PSA: WORKING IS HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH: PART 1

Deadliest Job in the Galaxy: Red Shirt Crew in Star Trek

Although necessary for the economic (and possibly mental) health of most people, working is more-or-less bad for your physical health. This two-part blog explores the most unhealthful jobs. Jobs can be unhealthful in two basic ways: acute incidents and chronic conditions. In Part 1, I’m focused on acute incidents that take workers’ lives. Next time, I’ll explore chronic work conditions that injure people with repeated exposure, over time. 

Writers Note 1: All of these jobs provide opportunities for murders that look like accidents–and when occupational deaths are so common, sliding in a murder would be more likely to be missed. 

Killer Jobs 

There’s a very good reason they put these signs up.

The rate of fatal work-related  injuries overall is 3.5 per 100,000 workers. More than any other big category, transportation-related accidents killed workers (more than 2,000 of 5,250 deaths, 40%). The second-most common workplace fatalities was contact with objects and equipment, 13%. These numbers come from cnbc.com, 12/27/2019.

Although exact rankings vary somewhat from year to year, there seems to be consensus that the following jobs are the ones most likely to have workplace fatalities, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The parenthetical numbers are fatal injuries per 100,000 workers, giving you a comparison metric

According to ISHN, a publication for safety and health professionals, the two most frequently fatal jobs are deep sea fisherman and logger. All death rates below come from ishn.com/articles/110496-most-dangerous-jobs-in-the-us-the-top-20

Loggers (109.3) most often die because of logging equipment or logs. In addition, they work outside, in isolated areas, exposed to dangerous weather conditions.

Deep Sea Fishermen (74.2) as well as other sailors (55.1) most often die by drowning. They also face risks from icy decks, working with heavy equipment, being sick or injured too far from land to get medical treatment in time. ISHN: “And to top it all off, this [deep sea fishing] is about the only profession where you can be swallowed whole.”

Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers (50.4) most often die in transportation “incidents.” The majority of fatalities result from crashes of privately owned planes. About 20% of fatal U.S. crashes happen in Alaska, where 82% of the towns and settlements can only be reached by plane.

Paving, Surfacing, and Tamping Equipment Operators (46.7) most often die from getting hit by construction equipment or crashes involving other motor vehicles.

Dredging, Excavating, and Loading Machine Operators (42.4) die by contact with objects and equipment. Unstable dredging equipment can sink.

Roofers (39.0) die in ways you might expect: most often falling off the roof, but also slipping and tripping: 34% of falls from roofs are fatal.

Machine Maintenance (37.4), Woodworking Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders (35.9) are most likely to die from contact with equipment.

Septic Tank Servicers and Sewer Pipe Cleaners (34.3) die from contact with objects and equipment. 

Refuse and Recyclables Collectors (31.9) are most likely to die after being hit by the truck or another vehicle. Garbage collectors’ mortality rate is 100 times higher than is considered acceptable risk. By comparison, police offers suffer 15.8 deaths per 100,000.

Structural Iron and Steel Workers (28.0), like roofers, are most likely to die from falls, slips, and trips.

Delivery and Other Truck Drivers (26.0) die most often in traffic crashes. Long-haul trucking accounts for about one out of every four fatal work accidents. Although other jobs have higher fatality rates, truckers have the largest number of deaths on the job. 

Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Agricultural Managers (25.6) die most often in crashes, including tractor crashes. However, there are also falls from roofs or multi-story barn lofts, trampling by farm animals, and suffocation in grain silos.

Children (16 and younger) working on farms die more often than all other industries combined. “Farmers are nearly twice as likely to die on the job as police officers, five times as likely as firefighters, and 73 times more often that Wall Street bankers.” (INSH.world)

Taxi Driving is the lowest-paying career on these lists of the most dangerous jobs, with an average annual income of $23,500 in the US. Taxi drivers are twice as likely as police officers to be a victim of homicide while working, and 20 times more likely to be murdered while working than the average American.  Compared to other workers, they have an increased risk of such deaths because they work with cash, with the public, alone and during nighttime hours. Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely than white drivers to die on the job, and male drivers are six times more at risk than female drivers.

Writers Note 2: These rankings apply primarily to jobs in the US. Differences in labor laws, environmental conditions, and record-keeping around the world means that characters in other countries have an even wider range of ways to die at work!

All the biggest stars have doubles film the dangerous scenes.
  • Stunt work – doing dangerous activities on purpose for pay
    • Tourist attractions, street theater
    • Doubles for actors in dangerous roles
    • Stage magicians, escape artists, circus performers, etc.
  • Shipbreaking – stripping retired ships for reusable materials
    • Open welding torches around explosive gasses
    • Sheets of metal falling without warning
    • Falling from multi-story heights
HuaShan Mountain Pass is one of the most treacherous trails in the world,
  • Sherpa – guiding hikers up mountain trails
    • Carrying incredibly heavy packs
    • Falling off mountains
    • Avalanches
  • Mining – many countries have far less stringent safety protocols
    • Tunnel collapses
    • Toxic fumes with little or no ventilation
    • Heavy, sharp, dangerous

Bottom Line for Writers: deaths, whether accidental or intentional, are great plot points, tension builders, and revealers of character.

JEWELRY AS MORE THAN BEAUTIFICATION: IDENTIFICATION, INFORMATION, AFFILIATION, COMMUNICATION

I’m a jewelry junkie: even staying home I wear earrings, a necklace, a bracelet (only one, unless we’re talking bangles), and at least two decorative rings. If I didn’t wear a lot of jewelry every day, how could I justify having so much of it? For me, and for those who know me, it’s just my style: sterling silver with stones such as jasper, carnelian, onyx, and lapis lazuli.

Museum visits just aren’t complete until whatever jewelry displays are available have been viewed. There are quite a few you can visit online right now!

Nassarius shell beads found in Turkey
Animal bones that may have been Neanderthal adornments

It might be argued that jewelry has been around as long as humans have. The oldest known human jewelry is 100,000-year-old Nassarius shells that were made into beads. An archaeological dig in Croatia provided some evidence that Neanderthals might have made jewelry from 35,000 years before that!

As you probably know, jewelry has been made from such natural materials as bone, animal teeth, shells, pearls, wood, carved stones, and many combinations thereof—and it still is! The term baroque comes possibly from the Portuguese baroca for a misshapen pearl. Less stable materials have rarely withstood the test of time, but people have and do make fabulous adornments from feathers, animal skins, paint, clay, dried leaves, flowers, paper, and even hair. And consider how many body parts you’ve seen adorned with jewelry—for example hairpins, tiaras, earrings, nose rings, neck rings, finger rings, toe rings…

Ring found in an Aztec tomb

Throughout history, people of high importance or status have historically had more jewelry than others, and often were buried with it. Burial spots of Viking chiefs, Egyptian nobles, and Chinese warlords are identified as such because of the fancy weapon and fabulous jewelry next to the corpse. In Ancient Rome, only people of certain ranks could wear rings.

But I started by saying jewelry can be more than beautification.  In earlier times, jewelry served to pin clothes together, to restrain hair, to hide weapons, and as a method of storing wealth.

Identification

The US military will now allow personnel to list The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM or Pastafarian) as a religious preference on dog tags.

Can we count dog tags as jewelry? Made specifically for the purpose of identifying military, they have a long and erratic history. In English, the term “dog tag” comes from the resemblance to animal registrations.

Signaulum

The earliest mention of an identification tag for soldiers comes in the writings of Polyaenus, who described how the Spartans wrote their names on sticks tied to their left wrists. A type of dog tag (“signaculum“) was given to Roman legionaries at the moment of enrollment: a lead disk on a leather string, worn around the neck, with the name of the recruit and the legion to which the recruit belonged. 

Dog tags were provided to Chinese soldiers as early as the mid-19th century. During the Taiping revolt (1851–66), both the Chinese Imperial Army regular servicemen and rebels wearing a uniform wore a wooden dog tag at the belt, bearing the soldier’s name, age, birthplace, unit, and date of enlistment. 

U.S. military personnel have worn dogtags since 1918, primarily for the purpose of handling casualties and deaths. (FYI: There were no official dog tags during the American Civil War. Some soldiers pinned pieces of paper with identifying information to their clothes. A few enterprising jewelry makers started making custom-ordered identification pins for soldiers to buy.)

French or Danish signet ring, unknown owner

Consider other types of ID jewelry: ID bracelets, pendants that spell out a name (usually only a first name). In some places, slaves were made to wear permanent bracelets or necklaces identifying their position and owner. In the days before photographic IDs, people used signet rings to prove their identity when giving orders or sending letters.

Information

Fancy medical alert bracelets

Dog tags show more than just identification; they now include basic medical details like blood type and inoculations as well as religious affiliation.

Staff Sgt. Ivor Griffin with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor he earned for his service in World War II, finally presented to him at 92 years old

The military is big on jewelry to convey information: number of stripes, number of stars, Purple Hearts, and other medals proclaiming one’s expert standing or honors.

Medical alert jewelry (typically bracelets) to proclaim diabetes, a heart condition, serious allergies, etc., in case medical treatment is needed for someone who cannot talk.

In past years, “mourning jewelry” made of jet or the woven hair of the deceased proclaimed one’s grief—often for a specified period of time, depending on relationship. Malaysian, Aztec, Chinese, Indian, Zulu, Egyptian, and Celtic funeral traditions all include specific jewelry for the corpse or the bereaved. The Victorians (of course) had incredibly detailed and strict rules about what type of mourning jewelry was to be worn, by whom, for which occasion, and for how long after a loved one died.

Traditionally, Japanese women’s hair and hair accessories were practically a résumé in code. The type and placements of a woman’s kanzashi (簪) hairpieces signified marital status, age, profession, social class, training level, etc. The most elaborate hairstyles and kanzashi were worn by geisha, courtesans, and women studying arts such as flower arrangements and tea ceremonies. Kanzashi were originally worn to ward off evil spirits, and they often doubled as weapons.

Maasai women communicate similar status messages in traditional bead-work. Traditionally, every woman learns how to weave together the intricate bead patterns and designs. The jewelry design and color indicates the family a person is from and how wealthy the family is. It also indicates the status of a Maasai woman, whether she is single, engaged or married.

Claddagh rings are common in Irish weddings, signifying love, loyalty, and friendship

And, of course, wedding rings signaling that (presumably) one is not available for romantic or sexual relationships. (FYI, wedding rings for men are relatively recent: by the mid-1940s, 85% of weddings included rings for both bride and groom.) Throughout most of Europe and America, wedding rings are worn on the left hand. In some countries, particular in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, wedding rings are worn on the right hand.

Affiliation

This may be the most common use of jewelry of all (except as pure adornment). On college campuses, Greek fraternities and sororities each have their unique “pins,” worn by members. Consider the jewelry Masons wear, and the rings worn by “Eastern Star” members, the group for women affiliated with a Mason. Other fraternal organization that have nothing to do with college campuses abound, along with their identifying jewelry.

Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have pins declaring their rank and troop number, but other pins and badges are earned through service and awarded like military honors. Nurses, doctors, firefighters, paramedics, dentists, and many other professionals are presented with pins when they graduate. The pin is a sign of certification and of membership in the group.

The United States Congress has an entire system of jewelry for members. Lapel pins, ribbons, and necklaces show which party a Senator, Representative, spouse, or page belongs to and which Congress they are a member of. Each Congress designs a new design and color scheme.

Mayan nobility may have worn as much as 20 pounds of jewelry while dancing

Jewelry made of precious metals and precious gems, especially designer jewelry, clearly proclaim wealth, and sometimes status.  Societies that are very conscious of class divisions are more likely to place importance on specific types of jewelry worn in public.

Ancient Egyptians used symbols on their jewelry to show territorial pride. The white vulture represented Nekhbet, patron of the Upper Egypt, and the red cobra stood for Wadjet and Lower Egypt.  When the kingdoms were combined, the Pharaoh signified leadership of Upper and Lower Egypt by wearing a crown with a both the cobra and the vulture.

During the Medieval period in Europe, royalty and nobility considered the wearing of fashionable clothing and jewelry a special privilege reserved for themselves. To enforce this idea, sumptuary laws were initiated, primarily in the 14th century. Such laws were meant to curb opulence and promote thrift by regulating what people were allowed to wear. The English sumptuary laws forbade clothing and jewelry of certain materials, above certain price levels, of certain sizes, etc.

Ring with vodun veve sign

Religious affiliation can be signaled by jewelry, usually with symbols of the faith itself, though sometimes with the presence or absence of the jewelry or by what is covered by the jewels. The Star of David for Jews, a crucifix or a stylized fish for Christians. Buddhists may wear a lotus blossom or an image of Buddha. People who fervently believe in the power of Hogwarts may wear the Sign of the Hallows or a symbol of their House mascot.

Communication

Madame Secretary says, “I think this room is bugged.”

All of the above involve communication of some sort. The Smithsonian has a traveling exhibit on jewelry as a form of language and expression, particularly the pins of Madeleine Albright. The former Secretary of State loaned her extensive collection of brooches, many of which had specific messages for those in the know. Queen Elizabeth Tudor is rumored to have had a similar system of jewelry signals for her vast network of spies, but nothing has ever been proven (probably because historians are not spies).

From the Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit: Illegal To Be You

Secret messages can be communicated through jewelry even if the wearer is not a politician. In communities where homosexuality is illegal, LGBTQ people will often develop among themselves a discreet code of earrings or particularly colored necklaces. In America before the 1970s, this often took the form of a ring on the pinkie finger or a single earring in the left earlobe. During the American Civil War, abolitionists in Confederate States wore a red ribbon or string to signal that they would help escaping slaves move to safety.

Small squares of colorful beads known as Zulu Love Letters are gaining popularity in South Africa again. Like Maasai necklaces, each bead’s color and its placement in relation to others has a meaning. Together, the beaded designs send a message of love or affection.

Protea, shown here in a corsage, worn for compassion, integrity, or peace (depending on the location)

Perhaps the most ephemeral jewelry of all—flowers—have a very long history of communicating when worn as adornments. Flowers and greens mean different things in different cultures, but they nearly always mean something pleasant when worn on the body. Hawaiian orchids woven in a lei with jasmine blossoms, carnations, or kika blooms are given as a sign of welcome or farewell. The Victorians had such a specific flower code that people could have entire conversations without saying a word, just by wearing combinations of blooms at various times.

Protection

Sign against the Evil Eye

In addition to wearing a religious symbol as a way of declaring one’s membership in a group, many people wear religious amulets or reliquaries for protection from evil influences. In the Middle Ages in Europe, ecclesiastical rings worn by clergy and laymen as sacred emblems, were one of the few exceptions to the nobility’s limits on jewelry.

Curative rings, meant to cure ailments and diseases, were another exception to Medieval sumptuary laws. Necklaces with pouches of herbs, hair ornaments made of holy or lucky materials, and bracelets blessed by clergy are just a few of the ways people have used jewelry in an attempt to guard their health.

Many cultures allow women ownership only of her jewelry, given to her as bride gifts or a dowry. This can give women some degree of financial freedom. She will have ready access to cash if there is an emergency or if she needs to leave her home.

Jewelry can also double as weapons! Roman women wore hairpins that were long enough to be used in self-defense. Rings can double as a variation of brass knuckles or contain poison. Necklaces and very long bracelets can be turned into garrotes or used to tie up an enemy. An enterprising magic user can attach hex bags or cursed amulets to necklaces given as gifts. All sorts of useful methods of assassination can be hidden in lockets, brooches, arm cuffs, or anklets.

Domination

Jewelry that contains part of your soul may seem extra intimidating, but it will likely to be an eventual liability.

One of the first requirements of becoming an Evil Overlord is to acquire some piece of jewelry (usually a ring) that provide power or subdue the will of enemies. Otherwise, all the other Evil Overlords will laugh.

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men, doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Bottom Line for Writers: As with everything about your characters, consider their jewelry choices and the whys therefore!

WHEN YOU AND/OR YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT WHITE: INFO FOR WRITERS

As everyone should know by now, given recent events and news coverage, who you are and how you look makes a difference across the spectrum of American life. Writing (and publishing your writing) is no exception. I want to thank Kathleen Corcoran—friend, colleague, and occasional guest blogger—for suggesting this topic. In case you missed the photos on the header of my blog, I should clarify that I am a white woman and thus am relying on outside resources.

Surprise, surprise! (Hear the sarcasm dripping.) 

Black Authors Get Fewer and Smaller Advances Than Their White Counterparts

L.L. McKinney

Take a look at the author photos on the shelves of just about any bookstore, and you’re likely to be confronted by an overwhelmingly pale gallery. The science fiction and fantasy shelves tend to be even more monochromatic.

The disparity in pay is one reason Black authors are less likely to be full-time authors. Through the magic of Twitter, people were shown just how wide that disparity is. Here are a few instances from #publishingpaidme, started by Black fantasy author LL McKinney.

  • White American sci-fi author John Scalzi wrote that to the best of his recollection: he received $6,500 for his first two books in 2005 and 2006, then several five-and six-figure advances before a $3.4m deal for 13 books in 2015.
N. K. Jemisin accepting the Hugo Award
  • In comparison, Hugo-winning Black sci-fi novelist NK Jemisin said that she received $40,000 for each book of the Inheritance trilogy, $25,000 for each book of the Dreamblood duology, and $25,000 for each book of the Broken Earth trilogy, each of which won a Hugo award.

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  • Black American literary novelist Jesmyn Ward said that she wrote her second novel, Salvage the Bones, before securing an advance. “Even after it won the [National Book Award], my publishing company did not want to give me 100K for my next novel.”

Black American author Roxane Gay’s opinion: “The discrepancy along racial lines is very real. Keep your day job.”

Possible explanation: according to a survey earlier this year by Lee & Low Books (publishers of children’s books), 76% of workers in U.S. publishing identified as white. 

Romance writer Jasmine Guillory said, “Publishing is still a business owned by white men,” and “And, you know, the people at the top are all white men.” She made these comments in a Washington Post podcast titled Black Women on Race and Genre, in which Martine Powers talked with N.K. Jemisin, Jasmine Guillory, and Lauren Wilkinson about these issues. 

Lauren Wilkinson

In that podcast Wilkinson noted that in spy novels, from James Bond and John le Carré on, the super spies look very male and very white. So she wrote American Spy featuring a Black woman, Marie Mitchell.

Japanese American author and literary critic David Mura has written extensively about the race, gender, and identity the world of publishing. In his article about changes in the traditional path to publication, Mura identifies another challenge facing Black science fiction and fantasy authors.

The divide between the way whites and people of color see the social reality around them is always there in our society…. 
Creative writing involves the very description of that reality, and so the gulf between the vision of whites and people of color is very present right there on the page. And so, conflict ensues.

David Mura
“The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program”
Gulf Coast

Science Fiction Definitely Has Problems of Inequality  

Octavia Butler

As far back as 1980, Octavia Butler (afrofuturist writer, “The Grand Dame of Science Fiction”) was asking why science fiction is so white. Transmission Magazine published her essay, “The Lost Races of Science Fiction.” It has been reprinted in GARAGE Magazine, Issue 15, September 4, 2018.

Traditional wisdom held that making a main character a person of color will change the focus of the story. The advice was to substitute some sort of alien for the minority human. These things were actually taught in creative writing classes! Butler maintained that if a writer can see minorities for all their humanity—faults, skills, problems, aspirations—writing minority protagonists won’t derail the plot.  Butler’s essay still seems spot-on to me, and I recommend reading it!

[R]emember when men represented all of humanity? Women didn’t care much for it. Still don’t. No great mental leap is required to understand why blacks, why any minority, might not care much for it either. And apart from all that, of course, it doesn’t work. 

“The Lost Races of Science Fiction”
© 1980 Octavia E. Butler
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

An Evolution May Be in Progress 

The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind was published in March, 2015. Edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. I just came across this title and haven’t read it, but it seems to be on point.

Ramón Saldívar received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2011

Ramón Saldívar is a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University whose scholarly work is with ethnic literature.  Stanford NewsJanuary 17, 2017 profiled Saldívar prior to the publication of his book The Racial Imaginary: Speculative Realism and Historical Fantasy in Contemporary Ethnic Fiction.

Nichelle Nichols – Lieutenant Uhura
Not a well-known writer, but she broke many science fiction b
arriers

He studied works by African, Asian, Mexican, Dominican, and Native Americans. All were born after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. His overall conclusion is that these writers find new ways to imagine and talk about race through fiction.  “They are combining representations of race and racial identity with the wildest literary experimentations one could imagine.” And this is across all genres.

If you want to read what he’s talking about, here are examples of authors he studied, including several prize winners.

  • African Americans: Colson Whitehead, Perciival Everett, Touré Neblett, Darieck Scott
  • Asian Americans: Sesshu Foster, Karen Tei Yamashita
  • Native Americans: Sherman Alexie
  • Latinos/Latinas: Marta Acosta, Michele Serros, Yxta Maya Murray, Salvador Plascencia
  • Dominican American: Junot Diaz 

April 17, 2018 The New York Times Match Book replied to the following query: “I’m hoping you can save me from the literary doldrums. I’m looking for black authors who can both get me excited about reading again and inspire my own writing.” The writer then gave examples of writing she likes, following with, “I need to know that there is an audience out there for mystery, suspense and science fiction written about black characters by black authors, so I don’t feel like I’m writing in vain.” Here are The New York Times recommendations. If you want descriptions of each, check out the post online.

Bottom Line for Writers: the time is long overdue to break the molds and end systemic bias in publishing.

Why Do So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing?

Always the same, sweet hurt,
The understanding that settles in the eyes
Sooner or later, at the end of class,
In the silence cooling in the room.
Sooner or later it comes to this,

And she has to know, if all music
Begins equal, why this poem of hers
Needed a passport, a glossary…

Cornelius Eady  
The Gathering of My Name (CMU press, 1991)

WRITING TIPS: OLDIES BUT GOODIES

Officially authentic Italian style

You are likely to recognize at least some of these tips.  They turn up in writing classes, critique groups, and books on writing well.  Still, a review never hurts.

Kill Your Favorites

How much pepperoni is too much pepperoni?

People have speech patterns, habitual gestures, familiar facial expressions, and characteristic ways of walking. Writers also have writing habits–favorite words or expressions that often seem apt. Maybe you like voices that rumble like thunder. Perhaps you are partial to jettison for flummoxed. Take care that you don’t over-use these darlings. Once in any short story is sufficient, unless their repetition is part of the story. Think twice before repeating them even in a book-length manuscript.

Is it possible to have too much cheese?

Other words aren’t necessarily favorites, just so common – so universal – that they slip in unnoticed. Probably your readers won’t notice, either. But they are so insipid that they deaden your writing. I’m talking about words like smile, frown, scowl, laugh, sigh. I’m talking about faces that flush, eyes that fill with tears.

Make a list of words that you use a lot – that you suspect that you use too often. Use the edit function of your word processing program to find each instance of each of these words. Consider which can be replaced with more precise and/or more vivid alternatives.

Beware Wrap-ups and Extensions

All that added cheese is doing no one any good.

To take an example familiar to most people reading this blog: if you have a child narrator/POV for telling the Biblical story of Noah’s ark, stop when the child is out of the story. Do not then add an authorial note about global warming, animal evolution, or anything else that is modern. If you have a mother narrating the loss of three children in a natural disaster, don’t add an authorial note after the mother’s death that tells how the one remaining daughter became a nun and devoted her life to working with children following natural disasters.

These examples are blatant, but beware of more subtle wrap-ups as well. If you have a wrap-up at all, as opposed to an ending, ask yourself whether it takes the reader out of the story itself, whether it adds anything relevant, whether you can do without it.

Make Use of Your Dreams

Keep a notebook/journal/folder – whatever suits your style – in which you record your especially vivid or disturbing subconscious ramblings. Record the dream as soon after the event as you reasonably can, and include as many details as you remember, however bizarre, disjointed, or impossible they may be. You can make use of these dream records in at least two ways.

The most obvious way to use these dream records is when you need your character to have a dream. You can either lift it in total or use it as a starting point. Much easier than creating a dream out of whole cloth.

Because dreams often contain odd juxtapositions, they also are useful when you are writing something that calls for a supernatural, mysterious, or merely unexpected series of events.

Once you are in the habit of collecting your dreams – and maybe the dreams told to you by family or friends – you may find yourself using them in surprising ways.

Use Uncomfortable Words

Potato chips? Lobster? Marshmallows?

Uncomfortable words are perfectly correct and not obscene. Nevertheless, they often surprise – or even shock – the reader. Sometimes they make the reader uncomfortable. These latter words can simply be highly personal. My high school English teacher was bothered by the word “bother.” She said it made her think of dirty old men. One of my personal preferences is to use “it isn’t” rather than “it’s not,” the latter sounding too much like “snot”–which is an uncomfortable word for a lot of people.

Kiwi?!

Consider succulent, flaccid, penal, ovoid, horehound, hump, abreast, coldcock, excretion, floppy, fondle, globule, goiter, lipid, niggardly, onus, rectify, and more.

Choose uncomfortable words for effect. Use them sparingly.

Listen

There’s something about listening to the pizza original that just seems to get lost in CD or digital files.

Pay attention to the sounds around you – speech and non. Think of how to describe that bird call – or the rainfall, or the traffic, or the crowd at the game – really sounds, and write it down. But also listen to what people are saying. Pick up on strong phrases such as “plucking my last nerve” or anecdotes containing disturbing images, such as a man on a bus with a dead rabbit in a paper bag. Jot these things into your writing journal for later inspiration.

Remember The Five Ws

You probably have a vague recollection that sometime in the past – perhaps in high school – someone told you that when writing a newspaper article, you need to cover all five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. That is good advice in general, including fiction–and even memoir.

Where is this pizza and how can I get some?
  • The Who covers both the character(s) and the Point of View. 
  • What is generally what the POV character is striving for – anything from making the team to becoming the richest person in the world.
  • When can be as specific as April 19, 1945 or a vague as once upon a time… 
  • Where is, of course, setting.
Why? Really, just… why?
  • And Why is motivation – what is driving the character. Much depends on Why, and within the context of your story it must be both believable and sufficient to justify the act. If your character kills someone to secure a spot on the team, the stakes for making/not making the team must be very high indeed, and fully developed in the story.

Writing Both Sides

Characters who are either too good or too evil are too flat! Settings – whether rooms, cars, or countrysides – that are unmitigated beauty are likely to be unbelievable. Pick and choose the good and the bad, especially for your protagonist. 

Bottom line for writers: Good tips for good writing will never grow old!

If you feel stuck, try approaching your writing from a different angle.

WHEN PEOPLE ARE STRESSED OR ANXIOUS

And who isn’t, these days? But a pandemic isn’t the only trigger for defense mechanisms.  For example, the death of a loved one, loss of a job, life-threatening illness, relocation, demotion . . . the possibilities are endless. So, for you reading pleasure and maybe your writing of believable characters, here’s a quick overview of ways people cope with thoughts, feelings, or acts that are too psychologically painful to tolerate.

Hulk throws the ultimate temper tantrums.

Acting Out 
Performing an extreme behavior when a person cannot otherwise express thoughts or feelings. A child’s temper tantrum would be one example. Hurting oneself is one form of acting out—cutting or burning oneself, literally banging one’s head against a wall.

Aim Inhibition
Rather than admit to failure, a person accepts a more modest goal. Think of someone who had hopes for a career in the NFL who becomes a high school coach.

If he can’t be the Flash, at least he can be Whizzer!

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Altruism
Rather than admit having no control over a situation, a person copes by helping others, perhaps compulsively. This is a person who needs to be needed and may promote helplessness in those close to him/her.

The Angel had such a strong compulsion to help everyone that Dr. Charles Xavier of the X-Men diagnosed him with “heropathy” (not an actual disease).

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Avoidance
Refusing to deal with the situation. In the current pandemic, choosing not to watch the news, read the newspapers, or respond to online postings.

Deadpool has been using running and laughing to avoid his horrible life situations since he was a child.

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Compartmentalization
Keeping different parts of one’s life in separate compartments, often with different moral guidelines. For example, someone who lies, cheats, steals, or hurts others to make a living but is unfailingly kind, helpful, and loyal to family and loved ones. Another example would be someone who enjoys extramarital sex but would never have “an affair” because that involves emotional intimacy and thus would be “cheating.”

Matt Murdock is a blind defense lawyer by day and the superhuman illegal vigilante Daredevil by night.

Compensation
Overachievement in one area because of failure in another. For example, throwing oneself into professional achievement because of failure of a marriage or intimate relationships. Or the opposite: not making it professionally and then becoming a helicopter parent.

Hartley Rathaway was born deaf and became obsessed with sound manipulation, eventually becoming the Pied Piper.

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The Amazons on Themyscira spent centuries denying the existence of any world outside their island paradise.

Denial
Basically, this is saying it isn’t so.  “There is no pandemic. It’s all a hoax—or an exaggeration.”  “It isn’t that dangerous.” Addicts often deny that they have a problem.

Displacement
Taking out frustrations, feelings, or impulses on people or objects that are less threatening. It usually applies to displaced aggression. The classic example is the boss criticizes the employee, the employee yells at his/her spouse, the spouse scolds the child, and the child kicks the dog. Of course, the person might just abuse the child or pet. Or one might smash a fist into the wall or break something.

Reed Richards “Mr. Fantastic” frequently expressed his frustrations with the world by beating his wife and children. This panel occurred immediately after such an outbreak.

Dissociation
Mentally separating oneself from one’s body or environment in order to keep an overwhelming experience at a distance. An example would be someone unhappy with his/her job has trouble concentrating at work, frequently “daydream” or finding his/her mind wandering.

Trance used her astral projection ability to escape the demonic Limbo pocket dimension and get help.

Fantasy
Retreating to a safe place in one’s mind. If one can’t find relief in fantasizing about being turned into a movie star or whatever, you can get much the same effect by binge reading or tv watching or gaming.

Michael Jon Carter hated his life in the 25th century, so he traveled back in time with stolen gadgets to live out a fantasy life as the superhero Booster Gold in the 20th century.

Humor
Seeing the funny or ironic side of any situation. This is actually a pretty adaptive way to handle stress and anxiety. For example, wearing a face mask with giant mustache attached or creating silly photo shoots of pets in quarantine.

Spiderman is a master of using bad jokes to torture his enemies.

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Dr. Manhattan is so brilliant that he loses all touch with humanity.

Intellectualization
Focusing on the problem/problematic thoughts in a cold, factual way. For example, putting the current pandemic into the context of  pandemics through the ages, how devastating they were, how they were transmitted, how they were dealt with, etc.

Passive Aggression
This is often the refuge for someone who can’t express anger or aggression directly (by scolding, hitting, etc.). For example, a teenager who is assigned a chore, such as mopping the kitchen floor, who begins by asking a gazillion questions about where to find and how to use the necessary equipment, then doesn’t sweep before starting, then mopping around the table rather than under it, and finally leaving soap scum behind.

Emma Frost generally straddles the line between passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive, depending on her allies.

Projection
Ascribing one’s unacceptable qualities, thoughts, or feelings to others. Think Donald Trump accusing reporters of being rude.

Harley Quinn projected her brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome onto Flash and tried to “cure” him.

Rationalization
Basically, this is making excuses. You did it, you aren’t denying that you did it, but you give rational or logical reasons for it. What makes this a defense mechanism is that the stated/acknowledged reason isn’t the real motivation. For example, you pawned your mother’s wedding and engagement rings and claim you needed the money when you really wanted to hurt her—or you hated your dead father and don’t want the reminder around.

Gin Genie can create seismic shock waves in direct relation to the amount of alcohol in her system. To be a powerful superhero, she also has to be an abusive alcoholic.

Kamala Khan wants to fit in and avoid trouble but goes out of her way to stand up and confront super villains and terrorists when she shifts into Ms. Marvel.

Reaction Formation
Replacing an unacceptable feeling, impulse, or behavior with the opposite. For example, subconsciously wishing a sibling would fail and so going out of one’s way to be helpful and promote success — the perfect fan.

Regression
A person reverts to a pattern of behavior that worked when one was younger. Think thumb-sucking, crying, sulking, or temper tantrums.

Zatanna feels such guilt over using her powers to erase the memories of her enemies and friends that her powers revert to a level she had when younger.

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Repression
I like to think of this as motivated forgetting. Things that are too painful are kept out of consciousness awareness, but may have a powerful effect on behavior. For example, a victim of early childhood sexual abuse who doesn’t remember the event(s) but has difficulty becoming intimate.

Jessica Jones has years of repressed memories thanks to brainwashing and mind control.

Suppression
Much like repression, but one consciously decides not to think about or remember something. This is fairly tough to pull off!  Every time it comes to consciousness, one distracts oneself with something else. One example: having an obsessive thought running through one’s head is a way to block other scarier or more stressful thoughts from surfacing.

The Red Room training forced Natasha Romanoff to remove all empathy and mercy and become the Black Widow. She had to retrain herself to join the Avengers.

Sublimation
Act out unacceptable impulses by transforming them into a more acceptable form. For example, aggressive impulses channeled into martial arts. Someone who likes looking at naked bodies takes up figure drawing.

Batman has turned the anger and grief from watching his parents’ murder into a drive to fight crime.

Undoing
Closely related to Reaction Formation but usually on a more conscious level; trying to make up for unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors — sort of like an unstated apology. For example, a child who is jealous of a younger sibling and wishes s/he were dead might make a point of giving that sibling toys, one’s cookie, etc.

Tomorrow Woman is an android created to destroy the Justice League. She achieves artificial consciousness and sacrifices herself to destroy her creators instead.

BOTTOM LINES FOR WRITERS: Everyone uses defense mechanisms. It’s how we cope. Choose defense mechanisms for your characters that are in line with his/her character in general. So, for example, a scientist is unlikely to use denial and more likely to use intellectualization.

Although using defense mechanisms is natural, normal, and helpful on an episodic or “acute” basis, long-term or “chronic” use can lead to emotional problems because the underlying threat or anxiety is never actually addressed.

The most emotionally stable superhero out there seems to be Zephyr aka Faith Herbert, from Valiant Entertainment. We should all be as awesome as Zephyr!

PANHANDLING 101

Why would you have a character panhandle?  I can think of several reasons just off the top of my head.

Buddhist monk in Thailand with a rice begging bowl
  1. S/he really is down and out and desperate
  2. It requires less training, credentials, etc., than a regular job
  3. To win a bet or meet a dare
  4. To put one over on the gullible
  5. To conduct undercover surveillance
  6. To collect research data
  7. Funding a backpacking tour (“beg-packing”)
  8. Several religious orders are mendicants and depend on donations from devout followers

Thanks to wikiHow, we have a clear recipe for successful panhandling—or failure, depending on the needs of your plot. Here’s the basic recipe, taken largely from the wikiHow panhandling page, but visit Marginal Revolution or Prepper Press for more detail and the rationale behind recommendations. See also Inc.com, Bill Murphy, Jr. on sales techniques.

Location

  • Choose a place with lots of foot traffic:
    • Subway stations
    • Metro stops
    • Truck stops
    • Urban campuses
    • These places may require talking
  • Alternatively, a place with lots of auto traffic:
    • These places need a clearly visible sign
    • Doesn’t work as well in cold, rainy weather
Panhandlers in Shanghai have gone high-tech!
  • If feasible, move location to take advantage of changing seasons and weather
  • Stick to downtown commercial district and middle-class neighborhoods
  • Don’t use the same location more than once a month
  • Choose medium to large cities
  • Do not beg near ATMs
  • Don’t walk in the street
  • Don’t block traffic

The Big Ask

  • Ask politely
  • Say thank you
  • Be believable, whether truth or fiction
  • Make the story fit the location, with props if appropriate (see notes on animals and children)
  • Ask for a specific amount of money, e.g., the precise subway fare
  • Keep it simple: I need XXX  for YYY
This may be a little too specific
  • Alternatively, spew something long and convoluted, hoping for money to make you go away
  • Make signs easy to read at a glance
  • Evoke sympathy (a homeless veteran, a disabled person, etc.)
  • Be funny, make a joke, especially with college students
  • Remember the regulars; greet people by name if feasible
  • End politely, even if you don’t get any money

Safety

  • Know the local laws about panhandling (locations, times, during events)
  • Stay on good terms with businesses and other panhandlers
  • Obey No Soliciting or No Loitering signs
  • If told to move, just move
  • Don’t panhandle after dark
  • Stash money frequently, and/or spread it around your pockets, etc.
  • Be aware that panhandling is actually hard work and dangerous
  • Women need to be especially cautious

Miscellaneous Bits

  • Having a baby or child with you increases vulnerability exponentially
  • Never bring a sick or malnourished animal with you
  • Do not wear fashionable or expensive clothes
  • Disheveled is okay, dirty isn’t
  • Don’t smoke or drink anything while panhandling
  • Don’t take money from people after the light turns green
  • Use language and body language that is non-threatening

If you want your panhandler character to fail, break all the rules!

Writers note: If your character is panhandling because s/he really is down and out, consider community services, churches, soup kitchens, shelters, etc.

A row of beg-packers in Hong Kong next to an elderly man digging through trash to find food

“Beg-packing” is a fairly recent phenomenon. Tourists, often college students, hitchhike and panhandle as they travel, allowing them to spend very little money on the way. Some see this as a way to open up sight-seeing opportunities to people outside the ultra-wealthy.

Others see it as a drag on local economies, with tourists begging for money from already impoverished communities without actually contributing anything. Some countries have outlawed panhandling tourists; police arrest beg-packers and drop them off at their respective embassies.

The St. Paul’s station on the London Tube is in particularly high demand for buskers

Street performers, technically, aren’t panhandlers.  The definition of panhandling is seeking money without providing anything in return. Street performers are (presumably) providing entertainment and therefore are busking. From a writer’s point of view, it may make little difference. 

Depending on local ordinances, street performers may need to be licensed or scheduled by a central authority. For example, busking at platforms on the London Tube is so profitable that performers must audition and apply for time slots.

N.B. writers: Money made by street performers is taxable as tips; begging/panhandling income is not taxable.

Ghostly white women selling flowers in Stockholm are one of the creepier variations of this activity

Another variation is “selling” worthless trinkets or single flowers for an exorbitant price.  For example, braided bracelets offered in exchange for $10. Selling flowers is common, particularly to tourists seated at outdoor cafes. Because so many panhandlers have begun taking flowers from funerary wreaths in local cemeteries, many florists in cities where this is common now deliberately snip the stems of funeral flowers just below the bud.

Consider Other Characters

Dominican and Franciscan orders were both founded as mendicants in the Twelfth Century
During Ramadan, panhandling becomes so common that several majority-Muslim countries remove all beggars from public spaces to channel charity through official groups – a somewhat controversial move
  • What motivates people who do or do not give money. Is giving money satisfying a “customer” need?
    • Many religions encourage or require charitable giving of some sort.
  • What are the attitudes of others toward panhandling?
    • Sympathetic, disdainful, hostile, etc.
  • Does the panhandler have family or friends?
  • What about a boss who “runs” panhandlers the way a pimp runs prostitutes?

Bottom line for writers: Regardless of monetary success, panhandling is a rich opportunity for writers!

ALCOHOL: OTC MEDICATION?

Stress and alcohol go together like peanut butter and jelly—a burger and fries, mac and cheese, bread and butter, mashed potatoes and gravy, milk and cookies, or any other iconic duo you can think of. Yes, they can be separated but—oh, so often—you don’t have one without the other.

I started thinking about this when the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a front page story (above the fold!) about liquor sales in Virginia. You will recall that ABC Stores have remained open as “essential” services. And according to numbers from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, sales now hover around $22 million a week. 

In March, as the social distancing began, the ABC stores had more than $30 million per week.  Sales in April 2020 were up about 15% over a year ago. The article goes on to identify the top selling brands for the state and for the Richmond Planning District (City of Richmond, Henrico, Goochland, Hanover, Chesterfield, and Powhatan counties). I was less interested in the rankings than in the sheer volume!

Alcohol consumption is up all over the country. To look at one other location, in Tulsa, OK, one liquor store reported that looking at sales March 15 to April 15, liquor sales were up 56% and beer 48%. Compared to a similar date in April of 2019, one-day sales in April 2020 were up by 100%. 

According to one store owner, buying habits are changing in that people are buying more at a time, shopping more during the day and less in the evenings and on weekends.

In order to facilitate buying alcohol, providers are offering digital ordering and delivery, curbside pick-up, hosting, hosting virtual tastings and/or cocktail hours. And some are branching out by stocking hand sanitizers and face masks. Virtual cocktail parties among friends and families are now common.

If your aim is absolutely perfect, your cocktail parties with neighbors don’t have to be virtual!

Estimates of the increase in U.S. alcohol consumption from now to the same time last year vary from 25% (WHO) to 55% (Healthcare Home [//healthcare.utah.edu]).

The uptick in alcohol consumption is not solely a U.S. phenomenon. The World Health Organization has issued statements urging countries world-wide to try to curb drinking during the current pandemic. They cite several health reasons to try to control excessive alcohol consumption. No matter how bad a situation is, excess drinking can always make it worse!

Magic Snowman Tea is guaranteed to be 100% alcohol free.
There are other substances one can turn to in times of stress. This is one of my favorites.

Also according to WHO, alcohol-related deaths number 3 million every year—before the pandemic.  And the WHO now has the added difficulty of trying to quash the misinformation that has circulated to the effect that drinking can make someone immune to the COVID-19 virus and/or cure one if infected. The presumed medicinal value of alcohol has a long history (see below), perhaps with roots in the dulling of physical pain.

Jackie Chan is a master of Drunken Fist Kung Fu ( 醉拳 )

The link between stress and alcohol consumption is so well established that it’s actually called “self-medication.” In fact, such self-medication can be pretty effective, at least initially, in relieving anxiety and depression. Alcohol is a “downer” (i.e., a system depressant) so if people are wound up, rapid heart beat, etc., alcohol can definitely make those symptoms of stress go down. But as mentioned above, alcohol also depresses inhibitions, increases risk-taking, decreases logical decision making, increases violence, and — after all that — is still likely to interfere with restful sleep.

Being home all day with bored and curious toddlers is a very stressful circumstance.

COVID-19 presents a set of circumstances that are problematic with regard to alcohol consumption.

  • High levels of anxiety associated with the unknown
  • Isolation from one’s usual support system
  • Loneliness
  • Economic distress/job loss
  • Food insecurity
  • Fear of infection/death
  • Mourning the loss of a loved one
  • Stress at having to work from home
  • Stress of having to work in an “essential” job interacting with the public

COVID-19 is dominating today’s headlines, but it is far from unique. Research indicates that alcohol use and abuse increase during and after “violent conflicts”—e.g., wars, periods of martial law, government coups. Other psychotropic substances are also used to deal with psychic strains and trauma, but alcohol is generally the most likely to be readily available, legal, and (at least within limits) socially acceptable.

Totally non-addictive!

During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, bootleg whiskey was viewed as a respectable medicine. At the time, more than half the states in the U.S. had passed Prohibition laws and thus were “dry.” But for medicinal purposes, some officials decided to tap the vast stores of liquor that had been confiscated initially to aid the military, although the Army mostly remained silent about using it. In Richmond, Virginia—reportedly—two railroad cars of confiscated whiskey arrived for the benefit of Camp Lee. Over time, confiscated whiskey was distributed to civilian hospitals, too.

Medical isopropyl alcohol is now available at vending machines in Moscow.

The United States Pharmacopeia dropped whiskey, brandy, and wine from its listing of therapeutics in 1916. In 1917, the American Medical Association resolved that “the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be discouraged.” Even so, more than half of physicians believed it was “a necessary therapeutic agent.” It continued to be available by prescription in dry states. To this day, strong alcohol is prescribed for medicinal purposes in some areas, even by doctors!

Besides the demand for alcohol, the Spanish Flu pandemic shared other characteristics with COVID-19:

  • Wearing masks
  • Social isolation
  • Use of disinfectants
  • Limiting group gatherings, including churches
  • Hospitals and funeral homes were overwhelmed
  • During Spanish Flu the treatment of choice was aspirin, up to 30 grams daily which is a toxic dose; currently, think ingesting bleach or disinfectants.
Bootlegger tunnels in Miami during Prohibition

Bottom line for writers: people use alcohol to self-medicate for stress. The current stressor is COVID-19 BUT consider all the other stressors out there, which might occur alone or in combination with COVID-19: death of a loved one, job loss, divorce, physical illness, mental illness, physical disability, too little money, going hungry, being homeless… Do you have a character who does—who could—self-medicate with alcohol?

ARE ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS BIRDS?

Some people I know could definitely be harpies!

During more than fifty days of staying at home, I’ve become increasingly attentive to the flora and fauna in my yard.  Is this happening to you? 

Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) and mock strawberry (Potentilla indica or Duchesnea indica)

For the first time I bothered to identify the wild strawberries invading my flower beds as Indian or mock-strawberry, not the luscious Virginia wild strawberry. (Big clue is the white vs. yellow flower.)

Stanley jumps from the bayberry tree onto the bird feeder several times a day.

But in spite of Stanley, we are gifted with a wide variety of bird visitors, too. As I watch them day after day, noticing patterns is inevitable. (To all the bird lovers and watchers out there: I realize that this reveals a certain—shall we say—naiveté. But there are more of us around than you might believe.) Watching our feeder, one of the main characteristics I’ve noticed is, for want of a better term, sociability.

Bluebirds always come in pairs or with their young.
Catbirds come one at a time.
Goldfinches come in small groups.
And grackles, crows, and starlings tend to flock.

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Writers: Based on sociability, what sort of bird would your character be?

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Perhaps a King Vulture?

While finches are happy to share the feeding stations, and linger for communal eating, bluejays tend to chase other birds away, and they don’t settle. They dart in, grab a bite, go back to a tree, and repeat.

I’ve always been interested in birds in a casual sort of way. I have three daughters whom I’ve associated with white throated sparrow, goldfinch, and bluebird based on their coloration and behavior. 

My grandson is a cardinal, theatrical and flamboyant.  My older granddaughter is a crow, based on her black hair, her preference for wearing black and her keen intelligence. My younger granddaughter is a chickadee, based on her liveliness and sociability.

And my husband is a red bellied woodpecker, because that bird has red, black, and white markings and links the three grandchildren together.

So, I have my own personality profiles of various birds. Do you?

Although I’m convinced that birds—typically by nature of their species—have personality types, being a scientist at heart, I wanted a bit of authority to back me up here. But while searching online for bird personalities, again and again I came up with the same question—“Which one are you?” And the answer was a multiple-choice of four, the DOPE model: dove, owl, peacock, or eagle. 

So, writers, for what it’s worth, here it is.

Emerald dove

DOVES are associated with terms such as neutral, loving, and kind. Although passive in communication, they are highly emotional. Dove people exhibit a long list of personality traits, both positive and negative.

Laughing dove
  • Positive traits
    • Patient
    • Giving
    • Trustworthy
    • Introverted
    • Avoids risk-taking
    • Respectful
    • Honest
    • Reliable
    • Easygoing 
Mourning dove
  • Negative traits  
    • Dependent
    • Predictable
    • Follower
    • Gullible 

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Spotted owl

OWLS are perceived as logical and intelligent, but conservative, introverted and not communicative. 

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Great horned owl
  • Positive traits  
    • Calm
    • Meticulous
    • Just
    • Mindful
    • Determined
    • Detail-oriented
    • Careful
    • Curious 

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Barn owl
  • Negative traits  
    • Distrustful
    • Self-centered
    • Indecisive
    • Vindictive
    • Short-sighted

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Peahen with blue peacock

PEACOCKS are showy and outgoing, very active communicators—i.e., talkative—and possess high “emotional intelligence.” These are competitive, emotional birds. 

Red peacock
  • Positive traits  
    • Open-minded
    • Energetic
    • Charismatic
    • Social
    • Enthusiastic
    • Adventurous 

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Brown peacock
  • Negative traits  
    • Scattered
    • Selfish
    • Controlling
    • Dominating 
    • Power-hungry

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Golden eagle

EAGLES are bold, decisive, and aggressive. They have high logical intelligence and are very active communicators.  Within the general population (allegedly) 29% of people are eagles.

Black eagle

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  • Positive traits  
    • Charismatic
    • Honest
    • Initiator
    • Independent
    • Driven
    • Motivated
    • Compelling
    • Fearless 

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Philippine eagle
  • Negative traits  
    • Blunt
    • Unsympathetic
    • Egotistical
    • Controversial
    • Impatient
    • Pushy
    • Stubborn

You can take the 40-question, 4-bird, DOPE personality test online. Click here

Writers note: Be aware that any given personality trait could be either helpful or not, positive or not, depending on the demands of the situation.

Writers’ option: identify a bird of your own choosing and research it, finding how/whether it reflects one of your characters.

Why bother? Assigning birds to your characters helps keep them consistent and distinctive.

WRITING ISOLATION

Sleuth of Bears

There is a whole cadre—Heidegger (1889-1976) arguably the most famous—who argue that being-with-others is part of the “structure of human existence.” In other words, we are hard-wired to socialize. Whether you believe that or not, there are a gazillion (by actual count) studies that have found isolation to be harmful to humans, both physically and psychologically. 

Litter of Puppies

(Editor’s note: Including photographs of isolated and lonely people was too depressing, so I invite you to enjoy these photos of animals not social distancing instead.)

For writers, bad is good

Pod of Dolphins

How bad is it?  Some researchers posit that social isolation and loneliness are twice as harmful as obesity. Others compare the effects on mortality to be equal to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Others say the magnitude of risk is right up there with physical inactivity and lack of access to health care.

N.B.  Degrees or levels of isolation are difficult to define and measure.  Perceived isolation is what produces feelings of loneliness. In many ways, it is easier to study social isolation, though they are closely linked.

Pandemonium of Parrots

As a writer, the first question is, “Why is your character isolated?” Your options may be more numerous than you think. Here are a few examples.

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Move to a new place
  • Researcher in isolated places, like Antarctica 
  • Mission/mission training, e.g., astronauts
  • Immune compromised
Leap of Leopards
  • A child/infant in understaffed orphanage
  • Being shunned for any reason  
    • Behavior  
    • Appearance 
    • Membership in a marginalized subgroup
  • Medical quarantine
  • As a form of torture
    • Solitary confinement in prison (currently about 80,000 in the U.S. each year)
Tower of Giraffes

The second set of questions for a writer:

  • How complete is the isolation?
  • How long does it last?
  • Is it repeated?
  • In general, the more complete the isolation, the longer it lasts, and repetition all increase the number and seriousness of the effects. 
Mob of Kangaroos

The third question is, which effects will your character display? 

Parliament of Owls
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Sweaty palms
  • Heart palpitations
  • Lowered immunity
  • Increased inflammation 
  • Trembling
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pains
  • Lack of appetite
  • Drastic weight loss
Stand of Flamingos
  • Muscle pains (esp. neck and back)
  • Oversensitivity to sensory stimuli
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Severe boredom
  • Impaired memory
  • Inability to think coherently
  • Apathy
Conspiracy of Lemurs
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal
  • Rage/anger/aggression
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Hallucinations

Many of these effects mimic PTSD and, like PTSD, can last for years after the event.

Bale of Turtles

In the last couple of months, researchers are finding that COVID-19 isolation tends to evoke one of two responses.

Smack of Jellyfish
  • Those who hunker down and enjoy it—take it as a time to relax, read, bake, pursue a hobby, accomplish things around the house. In short, they’re getting along fine.
  • But for others—especially extroverts—the isolation can be harmful to both mind and body.

Not surprisingly, the effects of COVID-19 isolation are many of the same effects as other reasons for isolation.

Drift of Pigs
  • Boredom
  • Lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Develop or increase unhealthy habits

Dr. Samantha Brooks wrote in The Lancet: “A huge factor in the negative psychological impact [of isolation] seems to be confusion about what’s going on, not having clear guidelines, or getting different messages from different organizations.” In addition, not knowing how long isolation will last exacerbates the negative effects of isolation. Think of the current differences within the U.S. and how similar circumstances could be applied to a fictional setting.

Obstinacy of Buffalo

People who are at increased risk from COVID-19 isolation are those at heightened risk for social isolation in the first place:

Gang of Elk
  • Older adults, especially with physical limitations and/or poor family support
  • Men who didn’t develop social networks outside work
  • Being non-white is a bigger risk factor than sex
  • Lower income people who may not afford the technology for distance socializing
  • Anyone who is marginalized (LGBTQ, survivor of domestic abuse, living in an isolated rural area)
  • People incarcerated for any reason
Cete of Badgers
Shiver of Sharks

Evidence of stress is apparent in the increased number of calls to suicide prevention (1-800-273-8255) and addiction (1-844-289-0879) hotlines.

Bottom line for writers: consider isolating your character and/or increasing his/her loneliness. You can take it almost anywhere.

Murmuration of Starlings

HAIR IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

A while back, I posted a blog on hair and what it says about a character—or at least what impression it makes on others. So what can we glean from how a person (or character) deals with hair now that beauticians and barbers are deemed “nonessential”?

As best I can tell, there is a big divide in hair care priority between those who are deemed essential in jobs that require working onsite and those who are staying home. The former are under more pressure to keep up appearances. But both groups include essentially three subgroups: those who are happy to let it all flow, those who try to recreate professional techniques on their own, and those who create entirely new styles to fit the situation.

Go With the Flow

Theses people are doing nothing beyond washing and brushing their hair. The result may be tri-color—for example, dark chestnut coming in, the remnants of highlights, and gray in front or at the temples. Such people may resort to caps or scarves. Over time, ponytails, braids, barrettes, bands, and ties come in handy. And think wigs! They can be ordered online.

Some would claim this choice is tougher for a man to carry off, to the extent that many men are simply shaving their heads. Women are less likely to choose this option.

Choosing to do nothing is sometimes characterized as “giving my hair a break” from chemical treatments and elaborate coiffures.

DIY

Technically, shaving one’s head might be a form of DIY for people who hadn’t already adopted that look. A close alternative is men who have their spouses or partner’s cut their hair, even if they have never cut hair before. Some women opt for this option as well

Some women are cutting their own hair—definitely easier with some styles than others.

But not all households have the basic equipment—hair scissors, clippers, a mirror that allows a steady view of the back of the head. In such situations, what are the alternatives? Think kitchen shears, pinking shears, nail scissors, and safety razors.

Those who color their hair have denuded the shelves of supermarkets and drug stores of home dye. Professionals strongly recommend against DIY color, saying one may severely damage one’s hair. But, hey, it’s only hair. It’ll grow back, right?

A friend suggested to me that I could color the tips of my hair with red food coloring. She said that my hair is so short, it would be cut off soon. It reminds me that when I was in seventh grade a redheaded friend and I experimented with food coloring. She chose green and I chose blue. We (erroneously) thought it would wash right out. So, no red tips. But blue to match my eyes? Maybe.

And that reminds me: so-called temporary hair color is permanent if you have previously had your hair lightened.

DIY may be exceptionally difficult for Black women. The importance of hair care has resulted in a massive industry, worth $2.5 billion at least, including chemical relaxers, braiding services, hair pieces, and so forth. Women may feel uncomfortable wearing “natural” hair, and many more are unable to create their customary look from home.

Rebels

These are the people who have decided hair care is essential and therefore defy the stay at home/social distancing injunctions. Either the client goes to the home of her/his hairdresser or the practitioner comes to the home of the client. Both greatly increase the risk of spreading the virus, of course.

Getting Help

I’m not a YouTube fan, but there are a gazillion (by actual count!) options for videos of home hair care. Recently, salon experts have been posting and advising their clients to take a look. Some salons are delivering professional supplies and equipment to their clients’ homes in sanitized packaging. And some practitioners are setting up video chats with clients to talk them through coloring or braiding their own hair.

Bottom line for writers: How a character responds to the hair care crisis is a clear reflection of personality. Use it!