I wrote about road trips back in 2010, advising writers to note the names of roads, businesses, schools–whatever–as they traveled. Venture off the congested interstate to the byways and small towns where the names really get good. Sometimes a compelling name is enough to spark a story. Consider Bone Yard Road or Fresh Fire Church of God as possible settings.
Leave space in your itinerary and in your mindset to come upon the unexpected, e.g. an African/Mediterranean vegan cafe in Santa Fe or a salt mine in Warsaw, Poland, that’s been carved into a salt cathedral. Those locations might stimulate a scene or add a quirk to your story.
So what happened in 2017? I was in the Rockies for a week! And somehow, writing about mountain reads just didn’t come to mind. I expect to be in the West again in 2020, and I’ll fix that! In the meantime, this was another beach summer, this time at Bethany Beach, DE.
In case you are interested, the rotation is based on the locations of my daughters—one in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts, and one in Colorado. Traditionally, meeting in the East means the beach somewhere whereas the West has meant mountains. Most of the same people come year after year, all family.
This year’s beach reads
This year we were 14—all family, but all individuals, hence the variety of reads! Here’s what three generations are reading during their week together.
P1: Jan Karon, IN THE COMPANY OF OTHERS; Bob Goff, EVERYBODY, ALWAYS.
P2: David Jeremiah, THE BOOK OF SIGNS; Robert Ludlum, SCORPIO ILLUSION.
On Tuesday I wrote about heat. Could cold be far behind? Again, I talked about the effects of cold in a recent blog on weather for writers. Today I want to look at cold in our lives, and it turns out to be remarkably parallel to heat!
A cold snap (or cold spell) is distinguished by cooling of the air. (Big surprise!) Specifically, as used by the U.S. National Weather Service, a cold wave is a rapid fall in temperature within a 24-hour period requiring substantially increased protection to agriculture, industry, commerce, and social activities. The precise criterion for a cold wave is determined by the rate at which the temperature falls, and the minimum to which it falls. This minimum temperature is dependent on the geographical region and time of year. In the United States, a cold spell is defined as the national average high temperature dropping below 20 °F (−7 °C).
In some places, extreme cold requires that fuel-powered machinery to be run continuously. Plumbing may need to be wrapped, and often water is run continuously through pipes. Energy conservation is difficult in a cold wave. It may be necessary to collect people (especially the homeless, poor, and elderly) in communal shelters. Hospitals prepare for people suffering frostbite and hypothermia; schools and other public buildings are often closed, sometimes converted into shelters.
Privately, people stock up on food, water, and other necessities when a cold wave is predicted. Some move to warmer places (think Florida’s snowbirds during the winter). Farmers stock forage for livestock, and livestock might be shipped from affected areas or even slaughtered. Smudge pots can prevents hard freezes on a farm or grove. Vulnerable crops may be sprayed with water that will paradoxically protect the plants by freezing and absorbing the cold from surrounding air.
Most people bundle and layer their cloths to go outside—or deal with a heating failure. They can also stock candles, matches, flashlights, and plan how to eat without a working cookstove.
Once your body hits 82 degrees, you can become unconscious. Death can happen when your body temperature goes below 70. This can take less than an hour. Death can happen faster if you fall into freezing water.
But cold can also help us stay alive: think frozen food, natural cold used in winter. And that’s even before refrigeration. Today, body temperatures are often lowered during surgeries to slow down metabolism.
Cold is often associated with snow, and snow can be insulation: hollowing out a snow cave or living in an igloo conserve body heat and protects occupants from the colder air outside.
And After Death
Ice and freezing preserve food but also bodies. During the American Civil War, bodies awaiting transport home for burial were iced for preservation. But consider the human and animal remains that have been discovered in Antartica or other areas where they have remained largely unchanged, sometimes for hundreds of years.
Cold and Humidity
Again, paralleling heat, humidity intensify feelings of cold. It might seem paradoxical, but dry air will most times feel warmer than cold, humid air at the same temperature. A cold day in the southeast U.S. feels colder than a cold day in the southwest.
I remember days in the North Country of New York when I couldn’t breathe without covering my mouth with a scarf, and the damp air frosted my eyelashes.
My father used to say that he’d rather cold weather than hot because he could always put on enough clothes to get warm but couldn’t take off enough clothes to get cool.
QUESTION: how does your character cope with cold? Let me know in the comments.
The weather has been so hot and rain so scarce that even the trees are suffering. I’ve been feeling the heat and—the ironically high humidity—and thinking about heat a lot. Herewith, my musings.
Some months ago I wrote about weather for writers, and so I won’t go into details of how peoples’ feelings and behavior are affected by heat. We all “know” (for example) that people are less energetic, more irritable and aggressive as the heat rises. Instead, I’m considering the role of heat in our daily lives.
We in Richmond are currently in a heatwave, as defined by several days over 90 degrees, often accompanied by high humidity. Indeed, some say that heatwave occurs when the daily maximum temperature exceeds the average maximum temperature by 9 degrees F for five or more consecutive days. But there is no universal definition of a heatwave: it is defined based on heat relative to the usual weather, relative to the normal temperatures for the season. So, it varies by region and country. For example, Sweden defines a heat wave as at least 5 days in a row with a daily high exceeding 77 degrees F.
Global warming increases the likelihood of heat waves.
First there is literally staying alive. It turns out, our cells start to die around 106 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, but people can survive much higher temperatures; a person could make a trip to Death Valley on one of the hottest days (131 degrees F) and as long as s/he stayed hydrated, would probably not die. So when a Richmonder says, “This heat is killing me,” it’s probably an exaggeration. Heat usually kills people in combination with other things: pre-existing vulnerability (e.g., very young, very old, ill), exertion, and dehydration.
And then there is food. Although people can and do eat raw, many foods—especially meat and fish—are much safer when cooked. But alongside cooking—and arguably even more important—is using heat to preserve food for later consumption. Native Americans, for example, have traditionally dried everything from jerky to leather-britches beans. Drying is one of the oldest methods of preserving food. Beef jerky has been found in 2,000 year old tombs in China. As best I could determine, dried legumes are edible forever—though texture suffers and the older the bean, the longer the cooking time.
And After Death
The first thought that comes to mind is mummies—desiccated remains that simply look dried out. In fact, the mummies we’re most familiar with are bodies that were prepared to be mummies: internal organs removed, special spices, etc. But accidental mummies can happen when a body is exposed to heat, lack of air, and low humidity.
Heat and Humidity
The heat index combines the effects of heat and humidity. To put it simply, increasing either one makes you feel hotter. For example, with 40% humidity, a temperature of 100 degrees F feels like 109 degrees F. At 100% humidity, a temperature of 92 degrees F feels like 132 degrees F.
Heat and humidity, when high, contribute all sorts of ailments: heat stroke, edema (swelling), heat rash (prickly heat), dermatitis, bacterial infection, heat cramps, heat exhaustion (which might include diarrhea, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, malaise, and myalgia.
Bottom line for writers
The effect of heat can be nearly anything you want it to be! And surviving the negative effects is often a matter of hydration.
Workaholics Day is an unofficial holiday that rolls around every July 5, meant to raise awareness that all work and no play can be harmful to workers’ mental and physical health.
“Workaholic” is a portmanteau word, created by combining “work” and “alcoholic”—in case that isn’t obvious! It’s been part of the lingo since the late 1960s as a label for people who work excessively and compulsively—i.e., addictively. And as with other addictions, a work addiction is a bad thing. And as with many bad things, it’s a boon to writers. Workaholism creates problems for the character and for others around him or her.
Malissa Clark, Ph.D., studies workaholism for a living. She’s identified four leading components of overwork: motivational, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.
Motivation is essentially why one does what one does. Workaholics work because of internal pressures—feeling that they should or ought to be working.
Cognitively, workaholics think obsessively about work, even when they aren’t working. They can’t mentally disengage.
When not working, workaholics experience negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, disappointment and guilt.
And their work behavior goes beyond what is reasonable or even expected by their employers in terms of long hours and not taking time off.
But how do workaholics get that way?
Here’s a list of possible roots for your workaholic character.
—a need to feel competent, especially if incompetent in other areas of their lives
—reliving patterns from their past, or family of origin
—a means to relieve, ignore, or deny emotional issues or trauma
—your character’s basic personality: having a Type A personality, high in need for achievement, perfectionism, and/or narcissism
How bad is it?
What is your workaholic character likely to experience? Workaholism is related to:
—lower job, family, and life satisfaction
—worse physical health, including higher systolic blood pressure
—higher levels of mental distress over time
—increased job stress and burnout
And here’s the kicker: workaholics do NOT enjoy greater job success or productivity than others.
Working long hours doesn’t make one a workaholic.
Someone who loves his/her job—finds it fulfilling and satisfying—probably isn’t a workaholic. Highly engaged workers feel more jovial, attentive, and self-assured both at work and at home.
Workaholics Day encourages workers to make lifestyle changes to give other aspects of their lives as much importance as their work. Bottom Line for writers: if you want to redeem your workaholic character, rebalancing is absolutely necessary.
Those of you who have been with me for awhile know that I am a HUGE fan of Jane Austen. On March 22, 2017, I posted a blog on the 200th anniversary of her last fiction writing. A gazillion books and articles—that’s by actual count!—have been written about Austen. If you want a pretty thorough overview and summary, with references to delve deeper, check out the 30-page Wikipedia article. What you have in this blog is my personal homage.
My Journey to Jane Austen
Copies of Austen’s novels are old friends. I bought Northanger Abbey secondhand for 35 cents.
Others were bought new for 50 cents each.
All of them have been read and read again, and most show those years of age and love.
I first became a fan in the spring of my sophomore year in college. “Why so late?” you might ask. In my pre-matriculation advisement, the English professor (who happened to teach such classes) urged me toward Chaucer and Beowulf. I took no literature classes after my freshman year, so there were tons (by actual weight) of books that “everyone” had read but I hadn’t. A lot of them are still out there. In any event, during finals week, I devoured every Austen I could lay my hands on.
As I recall, I read Pride and Prejudice first, and it remains my favorite. I’m not alone here. As far back as 1940, various film and TV versions have come to be. If one searches Kindle for Jane Austen Fan Fiction, there are literally hundreds of novels based on this book alone.These include prequels, sequels, murder mysteries, soft-core porn, fantasy, and horror.
Film adaptations of all Austen’s novels abound. In 1995, Emma Thompson won an Academy Award for her role in Sense and Sensibility. 2007 brought forth Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Love and Friendship, based on Austen’s first novel, Lady Susan, appeared in 2016.
Jane Austen for Writers
Setting pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—a writer never knows what the future holds. AlthoughAusten’s Lady Susan, written in the epistolary form popular at the time, was penned first (1804), it was published last (1871). Austen published as Anonymous and enjoyed little fame or fortune during her lifetime.
Emma is but one example of why Austen’s work is so enduring. Before she began the novel, she wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like. Emma Woodhouse is handsome, clever, and rich. She is also spoiled, headstrong, and self-satisfied; she greatly overestimates her own insights and abilities; she is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives; and her imagination and perceptions often lead her astray.” In other words, she paints a timeless portrait of the conceit and hubris of youth.
Austen is a great example of “write what you know.” In all her novels, Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in 18th and 19th century England, their dependence on marriage for security and status. Her novels portray thesocial and economic reality of the period.
And she makes her readers laugh.
Something to aspire to: to express universals of human relationships, personalities, passions, and foibles that transcend time and place. She’s my role model—which is why I continue to acquire her books. This is my most recent one. Although published in 1981, I’ve enjoyed it for only a couple of years—so far!
In case you didn’t know, MacGyver was a superhero type TV series from 1985 to 1992 starring Richard Dean Anderson. As the series unfolded, Angus “Mac” MacGyver became a wonderfully rich character, a great example of what a well-rounded character looks like on the page as well. Here, to help you flesh out your protagonist are things you need to know—or at least consider. Your readers will love you for it.
Name: A character needs a full name, and (in my opinion) should have a reason to have been named that. Family name? Parent’s favorite from history or fiction?
Personality: MacGyver was portrayed as a non-violent problem solver who always carried a Swiss Army knife and refused to carry a gun. When the plot called for physical violence, his acts were always in self-defense and he strove to subdue or disable rather than kill. He is pretty much the opposite of macho, having a sensitive nature and showing it. He (appropriately) showed grief, pain, fright, guilt, depression and self-blame.
Social awareness: MacGyver was passionate about social causes, with a particular affinity for things related to children and protecting the environment. At some point, he became vegetarian. What is your character’s attitude toward such things as social justice, global warming, etc.?
Intelligence: MacGyver had a genius-level IQ and had a college education in both physics and chemistry.
Skills: MacGyver could speak six languages—plus he could communicate using American Sign Language, Morse code, and International maritime signal flags. He skied and had mastered outdoor survival skills. He possessed superb engineering and applied physics knowledge. Besides his Swiss Army knife, MacGyver usually carried duct tape, an ID card, a Timex Camper watch, strike-anywhere matches, paperclips, chewing gum, and a flashlight—plus whatever was in his Jeep or pickup truck. Thus, he was able to save a man’s life using a paperclip, a wrench, and shoelaces.
His hobbies included dice hockey, racing, guitar, and painting. Although suffering from acrophobia (fear of heights) he managed mountain/rock climbing, hang gliding, parachuting, etc.
What skills and/or specialized knowledge can your character draw on? Think education, past job experiences and military service as well as hobbies and sports.
Biography: MacGyver’s biography—which I believe was fleshed out as the series progressed—accounted for all of his special skills, fears, and taboos, from the outdoor survival skills taught by Mrs. Fogarty, his Cub Scout Den Mother, to a fatal accidental shooting that led him to eschew guns. Advice to writers: as soon as you give your character a skill, fear, etc., jot down—if only for your own use—how and when it was acquired.
In 2016 the series was revived starring Lucas Till as a younger Mac MacGyver. Supposedly this is the equivalent of a “prequel.” Thus, this Mac functioned between the original’s birth (January 23, 1951) and the beginning of the original series. And therein lies the rub. This “younger” MacGyver carries through with major characteristics, including intelligence, preference for non-lethal methods, and the ability to use his Swiss Army knife plus anything in his environment to accomplish his mission. In addition, he’s an accomplished field medic and uses modern crime scene techniques—in which he might just have been ahead of his time. But DNA sequencing procedures? That I couldn’t quite accept.
Last advice to writers: Should you ever want to write a prequel, be aware of what your character couldn’t have known or experienced at the time.
And just in case you want some MacGyver type skills for your character, check out these books.
Last night I heard interviews with lawyers who recently visited the immigrant detention centers along the U.S./Mexico border. The conditions they reported were deplorable—inhumane, even. But what i want to focus on here is their observations that the border agents trying to do their jobs are massively stressed. So why do they stay there, doing what they’re doing?
You can find stories all over the internet of people increasingly being treated inhumanely while trying to enter the U.S.—preschoolers being handcuffed, weeping mothers and young children separated for hours at a time, people held for twenty hours without food… Sometimes such stories suggest that it’s because of the things Pres. Trump says and does. His supporters are likely to reply, “No way in hell would he order such things! These are the acts of a few sick individuals.”
As writers, we don’t need to prove or disprove either of these causes. As writers, we know that almost anyone is capable of almost any act if the motivation is sufficient. What we may not have considered is just how easily ordinary people can be led to do extraordinary things.
In 1963 Stanley Milgram first published his research on obedience to authority figures. The beginning of his research (1961) was with the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. He started with the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?”
The short answer is “Yes.” A very high proportion of people would fully obey the instructions, even if reluctantly, even if the acts ran counter to their own consciences.
The basic paradigm was that the subject thought he was the teacher, assisting the experimenter by delivering electric shocks to a learner whenever the learner gave a wrong answer. With each wrong answer, the apparent shock level was increased, finally to a point where the shocks—if real—would have been fatal. In the initial experiment, 65% of subjects gave the maximum shock level at least three times.
The important thing to remember is that the experimenter had no real authority over the subject delivering the shocks. The experimenter wasn’t a parent, a supervisor, a friend, a lover. The subject was not physically restrained from leaving. You can read all about it, in detail, in his 1974 book.
Variations on the original experiment revealed that a less official looking setting decreased obedience slightly. When the teacher was physically closer to the learner, the level of compliance decreased—but even when the teacher had to physically hold the supposed learner’s hand on what was supposed to be a shock plate, 30% completed the experiment. When the experimenter was physically farther away, compliance decreased. For example, when the experimenter gave instructions over the phone, compliance dropped to 21%. There was no significant difference in results when all women were used.
To write convincingly about obedience, it’s important to note that the people were greatly stressed by what they were doing. They objected verbally, questioned the experimenter, and reported high levels of distress when debriefed.
So, can we conclude that someone is telling people to get rough with those trying to enter the United States? NO!
Enter Philip Zimbardo. In 1971 he conducted The Stanford Prison Experiment. It was specifically intended to investigate issues of the relationships between prisoners and guards. Did the behaviors of prisoners and guards reflect inherent personality differences between the two groups?
Volunteers for a two-week prison experiment were screened and those with criminal backgrounds, psychological impairment, or medical problems were excluded. The research team chose 24 men they deemed most psychologically stable and healthy. Participants were paid $15 per day (the equivalent of $92.91 in 2018).
The subjects were randomly divided into prisoners and guards.
The guards were instructed not to physically harm the prisoners or withhold food or drink, but Zimbardo emphasized that “…in this situation we’ll have all the power and they will have none.” Guards were told to call prisoners by their assigned numbers rather than their names. But otherwise, guards improvised their roles. Prisoners were given no instructions.
On the second day the three prisoners in one cell rioted, blocked the door with their beds, tore off their caps, and refused to come out or obey the guards. Guards from other shifts agreed to work overtime to quell the riot and eventually they attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers (while not being supervised by research staff).
The experiment was terminated after only 6 days. By then, about a third of the guards had exhibited “genuine sadistic tendencies”; prisoners were emotionally traumatized and five of them had to be removed from the experiment early. You can read about this experiment in any social psychology textbook. Online you can also view video clips.
Arguably, the most important outcome of the study is that the behavior of two equivalent groups diverged dramatically after one was labeled “guards” and the other was labeled “prisoners.”
To answer the initial question of what sadistic SOB would do such a thing:the perfectly ordinary, likable, friend, colleague, or neighbor.
As a writer, keep that in mind as you create characters behaving badly.
My family of origin traveled to visit relatives in nearby states–and I loved it! Similar as some aspects were to home, I reveled in the new. I wanted to travel more even before I ever did! Today I received a travel catalog, and spent some time drooling. And then I decided to share with you some of the quotes on people, places, and travel that I found in that catalog.
Each quote is short. Think about it.
BOTTOM LINE: Consider what you—and your characters—think, feel, want, and remember about travel.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”