Fog thick as chainmail hides the Quincy No. 2 Shaft-Rockhouse from view. Earlier, temperatures rose to summer peak levels, and I planted most of my seedlings, sweating and swatting mosquitos. Lady Lake Superior must have fussed in some way because now I’m in a cloak of moisture I need a sword to cut through. Too hot, too fast, I’m thinking, and the Lake’s cold waters rebelled. It’s both disconcerting and fascinating to think that the lake controls the weather, not the other way around.
As a writer, I seek contradictions.
Driving past the Quincy Mine, I lose all concept of time and season. My radio says it’s “top of the hour, 3 p.m.” My head thinks nightfall. I’m dressed for summer but have a chill. I begin to play a word association game as I drive out to Boston Location where my daughter lives (because I also seek more seedlings). The game goes like this — pair two things that don’t go together. Champagne and hard-rock. Rosemary and sewage. Duck down and firecrackers. Sleep and square-dancing.
Contradictions make us pause. In writing, they can lead somewhere. Where, well, I don’t know, you have to follow. That’s the fun of exploring opposition — it’s new territory you get to make up. You can create sensory contradictions based on touch, taste, smell, or sound. It’s like clashing colors. What can you make of the awful pairing lavender and sewage? Maybe a story begins with receding sewage after a flood, and an old woman recovers her prized lavender bush. Or maybe a street chef introduces a new rosemary delight on the streets of NYC and sales rise despite the wafting smell of city sewage below.
Or you can mix it up — pair something hard to something that tastes sweet like a two-by-four and cotton candy, concrete, and peppermint ice cream, or a steel door and licorice. You can pair actions — waltzing and milking cows, yachting and digging ditches, or weaving and kite-running. Do you notice your mind pondering the differences, trying to find connections? That’s the key. Your mind might say these things don’t go together,, but it will also try to figure out how they could. Your task as a writer is to find a story to tell who did what somewhere. Contrast gives you clues.
This word game I play started out as a cliche buster. Back in the ’90s, I set up the challenge to eradicate cliches in my writing. The idea was to rethink a cliche. For example, if a character was as excited as a kid in a candy shop, how could I deconstruct the cliche and rebuild a fresh analogy? That’s when I began to take notice that I could come up with clever ideas by finding contrasts rather than comparisons. What contrasts with kid? A hummingbird, a hermit crab, a gangster. What would excite each? Like a hummingbird in a petunia; a hermit crab in a bronze shell; a gangster in a Coupé de Ville.
You can do the reverse finding something that doesn’t go with a candy shop. A mall, a mineshaft, a root cellar. Who would be excited to be in such places? Like a shoe addict in a mall; a spelunker in a mineshaft; a raccoon in a root cellar. Playing the contrast word game gives you an endless supply of possibilities.
Go ahead and write cliches when you draft because they point to emotions. Later, read through and flag them for revision, clarifying the purpose of each cliche (to show excitement, for example). Think about the situation your character is in and fit the tone. A kid in a candy shop is lighthearted. A raccoon in a root cellar might be destructive. A spelunker in a mineshaft might signal an adrenaline rush. Better yet, try to fit your setting. A raccoon in a root cellar would fit a country setting, but it could also produce humor in a cityscape. A spelunker in a mineshaft fits particular regions.
Cliches came up this week in my studies. We are going into finals already, and my thesis submission of 15,000 words is due in two weeks. I have to get my current Contemporary Fiction course professor to sign off on my readiness. He’s been rapid-firing different craft elements at us for eight weeks, along with a few extra optional lessons. He’s tough (and determined I learn perfect past tense and). Nothing slides past him. When he gave the optional cliche assignment, I thought of my cliche buster trick.
That’s how I came to be driving to Boston Location pairing words that don’t match up. Like fog thick as chainmail. What else could be thick (other than the cliched pea soup)? Poor-rock, cowboy coffee, cast-iron, a Harry Potter Book. Some of those words don’t feel right. Pea soup has a murkiness too it. A Harry Potter Book creates no connection. Interestingly, cast iron and chain mail fit the metallic feel I wanted to impart to the fog.
Wordsmithing is part of what we do. This week we are going to create our own prompts by pairing two contradictions. I’ve held similar challenges in the past, and it’s one we will do again.
A few ranching updates — on Mondays, D. Avery’s Ranch Yarns have come to life at the Saddle Up Saloon. It’s like one of those places where everyone knows your name with a western flair. It’s also a place where characters get to have their say. If you want Kid and Pal to converse with you in a skit, or interact with one of your characters, send her an email: email@example.com. It’s meant to be a fun gathering place for writers.
On Tuesdays, we have a line up of eight columnists who have varying topics of interest. Follow H.R.R. Gorman for history, Anne Goodwin for what to read, Bill Engleson for what old films to watch, Ann Edall-Robson for recalling the pioneers of the past, Susan Sleggs for veteran stories, Norah Colvin for activities to do with young children, Sherri Matthews for a memoirist’s look at those who help others, and Ruchira Khanna for healing through writing.
If you want to hang out with other Carrot Ranchers from the virtual community and from World Headquarters in Hancock, Michigan, join me on Facebook in a private group. I’ve been excited (as a blue heron in frog pond) to connect writers from the Keweenaw to writers from around the world. You can participate as little or as much as you’d like. On Mondays, we set goals; Tuesdays we share anything of interest to the group; Wednesdays we open up to questions and answers; Thursdays have been intermittent video readings; Fridays is game day. Because it’s a private group, you do need to ask to join and answer one question (so I know you are affiliated with Carrot Ranch as a writer, reader or lurker). Join up at Carrot Ranchers.
The idea for these new features and a FB group at Carrot Ranch came from a need to keep the writing community engaged during the uncertainties of a global pandemic. I hope you will interact with the columnists and reach out to D. to be counted at the Saloon. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know we will be writing into it. Stay connected, stay creative, and stay safe!
May 28, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using two words that contradict. Examples include champagne and hard-rock; rosemary and sewage; duck down and firecrackers; sleep and square-dancing. Use one of these or make up your own. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by June 2, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Moon Dust and Boat Wood by Charli Mills
Two young star-gazers giggle, floating on boat wood lashed into a stationary raft. Papa salvaged the lumber from a shipwreck on the beach, tethered it to the edge of the pond. On his one night off, he’d settle with them, tracing stars in the sky. A full lunar light beams overhead, dimming the Milky Way and illuminating the rock house that towers above the miners’ homes and woods. The girls wait for Papa to emerge from the trail to the mines, repeating constellations he taught them. They open their mouths to moon dust floating downward. It tastes like copper.