Writing works best when characters take on lives of their own. They have unique personalities and histories and desires. The drama of their experiences drives their actions and dialogue, and all the writer must do is observe and take notes. I am at that point in my latest story, and I’m pleased to find that not only are my characters alive and active, but the setting has become real, too.
I jotted down a plot point months ago. It was vague and took place in a desert — a generic desert, with as much detail as a washed out postcard from the 70’s.
There was no life there in my outline, just indistinct rocks and cacti and a mountain in the distance. And lots of sand.
I recently entered the world of that plot point. It’s so odd that this place was waiting for me all this time, but it’s only now that I get to experience it. I suppose this had to be earned by exploring and writing out the actions my protagonist chose that led him and his friends here. His mistakes are what give this desert the qualities it needs to be a place of purgatorial consequence, but also a place of hope.
To my surprise, it turns out there is life and richness and color in this desert. The mountain casts shade on a patch of land, squeezing an oasis out of otherwise desolate space.
I didn’t expect this either, but there are things my protagonist enjoys about the desert –the lonely beauty that invites contemplation and mystery. The desert in my story is a place of preparation, but sometimes the preparation itself becomes a sanctuary.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. The desert was a sanctuary for me growing up. I went to Rancho Mirage (just outside of Palm Springs) every Spring Break, Christmas Vacation, and summer from the time I was eight until eighteen years old. In the summer, especially, the heat was punishing. Our activities were planned around avoidance of the hottest part of the day, not that the least scorching parts offered much relief. But I was there to be with my grandparents, Nana and Popa, whom I loved (and love, though they are now absent in the body, present in the Lord).
I grew to love the dark, dark nights and the crickets, even if they accidentally jumped on your exposed sandal-clad feet now and then. I loved the mountains — purple and brown and at higher elevations, tree-topped. They cut the daylight down by an hour, but an hour less of direct sunlight on a summer day is something to be thankful for. More importantly, they carved a cradle out of the Coachella Valley, one lined with oases and green golf courses and extra-LA coolness.
My protagonist’s desert isn’t quite this ideal, and it’s about time for him to move on. The real desert is in his mind, after all. His mistakes are compounding, and he’s realizing there’s no place left to hide. I must be patient. Must keep watching. Must hold onto the hope of my story — that those who make it out of the desert alive have unshakable purpose and strength, the ingredients of a hero.
Still watching. Still writing.