Rocks in My Head

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Landform on the Navajo Nation, Arizona.

I’ve been pondering the wondrous landscapes of the West—a big reason I live here. It’s telling, I think, how people from the Midwest and East often visit the West and ask, “Where’s all the greenery?” And I go East and kinda wonder the opposite: “Where are all the rocks? Where’s the dirt?” I suspect we’re conditioned to love the land we grow up in.

View of the Sonoran Desert from Gates Pass near Tucson, AZ.

Many years ago I moved to Midwest farm country. I only lasted about three years, or maybe it was one that seemed like three. Kidding. That’s not to diss farm country—I know many people there love it. I also know that some of those folks consider a primo vacation to involve traveling west and hanging out with rocks and dirt and strange poky vegetation. But I don’t pretend to be neutral on the subject.

View of the Santa Rita Mountains, southern Arizona.

My main thoughts in relation to writing fiction revolve around how one designs the landscapes of a fictional world. I wonder if writers do their best work when their stories are set in their own most sacred places, whether the Wild West or the wilds of NY’s 5th Avenue. Might a story hold more resonance for the reader if it’s set in a writer’s beloved home ground?

The Little Colorado River on the Navajo Nation, Arizona.

Does setting a story in an inner landscape that mirrors a well-loved outer one add some kind of magic to a story? Flipside: Do the best writers possess the ability to thoroughly resonate their passion regardless of their fictional setting? If so, how do they do that?

“Catfish Paradise” on the Colorado River, border of Arizona and California.

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Home-Grown Fiction

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Weatherford Hotel, Flagstaff. The story: the hotel’s (fictional) owner is a devastated widow who puts heart and soul into the operation, vowing to avoid love. And then he falls for Linda, a humble server with a violent ex who won’t leave her alone….

Here are some images I got in various seasons around Flagstaff, my hometown. I processed most of them via multiple exposures (HDR), which can look fairly whimsical if you’re not real subtle about it. I guess I probably crossed that line here a few times.

Alleyway, Flagstaff. But also the site of a (fictional) murder. The killer leaves behind a single clue, a shattered jar of locally made honey. It’s up to the alcoholic ex-detective who moved here to hide from a failed life to pull himself together and figure this one out, to save his girlfriend, who had a conflict with the victim and just happens to own the town’s only honey shop.

I’m posting these here because a) I’m determined to get to posting again, and b) to explore the notion that there’s a wealth of creative material for fiction right where one lives. Seems like the trend these days in mass-market fiction as well as literature has been to feature exotic locations– which has many fiction writers scrambling to Cuba or Africa or Asia to generate settings for their stories, many of which I imagine could be created much closer to home. I would argue that the human heart gets in and out of drama-worthy conflict with self or others whether the protagonist is saving elephants in Kuala Lumpur or flipping burgers at the backyard BBQ.

El Pueblo Motel, Flagstaff. The tale of a series of itinerant travelers, all with pasts that eventually converge.

This comes to mind as I finish up a long slog on my present novel and start exploring ideas for the next one. (I’ll probably avoid current events and politics next time around. That element has plagued me mightily with this one, which addresses immigration, with things changing so constantly…and now Trump…)

Carnival, Flagstaff. The story of a roustabout and his outre life.

Beaver Creek. An elderly man whom everyone thought was long dead suddenly appears at a campground by a local creek. His story is unbelievable. But…possibly…true.

Elden Trail in winter, Flagstaff. Telemark skiers keep disappearing from the trail. Finally, the police chief’s daughter joins the list, and the only suspect the chief can ID is his wife/best friend/mom….?

I have something of a theme rattling around for the next one, but I’m wondering where to set it. Exotic elements can add flavor to a story (and I do love to travel!), maybe more important than ever for today’s multi-jaded reader (are there still readers?) who is exposed to everything everywhere at all times via our ravenous media culture, from news to reality TV productions set on faraway islands or featuring round-the-world journeys.

Train station, Flagstaff. 80-year-old Sanford J. Smith came to the area as a young man and has worked on the railroad until his recent retirement. The novel is a memoir of his fictional life as it chronicles the history of rail in the region and the U.S.

So…all elements of a story should be interesting, but how crucial is it that this include the story setting, or is the primary source of interest the writer’s ability to conjure deep and meaningful emotions and ideas, regardless of where the story happens (yes, but…there’s more to think about here…) Both, you say? What do you say? If a story can be set anywhere–if the location doesn’t play an irreplaceable part in the theme and/or storyline–is it truly necessary to site a story in some exotic locale? Does that mostly represent gravy for a good tale, or a dodge to prop up a writer’s pedestrian talents? Both? Neither? Depends on the writer? The story? Just asking. Love to hear your thoughts on this.

Oak Creek, night. The story: This one is all yours. There’s water, a canyon inhabited by locals and Sen. John McCain (one of his seven homes). Gotta be a story here.

 

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The Art of Artful Thinking

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“The Age of Maturity or Destiny or The Path of Life or Fatality,” Camille Claudel, circa 1899.

I was rooting around my overstuffed photo stash, looking for a blog, and I hit on a folder of Rodin sculptures that I got at the Museé Rodin in Paris a few years ago, lucky me. One image after another—such beauty and drama, such an expansive view of the human condition. The Thinker, of course, is his iconic work, the naked guy sitting on a Modernist toilet, pondering…uh, no, not a toilet, a big chunk of marble, what was I thinking? Anyway, that’s his biggie, immensely popular because, I guess, we all think, or think we do….

“The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, 1904.

So I’m going through his images—of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, one powerful image he called “The Three Shades,” depicting a tortured version of death that may nor not be accurate—I’ll try to let you know, no promises, or you can let me know—I plan on sticking around for awhile. Each work evokes fictional possibilities, an emotional impact that, for a writer who is listening, might shape itself into a concept, a reality, a story.

Rodin (1840–1917) was hugely prolific, and the museum can easily fill your entire day or more. All this diversity of incredible works, each telling a story, your story if you’re listening. And then…I found the one above, and it seemed particularly swollen with fiction-pulp. And I thought, yes, that’s the ticket.

And then I reviewed my notes and realized this one was actually created by Rodin’s “mistress,” Camille Claudel.

Camille Claudel, 1864–1943.

The work works on many levels. One take: It depicts an aging guy whose mistress reaches out to him as his elderly “lover,” old age, caresses and seduces him. There’s a story here, obviously. But what story? I imagine for a receptive writer it’s a story that’s bouncing around inside you. Not Rodin’s or Claudel’s story, but your own.

The basic concept of the sculpture, as translated by artistic smarties (age pulls the lover away from his young paramour) would be enough to fill a few fat novels, and it has. But when you consider that Camille—Rodin’s much younger lover—created it, abundant new possibilities leap out:  mistress experiencing the angst of knowing her aging lover will soon be taken from her by time. Or maybe the lover’s real wife is pulling him back now, late in his life, that although he and his young lover enjoyed the physical and emotional pull of their semi-illicit relationship (this is France, after all)—not to mention his ego-gratification at having a beautiful young woman who adores him, and hers for a relationship with a world-famous artist—it’s his lifelong relationship with his wife, filled with immeasurable richness, the deep soul-attachment of two who have traveled a long life together, that ultimately wins out as he moves toward the end of his life. Of course, if you want to know their real story, I’m sure there’s a book out there that covers it.

Or does the younger woman claim him? Another twist—who does he end up with? Does he choose the younger woman? Does she then reject him, maybe recognizing the depth of his relationship with his wife? What does that do to her psyche? To his? To his wife’s? Oh, and do the two women know each other? What happens there? Gawd, seems like a story here for sure.

Rodin self-portrait.

On the meta level, what is the writer’s (you) take on this whole business of older man/younger woman as lovers? Of fame and its impacts on emotional relationships? How might you explore the feminist perspectives of this work? Start with a modern, “conventional” notion (of your choice) and then shatter it? Just as real life often overwhelms logic, rationality, decency, politics?

If you’re looking for a subject, you could do worse than to visit an art gallery. It’s all there, every twist and turn, every emotion, every story. Your story.

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Back in the Saddle

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This Streak-backed Oriole has settled into the SE AZ community of Cave Creek for several months. I was fortunate to have a little time during a family visit to Tucson to drive over and eyeball this beauty.

After a long hiatus, I’m going to start posting again on the links between fiction writing, nature and travel. Is anyone still out there? Hope so. To kick things off, I’ll put up several photos of rare birds that have shown up in Arizona over the past year. Please let me know what you think, or take a minute to say hello again, or flame me for whatever…naw, don’t do that last thing, it’s important to be nice. I’d love to hear from you. If you have an idea for a topic I can try to tackle, please let me know about that, too.

And this is Cave Creek.

Here’s a Pine Flycatcher, another rarity from deep in Mexico, that showed up in S. AZ last August. Getting to the bird required a heart-thumping drive until the road gave out, a bike ride until the slope got too steep, and then an eye-crossing climb the rest of the way. Worth every bead of sweat.

This is a Lesser Sand Plover, an Asian bird that inexplicably turned up on the Navajo Nation outside of Flagstaff last October. Lots of rare birds coming in these days. I think because it’s warmer up here. I guess that’s no longer official federal policy, but tell that to the scientists who’ve been studying the issue for decades. Can’t have your own facts.

 

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Green Fiction

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Red-billedPigeons1a

Hello all. I’m going to try something new to overcome my erratic posting habit. I’ll post at least one image as frequently as possible and relate it somehow to fiction-writing and all the other stuff this site is about. Hope this works.

My experience capturing the photo of rare Red-billed Pigeons seems a lot like a well-constructed fiction piece–not exactly earthshaking, but solidly built.

In November I visited South Texas on my regular birding rounds, and one of my target species was this one. To find it (organizing goal/action of story), I had to drive a couple of hours from my usual birding grounds to the town of Laredo, where the birds had been seen on a golf course (driving time, if not abused, can be a good time to develop essential story info–although pondering characters can get ponderous quick). Got there an hour before dark, rented a…golf cart…(story interest, including humor–because birding by golf cart is, to me, just damned funny—middle-story details, focused on goal but ranging a bit, lots of stuff going on, including interactions with golf crowd, other birders, proximity to Mexico and all its drama, and several friendly juvenile Roadrunners who posed with little fear), and started out.

Roadrunner

 

After making the rounds of the grounds for 45 minutes, I still hadn’t located the pigeon (apparent failure, buildup to climax).

However, another birder I’d spoken with earlier had mentioned in passing (plot point slipped into the narrative without, hopefully, excessive foreshadowing) another possibility. So with minutes to spare before dark, I headed to the other side of the sprawling course to Hole #14. Cruised around the area, nothing…more cruising…some Killdeers but that was about it…sun falling fast, ready to give up…and then, just as the sun disappeared and my quest seemed hopeless, there they were in all their drab-plumaged glory, three birds in a little tree I might have missed had my peripheral vision not been tuned into the shape and perching height of the target species—info that would need to go into the story earlier. Goal accomplished, story over.

Not the most riveting tale, but the parts are there. Fiction, like birding, often follows a similar track, I think–an organizing principle in place, accompanied by first-draft-style openness to the experience of the developing story. As Aristotle liked to point out in his geeky Greeky uber-logical manner, every story has a beginning, middle, and end. This one did, too, with a happy ending even.

Birding by golf cart. I could get used to that.

GolfCarts

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Falling into Paradise

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LittleNavajoFalls2

Last weekend (Fri. through Sun.) friends and family took a stroll down to Supai Village at the western end of the Grand Canyon. This was actually no easy walk—22 fairly demanding miles in 48 hours—, but the hike was a delight in itself and the destination was unforgettable. Such a stunning corner of the planet!

Trail&Copter

Having our gear ferried down the canyon by copter was an uncommon luxury—we needed only carry water, snacks and cameras on the hikes in and out. Many, of course, carry everything, though some ship their gear via pack horse, a less-costly alternative that also supplies the village with many of its needed goods.

Trailrider

The hike took us through miles of incomparable beauty, first dropping off a steep cliff and then winding through canyons and washes, and finally over Supai Creek and into the village.

SupaiTrailView

The camp setup was pretty cush. Raised our tents on a shaded lawn behind a store and cafe. Easy access to water and cold drinks, coffee waiting in the morning. More like hotel-camping, and it worked for me. All thanks to the generosity of our hosts, the Yaiva family.

HavasuFalls

The series of waterfalls that grace the canyon, including Havasu Falls above and Little Navajo Falls (first image in this blog), are of course the big draw. But there’s abundant beauty large and small pretty much everywhere you look.

FungusDaturaSkull

The climb to (and from) Mooney Falls requires scaling a sheer cliff to the base of the fall, which plunges 190 feet over the rim and into a lush pool. The path comprises a series of ledges, caves and ladders, with heavy chains dangling along the way for support. Definitely got some hearts racing and added a welcome touch of adventure.

MooneyCliff

MooneyFalls

Our two brief nights in camp were soul-cleansing. Great company, fine music, local stories, including one about a freaky Lizard Man who roams the area. The moon was nearly full—we hiked out one night before the recent Ichorous Moon (“blood moon” in common terminology)—illuminating the massive cliff that towers over Supai Creek. The cliff is home to the King and Queen, twin spires that local legend says must continue standing to ensure the existence of the community.

You should go.

KingAndQueen

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