Monday, February 01, 2010

Following Trails and Abandoned Highways: Some Notes About Writing the Liam Dutra New England Mystery Series

My first novel, COMPASS,WATER, STONE AND TIME, began in my consciousness with the vague image of a lonely, whiskey-drinking trail runner who finds himself caught up in a solitary search for something lost in the woods of steep-sided Irish Hill in Berlin, Vermont. I’d been running regularly in the area, around Berlin Pond and up into those woods, exploring trails and an abandoned town road that I’d come to call “the ancient highway.”
Months later, the intersection of two events pushed a story to the fore.
First, a coyote on the trail ahead of me on the ancient highway actually led me to an old cellar hole. (It was covered then in brush; now, years later, I notice that the brush has been cleared, and the old Stewart farmhouse foundation has been exposed to the sky and to the eyes of visitors.)
Then, a boxful of VERMONT HISTORY magazines that I turned up at a library book sale offered a serendipity of articles: one chronicling the history and culture of the Irish in nearby Northfield, on the opposite slope of the hill; another offering an account of the Fenian Invasion of Canada in 1866.
A story and characters began to churn inside me. I got the first draft done over the course of a summer, sitting outside in the sunny mornings before work, writing in longhand with pencil or ballpoint pen in a bright orange surveyor’s field notebook that my mother had found at a yard sale in New Hampshire and sent to me.
Another vital inspiration at the heart of the book came from what I can only call The Muse; in this case, a vision of a dark-haired, dark-eyed, sweet-tough woman who somehow stirred my imagination to create Shawn Donahue, the woman who pulls protagonist Liam Dutra out of his loneliness and shares in his quest.
Liam’s real quest, his deepest yearning, is for connection--communion even-- with the landscape he lives in, including its hidden past. Shawn, I think, having grown up in this place that Liam has come to love, embodies that landscape: physically, culturally, even spiritually. In this, she turned out to be crucial to the story, crucial to Liam’s ongoing journey from solitude into engagement.
Subsequent drafts-- I was using the computer by now-- showed me how hard it could be to write a mystery novel. Changing one small aspect of a character or shifting one event slightly in time might cause a narrative to slide off its foundation and into a horrible abyss. There were some desperate times when I wanted to pull out my hair, rip up the pages, delete all the files; just quit...
But I kept going, thinking and stewing, scrawling notes to myself, shuffling the plot and character details I had notated on blue index cards. Things began to fall into place.
Writing the book within the book-- Neal Donahue’s 1866 journal-- came later, in the winter. It was mostly a pleasure, with Donahue’s voice often flowing clearly and without much effort onto the page. The historical research was enjoyable too; I still carry fond memories of old books, window-focused sunlight, and quiet investigations at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.
First—and second, third, and fourth—readers kicked my butt in good ways, inspiring further changes and rewrites.
In hindsight, and with three more books in the series written now, I see COMPASS as a dark, dense, and sometimes lonely woodland of a book, with sunlight and water --and love-- offering redemption and hope. ( A few drafts in, I noticed the way some kind of water-- rain, stream, lake-- tended to be part of the scene whenever Shawn was around.)
Another thing I’d like to say is that in writing COMPASS I wanted to offer homage to the writers who inspired me: John D. MacDonald, James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker, Raymond Chandler; Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau. But I also worked hard to find my own voice, and particularly, to honor the northern New England landscape and the way people live, and have lived, in and upon it.

The second book of the series, THE HAWK OF THE INTERVALE was much easier to write; indeed the first two drafts were often intense and instantaneous in the way they came to me. Sometimes I’d have multiple scenes and conversations unfolding simultaneously in my imagination while I was out on long autumn trail runs. I’d run home and feverishly write things exactly the way they had come to me. It was exhilarating beyond belief, and only slightly exhausting.
HAWK allowed me to discover more about Liam and Shawn’s characters, and to deepen their relationship. Virgil, the Abenaki fisherman and poet who is at the center of Liam’s quest, allowed my poetic side to speak freely. And the Gloucester part of the story was a very satisfying way to immerse myself in my own roots and some haunting childhood memories. The prologue, with Virgil presenting his testament in a dream, came from an actual dream I had; Liam’s meetings with Ferrigno echo actual experiences that I had as a teenager in Gloucester, tracing the steps of my hero, the poet Charles Olson.
While COMPASS lingers in my writer’s memory as a sometimes dark and shadowed book, thinking back on HAWK summons up for me a sense of spaciousness, of clear horizons. Even the manuscript itself seems lighter, with more blank space on the pages!

I’ll add my thoughts about the third book at another time.