Lessons Learned from American Walnut

American Walnut is Timeless

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My grandfather and master cabinetmaker, Szűcs István, is at the right, wearing glasses and his woodworker’s apron.

The wood of Juglans californica is among the most highly-prized in the world. It is used by manufacturers of luxury automobiles for trim and interior paneling, by firearms manufacturers for rifle and shotgun stocks, and by furniture and cabinetmakers for any number of needs, from casework to picture framing to trim to larger projects like this table my grandfather made in 1938.

Walnut has been in my family going back four generations, and this morning I had the pleasure of discovering a treasure trove of the stuff in my father’s garage loft. I helped him clean the loft space and stacked around 150 board feet of 8/4 and 4/4 lengths of walnut that he’d harvested from a downed tree back in the 1980s. The stuff’s old. And it’s still in beautiful condition.

ImageThe best lessons in life are learned from the living, not the stuff we get shoveled down our throats in a classroom. Sometimes that’s true of the hardest lessons, too. Granddad learned a lesson for the family when he sanded, planed, and shaved walnut without a dust mask on.  Juglans wood contains a toxin, and Grandad ended up dying from cancer like so many of his generation. So, as I worked with my father this morning, I got an earful of reminders that I was to always wear a mask when I start dimensioning the lumber he’d salvaged from that downed tree. No problems here, Pop. Image

This set me to thinking about other lessons that might have been learned for me by someone else. Specifically, by other writers I had read and would read. There’s so much advice out there about how to be a better writer, how to get your story told well and sold better. How to take a piece of rough, undimensioned lumber and mill it into a polished piece of hardwood that may as well be called a jewel.

My novel has been through two drafts and beta reads, and while it’s definitely stronger this second time around, there’s still a lot that needs doing. As I reflect on what needs doing, it occurs to me that the three most significant lessons I’ve learned through the drafting and beta reading process all spoke up to me at times in the past. I remember thinking I would need to do these things, but it wasn’t until I’d recognized the lessons in another author’s work that I finally committed to applying it to my own. Just as knowing my grandfather’s fate helps me remember to put the dust mask on, seeing another author doing what I’d been telling myself to do all along has helped me improve my story.

  • From JK Rowling, I learned that you need a place for your story, a recognizable location that your readers will automatically fill with details, and a place from which you will be able to freely invent characters and activities for them because your readers will be expecting it. Hogwarts gave Rowling a headmaster, an atheltic field, a potions classroom, dormitories, and so on. She invented their form, but their functions were in place before she started.
  • From Christopher Moore, I learned that your characters must be working the same case. Just because they’re running around San Francisco in different directions and at different times and with different and conflicting agendas, they’re all working on the same story together. Their motivations are like tether balls around a common pole. As the author, it’s your job to bat them as they pass you so that by story’s end, the reader sees them all tied up together around the pole.
  • From Colin F Barnes and Justin Robinson, I learned that no mystery is so great that revealing it at the end will satisfy your reader. You have to drop hints, as both Colin and Justin do quite well. You have to let the secrets out piece by savory juicy morsel sized piece until the reader is slavering to devour your story so they can get the last bite onto their tongue.

About ajsikes

I am a freelance editor and author of speculative fiction in the dark/weird vein. My editing style is best described as nurturing. I treat each customer with the same respect and consideration regardless of the quality of their writing, and always aim my comments at helping writers improve and strengthen their work. For more information, please visit me at my website.
This entry was posted in Around the Shop, plotting vs. pantsing, Writing Craft and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Lessons Learned from American Walnut

  1. Great lessons! Isn’t it so true, that seeing things in the work of others helps to deepen our understanding of our own work. My recent rewrite was greatly informed by the work of Robin Hobb. She showed me how exploring the characters’ internal goals, motivations and conflicts will inform and deepen readers’ understanding of the external events.

    Congrats on your new treasure-trove, and on your newfound wisdom, Aaraon! Thanks for sharing, and good luck!

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