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  • Katherine Dudley Hoehn

Milestones: slow and steady

Gopher tortoises are prevalent on Amelia Island. Their personal milestones are met each day they survive the traffic and developers. Their habitats are quickly disappearing.

I’m encouraged by what these herbivores have survived. Each time I see one, it gives me a little strength to keep at whatever I’m struggling with; life would be far more difficult as a tortoise.

Tortoises -- not to be confused with water or sea turtles -- do not swim. They have feet, not flippers. They walk in the shallow ocean water on Amelia Island to clean themselves. People sometimes throw them into the water thinking that is where they want to go; sadly, that can kill them. Tortoises live in sand dunes and forests in the southern parts of the southern states, and nearly every county in Florida. They shelter by burrowing many feet underground, often sharing their long tunnel with rodents, snakes, and other creatures. Besides humans (in cars and backhoes), some of their enemies are coyotes, snakes, dogs, and foxes.

Today I encountered an older tortoise at the beach. Moderate-sized tortoises average 9-11 inches long and this one was at least 14 inches. I counted its growth rings, which can give you some idea of its age. Because they wear down over time, and each ring doesn’t exactly measure one year, it isn’t very accurate. This tortoise may be 20-40 years old. Two websites, University of Florida, and Florida Fish and Wildlife, have great information if you want to know more.

For a writer, sometimes milestones are big and sometimes they’re baby steps, like the ones tortoises take.

Today I hit a milestone -- I finished the first read of my manuscript. It means I went through all 106,000 words, 24 chapters, and read them like a book. While I read, I made edits with my red pen and deleted 15,000 words.

The next step is laborious, like the tortoise crossing the road. I must make all the edits in the document on my laptop, chapter by chapter. At least it isn’t dangerous; I don’t have to worry about being flattened by a tourist. My biggest fear is document loss, so I back up three times: external hard drive, iCloud, and Dropbox.

In the not-too-distant future, I’ll ask two readers to give me feedback. I’m nervous about that part, but I think I can put on my big girl pants and learn from it.

Like the tortoise, who is slow and steady, a good writer must be persistent and celebrate milestones. If I were a tortoise, I’d have treated myself to a big clump of flowers today, or basked in the sun until my shell was red hot. Instead, I took my dog for a walk to the beach, where I saw this tortoise who is now my inspiration.

It would be awesome to have growth rings for every milestone. Instead, I have piles of edited pages, tons of files stored in the cloud, notebooks full of research, boxes of documents, and the satisfaction of knowing I’m closer to the other side of the road.

Writing an historical novel based on family letters, dozens of diaries, and other ephemera didn’t seem so daunting when the idea first came to me. Years later, I realize it is simply a labor of love.

Gaillardia (blanket flower), grows in the dunes at the beach.

What I’ve gained so far has no monetary value. I know those long-dead relatives like I never did before. I’ve met amazing writers here on Amelia Island who have inspired me. I know myself better because I appreciate the sacrifices of those before me and how I’ve been influenced by them.

My words have made the past come alive in a way a pile of moldy old letters, diaries, and scrapbooks never could. I’ve used some imagination, and tried to accurately portray the times and the people of the era.

Now my children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, and nephews will have a glimpse into the past that they wouldn’t have had before. And maybe others will enjoy the read, as well.

The scary part is that I’m still months, and many milestones, from washing my hands of the construction of this book. I’ll keep celebrating every milestone and think of my friend the gopher tortoise who won’t win any races but soldiers on.

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