October 17, 2011

imagination required

This weekend, my husband and I went camping on Petit Jean Mountain with my dad and his girlfriend. I’ve been going there every year since before I could walk. Check out my amateur photography!

One of the park’s interesting features is the collection of strangely shaped rocks, as part of a trail leading to a cave. They’re aptly named the turtle rocks. [Note: I did not take this picture.]

I have seen these rocks at least once a year for my entire life. I don’t know what my first cognitive thought of the rocks was, but I imagine that I believed that giant turtles had turned to stone at some point. Over time, I came to accept the turtle rocks as interestingly shaped rocks and nothing more.

But on this last trip, not only did I reevaluate previous speculations, I came up with a bit of mythology while we trekked up the mountain back to the trailhead.

You see, the rocks aren’t stone turtles. No. They’re dragon turtles. I actually came up with a short history from the point of view of an unnamed, unknown character.

The turtle rocks have been in the valley as long as my people can remember. The elders say that before man came to be, the dragon turtles ruled the world. They created the mountains, valleys, fields, rivers, and oceans. They breathed life into the world, making the fish, birds, and land animals. And for a time the world was at peace.

But then father sky, the great gold dragon decided that the dragon turtles had not finished the world. It was incomplete. He ordered his children to create a lifeform to rule the others. 

So the dragon turtles created man. And the peace continued. But soon, man began to fear the dragon turtles. They made enemies of father sky and mother earth and waged war on their creators. Unable to watch their children suffer, the sky dragon and the great earth turtle led the dragon turtles to the deepest valley in the world, and mother earth took her children into her embrace.

The dragon turtles sleep, but the elders say that they will rise again; when man has forgotten of mother earth and father sky, the dragon turtles will rise and eat the world.

So they say. I only see rocks, rocks that look like turtles. Nothing more. The rest is just a fairy tale.

Just letting my imagination run wild, I came up with an interesting character and a creation myth, using a familiar landmark. I had never considered the turtle rocks anything special because they were so familiar. When other people would speculate on how the rocks were created, I only thought, They’re just rocks. Big deal. But by letting that familiarity go, and asking the big questions, I came up with my own story of how they were made.

In retrospect, most of my story ideas come from something small, usually mundane. By letting my imagination play with those seemingly unimportant details, I’ve come up with interesting story elements, if not entire stories.

I’ve written short stories about a monster publicist who works for celebrities like Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, a curious bogie obsessed with butterscotch candies, a husband who becomes Bigfoot after using Rogaine as body wash, a pink-and-purple paisley print unicorn bought at a flea market, and other silly tales. All of these I got from asking What if…? What if there was a publicist that specialized in modernizing classic monsters? What if there are invisible bogies hiding in the folds of our curtains? What if someone used Rogaine as body wash? What if someone found a live unicorn at a flea market?  

If I hadn’t asked these questions, these stories would not exist. If I hadn’t let my imagination wander, I never would have thought of these characters or settings. If I just accepted things as they are, how boring my life would be. I’m constantly questioning reality, and I think that makes me a good writer, accepting my imagination and letting it decide what’s really going on.

Diana Wynne Jones was a master at taking simple ideas and creating magical novels with them. She got the idea for Howl’s Moving Castle from a boy who asked her to write a novel about a moving castle and the idea for The House of Many Ways from a friend who complained that her laundry always seemed to multiply if she left it alone for too long.

It takes a big imagination and a lot of skill to be a writer, especially a fantasy and science fiction writer. Sometimes, it blows my mind to think of all the things that exist in a writer’s mind. Tolkien had all of Middle Earth in his head. Lewis had Narnia. Rowling has Hogwarts. Martin has Westeros and Essos. Jones had countless fantasy worlds.

And I have Chroniker City—an entire city floating around in my head, fully populated and mechanized.

Writers have entire worlds, entire civilizations, and the histories of each at their disposal. It’s amazing what our brains can do. But without imagination, none of those worlds would be possible. We wouldn’t think beyond what we know. We wouldn’t question reality. How boring that would be. As far as I’m concerned, I’m glad that our brains are so mind-bogglingly awesome, and I’m happy having such a vivid imagination.

What about you? Have you ever come up with a story using a mundane or seemingly unimportant detail? Do you make up stories on the go, pretending to live in a different world? Or am I the only one?


  1. Lovely pictures! And yes, it take a lot of imagination to be a writer!

  2. Love those pictures. It has been a very long time since I've been home to Arkansas to see those mountains.
    And no, you are not alone. I actually added a Crystal Light packet to my bottle of water and it prompted a dystopian story to form in my head.

  3. Beautiful pictures! I do the same thing, living in half-imagined worlds :) And unique and beautiful landscapes conjure stories best of all!