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Writing Prompt: You See a Body of Water ...

Ponce Inlet, Fla., July 28, 2019, sunrise.

Is it a freshwater pond? If so, is the water stagnant and murky, or clear, with light dancing on its surface? Maybe the body of water is a rain-swollen river, frothy and foreboding as it races over hidden boulders. Or, perhaps you imagine a vast, blue ocean, deceptively still at sunrise, until another wave thunders ashore.

Most importantly, writers, how does your fictional character interact with the environment you’ve created for her?

In writing about place, I tend to focus first on the most vivid, tactile description I can muster. I want to immerse readers in how my setting looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and smells. Sometimes, I get so carried away inventing a place that I forget to set my protagonist loose in the environment.

Writers choose particular settings to help drive the plot forward. If hungry, reincarnated dinosaurs are rampaging around a small island prone to sudden monsoon-like rains, no one can escape, heightening tension. In addition, though, how a protagonist engages with her environment reveals her character.

What Happens Next?

Back to our writing prompt –

Now that you’ve clearly imagined a particular body of water, how will your character interact with it? Does she throw a fishing line into it, swim to the far side, or build a bridge using nothing but bamboo shoots and twine she made herself? Why?

Two very different examples of characters interacting with watery environments can be found in Tayari Jones’ Leaving Atlanta, and in Connie May Fowler’s A Million Fragile Bones. Jones’ novel, based on a serial killer who murdered twenty-nine African-American children in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981, reveals the inner lives of three children at risk. Fowler’s heart-breaking memoir documents the environmental as well as personal devastation caused by the Deepwater Horizon / BP oil spill of 2010.

In Leaving Atlanta, Jones places her character Rodney Green into a cool, chlorinated pool at age four to illustrate how the child’s fear of his strict father might make him particularly vulnerable:

“You sank. The water in the motel pool closed over your head like a glass elevator door. You tried to remember the lessons you had just learned. Kick your legs. Cup your hands. Blow bubbles. That’s my boy. But the fake blue water rushed in your nostrils, setting fires in your sinuses, and there was no air with which to cry.”

In A Million Fragile Bones, Fowler weaves together her memories of childhood abuse with wrenchingly beautiful descriptions of the seaside oasis that became her salvation in adulthood. The connection between the author / protagonist and the environment is clearly drawn up front. Immersive scenes like this one tell us much about the narrator:

“My skirt hitched up, I stand knee-deep in the Gulf. The surf is calm today, the water clear with vast stretches of turquoise and teal. The twenty-seven brown pelicans have flown beyond my line of sight … Beyond the languid breakers, a dolphin and her calf meander westward. Their pace is slow, casual, as if this is a day free of tribulations. Something rubs against my leg, catlike, and moves on. Nurse shark? Maybe. I do not bolt. In fact, I will it to return.”

This morning, my daughter Caroline called from Nepal, where she serves in the Peace Corps. She’s working on a new essay called “Mud in the Earth.” Taking inspiration from Nepal’s monsoon season, the piece will also include reflections on her personal journey. (I hope Caroline might be able to attend one of Connie’s writing conferences someday.)

As for me? I’ve been eyeballing the ocean since dawn. Think I’ll go jump into it.

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