As a writer of fiction I do my best to enter into every scene I create. I work hard to get correct the tastes and sounds and smells and sights of life that my characters experience.
But, every once in a while, life in all its rich, grand, sumptuous variety, reminds me how difficult it is to show the fullness of sensation in ordinary living.
Most of you know I visited Rohwer, Arkansas a few days ago. Rohwer was the site of a Japanese Internment camp during WWII. I’ve read several novels about this period in our history. My friend Jan Morrill’s wonderful book, The Red Kimono did a good and fine job of letting me feel the emotions–the anger and fear and confusion–of being forced to leave a home on the west coast to live, first in a horse barn at Santa Anita, and then in the delta country of Arkansas.
I knew about the camp. The 8,000 prisoners. I thought I’d done a fairly good job of imagining how it must have felt to step off a bus and see the camp for the first time, to live in the barracks for the years of the war. I’d seen pictures. I believed I had some small inkling of the environment into which these people stepped.
I was wrong.
First of all Rohwer is flat. Delta flat. Nothing but sky and earth that reaches to each horizon. I knew the topography on an intellectual level. In my head I understood. But that’s not the same thing as riding across that tabletop country, nothing to draw the eye upward, nowhere to visually soar. The reality of the land dwarfed me. Now I know people who grew up and still live there probably love it, but I’m here to tell you, to a stranger, it is desolate. The isolation kept urging me to run screaming across the fields.
And then there was the wind. The wind roared, tore at my hair and clothes and every inch of exposed skin. The wind swallowed words and spew them into the air. The wind was a living, devouring animal.
It made me think, this wind across this flat land. Bigfoot Blues is set in the Pacific Northwest, so when creating a scene I always knew about the quality of light, the fog, how hard it was raining. Because it was raining. In every scene. Or was about to rain. Or had just stopped raining.
I’m working now on a western, Ridgeline, which is set mostly in the Ozarks. The end of the book is upon me and my characters are riding horseback across flat land, headed up to Kansas City. I got the grass land right and the spring flowers and smells. But I forgot about the wind. The wind that blows constantly, like a living thing, across great expanses of open, flat land.
After visiting Rohwer, I’ll go back into the book’s final chapters and put constant, roaring wind into the story.
I’d be willing to bet that the internees at Rohwer seventy years ago remember that wind still in their dreams.