Research Notes · 06/15/2012

No Other Way

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Roger Real Drouin shares how his experiences on the trail shaped his novel, No Other Way.

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IN THE CLOUDS

The further I hiked, the more my writing came together.

To portray No Other Way’s fictional world filled with backcountry mountain forests and shorebirds that migrate thousands of miles, I had to get my boots dirty and get up close to the most intricate details of the natural world that exists in our wildernesses.

There is always at least one tangible surprise of the hike — whether it’s crossing paths with a white-tail doe dashing past in a rush of unflinching energy or encountering a red-shouldered hawk no more than 10 yards away.But it is the intangible surprise that is the most noticeable elevation change for this hiker. Out on a long trail, there is the moment when a thought begins moving rhythmically with the movement of your legs. An image might become just one word before blooming into the sentences of an idea. It comes like that soft wind, cooler and steady, before the rain. I might begin thinking about that bobcat track in the sugary sand, or the pair of snowy egrets dancing above their marsh perches as the wind comes through. Sometimes I’ll have to stop to make note of my observations and thoughts the way a photographer would stop to capture a shot.

For me, sometimes it is anger that can inspire also.

Such as the one time when I saw three bloated and dead fish along a riverbank. I still don’t know what caused their death — although I think it had to do with choked-off water flow and lower levels of oxygen — but I couldn’t shake the sight of the fish, and it became a reoccurring image in my novel.

One thing I began to do was turn my attention towards the clouds. Or, to be more specific, I began to think about the shadows that flew under the clouds.

Last spring, I was hiking a good ways back in Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina, when just under the brim of my hat I saw a flash of blue and orange ahead. I stood there watching the bluebirds, as the two birds flew back and forth from the tall lake grass to an open prairie. I stood there for a long time.

That weekend my stepfather joked that “I always have my head in the clouds.” And it’s true. My head was in the clouds — low where the bluebirds sing, and up high where the hawks drift through the early morning mix of sun and wind.

For as long as I can remember I’ve loved exploring a good trail. Even as a kid, I would wander out to the pond near my grandparent’s New England home.

But only when I started writing about Samuel, the main character in No Other Way, did I begin learning more about ornithology. I had never known the difference between a pine and palm warbler, and I didn’t know just how precise an indicator of habitat health certain wetland species were. I didn’t know that in some bird species, the bones weigh less than feathers. I didn’t know about the growing list of species that had been pushed from existence in the past five decades. I had changed, developing a new hobby, my fiancé told me.

I thought about the lightness of birds.

I found an interest in bird photography, even though my photographs were anything but professional. That didn’t matter. I was learning how it felt to capture that shot of a small warbler that took equal parts luck and persistence. I was learning about the connection my character Samuel, the photographer of birds in No Other Way, had with the wildlife he was seeking from the Everglades to Idaho.

My morning hike, always with strong hot coffee in a thermos, is a matter of patience. It is a matter of youthful curiosity, as I slip further past the age of thirty-two.

And as I’ve learned, it’s necessary to my writing. When I’m deep in writing, my regime includes a balance of scientific research and that good book by Ernest Hemingway or Rick Bass that paints another world like a Picasso. It includes a lot of time just waiting for the right words. But none of it is possible without the long trail.

As I stitch the ideas and sentences for my next novel-in-progress, I’ll be out on the trail. Just one boot in front of the other to see where it will take me.