I’m a writer. Anyone with even a streak of creativity understands that environment is crucial to crafting good prose. Artistic sorts tend to nest, carve out a spot that enhances, not interferes, with imagination. So when it happens that a plot begins to unravel, a character veers off course, or words begin to fall flat, we leave that nest and seek out a change of scenery, a change of venue, something that distracts our hands and eyes while the story continues to percolate in the back of our minds until all of the kinks are ironed out.
I recently visited such a change of scenery, a place in the woods where some “homo sapiens interrupus” had erected a timed feeder (a contraption that spews out corn on a schedule) near a wildlife trail camera (activated by motion, thus capturing animals who pause to eat). This new scenery suited me, and I discovered if I camouflaged myself enough, became scent-free enough, stayed downwind enough, and arrived early enough, I could witness black turkeys cannonball out of the trees at dawn, deer meander past on their way to bedding areas, and tree rats (squirrels- none pictured, thankfully) cavort crazily in the canopy above. If I was really lucky, an opportunistic predator would happen by – a hungry bobcat, a bold coyote, or a sly fox – hoping to snag one of the early morning breakfasters. It was fascinating and mesmerizing, and sure enough this drama in nature helped me with the problem I had in my writing. These creatures/characters live out a story every day. The turkeys pass under the feeder in a group, on their way to accomplish whatever it is large birds undertake while the sun is up. At least one head stays up at all times, a guard making sure the flock remains in charge of its mission and accomplishes its goal. And the deer, how do they avoid starving to death or suffering nervous indigestion? They never take a bite without at least three wary glances around. Masters of their universes, without the use of claws, fangs, nasty growls, or handy cell phones, they use what they have to preserve their lives and live them out fully.
My story has a heroine faced with damaging circumstances that would pique any reader’s interest…yet the tale falls flat. Watching the deer I understood why. My heroine is taking no action to overcome her plight, she’s merely surviving one gross offense after another. How can a reader champion behind or invest in someone who takes no active role in overcoming their circumstances, or bettering themselves after being miserably defeated by them? How can our hearts pound for someone who never spells out the goal they’re willing to die for and then proceeds to do it? Do we, as spectators, engage in one who drifts through crises, simply hoping to make it? I’ve been reading a novel with a heroine like mine. She has endured the demise of a significant relationship, stumbled onto a potential new one, worked a top notch career, then did nothing when her career was destroyed by a terrible accident… She passed through ups and downs, sufferings and successes with so little investment that I suddenly realized I could walk away from her and never care. Why? Because she didn’t care. She was affected by her world, but it was happening to her, drawing no consequential action on her part to make her a true heroine. When her environment emerged as the only viable character in the story…and she let it, without a fight…I closed the book for good.
Looking at the feeder and the wary creatures who take advantage of it, I see their goals, feel their conflicts, and appreciate their determination to live instead of die. I never engaged so intimately with the heroine in the novel I put aside, since none of the above applied to her. My heroine, though, will no longer be that way. Mine is about to undergo a change. I have unearthed her one true dream amidst the circumstances that threaten it. I have given her permission and the impetus to fight for it, to survive no matter what comes against her.
With my heroine on course, I wonder what my one dream is. What is it I embrace and defend against all challenges? And what in me will be better after the battle, even if I lose?
As I sit and ponder my dream, my heroine’s, and the wildlife drawn in by the corn, an owl swoops through the trees and alights on a limb above the feeder. Now there’s a new twist! A predator from above! I crouch lower and watch. What will these characters do that I can learn from? Whatever it is, they have to look up now, instead of down, in order to defend their dream of surviving. If not…