Science Fiction or Fantasy?

I read in an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin that science fiction has both feet planted solidly in the science of today, that the fictional parts are pushing beyond those roots in a way that is both logical and plausible.  

So when I read a blurb for CREATION: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford, I immediately thought science fiction. According to Rutherford, we are radically exceeding the boundaries of evolution and engineering entirely novel creatures—from goats that produce spider silk in their milk to bacteria that excrete diesel to genetic circuits that identify and destroy cancer cells. Imagine what stories might be told in a world where such creatures are commonplace, where such engineering is taken for granted. Imagine the products, and the governmental involvement.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is making it up out of whole cloth. Even so, it could draw on science for an idea.

For example, another book I came across recently has such possibilities: TEMPERATURE-DEPENDENT SEX DETERMINATION IN VERTEBRATES edited by N. Valenzueta & B. Lance. It contains articles by leading scholars in the field and reveals how the sex of reptiles and many fish is determined not by the chromosomes they inherit but by the temperature at which incubation takes place.

Fantasy could be a story in which human sex is determined by ambient temperature. And perhaps it can vary as the temperature varies. And so forth.

As the planet warms, everything will be overrun by mermaids.
Mermaid by John Waterhouse

Now, if you wrote a story about a world over-run by snakes and fish because of global warming, you would be back to science fiction. Ditto for a world in which the biological engineering described in CREATION results in changing many species to be temperature-reactive and put that in the context of global warming.

Bottom Line: Check out the latest in science and then let your imagination run wild!

Challenge Accepted!

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, ESL teacher, favorite auntie, turtle lover, canine servant, and chronically addicted reader.

Ever notice that the same titles and authors keep showing up when you look for your next favorite book? Literary prize winners, Oprah or Reese’s Book Club, Books to Read Before You Die, or endless variations of “Recommended for you because you liked…”

Try this one!

Part of this is because such lists are often curated or sponsored by publishers. Part of this is because search algorithms almost inevitably lead to echo chambers. (For a bizarre and frightening illustration of this, check out this article on how fake social media accounts “learn” to push misinformation and conspiracy theories.)

So how to bump yourself out of your reading rut? Take a reading challenge! There are all kinds of reading challenges you can join, not to mention the book clubs, library groups, and reading forums online or in person. I’ve included a few here, but these are just the very tiniest tips of the iceberg available. And, of course, nothing can compare to the miraculous powers of a curious librarian!

Year-Long Challenges

I am greatly indebted to girlxoxo for directing me to most of these challenges. For more, check out their 2022 Master List of Reading Challenges.

Read voraciously!
  • Backlist Reading Challenges – Ease yourself into the world of challenges by joining Austin Decker‘s challenge to clear out some of that pile of books you keep meaning to read but never quite get around to it.
  • 52 Books in 52 Weeks – Just as the name suggests, the 52 Book Club challenges you to read a book every week in a year, following a different prompt every week.
  • Monthly Book Award Reading Challenge – Literary awards are announced every month of the year, and this challenge if to read a book that was awarded a prize (during any year) in that month. 
  • Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks – Not related to the 52 Book Club, this challenge has a similar goal: follow the various suggestions and prompts to read a book every week this year.
  • Monthly Motif Reading Challengegirloxoxo will prompt you with a theme or motif every month, and your goal is to read a book with that motif.
  • Beyond the Bookends – Twelve prompts over the course of the year (“adapted for the screen” or “set at or about a circus or carnival”) will nudge you to expand your horizons a bit.
  • Mount TBR – Blogger MyReadersBlock has a challenge to help you work through some of those books you already own (digital or hardcopy) but haven’t quite made your way through yet.
  • The Nerdy Bookworm 50 Books a Year Reading Challenge – You can follow the prompts, but it might be more fun to fill out Emily the Book Nerd‘s BINGO cards as you read.

Genre Challenges

One of the great things about challenging yourself is that you can read what you like. No teachers grading you or tests you don’t want to take. The Story Graph has a pretty amazing database of reading challenges, which you can search by genre, author, awards, or even geographic location.

Library Travel

Seriously, don’t mess with librarians.

Real-life travel can be tricky, especially with the ever-changing restrictions to stem the flow of Covid. It’s so much easier to go somewhere else by reading about it, especially

Stretch Your Brain

As I mentioned earlier, once of the most fun things to do with a reading challenge is to challenge yourself. Read something you don’t normally read. Pick up a book from the opposite end of the Dewey Decimal System. Find an author with a different point of view. Hear someone else’s story in their OwnVoice.

  • Books in Translation – I’m a language nerd, so this one speaks to my nerdy soul. The idea is to read a book that’s been translated from any language into a language you can read. (This is extra helpful for those trying to learn another language.)
  • Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge – The Book Riot community has 24 prompts to nudge readers out of comfortable ruts they may have fallen into. Some of these prompts are purely for fun, and some might be more of a challenge.
  • Diversify Your Reading Challenge – There are prompts in twelve genres, one for each month, encouraging readers to look beyond those “more of what you love” ads.
  • Diversity Reading ChallengeGothicVampirestein has a range of categories and keywords to encourage readers to look at the world through someone else’s eyes.
  • Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors – Though not a specific reading challenge, this essay from Rudine Sims Bishop gives very helpful suggestions for expanding your worldview and reading empathetically.

And if that’s still not enough to break you out of a rut (or at least widen the rut a bit), try this 52 Weekly Challenge list from BookRiot. It includes suggestions like dusting and cleaning your real-life bookshelves, making a recipe from a cookbook, going to a community theater production, and asking a librarian a question – fun ways to remind yourself of how vast the world of books is.

My good friend Vivian Lawry has challenged herself to add a Nobel Prize winner’s work to her genre reading every month this year. So what are you going to read in 2022?

Say It Aloud; Say It Proud

Addy Vannasy reads aloud to children at a village “Discovery Day” in Laos. Big Brother Mouse, which organized the event, trains its staff in read-aloud techniques.
(photo by Blue Plover)

If you want dialogue to sound real, listen to it. Literally. Longer, more complex sentences are much smoother and more graceful on the page than in the mouth. Reading silently, your brain fills in and evens out. So, when you feel your work is in pretty good shape, read it aloud.

Are the two problems related?
(photo by MemeBoi31)

Any place you stumble needs to be reworked. Reading your work aloud–whether prose or poetry–helps identify rough patches, awkward words, and other problems.

If feasible, it’s even to have someone else read your work aloud for you.  (See what I did there?)

This looks like the worst buffet ever!
(photos from BoredPanda)

But even before you manage to cajole or coerce a friendly bystander, try running your words through a TTS reader. Text To Speech software is becoming more accurate all the time. It improves accesibility for those with dyslexia, vision problems, aural learning tendencies, busy hands, or a myriad other reasons why hearing words is more effective than reading them.

Yet another terrible fate that could have been avoided by proofreading!
(photo by depechelove)

There are several free websites that will convert your writing to spoken words, though they tend to sound like robots.

What these TTS apps lack in cadence, they make up in unrelenting accuracy. There is no friendly human brain to fill in a few words or switch a letter here or there entirely without realizing it.

You’d think such a complicated respiratory system would make pitching more difficult.
(photo from East Oregonian/AP)

(For a superb example of non-robotic reading, check out anything read by Stephen Fry or Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.)

At many tutoring centers and school writing help centers, students are instructed to read their work aloud during sessions. When the brain is forced to process words orally and aurally as well as visually, it’s much more difficult for mistakes to slip through the cracks.

Sometimes, it’s even possible to break free of the “…said …said …said …said” quagmire. When you hear yourself saying said after said after said, you might say to yourself that your characters need to say something else or say nothing at all.

Good listening!

IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING

Sometimes we say—and write—more than is necessary. When we talk in bloated sentences, it often goes unnoticed. But with the written word, it’s right there on the page, weakening the prose and sometimes exasperating the reader.

Find the Bloat

Enough said. Here are several examples close to my heart (and very near my exasperation gland). In each case, words that are unnecessary are in parentheses ( ).

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Sowell, one of the longest books ever written
  • Tell me where you are (at).
  • The (very) start
  • At this point (in time).
    • OR, At this (point in) time.
  • A woman sitting in a chair: She stood (up)
  • He nodded (his head).
  • The (small) ten-by-ten room.
  • They waved (their hands).
  • (Very) unique
  • Walked (over) to the table
  • To face a husband (whom) she didn’t remember
  • Shred it (to pieces)
  • They might have found (out) a way
Artemis, or the Great Cyrus is one of the longest single volume books ever written
  • She took his hand with a smile (on her face).
  • They (both) stopped and turned to face each other.
  • They (both) waited.
  • She led him (over) to a chair and sat (down).
  • They stared at each other till he blinked (his eyes).
  • Her heart was pounding (in her chest).
  • Trying to calm everyone (down).
  • He pointed her out (with a single finger).
  • A (quick) glance.
  • A (brief) second.

And Then There are Excess Words in Specific Contexts

The Voynich Manuscript has never been translated in any way, so perhaps every word is unnecessary.

There are times when every word counts. Some journals or contests have strict word limits, to the point of specifying when and how contractions are counted. Or maybe you have limited space on the greeting card. You could even have a character who never wastes anything, including words.

These are examples of word bloat I’ve collected from the actual writing of best-selling authors. I’ve replaced names with pronouns.

  • (Now) she looked (to her) left and sprinted toward the door…
  • Buy (some) tickets.
  • He pulled her close (and kissed her). His lips met hers.
  • Behind the tenderness was (a) passion.
  • There are (a total of) two.
  • Something tells me you don’t want to draw that kind of attention (to yourself).
  • He went (over) to the table.
  • She held up her hands (in surrender), though she stayed (at the) ready to move in either direction.
  • The true irony (here) was that…
  • He nervously clicked (the back of) his pen.
  • “…he picked up a newspaper clipping. The dated pages (of newsprint) felt brittle (in his fingers)… He stared at it (in his hands,) just as he had a thousand times (before) since that day.”
  • A single tear (fell from his eye and) dropped onto her hand. 
  • She peeked into the room, as she passed (it).
  • He shook his head (from side to side) before he spoke.
  • She didn’t have the same affinity for the ocean as most (other) people.
  • She stopped next to a pickup truck(, got out,) and went into the motel office.


Three Ways to Minimize Word Bloat


1) One good way to decide what words are truly necessary is to try to shorten every paragraph by one line—which is easier done with narrative than dialogue!


2) Check all to-be verbs (is, are, was, were) looking for places where a stronger verb can replace a phrase. For example, “He was standing there” might be shortened to “He stood there.”

Drawing bizarre pictures in the margins is a fantastic way to replace bloated prose!

3) Examine all modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) to decide whether they add anything to the meaning. Often a stronger word choice can eliminate the modifier. For example, walked quickly might better be replaced by rushed, dashed, hurried, or scampered.

Another example: “Her long hair hung to her waist” would better be “Her hair hung to her waist.” Depending on the surrounding text, the whole concept could be encompassed by “her waist-length hair.”

Bottom line: As in poetry, make every word count.

GHOSTS: NOT JUST AN OCTOBER THING

The ghost of Banquo appears before Macbeth… so buy this extract!

October is a month flooded with ghost images and stories. You might even know that what we call Halloween is rooted in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in—go figure!). The Celts lived about 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland and northern France. Samhain was a time when people felt especially close to dead relatives and loved ones whose friendly spirits were welcomed for dinner, given treats, and provided with lit candles to help them find their way back to the spirit world.

Shortly after Halloween is Dios de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. In Hispanic culture, November 2nd is the day when the spirits of loved ones can return to the living world to visit with family and friends.

In late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar), many Asian cultures celebrate the Ghost Festival or the Hungry Ghost Festival. During this week or month, depending on the country, celebrants not only honor their dearly departed but attempt to appease the spirits of the vengeful dead.

One can go online and find ghost stories galore, both ancient and modern.

But Are Ghosts Real? 

Blueskin the Ghost Pirate, from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1901)

Lots of people think so!

  • On 11/27/21, People wrote that 63% of respondents “to a recent survey” said they believe in paranormal activity of some sort and 57% of Americans believe in ghosts specifically. 
  • On 11/28/21, based on a different survey, USA Today said 40% of Americans believe in ghosts and 20% said they’ve seen one.
  • And according to an 11/28/21 article in The New York Times, a 1990 Gallup Poll reported 25% believed in ghosts.
    • In their 2005 poll, 32% of respondents said they believed in ghosts.
    • A 2019 IPSOS poll reported 46% of respondents were believers.

One might speculate about reasons for the apparent increase in the number of ghost believers over the decades.

Although these numbers are data, they are not proof!

But let’s back up a bit….

What Is a Ghost?

Oxford Language defines ghost (noun) as “an apparition of a dead person which is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image.” But is that what all those survey respondents believe in? Not necessarily.

Some people believe there are categories of ghosts: poltergeists, residual hauntings, intelligent spirits, or shadow people. 

What’s the Evidence? 

Elva Zona Heaster Shue, the Greenbrier Ghost
Elva Shue died in 1897, and the death was ruled to be of natural causes during childbirth. Mary Jane Heaster, Elva’s mother, later told a judge that the ghost of her daughter appeared before her to accuse her husband of murdering her. Elva’s body was exhumed, and signs of strangulation were found on the corpse. Erasmus Shue, Elva’s husband, was convicted of her murder

Bloody Mary – A Halloween greeting card, circa 1900, though the usual apparition is much more gruesome

Actually, there is nothing that scientists agree is evidence in support of ghosts existence. Benjamin Radford, 6/19/21, posted “Are ghosts real?” on livescience.com, considering this question in depth that I have summarized here.

For one thing, there are no clear, definite, agreed upon criteria. The presence of a spirit might manifest as a vision, an unexplained sound or light, a dream appearance, even a change of temperature or a light breeze, a cold spot in a hallway, a door closing for no apparent reason, keys or other objects missing or moved—virtually any unexplained happening/perception.

Contrary evidence is often based on logic and the physical world as we know it. How can an ephemeral being pass through walls, for example, but also lift or move furniture? Why do ghosts appear clothed? If the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living, why don’t murder victims just tell someone who did it?

But perhaps the evidence just hasn’t been found yet

Do People—Many People—Just Need to Believe in Ghosts?

Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal impression showing the god Dumuzid being tortured in the Underworld by galla demons

The belief that the dead remain with us in spirit is an ancient one, documented everywhere from the Bible to “Macbeth.” Many people are comforted by the belief that the spirits of dead loved ones look out for us, or support us in our times of need.

“Ball Lightning”

Some people do not accept that life as we live it is all there is to human existence. Consider the various religions that postulate life-after-death possibilities, whether those be reward/heaven vs. punishment/hell, reincarnation/rebirth, or something else.

For some, believing that spirits linger is a way of not accepting that a loved one is truly gone. 
And for some, the need for closure/understanding might drive them to ghosts as an explanation of anything otherwise inexplicable.

BOTTOM LINE: The lack of scientific support for the reality of ghosts is unlikely to separate believers from their beliefs. The sheer variety of ways ghosts/spirits are thought to manifest themselves means one can always find experiential “evidence” that supports one’s belief.

The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch – Manao Tupapua
Paul Gauguin

L. T. RYAN: EVEN BEST SELLERS AREN’T PERFECT

L. T. Ryan burst onto the publishing scene in 2012 with the first two books in the best selling Jack Noble series (now numbering 16). With his skills in marketing and technology, he was able to self-publish successfully through Amazon books. Ryan’s writing skills landed him spots on the best-seller lists for Amazon and USA Today.

The following year was even more productive. Ryan published nine more books in 2013, including five volumes in the Jack Noble series. Because he was able to control every step of the publication process, Ryan was able to ensure that all of his works are made available simultaneously in audiobook, eBook, and Kindle format as well as in print.

The Depth of Darkness, also published in 2013, is the first installment in the Mitch Tanner series. The other books in this series (so far!) are Into the Darkness and Deliver Us from Darkness.

The Depth of Darkness is my focus here because it is a great example of good and (in my opinion) bad writing—and thus could serve as a writing lesson to us all!

RELAX: No spoiler alerts needed here. Indeed, I hope you will read L.T. Ryan’s works and let me know what you think.

“L.T.” Ryan has lived in various points in the Appalachians, including Georgia and Virginia, with his wife, three daughters, and one slightly psychologically unbalanced, but lovable dog. He enjoys writing fast paced suspense thrillers. When not staring out the window while pretending to write, he enjoys reading, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and spending time with the ladies in his life.

The Good

There’s a lot of it.

  • His plot here is complicated, with lots of threads that weave together in a believable pattern at the end. It revolves around two elementary school children kidnapped from the playground during recess.
  • His characters are interesting, well-drawn, and consistent, including the relatively minor ones (for example, Mitch Tanner’s mother). 
  • The two children, a really smart white girl and a black boy who suffers from asthma are best friends, perhaps initially based on both being outcasts. This cross-racial friendship is taken for granted/not a focal point for anyone, which I like. In addition, they are caring and protective of each other.
  • He avoids the stereotypes of the clingy, dependent female.
  • By and large, Ryan has created realistic children (even though occasionally the kidnapped girl seems resourceful beyond eight years old).
  • The interpersonal relationships appeal to me.
  • I like the balance between Tanner (who tends to be hot-headed and impulsive) and his partner, Sam (who supports Tanner while also providing a voice of reason/practicality.
  • Tanner and his pre-school daughter have a close, loving relationship—which is fresher than such a relationship between a father and a young son.
  • The sex scenes are handled well. I like that the sex is left to the reader’s imagination rather than being explicit to the point of causing one to wonder, “Could two people really do that?”

The Bad 

Although the issues described below distracted me from the reading experience, I greatly enjoyed the book. In fact, I liked The Depth of Darkness so much that I read the entire Mitch Tanner series!

Verbal Distractions

The specific one I noticed most was using “at” unnecessarily, as in, “Where are you at?” If it were only one character, it could be a character note. When multiple characters say it, it’s an author note.

The other thing that made me grimace was telling things implicit in the action. For example, when Tanner took his sunglasses off his head and dropped them in front of his eyes “to keep the sun out of his eyes.”  Sunglasses blocking bright sunlight is assumed. A reason to don sunglasses only needs to be mentioned when it’s something else, like hiding the emotion that might be revealed.

Other examples would be unlocking the door and then opening it, or describing how he kicked the door open, then reversed the action to kick it shut again.

Repetitious Actions

Mitch Tanner sweats—copiously and often. The reader gets many descriptions of how and with what he wipes the sweat from his brow. Also described often is the following relief of a blast of AC or cool air from the open refrigerator.

Tanner drinks beer and eats pizza so often one would think they are two of the basic food groups. So, okay. But everyone else seems to pick-up, order, make, or have pizza on hand, too. Why not cold chicken or leftover tuna salad sometimes?

Work calls in the night all seem to come at 2:00 or 2:30 in the morning.

Overall 

I recommend L. T. Ryan, because of the “good” stuff mentioned above. Also, I’m a series junkie, and he has a lot of those out there. AND, I didn’t notice the “bad” stuff cited above in all his books (for example, the Rachel Hatch series). 

In 2013, Ryan was a (relatively) inexperienced writer, and one would expect improvement with experience.

Bottom line: Your writing doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth reading, so keep at it.

L.T. Ryan’s Works

Jack Noble: Because Bear Logan and Jack Noble’s stories overlap so much, L.T. Ryan has suggested the following reading order to encompass both series.

  • The Prequels
    • The Recruit
    • The First Deception
  • The Early Years
  • The Noble Sagas
    • Noble Intentions (Jack Noble 4)
    • When Dead in Greece (Jack Noble 5)
    • Noble Retribution (Jack Noble 6)
    • Noble Betrayal (Jack Noble 7)
    • Never Go Home (Jack Noble 8)
    • Beyond Betrayal (Jack Clarissa)
    • Noble Judgment (Jack Noble 9)
    • Never Cry Mercy (Jack Noble 10)
    • Deadline (Jack Noble 11)
    • Noble Ultimatum (Jack Noble 13)
    • Noble Legend (Jack Noble 14) – Pre-order

Rachel Hatch

  • Drift
  • Downburst
  • Fever Burn
  • Smoke Signal
  • Firewalk
  • Whitewater
  • Aftershock
  • Whirlwind

Blake Brier

  • Unmasked
  • Unleashed
  • Uncharted
  • Drawpoint
  • Contrail

Mitch Tanner

  • The Depth of Darkness
  • Into the Darkness
  • Deliver Us from Darkness

Cassie Quinn

  • Path of Bones
  • Whisper of Bones
  • Symphony of Bones
  • Etched in Shadow
  • Concealed in Shadow

Affliction Z

  • Patient Zero
  • Abandoned Hope
  • Descended in Blood
  • Fractured
    • Part 1
    • Part 2
  • Coming Soon: The Sickness of Ron Winters

BEAUTIFUL BONES

A bone doctor is called an orthopedist, but I think this might be a different type of “bone doctor.”

We’ve all got bones. The average adult has 206 of them.  Babies are born with 300 bones, but  with age, tiny bones fuse together to form the larger bones of the skeletal system. So, when we think bones, we often think skeletons. 

But Wait! There’s More!

Humans have had multiple uses for skeletal remains since prehistoric times.  

Imagine sitting down to a meal of ground-up bone, served on a plate made of burned bones, while two musicians—one rattling two sawed-off ribs together and the other ominously shaking part of a horse’s skull—provide grim ambience in the dim candlelight. Off in the corner, an oracle shoves some bones into a fire in an effort to predict whether the crops you just fertilized with shattered bones will yield a hearty harvest.

Here, in one handy list, are several uses for bones besides propping up a body (not always human).

  • Bone arrowheads
  • Fish hooks
  • Jewelry
  • Drinking vessels
  • Musical instruments
    • (“Bones” themselves [pairs of rib bones] but also parts of guitars, whistles, drums, harps, pianos, etc.)
Making Music
The Bone Player by William Sidney Mount

As an instrument, the bones have their roots in traditional Irish and Scottish music, and immigrants from those countries brought them to America, where they found a home in bluegrass and other folk genres. They’re similar to other clacking percussion instruments like the spoons, the Chinese paiban, and castanets.

The jawbone, meanwhile, is originally an African instrument that made its way to the Americas as a result of the slave trade. It’s usually the jawbone of a horse or another equine (like a donkey or zebra), that’s been stripped of all flesh and dried. Once it’s dry, the teeth become so loose they rattle around in their sockets.

Sensing the Supernatural

But it’s more than a simple rattle—fortune telling: scapulimancy and plastromancy. Relatives of augery, these involve writing questions on bones, heating them up until they crack, and then interpreting the cracks.

This form of divination was called scapulimancy when it was performed with the shoulder bone of an ox (the scapula). When the practitioner sought divine inspiration on the inside of a turtle shell (a plastron), it was called plastromancy.

Most commonly, inhabitants of Europe, western Asia, and North Africa most commonly inspected the bone after all flesh was scraped away – apyromantic. Practitioners who lived in North America and other parts of Asia more often used fire – pyromantic.

Bone China
Bone china chocolate cup for the fanciest chocolate

Unlike true porcelain, which contains only minerals, the ceramic material known as bone china includes bone ash. It originated in England in the 1700s and for a long time, most, if not all, bone china was made there. The addition of bone ash makes the finished product stronger.

Fertilizer

Bone meal, as ground-up bones are called, has found its calling as plant fertilizer. It contains phosphorous and calcium, nutrients often leeched from the soil by common crops.

Gelatin and Glue
Ballistic gelatin

Most gelatin is made from the byproducts of the meat and leather industries, usually bones and skin. In its purest form, it’s 98 to 99 percent protein and is nearly tasteless and odorless. Its use dates back to the medieval era. 

Delicious gelatin

Gelatin ends up in obvious foods like gummies, but can also be used in a wide variety of ways to stabilize, thicken, and add texture to the things we eat. It’s also used to make modern film.  Gelatin and animal glue are closely related, though use of the latter has largely disappeared, essentially eliminated by the invention of synthetic adhesives. 

Bony Bits

Types of Bones

The dense, hard bone is called cortical bone. Cortical bones are primarily the “structure” bones.

The second type, trabecular bone, is soft and spongy. It’s often found inside large bones and in the pelvis, ribs, and skull. Though less dense than cortical bone, it’s quite hard and protective.

Inside the Bones

Bone marrow is a spongy substance found inside large bones like hips, pelvis, and femur. Bone marrow houses stem cells. Stem cells produce many of the body’s most important cells, including blood, brain, heart, and bone cells.

Bony Trivia

Skeleton keys are not actually made of bone. Usually.
  • There are 26 bones in the human foot.
  • The human hand, including the wrist, contains 54 bones.
  • The femur, or thighbone, is the longest and strongest bone of the human skeleton.
  • The stapes, in the middle ear, is the smallest and lightest bone of the human skeleton.
  • Arms are among the most commonly broken bones, accounting for almost half of all adults’ broken bones.
    • The collarbone is the most commonly broken bone among children.
Children definitely have more fun fixing broken bones!
  • Bones heal themselves.  When you fracture a bone, your body will go to work producing new bone cells and helping heal the break. A cast or brace just ensures the bone heals straight so you don’t have more problems in the future.
Riding a skeleton horse is not at all comfortable.
  • Bones are made up of calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and other minerals, as well as the protein collagen.
  • Bones stop growing in length during puberty.
    • Bone density and strength will change over the course of life, however.
  • The only bone in the human body not connected to another is the hyoid, a V-shaped bone located at the base of the tongue.
  • Bones are strong but teeth are stronger. The enamel on your teeth, which are considered part of your skeletal system, is actually stronger than bones. Enamel protects the delicate nerves and tissue inside your teeth. Inch for inch, your teeth can take more wear and tear than any of your other bones.
Skeletal diagram by Leonardo da Vinci (extra points if you can read his labels!)
  • Some people have 13 ribs.  A 13th rib is rare — only 1 percent of people are born with it. In most people, this extra rib, called a cervical rib, can cause medical issues like neck pain. For that reason, people born with this extra rib often have it removed.
  • Humans are part of a group of creatures called vertebrates. That means our bones are covered by a system of tissue and skin. Only 10 percent of the world’s animals (humans included) are vertebrates.
  • It is possible for your muscles to contract so hard that they break your own bones. Tetanus cramps can cause the bone to snap under the pressure. More common are avulsion fractures, in which the muscle contracts so hard and so quickly that the tendon rips away and takes a chunk of bone with it.

Skeletal Forensics

Was the victim male or female or centaur? Check wear on the hooves to determine age.

We’ve all seen movies or TV shows in which a skeleton is used to tell whether the dead person was male or female.  Here’s how.

A skeleton’s ability to draw anatomical diagrams is a good indicator of fine motor control.

A female’s skeleton is usually much smoother and less knobby than a male’s.  A male’s skeleton is usually thicker, rougher, and appears more bumpy. This is simply because males have larger muscles and therefore their skeletons require stronger attachment sites.

Differences in bone mass and geometry give males greater skeletal integrity, which may contribute to the lower incidence of stress and thin-bone (osteoporotic) fractures in males.
A male’s skull is usually bigger and bumpier than a female’s.  There are specific anatomical differences in frontal brow, eye orbits, lower jaw, and shape of chin.

This skeleton would like to know why you’re staring so rudely at its pelvis.

Examination of the pelvis is the easiest method to determine the sex of a skeleton. The female pelvis has a wider subpubic angle by 8-40 degrees, is rectangular (vs. triangular), and oval (vs. heart-shaped). The sacrum for females is shorter, broader and curved outward (vs. inward). All of this is to make childbirth easier.  Women who have borne children have scars on the surface of their pelvis.

Bending the Bones

Don’t forget the joints! What would bones do without them? Not much. 

This skeleton is using its ellipsoidal joints to threaten its enemies.
  • Joints are the place where two bones meet or connect.
  • Ligaments are short bands of tough fibrous connective tissue that function to connect one bone to another, forming the joint.
  • Tendons are made of elastic tissue and also play a key role in the functioning of joints. They connect muscle to bone.
  • A coating of another fibrous tissue called cartilage covers the bone surface and keeps the bones from rubbing directly against each other.
Lucy, one of the oldest humanoid skeleton fossils
  • Some joints move and some don’t. Joints in the skull don’t move. Synovial joints are movable joints. They make up most of the joints in the body and are located mostly in the limbs, where mobility is critical. They contain synovial fluid, which helps them to move freely.
  • Ball and socket joints, such as hip and shoulder joints, are the most mobile type of joint. They allow you to move your arms and legs in many different directions.
  • Ellipsoidal joints, such as the one at the base of the index finger, allow bending and extending.
  • Gliding joints are found between flat bones that are held together by ligaments. Some bones in the wrists and ankles move by gliding against each other.
  • Hinge joints are those in the knee and elbow. They enable movement similar to the way a hinged door moves.

Bone Problems

Feathers and glitter are not problems at all!
I’m not sure what disease this is, but it looks painful.

Bones provide the structure for our bodies. Each bone plays a role in the mechanics of body function, so if a bone is broken, none of the bones around it can function properly.  Bones get little attention unless injured or diseased.

Bone diseases can make bones easy to break. Different kinds of bone problems:

Extreme magnification of bone marrow looks like a fabulously abstract painting.

The importance of bone health is highlighted in National Osteoporosis Month, which is annually in May.

Raccoon skeletons are just as troublesome as fleshy raccoons.

I, for one, think October should be National Bone Month. After all, it’s the month when we most often see and (for most often us) think about bones. 

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: JEWELRY

Very few people wear no jewelry at all, at any time.  That said, men are more likely than women to be among those few. Where, when, and what type of adornment provide fertile ground.

Characters from different cultural backgrounds, time periods, and social classes are likely to view jewelry in ways that seem odd to outsiders.

So change it up! 

Go Against Expectations

In June of 2020, I posted another blog about jewelry titled JEWELRY AS MORE THAN BEAUTIFICATION: IDENTIFICATION, INFORMATION, AFFILIATION, COMMUNICATION. Lots of good information there (I say, most humbly) but I won’t repeat it here. 

In determining your characters’ jewelry profiles, start with “Why does this character wear (or not wear) jewelry?”

Uses of Jewelry

Jewelry is often viewed as a fashion accessory for complementing one’s clothes, especially for special occasions. With a bit of imagination, it can be so much more.

Research has shown that wearing jewelry can increase an individual’s self-esteem. Nursing home residents with memory loss were less unruly when they wore jewelry.

Not wearing jewelry when it is the norm can also attract attention, possibly criticism (such as removing a wedding ring before going out to drink).

Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith-Joyner)

Many wear jewelry as a symbol of femininity or masculinity. Think of the number of female athletes who wear jewelry while competing or even coaching. Think biker chains and skulls.

Jewelry has an obvious dollar value that can be a signifier, even if it is fake.

  • Showcase social status or wealth
  • Serve as an investment
  • Be a safety net for financial independence
    • This is especially common among women, particularly in nomadic cultures
Traditional Afghani Bridal Jewelry

Jewelry can make a person feel confident and attractive.

Jewelry can have personal or sentimental value. It can be a powerful connection to loved ones and memories.

Many wear jewelry because, well, one likes how it looks

Wearing jewelry can be a way to express oneself.  

  • Red jewelry, for example, connotes vitality, courage, and confidence.
  • Anchor jewelry denotes stability, strength, steadfastness, and hope. 
  • Hemp

A variety of jewelry pieces signify strength, courage, and hope. Some actually contain the word—in letters or Morse code.

Rings by goldsmith Danielle Crampsie

The recorded sound wave of a loved one’s voice (or bark) can be etched onto the metal of a ring or pendant.

Others are symbolic like the Celtic tree of life, the Viking axe pendant, the Egyptian ankh, or the eagle ring. Still others could be more esoteric, like dragonfly earrings supporting the wearer to pursue dreams. These are often gifted or awarded to someone.

Jewelry for Healing or Health

One well-known example is the usual 7 stones in the chakra, used for reiki, healing, meditation, chakra balancing, or ritual: 

  • Amethyst (Crown Chakra)
  • Carnelian (Sacral Chakra)
  • Yellow Jade (Solar Plexus)
  • Green Aventurine (Heart Chakra)
  • Lapis Lazuli (Throat Chakra)
  • Clear Crystal (Third-Eye Chakra)
  • Red Jasper (Root Chakra)

Virtually every stone is associated with physical and/or mental health in one way or another. Whole books have been written about. One good all-around reference for The Book of Stones: Who they are & What They Teach by Robert Simmons & Naisha Ahsian. 

Particular Stones in Jewelry

First of all, think birthstones.

Although there is assumed to be a particular affinity with one’s birthstone, there is no hard evidence (that I found) that this is the case. One thing they all have in common is that they sparkle, especially in sunlight. Some wearers find the sparkle both beautiful and cheering.

In general, does your character prefer sparkly stones, opaque ones, or no stones? 

Malachite
  • As a general rule, sparkly stones are dressier as well as more expensive than opaque ones. Are these factors?
  • Opaque stones offer more variety, from jasper to turquoise to onyx.
    • Color and pattern are primary considerations.

Turqupise: An Example of How a Stone Can Be Related to a Character 

John is an undercover police officer, 6’4” tall, and he wears silver jewelry as a statement that he’s a rogue, and not to be intimidated. Depending on the role he’s playing, he sometimes goes more subtle, choosing a tie bar, cufflinks, or belt buckle.

When he delved into turquoise, he discovered the huge range of colors, including copper-turquoise in blue, green, purple, red/orange, and black. 

Women find him handsome and say his jewelry just accentuates that he’s one of a kind. He once dated a woman who told him turquoise represents wisdom, tranquility, protection, good fortune, and hope, and that contemporary crystal experts celebrate it for its representation of wisdom, tranquility, and protection. John is skeptical of all that.

His preference for turquoise reflects his (distant) connection to Native American culture, even though he has no involvement with a tribe and was reared entirely within the Anglo world. However, his paternal great-grandfather was Navajo. John has a blue turquoise ring that belonged to his great-grandfather, and a green turquoise one made by his great-grandfather’s brother.

When those rings came to John, he was surprised to learn that Native Americans (the Hohokam and Anasazi peoples) first started mining and using turquoise around 200 B.C.E. They mined the famous Cerrillos and Burro Mountains of what is now New Mexico and, in Arizona, the Kingman and Morenci turquoise mines.

When John is deep in thought, he often turns his ring around and around. Depending on context, he can do this when problem solving, daydreaming, or planning. He is very disciplined not to do it when playing poker or being threatened.

Which Metal

  • Platinum
  • Gold
    • White gold
    • Yellow gold
    • Red gold
  • Silver
  • Aluminum
  • Titanium
  • Stainless steel…

Not to mention the role of leather, cord, wood, hemp… But I’m not going there!

When Not to Wear Jewelry

Many professions require specific jewelry or no jewelry at all. This could be for safety considerations or to create a specific professional impression.

  • Most medical professionals cannot wear rings, bracelets, necklaces, or large earrings for health safety.
  • Jobs requiring heavy machinery, blades, or high temperatures (locksmith, chef, welder, etc.) generally prohibit wearing anything that dangles or hangs.
Those working out of the spotlight, such as in the pit orchestra or in the flies usually wear no jewelry, at least nothing that catches the light.

Raw food can also get caught in the settings of rings and bracelets, trapping bacteria and other contaminants in your jewelry and leading to possible skin irritation or contaminated food. 
While at the beach, the sun, sand, and sharks (attracted to shiny objects) are three reasons why not to wear jewelry at the beach.

Whenever the activity might damage or wear-down the gem or the metal. This list is just a reminder. You can figure out the risks associated with each activity for yourself—except, maybe, sleeping!

  • Showering
  • Swimming
    • Whether in the pool or at the beach
  • Exercising
  • Cleaning
  • Getting ready in the morning
  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Sleeping
  • Painting

Jewelry prongs/settings can wear down faster during sleep, especially if someone tosses and turns a lot. The prongs can also become bent out of shape if caught on a sheet or blanket, making the chances of accidentally losing a gemstone more likely.

Bottom line: Writers, tap the rich vein of jewelry and gemstones to add depth and detail to your work!

BEACH READS 2021

I blogged about beach reads (i.e., anything read at the beach) in 2016, 2018, and 2019. I was in the Rocky Mountains in 2017, and we all know what didn’t happen in 2020. But here’s this year’s take on what people actually read at the beach. These 16 people are ages 12 to 90, and 8 are female. FYI, some raved about their reads; no one said, “Don’t bother.”

Here, in the order people wrote them down, with writers’ comments where noted

Volume 1 of That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime 
Cover artist: Mitz Vah

And some people don’t choose what they’ll be reading at the beach. Work demands, school demands, parenting demands… Does reading the newspaper count as pleasure reading or required reading?

  • Student papers to grade
  • Reports for work, if the internet connection cooperates
  • Legal something-or-other for an upcoming court appearance
  • Coursework for Continuing Education requirements
  • Comparing textbooks for homeschooling
  • Manuscripts to edit

And there you have it folks: 16 people, 25 books (and other reading materials)—plus turtle viewing, boogie-boarding, brewery touring, thrift shopping, sewing, story telling, cooking, euchre, dancing, cribbage, Mexican Train Dominoes, hair, makeup, nails…

Bottom Line: Yep, lots to do at the beach—but don’t leave home without at least one good read!

THIS ONE’S FOR WORD LOVERS

(You know who you are!)

Yep, I confess to being an unabashed logophile (lover of words).  (This seldom-used word comes from Greek roots: logos, meaning speech, word, reason; and philos, meaning dear, friendly.) 

Some people are logomaniacs—i.e., obsessed with words. I may be borderline, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet! On the one hand, I do have more than five full shelves of dictionaries, from general ones like Random House and the OED to specialized ones for everything from slang and historical periods to non-American English (e.g., Australian and South African). On the other hand, I can go whole days without even opening one!

Mrs. Malaprop, from The Rivals

Of course, there is a big difference between being a logomaniac and acrylog. The former are not necessarily loquacious but prefer the mellifluous to the sesquipedalian and can use catachresis rhetorically. The latter are generally more interested in verbiage and tend to commit malapropisms without irony.

Still, I’m gratified to know (according to the Cambridge English Dictionary) that gobby means talks too much. Closely related—but with different nuance—in American English, gabby means excessively or annoyingly talkative.

Recently, I began posting a word a day on FaceBook, just the word, no definition. The only criterion is that it strike my fancy on a given day. But maybe I should theme it.

Uncomfortable Words

These are perfectly good, innocent words that tend to make people squirm. And of course there is a dictionary for that!  The Dictionary of Uncomfortable Words: What to Avoid Saying in Polite (Any) Conversation by Andre Witham and Brian Snyder. Here are a few samples of such words early in the alphabet:

  • Abreast
  • Bunghole 
  • Dong
  • Emission
  • Globule
  • Horehound
  • Arrears
  • Crotch
  • Dangle
  • Feckless
  • Grotty
  • Ball cock
  • Crapulous
  • Elongate
  • Fecund
  • Hocker

Old Words That Deserve a Rerun 

Why be exhausted when you could be ramfeezled or quaked? Why be surprised when you could be blutterbunged?

One of the best dictionaries for these and other old words is The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten by Jeffrey Kacirk.

  • Biblioklep: book thief
  • Bouffage: satisfying meal
  • Bruzzle: to make a great to-do
  • Cabobble: to mystify/puzzle/confuse
  • Cark: to be fretfully anxious
  • Fabulosity: the quality of being fabulous
  • Falling weather: rain, snow, hail
  • Flamfoo: a gaudily dressed woman
  • Fleshquake: a tremor of the body
  • Flonker: anything large or outrageous
  • Flurch: a multitude, a great many (things, not people)
  • Gutterblood: people brought up in the same immediate neighborhood
  • Hipshot: strained or dislocated in the hip
  • Leg-bail: run from the law, desertion from duty
  • Nicknackitarian: dealer in curiosities
  • Noggle: to walk awkwardly 
  • Overmorrow: the day after tomorrow
  • Prinkle: tingling sensation
  • Rooped: hoarse, as in bronchitis
  • Scruze: squeeze, compress
  • Smoothery: medicine or salve to remove hair
  • Tazzled: entangled or rough, untidy head of hair
  • Thenadays: in those days, times past
  • Thinnify: to make thin
  • Woman-tired: henpecked
Not to be confused with the Planet Word Museum, in Washington DC.

Words That Are Seldom Seen—or Heard 

I just like them. 

  • Rantipole: a wild, reckless, sometimes quarrelsome person; characterized by a wild, unruly manner or attitude.
  • Solivagant: rambling alone, marked by solitary wandering.
  • Agathokakological: composed of both good and evil. True of many (most?) people, and of all good villainous characters!
  • Noctiphany: something that happens only at night.
  • Skice: to frisk about like squirrels in spring.
  • Lethologicawhen a word is on the tip of your tongue. 
  • Sesquipedalian:

And when it just won’t come in time, you can substitute. Here are some words for an object, event, type of media, abstract concept, or person whose name is forgotten, unknown, or unmentionable. There are regional variations, but some of these seem to be universal.

  • Thingamajig
  • Thingummy
  • Thingamabob
  • Whatchamacallit
  • Whatsit
  • Thingy
  • What’s-his/her-name
  • What’s-his/her-face
  • Doohickey: object or device
  • Doodad
  • Gizmo

And then there are the nuances of words to consider. By this, I mean words that can objectively mean the same thing but create different impressions of age, social class, education, gender, etc. Some words are essentially unintelligible to people outside a particular social group. This is where a good thesaurus comes in handy (or Urban Dictionary). A few examples:

A geographic explanation of why English is so weird
  • Old, aged, elderly, antique, boomer
  • Curvy, overweight, fat, thicc [sic]
  • Whopperjawed, off-kilter, crooked, ill-fitting, skeevy
  • Heart, ticker, vascular organ
  • Tall, high, elevated
  • Angry, upset, ticked, pissed off, aggro
  • Vessel, container, bowl, pot, urn

Writing about words could go on forever.  So I think I’ll wrap this up for now, without even touching on insults and name-calling. Maybe another time.

Bottom line: never too many words.