A recent article in a newspaper about the raw splendor of Death Valley caught my eye. It was written by a travel editor, consistently wonderful journalists who always seem to write sensationally (and I mean they appeal to the senses). I loved the many unconventional word choices the author used to describe the lowest, hottest, driest stretch of land in North America.
A caption for one of the photos was especially yummy and I yanked it out to show to the writers group I mentor. The writer had chosen an adjective to describe the heat of a summer day in Death Valley and I liked the choice so much I instructed the aspiring writers to guess what it was.
Probable choices began to fly around the table. Scorching. Sweltering. Roasting. I encouraged them to continue. Conventional words aren’t usually yummy. Oppressive, said one. Rippling, one said another. Yes. Now we’re getting somewhere. Why would we want to come to Death Valley now, in early spring, rather than July or August, when vacation time is more common? Because the heat is fierce. It is suffocating. It is blinding.
It is punishing.
That was the word in the article. Punishing. The punishing heat of a summer day in Death Valley is all the motivation you need to come see its stark beauty now instead of three months from now.
You know why that word works, I said? Because it’s not a word one usually uses to describe heat. It’s outside the common. That makes it different. Memorable. Yummy.
I encouraged them to find adjectives like that for their own writing or leave them out altogether. How do you find a word like that? they said. Well, you start with the obvious and work your way out and you keep going out until you nab it. “Sweltering” is only for describing heat. “Oppressive” on the other hand, is the first step toward a better adjective. Heat can be oppressive, but so can a dictator and poverty and a really bad parent.
Think outside the box. Or better yet, just consider that the box is actually much larger than you thought it was. . . Plunge your hand in deep.