BOOOOORED!

Sir Terry Pratchett always knows the best words.

I’ll skip defining boredom. It’s so common that it doesn’t need definition, any more than hunger or sunlight. Nearly everyone feels bored at one time or another, more or less often, sometimes daily. Men, in general, are more often bored than women. And people with little education are more likely to report being bored. As with nearly everything, there are two sides to boredom.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re bored or if they’re just being dogs.

The Downside of Boredom

Boredom is generally seen as an unpleasant emotional state. Why do people feel bored? Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D. identified eight common reasons for boredom.

1. Monotony in the Mind — When people are not interested in the details of the task at hand, or when a task is highly repetitive, they are likely to feel bored. We lose interest in things that are too predictable, too much of the same thing, too little stimulation. This can often lead to feeling trapped.    

Piracy is just so dull sometimes.

2. Lack of Flow — Flow is total immersion in a task that is challenging but within one’s abilities, a task with clear goals and immediate feedback. Tasks that are too easy are boring. Tasks that seem to be too difficult may lead to anxiety.

3. Need for Novelty — People with a strong need for novelty, excitement, and variety—i.e., sensation seekers—are at risk of boredom. For these people, the world moves too slowly. The need for external stimulation may be why extroverts are particularly prone to boredom, which they try to cure by novelty seeking and risk-taking

4. Paying Attention —What bores us never fully engages our attention. After all, it is hard to be interested in something when you cannot concentrate on it. People with chronic attention problems, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, are more likely to suffer boredom.

5. Emotional Awareness — People who lack self-awareness are more prone to boredom, unable to articulate what it is that they desire or want to do. They have trouble describing their feelings. Not knowing what we are searching for means that we lack the capacity to choose appropriate goals.

6. Inner Amusement Skills — People who don’t have the inner resources to deal with boredom constructively rely on external stimulation. In the absence of inner amusement skills, the external world will always fail to provide enough excitement and novelty. 

7. Lack of Autonomy — People often feel boredom when they feel trapped. And feeling trapped—stuck or constrained so that one’s will cannot be executed—is a big part of boredom. Adolescents are often bored, largely because children and teenagers don’t have a lot of control over their schedules and activities.

8. The Role of Culture — Boredom is a modern luxury. As the Enlightenment was giving way to the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th Century, boredom came into being. When people have to spend most hours of the days securing food and shelter, boredom isn’t an option.

The Upside of Boredom

Boredom does have its benefits. It is a “call to action.” Nietzsche suggested that men (sic) of rare sensibility value boredom as an impetus to achievement.  So…

1.  Boredom can be a catalyst for action.

2.  It can provide an opportunity for thought and reflection, a search for life’s meaning. 

3.  It can also be a sign that a task is a waste of time—and thus not worth continuing.

4.  Boredom can spur creativity.

Challenges for writers:

  • Writing boredom in an engaging way
  • Choosing ways for characters to handle boredom that forward the plot
  • Milking boredom for tension and/or emotional acting out

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!

SLEEPING ALONE AND TOGETHER

People who get the recommended eight hours of sleep in twenty-four are spending a third of their lives in bed. Granted, things other than sleep happen in bed, but it’s absolutely undeniable that people—and therefore realistic characters—go to bed, sleep more or less well, and get up often. Whether the sleeper spread-eagles across the bed or looks like a soldier at attention, a preferred sleep position can be indicative of character, personality, and even health issues.  

Writers take note: it pays to pay attention to your protagonist’s sleep habits.

Sleeping Positions and What They Say About Personality

  • The Fetal Position is a favorite: 41% of all people habitually adopt this position at night. It involves curling your knees towards your chest, as if sleeping in the womb. 
    • Secret Softy is the basic personality type associated with this position.  This sleeping position means tough on the outside and soft on the inside. The person may be shy to begin with, though they usually open up and relax quite quickly.
    •  Left-side sleepers tend to be creative and  well-educated.
    •  Right-side sleepers are more likely to smoke and depend on caffeine.
  • The Thinker—much like the fetal position—will sleep curled up but with a hand gently resting on the chin, as if pondering something.
    • The personality associated with this position is an  Emotional Evaluator. Those who habitually sleep in this position are more emotional than other sleepers, with both positive and negative emotions running high.
  • The Log: 15% of people enjoy sleeping in the log position, the second most popular position. To snooze in this position, one sleeps on one side with both arms and legs straight.  (It must be comfortable even if it doesn’t look it.)
    • Logs are Naturally Carefree people.  But conventional wisdom says that those who tend to sleep like this also tend to be social butterflies, friendly, carefree, and popular.
    • Writers Note: A trusting nature means also likely to fall into the trap of being gullible. 
  • The Yearner is also a common sleeping position that involves sleeping on one side with straight legs but arms stretched out, as if trying to reach something.
    • Such people are thought to be Complex Characters. People who sleep like this are a bit of a mixed bag, being both open-minded and cynical, inviting but suspicious of new friends and acquaintances.
    • “Yearners” tend to make good, reliable friends. Slow and deliberate decision makers, they are often unsure of their own decisions, though they have a firm resolve once they’ve come to a conclusion. 
  • Soldier Stance, as the name implies, looks like a soldier sleeping at attention, lying on their back with arms straight by their sides.
    • Controlled Characters tend to sleep in this position. They will usually be strong, quiet, focused, and reserved.
    • They may also expect themselves and other people to adhere to strict moral codes and high standards.
  • The Freefall (also called The Skydiver) sleep position makes the sleeper look a relaxed skydiver freefalling through the sky, often with arms wrapped around a pillow while sleeping on their stomach. 
    • Sleeping in freefall indicates someone who is bold, sociable, and fun, though they may not have the thick skin necessary to deal with criticism or uncomfortable situations.
    • They may be anxious, and seek control of situations.
  • Spread-Eagled Starfish (sometimes called Mattress Hog), the starfish sleeper spreads arms and legs in a carefree manner over the entire bed surface while lying face-up, is the least common position.
    • A starfish is likely to be a flexible friend, willing to listen to anyone who needs to talk or help anyone who needs a hand.  Although unconventional, they probably don’t really like to be the center of attention.
  • The Stargazer position isn’t the most popular, possibly because it can mean the sleeper gets too cool overnight. The position is a vulnerable one, with stargazers lying on their backs, arms wrapped around their head.
    • They are likely to be the Best BFF’s, giving priority to their friends, doing everything they can for those they hold dear.
    • Usually, these sleepers will have a happy, easy-going disposition.
  • Pillow Huggers are self-described. They hug pillows close to their bodies, and usually have arms and legs wrapped around it in some way. 
    • Pillow huggers like to get cosy and be cuddled, cherishing the relationships they have with the important people in their lives above all else.

Other Factors Related to Various Positions

Positional Side Effects

  • The Log
    • Some claim this position, aligning neck and back, makes it one of the best for back and neck pain; others point out the potential for arm numbness, as well as neck and shoulder pain for some people.
    • May also put pressure on hip joints, sometimes eased by a pillow between the knees.
  • The Soldier 
    • Unless the sleeper uses too many pillows or sleeps on an uneven surface, this position aligns the neck and spine if not too many pillows. This position can distribute weight evenly across shoulders. Its relationships to acid reflux is unclear. Back sleepers are more prone to snoring, and those with sleep apnea can aggravate the condition by sleeping like this.
    • On the other hand, the effects of gravity means it can help prevent the development of wrinkles on beck and face. Dianna Ross once said she trained herself to sleep on her back for that very reason. 
    • Another reason to train oneself to sleep in this position is to elevate or avoid aggravating injuries, such as broken arms, knee or ankle surgeries, abdominal sutures, shoulder strain, or any other painful event that may have happened to a character.
  • The Starfish
    • Also a flat back position, the starfish has the same side effects as the soldier. Only 8% of sleepers prefer back sleeping.
    • Back sleeping tends to lead to more refreshing sleep, with the least readjusting during the night. May be a good choice for people with arthritis.
    • On the other hand, it may aggravate back and neck pain. Back sleeping (keeping face off the pillow) may reduce acne breakouts.
  • Freefall/ Skydiver 
    • Research suggests that this position is one of the worst for health because it puts strain on the neck, back, and spine. It increases the risk of neck and back pain as well as airway blockage. A sleeper can ease stress on neck, upper back, and airways by sleeping face down with a pillow under forehead.
    • On the plus side, it also has the the potential to ease snoring and sleep apnea.
    • Only 7% of people sleep on their stomach.
  • Side Sleepers
    • Side sleeping reduces snoring and relieves sleep apnea. It can reduce back and neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome. Side sleeping helps the brain’s lymphatic system clear waste during sleep.
    • Side sleepers are more likely to develop face and neck wrinkles (compared to back sleepers). Consistently sleeping on one side can lead to noticeably asymmetrical wrinkling.
    • Sleeping on one’s side may lead to the down-side limbs “going to sleep.”
    • Which side matters:
      • Left side sleeping is helpful for acid reflux, and it may aid digestion.
      • Right side sleeping may lower nervous system activity, reducing heart rate and blood pressure.
    • Fetal Position
      • Sleepers in the fetal position have the fewest sleep interruptions.
      • It’s also the best position for back pain. 
    • The Thinker shares side effects with the fetal position.

Age

  • With age, more people gravitate to a side-sleeping position. This may be related to protecting heart function during sleep.
  • As they get older, people move less drastically during the night, move less frequently, and spend more time in a position before moving on to another. Children shift sleep position more than twice as often during the night compared to those 65 and over.
  • Sleep position matters more with age. Older people are less flexible and more prone to stiffness and pain.

Gender

  • Twice as many women as men tend to sleep in the fetal position.
  • Pregnant women are urged to sleep on the left side, for reasons mentioned above. Back sleeping can create back pain, breathing problems, and heartburn, lower blood pressure and reduce circulation. The fetal position keeps pressure off the liver. 

Dreams

  • Right-side sleepers may have fewer nightmares. Disturbing dreams might be lessened by sleeping on the other side.
  • Back sleepers are also more likely to have nightmares and to recall less of their dreams.
  • Stomach sleepers have more vivid, intense, and sexual dreams. They’re also more likely to have dreams of being immobilized or restrained.

SLEEPING TOGETHER

  • Spooning is a fairly well known term. It’s where one partner snuggles up behind the other. It’s practiced by about 18% of couples and indicates a dynamic in which one partner takes a protective role with the other.
  • The Loose Spoon is exactly what it sounds like, the spoon but with less physical contact. It is typical of couples who start off spooning but relax as the relationship matures. It still says “I’ve got your back,” but is less sexual than spooning.
  • The Chase is like the spoon, except as the spoonee moves to the edge of the bed, the spooner follows. It might mean that the spoonee wants to be pursuedpursued OR that s/he wants more space. Clearly, these two motivations have quite different implications about the state of the relationship.
  • The Tangle is extremely intimate, the partners facing each other, arms and legs entwined. It is most common at the start of a romantic relationship, or in a situation of intense emotion. Couples that maintain the tangle throughout their relationship may be overly enmeshed, too dependent on each other.
  • The Unraveling Knot starts as a tangle that lasts about ten minutes, then the two people move apart. It’s a sign of a stronger relationship than the tangle, allowing for both intimacy and independence—the best of both worlds.  Only 8% of couples exhibit this two-step style.
  • Liberty Lovers sleep back to back, not touching, indicating the people in the relationship are connected and secure, sharing both closeness and independence. It’s relatively popular, the preferred sleeping style for 27% of couples.
  • Back Kissers are like liberty lovers except their backs or bottoms touch. It’s more common among newer couples, those who have been together for less than a year.
  • The Nuzzle involves one partner resting his/her head on the other’s chest, legs often intertwined. It’s often seen in early relationships, sometimes rekindled ones. This is considered a nurturing position that creates a sense of protection and trust.
  • The Leg Hug is like playing footsie in bed—one partner’s leg over the other’s. It represents a craving for an emotional or sexual connection. They can’t get enough of each other, and their lives are so intertwined that they function as a pair—taking care of each other, finishing each other’s sentences, etc.
  • The Space Hog is when one partner takes the starfish position, indicating selfishness, especially when/if the sprawler pushes the other partner so s/he is hanging off the bed (or falls off). This often indicates a lack of honest conversation. It can demonstrate which partner is dominating the relationship. The person sleeping closest to the headboard tends to feel more dominant and confident, while the one who is farther from the headboard tend to be submissive and have lower self-esteem.

Bottom line for writers: Consider the sleep habits of your characters to make their private lives richer, add tension, and possibly demonstrate intimacy (or lack thereof).

Exercising Your Creativity – Challenge Accepted!

Mariko Takahashi really exercises her creativity!

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and very reluctant washer of dishes.

This is an update/response to a post originally written on June 9, 2017. I’ve decided to take up Vivian’s challenge and run with it as far as my over-active imagination can take me! (Spoiler warning: I can run pretty far.)

The program is simple. Take an ordinary event and consider all the ways you could add tension, conflict, humor, surprise, etc.  For example, house-sitting.

This is definitely my brother’s house. Mine is right across the street!

My brother and sister-in-law live across the street from me. It’s a bit like having an extra WiFi connection, couch, kitchen, and bathroom, complete with pet-sitters and random free food. On this particular occasion, I was looking after my extended house while my brother’s family was out of town.

Mid-morning, I piled all my dirty dishes into a box and went across the street to take advantage of the dishwasher. And feed the fish. And water the plants.

  • What if
    • The box fell apart or dropped, smashing dirty dishes all over the street?
    • I forgot my key and had to jimmy open the window to climb in?
    • A neighbor called the police about the shifty-looking woman in slippers wandering around the yard with a suspiciously clattering box?

My niece is six-going-on-seven and makes her presence known even when she isn’t home. Little rainbow shoes and fluffy coats were left by the door. Exquisitely rendered crayon portraits covered the refrigerator. Scattered markers and Legos and hair ribbons and books and dinosaurs and a million other bits of her massive personality dominated every room in the house.

  • What if
    • I replaced all her artwork on the refrigerator with finger paintings by another niece, just to see if anyone would notice?
    • Paint, glue, juice boxes, etc. had spilled, making a big mess or possibly indicating that someone else had been in the house?
    • I stepped on a lego, screamed in pain, dropped the box of dishes on my other foot, stumbled back, tripped over a plastic sword-wielding dinosaur, knocked over a bookcase, crashed into the fish tank, and fell to the floor in an unconscious heap while fishy water and inevitable glitter dripped on my head?

When I go out of town, my brother takes care of my dog and turtle. When he’s out of town with his family, I feed his fish. I think I’m definitely getting the better end of the deal. All I have to do is shake a few pellets into the tank.

  • What if
    • The fish were floating upside down and I had to decide whether to dispose of the bodies and hope no one noticed or to save the bodies for a shoebox funeral when my niece returned
    • I knocked something in the tank and had to dive into the cold, salty water to save it, feeling fish and slimy water plants drift through my fingers?
    • A leak had developed in the tank overnight, leaving puddles on the floor and flopping fishy bodies on the gravel at the bottom of the tank?
If you find a pack of wolves in the living room, I suggest leaving them there and running away.

While the kitchen robot washed my dishes (I hate washing the dishes), I wandered around the house to check that everything looked as it should.

  • What if
    • Broken windows or missing/ disarranged valuables showed that someone had broken in?
    • An animal of some kind had gotten in through an overlooked air vent and clawed furniture, released bodily fluids, shed fur, knocked everything over, and then left? What if it was still there?
    • Embarrassing items of a personal nature had been left out?
    • A strange and not altogether pleasant smell was coming from somewhere?
    • The mail I brought in included an envelope marked “Past-Due” or “Cancer Test Results” or something else worrying?
    • I replaced all of the energy drinks in the kitchen with decaf drinks in similar cans?

So many possibilities! No matter how comfortable I am with my brother’s family, being in someone else’s home always feels just a bit voyeuristic. There are some things I can reliably assume I won’t find in my brother’s house, but a stranger’s house might contain anything a whole world of insanity!

  • Someone else in the house unexpectedly, maybe sleeping on the couch or looking through the refrigerator…?
  • The remnants of something illegal halfheartedly hidden in a trashcan…?
  • Poisonous plants to water very carefully without touching the leaves….?
  • A coffee table made from the taxidermied bodies of deceased pets…?
  • Burst pipes, smoking outlets, fires, or any other kind of disaster in progress…?
  • Sexually explicit photos framed and hung on the bathroom wall…?
  • A chandelier smashed on the floor with no clear reason why…?

Your assignment: Choose any mundane activity from today’s wealth—anything from doing laundry to going to the gym to hosting six for dinner—and take a few minutes to consider what if?

What if there is a horse in the dining room?

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?]

SINISTER DEXTERITY

All writers should seriously consider including one or more lefties among their cast of characters – think of the possibilities! Let’s begin with ways being left-handed in and of itself creates obstacles for the leftie.

By definition, a left-handed  person is in the minority: with no overt effort to control handedness, lefties make up only 10% of the population today (9% of females, 11% of males). There is evidence that 500,000 year ago, neanderthals were characterized by this 90/10 split.  Simply living in a right-handed world is a challenge. Consider the number of things that are made to be used right-handed, from scissors to guitars to golf clubs. Yes, special implements are available, but that is just the point—they are “special,” and often more expensive. In some places, and at some times, special accommodations aren’t even available. 

Writers Note:  Any right-handed implement being used by a leftie could make a nice scene, and the way the leftie copes would clearly illuminate the leftie’s character.

Biases Against Lefties

  • “Right” phrases for positive things (such as right answer, right-hand man) vs. “left” phrases for things that are clumsy or bad (e.g., two left feet or a left-handed compliment).
  • Because the left hemisphere of the brain (which controls the right side of the body) is responsible for words, in almost every language the words for the right side of the body are positive and for the left side are negative.
    • In English, the direction “right” also means correct or proper.
    • In languages derived from Latin, left also means unlucky; sinister means evil.
    • In French, gauche means left, awkward, and clumsy; droit(e) means right, straight, as well as law.
  • In Ghana, a person can’t point with a left hand because the left hand is reserved for dirty things.
  • In some Islamic cultures, people are said to step into the mosque with the right foot, into the toilet with the left.
  • Only the right hand can be used for eating in most cultures where eating with bare hands is the norm.
  • Across cultures, words with more letters on the right side of the keyboard are rated more positively than average; words with more left side letters were rated more negatively. Since 1990, names with more right-side letters are wildly more popular.
  • Most religions have a strong bias for the right hand, particularly in Christian cultures:
    • The faithful sit at the Right Hand of God.
    • Black magic and Satanism are often referred to as the Left-Hand Path.
    • “And he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And he shall set the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left.” Matthew 25: 32–33
  • When asked to judge two alien creatures side-by-side on the page, right-handers attributed more positive to the one on the right, while lefties were more positive toward the one on the left (attribution of honest, intelligent, attractiveness).
  • Lefties can learn to behave like right-handed people, and some cultures and periods in history have pushed strongly to suppress left-handedness.
Left-handed children were forced to use their non-dominant hand in school well into the 20th Century in the US.

Writer questions: How does your leftie cope with these biases on a daily basis? What if a leftie from a more accepting culture finds him/ herself in a stricter culture, and had to learn to write right-handed, and not hand anything to someone with the left hand?

The Downside of Left-Handedness

  • Mental illness is more common in left-handed people.
    • Lefties have a higher risk of psychosis. Lefties make up 20% or more of people diagnosed.
    • Lefties make up 40% of people diagnosed as schizophrenic.
    • Scientists have also found an increased risk for autism, ADHD, and dyslexia.
    • Lefties are more affected by fear, often showing subtle behaviors like people with PTSD.
    • Lefties are more prone to having negative emotions, such as anger.
    • Lefties seem to have a harder time processing their feelings.
    • Lefties report feeling more inhibited, shy, and embarrassed.
    • For mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disease, lefties make up 11%, close to their proportion in the general population.
During certain time periods, being left handed was enough to be convicted of witchcraft.
  • Left-handedness is positively correlated with lower-birth-weight and complications.
  • 40% of children with cerebral palsy were left-handed.
  • Lefties are more likely to break bones.
  • Lefties are more likely to have heart disease and to die earlier as a result.
  • For women 
    • Left-handedness is associated with a 62% increased risk for Parkinson’s disease.
    • A higher risk of developing multiple sclerosis.
    • Lefties have a higher risk of breast cancer, especially in post-menopausal women.
  • Paraphiliacs (exhibiting atypical sexual interests, typically involving extreme or dangerous activities) have a higher rate of left-handedness.
  • Greater rates of left-handedness have been documented for pedophiles.
  • Overall lefties salaries are 10% lower on average than right-handers. (Among the college educated, lefties earned 10-15% more than their right-handed colleagues.)

Writers: choose the psychological or health issue your leftie has(to) overcome.

Several members of the British Royal Family are left-handed.

The Upside of Left-Handedness

  • Lefties are more likely to develop some measure of dexterity in their non-dominant hand, most likely a result of years using tools designed for righties.
  • Lefties have a lower rate of arthritis.
  • Lefties have a lower rate of ulcers.
  • Lefties are better at divergent thinking, which generating ideas that explores many possible solutions.
  • Lefties tend to be drawn to careers in the arts, music, sports, and information-technology fields, and are often successful.
  • A slightly larger proportion of lefties are especially gifted in music and math.
Link from Legend of Zelda Is one of the few canonically left-handed video game characters.
  • Lefties have an advantage in hand-to-hand combat, analogous to throwing a curveball.
  • Lefties have an advantage in sports that involve aiming at a target, and are over-represented in baseball, tennis, table tennis, badminton, fencing, cricket, and boxing.
  • Some cultures have historically accepted or even revered left-handed individuals:
    • The Incas positively regarded left-handed individuals as people who possessed special spiritual abilities.
    • In Buddhism, the natural persuasion to use the left hand implied wisdom, according to it’s teachings.
    • In early Russia, “levsha” (left-hander) became a common noun for a skilled craftsman of status.
  • Women who hold their infants in their right arm (presumably to leave their left hand free for fine-motor skills) are less likely to suffer from post-partum depression.

Writers: At last! Ways your leftie might thrive.

Also Related to Handedness—or Not

  • Immune system disorders are not more common for lefties.
  • The research on handedness and homosexuality is not consistent.
  • A childs dominant hand is clear by age 3 or 4.
  • Genetic males with female gender identities were more than twice as likely to be left handed than the control group
  • Lefties drink more
    • But they are no more prone to alcoholism.
  •  How speech is heard:
    • Right-handed people like rapidly-changing sounds like consonants;
    • Lefties hear slowly-changing sounds like syllables or intonation better.
  • People use their non-dominant hand for negative gestures
  • Handedness is a combination of genetics, biology, and environment; although left-handedness does tend to run in families, but a left-handed identical twin’s twin is right-handed about 30% of the time.
  • Overall, people gesture more with their dominant hand, especially when saying something positive.
Castles were built with clockwise spiral staircases to provide an advantage to defenders coming down the stairs.
  • People attack with their dominant hands, defend with the other.
  • Lefties are biased in favor of candidates on the left side of the ballot. (Everyone is biased in favor of people listed near the top of the ballot.)
  • Four of the last seven U.S. presidents were left-handed (Obama, Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ford); earlier, Garfield and Truman were lefties, and maybe Reagan was born a leftie but made into a right-hander. Info isn’t available for earlier presidents due to widespread efforts to suppress left-handedness.

Writers: Some of this info might help your hero/ine leftie in a fight, or it could just make for and interesting behavioral quirk.

Left-handed Chinese fencer Li Na again South Korean Shin A-lam

Not addressed in this blog: There is a lot of research on handedness and brain lateralization which I haven’t touched on. I focused instead on observables and emotions that might be useful to writers.

BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: a left-handed character could be a gold mine. Start prospecting!

AND LEFTIES HAVE THEIR OWN DAY: AUGUST 13 IS INTERNATIONAL LEFT-HANDERS DAY.  Since 1992, it is a celebration of sinistrality—i.e., left-handedness! Mark your calendar for 2020.

PAIN IS GOOD

Well… Perhaps not good, but certainly useful for writers!

If you are a writer, you don’t have to be a masochist to appreciate pain. It’s a great tool for plot, tension, and character traits. I won’t bother defining pain. We all know it when we feel it. Instead, I’ll focus on types, implications, and uses.

Three Pain Anomalies 

Any of these can twist the action of your story.

  • Experiencing pain in response to a stimulus that is normally painless (allodynia). It has no protective biological function. 
  • Feeling pain in a part of the body that has been amputated (phantom pain). Actually not so anomalous: it’s experienced by 82%of upper limb and 54% of lower limb amputees.
  • Insensitivity to pain stimuli (asymbolia). Indifference to pain present from birth. These people don’t avoid situations/activities that cause pain and bodily damage. Some die before adulthood, all have a reduced life expectancy.

Temporary (Acute) vs. Long-term (Chronic) 

Sometimes, the effects aren’t all that different.

  • Behavioral deficits caused by being in pain: attention/focus, working memory, mental flexibility, problem solving, and information processing speed
    • Use the deficits to ramp up the tension when your hero/ine is trying to achieve a goal
    • Use success in spite of these deficits to make your character come across as stronger, more resourceful, more reliable
  • Intensified negative emotions of depression, anxiety, fear, and anger, when in pain
    • Use any of these to create tension between characters 
    • Use any of these as challenges for the hero/ine to overcome and remain functional
  • Following an acute pain episode, people reported feeling better than people who hadn’t been in pain. It feels so good when it stops?
Medieval Torture
  • Chronic pain is associated with several long-term negative side effects: 
    • Weight gain or loss associated with medications (steroids, nerve pain drugs, opioids) and decreased exercise and activity
    • Unpredictable mood swings and increases in scores on tests of hysteria, depression, and hypochondriasis 
    • Decrease in patience
    • Grief for the person s/he once was
    • Lifestyle changes:
      • Unable to work or provide for family
      • Need help to function (get dressed, bathe, eat)
      • Loss of prior skill (e.g., can’t play the harp any more)
    • Skin, hair and nails can take a beating: increased sensitivity, intermittent spots on face, hair loss
    • Intimacy often suffers:
      • Sex may be painful
      • Ill person may be less energized in finding what works and adapting
    • Financial hardship adds to stress, which makes things worth; money goes to medications, lotions and potions, treatments, travel to and from appointments

How to Show Pain When the Character Isn’t Telling  

Sometimes, people/characters try to hide their pain. Other times, s/he isn’t able to communicate it. Using these behaviors, you can let the reader or another character know the person is in pain.

  • Facial grimacing
  • Guarding (trying to protect a body part from being bumped or touched)
  • Increase in vocalizations such as sighs or moans
  • Changing routines
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Appearing withdrawn, anxious, depressed, or fearful
  • Decrease in social activities
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increases in confusion or display of aggression or agitation
  • Decline in self-care
  • Side effects from hidden medication
    • Over-the-counter pain medication often causes stomach irritation and nausea; people taking these medications may uncharacteristically refuse alcohol
    • Prescription pain medication, even when taken responsibly, often cause random itching, slowed breathing, constipation, and nausea; drowsiness and confused thinking (agitation, euphoria, etc.) are probably the most noticeable side effects

Why Would Someone Want to Hide Pain?

  • Don’t want to look weak
  • Showing pain is impolite
  • Showing pain is shameful
  • Pain is seen as a deserved punishment
  • Pain was self-inflicted as a maladaptive coping mechanism
  • To avoid treatments against one’s religious beliefs
  • Afraid it means death is near
  • To avoid treatment that might lead to addiction
  • Don’t want to admit needing help
  • To avoid being disqualified from certain careers or activities
  • To shield another character from the knowledge
  • Showing pain would lead to more pain being inflicted

Gender and Pain  

  • Socially and culturally, acknowledging pain is more acceptable for women than for me. Women are expected to be emotional, men stoic.
  • Female pain is often stigmatized, leading to less urgent treatment, longer wait times in emergency rooms, and doubting the accuracy of women’s reports of pain.
  • Statistically, women are more likely to be prescribed sedatives for pain; men are more likely to be prescribed actual painkillers.
  • Study shows men more prone to hypersensitivity when exposed to an environment in which they remembered feeling pain.

Beauty Knows No Pain

Many activities require some amount of pain, if only at the beginning. Lifting weights, running, bicycling, and other workout routines can cause severe soreness and muscle aches the first few times a character exercises. What would make a character get up and do it again? Training to compete in a sport is likely to cause some pain as the human body is pushed beyond its previous limit. How much is too much, enough to make a character quit?

Developing the callouses necessary for manual labor, martial arts, playing stringed instruments, some types of dancing, etc. almost always involves blisters and bleeding along the way. Some activities always involve some level of pain, such as dancing en pointe, Tough Mudder runs, or boxing. What might make a character work past the pain to perform any of these? How might characters convince themselves to repeat the necessary movements, knowing how much they will hurt?

Beauty and fashion often come with pain of their own: tattoos, corsets, high heels, neckties, piercings, trendy clothes too hot or too cold for the environment… Why? Consider the different standards of beauty at different time periods or in various cultures; how much pain would a character be willing to undergo to achieve these standards?

Describing Pain More Vividly 

Here. It hurts right here.

Be precise about location, intensity, whether it’s continuous or intermittent, whether it’s burning, sharp, deep or superficial, diffuse or focused. In a medical environment, patients are often asked whether their pain is new (acute) or ongoing (chronic). There is a difference between shooting pain and stabbing pain; there is a difference between a stomachache and a pressure ache in the upper, right abdomen. Pain in ligaments, tendons, bones, blood vessels, fasciae, and muscles is dull, aching, poorly-localized. For example, sprains and broken bones are felt as deep pains. Minor wounds and burns are superficial. Is this pain burning, tingling, electrical, stabbing, pins-and-needles? Further examples of pain descriptors can be found here or here.

Give That Baby Sugar? 

Fun tidbit: sugar taken by mouth reduces pain in newborns resulting from lancing of the heel, venipuncture, and intramuscular injections. It does not remove pain of circumcision. The reduced pain of injections might last till age 12 months.  Mary Poppins was right: a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down!

Bottom line for writers: pain is incredibly useful in numerous ways.

It’s lucky for us that pain is so easily treated! Even for children!

CASE STUDIES IN ADOPTION

Note: Unless otherwise specified, the photographs below are for illustration purposes only and are not connected to the case studies provided. Examples and links to specific adoption agencies are provided for reference and not as an endorsement or condemnation of any particular agency.

AdoptiveFamilies.com

The concept of adoption has a generally positive aura. Indeed, it’s easy to find articles like Why Adopt? 23 Reasons to Adopt a Child (amerianadoptions.com). But frankly my experience of adoptions via family and friends is a mixed bag. 

The good news for writers: good, bad, or unclear outcome, adoptions are fertile ground for characters and plots.

Case 1: Desire to Adopt a Stepchild

When my husband and I married, he was a widower with a three-year-old daughter. I (foolishly) thought that by that marriage, I became his daughter’s mother. Wrong! To be her legal parent, I had to adopt her. We lived in Upstate New York, and at the time a child with a living biological parent could be adopted only if the biological parent gave up his/her parental rights.  The upshot was that my hubs signed away his parental rights and then we both adopted her!

This was an incredibly successful adoption. I told my parents, my husband’s parents, AND our daughter’s maternal grandmother that any and all of our children had to be treated equally. We subsequently had two more daughters. Words like step-mother, half-sister, etc., never crossed anyone’s lips—and I don’t think crossed anyone’s mind. When her elementary school class made family trees, hers had three branches: her biological mother, her father, and me. 

Writers note: consider such a case that did not go so well.

Case 2 A, B & C: Desire to Help a Friend or Family Member Who Isn’t in a Position to Raise a Child

2A – the biological mother of two children was murdered, and neither of the fathers was known. The maternal grandmother and her husband adopted the grandchildren. Although a financial burden, no one seemed to regret the decision.

2B – the biological parents of the child were drug addicts. The paternal grandmother went to court to get custody and eventually adopted the grandson, who grew up to be an admirable and ambitious young man.

2C – the biological parents were unmarried teenagers, not financially viable, and not psychologically well balanced enough to care for a special needs child. The paternal grandmother first won custody and then adopted her. The adopted daughter struggled through special education classes, therapy, and at age eighteen, vocational training for a sheltered work environment. The child/young adult was a constant and severe stress on the paternal grandmother and her husband’s marriage.

Writers note: consider that a biological father came forward in A; consider how the relationship between the biological parent and the grandparent might evolve in cases B & C.

AFamilyForEveryChild.com

Case 3 A & B: Desire to Give a Child Born in Another Country a Chance to Thrive

3A – the adoptive father had been a U.S. soldier who served in Viet Nam. He and his wife had three children (sons) but wanted to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. In the event, the Vietnamese orphans were so weak and sickly that the international agencies weren’t placing them. They suggested adopting a Korean orphan, and that is what they did. As adults, the children have good relationships. Although differing in political perspectives, the adoptive parents and daughter are emotionally close.

3B – the parents decided to adopt a child from a country where the majority of the population is of a different race, practices a different religion, and speaks a different language. The boy was four years old when he was adopted. The relationship between the parents and the child never settled into a comfortable family pattern. When he turned eighteen, the adopted child returned to the country of his birth and changed his name back to the one he’d had in the orphanage. The parents have not seen him since and have only occasional online contact.

Case 4 A & B: Desire to Choose the Child’s Gender

4A – a Caucasian couple had two sons. Wishing for a daughter, they conceived several times over the years but all of those pregnancies ended in miscarriages. They chose to adopt a mixed race (Irish and African American) baby daughter. The adoption was simply a part of the family structure. The child and her biological mother saw each other occasionally. The birth mother being known, there was quite a bit of info available about health issues, for example. The adoptive parents made a conscious effort to expose their daughter to African American culture and experiences.

Writers note: count the ways this might go awry as the adopted daughter goes through teenage rebellion, or is the only non-white face at family gatherings. What if one or both sons marry women who are more or less racist?

4B – a couple had two daughters. After eight years of repeated pregnancies and miscarriages, the wife had a medically necessary hysterectomy. The husband wanted a son “to carry on the family name.” They didn’t want to wait two years to adopt an infant and so applied to adopt a ten-year-old boy. A month younger than the elder daughter, he was in the same class in school as the younger daughter because his biological parents had never enrolled him in school. There was a “trial year” before the adoption could be finalized. It quickly became apparent that the boy shared no interests with the husband, nor his need for achievement. The wife resented the burden of a third child while her health was so fragile, and was fearful that the boy would replace the daughters in her husband’s affection.  The daughters acted to protect the boy from their mother. The boy’s attitude was “hunker down and get by,” because the home he’d been adopted into was much better than his previous situation. At the end of the year, both the couple and the boy agreed to finalize the adoption. In the meantime, the boy had been in school for a year under his birth name. When the husband asked whether the boy wanted to change his name, the boy said he didn’t care, that he wouldn’t be any more a member of the family one way than the other. His name wasn’t changed.

Writers note: what are the long-term implications???

Case 5 A & B: Due to Infertility or Other Reasons, a Parent Cannot Have a Biological Child

5A – After several years of marriage and extensive fertility treatments, a couple was unable to conceive. They decided to adopt.  The adoption wasn’t easy because of the adoptive parents’ ages. They decided to adopt a brother and a sister together, although they’d been told that the children were developmentally behind their ages. The adoptive mother was a psychologist and attributed that developmental lag to their early lives. As the children grew, the boy appeared to be average or a little below in intelligence. The girl suffered microcephaly. The marriage failed. The children remained with the adoptive mother. As the boy developed, she couldn’t handle him and ended up paying a lot of money to enroll him in a military school. As the girl grew, she became ever more aggressive and defiant and was expelled from school. The mother tried therapy, including residential therapy. The girl was living in a residential facility and was on her way to see a psychiatrist (as she had requested), when she said she didn’t want to go to that hospital, jumped from the back of the van, broke her neck and died immediately. The boy married and had a child and had a relationship better than ever with the adoptive mother.

5B – the adoptive mother was a single woman who wanted a child but had no desire to give birth or to involve an unnecessary man. She adopted an infant from South America and raised the girl to be Catholic, fluent in Spanish, and knowledgeable of her native country’s history and culture, in accordance with the biological mother’s wishes. The girl grew up surrounded and supported by her adopted mother’s parents and siblings. She did well at home and in school until about halfway through high school. Then, she got involved with drugs, was in and out of abusive relationships, had three children by unknown fathers, and is now serving time while her adoptive mother has custody of the children.

Writers note: where/how might these events have developed differently?

HowtoAdopt.org

Case 6 A & B: The Couple “Just Wants To”

These two will be treated together because they are related. The women are sisters, the twelfth and thirteenth children in the family. They were exceptionally close growing up. For unknown reasons, neither had a child and they and their husbands each adopted a son. The older sister’s adoption was a great success. The son thrived, both academically and professionally, married and had a daughter they named after his adoptive mother. The younger sister’s adopted son was a ne’er-do-well. He was sporadically employed, had many brushes with the law, driver’s license revoked, time in jail, drank heavily, tapped his mother for financial support, and in the view of the extended family, exploited her financially to her detriment. She never rejected him. And that was a source of tension and distance between the formerly close sisters.

Writers note: fertile ground here! Throw in Parkinson’s or some equally debilitating disease? Why not have children of their own, when all their older sisters had done so?

AdoptConnect.com

Adoption Process

The actual process of adoption varies widely among agencies and countries. However, there are some fairly consistent requirements:

  • The adoptive parent(s) must demonstrate financial stability, a permanent home, psychological maturity, etc.
  • If the adopting parents are married, there is usually a minimum amount of time they must have been married before being allowed to adopt.
  • If there are other children in the home, there is sometimes a requirement that a minimum number of years separate the biological children from the adopted children.
    • Many adoption agencies recommend not adopting a child who is older than the oldest biological child so that birth order is not disrupted.
    • The youngest child in the home is often required to be at least two or three years old before the adopted child will be placed.
  • Parent(s) must be at least eighteen years older than the adopted child.
  • Most adoption agencies perform home visits and individual interviews with each member of the family. Some require character references from friends or employers.
  • Because of the different needs of adopted children, especially older adopted children, many agencies require prospective adoptive families to attend training seminars.
  • Guides for raising adopted children and helping them adjust can be also be found online.

Summary: in my experience, adoption typically isn’t about helping a mother who (for whatever reason) must give up a child. Nor is it about giving a loving home to a child (stranger) who needs it. As a writer, consider the motives of the the adult(s) seeking to adopt. And consider all the ways those motives might be frustrated.

GOOD FEET, BAD FEET

Red feet, Blue feet!

How much thought have you given to your characters’ feet? And shoes? Feet and shoes tend to go together, and both can be valuable as character details, plot devices, and sources of conflict. But let’s start with the basics. Are bare feet good or bad? Yes!

Health Concerns

The Upside of Bare Feet: 

  • Uninhibited flexibility, greater strength, and mobility of the foot.
  • Some research suggests that walking and running barefoot results in a more natural gait, allowing for a more rocking motion of the foot, eliminating hard heel strikes, generating less collision force in the foot and lower leg.
  • Many sports require going barefoot: gymnastics, martial arts, beach volleyball, and tug of war.  Rugby in South Africa is always played barefoot at the primary school level. Other sports have barefoot versions: running, hiking, and water skiing.
  • People who don’t wear shoes have a more natural toe position, not squished together.

The Downside of Bare Feet:

Hallux valgus, bunion
  • Losing protection from cuts, abrasions, bruises, hard surfaces, and extremes of heat or cold.
  • Constantly being barefoot increases likelihood of flat feet, bunions, and hammer toe.
  • Because feet are so sensitive, toe locks and striking the bottoms of the feet are often used as punishment.

Climate and Weather:

  • With no environmental need for shoes, Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, and various African nations have historically gone barefoot.
  • Even when it isn’t necessary, people in such climates often wear ornamental footwear for special occasions.

General Symbolism

  • Baring one’s feet shows humility and subjugation.
  • Going barefoot symbolizes innocence, childhood, and freedom from constraints .
  • Bare feet are often a sign of poverty.
    • The assumption of ignorance and poor hygiene often accompanies the poverty of bare feet.
  • From Roman times on, footwear signaled wealth, power and status in most of Europe and North Africa.Shoes that are impractical or inhibit movement often signal enhanced status, such as Italian chopines, Chinese “Golden Lotus” bound feet, armored German sabatons, Polish crakows, and everything worn by Victoria Beckham.
  • Forbidding shoes marks the barefoot person as a slave or prisoner under the control of others.  Keeping prisoners barefoot is common in China, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Uganda, Iran, Pakistan, India, Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, and North Korea.

Cultural Aspects

Religion:

  • Some religious sects take a vow of poverty, including obligatory bare feet.
  • Many Buddhists go barefoot as a reminder to be concerned for Mother Nature, to lead people in the path of virtue, and to develop the Buddhist spirit.
  • Roman Catholics show respect and humility before the Pope by kissing his feet. 
  • In Judaism and some Christian denominations it is customary to go barefoot while mourning.
  • Anyone entering a mosque or a Hindu temple is expected to remove his or her shoes. Stealing shoes from such a place is often considered a desecration.
    • Hindus show love and respect to a guru by touching his bare feet. 
    • Lord Vishnu’s feet are believed to contain symbols such as conch, fish, and disc.
  • In many spiritual traditions, body and soul are connected by the soles of the feet.

Europe:

  • Wearing shoes indoors is often considered rude or unhygienic in Austria, UK, Ireland, Netherlands, and Belgium.
  • In Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, wearing shoes indoors is expected.

Asian Countries:

  • Showing the soles of the feet is seen as an insult because the feet are seen as unclean (“You are lower than the soles of my feet”).
  • Shoes are seen as dirty and so are removed before entering a mosque, temple, or house.

China:

  • Take your shoes off when entering a house.
  • The practice of foot-binding began in the 10th century as a sign of wealth and beauty. It was outlawed by Empress Dowager Cixi in 1902 (though this was largely ignored) and successfully outlawed by Sun Yat-Sen in 1912.

Japan:

  • Never cross your feet in Japan.
  • Students take off their street shoes when entering school and wear uwabaki, soft-soled clean shoes, to the classroom. Street shoes are stored in special lockers by the school entrance.

Thailand:

  • A prisoner must be barefoot in court during penal proceedings.
  • Because the feet are the lowest part of the body, they are considered filthy.
    • Showing the soles of your feet is extremely rude, a big taboo at any time.
  • Remove your shoes before entering a school, temple, or home.
  • In some houses or schools, inside slippers (never worn outside) are allowed.

India:

  • Shoes are considered impure, so it is customary to remove footwear when entering a home or a temple.
  • Charanasparsha is a very common gesture of respect and subservience made by bowing and touching the feet of the (always superior in age and position) person being honored.

Australia:

  • It’s common for people, particularly young people, to go barefoot in public. In some regions, students attend school barefoot.

New Zealand:

  • Many people, of all races and cases, conduct daily business barefoot.
  • Barefoot is more common in rural areas and some seasons.

South Africa:

  • Walking barefoot in public is common among all ethnic groups, in rural and urban areas.
  • The National Guidelines on School Uniform lists shoes as an optional item.
  • Barefoot people are common in public, shopping malls, stores, and events.

Canada:

I assume everyone in Canada wears these all the time.
  • Take off shoes when entering a home.
  • Elementary schools require students to have indoor shoes and provide a place to store outdoor footwear. Outdoor shoes are worn in high schools.
  • Some medical facilities require patients to remove shoes for reasons of cleanliness.
  • Office workers usually wear indoor shoes in winter, outdoor shoes in summer.

United Kingdom:

  • Mostly in rural areas, children and teenagers are accepted.
  • Some schools encourage barefoot participation in indoor and outdoor physical education.
  • The National Health Service encourages people to go barefoot or wear open-toed sandals in hot weather to avoid sweaty, smelly feet.

United States:

  • Many children in rural areas, and/or those in poverty go barefoot.
  • More commonly, people wear shoes both outdoors and indoors.
  • Businesses that don’t prepare or serve food can determine dress codes that prohibit or allow bare feet.

Miscellaneous:

  • Fairies and magical creatures in several cultures leave no footprints. Checking for footprints is a common method of identifying supernatural creatures and avoiding mischief.
  • Before a baby learns to walk, stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl up. After the baby learns to walk (and for the rest of their pedestrian life), stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl down.
  • Ancient Egyptian believed that stepping forward with the left foot trod out evil so the heart could proceed.
  • The foot chakra is one of the most important, as it helps pass the Divine Energy to Mother Earth, making powerful grounding .
  • Having a foot fetish or kink means being sexually aroused by feet or certain parts thereof, such as toes, arches, ankles, etc.

Bottom line for writers: What are your characters’ attitudes and behaviors regarding feet and shoes? And why?