Of Composition Notebooks and Number 2 Pencils

Three black and white composition notebooks. Three dozen sharpened #2 pencils. Three weeks out on the water.

Every July, this combination results in a multitude of pages. Is it the change in locale? Change in mode of writing? Change of writing environment?

For the first four decades of my life, I wrote exclusively by hand: poetry, short stories, articles. Why should novel writing be any different?

My friend and editor, Ellen Notbohm, wrote her multi-award winning novel, The River by Starlight, by hand before transposing to computer. While I now write almost exclusively at my desktop, it’s freeing to write longhand every summer — and it’s as familiar as it is now foreign.

Sitting outside in the back cockpit, with sun glinting off the water and a fresh breeze stirring, nature inspires. Because I don’t write chronologically, I enter scenes at any time inspiration hits. From past experience, more than 90% of my longhand work makes its way into a working manuscript (the other 10% goes into the maybe-I’ll-use-it-someday pile).

My third manuscript centers on a wounded yet spirited protagonist in 1905 rural Arizona. She’s the daughter of a Buffalo Bill Cody contemporary who murders her abusive husband in self-defense (or is it in cold blood?) Thanks to frontier justice, she goes free and opens a roadhouse that becomes a way station for a colorful cast of characters, including some from her checkered past.

Like a mixed metaphor, writing about the desert while out on the water might seem out of place. Perhaps, in this case, being surrounded by evergreens and tidal pools and rocky coastlines brings the desert scape into clear focus. Hard to say. But it works.

Here’s a short excerpt from my work in progress that talks about water:

Once, in Texas (or maybe in New Mexico, she can’t be sure), the troupe performed by lake as large as a sea. Standing at the shore, she wasn’t tall enough to see clear to the other side. She had never seen a lake, or a boat. When her pop cajoled her enough, she stepped into the rowboat, not knowing it would float.


Big Burl rowed her out into the lake, her breath trapped in her lungs so long they hurt. When she finally exhaled, all the anxiety she had bottled up came out in a rush of gratitude, or maybe relief.


That a boat could float on top of water—and with Big Burl in it—was the first of many wonders she can remember. But the closest she ever came again to seeing anything as vast as that lake was the desert, and she knew without asking that she’d never need a boat there.

We’re boating home today, back to gardens and responsibilities and desktops. I think I’ll take my notebook and pencil up to the fly bridge and take in one long, last view of nothing but sea and sky before we get home.

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