Research and imagination can let the walls — and animals and plants — talk
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BY SHELBY GONZALEZ
If walls could talk, how would they describe the history of a park’s CCC cabins?
If a Chinook salmon could pipe up at a fisheries management meeting, what would it add to the conversation?
What does the world look — and smell and sound and taste — like through the eyes of a wolf?
Using a perspective fashioned from research and imagination can freshen a less-than-fascinating story or enrich an already-interesting one. While my examples come from outdoor writing, you could just as easily deploy the technique in other niches.
Imagined perspectives work well as leads because they are intriguing. You can use second- or third-person point of view. For example, here’s the second-person beginning of a story I did years ago for Minnesota Trails Magazine on plant restoration in Tettegouche State Park:
“The year is 1979. You are a plant, one of the many that cling to the top of a rocky headland called Shovel Point. Below you, cliffs of volcanic rhyolite plunge a hundred feet into Lake Superior.
“Life isn’t bad, all things considered. Sure, the icy wind, long winter and thin soil make things tough sometimes, but it’s nothing you aren’t genetically prepared to handle. Most other plants of your type live on the tundra.
“Besides, the view is amazing.
“Unfortunately, that view poses a threat to you and your clifftop companions. Your genes are no match for the camera-wielding hordes that will soon invade your home.
“This year — 1979 — legislation creates a new state park from 9,346 acres of land, including Shovel Point. The new park is called Tettegouche, after the Tettegouche Club, a businessman’s association that had previously owned and protected the land … ”
Now, the tone here is more playful than many publications prefer. Sometimes lightheartedness isn’t appropriate, either because of the publication or the subject. You can still use this technique.
I was captivated by the following passage from “The Beast in the Garden” by David Baron. The book tells the story of the return of mountain lions to the Boulder, Colo., area. (If you haven’t read this impressive, poetic piece of outdoor journalism, do yourself a favor and buy it.)
“As Boulderites trimmed trees and wrapped gifts on the weekend before Christmas in 1987, a pair of unseen eyes watched the city from above. The eys glowed bright amber, but they saw the world in subdued and impoverished color. Through them, the rolling hills of ponderosa pine looked more buttermilk than olive, the sky more robin’s egg than cerulean. The creature was red-green color-blind, its eyes designed for night vision. To the animal, the scene looked grainy and muted, like an antique photograph of the Rockies hand-tinted in pastel shades of blue and yellow … ”
Note the depth of Baron’s research and the precision of his word choices. He goes on to describe the animal’s path — his mention of the animal passing “a knob of weather-worn granite” reinforces my impression that this man did his homework — tracks, scat, claws, view from Eldorado Canyon, and ways of marking its territory. Talk about looking through someone else’s eyes!
How to use imagined perspectives:
1. Choose your subject. Mountain, mouse, fog bank, lake—the subjects you can give voice to are limited only by your imagination (and your assignment).
2. Research its perspective. Depending upon the subject and the article, you may wish to research the subject’s history, sensory capacities, feeding habits or life cycle.
3. Start writing. Remember to use more than just the sense of sight. ♦
—Shelby Gonzalez recently joined the Cook County Visitors Bureau staff as marketing manager. An OWAA member and former rock climbing instructor, her work has been featured in the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners” and dozens of publications. This article originally appeared on her blog, found at www.shelbygonzalez.com.