Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 10

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Emotional Arc

This is the first time God-Speaker really feels like a leader. He doesn’t jump into it, he just steps up when nobody else wants to. (As an introvert, this is usually how I find myself in leadership positions as well. It just takes a small step forward when nobody else is willing.)

This entire chapter is a situation going from bad to worse. The rock slide starts it off with a bang, and then the entire landscape is set up to get in the tribe’s way. While things are looking up at the end of the chapter, the entire tribe is worn down. And even if everyone else is feeling better, God-Speaker still intuits that their troubles aren’t really over.

Making a Poultice

This felt like one of those writer rabbit holes that non-writers wouldn’t even think about. I was certainly aware of the idea of a poultice (medicinal herbs and sometimes other stuff pressed into a wound to help it heal). It’s a very old form of medicine. However, I didn’t know whether this was technology that ice-age Beringian people would be likely to have. I also didn’t know what particular plants would be available and useful.

Most of the information I found on poultices and their ingredients were Euro-centric (or at least included originally-European ingredients that were brought to North America much later. I settled on willow bark, which is fairly well-known for containing pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory chemicals similar to aspirin. Having never consumed it, I was surprised to learn that it can have a mildly minty smell. Along with that, I added Devil’s Club, a plant that apparently grows like a weed in parts of Alaska and has long been used in native medicine.

Officially a Novel?

This chapter finishes just shy of the 40,000 word mark, so while we still have a long way to go, it’s at least up to NaNoWriMo length. It also tells me I’m writing at about 1/5 of NaNoWriMo speed.

After some adjustments I made to the outline, the next God-Speaker chapter will be the last one in the first act. Everything is about to get turned upside-down for God-Speaker.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 10.3

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

When everyone was done eating and resting, and nobody had any arguments left, it fell to God-Speaker to step first into the cave. Nobody said it, but he sensed that they were waiting for him. God-Speaker wondered if this was what it felt like to be Braves-the-Storm, or Makes-Medicine. It sat like a rock in his stomach. The feeling that others might speak, might argue or offer advice, but he had to take the first step. He had to start walking and hope or trust that the others would follow.

When he did take his first step into the dark throat of the ice, Finds-the-Trail and Braves-the-Storm came a few paces behind him. The rest gathered behind them. As God-Speaker looked back, Finds-the-Trail’s face was grim. He looked as nervous as God-Speaker felt. Braves-the-Storm looked more bent, older than God-Speaker had ever seen him. Far-Seeing was near the back of the group, his face hard to read.

The sounds of the world had been muffled in the ice cracks, but it was even worse in the cave. The soft shuffling of their feet echoed down the tunnel and came back to them. Every time the tunnel turned, God-Speaker expected to see other people, owners of these other footsteps. The ice itself was not completely silent either. It creaked and groaned. It even cracked once, a deep boom directly over their heads that made everyone jump.

Time was lost to them under the ice. It was lighter or darker only because of the thickness of the ice above. They could not guess the direction of the sun or how much of the day had passed. Cracks and tunnels intersected with their cave, but it continued in roughly the same direction, and God-Speaker saw no reason to change their course.

The people kept hiking without pause or complaint, longer than they would have if they were under the open sky. Each twist or turn of the cavern, God-Speaker hoped to see an exit, but the tunnel kept going.

Eventually, there was a change in the echo of footsteps. God-Speaker shuffled his own feet and felt gravel beneath them. He squatted and reached down, as did Finds-the-Trail beside him. It was dirt. Ahead, the tunnel turned again.

They both stood and moved toward the bend. The tunnel widened.

Around the corner, God-Speaker halted, shocked to see a hunched shadow rise up in front of him. There was a flash of movement to his left, and he realized that Finds-the-Trail had thrown his spear. It hit the shadow with a thud, and the shadow roared. More spears flew from either side of them as the others rushed toward the noise and movement.

Finds-the-Trail motioned for God-Speaker to wait. They all stood, watching for any sign of movement. When he was satisfied, Finds-the-Trail rose from a half-crouch and approached the shapes. The other hunters followed. God-Speaker came behind.

Finds-the-Trail retrieved his spear. “A bear mother,” he said. He motioned to a smaller shape pressed beside her. It had also been struck with a hunters’ spear.

Far-Seeing retrieved his own spear and ran a hand over the flank of the beast. “They’re lean,” he said, “she’s been struggling to find enough food. Usually there are two cubs, maybe one was gone already.”

Finds-the-Trail nodded. God-Speaker stood, distracted from their conversation by the feel of cool air on his cheek. There was another bend at the far end of the bear den. The floor here was all dirt, and the shape of the walls was different, rising to a triangular point instead of a rounded tunnel.

Around the corner, God-Speaker felt the wind blow. The tunnel opened out onto trees. It was night outside, and the air was thick with snow. Here, the harsh, echoing quiet of the tunnel faded into the soft quiet of falling snow. To God-Speaker, it was like the first breath in hours.

Braves-the-Storm came up beside him. “A good sign.”

“Makes-Medicine once told me that the spirits sometimes speak through the world around us,” God-Speaker said. “They may be guiding us still.”

The mood of the people changed in moments. They all gave thanks to the spirits of the bears, and set to work butchering them. With new energy, several of the hunters ran out into the snow and chopped branches from the nearest trees to start a fire. Everyone ate bear meat and enjoyed the light and warmth of the fire, and the feeling of breathing fresh air again.

God-Speaker saw smiles around the fire, but this was not the festive feeling they had shared after catching beavers and fish by the lake. This was relief more than joy. There were no stories late into the night. They talked, but they talked quietly still. Soon, they let the fires settle low, and they slept.

God-Speaker and two of the hunters remained awake. He sat with the stone god at the opposite end of the cave opening. The hunters kept watch for predators, though they were unlikely to be prowling in the blizzard, or near a cave that smelled like bears. God-Speaker worried about other, less obvious dangers.

He thought about the words he had said to Braves-the-Storm. They sounded wise, but he could not believe them. The people had made it through the dark cave. They had found meat in an unlikely place. Still, the stone god was silent, and the buzzing from the mountain was only getting louder.

God-Speaker hunched over, exhausted. He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to the head of the stone god, straining to hear its voice. His chest and arms were chilled by the outside air. His back was warmed by the fire. He breathed in the smells of the cave, animal smells and roasted meat, the musty smoke of smoldering green wood, and the cold clean snow.

He was surrounded by softness. The world faded. The snow left everything silent and white.

He stood alone. The trees, the cave, the people, the stone god were gone. Everything was gone except for the flat white, empty world, and the looming black shape ahead.

The mountain leaned over him and buzzed. God-Speaker could hear it now. Not the buzz of insects. The buzz of voices, so many voices. More voices than he could imagine, far more than he had ever known. They spoke together, but they spoke in different pitches, different tones, some fast, some slow. They spoke in words he had never heard, but he felt their meaning.

They told him that he would come to the mountain, and they told him that his people would be destroyed.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 10.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

When morning came, the people ate cold smoked fish and packed their things in silence. They walked, one by one, along the ledge and through the gap, and they all dropped down into the snow.

There were no boulders or rock piles now, no going back to find another path, but the hike was no less miserable. The snow came up to their knees, and trudging through it was cold and exhausting, even wrapped in their warmest skins. The children who were too small had to be carried, and were passed from one tired person to another.

When they came to the blue ice, the snow had blown and piled up in drifts, so there were paths between where it was thinner on the ground and walking became easier. A biting wind began to blow into their faces. God-Speaker looked back. The gap they had come from looked far away and surprisingly high up. They were descending.

The smoking mountain slowly grew, filling their view. Its peak was sharp and split. The change in wind blew the black smoke over them, far above. The mountain reached out to cover them.

When they stopped to eat and rest, the people were mostly quiet: a few hushed conversations here and there; a crying child. God-Speaker heard a familiar tone and turned to see Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail sitting together. It was Far-Seeing he had heard. God-Speaker couldn’t hear the words, but Far-Seeing was grumbling, by the tone and the expression on his face.

If Finds-the-Trail heard the other hunter, he didn’t reply. He looked up at the sky, then at the mountain. Far-Seeing spoke again. Again, Finds-the-Trail was silent, his face blank. Eventually, he stood and walked away, leaving Finds-the-Trail sitting by himself, staring out at the horizon.

Whenever they rested, God-Speaker sat at the edge of the group with the stone god. It did not speak to him. God-Speaker wondered if he would even be able to hear it over the buzzing that he was now sure was coming from the mountain.

It took the rest of the day to reach the place God-Speaker had seen from above, where the smooth ice cracked and split. At first, they were able to walk across the small gaps, but the ice soon turned into a forest of jagged blue spikes with deep, wide chasms between. As night approached, they climbed down into one of these large cracks to take shelter from the wind.

It was warmer in the crack, but also dark and eerie, with only faint blue light coming through the ice and a narrow stripe of stars above, half-hidden by the smoke. Being without fire for so long did not help the people’s mood. The light was as important as the warmth.

They had come away from the lake with a bounty of fish and beaver meat, but that seemed like a long time ago in this desolate place. God-Speaker had noticed everyone instinctively eating less, already worrying how much longer the food would have to last. No trees or plants grew on the ice. No animals would live where there were no plants to eat. It seemed doubtful they would find more food any time soon.

* * *

Walking in the forest of ice kept the people out of the cold wind. It was blowing harder now, by the howling it made above them. It was still a dismal place. The light was dim and too blue, a blue that lingered even when they closed their eyes. They saw themselves, bent and twisted, looking back out of water-smooth blue curves; or a single feature, an eye or a mouth, repeated across cracked and broken ice.

The cracks deepened, and the sky seemed higher and higher above them. It seemed that they were going in the right direction still, but it was hard to tell without the horizon to guide them.

Then they came to the place where the ice pillars came together to form a roof high above them. There was a tunnel, smooth like a toothless mouth, black except for lines of deep blue where the curve of the ice gathered the light. To God-Speaker, this felt like the same darkness as the mountain. It was like the mouth of the mountain, hanging open, waiting patiently to devour them. It also went straight, as far as he could see, in the direction they wanted to go.

The people stopped there, to rest and eat. They faced the maw and the question was there among them, though no one asked it aloud. One by one, they finished eating and readied themselves. God-Speaker saw glances here and there, but when eyes met, each person turned away.

Far-Seeing stood and looked around at the group. He pointed into the ice cave.

“Are we really going into there?”

Braves-the-Storm, to God-Speaker’s left, sighed, but said nothing.

God-Speaker took a deep breath and forced himself to stand. Eyes turned to him.

“I have asked the spirits to guide us, but they do not speak. We all saw the snowless lands. Is there another way that we can take?”

Far-Seeing clenched his jaw and shook his head. “We all saw the mountain too. That is a place of evil spirits.”

“Yes,” God-Speaker said.

Far-Seeing opened his mouth and paused. He looked at the bag next to God-Speaker, the bag that held the silent stone god. God-Speaker felt his chest tighten. Would Far-Seeing dare to speak to the god? To offend the god in a place like this would be terrible. They needed its protection now. Far-seeing closed his mouth, and God-Speaker let out his breath.

Far-Seeing turned to Finds-the-Trail. “What about you? You’re happy to let others lead now? To follow and be silent?”

Finds-the-Trail shrugged, eyes fixed on the ground. “I am not happy, but what other path would you have us walk?”

“Back the way we came! Let us try to find another path through the ice, or even back to the snow. There may be a place we can walk over the ice all the way across.”

“I saw no paths like that from above,” God-Speaker said quietly. Everyone had seen what he had seen, even Far-Seeing. There was no easy way across the broken ice. God-Speaker wondered why he had to be the one to say it.

“Who are you to say?” Far-Seeing asked, his voice echoing in the ice. “What names do you have for making ways and finding paths?”

“None,” God-Speaker said.

Far-Seeing looked around at the rest of the people. Nobody else spoke. He had hoped others would agree with him, or at least say something. They looked fearfully at the cave, but nobody else said they wanted to go back. What was back there for them? The same empty land they had just come through, hiking uphill instead of down?

Far-Seeing turned to Braves-the-Storm. “Tell me that we should go this way. If you say it, I will be silent.”

Braves-the-Storm shook his head. “I will not say it. If you need someone to tell you what you’ve seen, it will not be me.”

“Then you will all follow God-Speaker? What good is it to speak to the god, if you hear nothing back?”

“I have never told you which way to go,” God-Speaker said. “I have only told you what I think, and what I have heard from the spirits. Do what you want to do.”

Far-Seeing stared at him, then turned to look into the cave. “You’re going?”

“I don’t see any other way.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 10.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

The people left the basin and went down into the long and narrowing valley between two mountains. The path was easy where it came out of the basin, but as they went deeper, they were hemmed in by brittle and broken rock faces. There were shattered boulders everywhere, and the ground was covered in gravel and sand. It crunched and shifted under their feet as they walked. They often found the way blocked or difficult, and these sharp shards of rock could cut a misplaced hand, or even the hardened hide of a foot covering.

The little waters that trickled down from either side came together to form a stream that soon became a river. It was colder here than in the lake basin, and while the river ran clear of ice, there was snow nestled in crevices and beneath overhangs.

The people had all seen what God-Speaker had seen from the top of the hill. The sun-touched, snowless lands far in the distance. The shadowed, smoking mountain that stood guard off to the right, daring them to pass. There was no questioning the way now. They all felt the pull of that warm place, an idea that had almost become a myth, now brought to life in front of them. Their worries now came from the smoking mountain. They did not need to hear the spirits like God-Speaker to know that place was cursed. They now saw what God-Speaker had known already, what Makes-Medicine and the stone god had made plain to him: there would be danger and darkness they would have to pass through before they arrived at their destination.

Soon, the valley became enough trouble to busy their minds. It was slow getting the entire group across such rough terrain, and even slower when they found the way blocked and had to back-track. Strikes-Flint slipped and slid down a gravel slope, leaving a rash of red down her left leg. Then Black-Eyes-Staring slipped on a wet rock crossing the river, landing on his arm and leaving him wet and shaking even after he was wrapped in thick furs.

They came to a place where many boulders had fallen, leaving only narrow gaps for the river to flow through. It had backed up and spread to form a shallow pool that blocked the entire valley. The people sat and rested at the edge of the waters and ate. The hunters, once they had eaten, spread out and searched the huge rock piles for hidden ways. When the people were ready to travel again, they took a path found by Far-Seeing, around the edge of the water and over several long, flat slabs of rock. They had to help the young children and elders, but everyone eventually made it across.

Far-Seeing was the last one to come down, but as he did, he stepped on a head-sized rock in the pile, and it rolled out from under him. He fell back against one of the huge slabs. The others watched, not daring to breathe. It already felt as though this valley was cursed. Far-Seeing had landed flat on his back, but he moved himself into a sitting position. His face showed surprise, but no pain. After a moment he smiled in relief.

As he stood, the entire pile shifted beneath him again, more large rocks tumbling and sliding toward the gathered group. They all scrambled back. The rock-slide cascaded further and further up the slope to their right. Far-Seeing was once again on his back, riding the slab as it slid down smaller boulders. Fist- and head-sized rocks fell around them, shattering on impact. God-Speaker saw one hit the slab and shatter just above Far-Seeing’s shoulder. A line of red ran down his arm.

The slab slid to a stop among the rocks as the slide began to settle. God-Speaker moved forward, reaching out to help Far-Seeing stand, watching the rocks for any signs of movement. Suddenly, he stopped. His body froze, beyond his control. Sound was muffled. His eyes wandered, and the world became fuzzy and unfocused. Slowly, pain blossomed on the right side of his head. His own hand, no longer under his control, reached up to the place where the pain was, felt something wet.

God-Speaker felt he was floating in water. Then he was floating in the wind, somehow so light that he could soar like a bird. Then he felt sharp little rocks pressed against his back, and the pain in his head became sharp and throbbing. He found himself laying in the gravel. He realized his eyes were closed, and he opened them. The light was too bright.

He sat up, holding the right side of his head. Where the pain was, his hair was crusted. He looked at his hand. There was a smear of blood there, but it was dry.

The people were all sitting nearby, and God-Speaker realized that many of them were staring at him.

“We were worried,” Braves-the-Storm murmured. God-Speaker realized the old man was sitting close beside him. He could see that it was true. Worry and some relief were on the faces of the people around him. The sky was purple, fading into black.

“What happened?” God-Speaker asked.

“There was a rock-fall,” Braves-the-Storm said. He pointed to the place on God-Speaker’s head. “A rock hit you. Others were hurt too, but not so badly.”

God-Speaker looked at the people again. Many of them had scrapes and cuts on their arms or legs. They looked tired. He turned and found his pack and the stone god placed next to him. He began to take out the plants he would need to make medicine.

“Is there fire?” he asked Braves-the-Storm.

“There is no wood here,” he said. “We have only the little we brought with us.”

“I will need to heat a little water to make the medicine,” God-Speaker said. “A small fire should be enough.”

Braves-the-Storm spoke to others. His words faded against the buzzing in God-Speaker’s head.

God-Speaker found a bundle of dry leaves in his bag. He untied them and placed most of them in his lap, then retied a few to keep in reserve. Makes-Medicine had shown him the plant they were from, a tall shrub that grew in forests, its stems covered in tiny bristles, but they had not come across any so far this spring. He ground the leaves into a green-black powder. He set that aside and took out some thin strips of willow bark. He still had a good supply of that, at least.

After a time, someone brought God-Speaker a rough wooden bowl of water, hot rocks from the fire still in it. He placed the bark in the water to soak, and waited until the rocks  were cool enough to fish out without burning himself. Then he mixed in the ground leaves and stirred them with the bark until they became a thick paste. He added a small amount of animal fat to help it stick together. It smelled sweet and woody, with a hint of bright mint.

The injured came to him one by one, and he gently rubbed a thin layer of medicine on their cuts and scrapes, spreading it on with the softened willow bark as Makes-Medicine had shown him. Far-Seeing came last, with a long cut on his arm just below the shoulder. God-Speaker rubbed a thin line of the paste along the cut. Far-Seeing didn’t look at him, just nodded and walked away.

When he had finished tending to everyone, God-Speaker looked down at the sludge left in the bottom of the bowl. His head was still buzzing. Without a task, his head felt empty of thought.

“You should use it on yourself,” Braves-the-Storm said.

God-Speaker nodded and reached up to feel the swelling on the right side of his head. It was a big lump, but he ran his fingers slowly through the blood-crusted hair and found only a small cut. He scooped the last of the green paste out of the bowl and smeared it over the wound as best he could. It would help the swelling around the cut as well as the pain.

He sat, dazed, watching the light fade. Someone brought him smoked fish to eat. He drank cold water from the stream and chewed an unused piece of the willow bark. It had been a hard day, and many of the people were already asleep.

He stood, slowly and unsteadily, and made his way through the group. He hadn’t taken a good look at the land on this side of the rockslide. They were nestled in a narrow place between two high walls of rock, and it tightened even more ahead. Where the stream passed through, it cut to one side of the opening. The flat ledge along the other side was wide enough and flat enough to make a path.

God-Speaker approached and saw a spray of water. It looked like they had come to a cliff. When he peered over, he saw that the water fell only a short way, barely God-Speaker’s own height. The ground beyond widened and sloped down. They had reached the tightest point of the valley. Outside the shelter of the narrow pass, there was deep snow. Beyond, glowing in the last light, was the blue ice, a thick sheet that was smooth at first, then broke into a field of icy spines further out.

Once again, the shadow of the mountain loomed on the right, its black smoke melting into the darkening sky. The snowless lands were somewhere beyond that, lost in the smear of darkness just below the horizon. It all still seemed far away.

God-Speaker returned to his people and wrapped himself in fur against the cold. He sat with his back to the canyon wall and faced the stone god. There was only one path ahead of them, but now more than ever, God-Speaker wanted the god to speak to him, to tell him that they were on the right path.

The god remained silent, but as God-Speaker drifted into sleep he thought that the buzzing wasn’t in his head. It was coming from within that smoking black mountain.

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Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 9

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Internal and External Plot

I started writing this chapter by focusing on the physical journey that Christopher takes. He has external problems in the form of the tent and the heavy snow and the poor visibility and all of the various difficulties of surviving and navigating in the wilderness without any sort of training.

I had to remind myself partway through that where Christopher is going and all of the external problems he has along the way are important, but only as they relate to his own internal state. He’s gone out of his comfort zone, and he feels the need to accomplish something, but he’s also in a dangerous situation. The circumstances of his arrival were already bizarre, and he has growing evidence that there is someone around. All of it seems outlandish. He can’t come up with any good reason why he would be in this situation. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to do. But stagnating in the bunker seems like giving up.

This chapter is all about Christopher’s deteriorating emotional state. He’s torn between pushing forward and going back. His actual journey moves him where he needs to be for the purposes of the story, but it’s his emotional journey that will actually drive the plot, and (hopefully) keep things interesting.

Being Believably Bad

Christopher is not a great outdoorsman. His tent situation is a disaster. He’s having a hard time travelling through the snowstorm. He is certainly not an expert navigator.

Christopher is going to have failures and setbacks. However, I don’t want him to be annoyingly incompetent. He needs to be challenged, and his mistakes and failures need to come from who he is and what he knows (or doesn’t know). What I don’t want is for it to feel like he’s screwing up because it’s convenient to the plot. I want him to fail because he’s out of his depth in difficult situations. Then, when he succeeds, it will be that much more satisfying.

Most of his camping issues are reasonable, considering his lack of experience. These are things that I thought I wouldn’t have been prepared for, having never camped in cold weather myself. They came at least partly out of my research and all of the advice from veteran campers on what to watch out for.

His poor navigation is more about his mental state. He is careful, right up to the point where he thinks he’s made contact with another person. When that happens, he stops thinking about all of his carefully laid plans. When he isn’t able to actually find the person he’s chasing, it makes matters worse. He questions himself and his own mental state. He sinks further into depression.

Next Time

The next chapter brings us back to God-Speaker, and I need to make some difficult decisions about consolidating chapters. I’ve been reevaluating my outline, and I’m thinking I may be able to combine two Christopher chapters and two God-Speaker chapters to tighten up the plot and move everything along a little faster as we approach the end of Act I.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 9.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher let out the breath he realized he had been holding and sat in the quiet place among the birches. He drank his water and nibbled from yet another weird jerky bar. He tried not to fall into the gaping chasm of hopelessness that he felt opening behind his sternum. Why did it feel like the world was playing some terrible trick on him, like he was trapped in this limbo while the real world, the world that he remembered, was constantly lurking just out of sight, constantly retreating just beyond his senses?

“What am I doing?” he asked himself. The footprints were right there, if that’s what they were. They might not be entirely lost to the blowing snow. The longer he waited, the more they would fade. If he followed quickly, he might have a chance of finding something before the trail was lost.

He stood up with some effort, took another swig of water, and checked the map and compass. He suspected that he was well over halfway to the dot on the map, but it was only a guess without being able to assess his wider surroundings. According to the compass, the footprints ran at approximately a forty-five degree angle to the direction he wanted to go: north instead of north-east as he had been traveling. He would be going off-course.

The footsteps faded into nothing about ten feet from the protection of the cluster of trees, but Christopher continued in that direction across the clearing. When he reached the woods again, he paused to scout around. The wind had been blowing from the east, leaving drifts on one side of the trees and protected spaces on the opposite side where less snow accumulated. Sure enough, after a couple minutes he found a few more faint prints on the protected side of a larger tree, south of where he had begun his search.

He consulted the compass, adjusted his trajectory, and went further into the forest. Soon, he came across the tracks again. The wind lessened as he moved deeper into the trees, and the snowfall seemed to be slackening. The trail was better defined as he went, giving him the feeling that he was catching up.

He never lost the tracks for more than a few seconds now. They were still featureless, with no clear boot tread, but they were definitely fresh.

There was a crackling sound in the forest ahead of him. He looked up from the ground and froze, remembering the moose he had nearly stumbled into. With a moment to process it, he decided the sound was probably a tree branch cracking under the weight of the fresh snow.

The snowfall had nearly stopped now, and visibility was much better, although the light was starting to fade into evening. Christopher realized he hadn’t been eating or drinking. How long had he been following the tracks? His careful progress, his reasoned system had all been thrown out in the pursuit of the footprints.

He took out his water bottle and drank.

There was a flash of movement, ahead and slightly to his left. It was distant enough that he wasn’t sure he had actually seen it. He took off anyway, capping his bottle as he ran, not taking the time to put it into his pack.

“Hey! Hello? Is someone out there?”

The trail of footprints led to the place where he had seen the movement. They wove between the trunks, deep furrows showing where their maker had slid here or there, longer strides showing that whoever it was, they were moving fast. Faster than Christopher in his snow shoes, he was sure. He wondered if he ought to have kept quiet instead of shouting. If someone was out here, why were they running from him.

His left foot caught a tree root, and his right slid into a divot, his ankle twisting. He nearly fell and his water bottle went flying, but he caught himself and stood, scooping the bottle off the ground as he went.

The footprints led to an area where the trees were dense. Then they stopped, right in front of a huge pine. It was gnarled and thick with old, dead branches that reached out to the neighboring trees. Christopher looked up. There was a layered canopy of branches above. It would have taken a good jump to reach the first few branches, but a good climber would have little trouble climbing from there. They could even conceivably have moved among the other nearby trees.

Christopher meandered around the area, studying the ground for footprints, then looking up for any signs of movement in the branches above. Minutes passed. The adrenaline faded, leaving behind a residue of disappointment and frustration. He unstrapped his snow shoes and kicked a nearby tree, shouting wordlessly. His heavy boots protected his toes, but he noticed now that his freshly twisted right ankle was beginning to ache again.

He took a deep breath. “I don’t know who you are, or why you’re hiding!” he shouted up into the branches. “I just want to go home.”

He slid to a sitting position on a dry patch of ground and drank from his water bottle. He expected no response from the forest, and he got none.

He opened his pack and took out the carved wooden figure. He stared at it, mind blank for a time.

Nothing made sense. Was there something wrong with him? He wondered what it was like to hallucinate. Wondered if he could even trust his own senses. Maybe he had been traumatized more than he realized. Maybe he was seeing things. Hearing things. He realized he had always thought of hallucinations as something a bit like waking dreams, with the same haziness that dreams always had upon waking. But dreams never felt hazy while you were in them. Most people couldn’t identify the dream from within it.

His sweat cooled on his body, leaving him shivering even without the wind to chill him. He stood despondently and felt a twinge in his ankle as he put weight on it. The light was fading. He had no idea how long he had sat among the trees.

He forced himself to look at the compass and the map again. He had to guess how far he had gone off course, and adjust his heading to counteract it. If the snow would cooperate, he only needed to get out of the trees and get an idea of the surrounding landscape, so he could compare his guesses against the map.

He began to trudge through the snow on his new heading, with the simple goal of finding a good place to set up camp well before dark. He found a place that satisfied him well-enough within a half hour. It was decently shielded by trees, and only lightly dusted with snow.

He set up the tent, doing his best to straighten the damaged poles. It still leaned noticeably to one side when he was done, so he ran a rope through the crossed roof poles and tied each end to nearby trees. He would have to hope that it was enough to secure the tent against whatever the wilderness decided to throw at him before morning.

He used his collapsible shovel to scrape an area clear of snow a short ways from the tent. He collected dead branches and started a fire, using the flame of the camp stove to light it with less effort than the flint and steel. He found a good drift where he could collect clean snow and cooked his rice and beans. He ate, barely tasting the food.

Robotically, he melted more snow to refill his bottles. He cleaned his pot and packed it up.

With nothing else to do, he sat and stared at the fire. The dampness of his sweat in his clothes was slowly drying, although his socks were still wet around the ankles. His face felt wind-burned. His ankle throbbed. His mind was blank, as though it had given up on forming any thoughts more complex than dull disappointment.

Some amount of time passed. No stars in the overcast night sky. No wind. The world was still and silent.

Christopher doused the fire and climbed into the tent. He sealed himself inside, swaddled himself in the sleeping bag.

If he had done well in guessing his trajectory across the map, he might reach the dot sometime around noon on the following day. What he would find there, he no longer cared to guess.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 9.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Morning came, slow and dreary. There wasn’t so much a sunrise as a faint brightening of the tent fabric. Christopher had given up on sleeping, but he thought it would still be best to wait in the tent until morning and whatever warmth it brought. As soon as he opened the tent, his trapped body heat would be lost.

He had time to think and assess his situation. One of the poles that crossed the tent roof had bent significantly. He would have to see if he could bend it back into reasonable shape, but it would be permanently weakened. He also realized that he should not have completely closed the zippered mesh vents at the front door and along the walls. The tent had been keeping him warm enough. He could afford to lose a little heat, and he suspected it was the lack of circulating air that had caused condensation to accumulate: that and the snow that had gotten in and melted.

He had two sleep pads. The bottom one would be wet no matter what he did now. The top one was relatively dry, so he carefully rolled it up and put it back into its bag. He put it into his pack and put the pack in a corner of the tent that was slightly elevated and dry. When he was as prepared as he could be for morning, he sat and planned what he would do when the sun was up. Mostly, there was nothing to do but wait.

When he exited, there was no way to keep out the snow. It was still coming down, although it seemed to have slackened. He guessed there had been at least six inches of accumulation overnight. The real problem, though, was the piles that sloughed off the branches above, and the wind-blown drift that had nearly buried one side of the tent.

Christopher changed into dry clothes and suited up before exiting. All the wet things went into the second sleep mat bag, loosely tied and strapped to the outside of his pack. They would likely freeze, but he could thaw and hopefully dry them by the fire once he was out of the blizzard. With the ground covered in inches of heavy, wet snow, it didn’t seem worth trying to start a fire. He ate a breakfast jerky bar, strapped on his snow shoes and began hiking.

It was immediately clear that his pace would be much slower. The snowshoes helped, but it was still more effort for less distance. The cloud cover and falling snow made for poor visibility as well. He continued to pause regularly to tie ribbons on the trees and drink, but navigation was much more difficult. He had to rely on his compass.

“The safest thing to do would be to go back,” he mumbled to himself. “Of course, the safest thing to do was to not go out in the first place.”

There was always going to be an element of risk. He knew he couldn’t expect the weather to cooperate. Knew that the world around him was inching over the edge of autumn and into winter. The only question was how much risk he thought he was in, and how much he was willing to tolerate. Going back in the face of the snow felt like giving up at the first sign of difficulty. He wasn’t sure how often it snowed in Alaska, but he assumed it was at least as much as it had back home in Minnesota, and probably much more.

He had enough food to travel for at least one more day and still be able to get back to the bunker. He had a good amount of water, and the means for melting more. Hell, he could suck on snow if he had to.

He realized what was really bothering him was his destination, or lack of one. He hoped, desperately hoped, that there was something at the dot on the map. But what did he even hope for? Some park ranger station? Another mystery compound like the bunker he had just come from? What would that even tell him, if these places were scattered across a swath of Alaskan wilderness? His best hope was so vague as to be meaningless, and he couldn’t connect the dots into a believable story that ended with him getting home safe.

Still, if he did nothing, then he was even less likely to get anywhere. The risk was still worth it. He had to keep going, to feel as though he had made an effort to save himself. He would still have more opportunities to turn back toward safety.

He hiked on, up the forested miles of gradual incline. He saw nothing but dense pines, occasional boulders, and blowing snow. He existed in a small bubble of forest, contained within murky whiteness. The trees gave him some cover from the sharp wind, although occasional gusts still chilled him. He took care to keep as much skin covered as possible, and took his water and food breaks sheltered against the largest trees, or behind rocks and escarpments when he could find them.

He continued his careful strategy of frequent breaks with food and water, and still tied ribbons on branches as he went. Now though, the ribbons were lost in the snow after only a dozen paces, and he kept his mittens on against the wind, which made tying them that much harder.

The ground began to level out, and he wondered if he was finally coming out of the forested area he had seen from the cliff. He wasn’t sure whether he should hope for more forest, and the protection that it offered, or for open spaces where he might get his bearings if only the wind and snow would let up.

He came to a clearing, or at least a less dense patch of forest. There was a bowl-like depression with a hill next to it, almost as though some giant had dug out a huge scoop of earth and plopped it, upside down, nearby. Between the depression and the hill was a tight cluster of thick birch trunks. They were rooted so close together, Christopher wondered if they weren’t all trunks of the same tree. They formed a perfect sort of semi-circle to protect him from the wind.

He walked around the perimeter of the depression and approached the cluster with his back to the wind. It did, in fact, have a large drift piled against one side, while the other was so protected that there was scarcely more than a dusting of snow. Within the half-circle was a nest of browned leaves and other forest detritus.

There was also a series of faint depressions in the light snow, leading out from the shelter. Two rows, alternating, fading as they went into the deeper, more windblown snow. Footprints. Human-sized footprints.

Christopher approached slowly, almost creeping, as though he might scare them away. He crouched and examined them. They weren’t clearly footprints. They had no pattern like he would expect from ordinary boots, but they might have been made by something smooth, like a moccasin. He wondered if it would even be possible to make moccasins that were warm enough to protect feet in this kind of weather. He supposed there were native people in Alaska who must have been able to do it. Maybe the footprints were made by boots like his own, and they had just been subjected to enough blowing snow to be partly filled in.

He tried scooping out the snow to look at the ground underneath. There were no natural features below to explain the sequence of divots. The size, the shape, the spacing—they all fit human footprints. Somewhat smaller than his own feet.

He looked around, staring into the blowing snow, looking for shadows out beyond where the visibility faded to shades of white.

“Is somebody out there?” he shouted. The wind and the snow stole away the sound of his voice.

He screamed louder, “Hello? Anyone?”

There was nothing but the wind and the sound-dampening snow.

“Help!” he roared, straining to project his voice. He thought he just might be able to hear a faint echo of his voice from some unseen geography out beyond the veil of snow. No person, no indistinct shadow showed itself. No other voice sounded in the surreal, half-visible forest.

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Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 8

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Landscape Writing

As Christopher and God-Speaker spend time traveling, I’m working on building my repertoire of geographical descriptions. This sounds simple, but it can actually be challenging. First, it requires that I get the lay of the land clear in my own head, then I have to describe it succinctly, but still make it clear to the reader. Spend too much time describing the geography, and the story slows to a crawl. Spend too little, and it’s hard to clearly picture the characters’ surroundings.

I recently re-read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in years. Tolkien has a reputation for being meandering and long-winded by modern standards, and it is a reputation that is occasionally deserved. But I was really struck by his mastery of this kind of “landscape painting” through words. I was able to see the sights of Middle Earth as the fellowship traveled.

Modulating Discomfort

Over the past few chapters, I’ve been thinking a lot about my characters’ discomfort levels. One of the key ingredients to build suspense is to put characters into uncomfortable, dangerous or difficult situations. On the other hand, it’s important that the tension actually build over time, and not just max out at extreme levels too quickly. I’m trying to measure the larger story arcs and modulate the tension accordingly, so it ramps up into key story beats.

The other challenge is that my main characters are timid. They need to be carefully led into more challenging situations if they’re going to build up a tolerance and overcome them. My characters are frogs that I’m slowly boiling. By the time they fully realize the danger, it’ll be too late.

I debated whether Christopher’s camping trip should be more catastrophic, but this is the first chapter where he’s really purposely going out of his comfort zone. And it’s uncomfortable, but not so bad as to send him running scared. Yet.

Act I Planning

As I mentioned last time, my outline called for sixteen chapters in Act I. Having reached the theoretical halfway point, I wanted to reevaluate the next eight chapter outlines in light of what I’ve written so far. I haven’t deviated wildly from my outline, but there are tons of tiny decisions that happen in the act of writing, and those can add up to unexpected changes in the direction of the plot, or a crystallization of themes and ideas. Pacing is also something I have to get into writing to feel.

My general feeling is that Chapter 8 should be more than halfway through Act I. The next eight chapters look to be shorter, so that checks out. However, because they’re shorter, I could also consider combining a couple of them together. I’ll keep that option in my back pocket and make the decision as I’m writing those chapters.  That would also affect the spacing between Christopher POV chapters and God-Speaker POV chapters. That’s not a major concern, but it does affect the pacing a little.

Next Time

That’s all for this chapter. See you in Chapter 9, where we’ll look at continuing to ramp up the tension on Christopher.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 8.3

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Dusk fell early in the forest, with the sun lost behind the pines before it set over the mountains. In keeping with his pledge to take his time and be cautious, Christopher made sure to stop and set up his tent before the light faded. He found a little clearing with only a dusting of snow. It was still protected from the wind, but was large enough to allow several feet between his tent and a fire pit.

Despite hiking all day, Christopher felt good. Setting up the tent was straightforward, and he had time to collect some wood and start the fire before it really got dark. He used some of the prepared kindling from his pack. He collected a good pile of dry wood from the surrounding forest before sitting down to his dinner. Alongside another of the jerky and fruit bars, he boiled some water in a small pot and cooked some beans and rice with bouillon for flavor. He finished it with a reward: a small packet of freeze-dried fruit. It was hardly a feast, but it tasted incredible after a day of hiking.

As the cold settled around him, and the warm food settled in his stomach, he found himself overwhelmingly tired. For a moment, he debated whether he ought to keep the fire going, but it seemed like an unnecessary risk in the forest, where stray embers might ignite a bed of needles and give him a forest fire to wake up to.

He gathered clean snow, washing the little pot and then melting enough to refill his water bottles. There wasn’t much else to do. He used a stick to spread out the embers and threw a handful of snow over them. They sizzled and sputtered, leaving him in darkness. He looked up at the patch of sky that was visible among the trees. There were no stars to be seen in the gray-black clouds.

Christopher got into the tent, careful to knock the snow off his boots. It was cold at first, even with his thick sleeping bag pulled up around him and a mat separating him from the cold ground. However, all of the equipment did its job, and his body heat soon filled the little tent. Within ten or fifteen minutes, he was comfortably warm.

His fingers traced the shape of the wooden figurine in the darkness, vague images of its maker swirling in his head. Faces pulled from his imagination, and then from his past, and then a swirling mixture of faces. Finally, a dark place somewhere deep underground, where the faces could not be seen at all. There was nothing but the whispering voices in the blackness. The whispers surrounded him as he slept.

He woke in darkness, as a drip of cold water struck his cheek and slid down into his ear. He instinctively shifted, bringing a hand up out of the warmth of the sleeping bag to wipe it away. Several more drops landed on his face, dislodged by his motion. As he came back to consciousness, his first thought was that his breath had condensed on the inside of the waterproof tent. Maybe the temperature had dropped in the night.

It was still dark. Wind was blowing through the trees outside. He sat up, and his head rubbed across the wet fabric. Cold water trickled in his hair. The tent was small, but not that small. He should have been able to sit up comfortably. Instead, the roof and one side were pressing in on him. He could feel the pressure of snow weighing down the tent fabric.

He unzipped the zipper just enough to stick a finger through. Sure enough, there was heavy, wet snow where there had been little more than a dusting when he had gone to sleep. He considered opening it up completely, going out and trying to clear an area around the tent, but decided against it. He didn’t know how much snow had fallen. It might have been dumped from the overloaded branches above, or it might just be a blizzard outside. Either way, it would come pouring in when he opened up the tent. Better to wait until the morning.

The tent poles were bent to one side. He pushed and pulled them, trying to force the tent back into its proper shape. The floor was damp with the condensation that was running down the cold walls. His sleeping bag was damp where it overhung the sleep mat. The mat would no doubt be soaked. His pack was near his feet, but it was waterproof. He opened it and took out a spare blanket. He used it to sop up the moisture that had collected at the bottom of the tent, then wiped the walls carefully, trying to collect as much as he could without it dripping all over him.

The tent still leaned dangerously to one side. He moved his pack to shore up the half-collapsed side, and adjusted the sleep pads to mostly avoid his sleeping bag touching the walls.

The wind grew louder outside. The trees groaned and creaked. Everything was eerie in the darkness, muffled by the tent and the surrounding snow. Christopher shivered and leaned against his pack as the tent pushed back. He doubted he would get any more sleep that night.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 8.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Morning came. Once again, Christopher remembered snatches of dreams. Snow and mountains and a dark, maze-like cave. He ate without tasting his oatmeal. He stretched, feeling only the slightest twinge in his knee. Two packs and the makeshift sled were re-packed and ready by the hatch.

He sat at the table and stared at the map, then at the copied section in his notebook. He jumped as the monotone female voice came onto the radio, spoke a dozen numbers, then disappeared to another channel. There was nothing left to do, but something kept him from stepping outside.

He folded up the map and notebook and stowed them in one of the packs. Then he stood facing the hatch.

It was the feeling that he was leaving for good. This strange place had started to feel comfortable. It was hardly an ideal home, but it was an anchor in this foreign place; this insane, illogical situation that he found himself in.

He might find something better or something worse. He might get lost and die in the wilderness. He was used to a simple, uncomplicated life, as devoid of risk as he could make it. Stepping outside felt like it might be the riskiest thing he had ever done.

The hatch handle rotated smoothly under his hand. It fell into place with a thunk, and the hatch swung open. Cold air and a swirl of fine snow blew inside. The sky was a uniform gray, but it was bright outside. The sled slid out onto the snow, the second pack secured to it. The weight of his main pack settled on his slightly stiff shoulders. Without any sense of having made the choice to, Christopher found himself standing outside the closed hatch, ready to depart.

He took a deep breath and began to walk.

The footprints and sled tracks from his test run were still visible, if a little muddled by the blowing snow. It was cooler and less sunny, although he still had to shield his eyes from the snow glare after the shade of the bunker.

He had found a red burlap sack in the storage room of the bunker, and cut it into strips. One of his pockets was stuffed with them. Once he was far enough away that he could no longer see the bunker entrance, he stopped at a nearby tree and tied one of these ribbons to a low branch. This would be his trail of breadcrumbs in case he needed to find his way back.

The blank overcast turned the sun into a vaguely brighter splotch of sky, so it was difficult to tell how much time was passing, or if he was making good progress. He tried to take it easy, but his stomach felt heavy with the knowledge that it’d be a good two-day hike to the next dot on the map. Every time he stopped to tie another ribbon, he also sat for a minute and drank some water. Every other stop, he ate a bite or two from one of the strange jerky bars and consulted the map. It became a hypnotizing rhythm, and the time passed.

His test excursion had veered further south than the route he had plotted to the dot on the map. This meant that he had to eventually veer away from the familiar and head in a new direction. He wouldn’t walk through his previous campsite, although he could guess when he had reached a new record distance from the bunker and the safety it represented. That was the point where it would soon become infeasible to turn around and make it back before sunset.

He planned his route to take him past a shoulder of rock that jutted out from a much larger hill to the north-east. It was hard to tell from the map, but he hoped that it would give him a good view of his surroundings if he could climb it without too much trouble. As it turned out, the side he approached it from was one long slope, and not too steep. It seemed worth a slight detour from the ideal path for the potential view.

Christopher hiked for half an hour to reach the ridge at the top. Despite what his father had jokingly said about his own childhood, Christopher found that hiking uphill in the snow did not, in fact, seem to build character. It just made his calves burn with exertion. He wondered what his dad might be doing right now, but quickly pushed that thought out of his mind.

The other side of the ridge was not a nice slope. It was a collapsed mess of narrow shelves, sheer drops, and steep rocky inclines. The view was also less than he had hoped for. The main bulk of the hill blocked his line of sight to the north-east, which was to be expected. But the land also rose slowly upward in the direction he was headed, toward the mountain with the split peak. He could see that the area immediately ahead was a rich carpet of dark green: dense pine forest with handfuls of straight white aspen jutting up in their midst. The forest ran uphill before flattening for a while, nearly at Christopher’s eye level up on the hill. It was hard to see beyond that, until his eyes reached the distant mountainsides.

He paused, ate a little and drank, and looked at the map. Despite being more methodical and keeping his pace carefully measured, he was making good progress. Maybe even better progress than his test run. His regimen of regular food, water and rest seemed to be paying off.

He was forced to backtrack the way he had come, down the gentler slope, and then around the shoulder, to the place where the trees began to grow closer together. The air under the trees was still, and he had to open his coat collar to stay cool as he hiked in the dappled shade. The snow clung to the branches above, and that meant the needle-strewn paths beneath were easier to traverse.

He didn’t walk far before he realized that the forest posed a serious danger to him. He had very little visibility within the trees. It was hard to even see the closest mountain peaks for basic navigation, let alone see the nearby contours of the land that he could compare to the map. He could maintain his direction fairly well with the compass as long as he didn’t run into terrain that forced a detour, but he would need to get out of the trees and into open spaces again as quickly as possible to make sure he didn’t slowly veer off-course. He didn’t particularly trust his own survival skills.

The massive alien face came leering at him around a tree trunk before his brain could register it. Huge, liquid eyes above an elongated snout, framed by a shaggy beard and broad antlers. Christopher stumbled back, tripping on the crusty snow and falling backwards over the sled and his pack. The pack on his back naturally rolled him onto his side as he tried to frantically disentangle himself.

The creature was a moose. It peered at him, showing its irritation with a groan and a snuffle. It nuzzled into the decaying needles at the roots of the tree, sniffing for something, then raised its head and gave him another sideways glance before meandering away into the woods.

Christopher, finally managing to get his pack off and his feet disentangled, stared at the creature until it was out of sight, waiting for his heartbeat to slow. He had always thought of moose as cute, often soggy, totally harmless creatures. It had turned out to be harmless, but it certainly seemed huge and dangerous when it was suddenly looming over him.

From his awkward position on the forest floor, Christopher noticed something odd hanging from the lowest branches of a nearby tree. It was a shape suspended on a piece of string. He stood and looked around, just to make sure there were no more giant animals lurking nearby. Satisfied that he was alone, he walked over and stood under the thing.

The object was a little bundle with bits sticking out of it. It was definitely tied to one end of a piece of rough twine, the other end tied to the tree branch. It did not look like something that could have come to be there naturally.

Christopher jumped, then jumped again, just managing to grab hold of the thing. The twine was tied to the thin end of a healthy pine bough, and it bent under the pull, but neither the twine nor the branch broke. Christopher held the thing tight above his head while he fumbled with his left hand to find the jacket pocket where he had his pocket knife. Then he fumbled further, eventually using his teeth, to flip the blade out. He reached up and sawed at the twine until it sprung away, leaving the object and an inch or two of string in his hand.

The object was wrapped in twigs and fibers whose source Christopher didn’t recognize. The twine wrapped round it all, holding it together in a sort of pod. Within the pod was a piece of wood, clearly carved into a crude but smooth human figure. It was, without a doubt, something made by a person. Hanging from a tree. In the wilderness.

Christopher looked around again. The trees seemed darker, closer together. He half expected people to suddenly jump from the shadows. Nobody did.

He wasn’t sure how to judge how old the carving might be. Surely the sticks and twine would wear out and fall apart after some amount of time out in the elements. Surely the figurine would dry and crack. It seemed relatively new, but did that mean it was a week old? A year? Five years? He wasn’t sure.

While it felt like some monumental finding to Christopher, it did nothing to change his plans. He still only had one place to go, and standing in the woods staring at the thing wasn’t going to get him there. He checked both of the packs to make sure that nothing had been damaged when he fell. Then he secured the sled, hoisted the other pack onto his back, and set out again, looking for a good place to set up camp before it got dark.

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