Aug 1 2011

Barren to Bountiful

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Not even a month ago, this is how the desert looked: barren, brown, but still quite beautiful in its mocha-colored hues.

Train trestle view behind our house. Notice the vast amount of “tan” seen on the desert floor. Click to enlarge.

And this is how the desert looks now, aided by a few short weeks of desert monsoon rains.

Notice how much “green” is now on the desert floor. Click to enlarge.

Just weeks ago, you may recall how stressed I was about the stress of the desert vegetation. It had probably been a good six months since we’d had measurable rain. The prickly pears were wrinkly and hardened like leather, every hill around our house was painted in brown brushstrokes, and even the hardy saguaros were starting to show their limits with rippled trunks and squishy skin.

After one rain, though, things started to grow. And today – a few more storms under our belts – this is what the desert looks like:

Before these gorgeous Devil’s Claw flowers erupt, the first hint of their arrival is a trail of lily-pad-looking leaves formed into roving clusters. Click to enlarge.

This hill on the south end of our property was hot-cocoa colored not too long ago and studded with only an occasional glimmer of green: a creosote bush, a cholla cactus. Look at it now, as Arizona poppies enter the scene. Click to enlarge.

Close-up view of the Arizona poppy. This poppy almost always makes its appearance during summer – not springtime, like the brighter-orange Mexican poppies. Click to enlarge.

I’d been checking the area all spring and summer, looking for this desert four o’clock that I’d discovered last year. I figured it wasn’t going to bloom. Surprise! Flowers open fully when the sun comes up (I took this at 5:30 a.m.). Click to enlarge.

I love the furry globes that form on the whitethorn acacia. They're so geometric and such a great replica of a bursting sun. Click to enlarge.

For Writers: When I think of the Sonoran Desert’s monsoonal transformation, I think in layers. The first week after rain is the first layer: a few sprouts here. The second week, a few more sprouts. The third week, a few more. Then suddenly the green growth that seemed nothing more than pesky ugly duckling weeds transforms into a variety of flowers. Another layer!

And with each week comes another set of greens I don’t recognize. Another layer! And with that, more flowers, more color. More layers!

Our novels are the same as the metamorphosing desert. We start out with the “tan” base of our plot. Then we add our flora – our layers – characterization, subplots, setting, emotional arcs and collisions.

I think the most profound writing lesson that nature offers, however, is a reminder about the value of surprise. I love being surprised by the new things that pop up week after week, layer after layer. Sometimes the desert provides subtle hints as to what will emerge from the cracked earth. Other times, Mother Nature doesn’t provide a clue. I like my fiction the same way.

How do you feel about “surprises” in the works you read and write? Can an author overdo the surprises? Conversely, can he spell things out in too predictable a manner? What about red herrings? Like ‘em? Hate ‘em? And, finally, does “barren-to-bountifull” trigger any other reactions for you?

Jul 24 2011

Magic Everywhere

Melissa Crytzer Fry

I nearly broke into a fast-paced sprint when Neighbor Mark pointed to this rock and announced that he thought it was a fertility rock. Think dust trails floating behind the roadrunner as he zooms away from the coyote. Yes, I felt like making that kind of escape. So did my husband.

This rock, silently telling its petroglyph tale, is not far from our home in southeastern Arizona. Any thoughts about the true meaning? Click to enlarge.

“Look at the groove on it, as if many people once sat there,” Mark said. “And look at the appendages on the bottom of each body.” Um, appendages… Hmm… His theory just might be right.

Close-up view of the stick figures’ ‘appendages.’ Rumor tells us that this area was once scoured by archaeologists from the University of Arizona. This is one of the only remaining clues that hint of a past civilization. Click to enlarge.

So, I obviously did get close enough to this fascinating piece of ancient history to photograph it (though I did not sit on it). And I have to say, I was mesmerized. The whole notion of a fertility rock and the magic surrounding it – the belief in the mystical power of this rock to summon a miraculous result – stuck with me.

When you think about it, magic really is a broad term, isn’t it? While it conjures up images of bubbling cauldrons, magic wands, potions and spells (and all things Harry Potter these days), I think it’s much more complex. In some ways magic is simply faith, isn’t it? It’s a trust and a belief (in this case, that sitting on a rock will bring fertility) that is so strong it cannot be questioned. Isn’t that what magic really is? And can’t we all use that kind of magic in our lives?

This petroglyph, a bit further from the fertility rock, highlights the figure of a man, but doesn’t have the appendages that adorn all of the other figures on the first rock. Maybe Mark was right? Click to enlarge.

This is the surrounding landscape of the magical area that is home to these petroglyphs. Click to enlarge.

For Writers: There is magic in all our stories – even if we aren’t fantasy or children’s authors. Magic doesn’t always take the form of black magic, magic tricks or fairytales. There’s the magic of love, of new discovery, of success. Our novels create magic through character relationships, through new settings, through the power of suggestion that the impossible can be possible, that everyday people can achieve the unthinkable – through faith.

What ways do you think novels portray magic? How important is the notion of magic in keeping the reader turning pages? Do you think certain genres handle magic differently? What elements of magic are in your current WIP?