Thursday, February 16, 2012

Let's go for a walk... Part 4: The Otter

A couple of weeks ago, while out walking the dog, I saw an otter. Now, this isn't the first otter I've seen, but, the first time I saw one, it was not very close, not close enough that I could tell definitively that it was an otter, in fact, and it was kind of small. It was neat but not impressive.

This last one, though... it was both neat and impressive. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me. Not that it really would have mattered, because my camera is slow and doesn't like to take pictures of things that are moving. It was swimming downstream and toward me, and it was pretty big. As it approached, it suddenly dived, and I thought, "oh, well... that was pretty cool." But it surfaced just even with me and came to the shore of the creek to eat whatever it had caught. It was, maybe, 25 feet away. Close enough that I could hear its little jaws crunching whatever it was that it was eating. When it finished, it swam back out into the flow of the water and continued on downstream, occasionally diving, but it never banked itself to eat again while I could still see it.

As I was watching it, it occurred to me that it's events like this that make reading worthwhile. It's the injection of the unexpected into a story that makes us want to keep reading. Now, it's not that I didn't already know this, but I'd never thought about it in exactly this way before. I mean, we all know that no one wants to read about everyday life if that's all there is to it.

See, I walk the creek path everyday. It's beautiful. Really. But I do it everyday. It's not that it gets old, exactly, because I like to watch the water while the dog is doing her... well, taking care of her business. Which includes digging for gophers; although, she has yet to catch one. However, it does tend to be just the same old, same old. Things like the otter, though, remind me to keep my eyes open and pay attention to my surroundings. There are often neat little things to see. Like the hawk that landed on a branch just over the heads of my son and I. It was completely framed by the other branches around it so that it stood in a patch of sky with the full moon (it was daytime, though) back behind it. You couldn't have planned a better picture (and I did have my camera with me, but, by the time I got it out, the bird flew away).

Anyway, what I'm saying is that it's important, incredibly important, to ground your writing in the real. Or the realistic. You want it to be believable. In the midst of that, though, you want to toss in bits and bites of the unexpected. It doesn't matter how beautiful your writing is if it's just about the mundane. However, it doesn't matter how much of the unexpected you throw into your stories if they're not believable. Really, it's like adding salt to your food. Just enough to make it tasty but not so much that it ruins the flavor of whatever you're eating.

And there's your writing tip from the creek...


  1. "It doesn't matter how beautiful your writing is if it's just about the mundane"

    That's good advice for some "literary" writers. Some writers can write really beautiful descriptions but their stories are so dull it's tempting to quit reading. Or just the characters do nothing at all of interest.

  2. I love moments like that. The other day, I pulled into our driveway (it's a few hundred yards long) and looked to the left. There, right in the middle of some evergreen brush, was the brightest Cardinal I'd ever seen. Brilliant red against the green and closer than I'd ever been to one.

    Great advice about writing, too. Some of my favorite books either place everyday elements in the most bizarre settings or put a bizarre detail right in the middle of the every day.

  3. What if I use pepper instead of salt?
    Understand - it's the routine stuff that grows boring, dressed up or not.
    Cool to see the otter!

  4. I agree, man. It never gets old wandering through nature. When I used to live in Boulder, I'd walk either the creek bed or the foothills almost daily. Fan-freaking-tastic inspiration for stories. Even though you walk the same path, you never see precisely the same things twice.

  5. You had me at Gophers - I always thought they were made up creatures.

  6. This made me realize I really need to get out more, into nature. Oh, and, what if we add a little Tony's Chachere's to our writing? That oughtta really spice things up, eh? ;)

    All right, jokes aside, VERY good observation on beautiful writing versus the mundane versus adding stuff just to add... well, stuff. A healthy balance is always in order, no matter what you write. Great post. :)

  7. So true. I also think that the water motif in your story makes one think of things that are always in motion and constantly changing depending on which day you view them.

    Andrew, please consider removing the annoying captcha phrase thing required to comment on your blog.

  8. Grumpy: Yeah... I get that there are some people who really want to "keep it real," but, at that point, why bother? It can't be any more fun to write it than it is to read it.

    Sarah: I haven't seen a cardinal in ages. They were around all the time when I was a kid in LA. Those and bluejays.

    Alex: I suppose I can give you a pass for pepper.

    ABftS: Yep! Yep! I didn't realize how much I missed all that until we moved.

    Sarah P: I bet farmers wish they were made up. heh
    My father-in-law's dog caught one in their backyard a few weeks ago.

    Alyssia: Um... that joke went right over my head. I'll have to go look that up now! Darn you! :P

    Michael: The water is awesome... I love the creek. Yesterday, I saw a soccer ball floating along.

    I didn't realize I had it on. Theoretically, I've turned it off, but there have been some things on blogger that haven't been working, lately, so I have no idea (since I can't see it on my own blog anyway (which is why I didn't know it was on)).

  9. Every time I hear someone say something about something unexpected in a story I think to Monty Python's Life of Brian. When the hero falls off the tower and the spaceship comes out of nowhere and he spends a few moments in the midst of some alien war before being deposited safely back on earth, then the story just picks right back up like nothing ever happened.

    A wee bit unexpected.

  10. Rusty: heh
    I haven't seen that movie in sooo long. I need to watch it again. Monty Python is full of that stuff, though, like in Holy Grail when the animator dies.