NIGHT TERRORS: MORE THAN DREAMS, MORE THAN NIGHTMARES

The Pooka (or Poukha or Puca), an Irish nightmare

A character’s “night life” can provide depth to the characterization and understanding for the reader. Nightmares and night terrors are both frightening, but the two sleep disorders are frightening in different ways to very different audiences. Knowing the distinctions will help you use them effectively in your writing.

Pity by William-Blake 1795

Adequate sleep, with all the different stages and cycles, is a crucial part of overall physical and mental well-being. Dreaming is absolutely necessary to good mental health. There is far too much detail to get into here, but research is clear. Indeed, repeatedly waking someone to prevent dreaming is a well-known form of torture.

What Are Nightmares?

Job’s Evil Dreams by William Blake

Nightmares are vividly realistic, disturbing dreams that rattle a person awake from a deep sleep. They often affect the body in the same way waking danger does. Adrenaline spikes, heart rate and respiration rate increase, and the body increases sweat production.

Rakshasa, a Hindu demon causing nightmares

Nightmares tend to occur most often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreaming takes place. Because periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, people experience nightmares most often in the early morning hours.

A Dream of Crime & Punishment (1847) by JJ Grandville

Some people wake from nightmares crying, while others may wake shaking from fear. After a nightmare, people often have trouble falling back to sleep. The combination of the stress hormones flooding through the body with whatever lingering images from the nightmare are stuck in the mind make it very difficult to relax enough to fall back asleep. Particularly disturbing nightmares can cause sleep disruptions for days and stick around in the brain for years.

What are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are recurring nighttime episodes that happen while a person remains asleep. They’re also commonly known as sleep terrors. When a night terror begins, a sleeper will appear to wake up. They might call out, cry, move around, or show other signs of fear and agitation.

Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking by Artus Scheiner

Other common reactions:

  • Screaming or crying 
  • Staring blankly
  • Flailing or thrashing in bed
  • Breathing rapidly 
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Becoming flushed and sweaty
  • Seeming confused
  • Getting up, jumping on the bed, or running around the room
The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch

A sleeper may become aggressive if a partner or family member tries to restrain them or keep them quiet. The episode can last for a few seconds or up to several minutes, though the sleeper typically doesn’t wake up. Most people fall right back to quiet sleep after a night terror.

Takagi Umanosuke Confronts the Ghost of a Woman
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Night terrors are more common in young children, but they can disturb adults as well. An estimated 2 percent of adults also experience night terrors. In reality, this number may be higher, since people often don’t remember having night terrors. 

Night terrors usually happen earlier in the night, during the first half of the sleeping period. This is when a sleeper is in stages 3 and 4 of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, also called slow-wave sleep. It’s uncommon to have them twice in one night, though it can happen. 

What is the Difference Between Night Terrors and Nightmares?

Dream-Land etching (1883) by S.J. Ferris after a painting by C.D. Weldon

Night terrors may might seem similar to nightmares, but the two are different. In addition to the immediate mental and physical effects, the effect on witnesses or other members of a household are very different for night terrors and nightmares.

The Last Judgment (detail) by Jan van Eyck

When a sleeper wakes up from a nightmare, they will probably remember at least some of what the dream involved. Come morning, the sleeper is quite likely to remember the episode, though the memory may be vague.

During night terrors, the sleeper remains asleep and usually doesn’t remember what happened when they do wake up in the morning. The sleeper might remember a scene from a dream they had during the night terror episode, but it’s uncommon to recall any other part of the experience. 

The Orphans Dream (ca. 1900) by James Elliott

A partner, roommate, family member, or other witness to a night terror episode is likely to remember the experience quite well. The daughter of a friend has fairly frequent night terrors, during which she will wander out of the house in her pyjamas or physically attack her partner in his sleep. In the morning, she occasionally has grass on her feet or bruised knuckles but no memory of how she got them.

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Nightmare by Eugene Thivier
SPECT Readout of a Sleepwalking Patient, from the Lancet

Many adults who experience nightmares or night terrors live with mood-related mental health conditions, such as depressionanxiety, or bipolar disorder.  Night terrors have also been associated with the experience of trauma and heavy or long-term stress

Physical factors can also contribute to the frequency of night terrors and nightmares. Sleep apnea is a very common cause of other sleep disorders. Some other possible causes

Khumbhakarna, a bringer of nightmares, in a temple in Bali

Frequent disruptions to sleep cycles (such as night terrors or nightmares) cause fatigue and, eventually, sleep deprivation. Fatigue and sleep deprivation increase the likelihood of having night terrors or nightmares. There’s no escape!

Nightmare (1810) by Jean Pierre Simon

Bottom Line for Writers: Characters can be just as interesting when they sleep! Why would your character have disrupted sleep, and how would they react? Would the sleep disruption be more effective if experienced by the narrator (nightmare or confusion after night terrors) or by someone close to the narrator (night terror or discussing remembered nightmare)?

Sleepwalker a rather odd statue put up in Boston in 2014 by Tony Matelli

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: FITNESS

Some people, I’ve heard, actually like to exercise. These people are probably playing games such as tennis, golf, basketball, etc. Maybe biking, hiking or kayaking. There are also people who enjoy lifting weights just for the sake of lifting weights. Is your character one of these? If so, how good is s/he?  And when did s/he take up the game?

Then there are activities that some people do for fun and others do as a means to a specific end. In this category I’d put swimming or water aerobics for a bad back, running to relieve stress, boxing as a form of anger management, yoga to relax. Some people bike or walk for fun; for many others, walking and biking is a primary mode of transportation.

This group also would include those people who work out primarily to get or keep a body beautiful.

For most of human history, the vast majority of people have gotten plenty of exercise just trying to stay alive. Farming, hunting, and gathering food require activities people pay big money to recreate in a gym today. Building defense structures, making tools and weapons, chopping wood, washing clothes, and travelling are all much more physically demanding without machinery to help. In almost every part of the world, there are still cultures today that rely primarily on human or animal labor rather than technology.

Some people exercise simply because they have to. Physical therapy can be done to prevent a future injury as well as to treat an existing injury. Martial arts practice can people alive in crisis situations, but regular practice has also been helpful in the treatment of mental illness. A home might only be reachable by strenuous hiking; a job might require frequent lifting and carrying.

At the other end of the spectrum are people whose preferred activity is reading novels while snarfing chocolates or swigging scotch. Or maybe that’s watching TV while munching chips and chugging beer. Sound like any characters you know?

But even these people have probably heard “sitting is the new smoking” when it comes to being detrimental to one’s health. This group of people will find the easiest or least painful way to stay minimally fit.

  • Go to the gym with a friend and enjoy the socialization
  • Join an exercise class that’s nearby
  • Hire a personal trainer
  • Get up for jumping jacks during commercial breaks
  • Lifting the coffee mug to take a sip counts as doing bicep curls

For some, getting dressed and going somewhere is too much effort—not to mention those who don’t want anyone to see them doing whatever it is they are doing.  And in these times of COVID-19, many people don’t want the exposure. These people are likely to choose a stay-at-home option.

  • Buy equipment to use at home:
    • Balance ball
    • Exercise bands
    • Graduated weights, hand-held or strapped to wrists/ankles
    • Heavy-duty weights, barbels, etc.
    • A multi-purpose machine such as Bowflex
    • NordicTrack or similar treadmill
    • Rowing machine
    • A compact elliptical trainer
    • Stationary bicycle
    • Some version of a vibrating plate

Note: Jugs of water, broken swivel chairs, flat-surface furniture, paper plates, and compliant dogs or small children can provide the same benefits as all of these expensive gadgets for almost no money at all!

3.1 How likely is your character to show up at the gym wearing only a towel?

Bottom line for writers: Know your characters’ fitness habits, particularly main characters. There are three components to a person’s/character’s exercise decisions

  1. How does s/he feel about fitness/exercise?
  2. What does s/he think about fitness/exercise?
  3. What does s/he actually do?

WRITING CLASS VIA ZOOM

I went into this with some trepidation. Heretofore, my only experiences with zoom have been with a critique group and with a social group. The critique group is only four, and the social group, five. How would that work with ten?

This class is called Exploring Fiction, and it’s part of the creative writing program offered at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts studio center. I’ve taken courses through the VMFA before, but this is the first time I’ve tried it online. My classmates all have schedules flexible enough to allow them to join a class in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Other than that, there’s quite a bit of variety.
.

  • Some have taken dozens of writing classes for many years; for others, this is the first writing class they’ve taken.
  • Participant ages vary; so far as I can guess, there is a span of thirty or forty years..
  • A few of my classmates have published several works, both books and shorter works. Some in the class have no interest in publishing at all.
  • I recognize several of my fellow writers from previous classes or peer review groups we’ve been in before. Others are new friends for me to meet!

What I liked:

  • Finally getting back with some of my writing friends of old
  • Finding that the teacher is well-organized, and already experienced
  • The “get acquainted” exercise, and learning things I didn’t know about people I already knew
  • The varied aspects of each class, which include assigned readings, prompted writing, and sharing of our own work
  • The teacher’s focus on the positive feedback
  • Being able to sip water or coffee, something I’d never bothered to take to class before
  • Once again hearing the different takes on the same prompt 
  • Hearing someone else’s very vivid writing
  • Discussing a short story from The New Yorker and examining why it works so well

What I didn’t like:

  • I couldn’t see everyone by simply turning my head
  • Everyone seemed more stilted and formal
  • Fewer spontaneous comments among students
  • Difficulty taking notes while using my laptop to run the meeting
  • Seeing the way I look on screen, face all mottled by shadows
  • Feeling self-conscious every time I touched my hair
    • Or scratched my nose
    • Or wrinkled my brow
    • Or moved at all, actually
  • Being hyper-aware of every noise I made, coughing or turning pages or whatever
  • Having to mute myself whenever my husband made noise in the backgroundAnd remembering to unmute after

Bottom line for this writer: not as good as in-person but soooo much better than no class at all!

The (Virtual) Perennial Student

A year and a bit ago, I wrote about the importance of continuing education and peer review for a writer. Though in-person classes and critique groups are more difficult these days, challenging yourself to write is just as important. As with so many other areas of life, the internet can help with that!

Writing classes are notoriously rowdy. Teachers may even welcome the relative calm of online classes conducted via web cam.

It’s practically a cliché that writing is a lone activity. For the past few months, pretty much everything has been a lone activity. Classes and writing groups add the social dimension to writing, especially during quarantines, lockdowns, and isolations. I never met a boring writer! I meet interesting people with similar interests and (usually) similar world views. Thus there is the potential to develop new friendships as well as keeping in touch with current friends.

Why Classes?

When you happen to live with a writing partner, social distancing and masks are probably not required.

Classes stimulate me to write in new directions.  Yes, I write when I’m not in class, but it tends to get habitual, not to mention sporadic.  An extra bonus of online classes is the ability to connect with teachers and fellow writers in all over the world. The variety of cultural perspectives is almost guaranteed to shine light on some of those new directions.

Drawing up a calendar schedule isn’t necessarily required, but it certainly helps to avoid last-minute writing crunches.

Classes are structured to make me write regularly. The VMFA studio classes meet regularly, with a variety of schedules to suit any writing lifestyle. Tuition is a real bargain, when one looks at dollars per hour of instruction! Just saying.

When I write regularly, I also submit regularly, at least six times per year.  This leads to lots of rejections, but without submissions there are no acceptances. Submissions, thankfully, are almost entirely online.

Typed submissions are much easier to send to online classes, but some people still prefer to write a first draft with pen and paper.

Most of my life has been spent in classrooms, as a student and/or teacher. Classes are my natural environment, the one in which I thrive.  Classmates and/or teachers praising my writing is extremely gratifying. Every time I get something published, it’s like an A on my report card or a star on my forehead. With more than 50 publications in literary journals and anthologies, my writing life is sufficiently star-studded to make me smile.

Why Critique Groups?

For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

There are some things that will help a group to be good.  There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

  • Set down the group guidelines in writing.
  • Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
  • Be clear about how feedback will be given.
  • Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
  • Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting:
    • Are they expected to send comments on others’ work?
    • Can they send work anyway?
  • What if someone comes without having written anything?
  • Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
  • Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
  • Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
  • Meet at least twice a month.

Online critique groups have additional logistics to consider.

  • To avoid pandemonium, there should be a recognized leader for each meeting.
    • The leader could be the meeting host, the original organizer, the most senior author, a regularly rotating position, or any other generally agreed person.
  • Web meeting courtesy should be observed, including muting microphones when not speaking, avoiding distracting background action on video, and not having side conversations.
  • Because all submissions will be digital, participants must share files in a format that can be opened and read by everyone.

Find Your Group

Here are just a few of the many options for classes online:

Peer review groups or partnerships can be formed by anyone. Perhaps some of your friends from past classes or workshops would be up for regular critiquing. Social media is a great way to connect with other writers you may never have met in real life. There are also more formal groups:

FAT OR PHAT

In modern slang, phat is roughly equivalent to excellent. Fat is a loose label that can refer to normal, overweight, obese, or extremely obese—or body parts that the speaker considers overly large. Fat or phat depends on where and when—and whether TV is available. 

According to The Body Project at Bradley University, “Although thin bodies are the ideal in America today, this is not always the case in other parts of the world. In some countries larger bodies are actually preferred because they are symbols of wealth, power, and fertility.” Here are their highlights.

Tahiti

  • In Tahiti, researchers in the 19th century observed chosen men and women engaging in a ritual process called ha’apori, or “fattening.”
    • Those selected to participate were usually young men and women from the upper echelons of society. 
    • During the fattening process, they would reside in a special home where relatives fed and cared for them so they would grow large, healthy, and attractive.
  • This ritual is no longer practiced today, but Tahitians still find large bodies attractive. This may be due in part to a diet rich in carbohydrates and coconut milk.

Nauru

  • In Nauru, large bodies were traditionally associated with beauty and fertility.
    • Young women were fattened up in preparation for child bearing.
    • Young men were fattened in preparation for contests of strength.
  • Fattening rituals had both social and biological benefits.
    • Feasting brought the community together and helped unite them.
    • The additional calories given to women of childbearing age increased the likelihood of conception and healthy birth and lactation.
  • Such fattening rituals ended in the 1920s.

Fiji

  • In Fiji, larger bodies are symbols of health and connectedness to the community. People who lose a lot of weight or are very thin are regarded with suspicion or pity.
    • In a 1998 study in Fiji, 54% of obese female respondents said they wanted to maintain their present weight, while 17% of obese women said they hoped to gain weight.
    • Among overweight (although not obese) women, 72% said they did not wish to change their weight, while 8% of these women hoped to gain weight.
  • Both overweight and obese women expressed a high level of body satisfaction.

Jamaica

  • A 1993 study in Jamaica found that plump bodies are considered healthiest and most attractive among rural Jamaicans.
    • Fat is associated with fertility, kindness, happiness, vitality, and social harmony.
    • Some Jamaican girls even buy pills designed to increase their appetite and help them gain weight.
  • Particular emphasis is placed on generous hips and hindquarters.
  • Weight loss and thinness are considered signs of social neglect.

The body project reports: “In recent times, even many societies that once favored larger bodies seem to be moving toward thinner bodies as the ideal. Why? One factor is that with globalization and the spread of Western media, people around the world are receiving the same message that we do in America: that thin bodies are the most attractive.”

  • In a landmark 2002 study, researchers reported the effects of the Western mass media on body ideals in Fiji.
    • When researchers visited one region of Fiji in 1995, they found that broadcast television was not available. In that region, there was only one reported case of anorexia nervosa.
    • Just three years after the introduction of television, 69% of girls reported dieting to lose weight.
    • Those whose families owned televisions were three times more likely to have attitudes associated with eating disorders.

Other Countries Where Big is Beautiful

Kuwait
52% of Kuwaiti women over 15 are obese.  Extra weight was historically seen as a sign of health and wealth.  Additionally, the idea of women exercising is a taboo.

American Samoa
Anthropologists believe Samoans may have developed a genetic predisposition to store extra calories in fat tissue as a result of millennia of food shortages.  Heavy women (and men) are simply the norm and therefore embraced.

South Africa
The end of Apartheid did not mean South Africans adopted European size ideals to replace the correlation of weight and wealth. More recently, AIDS has become so prevalent that the societal association between weight loss and illness has contributed to South Africa’s negative view of thinness. 

Afghanistan
Female fertility is highly associated with excess pounds, particularly among the most traditional nomadic tribes in Afghanistan. Today, burquas conceal most of the body’s shape, but round faces and soft hands are immediate signs of attractiveness.

Mauritania
Female obesity is so synonymous with beauty and wealth that young girls are sometimes force-fed if they do not exhibit sufficient appetites.  Women often take antihistamines and animal steroids to induce appetite.  Exercise is frowned upon, and women are frequently divorced for their inability to sustain excessive girth after childbirth.

Changing Body Ideals

As The Body Project so clearly documented, body ideals are fluid. The changes over time are apparent, most obviously since 1900. 

From the Stone Age to the Renaissance, fat was beautiful, thought to reflect both health and wealth. Consider the early Fertility Goddesses (such as Venus, Ishtar, Brigid, Parvati, Hathor, Ashanti Akuba,) as an ideal:

  • Prior to 1900, in China, the stigma of thinness was so strong that thin people had trouble finding marriage partners. Special bulking diets were consumed to make sure those of marriageable age would be attractive.
  • Elite pubescent Efik girls (in Nigeria) spent two years in fattening huts, which were exactly what the name implies.
  • The Tarahumara of Northern Mexico idealized fat legs. Both women and men were considered more attractive or prosperous if obese.

Plus-sized beauty ideals are everywhere in old art. For example, “The Bathers” by Renoir (1887) is typical. Rubens, Titian, Memling, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and their fellow artists were all appreciative of the breadth of their subjects’ forms.

At the turn of the 20th century, Lillian Russell, weighing approximately 200 pounds, was a sex symbol. Women carrying extra weight were considered beautiful and fertile. Overweight men were perceived as powerful. There was even a club just for men who weighed over 200 pounds.

Connecticut Fat Men’s Club in 1866

Although during the Roaring Twenties in the U.S. the ideal body for women was “boyish” (flat chest and narrow hips), by the 1950s the ideal female body was significantly heavier than today. (Think Marilyn Monroe.)

Miss America pageant winners
The most beautiful woman, according to different populations.

Degrees of “acceptable” weight vary among cultures, regions, even ethnic groups. A number of studies report that African-American women were less likely than white women to obsess over their weight or to view their body as an enemy. Black women, as well as Hispanic women, didn’t start to express dissatisfaction until they were borderline obese. White women expressed dissatisfaction when they were at the high end of normal/borderline overweight.

From the 1960s to 2020, the ideal body has been some degree of thinness, even as there is a wave of obesity around the world.

Obesity and Physical  Health

I won’t dwell on physical health because it’s common knowledge. Obesity is bad for one’s health, increasing the likelihood of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoarthritis, infertility, fibroids, gastro-intestinal problems, and sleep disturbances. Recent studies have indicated that overweight patients who become infected with COVID-19 are more likely to develop life-threatening complications. 

Stereotypes of Fat People

Numerous surveys have demonstrated that the American public is biased against people who are overweight and obese. 

Negative attitudes toward fat people are dominant, pervasive, and difficult to change in both children and adults.

According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, physicians hold numerous biases. “A survey involving a nationally representative sample of primary care physicians revealed that, not only did more than half of respondents think that patients who are obese were awkward and unattractive, but more than 50 percent believed that they would be noncompliant with treatment. One-third thought of them as “weak-willed” and “lazy.”

Another study found that as patients’ weight increased, physicians reported having less patience, less faith in patients’ ability to comply with treatment, and less desire to help them. Other studies have added to the evidence that bias against patients who are obese is common in health care settings.”

These findings are particularly scary in light of the relationship between obesity and health problems summarized above—and in light of the fact that the majority of Americans are overweight or obese.

Fat people are thought to have no willpower, no self-control. Although expected to be good humored and laid back, they are also thought to be gluttons.

Tess Holliday (left) was mocked for wearing this dress on the red carpet. Several other (thin) celebrities were admired for wearing the same dress.

Anyone can identify prejudices held by people in general, and the media—particularly TV—exacerbate the problem.  Greenberg et al. reported on their findings of television actors’ BMI after analyzing 5 episodes of the top 10 prime time shows.

  • In comparing television actors’ BMI to that of the American public, they found that only 25 percent of men on television were overweight or obese, compared to almost 60 percent of American men.
  • Almost 90 percent of women on TV were at or below normal weight, compared to less than 50 percent of American women.
Korean pop stars (such as Xiumin from EXO) are held to absurd body weight standards, often being forced by managers and publicists to remain in a perpetual state of malnourishment.

Popular television shows that include people who are obese portray them as comedic, lonely, or freaks (think Mike and Molly).  Rarely if ever are they romantic leads, successful lawyers or doctors, or action stars.

In addition, The Biggest Loser promotes the perception that obesity is caused by individual failure rather than a mixture of individual, environment, and genetic sources.

  • Miscellaneous negative attributions
    • Rejected
    • Lazy
    • Slow
    • Sick
    • Low self-confidence
  • Indeterminate attributions
    • Hungry
    • Quiet
    • Shy
  • Although the negative attitudes are predominant, some positive traits are attributed to fat people
    • Happy
    • Sweet
    • Playful
    • Intelligent
    • Honest
    • Likely to fulfill promises
    • Kind
    • Generous

Fat and Employment

Male Body Ideals Through History
  • Negative attributions (see above) make employment particularly difficult for people who have some extra pounds.
    • Fat people have a harder time finding employment
    • Even when employed, fat people earn less than their thinner counterparts for the same job
    • They are less likely to be promoted
    • They get smaller raises
    • They’re more likely to be thought to be slacking off 

Fat and Mental Health

Even Plus-Size Models are photo-shopped to be nearly unrecognizable.
Karizza Photographer
  • In a nutshell, the more overweight a person is, the more likely that person is to have mental health problems.
    • Partly it’s because people incorporate the negative stereotypes held by society.
    • This, in turn, can cause-isolation-poor body image 
      • Low self-esteem
      • Depression
      • Anxiety
      • Bulimia or anorexia
Some people are totally comfortable in their bodies, not caring what anyone thinks.

Women in general react more strongly than men to negative comments and the lack of positive comments. Overweight women are much more likely to be hurt by criticism of their bodies than overweight men are.

Bottom line for writers: Whatever the body type of characters, make a conscious decision on whether to draw on stereotypes or go against them.

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: POTENTIALLY DEADLY

How would your character respond to potential death? Throughout time, people have faced illnesses and situations from which they knew, expected, or feared they might die. The possibilities are nearly limitless. Here are a few examples.

Situations
  • Prisoner of war-torture-prisoner on death row
  • Slavery
  • Famine/starvation
  • Exposure to extreme heat or cold
  • Domestic violence
  • Lost in the wild
  • Having a stalker
  • Being old
Illnesses
  • COVID/epidemic/pandemic
  • Bubonic plague
  • TB/consumption
  • Smallpox
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Malaria
  • Seasonal influenza
  • Cholera
  • Rabies
  • Pneumonia
  • Infectious diarrhea
  • Ebola
  • Variant Creutzfeldt
  • Jakob disease
  • Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)
  • Leprosy
  • Cancer

Common Responses

A glance at these examples reveals that deadliness depends, not only on what but also on location, time period, and resources (medical and otherwise). As with so many things—all things?–responses vary. Here are some of the most common responses.

Denial

The label says nearly everything. The person, one way or another, says, “It just ain’t so.” Symptoms are ignored, dismissed as symptoms of something less serious. If actually diagnosed, the person thinks that a mistake has been made. 

For example, a woman attributes her shortness of breath to asthma or pneumonia. When referred for X-rays, she doesn’t follow through. One Sunday, when she doesn’t make it to church, other congregants find her unconscious and call the volunteer EMT squad and take her to the emergency room. The preliminary diagnosis is pneumonia. Five days later, she dies of lung cancer that has metastasized to her brain and other soft organs.

Resignation

This is, basically, what will be, will be. Not motivated to seek or follow medical treatment. There are some religious sects that chew medical treatment, on the belief that God will heal or not, “His will be done.” Often life is carried on as close to normal as possible, sometimes the person does as little as possible, waiting for the outcome.

Resistance and Endurance

The epitome of this response would be Senator John McCain, a war hero who survived years of imprisonment and solitary confinement.

Fight

For a disease, this person would actively seek treatment, the latest treatment, even alternative treatment. 

An example would be a man diagnosed with lung cancer who agrees to participate in an experimental trial. After two seizures in which he nearly dies of heart attacks, he leaves the trial, takes what ameliorating treatments he can find, and dies a year later, looking like an Auschwitz survivor.

For events such as exposure to heat or cold, it means physically fighting to survive, calling on whatever skills are available

Make the Best of It

This is a person who accepts the diagnosis, looks at the data on prognosis with various treatments, and moves forward. Here are a couple of examples of women with breast cancer.

  • The first had an optimistic outlook. She had a lumpectomy, radiation, one infection followed by another, a second surgery, followed by months of treatment for a persistent non—healing wound. During those treatments, she spent hours a day, five days a week in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. A year after the original diagnosis, she was offered plastic surgery to repair the surgical scars. After a year of life bound by the medical establishment, she opted to redecorate instead: she had the scarred area tattooed. Eventually that original tattoo was expanded and entirely encircled her torso. She reveled in reclaiming her time and her body, and celebrated five years of without a recurrence.
  • The second woman, in her early fifties, had a less positive prognosis. There was evidence that the cancer had metastasized, so she embarked on a course of chemotherapy, every three weeks for months. Her approach to coping was to take a few days before each chemo treatment—while she felt the best—to check something off her bucket list.- Six years before her best friend’s body had been cremated, and she had promised to scatter the ashes in Arizona, so she flew from Massachusetts to Phoenix and fulfilled her promise. She went zip-lining in Costa Rica, spent time at the beach, danced on the beach at night and went skinny-dipping, went hang gliding off the cliffs in California. Not able to take a safari to Africa, she took her children on a private safari at the local zoo, went parasailing in the Bahamas, and got a tattoo—not to be seen in public
Try to Stay in Control

Sometimes the anxiety of the unknown and feeling out of control of one’s own time and body leads to an attempt to take control of the unknown by committing suicide.

Self Medication

Trying to avoid the reality, and/or pain, alcohol and/or drugs can make the wait time more bearable.

Questions for writers: What situation would—most reasonably—be potentially deadly for your character? And how would your character handle it?

WRITING LIKE A CHILD

When a writer gets the voice right, it largely goes unnoticed. It’s a “good read” when the language, format, and structure seem more natural than noteworthy.

Writing Children

People often struggle to write from the point of view of a child, keeping the language and thinking consistently child-like. This is especially the case if one doesn’t have young children around spouting examples. One helpful step is to check on the language/vocabulary level by age. And as with everything else, there’s a book for that.

This is perfectly normal.

There are also a variety of resources available online. K. M. Weiland outlined “8 Necessary Tips for How to Write Child Characters” on the Helping Writers Become Authors website, in which she compares Shirley Temple’s characters with Louisa May Alcott’s. Julia Hecht wrote a more in-depth guide for the website All Write Alright. “A Guide to Writing Child Characters Authentically” identifies traits that children display when acting, speaking, and thinking at various ages from infant through teens.

Observing children and copying their behavior and speech patterns into your writing is the most reliable way to ensure authentically childlike characters. However, parents tend to get a bit uneasy when strange adults follow their children around with notepads. Videos online are a much safer method of research.

Children Writing

Less frequently—but equally important—is getting it right when the child is actually doing the writing. Instances might include letters, thank-you notes, notes passed in school, diary entries, etc.

Here for your edification (and enjoyment?) is one example—a short story by a real eight-year-old.

The Panda Thief

Ones there was a family
of Pandas. One day they had
a baby. They were over joyed
with :: but there 
was a person (not a panda)
that wanted a panda more
then anything in the worled.
She promest that if she
got just one panda she
wodent hunt them anymore.

Lukuly there was someone
who loved pandas so much
that she protekted
and her name was . . .
Nalani! She knew about
the theift so she really wanted
to proteked them so one
nite she made a trap
that rodent hert the thift
but keep her frome
comejng back. And she dided
ever again and Nalani said
“Thank you for not hunting 
Pandas in reward I will 
let you keep one that
yo may choose.”

The theft became
good and get a punda
and folowed her promes
and the panda 
she piked was the
newly born baby. The 
parents were sad for
a little but soon got over
it and everyone
lived hapily ever after!

The end

Things to note:

  • Language usage is much better than spelling
  • Spelling is mostly phonetic
  • Spelling is inconsistent (e.g., thief, theift, thift)
  • Lack of logic: there was no theft, and they ended up losing a baby panda anyway
Want to give it a try?

The Cat
Ones there was a cat
who’s oners coulded

Bottom line for writers: it’s easier to write well from a child’s point of view than to write like a child!

Writing examples from a two year old and then a three year old. I believe the one on the left is a shopping list. Fruit gummies were mentioned.

What I’ve Been Up To

In the past few years, I’ve been writing a lot more than I realized. Without realizing it, I’ve managed to publish more than a dozen new short stories! Some of these have come out of various writing classes and workshops, but others have just popped out of my head onto the page.

All of these new pieces are listed on my Publications page now. Feel free to stop by and read some of my work for inspiration!

Things in the world are pretty chaotic at the moment. It’s easy to be pulled into a world of grey hopelessness. A reminder that anyone can still create something beautiful can be good for the soul.

WORD PLAY

Sometimes, it’s fun just to fool around with language. Word play comes in wide variety, of course. Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde are famous (infamous?) for their clever manipulation of the English language. Way back before the English language settled into its modern form, Geoffrey Chaucer turned Middle English into his personal plaything.

Anagrams and whimsical stories are two of my favorites because they require nothing but an awake brain! However, for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll write them out.

Anagrams

For anagrams, think of a word—longer is better—and then see how many other words can be made from those letters. Whether plurals or contractions are allowed is up to the player! For example, thanksgiving. The options here are limited by the fact that there is no E, the most frequently used letter in the English language. 

  • thanks
  • thank
  • sang
  • snag
  • nag
  • than
  • tan
  • gnat
  • kin
  • king
  • stag
  • stank
  • stink
  • ink
  • skin
  • sin
  • gas
  • tank
  • tang
  • aging
  • staging
  • thigh
  • tights
  • thighs
  • knights
  • night
  • thanking
  • kings
  • hats
  • giving
  • gating
  • knit
  • ask
  • at
  • an
  • as
  • in
  • asking
  • ski
  • skiing
  • vast
  • gist
  • hat
  • scathing
  • gangs
  • hating
  • shit
  • hit
  • has
  • having
  • task
  • nights
  • hank
  • hang
  • sing
  • ailing
  • tin
  • vat
  • shank
  • shiv
  • shaving
  • van
  • shag
  • shank
  • gash
  • this
  • task
  • scat
  • tasking
  • thinking
  • his
  • has
  • hag
  • hit
  • tat
  • stat
  • sighing
  • sighting
  • tag
  • sag
  • sagging
  • gin
  • thin
  • think
  • gang
  • sting
  • shag
  • sank
  • hag
  • sink
  • shin
  • saving
  • hint
  • gag
  • skit
  • shining
  • gait
  • having
  • gas
  • it
  • sting
  • singing
  • angst
  • sigh

Story Word

One way I like to launch into writing whimsy is to find a word and ring as many changes on it as I can. Here’s one such piece. 

Writers note: this is not the sort of writing that would pass muster in a class or critique group! It’s an example of writing fun, not good writing!

ABSOLUTION

Abelia hates her name. She is forever telling people not to call her Abby, abby being altogether too descriptive for comfort. All her adult life she’s longed to abolish her belly, but she’s seldom succeeded even in abbreviating her abs. They are aboriginal.

Today she is at that abattoir they call a fitness center. She abhors the place, and cannot walk through the door without sinking into abjection. But so strong is her wish for an absolution, she puts her abhorrence in abeyance and follows the yellow brick abscissa to the abs machine. The results are abysmal. After fifteen minutes, she abandons the effort.

The trainer shrieks, “It’s too soon for you to abscond!”

Everyone stares and Abelia is abashed, wishing fervently for an alien abduction. She wishes she were abalone, or perhaps an abstract painting, anything but abnormally abby. She no longer counts leg raises and crunches. She knows they’re absurd. Her abs are absolutely aberrant, an abomination she wishes absent. If she were royalty, she’d have to abdicate. She considers ablation but decides to abstain. The pitfalls of surgery are not abstruse.

Her therapist says, “There’s absolutely nothing abnormal about your abdominals!” She points out that Abelia’s absorption has become an abstraction. “You must abjure that.”

Abelia takes the advice of her high abbess of health, vowing that from this day forward, she will abrogate concern for her abs and embrace abundance. She dons a flowing silk abba  in red, gold and purple. No more abstemiousness. No more abstinence. No more abnegation.

Bottom line: When you just want to unwind or jolt some creativity, consider word play!

GHOST MARRIAGES

Spinster? Life-long bachelor? Being dead is no excuse for not getting married. If you are dead and looking for love, there is a dating website for you! Check out: http://www.ghostsingles.com/ (I am not affiliated in any way with this website; please do not perceive this as an endorsement for necrogamy.)

Ghost marriage (a.k.a. spirit marriage or necrogamy) has been practiced in some form in various cultures around the world for millennia. The first records appeared in Chinese legends more than 2000 years ago and has been part of the culture ever since. Although the practice was less common in China in the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, it’s made a comeback.

Reasons for marrying the dead vary among cultures and in different time periods, but there are a few recurring themes. The examples listed in this blog are not comprehensive, but the motives could easily be applied in many fictional scenarios.

  • Appeasing the spirits of those already dead
  • Fulfilling an agreement made before one or both parties died
  • Maintaining social decorum
  • Ensuring the legitimacy of children and inheritance rights

CHINA

Ghost weddings are most common in China. Minghun is, essentially ghost marriage in which the bride and/or groom is dead and has not left behind a widow(er). A Chinese ghost marriage is usually set up by family members.  The preferred ghost spouse is recently deceased. 

Ancestor Tablets

Writers note: Because, in China, men outnumber women in death as in life, ghost brides can be big business.  At least two cases have been reported (2007 and 2013) in which men killed more than a dozen prostitutes, housekeepers, and mentally ill women and sold the bodies to undertakers for about $2000. The undertakers then sold them to prospective “in-laws” for $5000. 

An engaged couple from Taipei were posthumously married despite having died together in a landslide

But why would dead people marry?  In China, and among the Chinese in Taiwan and Singapore, ghost marriage ceremonies are performed primarily to appease unhappy ghosts and to maintain social order or stability. The importance of marriage in Chinese society means that the ghosts of those who die unmarried are assumed to be unhappy and can wreck havoc on the birth family, the family of its betrothed (if engaged), and the married sisters of the ghost. This can take the form of any misfortune—financial setback, illness, etc.

Benefits for Women
  • Spinsters can gain social acceptance and cease being an “embarrassment” to their families (by being old spinsters at age 20!)
  • An unmarried daughter must gain a patrilineage so she can have a spirit tablet. With a tablet, the husband’s family will honor and care for her spirit after death.
  • Living unmarried women are not allowed to remain in the family home, nor are they allowed to die there.
  • A living woman marrying a ghost husband lives with his family, participates in the funeral ritual, abides by the mourning customs regarding dress and behavior, and takes a vow of celibacy. She also cares for her husband’s aging relatives. 
  • For some women, particularly during the nineteenth century, marrying a ghost was their ideal social arrangements. A rising class of silk merchants, primarily comprised of women, were not eager to give up their independence and relative freedom by being tied to a husband. Being married to a respectable ghost would provide such a woman with the social protection of marriage without the hassle of raising a family. For more details, check out Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, a fascinating look at the history of marriage.
Benefits for Men
  • Dead sons were honored by giving them living brides.
  • The practice ensured the family line and name would continue. The groom’s family could adopt a grandson, usually a son of a male relative, who behaved as a son and inherited his deceased “father’s” share of the family wealth.
  • The groom’s mother would have a daughter-in-law to wait on her and care for the house.
  • It was considered unlucky and sometimes shameful for a younger brother to be married before an older one (even if the older brother was dead.)

Finding a suitable spouse is a varied business. Sometimes it involves a marriage broker who finds a family with a recently dead member who has a favorable horoscope. Some families use a priest as a matchmaker. Some families approach an undertaker/funeral director.

Paper offerings of money and luxuries are burned at ghost wedding to provide the married couple comfort in the afterlife.

Sometimes the family assumes that the ghost will identify his or her preferred spouse. The potential bride or groom will reveal him or herself. A restless ghost may also express a desire to be married by appearing in a family member’s dream or while being channeled through a spirit medium during a séance.

Financial arrangements also vary.  Often there is an exchange of bride wealth and/or dowries between the two families, but more often paper representations of wealth are exchanged.  Houses, cars, servants, food, and furniture are all burned in offering to the deceased. (Often, money made to be burned will have “Bank of Heaven” printed on one side and “Bank of Hell” printed on the other. Wherever the happy couple wind up, they’ll have plenty of spending power!)

Ghost Wedding from 1922

A ghost marriage ceremony is as similar as possible to a regular marriage ceremony, but with the dead person(s) represented by manikins made of cloth, bamboo, wood, and/or paper. The bride and groom wear real clothes but costume jewelry. A living groom would wear black gloves instead of white. The effigies are typically treated as though alive—being ‘fed,” talked to, and moved from place to place—until after all the festivities, when they are burned, and the bride’s ancestral tablet is added to the groom’s family’s tablets. If the bride and groom were engaged before he died, the groom is often represented on the wedding day by a white rooster.

Lantern Offerings for the Festival of Hungry Ghosts

JAPAN

Some regions of Japan, particularly the northern islands and Okinawa Prefecture, have a very long tradition of posthumous marriage, probably because of centuries of Chinese influence. Here, again, the reason relates to the placing of spirit tablets and continued honoring of ancestors.

The main factor distinguishing Japanese ghost marriage from its Chinese counterpart is the type of spouses married to ghosts. A deceased person is not married to another dead person, nor to a living one, but to a doll. The most common ghost marriage is between a ghost man and a bride doll, but posthumous weddings can go the other way, with a ghost bride marrying a groom doll. During a Japanese doll wedding ceremony, a photo of the dead man or woman is placed in a glass case alongside the doll to represent their union. The tableau stays in place for up to 30 years, at which point the deceased’s spirit is considered to have passed into the next realm. The symbolic companionship is designed to keep the ghost husband or wife calm and prevent supernatural harm from coming to the living family.

Ellen Schattschneider wrote about ghost weddings in Japan in her 2001 paper “Buy Me a Bride”: Death and Exchange in Northern Japanese Bride‐Doll Marriage

Persons who die early harbor resentment toward the living. Denied the sexual and emotional fulfillment of marriage and procreation, they often seek to torment their more fortunate living relatives through illness, financial misfortune, or spirit possession. Spirit marriage, allowing a ritual completion of the life cycle, placates the dead spirit and turns its malevolent attention away from the living.

KOREA 

Throughout the Korean Peninsula, it used to be customary for a person to marry the soul of a betrothed who died before the wedding. The living spouse would then remain celibate for the rest of his/her life. Currently that tradition is not binding.

SOUTH KOREA

Modern law in South Korea allows posthumous marriage in cases where one member of an engaged couple dies because, according Unification Church beliefs, only married couple can enter the highest levels of heaven. Another reason for postmortem marriages is—again—if the prospective bride is pregnant.

INDIA

In Kasargod, India, children are often engaged to be married at a very young age. If the children pass away before they are old enough to marry, their families may hold in a Pretha Kalyanam. After consulting an astrologer, the two families will hold a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony with dolls in place of the bride and groom. The dolls are dressed in traditional wedding clothes, horoscopes are matched, and a wedding feast is served to guests.

After the ceremony, the dolls are buried under a sacred tree, submerged in a lake or river, or burned in a ceremonial pyre.

FRANCE

Etienne Cardiles posthumously married his civil partner Xavier Jugelé after Jugelé was killed in a terrorist attack by ISIL

Posthumous or Postmortem Marriage is a legal form of marriage which originated in the 1950s. The story behind the addition begins with a disaster: on December 2, 1959, the Malpasset Dam just north of the French Riviera collapsed, unleashing a furious wall of water that killed 423 people. When then president Charles de Gaulle visited the devastated site, a bereaved woman, Irène Jodard, pleaded to be allowed to marry her dead fiancé. On December 31, French parliament passed the law permitting posthumous marriage.

The President of the Republic may, for grave reasons, authorize the celebration of the marriage where one of the future spouses died after completion of official formalities indicating unequivocally his or her consent. In this case, the effect of marriage dated back to the day preceding the death of the husband. However, this marriage does not entail any right of intestate succession for the benefit of the surviving spouse and no matrimonial property is deemed to have existed between spouses.

Article 117 of the French Civil Code

Ways to legally show intent include having posted an official wedding announcement at the local courthouse and written permission from a soldier’s commanding officer. Grave reasons include the birth of a child, and to legitimize children is a primary reason for such marriages. If the couple had planned to marry and the family of the deceased approves, the local official sends the application back to the President. 

Writers note: One quarter of the applications for posthumous marriage are rejected.

During the ceremony, the living spouse stands next to a picture of the deceased fiancé. Instead of the deceased’s marriage vows, the mayor conducting the ceremony reads the presidential decree.

Magaly Jaskiewicz’s posthumous marriage to Jonathan George in 2009

Money: The law does not allow the living spouse to claim any of the deceased spouse’s property or money. No matrimonial property is considered to have existed. However, the living spouse is considered a widow for purpose of receiving pension and insurance benefits.

Pro or con: A posthumous marriage bring the surviving spouse into the family of the deceased spouse, which can create an alliance and/or emotional satisfaction—or the opposite! The surviving spouse is also subject to the impediments of marriage that result. 

GERMANY 

Charlotte Kaletta and Fritz Pfeffer

The German government did not allow Jews and non-Jews to marry under the 1935 Nazi Nuremberg Laws. Charlotte Kaletta and Fritz Pfeffer lived together without marriage. In 1950, Charlotte married Fritz posthumously, with a retrospective wedding date of May 31, 1937.

SUDAN 

Within the Nuer ethnic group of southern Sudan, ghost marriage happens in a very particular way. “If a man dies without male heirs, a kinsman frequently marries a wife to the dead man’s name,” writes Alice Singer in Marriage Payments and the Exchange of People. “The genitor [biological father] then behaves socially like the husband, but the ghost is considered the pater [legal father].”

Manyok bride

This arrangement, Levirate marriage, is conducted in order to secure both the property and ongoing lineage of the dead man. The woman receives a payment at the time of the ghost marriage—a fee known as the brideprice—which may include “bloodwealth” money from those responsible for the death of the man as well as payment in the form of cattle that once belonged to the deceased man. The Dinka (Jieng) and Nuer tribes of Southern Sudan most commonly practice this form of ghost marriage. Women will also marry a deceased man so they can retain their wealth and property instead of losing it to a living husband.

Dinka wedding celebrations

The term Levirate is a derivative of the Latin word levir meaning “husband’s brother.” Instances of Levirate marriage have also been documented in Judaism, Islam, Scythia, Central Asia and Xiongnu, Kirghiz, Indonesia, Somalia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, South Sudan, Zimbabwe and England.

THE UNITED STATES does not legally recognize ghost marriages.

Bottom line for writers: Marrying dead people is rife with possibilities for tension, romance, murder, and conflict. Real-life examples are often tragic. Wikipedia has a list of posthumous marriage in fiction—TV, film, and novels. Feel free to go for it, even if you will not be the first!