Aspiring writers ask, “How do you come up with stuff to write about?” Just open your eyes. While that is a simplistic answer, fodder for writing is everywhere. It is my privilege to write both a monthly column and an online weekly blog for RV Life, and I often dig into my detailed travel logs, files and photographs for inspiration.
In 1986, I became a full-time solo RVer. That 20-year adventure filled six books, 11 RV magazine columns, and tidbits for my first novel. In the beginning, I took a 3,000-mile trek across the country and wrote one story about it. I learned quickly to break up the miles into countless stories about interesting people, places and adventures. I learned as I drove! Those tales added to my RV seminars as well.
I told a writing class to make up titles like, “Confessions of a Cabin Girl,” and then create stories around them. Well, that sounded racy, and they all laughed until I told them that the second summer as a full-time RVer, I worked at an Oregon dude ranch. Many stories came out of that experience—the ranch owner’s special raspberry patch, the ranch’s historical significance, and fictional stories about our college-age Kitchen Girl and the restlessness of an aging spouse.
In Eagle, Alaska, a sign that said, “Raft through untouched wilderness,” made my soul sing, but on the trip, howling wolves brought me back to reality in the dark of night. I couldn’t turn back. The guide had the canoe and the .44! This Michigan housewife frantically scribbled notes, hunkered down and paddled on a 500-mile Yukon River trip that crossed the Arctic Circle twice.
There are other kinds of “frozen north.” Grand Forks, North Dakota, had a wind chill factor of minus fifty. “Why,” you ask, “would you spend six months there when you were free to roam the warmth of Arizona or Mexico?” I needed to finish a book and the Copper Deprivation Study offered “freedom from routine chores and a $30/day stipend.”
My scribbled notes say, “All the volunteers were prompted from warm beds in the wee-wee hours by a rude and raucous fire alarm. Fire trucks arrived before we reached the lobby from our third-floor cocoon. We were grateful it was a false alarm. What really amazed me was how fast thirteen women in strange nightwear could move with the promise of uniformed men at the bottom of the stairs!”
We had University of North Dakota student chaperones accompany us everywhere to see that we didn’t eat (or evacuate) improperly. I wasn’t permitted to do anything remotely dangerous as “precious government property,” but when a chaperone with a private pilot’s license invited me to go flying the day after I completed the study, I couldn’t say no. We soared above the rich brown fields and ranging buffalo.
That was exciting enough, but then he shut down the engine and we fell. I could have gone the rest of my life without knowing the pencil on the dash was “falling at the same rate of gravity at minimum controllable air speed.” He asked if I wanted to fly. He kept his hands very close to the controls, but I flew for an amazing 15 minutes. Years later, notes from that adventure were written into my novel, Winter in the Wilderness.
I loved the humor I found everywhere. Before my morning walk, I alternately put my feet up on the motorhome bumper to stretch my legs, and then did a few pushups against it. One morning this delightful 90-year-old neighbor stuck her head out the window and said, “No matter how hard you push that thing, I don’t think you’ll move it very far.”
A Little Fantasy
The sunrays that turned the Columbia River into a silver ribbon and silhouetted the mountains in Lewis and Clark territory were enchanting. Hmmm. What if I ran into Meriwether Lewis? This fantasy became a humorous column entitled, “Time warp.”
“Excuse me, ma’am, what is that long strip running along the water’s edge?”
“What’s an Interstate?”
The tall gentleman in buckskins must be pulling my leg. “Interstate highways run between states for major supply hauling between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. Where are you from?”
“We started from Pittsburgh two years ago, but I’m originally from Virginia.” Ah ha. All RVers talk about where they are from ‘originally.’”
“You’re an RVer.” I stated.
“What‘s an RV?”
I pointed to my motorhome. His eyes popped, “What is that?”
“Well, it’s kinda, sorta a big box on wheels, a little like a Prairie Schooner….”
It was a fun way to explain runaway technology in the 200 years since he and Clark traveled through.
Back in Time
Fragrances, sights and sounds instantly transport me back to my Michigan childhood. Mama’s garden near the five-room log cabin where I was born was thick with tall, multicolored hollyhocks. The thought of playing within those fuzzy hollyhocks still makes my skin itch but that became a story titled, “Memories, Hollyhocks, and Other Fuzzy Things.”
Families are fair game. My Virginia grandson couldn’t understand why I flew back to Washington state after only a 10-day visit when we were having such a good time. His daddy explained that in order for me to be his “Travelin’ Grandma,” (as he called me) I needed to travel. Four-year-old Will’s sensible solution: “She could stay here and we could drive her around in the truck.”
Seminars often required flying across country. My log revealed, “A year ago today, I was canoeing the Yukon River and when you had to ‘go’ you found a leafy bush or a turn in the shoreline. That’s a stretch to the restrooms in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. I kid you not; they have hygienically correct, moving toilet seats. They are plastic wrapped and if you push the red button previous to enthronement, the plastic-covered seat moves through the wall. Voila, a clean seat. They didn’t say what happens if you accidentally hit the red button if you are already seated. Talk about moving experiences.”
Daily life provides daily ideas.
Friends aren’t exempt. An Indiana friend spent 10 days in Alaska with me. It was Linda’s first time in a helicopter as we flew to a glacier to mush sled dogs. Eventually I contacted the editor of her hometown newspaper and asked if he wanted a story about a local businesswoman. I received a 7 a.m. phone call from Linda. The paper had hit the streets. What fun.
Pain can be a catalyst to writing. I wrote a story about losing my youngest brother and entitled it, Little Things Mean a Lot, going through all the activities we did together in his last years. It was a tearjerker but we all live them.
Look at writing ideas from all angles. I watched eagles at the Deep Creek Recreational Area near Ninilchik, Alaska, with fellow RVers from California. After we chatted a few minutes, she asked, “Are you waiting for a fisherman?” I said, “No, but I travel alone, what did you have in mind?” All I got was a strange look but I used it as part of a story on Ninilchik. Look at everything as a story and it may turn into one. God Bless.
Sharlene Minshall’s first novel, “Winter in the Wilderness,” (e-book & hard cover), and the fourth edition of “RVing Alaska and Canada” are available through Amazon.com.