Under Siege #21: Michigan

Apologies are in order.  I have taken a nearly three week vacation from my blog: a blogation or a vaclog, if you prefer (which I do).  But I have not taken a vacation from writing, far from it.  I’ve been doing my best to fulfill every stereotype associated with writers: sitting in a log cabin in the woods of northern Michigan and working feverishly (at least for the first week… I got better) on my next novel about the Crusades: Kingdom.  Before you let your imagination run away with you, conjuring up romantic images of me at my typewriter, writing in a cabin that sits in the shade of tall white pines, a clear-blue lake sparkling in the background, you should know a few things: 1) I do not own a typewriter; 2) log cabins, while quaint, are not insulated; and 3) northern Michigan can be very, very cold in May.  This means I spend a lot of time feeding the fire and trying to ignore my dog Barley, who is constantly begging me to take him out to play.  Barley actually prefers a nice freezing rain to sunshine.  Me?  Not so much.

I realize that it is in poor form to complain about spending my days in a rustic cabin writing.  And to tell the truth, I don’t have any real grounds for complaint, because no matter how cold the cabin gets—I can sometimes see my breath—there is one truly wonderful thing about it: there are no distractions.  That is why I have come here to start each of my novels.  Beginnings are always hard.  I know this, and yet every time I start a new writing project, I forget just how hard it will be.  The first chapter always takes a couple of weeks to write, even though I always expect to dash it off in a matter of days.  Working my way into the story and immersing myself in the past takes time, and it can be frustrating.  So it’s nice to be somewhere where there is absolutely nothing else to do.  It keeps me focused.

And when I start feeling lonely—or when my feet get so cold that I start losing feeling in my toes—then I can always escape to the cozy coffee shop in the nearby town, Elk Rapids.  Elk Rapids is the sort of place that demands the use of words like “charming” and “quaint” to describe it.  Its main street—the length of a football pitch and lined with two-story brick buildings—looks much the same as it did a hundred-and-fifty years ago.  Back then, northern Michigan was crawling with Swedish immigrant lumberjacks—flannel, flapjacks, meatballs… good times—and Elk Rapids was at the heart of a lumber empire.  The big employer in town was the saw mill.  Nowadays the big draw is tourism, and the old lumber magnate’s home, which could easily be the Chase family manor from The Blind Assassin—it’s a sprawling affair set off from the rabble by a diverted stream that has transformed the hill on which it sits into an island—has become the town library.  Last year, Elk Rapids got its first coffee shop, and it is a great one: plate-glass, bay windows; a ceiling covered in stamped tin; exposed brick walls; good coffee; fantastic BLT sandwiches; and friendly service.

The people-watching is good, too.  Every morning when I arrive, four or five local farmers—hair ranging from gray to white—are already settled in, sipping at their coffee and discussing a wide range of topics: the cherry crop, the social dynamics of chickens, the variety show being put on at the town hall by the local Rotary club, or the movie currently playing at the local theater (Clash of the Titans… “Looks like a really good one”… no comment from my corner of the coffee shop).  Occasionally someone stops by my table to chat.  These conversations invariably follow one of two patterns: one typified by giddy excitement and the other by utter indifference.  Every fourth or fifth time that I tell someone in Elk Rapids that I am a novelist, there eyes light up like a little boy’s on Christmas Day.  They are clearly tired of discussing chickens and the cherry crop.  They want to discuss culture and art.  They are desperate to tell me—at length—about the novel they are writing or their acting with the local theater or their youthful experiences in Hollywood.  I can’t blame them.  I have lived in a small rural town before, and I know how hard it can be to find other literary types.  And besides, I must admit that I derive a certain satisfaction listening to people tell me how wonderful it must be to be a writer.

Most of the people I meet in Elk Rapids are not nearly so thrilled to meet a novelist.  When I tell these people that I am a writer, I can almost see the gears turning in their heads, processing the information and then depositing me in the appropriate set of mental bins: city-folk, outsider, intellectual.  The population of Elk Rapids more than doubles in the summer when people from Detroit, Chicago, and further abroad flood in to spend their days on the lakes and golf courses that blanket the area.  The locals welcome these vacationers, who are the lifeblood of the community, but they also regard them with a healthy dose of bemusement, if not disdain.  It seems like everyone I meet out here can fix their own car, do their own plumbing, and tell you how good the cherry crop will be that year.  Me?  I can pay a mechanic; I use plumbing; and I eat cherries.  I’m from a different world, one that the locals are not particularly interested in.  And perhaps they are right.  After all, they live where I am coming to vacation.  Clearly they are on to something.  And even if the locals are less than impressed by what I do, it’s still nice to see the same faces day after day.  I spend most mornings at the coffee shop, warming myself up before heading back to the cabin.

A few days ago when I got back, I found a package waiting for me.  Inside was a freshly-printed copy of my first novel Siege.  There is something nicely symmetrical, and inspiring, about receiving my first copy of my first novel while I am writing the first few chapters of my third one.  As I held the book in my hands, I thought back to only a year ago, when I had wanted nothing more than to simply hold a book that I had written.  I had thought it would be enough; that was all I needed.  But time has a way of changing things.  Just holding Siege wasn’t enough anymore.  Now I want everyone else to grab a copy, too.

But more on that next week, when I discuss selling the novel.  For now, it’s time to put Siege down and lay another log on the fire.  It’s getting cold in the cabin, and I’ve got writing to do.



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