SPINELESS? HEAVEN FORBID!

Hmmm, I think I may have mixed up a few bits.

I wrote about bones last week, but the spine deserves a starring role. For one thing, the spinal cord (along with the brain) control everything else in the body. The spine is the bony canal and transmission hub for the spinal cord. Scroll on through and find the parts most interesting to you!

Skeleton of a 15th Century woman with severe scoliosis.

Spine Facts

  • The spine is extremely flexible, allowing people to move in so many ways.  
    • It has more than 120 muscles attached.
    • Over 100 joints allow for the spine’s extreme flexibility and range of movement.
    • It can bend far enough back to make ⅔ of a circle. 
    • The spinal column includes approximately 220 individual ligaments.
      • These ligaments keep the vertebrae interconnected, which is paramount to keeping the spine (as well as the nerves it’s protecting within the spinal cord) stable.
    • Cartilage in the spine can expand and contract. 
  • Over one fourth of the spine’s total length is created from cartilage, the sponge-like substance that separates one vertebral disc from the next.
    • Gravity can cause the cartilage to expand and contract. Sometimes when people go into space they come back taller!
    • People are also taller in the morning than at night, because at night gravity has been pushing down on the spine all day.
    • Exercise programs that emphasize good posture and strong torso muscles can reduce pressure on individual vertebral discs, increasing height.
    • It is also why people “shrink” with age: the permanent compression of cartilage can shorten one’s height by two inches or more.
  • The spine has an exceptional memory. 
    • The spine remembers one’s usual posture.
    • A habit of bad posture is difficult to change.
    • But a spine will remember good posture, too, once it’s established.
  • Approximately 80% of Americans will suffer back pain in their lifetimes.
    • Back pain is the number one reason that people miss work in the U.S. 
    • Back pain in also a leading cause behind disability claims in the United States.
    • Most back pain, approximately 80%, doesn’t require medical treatment and typically subsides in one to two months.
    • The most common cause of spinal cord trauma and resulting back pain in America is car accidents.
    • Most back pain is experienced in the lower back.
      • This is because the lower back is constantly twisting and stretching.
    • Some scientists believe that back pain is due to evolution, and in many ways is not preventable.
      • Homo sapiens never fully evolved to walk upright, but reproductive drive shifted away from species survival.
This is what a baby’s skeleton looks like, right?
  • Babies’ spines begin developing just two months after conception. 
    • The spine is the first bone to start to grow in utero. 
    • When we’re born, our spines consist of 33 individual vertebrae.  As we age, some of these vertebrae fuse together.
    • The five vertebrae composing our sacrum become one bone and the coccygeal vertebrae – which can vary from three to five bones – fuse together as one.
      • Thus, the tailbone is formed.
  • The spine is incredibly strong.
    • It can hold hundreds of pounds / kilograms of weight.

Spine Functions

Scoliosis and a therapeutic brace
And Some Surprising Effects on Our Daily Functioning
Teardrop fracture in cervical vertebrae
  • Cervical Spine = 7 vertebrae. (FYI, humans and giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their necks.)
    • C1, is sometimes called Atlas. This is a reference to the Greek mythological Atlas who was burdened with carrying the world on top of his shoulders (much like the neck supports and carries the weight of the head). C1 is involved in blood supply to the head, pituitary gland, scalp, bones of the face, brain, inner and middle ear, and sympathetic nervous system. Possible symptoms of problems:
      • Headaches and migraines
      • Nervousness
      • Insomnia
      • Head colds
      • High blood pressure
      • Amnesia
      • Chronic tiredness
      • Dizziness 
    • C2: also called the Axis, involved with eyes, optic nerves, auditory nerves, sinuses, mastoid bones, tongue, and forehead. Possible symptoms of dysfunction:
      • Sinus trouble
      • Allergies
      • Pain around eyes
      • Earache
      • Fainting spells
      • Certain cases of blindness
      • Crossed eyes
      • Deafness
    • C3: cheeks, outer ear, face bones, teeth, trifocal nerve
      • Neuralgia
      • Neuritis
      • Acne/pimples
      • Eczema
    • C4: cheeks, outer ear, face bones, teeth, trifacial nerve
      • Hay fever
      • Runny nose
      • Hearing loss
      • Adenoids 
    • C5: vocal cords, neck glands, pharynx
      • Laryngitis
      • Hoarseness
      • Throat conditions such as sore throat or quinsy
    • C6: neck muscles, shoulders, tonsils
      • Stiff neck (of course)
      • Pain in upper arm
      • Tonsilitis
      • Chronic cough or croup
    • C7: thyroid gland, bursae in the shoulders, elbows
      • Bursitis
      • Colds
      • Thyroid conditions, which can relate to weight, fatigue, hair loss, cold hands and feet
  • Thoracic Spine = 12 vertebrae– the middle portion of the back
    • T1: arms from the elbows down, including hands, wrists and fingers, esophagus and trachea
      • Asthma
      • Cough
      • Difficulty breathing
      • Shortness of breath
      • Pain in lower arms and hands
    • T2: heart, including its valves and covering, coronary arteries
      • Functional heart conditions
      • Certain chest conditions
    • T3: lungs, bronchial tubes, pleura, chest, breast tissue
      • Bronchitis
      • Pleurisy
      • Pneumonia
      • Congestion
      • Influenza  
    • T4: gallbladder, common duct
      • Gallbladder conditions (of course)
      • Jaundice
      • Shingles
    • T5: liver, solar plexus, circulation (general)
      • Liver conditions
      • Fevers
      • Blood pressure problems
      • Poor circulation
      • Arthritis
    • T6: stomach
      • Nervous stomach
      • Indigestion
      • Heartburn
      • Dyspepsia
      • Other stomach troubles
    • T7: pancreas, duodenum
      • Ulcers
      • Gastritis
    • T8: spleen
      • Lowered resistance 
    • T9: adrenal and suprarenal glands
      • Allergies
      • Hives 
    • T10: kidneys
      • Hardening of the arteries
      • Chronic tiredness
      • Nephritis
      • Pyelitis
      • Other kidney problems
    • T11: kidneys, ureters
      • Acne
      • Pimples
      • Eczema
      • Boils 
      • Other skin conditions
    • T12: small intestines, lymph circulation
      • Rheumatism
      • Gas pains
      • Certain types of sterility
  • Lumbar Spine = 5 vertebrae – the lower back.
    • L1: large intestines, inguinal rings
      • Constipation
      • Colitis
      • Dysentary
      • Diarrhea
      • Some ruptures or hernias
    • L2: appendix, abdomen, upper leg
      • Cramps
      • Difficulty breathing
      • Minor varicose veins
    • L3: sex organs, uterus, bladder, knees
      • Bladder troubles
      • Menstrual troubles/ pain/ irregularity
      • Miscarriages
      • Bed wetting
      • Impotence
      • “Change of life” symptoms
      • Many knee pains
    • L4: prostate gland, muscles of the lower back, sciatic nerve
      • Sciatica
      • Lumbago
      • Painful or too frequent urination
      • Backaches 
    • L5: lower legs, ankles, feet
      • Poor circulation in the legs
      • Swollen ankles
      • Weak ankles and arches
      • Cold feet
      • Weakness in the legs
      • Leg cramps
  • Sacrum: hip bones, buttocks 
    • Spinal curvatures
    • Sacroiliac conditions
  • Coccyx: rectum, anus
    • Hemorrhoids
    • Pruritus (itching)
    • Pain at end of spine on sitting

The spine is truly fascinating! While its complexity interests us, that complexity is one reason so many different spinal conditions exist. If you’re suffering from back pain beyond occasional stiffness and muscle stress, it’s recommended you consult your physician to see if a visit to a spinal specialist or chiropractor is warranted.

Quotes about spines (literal, metaphorical, and figurative).

If you would seek health, look first to the spine.
— Socrates

You only really discover the strength of your spine when your back is against the wall.
— James Geary 

My books are written with a strong chronological spine.
— Doris Kearns Goodwin

Life is so spine chillingly beautiful. — Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

You’re only as old as your spine is flexible.
— Joseph Pilates

Having a spine is overrated. If everybody squealed and ran away, there’d be no more wars. — Robert Anton Wilson

Bottom Line: Consider all the ways spinal injury or malfunction can complicate one’s life, from being paraplegic to urinary incontinence.

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: JEWELRY

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

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

So change it up! 

Go Against Expectations

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

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

Uses of Jewelry

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

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

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

Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith-Joyner)

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

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

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

Jewelry can make a person feel confident and attractive.

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

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

Wearing jewelry can be a way to express oneself.  

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

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

Rings by goldsmith Danielle Crampsie

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

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

Jewelry for Healing or Health

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

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

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

Particular Stones in Jewelry

First of all, think birthstones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Metal

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

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

When Not to Wear Jewelry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: SLEEP

Even without pausing to think, people can easily describe their sleep habits. What does your character think and feel about about his or her own ? Is sleep a welcome respite or a necessary evil? What’s necessary for your character to fall asleep—and stay there? Is insomnia a chronic condition, or only within the plot situation? Does your character sleep as an escape mechanism? Does your character take sleep aids? Self-medicate with alcohol? Does sleep feel like a waste of time?

Deviating From Eight Hours

By now, pretty much everyone knows that, on average, people spend approximately one third of their lives sleeping. Anything that time-consuming must impinge on people’s (characters’) awareness.

It turns out most people sleep about 7 hours a night, so that would be “normal.” Fewer than 6 hours a night means one is a short sleeper, and more than 8 hours a night is a long sleeper. Does it matter?

People tend to perceive short sleepers as high-energy, productive, and on top of things. Long sleepers are often perceived as lazy, or at least not hard workers. 

What is your character’s sleep duration? Is s/he happy with with it? Smug? Defensive? Self-conscious?

Sleeping longer is better for physical health.  A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology titled Sleep Duration and Survival Percentiles Across Categories of Physical Activity says sleep duration affects physical health: Those who get less than six hours of sleep are at increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and early death even if they’re active and exercise regularly.

But can one sleep too much? Not if you maintain a reasonable level of physical activity. (Inactive long sleepers also die earlier, usually from cardiovascular problems.) 

Keep this in mind when creating realistic characters.

Early Birds vs. Night Owls

Early birds tend to get up early without setting an alarm, and even on the weekend.  Mornings are the most productive times. And activity trackers indicate that early birds actually move 60-90 more minutes per day. They fade in the evening, often in bed by 10:00.

There is a middle group: Day people sleep a little later and are most effective in the afternoon.

Night owls sleep as late as possible and are up well past nightfall, into the wee hours of the morning.  Night owls tend to sit more and move less, even when researchers factored for education and health conditions—so need to make an effort to move more for health reasons! And because this pattern doesn’t fit the world at large, making appointments for doctors, etc., can be problematic. Robo-calls while still in bed are especially annoying!

Stereotypes favor early risers for being healthy, wealthy, and wise. On the other time, creative types often report that their best work hours are evening/wee hours of the mornings.

NB: sleep patterns can change naturally over the lifespan. Infants sleep almost constantly; teenagers seem to sleep only while in a classroom setting.

What is your character’s sleep rhythm? Is it felt to be a blessing, a burden, or relatively irrelevant fact of life? Does s/he struggle against the “natural” rhythm? If so, why? Does your character push the limits for staying awake and then “catch-up” later?

Napping

Some people doze off while sitting in a chair; some settle into a recliner and nap intentionally; and yet others can only nap in their own beds, often with shoes off and tight clothes loosened. 

Some take “power naps” for 15 minutes or so during the work day; others nap for an hour or more at a time.

Napping offers several benefits for healthy adults, including

  • Relaxation
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Increased alertness
  • Improved mood
  • Extended functioning hours later
  • Improved performance, including quicker reaction time and better memory

Napping can also have negative effects, such as

  • Sleep inertia: feeling groggy and disoriented after waking up from a nap.
  • Nighttime sleep problems. 
    • Short naps generally don’t affect nighttime sleep quality.
    • People who experience insomnia or poor sleep quality at night, napping might worsen these problems. 
      • Insomniacs often have trouble napping at all because it takes longer to fall asleep than the allotted duration of the nap!

Does your character nap? Where? Why?  And is s/he okay with that?

Dreaming

Does your character claim not to dream? If so, s/he is mistaken. People team an average of 7 times a night during so-called REM sleep. These dream periods get longer as the night’s sleep progresses. Chances are, your dream denier simply doesn’t wake up within ten minutes of dreams ending.

Are dreams important to your character?  Some people mine dreams for clues to their inner lives, creative insight, and even hints of the future. Some people treasure dreams as raisers of awareness of non-conscious problems or conflicts. Some believe internal conflicts actually get solved during dreams. Some dreams are erotic and can lead to sexual release. And some people keep dream journals for later review and inspiration for creative works.

Like other dreams, nightmares often include elements of real life: anxiety, fears, failures, embarrassments, or trauma. People do not wake up happy from nightmares. Because nightmares are a disruption of the REM cycle rather than a part of it, a sleeper with nightmares wake up less refreshed than before. (Nightmares are not the same as night terrors.)

Lucid dreaming is less well-known than other sorts of dreams. According to Psychology Today, “During lucid dreaming, which most commonly occurs during late-stage REM sleep, a dreamer is aware that they’re asleep, but is able to control events within their dreams, to some extent.” Lucid dreamers report willing themselves to fly, fight, or act out sexual fantasies. There are communities dedicated to learning how to lucid dream at will, although evidence that this is possible remains inconclusive. Still, that doesn’t mean your character can’t be a dedicated lucid dreamer!

Research indicates that dreaming is crucial to intellectual functioning, memory consolidation, and mood regulation. A sleeper who is allowed to undergo every part of the REM cycle except dreaming will eventually develop the same problems as severe sleep deprivation, including hallucinations and strokes!

What is your character’s dream scape? Are dreams remembered? Are they amusing, irritating, or sources of unease? Does your character talk about his/her dreams? If so, to whom?

Bottom line: sleep—and everything associated with it—can make your plot richer and your character more realistic. 

A while back (March 10, 2020, to be exact) I wrote a blog Sleeping Alone and Together, about gender and personality reflected in sleep positions. 

EASY FIXES FOR FLABBY PROSE

(It’s not flabby; it’s fluffy!)

By flabby prose, I mean prose that includes unnecessary words. Besides improving the quality of one’s prose, cutting out excess words can help keep the word count down when there are page or word limits.

Stop Mentioning the POV Character’s Senses 

“The flavors of carrots and mulch mingled on his tongue.”

Yes, sensory images are rich and desirable. What’s unnecessary is citing the character’s senses. 

~She heard squirrels scampering up her tree.
~He smelled the tantalizing scent of acorns.
~They saw flying squirrels swooping overhead.

~Squirrels scampered up the tree outside.
~The scent of acorns filled the breeze.
~Flying squirrels swooped among branches overhead.

“The banana thief twitched his tail to remain steady for his heist, upside-down and backwards.”
(Proprioception or equilibrioception)

If the character describes a squirrel stealing a banana, the reader knows that character sees it and needn’t be told that he sees it. Ditto for other sensory systems. If they are mentioned, make it a conscious decision for a writerly reason.

Don’t forget the other senses! In addition to the five we all learned about in school, scientists classify up to 21 neurological senses. The body’s awareness of its place in relation to surroundings (proprioception) is invaluable to any character in tight spaces or moving quickly. Feelings of hunger or lack of air are classified as chemical senses, very useful to characters undergoing any kind of physical deprivation.

Consider also balance, gravity, pain, temperature, air pressure, the passage of time, itching, muscle tension, or even the perception of magnetic fields. There is an entirely separate set of nerves to detect stretching in the lungs, stomach, bladder, and blood vessels. Just think what a character could do when paying attention to that!

Stop Telling What a Character Notices, Remembers, Etc.

“The seed-stealer gyrated and spun, his prize always just out of reach.”

If a character recounts something from the past, it’s clear s/he remembers it. When a squirrel was a hairless kit, his mother taught him how to steal from bird feeders. He doesn’t have to tell his friends that he remembers being a kit.

Your reader doesn’t have to be told that the POV character noticed the squirrel hanging off the bird feeder again. It’s probably an event that happens every time the bird feeder is filled.

This is similar to how one handles what a character sees, hears, feels, smells, or tastes: it’s typically obvious in the rest of the sentence.

Beware Is, Are, Was, and Were

“Gravity worked overtime, and her limbs refused to work at all.”

By and large, these verbs should be replaced by something stronger and less passive.  “Fatigue weighs her down” is much stronger than “She is fatigued.”

Reconsider -ing Verbs

Is, are, was, and were often precede an -ing verb. For example, ”is walking” or “was walking” might better be replaced with “walks” or “walked.”

Question Every Adverb and Adjective

“The graceful, red-furred, majestic, enormous, flying squirrel soars gracefully and majestically, proudly displaying its enormous, red-furred wing flaps in its graceful, majestic flight.”

Some writing teacher or other once told me that an adverb modifying a verb is often hiding a stronger verb. For example, consider replacing “walked fast” with “rushed” or “hurried” or “scurried” or whatever fits the context. 

“This pale, white, albino squirrel displays the very odd and unique trait of striking, brilliantly blue, nearly cobalt eyes.”

Saying something is very tall or very beautiful is vague, triggering different images for different readers. Specify “over seven feet tall,” for example, or say what is beautiful about the person, object, scenery, etc.

And for goodness sake, don’t modify things that shouldn’t be modified, that are already specific. There is no such thing as ”very unique.” Unique means one-of-a-kind. If it isn’t truly unique, switch to “very rare”—and then consider whether the “very” is really needed! A second and a glance are, by definition fast/brief. Enough said.

Examine Attributions 

“You’re eating too fast,” he said.
“I’m hungry!” he said.
“You’re hogging all the jackfruit,” he said.
“This fruit outweighs both of us combined. Calm down,” he said.
“You’ll make yourself sick,” he said.
“Stop worrying,” he said.
“My stomach hurts just watching you,” he said.
“Krjxqkkkk…. Ahem….. Choked on a seed,” he said.
“Told you so!” he said.

Probably everyone knows that the most frequent, useful, and unobtrusive attribution is “s/he said.” True, when multiple people interact in a scene, the writer needs to identify whether it’s Joan, John, Susan, or Sam speaking.  But when there are only two people in a scene, identifying/attributing every change of speaker gets clunky. Use sparingly.

If you’re unsure about whether it sounds clunky, try reading it aloud.

Bottom line: Go forth and tighten your prose!

KITCHENS CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH

We’re all aware of accidents that can happen in kitchens. The bathroom may be the most common room for injuries, but kitchen injuries come in a wide variety of gory types. For example

  • Knife cuts
  • Burn hazards
  • Injury from machines
  • Slips, trips, and falls
  • Lifting injuries
  • Head and eye Injuries
  • Crowded workspace risks
  • Chemical hazards
  • Fire hazards
  • Electric shock
  • Infection or contamination
Murder often happens in the kitchen while playing Cluedo (Americans play Clue).

Similarly, most people take steps to minimize accidents. For example, keeping knives sharp because dull blades will more easily slip off food and into a finger; keeping floors dry; and making sure ovens and stove burners are turned off after use.

Writers, think home invasions, homicide, domestic violence, and torture. What can happen accidentally in the kitchen can be inflicted on purpose or in the heat of the moment.

Burn

Cooking the kids would be much easier if the stove was actually turned on….

Serious burns are easy to come by in the kitchen: touching hot surfaces, direct flames, hot oils, hot pots and pans, or scalding from hot liquids like boiling water, oils, and steam.  All provide an opportunity to inflict serious injury or even death. 

Long hair is particularly hazardous around heat. Extra long tresses can swing too close to the flame or get caught on knobs and catch fire before the owner even notices.

Steam can reach temperatures over 400°F.  Steam burns tend to be far more intense than scalding from boiling water.  And don’t forget burns caused by electricity or chemicals. 

Knives 

Any variety of cutting implement, including vegetable slicers, food processors, and table knives, are a natural, and offer a variety of possible injuries depending on size, serration, etc.

  • Stabbing
  • Slicing
  • Removing body parts that may or may not be essential
    • Fingers
    • Toes
    • Ears
    • Hands
  • According to lore, the most commonly seen injuries in New York Emergency Rooms are from people cutting open their own fingers while trying to slice bagels!

Cuts 

Even without tools specifically designed for cutting, serious injuries can be inflicted lots of ways. Kitchens have plenty of glassware and crockery, all of which can be broken and used to slice someone’s skin. Being thrown into a window is always exciting!

Stabbing

Remy the Rat faces the risk of stabbing every time he goes in the kitchen.

Beside knives, stabbing can be done with scissors, metal kebob skewers, fondue and cooking forks, corkscrews, or nearly anything pointy a very determined stabber can lay hands on.

For other skin injuries think graters, slicers, garbage disposals, or food processors.

Bludgeoning 

That is the face of someone planning a bludgeoning.

Blunt force trauma isn’t just for the head—think broken fingers, feet, or limbs. Any heavy object will do.

  • Cast iron cookware
  • Counter top KitchenAid mixer
  • Liquor or wine bottles (which can then be used to stab or slice)
  • Meat hammer/tenderizer
  • Canned goods
  • Cutting boards
  • Cartons of ice cream (though that seems like a waste of perfectly good ice cream – blood does not improve the flavor)
  • Fire extinguishers

Head Injuries 

Besides bludgeoning someone in the head, there are plenty of other methods of attaining a head injury in the kitchen. Many are caused by being pushed or shoved, or falling into kitchen fixtures. Water, oil, grease, and things you’d rather not think about are often spilled on kitchen floors, making slips and falls much more likely.

  • Overhanging shelves
  • Corners of open doors
  • Walls
  • Furniture
  • Floor
  • Being forced into a tight, confined place such as a walk-in pantry or chest freezer
  • Especially tall people will hit their heads on everything
    • Especially short people are likely to climb on counters or stepstools, with the associated risk of falling

When considering head injuries, go beyond concussion and bruising. Consider intentionally popping out an eyeball with a fruit spoon or strawberry huller—although accidental eye injuries in kitchens more commonly result from hot oil, steam, or water.

Choking

  • Dishtowel
  • Appliance cord
  • Apron 
  • Stuffing something down the victim’s throat
  • Accidentally (or tricked into) eating something that causes anaphylactic shock

So, do what you can about accident hazards in the kitchen.  Avoid overcrowding for injuries are often caused by bumping into or tripping over another person.  Do not try to do kitchen work if you are overtired, ill or under the influence of alcohol or medication.  Remove all trip and slip hazards. But …

Bottom line: Whether accident or attack, the kitchen is a great place to ramp up tension, develop plot, or create a puzzle.

TATTOOS: CONVICTS AND STREET GANGS

Japanese Yakuza

If you aren’t in a prison or a gang, who cares? More people than you might imagine! Think self-preservation and decision making—not to mention writing realistically.

  • Prison employees
  • Parole officers
  • Social workers
  • Police officers
  • Medical providers
  • Those new to the neighborhood/prison
  • Border patrol
  • Anyone living or travelling in Eastern Europe or Russia

Indeed, an extensive list of tattoos, with pictures and meanings, has been produced for the Canadian Border Patrol. It’s available online at publicintelligence.net (search tattoos and their meanings).

Another good source is corrections1.com.  

There is an abundance of on-line information about the meaning of prison tattoos, and it’s generally consistent. But keep in mind, there are varied meanings, and context is important.  One example here would be playing cards, typically found on the knuckles. In Russian prisons, the suit chosen have meanings. In other settings, this type of tattoo may indicate someone who likes to gamble, or who sees life as a gamble. (See below.)

The Nature of Prison Tattoos

Overall, prison tattoos tend to look dark and crude. Inmates tattoo each other using whatever equipment they can gather, such as staples, ballpoint pens, paper-clips, improvised needles, molten rubber, styrofoam, etc. 

Sometimes the “artist” will draw a picture on a wooden plank, place needles along the lines of the design, cover the needles with ink and stamp the whole tableau on the prisoner’s body. Another method is to slice the image onto the skin with a razor and daub the cut with indelible ink. When prisoners manage to get an electric shaver and a syringe with a needle, they can jury-rig a tattooing machine.

One of the least horrific photos I could find of an infected tattoo

Ink is hard to come by, so for dye, they can use pen ink. Also, they  can burn the heel of a shoe, and mix the ash with the prisoner’s urine – a practice superstitiously believed to reduce the chance of infection. Research has revealed a connection between tattoos and high rates of hepatitis C among prisoners.

Tattooing is typically slow and nearly always painful.  Conditions are inevitably far from sterile, so infections and complications are common.  Suffice it to say that what prison tattoos convey is important to the wearer.

Not All Tattoos are Voluntary

The most famous instance would be during the Holocaust when concentration camp inmates were tattooed with an identification number. Also see the section on gender below. Any tattoo that stigmatizes a prisoner, or invites abuse by other inmates, is likely to have been applied involuntarily.

White Supremacist Gang Tattoos 
  • KKK
  • Neo-Nazism
  • Arian Brotherhood (AB)
  • Family Affiliated Irish Mafia (FAIM)
  • Sacramaniac
  • Number tattoos
  • General white supremacist symbols
    • For example 1488 (or 14 or 88) found anywhere on the body identifies white supremacists/Nazi inmates.  There are a variety of tattoos associated with the Arian Brotherhood, important to identify, for they make up 1% of the prison population but commit 20% of inmate murders.
  • FAIM members sometimes wear a shamrock as well, signifying affiliation with the AB—but this is only allowed with permission of the AB
Russian Prison Tattoos

In the Soviet Union, particularly during Joseph Stalin’s time, non-political prisoners (thieves, murderers, arsonists, etc.) in the Gulag system were often given preferential treatment by prison guards. Tattoos told the guards as well as other prisoners how to treat a prisoner, including what labor assignments they got and whether to assign prisoners as enforcers. Eventually, non-political prisoners gained so much power within the Gulags that the Vor v Zakony (Thieves in Law) essentially ran many of the prison camps. Today, the Vory is one of the most powerful mafia organizations in the world. In many areas within the former Soviet Union, anyone with visible tattoos is assumed to be affiliated with the Vory or pretending to be.

  • Star
  • Manacles
  • Epaulette
  • Birds on horizon
  • Barbed wire
  • Symbol of the cross
  • Crowns and rings
  • Scarab beetle
  • Playing cards
  • Cat
  • A cat tattoo represents a thief.
    • One cat = the prisoner worked alone
    • Multiple cats = the prisoner was part of a gang of thieves
    • A cat tattoo (think stealthy as a cat) is considered good luck for a thief
    • If worn on the chest, it also signals a dangerous criminal who hates law enforcement 

Playing card suits carry specific meanings: spade represents a thief; clubs symbolize criminals in general, diamonds label stoolpigeons and informants – and was probably applied by force—and hearts imply that someone is looking for a romantic partner in the prison, which may also be forcibly applied.

The knife through the neck tattoo, in Russian prisons, means the bearer is a murderer—and proud of it. Much has been written about Russian prison tattoos. If interested, you can find information specific to Japan, Australia, France, Italy, etc.

Street/Prison Gang Tattoos

MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha)
  • Mara Salvatrucha 13
  • Black Guerrilla Family
  • Red Blood Dragon
  • Gangster Discipes
  • Santana
  • Mexican Mafia
  • Mexikanemi
  • Texas Syndicate
  • Almighty Latin King Nations
  • 18th Street Gang
  • Sureños
Crips
  • Norteños
  • Texas Chicano Brotherhood
  • Border Brothers
  • Hells Angels
  • Bloods
  • Crips
  • Indian Warrior
  • Laotian Boyz (LB)
Common Symbols
  • Tiger
  • Spider web
  • Tear drop
  • Three dots
  • Five dots
  • Angel of death
  • Clown faces/masks
  • Vida loca
  • Barbed wire
  • spiderweb, typically representing a lengthy incarceration, is commonly found on the elbow or neck. 
  • Teardrops can mean a lengthy prison sentence, that the wearer has committed murder, or that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and the tattooed one is seeking revenge.

According to corrections1.com, “One of the most widely recognized prison tattoos, the teardrop’s meaning varies geographically. In some places, the tattoo can mean a lengthy prison sentence, while in others it signifies that the wearer has committed murder. If the teardrop is just an outline, it can symbolize an attempted murder. It can also mean that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and that they are seeking revenge. The teardrop has been popularized recently by rappers and other celebrities, but still remains a staple in prisons. Those who are newbies behind bars with a teardrop tattoo will make a lot of enemies, fast.”

Alternatively, Mental Floss says, “There are many stories about why a prisoner would have this tattoo, but the most common is that an unfilled teardrop might symbolize the death of a loved one, while an opaque one might show that the death has been avenged.

Three dots representing “my crazy life” (vida loca) refers to the gang lifestyle, but no particular gang; typically applied at the corner of the eye or between the thumb and index finger. Sometimes three dots, like three crosses, represents the holy trinity of Christianity. 

Five dots between the thumb and forefinger represents time done in prison. It’s found internationally. Located elsewhere on the body, this design may mean association with the People Nation gang.

A clock with no hands represents doing time and a lot of it. Ditto watch without hands or an hourglass.

Barbed wire tattoos are fairly common and many have no specific meaning. Sometimes each barb represents a year served in prison.  On the forehead, such tattoos typically mean serving a life sentence.

Laughing and crying clown faces/masks often means “Laugh now, cry later” attitude of the gang lifestyle.

Gender As a Factor in Prison/Gang Tattoos

Although there is much online discussion of convict tattoos in general, most of the images shown feature men. From this, with an overlay of gender stereotypes, one might conclude that tattoos among female inmates are rare.  But I found one research paper to the contrary.

“This study confirmed that there is a high frequency of tattoos among female offenders, but disproved the hypothesis that the frequency would be higher and more aggressive among violent offenders in comparison to non-violent offenders. Based on these findings, non-violent female offenders were more likely than violent female offenders to have a tattoo or tattoos, to have multiple tattoos, and to have aggressive or masculine tattoos. However, offenders convicted of violent crimes like robbery and assault or battery had the most visible tattoos, primarily located on the hands, face, fingers, and wrists.” 

(Sullivan, Megan, “Crimes Committed By Tattooed Female Offenders and the Significance of Body Art Content and Location” (2011). All Regis University Theses. 48 (.https://epublications.regis.edu/theses/483

I found no indication that the images and/or their meanings differ by gender. 

And according to Wikipedia, “Forced and enslaved prostitutes are often tattooed or branded with a mark of their owners. Women and girls being forced into prostitution against their will may have their boss’ name or gang symbol inked or branded with a hot iron on their skin. In some organizations involved with the trafficking of women and girls, like the mafias, nearly all prostitutes are marked. Some pimps and organizations use their name or well-known logo, while others use secret signs.  Some years ago, the branding mark was usually small, only recognized by other pimps, and sometimes hidden between the labia minora, but today some “owners” write their names in big letters all upon the body of the victim.”

Bottom line: Tattoos can carry a lot of meaning. When deciphering that meaning, tread carefully.

TATTOO!

Quick: what’s the first thing that came to mind?

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the 1963 film of the same name
Vladimir Franz, a candidate for the Czech Presidency in 2013

Last week, a woman said to me (approximately), “People  think permanent make-up is a new thing, but Cleopatra’s famous eyes were tattooed on. Soot was applied with knives.” I’d never heard such a thing, and I’ve actually been to Egypt. I always assumed her face was painted. As with anything that pricks my curiosity, I googled it. Lo and behold, it’s a much more complicated topic than I ever considered.

Bontoc Warrior with Chaklag Tattoos

Basically, any time an indelible design is created by inserting pigment under the epidermis, the result is a tattoo. Tattooing has been practiced in various cultures over centuries.

How Many Centuries? 

Ötzi the Iceman

As for bodily evidence of tattoos, for a long time the oldest known examples were Egyptian mummies, dated about 2000 BCE. However, Ötzi the Iceman, found on the Italian-Australian border in 1991, pushed that back. His mummified skin has at least 60 tattoos and was carbon dated a thousand years earlier, making him 5,200 years old.

This pre-Cucuteni figurine was made sometime between 4900 and 4750 BCE, with what look like evidence of cultural tattoos.

If one considers non-body evidence such as figurines and and paintings, then tattooing was practiced in Egypt in the Predynastic period, around 3100 BCE.

Tattooing Was Everywhere 

Moana was also the first Disney film to feature characters with tattoos!
Tätowierung Inuitfrau, an Inuit woman painted by Jens Peder Hart Hansen, circa 1654

The word tattoo started as the Polynesian word ta, meaning to strike. It evolved into the Tahitian word tatatau, meaning to mark something. As seen in the animated film Moana, these traditional tattoos were applied by means of rapidly striking a bamboo rod to drive an inked thorn into the skin.

A marriageable girl of the Koita people of Papua New Guinea, who had new tattoos added every year since she was five years old

In nearly every ancient culture, such as those in Greece and Rome to Native Americans, Japanese, sub-Saharan African, Australian Aboriginal, and Innuit, evidence has shown that tattooing was and most modern cultures tattoos were and are everywhere.

But Why Tattoo?

Preserved skin of a British military deserter, tattooed with a D
  • A cultic symbol dedicating the wearer to a specific god or belief
    • For example, Amunet was a priestess of the goddess Hathor.
  • As a brand signifying servitude/slavery/shame
    • For example adulterers marked with an A, T for thief, etc.
  • As a professional identification (e.g., prostitute, priestess)
  • As a permanent amulet seeking protection
    • Sailors having anchor tattoos or miners with lamps tattooed on their foreheads were trying to bring good luck.
    • The patterns of tattoos on Egyptian women’s abdomens and thighs seem to have been for fertility and for protection during pregnancy and childbirth. 
Japanese prostitute of the Kansei Era (circa 1888) painted by Tsukiok Yoshitoshi
  • Tattoos may have been a therapeutic tool, similar to acupuncture. 
    • The Ice Man had tattoos on his hands, lower back, and feet in areas that showed signs of stress damage.
  • As a declaration of group membership (think Marines, college fraternities, or Nazis)
  • As a visible means of intimidating the enemy (think Maori warriors) or showing bravery or success in battle
  • As a personal symbol of a meaningful event (e.g., birth of a child) or belief (sayings of Jesus or Buddha), or tribute to a beloved person
  • And, of course, as pure body art/decoration
  • Tattoos used by gang members and prisoners are often extraordinarily complex and will be covered in a separate blog post of their own.
    • The tattoos used by the Nazis in concentration camps were a form of branding, not in the same class as voluntary markings prisoners have chosen to put on their bodies for various reasons.
  • Tattoos to repair or restore
    • Today, plastic surgeons often work with tattoo artists to cover scars, burns, the effects of alopecia or vitiligo.
    • Many women get tattoos on their breasts after cancer surgery.
      • Along with her other artistic work, Amy Black (Pink Ink Fund) is a tattoo artist well known in the Richmond, VA area, for creating realistic-looking nipples or other art for women who have had cancer surgery. 

Permanent Make-Up, the Daughter of General Tattooing  

The goal is to look natural, or like externally applied makeup, enhancing colors on the face, lips, eyebrows, and eyelids. This type of tattooing (also known as cosmetic tattooing, dermapigmentation, micropigmentation) is also older than one might think.

Tattooed Eyebrows and Eyeliner

The first documented permanent makeup artist was Sutherland MacDonald, in the U.K. in 1902! His specialty was “all-year-round delicate pink complexion”—i.e., rouged cheeks. By the 1920s, it was popular in the U.S. The tattooist George Burchett wrote about beauty salons that tattooed women using vegetable dyes without their knowledge under the rise of “complexion treatment.” (Personally, I can only imagine that those women were willfully ignorant, given that tattooing is generally an uncomfortable procedure with visible aftereffects, such as temporary scabbing.) 

Mrs. M Stevens Wagner, 1907

As with all matters of fashion, popularity varies over time. During the 1960s and 1970s, the popularity of tattoos took a sharp uptick. According to one article (the guardian.com) in 2016, a US poll revealed that 29% of people had a tattoo, up from 21% four years earlier. Of people born between 1982 and 2004, 47% have at least one.

General Considerations 

Whang-od Oggay is the last Mambabatok (master practitioner of the traditional Kalinga tattoo method) of the Butbut people of the Philippines.

Do multiple tattoos create a different impression from a single one? And if so, in what way? What difference does the reason for the tattoo make? What about the nature/content of the tattoo?

But Back to Cleopatra 

Retrato Femenino: Fresco of a woman believed to be Cleopatra from a villa in Roman Herculaneum, circa 1st Century CE

According to accepted academic evidence, in Egypt—unlike most cultures—only women were tattooed. The tattoos most often seemed related to fertility and childbirth, or identifying the woman as high ranking. However, I found nothing specific to Cleopatra’s face. Bummer.

Bottom Line

Permanent body decoration serves psychological and/or practical purposes for the tattooed one. In addition, body decorations send out a range of social signals—intentional or not. Think about it.

WHAT MODE OF TRANSPORTATION SAYS TO OTHER PEOPLE

Like other accouterments of our lives—housing, clothing, pets—how we get from Point A to Point B communicates to those around us—and not everyone draws the same conclusions! The following observations are some of the most common (or loudest) I’ve come across; different countries and time periods have had varied observations about modes of transportation. Like most stereotypes and public perceptions, the following are of varying degrees of truth.

As general background: when users have to decide which mode of transport to use (private car, public transport, cycling, walking, etc.) gender is often a more robust determinant than age or income!

Shank’s Mare (A.K.A. walking): the Oldest Mode 

If only we could see what was on the other side!
  • Seldom chosen as the primary or only way to get around
  • People on long pilgrimages (Hajj to Mecca, walking cross country to raise awareness for a cause, Gandhi’s march to the Sea)
  • Depending on other info, may indicate poverty or health awareness

Bicycle: Impressions Depend on Model, Condition, Etc.

Many cities in China have more bicycles than cars.

Bicycles, mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles are almost always two-wheeled vehicles driven and steered by one rider. The distinctions are, like almost everything else, varied around the world and prone to blurring. A bicycle is powered entirely by the rider pedaling; a moped has a small motor attached to assist with pedaling in especially difficult environments. Bicycles are relatively easily modified for people with physical limitations, compared to cars and motorcycles.

  • People are in the best mood when riding bicycles
  • Can be inexpensive or very expensive, depending on type of bicycle and riding gear
  • Environmentally friendly 
  • Difficult to park securely in many places
  • Primarily for physical fitness
    • In fact, the vast majority of regular bicyclists in the US ride for transportation as they cannot afford a car and do not have access to public transit
  • Limited passenger capacity
    • Not as limited as most in the U.S. assume.
    • In Copenhagen, “’Cargo-bike moms’ are gentrifying the Netherlands.”

Scooter Impressions

Scooters are powered entirely by an engine, with a foot well for the seated rider’s legs. Unlike a car, all engine controls are in the handles.

Ambulance scooter with a sidecar for patients
  • Easy to drive
  • Cheaper and slower than a motorcycle
  • No safer than motorcycles 
  • Popular on very rural country rides for teenagers
  • More popular abroad than in the U.S.
  • Easier to maneuver and store in crowded areas
  • Driving permit requirements are often different from those of a car or motorcycle
    • Many areas don’t require permits at all
    • Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others) are questioning whether scooters fall under the same laws forbidding women to drive

Motorcycle Rider Stereotypes

Motorcycles and scooters are very similar, but a motorcyclist sits astride the seat. The engine of a motorcycle is generally more powerful than that of a scooter.

Bessie Stringfield rode her motorcycle from one end of America to the other, and as a dispatch rider in World War II.
  • Violent
  • Gang members
  • Harley riders are elitist and only care about brand; Other riders are effeminate
  • Reckless behavior
    • Stunt hooligans on the road
    • Prone to road-rage
    • Have a death wish
      • Emergency Response personnel sometimes refer to motorcycle riders as “Organ Donors,” but that is more because of the lack of safety gear than specific behavior patterns
  • Car haters
  • Uneducated rednecks
  • All young riders prefer sports bikes
“Dykes on Bikes” motorcycle club at a Pride rally
  • Physically tough appearance
    • Men have long, unkempt beards
    • Tattoos are common
    • Women dress provocatively
    • Lots of black leather, chains, spikes, gang markings, etc.
    • Gear is chosen to look tough rather than for practicality
  • Many of these perceptions are based on Hell’s Angels and other “outlaw motorcycle clubs”

Multi-Passenger Public Transportation

Public transport is much safer than automobiles (the above photo is an exception).  For example, bus and rail travelers are 20 times less likely to die en route than drivers. Even if self-driving and safety technology could reduce car by 90%, fatalities per passenger mile would still be twice as high in private automobiles.

Dogs ride free, right?
  • World-wide, the largest share of public transportation users are women
  • Bus and train riders experience the most negative emotions
    • Bus: poor people who cannot afford a vehicle/gas;
      • homeless/mentally ill people seeking temporary shelter from the elements.
    • Subway: city-dweller
    • Train: long-distance commuters;
      • More common in Europe and Asia, where train systems are much more comprehensive
    • Plane: long-distance (business or pleasure) travelers of means

Individual Cars

Private automobiles are especially dangerous if they don’t obey the laws of gravity.
So happy! He knows he’s going to the park.
  • The second happiest people are car passengers, followed by car drivers
  • Carpoolers: cut down air pollution
    • Lessen expenses of gas/parking
  • Private chauffeur
    • Renting a limousine or similar
  • Driver alone: not sociality responsible
    • Selfish or ego-centric
  • Taxi/Lyft/Uber: short distance trips for those valuing convenience
    • People who cannot drive for whatever reason (inebriation, tourist, moving larger than normal cargo, etc.)
    • Consider the possible conflicts between traditional taxi services and Lyft or Uber style companies, or even the conflict between drivers and management within those companies
  • Car drivers are so common that to dig into assumptions, it’s necessary to get into make and model

Other

Other methods of transportation are more common outside the US. Extreme climates, different resources, and distance have made what we might see as extraordinary into the everyday.

Ferries are common in highly populated areas on the water.
  • Dog sled, snow mobile, cross-country skiing
  • Bush plane
  • Tuktuk, marsrhutka, or any other kind of informal minibus system run by individual drivers
  • Horseback or horse-drawn vehicle (or donkey, mule, camel, etc.)
  • Canoe or kayak
  • Hitch-hiking
  • Rickshaw

BOTTOM LINE for writers: consider your choice and the reason for it!

NOM DE GUERRE AND OTHER PSEUDONYMS

Ioseb “Soso” Dzhugashvili is better known by the name he used as a Bolshevik, “Steel.” The Russian translation is Josef Stalin.
Montbars the Exterminator was the nom de guerre of Daniel Montbars, a French buccaneer.

Nom de guerre is French for “war name.”  

In 1716 France, a war name was mandatory, and in some ways was functionally similar to a dog tag for soldiers today. Soldiers were identified by their first name, family name, and war name. The war name was typically either the hometown or a particular physical or character trait. Examples would be Jean Louis of Paris, or Pierre Renaut the Red Haired One.

Some famous noms de guerre were chosen deliberately to the warlike, violent, or intimidating characteristics of the bearer. Pirates Captain Blackbeard and Montbard the Exterminator are examples of this.

Sometimes the alias replaced the family name.

Simone Segouin used the nom de guerre Nicole Minet when fighting Nazi occupation of France.
Ernesto Guevara was better known to his comrades as “el Che” or Che Guevara.

During Word War II, noms de guerre were adopted by the French Resistance for security, and to protect family members from the enemy.  Today mercenaries, resistance fighters, terrorists, and guerrillas adopt war names for the same reason.

Nom de plume has retained its specific meaning of a writing name that differs from a given name. Over time, the usage of nom de guerre became much more general, such that in ordinary French today, it’s a generic descriptor, like pseudonym.

By now, soldiers and writers are a small minority of people who take different or additional names.  And their reasons for doing so offer great plot points!

Members of a royal family often adopt a public name when they marry or assume the throne. Queen Noor of Jordan was born Lisa Najeeb Halaby.
  • Taking or keeping a professional name different from the family name
  • Personal identity
    • Wanting a less or more ethnic name
    • To fit gender identification
    • Simple dislike of one’s current name: too common, too outlandish, too juvenile, too likely to be embarrassing if mispronounced or misspelled, etc.
  • Marriage
    • Changing a name after divorce
    • Husband taking wife’s name
    • A couple choosing to combine parts of their names or hyphenate the two last names to make a new family name
    • Partners sharing a surname
  • Changing a child’s surname to mother’s, father’s, or adoptive parents’ name
  • Religious reasons
  • Criminal history or association
  • To be more or less closely associated with a famous (or infamous) relative
  • Political reasons
  • Entering witness protection program
Sith Lords took new names upon completing their training, either given by their masters or chosen by the Force. Anakin Skywalker is better known by his Sith title: Darth Vader.

A small sample of well-known people who changed their names. If you don’t know why these people changed names, the info is available on line.

Emilio Estevez deliberately did not share his father’s nom de guerre because, as he said, he “didn’t want to ride into the business as ‘Martin Sheen’s son’.”
Harpo Marx had two name changes. Born Adolph, he changed his first name to to Arthur avoid anti-German in childhood; “Harpo” was bestowed as a nickname by a friend.

Many modern surnames have similar origins, derived from occupations, geographic origins, political or religious affiliations, or personal characteristics. Consider some of the most common family names in the world today.

Malcolm X also adopted a new name twice. He changed his surname from Little to X to signify the loss of his African heritage; after going on pilgrimage to Mecca, he took the Muslim name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.
  • Wang (the most common, registered surname in the world) is the Chinese word for “king,” and there are historical records of several families adopting this surname for various reasons.
    • During intra-family arguments, descendants of a disgraced former royal often changed their family name to remind people of their origins.
    • Local custom sometimes meant that the family of whoever was in power at the time all be addressed as “Wang.”
    • Conquerors, usurpers, and invaders might change their family name to “Wang” as a way to validate their claims to the throne after the fact.
    • Entirely unrelated to their Chinese name-sharers, Scandinavian and Germanic families with the surname Wang are more likely to have been associated with a grassy meadow (vangr in Old Norse) or their presumably distinctive cheeks (wangl in Middle German).
  • Singh, the Sanskrit word for “lion” or “hero,” was used by Guru Gobind Singh (born Gobind Rai) to replace family names among all male Sikhs as a way of eliminating the caste system and demonstrating community equality.
  • Nguyễn was a powerful Vietnamese royal dynasty, and many families adopted the name to ally with the rulers.
  • Ahmed means “the highly praised one” and was one of the names of the Prophet Muhammed listed in the Quran. It was adopted by many families originally as a sign of religious devotion or of descending from the Prophet.
  • Devi is both the Sanskrit word for goddess and the mother goddess in the Hindu faith. Many women, especially in rural areas today, adopt Devi as a surname when they marry.
Silent film star Rudolph Valentino was born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella. He changed it when he came to the US in 1913.
  • Many of the most common surnames in the US are the result of emancipation, immigration, or assimilation.
    • Former slaves were often assigned a surname shortly after Emancipation. This was often the name of a former owner, but it might also be a trade, a defining characteristic, a local landmark, a parent’s first name, or any other surname chosen by the individual. According to the 2000 Census, 90% of Americans with the surname Washington are of African descent.
    • Immigrants coming through Ellis Island and Angel Island did not (as myth would have us believe) have their names changed by confused or lazy immigration officials. However, it was not uncommon for recent immigrants to the US to change their surname to one that was easier to spell with the English alphabet or to one less likely to attract anti-immigrant biases.
    • Changing surnames was a means of removing identity and forcing assimilation of people already living in America before Europeans. People were assigned names, often at random, as part of the effort to break up nations and outlaw traditional identification.

Bottom line: Names carry a ton of meaning!

FEMALE SUPERHEROES: NOT A NEW THING (Part 1)

There are rumors of an upcoming Marvel movie focused on the A-Force, an all-female group of superheroes. This screenshot from the end of Avengers: Endgame highlights several members of the A-Force ( l-r: Okoye, Valkyrie, Gamora, Rescue, Captain Marvel, Wasp, Mantis, Shuri, and Nebula).
Tiger Baby

I’m sure there are many people out there who know a lot more about superheroes than I do. Before researching this blog, I would have been pressed to name any beyond Wonder Woman, possibly coming up with Bat Girl and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Like so many things on the internet, seek and ye shall find!

Bat-Baby

The Golden Age of creating these female superheroes seems to have been 1940-1941. Subsequently, many of them made it to both the small screen and the big one, and—like James Bond—appeared and reappeared. (See those marked with *.)

Here, in chronological order, are a few of the very first female superheroes who might interest you as a reader and/or a writer. This is Part 1 of 2, covering female comic stars who debuted through 1940. Heroic ladies who debuted in 1941 and after will be covered on Tuesday, March 23rd.

If your character has a superhero interest, who and why? What superpowers might they wish for? How about a secret superhero crush?

1938

  • Sheena, Queen of the Jungle 
    • Sheena debuted almost four years before Wonder Woman. She was the guardian of the jungle, with numerous superpowers: superhuman strength, the ability to talk to animals, and expertise with several weapons, mostly blades. Sheena was one of the most powerful superheroes.

1940

  • Fantomah
    • The “Mystery Lady of the Jungles” was the protector of the entire continent of Africa. Fantomah was a supernatural being with superhuman abilities, including telekinesis and the ability to turn into a blue-skinned monster. Her origins were never revealed, nor was the reason she had fair skin and had blond hair.
    • Initially, Fantomah was almost identical to Sheena. As she developed, Fantomah became nearly omnipotent, creating some truly bizarre punishments for slavers, poachers, thieves, and others she decided to punish. At one point, she became the queen of a lost civilization descended from the Egyptians. The writers got tired of that storyline, and the civilization became lost again.
  • *Hawkgirl/ Hawkwoman
    • Depending on the comic run, Hawkgirl is either the reincarnation of an Ancient Egyptian princess or an alien police officer from planet Thanagar. Or she is both at the same time but in parallel universes. Or maybe she is the reincarnated spirit of an Ancient Egyptian priestess who is actually the avatar of a goddess who is now inhabiting the body of a winged alien police officer. The writers kept changing their minds.
Hawkgirl’s costume from 1940 to 2015
    • However she came by her powers, Hawkgirl has superhuman strength, speed, durability, and advanced healing. Her wings are incredibly strong for their size and let her perform extreme acrobatic flight maneuvers.
  • *Catwoman
    • In her first appearance in Batman #1, Selina Kyle was simply known as The Cat. Originally, she was either an orphan who learned thievery to survive on the streets or a former flight attendant with amnesia who turned to crime with no memory of any former skills. An enduring love interest of Batman, Catwoman was recently (partially) reformed from her more criminal activities. She’s an expert cat burglar with acrobatic prowess. She prefers to rely on her brains and a whip. She prowls the streets helping those who need her most, but she also steals from the evil rich to help those in need and fill her own coffers.
    • *Catwoman was reintroduced in 1989, but this time she was portrayed as either a prostitute or a dominatrix who was inspired to become a costumed cat burglar after watching Batman’s antics.
  • Lady Luck 
    • Brenda Banks was the very rich daughter of wealthy Irish mine owners who simply got bored and decided to put on a disguise and fight evil.  She was aided by her chauffeur (sometimes a burly Italian man and sometimes a woman trained in martial arts). Lady Luck has no superpowers (other than being Irish), but she was a terrific fighter. The storyline revolved around her being in love with the Chief of Police.
  • Golden Girl 
    • Making her first appearance in the world of Captain America, Elizabeth “Betsy (originally Betty)” Ross became a costumed hero in her own right after impressing Allied intelligence forces. She started out as a WAAC officer and FBI agent before she became part of the SSR project to create supersoldiers. After World War II, Ross put on a bulletproof cape and joined the third Captain America as Golden Girl. Because of her various careers (soldier, spy, teacher, dancer, etc.), Golden Girl had many talents, but no superpowered abilities.  Her intelligence kept her in the ranks of superheroes.
    • This Betty/ Betsy Ross is not related to Betty Ross, the romantic interest of Bruce Banner/ The Incredible Hulk.
  • Red Tornado 
    • Abigail Mathilda “Ma” Hunkel was initially intended to be a parody of the superhero comic genre, but the Red Tornado grew so popular that she became a regular co-star in the Scribbly Jibbet comics. A shopkeeper and housewife in Brooklyn, Ma Hunkel stood up to a gang harassing her neighborhood by taking inspiration from her son’s obsession with the Green Lantern. She became a caped vigilante by wearing a t-shirt over red long-johns, a black cape, and a cooking pot with eye holes. The Red Tornado was extremely strong and durable but not superhuman (she was sometimes mistaken for a man). She eventually had two sidekicks, her daughter and niece, Sisty and Dinky.  Additionally, Ma Hunkel was a fantastic cook and honorary member of the Justice League.
  • *Black Widow 
    • Claire Voyant, created in August, 1940, by Timely Comics (later known as Marvel Comics), might be the first female superhero to be possessed by a mystical being. She and her family were murdered, and she made a deal with the devil in order to return to seek revenge.  Her superpowers: she could use psychic powers, defy physics, curse enemies with severe bad luck, and kill people instantly with a touch. Black Widow was resistant to disease and aging, and could suppress and/or replace memories.
    • During World War II, she helped the Allies by spying and by killing Nazis to send their souls to Satan. In the Battle of Berlin, Black Widow was captured by Nazi scientists and put in suspended animation with several other superheroes. The Twelve were found and woken up in the 21st Century to continue working for the US government.
    • She is not related to the Black Widows created by the Soviet Red Room program.
1940 Woman in Red
  • The Woman in Red 
    • She first appeared in March 1940 in Thrilling Comics. Along with Lady Luck she was one of the first vigilante female superheroes.  Peggy Allen donned red after getting fed up with criminals manipulating the legal system and avoiding justice. Her real job was as a police officer specializing in undercover work, so one might label her a rogue cop. The Woman in Red had no special superpowers, but was highly skilled in hand-to-hand combatant and a brilliant tactician.
1943 Woman in Red
    • There were essentially three versions of the Woman in Red, depending on the writer.
      • Initially, Peggy Allen was taller and stronger than most men, knew a bit of jiu-jitsu but quite a lot about shooting her pistol, and was not trusted by the police.
      • In the middle of 1941, Peggy Allen became a woman of average size and strength, a very good detective, and an ally of the police.
      • The Peggy Allen of 1943 had near superhuman strength and agility, was a skilled martial artist and pilot, and worked with the police, who knew her secret identity. In 1943, the Woman in Red also got a costume change before disappearing.

Bottom Line: Long as the list is, these female superheroes are just the beginning! Check back on the 23rd for more pioneering superheroes. There is much more information online. For example, the wrap.com/female-superheroes-badass-memorable-batwoman-supergirl/. Also, gamesradar.com/best-female-superheroes/. And car.com/female-superheroes-created-before-wonder-woman/

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