top of page

Writing What You Used to Know

By Laurel Anne Hill

Write what you know. Most writers have heard that advice. Time, however, has the nasty habit of slipping through busy fingers. Memories play hide-and-seek among the storage bins of brains. Whether an author writes fiction, nonfiction or both, sooner or later the keys to knowledge rust—if they can be found at all. Award-winning author (and former underground storage tank operator) Laurel Anne Hill swears emotions are vital to unlocking memories.

Around 2002, Laurel contemplated writing a short story based upon her numerous experiences running rapids down California’s Stanislaus River in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those adventurous river rides weren’t aboard the big rafts carrying multiple passengers. She and other members of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Divers—a skin and SCUBA diving club—donned wet suits, flippers, and life vests, then rode their canvas-covered inflated surf mats through white water and calm.

Thirty plus years had eroded a substantial section of Laurel’s “river days recollections.” She couldn’t revisit the area. The Army Corps of Engineers had constructed a new dam, submerging much of the familiar landscape during the creation of New Melones Lake. Certainly the calm entry point below the old dam—its clear cold pools sparkling with iron pyrite—would have disappeared. The boulder that had nearly claimed Laurel’s life when she’d made the run too early in the year likely languished far below the surface—its adjacent sucking whirlpool tamed forever.

One dramatic fact Laurel hadn’t forgotten: A whirlpool in water no more than ten feet deep has the power to sink a one-hundred-pound woman. Even if she wears a full wetsuit and inflated life vest while she clings to her inflated surf mat for dear life and kicks with her fins like hell. That single fact would prove insufficient to support Laurel’s planned five-thousand-word short story.

On their next visit to Washington D.C., Laurel and David (her husband since 1975) made a side trip to the Library of Congress, confident they’d find readily-available information about The Army Corps of Engineers and dams on the Stanislaus River. If only. The best The Library of Congress could do on short notice was to refer Laurel to Google—the new information system available online. What a disillusionment!

But the Library of Congress did have one black-and-white photograph of a former landing miles downriver from Laurel’s main area of interest. Just seeing the image of Parrott’s Ferry awakened a flood of memories, as if she rediscovered a long lost friend. Yet her recollection of one shallow cave many miles above Parrott’s Ferry—where the skeleton of a deer resided—emphasized the dangers of treacherous rapids. Emotions could trigger memories. Memories could also trigger emotions.

Laurel never wrote her Stanislaus-related short story, although she created a short nonfiction piece: Research and Rescue in the Library of Congress, published in 2005. However, two of her three novels (Plague of Flies: Revolt of the Spirits, 1846 and The Engine Woman’s Light) contain scenes where turbulent river waters threaten the lives of her main characters. Just as the Stanislaus River had threatened hers.

Addendum: In times of severe drought, the old Parrott’s Ferry Bridge emerges from its watery grave. This ghost from the past is now available for virtual visitation at