Boundary Waters opens with a scene many readers consider horrific.
A man—a good man, a strong old Ojibwe—is being tortured for information that, in the end, he refuses to give. Some readers can’t get past that opening. But what I point out to them is that nothing graphically violent happens in the opening scene. In fact, much of it is spent simply paying homage to the integrity of the old Ojibwe, homage paid by the man responsible for the brutality. What this indicates is an important lesson to me as an author—that readers imagine far better than I write.
This second book in the Cork O’Connor series was always meant to be an exploration of suspense, pure and simple. Many people had told me they found Iron Lake to be a suspenseful novel. Although this pleased me, the truth is that it was suspenseful largely by accident. I didn’t really know what I was doing. But if people were going to call me an author of suspense, I figured I ought to know what it was all about. So I set out to learn. How do you create suspense? How do you heighten suspense? How long do you hold the reader in suspense before delivering the payoff? From that taut opening scene, until the final confrontation of good and evil near the end, I tried to create a novel that would twist a reader’s gut with anxiety and terrible anticipation.
It was meant as well to be a showcase for that extraordinary region in northern Minnesota called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—two million acres of forest and fast streams and crystal clear lakes, all of it accessible only in the way of the Voyageurs and the early Ojibwe—by canoe.
And finally, I wanted to approach the Ojibwe culture from another perspective: their marvelous stories. The Anishinaabeg are an oral people. Stories are the way they’ve passed their heritage, their knowledge, their wisdom down generation after generation. Yet I didn’t want to trespass. I didn’t want to steal their stories for my own purposes. Instead, I created my own tales in the style of the Ojibwe storytellers, which proved to be a great challenge and, in the end, a wonderful experience.
I begin this part of the journey thinking about that first scene, horrific or not, which wasn’t the original opening of the book. What is now the second chapter was the original opening. It’s a fine chapter, full of quiet menace, but it just didn’t pop.
The current opening came to me this way. I was at the first and only national Sisters In Crime mystery conference, which was held in Houston, Texas, in, I believe, 1996 or 1997. I was sitting at the back of the room during a not particularly interesting session, and this scene simply appeared to me. Like a vision, honest to God. Suddenly I wasn’t in that room; I was in the middle of the Minnesota wilderness, seeing a man strung between two trees, naked, and lit by the flames of a campfire. And I heard the opening lines.
I whipped out my notebook, which I always carried, and before the session was over, I’d written that entire scene. Horrific in what it suggested to a reader’s imagination, it was undeniably gripping. The perfect opening, it seemed to me then. And still does.
Sometimes the journey is like that. The way is clear and the road rises to meet your feet.
But not always. And I’ll talk about that next time.