Doing Anything?

By Carla Kelly

Not a whole lot vexes me. I’m relatively even-tempered. So it is with mixed emotions – amusement and slight irritation (as in, don’t you know me by now?) – that I offer what is probably a common challenge most novelists face.

It’s this: Friends and acquaintances often open a conversation with me by asking, “Are you working on anything?”

My knee-jerk reaction is to snap, “Of course I am working on something. I’m always working on something.” I don’t, thank goodness. That would be rude.

What I usually say is something lame and apologetic like, “Yeah. I’m writing a short story (or novel).” If they ask me what it’s about, I often say, “Oh, about 350 pages.” Shame on me.

The thing is, writers are always working on something. Always. They might be doing research, which takes up a huge amount of time. This is deceiving, because a lot of my research is in books. I stretch out on the couch, make myself comfortable, and read. 

That can’t be work, but it is. I’m wide awake, I have a pen in hand, and I’m reading. Maybe I shouldn’t make work look so relaxing, but I like to stretch out on the couch and research.

Or if I’m writing, I might do a few hours here or there. I generally write in the afternoon for maybe two hours, and perhaps the same in the morning. It often depends on where I am in the story. That might not seem too hard a schedule to the average observer, but writing is probably the hardest work I’ve ever done. Being a ranger was nothing but fun. Writing isn’t fun. It’s work.

Sometimes the writing gets interrupted by more research, so it’s back to the couch. If I’m really lucky, it might mean a research trip.

A few years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of writing a novel set in Yellowstone National Park. This meant a research trip first to Montana State University, in Bozeman, Montana. I had contacted the archivist earlier to let him know what I was looking for. He had it ready, and I spent a delightful day in the archives, reading and snapping photos of documents on my iPad. 

Note to archivists: I love you guys. I love how puppy-wiggly you are to have someone using your dusty files. I couldn’t do my work without you.

The next day, I drove south to the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park at the NPS Heritage and Research Center. Again, I had contacted those archivists earlier to get permission to use the archives – there must be a reason – and to have them set aside stuff for me. I spent another delightful day there. In both archives, the professionals brought out more stuff they thought I might find useful for my research. They were invariably right.

Incidentally, the proper word for research material is stuff. Really. It can be documents, photos, or objects. Stuff.

Research isn’t all lying on the couch, nosirree. Several times as I worked on Courting Carrie in Wonderland (set in 1903 in the park), I had to do some drive throughs just for the flavor. Now that is fun. I’ll call it research, but it’s so much fun. 

I developed a vast appreciation for the engineers – Chittenden and Kingman in particular – who built the park’s roads and bridges. I’m ever-so-much fun to take on a trip through Yellowstone, because I can point out engineering things that most visitors aren’t aware of.

And other times when I’m not writing or researching, I’m thinking. I suppose this is the hardest to justify to observers – crazy woman staring off into space – but it’s so much a part of the writing life. I think through the plot, the people, the dilemmas and the hopefully optimistic outcome. 

Am I doing anything? All the time.