Westward Ho!

I’m sitting here watching the snow fall on the western edge of North America and contemplating how with the spread of people over all of the continents leaves no mysterious ‘promised land’ to cling to. As I’ve written in previous posts, in earlier centuries people sought Prestor John or mysterious islands. They sought an easy route to India and the Northwest Passage. All of these were, over time, debunked, but in our restless human need to seek, we replaced those distant vistas with something else. At least in the past we did.

Old Ranch, Yukon (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The exploration of North America helped with that. As the surveyors moved west they opened up awareness of a great mysterious place called the American West. The acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase brought Lewis and Clark’s expedition and knowledge that the western mountains were more than one range and a new awareness of how broad the continent was. While they set to rest the final hopes that the Columbia and Missouri Rivers might connect and form a Passage to India, tales of what they had seen brought a new hope that, if not a promised land, there might at least be a Garden of the World in the rich lands westward.

Channel at edge of Yukon River (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Lewis and Clark were followed by the Topographical Engineers – a small elite branch of the army, whose most famous member was John Charles Fremont. Fremont took with him a red-faced German topographer named Charles Preuss. With Kit Carson, these three set out to map the trail west, determine where to establish outposts, and scout passes over the mountains. While the results of their first venture were of only limited value for its maps, Fremont’s dramatic escapades of planting a US flag on a high peak to demonstrate the national resolve of ‘America strong and triumphant from sea to sea’, and his colorful journal, apparently launched many settlers westward. Subsequent Fremont/Preuss ventures resulted in some of the best maps of the day, extending knowledge down into California and erasing as much fanciful cartographic information, as it established. Preuss’s expertise in creating maps led not only to cartographic information, but also to the first ‘road map’ to the west.

Other explorers like John Wesley Powell, extended our knowledge of areas around the Grand Canyon as they travelled down the Green River and into the cataracts of the Colorado River within the Canyon. His further expeditions surveyed much of southern Utah from the Colorado to the Nevada line. Powell’s work also resulted in warnings about the old methods of agricultural farming. The warnings weren’t heeded and it took the dust bowl dirty thirties to prove him right. But Powell gave America an even greater legacy. He lobbied for, and finally achieved, the creation of the United States Geological Survey, which continues to this day to provide detailed maps of the country.

Old Ranch, Yukon River (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The only problem with this is that detailed maps removed the mystery and it seems to me it impacted the human psyche. From America, explorers joined the Europeans in the further exploration of our planet. We delve into the depths of the ocean, the frigid wastes of the Arctic, and into the humid breadth of the Amazon Rain Forest. But even those areas are being explored and the race for space seems to have died. It makes me wonder if part of the anger and anxiety we see in our culture isn’t partially due to the fact we have no new vista to call us and no new ‘promised land’ to bring out our best.

 

 

A Christmas Map of Place and Time

I put up the Christmas tree the other day, uncovering each tissue-wrapped ornament before putting it on the tree. My mother commented on how each one was so unique and that made me reflect on how each ornament was a memory that solidified and evoked a place that I had visited, or a certain place and time in my life.

Angkor across the pool

On the tree were ornaments purchased in Peru, and others from Tanzania, Cambodia, St.Thomas, and India. The tiny painted gourd Peruvian cuy (guinea pig), hung side by side with the wee silk elephant I found in Thailand. A German bauble my mother-in-law gave me hung next to a globe found at a French clock-maker’s shop at a town next to the Swiss border and a Pueblo Indian Virgin Mary sent by my parents from Arizona. All of these brought back memories of Christmas eve feasts, times in the Angkor heat or the chill of the Himalayas, and standing on the Serengeti plains.

Two of the dearest decorations were a handmade snowman and a tiny wooden cuckoo clock. The cuckoo reminds me of times with my stepsons and ex-husband out riding the wilds of Central British Columbia. You see, that area is ranching country complete with wolves and bears and miles of undeveloped forest. In the winter it was covered with snow-laden pine and spruce. At Christmas, there was no better way to start the season than to saddle up our horses and head out into that pristine winter land.

We’d take an axe and an old horse blanket with us and head out into the forest, the horses blowing steam through their nostrils as they bounded through hock-deep snow, my sons rosy-cheeked as they raced their horses ahead until they came whooping back to announce that had found the PERFECT tree. That was what the ride was all about. We’d follow them – usually out to some clearing where a smaller tree would stand. My husband would dismount and shake the snow off, getting it all over himself and then, as a family, we’d critique the tree they’d found. If it passed muster, we’d chop the tree down, wrap it in the blanket and tether the blanketed tree to the horn of one saddle before starting our (much slower) ride home dragging the tree behind us. That would bring the official tree into our home and the small cuckoo clock was one of the first ornaments we bought as a family.

The snowman ornament was made by my youngest stepson. We didn’t have a lot of money in those days – at least not for ornaments for the tree – so he and I set out to make some. I still have the small green felt tree I made, but his is special: a stuffed white snowman complete with scarf, and broom and a black top hat all carefully sewn by ten-year-old hands. I smile and think of him, long grown to a man, whenever I find it each year.

And so my Christmas tree today is a guardian of riches worth more than the presents under it. Those glittering branches hold not only my memories, but also a map of the treasures of my life.

Merry Christmas.

The Roots of the World

The Grand Canal, Venice (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

For men like Fra Mauro (see last post), the exploration of the external world led to an understanding of the inner landscape of men. So too, from the triangulation of the world (see post here) came a greater understanding of the internal shape of the earth.

I mentioned previously that in order to determine the shape of the world, a French survey team went to Ecuador and Peru at the same time as a team went to Lapland. Unfortunately for the Peruvian team, the Lapland team discovered the answer to the scientific question long before the Peruvian team ever finished their survey. While in South America, however, the Peruvian team struggled over mountains and through jungles and noted different gravity readings as they took their survey measurements along their route. They surmised that the differences in the readings might reflect the varying landscape and theorized that mountains might be made of less dense material than the lowlands. A good theory, but it took over a hundred years for the matter to be more fully explored and the discovery was made far from South America. It took the British Raj’s need to survey India to bring understanding to what the mass of mountains might mean.

Machu Picchu caught in the coil of the coil of the Urubamba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Machu Picchu caught in the coil of the coil of the Urubamba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

In the mid nineteenth century, the horrendous task of surveying India through triangulation was almost undone by the discovery of an error of some 150 meters between the distance the triangulation measurements computed, and an actual direct surface measurement. To determine what had led to the error, the cartographers involved had to reexamine their assumptions – in this case they had assumed that the mass of the Himalayan Mountains would greatly influence the gravity measurements of their survey instruments. What they found was that they had overestimated the lower mass of the mountains.

This led to a theory of the earth’s crust that still exists today, namely that every (theoretical) column of the earth (from core to outer surface following a theoretical plum line) should have approximately the same mass. Given that tall mountains have a lower mass, they must have an equally large (but low mass) protuberance at the bottom of the earth’s crust to achieve the same mass as denser areas of the earth’s crust. Conversely, under the oceans where the ocean basins are very dense, the earth’s crust would be relatively thin. The theoretical result would be that inside the earth there would be a mirroring of the plains, mountains and ocean valleys we see on the surface, much like a tall iceberg has a large underwater presence to balance it out. Modern science has supported this, by obtaining crust measurements off the coast of South America that show the Andes have roots as deep as 75 kilometers.

Stupa and Prayer flags at the Manali Summit (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Think of this the next time you are crossing the mountains, staring up at those tall, snow-covered peaks, for they are the frosting, the outer conceit of an iceberg of stone that conceals the deeper reality of the roots of the mountains.

Much like Fra Mauro saw the illusions of men obscure the truth of his map of the world.

Powell’s Books: A glimpse inside the cartographer’s mind

Gondolas, Venice (2004) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The other day at Powell’s Books (Portland), I came across a wonderful little book called “The Mapmaker’s Dream” by James Cowan. The book is the translation of the diary of Fra Mauro, a sixteenth century Venetian monk and cartographer who set out to make a perfect mappamundi (map of the world) though he had never stepped outside the confines of his cloisters. Instead he gathered travelers’ tales through exchanges of letters or interviews of missionaries, merchants and soldiers travelling through Venice. His task became well known and he received envoys from as far afield as the court of the Chinese Emperor. Not only was this book astounding for the fact that word of his venture travelled so far in the 16th century, but the information he collected and the workings of his mind fascinated me.

Yes, his travelers brought stories of the Cyclopedes, beings in the southern hemisphere with only one huge foot that they used for hopping and also for shade when the sun in the antipodes became too fierce, but envoys also brought other tales that caused good Fra Mauro much reflection. This was what captured my attention for they showed a keenness of mind and a shifting view of the world much like new age philosophers. This seemed strange for his time; given Fra Mauro was a devout Catholic.

His encounters left him pondering whether the soul could possibly transmigrate into another person upon the death of the body and whether we are ‘all drifting towards a more complete life in someone else’. The visit of an old Jewish merchant from Rhodes left him contemplating how the loss of place (in the holy land) ‘condemned the man to inhabit his loss forever’ and how the rootless person came to inhabit a region of his own mind instead.

Schwedigon pagoda

Holy Schwedigon pagoda at sunset, Yangon, Myanmar (Photo (C) Karen Abrahamson)

Visits from others left him considering how venerated holy relics become something more because of that veneration, and how those objects take on their own life because they unite an idea that men aspire to. They left him wondering at cultures that worshiped Satan and yet were not evil, and others that determined their actions and their future through the calls of seven forest birds.

But most of all he wrote of the minds of travelers. He was struck by the notion that travelers not only travelled with their bodies, but also that they travelled in their minds and were transformed by that travel or, alternatively, transformed the place they had been. He wrote of the journeys of envoys sent to find the mythic kingdom of Prestor John and looked at the evidence of such a kingdom – the long letter still held in the Vatican archives that describes a kingdom so perfect it could not possibly exist. Fra Mauro concluded that the reason the search for Prestor John’s kingdom became all consuming, was not just the desire for aid against the Moslem hordes, but the desire to know that it was possible for paradise to exist on earth. Travelers longed to become ‘slaves’ to Prestor John’s perfection and bounty. But the country of Prestor John would never be found because it was only built on dreams.

Buddha face, Sukhothai

Buddha face, ruins of the ancient capital of Sukhothai (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Ultimately, Fra Mauro realized the challenge of creating a perfect map arose because each man’s perceptions of place were different and any ‘perfect’ map must capture not only the land forms, but also the forms of the world created by men’s minds.

The lowly monk of Venice completed his life’s work, but today no trace of his perfect mappamundi exists, except in references in the pages of his journal. Perhaps, like the worlds he described, it faded away to become the world as we know it today, but more importantly what his journal shows is a man of deep thought who’s Sixteenth Century perspectives still resonate with readers today.

Thank you, Powell’s, for this gift.

On Maps, GPS and Andre Gide

I never get lost, or only rarely. Few places turn me around, Portland Oregon being one of them. (I’m blaming the rivers and the volcanoes on creating a weird magnetic field that disturbs my sense of true north.) All my life I’ve arrived in a new place and managed to orient myself quickly, so that I’ve been able to get around with only my sense of direction and, when necessary, a map. These days, however, I’m beginning to feel like an anachronism every time I unfold my trusty, old fashioned paper map. In fact, I’m reminded of an episode of FRIENDS, when, in London, Joey had to place his map on the ground and step into it, in order to find himself.

Huinay Huayna, Forever Young, hung above the Urubumba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Huinay Huayna, Forever Young, hung above the Urubumba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Let’s face it, with GPS, Onboard computers in our cars, and smart phones, all of which will give you the best route to take from point A to point B courtesy of MapQuest, the art of map reading is certainly on the wane. Which makes me wonder what the loss of that art will mean to our world.

Sure it might mean less coffee-stained maps, probably fewer traffic accidents and certainly fewer arguments between couples lost on a Sunday drive, but what will it mean to how we see the world?

My fascination with maps has always existed. Travelling as I do, one of my first purchases for any destination is a map that is large enough that I can understand the relationship between places, and that I can see enough details so that I can also get off the beaten path. When I go travelling, I like to trace my route on the map as an indelible reminder of the places I’ve gone and the things I’ve seen. It also reminds of the immensity of experiences I haven’t had, and all the other corners and mountain tops and valleys and towns and people I haven’t seen or met. The map reminds me of the world out there that I’ve, ever so briefly, stepped into.

Thread seller - Marrakesh, Morocco

Thread seller - Marrakesh, Morocco

With the advent of GPS and TomTom etc. I wonder how that affects our relationship with the world around us. With a map we get context. We get how small we are in a much larger world, whereas the GPS and OnBoard Computers I’ve used reduce the world to one small computer screen that points us in one direction and that doesn’t foster those exciting tingles a map gives when you realize there’s an alternative route to the one you’d chosen—one that might be richer for the fact it isn’t the most direct route or the path that most people travel.

Maps have fostered my imagination since the first time one fell out of my parents’ National Geographic Magazine and since the first time I traveled with my parents from British Columbia to Quebec and my mom showed me a map of the continent. I was seven and the vastness of the landscape excited me with all the half-glimpsed things along our route. Maps gave me a sense of where we were in relation to where we’d been. Today they give me a sense of the greater world. Old maps show what the landscape once was and how it has changed. Maps even give a sense of how other cultures view the world differently than most North Americans do today

Path along the Yukon River, following the routes of explorers.

The French Author, Andre Gide wrote that “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a long time.” That’s what maps are all about, a guide to discovery and exploring something vaster , whereas GPS seems to make a journey all about yourself moving from point A to point B.

So for me, though GPS and MapQuest are great for short trips, I’ll muddle through with a paper map and my own sense of adventure. I’ll live by Gide’s philosophy and take a chance on getting lost or perhaps, like Joey, finding myself in the map.

So how do you prefer to travel? Are you map challenged or a fan? Do you depend on GPS when you’re travelling? Why?

That Research Thing

Ashes and Light - coverReaders of my books set in Afghanistan or Portugal and Burma often ask me how I got the details right. Of course the answer is research, and in all truth I can’t say that I got all the details right, but for me to write I have to have a sense that I have enough knowledge of the place and the culture to write it correctly, or as close to correctly, as I know how. Same goes for a particular time period or a specific piece of technical knowledge. This blog is about how I go about building the knowledge so that when I sit down to write it flows out of my hands.

1. Reading: I read about what I want to write about. I read fiction that gives me a flavor of how other people write about a location. I read non-fiction accounts, memoirs, biographies and histories. These both allow me to pick up the nuggets these writers gleaned about the place or culture. I’ll pick up cheap coffee table books from remainder tables at book stores just so I can look at the photos. This often fuels my sense of place. I haunt the history and geography sections of used book stores like Powell’s to find relevant writing about the place or timeframe, like for 1400’s Portugal for my upcoming book, The Cartographer’s Daughter. I’ll read the coffee table book if something captures my imagination. For example, I was living in Thailand and saw a small coffee-table book about Burmese Puppets. I picked it up and what I read spurred me to want to write a story about the puppets – I know, it’s a ridiculously esoteric subject – but I read that book from cover to cover and used it as a jumping off place to identify other information I needed to know.

2. Maps: I’m a huge fan of maps. Maps give a me a sense of location and perspective. I recall traipsing around Venice, and it was the maps with the bird’s eye view that I first looked at when I arrived, that stopped me from ever getting totally lost in the maze of streets, canals and alleys. The same map put into perspective where Marco Polo’s house was and how that location within Venice might impact his view of the world. Maps let you identify potentialities in the location and they also show specific locations for events in your stories. Maps, I find, are an inspiration.

This is especially the case in writing historical stories, because maps not only show you the landscape back then, but they also tell you a lot about the culture, belief system and world view of the people. I’ll talk more about maps in a later blog.

Similar to historical fiction, when the story is a fantasy set in a fantasy landscape, I make maps up. Knowing where things are located and having place names in your head, allows you to build histories around those landscapes which are so important to making fantastical places real. It also forces you to think how long it would take to get from point A to B and about how the landscape would impact the characters who live or travel there.

3. Talking to people: Talking to people who are experts in their fields can help to get the details right. It can also be a source of inspiration with those odd facts that are so obvious to the experts, but no one else is aware of. These are jewels for writers, because they let readers in on the secret language of whatever this specialty is.

When I was writing about the Burmese puppets I had the good fortune to travel in Burma(Myanmar) and made a point of going to every puppet show in every town I travelled through. I made arrangements to interview the owner of one of the shows in Mandalay who spoke moderately good English and he referred me on to another man who made the puppets. It turned out this kind man was an ex-surgeon and spoke excellent English. He had been instrumental in providing information to anthropologists doing research on the puppets and kindly showed me how they were made, demonstrated some of them for me and even gave me a precious manuscript he had received from the anthropologists so that I could photocopy it for myself. You have to understand that at the time Burma was almost a closed country and that he was taking a risk even talking to me, a writer. Those items I treasure to this day and those unbound pages still have a place of honor on my bookshelves. They were also critical to a couple of fantasies and Karen L. McKee’s Paranormal Romance, Shades of Moonlight.

If you can’t talk to the people, you might be able to get in touch via e-mail. When I was writing my Afghan novel I was in touch with past foreign correspondents, and members of the military that friends helped me locate.

Writing about other cultures, it’s also important to talk to people of that culture. For my Afghanistan book I spent a number of coffee and lunches interviewing a lovely Afghani woman who was brave and interested enough to talk to me about woman in her culture, about her faith and about what was happening in her country, as well attitudes amongst her people towards the foreigners ‘liberating’ her country. These attitudes shaped my characters. She also provided me with small phrases and legends that are common in her country. These are also gold because they allow you to build in the real words and beliefs of the people.

4. Old Newspapers: If you are writing about a historical period where there were newspapers, or you are writing about another part of the world and can get newspapers in a language you can read from that time period, this can be an invaluable way to get a sense of the background events that were occurring in the location at the time you are writing about. Nowadays many major newspapers have their archives available on line. Reading the old papers can also spur inspiration regarding events that are reported and how your characters might have been involved or touched by the event, and can also give you a sense of fashion and language used ‘back in the day’. For example, a story about how bats had taken over the old Regina City library back in the 1920s led to an opening chapter of the first adult novel I ever wrote.

5. Library and Internet research: Having a local librarian as an ally can be a boon, because a librarian can suggest you try looking at books in areas you might not have even thought of. University libraries are also superb resources. When I was writing about Burma I wanted a specific book about the magic systems and the animistic spirit worship. There’s been very little written on the subject at the time, but there was one fairly comprehensive anthropological study. I found the book (a very old, falling apart version) and ended up photocopying the whole thing so I could have it available as a resource.

The internet can be helpful in finding old journals and photos of locations taken by other travelers. Blogs can be a wonderful source of information, both about the place and about the traveler’s reactions to it. I used old articles in The Economist and old travel journals about a very rough ride through northern Afghanistan to bring realism to my novel set in that country.

6. Travel: I try to travel every few years and I don’t go to resorts and I don’t do tours. I go to places I think I might want to write about and I spend my time poking around the back streets and absorbing the feel of the place. I spend time talking to people to get a sense of people’s attitudes. I’ll sit in a park and let people come to me. I talk to waiters and taxi drivers and vendors on the street – often with very limited communication skills because we speak different languages, but enough to get a sense of small bits of their realities—like the

Carmelita of Puno, Arequipa (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Carmelita of Puno, on the Arequipa streets (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

woman who worked in one city in Peru, but who had left her children behind in another city because there was better money to be earned where she was – a hard economic choice the country’s situation had forced on her.

Before I travel I think about where I want to go and what I want to see and a plan a general itinerary around that, but I also let fate take me where it will. There have been times when a chance meeting, or a wander off the beaten path, has allowed me to find something wonderful that takes the potential writing in a whole new direction.

So research for writing isn’t so much simply gathering facts and then writing about them, it’s about immersing yourself in a location or situation (even if you’ve never been there), so that when you sit down to write the place itself inspires what you are writing. I recall my Afghan book as one of the most difficult books I have ever written. Why? Because I had so many false starts on the book. I would start and get a chapter in and realize I wasn’t ready to write that story yet because I wasn’t filled with the sense of place and the culture. So I kept on researching and wrote other books and then one day I sat down and the book poured out wiht all the wonderful details in just the right places. And yes, there are probably errors in the book, because in a war-torn country there are places so remote that you just can’t get the information. So you know what? There are things in that book that arose purely from my imagination.

Because it’s fiction, folks. Remember that. Fiction.

Wiggle Room – the Chinese army and finding the time for a creative life

I’ve heard it said that if you want something done, ask the busiest person you know and they will accomplish it. Somehow these people have the ability to stretch a little more out of a minute or hour to get the conference planned, or the new report written. These people amaze me. Actually, I think they intimidate the heck out of me, because I am constantly finding myself scrambling trying to get things done and regretting my inability to say ‘no’ to new work. Of course, too much work impacts my ability to find time for my writing.

How do these people do it? Do they really have the magical ability to expand time?

Yak at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Yak at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Of course the answer is ‘no’ (at least I don’t think too many of us have Hermoine’s magic watch), but these people have tricks that help them get things done. I figure I must have a few as well as I am frequently being asked where I find the time to write, or travel , or blog.

The first thing one must do is decide if writing or travel is something you really want to do. For me, there were years of frustration about finding the time to write and the time to market my writing until a friend and mentor made the suggestion that I treat myself as a one of my clients. You see, I work for myself as a consultant and I schedule my time based on the work a client has asked me to do. The suggestion was helpful to me because it did two things:

1. It got me to schedule time;

2. It legitimized my writing and got me to take it as seriously as I take my paying work.

The first of these points speaks to organization, a key point if you are trying to fit writing into your life. Along with organizing your life to allow writing time, you must obtain the buy-in from significant others like spouses and friends – otherwise expect writing time to be a constant source of relationship friction.

The second of these points is probably the most important. Taking my writing seriously gave me permission to make it a priority to write. I can’t tell you how many people I know who say they want to write a book or are working on a book and yet they never sit down to write. The first job of a writer is to write – not to talk about it. Not even to blog about it. But to write. Bum in chair folks, and no matter what else is going on in my life, I always find time to be there.

You have to decide the writing/travel/whatever is a priority because it will hurt you more not to do the activity, than to do it.

I’ve also had people tell me that part of their trouble is the challenge of moving from creative to mundane (e.g. work) projects and back again. This is an issue of multitasking. So how do people manage this shift from project to project?

I know people who work on two or three novel projects at the same time. I admire them greatly, but I don’t think I can do it. These folk can literally be writing one manuscript in the morning and another at night. For some it’s a matter of compartmentalizing their writing, so writing a certain type of book is associated with a certain time of day. I suppose I do something similar when I get up early in the morning and write creatively, and then turn to my work computer at eight a.m.

Having separate computers can help, as well. Having one computer for work and one that is strictly for creative endeavors allows your brain to associate a certain place with a certain type of thinking. Keeping your creative space separate from the internet has also helped some writers, and definitely removing all games from the creative computer. For me, I have to keep my photography on a separate computer because that is a time sink I frequently get stuck in, because it also feeds my creativity.

Other issues fledgling writers run into include knowing what to write and just getting started. I’ve talked previously about inspiration, but sometimes it’s just the fear of getting started. There are wonderful books out there that can help. I fondly recall Natalie Goldberg’s Wildmind, and the wonderful book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Both helped me explore my voice and passions and taught me that my voice was valid. Books can teach you how to deal with the anxiety of starting through cleansing breaths, or meditation . Each writer has to find their own way to deal with the critics in their heads.

I’m reminded of a mantra Kris Rusch and Dean Smith put up at every workshop: DARE TO BE BAD. What this means is that all creativity (and travel, and just plain living, for that matter) is about taking a risk. We have to throw ourselves out there and only by taking those chances will something wonderful arise.

I’m reminded of one of my adventures: In China my travel companion and I decided to visit a remote area called Qinghai Lake. This is a wind-blown steppe in the mountains that has a huge lake that supports the massive migrations of waterfowl from Siberia to South Asia. So we hopped a local bus and travelled up into the mountains and were dumped off in a small group of buildings that were reminiscent of an old west town except there were no horses around, only yaks and monks.

Monks at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Monks at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

So we ventured out to the lake on foot (not an easy hike, because the lake was distant and the wind was high and scoured us constantly with dust). We were met by Tibetan women bringing their children to see Westerners. (I scared the children because I have blue eyes and apparently that’s not a good thing.) We saw massive stone cairns, strings of prayer flags, and wonderful kids who showed off by riding yaks to guard their herds and, in the distance, blue Qinghai Lake. I ended up going back to our room alone and was just washing the dust out of my pores when someone pounded on the door.

Soldiers.

They barged in on me as I stood there dripping. I was shocked, to say the least, and my first reaction was to shoo them right out of the room again and bar the door. It worked. I stood there, heart pounding. Through the door I heard them whispering and laughing. And they went away.

Which proved to me, that if I could deal with the Chinese Army, I could deal with most anything – including anything that dares get in the way of my writing.

Destructive Forces, or The Beauty of Making Things Worse

I’ve mentioned in previous posts about the destructive force of Ben and Shiva. Ben has his penchant for getting in behind breakable objects and purposefully shoving them off of shelves. (I have much less brick-a-brack these days.) Shiva has developed a penchant for shredding paper—cardboard—plastic. Anything he can sink his little teeth and claws into and I constantly am catching him at this lovely trick on things like – oh – my business license, or a manuscript stacked and ready to be mailed out.

I wonder if editors would understand a few chewed corners.

Hmm, maybe they would just figure I have mice, or was particularly nervous about mailing this one out?

Ruins and fromages trees, Angkor, Cambodia (2008) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Ruins and fromages trees, Angkor, Cambodia (2008) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Anyway, in the midst of trying to preserve my manuscripts and various and sundry pieces of memorabilia from my travels, I got to thinking about destruction and its place in our lives and writing. At the same time a writer friend of mine sent me a link to some fantastic photos of the erosion and destruction of Detroit . The photos are bizarrely science fictional and evoked thoughts of Night of the Living Dead, Twelve Monkeys and War of the Worlds, and yet they are absolutely and utterly beautiful with their haunting look at faded glories. Maybe it’s just me, (but I think not, given the hordes of other visitors to places like Angkor, and Athens and Machu Picchu) but I am fascinated not just by the vestiges of what was once great and has now been destroyed, but also in the cracks in the great edifices and the things climbing through from the other side. As I watch the people of Egypt struggle for democracy I think of new life, like the fromages tree that grow from the Angkor ruins (one is on my website home page). Or maybe it’s the wisdom and laughter that shines through from an age-ruined face.

Buddhist nun at Mingan, Mandalay, (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abraha

Buddhist nun at Mingan, Mandalay, (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abraha

What does this have to do with writing?

A writer’s job is to make things worse and to recognize that destruction is life. This is hard, because even though I think we are attracted to destruction—fascinated by it, even, if you notice the way traffic slows next to a serious traffic accident—we hate to inflict it on other beings. We are fascinated and repulsed by news of a slaughter of others. Haiti’s earthquake, for example, or Hurricane Katrina, or the Tsunami that wiped out so many in Malaysia and Thailand. And yet as a writer our hands pause as we destroy our character’s beloved possession, or reputation. We hold back from hurting them physically or mentally. We take heed of the cardinal rule and DON’T kill their cat or the dog or the horse, but we don’t do other things to wound them either.

Which makes our writing boring.

Think about it. Are we interested in a character skipping happily through life? No. Even all those Jackie Collins novels of the beautiful people carry their own carnage. That’s what makes us read those novels and all those T.V. magazines: seeing the crumbling of those magnificent edifices of the cults of personality.

So it’s not just thrillers and action stories that should have destructive forces, whether they’re external or internal to our characters, we need them to ignite the passion in the reader and make them want to read on. The ‘oh-no’ moment. The tension of anticipation of when the lover finds out that they’ve been cheated on. The implications when a character finds their home, their family, their life (insert your character’s loss here) is gone. We want to know and we want to understand how character’s overcome, because we all have those forces in our lives and we want to see what comes after.

The difference is, in our writing (unlike all life situations), the edifices of the character’s old life may crumble or burn, but something lovely and fragile and – more – arises from the ashes. Like that fromages tree. Like the wisdom I see in those old eyes.

So get back to your destruction when you turn to your keyboard. I’m going to keep an eye on that chewed box in the corner to see what loveliness arises.

You’re Going Where?

Okay, so I’m going to Peru. I’m going to follow the Gringo Loop and hike the Inca Trail all the way to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

 Or at least that’s the plan. If food poisoning and altitude sickness don’t get me first.

But then neither of them has ever stopped me before. You see, I like to travel. I like to travel just as much as I like to write fiction and so I thought I’d combine my two passions in a blog as I get ready for the trip and as I hike (uphill both ways) to Machu Picchu.

A lot of people ask me how I decide where I want to go. Yes, I’ve been to ‘normal places’ in Europe, but mostly I travel a bit off the beaten path. I’ve traveled through East and West Africa by truck. I’ve spent three months in northern India travelling by train, bus, jeep and, dare I say, camel.  I spent two months travelling the Silk Road through China and made side journeys to the Tibetan highlands. I’ve travelled in Egypt, Burma, and Cambodia and lived in Thailand. A good friend described my travel as going to all the weird places in the world. Of course he followed it up with the question “Why don’t you go someplace normal? Like Palm Springs? Like Florida?”

Answering that question is a lot like answering a best-selling author who, when I told her I was writing a suspense novel with romantic overtones set in Afghanistan,  asked to me why in god’s name I would write something like that.

The answer?

Why not?

Besides, it was something I was interested in. It was something far away and foreign that I wanted to understand. That inspiration became Ashes and Light, it was just after the invasion of Afghanistan and I wanted to understand what was happening in that country. I’d enjoyed Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, but I wanted to write something that was more mainstream, that would reach into the hearts of readers who wouldn’t read The Kite Runner and provide them with insights that might explain – even a little bit – the misunderstandings that were brewing between Islam and the rest of the world. My travels to northwest India and far western China—areas that enjoy similarities of people, religion, culture and landscape with Afghanistan—all helped me with the book.

While the Afghan story arose from a cerebral process, sometimes the idea for a story or destination arises from something far simpler. Sometimes it’s another traveler’s tale. Sometimes it’s a photo. In the case of Peru, it was two postcards: One was a framed postcard in my doctor’s office of a traditionally dressed Peruvian girl peeking out from behind a brightly striped blanket. There was something so fresh and lovely in her face that it made me want to meet people like her. The other post card was of Machu Picchu and was from my parents who were on a world cruise. Unfortunately, they couldn’t visit the ancient Inca site because they are 83 years old and if the altitude sickness didn’t get them, the uneven ground would have. 

So part of my reason for going to Peru is to bring the feel of Peru back to my folks. And that’s what I see travel as being—one part inspiration, one part imagination, and a whole lot of hard work and a magnificent gift—when it works. A lot like writing a book.

So I leave for Peru on March 25, 2011. Come on along, if you like, and I’ll try to get us through without the food poisoning and altitude sickness.