I’m honored to have my story “War and Murder at Nimrod Hall” in the anthology. My story is set at historic Nimrod Hall. Over on the Virginia is for Mysteries blog, I shared how Nimrod Hall inspired me.
I can’t imagine a writer without some tools of the trade, even if those are only a good dictionary and a thesaurus, preferably a good manual of style as well.
Most of us have much more than the basics, however. I often set stories in times that are not now. Therefore, in order to get the details needed to enrich the prose and draw the reader into the period, I often rely on bits of dialogue about what something costs, or what’s being eaten or worn.
A few of my favorite references
For the cost of things, I turn first to The Value of a Dollar.
The most recent volume is 1860-2014, and new it costs $155. I first came across this book in the reference section of a library in Clifton Forge, VA, when I was researching my novel Nettie’s Books, which is set 1930-1935. I was delighted to learn that ham was 8¢ a pound back then, and that Sears was selling 25 Hershey’s 5¢ Almond Bars for $1. I wanted that book! The price of a new one was prohibitive, but by dropping back to the previous edition (pictured above), it was very reasonable. Indeed, I just ordered the one that covers 1860-2009 for $7.91 plus shipping.
As you know from other parts of this website, I collect cookbooks. But I also collect food reference books for writing, such as the two pictured here.
Being able to put waffle irons, Kool-Ade, Spam, and Jiffy Biscuit Mix in the right period is highly tempting! Among other things, such references may trigger childhood memories for readers and help draw them in.
In addition, I find it very helpful to have good references for popular culture and slang. In fact, I have several of each. I often write stories set in Appalachia some decades past, when saying an overweight woman wears clothes so tight she looks like ten pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack can create just the right vivid image of the woman in question as well as giving insight into the speaker. A character saying, “What a hoot!” is clearly older than the one who says, “Whatever.” The two books pictured here are rather specialized ones, but more comprehensive options are readily available both new and used.
I revel in dipping into these and other references even when I’m not researching a particular writing project. Some of my favorites don’t fall into any of the above categories, but they are great stimulants to striving for better, richer language.
I was a reader before I was a writer (weren’t we all?) and for me, these are great reads! Advice to writers: choose research and writing tools you can enjoy.
What is at stake for your character(s)? If nothing important is at risk, why should the reader care what happens? Why read on?
Virtually everything has a dark side. Finding it is well worth a writer’s time. One of the maxims for writing tension and conflict is to make a situation bad and then make it worse.If you can do this in an unexpected way, so much the better.
For example, a single strand of hair can tell scientists not only a person’s gender and ethnicity but also where s/he lives, what’s been eaten, and whether the person has been taking drugs or ingesting arsenic. Hair grows up to .02 inches (.5 mm) every day, so the record can extend over several months and tell not only what but when!
For another example, consider deadly diamonds. Commercial services are available to extract carbon from cremated human remains and turn it into a diamond using intense pressure and high heat. Up to 100 diamonds can be made from a single dead body. Consider the possibilities! Is it love? Or is it a way of flaunting the fact that she got away with murder? What if the dead body was the murderer and someone decides to present a diamond to the family of each of the victims?
If you think about it, you could find a dark side to the Air Guitar World Championships (September in Oulu, Finland) or the Woolly Worm Festival (October in Banner Elk, North Carolina).
What? You say your character is already starving? So, have him stumble into a potato field and eat green potatoes, sprouts, stems and leaves—which contain poisons that can be lethal. (Potatoes, like tomatoes, are members of the deadly nightshade family.) Bottom line: find the darkest side and make it even darker.
“Writer” probably isn’t the first word you associate with Julia Child, although she authored or coauthored eighteen books. The success of “The French Chef” launched a whole genre of TV shows about cooking. If you visit the PBS website, you can find an alphabetical listing of cooking shows on Public Television. I counted 50 from letters P through Z!
Overstating the breadth and depth of Julia Child’s influence—both culinary and cultural—would be difficult as sprinting up Mt Everest! Her kitchen identity is French, complete with butter, cream, cheese, and eggs, and yet vegan chef and restauranteur Miyoko Schinner acknowledges her debt to Julia Child and Mastering The Art of French Cooking.
Heads up, writers!
Julia Child’s reach would have been much more limited if not for her personality. She was witty, appealing, with distinctive voice and body language. Your assignment: go on-line to view clips of her slapping the poultry around and rattling off one-liners, and then capture her in written words! And when you create characters for your stories, try to make them as compelling and vivid as Julia Child.
Everyone has a body image. It’s how you feel about your body and all its parts as well as how you think other people view you. Body image isn’t something you’re born with, but you acquire one pretty early on—starting with what family and friends say and do, and then from how what you see in the mirror compares to what you see reflected in the media and what your culture values.
People who accept the way they look and feel good about their bodies (most of the time) have positive body images. Beyond looks, body image is related to how you feel physically and what your body can do. Some say that a positive body image must also reflect reality. Consider whether this is what you want for your character(s).
It might be effective to have a serious body defect and/or distortion of perception. Interesting (to me) is that research indicates that (1) women of all ethnic groups have more issues with body image than men do, (2) women think men are attracted to thinner ideals than men actually are, and (3) men think women are more attracted to more muscular body builds than women actually are. In the extreme, distorted body images are associated with anorexia, bulimia, and exercise disorders. As a writer, consider the value of misery!
Although body image tends to be established early and to solidify during adolescence, it isn’t static. Artist’s self-portraits often reveal a great deal about how they view themselves at a given time. Consider these two self-portraits by the same artist, two years apart. What seems to have happened to body image?
I recently wrote a memoirin which I mentioned illness turning me into a person I never meant to be. All sorts of trauma can have that effect. Think of the opportunities!
Of course, we seldom live au naturel. Men have haircuts and facial hair, maybe lifts in their shoes, and other bits for more adventuresome tweaks—maybe hair transplants. Women, on the other hand, have haircuts and hair color, corsets or Spanx, shoe choices and jewelry, makeup, and all manner of accessories. In the extreme (my judgment), they go for tummy tucks, face lifts, breast augmentation (sometimes reduction) and so forth. What about your character? Recently, in the US, tattoos have been coming into their own. I was surprised recently to learn that Richmond, VA, is one of the most tattooed cities in the country.
Would your character get a tattoo? Why or why not? Where? What? Under what circumstances? Is the tattoo public or private?
I’ve never been a fan of February. For one thing, the weather can be all over the place. And then there’s the question of whether to pronounce that middle R. As far as I am concerned, the best thing about February is that the days are getting longer.
But in all fairness, I must admit that many people and organizations feel otherwise. February, in fact, is a very popular month. You can celebrate any of the following for the entire 28 days.
American Heart Month
An Affair to Remember Month (Is there any other kind of affair??)
Black History Month—more widely celebrated than any of the others
Canned Food Month
Creative Romance Month
Great American Pie Month
National Cherry Month
National Children’s Dental Health Month
National Grapefruit Month
National Weddings Month—which is odd, given that February is one of the least popular wedding months. (The most popular is June, followed by August, September, and October.)
If—for some reason—you prefer weekly celebrations, the 3rd week in February is International Flirting Week. And FYI, the internet makes international flirtations available to virtually everyone.
February Writing Prompt
Your assignment is to write a story involving as many of the romantic aspects of February as you can work in: an affair, creative romance, Valentine’s Day, an international flirtation, and/or a wedding!
Alternatively, write an essay on the theme of why any of these things should be tagged to February!
When I was reading about snow for my blog of XXX, a number of non-snow tidbits caught my eye. Whether any of these make it into your writing or not is up to you!
In “Love and Lust Are Seasonal,” Jane J. Lee reported that men rated pictures of women’s breasts and bodies as more attractive in the winter months, although they rated pictures of women’s faces the same. Could it be that men don’t see women’s bodies as much during the winter, and so are more excited when they do?
“Have Your Hottest Sex Ever This Winter” (Men’s Health, 2014) claims that cold weather dulls sexual sensations, and cooler body temperatures decrease arousal for both men and women.
Winter cold increases a person’s appetite which can, in turn, lower libido. One more reason to diet: weight gain decreases libido and makes both men and women less sexually adventuresome.
Men’s Health also reported that women are 30% more likely to have an orgasm if their feet are warm. This one may be a tough sell. At a dinner party discussion among young married couples about wearing socks to bed, the men were unanimous in declaring that no matter what else is (or isn’t) worn, socks are not sexy! (A social scientist would call this a sample of convenience.)
Google searches for porn, boobs, XXX, massage parlor, e-Harmony andMatch.com all peak in early summer and around the winter holidays.
More than twice as many condoms are sold in the week before Christmas than the week after.
Even so, the most frequent birthday in the United States is September 16. You do the math. Conversely, August has the fewest conceptions. (Summer heat kills sperm? The diurnal cycle affects ovary function?)
Who knew winter is the season for sex!
A final word of warning: Compared to other times of the year, couples are more than twice as likely to think about splitting up between the year-end holidays and Valentine’s Day.