As a kid growing up, I learned from my history teachers of various disappearing populations. Masses of people who just up and vanished. Where did they go? What happened to them? The clues springing from the dusty ground – dried corn cobs, matates, petrified gourd stems, pottery fragments, and crumbling sand-mud-rock structures – always seemed, to me, an unsolved riddle.
It’s more likely that the inhabitants depleted their resources and moved on. (Though some theories point to drought, disease or warfare as potential suspects. No one is certain). What they left behind at Tonto Basin – a magnificent 40-room structure at the upper caves (and a 20-room structure at the lower cliffs) allowed waves of different civilizations to prosper at different times – in the 13th, 14th and early 15th centuries, long before Europeans arrived.
Perhaps each population that once inhabited – and then abandoned – the cave dwellings was forced to do so as the native wildlife and plants became scarce: the berries, the skeletons of the saguaro, agave, jojoba, agave, deer, coyotes, mountain lions.
No matter how you look at it, overuse likely played a role in the nomadic migrations (changes in the building materials of newer rooms support this belief).
The most amazing part of this story just may be the earth itself; in its magnificent capacity, it never failed, repairing and replenishing enough to serve again. And again.
For Writers: Overuse. New writers are often guilty of this offense: overusing certain phrases, techniques and styles, even.
In my first novel, I was dinged for overuse of the following:
- Direct attribution. My dialogue often looked like this: “That’s it, Daniel.” “Why would you do that, Maggie?” “C’mon, Caleb.” We don’t talk like this in real life. Rarely do we address the person with whom we’re speaking by name. I probably cut 300 words throughout the novel by removing those annoying attributions.
- Brand names. I was convinced (and argumentative) that I was seeking and achieving authenticity when I named Oneida silverware, Hostess Ding Dongs, Ajax, the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Kitchen Aid mixer. Again … No! Distracting and unnecessary. Silverware, snack cake, talk show and mixer convey the message just as well.
- Clichés. My characters lived in a small town where ‘cliché-talk’ was the norm (Hell, we hear this kind of vocabulary in everyday talk. For crying out loud … As God is my witness … Wait a cotton-picking-minute …You get the picture). As authentic as the speech is for the geographic region, sometimes fiction is best if it does not mirror reality 100 percent. Clichés are annoying. No one likes to read them.
- Ums. Again, while we may use too many ‘ums’ in daily speech, readers don’t appreciate them. They, too, slow down the story’s pace. Avoid them. And when you do use them, use them sparingly.
What are your writing faux pas? Have you noticed that you overuse any particular phrase, technique, descriptions, style? Please share.