All grist to the mill

Happy New Year, all. I hope 2014 is full of good times and satisfying work, not to mention frequent dates with the Muse, and random inspiration. I’ve had a round of random inspiration already.

On January 2nd my sister Carla telephoned and asked me how I was doing. How I was doing was cold. Both she and I – and we live six hours apart – were in the grip of a -35 degree cold spell, a thirty-year low. I was glad to hear that she didn’t have to deal with some of the troubles that cold spell was giving me.

My well had frozen, and my furnace, even with the help of the wood stove, was having trouble keeping the house at sixty degrees. We have to go outside to get into our basement to feed the stove, and any bare skin stung in the cold within fifteen seconds. It was so cold we had to plug in the car, which is saying something, since the Yaris starts at -20 and colder without complaint.

This was way colder than any time since we moved to Wharncliffe, and the water wasn’t running, either. That made the cold even more miserable. We generally don’t think about how very much easier running water makes our lives; doing without it for two days will give you some perspective. No flushing, no easy hand-washing, no quick refill of a kettle for a cup of tea or coffee, no shower. We broke icicles off the eaves to melt for water and hoped we wouldn’t have to resort to melting snow. One inch of water equals one foot of snow, so it take forever to get anything.

Right now I’m working on “Here be Dragons”, a dystopian-future YA novel. In it is a group of people who have managed to survive the collapse of civilization holed up in an office tower. It’s winter, and they’re cold a lot of the time. They also have no running water. Sometime in the middle of the first day, I realized that my experience in the deep-freeze was pretty good research for the novel. I was getting a first-hand feel for some of what my characters were experiencing.

I’ll admit the appreciation was fleeting. Mostly what I wanted was a hot shower and the ability to flush the toilet without hauling a bucket of water from the pond in the sunroom. (I was grateful for that pond – without it there would have been no flushing at all!)

As writers, we have the opportunity to milk any experience for our fiction. If we’re smart, we cultivate a kind of attention that lets us step outside of our experience for a short time and observe what’s happening, how our bodies and minds are reacting, how we are coping – or not – with a difficulty. It’s an ability related to what Terry Pratchett calls “third thoughts”, that part of us that stands aside and comments, sometimes with snarky self-mocking, on what’s going on. I don’t remember when I didn’t have it, and I can’t recall when I first noticed I did, but I use it all the time.

On the morning of January 4th, when we came home from work, David started the pump up and – glory, hallelujah! – the measures he had taken to thaw the waterline and the well had worked. When we woke up that evening it was snowing, which meant the deep freeze was over. Minus seventeen? T-shirt weather!

That morning, after the stove was fed, the puppy played with and the chickens fed and watered, I had a five-minute bliss-out under hot running water and went to bed warm, clean and much, much happier. It was such a great feeling that I know it’s probably going to have to turn up somewhere in “Here be Dragons”. My third thoughts have it all filed away for me.

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