The Mystery of Mystery

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By Karen Wills

My adored one and I have been discussing elements most found in best-loved fiction. We came up with the following: mystery, conflict, suspense, doubt, implied or real sex, implied or real violence, and resolution.

Mystery to me is that haunting element in a character, situation, place, or series of events that eludes easy explanation. It’s the thing that keeps us reading to grasp or comprehend. We don’t want to be hopelessly mystified. We do want to be endlessly intrigued. It’s why we want to talk about the book afterwards with other readers. It’s something that made an internal shift in our thinking and feeling and awareness. My mystery is an element, not a genre centered on crime and murders. The mystery I mean can exist in any genre.

It is to literature what outer space is to the physical world.

 

For example, how could Lonesome Dove’s Woodrow Call refuse to ever acknowledge Newt as his son? Yes, Call is stiff necked and proud, but this has to do with a paralyzing personal reticence. Where did it come from? And what about the fairy tale element in Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See? Fairy tales always have mystery.

Mystery isn’t magic realism, because the explanation for that is that it’s, you know, plain old magic, and so we don’t have to think and search for explanation. Likewise with reports of religious miracles where the conclusion will always be that God caused them. End of story.

Poetry always has mystery, so perhaps poetic writing, prose with metaphors and similes that reveal amazing connections, has it. A deep connection to nature or any passion may have it.

Mystery is delightfully hard to pin down, but think about your favorite books.

I’ll bet they have at least a little tantalizing mystery.

Leaving My Camera at Home

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I have nothing against photographs. They enrich our memories, our knowledge of nature and the world of people, they can make us laugh or weep or take action or be silent in appreciation. One photograph can tell a story whole. Walls in our home are more filled with photographs than paintings, although there are plenty of both.

But when I go hiking in Glacier National Park, I leave the camera at home. I am a writer. I started leaving the camera behind and carrying a small notebook and pen in my pack to force myself to stretch to convey in words accurate pictures of natural scenes peaceful as a doe in a meadow nursing her spotted fawn, powerful as spring waterfalls, or grand as mountain vistas.

Tennyson’s poem, The Eagle: A Fragment, started me on this. When I was young, the poet brought me up short with the eagle watching “from his mountain walls” as “The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls.” I saw the ocean exactly and at once as the raptor did. So I search for the right metaphor, simile, or descriptive phrase. I take it home and try to fit it like a jigsaw piece in the perfect empty space in my writing to complete something that includes shape and shading, like a memorable photograph, but in words. I dream of giving my readers the rare and magical gift of eagle sight.