Gush, drip, bubble, flow: water metaphors

I use a lot of water imagery (and actual water) in my writing, and it seems worthwhile (at least to me) to examine why. Expressing ourselves with aqueous language is likely instinctual; water’s an element (in the old sense), seeping and simmering in the depths of the human mind, calling attention to itself. It’s more noticeable than air and earth and more common than fire, and we all need it. Water metaphors are the first I reach for in many cases. They flow easily. They bubble up.

I confess that despite having written four books full of water metaphors that are in some cases thematically central (time seen as rivers and streams and trickles of possibility, etc.), I hadn’t thought about taking any advantage of that until, while putting together my website this past fall, I realized that it would be handy to name my series, and then after floundering awhile had the cold-splash-in-the-face moment when I recognized that “Waters of Time” was the perfect title. (The phrase itself doesn’t get used until the third book, but it’s there in spirit all along.) So it is possible now that people will go looking for water in the books, and they will find it, both literally (the English Channel, the canals of Amsterdam, Boston Harbor, etc.) and in many other ways, including in my protagonists’ names. I believe that when I named Olivia Lake and George Merrill I was thinking about the contrasts between lakes and seas (French la mer, the sea) and how they represent personalities. (As mentioned in Time and Fevers, George’s surname may instead be derived from merle, French for blackbird. Birds are another recurring element in the books, and I’ll be sure to do a post after Time Goes By is published about all the avian serendipity.) Water is also there in dream imagery, in the stories characters remember and tell, in jokes and puns, and especially in the words I choose to express thought and emotion.

What does water do, after all? It gushes and drips and babbles and spurts and roars, and feels much the same as when we’re being teased and battered and caressed by feelings. It just seems very natural to use water-words to say someone is floating serenely or being tossed on waves of sensation; it’s near-universal, and understandable at a gut level. I use plant imagery sometimes too, and enjoy doing so, but I know that not everyone thinks about plants and how they work on a daily basis; we really can’t help thinking about water. And it’s got some fundamental cultural associations: pretty much the first thing I do in the series is plunge George into cold water, which may not be a literal baptism but expresses something much older about change and development and perhaps the way in which we all emerge from water (or at least liquid) to evolve, to be born. Olivia gets a similar moment later in Time for Tea (though since she has more sense, I don’t need to do it to her quite so often. George gets dunked over and over). And water’s both life-giving and life-taking; the dangers of water are implicit throughout the books too. You can drown in love, or in anger, and you can actually drown; you can also die from lack of water, and deserts show up here and there too.

I find tracking imagery in writers’ works tremendous fun (I once made a list of all the animal-related expressions in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series) and I’m amused at how many places I put water stuff in my books, frequently not on purpose. Once I start noticing, it’s everywhere: all that English rain; Olivia’s father’s joke about Minnesota having had ten thousand lakes but now it only has three; George’s mini-pilgrimage to fetch water in the second chapter of Time and Fevers; the number of coasts and beaches my characters frequent; tales of fishermen and sailors; Twelfth Night, which starts with a shipwreck. I’m not likely to stop using this form of imagery anytime soon; the river will keep on flowing, one might say – come on in and join me, the water’s fine.


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