The paved road that lead to the turn-off for the Remington cabin had been salted and plowed. I had stopped in town and carried several cardboard cartons filled with food and supplies in the back of my 4-Runner, but there was plenty of daylight left to see the landmarks Irene had given me, and I easily spotted the sign with the name “Remington” and an arrow pointing into the dense forest. About six inches of hard-packed, powdery snow covered the service road leading up to the cabin, which showed but a few sets of tire tracks. And there it was, the remote winter cabin that would be my home for the next few months, until I wrote the sequel to my first novel. It was already promised to my publisher, and paid for with a check for more than I ever thought I would earn from my writing.
My name is Charlene Colt. My pen name is also Charlene Colt: I didn’t think the reality of my name could be improved by fiction. My best friend is Irene Remington. Seriously. There is no creative writer here making up these names. Together, the two of us had grown up in Evanston, Illinois, a lovely old town most people around here thought of as a quiet, leafy suburb of Chicago. We attended North Evanston High School and graduated into De Paul University, where we pursued subjects dear to our hearts. Irene is an artist, whose day job involves cleaning and restoration of works of art at the Art Institute of Chicago. I have just published my first novel, a tale of mystery and suspense set in nearby Door County, Wisconsin. Neither of us owns a gun or knows how to use one.
When we first met in school Irene and I hated each other because of the constant and silly jokes about our names, but in the end this teasing threw us together and we forged a solid and lasting friendship based on shared values and preferences. Irene has always accused me of having a dark and devious but creative mind and was not as shocked as I when my first novel became a best-seller and garnered a contract for two more books, and she helped me celebrate. I still couldn’t believe that my book was a success, and that belief blocked my ability to write the sequel. On top of that I felt guilty because, on the advice of my Publisher, I had given up my day job as a legal secretary to work full-time on writing and had written nothing: zero words on the blank page. I was living on the advance payment I’d received, and this went against my Midwestern Protestant Work Ethic.
Irene grew sick and tired of my constant complaining about writer’s block, distractions, and feeling guilty, and came up with the idea that I should move to the Remington family’s winter cabin in Door County, Wisconsin, for as long as it took to write the book. No electricity, no noise, no neighbors, no distractions, just me and my pens, pencils, and paper, my preferred method of writing.
I pulled up in front of the cabin and my heart sank, at least a few inches. This was not a picturesque cabin in the woods. It looked like a refugee from a trailer park. The whole front porch was taken up with stacks of cut wood, covered with bright yellow tarpaulins and tied down with bungee cords. The screen door was hanging by one hinge. Ah, well, I thought even if it fell off it wouldn’t matter: it was far too cold for even the most suicidal mosquito to be out there trying to get through the screen.
Thin, strands of smoke came out of the black chimney pipe in the roof, so at least there was heat inside. And someone had shoveled and swept the snow from the steps and porch up to the front door. I found the cabin key, grabbed a bag and went inside to a small mud-room smelling faintly of kerosene from the gallon containers lined up on one side. On the other side were several coolers for food and drinks. Through another door into the cabin, which was warm and very clean and tidy, furnished with good, solid wooden table and four chairs, a day-bed piled high with comforters and pillows, two rocking chairs, and two padded armchairs that beckoned the weary traveler. Irene had told me that the mattresses were new, as were the towels and bed linens. I chose the bedroom next to the living room and its wood-burning stove.
Someone had been to the cabin that day, as there was fresh bread and milk in the cooler on the front porch, along with a cooked chicken and some kind of casserole. Coals in the wood stove still had a faint glow, so I built up the fire again and sat the kettle on top to make some tea. I brought in my bags and supplies and put them away. Sitting by the stove with a hot cup of tea I suddenly felt tired. I had driven all day and decided I would start writing tomorrow and just rest this evening. The chicken and vegetable pasta dish were delicious, and I had plenty for tomorrow.
I washed my few dishes and cleaned up the kitchen, then settled down in the armchair closest to the stove to read. I had discovered that all the teachers of writing and all the writers giving advice were correct: a writer needed to read a lot. And not just to keep an eye on the competition, but from all sorts of other genres. Reading generated writing, I had learned. It also generated sleep, and before long I went off to test the new mattress on my bed.
It was so quiet. I could hear nothing except my own breathing and the faint creaks and groans of the old cabin. I was prepared for this and brought along a small, battery-powered radio to help a city-dweller get used to the quiet of the woods. All I could find on the radio were country and western music or hard rock, not my favorites, and I knew I would not get to sleep with those, so I opted for the quiet.
Just as I drifted off I heard a scratching on the window, which jerked me awake. Was there someone outside? A lost hiker, someone in trouble, or a crazed killer? I peeked out over my comforter looking warily at the small window. A tree branch was being tossed by the wind and scratching against the glass. When I went to bed there had been no wind to speak of. I had trouble loosening it, but finally managed to ease open the window, and reached out to break off that little branch. I settled down again but listened intently to every creak of wood, every scrape of metal, every sigh of wind, and every animal screech. And I was cold. The bedroom was barely warmed from the wood stove, so I folded up the covers and pillow and moved them to the daybed closer to the stove. Immediately I felt better in that room, seeing the warm, red glow from the stove and hearing the faint pops and bumps of an active fire.
Sleep had overtaken me, but not for long. I woke with a start hearing what I thought were footsteps thumping on the porch. Rigid with fear, once again I peeked over my comforter straining to see and hear what was outside. Nothing. Nothing more. Could I have been dreaming? I doubted it. This time I was thoroughly awake, every nerve on edge. There was a kettle of hot water on the stove, so I decided to make some hot chocolate, but my hands were shaking so much I spilled a good bit of the water.
I took a look around the cabin for a weapon. I found a huge chef’s knife in the kitchen, a smaller sharp knife, a heavy metal hammer, and a small axe in a toolbox. If I could stop shaking long enough to get a grip on any of these, I might be able to fend off whatever was outside. But, of course, there were no more sounds from the porch. I got back into bed after I drank the hot chocolate, all senses on high alert, and waited for the dawn.
When I woke up, the sun was shining, birds singing, and the pristine snow and evergreens posed for a Christmas card. I needed a couple of cups of coffee to get going, but get going I did. My muse had been in need of an incentive, and last night, alone in that cabin, I had found it. I did not want to spend another night there, let alone several weeks, and I was ready to work and work hard to get a first draft written and get out of there. I set up my writing desk on the table, piled up my notebooks and research notes, and like the condemned, ate a hearty breakfast. Then I began to write the story. It flowed easily, thanks to my incentive and to my planned structure and research for the story. I wrote for a few hours, got up, stretched, ate a little, drank coffee or tea, then sat back down and wrote some more. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon I bundled up and went for a walk in the woods around the cabin. It was beautiful, and left me feeling serene. I saw a lot of birds, including an owl, and lots of squirrels. There were many rustlings and scurrying in the woods around me and I knew there were a lot of other creatures living in those woods, but I didn’t actually catch sight of any of them. There was no sign that any creature had been on the porch.
That afternoon, I fell asleep at my work station. When I woke up the sun was still shining but I laid down on the day-bed and got a few more hours of sleep. Then I worked well into the night, and was awake before dawn and writing. I worked like that for six weeks and finished the sequel to my first novel, then gratefully made my way back to civilization. Of course I couldn’t sleep in the city my first night back home, but was reminded to be grateful to the Remington family for the use of their cabin. Since then I have had several more books published, and have suffered through the inevitable writer’s blocks, but never as strong as that time. Perhaps I was making sure I never again had to go alone to the Remington’s cabin in the woods.