Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Desert Spirit Guide Part Two

Another of those strange things I found on the desert

I followed the lightly worn trail that the animal had taken. As it was a single track trail I needed to turn more often in order to avoid the sage brush. The small scrub plant gave excellent concealment for all of the roaming desert animals. But I never lost sight of my guide.

He would trot ahead for some distance and then stop and turn back as if to make sure I was still following him.

After several hundred yards on the light trail he took a quick left under a large sage brush. I stopped the four-wheeler and scanned the area trying to see where he had gone.

A worry crept through my mind that I had lost him.

I drove slowly forward searching close than far out; letting my eyes do zigzag patterns across the desert. And just as fast as I had lost him I saw him again. He was much farther away, almost 100 yards. He was silhouetted on a nearby rise. He had to have moved with incredible speed to appear that far away so quickly.

My spirit guide waiting for me to follow

I drove the four-wheeler toward him and he stayed almost motionless.

I had no idea where I was going or why he was leading me but I knew that he was leading me. As I neared the crest of the rise where he stood he padded off again this time to the right.

He was climbing a hill that gently rose above the desert floor and formed a plateau. He had made it up easily but my going was slightly slower. I eased the four-wheeler forward, climbing over basketball sized rocks that jetted from the earth. I had to move slowly or risk puncturing a tire.

When I reached the top of the small plateau I was alone. I sat there, my music still playing in my ears, wondering why he had brought me here to this place at this time. I looked in every direction but there was no sign of my guide. There was however, a large pile of rocks.

As I have said before seeing a pile of rocks on this desert was nothing new, but I couldn’t help wonder why anyone would hike rocks up on top of a hill to pile them. And then a sudden thought occurred to me:

“What if there was something hidden under the rocks?”

I felt very strongly that this was why my guide had brought me here. I swung my left leg over the seat of the four-wheeler and stepped on the ground. I took three steps toward the pile of rocks and stopped. Two children and a tour in Iraq have made me a cautious man.

The summer sun was beating down and the pile of rocks could be the perfect shady place for a bull snake or even a rattle snake. Being bit by the former would hurt but give me a good story to share, but a bite from the latter would earn me a trip to the emergency room if I was lucky or earn me a spot as the main dish at a coyote family reunion if I wasn’t.

I pulled the headphones from my ears and turned off the four-wheeler so I would hear any movement or rattles. On the front of the four-wheeler was a metal basket that carried a fire extinguisher, emergency eye wash, and a machete for cutting the heads off of weeds. I picked up the machete, if it worked on the head of weeds it might work of the head of a snake.

I approached the rock pile slowly. The rocks were stacked over three feet high, which ruled out any natural occurrence unless it was the scat of some yet undiscovered rock monster.

I reached carefully with my left hand and picked up the first rock while my right hand was ready to strike with the machete at any slithering creature that might be hiding under it. There was nothing under it but more rock.

Even with the porous nature of the rock it was lighter than I had expected. I tossed it to the side and picked up another in the same manner. It didn’t take long to clear the pile down toward the plateau’s floor.

I noticed something peculiar. There was a relatively flat rock resting on the top of several rocks that were sunk into the ground. I looked to the left and the right and it appeared that the rocks were butted up against each other like a box built out of rocks.

I took a moment as my mind ran through the possibilities of what could be inside.



“Forgotten truths and mystic ways written for me to find?”

I reached my left hand out and grasped the rock. I could feel the porous holes on my fingers as I lifted it up to reveal what had been hidden.

I could hardly believe my eyes. My guide, my spirit guide, had led me to this. Not treasure or artifacts or even forgotten wisdom rested in the rock strong box. No he had led me here to find a great pile of mouse doo doo.

“Just kidding Harry you’re not really a wizard.”

“Sorry Luke you but screw your feelings and use that computer.”

“Actually, Bilbo I think you should sit this one out.”

To be fair there might have been ancient records there at one time, as I could see the mice had made a nice nest out of bits of paper.

I gained a lot this summer on the desert: new experiences, a love of mixing and eating peanut butter with Nutella straight from the jar, but mostly that moment like these are in place to remind me that deep down the universe thinks I’m an idiot.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Desert Spirit Guide Part One

My summer home on the Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge

I don't know if I was missing the Iraq desert when I was looking for a job this summer or if it was simply the only one that was available because of its location, but either way I spent my summer living and working on the southern Idaho desert for the US Fish and Wildlife service.

The Minidoka wildlife refuge covers quite a large area and I was lucky enough to see all 20,000 acres of it, including the strange bits and bobs that lay hidden there.
X marks the spot, I didn't have a shovel so I'm unsure what great treasure laid beneath

I spent my summer doing all manner of things like spraying weeds from a four-wheeler, catching and counting butterflies, walking the boundary fence with a GPS, and even wrangling Pelicans. But I think oddest day was when I found my would-be spirit guide.

It truly started out as mundane as the previous days; I loaded up the four-wheeler, drove across the boulder filled dirt road, and unloaded the four-wheeler to begin spraying the infamous Scotch Thistle.

During any typical ten hour day of spraying I could drive several hundred acres so naturally I would bring along my mp3 player to listen to some fantastic tunes or a nice audio book.

On this particular day I was making excellent time in my quest to spray the deadly Scotch Thistle whilst driving around the sparse Russian-olive trees and through the stands of Sage Brush all the while bobbing my head and shaking my booty to the excellent summer playlist I had created.

I had learned quickly that the dreaded Scotch Thistle had a knack for growing tall under the protective shade of those blasted Russian-olive trees. And with each squeeze of my spray applicator another weed would be cast down into that eternal sleep where its seeds would no longer blow.

Me with a Scotch Thistle that stood over six feet tall

I had already seen a lot of weird things this summer; rock walls going nowhere, chimneys sprouting from the desert floor, even auto parts miles from the nearest road. But this particular day would top them all.

It was four miles to the nearest road when I found this. An awful long way to carry out the trash, of course the rest of the car could be under the sand and dirt.

I drove out from under a Russian-olive when I saw several rocks. Rocks by themselves are not interesting but these rocks seemed to have been placed and not like the random rock wall. These rocks were placed in a circular fashion spiraling around and into four rocks that held the center.

It was so odd that I got off of my four-wheeler and walked to the center of the circle to take a short video of the rocks.

These rocks certainly didn’t come anywhere near the splendor and mystery of Stonehenge but my writers mind was already thinking along those lines.

What if the refuge is here to keep people away from this place?”

“What if this is an important ley line and Roosevelt needed to keep it safe for his personal power?”

“What an incredible story this could become!”

As my mind continued to spiral on its own I went to look over my stone circle again and then I saw him.

He was standing in the shade of a nearby Russian-olive and he was close. So close I could easily have struck him with a stone (and if you had ever seen me throw anything you would immediately understand just how incredibly close he was in order for me to claim such a feat).

He stood there panting looking right at me. His fur was grey white and he stood slightly taller than a coyote but smaller than most wolves I had seen. Add that to the fact that there are not supposed to be wolves in the area I wanted to call him coyote but he didn’t act or look like any coyote I had seen.

True, coyotes will stop and look at you before running off; that is, if they are at a distance. Coyotes also don’t hang around when four-wheelers are involved; they scatter fast and disappear into the sagebrush.

He was not scattering, nor running. This animal just watched me as if my presence didn’t bother him in the least, as if he had been expecting me, all the while Sia sang in my ears about how she was the wild one.

He finally turned slowly and began to walk off. At this point I thought my animal encounter was through and once again I would be relegated to weed killer but I noticed him 50 yards up a small trail looking back at me.

Perhaps I wanted to see where this animal was going. Perhaps I was simply looking for a divergence. Perhaps it was something else; something that I just knew had to be done. Whatever the reason might have been I felt the overwhelming sensation that he wanted me to follow him.

I sat back down on my four-wheeler and pushed my right thumb against the throttle and navigated up the trail...

Friday, August 17, 2012

How to Make Stronger Characters in Three Simple Steps

Your characters will be going from flabulous to fabulous!

Step One: Who’s in Charge of Casting?

As the writer you get to choose who plays what part; so don’t settle. You know how they should act and how they should look, so make it happen.

In the winter of 1996 I was working on an independent film. I had written the script and was producing the project. I had done a lot of hard work to put together a good creative team to make it a reality. We had locations secured, equipment ready, a killer script in hand (did I mention that I wrote the script?) and we were taking our time casting the parts.

For the part of the antagonist we had narrowed it down between two women. One was a complete new comer to acting but she had the look I wanted and I knew we could work with her to get up to stuff on the acting portion. The other had been in a few wide release films and would certainly handle acting well, but she didn’t look the part.

It was a mismatch that didn’t feel right for me. My director on the other hand wanted the woman with the SAG card; he felt it added more clout to our little project. But I was the producer and had put this entire project together so naturally we went with the woman who had the SAG card.

That’s what I love about writing. I don’t have to play nice or think about clout. I can create who I want and if I begin to let the outside voices (which might be coming from my own mind) start to change a character in the wrong way I can say, “Screw you, this is my project, my vision and it’s going to be done how I see it.”

Step Two: Eye Patches are so 1999

All characters should be memorable because of who they are not what they are wearing. The same goes for how they walk, talk, chew gum, etc.

Now if you have an eye patch wearing, limp walking, backwards talking, woman who chews her gum with her mouth closed and blows bubbles out her left nostril don’t bother reading this because that character is awesome.

Seriously though you want people to remember your characters because what they do, not what they wear.

In the Harry Potter series JK Rowling created a character that has a magical eye, fake leg and uses a staff to walk with but those are just additions. The real reason people remember him is how he interacts with other characters. As you read the pages you see the traits that make him a great character.

One of the simplest ways to make your character more memorable is with my 2:1 ratio of good/bad traits. Remember that no one is all good or all bad and this keeps them interesting.

For example: your protagonist is brave, tells the truth, but sneaks off to seedy bars to take place in illegal cat juggling.

Step Three: He Said What?

Take the time to write out a conversation with your character to learn how they sound and what type of word choices they use.

When I first started writing I knew my dialogue sucked. I knew this because people told me. I’m sure I felt the same way George Lucas felt when people told him the same thing. The difference is I listened.

I became conscious that all of my characters talked the exact same way that I did.

I am not a person who lived a sheltered life. I lived in different places, met unique individuals, and had good exposure to a world outside of my own. I just wasn’t paying attention.

You need to have an understanding of who your character is. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is by having a conversation with your character. Simply take out a blank page of paper or open a new file and begin to ask your character questions. Think of it as meeting them for the first time.

Go so far as to picture the setting. Is your conversation taking place in your home, over coffee, or walking down a crowded bazaar in Amman?

How does your character interact in this environment? How does your character sound?

If you are having trouble hearing anyone but yourself, take the time to talk to people from different walks of life. A great place to do this is at a farmers market, trust me.

By using these three simple steps you will create characters that pop off the page and remain ingrained in your reader’s minds long after they have put down your book.