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The Fun of Novel Writing
February 16, 2010 - 10:19am


I’d forgotten how fun, even exciting, the early stages of research on a novel can be. This week I’ve gotten to shop for boats, since one of the characters in the novel I’m writing owns and probably lives on one. He longs to impress people with it, but it’s some hulk he dragged off a tidal flat in Central America, and he’s barely got the cash to buy the diesel its misfiring engines guzzle.

Getting educated on what kinds of boats are available; what shape they’re in; what they cost to buy, repair, maintain, run, and berth; what their respective drafts are—all this is great fun and, I think, useful. My reactions now are of the novice who’s been on a few boats. They’re good to have for characters watching this guy rumble in to the marina in a cloud of smoke while they’re trying to eat their crab cakes. But when I know enough about the specific boat I choose to portray to know not only that when the hydraulic helm unit fails I can rig an emergency tiller to steer manually, but also that the tiller gets pushed in the opposite direction from a functioning wheel, then I can start to understand some things about his character. What people know how to do is always interesting to me.

I had no idea so many different kinds of vessels are available to the public, or how little money it would take, relatively speaking, to buy something that could get you into big trouble so quickly, from a freighter to a surplus military cutter to a floating hotel. The media’s having fun with Tiger Woods’ Valentine’s Day gift to his wife of a $3 million dive boat. After my research this week, all I could think was: He could have gotten several very interesting boats for that amount of money, with enough left over to pay somebody to scuttle them for the insurance money when his wife left him anyway.

My dad used to repeat the old adage: The two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys his boat and the day he sells it. I get to experience both without actually paying for anything, or chipping and painting.

Still, it’s hard to remain entirely detached. My acquaintance Rory took me to lunch on Friday to give me all sorts of advice about my writing, career, and life. I wanted to do something nice for him in return, so I used his credit card number to put a significant down payment on a trim little pleasure craft that I know he’ll enjoy puttering around in. In the off season it’ll look great dry docked in his back yard. Currently the ship’s in Itacoatiara, where she’s been doing liner service on the Amazon. The current owners are expecting Rory to take possession by the end of this month. They’re very excited, and he should probably be there on time.

While I had his billing info, I couldn’t resist also putting in a bid on a little something I’ve had my eye on. I like to imagine that when Rory comes steaming through the notoriously difficult Mona Passage, bound for home, I’ll be waiting in the Puerto Rico Trench to tell him all about how to write truly.


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