Trust

I’m writing this blog post about the first draft of The Glacier Gallows because it’s easier than writing the first draft of the Glacier Gallows.

I hit a wall this morning. It’s not an insurmountable wall. From experience I know that I’ll overcome this obstacle, but it stopped me never the less.

I’m about 75,000 words into the book; this is the time when the story’s pace is supposed to be peaking; when all the red hearings are supposed to be evaporating, and our hero – Cole Blackwater – is supposed to be figuring out what exactly the mystery in the novel actually is.

But he’s not. I left him parked in a pickup truck in Cheyenne Wyoming this morning. He’s about to brace one of the bad guys in the story; a character who the reader hasn’t met, but who we have heard a lot about.

The problem is, I’m just not certain what happens next.

I have my outline, but so far into the novel a few things have changed, and the outline only says that Cole discovers that…. It’s not much help, frankly. When I was writing the outline I knew this would be a problem, but trusted I’d have a solution by the time I got to this point in the novel. I don’t. Not yet.

I know what I’m supposed to do: Just keep writing. And I will. Tomorrow morning I’ll sit back down and write my way through the obstacle. I’ve learned to trust the first draft process. This is my 9th first draft, and after facing this challenge before, in particular in The Third Riel Conspiracy, I know that if I just keep my fingers moving, I’ll get enough material down in the first draft that I can clean up the plot in subsequent versions of the book.

Trust is a critical component of the creative process. These stories emerge from somewhere I can only vaguely describe as my imagination. And what is that? Imagination is a part of the subconscious self that is connected with the vast store of ideas, energy, information and inspiration that makes up the universe around us. We’re all connected to that storehouse of creativity; for some the pipe is just a little fatter, allowing the ideas to flow faster, and with greater regularity. Practice and millage is what makes the pipe bigger.

We have to trust the creative process. It’s never failed me before, and it won’t fail me now. Part of that trust is knowing this can’t be forced. I can’t force myself to solve this plot problem. I can work at it, but in this case working to solve the problem means taking a step back and letting my subconscious take over. I’ll meditate and later today I’ll go for a long run in the hills. As Lao Tzu says, emptiness is the source of all things.

The way to overcome these challenges is to relax and not worry too much about it. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that I’ll write my way through this predicament and the novel will take shape. It might not be very good, but I’ve got lots of time for second, third and fourth drafts.

One technique I’ve used to tap into this creative store-house in the past is to sleep on the vexing challenge. Before going to bed I meditate on the problem (which means, I clear my mind of the challenge and then ask myself a simple, clear question) planting the seed in my subconscious and believing that when I wake up, I’ll have the solution. Sometimes it takes several days, but this almost always works.

So I’ve left Cole sitting in his truck, watching, and waiting for me, his author, to know what to do next. I’m as excited as the next guy to find out what that will be.

If you want to find out what happens next when I do, follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Click here to read more notes about Deconstructing Draft One.

Among the Wounded, Part 5

To read part 1 click here.

To read part 2 click here.

To read part 3 click here.

To read part 4 click here.

Jeffery broke a stick over his knee and placed it on the flames and then leaned close to the embers and blew. The coals glowed red and the flames curled around the wood. He put two more small pieces on the flames and then studied the darkness beyond the circle of light.

Ms. Wilson, his biology teacher, would tell that there was no plausible explanation to his sightings. She might then imply that being afraid of a cat that could no longer exist in so tiny a forest, surrounded by subdivisions and criss-crossed by highways, was a little crazy. Maybe he was nuts; suffering from delusions. The fact that he had chased another forest apparition into the suburbs without even noticing was crazier still.

But the boy knew that if he were to seek the advice of his Paul Winters he would be told that the artist has to believe in things he cannot see. Winters would have instructed Jeffery to embrace his fear and use it to plumb a deeper level of his own creativity.

And so Jeffrey blew on the flames and they leapt up before him. It was a warm evening, too warm really, for a fire. But tomorrow night his brother Bill would return from his friend’s cottage and Jeffrey would be expected to look out for him. And so Jeffery watched the flames and the sparks that spiralled into the sky. As the night deepened he felt his eyelids drop once, twice, and knew that soon he would curl into his sleeping bag and let come what may.

Maybe that was what was missing, thought Jeffery: fear. Maybe that was one of the things that the woods could do for him – or could have done for him if he lived in a different time, in a different place: restore an honest, healthy fear. It wasn’t a fear of failing a math test. It wasn’t a fear like the one his mom sometimes talked about: not being able to pay the mortgage. It was a fear that placed you squarely in the fundamental process of life: a fear of being eaten. He pushed a final stick of wood into the fire and pulled his sleeping bag around him. His eyes drawing closed, he felt the warm rush of sleep wash over his body.

Would the cat come disguised as the wind again tonight?

He slept.

The fire popped. He opened his eyes and saw the red embers of coals. He heard the pop again but saw no accompanying sparks from the coals. He heard the leaves rustle, felt a breeze sweep through the woods. Jeffrey was wide awake now, his eyes probing the darkness, searching the shadows beyond the glow of the fire for movement.

Just beyond the ring of firelight he saw something step almost daintily into the dried leaves. He held his breath. And then, from another direction, he heard a twig snap and saw something dark moving there. And from yet another dark recess of the woods he heard the sounds of footsteps on leaves.

Jeffrey forced himself to breathe deeply. As he did so he filled his lungs with the sweet air of night. He breathed again, and noticed that it was light and delicious. Only when the air was free from pollution did he notice that it was usually very foul.

An animal slipped into the light of the fire. It had long muscular legs, cloven hooves and a sleek body. The buck bent its neck low to look at the boy. Its ears twitched, its six-point rack was broad and handsome. The buck’s dark eyes glistened in the firelight.

A second animal approached the fire. The buck twitched once, its tail flipping, showing briefly the white flag for which it was named, but it did not flee. The second animal was the colour of shadows. The tips of its fur caught the light of the fire; otherwise its pelt seemed completely absent of hue. The black bear moved into the fire’s glow, its tiny eyes probing for danger. Jeffrey knew this animal well, had grown up with this animal in his back yard, in his garage, in his garbage. The bear sat down on its haunches and lowered its head, its small round eyes moving between the fire and Jeffrey. When the bear breathed out it sounded like a sigh.

Jeffrey reached carefully to the woodpile and took a stick of white pine and put in on the coals. The flames crept up it and encircled the wood, consuming it. The flames cast more light over the camp and over the two animals now before Jeffrey.

The wind swept over the ground again, and Jeffrey closed his eyes. The air smelt musky and Jeffery looked and saw the eyes first, green and glowing in the firelight; then one paw placed carefully into the ring of firelight. The deer and the black bear both turned to look where the cougar stood. It took two more steps forward and looked into the fire, then at the other three animals standing or sitting next to it. The cougar sat and then lay down within the circle of light, its head erect, its eyes slowly blinking, reflecting the light of the blaze.

Jeffrey felt no fear at all. Here was a gift from the forest. The four creatures sat and regarded the fire, the light reflecting off their coats and fur and faces. Jeffrey fed the fire and it sent a shower of sparks into the night air. The sparks drifted into the sky above the forest and were carried away on the wind.

From above the forest appeared dark and primal with a tiny glow from the fire at its centre where four figures watched the  flames. The boundaries between things were blurred by the suspension of reason and belief. The woods were dark and extended in every direction as far as the eye could see. They rolled over hills of sediment deposited as Lake Ontario had receded; they tripped over limestone ledges and escarpments carved out by ancient glaciers. The forest fell away into a broad river valley and ended abruptly where the Great Lake lapped at its rocky shore. The whole of the earth seemed to be dark, blanketed by a spray of stars so thick that all the counting in the world would not number them.

* * *

Jeffrey awoke as the first sunlight of the day burned through the forest canopy. Nothing remained from his evening fire under the dark coals. He looked around him for some sign of his visitors. There was no evidence of the night’s encounter. Jeffrey stood and stretched and breathed in the air which was thick and hot and tasted like exhaust. He could hear the motorists on the road rushing to work. Jeffery had begun to scatter leaves back over the site to camouflage its presence when he heard the unmistakable whine of a chain saw pierce the quiet of the woods. The sound intensified as the saw bit into a tree. Jeffrey felt a lump form in his throat. He shouldered his pack and finished his task quickly, feeling an urgent tug. Suddenly he felt the tininess of the forest around them and the frailty of their island-like existence.

The sound of the saw grew louder. He ran toward the noise, the trees passing as a blur, his feet sliding gliding effortlessly over the tangled woods. He thought he could hear men’s voices nearby and stopped.

“Stand clear!” came a voice, close, much too close. A tree crashed into the undergrowth close by and Jeffrey froze feeling the earth beneath him tremble. Something was being pounded and he looked through the green cacophony before him but could only see faint shapes. There were three men in the woods, each wearing a hardhat, coveralls, and bright orange vests. One held an idling chainsaw. The other was using an axe to pound in survey stakes. Jeffery’s heart beat so hard that he was certain these men, only a hundred feet away, would hear it. Jeffrey imaged the earth wincing as each stake was driven into its soft body.

Jeffrey had heard that the forest had been spared earlier because of the financial collapse of a development company. He knew then that it was only a matter of time before someone else bought the development rights to this parcel of land. Now he knew it was inevitable that bulldozers, trucks, and paving equipment would move into his tiny sanctuary and eviscerate it. As he watched the men probe deeper into the forest he wondered what would become of the animals that made their homes there. There were hundreds of gray squirrels and thousands of birds in this tiny woodlot. Would they be able to spill over into the surrounding community? What would become of them?

He thought then of his own home, backed up as it was, against the forest. Ten years before he had arrived his yard was also forest, the tiny creek not a channel in an underground pipe but an extension of the natural watercourse he so loved. He imagined what the place had been like fifty years before, at the end of World War Two when the city was still small and all of this area was a dark forest.

Jeffrey knew well what it had looked like, he had seen it, he had run through it chasing the trickster — coyote—and had the scar on his palm and elbow to show for it.

He wondered if, fifty years ago, someone else had watched the progression of humanity into these same woods. He wondered if someone his age had sat in the forest and watched as Upper End Line was surveyed and then watched silently as the houses grew up all around. Jeffery watched the men and knew what he must do.

* * *

He waited until dark. Bill was watching TV, his mother at work.

“I’m heading out for a quick walk,” he said to his brother.

“I’ll stay here,” Bill answered, glued to the set.

“I’ll be back soon.”

Jeffrey went out the back door and hopped the fence and trotted into the darkened woods. He crossed them quickly, his heart pounding, his palms sweating, and came to where the men had finished working that day. Without hesitating began his task.

He was kneeling within ten feet of the edge of the woods where the men had entered it when the task was complete. His pockets were crammed with red ribbon. He took off the gloves he had worn to keep from getting slivers as he had pulled up dozens of survey stakes, broken them in two, and thrown them into the woods. He turned and retraced his steps and then crept quickly, quietly, home through the silent forest.

To get updates on this story and other posts please follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

The middle of everywhere

I reached a landmark in the writing of The Glacier Gallows over the weekend. On Sunday morning I finished Part 1 of the book. 53,000 words in, and there it was. It took me a few false starts to get there; the children needed food, and there was this business of household chores: apparently the kitchen and bathrooms need to be cleaned every now and again.

But on Sunday morning I breezed past the 225 page mark, wrapping up what I consider to be a distinct part of this novel. In the first half of the book the story is told by several people, in different places, and at different times. At the end of Part 1 the various timelines and character-perspectives collapse into one. Cole Blackwater, the novel’s protagonist, is part of each chapter but sometimes only peripherally. At the end of Part 1 the focus shifts squarely onto Cole and will remain there throughout Part 2.

Without giving too much away, Part 1 is where Cole Blackwater gets into something of a pickle. Cole is working on a climate change project with Brian Marriott, his once arch-enemy who used to work for the Petroleum Industry.  Brian is murdered while they are leading a hike though Montana’s Glacier National Park, thus the glacier part of the title. Cole isn’t above suspicion, hence the gallows.

On Sunday I wrapped up Part 1 and then I just kept on going. Right into the middle of nowhere.

The next morning I started back again with Part 2 and realized that I was boring myself to tears; never a good sign. After a rather dramatic culmination of the action at the end of Part 1, I had to keep the energy up in the middle of the book. I backed up and took a run at it again. The reader, I guessed, will likely expect the same sort of walloping suspense that the book starts with (or at least that I think it starts with, delusional pen-jockey that I am). I think my second attempt was better; at least I was able to stay awake.

The middle of the novel is always a challenge for me. By breaking this book into two distinct parts, I’m trying to inject some freshness into the middle nowhere; make it the middle of everywhere!

To keep the middle of everywhere from becoming the middle of a bowl of mushy oatmeal, I’ve been developing a few first draft techniques:

1. Avoid exposition

I try to keep the plot crisp and resist the urge to melt into narcissistic explosion, expounding on how much my characters (ie: I) know about the world by having them droll on in their heads about subject matter only peripherally related to the novel’s plot. I know from that which I speak: I’ve done this many times, and thankfully my story editor has had the good sense and courage to remind me that I’m writing a mystery novel and not a polemic on some environmental issue or a lesson on Canadian history.

2. Keep everybody talking

With The Glacier Gallows I’m writing as much of the book as possible as pure dialog. I learned from reading one of Chuck Wending’s expletive-filled but insightful blog posts on the craft of writing to eliminate as much exposition as possible. If I have to, I’ll fill in some additional scenery and details in subsequent drafts.

The reader, I am told, is less likely to skip over dialog than narrative description or exposition. That means they will continue to read through the mushy middle if you just keep everybody talking.

3. Now is a good time for that plot twist you’ve been saving

I like to introduce a plot twist somewhere in the middle of the story. In the Cardinal Divide the twist was the discovery that the murder hadn’t actually happened where the cops and even the protagonist thought it had. In the Darkening Archipelago the twist was the revelation that Archie Ravenwing, heretofore believed to have died in an accident at sea, had actually been murdered. Do something to keep the reader on their toes. Give them a jolt to get the blood circulating. Step away from the cattle prod; yes you.

4. Cut to the Chase

If you’re slogging along wondering when the hell your novel will finally come to an end, there’s a good chance it will, and sooner than you want it to. Scrap pile of broken dreams time. Sometimes when I’m writing the middle of a book I catch myself wishing I didn’t have to scribble all this crap and could just get to the good stuff. So I do. As I said above, if what you’re writing seems tedious and tired, there’s a very good chance readers will find it tedious and tired as well. Get to the point! Skip a chapter, even two: write the next chase, cut to the sex scene, or revel in the big reveal. There’s a fair chance that whatever you are labouring through is unnecessary anyway. Even if it isn’t entirely, you can likely cut 75% of it and still have a stand up novel.

5. Beware False Summits.

I hate false summits. When in the mountains, sometimes I’ll look up and think, wow: I’m almost there! Then I crest the rise and realize I still have a thousand feet of elevation gain and I’m out of Snickers bars.

In writing, however, false summits can be useful. I started dabbling with them when I wrote early drafts of The Vanishing Track, and continued with the publication of The End of the Line. The reader gets the impression that the mystery has been solved and there’s nothing left but the Sherlockian summation of the crime when whapo! More action, another twist, more fisticuffs! This sort of thing helps me write the mushy middle because I never hesitate to throw one of these false summits somewhere into the middle of the book.

6. Head down, chin up

Sometimes the middle of the book is just plain hard work to write. The excitement of starting a new project is long in the rear-view mirror. At the 45 or 50,000 word mark I’m still 45 or 50,000 words from the end. This is the time when I heed some of the best advice I’ve read. It’s from Henry Millar: “When you can’t create you can work.” It’s not all glamour; it’s not all car chases and fist fights and nail biting tension. Sometimes it’s weaving a complex story that slowly, deliberately builds towards a crescendo.

Sometimes I just put my head down and write through whatever ennui I’m feeling towards my project. Sometimes I’ll just force myself to write another thousand or fifteen hundred words, even if I know I’m going to burn them in a garbage can during the next draft. It gets the creative juices flowing. If nothing else, I can write my way to the next car chase or fist fight.

I’m trying to learn the difference between this need to just work through a difficult chapter and plain old boring writing. It’s the difference between being in the middle of nowhere and the middle of everywhere.

Fifty thousand words to go.

To read more  blog posts on Deconstructing First Draft, click here.

For updates, follow me on Twitter: @stephenlegault.

Among the Wounded, Part 4

To read part 1 click here.

To read part 2 click here.

To read part 3 click here.

Jeffrey conspired to sleep out in the woods for the last week of July when his mother would be working night shifts. He selected a spot along the creek, far enough from the road to minimize the sound of the traffic, and far enough from the pathway that bisected the forest to lessen the possibility that his tiny camp would be detected by other people walking there.

The boy arranged several logs to protect him from prying eyes and errant walkers who might venture into his private sanctuary. With a hatchet he cut several long poles from ironwood and pounded them into the ground. Then, with his father’s hunting knife, he sliced several thinner stems from silver and red maple and made a lean-to. He was careful not to make the structure too obvious, and when he was done he circled around and approaching it from every angle, hoping that it would be undetectable. It was by no means perfect but he was satisfied that anybody who strayed from the trail would not find the shelter without a deliberate search. And who would search for such a thing in the middle of an urban woodlot?

His final preparation was to collect wood for a fire he would build one night. He hadn’t spent a night looking into a fire since the last autumn of his father’s life.

***

They were hunting in the woods behind their home in northern Ontario. Jeffrey carried a single-shot twenty-two rifle that his father called the pea shooter. Frank carried a semi-automatic 12-gauge shotgun. Grouse was the quarry. They had decided to spend the night out, and had brought with them sleeping bags and some pasta in case the hunting went poorly.

The only grouse of the day was shot as the men walked along the base of a granite outcrop. They were moving among dense stands of hemlock and balsam fir when Frank stopped. Jeffrey, watching every move his father made, stopped too.

Frank looked to his left, his legs set apart. Jeffery peered hard into the dense undergrowth where his father was staring, but could detect nothing amid the thick cluster of shrubs.

“What—?” Jeffrey began.

“Shhh.” In one swift motion Frank raised the shotgun and fired. The sound was deafening, and it echoed again and again off the granite hills. Jeffrey saw a flash of leaves and branches and what he presumed were feathers. Frank walked into the tangle of shrubs and reached into them. He pulled a grouse—minus the head—out of the bushes and grinned at Jeffrey.

Late in the afternoon they gathered firewood and kindled a blaze. They cooked the grouse on a green-wood spit and ate it with their fingers in the failing light. The wind moved through the trees and tousled the boy’s hair and sent a shower of sparks into the heavens. Father and son contemplated the fire.

“People have been sitting around fires for thousands of years,” said Frank when the woods were dark and the sky pale with the final light of the day. “We learned how to tell stories around fires. We taught one another about the animals we share this planet with sitting next to a fire.”

The two men regarded the flames. Jeffrey poked the wood with a stick and then placed it across the fire. He watched his father in the red glow and hoped to hear all of those stories over his lifetime. He hoped that his father would tell him every single one.

* * *

His mother left for the night shift at 7 p.m. and would not return until after 8 the next morning. His younger brother Bill was staying at a friend’s cottage for the week. At nightfall he grabbed his pack from his closet and headed out the back door, through the gap in the fence, and into the sombre woods. There was no moon but he found his way easily along the path and then, at a place he had marked with a few sticks across the trail, he turned off toward his camp. He found it in the growing darkness. Everything was as he had left it.

He laid out his tarp and sleeping bag on the ground. He would not light the fire until he had spent several nights out. He wanted to get a feel for the woods at night, and to make sure that if he did light a fire it would not be visible from the road. Jeffery felt angry that he had to take this precaution. He thought for the first time about what had been taken away from him. He felt small and powerless in the tiny woodlot surrounded on all sides by the city.

The following two nights he went to bed with the forest cradling him in its arbour-arms and woke the same way. His fourth night in the woods he contemplated building a fire; he was fairly certain that no passing motorist would see the reflection of the blaze if he adjusted the roof of the lean-to so that it blocked the view from the road. He decided to wait one more night. Jeffery felt he still needed to gain the acceptance of the woods themselves. He was beginning to think that the forest had a soul, one that had been revealing itself in ways he could not completely understand. The trout and heron, the fox in his painting, the falls, and the coyote, were messengers from these woods. But what was the message? He needed more time to understand. Sleeping in the woods was erasing the boundary between the boy and the forest.

Jeffrey thought that maybe the forest was slowly peeling back layers of itself. He was a little concerned about what he might find when the final layer was cast off. During the fourth night he had a long series of dreams: A forest at the edge of the city; a coyote sent as a messenger; men probing deeply into the woods; a world on fire. And all night he half-dreamed that the wind brushed his shirt and tossed his hair and swept over him in the troubled heart of these tiny woods.

Jeffrey woke to birdsong. The light still faint in the east  Jeffery noted that he was rising earlier each morning and going to bed earlier each night.  He breathed deeply and then caught himself in mid-breath. Something lingered in the air  that had not been there the previous three mornings. Something pungent. Something wild.

He crawled from his sleeping bag and cogitated on his surroundings. In the course of setting up the camp he had cleared much of the area of leaves in order to minimize the risk that his fire, when he lit it, would get away on him. When he left he would return the leaf litter and erase any trace of his presence. Now he studied the ground around him. It took only a second for his eyes to confirm what his nose had told him. He had been visited during the night.

He studied the prints. They were as wide as they were long with five-lobed toe pads pressed into the soft earth. He bent down beside them and delicately fingered the tracks. They had predominant claw marks and were half an inch deep. Judging by their shape they belonged to a cat. Judging by their size they belonged to a cougar.

They seemed to be everywhere around and inside his little camp; here was a place where the cat had sat and regarded him while he slept. Here was a place where the cat had sniffed his pack, empty of food, but reeking of pungent pastels and oil paints. And here was where the cat had circled him while he slept, and boldly stepped across his prone body in the night.

Jeffrey stepped away from his sleeping pad and looked to see if he could follow the tracks out of the camp and into the wood. They disappeared into the foliage. He stood and looked into the forest. The birds sang. A gray squirrel jumped from one maple to the next, its tail spinning like a propeller. There was no sign of a cougar, no sign of any mammal larger than the squirrel. They were the same woods as he had walked into last night, he told himself. But he knew differently. They were not the same.

* * *

“Son, there hasn’t been a cougar in this part of the world for forty years. Hell, the eastern cougar is pretty much believed to be extinct.” The voice on the other end of the phone was raw and exasperated. “Are you sure it wasn’t some other sort of cat? A fat Tommy maybe?”

Jeffrey had called the ranger at the nearest provincial park to ask if an animal such as the cougar still existed in southern Ontario. “How big a space would a cougar need?”

“Well, that would depend on if it’s male or a female. Males need a lot of space. Few hundred square miles at least. There isn’t a patch of woods left in southern Ontario that’s big enough for them. Maybe at Frontanac or Algonquin. But you see, those parks are islands.”

“What do you mean?”

“Island biogeography, son. It means that they are tiny patches of wilderness surrounded by a sea of farms, clear cuts, towns, cities, highways, you name it.”

Jeffrey thought of his own tiny island, and indeed could see it for a moment, as a tiny life raft adrift on a heaving sea of humanity. “What does that have to do with my cougar?” he asked.

“Well, son, I don’t know what made those tracks. What I’m saying is that animals like cougars can’t be isolated on little patches of woods like what you’re telling me about. Not for long. They need to be connected to other big populations of their own kind to keep the population viable. You understand?”

“Inbreeding?” Jeffrey asked.

“That’s right. If these populations don’t connect with each other over time, they lose their ability to adapt to stress. Even if they don’t get hit by cars or shot by hunters, they die off because they can’t adapt. Anyway,” the ranger finally said, “we haven’t had a genuine cougar sighting in some time in these parts.”

“Thanks for your time.”

“No trouble at all.”

Jeffrey hung up the phone. The patch of woods out his back door was a long way from being a couple of hundred square miles.

* * *

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Among the Wounded, Part 3

To read part 1 click here.

The read part 2 click here.

It was early July and Jeffrey sat next to the creek, the woods alive with the hum of cicadas. The boy alternated between painting a small canvas and reading a book he had borrowed from the library the week before. It was Aldo Leopold’s A Sand Country Almanac. He had picked it up on a whim, it having been recommended by his biology teacher of all people. In the chapter called The Round River he read:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

The artist needed to harden his shell too, Jeffery thought, for he also could see the marks of death, though with a very different eye. While those who called themselves experts might be capable of naming the thing that brought death to the woods, Jeffrey believed that maybe the artist could feel it. In doing so the artist’s shell could very well crack and the suffering of the worlds wounded beseech him.

Contemplating these wounds, Jeffery looked up from the book and his gaze was met by the cool stare of another: only 30 feet away, on the far side of the creek, a coyote watched him, its eyes locked on Jeffrey’s. The boy felt studied in a way that unnerved him.

Jeffery slowly put down his book, not wishing to startle the creature. With a quick glance back at the boy the coyote began to trot downstream, gliding along the forest floor. The animal cocked its head as if to say, “Are you just going to sit there?” Then it was off again, a beige blur passing between the trees.

Jeffrey stumbled after, his legs feeling like iron after sitting so long. Each time the coyote moved just beyond Jeffrey’s sight, it stopped and waited, looking back. In a minute it occurred to Jeffrey that they must be approaching the edge of the woods and that soon the animal would have to run from the cover of the forest and onto the four-lane road. And where would it go from there? Jeffrey wondered if he should stop pursuing the animal, and slowed his pace. Was he chasing it from the shelter of the woods into civilization where it would be hit by a car, attacked by dogs or caught by an animal control officer? He stopped running, his heart beating fast, his breath ragged.

The coyote stopped too. It turned and took two steps toward him. When Jeffrey finally took a step forward it began to run again, like a dog playing chase. The creek at his side was now nearly level with the forest floor, and Jeffrey didn’t recognize this place in the woods. Somehow, despite having combed this forest nearly every day of the last year, this locale had eluded him. He might never have come here without the coyote’s taunting.

Jeffrey saw bright sunlight through the heavy canopy of the forest in the distance. Was this the road? The coyote ran on, entering the bright sunlight. It came to a steep bank and paused, inviting Jeffrey to close the gap between them. Then it disappeared.

Jeffrey ran to the place where he had last seen the coyote, and skidded to a stop on a mat of leaves. He was on the edge of a precipitous escarpment of broken and exposed limestone that dropped twenty feet. The creek plunged over the limestone terrace in a series of cascades, white spray dancing in the hot afternoon sun. Below him, next to a pool at the base of the falls, stood the coyote, its head lowered, its tongue lapping from a tiny pond.

How could he have missed this escarpment, this waterfall, and this pool? He looked around him to get his bearings. He recognized nothing. There was a faint trail that snaked its way from one ledge to the other below him and he followed it down the escarpment. Birdsong enveloped him.  As he stepped onto level ground near the pool the coyote looked up, water dripping from its snout, and broke into a trot downstream again. Jeffery regarded the clear pool, the fine mist spraying from the cascade, and momentarily contemplated abandoning his quarry in favour of a swim.

How long had it been? More than two years now. The last time he and his father had been fishing together at Opishing Lake was the last time he had swum without chlorine in his eyes.

I can swim on my way back, Jeffery reasoned, and returned to his pursuit. The animal was running now and Jeffrey had to hurry to keep up. He tripped several times, the first time stopping himself before he fell, but the second time his foot caught on a root hidden among the leaf litter and he came down hard on his left hand and elbow. He scrambled to his feet in time to see the coyote bound through a thicket of hemlock. He had cuts on his palm and his elbow. His shirt was ripped and some blood already soaked the sleeve.

Fucking ridiculous, he thought to himself, getting to his feet and starting to run again. Chasing some damn dog through the woods, believing it’s a coyote. There are no coyotes here anymore. They’re all gone.

The animal turned and jumped through a tangle of cedars. Jeffrey figured the chase was on again and ran forward, holding his bleeding left arm close to him. The shrubs were strangely thick in the comparatively open woods, and he crashed through them. He came face-to-face with two children playing in a sandbox.  They looked up, fearful, as Jeffrey nearly tripped over them.

Jeffrey looked around himself. The cedars were there, but also a chain link fence. He must have jumped it, though he could not recall doing so. He searched for the coyote. It was nowhere to be seen. He looked at the children. One was seven or eight, the other much younger. The younger one looked as if he were about to cry.

“Hi, um, ah…”

“Who are you?” demanded the older child.

“Uh, I’m Jeff. Did you just see a coy— a dog run through here?”

“No.”

“I was chasing a, I mean my dog got away and I was trying to follow it. It didn’t just run through your yard?”

“No. I’m going to get my mom.”

“It’s okay. I’m going to go now . . . sorry.”

Confused, Jeffrey turned and put his hands on the fence, his left hand still bleeding, his elbow now sore and bruised. He pushed himself up, into the shrubs and over the fence. He expected to land back in the dark woods, but instead found himself in another backyard. Two girls about his age were lying on deck chairs in bikinis. He thought he recognized them from his school. He stood before them, bloody, his hair messed and his shirt ripped. His jeans were dirty from where he had fallen.

One of the girls looked up and he said, “Did either of you see my dog?”

One of the girls giggled and said, “Nope.”

It took him twenty minutes to figure out where he was. It took him another hour to make his way home. He wove his way through the sweltering heat until he came to Upper End Road and finally Cavanaugh Street. He followed it for six or seven blocks to his townhouse complex. When he got home his mother was standing in the kitchen preparing dinner. He walked past her and started up the stairs.

“Hold it,” she said and he stopped. “Turn around,” she said. He did. “What in God’s name happened to you?”

“Nothing.”

“Did you get in a fight?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

“I fell in the woods.”

She shook her head and dried her hands on a dishtowel. She walked to him. “Let me have a look at your arm.” He held it up. “Go get some peroxide from the bathroom so I can clean this.”            Jeffrey did as he was told and came back down the stairs. He met her in the kitchen. He opened the fridge and took out a can of Coke and drank deeply. “Take off your shirt, hon, so I can clean this up,”

“I can do it,” he said, taking off the shirt.

“Yes, but you won’t. You’ll forget and you’ll pay for it.”

She dabbed at the cut on his elbow and then his hand. She was smiling and shaking her head. “You’re just like your father, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.”

She put several butterfly bandages on his elbow and one on his palm. “It looks worse than it is. You’ll be okay. You spend a lot of time in those woods, don’t you?”

“Yeah, it reminds me of home. Of up north, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. You miss it, don’t you?”

Jeffrey was silent. He sipped his Coke. After a minute he said, “Yeah, I miss it a lot.”

“You know we had to move here. I couldn’t stay up north, not after what happened. I needed to start over. There were too many memories for me up there, Jeff.”

“I understand, Mom.”

“After your father….well, I just couldn’t look out the window every day at nothing but pine trees. I needed a fresh start. I hope you and Bill understand that. I did this for you too. I want to be a good mom, and not be mourning your father forever. Do you understand?”

Jeffrey was looking at his Coke. “Of course I understand, Mom.”

She came over to him and knelt beside him. “You be careful out there. The forest is a dangerous place sometimes.”

“Ah, Mom, it’s not like I’m using a chainsaw…” He immediately regretted saying it. “I’m painting, that’s all.” And chasing coyotes, he thought.

“Just be careful, okay?”  She kissed him on the forehead and went back to the stove.

After dinner Jeffrey walked in the fading light into the forest to retrieve his things. The woods were familiar again, every tree, every log, every stump was known to him. He found his pack and his paints where he had left them and tidied them up. The book lay open at the chapter he had been reading and he slipped it into the bag. He glanced up and down stream, and was relieved to see no coyote watching him. He could hear the faint hum of the road beyond, filling the woods.

* * *

The next day he returned to the same place and tried to retrace his steps. Within five minutes he came to where the creek slipped from the woods into a concrete channel. There it flowed into a giant steel culvert and passed under Upper End Line. He crossed the road between speeding cars and watched the creek emerge on the other side. It flowed in the concrete gutter between rows of houses with high fences. Jeffrey picked a side street and walked down it. Where the road rolled down a short steep hill he turned right to see if he could find any sign of the waterfall or the pool. Instead he found that the creek had disappeared altogether, flowing underground in one of the city’s storm runoff pipes. He rubbed the bruise on his elbow and felt the stiffness there. Still cradling the tender arm he turned and walked back up the hill.

Twenty minutes after Jeffrey had crossed the road and walked home through the forest, a City truck pulled up along Upper End Line. Two men got out of the cab and took tools from the back of the truck. They erected posts and a plywood sign that read:

Attention: Zoning Change Requested

Shady Woods Developments has requested a change in the zoning of this parcel (SD-121) from Community Reserve to High Density Residential. Shady Woods Developments has applied to build 124 condominium style townhouses on this property. All Inquiries must be made by August 1.

Jeffrey, who never walked along Upper End Line, never saw the sign.

* * *

To receive updates when Part 4 is posted follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault

A mystery about love

With the release of The Vanishing Track I’m sure to get the occasional question about what the book is about. I’ve got my stock answer all down pat: it’s a mystery book about homelessness. Cole Blackwater and his friends discover that homeless people are vanishing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and soon uncover a dangerous cabal of city officials, high ranking cops, developers and crime bosses who are conspiring to bulldoze Skid Row. Are the people living in the Single Room Occupancy hotels in the way of progress? Or is something more sinister at work.

Dum-dum-dum.

When Shelagh Rogers and I yack it up on The Next Chapter, that’s likely what I’ll say. But like the other books in the Cole Blackwater series, this is a murder mystery with a message. Of course, the plot comes first. No soap box rants, just good old fashioned story telling. But beneath the narrative arc of the story is something far more meaningful to me. The Vanishing Track is a mystery about love.

Every single human being that I met during the research for this book was born with dreams and hopes and a vision for their lives that, in many cases, have not come to fruition. They now live lives that they could not have imaged: lives of poverty, disease, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, fear and pain.

But they also live lives full of love, hope, courage, joy and triumph. When I meet people on the street, this is what I choose to see.

We are all connected by love. In the late 1990’s I spent a lot of time in Ottawa. One night I was walking back from the Market to my hotel. As I crossed the bridge over the Rideau Canal I met a man who was asking for change. I had some left over pizza, which I handed to him, and we chatted for a while. He gratefully accepted the food and as we parted he said, “God bless you.” I said “God bless you” in return.

That was strange for me because it’s been a very long time since I believed in a God that would bless me. Later when explaining this to a friend she told me matter-of-factly “Well, what you were really saying was I love you.”

And of course, I was. Love is the energy of the universe that animates us and binds us together and breathes life into everything we see, hear, feel, taste and touch. And everything that is beyond our senses.

When I wrote The Vanishing Track I wanted to ensure that the book was grounded in love; that it was a book about the need for us to reach out to people less fortunate than we are and treat them with love, respect and compassion. When we see someone on the street we must remember that we are merely extensions of each other, all waves in the ocean of humanity, and that to love these people is nothing more and nothing less than to love ourselves.

9 things I learned writing The Vanishing Track

The Vanishing Track, the third Cole Blackwater Mystery has been released (like the Kracken in the Clash of the Titans, but without all the teeth and screaming) and I’d like to offer a few things I learned during the writing of my fifth book. Here you go:

1. Think Ahead

I started working on the idea for The Vanishing Track in 2003: 9-years ago. Okay, now I’m a little depressed. I need a moment.

I’m back. Books take time. They take time to write and time to edit (some, like mine, much more time than others) and they take time to publish. Think ahead. The narrative arc for The Vanishing Track was essentially set back in 2003 while I sat on a flight from Costa Rica to Calgary, dreaming up the story line for the first books in this series.

Had I not been thinking ahead, I wouldn’t have been able to weave key elements into the first two books of the series that are important in the third. I also might have settled into a complacency with the protagonist, rather than pushing his development in the first two books.

2. Get Help

I needed a lot of it. First off, and because The Vanishing Track is a reverse mystery there’s no need for a spoiler alert, the antagonist in this novel is a psychopath. I didn’t know anything about psychopaths when I started writing this book; just what I saw in the movies, which is enough to be dangerous. The first person I turned to for help was my best friend and running buddy Josh, who is a clinical psychologist. We spent hours talking about Sean Livingstone as we ran up and over Victoria’s Mount Doug again and again. He helped me create some real complexity in the character.

Next I turned to Judy Graves, the Vancouver City Advocate for the Homeless, and other activists. Judy and I worked on a book together for a short while, and while it never came to fruition (first and hopefully only time I sent an advance cheque back to a publisher). During the planning phase for that book I learned a great deal from Judy about the real cause of homelessness and what we can do to solve it. Other’s like Pivot Legal Society founder John Richardson, and his colleague David Eby, were inspirations.

But the people who helped me the most were those I met on the street: Sharon who I used to talk with outside of Wellburn’s market near my home in Fernwood; Chris who I chatted with in Victoria’s Chinatown; and Sam, in Gastown in Vancouver. There were many, many more. Too many. The Epilogue of The Vanishing Track, which I particularly like, was inspired by an encounter in the Downtown Eastside when I was doing a ride along with the Vancouver Police Department. The gentleman in question was very drunk early in the morning and told me about his wife and children he hadn’t seen in years. It helped me realize that behind every single person we see on the street, and often pass by and sometimes stop to talk to, is the story of a life lived in a way that could never have been foretold.

3. Do your research

I did a lot of research for the Vanishing Track. Probably too much, which is part of the reason why I had to cut 35,000 words from the manuscript. That and I like exposition way too much; another very bad habit as a writer.

I spent a lot of time walking around the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver while writing this book. I was collecting stories, personalities and settings. I was creating a mental map of the neighbourhood to populate with my characters. Once, when Jenn and I were in Vancouver for a weekend getaway, I took her on a walking tour of the DTES and pointed to places saying, that’s the ally where Cole nearly gets killed by some thugs!…Such a romantic.

The best thing I did by way of research was to spend a day with VPD police constable Jodyne Keller. She and I drove and walked around the Downtown Eastside, visited Single Room Occupancy hotels and talked with their residents and from her I learned a great deal about how the VPD handles missing person’s cases in the region. It was a really great way to test some of my assumptions while writing the book. Though I did way too much research, I would have gladly spent more time with Constable Keller.

4. Have Patience

See Think-Ahead, above. It took much longer to get this book to press than I had wanted. I had hoped that this book would have been released in 2009, or 2010 at the latest. My plan was to have it come out before the Vancouver Olympics and the first few drafts I wrote used the 2010 games as a central theme in the mystery. That didn’t happen, so:

5. Be Flexible

When the timeline for the first two books in the series developed very slowly, I rewrote the book, or at least the part of it that used the Olympics as a focus point for the theme of SRO redevelopment across the City of Vancouver. The plot still worked.

6. Work Really Hard

The main thing I learned while writing this book was that I had to work really hard. Writing is hard work. Okay, that’s just what writers want you to think. Sometimes its hard work. First drafts are often pretty hard. Writing takes time and patience and effort and a lot of practice, and for some of us, that can be hard. Mostly it takes time. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers talks about the rule of 10,000 hours; you have to do something for about that long to get good at it. If you write every single day for three hours, it will take about 10 years to reach that magic number. It takes dogged determination to do that. That’s what I mean by working really hard.

7. Trust your Editor

I’ve gone on at some considerable length on this subject. I feel blessed to have an amazing story editor, Frances Thorsen, and an equally fantastic copy editor Lenore Hietkamp. They know my writing and they know my myriad mistakes. They resist as best they can what must be an almost unassailable urge to chide me for my habitual follies. When you find an editor you can work worth, trust them. Push back when you can, but listen to them always.

8. Believe in yourself

This is the bit where I remind you never to give up. Never. I was talking with a friend this week who has been helping me edit The Third Riel Conspiracy and we got onto the topic of PFO (Please *&^% off) letters. AKA: Rejections. Every writer gets them. William Faulkner, one of the greatest American novelists of all time said he could paper the walls of his house with rejection letters. Louise Penny, who is a phenomenal success in the mystery genre, said she received 80 rejections before she entered a writing contest in England, came in second, landed an agent and book deals in Europe and the United States.

The Vanishing Track wasn’t rejected by any publishers. Its predecessor The Cardinal Divide was and had it not seen the light of day, the Vanishing Track certainly would not have either. It took several years and half a dozen attempts to land a book deal for The Cardinal Divide. By deal I mean, I got about $500 for several years worth of blood sweat and tears. But it was a start! And I am grateful to NeWest Press – and in a nice twist of fate, my current publisher Ruth Linka, who was GM at NeWest – for, in a moment of delusional weakness, saying yes to Cole Blackwater.

When I started working with Ruth at TouchWood Editions on the Durrant Wallace series and The End of the Line it made sense to bring Cole Blackwater into the tent. Now, with the Silas Pearson – Red Rock Canyon Mysteries due to launch in September, that tent is getting crowded and probably smells like old socks and horses. But I’m very happy there.

Moral: believe in yourself and your work. Keep trying. There are thousands of publishers, and if they ALL say no, self publish. Post the whole damn thing on a blog. Give it away on the street corner. Be proud of what you’ve done. You’ve written a BOOK after all. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

9. Become Attached

For those of you who read my blog posts on Buddhism and Taoism and all manner of touchy-feely topics, you’ve likely heard me counsel non-attachment. Well, that’s fine when it comes to life’s big mysteries: There’s nothing solid to hold onto and everything is illusion, blaa-blaa-blaa. But books and writing; that’s another thing all together.

I don’t mean become attached to the words themselves. That would be bad as I’ve noted on my posts about editing. Become attached to the words is a sure-fire way to find yourself very sad. What I’m talking about is subject matter. Become attached to what you are writing about. In the case of the third Cole Blackwater novel what I became attached to was the idea that homelessness could be solved.

Homelessness is a human constructed problem. In fact, the problem is that we haven’t constructed enough proper human habitation. There is a dire need for community supported housing in Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Calgary and all across Canada and the United States. These housing units should be built and maintained by the government and could allow people who have lived rough, or in shelters, to slowly gain their independence by living in units where they get help when they need it.

Studies show that over the life of these units, they are much less expensive than paying the astronomical costs – some studies suggest as much as $40K/year/person – associated with homelessness. Policing, social services, health care and other expenses associated with people being left to fend for themselves when they are suffering from addictions, mental illness or have simply fallen on hard times are a tremendous burden on our budgets. Our failure as a society to support the least fortunate among us is an unacceptable burden on our moral conscious.

Homelessness is entirely caused by human actions. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and they get left behind. Poverty, and its sister homelessness, are born from affluence. I am entirely in favour of the compassionate society that helps people left out in the cold to live dignified, safe and meaningful lives.

That’s what I’ve learned. And a lot about sentence structure, plot, narrative, character development and dialog, but this has gone on long enough as it is.

To get updates on The Vanishing Track keep in touch by following me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

No Action

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring topics on leadership and activism from Carry Tiger to Mountain, published in 2006 by Arsenal Pulp Press.

“Do not force action,

Instead allow action to arise on its own

And follow its course.”

(Tao, 48)

From the stillness of the night, the day begins. All action rises from non-action. This is one of the hardest concepts to grasp in the Tao te Ching: that of “no action;” or “allowing action to arise of its own accord.”

As activists we act. It’s what we have been breed to do. We see something in the world that is wrong and we act to fix it. Forever busy, we are constantly in motion, pressing our case to save people from famine, to solve the problem of homeless or protect some wild place that we love.

But one of the fundamental laws of the universe is that action arises from stillness. Stillness is the source of action.

Be still

Wait for the right moment to act

All of our work has a common source

All of our effort returns to that point

If you know this in your heart

You will be patient

Tolerant of others

Respectful of their opinions

Amused by the uproar

Able to respond with dignity.

(Tao, 16)

There is a great deal to explore behind the concept of no action or allowing the right action to arise of its own accord. When writing Carry Tiger to Mountain between 2003 and 2006, the chapter on this concept — titled Retreat to Ride Tiger after the paradoxal movement in Tai Chi — was one of the hardest. But next to the notion of the Three Treasures – restraint, compassion and love – the notion of no action forms the fundamental foundation of understanding the Tao te Ching and how we can use it in our efforts to make the world a better place.

The idea of acting without action is about learning how to use the energy of the universe – the Tao – to accomplish what we want to achieve, whether we want to write a great novel, stop a clear cut or start a business that helps make the world a better place.

As activists we sometimes refer to our work as a struggle or a fight, but that’s because so often we ignore the direction of the energy of the universe and instead resist it. The metaphor I use in Carry Tiger to Mountain is this: if you were trying to stop a boulder that was rolling down a hill from crushing something in its path, would you step in front of it and act against it? Or would you run along beside of it and try to redirect its energy.

Much of what we are trying to change in this world is like that boulder: a tremendous force rolling downhill towards something we love. And we throw ourselves in front of it, hoping to stop it. Sometimes we do. But at great cost. And often we don’t. The Tao te Ching counsels us to learn about the nature of the universes’ energy and use as little force as possible to create the change we hope to. Sometimes that means taking no action what-so-ever. Knowing when to act, and when to step back, is one of the most important lessons that the Tao te Ching can teach us.

To learn more about how to apply the lessons of the Tao te Ching to your efforts as a writer, activist, leader, or socially conscious business person, click here. Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership is available from Arsenal Pulp Press.

To receive updates on this and other topics follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault. Click here to read past posts about the Tao of activism and leadership.

Among the Wounded, Part 2

To read part 1 of Among the Wounded click here.

On Wednesday Jeffrey cut class after lunch and walked toward home. He felt he deserved it. He had, after all, gone to every class on Monday and Tuesday. He had even attended his biology class.

During morning announcements on Monday he was summoned to his counsellor’s office. When he arrived Dr. Lemon, whom he had come to know well over the past year, greeted him. She asked him to join her in her office. He found Ms. Wilson, his biology teacher, sitting in one of the plastic chairs at Dr. Lemon’s conference table.

“What’s this, group therapy?” Jeffery said.

“Grab a seat, Jeff,” said Lemon, sternly. “Ms. Wilson asked me to arrange this meeting.”

Dr. Lemon turned to the biology teacher and indicated that they should start. Wilson looked down slightly and then back at Jeffrey. She said, “I’d like you to come back to class today.”

Jeffrey’s heart sank. He had already begun to look forward to finishing school each day at 2:00. He had planned his excursions into the woods to sketch. Jeffrey regarded Ms. Wilson coolly as she said, “Why didn’t you tell me that it was Shawn that was talking?”

“What would have been the point?”

“You wouldn’t have had to leave.”

A long moment passed, “I don’t rat on my friends.”

“Shawn told me after class Friday that he was talking. He said he was sorry. You can come back to class this afternoon. Okay?”

Jeffrey was implacable. “Jeffrey will see you then,” said Dr. Lemon looking at Wilson without seeking confirmation from the boy.

Jeffrey watched Wilson leave.  “You should take it easy on Ms. Wilson,” said the counsellor.

“She didn’t take it easy on me. Now I’ve got to go back into that stupid class.”

“Will you attend the classes?”

Jeffrey smiled and looked out the window at the morning. The birch trees shimmered in the breeze. “Depends.”

“On what?”

“The weather.”

And so on this sunny afternoon in late April he was walking toward the woods near his home. It was hot. The traffic on Upper End Line droned with the constancy of a bee hive. Once in the woods Jeffery strolled through clearings that were carpeted with trilliums. Absorbed with the brilliance of the flowers, he soon found himself on the banks of the tiny creek.

More water seemed to course between the margins of the brook than normal. He imagined that freeing the waters from the strangulating obstruction of newspapers on Friday had helped. But more water pushed between these banks than seemed explainable by his efforts. Jeffrey was about to dig his sketchpad from his pack when his eye was attracted upstream to a flash in the water. His hand still buried in the green canvas bag, he looked to where he had seen the movement and there was  a blaze of motion again. A burst of silver-white, like lightning moving through the water; it was gone in an instant, but like a quick glance at the sun, it had been burned into Jeffery’s memory. He saw the flash again and in a moment of dawning recognition, identified the arching back of a rainbow trout slipping upstream from its hiding place behind a broad stone. He watched it glide around a bend in the creek and disappear. Through the shimmer of light on the creek’s surface he became aware that more fish rested on the bottom, noses upstream, mouths agape, waiting for mayflies or stone fly larvae to drift by. Jeffrey watched as another trout moved from the eddy where it rested, out into the current and rolled over onto its side, mouth breaking the water, to swallow an insect drifting on the lazy current. Then, like quicksilver, the fish slipped back behind the rock.

Jeffrey sat for an hour and watched, making several sketches as fish moved up the creek from downstream and disappeared upstream out of sight. There shouldn’t be fish here, he thought. There were no fish here on the weekend when he came to collect the newspapers. There were no fish here last autumn. For all he knew, there had been no fish here since the 1970′s when this creek had been channelled and diverted through culverts to make way for Upper End Line and the housing developments that now surrounded this tiny woodlot.

He followed the brook upstream, pressing as he did through a small thicket of willows, and stopped abruptly. There was movement in the shallows. A great blue heron silently lifted up from where it had been hunting in the creek. The bird flapped once, twice, and disappeared through the trees, up the creek and out of sight. The flash of its prehistoric looking wings, its long trailing legs, bent neck, and stiletto-like beak were unmistakable.

Jeffery sat down on the bank, his gaze fixed on where the heron had been and shook his head. It shouldn’t be here either. It can’t be here. He looked down at the pool where the bird had been hunting. Trout swam by. On a stone, wet with the splash of water, was a rainbow trout, its side ripped open, as if it had been impaled on the tip of a spear.

***

In the first week of June the temperature reached 30 degrees Celsius every day. In his morning math class Jeffrey sat next to the open window watching waves of heat rise off the pavement of the parking lot. He dreamed of being in the woods with a pencil and paper, in the cool shade of beech and maple trees. His teacher, Mr. Reid, was explaining something at the blackboard.

“Mr. Patterson.”

Jeffrey did not turn his head from the window.

“Mr. Patterson?”

Jeffrey was miles away, walking along the pathway in the woods, following the tracks of deer that he had seen only a few days before. He had not seen a deer since moving from the north. But he had seen the tracks on Saturday while he was exploring a section of the woods he rarely visited. Their cloven hooves had pressed little heart-shaped tracks into the soft earth of the pathway and he had followed them to the chain-link fence that bordered his housing complex.

“Jeffrey Patterson. Earth to Jeffrey Patterson.”

Jeffrey turned to see Mr. Reid standing next to his desk, an amused look on his face. “Care to rejoin the class, Jeffrey?”

Several of his classmates snickered at this and Jeffrey looked around the room and scowled. Mr. Reid seemed to be awaiting an answer to what Jeffrey thought was a rhetorical question.

“Not really,” said Jeffrey, hoping to end his school day early.

Mr. Reid smiled. “You’re not getting off the hook that easy, sport.”

***

On the last day of school, Jeffrey skipped all but his third period class. After spending the morning in the woods he walked straight to Paul Winters’ class. He went to where canvases in various stages of completion were sitting upright next to the window. A six-foot-long, four-foot-high painting that he had been working on earlier this semester was among them. It was a kaleidoscope of light and colour. Even to its creator – its harshest critic –  the painting imbued the observer with the impression that they were running through the woods. The myriad hues of green affected a gentle blur, and the light that poured through the canopy danced in warm yellows and pale blues. Jeffrey had finished the painting almost a month ago and had not looked at it since.

He looked at it now. Later in the day his mother was coming with the truck and they would take the painting home. He was going to give it to her for her birthday. As he prepared to drape a heavy canvas over the painting to ready it for transport, his eye detected something out of place in the lower right-hand corner. He bent down to investigate. He felt his heartbeat rise as he studied the painting: he thought that someone had defaced it. There was a flash of red among the greens and yellows that he had not painted himself. But the red was not graffiti. It was carefully tinted. It was a red fox poised, waiting at the margins of the dense foliage.

Stay tuned next week when I post Part 3 of Among the Wounded. This is the title story in a collection of short stories that I’ve been working on for an embarrassingly long time. To receive updates when I post new pieces follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault. Feedback is welcome. Post your comments below.

First Draft Doldrums

I hit the first draft doldrums this morning. I didn’t write a word of the first draft of The Glacier Gallows, the 4th book in the Cole Blackwater series. First morning in three weeks I haven’t penned a word. I’m at 33,000 words of what will be a 90,000 word first draft – twenty chapters in – and I hit the wall.

One day isn’t a big deal, but I suspect that this will last a few days. The problem isn’t a lack of passion for this book. On the contrary, I am really enjoying this story. Nor is it that this book is particularly hard to write. It isn’t. Compared to my recent foray into the morass of Canadian history in The Third Riel Conspiracy, this is easy. Unlike with the Durrant Wallace series, where I have to remain true to historical events, characters and timelines, with the Cole Blackwater series I can make just about everything up. It’s simple, easy writing that flows and as I’ve said elsewhere, I am really enjoying visiting with Cole again after so long apart.

The problem is that I’m out of my element. I’m writing this update from a hotel in East Glacier Montana. In the last week I’ve been in Nanaimo and Comox, BC; Pincher Creek and Calgary, AB, back home for a single night, and now back on the road. (There is a Doberman pincher with a shot gun guarding my house; don’t get any ideas).

I need habit to write well. I get up at 4:45 or so, drink a cup of strong tea, listen to the 5am news, and then write for two hours straight. On the weeks when the kids are with us, I break for breakfast and to walk them to school, and then come home to my day job. Weeks when they are not I can usually stretch my writing time until 8am. Sometimes in the evening I get a little editing in.

But life is busy and these are trying times, and so I’ve been on the road this week.

It’s not a big deal. In another week or so and I can resume my pattern. The book will get written. That’s not my concern. But I miss it. I love the feeling that comes with churning out three or four thousand words in the morning. It feels as if I’ve accomplished something of value.

The wind will be back in my sails soon enough. I won’t throw any horses overboard (oblique reference to the Horse Latitudes). And sometimes a break is what is needed to allow the story to congeal a little during my traditionally spastic episodes of first draft mania. What I’ve learned is that the pause is often as necessary as the activity in creating something of worth.