Doing Field Research -- Morro Bay Estuary

I'm a national parks junky -- which is just a symptom of being a natural world junky. Anything that we love and has a hold on our consciousness starts to work its way into our fiction. A few years ago, I decided to formalize my love and start writing consciously about the national parks in California.

Thus, my character Harrison was born. He works for the national parks and wanders the back forests worried about his son who is dealing with depression. Okay, he's more active than that, and there is magic in every short story about him. The magic coming from nature of course. His first collection (Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods) is coming out on February 1st of next year, and I've been working on the second collection.

I'm setting my sequel to Mann of War (out in early 2013) in the national forests as well. I'm not good at focusing on just one manuscript. I tend to kill them when I do, so I'm working on this as well.

Why not set it where I love after all? The natural world contains drama and terror around every turn. The thing is, I prefer to allow the landscape to determine the story, so that means going to natural places and letting the world take me over.

Since one of the requirements of Harrison stories is that there is a moment of natural magic, I sit and wait for the magic to come to me.


The estuary itself is magic. I don't know what kind of bird that is. Audubon people will know what the name of the bird is. I don't know. And there is magic down there. Behind that bird is the breeding ground for sea life. There are thick marshes and otters. I used to watch the small sharks in the Seal Beach Estuary gliding silently through the waters.

The thing about it is that this is not only the most dramatic, but also the moment most prone to cliche. In the Harrison stories, I don't think this will work, but in an action book, I see Robert Mann trying to escape through the high grasses and being caught and terrified. That little bird tweets above him, and he can't move.


This moment is a little more Harrison's speed. It's hard to see, but in the background you can catch the three smoke stacks of the Morro Bay Powerplant.

There's no great metaphors here, but a nice contrast. The magic? Life in and among the generator. Human needs in harmony with plant life. That kind of thing.



And here is the world's smallest oak breed, The Coast Live Oak or Pygmy Oak. These form natural outdoor rooms with their tightly woven and low canopies. A great place to hang out alone and contemplate the world or hide from the bad guys. Actually, from Robert Mann's point of view, this is a great place to set up an ambush.

Observant nature dwellers will have already spotted the problem. There's a good deal of poison oak right there in the middle of this copse.

So I think I have a good deal of the work done for Robert Mann, but where is the magic that Harrison needs? I don't think I had the right moment here. The next day, however, walking along the beach, Ann and I were followed by a sea lion. He was in the shallow water on our side of the breakers, and he kept poking his head out and watching us. He'd be down for thirty seconds or so in water so shallow I would have thought he'd be exposed. Then he'd come up and spy on us.

That's the kind of thing Harrison needs in every story.

If you want to read a Harrison story or Robert Mann story, I've included them on a different page of this blog. I hope you enjoy!