Writing en plein air (or authorial in-tent)

It’s all very well for these British authors who seem to sit about in summerhouses writing. They don’t have deerflies in the UK, or our quantity of other biting insects (mosquitoes, blackflies). In fact, it seems when things are biting, it calls for special mention, as in the Midgewater Marshes in LR. (I was quite appalled when I first lived in Germany and discovered they had no window screens, but nothing ever came in to whine around my ears at night, and it did explain why heroic children could spend so much time climbing out of windows for adventures. Try doing that with an aluminum storm on it!) Anyway, sitting outside to write is not really feasible here on the Midgewater — I mean the Tantramar, where we have saltwater mosquitoes from May to October. Even along the St. John River, where we sometimes get to visit someone else’s cottage, there is a progression through several generations and species of mosquitoes, through the great blackfly upsurge in June, to the deerflies of July and August. Writing en plein air is just not on.

Dawn on the Saint John -- you can't see the deerflies

And then I thought, ENOUGH! And I spent my hoarded birthday money on what I call a dining shelter (because that’s what we had when I was young and we went camping for weeks on end) and what the hardware stores now call a screen house. That being a very large purchase for me, even though I had to buy the absolute cheapest level available, I spent ages reading reviews on-line. Far too many of the reviews seemed to consist of “Falls apart if taken out of box”, which was not encouraging. Why, oh why, don’t they make them out of real stuff any more? What is all this easily shattered “composite” nonsense the poles are made of? Then I found one that looked the exact shape of the tent and the dining shelter that saw my family through so many summers and storms. Aha! I thought. There were no reviews, but at least it was made by World Famous, which has been around for a while. I trundled down to my local Home Hardware and discovered they had none, and in fact there were only two in the Warehouse. This was said with a wary emphasis that suggested to me that there was only one Warehouse for all Canada. (May or may not be true.) “Order me one, forthwith!” I cried. (Well, okay, not in those exact words.)

The screen house/dining shelter, when it arrived, proved to be of modern materials (I like things I can patch), but they all are these days. The roof is the sort of plastic-y stuff that tent floors used to be made out of, back when tents were still made mostly of real canvas. The screen is, I fear, perhaps not blackfly-proof, being of a wider mesh than window-screen. (We’ll find out next June.) But, the poles are steel, and go through loops, and will last, and are in no danger of shattering if taken out of their box, and screens can be patched and the plastic-tarp roof can be covered with a tarp fly to protect it from UV and, all in all, I think this is absolutely the best hundred-dollar screen house I could have gotten.

The Spouse and Mr Wicked consider whether my bowline knots on the fly will hold.

It also came with useful instructions on how to waterproof your tent. Clearly, the design dates back to the days of canvas, and the factory in China that now makes the things has been faithfully including these instructions since the canvas days. However, I feel that spraying it with a hose for at least ten minutes is likely to do little to shrink its seams tight, so I omitted that step. Reading that, though, I could smell slightly damp, slightly mildewy, waterproofed canvas, and jack-pines.

It stands up to high winds, too, as we had a fairly violent wind and thunderstorm come down the valley while we were sitting in it. It flapped and creaked and Mr Wicked leapt to his feet, looking at us for signs that it was time to panic, but the tent stayed up. (I expected it to — our old family tent never fell, even when camping in northern Newfoundland.) Perhaps more impressively, the bowlines I had tied on the tent fly held, and my tarp (which I found in a field some years ago – next birthday I’ll get one that’s actually large enough to give us some eaves and extra shade) did not go flapping away to continue its peregrinations.

A Canada Lily in bloom by the Saint John.

So, I was able to spend several days sitting outside, writing in bug-free and UV-free and even rainshower-free comfort. Very relaxing, well worth the money, and Mr Wicked, who believes that hitting doors makes humans open them, has learnt to nuddle the flap with his nose when he wants a human to unzip it and let him out, rather than clawing it. Mr Wicked definitely approves of the tent. It makes the humans come outside and lounge around, which is his idea of the proper way to spend the day, rather than lurking in dark rooms. All in all, the pack is pleased with its new acquisition. The Spouse, though, looking thoughtful, has uttered those inevitable words: “You know, this really needs a bookshelf.”

About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, Gods of Nabban, and The Last Road epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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4 Responses to Writing en plein air (or authorial in-tent)

  1. Danica Gleave says:

    Hi–I just wanted to thank you for the Torrie stories. Our oldest child, Charlotte, is just finishing at Mt A, and on a recent visit to see her, we went by Tidewater Books. (Charlotte has told me it’s the only independent book store in New Brunswick–so, not a hardship to combine my love of books with my civic duty to support such a place.) At any rate, my seven year old son and I went through the youth novel section book by book to find something as a “read aloud” to hold us for the holiday. We picked Torrie and the Snake Prince—and went on the enjoy it very much together. Only when I mentioned it our daughter did I find out that it was written by a local writer. Bonus! We headed back to Tidewater and bought Torrie and the Fire Bird–leaving no more books by you on the shelves. Hopefully this prompts an emergency call to the publisher to send several boxes promptly.
    We live in Victoria which is richly endowed with excellent independent book stores, and our plan is to go by our favourite and order a copy of the first Torrie story if they don’t have it in stock –to complete our collection, but also to prompt the book sellers to stock these lovely stories. (William and I liked the Snake Prince best of the two stories so far. We really like Wren!) As an adult, I appreciate the gender balance you work into the books. I don’t think Will even notices, which is exactly the point to my mind.
    That’s it–just thanks. Except to say I enjoyed the comments about the insects in your beautiful part of the world. Our sheltered children had a true Canadiana experience on this recent trip to the Maritimes, having no prior knowledge of black flies, midges, etc. They also got to see fireflies for the first time, something we don’t have here. Magic.

    • KV Johansen says:

      Thanks Danica — that made my day. I’m glad you and Will enjoyed Torrie. He’s one of my favourite characters to write. I hope you’ll like Torrie and the Pirate-Queen too. There’s actually a fourth Torrie (or fifth, depending on how you count) called Torrie and the Dragon-Slayers too, which is a revision of the very first and now unavailable book, Torrie and the Dragon. I’m working on another book about Torrie and Wren, too, although it’s been interrupted by other projects at present. I’ll get back to it eventually, though, I promise!

  2. Lisa says:

    Hi there, I was googling instructions for the blue screen house – I found your lovely blog – great article and nice read! Would you also happen to have the instructions for this blue screen house? I would greatly greatly appreciate it very much! If not, at least there was something nice to read. Alternatively I would settle for a brand name so I could search for it – I bought mine second hand and it came with no information. Thanks again!

    • Hi — it’s from Home Hardware, and it’s a pretty old style of tent. I’m not sure of the brand — I’m several hours away from it at present and so can’t look it up or let you know the official directions. I’ll do my best, though! You should be able to sort them into three sets of roof supports of three poles each (two with an angle on the outer ends for each cross-piece, and piece in the middle — the shorter one of the three middle pieces is for the ridgepole rather than the edge cross-pieces), and then six uprights of two or three parts each. On mine, the four corner upright poles are in three parts attached by an internal elastic or chain, but in some they might be separate. Then the two longer uprights, for the centre, are made of two longer pieces each, and one slides inside the other so you can put it together and then slide it up supporting the centre ridgepole — it catches with a sort of metal loop thing that the sliding pole goes through to keep its height (the collar lets the pole move freely when it’s straight but it drops by gravity at an angle to hold the pole at the height you want). So in the end you have three square “arches”. The biggest, the ridgepole, stands with its legs straight up and down, and the two on edges are put with the legs at an angle so that the base of them is maybe only a foot or so from the base of the ridgepole uprights on each side. Put the two outer edge ones up first, and then the centre ridgepole. I hope that helps! Good luck! Once you see how it goes together, it’s pretty self-explanatory — the trick is that first time.

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