The Surprises

Remember when I said I didn’t think I’d go back to Idaho until our final move?

Well, that didn’t last.


I started getting antsy and needing to get away from Oregon a little, and I had some chores to do in Idaho, like get a driver’s license and transfer my car’s title and register to vote and help The Man pick out appliances and make a few decisions about the house renovations and… it just made sense to go back for a week. I may even go back one more time before the final move.

But the transition was smoother this time, in part because it wasn’t spring break, so I didn’t feel the necessity to entertain kids or skip working to explore the new town. It also helped that I’m catching up on all the urgent work projects, so I felt like if I needed to roll with the construction punches and abandon my office for a bit or work in another room, that was doable.

And also, Mr. Bingley adapted a little more quickly this time and didn’t give me a heart attack, so I didn’t lose an afternoon looking for the dingbat.

Renovation Surprises

In any case, renovations are proceeding, and our contractor unearthed this treasure when he pulled up the flooring in the living room:

It’s still cold enough that I need slippers here.


I saw this before The Man, and my first thought was, “Wow, I wonder if we could keep that and cover the hole with something else.”

When The Man arrived home and saw it, he said, “This is cool. It’s almost a shame to cover it back up.”

You have to understand that I am constantly scolding The Man for keeping weird things that have no use, so he was understandably reluctant to suggest keeping this. (You should also bear in mind that my scolding rarely accomplishes anything as he keeps weird things that have no use all the time. We have enough random cables and wires to circumnavigate the globe.) However, as soon as he said that, I said, “I was thinking the same thing!”


This grate is some kind of cast iron or wrought iron. It’s fantastic workmanship. I keep thinking it belongs over a firepit or welded to a sturdy table base or something. We definitely will not be covering it up. We will be covering the hole with plywood (and the new flooring) and repurposing the grate.

I sent a picture to a friend, and she said, “I love the old treasures you find in older homes.” And I said yes, both good and bad treasures.

See, the same day our contractor uncovered this gem, he also found (more) instances of subpar wiring. He’s found a lot of that sort of thing–subpar wiring, plumbing, construction, etc. We knew we were not moving into a perfect house, and we’re cheerfully fixing stuff as we go, knowing this is all part of the process when you buy a project house that was built in 1910, but these are definitely not the kind of surprises you want when you buy a house.

Surprise! Your wiring could start a house fire.

Surprise! Your plumbing will cause your basement to flood.

Surprise! The joists weren’t joined properly, which is why your house has a hump in the middle of the floor that could serve as a skateboard ramp.

The Writing Connection

As soon as I sent that message to my friend, I thought, “renovating this house is a lot like editing a novel.”

I don’t know if it’s this way for every author. I suspect there are some who are really good at getting a novel close to done the first time around.

I am not one of those authors.

For me, writing is discovery. I have to write to find out what happens. There are surprises all along the way in the first draft–characters who show up and commandeer a scene and won’t leave, plot points that just announce themselves and solve problems even as they cause others, and random pieces of setting that I realize were there all along but decide to explain themselves once and for all.

But that’s the writing process. What about the editing?

This is where I go back to the old house I built with the subpar wiring, plumbing, and construction, but also the fantastic door hardware and cast iron floor grate and clawfoot bathtub and think, “I forgot I put those there!”

I wrote the first draft of Unquickened during NaNoWriMo of 2014, I think. Commitments and family things and work and all sorts of stuff has interfered with editing the tome since then. Well, and also, the need to finish Bloodbonded, which I can no longer use as an excuse.

As I work through this beast of a novel, I keep finding faulty wiring, backed-up sewer pipes, and improperly constructed supports, and I keep thinking, “Dear Lord, what have I done? What did I get myself into? Maybe I should just bulldoze this thing and start over.”

But then… I see something like this:

Its mate is on the other side of the fence, which may require a blog post of its own.

… And this is when I think, “oh, look at the little surprise this writer left for me!”

Good Surprises

It seems like maybe the writer of Unquickened isn’t as bad as she thought she was, because in the midst of all the bad surprises and things that need fixing are a lot of really nice surprises.

A lovely description or piece of setting.

A really intricate plot point that seems like it won’t come together, but then it does.

An absolutely perfect quote.

Characters that jump off the page, even if they need to be reined in now and again like unruly circus horses.

These are surprises that reassure me that I’m not laboring in vain–that at some point, this book will indeed have a coherent beginning, middle, and end.

But also, just like tulips and iron grates, it may take a while for that point to show up.

We bought our Idaho house in the winter, when there was still snow on the ground. For my first two trips to the house, we got a fair amount of cold precipitation. I knew the yard had tiers, but I wondered if there was anything planted there or if we would be dealing with weeds and empty plots.

And then this greeted me when I pulled into the driveway on the third visit:

I love bulbs, because they epitomize the winters we all endure–those times of lying under the ground, feeling lifeless, but knowing that deep down, something is working, stirring–that we aren’t really dead, just sleeping, dormant, until the ground thaws and the sun calls us out of our temporary tombs into life again.

This is where Unquickened is right now–waking up after a long winter and blooming in unexpected ways.

It’s still slow going, as all renovations are. Often fixing one thing means discovering another problem, and that means another metaphorical trip to the hardware store and another construction delay.

But nothing I’ve found is completely unfixable. It’s just…

A bit of a project novel.



2 thoughts on “The Surprises”

  1. Looks nice!
    Congratulations on making good decisions, even if you may not recognize them at the time.

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