Characters’ Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words

Some things seldom if ever appear on the page because they are just taken for granted. If your characters leave the house—unless you specifically say otherwise—the reader assumes they are wearing shoes and street clothes appropriate to the season, have combed their hair, had breakfast, brushed their teeth. . .  If you’ve established quirks for your characters—e.g., Sue Grafton’s detective Kinsey Millhone works out twice a day—even these individual habits or routines aren’t mentioned every time they happen. The reader assumes those actions as part of the background.

 

Consider the power of not doing the usual. Under what circumstances might a character wear the same clothes for a solid 48 hours? Does it make a difference if those clothes are pajamas? What are the implications of skipping showers, hair washing, and tooth brushing? Why might a character eat sardines and Great Northern beans straight from the can? All of these possibilities imply powerful motivation or situational constraints. Is your character held captive? Lost in Alaska? Deeply depressed?

 

Even if your characters aren’t doing what’s expected, they’re doing something. Maybe it’s computer solitaire, or a jigsaw puzzle; reading trashy novels and eating bonbons; getting knee-walking drunk; or maybe it’s only sleeping, or staring into space—but it’s something. What that something is—and the feelings that accompany it—say a great deal about your character. Is your character in survival mode? Overwhelmed? Feeling rebellious? Guilty?  Ashamed? Weak?

 

TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS

Sometimes what a character doesn’t do is as telling as what s/he does do. Use it!

 

Characters Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words

Passionate About Writing

passionate about writing
 
I’m passionate about writing because it keeps my brain working. I want my stories to be accurate and interesting, and in doing the research to make that happen, I learn new things. For example, in working on “Feeding Bella” I learned that ketamine, a veterinary anesthetic, causes hallucinations in humans; its street name is Special K. Or, again, researching the Great Depression, I learned that gasoline was ten cents a gallon and ham was ten cents a pound.
great depression gas prices
When I first retired, which I did at age fifty-two, I became depressed—much to my surprise. I‘d looked forward to more time for cooking and gardening. But filling my life with things I used to get done evenings and weekends felt hollow. And I hated to keep introducing myself by what I used to do—as in, “I’m a retired vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty.” Before retirement, I hadn’t realized the extent to which my identity, and my friendships, were tied to my work life.

 

For me, writing has replaced my former career. It engages many skills—especially research skills—from my academic past and it’s enlarged my social circle. I’ve never met a dull, boring writer.
passionate about writing
I always excelled academically. Now getting a story published is like getting an A on my report card; books are like making the dean’s list or Phi Beta Kappa.

 

My writing brings in very little income, so thank goodness I don’t write to put food on the table. Instead, writing fuels my imagination.

 

I’ve always written. In high school it was plays for the student body, poems for my boyfriend, the junior class prophesy and the senior class will. In college I tested out of composition and so had only course-specific instruction, such as how to write research reports. From then through my twenty-seven year career, I wrote academic tomes.

 

passionate about writing
Now I write fiction, and with fiction, anything is possible. I’ve dabbled in historical fiction, mysteries, fantasy, magical realism, memoir, and memoir-based fiction. I’m passionate about writing because it can take me anywhere, real or imagined.

 

I’m passionate about writing because it’s cheaper than therapy and just as effective when dealing with depression. My most recent depression descended in 2014-2015 during my bout with breast cancer that put me under the thumb of the medical establishment for twelve months, frequently getting treatment five days a week. From that experience I published “Beast and the Beauty” (magical realism), “Art Heals” and “Repair or Redecorate after Breast Surgery” (two personal essays about reclaiming my body via tattoos), and “Hindsight” (an essay on how my experience changed my perspective on my years with an invalid mother). Writing allows me to know myself and others in new ways.

 

passionate about writing
BOTTOM LINE: Writing is my passion because it’s my lifeline.

Tools of the Trade

vivian lawry typewriter tools trade
I recently wrote about smart phones as writing tools. Today I’m writing about tools at the other end of the spectrum.

 

In my high school, Mrs. Echard taught all typing and shorthand classes. College-bound students were guided toward the Personal Typing class. It was the only class that was regularly half male! In this class, one learned to write personal and business letters, but also to compose at the typewriter.

 

I can see her now—brown hair, brown skirt-suit and heels, white blouse—modeling proper business attire. And I can hear her saying, “Always write your first draft at the typewriter. Triple space it, so you have room to edit and add notes. Don’t worry about typing errors, given that it’s only a draft. No matter how slowly you type, it is still faster than hand writing.”
vivian lawry
So there we sat, at individual oak desks in even rows, in good typing posture (i.e., feet flat on the floor). A Remington manual typewriter sat centered on the desk, stacks of paper and carbons off to the sides. Two of these typewriters would have been on the ark, had Noah taken objects.

 

All were black with gold lettered Remington on the front. The ribbon spooled from left to right, black on top and red on the bottom. Changing said ribbons was a messy, bumbling business.
vivian lawry typewriter
The keys were arrayed in a fan-like shape and the biggest hassle was hitting two keys at once, causing them to jam at the platen, requiring manual separation—also a messy business.
typewriter tools trade
The keys were round buttons, black on white or white on black, of all letters and symbols—including a symbol for cents, no longer standard on keyboards today. The shift key was also labeled Freedom.
tools trade
Being manual, the pressure on the keys was reflected in the lettering. All fingers not being equally strong, the end product often looked like this.

 

tools trade
Editing back then was literally cut and paste, then retyping the rearranged text. Moving a paragraph—or even a sentence—meant retyping and entire page or maybe more.

 

Correcting a spelling error meant using a round rubber wheel with an attached brush. This is such an ancient artifact now that sculpures of them are in museums and gardens.

 

That was a time when making copies meant typing carbons. Each page and carbon had to be corrected separately—and heaven forbid one erased a hole in the paper.

 

I learned Mrs. Echard’s lesson well. I never after hand-wrote a draft, or much of anything else. By now, I find it difficult to hand-write a thank you note!

 

BOTTOM LINE: not that long ago, writing was a very slow, laborious activity.  I marvel that anything got written at all.

Should You Kill Your Darlings?

It’s the mantra we always hear, in every writing class, from every teacher:

“[K]ill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” –Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

If you’ve never heard this quote before, what King is trying to say is that by “killing” (deleting) our “darlings” (the phrases, sentences, lines, paragraphs, and/or chapters we love the most), we open our writing up to new possibilities and let go of some of the earlier, stale work we’ve created.

kill darlings

To some extent, this is true. Holding on to old parts of your work, like parts you’re especially proud of, is much more favorable to losing them. However, in many cases (especially when you think of shorter writing forms, like poetry), deleting those darlings will pack more of a punch later in your work.

But is it always true?

kill darlings

If you’re proud of your darlings, there must be a reason. Maybe it’s the imagery you’ve invoked, a character who leaps off the page, or a line that thrills you. These things might not work for whatever you’re currently writing, but that’s not to say they need to be deleted forever!

So I would restructure the phrase to say “Relocate your darlings” (although it packs less of a punch). Save them for a rainy day! If you write longhand, keep a file folder or notebook of your darlings. If you’re someone who writes using a computer, add them to a document or folder. What doesn’t work now can work later, and it will be all the more satisfying to keep those darlings alive.

kill darlings

Adding Nature to Your Writing

virginia wildlife squirrel

I’ve written before about the use of pets in writing. But what I am writing about now is not domesticated animals or houseplants. Of course, there are lots of versions of nature writing, from guides to insects, shells, birds, etc., to books like Hawk, which gets into all sorts of emotional and philosophical issues—but I’m not writing about that, either—no, not writing in which nature is the focus.

 

Nature to illuminate character. Does your character respond equally to flora and fauna? Why or why not? Does your character respond very selectively to nature? Maybe only attracted to or aware of rabbits?

 

bunny virginia
Or maybe your character is a gardener in his/her leisure time. How does that play out? Flower arrangements for a dinner or wedding? Flower shows? Garden club commitments that conflict with plot demands, creating tension?

 

Is your character an indoor person rather than an outdoor person—generally keep the natural world at arm’s length?Why? Allergies? Fears? Sun sensitivity? Physical handicap?

 

What sort of nature draws your character? The great outdoors? The eastern woods? Again, why?

 

All of these sorts of things can be inserted as grace notes, dropped in strategically, not highlighted but effective.
 
Nature to set the mood or tone.
 
Thunderstorms give us one tone—threat, foreboding, physical danger.

 

virginia landscape
Sunny landscapes and/or skies create the opposite—good cheer, good luck, a generally upbeat tone.

 

So, including nature notes can illuminate character and set mood or tone. How else do you use bits of nature?

Discover Richmond for Writers

discover richmond writers
That I am a fan of the Richmond Times Dispatch periodic publication Discover Richmond is no secret, given that I’ve written about it before. The recently published June/July 2018 issue is especially relevant for writers.

 

discover richmond writers
For mystery writers the “Back to class” article is right on target. Michael C. Leopold teaches a class at the University of Richmond titled “Catching Criminals with Chemistry”—which is a relevant bit of info in and of itself. Also, this short (2 p.) article mentions several examples of the chemistry-crime solving connection, including how chemistry reveals clues through analysis of gunshot residue and drug traces. Also, much to my surprise, fingerprint matching is still done by human experts, not computer images. AND the article raises interesting questions, such as, “Does this partial match give police the right to investigate potentially innocent family members—or collect their DNA samples—just because they are related to a felon in the database?” A short but excellent read.

 

discover richmond writers
Potentially relevant to any writer is the long article about the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee, where the Army teaches those enrolled how to handle the human remains of soldiers—with dignity, reverence, and respect. These three words are emphasized in the article—which immediately leads to many possible story lines in which they are violated or ignored.

 

Most who come for training are enlisted soldiers and marines, but “officer-course attendees come from all of the military service, and from federal agencies such as the State Department and U.S. Park Police.”

 

discover richmond writers
On the other hand, if you want to know how it’s done properly, read on. For example, enrollees practice carrying a weighted casket-like case to master a dignified transfer ceremony. Interestingly, 95% of the Army’s mortuary affairs specialists volunteer for this duty. The Marine Corps requires its specialists to be volunteers. What sort of person would so volunteer? What’s the motivation?

 

Because the work is so “grisly and grueling” those working in mortuary affairs are given many opportunities for mental health and/or religious support to deal with the emotional strain. The article features real people, both trainees and teachers, and gives a concise summary of mortuary affairs in the military.

 

discover richmond writers
For those who write historical fiction and/or nonfiction—or whose plots include references to past events—this issue of Discover Richmond is a gold mine.

 

discover richmond writers
The Archive Dive is just that. It pictures interesting artifacts in various Virginia collections, from Colonial times to WWII. And speaking of Colonial times, I had never made a conscious connection between our English roots and witchcraft. And when considering witchcraft in the colonies, my mind went immediately to Salem, MA. But the earliest witchcraft charges in Virginia were made in September, 1626.

 

discover richmond writers
The article describes the case of Grace Sherwood, who did not drown during the water test, and therefore she was convicted and put into prison. Apparently Virginia courts were reluctant to kill witches, unlike Massachusetts where nineteen so-called witches were executed in one year (1692).
discover richmond writers
Having written a novel set in Bath County in 1930-1935, which included an element of bootlegging, I was particularly interested in “THE WETTEST SPOT ON EARTH” about moonshining during Prohibition in nearby Franklin County. All of this eventually led to national interest and a trial of 34 defendants, 55 unindicted co-conspirators with literally hundreds of witnesses. Much was written about liquor, jury tampering, and murder. It seems Sherwood Anderson wrote about it for Liberty magazine.

 

This article is full of interesting—and sometimes amazing—information. For example, considering the ingredients in moonshine, and equipment to make it, one expert testified that over a four-year period “Franklin—the county had a population 24,000 in 1935—imported 70,448 pounds of yeast, compared with 2,000 pound in the city of Richmond (population 189,000 during the same time frame).”

 

discover richmond writers
Similarly, for sugar, Anderson wrote, “There were said to be single families in the county that used 5,000 pounds of sugar a month.” And the county consumed more than 600,000 five-gallon cans, which would hold a total of 3,501,115 gallons of moonshine coming from this one county. Have I said enough to entice you to read this great article?

 

This issue of Discover Richmond includes many articles I haven’t even mentioned, from the Appalachian Trail to second-hand storestrumpet honeysuckle.

 

discover richmond writers
 
Read it. You’re sure to find something of interest and probably something of use for your writing.

My Smart Phone Writing Tool

my smart phone writing tool
This week I bought a new smart phone, which led me to think about ways my smart phone helps me with my writing.
my smart phone writing tool
The Photo Function. I’ve always liked photos but I didn’t really get into taking pictures until I bought my first cell phone that included a camera. With a camera always in my pocket, the ease of picture taking made me nearly an addict, and I take several pictures a day.
This morning I photographed the creature watching me eat breakfast. Being more aware of the fauna in my yard often leads me to look up info about them, thus making me more informed in general, and sometimes serving as story starters. For example, I wrote “Man vs. Beast,” a magical realism piece about a man’s battle with beasties from squirrels to deer.

 

my smart phone writing tool
Taking lots of pictures has made me more aware of the world around me, more aware of details, such as plants that survive in the concrete jungle. It’s also made me more aware of framing—i.e. what needs to be left out to improve a (word) picture.

 

my smart phone writing tool
 
The List/Notes Function.
 
This function is great for jotting down words or phrases that come to mind or are overheard that might suit a story I’m writing now, or might write in the future (e.g., oh, perdition!, about played out, we’uns and you’uns). Also it’s a handy place for lists of books recommended in conversation.

 

my smart phone writing tool
THE CALENDAR.
 
My favorite aspect of the calendar is that I can separate writing events from personal, medical, travel, etc. This makes it easy to identify due dates and writing deadlines, as well as readings and book signings.

 

my smart phone writing tool
 
Maps/Navigation.
 
The maps and navigation functions have made me bolder, more willing to attend meetings, events, and conferences. Not only can I get driving directions spoken aloud to me, I can locate food once I get there!

 

my smart phone writing tool
Contacts. I can separate writing friends from others for mailings, etc., and each contact can be used in more than one list. This is incredibly more convenient than using my old Rolodex system, easier to make changes and edit.

 

my smart phone writing tool
Search Function.
 
Last but far from least, my phone allows me to search the internet for whatever bit of info I might need for what I am writing, anything from the cost of gasoline during the Great Depression (10 cents a gallon) to lists of imaginary/fantasy diseases. With this aspect of my phone tool, I can be accurate more easily and get background on virtually every person/event/issue of relevance.

 

Bottom line: Although some bemoan the ever-growing dependence on technology, I for one appreciate the ways a smart phone has made my writing life easier and richer.

 

my smart phone writing tool

I’m Not Alone Here

commonly misused english words
The right word vs. the almost right word is the difference between sounding articulate vs. sounding pretentious—and uneducated. This has long been one of my pet peeves. Indeed, I blogged about it in the past.

 

Not surprisingly, many others agree with me. Dr. Travis Bradberry blogged about it at Huffington Post. His words were:

 

accept vs. except
affect vs. effect
lie vs. lay
bring vs. take
ironic vs. coincidental
imply vs. infer
nauseous vs. nauseated
comprise vs.compose
farther vs. further
fewer vs. less

 

And to his list, I would add sit vs. set. The former is settling oneself, as in sit on a bench. The latter is placing something, as in setting the vase on the table.

 

You can find “The 58 most Commonly Misused Words and Phrases” by Independent. Their word fails include the following:

 

adverse vs averse
appraise vs. apprise
amused vs bemused
criterion vs. criteria
datum vs. data
depreciate vs. deprecate
dichotomy vs. differentiate
disinterested vs. uninterested
credible vs. credulous
enervate vs. energize
enormity vs. enormous
flaunt vs. flout
flounder vs. founder
fortuitous vs. fortunate
fulsome vs.full
homogeneous for homogenized
hung vs. hanged
regardless vs. irregardless
literally vs. figuratively
mitigate vs. militate
noisome vs. noisy
proscribe vs. prescribe
protagonist vs. proponent
reticent vs. reluctant
simplistic vs. simple
staunch vs. stanch
tortuous vs. torturous
unexceptionable vs. unexceptional
untenable vs. unbearable
verbal vs. oral

 

No, I’m not going to define these differences. If you aren’t absolutely sure of a pair, look it up! Indeed, you are more likely to remember if you actively look it up vs. passively read it.

 

The examples I’ve listed here are just that. These lists aren’t exhaustive. Indeed, wikipedia lists hundreds of such words, alphabetized and defined. It’s worth a read. Bottom line: only use words you know for sure.

 

commonly misused english words

How Weather Affects Your Characters

weather affects characters

Just as characters affect one another in your writing, they are also affected by the weather around them. In fact, just like people do with the setting, think of weather as a character. Keep in mind that weather and climate are two different things and will affect characters in different ways. Climate tends to affect lifestyle, social structure, and culture, whereas weather affects daily choices. There are myriad ways weather can affect your characters. If you can think of more to add to my list, I’d love to hear them!

Symbolism/metaphor

This can sometimes be overdone, but think of the symbolism of some weather forms. Is your character confused or unsure of something? You could make it foggy outside. Is the plot building up to a big climactic scene? Maybe a storm is approaching as well.

weather affects characters

Foreshadowing/Mood

This could apply both to the mood of the piece or the character’s mood. Weather could either complement or contradict how the character is feeling, e.g., if they’re upset the weather could either be stormy or ironically sunny. Depending on which it is, it could deepen the character’s mood. After all, long periods of darkness may result in moodiness or depression. The build up to a storm can increase irrational behavior and sensitivity to pain.

Health/Survival

Weather can affect health in subtle or extreme ways. A walk in the rain could lead to anything from a minor cold to pneumonia. Take hypothermia, for example: you don’t need to be in freezing conditions to develop that condition. “An unfit person in wet clothes can be hypothermic in temperatures as mild as 15oC (60oF). A hypothermia victim is often confused, and can be the last to be aware of their state,” writes expert Candida Spillard.

Plot/Setting

Even a small turn or change in weather can lead to a turn or change in plot or characters’ movements. Weather is a huge factor in decisions people make throughout the day. For example, if it’s raining, fewer people will be outside, which could be a way for there to be fewer witnesses in, say, a plot involving murder.

weather affects characters

Do you have more examples to add to this list? Let me know in the comments section! And remember: depending on where your character lives, the climate (and weather) will vary based on season and location. Do your research!

The Upside of Arguing Badly

upside arguing badly
Arguing has a bad reputation. No one wants to be known as argumentative! In my opinion, that’s because disagreements become arguments when they are handled badly. If all goes well, they are more likely to be labeled discussions! Having characters arguing badly is a powerful tool for writers. Here are 11 ways of arguing badly you might not have thought about recently.

 

1 One person is trying to dominate another. A symptom of this type of arguing is shouting. Of course, it doesn’t always work. Often the exchange devolves into a shouting match. Or a non-shouter will eventually just physically leave.
2 Name-calling. Insults up the emotion—often pulling resentment into the mix, leading the insulted person to defend against the insult and veer off the topic of the disagreement and into mutual character assassination.
3 A related tactic is comparing the other person to some disliked other person. E.g., you’re just like Aunt Agatha. Here the reaction depends largely on whether the person compared to Aunt Agatha likes or dislikes her.

 

upside arguing badly

4 Physical violence or the threat thereof—e.g., punching the wall or throwing things. This doesn’t settle a disagreement, it just stops the expression of it, leaving the threatened party to stew silently—and perhaps plot revenge.

5 Kitchen-sink fighting—i.e., throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the argument. This often involves bringing up past grievances, failures, or misdeeds that have nothing to do with what originally started the argument.

 

upside arguing badly
6 Not letting it go. Once the parties are stale-mated, instead of agreeing to disagree one or both parties bring up the issue repeatedly, nag, and/or sulk.
7 Trying to gain allies in the argument. This is simply trying to get others to take one’s side in an argument. It could be friends, neighbors, co-workers, or—perhaps most damaging—family members, especially children.

 

upside arguing badly
8 Interrupting. Not waiting for the other person to finish a point is another great way to up the emotion.
9 Not listening. This is similar to interrupting but not so active. One person is trying to make a point and the other person is reading, watching TV sports, texting, etc.

 

upside arguing badly
10 Make things up. One party simply asserts facts that aren’t. These sound authoritative, informed, and relevant—as in 89% of people do X, or as Abraham Lincoln said in 1873…. They backfire when the truth comes out—as in, the other party knows Lincoln died in 1865. Being caught in a lie escalates the argument.
11 Last but not least, add alcohol. Alcohol disinhibits, meaning that people speak and act more freely. And depending on the amount of alcohol, one or more of the parties may not be thinking clearly.
upside arguing badly
People are creatures of habit. For your characters, establish a pattern of arguing based on his/her typical weapons. Conflict is a beautiful thing!