Why Human Skulls?

October is traditionally the month to bring out Jack-o-Lanterns, ghosts, spiders, monsters of all sorts, and skeletons. But this October, my focus is on human skulls. Some of you are aware that I have been posting skull pictures on FB dailyBut why? Short answer: because I love them! They can, do, and always have represented many meanings to many people and cultures.
why human skulls

Skull Symbolism

 
As best I remember, I first noticed skulls on old tombstones in Boston. Virtually every tombstone featured some version of a skull. A frequent depiction was a skull with angel wings, presumed to represent death and life after death.

 

why human skulls
Subsequently, traveling abroad, I saw skulls in paintings, representing mortality, the swift passage of time, and that life is temporary.

 

Catacombes of Paris
Catacombs of Paris, 2007 [Source: Djtox]
In Rome, Prague, and cities in Portugal, I saw whole rooms and cathedrals walled and decorated with skulls, often honoring dead saints.

 

Skulls For Honor

Skulls honoring the dead took a much more personal turn in Cuzco, Peru. Since Inca times, mummies of the dead emperors were kept in homes and played an important role as leaders in Cuzco. Traditionally, families kept the skulls of ancestors on small altars in their homes. The pictures above are not mine, but when there I visited a one-room Inca home still inhabited by a family where an ancestral skull rested on a shelf carved into the stone wall, along with a partly burned candle and dried herbs. The skulls of loved ones are said to be good company, and to watch over and protect the family and the home.

 

why human skulls
In Mexico’s Day of the Dead, dead ancestors and relatives are honored in a joyous celebration in which sugar skulls in bright colors create a celebration of life as well as death.

 

Using Skulls

 
why human skulls
Using the domes of skulls as bowls, as ritual drinking cups, and/or as a tribute to the victor goes back millennia. The oldest known one was 12,750 BCE. Posting or displaying the heads of slain enemies is well known. It may be that people made skull cups to honor and remember their dead, but it could also have been to try to tap into magical or healing powers.

 

Skull medicine has a long history. In the 17th century, people would drink from skulls, drink the powdered skull, or imbibe the entire head. This was part of a widespread tradition of medicinal cannibalism using everything (bone, blood, flesh, and fat) that continued into the 18th and even the 19th centuries.

 

But I Don’t Do Any of Those Things With Skulls.

why human skulls
I have skulls for ornamentation and symbolism.  At first I wore skull scarves and jewelry for mystery book signings and panel presentations only. The more I looked at created skulls, the more attractive I found them to be. I’m not alone in this. A human skull with its large eye sockets is especially appealing to people and is easily recognized even in fragments. I especially like mineral skulls, and created this one-of-a-kind choker for myself.

 

why human skulls
I first read about the power of stones for a short story, “Beast and the Beauty.” Interestingly, I didn’t come across any stone for which the asserted power is malevolent. And even more interestingly (to me), some ancient societies believed that objects like crystal skulls represent life, the honoring of humanity in the flesh, and the embodiment of consciousness. That appeals to me.

 

why human skulls
If you search for skull symbolism online, you will find a post on bikerringshop.com, “Behind the Bones: the History of the Skull Ring.” This anonymously authored post includes a lot of interesting info; for example, “To the Victorians, a skull ring was a way to celebrate lost loved ones and a reminder of the wearer’s own mortality.”

 

In addressing the complicated symbolism surround skull rings, they address the following topics.

 

  1. Death Symbolism: most obvious association; a way of embracing and understanding your fate
  2. Carpe Diem: time is limited, so free spirits make the most of it
  3. A Reminder of Life: associated with the afterlife in many religions, from Aztecs to Christianity
  4. A Symbol of Equality: everyone will die, and one skull is pretty much like another
  5. Toughness and Rebellion: representing rebels, people who play by their own rules; bravery and toughness in the face of death.
why human skulls
Actually, I have more pendants and earrings than rings, from the totally formal to the clearly casual.

 

BOTTOM LINE: Find out about skulls, consider their meaning, and enjoy them.

Horror Week is Here

horror week here
Celebrate it on Goodreads! Here you will find their list of the 50 most popular horror books on Goodreads, “From Mary Shelley to Stephen King.”  You can also read the Ghastly Horror Subgenres (sic), Book-to-Scream Adaptations, 13 True Tales of Terror, and—just for fun—The Nightmare Generator. My worst nightmare is supposed to be an incompetent vampire in the nursery. For my husband, it’s supposed to be a paranoid cannibal in the attic. FIND YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE!
complete works edgar allan poe
Edgar Allan Poe is only one proof that well-written horror is well-written literature. It’s timeless. And every set of tips on how to write horror includes the observation that good writing, and all the elements thereof, are the foundation with horror being an add-on. “Horror” means an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.

 

horror week here
Now Novel is a good place to start if you are thinking of dipping your toe into this genre. According to this blog, the 5 common elements of the best horror stories are these:

 

  • They explore malevolent or wicked characters, deeds, or phenomena.
  • They arouse feelings of fear, shock, or disgust as well as the sense of the uncanny.
  • They are intense.
  • They contain scary and/or shocking and scintillating plot twists and story reveals.
  • They immerse readers in the macabre.

 

The blog then goes on to discuss six tips:
  1. How to write horror using a strong, pervasive tone.
  2. The importance of reading widely in your genre.
  3. Giving wicked characters credible motives
  4. Using the core elements of tragedy
  5. Writing scary novels by tapping into common human fears.
  6. The difference between terror and horror.

 

horror week here
If you want even more advice, you can find it at The Ramble. According to Chuck Wendig, horror is best when it’s about tragedy. It contains subversion, admonition, and fear of the unknown. Horror works on our minds, our hearts, and our gut. It can be gross, but that isn’t necessary. What is necessary is for characters you love to make choices you hate. “SEX AND DEATH ALSO PLAY WELL TOGETHER.” You should never tell readers they should be scared. He writes much more than this, of course.

 

horror week here
In my opinion, one of the best sites is Bustle. It includes comments from ten authors, including Stephen King, who discusses gross-out, horror, and terror.

 

horror week here
Advice from others includes:

 

  • Shirley Jackson: Use your own fear.
  • R.I. Stine: Get inside your narrator’s head.
  • Tananarive Due: Don’t worry about being “legitimate.”
  • Ray Bradbury: Take your nonsense seriously.
  • Anne Rice: Go where the pain is.
  • Clive Barker: The scariest thing is feeling out of control.
  • Linda Addison: Just start writing and fix it later.
  • Neil Gaiman: Tell your own story.
  • Helen Oyeyemi: Keep it real (kind of).
horror week here
And the advice goes on. Bottom line: This is the week to read and/or write a little horror!
 
horror week here
goodreads horror week

When E-Readers Are Better than Physical Books

mary renault books kindle
I’m picturing and talking about Kindle here because that’s what I have, but I assume other e-readers have the same characteristics. No doubt some of the points I make will be already known to you—for example, portability and convenience. As you can see in the above picture, my Kindle currently contains 338 books. That’s hundreds of books at my fingertips—i.e., hundreds of choices, virtually anytime, anywhere.

 

Then, too, any book can be read in large print. Sometimes, depending on fatigue, people who don’t usually need larger print temporarily do! Then, too, one can control the brightness to read comfortably in varying ambient light. And, not insignificantly, new e-books cost considerably less than their physical counterparts. (One can often find great prices on old books, overstocks, books in library book sales, etc. The downside is often not being able to get the book you want, when you want it.)

 

king must die mary renault
I recently started rereading Mary Renault. She was a favorite of mine years ago, and I decided to revisit her work and see what I think of it now that I write fiction myself. I’m not disappointed! She writes well: strong verbs, vivid action, good sensory appeal (especially visual), a well-rounded protagonist, and excellent weaving together of myth and archaeological evidence.

 

But, frankly, I don’t know how I made it through the physical books! For example, The King Must Die has a cast of thousands (only a slight exaggeration), references to gods who are (to me) only vaguely familiar, complex family relationships, unfamiliar geography, and lots of references to antique items and geology. KINDLE TO THE RESCUE! By holding my finger on an unfamiliar word, I learned that keeking means peeping surreptitiously, porphyry is a reddish igneous rock, greaves are shin armor, and hundreds more! Where in the past I would have skimmed the unfamiliar or approximated meaning from context, my e-reader gave me a much richer read.

 

last wine mary renault
The King Must Die was such a joy, I’m now on the next. Indeed, I’ve downloaded every Renault Amazon has available. (FYI, I binge read authors I really like.) And I believe every reader of the unfamiliar, whether fiction or nonfiction, can have an enhanced read on an e-reader.
 
Bottom line: Reading on an electronic device is an opportunity to broaden vocabulary, deepen general knowledge, and make the esoteric available to the non-expert!

Is the Quality of Writing Declining? And if So, Why?

mahjong
I recently played mah jong with other women of a certain age who were lamenting the quality of writing today, especially among their grandchildren. The opinion at the table was unanimous. But upon reflection (even after I noticed the poor writing in some recent novels I read), I wondered whether that is true. I searched online and here are the first several articles I found.
quality writing declining
According to Goldstein, “Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th grades lack proficiency in writing… And 40% of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level composition class…”

 

Goldstein says that the root of the problem is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves. According to a 2016 study of teachers across the country in grades three through eight, fewer than half had a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing and fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. The article then goes on to discuss various approaches to teaching writing.

 

In spite of the shortage of high-quality research on the teaching of writing, Goldstein cites a few concrete strategies that help.

 

  1. Children need to learn how to transcribe both by hand and through typing on a computer.
  2. Children need to practice writing great sentences before writing paragraphs.
  3. They need clear feedback on their writing.
  4. Students need a synthesis of freewriting without a focus on transcription or punctuation AND grammar instruction.
quality writing declining
Aalai says she has seen a decline in writing ability even over the last ten years, declines in critical thinking, proper syntax, spelling, grammar, even proper structure like paragraph indentation and how to cite sources. And she asks, “In the digital world where language is reduced down to 120 characters or less, is some essential part of ourselves that needs to be cultivated… also being lost in the shuffle?”

 

quality writing declining
Morrison’s blog post is very thorough. She presents facts on the writing skill gap, as well as “interesting data from The Writing Lives of College Students,” a list of strategies instructors might consider to develop students’ writing skills. “What is surprising is that students view sending text messages as a writing form and consider it to be the most valuable form of writing over all others.” There are also several enlightening responses to her blog.
quality writing declining
Gaille’s blog offers the following reasons for the decline in writing skills.

 

  1. Social Media Displacement of Reading. The basic issue is that students engage in social media rather than serious reading as a leisure activity.
  2. Digital Brains. Cites cognitive neuroscientists’ conclusions that touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text accounts for students’ difficulties with reading the classics.
  3. College is Less Rigorous. (He cites research.)
  4. Writing Skills Are No Longer Graded. I.e., “[c]ontent alone matters, not how well the student expressed it.”
  5. Text Slang. This includes shortcuts, alternative words, or symbols to convey thoughts in an electronic document.
quality writing declining
Ingraham cites data to the effect that in 2015 the percentage of American adults who read literature (novels, short stories, poetry, or plays) fell to at least a three-decade low. The data exclude reading for school or work, so I’d classify this as reading literature for pleasure. Only 43% read at least one work of literature in the previous year, compared to 57% in 1982.

 

Who reads?

 

  • 50% of women, 36% of men
  • 50% of whites, 29% of African-Americans, 27% of Hispanics
  • 68% of people with a graduate degree, 59% with a bachelor’s degree, 30% with a high school education

 

Across the board, there have been drops in literary reading among all ages, races, and educational levels.

 

Does it matter if people are reading fewer works of literature? Yes! “A number of recent studies have demonstrated that fiction—particularly literary fiction—seems to boost the quality of empathy in the people who read it, their ability to see the world from another person’s eyes.” And the world needs more empathy than ever!

 

quality writing declining
This post starts with six quotes about the deterioration of language, then goes on to note that these quotes come from 1785 through 1978! According to Harvey A. Daniels, Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered, “The earliest language ‘crisis’… that I have been able to discover occurred in ancient Sumeria… It seems that among the first of the clay tablets discovered and deciphered by modern scholars was one which recorded the agonized complaints of a Sumerian teacher about the sudden drop-off in students’ writing ability.”

 

According to this article, Daniels concludes the following:

 

  • our language cannot “die” as long as people speak it
  • language change is a healthy and inevitable process
  • all human languages are rule governed, ordered, and logical
  • variations between different groups of speakers are normal and predictable
  • all speakers employ a variety of speech forms and styles in response to changing social settings
  • most of our attitudes about language are based upon social rather than linguistic judgment
To paraphrase Gaille’s last paragraph: Just as good writing withstood the distractions of dance crazes, automobiling, and magazines, it also will survive social media.

Writing Roundup: Toxic Relationships

writing roundup toxic relationships

Are you an author in need of resources for writing toxic relationships? Look no further! Here is a roundup of some of my posts detailing ways in which you can write such dynamics.

Do you have any suggestions for additional posts or questions about toxic relationships? Let me know!

How Not to Cry

how not cry

I’m a cryer. I cry at weddings and funerals, during the sad parts of good movies or books. In any given situation where it is appropriate to cry, I do. The downside is that I sometimes feel the urge to cry when—at least in my opinion—it is NOT appropriate. The prime example is that I tend to cry when I am furious at something or someone.

 

It turns out, there’s advice for that.

 

how not cry
Yar starts by acknowledging that there are times when people just don’t want to cry—e.g. in public places or at work. As I write, I’ll use “she” and “her” because women are more likely than men to cry. Indeed, 41% of women reported crying at work, compared to 9% for men. So, if you or your character doesn’t want to cry, here’s what Yar recommends.

 

  1. Provide a prop, such as a stress ball or scribble pad. Doing something with her hand might distract her.
  2. Have her pinch the skin between her thumb and pointer finger. Tensing the muscles and doing something may make her feel less helpless. Apparently feeling passive and/or helpless often causes tears.
  3. Have her take deep, cleansing breaths. It facilitates feeling calm.
  4. She can pinch the bridge of her nose, near the tear ducts. Indeed, any self-inflicted pain (within limits) can be distracting.
  5. She can tilt her head back. The tears will literally not overflow for a second or two, providing time to focus on something else.
  6. She should literally step back from the situation and maintain a neutral facial expression while considering why she feels like crying.
  7. She can inform bystanders that she needs a moment to gather her thoughts and has to step away for a bit. She may then cry a bit or get over it, but no one will be watching.
While showing strong emotions is easy when you want to show it, showing efforts to suppress strong emotions is often more difficult. Using the techniques above, your reader will get what’s going on without stating it in the narrative.

Writing Roundup: Psychology for Writers

writing roundup psychology writers

I’ve written quite a few blog posts about psychology for writers. I’ve rounded them all up for you here in one convenient place so that you can browse at your leisure!

Do you have any suggestions for additional posts or questions about psychology for writers? Let me know!

Bitch Blog

I’ve recently read several novels by a U.S.A. Today best selling author, and the quality of the writing/editing drove me nuts. How can someone who does these things be a bestseller? These are Regency Romance novels, if that helps put my complaints in context.

 

What’s wrong with these books?

Across novels, the following happens repeatedly.

 

  • The women step so fast that their skirts flutter about their ankles.
  • A curl is forever falling over her eye (or sometimes his).
  • The male love interest is invariably over six feet tall (in the early 1800s) with a chiseled body to rival Greek statues.
  • Someone is often willing to “trade her [littlest] finger for . . .”
  • Fingerfuls of brandy are splashed into glasses, which are usually then filled to the brim.
  • Oh, so often, something really isn’t well done.
  • Someone (usually male) often rubs a lock of hair between thumb and forefinger.
  • Stray locks are often tucked behind her ear.
  • People turn their heads so fast they wrench the muscles of their necks.
  • Tense characters grip the edge of a table or the arm of a chair hard enough to leave crescent marks. (Sometimes those crescent marks are on palms.)
  • People have thick dark hooded lashes.
  • When angry, characters often grit their teeth or clench their teeth so hard that pain radiates or shoots up their jaws.
And then there are the awkward or erroneous constructions.
 
  • his head reeling to the side
  • eldest vs. elder when there are only two
  • to not get
  • two very entirely different
  • where she was far safer to his senses
  • there, with but the risk of a patron passing by away from ruin, he kissed her
  • most unfavorable of light
  • to their respective box (or chair)
  • there is nothing unordinary
  • little expectations
  • still bore the blunt of his fist
  • as always, entirely, too cheerful
  • I came tonight at the bequest of my sister

So why is this a bestselling author?

 
  • The heroines are NOT universally gorgeous, perfectly proportioned, and virtuous.
  • Heroines are smart, active, resourceful, and brave.
  • Often minor characters in one book become the principles in subsequent books, offering continuity.
  • And there are usually breaches of the class lines of the period.
So maybe this is a case of readers reading for story, not for style. Oh, sigh.

Weather for Writers

weather writers
Recently I—along with my plants—have been suffering from the heat. They wilt and wither. I feel lethargic and grumpy. I’m not alone in this. From back in the day when I taught psychology, I’m well aware that weather affects mood and behavior. Indeed, hot summer months are associated with lower mood, and humidity tends to make people more tired and irritable.

 

And it occurs to me, writers might like to know the effects of weather that have been scientifically studied.
 
weather writers
 
SUNSHINE
 
Perhaps one of the best known effects is that people like sunshine—but only if you are able to get out in it. Otherwise, moods likely plummet for people stuck indoors.

 

Pleasant spring weather is associated with higher mood, better memory, and other good cognitive functions.

 

Drivers are more likely to pick up hitchhikers on sunny days than on cloudy days.

 

On sunny days people are more likely to help each other.

 

And Minnesotans tip more generously in restaurants when it’s sunny.

 

College applicants’ non-academic attributes are weighted more heavily on sunny days.

 

On sunny days, a woman is likely to give her phone number to an attractive stranger 22% of the time (compared to 14% of the time on cloudy days).

 

People spend more money when it’s sunny.

 

Being outside during pleasant weather can improve memory and boost creativity.

 

CLOUDS AND RAIN
On the good side, people recall up to seven times more objects when quizzed on cloudy days compared to sunny ones.

 

College applicants’ academic attributes are weighted more heavily on cloudy days. I love the title of this study: Clouds Make Nerds Look Good.

 

On the bad side, as noted above, hitchhikers fare worse on cloudy days.

 

On rainy days, people feel less satisfied with their lives.

 

Changes in barometric pressure can affect mood and cause headaches.

 

Rain can cause you to eat more, especially carbs.

 

Rain can cause pain. Because of the reduction in atmospheric pressure there is an increase in stiffness and a reduction in mobility. Yes, Granny’s knees predicting the weather is supported by science.

 

Some studies have found a relationship between low barometric pressure and suicide.

 

thermometer weather writers
TEMPERATURE
 
The ideal temperature for helping is 68 degrees F. The more the temperature goes above or below that, the lower the rates of helping.

 

Crime rates rise with temperature. During the summer, rates for serious violent crimes, household burglary, and household property damage are significantly higher.

 

Rates of aggression—everything from murders and riots to horn-honking—are higher in hotter years, months, days, and times of day.

 

Baseball pitchers are more likely to hit batters on hot days.

 

Journalists tend to use more negative words on hotter days.

 

Cold temperatures can lead to physical lethargy (much like too much heat).

 

weather writers
WINTER
Lack of sufficient sunshine in winter causes some people to become depressed, a syndrome known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It can be treated with light therapy. SAD is sometimes referred to as winter depression. It typically affects people from October through April.

 

Seasonal depression may be mediated by loss of vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin). People suffering anxiety and depression are more likely to have vitamin D deficiency, and seniors with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more likely to be depressed than those with normal levels.

 

Cold temperatures: see above.

 

weather writers
The effects of weather on mood are a combination of biological, psychological, and social. If you need to know why weather is causing your characters to act in specific ways, you can delve into that online!

 

weather writers