WHO KNEW?

My most recent book purchase arrived on my doorstep today, and I immediately went into a flurry of browsing.  It’s wonderful!

This is Sibley’s most recent book, published in April, 2020. When I sought it out on Amazon, it was already back ordered!  Not being particularly patient, I ordered it on Kindle and started reading immediately. 

N.B. It’s better  as a physical book. For one thing, the illustrations are dazzling, and that comes across much better in hardcover. Sibley does his own paintings.

I recently learned that what I’d been calling a purple finch is actually a house finch, so went immediately to the finch section. There I learned that all red, orange, and yellow colors in songbirds come from the carotenoids in their diet, and therefore, the brighter the colors the healthier the bird.  What It’s Like to be a Bird  isn’t meant to be read straight through, cover to cover. And I, for one find it easier to flip back and forth in a physical book

Sibley is well known for his books on birds. His various guides are “must haves” for bird identification. These guides are organized, as most field guides seem to be, for the purpose of identification.  This isn’t my kind of nature book.

Which raises the question, “What is my kind of nature book?”  I easily plucked more than two dozen books off my shelves that, by my classification, are nature books. Here are a few of my favorites.

I acquired this book years ago solely because it was written by a colleague at St. Lawrence University. It is delightful! Robert DeGraaff styled The Book of the Toad as “A Natural and Magical History of Toad-Human Relations.” It’s an engaging mix of toad lore, symbolism, biology, use as hallucinogens, etc. The toad’s role in everything from art to witchcraft is in this book.

I have a similar book about rats. The Rat: A Perverse Miscellany is filled with fascinating (to me) tidbits about rats, including how they live and are treated around the world. You’ll find rats everywhere, in fables, literature gothic and modern, and in film. Of course, Barbara Hodgson included the role they played in plagues.

Having farms in my background perhaps explains why I picked up The Complete Chicken on a bargain shelf once upon a time. As a child, I was afraid to gather eggs for fear the hens would peck me. To this day, I can still “smell” the acrid unpleasantnesses of chicken droppings and the wet feathers of chickens killed for the table being scalded for plucking. But Pam Percy‘s book gave me a whole new appreciation for chickens rooting in trees, the best breeds for eating and laying, and the all-around appeal of buff orpingtons. If you tend to think a chicken is a chicken, browse the breeds around the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe.

Crows fascinate me. They’re smart. They learn from the older generation about which places/people/sites to avoid without ever experiencing them directly. They communicate. They avoid places where a crow has died. And they’ve adapted beautifully to urban living! Candace Savage, among her many other non-fiction works, wrote Crows: Encounters of the Wise Guys of the Avian World.

Given the current concern over the future of honeybees, and thus the world, you might want to pick up a copy of The Queen Must Die (not the young adult historical fantasy novel, though that also looks pretty interesting).  My copy of the book was discarded at some point by the Fond Du Lac Public Library in Wisconsin, and I have no idea how it came to be on my shelf.

According to author William Longgood, “Bees are more than a hobby; they are a life study, in many respects a mirror of our own society.” Longwood presents the life of bees as a “work or die” society, with only collective wealth (honey), each bee so dependent upon the whole that an isolated bee, even with the right food and temperature, will soon die. Lots of interesting (to me) bits of info, such as one hive filled with honey can weigh 80 pounds. Bees were studied and written about by the ancient Greeks.  A queen can lay as many a 2,000 eggs a day. And then she dies.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the above books all deal with animals, and I guess that is a recurring choice—perhaps because they are animate, and thus more likely to have personalities.

But I’ve recently spent more time on flowers and plants than before, and I find there’s more to them than their looks and uses. One of my favorite finds was Who Named the the Daisy? Who Named the Rose? A Roving History of North American Wildflowers.

Here’s a quote from Mary DurantLUPINE, by its own choice, thrives on poor oil. But in ancient days the concept of cause and effect were reversed, and it was believed that lupine destroyed the soil, that it wolfed the nourishment out of the earth. Thus it was named after the wolf—lupus, in Latin. 

I’m now more interested in knowing what I am seeing. There are at least two free plant identification apps available for smart phones, as well as several subscription services for sale. I’m much more likely to snap a picture and find out immediately what I’ve seen than try to remember the details necessary to look it up in a guide.

Mary Roach, though she claims to “fake her way through interviews with experts she doesn’t understand,” manages to write fascinating non-fiction books a wide variety of subjects. The titles say all that is necessary about why virtually anyone would find these books entertaining as well as informative.

Then, too, I have books on earthly things, dangerous things, and invisible things. But this has gone on long enough. Suffice it to say, whatever aspect of nature catches your interest, there’s a book on that!

Before I wrote this blog, I’d never have characterized myself as a nature buff. But now?

UNSTRUCTURED TIME

One of the side effects of COVID-19 is that many people have more unstructured time than usual—much more. By unstructured time, I mean periods of time with no plan in place for what one must/wants to get done

Poking everything with a stick does not count as a plan.

Two points made by openlinecounseling.com resonate for me.

(Note:getting into mischief is not a healthy goal.)
  1. Stretches of unstructured time often bring pressure and anxiety, sometimes existential panic.
    • Worrisome thoughts are more easily set aside when busy. But with unstructured time, it’s easy for self-doubts to come to the fore. 
      • Am I too fat?
      • Have I done a good job as a parent?
      • Will anyone remember me when I’m dead? 
    • When we have lots of time available, it’s easy to procrastinate. One can fritter away the time, flitting from one indulgence to another, from reading a novel to online shopping. Come the end of the day, one then feels guilty for not having been productive—or not productive enough. The feeling that one has “wasted time” is uncomfortable.
Lithuanian Military photographed by adasvasiliauskas
  • Being constantly on the go is often linked to self-worth—in which case not being productive leads to low self-esteem, as in “I’m a failure” or “I’m lazy.”
    • Making the most of every minute of every day isn’t recognized as an impossible, not to say unhealthy, goal.
Don’t let fear drive you to hide away in a box.

When deprived of the activities that usually fill our days, we often drift into unhealthy activities.

  • Being physically inactive
  • Drinking and/or smoking more
  • Snacking and/or eating too much
  • Online gambling
  • Binge shopping
Structure can keep you from climbing the walls… or windows.

Being suddenly confronted with unstructured time can be disorienting. This is often true of the newly retired. Regularly scheduled activities—which could be anything from work to volunteering, golf or poker to orchestra rehearsals—make people aware of the time of day as well as days of the week or month.

For me, COVID-19 cancellations make every day feel like Monday, my formerly “free” day. I have to pause and think what day of the week it is. 

Make sure to change out of your pajamas every day. I recommend formal gowns for coloring time.

Also, the “natural” day for humans isn’t exactly 24 hours: it’s somewhere between 24 and 26 hours. We reset to 24 hours based on outside constraints. My personal day is longer than most, and it’s easy to stay up and wake progressively later and later—say 3:00 to noon. For those on lock-down due to COVID-19, with no scheduled activities, the time of day might feel “off.”

The short solution to all these negatives is simple: make plans.  Keep the list of plans brief — say three — and doable. The plans could be relaxing activities such cutting flowers, taking a walk, etc. The idea is that making plans decreases the likelihood that you’ll pass days in haphazard activities or listlessness.

Enjoy an elegant tea party with inanimate friends!

Astronauts, being experts in the field of isolation, have offered some advice to those of us down here on the planet.

  • Keep a consistent sleeping schedule
  • Go outside and get some sun, so long as you do it by yourself
  • Separate work and leisure time, if you still work from home, so that one does not overtake the other
  • Stay in touch with people online or over the phone
These astronauts seem to have missed the rule about staying 6 feet apart.
(Don’t worry; the baby isn’t sitting on the dog while reading to him… not that he’d notice if she was.)

As more people are staying at home, many organizations are creating virtual activities to keep your mind active. You can take a virtual tour of a museum or national park, audit classes in a variety of subjects, join exercise or meditation groups, watch ballets or operas or Broadway shows, even have a cocktail or movie party with your friends! If all else fails, there are ways to help your community from the comfort of your living room.

  • OpenCulture has gathered many of these links to allow people to browse their options.
  • To fix the growing shortage of protective gear among healthcare workers, many people have started making face masks for local hospitals and fire stations.
  • Coursera is currently working with many universities to allow students to earn college credit
  • Many independent, foreign, classic, and documentary films are available to watch online for free
  • All kinds of educational materials for k-12 students are free online
  • The Guggenheim has made 300 ebooks about art available for free

Takeaway for writers: consider the role of structure in the lives of your characters.

WRITING PANDEMICS

Beware the Carnosaur Virus!
from the movie Carnosaur

We are currently enduring a coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).  But perhaps I can tell you some things about pandemics in general that you don’t know! 

Writers note: you will find below several bits of information you absolutely must have if you are going to write a story involving a pandemic—or even an epidemic.

ALZ-113 (Simian Flu) from Planet of the Apes

First you need to know the different levels of the disease’s severity within a community.

  • Sporadic: a disease that occurs infrequently and irregularly (rabies, polio)
  • Endemic: the constant presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease or infectious agent in a population within a geographic area (chicken pox in American schoolchildren, malaria in certain areas of Africa)
    • Hyperendemic: persistent, high levels of an endemic disease occurrence, above the expected “normal” levels
Disinfection of workers at an Ebola clinic, 2016
  • Epidemic: an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area (Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2018)
    • Outbreak: carries the same definition of epidemic, but is often used for a more limited geographic area
  • Holoendemic: essentially every individual in a population is infected, though not all show symptoms (modern occurrences are not common, but one example is hepatitis B in some areas of the Marquesas Islands)
  • Cluster: aggregation of cases grouped in place and time that are suspected to be greater than the number expected, even though the expected number may not be known
  • Pandemic: is an epidemic so big it crosses international boundaries and affects large numbers of people.
Bubonic Plague
Squirrel Army!

Pandemics can occur in crops, livestock, fish, trees, or other living things, but I’ll be sticking with people here.  You may want a plot line that has people battling a pandemic in another species. What happens to the food supply if all the wheat or corn or soybeans die off? How would people protect themselves from an entire population of aggressively rabid squirrels?

A wide-spread disease or condition that kills many people is a pandemic only if it is infectious. E.g., cancer and diabetes are not pandemics.

Until recently, I thought—in a vague sort of way—that pandemics were a thing of the past, mostly centuries ago. Wrong.  Currently, besides COVID-19, HIV/AIDS is an active pandemic world-wide. For example, several African countries have infection rates as high as 25%, or even 29% among pregnant South African women.

Distribution of AIDS cases worldwide

Any given pandemic is seldom one-and-done. Maybe none of them are.

Black Death, Venetian miniature. Middle Ages, Italy, 14th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Seattle PD wearing newly distributed face masks to prevent the spread of respiratory disease
  • Plague: contagious bacterial diseases that cause fever and delirium, usually along with the formation of buboes, sometimes infecting the lungs. In past centuries, plagues killed 20%, 40%, even 50% of a country’s population. The first U.S. plague outbreak was the San Francisco plague of 1900-1904. 
    • Writers note: isolated cases of plague still turn up in the western U.S.
  • Influenza (a.k.a. Flu): the first flu pandemic recorded was in 1580, and since then influenza pandemics have occurred every 10 to 30 years
  • Cholera: seems (to me) to be nearly perennial, with pandemics recorded 1871-1824, 1826-1837, 1846-1860, 1863-1875 (in 1866 it killed some 50,000 Americans), 1881-1896, 1899-1923, 1961-1975. 
  • Typhus (a.k.a., camp fever, gaol fever, and ship fever): caused by bacterial Rickettsia prowazekii and characterized by a purple rash, headaches, fever, and usually delirium. It spreads rapidly in cramped quarters, often carried by fleas, lice, and ticks. It’s common in times of war and famine.
  • Smallpox: caused by the variola virus, it raged from the 18th century through the 1950s. Vaccination campaigns beginning in the 19th century led the World Health Organization to declare smallpox eradicated in 1979. 
    • Writers note: it is the only human infectious disease to have been completely eradicated. But for your purposes, maybe not!
  • Measles: historically, before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, 90% of people had the measles by age 15. Measles is an endemic disease, so groups of people can develop resistance. But it is often deadly for those who get measles, and it has killed over 200 million people over the last 150 years. Worldwide, in 2000, measles killed 777,000 out of 40 million cases.
  • Tuberculosis (a.k.a, TB): a very present danger, as new infections occur at a rate of one per second. A quarter of the world’s current population has been infected, and although most of those are latent, 5-10% will progress to active disease. Left untreated, TB kills more than half of its victims.
  • Leprosy (Hansen’s disease): caused by a bacillus, it is a chronic disease. It has an incubation period up to five years, but it can now be cured. It’s been estimated that in the early 13th century, there were 19,000 leper hospitals (leprosariums) across Europe.
  • Malaria: widespread in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. 
    • Writers note: consider the implications of climate change. Once common, malaria deaths became all but non-existent due to drug treatment. However, growing drug resistance is a major concern. Malaria is resistant to all classes of antimalarial drugs except artemisinins.
Yellow fever was vaguely understood to be carried by sailors on long voyages
  • Yellow fever: a viral infection carried by mosquitoes. In 1793, it killed approximately 10% of the population of Philadelphia.
  • Ebola virus: one of several viral hemorrhagic fevers (along with Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, Marburg virus, and Bolivian hemorrhagic fever) that seem to be pandemics in waiting because they are highly contagious and deadly. On the other hand, transmission requires close contact and moves fast from onset to symptoms, so effective quarantines are possible.
    • And on the third hand, writers note: it could always mutate and adapt.
  • Coronaviruses: a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, and the current Coronavirus-19, which is a new strain of SARS-CoV-2. Common effects of all of these are fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. 

Historians have identified five (sometimes six) “major pandemics” that have affected enough of the population to cause a significant change in the social order. They are often referred to as plagues, despite not being caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

  • The Plague of Justinian (541-543) continued to cause famine and death after the primary infection had been contained because the sudden lack of a labor force meant that crops weren’t planted and harvested.
    • The horrific conditions during and after the plague are believed to have created an ideal atmosphere for the rapid spread of Christianity.
    • Though he survived his infection, Emperor Justinian had to shelve plans to consolidate power and expand the Roman Empire.
Plague victim demonstrating a bubos
  • The Black Death of 1347 to 1351 is believed to have killed as much as half the world’s population.
    • Historians have estimated that resulting labor shortage allowed for the end of the feudal system and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe.
    • The population of Greenland was so diminished that the Vikings didn’t have the manpower to continue their raids in North America.
  • The Colombian Exchange is a general term used to cover all of the species of plants, animals, people, and diseases moved from one continent to another during the European invasion of North and South America.
The worst-hit areas of the Third Plague
Hong Kong
  • The Third Bubonic Plague began in 1855 and reached every part of the world before it died down in the 1960s.
    • Researchers confirmed that the disease was spread by bacteria in flea bites, allowing for major breakthroughs in quarantine methods.
    • Some of those early quarantines involved such draconian measures in colonized areas that they contributed to rebellions in Panthay, Taiping, and several regions of India.
Public information campaigns helped to reduce transmission
  • The 1918 Influenza outbreak, commonly known as the Spanish Flu, infected 500 million people around the world and killed more people than World War I. In 25 weeks, it killed more people than AIDS did in its first 25 years.
    • The close quarters of soldiers involved in World War I contributed to the rapid spread, but the contagion raised public awareness of how disease is transmitted and how to prevent it.
    • Note: The “Spanish” flu was present around the world, but it gained its name because the Spanish government did not censor information on the pandemic. Because most other countries worked to suppress information so as not to disrupt the war, people got the impression that the disease was coming from Spain, the source of their information.
Keith Haring, AIDS activist and artist
  • Though it was first reported in 1981, HIV/AIDS is believed to have originated in a mutated genetic strand of the virus from a monkey in the 1920s.
    • Sex education in schools and sexual practices among some portions of the population (notably among sex workers) changed drastically to focus on safety.
    • Because it was first prevalent among the gay community, many religious leaders claimed the virus was a divine sign that homosexuals were evil.
Leprosy hospitals still exist in India

“Alien” diseases are more deadly than local ones. Writers note: what are the implications of colonizing Mars?

Medieval dead cart
  • In 1529, a measles outbreak in Cuba killed 2/3 of the natives who had previously survived smallpox.
  • Malaria was a major threat to colonists and Native Americans when introduced to the Americas along with the slave trade.
  • In Colonial times, West Africa was called “the white man’s grave” because of malaria and yellow fever.
  • European explorers often had devastating effects on indigenous people—and vice versa. For example, some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the new world was caused by old world diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza.
  • On the other hand, syphilis was carried from the new world to Europe after Columbus’ voyages.
Attempts to combat typhus after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen

Many notable epidemics and pandemics involve transmission from animals to humans, zoonoses.

  • Influenza/wild aquatic birds
  • SARS-CoV/civet cats
  • MERS-CoV/deomedary camels
  • COVID-19/bats’
  • Avian influenza (bird flu)/birds in Vietnam (a pandemic in waiting)
During the Third Plague, researchers definitively proved that flea bites spread Bubonic plague

Writing about pandemics—or any disease, actually, you need to decide on:

  • Name, fictional or real
  • Disease type/ who’s most susceptible (childhood/ common/ rare) 
  • Cause (bacteria, virus, parasite, fungus, imbalance of bodily humors, witchcraft, divine intervention, etc.) 
  • Transmission (airborne, body fluids, food or water, touch, telepathy, miasma, etc.)
  • Virulence (how likely a person is to catch the disease after coming into contact with it) 
  • Length of the incubation period: a person could be showing symptoms and become infectious almost instantly or it could take years 
  • Symptoms of this disease
  • Whether it’s treatable and/or curable
  • How people react when they encounter someone with this disease
    • For a first-hand idea of what people thought during the Black Death, check out this Eyewitness to History!
Houses with sick inhabitants were marked for quarantine in London

BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: pandemic are tried and true for creative fiction, whether historical or current, sci-fi or known world, mystery/action adventure or romance. Go for it!

Let’s end this on a more cheerful note:
Happy Saint Patricks Day!

GOOD READING ANYTIME

I’ll cut to the chase: when my husband and I talked about Black writers the other day, in the car, the following list rolled off the tips of our tongues. If you search the internet for African American writers, you will find all sorts of lists, from those who made the New York Times Bestsellers list to literally hundreds on Wikipedia arranged into categories. But here is our personal, not-so-big-as-to-be-overwhelming list of our favorite Black authors, and something we especially liked from each. (FYI: we didn’t think of them in alpha order! 😉 )

  • Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart
    • Born in Nigeria in 1930, Chinua Achebe made a splash with the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958. Renowned as one of the seminal works of African literature, it has since sold more than 20 million copies and been translated into more than 50 languages.  Achebe followed with novels such as No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987), and served as a faculty member at renowned universities in the U.S. and Nigeria.  He died on March 21, 2013, at age 82, in Boston, Massachusetts.
    • Biography.com Editors
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah
    • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She is the author of three novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013), of a short story collection, The Thing around Your Neck (2009). She has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (2007) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2008).
    • The Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Website, written by Daria Tunca
  • Ama Ata Aidoo Changes: A Love Story
    • Born Christina Ama Ata Aidoo in 1942, was born in Abeadzi Kyiakor, Gold Coast, now Ghana. Combining traditional African storytelling with Western genres, she writes of the contemporary roles of African women and the negative impact of Western influences on African culture. Her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost, was published in 1965. Her short stories, collected in No Sweetness Here and The Girl Who Can, and her novel, Our Sister Killjoy, expand on these themes, many of which mirror Aidoo’s own experiences. Her other works include the play Anowa, the poems of Someone Talking to Sometime; Birds; and Angry Letter in January; and a collection of children’s stories. The novel Changes: A Love Story (1991) explores a contemporary African marriage.
    • The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia
  • Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
    • Born in 1928 in St Louis, Maya Angelou joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild in the late 1950’s. With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings received international acclaim made the bestseller list. The book was also banned in many schools during that time as Maya Angelou’s honesty about having been sexually abused opened a subject matter that had long been taboo in the culture. Later, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would become a course adoption at college campuses around the world. Maya Angelou has wrote 36 books, including more than 30 bestselling titles, before her death in 2014.
    • The Legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou
  • Ayi Kwei Armah The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
    • Ayi Kwei Armah is a Ghanaian novelist whose work deals with corruption and materialism in contemporary Africa. He worked as a scriptwriter, translator, and English teacher in the United States, among other places. In his first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Armah showed his deep concern for greed and political corruption in a newly independent African nation. All of Armah’s works are concerned with the widening moral and spiritual chasm that existed between appearance and reality, spirit and substance, and past and present in his native Ghana. He is also an essayist, as well as having written poetry, short stories, and books for children.
    • Encyclopedia Britannica: Ayi Kwei Armah written by Amy Tikkanen
  • Odafe Atogun Taduno’s Song
    • Odafe Atogun was born in Nigeria, in the town of Lokoja, where the rivers Niger and Benue meet. He studied Journalism at the Times Journalism Institute, Lagos and is now a full-time writer. His debut novel, Taduno’s Song, was selected for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club, and he has been compared favorably to Franz Kafka and George Orwell in critical reviews. Following his two-book deal with Canongate, Penguin Random House and Arche Verlag, Atogun’s second novel, Wake Me When I’m Gone, was published in 2017. His work has been translated into several languages.
    • Odafe Atogun press
  • Sefi Atta Everything Good Will Come
    • Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1964 and currently divides her time between the United States, England, and Nigeria. She qualified as a Chartered Accountant in England, a Certified Public Accountant in the United States, and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Atta was a juror for the 2010 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and has received several literary awards for her works, including the 2006 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In 2015, a critical study of her novels and short stories, Writing Contemporary Nigeria: How Sefi Atta Illuminates African Culture and Tradition, was published by Cambria Press. Also a playwright, her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and her stage plays have been performed and published internationally.
    • Sefi Atta Official Website
  • Mariama Bâ So Long A Letter
    • Mariama Bâ was one of the pioneers of Senegalese literature. Born in Dakar in 1929, she was raised by her maternal grandmother, who was of Muslim confession and strongly attached to traditional culture. Through the insistence of her father, an open-minded politician, the young Mariama attended French school, obtained her school-leaving certificate, and won admission to the École Normale for girls in Rufisque, from where she graduated as a schoolteacher in 1947. She threw herself into the women’s movement to fight for greater recognition of women’s issues. Throughout her life, she tried to reconcile her grounding in her culture, her Muslim faith, and her openness to other cultural horizons. Towards the end of her life, her literary genius achieved full expression in So Long a Letter, a novel that directly confronted polygamy and the caste-system in Senegal – a predominantly Muslim country, firmly attached to its traditions, yet traversed by profound transformations, and confronted by the challenge of new models of society.
    • UNESCO: Women In African History – Mariama Bâ
  • James Baldwin Go Tell It On The Mountain
    • Born in Harlem in 1924, James Baldwin was the oldest of nine children.  His writing started as a way to escape his stern stepfather.  He graduated from high school in 1942 and moved to New Jersey to begin working as a railroad hand. In 1944, he moved to Greenwich Village where he met Richard Wright and began his first novel, In My Father’s House.  In 1953, he finished his important novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which stands as a partially autobiographical account of his youth.  The following year he wrote the play, The Amen Corner and won the Guggenheim Fellowship. During the 1960’s, Baldwin became politically active in support of civil rights. Baldwin wrote novels, poetry, essays and a screenplay in the later years of his life. He died of stomach cancer at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France.
    • African American Literature Book Club – James Baldwin
  • Octavia Butler Kindred
    • Octavia Estelle Butler, often referred to as the “grand dame of science fiction,” was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947. During 1969 and 1970, she studied at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, where she took a class with science fiction master Harlan Ellison (who later became her mentor), and which led to Butler selling her first science fiction stories. Butler’s first story, “Crossover,” was published in the 1971 Clarion anthology. With the publication of Kindred in 1979, Butler was able to support herself writing full time. She won the Hugo Award in 1984 for her short story, “Speech Sounds,” and in 1985, Butler’s novelette “Bloodchild” won a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and an award for best novelette from Science Fiction Chronicle. Other books by Octavia E. Butler include the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989), and a short story collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995). Parable of the Sower (1993), the first of her Earthseed series, was a finalist for the Nebula Award as well as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The book’s sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), won a Nebula Award.
    • Octavia Butler: The official site of the Pen Lifetime Achievement and MacArthur award winning writer
  • Charles Chesnutt  The Conjure Woman
    • Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Ohio in 1858, the son of free blacks who had emigrated from Fayetteville, N.C. When he was eight years old, Chesnutt’s parents returned to Fayetteville, where Charles worked part-time in the family grocery store and attended a school founded by the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1872, he began teaching in Charlotte, N.C. but returned to Fayetteville in 1877. Chesnutt married a year later, and by 1880 had become principal of the Fayetteville State Normal School for Negroes. Meanwhile he continued to pursue private studies of the English classics, foreign languages, music, and stenography. In 1883, he moved his family to Cleveland, where he passed the state bar examination and established his own court reporting firm. Financially prosperous and prominent in civic affairs, he resided in Cleveland for the remainder of his life. “The Goophered Grapevine,” an unusual dialect story that displayed intimate knowledge of black folk culture in the South, was Chesnutt’s first nationally recognized work of fiction. Its publication in the August 1887 issue of the Atlantic Monthly marked the first time that a short story by a black had appeared in that prestigious magazine. After subsequent tales in this vein were accepted by other magazines, Chesnutt submitted to Houghton, Mifflin a collection of these stories, which was published in 1899 as The Conjure Woman.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates The Water Dancer
    • Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates is an American author and journalist. Coates gained a wide readership during his time as national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he wrote about cultural, social, and political issues, particularly regarding African Americans and white supremacy. He was born in Baltimore in 1975, a member of a large, close-knit, politically active family. In addition to his nonfiction work, Coates has been a teacher, has written for Black Panther and Captain America comics, and published his first novel, The Water Dancer, in 2019.
    • The Official Website of Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Frederick Douglass Any of his autobiographies
    • Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. At about the age of twelve or thirteen, Douglass purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator, a popular schoolbook of the time, which helped him to gain an understanding and appreciation of the power of the spoken and the written word, as two of the most effective means by which to bring about permanent, positive change. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York. Whenever he could he attended abolitionist meetings, and, in October, 1841, after attending an anti-slavery convention on Nantucket Island, Douglass became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and a colleague of William Lloyd Garrison. This work led him into public speaking and writing. He published his own newspaper, The North Star, participated in the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, in 1848, and wrote three autobiographies. 
    • The Frederick Douglass Society
  • W.E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk
    • Scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He was born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895.  DuBois was one of the most important black protest leader in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. He shared in the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He had two children with his wife, Nina Gomer. In 1963, he became a naturalized citizen of Ghana at the age of 95 – the year of his death.
    • NAACP History – W.E.B. DuBois
  • Alexandre Dumas The Three Musketeers
    • Born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie (1802–1870), also known as Alexandre Dumas père, was a French writer. His grandmother was Marie-Cessette Dumas, a black slave in what is now Haiti. His works have been translated into many languages, and he is one of the most widely read French authors. Many of his historical novels of high adventure were originally published as serials, including The Count of Monte CristoThe Three MusketeersTwenty Years After, and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later
    • Alexandre Dumas, Two Centuries of Living Literature
  • Ralph Ellison Invisible Man
    • Born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, the grandson of slaves, Ralph Waldo Ellison and his younger brother were raised by their mother, whose husband died when Ralph was 3 years old. His mother supported her young family by working as a nursemaid, a janitor and a domestic. Having earned a degree at Tuskegee University, Ellison was an American novelist, literary critic, and scholar best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also wrote Shadow and Act, a collection of political, social and critical essays, and Going to the Territory.
  • Yaa Gyasi Homegoing
    • Yaa Gyasi (born 1989) is a Ghanaian-American novelist. Her debut novel, Homegoing, published in 2016, won her, at the age of 26, the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honors for 2016 and the American Book Award. She was awarded a Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature in 2020. Homegoing is her debut historical fiction novel, published in 2016. Each chapter in the novel follows a different descendant of an Asante woman named Maame, starting with her two daughters, who are half sisters, separated by circumstance: Effia marries the British governor in charge of Cape Coast Castle, while her half-sister Esi is held captive in the dungeons below. Subsequent chapters follow their children and following generations.
  • Bessie Head When the Rain Clouds Gather
    • Bessie Amelia Emery Head, known as Bessie Head, was a South African writer who, though born in South Africa, is usually considered Botswana’s most influential writer. Bessie Amelia Head never knew her real parents — an unstable white woman and an unknown black man. She was born and raised in apartheid South Africa. After spending several years in the field of education, she decided to work as a journalist for the Golden City Post. She experimented with poetry and fiction, and published her first story in The New African.  Despite the occasional financial aid from friends, the author lived in absolute poverty, forcing her to live in a refugee camp with her son. Her luck changed when a New York editorial offered her to write a novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1969), in which she tells about the era she lived as a refugee. This book was met with positive reviews from critics, which encouraged her to continue her literary career with Maru (1971). She wrote novels, short fiction and autobiographical works that are infused with spiritual questioning and reflection.
  • Langston Hughes Any of his poetry and/or essay collections
    • James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri.  While working as a busboy in a hotel in Washington, D.C., in late 1925, Hughes put three of his own poems beside the plate of Vachel Lindsay in the dining room. The next day, newspapers around the country reported that Lindsay, among the most popular white poets of the day, had “discovered” an African American busboy poet, which earned Hughes broader notice. Hughes received a scholarship to, and began attending, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in early 1926. That same year, he received the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Award, and he published “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in The Nation , a manifesto in which he called for a confident, uniquely black literature. After graduating, he traveled widely in the Soviet Union, Haiti, Japan, and elsewhere and served as a newspaper correspondent (1937) during the Spanish Civil War. Hughes documented African American literature and culture in works such as A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956) and the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958; with Bontemps).  Hughes was one of the most important writers and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance.
    • Academy of American Poets – Langston Hughes
  • Zora Neal Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God
    • Zora Neale Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker. She portrayed racial struggles in the early-1700s American South and published research on hoodoo.  During Zora Neale Hurston’s career, she was more concerned with writing about the lives of African Americans in an authentic way that uplifted their existence, rather than focusing on their traumas. Her most celebrated work, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an example of this philosophy. It follows Janie Mae Crawford, a middle-aged woman in Florida, who details lessons she learned about love and finding herself after three marriages. Hurston used black Southern dialect in the characters’ dialogue to proudly represent their voices and manner.
  • Edward P. Jones Lost in the City
    • Edward P. Jones was born in 1950 and raised in Washington, D.C. A winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award and recipient of the Lannan Foundation Grant, Jones was educated at Holy Cross College and the University of Virginia. His first book, Lost in the City was originally published by William Morrow in 1992 and shortlisted for the National Book Award. Mr. Jones was named a National Book Award finalist for a second time with the publication of his debut novel The Known World which subsequently won the prestigious 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Dinaw Mengestu How to Read the Air
    • Dinaw Mengetsu is a Washington, DC-based American writer born in Ethiopia in 1978. In addition to three novels, he has written for Rolling Stone on the war in Darfur, and for Jane Magazine on the conflict in northern Uganda. His writing has also appeared in Harper’sThe Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications. He is the Program Director of Written Arts at Bard College.  Since his first book was published in 2007, Mengetsu has received numerous literary awards, and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 2012. He is the author of three novels, most recently All Our Names. His debut novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, won the Guardian First Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2007. His novel How to Read the Air, published in 2010, was the winner of the 2011 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
    • PEN America – Dinaw Mengetsu
  • Toni Morrison Beloved
    • Chloe Anthony Wofford, (1931-2019) was an American writer noted for her examination of black experience (particularly black female experience) within the black community. When Morrison was two years old, the owner of her family’s apartment building set their home on fire while they were inside because they were unable to afford the rent.  After earning her MA at Cornell University, Morrison taught at Howard University and then became the first black female editor of fiction at Random House Publishing. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for her novel Beloved.
    • National Women’s History Museum – Toni Morrison
  • Trevor Noah Born a Crime
    • Born in South Africa in 1984, Trevor Noah’s father Robert is of Swiss German ancestry, and his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is of Xhosa ancestry. Because interracial relations were illegal under Apartheid law, Noah’s mother was jailed and fined by the South African government. Patricia and her mother, Nomalizo Frances Noah, raised Trevor in the black township of Soweto. Trevor Noah has hosted numerous television shows including South Africa’s music, television and film awards, and two seasons of his own late night talk show, Tonight with Trevor Noah. In November 2016, Trevor Noah released his first book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, which was an instant New York Times bestseller.
    • Official Site of Trevor Noah
  • Ben Okri The Famished Road
    • Ben Okri is a poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, aphorist, playwright, and writer of film-scripts. He was born in Nigeria in 1958 and came to England as a child. He went to school in London and returned to Nigeria with his parents on the eve of the Nigerian Civil War. The war made a defining impact on his life. After finishing secondary school, he wanted to study physics and become a scientist but was deemed too young then for university. He began writing at a very early age, poetry and published articles and essays about the living conditions of the poor in the slums of Lagos. In 1978, Ben Okri returned to London to study comparative Literature at Essex University. Two years later he published his first novel; and in 1982 came his second novel, The Landscapes Within. After a brief period of homelessness, in 1986 he published Incidents at the Shrine, a collection of stories that won him prizes and enhanced his reputation. The Famished Road won the Booker Prize when it was published in 1991.
    • Ben Okri Official Site
  • Alexander Pushkin Eugène Onegin
    • Born in Moscow in 1799, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was heavily influenced by his great-grandfather, Abraham Petrovitch Gannibal, who was kidnapped from Cameroon as a child and sold as a slave to the court of Tsar Peter the Great. As a frequent exile himself, Pushkin compared his experience as an outsider to that of a poet’s role as an observer. His unfinished novel The Moor of Peter the Great was meant to be a biography of his great-grandfather, but Eugène Onegin directly refers to Pushkin’s mixed racial background.
    • How Alexander Pushkin was Inspired by His African Heritage
  • Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka Death and the King’s Horsemen
    • Nigerian playwright and political activist Wole Soyinka was the first African recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. He was born in 1934 in Abeokuta, near Ibadan, into a Yoruba family and studied at University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, and the University of Leeds, England. Soyinka, who writes in English, is the author of five memoirs, two novels, and 19 plays shaped by a diverse range of influences, including avant-garde traditions, politics, and African myth. Soyinka’s poetry similarly draws on Yoruba myths, his life as an exile and in prison, and politics. An outspoken opponent of oppression and tyranny worldwide and a critic of the political situation in Nigeria, Soyinka has lived in exile on several occasions. During the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s, he was held as a prisoner in solitary confinement after being charged with conspiring with the Biafrans; while in exile, Soyinka was at one point sentenced to death (the sentence was later lifted). Soyinka has taught at a number of universities worldwide, among them Ife University, Cambridge University, Yale University, and Emory University.
    • Biography of Wole Soyinka
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o A Grain of Wheat
    • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, was born in Kenya, in 1938 into a large peasant family. In the 1950s, his family was caught up in the Mau Mau Uprising, an experience that influenced much of his later writing. His novel A Grain of Wheat was the first modern novel to be written in Gikuyu; all of Ngũgĩ ‘s work thereafter was written in Gikuyu and Swahili. The play Ngaahika Ndeenda, co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, was shut down by the Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening, and Ngũgĩ was imprisoned for over a year. While in exile following his release, he worked as a teacher, a writer, and an advocate for justice in Kenya and for native linguistic equality.
    • Website of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
  • Amos Tutuola The Palm-Wine Drinkard
    • Amos Tutuola was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1920. The son of a cocoa farmer, he attended several schools before training as a blacksmith. He later worked as a civil servant. His first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, was published in 1952 and brought him international recognition. From 1956 until retirement, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company while continuing to write. Many of his novels drew elements from Yoruba folktales as well as oral storytelling traditions. His last book, The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, was published in 1990. He died in Ibadan in 1997.
    • Authors Calendar – Amos Tutuola
  • Abraham Verghese Cutting for Stone
    • Abraham Verghese was born in Ethiopia to parents from Kerala, India, who worked as teachers. He is the Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine. He is also the author of three best-selling books, two memoirs and a novel. The novel, Cutting for Stone (2009), follows twin brothers in Ethiopia during its military revolution and in New York, where one of them flees. In 2014, Verghese received the 19th Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities.
    • Website of Abraham Verghese
  • Alice Walker The Color Purple
    • The author of short stories and novels, essays and poetry and activist for racial civil rights, women’s equality, and peace among other causes, Alice Walker brought black women’s lives into primary focus as a rich and important subject for US American literature. Her landmark novel The Color Purple (1982), which drew upon her sharecropper family’s Southern roots, made Walker famous and brought her the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded to an African American woman, as well as the National Book Award. Walker’s introduction of the concept of “womanism” (1983) was an influential corrective to the focus on white women understood by many under the term “feminism;” it helped broaden the women’s movement to include women of color and appreciate their traditional cultural and creative roles. Walker has also been instrumental in rediscovering and promoting other Black women writers, past and present, most notably Zora Neale Hurston (1901-1960), whose work she edited and interpreted. Alice Walker has written seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and volumes of essays and poetry.
    • Alice Walker’s Garden – About the Author  
  • Isabel Wilkerson The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
    • Born in Washington D.C. in 1961,  Isabel Wilkerson became the first woman of African-American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994, while Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times. She devoted 15 years to the research and writing of The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people, unearthed archival works, and gathered the voices of the famous and the unknown to tell the epic story of the Great Migration, one of the largest migrations in American history. During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans departed the Southern states to Northern and Western cities to escape Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the failing sharecropping system. The book highlights the stories of three individuals and their journeys, from Florida to New York City, Mississippi to Chicago, and Louisiana to Los Angeles. Wilkerson’s in-depth documentation won her a National Book Critics Circle Award for the nonfiction work.
  • Richard Wright Native Son
    • Richard Nathaniel Wright (9/4/1908 – 11/28/1960) was born in Adams County, Mississippi into a life of poverty, and racial discrimination.  He was quoted as saying, “I was born too far back in the woods to hear the train whistle…” When he was fifteen, Wright knew he wanted to be a writer.  Known as a poet first, through his writing, his goal was to bring two worlds together, one Black and one White, and make them one.  His marriage to Ellen Poplar, a white woman, like his writing was controversial.  His most successful work, Native Son, a Chicago story about a Mississippi boy, Bigger Thomas, in New York had an autobiographical tone.  The author of 16 books, some of which include, Black BoyThe Outsider, and American Hunger, Richard Wright died mysteriously of a heart attack at the age of 52 in Paris, France.
    • African American Literature Book Club – Richard Wright

Bottom line for readers: Choose any of these authors you haven’t yet read and go for it!

How Touching!

Skin is the largest sense organ in the human body—and it is the most developed sensory function in infants. Matthew Hertenstein is a big name in touch research, and he has characterized touch communications in three categories:

  • Universal 
    • Anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy 
  • Prosocial  
    • Surprise, happiness, and sadness 
  • Self-focused 
    • Embarrassment envy, and pride

Numerous researchers have attempted to define how much information is communicated between humans through touch alone. In a practical sense, touch is seldom communicated without other verbal or nonverbal cues, so Hertenstein developed a series of controlled experiments. Pairs of participants were placed in a very artificial situation: the two sat on opposite sides of a curtain. The encoder would try to express a specific emotion by touching the decoder’s forearm with no visual or verbal cues; the decoder would then select the emotion received.

Bottom line: Human beings are surprisingly successful at this! Romantic partners were more successful than strangers.

  • Romantic partners were accurate:
    • 53% of universal emotions
    • 60% of prosocial emotions
    • 39% of self-focused emotions
  • Strangers were accurate:
    • 39% of universal emotions
    • 56% of prosocial emotions
    • 17% of self-focused emotions

But there is more than one way to group emotions.  Klare Heston (LCSW) discusses ways to convey specific positive emotions in real-life situations. Writers can expand these narrow groupings to fit a wide variety of situations and communication needs.

  • Using Touch to Convey Positive Emotions
    • (Always determine whether it is appropriate to touch the other person.)
    • Offer congratulations and praise with a pat.
    • Show love with hugs and kisses.
    • Flirt with a person.
    • Welcome a person warmly according to cultural norms (rub noses, etc.).
    • Say thank you.
    • Convey sympathy.
  • Expressing other Emotions with Touch
    • Gain a person’s attention.
    • Let a person know you’re in charge.
    • Reveal surprise.
    • Disclose fear.
    • Indicate anger.

Bottom line for writers here: As evident in the previously cited research, any given act—e.g., touching the forearm—can support, emphasize, or outright convey many emotions.

Touch is strongly dependent on culture and context. Do you want your reader to be clear on the meaning of a touch or keep them guessing?

The Impact Of Touching Behavior on Everyday Health focuses on the impact of touching.

  • Touch is absolutely necessary for normal child development, especially the ability of children to handle stress. The touch bond between mother and fetus begins in the womb. Human babies struggle to survive without a sense of touch, even if they retain sight and hearing.
  • Research indicates that for adults, touch can  change the way bodies function, e.g., lower blood pressure and heart rate. Depression and eating disorders have been linked to touch deprivation in adults, and it is more common for men than women because of the stronger social prohibitions against same-sex touch for adult males.

This article cites five areas of touch in typical nonverbal communication:

  • Functional/ Professional
    • Besides doctors and others whose work requires touching, touching in the workplace can have both positive and negative effects. Everyone knows the “power handshake,” that those who are dominant shake harder and longer. Bone crushing is generally considered to be bad. Also, superiors feel freer to touch subordinates than vice versa, whether pats on the back or touches on the forearm. Touching stresses how important a message is and the dominance of the toucher.
  • Social/Polite.
    • Different areas of the body are appropriate to touch in different social situations. Women are freer being touched by a member of the same sex. Men are more comfortable being touched by a female stranger than women are with being touched by a male stranger. Holding a handshakes longer than two seconds will result stop the verbal communication.
  • Friendship/Warmth.
    • Women are more likely to express friendship or warmth through a hug; men shake hands. Within families, women are more likely to touch; but also same sex family members are more likely to touch than opposite sex family members.
  • Love/Intimacy.
    • Men are more likely to make the initial moves on intimate touches. Holding hands or an arm across the shoulder is a territorial marker. Touch is more important to women than to men.
    • Touching between married couples seems to help maintain good health. University of Virginia psychologist Jim Coan found that women under stress were immediately relieved by merely holding their husbands’ hands.
    • Violence in intimate relationships falls into two categories:
      • Intimate terrorism involves a need to control or dominate, escalates over time in terms of frequency and severity. 
      • “Common couple violence” comes in episodes and doesn’t escalate over time.
  • Sexual/Arousal.
    • First touch often involves a neutral body part and seems “accidental.”
      • Hugging. Intention to touch, e.g., extending a hand across a table.
      • Kissing. The final case, love-making, may include kissing, nuzzling, gentle massage, and other foreplay.

Alternatively, wikipedia.org lists seven categories of touch meanings.

  • Positive affect
    • Support, appreciation, inclusion, sexual, affection
  • Playful
    • Can be affection or aggression, tend to lighten the interaction
  • Control
    • Compliance, attention-getting, encouraging a response
  • Ritualistic
    • Mostly greetings and departures, but also includes the chest bumps, etc., shared among athletes (related to wins) and the ritual handshakes at games end
  • Hybrid
    • Greeting/affection; departure/affection
    • Couldn’t the hybrid be negative?
  • Task-related
    • Everything from hairdressers to dance/ yoga instructors to emergency responders
  • Accidental
    • Consist mostly of brushes, but results in better tips for wait staff, fosters cooperation, and even makes people feel better about libraries (!)

the1thing.com points out that the U.S. is a low-touch culture. They go on to suggest five ways people can communicate more effectively by using touch.

  • Accompany praise with a pat on the back
  • Build cooperative relations by starting discussions with touch
  • Make business handshakes more effective by extending it for a beat
  • Give and get massages to strengthen and deepen bonds
  • Consider location when you touch (i.e., private or public)

Depending on situation, touch can be perceived as threatening or creepy, especially if it’s prolonged. To be safe, keep touch brief and keep to the arm, shoulder, hand.

The most important things we reveal through touch are degree of dominance and degree of intimacy.

Bottom line for writers: We often touch with little or no planning, and perceive the communication of touch without conscious thought. Given context, your reader will know the meaning of a touch. And consider that touch is often the fastest means of communication. A touch can communicate stop, fear, affection, etc.

 

READ THE REVIEWS FIRST

When I was a kid, we had to read our books barefoot in the snow!

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and collector of really bad jokes.

Every night, I cry myself to sleep over the thought that I will never be able to read all the books I want to read. My time is precious and must be saved for important activities like confusing my turtle with shadow puppets and giving my nieces caffeine and loud toys. That’s where reader reviews and reader recommendations come in handy.

Reviews are also helpful for a completely different purpose: they can provide a writer with (pretend) feedback before the writing is actually finished! As an added bonus, the best reviews can provide a solid abdominal muscle workout by causing insane fits of laughter, generally in the most inopportune public places.

Provided here for your entertainment and education are some of my favorite reviews and the writing lessons they illustrate. Reviews are gathered from Audible.com, Barnes and Noble, Amazon books, Goodreads, and a few book review blogs. The names of reviewers and the books being reviewed are provided where applicable.

Avoid Repetition by Editing or Having a Good Editor to Cut Out Repetition

  • She repeats herself to accentuate her point like she’s me writing like I talk when I’m wasted, which I’m fairly sure she’s not. She says things like (and I’m paraphrasing here) “I couldn’t have testified in Ted’s defense. That was just something I could not do.” Really? Could you do it, Ann? Could you?!? Wait, I’m confused…so you’re saying you could do it or you couldn’t do it? You see what I mean.
  • “I can hardly contain the riotous feelings or is it hormones that rampage through my body.” – Yes, this supposedly went through an editor. I don’t think it’s ever been specified whether or not said editor was literate and/or an alcoholic and/or addicted to painkillers.
  • WORDS WORDS WORDS IS THE HOUSE HAUNTED WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS IS SHE CRAZY WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS ARE THEY ALL CRAZY WORDS WORDS WORDS NO IT MUST BE HAUNTED WORDS WORDS WORDS NO SHE MUST BE CRAZY WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS CRAZY WORDS SICKNESS WORDS WORDS WORDS DEATH THE END.
  • Katrina Passick Lumsden counted the most common phrases in 50 Shades of Grey:
    • “Oh My” – 79
    • “Crap” – 101
    • “Jeez” – 82
    • “Holy (shit/fuck/crap/hell/cow/moses)” – 172
    • “Whoa” – 13
    • “Gasp” – 34
    • “Gasps” – 11
    • “Sharp Intake of Breath” – 4
    • “Murmur” – 68
    • “Murmurs” – 139
    • “Whisper” – 96
    • “Whispers” – 103
    • “Mutter” – 28
    • “Mutters” – 23
    • “Fifty” – 16
    • “Lip” – 71
    • “Inner goddess” – 58
    • “Subconscious” – 82
  • “Mr Unconvincingname, it’s renowned author Dan Brown,” told the voice at the other end of the line. Instantly the voice at the other end of the line was replaced by a different voice at the other end of the line. “Hello, it’s literary agent John Unconvincingname,” informed the new voice at the other end of the line. “Hello agent John, it’s client Dan,” commented the pecunious scribbler.
  • I was beaten over the head over and over and over again with Ana’s self-doubt and insecurities. I can honestly say that I had no idea this kind of feeling was even possible. I’ve never had a book so thoroughly turn off my desire to read before. Ever.
  • Very early in Inferno, I realized that Dan Brown’s career-long fetish for ellipses had reached a whole new level. Basically, ellipses are the hero of the book. … … …

Characters are Actually Important

  • Parts of the book were discussing political views nothing to do with Anna. It appeared their (sic) were many main characters not only Anna. [a review of Anna Karenina]
Um, I don’t remember the flying scene in Anna Karenina…
  • Any time an author tries to sell me on a character’s “charm” by waxing hormonal about how “ridiculously good-looking” he is, I snicker inwardly. I can’t think why….
  • If you can relate to anyone in this novel, then I dismiss you as inherently bad. In fact, I f***ing hate you. Yes, you.
Harpo Marx is proof that all musicians (at least harpists) are inherently good people.
  • Seriously, all she thinks about (and she is the primary narrator) is Zeb. Zeb, Zeb, Zebby Debby Doo. Zibbity Dibbity Dib Doodle Doo, I wuv you. 
  • [W]e know Christian’s super deep and sophisticated because he plays the piano and listens to obscure classical music. This is how we know Edward Christian is really just a lost soul in need of love; his love of music. Everyone knows that no one threatening listens to music. Music lovers just aren’t capable of doing anything bad.
  • Oh, the narrator, you ask? Yeah, he’s an a**hole, too. Don’t seek comfort there, because he’s basically nothing more than a lie factory wallpapered in tweed. 

Know Your Audience, and Know That Not Everyone will be Your Audience

The reviewer on the right is clearly not a fan.
  • I had made reservation and on the date I was to go I had a very bad cold and fever and I called them to change my reservation and they refused. [a very confused review of “Haunted: Ten Tales of Ghosts“]
  • Not so hot; phony intellectuals are told this is a great work so they make up all sorts of lies about layering and craftsmanship, when it’s really just a so-so story and the ending with the guy Marlon Brandon played in the movie (Apocalypse Now) going crazy and Conrad never explaining why there should be such a fascination with him. It might be a nice book if there was a story here. But these modern phonies do not understand that writing is supposed to be enjoyable. [a review of Heart of Darkness]
  • Sure, I could certainly compose a lengthy list of love-or-hate writers I’ve witnessed throughout my stint on this website, but Murakami is one of the dudes who seems to catch oddly equal amount of rapturous praise and sneering vitriol. When one considers reading his work and attempts to decide whether or not to invest the time based solely on the thoughts others have shared here on this website, it must make the head do some Exorcist-spins. [on author Haruki Murakami]
  • I think there was way to much sexual content, and the story line was incredibly sad. Certainly not something i would recommend for anyone under the age of fifteen, If you want to get an idea of what the book is about, just search the title in the Wikipedia. no Students don’t need to read this filth. [a review of Tess of the d’Urbervilles]
  • So I went into reading this with a huge wall up (I know, I know, a terrible way to read), but then I realized that I wasn’t JUST going to be proselytized to… I was going to be threatened with nasty, rotting, coldsore-herpee-mange-pits all over my body that George W. Bush and Paris Hilton are going to take turns pouring their boiling-hot-diarrhea-snot into. Dante, you sick bastard! AWESOME!!! [a review of Dante’s Inferno]
  • This story needs editing. [Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier]
  • A special note to those who say my review stopped them from reading this book: No no no! Read it! I actually reread the whole series last summer and enjoyed it immensely. Just read it for what it is: ludicrous, well-written, humorous, delicious TRASH. Just don’t expect it to be the most brilliant novel ever written and you’ll be fine.

Causing Genuine Emotional Response Can Make Up For Almost Everything

  • There is no fluffy stuffing here, just good, straight storytelling with the added bonus of cautiously crafted prose. Also, it’s really f***ing creepy, and me being creeped out by anything at this point in my life is a pretty tall order. I mean, aside from spiders and needles and being buried alive and over-sexualized pre-teen Lolita-types who collect and dress like that Bratz line of toy dolls. Now that sh*t is creepy.
  • Lookie here, folks, this is me giving a 4-star rating to a massively sexist, pro-Christian, anti-sex, anti-birth-control novella about a guy who murders his wife for maybe cheating on him, feels justified in doing so, and gets away with it! 
  • Scenes from this book will return when you are stuck in traffic, and you will cry some more. Do not operate a motor vehicle under the influence of this book.
  • This book is a ball-crusher, and not for the faint of heart. I mean, no matter how you spin it, it is BLEAK. Don’t read it while experimenting with different anti-depression medications or anything. You’ve been warned.
  • There’s a rare and surprisingly invigorating clarity that comes along with that drowning feeling, one that is more worthwhile than protection from what frightens you… and Flannery’s world is a frightening place. Do with that what you will, and make your choice whether or not you are willing to get emotionally smacked around a bit with words.

Even Fiction Needs Some Reality

Totally unrealistic: her nails are way too clean!
  • I admit that I’ve never personally been stalked by two psychopathic, cannibal rapists with crazy futuristic guns in a lawless post-apocalyptic warzone, but I don’t think I would be cracking dick jokes and worrying about petty jealousies if I were. Well, maybe the dick jokes, but not all the time!
Actually, that is a two year old reading Japanese.
  • After spending basically half a lifetime dipped in chocolately booze pools with naked bodies slithering all around him while he passed the glass n’ rolled up dollar bill around, our protagonist sits by a river for, I dunno, a couple of minutes reciting “Om” before it just miraculously all comes back to him and he’s all enlightened and at peace again and sh*t.
  • “Oh Satan’s navel!” she said. “Now I remember!” Yeeeeeaeh, this is how real people talk.
  • The closest thing to un-evil that a lady can do for herself that is sex-related is have children within the bounds of marriage (this is their sole reason for existing anyways, right? AMIRIGHTFELLAS?!), then move on to raise them. Anything else is double, double toil and trouble.

Are You Sure Those Are the Words You Want? All of Them?

  • My eyes were so glazed over from reading page after page detailing every color and stitch and ornament on the heroine’s ball gown that I totally missed the one sentence when Evil Dude snuck in and stabbed her.
  • Renowned author Dan Brown gazed admiringly at the pulchritudinous brunette’s blonde tresses, flowing from her head like a stream but made from hair instead of water and without any fish in.
  • Don’t get me wrong, if well-written, this storyline could be very interesting. But even after just ten pages, the only thought going through my mind was “When will this guy shut up and tell the story???” The plot comes in a distant second to the narrator’s monotone, seemingly unending monologue. If I could withstand this, I believe I would have enjoyed it. But forgive me for not having that kind of patience for hundreds of pages. [a review of 1984]
“If you will not read books, you will forget the grammar.”
  • “Atop a control tower in the distance, the Turkish flag fluttered proudly – a field of red emblazoned with the ancient symbol of the crescent and star – vestiges of the Ottoman Empire, still flying proudly in the modern world.” C’mon, Dan Brown! Make an effort, bro!
  • Cutters, Lolitas, Munchausen by Proxy, obsessions, family hatreds, drug abuse, scandalous sex, graphic violence, serial murder, wealth, poverty, popularity, bullying, hypochondria, crippling jealousy, police procedural bullshit, alcoholism, taboo masturbation fantasies, eating disorders, small town smothering, big city anonymity, career/life/love failures, falls from grace, the hell of being romantically idealized by someone and then seen in vivid, horrible detail for what you really are: all addressed in this slim little novel. It’s pretty f***ing good, to be honest. Just…don’t loan it to your mother. And hope that no one in this novel reminds you of your mother. 

Writing Ridiculous Reviews Online Could Even Be a Way to Hone Your Craft

A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates
  • I had a hard time getting into this book. The profanity was jarring and stilted, not at all how people really talk. Frankly, the book came off as strictly workshop material. But after about 50 pages, I found myself immersed in the style. What had been stilted became lyrical and engaging. Authors go entire lifetimes without matching the poetry of couplets such as those of Mr. Rand Corporation. I can only wish I had thought of 41145 42820. [a review of A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates]
  • If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is the story of the perversity of desire, and more particularly the stunted pleasures of the bourgeoisie. Written by the exquisite Laura Numeroff, in what can only be assumed was a violent passion for sterile aloofness from the society which she condemned, and a lust for concision which would socialize her treatise against the deadening wants, making it accessible to the masses. I can imagine her, unbathed, ignorant of her own hunger and thirst, cutting every insignificant word in a Flaubertian frenzy for le mot juste. ……”
  • There were no significant plot twists, and none of the characters developed enough for me to really “care” what happened next. If you’re looking for a challenging yet entertaining way to spend 4 hours reading, this is for you, but if you are seeking more thrills and suspense, consider a Steven (sic) King novel. [a review of Where is Baby’s Belly Button?]

1920: THE YEAR THAT SHAPED A CENTURY

In his introduction to 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar, Eric Burns wrote, “But although the year that is the subject of this book was a preview of a decade, it turned out to be more than that: it would be a preview of the entire century and even the beginning of the century to follow. . .” This blog entry focuses on this amazing year! 

The Nineteenth Amendment [finally] passed, granting 26 million American women the right to vote in time for 1920 US presidential election.  It was a near thing. The Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of the amendment 50/49.

  • Approximately 1,000 years since the formalization of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy guaranteed women equal political voice in the Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Tuscarora, and Cayuga nations around the Great Lakes region
  • 365 years after the first American woman insisted on voting in the New World and being told she was not entitled
  • 282 years after Margaret Brent, a successful Virginia businesswoman, demanded the right to vote in the state’s House of Burgesses in 1638 and was denied
  • 144 years after Abigail Adams urged her husband to “remember the ladies” in the new constitution
  • 51 years after the Territory of Wyoming officially gave women the right to vote
94 years before women were able to vote for a women for president on a major party ticket
All of these ladies were born before the 19 Amendment passed and are shown here voting for a female president for the first time.

Other than 1791 (when the Bill of Rights was ratified), 1920 was the only year in which the Constitution was amended more than once.  The Eighteenth Amendment (ratified in 1919 and put into action in 1920) prohibited alcohol in the United States. Dare I say the Nineteenth was the more successful amendment? The Eighteenth was subsequently revoked by the the Twenty-First Amendment.

The Volstead Act at work:
The alligators in the New York City sewers were very happy that day!
  • Prohibition forced California vineyard owners to diversify production, to market table grapes, and to improve raisin production methods.
    • The raisins would be marketed under the Sunmaid label.
    • These raisins were very talented, recording several jazz albums, starring in a TV show, and creating their own video game. I think they also fought crime.
  • Sales of coffee, soft drinks, and cream sodas boomed.  
  • Many hotels converted their bars to soda fountains and lunch counters.

The U.S. population reached 105.7 million.  A third of all people lived on a farm, but for the first time we had more urban dwellers that rural dwellers (54 million to 51.5 million).

1920 saw the beginnings of many major brand names: La Choy Food Products, Seabrook Farms, the Good Humor ice cream bar, Mint Products, Inc. was renamed Life Savers, Inc., Baby Ruth was trademarked, Oh Henry! Candy bar created.

The “Lost Generation” became a force in American literature.  Among books published in 1920: Main Street, This Side of Paradise, Flappers and Philosophers.  Also, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins to the short stories of Ernest Hemingway.

The biggest oil deposits in the world outside of Texas were discovered in Alaska.

In a story too strange for fiction, Superman later played a vital role in diminishing the Klans influence.

The Ku Klux Klan was revitalized in 1920.  They terrorized the nation, in well-known ways. Decades later, President Johnson tasked J. Edgar Hoover with subduing the KKK. The FBI (as the former BOI was then known) won an enormous law enforcement victory—but it wasn’t eradicated.

KDKA in Pittsburgh had approximately 1,000 listeners to their first broadcast.

Mass media were born with the first commercially licensed radio station broadcasting live results of the presidential election.

Arthur Perdue had rather questionable taste in accessories, a trait his son did not share.

Perdue Farms was founded in Salisbury, MD.  Former railroad worker Arthur Perdue, 34, paid $50 to buy 50 Legthorn chickens, built a backyard chicken coop, and produced table eggs. Most U.S. poultry specialized in eggs because chickens were a riskier proposition.

Perdue family note: Frank Perdue was born May 9. He grew up to attend college for two years and play semipro baseball briefly, but he ultimately went to work with his father.

The first terrorist attack ever in the U.S. The bomb was a horse-drawn wagon packed with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron sash-weights that acted like shrapnel. It was detonated by a timer at noon on the busiest corner on Wall Street. Thirty-eight people were killed outright, 57 people were hospitalized, some of whom later died. All told, more than 400 people were injured. Suspects included Russians, Italian anarchists, and the KKK.

“League of Nations: Capitalists of All Countries, Unite!”
The USSR was also not terribly keen to join the League of Nations.

John Reed, pro-Bolshevik author of Ten Days That Shook the World, died. He was and still is the only non-Russian buried inside the Kremlin walls.

The League of Nations was established.  President Woodrow Wilson was a chief architect. Although his Fourteen Points became the framework for the League of Nations, the United States never joined. In 1920, Wilson was completely disabled, having suffered a blood clot while promoting U.S. joining. 

The blood clot left Woodrow Wilson paralyzed, partially blind, and brain damaged.  In 1920, First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson was the de-facto POTUS. She took over, controlled access to the president, and made policy decisions on his behalf. She held a pen in his hand to write his name. The French ambassador to the U.S. referred to her as Mme. President.

Overfishing of the Sacramento River forced the closing of San Francisco’s last salmon cannery.  Cannery Row is now a tourist attraction. Steinbeck’s  Cannery Row is a big seller in the shops there.

Charles Ponzi was arrested in 1920 and charged with 86 counts of mail fraud.

The world sugar price dropped from thirty cents a pound in August to eight cents in December.  Milton Hershey lost $2.5 million in the collapse, as did other large sugar consumers. Pepsi-Cola headed toward bankruptcy when Caleb Bradburn lost $150,000. Chero-Colo (later known as RC Cola) ended the year with over $1 million in debts that hung over the company for years.

In 1920 the second and “most spectacular” of the notorious Palmer raids was carried out.  All across the country, in one fell swoop, thousands of accused communists and anarchists were arrested. The raid was organized by J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the Bureau of Investigation’s General Intelligence Division. This began his political ascent.

California legislators enacted a new Alien Land Act to prevent Asians from renewing their leases on farmland.

Among the many parallels Burns highlights, he wrote, “…just as there were pleas to close the borders, so were there arguments to keep them open. The issue was an incendiary one…”

For more parallels between 1920 and 2020, check out this post from Cheapism. Automation of labor, marijuana legalization battles, forward strides in feminism, increasing income gaps… Many of the issues we see in today’s headlines are eerily similar to headlines from 1920.

BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: consider a plot that has historical roots; consider a character whose family traditions, money, or values have deep historical roots. And stay curious!

INVENTING KIDS

The National Inventors Hall of Fame hosts Camp Invention every year!

Children are incredibly imaginative, and sometimes they are incredibly inventive as well. Children have probably been inventing things forever! I found this information amazing and entertaining—and I hope you do, too. Some bits helpful to writers even surface here and there!

Louis Braille, blind from age 3, learned of and simplified a method of silent communication created for the French military. Braille was born in 1824.

At the age of 15, Chester Greenwood set out to solve the problem of cold ears in winter, created the first earmuffs, and patented the invention 1877 at the age of 19.  He improved the design and sold earmuffs for soldiers during the First World War. 

Writers note: Earmuffs were his idea but his grandmother sewed the beaver skin pads.

In 1905, at age 11, Frank Epperson accidentally invented popsicles.  He left a mixture of soda water powder and water in a glass and left in the stirring stick. After a cold night outside, he had the world’s first popsicle. 

Writers note: He didn’t immediately do anything with the idea. In 1922, he served it at a fireman’s ball and the success led him to patent the idea, first under the name Eppsicle, but changed it to Popsicle because that’s what his children called it.

In 1921, at age 15, Philip (Philo) T. Farnsworth diagramed an electronic television system.  It transmitted the first image six year later.

In 1922, Canadian Joseph-Armand Bombardier (age 15) unveiled the first version of a snowmobile to his family.  It traveled half a mile. He continued to modify it, and by 1959, his efforts had resulted in the Ski-Doo.

At age 16, in 1930, George Nissen came up with the idea for the trampoline.  He was struck by circus acrobats bouncing in their catch nets and set out to create something that would allow people to bounce higher. He started with canvas stretched on a metal frame, moved on to nylon, and eventually trademarked “trampoline.” He traveled the world demonstrating the trampoline and promoting his invention. At age 92, he could still do a headstand. 

Writers note: Nissen completed the early work on his invention by taking over his parents’ garage for a workshop. 

Alternate version: as a teenage gymnast, George Nissen and his coach created a bouncing rig of scrap steel and tire inner tubes to help him get the power and height to do a back somersault. 

Writers note: Perhaps one of your characters contests the accepted story of some invention.

As a teenager in 1934, Jerry Siegel got the idea for Superman.  His artist friend Joe Shuster made sketches. It took four years to find a publisher.

In 1962, 5-year-old Robert Patch used shoe boxes and bottle caps to make a vehicle the could be a dump truck, a flatbed, or a box truck.  His father happened to be a patent attorney and applied for a patent in his son’s name. At the time the patent was granted, Patch was 6, the youngest patent holder ever at that time.

Abbey Fleck was inspired to create Makin’ Bacon at age 8.  She and her dad created the prototype and patented their idea in 1993. It has been enormously lucrative. 

Writers note: She had the idea, her father helped and supported her to make it happen, and her grandfather took out a loan to pay for the first 100,000 units.

In 1994, K-K Gregory (age 10) invented Wristies.  These are fingerless fuzzy sleeves for the hands and forearms, worn under mittens. She tested them on her Girl Scout troop. Her mother worked hard with K-K to get the business going. 

Writers note: At an early age she met with patent attorneys, shopped fabrics, and wrote license and sales agreements. After 16 years exploring options, she returned to business and is CEO of her company.

In 1996, on a trip to Hawaii, Richie Stachowski (age 10) lamented that he couldn’t talk to others underwater. Back home, he researched aquatic acoustics, worked on prototypes, and came up with the Water Talkie.  Besides the people at the public pool who allowed him to test there, his mother helped him set up a company for inventing toys. Toys ‘R’ Us ordered 50,000 units. At age 13 he sold his company for a ton of money.  Again, the kid inventor was seminal but not alone!

Kelly Reinhart (age 6) invented the Thigh Pack when her parents challenged their children, on a rainy afternoon, to draw a picture of an invention, promising to make a prototype of the winning idea.  Inspired by holsters worn by cowboys, Kelly’s idea was a thigh-pack for kids to carry around their video games. They tried them with other children, refined the prototype, and patented it in 1998. The company Kelly started, T-Pak, sold nearly a million dollars’ worth of Thigh Packs and discussed possible military applications with the Pentagon before selling it in 2001. 

Writers note: In 2002, she started a not-profit to teach kids how to become inventors. Maybe you have a character who learned from Kelly?

At age 11, Cassidy Goldstein invented a Crayon Holder, which she patented in 2002.  This invention was intended to allow kids to continue to use broken, short crayons. 

Writers note: The unintended consequence was to help kids with poor fine-motor skills handle crayons. Consider the unintended consequences of the invention of plastics.

Sarah Buckel, age 14, invented magnetic locker wallpaper in 2006.  She asked her father, COO at MagnaCard to make magnetic wallpaper for her so she could decorate her school locker and not have to scrape off the decorations at the end of the year. He ran with the idea, Sarah helping with patterns and age-appropriate accessories. 

Writers note: Like many of the inventors described here, Sarah’s father’s faith in his daughter’s idea significantly contributed to the success of the invention.

Hart Main (age 13) got the idea for  ManCans in 2010.  His sister was selling typical scented candles at a school fundraiser. Main teased that she should try more “manly” scents. 

Writers note: His parents encouraged him to move beyond the tease. Hart used $100 from his newspaper route and came up with scents like Coffee, New Mitt, Bacon, and Fresh Cut Grass to add to his candles. 

Another note: Hart uses relabeled Campbell Soup cans, after donating the contents to soup kitchens across Ohio.  

In 2014, 12-year-old Shubham Banerjee, created a Braille printer from a LEGO Mindstorms set. Although Braille printers were available for $2,000, his printer cost $200.

Also in 2014, Alicia Chavez at age 14, in response to news stories of children who died with accidentally left in hot cars, came up with the idea of the Hot Seat.  It’s basically a small cushion that the child sits on in a car seat that connects to the parent’s smartphone. If the smartphone moves more than  20 feet from the car and the child is still in the seat, it sounds an alarm.

Students at the Melania Morales Special Education Center in Nicaragua created their own language, a form of manual sign language entirely independent of any other language system. Before the establishment of a school specifically for deaf students in the 1980s, Nicaragua had no system of sign language; children were taught to read lips. Students created their own system to communicate with each other, with the youngest children generating most of the grammatical systems.

Innovate Tech Camps in Australia

Bottom line: kids continue to invent. Why not one of your characters?

A student at Camp Invention

VERY MARRIED – OR NOT SO MUCH

Decades ago, the title of this book first brought that phrase to my awareness. Legally, of course, very married is nonsense—as are a little bit or sort of married. Legally, either you are or you aren’t. Is being married for a long time the equivalent of being very married? Many seem to think so. Marie Hartwell-Walker wrote “How To Beat the Odds: Tips from the Very Married” and featured a single photo of an elderly couple. Her article lists 13 tips from “long-married couples.”

I’ve paraphrased these tips below.

  • Commit to the commitment, and don’t even consider divorce
  • Give it all you’ve got, 100% from both partners
  • Bring a whole person to the marriage, not someone who expects the partner to make him/her whole
  • Make time for each other
  • Be a team (in duties, responsibilities, and decisions)
  • Learn to engage in friendly fighting: stick to the issues, be respectful, no name-calling, etc.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff
  • Do sweat the small stuff if it’s going to fester and grow big
  • Follow the golden rule
  • Be each other’s greatest fan, especially in public
  • Make yourself appealing
  • Respect each other’s families
  • Make special days special

Becky Whetstone (15 Things the Very Married Have That You Probably Don’t) makes many of the same points. But she also estimates that 12% or fewer of married couples are truly happy. Although neither of these lists specifically mention politics or religion, the Pew Research Center has data indicating that the former is more important than the latter:

  • Among those married since 2010, 39% have a spouse who belongs to a different religious group.
  • However, a 2016 survey found that 77% of both Republicas and Democrats who were married or cohabiting say their partner was in the same party.

Many of these tips, in one form or another, are included in Katherine Willis Pershey’s Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. As the title indicates, she highlights another factor often presumed to characterize the very married: sexual fidelity. Many presume—and common sense would tell us—that sexual infidelity will harm a marriage.

Sean Illing’s article “A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to Staying Together” is an interview with James J. Sexton, author of If You’re in My Office, It’s Already Too Late. Sexton says couples come to his office for “big reasons like infidelity or financial improprieties.” But he also says that people fall in love quickly but fall out of love slowly, so there are lots of little things that precede the big reasons.

At one point, Sexton says Facebook is an infidelity-generating machine.  “It’s a huge factor now, and it’s getting worse every day. I can’t remember the last time I had a case where social media was not either a root cause or implicated in some way.” He says, further, that “…Facebook creates these very plausibly deniable reasons for you to be connecting with people emotionally in ways that are toxic to marriages.” So, he’s affirming that sexual fidelity isn’t the only issue.

Indeed, Jenny Block wrote a whole book praising sexually open marriage. In her opinion, sex isn’t the issue so much as the secrecy and deception that usually accompany a sexual liaison with someone other than the spouse.

That philosophy was shared by a high school friend of mine who, in adulthood, was a sexual free spirit. He was very open with his wife, who gave her permission for him to make booty calls and have f*ck buddies. At one point, she helped him write a personal ad seeking a “girlfriend” and interviewed the candidates with him. They had been married 25 years when he died.

So, sometimes couples set their own rules. Ours is a second marriage both for me and for my husband of many, many years. Before marriage, we agreed to two things: if either of us got sexually or emotionally involved with someone else but it didn’t threaten the marriage, don’t tell; and, if the marriage is threatened, for any reason, we would seek counseling before taking any other action. I realized that I felt very married when I stopped tracking our finances separately, calculating my financial status if the marriage ended.

A different version of very married is presented in COUPLES IN THE EMPTY NEST: VERY SEPARATE MARRIED LIVES (susanorfant.com). The thesis is that empty nesters have three choices: learn how to be a couple again, divorce, or stay married but lead very separate lives in terms of friends, activities, etc.

And speaking of those who are not-so-very-married: Hartwell-Walker (above) reports that 41% of first marriages, 60% of second marriages, and 73% of third marriages end in divorce. According to “8 Facts About Love and Marriage in America” (pewresearch.org) although the marriage rate has declined, between 1990 and 2015 the divorce rate among adults ages 50 and older doubled, and among those 65 and older, the divorce rate roughly tripled. Although the Pew report just mentioned found that only 23% of the general population consider legal rights and benefits a very important reason to get married, Sexton (above) emphasizes that marriage is a legal contract, and that few people examine that ahead of time.

I can speak to that. Only after I married in New York State did I learn that my husband had the right of domicile—i.e., determining where we would live. If he wanted to move and I refused, he could divorce me on the grounds of desertion. When I took a job and moved elsewhere, we had a commuter marriage only because he did not divorce me on the grounds of desertion! 

Note to writers: know the rights and responsibilities that are included in the marriage contract, because they vary widely by state.

Despite everyone’s best efforts, life can throw all sorts of obstacles in the way of a lifetime of wedded bliss. If one partner develops Alzheimer’s and forgets the marriage entirely, what is the spouse’s obligation or possible response?

If one partner suffers an accident that makes physical affection impossible, is the spouse entitled to seek affection elsewhere? How can a couple keep their marriage healthy and strong if they are separated through geography, incarceration, military deployment, deportation, or some other element out of their control? After two people have been happily married for decades, is the widow/ widower still committed to the marriage when their spouse dies?

Bottom line for writers: there are many potential elements for being very married, but the one absolute is the commitment to remaining married. Consider all the ways you could show your characters’ strong or weak commitment to a marriage/relationship.

HERE’S TO HELLEBORES!

“Why hellebores?” Well might you ask. Because they are my favorite! And because they can be useful for your characters and plots.

When we moved to Ashland, Virginia, we bought an 1858 Greek Revival house on a double lot with old trees and daffodils and not much else. I searched for shade-loving, blooming, evergreen, low-maintenance plants. Voila! Hellebores. They are all of that plus, as a bonus, the blooming happens in winter and early spring.

Behold Hellebore niger, aka Christmas rose, a welcome sight come December. It’s pretty and reliable! The opening picture is from this year, New Year’s Eve. The picture just above is from 12/21/18.  Hellebore niger is the earliest blooming hellebore I’ve found.

Close on the heels of the Christmas rose is the Lenten rose (aka Hellebore orientalis) and its various hybrids. Please note: despite being called Christmas rose and Lenten rose, hellebores are only distantly related to the rose family. This picture of purple and double white hellebores is from March 3, 2019.

Although the flowers and foliage of most hellebores are similar, the Stinking hellebore (Hellebore foetidae) is distinctively different. Its leaves are narrow and knife-like, and cluster at the ends of stalks. The flowers are smaller and droopy, and mostly a pale green.

Hellebores bloom throughout the spring, in a riot of colors. They bloom until the heat of June or July do them in. At that point they drop seeds, and where they are happy, they spread into lovely clumps.

Although they need water during droughts, they are low maintenance. Prune browned-off leaves and dry flowers at will. There are supposed to be a couple of insects and a fungus or so that can attack them, but I’ve never had either. Animals—deer, rabbits, etc.—usually don’t chomp on hellebores because of the (dis)taste of the leaves.

So no wonder I (as well as real gardeners) love hellebores!  But why would a writer care?

All parts of all hellebores are toxic! 

Smart rabbits eat only non-toxic plants in your garden!

Somehow, this did not come to my attention when I wrote My Poison Garden last fall. (How could that have happened?)

Although poisoning is rare, it does occur through ingestion of large quantities, and it can be fatal.

  • Symptoms can include any of the following 
    • Burning of the mouth and throat
    • Excess salivation
    • Vomiting
    • Abdominal cramping
    • Diarrhea
    • Nerve system dysfunction
    • Possibly even depression!
  • The roots contain cardiac glycosides.
  • Leaves and sap contain high levels of ranunculin and protoanemonin.

How might a character be induced to ingest large quantities of a foul tasting plant? 

All you can eat ranunculin and protoanemonin!

Dermatitis is fairly common, caused by handling the plants without protection.  Contact with leaves, stems, flowers, and sap can cause irritation and burning on the skin. Minimal exposure should cause a mild, short-lived irritation and can be treated by washing with soap and water. How might a scene be affected by a character suffering contact dermatitis?

This is a hellebore that is black, not a Black hellebore.

Although hybrids that look nearly black have been developed, historically Black hellebore is another name for Hellebore niger, the white blooming Christmas rose. Black hellebore was used by the the ancient Greeks and Romans to treat paralysis, gout, insanity, and other diseases.  Beware: it can also cause tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, difficulty breathing, vomiting, catharsis, slowing of the heart rate, including collapse and death from cardiac arrest. Not quite so serious: can cause burning of the eyes, mouth, and throat; or oral ulceration, gastroenteritis, a hematemesis. Could the toxicity of hellebores create an illusion of a chronic disease or disorder of unknown origin?

Folklore and legend vary from the sacred to the dark arts. Could your plot take elements from these?

  • According to legend, a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem wept, and her tears falling into the snow sprouted the Christmas rose.
  • Witches are reputed to use hellebores in summoning demons.
  • Heracles/ Hercules killed his children in a fit of madness but was cured by using hellebore.
  • Greek besiegers of Kirrha (585 BC) used hellebore to poison the city’s water supply, overcoming the defenders weakened by diarrhea.

Bottom line for gardeners and writers: get thee hellebores!

Poisonous flowers make lovely Christmas cards!