When people learn that I live on a sailboat with my husband, young son, and three cats, they express one of two sentiments. Either “Wow, that’s so cool!” or a variation of “You must be nuts.” Both, of course, are true. It’s way cool. But you also have to be a little, let’s be kind and say, “eccentric,” to enjoy this gig.
Their follow-up comment is usually, “Hey, you could write a book.”
Yes. But not that book. I write fantasy for teens. If I’ve learned one thing about the interplay between my life and my fiction, it’s that experiences have to marinate for a while before they show up on the page. Even then, I can’t always map characters, emotions, or images directly to memory. So my next book won’t be a memoir relating anecdotes from our three years of cruising life: the wicked storms, the colorful nautical types, the theater playing live and unscripted every day on the VHF radio, wacky encounters with the Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, or the Mexican Navy.
As I had hoped when embarking on Adventure, life aboard can be fantastic for a writer. You don’t notice so much when docked at a marina. With internet service and a car available, a good-sized boat is comparable to a small apartment, living-wise, except for the diligence needed to clean those voracious marine worms off the hull. But when you can cast off and drop the anchor in a Catalina cove, say… It’s amazing how that daily page count improves. Sketchy phone service, and no TV or wifi are helpful. But the primary motivator? The alternative to writing is boat chores.
When you’re living inside a machine that’s submerged in a hostile environment (aka saltwater), and subject to regular shaking (aka sailing), you expect significant maintenance issues. Something is always breaking. If it’s not the water pump or the generator belts, it’s the cooling system for the inboard diesel engine. And marine refrigeration? The most temperamental construct known to man. Cruisers will swap horror stories about fridgefail until your eyes glaze over.
Relax. I’m not writing that book, remember?
So what book will I be writing? Darned if I know. An updated pirate yarn, perhaps? Or a dystopian “Waterworld” novel where a few boat dwellers scavenge for parts to keep their desalinators going. (Just kidding, Mark. You’ve still got dibs on that one.) An Arthurian take on how Avalon, Catalina got its name? Maybe a sea quest in which unseen creatures surface at night to scare the bejesus out of the solo helmswoman. (FYI: whale breath is loud. And stinky. And profoundly unnerving when it drifts over you during a moonless passage through deep water.)
The only thing I’m certain is that, assuming I even recognize the original inspiration, its new shape will surprise me.
* photo credit: Phil Terry
Heather Tomlinson lives on a sailboat in southern California, where she reads and writes fantasy novels for teens. Her latest book, Toads & Diamonds, was written aboard but has no maritime elements whatsoever, and is forthcoming from Henry Holt.