Why Smoking is Good for Writers

smoking good writers
Not that I’m suggesting starting or continuing smoking. But consider how your writing could benefit. (In reporting statistics and research findings, I’m not going to include academic citations. They clutter up the writing, and if you want to pursue something in more depth, you can easily find it online.)

 

As a Character Note

Given the general disapprobation of smoking today, chances are your hero or heroine will be a non-smoker. However, other characters are surely fair game.

 

A ten-year longitudinal study has reported that higher levels of openness to experience and neuroticism were each significantly associated with increased risk of any lifetime cigarette use. Neuroticism also was associated with increased risk of progression from ever smoking to daily smoking and persistent daily smoking over a ten-year period. In contrast, conscientiousness was associated with decreased risk of any of these.

 

smoking
Neuroticism is not a good thing! It is one of the Big Five higher-order personality traits in the study of psychology. Individuals who score high on neuroticism are more likely than average to be moody and to experience such feelings as anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness.

 

Other, less comprehensive research nevertheless is consistent with the above study. In this study, smokers had higher scores on measures of depressive symptoms, novelty seeking, and histrionic, borderline, passive-aggressive, and antisocial personality symptoms and lower scores on a measure of avoidant personality.

 

Not surprisingly, quitting smoking improves personality. Among adults 35 and under, those who quit smoking scored lower impulsivity and neuroticism than when they smoked.
smoking good writers

Which Characters Are More Likely to Smoke? 

(Compared to an overall rate of 15.5%)

 
  • men, 17.5%
  • people aged 25-64, 17.5%-18%
  • non-Hispanic American Indians/Alaska Natives, 31.8%
  • non-Hispanic Blacks and Whites, 16.5%
  • Hispanics, 10.7%
  • non-Hispanic Asians, 9%
  • living in the Midwest, 18.5%
  • living in the South, 16.9%
  • being lesbian/gay/bisexual, 20.5%
  • those experiencing serious psychological distress, 35.8%
  • those with disability/limitation, 21.2%
construction workers

More Frequent Occupations of Smokers

Actually, the field is pretty wide open here. But consider the likelihood that your smoker would be “different” from his/her peer group.
 
  • mining
  • construction
  • manufacturing
  • transportation industries
  • business contract (promoters, salesmen, retail and wholesale dealers and buyers)
  • business executives of all ranks
  • editors
  • educational administrators
  • museum curators
  • entertainment and recreational services
There is a notably smaller proportion of smokers among farmers, engineers, surgeons, elementary and high school teachers, and clergymen.

 

What is smoked varies, too. Pipe smokers are more frequently found among research scientists, lawyers, college professors, and schoolteachers. Cigar smokers tend to be business executives, bankers, editors, attorneys, and those in technological fields.

 

In general, more education is associated with less smoking, with the rate dropping to 4.5% for those with a graduate degree. The only anomaly is that those with 12 or fewer years of education have a smoking rate of 24.1%, while those with a GED certificate have a rate of 40.6%

 

Smoking is higher among those living below the poverty level, 25.3%. Besides everything else, a poor character who smokes would have the added burden of the cost of cigarettes. It is an expensive habit. A pack of cigarettes can cost as much as $10.45 (in New York state). But even the least expensive state (Missouri) has a cost of $4.38. FYI, in Virginia it is $4.78, second lowest.
 

As a Source of Tension

The most recent data I could find (from the CDC, 2016) indicate that more than 15% of adults 18 and older currently smoked. That leaves approximately 85% non-smokers, so lots of opportunity for negative comments, nagging, scolding, and downright arguments about everything from the smell and messiness to health risks to the smoker and to those exposed to secondhand smoke.

 

smoking good writers
Perhaps the most obvious source of plot complications would be the known health effects. More widespread smoking as well as increased life expectancy during the 1920s made adverse health effects more noticeable. In 1929, Fritz Lickint of Dresden, Germany, published formal statistical evidence of a lung cancer–tobacco link, which subsequently led a strong anti-smoking movement in Nazi Germany. The harmful effects came to notice in Great Britain in 1954 with the British Doctors Study, and in the United States with the Surgeon General’s report, 1964. So, writers, choose your illness!
 
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • cancer anywhere in the body: lung, bladder, blood, cervix, colo-rectal, kidney, liver, larynx, oropharynx, pancreas, stomach
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • cause or exacerbate Type 2 diabetes
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • exacerbates asthma
  • weakens bones
  • poor tooth and gum health
  • cataracts
  • increased inflammation
  • decreased immune function
baby
Smoking increases problems with fertility and pregnancy.  Smoking can make it harder for women to become pregnant. It increases the risk for early delivery, stillbirth, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, ectopic pregnancy, and orofacial clefts in infants.

 

Men are not immune. Smoking can reduce a man’s fertility and increase the risks of birth defects and miscarriage.

 

If you write historical fiction, know about smoking in your time period. Although smoking can be traced back to 5000 BCE in the Americas in shamanistic rituals, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the consumption, cultivation, and trading of tobacco spread. Before that, smoking was primarily opium or cannabis in the far East.

 

durham tobacco
[Source: Open Durham]
The modernization of farming equipment and manufacturing increased the availability of cigarettes in the United States. Mass production quickly expanded consumption, which grew until the scientific controversies of the 1960s, and condemnation in the 1980s. In 1962, research indicated that 78% of civilian men had a history of tobacco use.

 

From the 1930s through the 1950s or so, smoking was often presented and perceived as being sophisticated, sexy, and daring. In a time when smoking was not established as a health risk—when smoking was much more prevalent—the relationship between personality and smoking was probably less pronounced. I.e., a higher proportion of non-neurotics smoked.
old cigarette ad
Bottom line: You don’t have to smoke to benefit from smoking!

Blog Block

blog block
[Source: Local writer Betsy Arnett]
If it weren’t January, I’d call it spring fever. I simply could not settle down to write a substantive blog for today. What did I do instead, you might well ask. Well, I’ll tell you.

I lingered over multiple cups of coffee and enjoyed my backyard wildlife. The squirrel just started visiting again after a long hiatus, but he’s as cute as ever. I think I’ll name him Stanley.

I finally pulled out a dead  plant, may it RIP after hanging in for several years. I replaced it with stems I’ve been rooting for spring planting because it won’t live in the ground over winter.

By then it was time to make (and eat) soup. While I was at it, I made two!

blog block
Passing through the living room, I thought that I really ought to put away the last of the Christmas decorations, but instead. . .

blog block
I spent a while enjoying the light catcher and wind chimes. The light catcher was a Christmas present and we have six sets of wind chimes around and about.

blog block
Being focused on the yard, I had to check on the progress of spring bulbs: greenery everywhere but no buds yet.

As long as I was outdoors, why not take a little walk and enjoy the gorgeous day? So I did that until it was time for my tai chi class. This is my teacher at the 2018 World Tai Chi Day.

blog block
When I got home, I realized that the laundry basket was overflowing, which took me to the bedroom—where I felt compelled to organize my earrings.

Yes, I know that is an obscene number of earrings, but I’ve been collecting earrings for decades. I can still wear the earrings I wore in high school, so why get rid of any?

Eventually I did try to focus on writing. But while I found these two quotes wise, they didn’t trigger any wise thoughts of my own. Indeed, I decided that today I’m in the reading phase.

becoming michelle obama
BOTTOM LINE: Focus, focus, focus! (I.e., do as I say, not as I did today!)

Writing Illness and Pain

injury writing illness pain
Both illness and pain can be either acute or chronic: acute is episodic, such as a bout of cancer, pneumonia, or a broken bone; chronic is ongoing. When acute, there is a presumption of a cure or healing, whereas with chronic conditions the focus is on coping or managing.
writing illness pain injury
Acute conditions can be excruciatingly painful, even life threatening. Most people have some experience with acutely painful conditions. As a writer, draw on your own experiences or those of family and friends to provide rich descriptions of symptoms and responses. Depending on the specific condition, activity will be limited. So, do your homework on the limitations and effects of a broken shoulder, so-called walking pneumonia, measles, a rabies bite, etc.

 

writing illness pain
Chronic pain is often the result of normal aging effects on bones and joints. But other causes include nerve damage and injuries that fail to heal properly. Plus, some chronic pain has numerous causes. Back pain, for example, could be a result of aging or of a single injury.
writing illness pain
As writers, be aware that pain affects behavior, mood, and interpersonal relationships. If your character in pain is the POV character, you can describe the effects directly. But if you need to convey chronic pain from outside your character, be aware of the symptoms and side effects.

 

writing illness pain

Side Effects

 
Chronic pain limits what one can do, or the amount of what one does in a day.
  • ability to work
  • play with children
  • walk
  • sleep
  • take care of personal needs
This, in turn, can cause disuse syndrome, the result of “use it or lose it.” Continued limited activity causes weakness, which leads to even less activity. Losing strength and flexibility makes one more susceptible to pain and additional injury—truly a detrimental cycle.

 

depression
Chronic pain has a huge effect on psychological well-being.
  • irritability
  • anger
  • depression
  • difficulty concentrating
These psychological effects can be as debilitating as the pain itself.

 

writing illness pain depression
Writer decisions: How does your character cope—or attempt to cope—with chronic pain?
  • exercise
  • relaxation
  • alternative or complementary treatments: massage, magnetic therapy, ultrasound, energy medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine
  • hired or volunteer helpers
  • support groups
  • traditional pain meds: consider side effects and possible addiction
  • self-medication (a.k.a., alcohol)
self medication
Bottom line: Pain can be great for complicating the plot and/or upping tensions among characters. Use it wisely!

Goodreads Newbie

goodreads login
I’ve always read—of course. But I never got involved with Goodreads till 2018. And guess what? It’s great! 
 
I got involved by declaring a reading goal for the year. I figured 52 was a good number. In the event, I read 118 books last year. Who knew?

 

author by number goodreads
Among other things, Goodreads tell me is  who I read the most—not something I ever paid attention to. But going forward, I’ll check out those top authors for anything they have published recently. Goodreads also allows one to check other aspects of one’s reading activity.
goodreads
Looking at my reading in review, a couple of things I sort-of knew became absolutely clear. (1) My preferred escapist reading is Regency romance, especially Jane Austin fan fiction. (2) When I latch onto a writer, I read everything, whole series, in order.
At Goodreads, you can see what your friends are reading, rate books you have read, get involved in discussion groups, follow specific authors, and so much more! Among other things, Goodreads will tell you which books READERS choose as the best in various genres.
books goodreads
Check out Goodreads for yourself! Are you already using it? Let’s connect!

Celebrating New Year’s: Why December 31?

This blog post was originally published on December 31, 2015. 


Currently, most people around the world begin New Year’s celebrations on December 31, the last day of the Gregorian calendar. But as with so much in the modern world, it wasn’t always so. Although people have celebrated the beginning of a new year for millennia, astrological or agricultural events typically marked the new year.

 

Where did the holiday begin?

The earliest recorded celebration of the beginning of a new year was in ancient Babylon, some 4,000 years ago. For Babylonians, the new year began with the first full moon following the vernal equinox, a date falling in late March. It was a massive religious festival that required a different ritual every day for 11 days.

chinese new year
[Source: NPR]
Chinese New Year was tied to the second new moon after the winter solstice. In Egypt the new year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, coincident with the rising of the star Sirius.

For early Romans, each new year began with the vernal equinox. A year had 304 days divided into 10 months. Over time, the calendar year deviated significantly from the sun year. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar consulted astronomers and mathematicians to solve the problem. He added 90 days to that year, adjusted the length of months, and declared January 1 as the first day of the year. January honors the Roman god of beginnings—Janus—who has two faces that look forward and back. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII established January 1 as New Year’s Day for Christians.

julius caesar
The Tusculum portrait, possibly the only surviving sculpture of Caesar made during his lifetime. [Creative Commons]

New Year’s Traditions

We’re all familiar with New Year’s celebrations that involve eating special foods for good luck on New Year’s Eve and/or New Year’s Day: legumes, such as lentils or black-eyed peas, signaling financial success; pork, associated with prosperity; ring-shaped cakes and pastries, because the year has come full circle; sometimes cakes or puddings with something hidden inside, to bring especially good luck to the one who gets the nut or prize. Sometimes the number of courses (3, 5, 7, 9, or 12) are specified. In several Spanish-speaking countries, eating 12 grapes, accompanied by 12 wishes, as the clock strikes 12 is traditional. (In Portugal, it’s 12 raisins.)

Making a lot of noise—shooting guns, banging pots and pans, blaring car horns, playing loud music, setting off firecrackers—is supposed to scare away bad luck and evil spirits. Partying with family and/or friends is common, as is fireworks displays or other ritual midnight activities.

In the U.S., the dropping of the giant ball in Times Square, begun in 1907, is now watched by millions. Spin-offs involve publicly dropping items that represent an area’s culture, geography, or history: the Peach Drop in Atlanta, GA; Pickle Drops in Dillsburg, PA, and Mount Olive, NC; the Possum Drop in Tallapoosa, GA; Wylie the Walleye Fish Drop in Port Clinton, OH; the Bologna Drop in Lebanon, PA; a Watermelon Drop in Vincennes, IN; the Midnight Muskrat Dive in Princess Anne, MD; a Big Cheese Drop in Plymouth, WI; a Pine Cone Drop in Flagstaff, AZ; a Grape Drop in Temecula Valley, CA; a Donut Drop in Hagerstown, MD; a Flip-flop Drop in Folly Beach, SC; a Wrench Drop in Mechanicsburg, PA; Beach Ball Drop in Panama City Beach, FL; the Music Note Drop in Nashville, TN; Chile Drop in Las Cruces, Mexico. Surely I’ve missed some! Please feel free to comment on your favorites.

times square new years

In England, the national icon is the tolling of Big Ben. Similar striking clocks or bells are widespread in Europe. In Albania, people watch a lot of comedy shows because one should enter the new year laughing and full of joy. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, playing the Czechoslovak national anthem at midnight honors the time they were one nation. In Turkey and Russia, New Year’s involves many of the traditions of Christmas in other parts of the world. In Costa Rica, running across the street with luggage is to bring travel and new adventures in the year ahead. But in Venezuela, only those traveling in January pull a suitcase around the house. In Japan, people clean their homes and Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, representing the mental states that lead people to take unwholesome actions.

In the Philippines, many wear new, bright, colorful clothes with circular patterns. In Brazil, wearing white on the beach to ring in the new year is supposed to bring good luck. In Italy, wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve is traditional. Spanish tradition holds that wearing new red underwear brings good luck. In Venezuela, the underwear is yellow.

In Scotland, Hogmanay is celebrated with First-Footing (going to each other’s houses with gifts of whiskey and sometimes a lump of coal); Edinburgh hosts a 4 or 5 day festival, beginning on December 28th, including cannon fire and fireworks displays.

first footing
[Source: Flickr]
North and South Korea celebrate New Years twice, a Lunar New Year which varies, and a Solar New Year which is always January 1.

The practice of making resolutions for the new year is thought to have been popular first among the ancient Babylonians.

And thus we come full circle—a fine New Year’s tradition! What are your favorite traditions?

December 21: More than the Winter Solstice

There is a joke (based on stereotypes, as so many jokes are) that goes like this: on the Winter Solstice, the English woman says, “Oh. The shortest day of the year.” while the French woman says, “Oooh, la la, the longest night of the year.” My point is that this date means many things to many people.
 
chase calendar of events
[Source: Amazon]
I love this book! Just browsing it is entertaining. For the specifics of the importance of this date, I am heavily indebted to Chase’s. But to start with the solstice, in the northern hemisphere winter begins on this day. (Of course, in the southern hemisphere this is the beginning of summer.) This means 12 hours and 8 minutes of daylight at the equator and zero at the Arctic Circle.

 

Holidays

Celebrate Short Fiction Day: Established in 2013, short stories have been around as long as people have been able to spin a tale about people, places, or things. So, on this first day of winter, when the days are shortest, take advantage of the long night and celebrate short fiction by reading a short story—or two or three! Totally self-serving, consider my collection Different Drummer.
 
Different Drummer - a collection of off-beat fiction
 
Forefather’s Day: Celebrated mostly in New England to commemorate the landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Plymouth Rock, the legendary place of landing since it was first “identified” in 1769 has been an historic shrine since.

 

Fogg Wins A Wager Day: From Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in 1872, Fogg walked into the saloon of the Reform Club in London, and said “Here I am, gentlemen!” exactly 79 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds after starting his trip. He won a 20,000 pound wager.

 

Humbug Day: Those preparing for Christmas can vent their frustrations on this day. Indeed, twelve “humbugs” are allowed.

 

Yalda: The longest night of the year is celebrated by Iranians in a ceremony that has an Indo-Irianian origin, where light and good are considered to struggle against darkness and evil. With fires burning and lights lit, family and friends stay up through the night helping the sun battle against darkness. They recite poetry, tell stories, and eat special fruits and nuts till the triumphant sun reappears in the morning.

 

yalda night
A family celebrates Yalda [Creative Commons]
Yule: This is one of the “Lesser Sabbats” during the Wiccan year. It marks the death of the Sun God and his rebirth from the Earth Goddess.

 

On this day…

1804: Benjamin Disraeli was born. British novelist and statesman, born in London and died there April 19, 1881. “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.”

 

1824: James Parkinson (born in 1755) died. He was a remarkable English physician and paleontologist who first described the “shaking palsy” that was later named for him, Parkinson’s disease.

 

1860: Henrietta Szold was born. She is best known as the founder and first president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. She established the first night school in Baltimore, focused on teaching English and job skills to immigrants. She died in 1945.
1864: Sherman took Savannah, despite the defense of Confederate general William Hardee. By marching from Atlanta to the coast at Savannah, Sherman cut the lower South off from the center.

 

1879: Joseph Stalin (whose family name was Dzhugashvili) was born in Gori, Georgia. He was one of the most powerful and most feared men of the 20th century. He died of a stroke in Moscow, 1953.

 

1913: The first crossword puzzle (created by Arthur Wynne) was published in a supplement to the New York World.

 

1917: Heinrich Böll was born. He was a German novelist, winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature, author of 20 books. Born in Cologne, Germany, he died near Bonn on July 16, 1985.

 

1937: The film of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered. It was the first full-length animated feature film, also the first Technicolor feature. It was 4 years in production and involved more than 750 artists and 1500 colors. It featured the songs “Some Day My Prince Will come” and “Whistle While You Work.”

 

Snow White 1937 poster
Original theatrical poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren [Source: Walt Disney Productions]
1968: Apollo 8 was launched. It was the first the first moon voyage, orbited the moon, and returned to earth Dec. 27.

 

1970: Elvis Presley met with President Nixon. He offered to be “a Federal Agent-at-Large” to fight drug abuse and the drug culture. The meeting was cordial but he was not made a federal agent. Surprising (to me) the picture of them shaking hands is the most requested reproduction from the National Archives (more than the Bill of Rights or the US Constitution).
elvis presley richard nixon
[Source: Time]
1972: Joshua (Josh) Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the greatest slugger to play in the Negro Leagues, perhaps the greatest ballplayer ever. His long home runs are the stuff of legends, and he starred with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Born in 1911, he died in Pittsburgh June 20, 1947. His recognition was a long time coming!

 

1940: Frank Zappa was born. He was a rock musician and composer, noted for his satire and for advocating against censorship of music. He formed Mothers of Invention. He died in 1993.

 

1988: Pan Am flight 103 exploded mid-air and crashed in the heart of Lockerbie, Scotland, the result of a terrorist bombing. Those dead included 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground. It eventually became known that government agencies and the airline knew that the flight was possibly a target of a terrorist attack.

 

2005: The United Kingdom allowed same-sex civil unions. Pop star Elton John and his partner, filmmaker David Furnish, were among the first to wed on this day.

 

same sex marriage uk
[Source: CNN]
People born on this day:  Among others, Phil Donahue, Chris Evert, Ray Romano, Michael Tilson Thomas.

 

What makes this day special for you?

Mystery Author Collaboration: Theresa Inge

theresa inge

VL: Today’s guest blog is by Teresa Inge, whose novella “Hounding the Pavement” is the opening work in the recently released To Fetch a Thief. Teresa has contributed to several anthologies both as author and as organizer. Today she will share her perspective on collaboration.


Just as writing is a lonely experience, collaboration is a group effort. As a short story author, I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many authors on several writing projects.

These projects have included the coordination of joint mystery anthologies. Some years ago, I came up with the idea to create the Virginia is for Mysteries series, a collection of sixteen short stories set in and around Virginia. I first discussed the series with the Sisters in Crime Mysteries by the Sea chapter members and the Central Virginia chapter members. Once members were on board to move forward, I organized an anthology committee. This began the wonderful partnership of writers joining together to create great mysteries. Along the way, we teamed up to generate timelines, book titles, number of contributors, submissions guidelines, promotion, and securing a publisher.

VL: As a contributor, I can say Teresa did a great job! 

author theresa inge

We also learned that working with multiple authors can be challenging with schedules, editing, and finding time to promote the books.

VL: What Teresa may be too polite to say is that it was sometimes a real pain in the neck—or somewhere! For example, people missing deadlines, arguing over suggested edits, and/or never being available for talks or signings.

Next, I created 50 Shades of Cabernet, a mysterious wine anthology with authors I knew from Malice Domestic, a fan-based mystery writer’s conference. But I took a different approach and solicited authors who were established, had a following, and created well-crafted mysteries. I knew from experience that these authors would put in the time needed to make the book successful.

mystery author collaboration

More recently, I collaborated with three authors on To Fetch a Thief, the first Mutt Mysteries collection, featuring four novellas that have “gone to the dogs.” In this howling good read, canine companions help their owners solve crimes and right wrongs.  Since I’ve been in several books with this particular group, we now have the knowledge and experience to create well developed mysteries and a strategic marketing plan.

Collaborating with multiple authors combines efforts to develop great mysteries and create a strong network, since there is strength in numbers.

theresa inge author

VL: Teresa, thank you for sharing your insights. From your closing remarks, it sounds as though collaboration—like so many other things—gets easier with practice. No doubt many authors would benefit from working with and learning from you! 


Teresa Inge grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries. Today, she doesn’t carry a rod like her idol, but she hotrods. She is president of Sister’s in Crime Mystery by the Sea Chapter and author of short mysteries in Virginia is for Mysteries and 50 Shades of Cabernet.

Going Long

by Rosemary Shomaker

Rosemary Shomaker author

VL: Thanks to Rosemary Shomaker, we have a chance to vicariously experience the struggle of a writer stretching into a new challenge. Although Rosemary doesn’t get into her story in To Fetch a Thief directly, “This is Not a Dog Park” is great. She should definitely go long again/more in the future. And as an added bonus, check out her dog!

 going long


I’ve commented to friends (and to anyone asking about my writing) that completing a novella was difficult for me, a short-story writer. As I reflect on this, the words to “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway musical Rent keep floating through my brain. Let me plant the ear-worm for you:

 

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.

Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear.

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.

How do you measure,

Measure a year?

 

In daylights?

In sunsets?

In midnights?

In cups of coffee?

In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?

In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.

How do you measure a year in a life?

 

Now, let me connect the dots. Short stories have a word count of 4,000 to 8,000 words; those are the targets many publishers suggest when soliciting short story submissions. How long is that? At 250 words to a double-spaced manuscript page, you’ll find short stories weighing in at sixteen to thirty-two manuscript pages. What does that mean in a book? For a 5.5” x 8.5” book size, that translates to ten to twenty pages.

In writing a short story, you typically write twice the length and then cut, edit, and rewrite to produce a tight short story—eliminating half of what you initially wrote. I chose short story projects for several reasons. Primarily, I liked the compressed focus—of both the length and the writing period. I could assess my time and plan accordingly. Violà! I’d finish and see results within weeks or months.

For the first in the planned Mutt Mysteries series we aimed to produce a book including four novellas. “What are those?” you ask. Simplistically, a novella is a short novel or a long short story. To check what I tell you, I Googled “novella,” and found one explanation that a “novelette” runs 7,500 to 17,499 words, and a “novella” is 17,500 to 39,999 words. How precise! You guessed it—40,000 words and more is a novel. The varied fiction genres, however, have specific expectations. A mystery novel runs 80,000 to 90,000 words, for instance. The To Fetch a Thief novellas run about fifty pages each.

I wrote my first draft of “This is Not a Dog Park.” My word count was 8,300 words—and that was only the first draft! Remember my comment about expecting to cut half of a first draft? I was sunk. Clearly, this novella task was a different animal than a short story. Yes, but I didn’t realize the different animal was a beast! I floundered for several weeks, trying to “gin up” my plot and visualize the long mile to 17,500 words. (“Gin up”? Who says that? I looked up the idiom—see  * below for the very interesting origin—I love words—but I digress!)

My first attempts at adding volume to the story were horrible. I found myself cranking up meaningless descriptions. I added useless comments. Each time I did this, my short story writing training rebelled at the waste and at the imprecision of the prose.

It took me adjusting to a completely different mindset to make any useful progress. The place to start for me was the plot. In a novella, I could have more happening than I could in a short story, and I explored that. In addition, my characters could interact more and build their relationships over several scenes. I gave myself permission to relax the compactness of short story boundaries. Still, my product was unfocused. It’s only when I deleted some useless scenes and repurposed others that I felt progress.

Back to the song. Here’s how the words translated to my novella ordeal:

 

Seventeen thousand—then add five hundred words.

Up to thirty-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine.

More than seventeen thousand five hundred words.

How do you measure,

Measure a plot?

 

In action?

In hours?

In scenes or in lines?

In pages, in edits, in words by the ton?

Seventeen thousand—then add five hundred words.

How do you measure when your novella is done?

 

The beauty of this novella-writing exercise for me was that finally the “organicness” (that’s a dodgy word—“organicity” is worse—that layers on medical meanings) of writing emerged, finally, and I received the gift of having a glimpse of the work of a true novelist. Yikes, that’s some hard work! My regard for any novelist has increased, and my awe of good novelists compounds exponentially.

In my learning experience writing this novella, I did, as “Seasons of Love” reminds us, “You got to, you got to remember the love.” I do love writing!

* “Gin up” – one Googled source yielded the explanation below. You bet I checked the definition of “feague”! That definition used the euphemism “fundament” . . . I love words!

“Gin up” means enliven, excite or enthuse. Its probable derivation is from the 1800s British slang term “ginger up,” which referred to the practice of putting ginger up a horse’s butt to make him spirited and prance with a high tail, for purposes of show or sale. The other term for this practice is the verb “feague.” This is confirmed both by the online Phrase Finder from the UK and the OED.  (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gin%20up)

Rosemary Shomaker

VL: Thank you Rosemary! I appreciate your candidness and rich language. In addition, I think you are an inspiration to other writers striving to expand their writing lives. I do hope we collaborate again sometime. And to close out, just one more great photo.

going long


Rosemary Shomaker has called Virginia home for decades. After a state government career writing inspired nonfiction, she now writes fiction. You can find a few of her short stories in anthologies such as Virginia is for Mysteries – Volumes I and II50 Shades of Cabernet, and several of the Shaker of Margaritas anthologies. Her “This is Not a Dog Park” novella is included in the Mutt Mysteries collection To Fetch a Thief. You may recognize her if you shop at thrift stores, attend estate sales, visit historic sites, or poke around abandoned buildings—she cannot resist the lure (and lore) of the past.