Title: Cold Storage, Alaska
Author: John Straley
Publication date: 2014
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
Two brothers – one a hero, one a criminal – are reunited in their sleepy Alaskan hometown, where fishing, gossip and hanging out at the community centre are the most popular activities. When Clive’s drug-dealing past threatens to catch up with him, town life is turned upside down – but ultimately, in this beautifully drawn novel, the poetry in people’s souls wins over evil.
- Read more information on Goodreads.
- Find the book in a library near you (worldwide).
- Support local independent bookshops: buy the book from Hive (UK).
What did I find out?
One of the novel’s sub-plots features Billy, a resident of Cold Storage, who decides to kayak from Alaska to Seattle to see the Dalai Lama, who is visiting the city. Without wishing to give too much away, he ends up on a cruise ship – and this is where I learned that cruise ships have librarians!
As a former librarian myself, this was fascinating: in all my years in employment I never saw a job ad for a cruise librarian. It’s not enough to tempt me back into the field – I’m happier out of an office, and I’ve never fancied going on a cruise even as a passenger – and I’m also aware that this year’s Book Diaries are meant to be about taking inspiration for my writing.
So, what I will take from this is the realisation that there are many potential audiences for a book that we writers may not even be aware of when we are writing. One of my jobs if/when my book is finally published will be to think laterally and see what alternative audiences I can come up with for my own.
What do I now see differently?
One of the joys of this book was the way in which even hardened criminals demonstrate that they have poetry in their souls. Clive’s former drug lord boss, Jake, has a ‘second life’ in which he (usually unsuccessfully) writes screenplays for Hollywood; and a wonderful storyline sees him offering writing advice to one of Cold Storage’s indigenous (Tlingit) residents, Lester.
In particular, Jake talks about the importance of the story arc, explaining the difference between plot and story: ‘what happens in the film’ is not necessarily the same as ‘what the film is about’. I was already aware of this, but it was interesting to have a reminder, especially with the example that Jake gives: that of Jurassic Park.
Lester thinks that Jurassic Park is about humans realising they shouldn’t mess with nature, but Jake explains that it is actually about a man realising that he doesn’t hate kids but, actually, rather likes them. The story, in other words, is about a personal journey.
This is something I’m trying very hard to practise as I write my novel. I think I’ve got my main character’s journey figured out – but it certainly helps to have reminders like this along the way.
How will this inspire my writing?
Funnily enough, I’ve already implemented this week’s change!
If you received my February newsletter*, you may remember that the ‘idea’ I shared this month was about potentially featuring a supernatural cat in my novel. My first iteration of the idea involved giving my protagonist a ghost cat as a pet: she ‘lives’ on her own, and I thought this could be a way of introducing her by means of dialogue (everyone who has a cat talks to it, right?), which would be more interesting than simply a stream of consciousness.
I’d put the idea to one side, thinking it was cute but maybe a bit of a cliche (single woman with a cat). Then, reading Cold Storage, Alaska, I came across (a) a character with a cat and (b) the concept of talking animals. While it didn’t exactly feel like a sign, it did bring the idea back to the forefront of my mind.
Yesterday, I had to write a scene that needed to go in for the sake of the plot, but (bearing in mind the above advice on story arcs) I knew it also had to make sense in a character’s personal journey. So, more as an experiment than anything, and certainly with no expectation that this scene would even last the distance, I started writing about a cat: not in the way I’d initially intended, but from a completely new angle. And, weirdly, it worked.
I now have a scene that not only introduces one of the main characters (who was, previously, woefully underdeveloped), but which also adds a new dimension to both the plot and the overall complexity of my invented world. And all without resorting to the cliche of ‘single woman with cat’. I call that a win.
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A musical interlude
This time it was Anchorage by Michelle Shocked that sprang to mind. Although the song is not about murderous drug dealers, and comes at its subject from a female perspective rather than a male one, the theme of reconnection with someone in a remote part of the world is one that feels very relevant to Cold Storage, Alaska.
Due to the privacy settings on the video of Anchorage, I can’t embed it in this web page, but you can view it on Vimeo.