind of plot twists can be disruptive and perplexing for both other characters in the work, and—if convincingly rendered—perplexing in a stimulating way for the reader.

I’ve owned a number of odd vintage automobiles, most of which had the ill manners to need extended (and expensive) consultations with mechanics over most of my ownership. Most people who buy old cars are tinkerers, but my best uses of wrenches have been as paperweights. You might expect, after having owned many old cars, I’d either stop buying them (because I can never afford the repairs) or I’d learn how to repair them. Nope. Expectations be dashed: I am looking for another one right now. Some itches can never be fully scratched.

However, my yard is very nicely raked.