I’m reading a very cool book, In Search of the Canary Tree, by Lauren E. Oakes. It’s early yet, and in it she’s just starting her Ph.D. research project analyzing yellow-cedar forests on an island in the Alexander Archipelago of southeast Alaska, near Sitka.
What does this have to do with writing? I’m enthralled by the details as she describes how she prepared for the project—choosing her teammates (e.g., two men and two women so they’d only need two tents), the logistics of getting to her study plots (by plane or boat then kayak and hiking), and the sheer agony of days spent in the rain—this is rain forest—plotting and measuring dead and dying trees, identifying everything else in the plots.
It’s a lot like writing a book, only I get to sit in a warm room with a ceiling fan and AC if I need it. But I’m also plotting and agonizing.
It feels like Endurance took a lifetime to write, and I now see why the speculative fiction genre is prone to series. You spend months, years building a world and do you really want to start all over after one book?
Not to give any spoilers for Endurance, but so far readers are itching for more. I thought I had a pretty clean ending. Sure there were loose ends, but I made sure you got the sense they’d be sorted. But readers want to see the sorting. I did too, actually, so I started on the next book before I’d even sent Endurance out in search of a publisher.
The funny thing about creating is that once you give life to characters and a place, momentum builds. They don’t stop moving around after The End. They insist they still have a story to tell. So I’m happy to comply because it means I get to stay in this world and not have to start over.
It’s not the best world ever. Not utopia. But it’s not completely dystopian either. Set in the future, I chose to go post-war. We all know nothing good comes from war. The United States of America has been imperfect from the start and seems to be unraveling. I imagined how much it could unravel and decided to reweave the threads afterward.
So the world of Endurance, and the next one (at least), are about what happens after the worst possible thing can happen. Well, maybe not the worst because there is still life on the planet.
What Lauren Oakes wants to know about the yellow-cedar forests of Alaska is, what will replace them? Because they are dying. And scientists know why. One guess. Yep, climate change. But not what you’d think. It’s not temperature per se, but the lack of snowpack. The roots need that insulation and when it’s not there and there’s a cold snap, bingo! The trees die. Not right away. Of course they have to be tortured by stress, weakness, then death.
What comes next? That’s what she wants to know, and I’ll be eager to find out too. I vacationed in Alaska one summer, one of the best trips ever, and visited Sitka (even wrote a short story inspired by it). So it feels somewhat familiar. Eerily familiar as I read through my journal of the trip. The ship’s naturalist told us about the dying cedars and why, and we saw them. So Oakes’s research hits close to home for this East Coaster. Though I never got to experience it like she and her crew are. And, frankly, I don’t care to. It feels a lot like thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (also something I don’t care to do).
It’s hard work.
I’ll take my hard work sitting in a chair agonizing over what my characters will do next, what catastrophes will befall them, how they’ll make it through, like Oakes and her team pushing through the brush and avoiding bears. Aren’t all stories about avoiding bears. On some level?
More about Endurance (including buy links)
In Search of the Canary Tree by Lauren E. Oakes
Two stories were inspired by Alaska. They are in A Perfect Life and Other Stories.