May 2 2011

Life’s Elixir

Melissa Crytzer Fry

You might look at these photos and think there is nothing remarkable about water on flowers, on trees. Seen it before, you might say.

But when you consider that these droplets fell upon the parched lips of flowering hedgehog cacti, the bone-dry petals of desert marigolds, and the smooth pistachio-colored branches of Sonoran Desert palo verde trees, the meaning changes a bit.

Doesn’t it?

(Below photos are worth clicking on to enlarge details! I’m only slightly biased.)

A full day of rain – and an early-morning, foggy photo shoot in the desert – yielded this early-blooming hedgehog blanketed in water droplets. Click to enlarge. Click arrow button to see all photos in post.

In the desert, fallen water seems to cling just a little longer. A little more frantically. And with a little more appreciation – even though the lifesaving liquid is essential in every environment, arid or lush. We need it. Animals need it. Plants need it. Our bodies are made of it (70 percent). The Earth’s surface is covered by it (another 70 percent). Water makes the world go round. It is life’s elixir.

This season’s wildflowers, somewhat stunted from a dry winter and spring, came to life with even the quarter-inch of rain that fell on their petals. Desert Marigold pictured. Click to enlarge.

There’s just something about the rain’s arrival in such a thirsty, baked environment, the soft plop, plop of drops hitting dry dirt. The way plants and animals transform during drought conditions, scraggly and sad, begging for a hint of the sustaining stuff. When the skies do open, if even for a short while, life seems renewed almost instantly.

Raindrops cling to this palo verde tree after a much-needed winter rain in the desert. Click to enlarge.

For Writers: Author of The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, proposes that nearly every story ever written follows a hero’s journey inspired by mythology. One leg of the hero’s journey is the “Approach to the Inmost Cave,” during which the main character approaches the central ordeal or adventure of the novel. It’s the time, Vogler says, when authors remind the audience of the “ticking clock” (i.e. If my MC doesn’t reach water within the hour, his organs will fail. If she doesn’t change her lifestyle, she will lose her children). Readers are reminded of the “life-and-death quality of the issue at hand” for the main character.

What is that one thing that YOUR character has to have to survive – beyond life-sustaining water? Or what is that one thing she thinks she has to have, or she’ll die – literally or metaphorically? And how does wanting this thing, or needing it, raise the stakes for your character? Does the desire result in bad decisions? Do those decisions result in danger, growth, healing?


33 Responses to “Life’s Elixir”

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    Another beautiful and thought-provoking blog! I love the way you tie photos of the desert to the necessity of water to what our characters need to survive–very cool! This will definitely help me think about my characters wants vs. needs as well as how they make the decisions I have them make will shape direction of the story. Good questions!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Julia. I hope the kitchen-table writing is going well and that you’re working through these “motivation” and “needs” issues in your new ‘space.’ It’s working well for me!

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    Beautiful photos, as always, Melissa. And you are so right about the response to rain in the desert – it’s amazing and immediate.
    The hero’s journey is an excellent guide for us to keep in mind, no matter what genre. I will remember to ask your questions each day as I sit down to write. Like the rain to the desert, those are the questions that bring a character to life!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I love the Hero’s Journey, Cynthia. It’s so versatile and has been so helpful to me. Love your analogy: Like the rain to the desert, those are the questions that bring a character to life!

    Thank you so much for your encouragement today of my writing progress.

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    That middle picture of the yellow flower is breath-taking, Melissa. Wow. Like Julia said, I too always appreciate your linking of observations about our natural world to the craft of writing.

    I love the question you’ve posed. In order for one of my current main characters to survive, she needs to have her grudge, which is essentially her perception of an event that (she believes) adversely affected the course of her mother’s life, so that when she (the main character) is presented with an alternate account of the same event, one that is contradictory to what she has always believed, it is utterly terrifying to her, and not surprisingly, throws her life into an emotional tailspin.

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    Melissa Reply:

    OH, Erika… I can’t WAIT to read your second novel; this sounds so intriguing and right up my women’s fiction alley. And, of course, can’t wait until LITTLE GALE GUMBO is released (and am STILL dying for a synopsis of your debut novel). Thanks so much for your continued support.

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    The question you posed is one my writing mentor asked when I turned in my first novel to her. “What’s at risk here? What are the characters fighting for? What question’s propelling the reader through the story?” After I realized I couldn’t answer ANY of these things, I realized my novel wasn’t a novel at all. That was a sad day, indeed, but I did learn a lot from it. Thank you for the reminder, Melissa. I always look forward to your posts.

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    Melissa Reply:

    That is such a great list of questions that every author should ask before getting started. For character-driven fiction, especially, I’ve learned that understanding a character’s motivations and desires is THE supreme tool to writing believable fiction. I’m sure that was a hard lesson to learn, but we’ve all been there is some way. And look at your improvement now! Keep writing, my friend!

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  • avatar Sara Says:

    Oh great questions! I don’t know yet!! I spent almost all of yesterday developing my characters, and slowly seeing the plot develop from who they are becoming. That’s actually what I’m stuck on is that ONE THING my MC needs to really drive her. I’m just sitting with it for a while, but I will continue to stare at your motivating questions!

    Absolutely gorgeous photos as well.

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    Melissa Reply:

    It’s so important to sit with your characters for awhile, Sara. You’re right – they reveal much to us when we let them rest for a bit and give them time to fully develop in our minds. I’m a firm believer that characters can drive plot (even though I’m a loose outliner, I still let my characters veer away from my original intentions if I think they’re taking me someplace interesting. This is a new approach for me, and one that’s working well).

    You’ll come up with that “one thing” that drives your MC. Keep at it! And I have to ask… If you only JUST got on Twitter (welcome, by the way), how did you find my blog initially? Just curious!

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    Sara Reply:

    To be honest, I can’t remember how I found your blog…not very helpful huh? 🙂 I’m sure it was on someone’s blogroll, perhaps from Writer Unboxed, but it was a while ago. I love your blog and I’m living vicariously through your pictures. I need out of the city so badly.

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  • avatar Hallie Sawyer Says:

    I have an obsession with photographing water. You have made me very jealous with these photos! Brilliant, my dear Melissa!

    That is exactly the question I have been asking myself as I revise. Why does this matter to my MC? Revisions seem to be about asking a lot of questions of ourselves, digging deep (our well?), and coming up with new revelations about what our characters are all about.

    Awesome post!!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Well, MIss Hallie, you will like my next post, too (I guess I am the one on a bit of a water kick lately… Fog, dew drops, and my next post … It is a fun to photograph!)…

    Oh yes, I agree … we can have whole conversations with our characters, trying to ask them the questions that are vital to their motivations and actions in our novels. This is when talking to yourself MIGHT be OK :-). Right?

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  • avatar Leah Says:

    I so look forward to your photos every week. And these are no exception. I love the drops of water on the petals and the branches. Just beautiful and thought-provoking. While I’ve yet to figure out what my character needs, I always enjoy the way you relate simple scenes of nature to such topics. Thanks!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Leah. I was pretty darn excited when I made my water-droplets discovery. I was ‘this close’ to walking back into the house when I thought, “Hey, I should go over to that marigold and see if it has any dew on it.” Jackpot!

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  • avatar Shari Lopatin Says:

    Melissa,

    You never cease to amaze me how you find the tiniest details in nature, and relate them back to the creative process. I’m currently developing my main character, and the conflict category she falls into is “man vs. society.” However, I know the conflict needs more work. And your observation is helping me to form the ultimate climax. I think what she needs, what she believes she can’t live without, is acceptance. The need to feel accepted. Thank you for helping guide me to this epiphany!

    Shari

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks for the compliment, Shari. There was a time when I was NOT aware of any of those details. I just passed by them without notice. Life is so much fun when you’re LOOKING, though!

    And a big WAHOO that you figured out your MC’s desire. Need for acceptance is such a juicy desire, rife with all kinds of ways I’m sure she’ll act out, grow, and be challenged. Sounds wonderful. Is your genre women’s fiction?

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  • avatar V.V. Denman Says:

    Beautiful pictures. I love the first one. And you’re right; it’s worth enlarging. 🙂

    I’ve been struggling, struggling, struggling to define my MC’s problem. I think it is that she longs for love and protection (having been deserted by her father at a young age). But she runs into conflict when she falls in love with someone whom she has a strong prejudice against. (a Christian).

    Now to transfer that thought into novel form…

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    Melissa Reply:

    V.V. – I love this storyline. So full of potential challenges for your MC. I plan to do a post on additional insight about character’s ‘controlling beliefs’ and how they shape decisions, wants, desires, and actions! I can’t wait to hear more about how your story unfolds.

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  • avatar Stephanie Alexander Says:

    Oooh, food for thought. My MC struggles with dueling needs for security and love. She can’t really have both in my story, and so she has to choose one or the other. The dilemma every woman faces to some degree in life, I think. Hopefully she made the right choice. 🙂

    Your imagery is lovely, both in words and pictures!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Stephanie, for the lovely compliment. Ohh… you’ve created some great stakes for your MC. I hope she made the right choice, too! Sounds intriguing and, yes, something many women face.

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  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    Beautiful photos, Melissa! And such important questions for us to ask as we write. We have to always remember to raise the stakes. Without stakes, without something to lose, then what’s the point of telling the story? What sets a story apart from a glimpse into a person’s everyday life? I think it always comes down to those stakes, and how a character will change on their journey to the center.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thank you, Natalia. I especially think the game of “high stakes” is important in women’s fiction since it’s so often character-driven. I agree with you: what’s the point if the MC isn’t in some kind of “danger” … doesn’t have to be physical. Can be emotional, too. But the MC has to have something worth losing (AND gaining) to hold my interest.

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  • avatar Katie Pickard Fawcett Says:

    Love the photos, especially the raindrops on the bare palo verde with that pretty blue sky.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Katie. I know you have an appreciation for the outdoors (trees, plants, blooms) so that means a lot to me!

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  • avatar Beth Hoffman Says:

    You are so incredibly talented!

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    Melissa Reply:

    And you are incredibly kind!

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  • avatar Nina Says:

    Oh my goodness, I love this post and especially the questions posted at the end. Gave me some good “thinking time” on my MC. I seriously cannot believe the quality of those pictures–of all the pictures on your site. Truly astounding!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks so much, Nina. I simply get ‘lucky’ with my photos. That morning, I was taking photos of fog, downloaded them and saw that the hedgehog appeared to have water on it. I wasn’t sure since the hedgehog in the pictures was so small. So I went back out and, sure enough – water! So I took photos of it, passed by some marigolds w/out thinking much about them. Then I suddenly thought, “I should check those, too!” And whammo! There they were: water droplets on marigolds. I think we often overlook details like that for our novels … things we see and hear that might seem insignificant at hte time, but could lead to new discoveries for our WIPs, new scenes, new plot developments.

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  • avatar Amanda Hoving Says:

    Another one here to lavish praises up on your photography and writing skills — fabulous! My MC’s tend to need to overcome self-doubt, ghosts of their past, and magical bubble gum 😉 to survive. Interesting post~

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    Melissa Reply:

    Hi Amanda. I’m intrigued. I think I need my own magical bubble gum! Thanks so much for your wonderful compliments.

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  • avatar Brandee Says:

    As a fellow desert-dweller, I so appreciate these pictures! Water is such a precious commodity, and one of the things that I love after any sort of rainfall is how the sage and various plants burst forth in explosions of color, luring the bees and the hummingbirds forth to help sustain life through pollination.

    Beautiful pictures! I am inspired to try to learn to “see” better and perhaps try something other than my phone’s camera!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Hi Brandee. Thanks for stopping by, fellow desert dweller.I can’t tell you how tickled I am that you feel inspired to look at things differently, and to look a little closer at our magnificent desert. Yes! Get the camera out; I’ve found it is so inspirational to my writing!

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