Writing on the Beach, by Susan Calder (author)

At a book launch I attended a few years ago, the author told the crowd that he loved writing so much that on holidays he brings his laptop to the beach to write. I thought, is he nuts? When I’m away in beautiful or interesting places, I want to spend all my time seeing the sights, enjoying the scenery, engaging in new experiences, or relaxing.

During vacations I’ve never written more than personal travel journals or setting notes for stories I might write later.

Several things conspired to make me change my tune. I had registered for Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, which took place in Toronto in October 12-15, 2017. I  saw a call for submissions on the convention website. Bouchercon planned to produce an anthology of crime short stories with a travel aspect to fit the years’ theme: Passport to Murder. Here I was heading off on a three-week holiday in Mexico. I was planning to do lots of walking and sight-seeing, but there would be many hours at the beach or pool. I could use this time for writing, if I wanted.
Ever since a holiday in Spain two years earlier, I’d been kicking around an idea for a suspense story partly set in Spain, although any warm, foreign land would do. Why not set it in Puerto Vallarta, where I’d be visiting? This idea gelled into a story idea that I estimated would approach the anthology’s 5,000 story word limit. With a deadline of January 31, 2017, I’d get a jump on this longish tale if I could write a first draft during my November trip.

It took me several days in Mexico to drag myself from poolside reading and take my journal and pen out of my beach bag.

Normally, I do all of my writing on a computer, but writing by hand outdoors feels more natural to me and avoids dealing with glare on the screen. First drafts work fine with a pen, although my early pages had so many crossings-out that I had to rewrite them. Each time I went to the beach or pool, I picked up the story where it left off. I discovered that an advantage of writing over reading on my lounge chair is that my reading focus tends to stay fixed on the page. When writing I’m often stumped for words or what comes next. I’d look up from the page and delight in my surroundings and views.
While touring the region, I’d gather details to use in the story, such as the mouth-burning brown salsa that restaurants seemed to serve with every meal. The fishing village of Mismaloya made a cameo appearance in the story, as did a pet store I passed in a Mexican neighbourhood. Or what I thought was a pet store until it hit me that the chickens, rabbits, and mice were probably being sold as food for humans or other creatures.

At night, I’d drift to sleep mulling over the scene to write the next day.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I slept especially well during this part of trip, despite creepy thoughts of pets as food. After about seven writing sessions, I reached the end of the draft, but decided the last section didn’t work. So, I wrote a new ending. Now I was done and free for my usual beach reading, with the bonus of feeling satisfied that, hey, I can do this – write while on vacation.
After my return from the trip, other writing commitments and the Christmas holidays took over. I only started transferring my draft to my computer in early January and still had a way to go. Note to future holiday-writing self: be clearer about changes I will make further along in the story. I was halfway through typing the old ending before I realized I had ditched it. And, of course, this isn’t simply typing; I’m revising as I type this second draft and, for sure, I’ll need a third and fourth draft, especially since it looks like draft 1 went beyond the 5,000 word limit. There’s no word count feature for my scrawls in the journal. Had I left this story to write entirely after the vacation, I doubt I’d be doing it at all. I would be telling myself, reasonably, that my odds of acceptance for this anthology are slim. Why spend the time? Even with a draft, the January 31st deadline loomed too close.

Time, I learned years ago, is one of the greatest deterrents to writing.

How do we fit scribbling time into all the other things we need and want in life – family, friends, jobs that pay the bills, cooking dinner, keeping fit, or leisure activities? Something has to go. For me, on this vacation, it was relaxing hours with books.
Would I do it again? You bet, on the right kind of trip. Other holidays, packed with activities, are about getting away from work and daily life; learning and experience. All of these have value that I wouldn’t want to miss. But, if a vacation with lots of downtime comes along, I’m in for another story. Actually, I’m hoping that if I get good at this, I can take more of these longer holidays in warm places, which will be pretty appealing in the middle of a Calgary winter.

Susan Calder - author

Susan Calder


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