Apr 9 2012

The Nature of Nature

Melissa Crytzer Fry

As bipedal, thinking creatures, we seem to crave order. Predictability and patterns alleviate apprehension for most and help us get from point A to point B.

If you look at the natural world, it seems to yearn for the same organization and structure. A clear pecking order exists down the food chain; certain things have to happen for other things to happen next; the sun rises; the moon waxes and wanes.

Ants on New Mexican Thistle near my home. Ant societies crave order in the same way human societies do, with drones, queens, workers, soldiers – specialized groups – performing organized, predictable functions to solve complex problems. Click to enlarge.

Look at the uniform structure of a desert tortoise’s ridges, the predictability of one geometric section of shell to the next. Click to enlarge.

A saguaro with a “heart” limb. The saguaro will grow only one inch in the first 15 years of its life. Such predictability allows researchers to estimate saguaro age based on height. Click to enlarge.

But sometimes things happen, and nature is nothing but unpredictable. The roadrunner loses his mate and wanders for years in search of another. The anthill is destroyed by rain, creating chaos among the colony. Benign skies release thunderous cracks and snaps into the air, followed by a deluge of devastating rain. The owl looks for a new nest because human curiosity has forced it to a safer location.

For all of its predictability, nature is often chaotic and completely disorganized – but always, it seems, striving to achieve some sort of balance all over again. Just like us.

For Readers & Writers: Do you wonder how your favorite authors organize and plan their novels? Do they borrow from the orderly side of nature, or do they embrace the unpredictable, moody side?

Me? I fall somewhere in between, though those of you pantsers (fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writers) will look at the photos below and say, “Yeah, right, Melissa. You are a plotter, not a pantser.” But let me explain! I consider myself a bit of a hybrid – a plotser? A pantplot?

Meet my Organization Station (this is where I’ve been hiding the past month). My dining room table, white board and color-coded index cards have helped me organize various themes, plots, subplots, characters, symbolism, etc. Click to enlarge.

The giant whiteboard is my loose, “big picture” novel concept. When I start a WIP, it’s actually pretty sparse – with what I initially think will be my beginning, middle and end (I loosely follow Vogler’s Writer’s Journey to help me with a general framework so that I have ‘someplace’ to start). I fill in, then, with additional details as I get to know my characters and story better.

For the last third of my novel, I turned to color-coded index cards, because I had to find some way to organize the mishmash of already-written scenes that were inspired during character profile development and research of various topics.

It’s always fun when your cats offer to help at the Organization Station. Click to enlarge.

Why colored cards? They allowed me to see, visually, what content was missing altogether and which scenes were repetitive. My random color assignment worked like this:

  • Blue – medical scenes (my MC has a medical issue that plays heavily into the story)
  • Green – nature/environmental scenes (big surprise … nature is a character in my WIP)
  • Yellow – present scenes
  • Purple – symbolic scenes/events that tie to theme
  • White – backstory, character details, flashbacks, memories

With an eye-sweep of the dining room table, I could see if I had too many greens, not enough blues or way too many whites in the chapters of the last third of my novel.

Now, of course, since I’m big on my characters telling the story (not me), these stacks of cards with their one- to two-line scene descriptions have changed as I’ve continued writing, despite my best intentions. (Some stacks now have fewer cards, some have more, some have been reshuffled and rearranged).

Characters, it turns out, aren’t much different than nature. In some things, they are quite predictable in their behavior, and in others, not so much.

What about you? Do you embrace the predictability of nature, or its uncertainty? Are you an organized writer, or do you love the messy chaos of letting the characters take you where you want to go, with no restraints – i.e. colored index cards – to get in the way?

Mar 10 2012

Desert Time-Travel

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Nothing quite says “Wild West” like the dusty streets and bleached boardwalks of Tombstone. Once a year, the sleepy Arizona town comes to life and brings with it whispers of the past – not unlike the spirits said to tromp along the wooden walkways during starlit nights, spurs tinging and boots thumping.

Each third weekend in October, Helldorado Days attracts tourists and wannabe cowboys alike. Click to enlarge.

Is Tombstone a bit touristy these days? No longer a boon for mining? Slightly commercialized? Sure. During Helldorado Days, it includes carnivals, fashion shows, gunfight reenactments, and lots of food. Oh – and lots and LOTS of people dressed in vintage period cowboy clothing.

Actors play out a gun battle in the middle of the dusty street. Click to enlarge.

Despite the caramel apples, fudge and fanfare, the Helldorado events do take place on a street that is home to the original, historic Birdcage Theatre, authentic saloons, and the site of real Wild West gunfights of the 1800’s. You’ve probably heard of Wyatt Earp, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury – you know, the fight at the O.K. Corral … lawmen vs. cowboys? Yep. That’s Tombstone, location of the most famous gunfight in the American West.

In the late 1800s, miners and cowboys frequented the Bird Cage Theatre, "the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast." I actually interviewed the owners in 2004 about the ghostly activity in their building. I literally sprinted back to my car that night. Click to enlarge.

Tombstone is, indeed, brimming with history. It’s hard not to be swept back in time, imagining the stories of this once bustling frontier boomtown known for its silver production, wondering about the characters who walked down the dust-laden streets. Traveling back in time is even easier each fall, though, as present mingles with past: Ball caps collide with cowboy hats, and cell phones and cameras snap and ring amid frontier gunshots (fake, of course).

Carriage rides are also part of the day, making the experience even more authentic. OK - maybe not the present-day 'cowboy' wearing jeans. Click to enlarge.

I have a confession: Hubby and I did feel the tug of time – so much that we were compelled to enter a few stores, thumbing through the dusters and leather vests for him. I, of course, was eyeing the frocks, coats and dresses.

How fun would it be to play an Old West character for a weekend, we wondered? We’d fit right in with the Helldorado actors walking the streets. We could stay over at one of the historic hotels, hang out at the saloons and travel the same plank ways that miners and corset-bound ladies did – thrown back in time while living in the present. We could be someone else for a weekend.

Are they not THE cutest? During our anniversary visit (11 years) to Tombstone in October, we saw a dozen or so older couples dressed to the nines – all holding hands and enjoying the day. Click to enlarge.

These two are equally precious. Click to enlarge.

It may very well take us until we’re elderly to get our acts together, and get our costumes right, but I can only hope that hubby and I are holding hands and strolling down Allen Street in our Wild West garb well into the future. We are going to do this. We may just start an anniversary tradition.

For Readers, Writers: Playing dress up. Isn’t that what novels allow us to do? They allow us to walk in the shoes of others, try their clothes – their skin – on for fit, enter a new world, escape reality. Do you think the notion of adults dressing up for a weekend, being someone who they aren’t, is simply crazy or do you think it could be fun? What might you learn?