An Unplanned Lane

A few months ago, I bought a walk-behind DR brush cutter to clear several overgrown acres in the back half of our new weekend property in Lamar County, Texas. In our part of the world we usually use tractors with bush hogs dragging behind, but I didn’t want to lay out the capital for such a big rig, hence the DR.

This thing is a beast that chews up saplings three inches in diameter without even struggling to clear its throat. Chest-high Johnson grass and weeds? No problem. It shreds that kind of vegetation with satisfying, crunching sounds reminiscent of a sharp knife cutting through limp celery.

The front stretches out like the hood of a ’76 Ford Thunderbird and the monster cutter is driven by an engine big enough to power that same car. The belt drive will yank it from your hands in third gear, so the only thing one has to do is engage the blade thick as a Roman broadsword and follow…sometimes reluctantly when the terrain forces a veer off the operator’s intended path.

One such unplanned shift in direction took me through a thick patch of head-high thorny blackberry vines and oak saplings, resulting in long, bloody scratches down my arms. However, when I looked back, the new lane was clear as a walking path in a city park.

Hang on, Ethyl, I think this boy’s gonna start reminiscing!

The whole thing reminded me of a scene that locked into my mind about twenty years ago when the legendary Y.O. Ranch in South Texas hosted a weekend cattle drive for outdoor writers and one of their children. Our youngest daughter who was thirteen at the time, nickname Taz, is a natural on horses and she was excited to go.

It was a real three-day cattle drive across that huge 40,000-acre ranch, moving a hundred or more longhorns from one pasture to another. On the first day, cowboys taught the city slickers how to ride, and later that evening kids learned to cook over an open campfire. It was a breeze for Taz, who grew up camping with us and already knew how to ride.

We pushed the herd on the second morning under a gray, leaden sky weeping with rain. The herd’s trail boss made it clear that if “things got western,” kids and dads were to get the hell out of the way and let the real cowboys handle the herd.

Ten experienced cowhands circled the cattle and pushed them into a long string through the first pasture full of prairie savanna grasses, cedars, and ragged mesquite. Mounted kids and dads filled in the loose circle of riders, walking their horses in pace with the longhorns and cowboys who looked to be straight out of casting.

I was riding point with the trail boss and Taz was halfway back when something spooked the tough, rangy longhorns. The leaders instinctively wheeled and charged into a thicket of fifteen-foot-high mesquite trees lining a dry wash. The rest of the herd followed, ignoring the experienced cattlemen’s attempts to stop them.

In the Trail Boss’s terms, things got western.

He spurred his horse and took off to the right and around the end of that big patch of crooked trees, intending to cut the herd’s leaders off and turn them until the rest of the cowboys punched through the dense foliage to help. Reins in one hand and a 35mm camera in the other, I followed right behind him and watched that man sit his horse like he’d been born in a saddle. Not nearly as graceful in the saddle, I held my own and we beat the herd coming through the brush and reined up in a small clearing to experience a scene straight from the 1880s.

The running cattle sounded as if a steamfoller was crashing through the thicket. Branches and limbs popped and crackled, hooves thundered on the ground, and whoops reached our ears both from kids and cowboys.

Then here they came. The leaders exploded through the thicket in a blast of dust and flying leaves with broken limbs and dead branches caught on their horns. The real cowboys popped out on both sides of the herd, doing their best to keep the cattle from scattering to the winds. My breath caught at the sight of a scratched and bloody kid bent low over the saddle horn to avoid the limbs, holding her hat with one hand, and riding like hell.

She passed us and flashed me a grin full of excitement and fun.

The trail boss roared and pointed. “Who the hell belongs to that kid?”

I raised a hand, expecting a good old fashioned dressing down in a cowboy way.

Instead, he built his own grin. “That little gal can ride with me any day!”

They passed, and I looked through a newly cleared lane stomped flat by hooves and huge bodies to see the rest of the kids and their fathers picking their way through the undergrowth.

Under a similar gray sky yesterday in Northeast Texas, I turned after unintentionally following the DR brush cutter through a ten-foot-high thicket of saplings and blackberry vines and the new lane looked similar to the one pounded flat by that runaway herd

So what does all this have to do with writing?

Creating your characters, building a scene, and then setting those fictional people on course is like starting that cattle drive. We’d planned to follow a two-track pasture road that day, an outline if you wish, but the thing turned on a dime.

I hadn’t planned on that lane the other day, just like Trail Boss hadn’t planned on his longhorns cutting a new path through the mesquites, but I was glad for the experience and such satisfying results, both times

My way of writing is to set everything into motion and then follow the plot as it turns when it wants, but those of you who outline may shriek and throw up your hands at veering off your course and abandoning your outline. Planners must push their characters say and do certain things at specific points in a manuscript, but wait a second.

Try this little exercise just once. Let your mind wander through five or six new pages, allowing your characters’ fictional personalities to find their way. They might turn around a sapling (read minor character), a mature oak (one of your major characters), or an unseen obstacle such as a dip or dry wash (clues or an unanticipated incident) and cut a different, open path that you can look back on with satisfaction.

What could a few bloody, mental scratches hurt in the long run?


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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 “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

24 thoughts on “An Unplanned Lane

  1. Bet that was a memory of a lifetime for Taz. How awesome! Everyone should experience a cattle drive at least once. I’ve been on a drive once, about 30+ years ago, but the terrain wasn’t that rough–the rolling hill country of Wyoming and no cattle spooked.

    Being ready to veer off path in your story is wise advice. I do prefer to outline, but no matter how much you think you’ve thought every possibility through, something new will arise. Can’t say I always handle those sudden turns with grace, but you do what you gotta do to get the right story. The good news is that sometimes those sudden turns may also contribute to new story ideas as well.

    • Experienced military men and women will tell you that plans are great, until implemented. Then things….change. We should all be prepared to adapt and improvise.

  2. I loved the story, Rev. There’s been some discussion here of frame stories recently. That was one dandy frame story. I bet Taz will never forget it.

    Good points about outlining and giving your characters some free rein. I like to outline, knowing where the herd will start, and where we’ll end (God willing), but allow for some unexpected excitement along the way.

    Have fun with that DR brush cutter. I drooled over one years ago, but I already had a tractor and bush hog. Couldn’t justify it. I might have to take another look.

    • The DR trimmers are great for smaller and trickier areas, but they are SLOW in comparison to the big equipment. They will also beat you to death in rough territory.

    • The DR was in place of a Kubota at $30,000 initial outlay. That idea of following lanes in writing came while I was cutting that brush. That kind of activity gives me time to think.

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. I spent a week on a working cattle ranch doing research for my Triple-D Ranch series (twice–it was FUN), but not nearly as exciting. We pushed cattle not longhorns) to different pastures on the ranch, helped with medicating, castrating, and many other daily chores. The ranch used two wranglers, and the rest of us greenhorns pretended we were actually useful. But I learned a lot, and reading this brought back those wonderful weeks, even if ours didn’t come close in the adventure department. Nothing went western.
    My books all seem to follow the path you’ve laid out. I have a general idea and then the cattle/characters break new ground along the way.

    • I grew up with all that, and for that reason, I don’t want to raise cattle anymore. But those are great memories.

      Follow those lanes and let those fictional people lead!

  4. Rev, Ihave to tell you that there are many Saturdays where your offering is much better than whatever novel I happen to be reading.

    Please tell your daughter “happy trails” for me.

    Have a great weekend!

  5. Rev, I have to tell you that there are many Saturdays where your offering is much better than whatever novel I happen to be reading.

    Please tell your daughter “happy trails” for me.

    Have a great weekend!

  6. Loved the story, Rev. My husband’s a small engine mechanic, so we’ve had plenty of brush hogs around here over the years. If the operator isn’t careful, it can and will plow through anything it wants. 😉

    I’m a planner, yet my characters are free to improvise. And they take full advantage. I think of an outline as a living document that can twist and turn and change during the drafting process.

    • That’s what I love to hear. I’ve never liked being restrained or forced into a box. Maybe that’s why I had issues in high school, but then again, I eventually became a teacher. So there’s that…

  7. Rev, this post was music to my pantser’s ears. My characters have a way of stampeding. I just hang onto to the saddlehorn and hope for the best. The scratches are well worth it.

    Sending Taz a big Montana howdy. She’d be welcome here, too.

    • That’s an excellent way to describe it. Hanging onto the horn. When I was trying to rodeo, wayyy back when, I’d climb up on a bull, take a tight wrap, and hang on when they pulled the chute.

      It’s about the same thing, only it lasts longer than 8 seconds.

  8. I used a much lighter DR trimmer with a saw blade on front for years on my acreage, but I live in hilly country. My failing back and my hobbit body decided heck no on those 45 degree slopes so I gave it to my much bigger BIL. With the spring bamboo coming up, I miss it. Loppers and a machete aren’t nearly as fun.

    Beware the blackberries. Copperheads love the easy hunting, and I imagine rattlers would, too. Now, there’s a great metaphor for plotting for you.

    • Oh, I’ve already made several small snakes out of much longer ones. It’s the name of the game. I also have snake guards for the most dangerous areas. Just two weeks ago a young man was hit by a cottonmouth not far away. He’s fine, after anti-venom and a few days in the hospital.

      Thanks for reading!

  9. I haven’t been on a horse in years but was with you every hoofbeat. Recently reconnected with a childhood friend I used to ride with. She still has horses. We may have to get together.

    Yesterday’s post by Steve Hooley reminded me of a story I forgot I wrote and realized today in my reply to him I changed a part for the better. So today I’m looking at the rest of it and having great fun with it.

    I’m frequently lectured by my outlining friends for not doing so. I’ve tried, but my brain does not work that way. My imagination shuts down completely. I find I complete more stuff if I just relax and cooperate with the way God wired me.

    Between my time travel doctors, my horsey gal pal, and your post I’m feeling a lot of synchronicity today. Thank you all.

    • Using a mix between an outliner and a pantster might work for you. You decide on the important plot moments and clues, then let the rest take care of itself. I compare it to laying down jewels in a certain order then creating the filigree of gold to make it a bracelet.

      • That’s pretty much what I do. I always know my beginning and my ending. I can always come up with the “all breaks loose” part. So I guess I am a hybrid.

    • I know people will argue with me, but in my opinion, there is no right or wrong way to write novels or short stories, only great or disastrous results.

  10. Nice piece! I was just reading the DR ad in a favorite monthly magazine yesterday. Back in the day of Phil Lyne, I worked for several weeks debottlenecking a uranium plant down near George West, Texas. Nice people; they don’t come much nicer. You’d see a few longhorn cattle in the area on the way to and from the plant. Pizza required driving 25 miles to Beeville. Pleasant memories.

    • Ain’t our state great? Pure Texas and wide open spaces, and distances so great we measure them by hours or six-packs.

      Thanks for reading.

      • Pearl or Lone Star! I think I could adjust to Plano. Saw the Alamo on the way back to the airport at S.A., spent a half hour there.

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