In other words, go for it…

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

…including getting your novel done.

Settings #1 – “Where” is important

Like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water, geography – where we live and work on a day-to-day basis – can be a compelling, yet hardly ever recognized influence on our lives.

So, in that same sense, then, geography – settings – are an important but often unnoticed character in a novel.

Ro Delahanty is very much a creature of the lush and verdant east central Iowa locale where she grew up and where she patrols daily as a deputy sheriff. I’m sure she would be a different person if she were from the deserts of Arizona, the palm groves of Florida or the mountains of Wyoming.

In my novels I try to walk the tightrope between providing enough descriptive material to give my reader a sense of being there but not so much detail that it bogs down the plot.

So, in a new series of blog posts I want to focus on some of the specific settings that are important to Ro’s world; and yes, go into all of the particulars that would be too much for the flow of a regular story.

#1 – This first post is just a kind of introductory overview
#2 – In the next post I’m going to look at Fort Armstrong County itself, where she patrols day after day
#3 – The third post will focus on the many creeks that pretty much define the county’s geography, or at least the part she regularly drives over
#4 – Then I want to focus on one specific creek; Shadowbook and its adjacent bike path, because both play significant parts in Ro’s life
#5 – In a later post I’ll talk about a geographic anomaly called The Bottoms that is a recurring locale in the Ro books, but will become a major character in its own right in the fourth Ro novel I’m currently working on called “Twists and Turns”
#6 – Then I’ll explore the many connections Ro has to Five Falls State Park…
#7 – …and to the county’s adjacent Great River Forest Preserve
#8 – Witness Tree Rod and Gun Club is where Ro learned to become a championship shooter alongside Big Mike, first with a shotgun, later with a handgun
#9 – I’ll talk about Rickett’s Ridge, to most folks just another hill on a county road, but for Ro one of her favorite spots on her patrol routes
#10 – And finally, we’ll pay a visit to Trader’s Island

Next: Fort Armstrong County in a nutshell

© 2018 Dave Lager

You get chosen

“Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.”

– Paul Auster (1947- )

Wait a minute, as a writer I kind of liked being the odd man out most of the time.

Ro’s Rage – Chapter Ten: The Navy, Monday, May 15, 1995

Ro gazed at her father for several moments, trying to sort through a welter of feelings. She still recognized Big Mike sitting there, with his same bushy red hair and the ever-present hint of merriment around the eyes. But now he was someone different, like he had somehow transformed from Father to Friend. Fathers are…fathers. Strong and indestructible and incorruptible. They don’t make mistakes. Friends do dumb stuff and have faults; you forgive them for theirs, they forgive you for yours.

There was a part of her that knew she was supposed to feel…what? Anger? Grief? Deceived? Disappointed?

But in an odd way Ro now actually felt closer to Mike than she ever had. He had just confessed to being a flawed human being. She understood he’d trusted her by making himself entirely vulnerable to her judgement. He knew the risk; she could easily have suddenly hated him for not being the Perfect Dad she’d always thought he was, for disappointing her, for deceiving her all those years.

They had always been emotionally bonded as Father-Daughter, it was no secret in the family Ro was “her daddy’s girl.” But now that truth had taken on an entirely new meaning.

“Thank you,” Ro said simply.

Mike’s mouth twitched into a small smile, like he understood she was thanking him on several levels.

“Let’s see,” Ro said, holding up her hand and counting off points on her fingers. “I got my red hair from you. I got my height from you. I got my Irish looks from you. And now you tell me I’m this potential rage-filled psychopath thanks to you.”

But she had said it with a mischievous grin, so Mike went with it. “Yep. You know, that’s why I keep all my guns locked up over there,” he said, jerking his head toward the gun safe in the corner.

“But I’ve got my own key.”

“Oh, that’s right, you do,” he said, scratching his head like he’d forgotten. “You aren’t gonna go bonkers on me, are you?”

“Not this week.”

“That’s good to know,” Mike said with a nod. But then the serious look returned, “Ro, the Navy did for me exactly what that judge hoped it would, so I will always be grateful for that. My job on the aircraft carrier was to load and unload ordinance – bombs, rockets, machine gun ammunition – onto jets making flights over Vietnam. It’s where I learned how to use loading equipment, like forklifts. It’s because of that experience I got my job at Daring.”

Mike was coming up on his twentieth year at Jacob Daring’s sprawling national parts warehouse and distribution center on the north edge of Lee’s Landing; he had been a team lead for almost ten of those years.

“An aircraft carrier is like a small city of several thousand people. Even though it seems to be a very large boat when you look at it from the outside, it’s so jammed packed with equipment and instruments and aircraft and storage, to say nothing of bunks and mess halls, there’s limited space for recreational activities. Onboard ship you work six hours on and have six hours off, which means everyone has lots of time on their hands.

“The other thing the Navy taught me was how to box. I’ll bet you didn’t know your dad was the heavyweight champion of his carrier group. My ring name was The Red Menace,” Mike said.

For Ro Delahanty this was a day for surprises when it came to her father!

Next: The Red Menace

© 2018 Dave Lager

The awkward wisdom of youth

“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.”

May Sarton (1912-1995)

Ouch! I remember being fifteen; I didn’t like it very much. But maybe that’s because at the time I didn’t really know what I already knew… Although, by then I had tried my hand at several short stories, a couple of essays and I think a poem or two, all horribly amateurish… But I guess that means I was at least making an effort to get at what I already knew.

Ro’s Rage – Chapter Nine: Mike’s secret Monday, May 15, 1995

Ro was all set to tell her father how sorry she was for letting her anger get ahead of her but was puzzled when the laugh lines returned. “I’ll bet you’re wondering how I know so much about rage…”

Actually, she hadn’t, assuming as most young people do that their parents just know everything.

Mike sighed and leaned back in his recliner, “Ro there’s a part of me that wants you to curl up in my arms and for us to choose one of your new records to listen to… Of course, I know which one it would be…” He paused to let her fill it in…

“The Dvorak,” she said.

“The Dvorak,” Mike confirmed. Dvorak’s sublime cello concerto was probably second only to Beethoven’s Ninth as their favorite classical work. “But you’re not that little girl anymore… You’re growing up, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to do some more growing up tonight.” He paused as if to gather his thoughts, “Ro, there’s no reason for you to apologize for what you were feeling because, unfortunately, you come by it quite naturally.”

Ro knew her dad, she knew he always needed to share the background, the “why” behind, a serious topic; it was a “curse” he’d passed on to her. But this was confusing… Where was he going with this?

“You know I was in the Navy when I was a young man, that I served on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War.” It wasn’t really a question.

Ro nodded.

“But what you don’t know, what very few people know − your Aunt Ellie and Cousin Pres know; so does your mother – is the real reason I joined the Navy. I think it’s important that you know now because I hope it will help you understand yourself better and maybe keep you from making the same mistake I did.”

Mistake? Ro felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach. How could you make a mistake? You’re my dad, you don’t make mistakes.

“The short version is, it was join the Navy or go to jail.”

Jail! Jail! Criminals do jail… What in the world are you talking about?

“I was seventeen. We had just gotten our high school diploma and were at a graduation party. Of course, there was lots of beer and cheap wine… I didn’t bring anyone, but there were plenty of girls there, including one I had known since kindergarten. We’d never dated, she was just a good friend. Anyway, she had this boyfriend I thought was a jerk, but, you know,” he said with a shrug, “he was her choice.

“Anyway, at the party he was pretty drunk and being really nasty to her, shouting at her, calling her names, which I didn’t like. At one point he grabbed her by her arm, hard, and she was struggling and telling him, ‘You’re hurting me!’

“When I saw him slap her, I lost it…” He stopped, like he was a little reluctant to continue. “I don’t mean just got mad, Ro, I mean I was enraged that this jerk had slapped my friend. I’ll save you the gory details… Let’s just say I was so out of control angry I beat him up, badly… I didn’t stop when he was down, I kept punching him because he’d hurt my friend… I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to teach him a lesson he’d never forget.

“His father filed aggravated assault charges, which I’m sure you know is way past a simple fight. If I was found guilty, it could have meant jail. Anyway, through the summer there were lots of meetings between the county prosecutor, my attorney, the judge, my father and the kid’s father.

“What it finally came down to was a meeting in the judge’s chambers. I was to plead guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge and agree to go into the service – the judge said he hoped it would help me get my life together – or I could go to court and likely end up in jail… Since I was seventeen and it was an aggravated assault charge, it could have meant an adult prison.

“Of course, I took the plea bargain.”

Next: What the Navy taught Mike

© 2018 Dave Lager

Novel writing rules

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

– W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

If we did know what they were, then being a novelist would be easy and everyone would be writing one. While I do think everyone has a novel in them, the hard part is getting it out of your head and on paper in a coherent, readable form.

Ro’s Rage – Chapter Eight: Judo moves, Monday, May 15, 1995

As they were finishing up their cake, Kate suggested, “Patrick and I will cleanup these dishes, why don’t you two go listen to Ro’s new record.” Ro’s birthday present had been a boxed, six-CD set by the world-renowned cellist Co-Co Woo playing the most beloved cello concertos.

That Mike and Ro would go downstairs to his den cum music room and put on a CD or two was not unusual, although in recent years it hadn’t been as frequent as when Ro was younger. But even at a still callow thirteen, she was learning to detect insincerity when she heard it. There had been something in her mother’s voice that said there was more to her suggestion than mere sharing music.

Mike, seeing the flicker of incredulity in his daughter’s eyes, flashed her a reassuring smile and with a head nod toward the stairs, said, “Let’s go talk.”

In the den, Mike eased himself into his still relatively new, as in just a year old, recliner – at Ro’s request, the one it had replaced was now wedged in a corner of her bedroom – while Ro sat cross-legged on the settee. Mike did not make a move to put on any music.

Instead he got right to the point. “I’m sure you noticed Principal Collier asked your mom and I to stay for a moment this morning after our meeting about your detentions.”

Ro nodded. She’d assumed Mr. Collier had wanted to say something more about not fighting.

“Well, Coach Forester joined us from another room and had a couple of things he thought it was important to share with us.” He leaned forward slightly, “Ro, he asked us if you had ever had any judo training.”

When Ro frowned in disbelief, Mike explained, “He said as he was making his way toward the fight he watched you execute two crude judo moves on the bullies – a tai otasha body throw on the bigger kid and an atemi waza hand strike to the head of another.” He paused, letting the surprising revelation just hang there.

Ro worked her mouth but couldn’t find a way to verbalize her shock. Smiling, like he already knew the answer and was just teasing her, Mike asked, “You haven’t been secretly taking judo lessons, have you?”

Finally finding some words, Ro said, “Those were judo moves? I… I just made them up on the spot… They seemed to be what I needed to do.”

“That’s pretty much what I told the coach. Do you know what he said? Well, maybe you should take some lessons because you seem to have a natural flair for it.” After a short pause to let the idea sink in, Mike added, “You know, that might be something you want to think about. You talk about your ambition to become a cop. That kind of hand-to-hand combat training would be an important skill to have.”

Ro nodded her understanding and agreement, but then frowned when she watched her father’s face tighten into a serious look, even the laugh lines around his eyes seemed to disappear. “Ro, do you remember I said the coach had two things to share? I am going to ask you a very important question and I want you to trust me and answer it truthfully. I promise there won’t be any judgement. Can you do that?”

Of course, Ro Delahanty completely trusted her father, so nodded “yes” without hesitation.

“The coach said when he stepped into the middle of the fight he saw something in your eyes that really frightened him.” Leaning forward, Mike put his elbows on his knees, so he was looking his daughter straight in the eyes, “Ro, you do know what he saw, don’t you? You do understand what I’m asking you?”

Ro blinked several times and nodded, but remained silent, not because she didn’t want to be honest with Mike, but because she didn’t know how to say it.

Mike said it for her. “It was rage, wasn’t it? It was a burning, red-hot anger? You didn’t just want to stop those bullies, you wanted to really punish them for hurting Atti?”

Not seeing any anger or disappointment in her father’s eyes, but rather understanding, which was kind of surprising, Ro simply said, “Yes.”

Next: Mike’s secret

© 2018 Dave Lager

As the slogan goes, “Just do it!”

“Try not! Do, or do not! There is no try!”

– Jedi Master Yoda, from “The Empire Strikes Back”

In the film Yoda was talking to Luke Skywalker about getting in touch with The Force, but it seems to me he could just as easily have been advising us about channeling our inner creativity as writers.

© 2018 Dave Lager

Poetry from the past

Our Q-C Writer’s Meet-up Group meets twice a month. For last Monday’s meeting we were “assigned” to either bring in for discussion any favorite poems by others or share some we had written. Which presented an interesting dilemma for me, so forgive me for “backing into” an explanation…

In college, more years ago than I care to remember, I was an English major. My first job after college was to teach high school English. So, at the time my creative brain was steeped in literary traditions, which, of course, included poetry. As a result, I took a whack at writing some poems…

But then I left teaching and went to work as a newspaper reporter, which meant that, like a billiard ball that gets hit by another, my trajectory was deflected onto a non-fiction track and away from a poetic path.

Through the years that non-fiction path continued to prevail – reporting, editing, putting together business plans, writing how-to books on small business management and marketing. In the last few years, however, my literary path has veered toward long-form fiction – my Ro Delahanty novels – but no more poetry was ever attempted.

So, I had to dig out a battered old three-ring notebook from a back bookshelf to find some hand-written samples of my poetic efforts from back then (we’re talking late-60s here). While many were sophomoric in content and forced in their poetic style, here are two I thought weren’t too bad and that I was happy to share with my writer friends last Monday and with you:

Strangers

we were strangers at their door
we were strangers in their house
though the language of our tongues
was the same, the gulf
of separated ages forced
our voices up too high

though there was between us
the only real touch of
immortality men can hold
small annoyances and smaller slights
made us strangers in their house

Night Driving

bright swatches
flash past
like an artist gone mad
in phantasmic confusion
a town at most
a rest stop at least
on the empty night road

thrust ahead
in a bright white semi-circle
like a punch that keeps going
into yielding darkness
which cannot be lost
and cannot be caught
on the empty night road

dappled grey
mossy lush
like a feathered tunnel
into somewhere
the soft underbelly
of the trees
on the empty night road

glowing yellow
squares of advice
like trite wise nuggets
cast up on the edge of experience
given and taken
too fast to be read
on the empty night road

© 2018 Dave Lager

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