Another Way to Quirk Your Characters

october 2015
In 2015 I posted a blog titled Quirking Your Characters. The opening paragraph ends, “My advice is to choose a quirky interest that will allow you to illuminate various aspects of your character’s character.” I then developed an extended example using an interest in Eastern box turtles. Well, it’s time to think again! Start with the question, “Is there something quirky that I’d like to know more about?” The point here is that if it’s part of your character’s character, you’ll be spending a lot time with this quirk.

Quirks can be very focused OR whole categories, expanding outward.

arm hammer baking soda
[Source: Walmart]
As an example of a focused quirk, imagine your character grew up poor and the entire family brushed their teeth with baking soda rather than toothpaste, and as a result, as an adult s/he uses baking soda for everything, from cleaning cutting boards to relieving acid indigestion. (One of my personal favorites is that damp baking soda gently removes tarnish from silver.)

If you were to take up baking soda, you can find online list of 36 uses on the Arm & Hammer website to 51 Fantastic Uses For Baking Soda by Care2 Healthy Living.

lemons
A similar example of a focused quirk can be built around lemons. Lemons can do all sort of things, from disinfecting surfaces to seasoning foods. Online, you can find 17 household uses for lemons (to save money on cleaning products) to 34 reasons to load up on lemons from Reader’s Digest.

Indeed, virtually anything can be a focused quirk. What about collecting Santa and Mrs. Claus salt and pepper shakers? Choose your item or behavior for a focused quirk and google it directly.
 
extraordinary uses ordinary things
Reader’s Digest has “authored” several books with this title and they can be used by anyone who wants to find either a focused or a categorical quirk. For example, the table of contents includes both an item index, alphabetical from address labels to zucchini, suitable for focused quirks. But in addition, there are topics such as Less Toxic and More Earth-Friendly Items that are suitable for what I’m calling category quirks. Here again, the quirk options are infinite.

hate housekeep peg bracken
As far as quirks go, a goal of avoiding as much housework as possible is an old—and humorous—one. The I Hate to Housekeep book was copyrighted in 1962! (Full disclosure: I love Peg Bracken!) But the global, category quirks could be anything from attendance to germs to recycling in all its forms.

Bottom line: To close with another quote from my earlier blog: “Get beyond fiddling with hair or popping gum and choose a rich quirk for your character.”

Why Daisies? Why Not?

lettuce
Didn’t know lettuce is a member of the daisy family? Lots of people don’t. And there is much else that is surprising about this enormous plant family. But even so, so what? Well, I got interested, and when I’m interested, I explore and write. But why read this blog? Because writers can bring plants into their work in any number of ways.
  • as a character’s hobby
  • as a character’s work
  • as a reflection of a character’s character or personality
  • as a reflection of a character’s aesthetic taste (or lack thereof)
  • as factoids characters can drop into conversation to amaze and astound
aster
[Source: Plantopedia]
The big picture. Technically, the daisy family—also commonly known as the sunflower or aster family—is the Asteraceae family. It’s huge.
  • 13 subfamilies
  • 1,911 genera
  • 32,913 named species
  • for size, it’s rivaled only by orchids. Which is larger is unknown.
  • mostly annual or perennial herbs, it also includes shrubs, vines, and trees
  • this family grows worldwide, except Antarctica and the extreme Arctic
Many daisies are known primarily as food. Dandelions head this section for a reason. They were introduced into the New World by European immigrants who ate the greens—but now are more often considered a weed than a food.

 

safflower
Besides lettuce, important food crops include endive, chicory, artichokes, sunflowers, and safflower.
tarragon
Daisy species are used as culinary seasoning: tarragon, salsify, and stevia, for example.

 

chamomile
“Daisies” such as camomile are used for herbal teas. Also included here are pot marigold, and echinacea, which is used in medicinal teas. In fact, many species are used as traditional anti-parasitic medicine.
ragweed
Species such as ragweed cause allergic reactions such as so-called hay fever. Other varieties cause contact dermatitis—as many who work with flowers can testify.

 

dahlias
[Source: Midwest Living]
Many of us think of daisies first as flowers, but many varieties are important for the flower industry. Besides dahlia, think Gerbera daisies, calendula, zinnia, chrysanthemum, and many others.

 

And, BTW, chrysanthemum as well as several less familiar species have useful insecticidal properties.
marigold
[Source: Garden Design]
Marigolds serve important industrial purposes. It is used in commercial poultry feeds, and it’s oils are used in colas and in the cigarette industry.

 

Several varieties of daisies are copious nectar producers and are thus important for beekeepers. These include sunflowers, knapweed, and some species of goldenrod. Goldenrod in particular has a high protein pollen which helps honey bees winter over.
Bottom line: just imagine all the ways a little knowledge of the daisy family might season your writing!
yarrow

Besides the Cake: A Successful Book Launch Party

On Saturday I attended a great launch party for Deadly Southern Charm. Since then, I’ve mulled over what made that event such a success. Yes, there were refreshments, but that was just the icing on the cake, so to speak.

 

Before the main event. This book is an anthology, with stories by eighteen authors, so there was lots of online hype leading up to the event itself: Facebook, Twitter, etc. In this case, the authors did guest blogs as well. One way and another, invite anyone and everyone you know! The book’s contributors were actively engaged in this, and most were present to celebrate their success.

 

This launch was held at Libby Mill Library—just the right venue: not too big and cavernous, not cramped, with plenty of free parking. Libraries seem an obvious place for book launches, but depending on the book and author(s), it could be a school, bookstore, rented space, or private home.

 

Door prizes, while not strictly necessary, added to the party atmosphere. If I am recalling correctly, all of the giveaways were books, mostly by the authors who contributed to the anthology. The prizes were handled by Frances Aylor, president of the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime. As it happened, my name was the first one drawn, and I came away with a mystery by Lisa Scottoline that I’m greatly looking forward to reading.

 

Actually, for me, the meat of the event was the prepared remarks. In this case, it wasn’t the author(s) saying a bit about the work—although that’s a classic program. It was a panel of three experienced, successful writers examining the length of the work as it relates to publication.
Left to right: Lynn Cahoon focused on novellas and shorter novels; Barb Goffman discussed short stories; and Mary Burton addressed issues of longer novels. They provided lots of insights and shared experiences, everything from creating series characters to whether one needs an agent to how productive one must be to earn a living as a writer. Cahoon and Goffman contributed to the anthology and Burton is a co-editor.

 

The panel was well organized. Kris Kisska, program chair for SinC/CVA, moderated, presenting each panelist with questions appropriate to the area she was presenting. Between the great questions and the thorough answers, there were few questions left for the audience to ask! She also recognized and thanked everyone who worked behind the scenes to make the event such a success.

 

besides cake successful book launch party
There were plenty of books available for purchase. Fountain Bookstore is an indie here in Richmond that’s well-known for supporting local writers. They handled book sales at the launch. The most in-demand book was, of course, Deadly Southern Charm, but they also had other books by SinC members.

 

Last but not least, signing tables were set up around the periphery of the room so that all the contributors present could comfortably participate.

 

Bottom line: there you have it, a model for a successful launch party!
 
And if you want more options, including on-line book launch, just Google it.

Happy Anniversary, 1984

george orwell 1984
Original cover of 1984 [Creative Commons]
June 8 marks the celebration of the 70th anniversary of 1984 by George Orwell, published in 1949. It will be a day to celebrate this classic novel, its impact over the last several decades, and the important lessons it teaches us.

Originally titled Nineteen Eighty-Four, the novel now goes by its more popularized title, 1984. For those who were not assigned this book to read in school:

Among the seminal texts of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff’s attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life—the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language—and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell. Required reading for students since it was published, it ranks among the most terrifying novels ever written. [Goodreads]

In the novel, Great Britain (called “Airstrip One”) has become a province of a superstate named Oceania, which is ruled by “the Party,” who employ Thought Police to persecute independent thinking. The Party’s leader is Big Brother, who may not even exist. The protagonist of the novel, Winston Smith, is a Party member. Although Smith is an outwardly diligent and skillful worker, he secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebellion against Big Brother.

1984 george orwell movie
A still from the 1956 film [Source: Bustle]
Since 1984 has been published, it has introduced several words, terms, and concepts into the English language, such as:

Since its publication, 1984 has won numerous awards, been translated into at least 65 different languages, and has been listed as one of the most important historical novels in history by such organizations as Time magazine, Modern Library, and the BBC.

Have you read 1984? What was its impact on you?

Plants: A Topic That Could Take Over the World

you are one third daffodil
[Source: Amazon]
During my nature writing class, I started looking more closely at plants and animals—mostly animals, at least in the beginning. It’s only to be expected, I guess, given that animals are animate. They do things, and seem to have personalities. They often communicate vocally. But the factoid above eventually led me to explore plants a bit more. In the lists below, I’ve italicized those facts that might be of particular interest to mystery and other writers.

 

earth
[Creative Commons]

The Big Picture: A few facts to put plants in perspective

  • Over 300,000 plant species have been identified so far
  • Plants are the only organisms that make their own food in a process called photosynthesis. They turn carbon dioxide into food while cleaning the air.
  • More than 20% of the world’s oxygen supply is produced by the Amazon Rainforest.
  • Bad news: 80% of the earth’s original forests have been cleared or destroyed.
  • Only 10% of the world’s plant-rich areas are protected.
  • Of the plant species that have been studied, 68% are in danger of going extinct.
  • More than half of all plant species are native to just one country.
  • Although the earth has more than 80,000 species of edible plants, humans use only around 2000 different plants as food. Indeed, 90% of the foods humans eat come from just 30 plants
  • Nutrition doesn’t factor into the choice of plants chosen for mass production.
  • Some 70,000 plant species are used for medicine, both traditional medicine and modern pharmaceuticals. Only 1% of rainforest plants have been studied for medicinal potential.
  • Plant species are going extinct about 5,000X faster than they would without human intervention.
  • More than 85% of plant life is found in the ocean.
ginkgo trees
Ginkgo trees [Source: South Carolina LIving Magazine]

Trees

  • Trees are the longest-living organisms on earth.
  • Ginkgo biloba is one of the oldest living tree species, dating back to 250 million ears ago. The Dawn redwood dates back 150 million years.
  • The world’s oldest-growing tree is a bristlecone pine.
  • Dendrochronology is the science of dating a tree’s age b its rings.
  • The world’s tallest-growing tree is the coastal redwood, which is mostly along the Pacific Coast of California.
  • A notch in a tree will remain the same distance from the ground as the tree grows.
  • Tree resin, when fossilized, becomes amber—sometimes containing bits of plant or animal
  • Quinine—one of the most important drugs out there—is obtained from the dried bark of an evergreen tree native to South America.
  • Oak trees don’t produce acorns till they are 50 years old.
  • Lightning strikes oak trees more than any other variety.
  • The African Baobab tree can store 1,000 to 120,000 liters of water in its trunk.
  • Evaporation from a large oak or beech tree is from 10 to 25 gallons in 24 hours.
  • Brazil is named after a tree.
  • The average-sized tree can provide enough wood to make 170,000 pencils.
  • The first type of aspirin, painkiller and fever reducer, came from the bark of a willow tree.
  • Baseball bats are made from hickory while cricket bats are from willow.
Viceroy tulips
[Source: Fluwel]

Flowers

  • During the 1600s, tulips in Holland were worth more than gold.
  • In 1634, a collector paid 1,000 pounds of cheese, four oxen, eight pigs, 12 sheep, a bed, and a suit of clothes for  single bulb of the Viceroy tulip.
  • Tulips can continue to grow as much as an inch a day after being cut.
  • Some 600 species of plants are carnivorous. For example, the Venus Flytrap ingests various small insects.
  • One carnivorous plant in the Philippines can devour a full-grown rat alive.
  • Torenia, a shade-loving annual, is called a wishbone flower because they have tiny wishbone-shaped stamens.
  • Poinsettias were brought to the U.S. from Mexico in 1825 by the first U.S. minister to Mexico, Joel Poinsett.
  • The largest unbranched flower in the world is the titan arum, which can reach 15 feet tall. It’s common name is corpse flower because in bloom, it smells like rotting meat. The smell atracts flies for pollination.
  • All parts of the flowering shrub oleander are poisonous. Eating leaves can cause gastrointestinal, cardiac, and central nervous system problems and possibly death.
  • Iris means “rainbow” in Greek, and Iris is the goddess of the rainbow in mythology. Wormwood (artemesia) was named for the goddess Artemis. Milkweed (Asclepias) was named for the god Asclepius, and Hebe after the Greek goddess Hebe.
  • May l is the festival of the lily-of-the-valley. People give bouquets of them to each other, wishing them health and happiness.
  • Snapdragon flowers resemble dragons, and if you squeeze the sides, the dragon’s mouth will appear to open and close.
  • Each head of a sunflower is composed of hundreds of tiny flowers which ripen to become the seeds. Ditto for daisies, yarrow, goldenrod, asters, coreopsis, and bachelor’s buttons.
  • No species of wild plant produces a flower or blossom that is absolutely black, and so far, none has been developed artificially
  • Peaches, pears, apricots, quinces, strawberries, cherries, almonds, and apples are members of the rose family.
  • Asparagus is a member of the lily family, which also includes onions, leeks, and garlic.
tomatoes
 

Vegetables and Fruits

  • Tomato juice is the official state drink of Ohio.
  • The tomato family includes tobacco, peppers, eggplant, and deadly nightshade
  • From a botanical standpoint, avocados, pumpkins, cucumbers, and tomatoes are fruits rather than vegetables. Avocados have more calories than any other fruit, 167 per hundred grams.
  • Rhubarb, on the other hand, is a vegetable.
  • Strawberries have about 200 seeds. It’s the only fruit that carries its seeds on the outside.
  • Archaeological evidence indicates that grapes were grown to make win about 8,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (Iraq, today) but the first records of how to make wine were set down by Egyptians about 5,000 years ago.
  • Pineapples were so named by explorers because they look like pine cones with flesh like an apple.
  • Pineapples are the only edible member of the bromeliad family of flowering plants. Technically, a pineapple is a berry.
potatoes
[Source: Etsy]
  • Potatoes were first cultivated in Peru about 7,000 years ago. Today residents of Peru eat one of more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes with almost every meal.
  • Tomatoes and potatoes share 92% of their DNA.
  • Cranberries, Concord grapes, and blueberries are native to North America.
  • Small pockets of air in cranberries, when fresh, cause them to bounce and float in water. Apples, being 25% air, also float. (I’m not sure how this is reconciled with being 84% water, but that is a mystery to solve later.)
  • Water makes up 84% of a raw apple, 96% of a raw cucumber and 91% of cabbage..
  • The difference between nectarines and peaches is the fuzzy skin.
  • Cutting onions releases sulfuric gasses, bringing tears to the eyes. According to the National Onion Association, chilling the onion and cutting the root end last reduces this problem.
  • Onions contain a mild antibiotic that fights infections, soothes burns, tames bee stings, and relieves the itch of athletes foot.
  • Eating lots of onions can make you sleepy because it can act as a sedative.
stalk of bananas on a tree
  • Banana is the Arabic word for fingers.
  • A cluster of bananas is known of as a hand and consists of 10-20 bananas which are known as fingers.
  • Bananas contain a natural chemical that makes people feel happy.
  • Peanuts are not nuts. They are legumes, related to beans and lentils. They have more protein niacin, folate, and phytosterols than any nut.
  • Peanuts are used as an ingredient in dynamite.
  • Arrowroot powder (also known as cassava flour) is a thickening agent valued for being tasteless, colorless, and gluten-free.
  • Arrowroot is also an antidote for poisoned arrows—so if you are going to be shot with a poisoned arrow, be sure it’s in the kitchen.
  • One bushel of corn will sweeten more than 400 cans of pop.
  • Apples, onions, and potatoes actually have the same effect on taste buds. They are differentiated by smell.
rosemary plant
[Source: Bonnie Plants]

Herbs and Spices

  • Rosemary repels mosquitos.
  • Saffron is harvested from the stigmas of a type of fall-blooming crocus.
  • Garlic mustard is a member of the mustard family, not garlic. It is highly invasive herb.
  • Nutmeg is extremely poisonous if injected intravenously.
  • Vanilla flavoring comes from the pod of an orchid.
  • Turmeric, rosemary, thyme all can be used to treat dandruff.
  • Thyme, rosemary, sage, lavender, and marjoram all help relieve cold symptoms and congestion.
  • Several herbs are traditionally used as abortifacients.
  • Any good herbal will give guidance on using herbs for home remedies.
marijuana

Miscellaneous

  • Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew marijuana (cannabis sativa) on their plantations.
  • Bamboo—the largest of the grasses—is highly invasive. Some types grow as much as 3 feet a day.
  • Plants at the bottom of watery areas, such as swamps, can eventually turn into coal.
  • Caffeine acts as a pesticide in a coffee plant.
  • There are more than 1000 chemicals in coffee and at least 19 of them are carcinogenic.
  • Chemicals released by freshly-cut grass is highly effective to relieve stress
  • England’s Alnwick Garden has The Poison Garden, filled with plants that can kill you.
  • All teas (black, green, and white) come from the same plant, only the processing makes them different.
  • The first product to have a barcode was Wrigley’s gum.
plants topic take over world
So, how closely are we related to plants? Are we really 1/3 daffodil?
 
  • No. In actuality, humans and daffodils share 35% of our DNA.
  • Humans and mustard grass share 15% of their DNA.
  • Humans and bananas share 50% of DNA.
  • Humans have 3 billion DNA pairs; the Norway Spruce has nearly 20 billion.
  • Even onions have more DNA than humans.
  • Tomatoes have 7000 more genes than humans.
All of the bits and pieces gathered together above are just the tip of the iceberg. Writers, choose a plant—any plant—and work it into your plot, setting, or character traits. You’ll love it!
 
plants topic take over world