Aug 14 2011

Which Came First?

Melissa Crytzer Fry

I’ll spare you the age-old ‘chicken or egg’ question. Well, kind of.

My own version of the chicken-egg debate literally sprang up during the past few weeks of desert rains, which brought with them something else. Hornworms. And lots of them.

This close up shows the various colors and intricate design of the white-lined sphinx hornworm. The horn confuses predators as to which side is the front or back. Click to enlarge.

How many hornworms, you wonder? So many that when I’m running each morning, I have to gingerly hop over them so that they don’t end up stuck to my shins. So many that you can hear them scraping their bellies over the gravelly dirt. Heck, I bet if you put your ear into a patch of them (eww!), you’d probably hear them munching away.

Welcome to SE Arizona – the land of hornworms. This is just one tiny section of overgrowth where more than a half-dozen wormies were feeding. Click to enlarge.

These hornworms actually turn into the stunning white-lined sphinx moth. It’s been compared to a nocturnal hummingbird, because it can hover to suck the nectar of plants and because it’s big. This photo, unfortunately, doesn’t capture the grapefruit-pink underwings of this stunning moth. (You can check him out here.)

White-lined sphinx moth resting on the ground. Click to enlarge.

So, you guessed it. My question is the same as the chicken and egg conundrum – but also different: “Which came first? The caterpillar or the moth?”

In my personal course of discovery this year, the moth actually preceded the proliferation of hornworms. I found it about two weeks before these buggers started popping up. I have no idea why…

One more picture for those of you squirmy about wormies... Click to enlarge.

For Writers: This timeless question of the chicken or egg – or in my case, the caterpillar or the moth – really relates to how the universe begins. But I think it also applies to how our novels begin. Which comes first? The plot or the characters? The setting or the subplot? What works for you, writers? How do your stories develop? The same way each time, or differently?


26 Responses to “Which Came First?”

  • K K Says:

    Melissa your captions are as much fun as your photos. Squirmy about wormies. You crack me up!

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    You have to admit that they are kind of creepy in such quantities! But glad I could make you laugh.

    [Reply]

  • Leif G.S. Leif G.S. Says:

    You can’t have a plot without the characters, no matter how hard you try. Oh sure, you could have a generic, computer generated plot that is cookie cutter and devoid of life but you don’t get the spice until the characters are added.

    Of course, seeing these pictures makes me think I have to add some of these critters to my manu, but inspiration might be for another post. Great topic, good to make me mull over the question during work (Bless you for giving me a distraction).

    Thanks for sharing!

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    I agree with you, Leif. I think characters reign supreme. For my writing, personally, characters inform everything. Feel free to add these creepy crawlies to your ms!

    [Reply]

  • Julia Munroe Martin Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    For me it can be any of the ways you mentioned — always different! Some stories are character driven and the I first think of the character or the world of the character. Some stories I think of a plot or maybe scenario first…. and some of my stories come from a setting.

    The hornworms sound so gross — is it every year or just this one? They remind me of tomato worms which I can’t imagine having to be up close and personal with on a run — yuck to even have to pull off tomato plants (and I thought they bite, but google search says no)! The moths are cool, though! And we also saw a hummingbird moth for the first time the other day — amazing!! Have you seen those?

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    While I tend to be drawn to reading and writing character-driven fiction, I do find that setting plays such a vital role for me as well. And given that you write such a prolific array of genres, I can see it shaking out differently depending on what you’re writing. But then, I’m not sure we have control over “how” a story will come to us – setting first, plot idea first, character first. The beautiful surprise of writing!

    Ick.. tomato worms. I remember them all too well from my mom’s garden in PA. We also have tobacco worms out here (right now), which are similar. We have these guys every year, but during wet years, there are TONS. Last year, I don’t recall seeing many at all.

    Also saw a hummingbird moth at home in PA. Cool, aren’t they?

    [Reply]

  • Julia Munroe Martin Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    Melissa, you’re too kind with: “And given that you write such a prolific array of genres…” because *I* might describe myself as “all over the place…” :)

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    And you’re too hard on yourself! I’m sticking with “prolific”!

    [Reply]

  • Jolina Petersheim Jolina Petersheim Says:

    The novels I have written all began with stories I had been told or characters I had met. I then applied a loose outline that hemmed it all in, but still allowed the story to unravel at will. Sometimes this “organic” approach was frustrating, as I then had to go back and delete sections that didn’t work, but I still liked the freedom of it.

    P.S. Those hornworms remind me of the tobacco worms here in Tennessee. You squish ‘em, and they splatter you with juice as dark as chaw. Blech.

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    I like the way an organic novel reads, but totally appreciate the difficulties it creates for authors. My approach is kind of a hybrid – a loose outline, then let the characters take me where they may!

    We have tobacco worms, but they don’t seem to be as plentiful as the others.

    [Reply]

  • Erika Marks Erika Marks Says:

    Oh, Melissa–I am fascinated by these wiggly buggers. Especially the moth stage–like hummingbirds? So cool! (But the horn part–ugghh! Reminds me of the ones that my parents used to find in our gardens. Ggg-rrross!!! But isn’t that so often in nature–even the most repulsive creatures can fascinate and draw admiration!)

    For me, it depends. Some books come out of a plot idea–others come from a relationship that I think would be fascinating to explore and then the plot comes together around that.

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    Oh yeah… they remind me of the tomato worms of my youth, which does make them a bit creepy. But you’re so right about the repulsive-attractive connection. At least I’m the same way :-) .

    I love the way you approach your stories!

    [Reply]

  • Tracy Mangold Tracy Mangold Says:

    So funny that you posted about this type of sphinx moth and I had the other one on my site. Love the variety of life around us. Learning something new every day is one of the great things about this world we live.

    [Reply]

  • Leah Leah Says:

    Great questions! Most of my writing (non-blog) ideas start with a character or situation. I have no idea the plot course or anything else. For example, I thought of an idea about college friends and their lives since college based on a conversation between me and my college friends the other day. They talked about how they write themselves a birthday letter each year. The idea for the letter and characters immediately drew me in. But that’s all I got!

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    Ooh… that IS a great story idea, Leah. Such possibilities (and I love that your friends write themselves birthday letters. What a great idea).

    [Reply]

  • Cynthia Robertson Cynthia Robertson Says:

    Characters and setting for me. The rest just occurs to me as I write.
    The worms are so pretty. As colorful as butterflies. Then they turn into those drab moths?
    Oh well…getting to fly must be some consolation!

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    Me too, Cynthia. Character and setting rule! Yes, it is interesting that the worms are so colorful, then they turn into a drab gray (but underneath their wings is a pretty pink. I just wasn’t able to capture it).

    [Reply]

  • Lori Parker Lori Parker Says:

    I’d no sooner visit a reptile zoo than stick my ear in a bush of those worms. Full Body Willies!!! Not even sure about those moths… hmmm.

    As for the writing, I’m with Erika Marks. (Can I grow up and be her?) My current WIP is very relationship based. Good thing my sister already doesn’t speak to me. hhhaaa!

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    Ha. I’m laughing at pretty much EVERYTHING you said… your repulsion to the hornworms and your comment about your sister. THey aren’t all rosy relationships, are they?

    [Reply]

  • Natalia Sylvester Natalia Sylvester Says:

    Ooh, this is a tough one! I think it’s different for each work. Sometimes, I start with an idea for a plot (like I did for my last book). What’s interesting is that the book didn’t really come together until this one character emerged. I feel like that was the true moment of birth for that book.

    In my newer WIP, I pretty much outlined the entire plot after I wrote the first chapter. Even though I know which way things are going, I’m learning more about the characters as I write, which basically means the plot can change at any moment (you know how characters are: surprise!).

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    Yes, what you say speaks to my belief that character is at the root of all good fiction! I have to have at least a rough outline, knowing, though, that my characters – as they develop – will change that direction completely.

    Agreed … characters create some wonderful surprises.

    [Reply]

  • Beth Hoffman Beth Hoffman Says:

    Your blog never, NEVER ceases to delight me! I just love the photos of the hornworms. They look like exotic zucchini…LOL!

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    Ha ha. LOVE it. Exotic zucchini! ;-)

    [Reply]

  • Nina B Nina B Says:

    #1. Gross. Worms.

    #2. Great question. I think characters come first for me, then I get stuck on plot. I’ve done enough outlines and other story work to know when I have a plot that’s not going anyway. I don’t dare keep going at that point until I can “worm” my way out of the plot black hole. You like that one? ;)

    [Reply]

  • Stephanie Alexander Stephanie Alexander Says:

    Girl you are the metaphor queen! How do you come up with them? As for your question, I think I start with what I’ll just call and “idea.” It’s more about a concept, or a situation, than about specific characters or plot. I’m hoping my next book will be a magical story set in antebellum Charleston, sort of Gone With the Wind meets Harry Potter. The idea leads me to characters and conflict.

    Can’t wait to get started. :)

    [Reply]

    Melissa

    Melissa Reply:

    You know… the metaphors just literally pop into my head when I’m running in the mornings outdoors… I can’t really explain it – but usually the inspiration begins outside. Not the same effect if on the treadmill.

    Ohh. Gone with the Wind meets Harry Potter. Now THAT is what I call imagination!

    [Reply]

Leave a Comment