People have long recognized the eye-of-the-beholder effect with regard to beauty, to the point that it’s a cliché. We’ve all heard jokes that leave us cold—but leave others doubled over with laughter—or vice versa. Writers are well aware that what’s publishable depends more on the evaluation of the editor/agent/publisher than the inherent qualities of the work.
So, apply that same awareness to motivation. We cannot know motivation directly. We can see what a person does, hear what a person says. These are two of the most common, most powerful sources of information.
Sometimes we have other sensory information, meaning touch, taste, or smell. Sometimes the information accumulates over time, perhaps years, and we feel we truly know someone.
But the bottom line is that we cannot know another from the inside. And that means room for interpretation. How we evaluate a specific behavior (physical or verbal) depends almost exclusively on why we think the person did it.
Writing Prompt: Characters’ Motivations
So writers, here’s your challenge. For each of the actions listed below, come up with three possible motives for the actor: one evil, one altruistic, and one self-interested. I know you can do it.
giving away a million dollars
cutting off a hand or foot
kissing someone of the same sex
kissing someone of the other sex
dancing naked in a public place
getting a large, readily visible tattoo
cooking an elaborate meal
killing an ill person
cutting up a bride’s wedding dress
digging up a daffodil bed
cheating at cards
adopting a foster child
running for president
burning down a church
adopting a cat or dog from a shelter
complimenting another’s performance
rewriting a will
keeping a dead body unburied for six months
hiking in the woods
The list could go on and on. In your writing, know your characters’ motives, as well as what other characters think the motives are. How will you reveal all that to your reader? Give sensory info!
I’d love to read your responses to today’s prompt. Did something surprising come out of the challenge? Tell me in the comments below, on Facebook, or Twitter.
BOOKWORM DELIGHTS come in all guises! I’m talking about the periphery, the delights beyond lovely language, powerful characters, and compelling plots.
Bookworm Delights #1: I love old books.
My oldest books are cookbooks. The oldest is DIRECTIONS FOR COOKERY, IN ITS VARIOUS BRANCHES, BY MISS LESLIE, 1843; unfortunately it isn’t at all photogenic. It includes helpful hints, such as two jills are half a pint; preparations for the sick; receipts [sic] for perfumery, and pudding catsup; uses for peach pits and plum stones; and advertisements for a treatise on the physiological and moral management of infancy, a book on the culture of flowers and grapes, and THE HOUSE BOOK: OR, A MANUAL OF DOMESTIC ECONOMY BY MISS LESLIE.
Sometimes old books yield bonuses. This 1899 printing of the WHITE HOUSE COOKBOOK came with four 1917 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture pamphlets with titles like “Do You Know Corn Meal? ITS USE MEANS Service to Your Country, Nourishing Food for You.”
I don’t actually collect antiquarian books, cookbooks or otherwise. But I like having old books around, and many on my shelves date from the 1930s onward.
Given my druthers, I’d still read the fifty- and sixty-cent paperbacks rather than the shiny new editions from the bookstore.
Bookworm Delights #2: I love sets of books
When I find an author I really enjoy, I want to read everything he or she wrote. And I keep the ones I like best, both fiction and non-fiction.
Bookworm Delights #3: I love books about places I’ve lived.
Therefore, I have an array of books about Upstate New York, Washington, DC, and Maryland, as well as Ohio and Virginia.
Bookworm Delights #4: When I travel, especially abroad, I love bringing home books of memories.
I have everything from books of cityscapes to fiction in translation and historical summaries. I’ll spare you photos of all the foreign cookbooks I’ve accumulated. But here are a couple representing Germany and Italy, places I’ve visited more than once.
Bookworm Delights #5: Oddball books give me great pleasure.
My favorites of these are the three volumes of Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices by George Leonard Herter and Berthe E. Herter.
The first printing of the first volume was in 1960, and the three volumes are extremely entertaining examples of do-it-yourself publishing. The books contain wonderful paragraphs of opinion and assertion, with no attempt to document sources for the statements. For example, his recipe for Doves Wyatt Earp begins with four pages of purported biography of Earp. The recipe itself begins, “Pick ten doves and cut off their wings, feet and head. Remove the entrails and singe off the hair feathers with a candle.” Some of the recipes are quite tasty, the historical bits are fun reading, and all three volumes are illustrated with hundreds of black-and-white photographs, most of them by the author—at least, no photo credits are offered.
Closely related to oddball books are books on oddball topics—or if not oddball, at least on narrow topics—which I enjoy immensely because of the information therein.
There are whole books out there on toads, dung, how to hide one’s assets and disappear, and just about anything else you could think of.
Bookworm Delights #6: I love having shelves of unread books!
It feels like money in the bank.
With unread books on hand (and this can include unread books on an e-reader!), should you suddenly find yourself unemployed or otherwise short of money to buy more books just now, no problem! Ditto should you find yourself laid up with a broken back or a lingering case of flu.
Bookworm Delights #7: I love receiving books from family and friends.
It’s better if I actually enjoy the book. But opening books inscribed by loved ones, knowing they were thinking about me and my interests—however imperfectly—when they bought them, makes me glow.
And what are books without bookmarks?
Bookworm Delights #8: I love bookmarks.
My favorite commercial bookmarks are book darts.
They are simple, slim, and elegant. They stay put. They can mark a page at top or side or bottom (though I don’t see the point of bottom). Unfortunately, the local Barnes and Nobel doesn’t carry them anymore.
And did you know that Post-Its were invented by a man who was trying to create a bookmark that would stay put when reading on airplanes?
And speaking of bookmarks, decades ago I started using postcards as markers in cookbooks—books that often need more than one marker AND are opened frequently.
Bookworm Delights #9: I love coming across a postcard sent thirty years ago by someone traveling near or far.
They make me smile and think of the sender. Many of those senders are dead now. And I suppose postcards are going the way of the dodo bird, as friends now send e-mails with photos. Oh, sigh. All the more reason to treasure the ones I have.
Last but not least. . .
Bookworm Delights #10: I delight in my reading chair!
True bookworms read anywhere and everywhere. I read in doctors’ waiting rooms, and in the dentist’s chair waiting for the impression gunk to set up. In the car when it isn’t my turn to drive. When I’m in bed, lights out, the only glow that from my Kindle. Yes, I’ve even been known to read in the bathroom. But the best, coziest reading—whether with fireplace or AC—is in my recliner, feet up, padded armrests supporting my elbows.
Bookworm delights are as many and as varied as bookworms themselves. What are yours? Tell me in the comments below, on Facebook, or Twitter.
Every writer who has a scene involving an arrest and/or jail time really should do some jail time—preferably in the local facility. On April 21st, I toured the Richmond City Justice Center (a.k.a., the City Jail). I start by thanking all involved. This facility is modern, clean, and apparently well-run and forward- thinking. While JCRC seems exceptionally good for what it is, you wouldn’t want to live there
Even though I had toured the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office and did interviews there when writing Dark Harbor, time has passed and jails differ by locale—by state, by rural/urban, by tax base. When it comes to jail time for writers, once is probably not enough.
The mission of the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office is, in part, “To maintain a secure jail and a safe court system along with seamless inmate transport and civil process to preserve public safety.” This is, more or less, the mission of sheriff’s in all jurisdictions.
But the devil is in the details. For example, at the RCJC, inmates (whom they call residents) can have one visit every seven days, four visitors at a time, children under 12 not included in the count. At the Pamunkey Regional Jail nearby, inmates are called inmates; a total of three people, counting both adult(s) and minor(s) can visit.
And, by the way—here—any jail with Regional in the name is a for-profit facility.
Both of these facilities require photo IDs for visitors and forbid too short, too tight, too revealing, or transparent clothing. Nothing can be given to inmates (food, paper, drugs, keys, pictures, etc.) RCJC has options for both face-to-face visits, separated by a clear partition, or a set-up similar to Skype for video visits.
At present RCJC houses approximately 1000 people, approximately 10% women. Most are in the general population, but about 150 are in “The Program,” a 24/7 structured program of education and rehabilitation geared toward successful reentry into the outside world.
WRITERS, get the details right.
CLOTHING: RCJC residents wear jumpsuits that are color-coded according to which pod they live in and whether they work custodial or kitchen duties. There are 32 living pods, ranging from 12 to 76 people each. Only those in for detox or overnight transfer wear orange. Black and white stripes are for the most violent/dangerous prisoners.
MEALS: at RCJC, breakfast is at 5:00, lunch at 11:00, dinner at 4:00. Lights out is at 11:00, so lots of time between dinner and breakfast. Which brings us to commissary sales. Inmates can buy food, t-shirts, and other incidentals (though no tobacco and no makeup).
PRISONER CLASSIFICATION. When taken into the facility, each person is assigned to a level of restriction based on the seriousness of the crime, criminal history, and behavior while in custody. People who are more violent, suicidal, or seriously deranged are in smaller pods and have more restrictions on meals and showers. They have video monitors, take meals in their cells, and are taken from the cells in handcuffs. Showers are in a locked and barred shower stall they call “the cage.”
Much of this information could be obtained online or with phone interviews. But nothing beats actually being there! I toured RCJC with seven other Sisters in Crime, all of us writers. Mary Miley, who teaches writing in The Program every Monday afternoon, arranged the tour. (I’m on the far left, Mary is second from the right.)
We learned that the carpeted areas are not secure and the tiled areas are. “The Yard” for open-air activity mandated by law is a room with a basketball hoop and open-air ventilation. All furniture can be bolted down, even though it isn’t in most cases. We actually saw the tiny white cells with bunk beds, a toilet, and a washbasin, shoes lined up and everything else in duffels under the bed, virtually bare of anything personal—unless one counts one plastic bowl and one plastic glass. The women had a few more toiletries visible—presumably from the commissary. Family needs to deposit funds for use in the commissary.
By the way, RCJC charges inmates $1 per day (toward the $58/day that their incarceration costs). They could charge as much as $3 per day. If these charges aren’t paid, the inmate can’t have commissary accounts.
Contrary to Orange Is The New Black, women inmates have no nail polish and no makeup—though sometimes they use M&Ms, Kool-Aid, or iodine for the purpose.
LINGO: a click is a phone call; a lick is a theft; a canteen girlfriend is someone who’s into a relationship for the partner’s canteen account; riding the phone means monitoring it.
Technically, jail is for people awaiting trial or the outcome of an appeal, and for those serving sentences up to one year, while prison is for longer incarceration; in actuality, due to prison over-crowding, inmates are sometimes in jail up to three years.
Gambling and bullying are strictly forbidden, but they do happen. Ditto intimate relationships among inmates.
And there’s more: the distinction between public defenders and court-appointed attorneys. The gangs that “own” the phones in the general population. The nine arresting bodies that bring people to the RCJC. The total lack of privacy for phone calls or during visitations—and what people say or do anyway! Inmates and visitors who expose themselves. The girlfriend who calls and barks for fifteen minutes while her incarcerated boyfriend tends to his arousal.
Two things in particular that inmates said stuck with me.
Not all inmates are bad people; they’re people who made bad choices.
You aren’t your crime.
In short, there’s nothing like being there. Get thee to jail, pen and paper at hand! And be sure to appreciate the access. Thank you, RCJC! Special thanks to Sarah Scarbrough, who conducted the tour.
FUNNY WRITING : I don’t do that. It isn’t for lack of interest; it just doesn’t come naturally to me. I have sometimes written things that make people smile, and several of those short pieces appear in Different Drummer. But when writing those things, humor wasn’t my goal. On the other hand, I definitely chose the cover for smiles!
That said, I do like to laugh. And it’s a scientific fact that you can’t get ulcers while laughing. So for the sake of your physical and mental health, write funny if you can. And if you can’t, read some of the following.
My all-time favorite humorist is James Thurber—and not just because he lived and worked in Columbus, Ohio. Not only does he write funny, he draws funny! His stories, illustrated with his own cartoons, appeared dozens of times in The New Yorker. If I had to choose just one book of his, it would be The Thurber Carnival.
For one thing, it includes selections from several of his other books, as well as some previously unpublished stories. It begins with a third-person bio which Thurber wrote about himself. Even his titles make me smile, e.g., “Are You the Young Man Who Bit My Daughter?” and “Darling, I Seem to Have This Rabbit.” But really, snap up any Thurber you happen to come across.
I tend to like collections of humor writing. For example, Sand in My Bra and Other Misadventures, edited by Jennifer L. Leo, contains stories by Anne Lamott, Ellen DeGeneres, and others.
Two great classic collections are Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker, edited by David Remick and Henry Finder, and An Encyclopedia of Modern American Humor,edited by Bennet Cerf. Both include dozens of time-tested stories.
I also enjoy a number of writers who have assembled entire books of their own work. P.S. Wall’s My Love Is Free . . .But the Rest of Me Don’t Come Cheap comes to mind, as does David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Erma Bombeck, All I Knew About Animal Behavior I learned in Loehmann’s Dressing Room.
Then there are the humor books targeted to specific groups of readers. The Primal Whimper(Glenn C. Ellenbogen, Ed.) a collection of made-up research that pokes fun at psychologists and psychiatrists. I like What Dr. Spock Didn’t Tell Us: A Survival Kit For Parents(B.M. Atkinson, Jr., with Whitney Darrow, Jr.). I recently found four copies on Amazon to gift to the “children” of friends who are now parents themselves. Maybe part of the reason I like it so much is that the drawings remind me of Thurber!
Perhaps the greatest admiration should go to people who can write entire novels that make us laugh. I’m thinking particularly of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.
Also remember P.G. Wodehouse and Steven Leacock. And who could forget Mark Twain? The Adventures of Tom Sawyerand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But consider the slim volume The Jumping Frog. It pokes fun at literature in translation!
And where do I fit in Peg Bracken? Most well-known for The I Hate To Cook Book, she is just as funny in ButI Wouldn’t Have Missed It For the World.
But we mustn’t limit our laughs to books written primarily for humor. Think Jane Austen and Mary Roach.
Takeaway for Readers
Take your laughs where you can find them.
Takeaway for Writers
Good humor writing is timeless.
What books make you laugh? Tell me in the comments below, on Facebook, or Twitter.
No, I don’t mean Agatha Christie. Frankly, Christie’s mysteries usually annoy me—too much alligator-over-the-transom in her solutions—meaning that some completely unforeseen, unpredictable bit of info suddenly appears and unlocks everything. (No offense to Christie fans out there; but reading preferences are very individual. Ask any writer who’s received multiple rejections for a piece of work that someone more on the same wavelength eventually accepts.) No, if I were bestowing the crown, it would be Dorothy L. Sayers.
Sayers was a woman of many achievements. She translated Dante, wrote poetry, and worked as a copyeditor. She was a playwright, essayist, literary critic, and Christian humanist, as well as a student of classical and modern languages. But she is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries. You may recall from last Friday’s blog that Sayers is one of the few fiction authors I periodically re-read. Now, you might ask, “Why would anyone reread a mystery? Once you know Who Done It—and probably how and why—what’s the point?”
In the case of Sayers, my answer is three-fold. First there is her openings that draw me. The Unpleasantness at The Bellona Club begins, “’What in the world, Wimsey, are you doing in this Morgue?’ demanded Captain Fentiman, flinging aside “The Evening Banner” with the air of a man released from an irksome duty. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t call it that,’ retorted Wimsey, amiably. ‘Funeral Parlor at the very least. Look at the marble. Look at the furnishings. Look at the palms and the chaste bronze nude in the corner.'”
Five Red Herrings opens, “If one lives in Gallowy, one either fishes or paints. . . To be neither of these things is considered odd and almost eccentric.”
Strong Poison begins, “There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses.”
Have His Carcase begins, “The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.”
The second reason to reread is to really grasp the intricate plots that often allow me to learn something. And, coincidentally, to appreciate all the ways she foreshadowed the ending and inserted the evidence and clues without telegraphing the ending. In various Sayers novels, I learned the effects of chronic ingestion of arsenic, a lot about English bell-ringing, cyphers, the advertising world, a great deal about the questions surrounding the execution of the family of Czar Nicholas II—among other things.
And then there are the characters and their romance. I recently read that Sayers once commented that Lord Peter Wimsey was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster. I always envisioned Wimsey as Astaire, even when the TV serials starred Ian Carmichael or Edward Petheridge. He’s brilliant, graceful, athletic, debonaire—plus he blathers, and suffers “shell shock” (a.k.a., PTSD). Harriet Vane is highly intelligent, strong-willed, principled, with a low opinion of men—and not really beautiful. I find them appealing in their flaws.
Sayers set her mysteries between WWI and WWII, but they are still popular today. Masterpiece Theater aired the series. The complete DVD collection was released in 2003.
Harriet Vane was very atypical for her time. Sayers did not devote a lot of time to talking or writing about or otherwise dealing with her own non-traditional choices, let alone her heroine’s. In Are Women Human, two Sayers essays address the issue of women in society. Her position is that women are first and foremost human beings, and that women and men must be regarded and treated as essentially much more alike than different. Human beings—color, age, background or abilities aside—are equal. Sex does not, a priori, determine anything. Sounds pretty modern to me!
So get thee to the library or Amazon or your favorite bookstore and sample Dorothy L. Sayers. Her first mystery was Whose Body? That’s as good a place as many to start. Unless you’d rather go for romance first, in which case, start with Strong Poison. But do it!
Last Friday I posted “Loving Diana Gabaldon.” It was general praise and admiration of the sort you might expect from that title. Today I want to cite some specific ways that writers would do well to follow her example. In particular, I will focus on vivid language. We have all heard or read that we should use fresh, vivid language and strong verbs. Here’s how.
For one thing, Gabaldon is a very sensory writer.
She uses all the senses, and often more than one in the same sentence or phrase. I notice particularly that she uses smell more often than most.
The following line is made stronger by the unexpected juxtaposition of “smelled delectably” with road dust and sweat.
He smelled delectably of road dust and dried sweat and the deep musk of a man who has just enjoyed himself thoroughly.
Delectable is more expected here, but overall very concrete and specific.
The smell of cut, dry hay was mingled with the delectable scent of barbecue that had been simmering underground overnight, the fresh bread, and the heady tang of Mrs. Bug’s cider.
More sensory details
. . . swept me into an exuberant embrace, redolent of hay, horses, and sweat.
Would I wake again to the thick warm smell of central heating and Frank’s Old Spice? And when I fell asleep again to the scent of woodsmoke and the musk of Jamie’s skin, would feel a faint, surprised regret.
It [cider] was wonderful, a dark, cloudy amber, sweet and pungent and with the bite of a particularly subtle serpent to it.
She describes a white marble mausoleum:
. . . a white smear on the night…
Note strong verb and simile.
. . . his skin shivered suddenly, like a horse shedding flies.
. . . it [hair] was writhing off merrily in all directions, à la Medusa.
Her description of the hair is so much fresher than “flying out in all directions.”
. . . kissing me with sun-dusty enthusiasm and sandpaper whiskers.
. . . the lines of his face were cut deep with fatigue, the flesh beneath his eyes sagging and smudged.
. . . I was sloshing back and forth to the kitchen, kicking up the water so it sparkled like the cut-glass olive dish.
. . .they poured into the dooryard, bedraggled, sweat-soaked, and thirsty as sponges.
. . . with thin grizzled hair that he wore strained back in a plait so tight that i thought he must find it hard to blink.
. . . [bread pudding with honey] bursting sweet and creamy on the tongue…
This simile is much fresher than sober as a judge!
. . . sober as a sheep at the time.
We climbed through a stand of quivering aspen, whose light dappled us with green and silver, and paused to scrape a blob of the crimson from a paper-white trunk.
She merely smiled at that, wide mouth curving in a way that suggested untold volumes of wicked enterprise.
Gabaldon reveals emotions exceptionally well.
[Food] had formed a solid mass that lay like iron in his stomach.
…the last of the whisky lighting his blood…
Fear snaked up her spine…
…felt his bones strain in his flesh, urgent with desire to hunt and kill the man…
…goosebumps of revulsion rose on my shoulders…
…a small uneasy feeling skittering down my backbone…
…my mind felt soggy and incapable of thought…
…comforted by the fleshy, monotonous thump [of his heart]…
…a rich tide of color surged into her face…
In A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Gabaldon writes a scene in which Claire is telling Jamie how a hoard of grasshoppers caused her to burn a field of ripe barley. I found it stunning. Here are some of the vivid images from that scene.
This is the one that begins in 1770, with Clare, Jamie, et al., in North Carolina—embroiled in the War of Regulation, early conflicts preceding the Revolutionary War. As with all the Gabaldon novels, it is an intriguing blend of romance, adventure, time travel, and history, with touches of the supernatural and—for want of a better word—magic. At 979 printed pages, it’s also typical Gabaldon length!
Apart from Virginia Is For Mysteries Volume II authors, Gabaldon is the only fiction writer I’ve read in months. A fellow writer at Nimrod Hall last summer, Frances Birch, was reading one of the novels and recommended it. I love series, and so when I returned home, I ordered the Outlander series on Kindle.
First I read all eight of what Gabaldon calls “The Big, Enormous Books that have no discernible genre (or all of them).” Then I started over, this time including what she calls “The Shorter, Less Indescribable Novels that are more or less historical mysteries (though dealing also with battles, eels, and mildly deviant sexual practices),” as well as “The Bulges—These being short(er) pieces that fit somewhere inside the story lines of the novels. . . These deal frequently—but not exclusively—with secondary characters, are prequels or sequels, and/or fill some lacuna left in the original story lines.” These quotes, and the reading order I followed, are on Gabaldon’s website under Chronology of the Outlander Series.
Why spend so much precious reading time on one author—let alone rereading such tomes? I reread very few authors—the exceptions being Jane Austen, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Edgar Allan Poe. But Gabaldon has mastered the combination that hooks me: intriguing, convoluted plot twists; fresh, vivid language; fascinating characters; realistic details; and emotional appeal. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Gabaldon holds a B.S. in zoology, an M.S. in marine biology, and a Ph.D. in ecology—all of which, I believe, add richness to the amazing amount of natural history that permeates her writing. Her varied career included “butchering” seabirds, “torturing boxfish,” and writing Fortran programs to analyze the contents of bird gizzards. But the deep-seated urge to write fiction never died. It reminds me of myself, who tried my hand at poetry, humorous plays, etc. in high school but never wrote fiction again till after more than twenty-five years as a psychologist and academic!
As a writer, I am amazed that Gabaldon can write such intricate plots. She has a cast of thousands—figuratively speaking. In actuality, it’s merely scores! But she manages to make characters individuals. They often disappear for a bit, but come back vividly—and still very much as they were—often as things go from bad to worse for the main character(s). She is able to cue readers to remember the character and/or relevant event without being boringly repetitious. Her historical research seems impeccable. And she has absolutely mastered flashbacks!
I admire Gabaldon for breaking all the rules. She didn’t “learn” to write fiction; she just did it. She paid no attention to genre constraints, page counts, or how she “ought to” go about it. She doesn’t start at the beginning and she doesn’t know the end when she starts. Perhaps that’s why her writing seems so fresh.
My advice to readers and writers
Get involved with Diana Gabaldon! Read her fiction, go behind the scenes in the Outlandish Companion volumes, and visit her online.
Spring is stereotyped as a time of renewal, high energy, and face-splitting smiles. But writers know it’s effective to go against expectations. And so I am happy to present you with cheerful images and dark possibilities to go with them.
Consider that these forsythia are thriving because of the dead body that is fertilizing them. Who? How? When? Why? Now what?
Every spring the parks and canal banks in Ottawa are awash in tulips. This year, a man goes berserk. Describe and explain his behavior.
One lovely day a woman looks at her mailbox and weeps. It was this time last spring when she received . . .
Walking in the woods, your character pauses to admire an early-blooming azalea and notices a hand protruding from the leaf mulch. Is it attached to a body? What does s/he think—and do?
A woman walks past a neighbor’s yard and sees grape hyacinths, bleeding heart, and primroses in bloom. She had all of those at her former house. What happened, what is she feeling and thinking?
A child finds a gun and buries is under the vinca, knowing this to be a perennial runs rampant. Where was the gun? Why did the child bury it? What will happen next?
Your character suffers from extreme arachnophobia. It is so severe that even seeing a spiderwort plant sets off the reaction. Where did the fear of spiders come from? What happens when the phobia is triggered?
The last tulip magnolia bloom is about to go. What does that mean to your character?
Your character stops to admire a dogwood and notices the crows gathered nearby. Looking down, s/he sees . . .
A barefoot toddler dashes into a patch of lamium. Within seconds, toes have been replaced by pink blooms. Soon. . .
These young poppy leaves are growing in the vegetable garden. How did they come to be there? What will happen to them? Suppose they are mixed into a salad of field greens. Then what?
Takeaway for writers: nothing is too pretty, cheerful, or innocent to hide a dark side.
The good news for writers is that these toxic relationships needn’t be limited to toxic mothers and vulnerable daughters. (You may recognize here an echo of what I said about Deborah Tannen’s analysis of mother-daughter communication patterns: what one says isn’t necessarily what the other hears could apply to virtually any long-germ relationship.) In this instance, consider toxic relationships between husbands and wives. Consider boss and subordinate. Consider role reversal in that it’s the daughter who is toxic.