Cure Homesickness: Write a Novel

Two years ago I began writing a story.

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We had moved from our home on the central California coast to Virginia, and I was homesick for the mountains, the cool coastal air, the golden evening light–the familiar beauty of our former home. For several months, I used my writing to capture memories of California, fearful that I would forget the sensory details that photographs could not capture. I wrote essays, poems, short stories, and scribbled a lot in my journal.

The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

I even decided to try my hand at a middle-grade story for my children. Our former home with it’s three acres of old farm land, trees made for climbing, a creek, and fog rolling in from the bay each evening was the perfect setting for adventure. It would be a gift for them and a creative exercise for me.  The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

Soon I had a collection of scenes and character sketches, but no vision for a unified story. I put away the pages and turned my attention to other work.

A year and a half later, while reviewing files of unfinished writing projects, I took another look at the patchwork pieces I had written for my kids. I edited a lot. I wrote some more. It was fun, so I continued, one scene at a time, not really sure where I was going.

Then, one day (which is how so many stories start, after all) everything changed.

I was doing something mundane like stirring a pot of chili and I  realized how the entire story would develop. There were plenty of details to fill in, but I understood enough to sketch additional characters and chapter summaries.

This was no longer just a fun story for my kids. I had a new novel to write.

Sixteen chapters later, I’m on track to finish my first draft by the end of June. I have pages of adventure for my kids and a wealth of sensory memories for me. Soon, I’ll have a complete novel for all of us.

Below is an excerpt from the current draft.

It’s one of the original scenes that I wrote two years ago involving a rather strange minor character. In it, four of the five children with whom the story is chiefly concerned meet this unusual woman–who turns out to be their neighbor–early one evening when they are on an urgent mission.


Mrs. Terry had turned her back on them and now faced the field. In the distance, a grey roll of fog crept toward them from the sea.  Birds fluttered in and out of the tall grasses, filling the evening air with their cries. Tiny finches darted, keeping away from the larger birds. Over all, three red-tail hawks circled, climbing, then gliding and banking. Mrs. Terry kept her left hand on her stick while raising her face and her right palm to the skies. In a voice that seemed far too loud and strong for her slight body, she cried out,

Draw a peace over this teeming field–

Wildlife calling, crawling, rising, taking flight.

Blanket this space in quiet, still life

Waiting on breathless wing for summoning.

Later they would all say that they had probably imagined it, but it seemed at that moment as if the noisy field before them did calm, soothed by the funny words of this strange new neighbor.

Kerith felt her face heat as she tried to think of what to say. She felt the weighty expectation of good manners, certain that she must say something polite in response to what this odd little woman had just done. At the very least, she must take charge before one of the younger children broke free of their bewilderment and said what they were thinking. Fortunately for her, Mrs. Terry was happy to continue.

“Well,” she said. She turned her back on the field and faced the low mountains that rimmed the far, western side of their property. There the sun seemed to hesitate on the mountain tops, bathing their house and the land below it in the last lingering rays of soft light.

“The whole world is a great cathedral, far more magnificent than anything man has ever created, don’t you think?” She sighed.  “It’s a wonder anyone bothers.”

She tapped her stick against the asphalt and Kerith expected to see sparks, or smoke, or something fly out from the point of contact. Mrs. Terry shrugged, and smiled at them.

“Well, thank goodness they did, yes? Create things, I mean. Great buildings, music, art. They’re so inspiring, don’t you think? I always want to create something great and beautiful to make other people feel the same way.” She shrugged. “Unfortunately, my creative talents are limited to mediocre knitting and decent cooking.”

But Kerith wanted to shout, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean!” The exquisite evening light made her want to capture something of its beauty. She wanted to run home, pull out a canvas, a sketchpad, paints, pencil–anything–and create.

As usual, though, round-eyed, freckle-faced Zelda was the first to speak. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

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In the Company of Trees

cropped-smriver2.jpgSix years ago, when my family moved from a  suburban lot in Texas to the feet of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, I felt we had entered Eden. Rivers brimmed with water, the landscape curved voluptuous, and trees covered hills and mountains in the rich, warm shades of autumn.  Soon after our arrival, I wrote the following.

I grew up beneath the outstretched arms of a century-old native pecan tree, its limbs reaching up and over our historic two-story home.   In winter, bare branches were stark sentinels against the cold blue sky.  Then spring brought flush after flush of leaves, softening the severe lines.

There were other trees on our property, too. In memory, my father planted any seed, seedling, and transplant that had a chance of surviving. There were ash, live oak, jujubee, pecan, mesquite and pine trees.  And though the great pecan tree towered over all, the patriarch of our yard, every one of them gave us the dreamy shifting patterns of light and shade that carpeted our play yard.

For the last six years, I have lived without the shadows of trees.  My suburban lot, scraped bare to facilitate quick construction, was bereft of even the tiniest of trees.  Sunlight, at all times during the year, struck our faces unfiltered by leaves, branches, or fruit.  The grass was always warm and bright beneath our feet, neither marked nor cooled by the shadow of overhead beauty. The soft, mysterious light between the shadows of trees was missing.

Now I have it again, almost to excess, an abundance of light and shadow, dark patterns and mellow autumn light moving across my children’s upturned faces as they stretch out their hands to catch the drifting colors.

After three years in the eastern United States, we moved to California and lived on three acres in the central coastal mountains of Santa Cruz County.  It was a whole new world of trees, tenacious, always green despite the drought, and never mindful of seasons.  There, our land was speckled with coastal live oaks, a living playground made for exercising body and imagination.

Redwoods still towered in little pockets here and there outside the great forest parks.  On our neighbor’s land, a beguiling footpath curved past an old farm shed and led us to a fairy ring of the ancient giants. Beneath their evergreen branches, upon the cool, soft carpet they laid for our feet within the masses of pale,  voluminous ferns, we stepped back in time to the fragrance of fecund, unplowed earth.

IMG_0346Now we’re back on the east coast and as we wound our way to our new home through familiar, brightly-hued landscapes, I looked forward to again experiencing the change of seasons with my old friends, while in the pages of my mind are pressed memories of all the trees I have loved.

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