Hemingway on Country

Another big take-away from Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips — along with making characters real — is knowing Country. Living and writing in Africa and Spain allowed Hemingway to write compelling novels in those settings. Hemingway advocates that you should experience the sounds, smell the air and the earth, and know the place completely. Only then can you get to very essence of what’s most important at that moment. Intuitively, I took this into account while writing House Key, and have taken his advice one step further in its sequel.

This season, every time I put my foot in the stirrup when the meet gathers and we wait for the huntsman to sound his horn, I am ready. Not just anticipating the adventure the day’s sport may spring on its riders, but prepared to take notes. Country is at its core the ground we stand on. And to me it’s about the woods and the fields and the reverberation of hoofbeats against the ground and through my body. That’s what makes this place — the place I want to share with my readers — like no other. Not just visually, but definitively. I need to take it all in so I can share it all out: the sounds, the smells, the topography, the effect of the terrain on my horse, on how he responds, and how I feel. Hemingway makes clear the distinction beyond mere description of what makes a story come alive: sharing the emotion of the moment and getting the reader to feel it, too.

One reader suggested I take photos of the action, but the problem is that when you’re in the action, you’re too busy living the moment to pause for a photo. You’d have to be a spectator in the shrubbery with clairvoyance to predict exactly where the fox might pop out and give chase. You can then maybe record the action, but even so, it’s still no substitute for being part of it.

Nonetheless, I thought I would be clever working around the problem by taking pictures with my phone as I rode. I discovered this is only possible when the field is paused while the hounds search for a viable scent or the huntsmen stops at a creek to give his hounds a break. The resulting images are useful notes for a bucolic nineteenth century scene, but not exactly what I am after. I also realized that capturing action was tricky on horseback after I tried to snap a pic and realized my phone had frozen. I was fussing with it when the field took off again, and my horse — who knows way more than I do — took off at a gallop not wishing for us to be left behind and miss any sport. Reins in one hand, I couldn’t stuff the phone in my pocket fast enough without dropping it never to be found again.

So, I’ve concluded that I must do it the old-fashioned way; memorize all the sights and sounds and smells and the feeling that goes with them so I can write about it as soon as I get back to my desk.

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