TM: Potato-Potato-Potato, Part 1
Photo credit: Ron Bath
I just got home from St. Augustine, where I did some prospecting research on a yarn that will have modern-day adventurers searching a 17th-century Spanish fort for clues to an ages-old puzzle. And on this trip, as on several in recent months, I used my favorite research tool—one that has a saddle, and two wheels, and makes noise. Lots of noise.
If you know me, you know that I’m talking about my Harley®, a 2005 XL1200C that I got earlier this year after my venerable Honda bit the dust, and on which I’ve already racked up nearly 10,000 miles in surprisingly little time. With me was my research partner—my 16-year-old daughter and back-seat iPod listener, Carly. Her mother was also along, but on her own Harley-Davidson, as neither one of us will ever agree to climb up on the back of a motorcycle and ride behind the other.
Now true, it is possible to get to Castillo de San Marcos via automobile as well, but the reason I consider the Harley a legitimate research tool is that it encourages me to travel to places using not the interstates and toll roads that I would use were I driving a car, but what William Least Heat-Moon called the “Blue Highways”—those secondary, off-the-beaten-path roads that lend themselves best to the kinesthetic, total-sensory nature of travel via motorcycle. As I explore the possibility of setting stories in my home state, getting around via bike takes me away from the Florida of time-shares and theme parks and deep into the Florida of Spanish moss and orange groves, freshwater springs, gator holes and a town that had to change its name to Yeehaw Junction because Standard Oil wouldn’t put the original name (Jackass Crossing) on their road map.
Were it not for the Harley, I probably never would have made it to places such as Cherry Pocket, a fish camp (cracker terminology for any waterside facility that includes a ramshackle collection of cabins and house trailers, a bait shop and a bar) on Lake Pierce. Cherry Pocket has a boat-shaped outdoor bar fashioned from a real boat, and it was there I learned that many rural Floridians truly believe that stapling ZipLoc bags full of water to the eaves will keep an open-air location free of mosquitoes (the ZipLoc bags at Cherry Pocket had “DON’T ASK” written on them in Magic Marker: an admonition that I promptly ignored). And the kitchen at Cherry Pocket serves neither cherry products nor pocket sandwiches. “Cherry” was the name of the fish camp’s original owner, and “pocket” is old Floridian for a small bay on a lake.
I don’t know. Maybe you can find nuggets like that on the Internet. Maybe not. But either way, it’s not as fun as stumbling across them in person. And the Harley is a great way to facilitate the stumbles.
When I’m off in search of setting and atmosphere like this, I don’t carry a digital voice recorder; nor do I carry a camera. My wife usually has a little Nikon digital with her, but that is mostly for recording things like Carly and yours-truly cracking up at lunchtime, or wandering too close to the wildlife.
I do carry a notebook, but that is not used for taking down details. Rather, if a scene, or an edit, or a snippet of dialogue for the current work-in-progress occurs to me while I ride, I take out my notebook and rough it out at the next stop. Otherwise the scene will just keep re-running in my head and keep me from being in the moment.
I have a couple of reasons for not using a notebook or recorder to take down location and setting notes. The first is that people tend to clam up when they are speaking “on the record,” even if you assure them that it is only for background. So I learn more, and tend to get into those wonderful meandering conversations during which I serendipitously learn new things (like how Cherry Pocket got its name) when I’m just yakking, rather than interviewing.
And the second reason I don’t take notes is because, when I do, I write down too much… things I shouldn’t use. Ever. For instance, it may be true that the front window of one particular antiques shop in St. Augustine’s Spanish Quarter is composed of 32 separate panes of hand-poured greenish glass. But if I convey that information in a novel, it makes my narrator sound at best like some introverted neurotic, and at worst like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman. I well remember getting editor Dave Lambert’s comment letter on my initial draft of Turn Four, in which he wrote: “Your command of NASCAR lore is impressive, but does the reader really need to know the inside diameter of the roll-cage tubing?”
Indeed, when I’m on travels such as this, I deliberately downplay the need to get details, because if I don’t I tend to over-observe. Years of paying attention to setting has given me the ability to record the sorts of details that would make me the state’s star witness in a bank robbery (my wife loves the fact that I can usually recall, in fair detail, what everyone was wearing at a party). So I find that what I remember naturally, without forcing things, is what I need to convey that you-are-there sense of a place.
That sense of recall is not limited to sight and sound. Much of what I brought back from Castillo de San Marcos from this weekend past has to do with touch (for instance, the cold roughness of the ancient limestone from which the fort was constructed). And my most vivid memory of the cannon-firing demonstration is that of the smell: detonating black powder dramatically conveys the impression that someone’s septic tank has just violently exploded. Yes—that means exactly what you think it means.
Another reason the Harley is my favorite research tool is because of the nature of the beast. I’m not talking about the 1930-ish styling, or the distinctive sound of the V-Twin engine (Harley-Davidson once tried—unsuccessfully—to register as a trademark their distinctive idle signature, a sound that enthusiasts universally describe as “Potato-potato-potato…”). Rather, it’s the fact that owning one, and interacting with other Harley owners, is a constant reminder to me of how Christianity is really supposed to work.
For instance, I belong to the Orlando chapter of the Harley Owners Group®. That chapter currently has well over 500 active and dues-paying members, absolutely none of whom had to be courted, recruited, convinced or persuaded to join. Rather, they joined because they saw what others in the club had, and they valued and they wanted it.
Tom Morissey will continue this adventure tomorrow.