By Larry Burns | Contributing Columnist
I’m what’s known as a regional writer; I take inspiration from the flora and fauna, the places and faces of where I live and play.
Because I value community, I spend time outdoors to recharge my creative energies and find new stories to share. My subjects typically include the people, places, and events around the Inland Empire. Like many creatives, I generally return to the same sources for inspiration, seeking renewable resources and reusable materials.
One way for a writer to keep those sources charged and ready is by approaching those places from a new perspective. In my current draft manuscript of a sci-fi adventure novel, I play around with narrative choices to achieve this end while describing a mysterious antagonist. To help me gather many stories in a single scene, the narration is broken into several character perspectives, told in an overlapping fashion. The result: A scene with more ways to attract and hold the reader’s attention. The action is made richer with multiple views of the same character.
When I want to do the same thing in real life, I likewise bring in new narrators to learn more about a person or place I think I know well. When I write creative nonfiction, that means talking to historians, or visiting a research librarian at Riverside Public Library. Regardless of setting, I believe writers must invite other storytellers into the conversation.
One source of my creativity is walking. I’ve always found movement and nature stimulating to new ideas. As a result, several days a week you can find me hoofing the hilly avenues of Canyon Crest, one of the dozens of distinct residential neighborhoods in Riverside. Walking my neighborhood on a regular basis for several years in a row, characters naturally take shape.
My neighborhood is diverse in terms of flags, landscape choices, and beliefs about where cars are supposed to be parked. I have many fine neighbors. I’ve even nominated one for a civic award and he won. Nowadays, my inspiration is a cat named Janes.
Janes proved different from other cats, and not just because of his gender confounding pluralized name. This is what happens when I let my 4-year-old daughter name somebody else’s pet. One of the first things to know about Janes is he possesses the effortless confidence of a cat, but the lust for life of a dog. He’s developed a Pavlovian sense of who or what is crossing his turf.
He’s learned the sound of the cart my wife and I push our daughter in. Typically we meet Janes trotting toward us, mewing a greeting at about the midpoint of our walk. The encouragement and affectionate leg rubs and headbutts into our outstretched hands makes me glad I decided to walk when the easier choice is to stay inside.
I admit feeling pretty special from Janes’ attention and his behavior. Imagine my curiosity when I began to hear other tales about unusual cats in the neighborhood. It turns out Janes is a social butterfly with an entire dance card of friends to meet and greet.
Each of my neighbors called him or her by a different name: Janes, Tux, Kitty, Oreo, Stache, International Cat of Mystery. He’s associated with several addresses and at least one locale. We were all talking about the same character. Each of us held a different version of this cat in our imaginations. But those stories all culminate in the joyful feeling of being singled out by your friendly neighborhood kitty cat.
After capturing all these feline myths, I had no choice but to seek out the origin story. I approached the people at the house we most often found him around. It turns out Janes has a habit of choosing his own pals. The cat appeared at my neighbor’s home four years ago. Neither hungry nor frightened, he hung around for several days lounging on the porch. Naturally, this led to feedings and something soft to sleep on. But then a girl showed up and claimed the cat. Two weeks later, the cat reappeared. They waited for the girl to return but she did not.
They named the cat Stache because of his distinct, thin black mustache. They love and appreciate his various neighborhood personas. To them, he is both their pet and everyone else’s tomcat. He avoids certain dogs and plays with others using a valid yet unknown metric. My inspirational cat also provides life lessons in how to win friends and influence people.
Sometimes we spy Janes far from his normal perch and in these cases he pretends not to know us. That’s okay, I like a story that doesn’t make itself too easy to hold down. I like mysteries, even though I don’t write them myself. I asked lots of questions filling out the true tales of my favorite neighborhood cat, but I did not confirm if Janes is a boy cat or a girl cat. Regardless of name or gender, that’s one cool cat.
Larry Burns is a writer and artist who draws inspiration from the heady mixture of sights, sounds, peoples, and places of the Inland Empire. His projects consider how humans adapt to rapid cultural and technological change. His most recent non-fiction work with Reedy Press Publishers, Secret Inland Empire, shares the weird, wonderful, and obscure people and places that make the Inland Empire a special place.