Feb 8 2011

Lost Civilization

Melissa Crytzer Fry

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.

The Upper Cliff Dwelling (pictured) was abandoned in the early to mid-1400s. It once was reportedly eight stories high. Click to enlarge. Click arrow for more photos.

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.

One of the members on our ranger-guided tour found this pottery remnant. Out of respect for the site, we hid it under a rock, leaving it in its rightful place. One can only hope that the next visitor doesn’t decide to pocket it. Very few pottery shards remain. Click to enlarge.

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.

The “half-t” door construction is unique to these dwellings which overlook what is now Roosevelt Lake.


11 Responses to “Lost Civilization”

  • avatar Erika Robuck Says:

    One of my big problems is that I love to give stage directions. (She smiled… He washed his hands… She laughed.) You’ll also catch me in some passive writing. Then there’s telling instead of showing. Lots of telling in that first draft.

    Thanks for this post. Being mindful of our bad little habits makes them more likely to go away.

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    Melissa Reply:

    OH YES… Show-don’t-tell. That’s a big, big, big one. I think ROOM is the perfect novel to read for an example of excellent ‘showing’ and not telling. Thanks for the other reminders, Erika. I think I’m guilty of many of the same things as you. But that’s what first drafts are for :-).

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  • avatar Hallie Sawyer Says:

    Hmmm, great points. Things I hadn’t thought about. Well, you have me something to look for when I revise. I’m a bit scared to look actually. 🙂

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  • avatar Jessica McCann Says:

    Great post, Melissa. My novel’s first draft was riddled with references to stomachs “turning,” “tightening,” and “in knots.” With revisions, I flexed my creative muscles to find other ways of describing and showing the physical effects of my character’s challenging circumstances (thanks in no small part to your astute critique!).

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Oh YES… the ‘stomach’ thing. MIne, too – and something I should have added to the list. My stomachs were ‘quivering’ more often than not!

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  • avatar M. McGriff Says:

    These pictures are amazing! I remember I was doing some research on civilizations that lived in caves and I found it so fascinating! How cool of you to actually go and explore caves like that!

    I’m totally guilty of using the phrase “And before so-so could do ____” I loves using it but I use it way too much!

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  • avatar Taqiyyah Shakirah Dawud Says:

    I love hyphens–you may have noticed–and parenthetical phrases. I love ’em, think they add so much (tongue-in-cheek, sarcasm, detail), but they’re always among the first to go on revision, especially for word-count. Sometimes I find a sharper way to convey what I wanted so desperately to let the reader in on. Other times, no.

    One novel I edited was full of “she forced a smile.” I could just picture her constantly grimacing, and it drove me nuts.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Then we have something in common. I am also a hyphen-loving queen. That is yet another area that I was reamed for (thanks for the reminder). I used the parentheticals for your benefit ;-). I can see how the “she forced a smile” would get old really quickly.

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  • avatar Rachna Chhabria Says:

    I have a tendency for direct attribution. “Don’t do that Rahul.” “Common Neha, lets go there.” I am trying to get rid of this trait.

    I also consciously avoid cliches. Sometimes they do creep in.

    Thanks for this great post, Melissa.

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  • avatar Beth Hoffman Says:

    What a terrific post, and loved the pictures too!

    When I wrote my first draft and then went back to begin honing and editing, I laughed out loud at how many em dashes there were! I must have cut at least fifty of them. But I’ve come to accept that I adore them because even in my new WIP, I’m noticing the continuing trend. Lol!

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    Melissa Reply:

    We definitely have an affinity for the em-dash in common, too. Have you publicly talked about what your next WIP is going to be? I cant wait! (Anyone reading my blog, check out Beth’s NYT Bestseller, “SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT.” Great YA-Adult crossover novel!

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