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A Year of Sheltering in Place

By Guest Author
March 15, 2021

           A year ago, I sat stunned in front of my television watching California and the rest of the country shut down. Normally passionless reporters spoke with fear in their voices as weeks of unfathomable sadness wore on.

            Although the pandemic cost me my job as an archivist at a university library, I still had other sources of income and counted myself lucky. I was also fortunate in that I had writing to sustain me. And just as everything else around me stopped, I had to get cracking on doing something new.

            A few weeks earlier, the manuscript for my first novel, Dudes Rush In, had been accepted by a small publisher, Pronghorn Press. Annette Chaudet, the owner and editor, sent me a very marked up copy of my book for editing at the beginning of March. I’ve been publishing works of history on the American West for over thirty years, but writing historical fiction was uncharted territory. Annette liked my story and my characters, but I was a newbie, and the story needed some restructuring. Actually, a lot of restructuring. Reading over her notes, I realized that she was right. So, just as the pandemic struck, I rolled up my sleeves, stuck my fingers on the keyboard, and got to work. (I also grabbed a pen, because sometimes I’m a longhand writer.)

            I followed a very weird schedule, which reminded me of something I’d done when I was at UC Berkeley getting my master’s degree in library science back in the 1980s. I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and it was so harrowing I could only read a couple of chapters at a time. I would have to take a break and do some homework or class reading for a while. Then I’d go back to the book, and start the routine all over again. I did the same thing while editing my novel.

            I’d spend a couple of hours diving into my characters, the dude ranch setting, and the mystery I’d set my heroine to solving. Then, I’d leave my home office, fill a bowl with tortilla chips, and sit crunching in front of the news until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Back to the safety of my manuscript and my story I’d go.

            Last March, we were all told to “shelter in place.” At first, I thought that was a rather terrifying phrase, because it’s more commonly used when people are being threatened by active shooters or natural disasters. But then I realized that it was actually appropriate. We were all being threatened by something we couldn’t see, but that could easily end our lives.

I spent weeks editing my new book, and felt calm wash over me as I spun my story. And I thought about the word “shelter” as I worked. It comes from Old and Middle English for protection, defense, and taking cover. Although I stayed in my house, my real shelter was my writing. That’s what art does: it exposes us to the world, and keeps us safe within it.

Lynn Downey writes about the strong women of the American West.

Guest Author
Written by Guest Author

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