WHY CONSIDER THE F WORD?

 
When Jesse Sheidlower wrote this book, he was the Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary.  The book was published by Oxford University Press, one of the most prestigious academic presses in the world.  The 49 pages of front matter and the 269 pages in the body of the book deal exclusively with the F word.  Seeing this started me thinking.  Ultimately, I concluded that the F word is one of the most important words in the English language.  And therefore writers should consider its many uses.
One indicator of importance is the number of euphemisms coined to express the F word without tipping into the vulgar or obscene.  A woman born and reared in North Carolina once told me that when a Southern Lady wants to say the F word, she says “Fine!”

That one wasn’t familiar to me, but we’ve all heard many others.  These are what is sometimes called a “minced oath.”  Here are some examples:

  • Effing
  • F-bomb
  • F word
  • F*ck
  • F**k
  • F***
  • F-ck
  • F—k
  • Flaming
  • Fracking
  • Fricking
  • Freaking
  • Frigging
  • FUBAR
  • Fudge
  • WTF
  • Flipping
  • Fork/ Forking
  • Foxtrot Uniform
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
  • Smurfing
  • Frelling
  • Bleep/ Bleeping
  • Fark (not to be confused with FARC, which might add unintended political themes to your work!)
  • fiddle-faddle
  • fiddlesticks
  • fug
  • cotton-pickin’
  • I could keep going, but the internet would eventually run out of pixels…

Although listeners know exactly what the euphemism stands for, many feel that the impact of the euphemism loses much of the cathartic value of the original and may come across as tepid, ineffectual, or just plain namby-pamby.

The original namby-pamby himself, poet Ambrose Philips

William Shakespeare was one of the most creative users of minced oaths and euphemisms to describe everything from copulation to defecation, writing some of the most vividly imaginative phrases to avoid the censorship of the age.  Juliet may have had the sheath to make Romeo’s dagger happy, but no children’s ears had to be covered.

Miniature, Jean de Meun, The Roman de la Rose, Couple in a bed, Chantilly, musee Conde, Miniature. (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images)

Of course, this still wasn’t clean enough for Dr. Thomas Bowdler and his sister Harriet.  In 1818, they announced the publication of a G-rated book of Shakespseare’s work, in which “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”  The Family Shakespeare didn’t sell particularly well (and was a pretty short book), but “bowdlerise” became a term for overdone, fussy, prissy censorship.

Note to writers: consciously decide whether to use a euphemism or the original.  There is a time for vulgarity and a time for bowdlerising.

The F word is so prominent in English that the basic entry for fuck in Slang and Euphemism runs a full half page, followed by 60 entries directly involving the word, and surrounded by acronyms that take the place of actually saying the word.  Though the origins are unclear, it dates back at least to 1475.

Basically, it refers to a sexual act, an act of copulation.  It’s universally characterized as obscene or at least vulgar.  However, over time, much of the resistance to the original word has been diluted by long and frequent use.
 And it is arguably the most versatile word around.  In modern usage, the F word and its derivatives (such as fucker and fucking) can be used as a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, conjunction, interjection, or adverb.
 
Verb:
  1. A sexual act in its most straightforward form, as in “Let’s fuck.”
  2. Transitive: John fucked Mary.
  3. Intransitive: Mary was fucked by John.
  4. To cheat or mistreat someone, as in “She totally fucked me.”
No matter your use of the verb, taking inspiration from spiders is probably not a good idea.
Noun:
  1. Referring to the act itself, as in a specific event being “ A great fuck.”
  2. Referring to a partner, as in “A great fuck” referring to the other person involved.
  3. Referring to an incentive or strong feeling on any subject.

Note to writers: make sure the context clearly specifies ambiguous meanings.
 
Pronoun:
  1. Used in place of his/her, as in “Tell the fucker at the end of the bar that I buy my own drinks.”
“…and tell him I prefer not to drink fire.”

 

Adverb:
  1. A modifier to a verb as in
That was some fucking dancing out there!

or

He was fucking sleeping on the job!

2. A modifier to another adverb, as in “The Broncos played fucking well out there.”

3. A modifier to an adjective, as in “Fucking beautiful.”

Adjective:
  1. A modifier to a noun, as in “That was some fucking speech!” or “I had a fucking good time.”
Conjunction:
  1. Connecting two parts of a sentence, as in “I left, fuck the boss’s order.”

Exclamation or intensifier: fuck can express innumerable emotions.  Most often, as a single word, it expresses joy, despair, surprise, or anger.
 
 
 
But fuck can intensify virtually any emotion, depending on surrounding situation or text.
  • Ignorance: Fuck if I know.
  • Trouble: Mary returned and  I’m fucked now
  • Fraud: I got fucked in the real estate deal.
  • Aggression: Fuck you!
  • Displeasure: What the fuck do you think you’re doing?
  • Difficulty: I can’t understand these fucking data!
  • Incompetence: You fuck-off!
  • Stupidly or incompetence: You really fucked up that negotiation.
  • Rejection: Get the fuck out of here. Fuck off.
  • Suspicion: What the fuck are you doing?
  • Apathy: I don’t give a fuck.
  • Dismay: Oh, fuck, they left without us
  • Anxiety: I am totally fucked today.
  • Greeting: How the fuck are you?
The Bro-Hug, as explained by Higher Un-Learning
The F word has a long and varied history.  Though its origin remains somewhat obscure, it most likely derives from an early Germanic root, such as peuk (to prick), fokken (to thrust), or peig (hostile).  Though linguists can’t seem to agree on the etymology, most agree that “fuck” has been a vulgar or taboo word for most of its very long history, which contributes to the difficulty of tracking down its history as it was not officially used or written down often.
Is this frelling or fracking?

It has a Wikipedia entry that runs to 19 pages, which goes into the history and gives examples of modern usage in politics, marketing, and literature.  And as the Urban Dictionary says of it, “The only fucking word that can be put everyfuckingwhere and still fucking make fucking sense.

Bottom line for writers: The F word is useful, versatile, and becoming ever more acceptable.  But should you decide to use it, use it sparingly as the narrator, and limit it to one or a few characters.  It loses its impact with repetition (see The Wolf of Wall Street).

MENTIONING THE UNMENTIONABLE

People—and by extension, characters—regularly do things that they don’t mention, or even admit to, even though they aren’t illegal, immoral or physically harmful.  Writers can make their characters more realistic when said characters engage in unmentionable behaviors.  What follows is an extensive but not exhaustive list of possibilities.

 

Photo by Nancy Rivera of Splash News
Nose Picking is a prime example of a virtually universal unmentionable behavior.  It has its own Wikipedia entry, complete with a technical definition (extracting nasal mucus with one’s finger) and formal label of rhinotillexis.  Psychiatrists at the Dean Foundation for Health, Research, and Education in Wisconsin conducted a study revealing that 91% of people said they were currently nose pickers (though only 75% believed everyone did it).

 

So, how and where does your character nose pick?  Always the same digit?  Always the same place?  Always the same time of day?

 

And then what? Is the residue flicked off? Wiped on a tissue?  Wiped on the underside of an article of clothing?  Wiped off on a rug?  On furniture?  Added to a booger wall?  Or maybe the residue is eaten.

 

Everybody Does It!
Mucophagy is the technical term for eating nose pickings.  Most societies condemn it, but some scientists claim there are health benefits.  Dr. Friedrich Bischinger, a leading Austrian lung specialist, says that eating one’s mucus gives “a natural boost to their immune system” because the mucus contains a “cocktail of antiseptic enzymes that kill or weaken bacteria that become entangled in it.”  Reintroducing weakened bacteria may allow the immune system to safely produce antibodies.

 

Time considerations for nose picking.  How often?  A few times a day—however unmentionable—isn’t odd.  But one-to-two hours daily?  When it becomes an obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s called Rhinotillexomania.

 

Wiping your nose on anything available.

Enough said.

 Urination is another universal. How about peeing in the shower? Or the bathtub? The ocean—or the swimming pool? Is your female character comfortable urinating outside?

 

Recently, there have been a number of devices developed and put on the market to allow women the same ease of urination as men.  They come in very handy on long car trips or when getting to the bathroom requires a trek through an unheated house, up a snowy mountain, and behind a tree to squat over an unsettlingly drafty hole in the ground.

I once spent two weeks on a whitewater rafting drip on the Colorado River. People were required to pee in the river. (Recall that urine is sterile.) In camp men simply walked to the edge of the water. Women often waded out and pulled down their pants. On the water, men stood at the stern. Women pulled down their clothes, hung onto the cargo straps, and cantilevered out over the water.

In all of these circumstances, the other people politely looked the other way. But then how did it happen that the last night out I was voted the person most improved in peeing off the side of the raft? So if your character is urinating in unmentionable ways, consider both culture and circumstances.

 

Defecation is always fertile ground. It seems whole herds of people get completely naked to poop—every time.  Imagine trying to use a public toilet!

Consider a character who wipes his/her anus and looks at it.  Or smells his/her fingers afterward.  One justification for frequently smelling one’s anus or genitals (via finger swipes) is being familiar with one’s usual smell so that changes that might signal a change in health status would be recognizable.

Not washing hands after using the bathroom.  Or even turning on water so others in the public toilet will think you washed when you didn’t.  And it raises the question of why not wash?
 
Burping, a cousin to the more offensive Passing GasThese things happen.
I remember a joke from grade school. “What did the stomach say to the burp?” “Be quiet, and I’ll let you out the back door.”
But what about someone who burps and/or farts on purpose, on demand, or as loudly as possible?

 

What about someone who intentionally farts in elevators, subway cars, on trains or busses and casts a blaming glare at those nearby?

What about intentionally expelling loud farts and/or burps but only when alone?

Or sniffing farts to try to figure out which food made it smell that way.

For truly obnoxious characters (and spouses), there is the dreaded Dutch Oven: farting in bed and then pulling the blanket over your bed partner’s head, trapping them in the stench.

The other Dutch Oven, unfortunately
And consider whether your character has an extreme reaction to other people’s flatulence. I know of a woman who became furious if someone passed gas in her presence: smell is a molecular sense, so smelling a fart means taking in fecal molecules.
 

Eating is fraught with unmentionable behaviors. For example, eating food off the floor after 5 seconds have passed.

 

Eating from the cooking pot.  Eating/drinking directly from the container.  (In this case, whether your character lives alone is relevant. )
Eating your big sister’s foot is photographable but not mentionable

Eating food other than snacks or sandwiches (for example, tossed salad) with fingers.  Eating the unthinkable as a regular thing: chalk, insects, dirt, tissue paper, etc.

Modern Toilet Restaurant in Taiwan has very interesting serving dishes
Nakedness is sometimes necessary, of course.  But what if your naked character regularly sits on the sofa and reads?  Cooks dinner?  Sits on the deck or patio—and if so, at what time, and how private is the space?

 

Or gets naked and runs the Boston Marathon?
What about taking naked selfies for no particular reason?  Saying you deleted the naked pictures sent to you but you didn’t?

 

Sucking Blood From a Cut.

He would be happy to help …
Having sexual thoughts about an inappropriate target.  Think relative, someone else’s spouse or partner, subordinate—whoever is beyond the pale because of relationship or other taboo.

 


Self Absorption.is almost always unmentionable!  Narrating thoughts aloud—while driving, planning, etc.   Closely related to talking to oneself.

Consider cracking up at one’s own jokes, even when alone. Practicing pick-up lines in the mirror, ditto facial expressions. How about making weird faces at yourself? Or googling oneself?

 

 

Women Only Unmentionables. Shaving—where and how often.   Plucking or shaving facial hair from eyebrows to chin and jowls.  Obsessing about changes in body odor during menstruation.  Collecting “fuck me” shoes in colors to match every outfit.
Men Only Unmentionables: measuring his dick, jerking off to fantasies of his friend’s girlfriend, windmilling/ helicoptering his penis, frequently resettling his junk in his banana hammock.

 

Miscellaneous unmentionables could be almost anything.

  • Dancing like no one with the authority to commit you is watching
  • Running up the stairs on all fours
  • Eavesdropping or otherwise spying on people—including reading another person’s mail, email, or texts
  • Squeezing pimples or blackheads
  • Climbing on furniture
  • Bouncing on the bed
  • Making weird noises
  • Breath syncing to someone else, music, in the extreme known as sensorimotor obsession
  • Arithmomania, a strong need to have one’s life governed by odd, even, or certain numbers, brushing teeth to setting the thermostat, etc.
  • Blow-drying “down there”
Overview for writers: Make your character more human by giving her/him a characteristic unmentionable behavior or two.  Don’t go overboard unless your character is totally neurotic and/ or you are going for humor.  And remember that such behaviors are even more revealing if the characters do such things in the presence of others.  Have fun!

GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: N.B., Games, not Sports

 
RedEye LAN Party (from Obsolete Geek)

Nearly 70% of Americans play video games on at least one device, and nearly all play on smartphones.  Indeed, if you do an online search for games, best games, or similarly general queries, you will be inundated with info about video games in general as well as individual games.  If game playing is one of your character’s activities (and your story is set in the current time or near future) decide whether s/he is part of the majority or the minority here.  Consider what the game of choice says about the character of your character.  For example,does success depend more on speed or strategy?  Does a round end quickly or take a significant time commitment?  Can it be interrupted/paused?  How violent is it?  And is it mechanized violence or hand-to-hand?  Does s/he play alone, against the program, or with/against other gamers worldwide?

As I indicated in the opening sentence, most people in the U.S. currently play video games, but these are a relatively new phenomenon.  In the remainder of this blog, I shall focus on card games and board games—for three reasons:
  1. They are suitable for current settings as well as throughout history.  Just check out what games were around when the story is set.
  2. I believe that the majority of readers are more familiar with them.
  3. I am not a “gamer” and—truly—I always try not to say too much about any vast canyon of ignorance.
Modern playing cards may have originated in China, India, or Persia, but they were commonly used in Europe by the end of the fourteenth century.  The number and composition of cards in a deck varied throughout history and from country to country.  Some decks had mounted knights, noblemen, peasants, and Church figures.  Some countries used bells, hearts, leaves, acorns, swords, cups, or paving stones to differentiate suits.  Over the years, the royal figures have been labelled as Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Solomon, Empress Judith, Sir Lancelot, Joan of Arc, Hector of Troy, and various mythological figures, to name a few.  As printing became widely available and playing cards were produced cheaply, the modern deck of cards gradually came into being and was eventually standardized to those we use today.  (For more details, check out the Snopes article on the topic.)[The history of playing cards is kind of interesting:

 

Advantages of card games:
  •  Equipment is inexpensive
  • They are extremely portable
  • Lots of choices from total luck games to highly skilled strategies
  • Can be played alone or with others
  • Can be totally competitive or in partnerships
  • Suitable for people of almost any age
  • Games with simple rules can transcend language barriers
“Dead Man’s Hand” in Poker

 

If you search for the most popular card game(s), poker is at or near the top of the list.  Poker is associated with gambling, whether in a casino, bar, country club, or private home.  As the name implies, penny ante poker means minimal stakes.  Other associations with poker include alcohol, smoking, and maybe the Wild West.  It is still a male-dominated game.
Writers: as always, consider the value of going with the flow or defying the images.  Many variations exist, and it can be played online.

 

Other popular card games in the US:
  • Spades: created nearly 100 years ago, hit its peak in the 90s
  • War: one of the easiest games, suitable for children, no skill involved; also good as a mindless activity
  • Gin: aka gin rummy, is related to rummy (see below); very popular right now, a fun gambling game; started in the U.S in the 1800s and has remained popular ever since; reached its peak in the 1930s and 1940s; faded in favor of canasta in the 1950s
  • Rummy: popular around the world, especially In India; involves matching and memorization; can be played online
  • Blackjack (aka twenty-one): largely a gambling game played in clubs and casinos; lots of luck involved; players play against the dealer rather than each other
    • If a player is able to calculate probabilities and keep track of cards in play, s/he may be able to “count cards” to win nearly every hand.  This technique is outlawed by many casinos, but it can be a good way to demonstrate a character’s extreme intelligence or pattern recognition skills.
  • Crazy Eights: originated in Venezuela; has lots of variations; requires two or more people
The most difficult card game is bridge.  Some call it the world’s greatest game.  It probably originated in Russia, and was popularized in the Middle East; today, it is played worldwide.  Bridge requires strategy, memory for who played what card, working with a partner, communicating during bidding (which can involve “conventions”—what the heck is a Jacoby transfer, anyway?).  Women take more bridge classes than men and more women than men play, but men dominate in serious competitive play.  For an extended discussion of the pros and cons of bridge, go to WHY PLAY BRIDGE? at bridgeworld.com.

 

Agatha Christie wrote an entire murder mystery, Cards on the Table, that hinges upon who was playing in what rotation at what time during an evening bridge party.  Hercule Poirot deduces alibis and personalities entirely by studying the notations people made while keeping score, enabling him to identify the murderer.

 

Card games and board games have been used as a method of teaching and developing military strategy skills throughout history, including by the American CIA An online essay The Appeal (and Manliness) of Card Games includes a subsection on 6 Card Games Every Man Should Know.  The essay notes that men’s games are often symbolic representations of more violent clashes and war.  In my opinion, what this says is that games are a non-violent way of competing to be the alpha male.  When only men are involved, there are often jokes and insults to demonstrate the art of clever talk.  According to this essay, the essential manly card games are:
  • Gin Rummy: game scholars think rummy is a card variation on the Chinese game of mah-jong, perhaps dating to the 1700s, much modified since then; generally played to a specified number, often 100
  • Hearts: a trick-taking game stemming from whist, except the goal is to avoid collecting tricks; the person with the fewest points wins; first appeared in he U.S. in the late 1800s; played online since the 1990s
  • Poker (specifically, Texas hold ‘em): perhaps originated in 1820s New Orleans on Mississippi River gambling boats; poker really took off in the 1980s when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, legalizing casinos on Native American land
  • Solitaire: first developed in the mid-1700s; originally played with multiple people, it’s now a game played primarily alone—any of more than 1000 variations; surged in popularity with the advent of personal computers
  • Cribbage: beloved for centuries, technically involves a board for score keeping, it’s essentially a card game for 2 (possibly 3 or 4); came to the colonies by English settlers; especially popular in New England
  • Blackjack (aka 21): most widely played casino game; fast and easy to learn; dating to the mid- to late 1500s, became more popular int the U.S. in the late 1950s
Cribbage Hand and Score Board
The Most Popular & Fun Card Games as posted on ranker.com
  1. Uno
  2. Blackjack
  3. Solitaire
  4. Hearts
  5. Gin Rummy
  6. Cards Against Humanity
  7. Go Fish
  8. Bluff (also known as BullSh*t)
  9. Magic: The Gathering
  10. Euchre—a personal favorite with my family
  11. Poker
  12. Crazy Eights
  13. War
  14. Apples to Apples
  15. Rummy
  16. Pokemon trading card game
  17. Spoons
  18. Exploding Kittens
  19. Assh*le
  20. Old Maid—truly classic
  21. Phase 10
  22. Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading card game
  23. Monopoly Deal
  24. Munchkin
  25. Cribbage
Writers: consider the value of a character playing a card game against type, such as a woman playing poker or a man playing bridge.  Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon are more commonly played by children, but an adult could play with a child they are caring form.  How would a quintessentially honest person behave in a situation requiring bluffing, such as playing poker or Bluff?  What might a young person discover by learning to play Hearts as a means of bonding with an older relative?

 

5 Hardest Games to Master in the World: According to Casino.org, these are the most difficult to master, regardless of how long it takes to learn. 
Note: this lists includes 4 board games and only 1 card game

 

  • Go is an ancient Chinese game dating back over 5,500 years—making it the oldest board game still played today.  It’s also one of the most complex, involving abstract strategy aimed at occupying the most territory on the board. 


    • Go is referenced, played, or used to demonstrate a character’s attitude toward traditional values in lots of Japanese media, including manga and anime.  It is so widespread in Japanese culture that there is an entire anime about a schoolboy haunted by the spirit of an ancient Go master: Hikaru No Go.
  • Chess, arguably dating back to the 6th century in India, but perhaps it originated in China—as many games did.  It’s a game of strategical conquest played by two people.  The essence of success is forward planning.  Historically, chess has been used as a means of teaching battlefield tactics; that is why, in modern chess rules, the king is relatively constrained but holds such strategic importance.
Pakistani Army Chief Qamar Bajwa playing chess with a student from Islamabad
  • Bridge is the only card game included in this list of hardest games to master. See above.
  • Diplomacy was released in 1959; as games go, it is still in its infancy.  It is a strategic board game for two to seven players, played on a map of 1914 wartime Europe, Middle East, and North Africa, geared toward conquest. There are no dice, but lots of negotiation skills are required.
    • Diplomacy was one of the first games (other than chess) that could be played by mail, which made it available as a form of connection for people who were not able to play together in person.  Writers, consider the possibilities this provides for characters in a historical setting who lived far apart or were shut-ins or prohibited by social taboo from playing together, etc.

       

  • Hex, released in 1942, was inspired by Go and has since been tweaked.  The goal is to make a connected string of shoes from one side of the board to the other before the other player.
Card Games vs. Board Games
 
As noted above, card games have many positive qualities, especially portability and ease of set-up.  Board games require more complex “equipment,” lengthy set-ups, and can take a long time to complete.  Many board games are quite cerebral, chess being the ultimate example.  In board games, every player is likely aware of the possible moves of the other player(s).
The Top Ten Board Games of All Time
The website hobbylark.com provides a brief history of board games and ranks the top 10.  Many that have been around for literally thousands of years can now be played online. Details of all of these are, of course, available online.
  1. Chess
  2. Stratego
  3. Monopoly
  4. Risk
  5. The Settlers of Catan
  6. Scrabble
  7. Battleship
  8. Clue
  9. Dominion
  10. Ticket to Ride

There is no board game equivalent to solitaire.  By their nature, board games require other players, and thus involve social interactions.

Most people do not follow the correct rules for Monopoly, making games longer and more repetitive.
Game Considerations for Writers (whether cards or board games)
 
  1. If you include a game as a character note, consider the general character of players of that game and whether you want to go with the general image or have a character who goes against the grain.  Why does your character play that particular game?  Where, how, and with whom (if anyone)?  Under these circumstances, chances are you establish the preference and make only brief references to it thereafter—unless the character is addicted.
  2. If the game is an element to advance the plot, it will probably involve a more detailed description of the game itself, so that readers will better understand the important people interactions around the game.  Did playing the game establish or refute an alibi?  Reveal important info through the chat around and over play?  Is someone trying to establish dominance?  Losing more money than s/he can afford?
  3. In associating a character with a game, be aware of the possible correlations: when in history your story is set, age of the character, region of the country (or country in the world), social class, and possibly ethnic background all are considerations.

Bottom line: games can be good for your writing!

2017 Dota 2 Champions

WHAT PETS SAY ABOUT THEIR OWNERS

On April 13, 2018, I posted Pets: A Treasure Trove for Writers focusing on how people treat their pets and how pets might fit into plot points and scenes.  Now, I’m turning to the ways pets reflect their owners, and the things an informed character might deduce from simply knowing another character’s pet choice(s).  These are group data, of course, so as a writer you need to decide whether your character reflects the norm or is an outlier.
 

An entry on bakadesuyo.com titled 8 Things Your Pet Says About Your Personality is a good overview.  (Points have been regrouped and edited, so they no longer number eight.)

1) General conclusions about pet owners:

  • Fish owners are happiest.
  • Dog owners are the most fun to be with.
  • Cat owners are the most dependable and emotionally sensitive.
  • Reptile owners are the most independent.

2) Comparing dog people and cat people:
  • Dog people are 15% more extroverted, 13% more agreeable, and 11% more conscientious.
  • Cat people are 12% more neurotic and 11% more emotionally open.
  • Dog owners are healthier: handled stress better, were more relaxed, had higher self-esteem, and were less likely to be diagnosed with depression.

3) Richard Wiseman concluded that people often see their pets’ personality as a reflection of their own.  Maybe a character could ask, “So, what’s your X like?”

4) Younger people who are disagreeable tend to prefer aggressive dogs.

5) Dog owners tend to seek different qualities in their dogs depending on their political leanings:
  • Liberals want dogs that are gentle and relate to their owners as equals.
  • Conservatives want dogs that are loyal and obedient.
6) Likelihood of owners cleaning up after their dogs:
  •  35.3% of males; 58.2% of females.
  • 18.2% of those who are lower income; 68.7% of those with higher income.
  • 72.6% of those who kept their dogs on a leash.

The website medium.com has published at least two articles on this topic: “What Your Pet Says Abut Your Personality and Career” (Mitch Fodstad, 3/6/2017) and  “What Your Pet Says About You” (Dustin Bilyk, 1/10/18).  The Bilyk article was written for humor and is basically an opinion piece, but you might want to read it for inspiration about a character’s opinions.  In addition to personality and career, life stage is addressed.  All of the following points come from these two articles.  Not surprisingly, there is some overlap with the points above.  So, by pet, here are the generalities:

 

Snake people: Owners are unconventional and novelty-seeking, may be bad-ass or wannabe bad-ass, and may have a kinky side.  FYI, male snakes are so focused on reproducing that they don’t even eat during mating season and many of them die.  Snake owners tend to lead unusual lives and make impulsive decisions.  They’re eager for the next move, even when unsure what that move might be.
Common careers: engineer, social worker, marketing/public relations professional, editor/writer, or police officer.

 

Turtle people: They are hard-working and reliable.  Turtle owners harness exceptional commitment, which drives quality performance and bodes well for upward mobility to a higher social class.
Common careers: engineer, social worker, marketing/public relations professional, editor/writer, or police officer.
(VL: Note the  similarities with other reptile people as described above.)

 

Fish people: They are optimistic and not materialistic, unconcerned with possessions.  They prefer low-maintenance pets.  Fish owners are hopeful and confident about the future.
Common career choices: human resources, financial professional, hotel and leisure professional, farming/fishing/forestry professional, or transportation professional.

 

Bird people: These pet owners tend to be outgoing and friendly, expressive, and socially confident.  They communicate effectively and may include some of the most powerful visionaries.
Common careers: advertising professional, sales person, construction worker, or administrative professional.

 

Cat people: Cat owners tend to be adventurous, creative, and anxious.  They enjoy new experiences, often have vivid imaginations, and are likely to be less sociable than dog owners.
Common careers: physician, real estate agent, science/medical technicians, machine operator, or personal caretaker.

 

Dog people: These people tend to be extroverted, confident, and risk-averse.
Common careers: professor, nurse, information technology professional, military professional, or entertainer.

 

Frankly, I find the links between pet, personality, and careers more suggestive than factual.  Writers should still consider the narrative possibilities of such links. 

Scientific American MIND published on-line an overview of the research into what pets say about their owners (Karen Schrock Simring, 9/1/15).  There isn’t much data published in peer-reviewed academic studies, but lots of information is available from huge market surveys within the pet industry and survey responses from pet owners.  Because I don’t want to footnote specific statements, I am not combining info from this article with related statements above.

 

If a character has a dog, he or she is more likely to be in senior management and consider their pet part of the family; live with family members, not have a college degree (although other research suggests dog owners are likely to be a professor, nurse, information professional, military professional, or entertainer); be extroverted, agreeable, and conscientious; have gotten the dog from a shelter or rescue group; live in Arkansas, New Mexico, Kentucky, Missouri, or West Virginia.

 

If the character’s pet is a cat, they are more likely to be divorced, widowed, or separated; live in an apartment; be neurotic and open to new experiences; be college educated; be a physician, real estate agent, science or medical lab technician, machine operator, or personal caregiver; be less socially dominant; live in Vermont, Maine, Oregon, South Dakota, or Washington state.

 

If the character owns a bird, they are more likely to be unemployed, describe themselves as caring and polite, be outgoing and expressive (and socially dominant if female), and live in California, Oregon, Washington state, or Nevada.

 

Horse owners tend to be more assertive and introspective and less warm and nurturing; be aggressive and socially dominant if he is male but non-aggressive and easygoing if she is female; hold an advanced degree; be married and a homeowner; live in a rural area; reside in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, or Louisiana.  They are most likely to describe themselves as dependable and self-disciplined.

 

Cold-blooded exotic pet owners if female, are more open to new experiences than male owners or female owners of traditional pets; if male, they are much less agreeable than female owners or male owners of traditional pets.

If the pet is a snake, the character may describe themselves as neat and tidy, relaxed and unpredictable; be unconventional and novelty seeking; and consider their pet “part of the family.”

If the character’s pet is a turtle, that character is more likely to be hardworking, reliable, and upwardly mobile, and describe themselves as rational and goal-oriented.

Fish owners are most likely to describe themselves as calm and emotionally stable.

 

Rabbit owners describe themselves as sympathetic, warm, and open to new experiences.

Hamster owners were the most likely to have an advanced degree.

Guinea pig owners were least likely to describe themselves as extroverted.

 

Owners of unusual pets were more likely to have a menagerie. For instance, more than half of ferret owners said they had six or more pets. Dog owners, on the other hand, were the most likely to have only one pet.

More than half of cat owners are fond of both cats and dogs.  More than half of dog owners say they only like canines.

Beyond the most common pets, people make a pet of almost any animal: chickens, exotic insects, possums, pigs, etc.

 

Writers note: For people who have pets, those pets are often integral to how owners see themselves.  For example, some men who want to look tough may get a tough-looking dog.  Some people have rabbits or poodles because that’s the family tradition.  Some people who feel misunderstood may seek “misunderstood” pets such as spiders.  If you give your character a pet, choose it for a reason!

And in spite of it all, keep in mind that although 68% of U.S. households have pets, that leaves 32% pet-less.

Image via Playbuzz

Wednesday’s Child

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe . . .

A Child’s Similes

This was part of a solicitation on behalf of a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence with their children.  The last line is heart-wrenching,and it raises a question: was the bruise on Erica or someone she loved?  All of this led me to explore two topics—child abuse and child bystanders in families experiencing domestic violence and abuse.

Writers, note: it behooves you to know about these things so your writing is realistic.

It turns out that data on child abuse is relatively easy to come by.  From the National Children’s Advocacy Center:

  • 91.6% of victims (all types of abuse) are maltreated by one or both parents.
  • 90% of victims of child sexual abuse know their abuser.  Besides parents, other perpetrators known to the victim included foster parents, other relatives, neighbors, and daycare providers.
  • Rates of physical abuse and neglect are affected by socioeconomic status, being more common for families living near or below the poverty line.
  • Child sexual abuse occurs at all economic levels of society.
  • Most children delay or never disclose child sexual abuse to friends, family, or authorities.
  • Few children falsely report being abused (2-10%).
  • Medical evidence is found in less than 5% of substantiated child sexual abuse cases.
  • Child neglect is the most common type of abuse in the home.
  • At least 20% of substantiated child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by females.
  • Male and female victims of sexual abuse are equally traumatized.
  • Children with disabilities are two to three times more likely than children without disabilities to be abused.

Writers: any one of these statements could be a plot point.

 

The National Children’s Alliance provides additional data:

  • In 2015, an estimated 1,670 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States.
  • Nearly 700,000 children are abused in the U.S. annually.
  • Children in the first year of life have the highest rate of victimization, 24.2 per 1,000 children.
  • Types of abuse vary, but three elements are most common: neglect, 75%; physical abuse, 17.2%; sexual abuse, 8.4%.
    • NB: some children suffered more than one type of abuse.
  • 90% of alleged abusers are related in some way to the child victim.
  • 40% of abusers were a parent or caregiver.
  • Nearly 25% of abusers were themselves children.

Writers: consider these behaviors for your villains.

Several studies have analyzed the cycle of child sexual abuse, including at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in London and the University of New South Wales Faculty of Law in Sydney.   Among 747 males studied, being a perpetrator was correlated with their reports of having been victims of sexual abuse.  The overall rate of having been a victim was 35% for perpetrators and 11% for non-perpetrators.  Of 96 females studied, 43% had been victims but only one became a perpetrator.  Males who were abused in childhood by a female relative or who had lost a parent in childhood were more likely to become a perpetrator.  The bottom line: there is evidence of a victim-to-victimizer cycle for a minority of male perpetrators but not for females.

When someone says “abuse” images of physical abuse are likely to come first to mind.  However, as I learned when I volunteered at Hanover Safe Place (providing services for those suffering sexual assault and/or domestic abuse), there are at least five types of abuse.

  1. Physical abuse: hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair pulling, etc.  This type of abuse may include denying medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drugs on the victim.
  2. Sexual abuse: coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent, including marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence, or treating someone in a sexually demeaning manner.
  3. Emotional abuse: undermining a person’s sense of self-worth and/or self esteem by constant criticism, denying one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with children.
  4. Economic abuse: making a person financially dependent by taking total control of financial resources, withholding access to money, forbidding attendance at school or employment.
  5. Psychological abuse: including—but not limited to—intimidation; threatening harm to self, partner, children, or partner’s family or friends; destruction of pets or property; forcing isolation from family, friends, school and/or work.

Writers: if you have a domineering character, consider the last three forms of abuse as tools to use.

DoSomething.org posted 11 facts about child abuse.  Some of those facts not covered in the preceding:

  • Approximately 5 children die every day because of child abuse.
  • 1 out of 3 girls and 1 out of 5 boys are sexually abused before they turn 18.
  • In 2012, 82.2% of child abuse perpetrators were between the ages of 18-44, of whom 39.6% were between the ages of 25 and 34.
  • Victims of child abuse/neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as juveniles, 28% more likely to arrested as adults, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime.
  • About 80% of 21-year-olds who were abused as children meet the criteria for at least one psychological disorder.
  • 14% of all men and 36% of all women in prison were abused as children.
  • Those abused as children are less likely to practice safe sex, putting them at greater risk for STDs.
  • They are also 25% more likely to have a teen pregnancy.

Last but not least, according to National Public Radio, through WBUR, the effects of abuse and mistreatment add up over children’s lives.  Abuse and neglect survivors are much more likely to have physical and mental health problems later on, including higher risk of suicide and running afoul of the law.  Summing across years, 12.5% of children overall have experienced at least one episode of abuse or neglect by age 18.  The numbers are worse for minority children: 21% of African-American children, 14.5 percent of Native Americans, and 13% of Hispanic children.

Minority Children Affected by Abuse

 

HOW CHILDREN LIVING WITH DOMESTIC ABUSE ARE HARMED

It turns out that finding data on this topic was more difficult than finding info on abuse of children per se, but there are indices of the harmful effects of witnessing abuse.

Development and Psychopathology (Vol 15, Issue 2) included a research report documenting that children exposed to high levels of domestic violence had IQ’s that were, on average, 8 points lower than unexposed children.  The researchers attribute this to the harmful effects of extreme stress on brain development.

The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (Vol 71(2)) included a meta analysis of 118 studies of the psycho-social outcomes for children exposed to “interparental violence.”  Child witnesses exhibited more child problems, and witnesses’ outcomes were not significantly different from those children who were physically abused themselves.

Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal (Vol 32, (8)) reported that children and adolescents living with domestic violence are at increased risk for emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.  They’re more likely to develop emotional and behavioral problems, and they’re more vulnerable to other adversities.  The researchers concluded that the impact of living with domestic violence can endure even after the child is safe.

Children exposed to complex trauma (including witnessing domestic violence) often experience lifelong problems that put them at risk for additional trauma and cumulative impairment (e.g., psychiatric and addictive disorders, chronic medical illness, legal, vocational, and family problems).  These may extend from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. (Psychiatric Annals, 35(5).)

Children exposed to maltreatment, family violence, or loss of their caregivers often exhibit depression, attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and disorders of anxiety, eating, sleep, communication, separation anxiety, and reactive attachment.

The literature on complex trauma suggest seven primary domains of impairment in exposed children: attachment, physical illness/disease, affect regulation, alterations in consciousness, behavioral regulation, cognition, and self-concept.

Writers: consider the POV of a child witness to domestic abuse.

Emma Katz in Child Abuse Review points out that the forms of domestic abuse beyond the physical are still harmful to children.  Perpetrators’/fathers’ coercive behavior toward women (psychological, emotional, verbal, financial abuse; isolation and monitoring their activities) spills over to children.  They often prevented children spending time with their mothers and/or grandparents, visiting other children’s houses, getting involved in extra-curricular activities at school.  These non-violent acts isolate children, dis-empower them, and create a constrained world that stunts children’s resilience and development and contribute to emotional/behavioral problems.

Bottom Line for Writers: domestic abuse as it affects children is a rich vein for writers to mine.  Consider the complex possibilities: whether a character, whether now a child or adult, was a child also abused, the child’s gender and age, and the time since exposure to the abuse.  Consider whether a child witness would actively support the mother/victim (e.g., urge her to leave her abuser) or identify with the aggressor.  Take it anywhere!

NOTEBOOKS, DIARIES, AND JOURNALS

 
For me—and I venture to say, for most of you reading this blog—the initial exposure to notebooks—books meant to be written in—came with entering school. During the 14th and 15th centuries, notebooks were made by hand, often at home, by folding pieces of paper in half into bundles that were then bound. Binding involved sewing along the fold or punching holes and lacing with twine or other cord. The pages were blank, and any note keeper who wanted lined pages had to make ruled lines across each page. Making and keeping notebooks was so important to effective household, farm, and business management that children learned how to do it in school.

 

Currently, besides a stitched binding, a buyer can purchase notebooks that are glue-bound, spiral bound, or loose pages in ring binders. People keep notes on everything—food, physical activity, birds cited, blood pressure. . .

 

Today, notebooks are almost universally commercially produced. You can find them lined or blank or with printed grids, depending on your intentions. Specialized ones are available for virtually any and all needs. One can shop notebooks for elementary, middle, high school, or college. Additionally, one can find notebooks designed for particular interests.

 

Specialized notebooks often include related information, advice, etc. The Writer’s Notebook is a good example of this, providing tips and exercises to improve writing and creativity. Of the 207 pages of The Naturalist’s Notebook, the first 95 are pages of how-to. The body of the book is called a 5-year calendar-journal, though it’s set up like a diary.

 

So, segueing from notebooks to diaries: a diary is a record (originally handwritten) set up for discrete entries arranged by date, reporting on what has happened. Generally, a diary has daily entries. Although it might include anything, a diary is essentially a collection of notes, often brief, focused on “just the facts, ma’am.” A war diary would be a good example: a regularly updated official record of a military unit’s administration and activities, maintained by an officer in the unit.

 

Pre-printed diaries typically allot the same amount of space or number of lines for each day. This forces the diarist to record only the most important events of each day. The diary shown above is set up for one year, with one week on each double-page spread. N.B.: These are a woman’s diaries, and you will see weather notes in the margin of each entry, which is typical of women’s diaries.

 

One-year diaries can come in any shape or size, though the entry space is often larger than that of multi-year diaries. Typical of diaries are the inserts and write-overs caused by the relatively small amount of space allowed for each day.

 

MeditationsMarcusAurelius1811.jpg
To Myself, known today as Meditations, written in Greek by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second half of the 2nd century CE might be the earliest recorded writing displaying many aspects of a diary. The earliest surviving diary that most resembles a modern diary was that of the Moroccan mathematician and scholar Ibn al-Banna’ al-Marrakushi in the 11th century. Needless to say, these were not pre-printed!

 

At one point, five-year diaries were very popular. They range in size from 2” x 3” up to 8.5’ x 11” and are still for sale today, priced from $5.59 to $72.00, though the price is not necessarily related to size. The major advantage of a five-year diary, in my opinion, is that it allows easy tracking of events (visits from relatives, weather, flower blooms) across years and seasons. The major disadvantage is the (usually) severely circumscribed space for each entry.

 

Today one can have a paper diary and/or a digital diary. Digital diaries are often tailored towards shorter-form, in-the-moment writing, similar to what might be posted on social media, but they avoid character limits that have the same effect as the space restrictions noted above.

 

In its original (French) meaning, the word journal (from the Latin diurnis or diurnalis)refers to a daily record of activities, but the term has evolved to mean any record, regardless of time elapsed between entries. More importantly, it is a record of significant experiences, as well as documenting thoughts, feelings, reflections, emotions, problems, and self-evaluations. In short, a journal is much more personal than a diary. Per Robert Gottlieb, journals have no deliberate shape, they simply accrete.

 

In writers’ terms, a diary is a fly-on-the-wall POV; a journal is a first person POV, showing everything through the eyes and heart of the writer.

 

If you want to buy a journal, you are not likely to find books labeled “Journal.” Instead, you buy a blank book. Your first decision is totally blank or lined. It’s a very personal decision. For an artist, this would be totally blank, a sketchbook. But some journal writers also want a totally blank page,feeling freer—unconfined, not squished between lines. Others—somehow more restricted?—prefer lines, perhaps to keep them focused, perhaps to keep their words legible.

 

Journals can be broad ranging or focused—for example, dream journals, travel journals, gardening journals. In my experience, the more broad ranging, the more likely the writer will choose an aesthetically pleasing blank book.

 

For the most part, both diaries and journals are presumed to be personal, shared with no one or only a select few. But many of both have been published. Online, international lists of published journals and diaries are readily available.

 

An exception to the presumption of privacy, The Diary of Anais Nin was her own publication.

 

But many others are published posthumously.

 

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks—numerous, informal, and not terribly organized—have been perused and edited by John Curran. He quotes lavishly from the originals but also comments and relates the notebook entries to Christie’s published works.

 

Among published diaries, notebooks, and journals, one of my favorites is Hawthorne’s Lost Notebook 1835-1841. I love this book because it has reproductions of the original hand-written notes side-by-side with readable printed versions of his words.

 

Another favorite is The Journals of John Cheever. Cheever wrote his inner life, day after day, year after year. His writings span a period from the early 1940s to a few days before his death on June 18, 1982, encompassing some three to four million words. The original journals are small, loose-leaf note books, approximately one per year, usually typed but sometimes written out in longhand, undated. The published version of his journals is, necessarily, a selection. Entries are identified by year, and each is reprinted in its entirety.

 

This printed version of his journals doesn’t draw punches, even when he made negative comments about his children or himself.

 

And now I would draw your attention to the similarities between the Hawthorne notebook entry and the Cheever journal entries. They are both open-ended and extremely personal.

 

Bottom line for writers: a rose by any other name! Call it a notebook, a diary, or a journal, record your days.

 


Getting Up Close With Nature

Hummingbird moth
Hummingbird moth
You may know that last May I took a Nature Writing Class—a first for me. Looking back on that experience, I believe it reinforced several habits that would benefit all writers.

 

Be specific.

 

Perhaps the foremost is be specific. Don’t say “a tree,” say, “a willow oak.” Instead of “a riot of colorful blooms” say, “a riot of colorful roses.” The more specific the noun, the more vivid the image in the readers’ minds. And in being specific about flora and fauna, it helps greatly if you know what you’re talking about!

Tiger swallowtail butterflies
Tiger swallowtail butterflies

Be curious.

 

Also, be curious. If you don’t stop with, “Wow! Gorgeous butterfly,” you could quickly learn that these are Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies, and that they are the official state insect of Virginia. Helpful into? Who knows?

 

As implied in the above statement, getting into nature means getting into learning. My most recent case is the hummingbird moth.

Clearwing hummingbird moth and flower
Clearwing hummingbird moth (Photo: Rodney Campbell [CC BY 2.0])

 

Hummingbird moths are so named because they look and move like hummingbirds. They can remain suspended in front of a flower while they unfurl their long tongues (about twice the length of the moth’s body) to sip nectar. Some claim the beating of their wings hum like hummingbirds. Much as it might look and sound like a tiny bird, it’s an insect.

Farmer's Almanac 2019

 

Deborah Tukua posted fascinating facts about hummingbird moths in Home and Garden. Hummingbird moth is the common name for several moth species, including Common Clearwing, Snowberry Clearwing, Five-Spotted Hawkmoth, and White-Lined Sphinx. (Some species of Hummingbird Moths are limited to Europe, Asia, or Africa.)

Tobacco hornworm
Dave Pape [Public domain]

Learning About Hummingbird Moths

  • The hornworm caterpillar gives rise to the hummingbird moth.
  • A type of hummingbird moth was featured in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). During filming, “They were flown first class… and had special living quarters.”
  • The hummingbird moth’s wings beat up to 70 beats per second (depending on species). They can fly up to 12 mph.
  • Hummingbirds have beaks. A Hummingbird Moth has a tongue-like proboscis that rolls out of its coiled tube to reach nectar deep inside flowers.
  • Its inherent protections include big, menacing eyes and it’s resemblance to a bird instead of a bug.
  • They range in length from 2 to 2.5 inches (noticeably shorter than a hummingbird) and are covered in gray hair resembling feathers, with white, olive, rust or brown markings or variations.
  • Their wingspan ranges from 2 to 6 inches, depending on the species.
  • They typically feed on flower nectar in daytime, but can feed at dusk on night-blooming flowers.
Hornworm
Hornworm (Photo: Scot Nelson [Public Domain])

Hummingbird moths are plump and spindle-shaped, and they have a a short tail that spreads like a fan. As noted above, color variations are typical, but usually include reddish brown. Their wings are covered in scales which may be lost, leaving their wings clear.

 

They feed on the nectar of several flowers. In my case, they feed on butterfly bush and verbena. Adults start flying in early spring but are more prominent in summer and early fall. In the north, there is only one generation per year. In the south, usually two at least. They tend to visit the same flowers the same time each day. And because of their reproductive habits (that I won’t get into here), if you have them one year, you are likely to have them again.

hummingbird moth on verbena

So, now you know a bit about a gorgeous insect that lots of people don’t know exists.

Bottom line for writers

Be specific, be curious, keep learning. And I might add, read broadly—beyond the relatively narrow range of your particular interest or genre.

 

So, I am taking another Nature Writing class this fall. Last spring I became aware of my previous tendency to treat nature vaguely: hot, dreary, enjoying early spring blooms, lots of birds at the feeder. My appreciation of nature is now richer and more precise.

 

And I’m hoping for more hummingbird moths next year!

hummingbird moth feeding

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

Ferris wheel and fairgrounds at night

 

Earlier this week I posted a blog about the Iowa State Fair, because it is so in the news just now. But it turned my thoughts to fairs in general.

Writers note: fairs are a national cultural phenomenon, but with regional differences worthy of attention. As you read this blog, think how a state fair might fit your plot.

 

Catherine Pond
Catherine Pond

 

How did State Fairs start?

 

Kentucky farmwife Catherine Pond wrote about this topic. She traces the beginnings of State Fairs to the New York State Fair of 1841. She notes that State Fairs are big, raucous events in large agricultural states while smaller states and county fares are quieter. Nevertheless, fares at both levels offer fair food, wild rides, tractor pulls, 4-H and other judging events (pies, canned goods, quilts, flowers, pigs, cows, etc.).

“In addition to focusing on agricultural offerings and economy, in the 19th century the state and county fairs also became showcases for recipe judging and all manner of domestic arts.”

 

How Did State Fairs Start screenshot of article and canned food with prize ribbons

 

WikipediA


This site defines State Fairs as a larger version of a county fair, often including only exhibits or competitors that have won in their categories at local county fairs. If you move on to the WikipediA article on county fairs you are directed to “Agricultural Show.”

 

American Traditions: A Short History of Agricultural Fairs

 

The word fair can be traced back to the Latin feria, meaning “holy day.” These events consisted of games, competitions, and festivities. The Roman feriae of the Middle Ages morphed into a place when foreign merchants could buy, sell and trade with the public along with the earlier activities.

 

Fairs in America

 

In the U.S., agricultural fairs started to catch on in the early 19th century, when the first one was held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Organized by Elkanah Watson in 1807, it was a small fair featuring only sheep shearing demonstrations.

 

Black and white portrait of Elkanah Watson

 

Watson urged other farmers to showcase their livestock, where they were judged and recognition awarded. Later county fairs had merchants selling goods and activities for men, women, and children. Soon many small, rural communities held fairs from the Northeast to the Midwest.

 

The upshot was the New York State Fair of 1841, held in Syracuse for two days. It featured animal exhibits and speeches intended to educate people about agriculture. It included products for both farms and homes. It was “a great success” with 10,000-15,000 attendees. Today that fair attracts 1.2 million visitors, one of the biggest in the country. It spans nearly two weeks, ending on Labor Day

 

photograph of a cow

 

From their roots in agriculture. fairs grew to include new technology such as electricity and airplanes. Then, too, entertainment came to fairs: musical performances, horse races, carnival rides, and vaudeville entertainers. Today there are approximately 2,000 state and county fairs nationwide.

 

Texas State Fair at night
Texas state fair at night (Photo: wickedchimp from Dallas, Texas, United States [CC BY 2.0])

The Biggest State Fairs

 

  1. The State Fair of Texas (2.25 million visitors). The number of visitors may depend in part on the fact that this fair runs for 24 days.
  2. Minnesota State Fair (2 million attendees). Established in 1859, it celebrates the Land of 10,000 Lakes and features more than 300 concession booths.
  3. The Big E (1.5 million visitors) a.k.a. Eastern States Exposition. It includes all 6 New England States (Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire) each with its “state day” showcasing individual histories and traditions.
  4. New York State Fair (1.2 million visitors)
  5. Tulsa State Fair (1.15 million visitors) a.k.a. the Tulsa County Free Fair, overshadows the smaller Oklahoma State Fair.

 

FYI: State Fair of Virginia has fewer than 400,000 attendees.

 

Navajo Nation Fair parade
The 65th Navajo Nation Fair Parade. Window Rock, Arizona. (Photo by Jared King / NNWO [CC BY-ND 2.0])

Which states have the most fair participation by citizens?

 

  1. Navajo Nation Fair (Arizona): 57.58% of Navajo Nation
  2. Alaska State Fair (Palmer): 40.68%
  3. North Dakota State Fair: 39.64%
  4. Minnesota State Fair: 36.70%
  5. Iowa State Fair: 35.93%

 

FYI: Virginia State Fair: 2.86%—which still exceeds 16 other fairs. Some of these are from states that have multiple fairs.

Kentucky State Fair horse show
Kentucky State Fair horse show, 2018 (Photo: Communications Department, Kentucky Venues)

 

“The 20 Best State Fairs in America”: Top 5

 

  1. Kentucky State Fair: incredible horse shows, chef demonstration, live music from popular artists. It started more than 100 years ago with trick bears, award-winning horses, and the Parade of Champions.
  2. The Great New York State Fair
  3. State Fair of Texas
  4. Iowa State Fair
  5. Minnesota State Fair
person on horseback at fairgrounds
Iowa State Fair image library

These—and virtually all others—now offer free live concerts, deep fried everything, carnival rides, and crazy competitions based on state identity.

 

two men log rolling at state fair
Minnesota State Fair

 

Fair = Fair Food

 

Iowa State Fair image library

For many, fair food is the highlight of the visit. Classics like funnel cake, burgers, corn dogs, candy apples and candy are everywhere. But there is always a local twist: wine slushies in California, a beef Reuben burger in Nebraska, maple syrup soft serve in Vermont. And offerings are ever more exotic: fried dough injected with Pepsi, chocolate-dipped scorpions, alcohol fried in pocketed pretzel dough, the Indiana Hot Beef Sundae (mashed potatoes, marinated beef, gravy, cheese, corn “sprinkles” and a tomato “cherry” on top).

 

chocolate peanut butter buckeyes
“Buckeyes”

 

My personal favorites are the “Buckeyes” found at Ohio fairs—Ohio being the Buckeye State. They have peanut butter centers and chocolate shells that cover all but the required tan spot.

 

For more information, search fair food online. You can get info by state.

 

My personal connections to fairs

 

The only time I went to the Ohio State Fair I was well into my twenties. Most of my fair connections are with the Fairfield County Fair. First held in Lancaster, Ohio, the second week of October, 1851, it’s one of the oldest county fairs still operating. This year it will be October 6-12. It is known as The Last and Best of the Season, being arguably the last county fair in the country.

 

This fair includes bull riding; truck, tractor, and horse pulls; demolition derbies; concerts; band; horse races; and judging of companion animals, farm products, foods, swine, poultry, garden clubs, pygmy goats; as well as a veterans celebration, auction, and monster truck throwdown–and that’s just the first two days!

 

 

My sister was born during Fair Week. My mother and sister were taken home from the hospital by ambulance, which swung through the fairgrounds on the way. My sister celebrates her birthday by visiting the fair in the fall. So perhaps her connection is stronger than mine.

 

On the other hand, the earliest picture I have of me is my mother holding me in a fair photo booth—the sort where you put in coins and get four postage-stamp-sized pictures. One of my favorites is the picture of me and my sister some years later—not looking happy to be there.

 

photograph of two girls

 

I walked through the fairgrounds holding hands with my boyfriend. One year I won a blue ribbon for my 4-H entry of homemade apple sauce. Every year I envied my best friend Sharon whose 4-H project was a milk cow she raised. She got to sleep in the animal barn with her cow and all the other kids who had animals entered. Getting a broken foot when her cow stepped on her seemed a negligent price to pay. I played percussion in the high school marching band that every October marched around the racetrack during the opening ceremonies, often sweltering in our purple wool uniforms trimmed in gold.

 

 

Bottom Line for Writers: if you have a character who has a particular attachment to an annual event, such as a fair, be sure to personalize it.

Fair Game

cake on a stick at the state fair
Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know that the Iowa State Fair is a happening thing right now? And how many state fairs—other than your own—are you aware of? But Iowa? Definitely. And why might that be?
state fairground photograph

It isn’t the oldest. That would be the New York State Fair, dating from 1841.

 

It isn’t held first.  The California State Fair is held annually in July. This year, it’s July 12-28. Or last: the North Carolina State Fair will be October 17-27.

 

It isn’t the biggest. The Iowa State Fair (with some 1.13 million visitors) is #7. And rated by Attendance as % of State Population, Iowa’s 35.93% is high, but still only 3rd place.

 

And according to blt: the blog for lifestyle and travelit isn’t the best. The Iowa State Fair is ranked #4 among the The 20 Best State Fairs in America.

children eating cake on a stick at a state fair

Those who regularly attend the Iowa State Fair expect all manner of fried food and especially food on a stick. According to the fair website, there are more than 80 varieties of food on a stick are available this year, from apple pie on a stick to golden fried peanut butter and jelly on a stick. There are more than 70 new foods this year, including Bacon Wrapped Pig Wings (Don’t ask. IDK.) and Bauder’s Ultimate Bacon Crisp (ice cream), Big Grove Brewery Deep Fried Apple Pie Craft Beer and Butter Cake Shake, Chocolate Brownie Waffle Stick and Fried Avocado Slices.

sculpture of a cow made from butter
Sculpture by Sarah Pratt (Iowa State Fair image library)

Another big draw is a visit to the life-size butter cow, 600 pounds of pure Iowa butter created each year by a local sculptor. It’s a tradition that began in 1911. Once it’s sculpted, the butter cow can be stored and reused for up to 10 years! In addition to the butter cow, one or more companion butter sculptures are on view in the Agriculture Building.

 

The Iowa State Fair features an Agriculture Expo: cattle and other livestock, an Animal Learning Center, and an Avenue of Breeds that represents 100 species, including 100 to 120 animals.

man standing on hay bales at a state fair

But face it, none of these account for the national attention focused on this one fair. There seem to be two factor that focus the spotlight on Iowa—and neither is directly related to what state fairs are all about.

 

One, Iowa holds the first state political caucuses in the nation, in February. Thus, the Iowa State Fair is an opportunity for political candidates (both state and national) to appeal to potential voters, as well as attract canvassers, event planners—any campaign volunteers.

 

Two, The Des Moines Register has a Political Soapbox at the fair. The Soapbox is a long-standing Iowa tradition. Stacked bales of hay provide a platform for people to address passersby. This year, there is a public schedule of the appearances of more than 20 Democratic Presidential Candidates. Each will have 20 minutes to address the crowds, plus limitless opportunities to mingle and press the flesh.

 

There’s a long history here. Calvin Coolidge spoke in 1925. Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with other politicians at the fair concerning the Midwestern drought. Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech in 1954. Jimmy Carter visited the fair in 1976—after winning the Democratic nomination.

 

And the benefits may flow both ways. Three years ago, when Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump all came to the fair the same day, it set an attendance record.

screenshot from Washington Post op-ed section about Iowa State Fair

But not everyone thinks the Iowa State Fair and political candidate connection is a good thing. Everything presidential candidates do is under the media microscope. “…at events such as this one we get into a particularly intense cycle of insincere playacting and brutal theater criticism…” Candidates are praised or savaged based on their performances. “Is the candidate wearing properly casual clothing and shoes? Does she seem at ease perusing the booths and chatting with passersby, as though there weren’t five cameras in her face? How Middle American were the foods she chose to eat? Did she stuff them in her mouth with the proper enthusiasm?”

 

Waldman’s point is that a performance is no basis for judging a person and his/her suitability and promise as president. “And consider that there might be better ways of figuring out who you should vote for.”

 

And please note: although 35.93% of state citizens attend the fair, fewer than 16% of Iowans turned out for the 2016 caucuses. There may be numerous reasons people have difficulty participating in caucuses, the fact is that they may be irrelevant. Minnesota, for example, which consistently have the highest voter turnout, in 2016 had only 8% caucus turnout.

 

So why did I write this blog? I like fairs, and this year—more than ever before—I’m aware of the Iowa State Fair.

vivian lawry typewriter
Bottom line for writers: I hope you find something of interest—and maybe even use—in this blog.

From the Archives: Alcohol for Writers

"alcohol for writers" whisky poured into tumbler

 

In 2016, I wrote Alcohol for Writers: the famous authors infamous for drinking, facts writers should know about alcohol (even if they don’t imbibe), and what to know about your characters’ interactions with drink.

On the subject of alcohol, you can read about its consumption with tobacco in Smokers Drink and Drinkers Smoke. Perhaps not surprisingly, the people who drink the most, as a group, also consume the most tobacco.

Each of these posts explore the dangers of addiction, which I dive into in The Upside of Addiction for Writers. In addition to substance abuse, writers should also consider behavioral addiction, such as gambling, eating, or working. (And don’t forget Workaholics Day.)

Now it’s your turn: how do you treat alcohol in your writing? Let me know in the comments.