I had a sabbatical in 2012, an entire year released from teaching and other academic duties (such as meetings, in addition to meetings, and occasionally and often more meetings.) The year release was one I negotiated as compensation for my six-year term as Associate Dean of University College and Director of the Summer School. My administrative duties meant that I had been “on” all year long, year in and year out, without the summer months typically open to individualized research projects. I was tapped out. I’d used up all of my earlier research materials on projects here and there, and I had nothing left in the tank.
The concept of a sabbatical year can be traced to an early agricultural practice arising from the Hebrew word shmita. The Torah stipulated that very seventh year a field be left fallow so that it could replenish itself. Aside from religious belief, the practice of leaving a field fallow makes good agricultural sense, otherwise the nutrients from the land are depleted. After six years of non-stop intellectual labor, I, too, felt exhausted, my store of mental energy diminished. My sabbatical could not come soon enough.
Shortly after I was released from duties, I traveled to Australia where I was scheduled to participate in a conference, following that I gave lectures at a couple of universities. I stretched my stay so I could travel in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, where I spent two nights in Katoomba near the Three Sisters. From the top of the Three Sisters I took a long, steep, iron stairway down to the valley floor and hiked for the day through the deep, dark foliage enjoying the damp breath of the forest and the cries of invisible birds high in the canopy above me. I saw no one else on the pathway, though I noticed here and there the trash others had left behind. I crossed streams, scampered over slippery rocks, and rested alongside waterfalls. The whole time I told myself stories, imagining earlier travelers: imagining losing my way; imagining an encounter with an escaped convict. How would I survive? Of course, I didn’t get lost, and I didn’t encounter anyone—dangerous or otherwise! But during the time alone, immersed in the lush beauty of the Blue Mountains, I traveled into my own headspace and dreamed of new adventures.
That’s when I decided it was time to write my own mystery novel. I started charting the story as I walked. The novel would be set in Japan. And, it had to involve translation. The protagonist would translate a novel that would lead her to a murderer. Or maybe the novel would offer clues to an unsolved murder that had taken place in the past. The translator would decode the clues. She would be the hero!
The next day I hiked the Charles Darwin Trail to Wentworth Falls. The path crossed a muddy field before dipping into a dark forest. After only a short trek I came to a waterfall that cascaded over the edge of the world, or so it seemed.
From the waterfall there was an iron staircase that clung to a steep mountainside and led to the valley floor far below. The staircase (more like a ladder in places) offered spectacular views along with a lot of “air” or exposure. One slip under the guardrail and off the edge you’d go! In a small cave-like alcove along the cliff, the forestry service had posted laminated photographs from the early 1900s of day adventurers taking the same pathway. The women in the group wore long black skirts with hems that swept the ground. And yet there they were, on the same spine-chilling stairway as was I—in my sneakers and REI hiking gear.
What if my character interacts with someone from the past? I love the novel Possession by A.S. Byatt. Maybe I could create a story that unfolds on different temporal levels. Perhaps my character would uncover a hidden set of letters that draw her back in time. Of course, my character is a “her.”
I reached the valley floor and trekked along marshy ground, the air emanating from the lush ferns was cool and damp. As I walked I imagined the story of a writer who had once been up-and-coming but then had just disappeared. What had become of him? Lost in thought, I almost missed the return path and for a mile or so I worried that I had. I didn’t know if I should continue on or backtrack. I’d been walking for most of the day and it was growing late. I would not be able to retrace my steps before the sun set and I certainly didn’t want to be out in the bush at night. As with the day before, I had not encountered anyone else on the trail. I felt like I was completely alone in a foreign country. If I wasn’t careful, I’d become the protagonist in my own horror story. Just when I was on the edge of panic, I saw the pathway out of the valley and climbed back to the road, to civilization, and eventually to Katoomba. Back in my room at the 3 Explorers Hotel, I fired up my computer, navigated to Amazon, and ordered two books:
The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whonunit by William G. Tapply
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein
When I returned to the United States, I would begin preparing for my next journey, the one that would lead me into writing my first work of mystery fiction.
Photo by Henrique Félix on Unsplash