Writing about writing is usually boring except to writers, and when writers read writing about writing it’s often because they’re procrastinating or blocked or otherwise not writing.
In this blog post I’m writing about writing, but I’m going to dress it up with Vineyard photographs to make it more bloggish.
The Squatters’ Speakeasy (working title) has been evolving. This is good. But it keeps running into walls. This is not so good. I know what I want to happen. I want some characters to start a grassroots movement to demand affordable year-round housing. But this is so far from anything that’s ever happened in real life that I couldn’t even begin to imagine such a thing. I was stuck.
How about introducing a magical element to make it happen? No go. Fantasy only works if the writer believes it, and I didn’t. My fictional Martha’s Vineyard obeys the same physical laws as the Martha’s Vineyard I live on. I came up with a few other halfhearted ideas. My plot director, who’s been observing Vineyard life pretty closely for almost 30 years, shot them all down before they were airborne.
Meanwhile, the mysterious force that I call my muse was playing in the background. As I was falling asleep one night, she dropped an image into my head: people camped out on the Tashmoo Overlook.
Wonder of wonders, the plot director was intrigued. Who were these people? No idea. How did they did there? No idea about that either. “Maybe I could draw or paint them in?” I suggested. “How about Photoshop?”
“You can’t draw or paint worth beans,” replied the plot director, “and last I looked, you couldn’t Photoshop to save your life. If you want campers on the overlook, you’re going to have to plot them in. Ha ha ha.”
“OK,” said I, “but you’re going to have to help me out here.”
Turned out some of the pieces were already in place. I started connecting the dots. The story so far takes place in May. I’ve already written a big, portentous set-piece of a scene for the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. (If you’re curious about this, see “Benefit Art Show.”)
Every Memorial Day, the town of Tisbury throws a big picnic at — guess where? — the Tashmoo Overlook. What if a few of the picnickers stayed late? What if they camped out all night and were still there in the morning?
The plot director loved this idea. Squatters, like Mud of the Place, is an ensemble piece with several viewpoint characters. Which one was going to pull the campers into the story? At this point I didn’t know who the campers were, so it couldn’t be one of them. Shannon, of course, said my muse as Travvy and I walked one morning down the path behind the West Tisbury School.
That was almost two weeks ago. Shannon’s route to the Tashmoo Overlook was, of course, longer and twistier than I’d imagined. Best of all, it turned up a villain I didn’t know I’d been looking for until he showed up — at an AA meeting, of all places. Yesterday morning I finished a very rough draft, in brown ink, annotated here and there in a red-orange ink called Fireball. Yesterday afternoon Travvy and I headed into Vineyard Haven to retrace Shannon’s route to the Tashmoo Overlook. If there were any impossibilities in my draft, I wanted to know before I started typing it into a shape my writers’ group can read tomorrow night.
The AA meeting was what brought Shannon into town on a Monday night, to the Baptist church parish house. It’s not a meeting she usually attends, but the meeting has been struggling and the current secretary asked her and another veteran AA to lend their experience, strength, and hope to the regular members, most of whom are fairly young in the program.
During the meeting, Shannon helps head off a member who monopolizes the floor and is intimidating other members. After the meeting, her buddy (whose name is currently Jack) waits for Shannon outside, smoking a cigarette. I had him leaning on a stone wall parallel to the parish house. There is no stone wall parallel to the parish house. Oops.
The real stone wall is parallel to the church just next door. Fortunately this works just fine. Better than fine: see the butt-disposal unit next to the wall? Jack, who is trying to quit, stubs out his cigarette when it’s only half smoked. Now he won’t be tempted to relight it.
Jack knows and distrusts the disruptive meeting member. Breaking the man’s anonymity, he tells Shannon who he is and warns her to be careful. “See, see, see?” says my plot director. “Have we got a part for him or what?”
Shannon heads off down West Spring Street, which at night is dark and quiet and offers an alternative to State Road, which in late May is neither. West Spring bends sharply to the left and then climbs past the headquarters of the Tisbury Water Works, which is down an asphalt driveway and almost out of sight from the road. On the other side of the woods is the Tashmoo Overlook.
Approaching State Road just uphill from the overlook, we hit a snag: No way could Shannon spot lights in the meadow from West Spring. The woods are too deep, the trees too dense. She has to see the lights from State Road. I’ll figure that out later.
The good news is that the path I remembered is really there, leading from West Spring to the meadow, and wide as a boulevard. Shannon and her flashlight will have no trouble following it in the dark.
More good news awaited me at the other end of the path: A small camp — at the moment it’s two four-person tents and an old-fashioned canvas pup tent — could nestle at the end of the meadow. The dropoff from the lay-by, where tourists park to photograph Lake Tashmoo in the distance and the cell phone reception is good, is steep enough to conceal a clandestine camp from the road, at least at night. Trav and I had to wade through tall grass and shrubbery to photograph it from a good angle, but the field is mowed for the town picnic so it should make a good campsite.
That’s State Road curving up the hill on the right; Malvina Forester is parked on the lay-by. The woods Trav and I walked through are dead ahead, across the meadow. I hear voices; the tents are flickering in and out of existence. Can you see them yet?
What happens when Shannon emerges from the woods, flashlight in hand? I’ll leave that till later. Needless to say, she and I were both surprised by what we saw and heard. The plot director is unabashedly thrilled. She’s got an illicit encampment and a zealous town employee who wants to shut it down. What’s not to like?