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Musing: Exploding Oatmeal and Broken Water Lines
The story idea hit me early one morning. I jolted awake, sat up in my bed, and looked around the dark bedroom.
I can scribble little ideas on my phone. Big ideas, though, need more time and better tools. And this one was huge. A new twist for my current novel—a good one that made the story work better.
I would love to tell you I was a perfectly organized plotter like James Patterson, able to identify every nuance and surprise in an outline before writing the first word. Or, maybe, a pantser like Stephen King who surprises himself with where his characters take the story.
But I, like most writers, am somewhere in between. I start with a nugget of an idea and peel it like an onion, layer by layer, to see what I can find. Another onion gives me different layers and yet another provides more. Liars’ Table developed thanks to the sheer number of such gatherings of old men in the North Carolina mountains.
Sometimes the person comes to me before the story. That’s the case in my upcoming novel. A man left his hometown to seek his fortune, and then slinks back home without finding it. Why did he leave? Why did he return? Those answers come by asking questions of my characters.
Regardless of the starting point, I have that framework built before I write, but I feel no loyalty to it. If a character whispers in my ear and says I’ve missed a detour, I follow her down the overgrown path. The outline is a tool and, like any good tool, it gets set aside if it’s no longer the right tool.
On the best days, the character doesn’t whisper. He walks up to me and slaps me across the face. He grabs me by the lapels (do T-shirts have lapels?) and shakes me hard. Listen, he yells, I’m not following you anymore. If you want to know what happens, you better come with me.
That night was one of those moments. Before the idea vanished in the vapors of a dream, I jumped out of bed, ran to my study, pulled out my parchment paper, picked up my quill, and wrote.
Okay, fine. It was an iPad and an Apple Pencil. Lousy visual, but I’m not averse to letting technology translate my handwriting into text.
The muse took over my brain, controlled my hand, and scribbled a 4,000 word draft before the sun rose.
I leaned back and read it. Sometimes, such a brainstorm doesn’t survive the translation to writing. Once on paper, the flaws become apparent.
Not that morning. The idea made the story better.
After returning from the morning dog walk, I read it again, making notes in the margins to hook the pieces of my idea into various existing chapters. In two cases, new chapters needed to be written, but they fit well without breaking the rest of the story. The foundation of my novel already existed, so I could weave the fresh idea into the existing story without major rewrites.
By the end of the day, I knew I had it. With a few focused, problem-free days of writing, I would have it done. Finally.
I woke up the next morning, eager and ready to attack. Nothing stood in my way. Until the exploding oatmeal.
I blame my doctor.
At every annual exam, he reminds me that our natural course as humans means we add a couple of pounds every year. Our metabolism slows and we don’t burn calories the way we used to. He looks at my charts, tut-tuts like I can’t hear him, and suggests I need to eat a healthier breakfast and exercise more.
And so I’ve added an exercise routine to my twice-daily walks with the dogs and switched my breakfast to oatmeal. I would love to tell you it hasn’t worked, but I’ve lost weight and am in better shape. Damn it.
Now I haven’t gone whole hog. Mmmm—bacon.
Sorry, got distracted there. As I was saying, I’ve taken a few shortcuts. I tried using real oatmeal, but I snacked while waiting the half-hour for it to cook. Guessing that defeated the purpose, I switched to instant oatmeal.
After my first cup of coffee and a series of stretches (something about old joints, ligaments, and muscles—blah, blah, blah), I mix my oatmeal with a spoon of brown sugar—our little secret, so don’t tell him—and stick it in the microwave for two-and-a-half minutes while I do deep knee bends. Then I stir it and leave it to congeal—er, cook—while I do my favorite exercise of all—planks.
Told you he was mean.
By this point, you’re wondering what any of this has to do with my novel revisions. Fair question, but I left out one critical component. To cook instant oatmeal, you put it in the microwave for two-and-a-half minutes at fifty percent power. Whatever you do, don’t do that at full power. If you forget, you discover the joy of exploding oatmeal.
That morning, I forgot. I opened the microwave to discover a veritable oatmeal volcano. Out of the bowl and coating the walls and ceiling of the microwave. It would have been dripping, but oatmeal makes a terrific building material, particularly when cooked at full power. The Bondo of breakfast food. Archaeological digs of the future will uncover it and think we had advanced construction skills.
Marriage tip for those with any doubt about this—he who makes a mess in the microwave cleans it. Period. Non-debatable. And so I set about cleaning, scrubbing, hammering, chiseling, and excavating.
Once the insides sparkled, I made a fresh batch of oatmeal. On half-power.
The exploding oatmeal explains why my first day of re-writes started late.
For the record, editors’ eyes glaze over at such stories. Something about writers lie for a living. Day two, however, went well. No messes, fusses, or exploding oatmeal.
On day three, however, I woke to discover we had a problem. We barely had water. An eight-inch water main burst the night before and the City of Asheville utility crews worked through the night to restore service. By the time we returned from our morning dog walk, they were flushing the water lines.
Satisfied the problem resolved itself, I settled behind my desk to start re-writes. A noise caught my attention. A shrill sound. Sort of like a tea kettle trying, but not quite, whistling. I wandered the house, my ear tuned to locate the source. It seemed to come from every water line.
I checked the water pressure by turning on the faucet at my kitchen sink. The torrent reminded me of the fire hydrant opened at the top of the street. Intense doesn’t adequately describe it.
The good news, however, was that the noise stopped. I hoped that air had been caught in the pipes and my turning on the faucet solved the issue. I let the water run for a while, turned it off, and returned to my desk.
Within a couple minutes, however, the whistling returned. Flush the line. Stop the noise. Back to desk. Whistle.
I know little about plumbing, but I know a pressure reducing valve (PRV) should keep any excess pressure from the city outside of my house. I went out front to the meter, the place where I’m accustomed to seeing the valve on former houses, but it wasn’t there. I needed to locate it and adjust the settings.
To relieve the pressure in the meantime, we started a sprinkler in the backyard. I resumed my search. I traced the water line inside the house hoping the PRV would be there. It wasn’t, but the source of the whistling came to light. The pressure was strong enough to trip the pressure release valve on the hot water heater.
Not good. Really not good.
As long as kept the yard sprinkler running, we were okay, but I needed a more permanent fix. Infinite water wasn’t good for the lawn, the environment, or my wallet.
I called the city. A very helpful call center employee assisted and then dispatched a worker. They were responsive and professional, but determined their water lines were fine. The city worker even helped look for the PRV, but had no more luck finding it than I did. He had done all he could do. In fact, more than he really was supposed to do. And on a Saturday.
I needed a plumber. Unlike the City of Asheville employee, none were excited about Saturday work. The best appointment I could get was Tuesday morning. I couldn’t water the lawn for 72 hours straight. Well, technically I could, but I didn’t want to. And if I stopped watering, I could launch the hot water heater into orbit.
After many phone calls, we finally found an available plumber from a national chain. Their helpful dispatch department assured us we were on the list and they would get to us as quickly as possible. They texted, emailed, and called with updates, but hour after hour slipped by.
At 9:37 p.m., after a long and frustrating day, headlights filled the driveway. On any normal evening, I would be stretched in bed, surrounded by snoozing dogs, and reading a book.
The guy was great. He mapped out a couple of options. The best solution, a PRV valve installed underground near the meter, wouldn’t happen late on a Saturday night, but an install inside the basement could. We approved that approach and, nearly two hours later, the work was complete.
I collapsed into bed and did my best to sleep, but awoke at 5 a.m., about as late as I can ever sleep. In a stupor, I did my exercises, made my oatmeal without any spontaneous combustion, walked the dogs, and tried to write, but concentration was difficult. I muddled through some words, but it wasn’t great. The best output was this story, such that it is.
And so, Dear Reader, Monday will be the first time I get to focus on incorporating that great idea into my next novel. I’m convinced it will be good. I’m eager to get it done.
Hopefully, that’s what I’m doing as you read this. That or cleaning oatmeal off the ceiling.
Interesting Links: Bear Wise
The other morning, I captured this image when walking the dogs. I commented on social media, “Some mornings, we get a subtle hint that maybe we should take an alternate route on the dog walk. Today was one of those days.” And, yes, we turned around and went the other way (this was shot with a long lens from a couple hundred feet distance).
Many people asked us how we safely lived with bears and whether they should fear them visiting Asheville. One of the best resources I know on the subject is Bear Wise.
Fun Photo: Being Watched
When we’re taking the dogs on their twice-daily walks, we often run into wildlife on the trail. I would never have noticed the family of deer watching us if the dogs hadn’t been staring through the woods at them.
Vocabulary Word Of The Week: Fetter
Fetter has come to mean any sort of bond or restraint. Its antonym “unfettered” (free of any bonds) is actually more common in our speech, such as unfettered access—to be able to freely enter a space or area.
The word’s history, though, is much more specific and refers to shackles on a person’s or animal’s feet. In fact, it shares the same linguistic history as the word feet.
In that more ancient sense, a prisoner may be constrained with handcuffs and fetters (hands and feet).
Books Read: The Family Upstairs
I read 100 novels a year and share the best with you.
On her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones inherits her family’s mansion, but she never knew them. She was adopted after being found abandoned as an infant in that house, her parents dead by suicide in a pact with a third man who has never been identified. But what happened to her brother and sister—and all the other people—who were living there? To decide what to do with the house, Libby must uncover what really happened all those years earlier.
Surveys: Swimming and Audiobooks
Last month, I asked where you preferred to swim. The question came to mind because of the Memorial Day Holiday, our neighborhood swimming pool opening, and the start of the summer vacation period. The results were fairly evenly split with a slight preference to pools.
For this month’s survey, I asked for some practical guidance from those of you who listen to audiobooks. We are working toward adding audiobooks as an option for my books next year and I value your input. Thinking of my books, do you think my reader should be a male voice, female, or no preference? Click here to answer the quick survey. I will share the results next month.
Gratuitous Dog Picture: Found You
Being the youngest of the dogs, Roscoe has the most energy and often breaks out into crazy zoomies around the yard (or the house). That moment when he spots me and changes course to come say hi is always amusing.
Have a terrific week without any exploding oatmeal! See you next Monday.
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