E-Mail: peterlourie@gmavt.net

Adventure Writing: The Process

      Whether the final result of my work is a story, an article, or a book, the writing process involves three stages.  First, I engage my imagination in the adventure before me - with growing anticipation I focus on preparation and research.  Next, there's the excitement and unfolding adventure of the journey itself.   Finally, I settle down to the last part of the creative process by drawing together the threads of my research and experience into a story that can touch the lives of my readers. 


      As I tell students in my writing workshops, research is one of the most fun things I do as a nonfiction writer and as a river traveler. Before a trip, during a trip, and after a trip, I conduct research. Other words for research include study, discover, explore, and investigate. Can you think of more?

      A lot of people think "research" is something dry and dusty that happens in old libraries. It's true that some research does indeed take place in old--and new--libraries. In fact, articles and books are very important in preparing for a river trip. They can give a mental picture of the experience ahead, which can be important in planning what I should bring and special arrangements I should make--ranging from the need for a passport to warm clothes. Articles and books can also give me  ideas of things to look for in my adventure. Learning about experiences writers have had in the past can clue me in to important aspects of the river that may have changed. Is wildlife as plentiful as it once was? Are people using the river as they did in past times? Are there now dams where there once were wild, flowing waters and deep canyons? I certainly read before I go. I also read during a trip, and afterward. Books are a great resource. But there are other ways to research a river. 

      People, for instance. Every river has its experts. Not only scientists and ecologists and historians, but just plain people like your dad or mom, or the man and woman down the street, or especially your grandparents. Older people have a lot of wisdom stored inside them and love to talk about what they know, including river stories, river events, and river lore. Most of us are better talkers than listeners--so you be the listener. They'll love you for listening to them, and you'll get stories and information and expertise in exchange. 

      First thing I do when I'm about to take a trip on a river is start a list of articles and books to read and people to talk to. Whether it's a trip on the Hudson, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Amazon, the Everglades, the Yukon, the Rio Grande, or Otter Creek outside my window--first I need to find out who the experts are. I can talk to them in person, or I can talk to them by phone. Or I can write them a letter or an e-mail note. 


      Other methods of research in preparing for a river trip include fun things like learning what gear to take.   On the Hudson River, I needed a long canoe for long distances and big water. On the Erie Canal I needed a shorter, faster, more tippy canoe. This was something I discovered as I began to learn about the waterway I'd chosen to travel and to write about. In preparation for my Mississippi trip, I checked the internet and found all kinds of information. I also found two people who had canoed the entire river, and I contacted them via Email. Then we spoke on the phone. They gave me excellent advice, and I even hooked up with one of the Mississippi paddlers in New Orleans. He helped me with some photography, and he gave me some river facts I did not know before. 



      Once I've prepared as best I can for a river trip; once I've read some articles and books about the river; once I've talked to as many river experts as I can locate, I am now more familiar with the watershed I'll be traveling in. I plan the trip as best I can, making an itinerary of where I hope to be on any given day. (Even though some of these plans fall through, other opportunities appear out of nowhere.) And I am ready to embark. 

       I often call the journey itself "research." An adventure down a river is learning, exploring, investigating, isn't it? I take river books with me so I can learn things along the way. I talk to experts on the river banks. I stop in towns I didn't even know existed. Most importantly, though, I observe the river firsthand. No research is as good as firsthand observation. I smell the river, I see it, I hear it, and I can feel it in the rocking of the canoe in the waves. All of which I write down in my journal. 

      Journals are ways of recording one's firsthand research. The river journal I keep will form the basis of the book I will write when I get home.  I have kept up to a thousand pages of journal notes for a 20-page children's manuscript and a 300-page adult book.

      My research on the expedition is intense. From the moment I wake at four or five in the morning to the moment I fall asleep after a long day of hard travel, I keep my eyes and ears open. I value curiosity, and I ask a ton of questions. Anything I learn that I think might be useful later, I write down in my journal. Or, more accurately, I speak into a microphone. 

      These days I make my notes with a tape recorder. Notebooks, I have discovered, get awfully wet in the rain and the spray of whitewater. I have returned from river trips with notebooks I can not read. So a few years ago I started to use a micro-cassette recorder, which I store in a waterproof pouch around my neck. (Buying just the right pouch is part of my preparation for a journey.) 



      After completing my journey down a river, it's time to write the book. The hardest thing for me is to hammer out a first draft. Why shouldn't it be difficult? A blank page sits before me, and now I have to make something from nothing.

      To make the task less daunting, I take each step at a time. I don't focus on the finished product, but on smaller tasks. First thing I do is type out all the notes I've taken on my tape-recorder. Usually that's about 90 pages of text. Sometimes it's a lot more; other times it's less.

      After the notes are typed, I go to a quiet place. I need complete concentration when I work on an essay, story, or book. Often this is in my own home, but before anyone is awake. Four or five in the morning is my most productive time.

      On my first morning of work, I review my notes, leaf through history books about the river at hand, then put everything aside. I try to think how best to tell the story of my adventure. I want the adventure to come alive. I want the reader to feel the adventure the way I felt it. So I think about structure, about beginning, middle, and end. I think about pace, the speed of the story. I think about tone, how the words sound. And I recall my feelings as I went down the river.

     I work for many hours, but end up with about three pages a day. Some days fewer, some days more. I try not to edit myself too much the first time around. I want to get at the heart of an adventure, its feeling. Thinking too much about my writing can stop me dead in my tracks.

      After five or six days, I complete a rough draft of a short book. It's usually very rough, pretty bad actually. But I let it sit for a day, then rewrite it before sending it to my editor. I know it still needs a lot of work.

      When published, the book will be 48 pages. That means I have to send a 20-page manuscript, typed and double-spaced. I also send about three hundred photographs from my journey. No more than fifty of these will end up in the book.

      After I send the book off, I wait for my editor's call. Sometimes he doesn't call for weeks. This is hard. When he calls, we talk about the draft. This begins the editing process. He says it needs work. And I feel disappointed, but I know he's right. He sees things I can't see because I'm too close to the material. He helps me with the overall thinking of the story. He asks me questions like: Should this be in the present tense? Can I add some history here? Can I shorten this passage? How might I tighten the prose in places?

       Always his comments are helpful. I don't agree with him at times. For six months we edit. We edit by talking over the phone, we edit by fax, and we edit on computer disks. I rewrite again and again. Gradually the book takes shape.



          A book designer scans fifty photographs into the computer. Some of these photos are ones I've taken from my journey. Others are historical photos that go along with the text. Once the text and photos are in the computer, the designer then fits the text (which is still being cut and reworked and checked for factual errors) with the photos, then prints out various designs. The editor and I consult with the designer at this stage and make comments. The design phase goes on for a month or so.  Finally the book is ready and the designer puts the text with the photos.

      When the cover and the book are finally designed, page by page, the whole thing is sent to the printer in Hong Kong, overnight mail, and a few months later the color proofs come back to the publisher. At this stage the photos are checked to see if the color seems right. The text is not changed at this point, but corrections are made if the photos need changing, and the corrections are sent with the disk back to Hong Kong.

      Now the printer starts to print something called F&G's, the Folded and Gathered galleys. These pages look like the final book but are not bound together. Essentially an F&G is an early version of the book, which can be sent out to book reviewers for comments (favorable, we hope). Meanwhile orders are now coming in from bookstores and libraries and schools, and perhaps five thousand copies are being printed and shipped across the ocean.

      Finally, two or even three years after I had the idea for this particular river journey, a Fed Ex truck rolls up my driveway. My dog Daisy barks at the truck because she hates the sound of those Fed Ex truck wheels. The Fed Ex lady gives her eight dog biscuits, which keeps her quiet while I get my package.

      When the truck drives off, Daisy barks once again. I open the package and look at the finished book for the first time. What a feeling! To see something I've worked hard at, and which has taken so long to produce, is exciting.

      But the truth is, by the time that truck rolls up my driveway with the book, I've already taken my next river trip and am working on a new manuscript. So I move on to the next journey, always keeping a notebook for future ideas.

      It's a good life: researching river journeys, taking river trips, writing the drafts and producing the books. I'm one lucky dude. Mostly I love to learn about the people and history and geography of each new river, so different from the one before it.

      Have a look at my river books: Amazon, Hudson, Everglades, Yukon, Erie Canal, Rio Grande, and Mississippi. See how different each one is. What are the differences? What are the similarities?


Back to Teachers' Page