Living on a Barge in Paris

We came here with no expectations about what our life in Paris would be like.

A week, more or less, living on a small barge on the Seine, downriver from most of what most people come to Paris for ....

Other barges and ships motor by day and night, and the good ship "Tortilla Flat" rocks gently in their wake.

Giant fish leap and splash by the side of the boat at all hours ... I think they're catfish, but Gail read an article that mentioned large specimens of the pacu, a introduced relative of the piranha, have been pulled from the waters of the Seine by fishermen (she likes her option better, and since we're not going swimming, what does it matter?).

We found on our first night here that it stays light until after 10pm, so we tend to stay up later here then we would in Lake Clear (one of the other places we live). 

The evenings are so pleasant after the bright and hot day that we stretch ourselves, staying up into the early hours, listening to music and watching boats and people and drinking too much cheap wine and watching Paris-themed movies I brought along on my iPad and listening to the piranha jump and (presumably) gnash in the water by the boat.

I've found that while living on the barge, and in Paris, I often don't wear my watch or know what time (or often, what day) it is ... this is generally a good thing. I sleep until I wake up in the morning, make coffee and enjoy it, along with bread from the day before on deck with whatever book I'm reading at the moment.

Gail and I like to think of ourselves as travellers rather than tourists, a small, but pretentious, difference ... for me the nuance lies in a focus on the journey more than the destination. 

We make plans to see/do things everyday, but use those plans as an initial trajectory, from which we invariably vary ... as something grabs our eye(s). We spend a lot of time on foot, exploring the neighborhoods surrounding our barge, and the neighborhoods surrounding those neighborhoods.

We've been eating lots of meals on the barge, breakfasts every day, and then generally one or the other of the main meals (only an amateur limits themselves to three meals when in Paris ... we tend to eat five times a day, and drink, to hydrate or dehydrate, whenever we're awake). 

We get bread everyday during our wanderings, produce when something takes our fancy, and cheese or charcuterie when seduced by it (the produce is beautiful, the cheeses and charcuterie are sexy/sexual ... true story).

{Ostentatiously Long Sentence Alert, OLSA}
We've been to the great museums, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and will be heading down into the Catacombs, but our lasting memories of Paris will be of the tiny and quiet and empty and ancient streets, old and beautiful buildings, friendly cafe owners tolerating my horrific French while we soak up Orangina and Vin Ordinaire and the sights and sounds of the backstreets, getting lost and found and lost again exploring the pocket-parks scattered all over this ancient city, and the hours Gail and I spend everyday sitting on the deck of the barge, enjoying the feel of the world passing by around us, and our own company.
{I warned you}

Gail's taking a mid-morning nap downstairs in the cabin while I've been writing this, but I think I can hear the old teak groaning under foot as she contemplates a second start on the day (the first start only lasted long enough for coffee and a chocolate croissant) ... we're going to explore the 15th Arrondissement for a few hours with a nominal goal of finding a cafe/brasserie and some parks we'd read about prior to flying over.

Someday this trip's going to end. You can't live on a barge on the Seine forever, or at least we can't. 

I can feel my other life, the one on land, in a house in the woods, calling me ... but we've got a couple of days left, some more exploring and tasting and sitting and drinking to do yet.

My plan is to travel far and wide in this glorious old city until it's time to turn towards CDG and home ... I'll have a bagful of stinkified clothes, no souvenirs to speak of, sore feet, and a head crammed full of sights and sounds and smells and tastes and the feelings of hot sun, cool breezes, rough stone, hard rain, crusty bread, sharp/cold wine, and sensuous cheeses and fruits.

It was good and true and wonderful, even the parts that weren't.


(the gangway linking our barge to land)

(a swan training academy that swims by the barge a couple of times each day)

(Gail reading on a quiet morning on "Tortilla Flat")

(details noted on late-evening walks along the Seine)

(you have to walk/crawl/climb backwards down this stairway to get to our cabin)


19 Tech-tools Invaluable To My Writing

I read articles about these great writers, and how they produce novel after novel using only a fountain pen and legal pads ... that's not me.

I do some of my planning with pen and paper, but the majority of my writing (including this blog entry, which may or may not qualify as writing) couldn't, wouldn't, get done without a ton of technological support and gear and infrastructure.

I'm certainly not saying that everyone has to write the way that I do, but it works for me, and that's what I can speak to ... below you will find a list of the tech I use, and a description of how I make it work for me.

Chromebook - The first and foremost piece of tech that is involved with nearly every day and every aspect of my writing is my laptop. The Chromebook is cheap ($184), light (2 pounds), small (about the same size as a copy of Wired magazine), and can run for six hours without a charge (meaning that I don't bother with the plug/cord for most remote writing sessions). It does a great job for document creation, email, web-surfing, basic image manipulation, and maintaining my website ... it's not designed for video editing or serious gaming (but neither am I).

When my current Chromebook dies, (I've written/published about a half-million words on this one), I'll buy another just like it for a sixteenth of what a macbook would cost.

Earbuds - I have a pair of iKross Earbuds that I got from Amazon, and they meet my needs perfectly. They're comfy and tiny and block out sound when I'm writing in noisy places and even have a microphone so I can use them for phonecalls.

iPhone - My iPhone serves primarily as DJ in my writing enterprise, but also as a research tool and yes, communications facilitator (Twitter, FB, Blogger, and even a phone).

iPad - I use my iPad as a backup writing device (more on that later/below), research device, and general writing support system. I have a bluetooth keyboard case, which I prefer to typing on the screen.

Amazon (and Creatspace, and KDP and ACX/Audible) - Amazon and an array of services that they make available to independent authors make what I do as a writer/publisher possible. They're the 800 pound gorilla in the publishing, and self-publishing, industry, and they make it easy to publish your work in a variety of formats and share it with the world. 

When I've written and rewritten and rewritten and edited my stories, I publish them in print using Createspace, then Kindle format using KDP, and I've worked with voice actors to produce two stories (and am currently working on the 3rd) in audiobook format using ACX. With these services, and Amazon's online storefront, I can sell me book in print and ebook and audiobook in my hometown as well as the most distant corner of the planet.

These services are designed to be affordable and easy to use for independent writers, and they really are ... it's possible to publish your books using all of these services without spending a penny. In addition to selling in these 3 formats through Amazon, CreateSpace lists my print books with the major distributors, and ACX lists them with Audible and iTunes.

Google docs - Google docs is the online (and offline, but don't worry about that) word processor that is supported by the Chromebook platform, and is the application I've used to write my last half-million published words. It's easy to use, and immensely portable/transmutable to other formats and platforms (my wife edits in .doc format, and I generally share files in PDF). It's great and free and gets better every day.

Pandora/Music - I listen to music in the background when I'm writing. Sometimes it's my own(ed) music, sometimes it's Pandora. Pandora lets me craft radio stations based on my mood and needs and wants. I pay for the upgraded version (about $36 per year) which gives me more control over the operation of my stations and music. 

I like music in the background when it's quiet at my house or in a library, and music to drown out the sounds of people in the cafe I frequent for writing, and when I write in the lodge of the ski-resort I take my son to in the wintertime. Pandora makes it work all day without being boring or repetitive.

Facebook/Blogger/Twitter - I use these three social media services as the primary interface with the world (by which I mean fans, potential readers, interested media outlets, and googlers, not the planet Earth). Facebook is an easy way to update people about what you're doing, writing, thinking, planning. I use Blogger to post longer thoughts, communiques, poems, pictures, and to host the website that represents me as an author. Twitter is a short-format communication device that reaches new audience members through the use of keywords using hashtags. All three of these work differently, for me and the audience they reach, and a nuanced approach to their use (which I sometimes manage) should allow for effective communication between between writer and the eyes and ears of the world.

Dropbox - Although Gdocs already saves my work remotely, Dropbox gives me another way to save and share my work (which is always a good thing). It also allows me to create folders with samples of my work that are easy to access and read and download for anyone who cares to do so.

Memo app - It doesn't matter which app you use, I've used a number of different ones, based on which features I want at the time. I have one installed on my iPhone because I often have an idea while driving or when remote from a pen and paper, and can just talk my thoughts into the thing for later transcription.

Date and Time Calculator app - I use an app that helps me figure out dates and the passage of time through the past and future ... it's cool and useful and way easier than doing it with pen and paper.

Google/Wikipedia - I have yet to get through a writing/work session without doing some online research, and Google and Wikipedia are the first places I generally go. Once I get a basic feel for the subject I'm exploring, I'll usually go further afield to get more detailed information, but often I can get what I need without having to drill down too far.

Google Maps and Other Navigation apps - I like to walk or paddle around the spaces that I write about, but I supplement this firsthand experience with lots of mapwork, to get a feel for the relative distances and directions between and among the things and people I'm writing about.

Sunrise/Sunset & Tide apps - There are lots of these apps out there, many of them good, many of them free to download. I like knowing what time the sun rises and set in the stories that I write, so I always have one of these apps on my iPad or iPhone.

Noisli/Coffitivity/sleepsounds apps - These two apps provide some background noise for those times when I don't feel like music or silence. I find that I most often use them when visiting NYC (or similar), and need to break up potential distractions.

OmmWriter/Hanx Writer apps - These two apps are what I use when for some reason I don't have my laptop, and need to get some writing done on my iPad (with the aforementioned keyboard case). They both provide a relatively distraction-free and simple interface for writing.

Writer Lists app - There are number of them available in the app store, but they all have lists of names and places and prompts and tips for writing ... I like to take a spin through mine when I'm bogged down, and need to disengage from the keyboard for a while.

Pomodoro app - I have tried a couple of pomodoro apps, and they are all pretty similar ... the basic theory is that you will be more productive at a given task if you do it in 25 minute chunks, with a short break between each chunk, and a longer break between every 4-6 chunks. I could probably manage to keep track of this on my own, and sometimes ignore the timer when I'm rolling, but it's a good basic rule.

Flipboard app - I love Flipboard. It's a news aggregator that allows me to find and read and share articles on an infinitely wide variety of my interests. I read dozens of articles every day, share some to FB or via email, and save other for later reference to my own magazine. I'm a big believer that writers must be readers, and this is a great way to find lots of great stuff to read.

There are lots of other devices and websites and apps that I use in the commission of writing, but these are among the most useful to me ... and 19 is a great number ... it's a centered triangular number after all!

Thanks for reading, and I hope something in here helps you in your writing!



7 Old-school (low-tech) Writing Tools

I've been prepping for writing my next (fourth) novel and reflecting on all of the things that go into the process, and make writing work for me.

To that end, I decided to share my thoughts on low-tech tools and strategies that help me write:
  1. Pens - I prefer rollerball pens. They're cheap and the ink flows smoothly, and dries quickly enough not to smudge when I drag my paw through the ink as I'm writing (#lefty). I mostly write with black ink pens, although I like to have a blue and a red for emphasis.
  2. Notebooks - I take notes and make lists and draw crude maps (messy and imprecise, not inappropriate), and for all of this and more, I like steno pads with the wire coils at the top. They're small enough to fit in a pocket, and cheap enough that I never worry about daydreaming my way through 20 pages while thinking about some project that may never see the light of day.
  3. Planning Guide - I have used the same basic format of planning guide in writing all four of my novels, nothing tricky, but a useful, single place to gather all my thoughts about the story, characters, plots and sub-plots, setting, story-arc, and so on. I fill in the sections of the planning guide in the weeks and months leading up to my writing-sprint, transfer notes/ideas into it on a regular basis, so that it is a gathering point, a nexus, of the thoughts on my story.
  4. Poster Paper - Sometimes it's useful to map the whole project out on a big sheet of poster paper or newsprint; this helps me see the story-arc, or hero's journey, in a way that notes, and even my planning guide cannot.
  5. Post-It Notes - I use full size Post-its as well as the little flags to add thoughts to one section or another of my plans, or to draw emphasis to a place in my guide or a sourcebook I'm using, or to mark an article of passage, and to remind myself what I thought was interesting about it.
  6. Maps and Explorations - I have a good memory for the places I've visited in the Adirondacks, but having an accurate physical map that I can twist and turn and mark up (and stick post-its to) is invaluable. I also make a point of getting out on foot or by canoe to explore the places I'm writing about to get a better, more substantial, feel for what I'm writing about ... sometimes the smell or quality of light or sounds of an area present it much better in a story than simple description can.
  7. Spitballing Around the Dinner Table -  At some point in the pre-writing process, I will find/make the time to share a bare bones version of my story with ideas with my wife, and together we'll poke holes in it and fix them. Having another person's perspective, sometimes just hearing the ideas out loud, helps to tweak the story, allowing me/you to produce a better first draft.


What Works

I took this picture while out on a run this morning (I love running with my iphone), and had most of this thought/poem written by the time I puffed my way home ....

What Works

I've spent my life learning by listening and thinking and practicing,
not often enough by simply doing.

Countless hours reading about cooking and writing and training my dogs,
time that's gone, like stones thrown in a deep lake.

Running away from a heart-attack this morning, I watched the world wheel around me,
precise and perfect, a dancing millions of parts with no missed steps.

The fawn crossing in front of me has learned not by sitting in a series of classrooms,
but through a thousand generations of fawns that didn't live to reproduce,
too slow in front of a truck, abandoned fear of the bear or coyote or rifle-bearing hunter.

Roadside blueberries didn't plant themselves along County Route 50 for us to pick,
small beasts ate tiny berries containing minuscule seeds which emerged later,
ready to sprout, but most don't germinate ... only the right ones do.

Each leaf and needle holds just the correct amount of water from this morning's drizzle,
no plans, just surface-tension and gravity,
and the drop's angle of repose relative to the leaf or needle.
{I know this term doesn't fit exactly, but it works for my brain ... so deal with it}

Nature has no plans, holds no 'truths', knows no secrets,
she improves infinitesimally, day by day,
through messy and disastrous and bloody failures,
endless and varied.

I need more of this in my life,
not disasters and bloody messes
but more doing and less thinking ....

To leap and dare to fall,
in the kitchen,
in my writing,
with my dogs (and family and friends and strangers).

I think I need to fail more,
and grow comfortable with the failures as a part, and process, of learning,
or bettering,
or just exploring failure.

Nature's best never came from plan or classroom or book,
and nor will mine.


My New Writing Retreat

A writing retreat can mean something different to every writer. To me it means a space to get away from work and family and some of the distracting elements in my life for some period of time (be it hours or days).

Sometimes it means a distant and isolated house in the middle of nowhere ... like this one in Iceland (no, I haven't been there, but I'd like to visit). I've found that while that's a nice idea, I don't need that level of isolation and quiet and peace. Last winter, I was able to do some good writing in the middle of a crowded ski-lodge with the help of good headphones and a favorite playlist of music to help me focus on writing and ignore the milling masses.

I'm a big fan of doing my writing in the presence of other writing, so a space like the one pictured above would feel wonderful, I imagine ... the words and thoughts and time and care washing over me while I scribble. That being said, I normally write with my Kindle (loaded with a few hundred of my favorite books) handy, along with a wifi connection for research and reference, and seem to do just fine.

When writing, I like to have a connection with the natural world ... the feel of a breeze, smell of balsam sap, sound of rain, the movement of leaves/needles/beasts at the edge of my peripheral vision. It helps me maintain the feeling of nature as a character in my writing. A nice view is often enough, although the sensation of real air playing across my fingers and face is also nice.

The reason I'm writing about this this morning is that I'm on a short-term writing retreat. I headed out to Origin Coffee Co. in nearby Saranac Lake this morning a bit before 6:30am, and have been working on my next novel for a few wonderful hours at a small table way in the back.

It was very quiet (not shocking for an early Sunday morning) when I first arrived, but even as the morning wore on, I've been pleasantly surprised at the peaceful vibe it has maintained. I've been listening to some Mozart and the soundtrack to "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", but been able to keep it low enough that I can still hear the rain pattering on the roof outside the open window off to my right.

They have wifi, and I've been able to look up some items and maps and such (as well as write/post this blog), and add a few needed articles and books to my Kindle. The view is lovely and with an open window, I'm constantly reminded of the nearness of wilderness by the feel of cold, clean air, and the sound of rain and wind.

I've been paying rent by way of buying something to eat or drink every hour, which also gives me a reason to stand and stretch and walk about a bit; this is working for me better than I had any right to hope/expect.

I look forward to doing this on a regular basis, and hope that everyone reading this can find a similarly easy and friendly and pleasant writing retreat for themselves ... you're welcome to use this one, but don't expect me to chat much (although I promise to wave as I wander by to pay my rent.




A Lighter Shade of Green ....

Anthropologist Franz Boas famously said of Inuit languages that there were dozens of words for snow ... walking Puck and Miles in the woods near our house at this time of year I enjoy at least that many 'flavors' of green.

Strong dark greens, in moss and leaf and needle,
speak of life ... islands of vitality connected by networks of twigs and roots.

Waxy, reflective greens, to marshal or shed water,
wink and blink at us as we wander the woods, sharing light I'd have sworn wasn't there.

The gentle greens though, delicate and light and tentative newcomers in my woods,
those are the ones I love best... balsam above the rest.

Frost said that her first green is gold,
new dreams birthed from last year's tips,
reaching out for sun and space,
to tickle us on newly narrowed paths.

Softly yielding to my touch,
unlike last year's needles,
pale and fragile, bursting with life.

The future of each tree, of the world, is in this new growth,
part promise, part hope, part risk taken without choice.

We should all reach out with new growth each spring,
stretching and hoping and putting forth new dreams.

Last year's growth is fine, it feeds us,
but our best magic is in what's new, what's next, what's now.

I pinch off a tender twig of newly minted needles and pop it in my mouth,
soft and nascent needles, a woodland treat served al dente, not quite crunching between my teeth,
a bitter flash, sharp and resinous,
bringing first grimace, then grin.

The dogs are too polite to say anything at any foolishness of mine in the woods,
but the looks they exchange speak volumes ...
we finish our walk,
them thinking of breakfast,
me pondering new growth I could add this year.

JS - 6/10/2015


Blueberry Blush

I forget about blueberries for ten months each year ....

Don't get me wrong, I love them all year ... 
preserves, pancakes, and brandy.
{blueberry bagels are somehow always a disappointment}

I don't notice, or think about, blueberries most of the year,
but at this time of year, they rocket to the front of my brain.

I may notice some new leaves in April and May,
and start to see some flowers as May rolls into June ...
but the thing that really grabs my eye is when the bushes begin to blush.

The leaves shift from all green to having some pink at the tips,
I think it's a mix of pride and anticiation of their yearly fantastic trick,
berries tiny and juicy and bursting and bright with flavor.

I saw them blushing this weekend, and now can't think of anything but blueberries.