Leathery Wings and Petrichor

The Earthling, which released wayyyy back in 1980, is one of the greatest, but most underrated movies I’ve ever seen. Three quarters of the way through the film, Patrick Foley, (William Holden) is in conversation with a traumatized six-year-old Shawn Daley (Ricky Schroeder), and delivers one of the most inspiring observations in movie history.

Dying of cancer in the Australian wilderness, Foley is trying to teach the youngster enough skills to survive in the Blue Mountains before he passes away. Recently orphaned and traumatized, Shawn is self-absorbed and spends too much time complaining, according to Foley.

Desperate, Foley finally breaks and attempts to jolt the child into understanding. “You’re not only a whining kid that wastes his time; you’re also deaf and half blind. Sure you can hear me now. But do you listen to that water? Can you hear those birds back there? Can you hear the insects – the wind and the trees creakin’ and rubbin’? You’re deaf to those frogs down there and the sun pingin’ off of these rocks. You’re deaf to your own heartbeat and me comin’ up behind you. My God, boy, there’s a whole symphony goin’ on here and you can’t hear a thing.”

And then later, he distills it down even further for Shawn, and gave me a line I used with my girls when they were growing up. “You hear, but you don’t listen.”

In writing novels, we should know who the characters are, and what drives them, and what they’re wearing (and I hope you didn’t spend two paragraphs of an info dump telling us more than we want know about their clothes).

That can be achieved by a line or two as the story progresses.

The symphony Foley is talking about, are the senses we take for granted, especially sounds and smells that are often difficult for some to integrate into the manuscript. However, writers don’t need to tell readers how something sounds. Showing is much better.

“The sound of thunder reached his ears.”

Or, “She room smelled musky.”

We don’t need to say, “Thunder outside of the musky room and the spider’s prickly legs tickled the hairs on his arm, creeped Herschel out.”

At this writing, I’m alone in our Northeast Texas cabin with the windows open to catch the fresh breeze flowing through the screens like an invisible river. Closed up for nearly three years, the dusty interior was stale and thick when we first bought the place, but now it’s fresh as line-dried sheets.

The soft spring breeze will soon be replaced by furious winds whipped up from a line of thunderstorms roaring down on the cabin from the west. I’m looking forward to the hail that’s sure to rattle on the tin roof sparking childhood memories of similar storms and rainy days playing in the hay barn.

It’s a rustic place that reminds me of those old-school cabins up in the Adirondacks. The rough cedar exterior of the 2,000 square foot retreat fits perfectly in the hardwoods that make up the entire 48.5-acre parcel. A pool wraps around three sides of the house and waves slap against the shore. Here in East Texas we call them pools, farther out in Deep East Texas they’re ponds or stock ponds, and out west, they’re called tanks.

The interior is honey-colored cedar, some commercially milled, but the rest hand-cut in a home sawmill, sanded smooth by a welder-turned-carpenter, and coated with a sealer that brings out the rich, warm colors only cedar can provide.

Thunder rumbles close enough to rattle the glass in an antique bookcase in the other room, creating an evening just like those movie makers use to dispatch promiscuous teenagers, but there are no serial killers or ax murderers creeping up to the front porch, as far as I know.

Besides, this isn’t a place full of partygoers (though I’ve been told the cabin once reeked of spilled beer and whiskey after a number of rambunctious parties thrown by the former owner), and there isn’t one young lady running around in her underwear. I’m sure, because I checked before coming in for the night.

The breeze occasionally brings another burst of air perfumed by the distinctive gin-and pencil-shavings fragrance of evergreen branchlets rubbing together in the wind.

A bat flutters past on dry, leathery wings that might creep some folks out, but I love the little guys who suck up mosquitos like vacuum cleaners. Unseen tree frogs of all sizes lend three-note voices to the symphony outside. Some chatter with a high pitch, like maddened amphibians laughing at the deeper croaking of heavy bullfrogs, who add bottom to the chorus.

Crickets under the window add their own backbeat as an owl hoots in the distance and a whippoorwill repeats a distinctively sad call over and over again, asking who whipped poor Will. Will’s name ends on a high note, reminiscent of a construction worker’s wolf whistle.

Pucker up and whistle that last note and you’ll understand what I mean.

But that’s not all. The night is never silent, even without the oncoming storm, nor are the woods. Wild hogs grunt and fight less than hundred yards away. At one point, a smaller, indignant pig squeals long and loud, and goes silent.

We’re not in the wilderness. High overhead, the hiss of a distant, passing jet seems out of place, as much as car tires sizzling down the oil road before hitting a hole. The whole vehicle rattles like it’s coming apart before passing.

The house pops as it cools, and the only other noise is the tapping on my fingers on the keyboard. Ice rattles in the glass after a sip of chilly Bombay Sapphire and tonic, the cool liquid refreshing as the evening.

Now, there it is. The screen is dusty and the damp wind across my makeshift desk brings the scent of petrichor, the familiar odor the odor of rain falling on dry ground.

Offer these senses in your work, letting the reader become part of the story, instead of hitting them between the eyes with “he heard,” or “she smelled,” or “they saw.” Spin your story in a way that the reader is there with your characters, using the recollections of their own senses.

That’s what Patrick Foley was talking about, that symphony around us that I’ve hopefully shown without telling. Add in an ax murderer and some teenagers in their underwear, and you have a thrilling scene.



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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com. “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

27 thoughts on “Leathery Wings and Petrichor

  1. How on earth do you do that, Rev??? As a reader, I usually skip over long setting descriptions but you made me read every word. Love the poetry of “fresh as line-dried sheets” and “gin-and pencil-shavings fragrance of evergreen branchlets.”

    You transform what could be static descriptions into action. Wow.

    Thanks for a great lesson in “show–don’t tell.”

    • Thanks so much for your kind comments. I was a classroom teacher for ten years and learned that we often learn through stories instead of facts. Glad that I touched something within you.

  2. Sir Raymond Chandler with a cowboy hat. Wow, what a beautiful description of an evening at the cabin. That one is worthy of being published as a narrative poem.

    Wonderful post. Thanks for the example, and I hope you have a good weekend.

  3. That was fantastic. I was really there. Thanks for “showing” us how it’s done.

  4. My cabin is my glass and iron table under my latticed garden pergola. Soft breeze and quiet marred only by the spawn of Satan with the leaf blower next door. Mama Squirrel and her younguns pinged the empty bowl, reaping a peanut shower. One scarlet amaryllis is trying to outshine the sea of white and purple orchids while its buddy waits its turn. I informed the Easter lily that she better get cracking since Easter is tomorrow. “I”d rather wait til Mother’s Day,” she said.

  5. Don’t get cocky about no serial killers. Fire a cannon over the water and see how many bodies float up.

    P.S., that was some great writing.

  6. Okay, you inspired me to be brave and sharing here – This is a soldier with survivor’s guilt. She survived – Logan didn’t.

    “You sit for a spell. Logan will come to you.” Doris smiled, then turned and walked away, calling over her shoulder. “Come back to the house when you’re done.”
    CJ watched until she disappeared into the trees. What a sweet, odd lady. CJ dearly hoped that grief hadn’t forced her poor mind to her conjure her dead son. A huge flat rock extended over the water. She stepped to the edge of it and sat.
    A stray breeze set the branches swaying, the leaves rustling like distant applause. The glass surface of the river moved like liquid mercury, shifting but never breaking. The water over the rocks made a deep sound, like old man’s chuckle. She breathed deep, taking in the smell of cold dank places, even as the dappled sun warmed her skin.
    There was something different, but it took her a while to recognize what it was.
    She closed her eyes, and the restless antsiness that had chased her for months faded. Quiet stole in to fill the space.
    Reveling in the change, she waited.
    In time, peace inched into her bloodstream like a heavy dose of Valium, releasing her muscles from their constant tautness.
    She didn’t mind the waiting.
    Her legs swung, her chest expanded on deep inhales and long, slow, exhales. How long had it been since she sat still, and just was?
    Had she ever?
    Thoughts came and went, like the puffy clouds over the sun. Mind quiet for maybe the first time in her life, she felt at harmony with herself, the world and her tiny place in it.
    She happily waited.
    But the change in the slant of light on the water and the stinging nerves in her butt reminded her she couldn’t stay forever in this place.
    Logan hadn’t spoken to her. But one thought flickered in and out of her mind, flashing and darting like the small birds who swooped to catch bugs on the water’s surface. What if you didn’t have to pay forever for a mistake, even a bad one? What if the forgiveness she longed for wasn’t something to be granted by others, but only she could give?
    She scooted back from the edge and stood, waiting for the needles to stop before stepping away. “I love you, Logan. I always will.” She spoke to the trees. To the river. To this amazing space that belonged to her best friend. “I’m leaving here, but I’m not leaving you behind. I’m taking you with me. Because life without you doesn’t work. I know, because believe me, I tried. I don’t know what happens next, but if you’re with me, I know I’ll be okay. Okay?”
    Only the sounds of nature came back.
    She stepped into the trees, but then turned back, to glimpse this charmed place once more. Her heart thudded in slow, strong beats, pushing the newfound sense of ease to all her hungry cells. Perhaps a pardon of sorts?
    And it felt . . . possibly . . . permanent.

  7. Loved that, Mr Wortham, thank you. It was beautiful and evocative. I was there with you in the cabin, and I’m a Brit who’s never been to mainland USA – except for a quick stop in Miami.

    I shy away from description in my own writing, knowing I could never write as well as that. Thanks for showing us how.

  8. I’ve had some interesting conversations with young people over the years. One said that gut instinct, aka “spider senses,” aka the hackles rising, was nonsense. I told her to put down her dang phone and pay attention. Yesterday on Quora, one asked, “How do you know when someone wants to kill someone else near you?” That’s an interesting thought experiment for everyone here.

    I’ve written maybe a dozen blogs on description and viewpoint because, unless you are writing omniscient, that description is being funneled through a character, not you. What exactly is this character noticing according to the situation, his personality, his experiences, etc.? And what do we need to tell the reader? That’s a puzzle I’ve always enjoyed figuring out.

    • The truth is we pass people every week, and more likely every day in the city, who have killed, caused injury, or can. Getting inside a character’s head is fun, and an interesting exercise. Thanks for writing.

  9. Wow. Beautiful. Caught myself breathing deeper while I was reading, as if I were hunting for what you were describing.

    Thanks from a fellow bat lover. Had four turn up about three years ago in a tiny space between a rain gutter and the eave fascia. Left them alone, and they’ve come back each summer. And I haven’t had a mosquito bite since.

  10. Outstanding! I’ve tried to write a short story about an old man and an Adirondack cabin and I thought it was OK but you nailed it. Not just any nails either.
    I lived in the Adirondack Park for a while working as a millhand. I think that living and working in places like that gave me some insight into what it might be like long term.

    • I believe we have to physically visit the places we write about to absorb with all of our senses. That rich stew then seeps into our writing and provides a sense of realism you can’t get from online or book research.

      Thanks for the great compliment.

  11. Wow! That’s all I can say. Wow. Like Debbie, I don’t usually read settings, just skim through to make sure I don’t miss a clue, but I read every word of yours. And now I must go and do likewise. (I wish)

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