Sometimes you see something or read something and an idea just grabs ahold of you. It’s a wonderful experience, but it’s not always explainable. Just what is it about a concept or a story that makes it so appealing? For me, it is an experience I am starting to associate with the very beginnings of a story idea.
It is happening to me right now as I read the book The Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston.
I purchased this book months ago at Barnes and Noble and it has patiently sat on my shelf since then. When I simultaneously finished reading Girl, Stop Apologizing and listening to Lost for Words I was left itching for something to read.
The Lost City was in the rolling tote I drag around campus because I had used an excerpt from the first few pages as an example of excellent descriptive language. Last week on a whim I pulled it out and started reading. It didn’t take me long to become hooked.
Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rain forest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rain forest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn't until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
Suspenseful and shocking, filled with colorful history, hair-raising adventure, and dramatic twists of fortune, THE LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD is the absolutely true, eyewitness account of one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century.
I feel like a kid with a new toy. I want to take this book with me everywhere I go. Even if I’m probably not going to have time to read it, I want to bring it, just in case I can sneak in a few pages. Or maybe, even better, someone I’m with will ask me about it and I’ll get to talk about the journey to the mysterious location the author committed to find and document.
When I chose social studies as a minor, this was one of the real appeals. This – meaning the archaeological digging and ancient civilizations, unsolved mysteries and stories waiting to be told.
Obviously if I’ve committed three paragraphs to waxing poetic about it, it’s a good book, but I think for me, the reading is only part of the appeal. The experiences of the author and his companions are awakening in me a story idea I started and played around with last spring.
I give my students (no matter their age or level of education) a daily writing prompt. If you want to be a faster swimmer, you’ve gotta get in the pool. In my class we dive into writing daily, ten minutes at a time. I also believe that humans hold a higher respect for authority figures who do as they instruct, and so once everyone is well trained (usually by October) and settled (the estimated two minute mark) I join them in this daily writing ritual.
Here is a prompt I offered my 7th graders last year, compliments of Promptuarium.
And here is are my first few attempted paragraphs at telling a story to match it.
I stepped up to the edge of the forest and peered in. 3,367 miles of uncharted woodland lay before me. 3,000 miles! I adjusted the straps on my backpack and turned to look over my shoulder. I gave the cameras a dazzling smile. With my hair pulled back in an expertly woven braid and my top of the line hiking gear I probably looked like I stepped off the cover of an Eddie Bauer catalog. But this wouldn’t be a shopping expedition or a trip to the mega mall. This would be the adventure of a life time – epic and grand and legendary – if I survived.
I gave a wave to the crowd and stepped into the foliage. Their cheers followed me for about a hundred yards, but then they were gone, the sound of their excitement and encouragement swallowed by the towering trees of the forest.
I forced my nervous jitters to disappear one nervous footstep at a time. As twigs and fallen leaves crunched beneath my expensive boots my confidence grew. An ancient philosopher once said, A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
“Well I had better take three,” I mumbled to myself thinking of my three times as long route.
As I walked East – away from New York City towards Portugal I imagined the red roofs the once coastal country was know for. I’ve been to plenty of places – listing explorer on your resume will do that for you – but I’ve never been to Portugal. Back when the expedition was in the planning stages, I looked it up on the internet. I needed to be able to envision my destination, to know what I was walking towards, to know that when I saw it, I had arrived. The red roofs were the first image to pop up when I Google image searched Lisbon, Portugal, quickly followed by a giant statue called Christo Rei, Christ the King. Red roofs and Jesus. I figured they were as good as anything I could be walking towards.
In my pack I carried enough supplies for seven days. Every Saturday night more supplies would be parachuted down to me, my location known by the GPS tracker attached to my belt. Along the way I would be documenting my journey, both in words and pictures. At the same time supplies were dropped I would get seventeen glorious minutes of WiFi from an uber strong hot spot carried by the plane. In that time frame I would send all of my voice recorded memos, digital notes and photos to my writing partner Kate who would then spin my experiences and rambling thoughts into literary gold. The words, coupled with my pictures, will be featured in National Geographic. I won’t get to see the published product until I return to civilization, but I’m still pretty fired up. Sure, I’ve been featured in magazines before, and I’d written for several too, but National Geographic? That’s a big deal. This is a big deal. And after all this is done, I will be a big deal.
I just had to live long enough to tell the story.
(excerpt from a short story by Amanda Zieba)
As I read the nonfiction book, details wormed their way into my brain, excellent writing ensnared me, and questions emerged, each one, positively influencing the story I was trying to tell.
Preston leaves no room for guessing the levels of danger they faced on their journey. He spells it out clearly, just as he does for every process, piece of technology, character and adventure involved in this book. There’s nothing vague or wishy washy in these pages and I love that about it.
Are you kidding me? The word choice alone is worth reading this book. Transfixed, malachite, hue, smothered. In Preston’s words I am able to envision what lies thousands of miles from my own home.
Now I want to know. What does devour mean ?in a media frenzy application at this time? What did that look like in 1940 in a world before social media? Would the explorers be household names? Would people discuss the expedition it at the grocery store? Did they write letters to the editor requesting more information? In today’s news world stories come and go in an instant. How long did the American public clamor for the details of this adventure?
I’m certain that when I finish reading the book, I will write to the author. Fingers crossed he will write me back and that someday, this tiny story seedling will grow into a jungle of an adventure.
What inspires your stories? What books are your favorite to read? What are you currently working on? I’d love to know. Email me or share your answers in the comments below. Happy reading and writing!
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