Kansas. Nebraska.

by wjw on January 22, 2007

Lately I’ve had to write Kansas/Nebraska chapters.

Anyone who’s actually driven through the American heartland will know what I mean by this. Kansas and Nebraska— especially Nebraska— are places the motorist must to suffer through in order to get to somewhere actually interesting.

Books can have a similar geography. Sometimes, in order to go somewhere exciting, you have to drive through a dull patch. You can’t have the big reveal unless you painstakingly set up all the clues, or time has to pass before the plot can play itself out, or your character has to visit Aunt Sallie in order to look at the photo album that provides the clue that solves the mystery. Aunt Sallie herself isn’t very interesting, nor is the photo in itself. You can try to make Aunt Sallie a more rounded character— you can give her amusing lines, and maybe put her in an interesting place, or give her an unusual relationship with your protagonist— but then she becomes an interesting character who dominates a chapter and then goes away, never to be seen again. She’s a bump on the highway guaranteed to wake you up when you drive over her— or she’s the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well— but when all is said and done, you’re still in Nebraska.

Writing Kansas/Nebraska chapters are dull and frustrating. You try to make them exciting or quirky, and you always fail. You end up doubting yourself and your talent. You drive in circles for ages, and all you ever see are fields of grain and the occasional silo. “Wait a minute,” you think. “Didn’t I pass that silo a while back? Haven’t I already been down this road?”

Yes, you’ve already been down this road. And you’re going to go down it again.

Anonymous January 23, 2007 at 12:31 pm

Some books (hint – all last books of We*er) is one huge Kansas/Nebraska ride.

Oz January 23, 2007 at 1:51 pm

I agree with the metaphor. And I used to feel that way about Kansas and Nebraska, having only driven through them. Then I was forced to live there as a military wife for 3 years.

If you actually slow down and stop, there’s something there worth discovering. But it takes a while to find it. I could go on about what I found in both states, but that would be about as exciting as the NE/KS chapters of a book to those who haven’t found it for themselves.

But back to your apt metaphor.

dubjay January 23, 2007 at 9:32 pm

Oh, I’ve been any number of places in Kansas that were well worth my time, and I’m sure there are such places even in Nebraska.

It’s just difficult to appreciate them when you’re on the way to Chicago.

And it’s even more difficult to appreciate a region when all the radio stations do nothing but talk about Jee-zus. Not Jesus, but Jee-zus. (Some local celebrity, I presume.)

There was a time in my life when I found myself crossing the country fairly often. In western Kansas, there were always signs for the “Scenic Flint Hills.” For some reason I always drove through the Flint Hills at night, and always found it vexing that night was preventing me from seeing the one place in western Kansas that was scenic.

And then I drove through in the daytime, and found out that the Scenic Flint Hills looked just like everything that wasn’t the Scenic Flint Hills. They weren’t even particularly hill-shaped.

Oz January 23, 2007 at 10:22 pm

I don’t know who that Jee-zus guy was, maybe he was on the Cornhusker team, but I do know he spoke regularly to the woman who lived downstairs in our duplex.


Foxessa January 24, 2007 at 1:31 am

Since just about all the nation’s gone Hayzuz Militant, driving x-country has lost the great joy it used to.

Still, I’m driving to Austin next month, so Vaquero can have the car and drive on to NO, and then leave there so we’ll have it when we go down for Mardi Gras.

Love, C.

S.M. Stirling January 24, 2007 at 2:26 am

Well, it’s all a matter of taste.

I very much enjoy looking at farmland and can do it for hours and hours. I like looking at crops and livestock, take pleasure from a neat job of plowing, and I like looking at people working in the fields (I’m less enthusiastic about doing it myself, of course.)

In fact, as far as scenery goes I prefer a farmed landscape to conventionally beautiful mountain or forest — albeit a moderately hilly one is preferable to dead-flat, and one with vineyards and orchards to one that’s all grainfield.

Not that Yosemite or the Grand Canyon aren’t nice, but they’re not _as_ nice, IMHO.

Something like parts of France or California is optimum, in other words, rather than Kansas. Say Napa, or Sonoma, or the valleys north of Santa Barbara, or the Loire.

Still, hundreds of acres of corn or wheat are, IMHO, simply deeply pleasant to look at.

Other people see that and think “dull”; I think “food”, “prosperity” and “productive, worthwhile human labor transforming nature in a beneficial way”.

A nice neat farmstead with barns and silos is also very aesthetically pleasing.

Note that this was the general view of landscape before the Romantics elevated “the picturesque” and “the sublime”.

This may be why members of my writers’ group have to warn me about putting in too many “harvest” scenes… 8-).

InsightStraight January 24, 2007 at 7:32 pm

Steve “Pastoral” Stirling

dubjay January 24, 2007 at 10:17 pm

Steve, I’m the one who likes the pastoral interludes in your books, at least when they don’t go on any longer than, say, 12 pages.

They provide such a tranquil, pleasing setup to the bloodshed and rapine that inevitably follow ;-].

While you see prosperity and benevolent use of nature, though, I tend to see “government-subsidized corporate agriculture draining an aquifer that won’t be refilled till the next ice age.”

Mind you, those little picturesque farms in France are government-subsidized, too. But I forgive them because they produce such great food.

InsightStraight January 25, 2007 at 3:54 am

My parents both grew up on farms; we always had gardens when I was growing up, and they inculcated in me a deep love and abiding appreciation for the soil and those who work it. I am a gardener still and ever, and have in fact been known to grow edgy if too much time passes without getting my hands into dirt.

When passing through farmlands, I contemplate what it would be like to be a lifelong steward of the soil, meditate upon the role of husbandry, ruminate on the ruminants. I thrill at the even fields and neat rows, evidence of the blending of hard work and nature. I become lost in reverie of the idea of cycle and season; I nearly swoon in awe of the soil’s fecundity.

Or I may just be bored out of my gourd. For me, it is largely mood-dependent.

But as I speed across the seemingly-endless farmlands with their outcroppings of farmsteads, I always bring to mind Sherlock Holmes (someone else subject to being bored out of his gourd, depending upon mood) and the scene in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” :


By eleven o’clock the next day we were well upon our way to the old English capital. Holmes had been buried in the morning papers all the way down, but after we had passed the Hampshire border he threw them down and began to admire the scenery. It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and gray roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

“You horrify me!”

“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbors, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”


Doyle knew how to cross Kansas: tell a nice little horror story along the way.

By the way, Walter —

I am unable to drive at night in northern New Mexico without thinking of the opening scene from “Hardwired”. It’s chipped.

Kelly January 25, 2007 at 6:39 pm

Oh, honey. I’ve read so many of your books, most of them multiple times and I’ve never felt like I was in Kansas or Nebraska. You must work so hard on them, they’re like Fiji when I get there.

Did that make sense? Um… you’re terraforming!

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