WRITING PROTESTS, DEMONSTRATIONS, AND PUBLIC OUTCRIES: THINK BEYOND TODAY’S NEWS

Scribe Amennakhte wrote the Turin Strike Papyrus (c.1157 BCE), believed to be the first written record of workers’ strikes and sit-ins. Tomb artisans in Deir el Medina sat down on the job and refused to work until Pharaoh Ramesses III agreed to pay their food wages.

Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counteract ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.

Saul Alinsky

Marching against injustice or striking for improved work conditions, pressing for suffrage or civil rights, playing music or writing books to increase public awareness—throughout history, all sorts of causes have moved people to seek change. The definition of a protest is both vague and nebulous, depending on the speaker. For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to limit my definition to a conscious attempt by people in a society to change some part of the status quo.

Part of the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings in 1066 was not a protest by William the Conqueror against the policies of King Harold of England. A toddler throwing mashed peas on the floor is not protesting in an attempt to change the household policies on vegetable consumption.

A very British protest
Swan Lake meets the Red Lady Army

protest is an expression of objections, disapproval, or dissent regarding an idea or action, typically a political one. The intention is to publicize opinions in an attempt to influence public opinion and/or government policy or to alter conditions so that the change results directly. The categories listed below can have a great deal of overlap: a rally may include protest music; a hunger strike may be accompanied by a vigil; a march may end with delivering a petition, etc. Nearly any type of protest can end in violence, either on the part of the protesters or from opponents trying to stop the protest. Today’s blog will be limited to protests intended to be peaceful.

  • Rally: People in the affected group gather together, often with other allies from the community, to improve solidarity, boost morale, and demonstrate the size of the affected community.
    • Rallies often include speeches, speakers, singing, preaching, and other attempts to raise awareness in the general community and encourage people to continue to campaign.
    • Crowds of people rallied together are more likely to attract media attention, providing a platform for the message to be spread further.
Russians protest 2019 election results in Moscow

Roman plebians were occasionally allowed to gather in a few public spaces to make their grievances against behaviors and unmet expectations of the princeps heard, primarily outside theaters, bathhouses, and the circus.

Students rallied at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to call for more freedom and government transparency.

Turkish women rally to protest violence against women and police apathy

Georgians rally in Tbilisi to legalize marijuana

The M’ikmaq people of the Elsipogtog First Nation took a stand against fracking in 2013 in New Brunswick.

  • March: Affected people and supporters move from point A to point B, often beginning or ending with a rally. Marches often include prayer walks, chants, and singing, as well as signs and banners detailing demands.
    • Though most protests are relatively short, a few miles or circling around and around the same area, some are extremely long.
Soweto student march against South African Apartheid in 1976

In 195 BCE, Roman women came from all over the country to march on Forum in protest of the Senate refusing to repeal the lex Oppia, a law funding the Punic Wars by forbidding women wearing jewelry.

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones led the March of the Mill Children from Philadelphia to New York in 1903 to protest working conditions, especially child labor conditions.

Marches for racial justice and equality have taken place around the world in the past few weeks

Opal Lee, who is 93, is walking from Ft Worth, Texas to D.C. to protest for racial justice and deliver a petition to Donald Trump.

  • Vigil: Banners, placards, candles, and/or leaflets are displayed quietly so passersby know what the vigil stands for even if those standing vigil say nothing.
    • Many vigils are accompanied by music and symbolic lighting or extinguishing of candles or lights to symbolize lost lives or spreading hope, among other statements.
    • A vigil can also be held to raise morale for someone who is unable to be there, to let someone confined in hospital or prison know that others in the community are aware of their plight, or to bring awareness to authorities or the community at large.
UCI nurses held a candlelight vigil protest the lack of personal protective equipment for health care workers treating COVID-19 patients and to honor health care workers who have contracted COVID-19. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Vigils have been held outside prisons to ask authorities too release at-risk, nonviolent prisoners so they won’t die of COVID-19.

A candlelit vigil is held every year to mark the anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Jenny Holzer staged a lightshow vigil to remember victims of gun violence and to spark conversation on how to prevent it in the future.

  • Art – Creativity of every kind is put to use in support of various causes.
Sections of the Berlin Wall left standing have become canvasses for murals calling for peace and freedom.

SongsStrange Fruit became one of the most well-known anthems of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Music -The Brothers of Brass play Louisiana-style jazz at racial justice protests in Denver.

Dance – Young ballerinas in Richmond, VA dance to protest monuments to Confederate generals in 2020.

Grafitti – Tahrir Square in Iraq has been surrounded by murals painted in support of equality.

Theater “The Other Shore” was written by Gao Xingjian in 1986 to protest government censorship and lack of individuality. It has never been performed in mainland China.

Poetry Sextus Propertius the poet wrote several poems highly critical of Caesar Augustus’ warlike nature, generally decrying militarism as a policy.

  • Petition: Having a written record of multitudes who support a cause is an effective way of getting the attention of authorities.
Activists deliver 400,000 signatures on a petition against changes to the NHS in England.

King John was petitioned by his barons to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in England in 1215, reducing the power of the monarchy.

Human Rights Campaign gathering signatures to present to legislature in support of a bill supporting equal right

  • Satire: Rather than attack an authority directly, undermining credibility or gravity by mocking is sometimes a more effective method of advancing a cause.
Protesters shed their clothes to protest the clothing industry’s reliance on sweatshop labor

Vikings historically have been portrayed as uncivilized barbarians without culture or intelligence by the people who left written records of them – literate monks whose monasteries had been burned.

Lysistrata is a comedic play by Aristophanes about women trying to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex until their husbands agree to stop fighting.

Environmental protesters in London protesting corporate interests putting profit over humanity.

Across the street from Westboro Baptist Church, a notoriously anti-gay religious sect, the home owners have painted their houses in the colors of Gay Pride and Transgender Pride.

PETA activists often demonstrate in public by dressing ridiculously to illustrate absurdities in the meat and fur industries.

Ester Hernandez created this illustration to express anger at the human and environmental costs of commercially grown agriculture.

  • Information distribution: tabling votes, gathering petition signatures, lobbying letter-writing campaign, teach-ins.
    • “Doxxing” (or doxing) is a destructive variation of this type of protest, more common since the spread of the internet. Protesters widely publish contact details and sensitive information about people with whom they disagree in an effort to endanger their careers, social lives, families, and personal safety.
Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis shows names of Black people killed by police

Lewis Hine’s photographs of child laborers showed the terrible conditions in which they worked, creating a public outcry

White Rose Society students in Germany protested Nazis by secretly printing anti-Nazi pamphlets and leaflets with information about prison camps and SS atrocities.

Incorrect doxxing nearly ruined the life of Kyle Quinn after he was mistakenly identified online as having taken part in a neo-Nazi rally. He was not involved in any way and was not even in the same time zone.

  • Lawsuit: A social movement or group can sometimes use the legal system to advance their aims. 
A recent US Supreme Court ruling allows immigrants brought to the country as children to stay.

The Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu, one of the oldest recorded legal systems, provides methods for women to sue for divorce, for slaves to be set free or re-enslaved, for everyone to be punished, and for property disputes to be resolved.

Elizabeth Freeman was the first woman to win her freedom in court in America, having successfully sued for her freedom from her former owner in 1781.

Richard and Mildred Loving took their case all the way to the US Supreme Court in 1958 to defend their right to marry, opening the way for all other interracial marriages.

  • Symbols: Pictures are worth a thousand words, and actions speak louder than words… The same is true when protesting. There are many ways to call attention symbolically to a cause
A die-in for eight minutes and 46 seconds in memory of George Floyd, to call for police reform

Shoes left empty to stand in place of people being killed by climate change

Indian students bandaged their eyes to echo the injuries inflicted on a fellow student and to protest safety for Jamia students

Indian farmers stood in chest-deep water for days to call attention to rising floods ruining their farmlands

Puerto Rican protesters erected a guillotine against government corruption

South African women taped their mouths shut to protest community silence about rape

Chinese students against government propoganda education

Colin Kaepernick knelt during the playing of the National Anthem before football games to protest police murder of Black people

Activists in Pamplona, Spain painted themselves red and staged a die-in to protest the Running of the Bulls

A Syrian migrant sewed his mouth shut in protest of the lack of safety or empathy in the world for refugees

Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised a Black Power salute during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics, in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who won the Silver Medal, had his award stripped as punishment for his support of his fellow athletes.

Protesters put plastic bags on their heads to demand clean air and action against climate change

Bicyclists dumped yellow paint on the roadways around the Arc d’Triomphe, causing motorists to spread the paint into the shape of the sun, raising awareness for solar energy

Toni Smith turned her black on the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance to protest racial inequality.

Taiwan workers blocked a highway with a die-in, bodies spell out “raise our salaries”

  • Clothing, or lack thereof, can send a strong yet silent message. People can call attention to their message by wearing clothing considered socially unacceptable, wearing acceptable clothing in an uncommon way, or wearing clothing that is strongly linked with a particular cause.
    • Because women have traditionally been excluded from the sphere of public discourse, many women brought attention to their causes through fashion.
    • Writing on clothing allows a protester to make their voice heard without actually speaking.
    • Refusing to wear a particular garment or any garments at all can also send a message.
A model for Gucci made a surprise statement on the runway to protest the designer’s use of glamorized straight jackets in a fashion show. “Mental Illness is not fashion” is written on her palms.

Amelia Bloomer popularized the garment allowing women more comfort and freedom

Women dressed in antique costumes to highlight old-fashioned, sexist laws

London protesters showed their almost-everything to protest the unsafe and unrealistic body standards used by Victoria’s Secret

Girls from Lincoln High wore trousers to school in 1942 to call for an end to the double standards of the dress code

Boys from Clovis High School wore dresses to protest continuing, sexist, double standards in student dress codes

Congressional Black Caucus members wear Kente cloth to display pride in their African heritage.

Saudi Arabian women wore their abayas and niqabs inside out to protest laws requiring women to be fully covered in public

During a protest against sexual assault, this woman wore clothes documenting all the ways men have touched her inappropriately against her will.

IRA political prisoners on Block H refused to wear prison uniforms and wrapped themselves in blankets to protest the British government revoking their status of political prisoners in 1978.

Burkinis on French beaches have become a contentious issue, with the French government banning them and women demanding to wear them.

Jadon Sancho took off his jersey after scoring a goal to reveal a shirt calling for Justice for George Floyd.

Andrew Hawkins wore a shirt emblazoned with the names of men killed by police

LA Lakers players wore shirts echoing George Floyd’s last words in support of Black Lives Matter

US Women Soccer players wore inside out jerseys to protest pay gap

Women dressed like Handmaid’s Tale to protest anti-abortion laws

Indigenous dress to protest racist team names like Redskins

The 2016 Women’s March on Washington featured thousands of women wearing pink hats in protest of Donald Trump.

Slutwalk to protest victim blaming

French men protest gay marriage by being… naked

Philipino naked protestors against Ferdinand Marcosa buried in hero cemetary

  • Strike, slow down, sick-outs to protest work issues: often follows a failure of negotiations.
Chilean workers on strike in support of popular protests for government change

Pullman car operators on strike in 1894 clashed with union-busters

Factory workers in St. Petersburg, Russia went on strike in 1905, but the Nicholas II sent in the military to break it up.

Shipyard workers in 1942 staged a sit-down protest to call for wage increases

Workers at the Oracle Korea plant on strike

Employees at Woolworth staged a sit-down strike for a regular 40-hour workweek.

Inmates in US prisons went on a hunger strike and refused to work in 2016 and 2018 to call for better conditions and voting rights.

AIIMS- doctors protest racism being treated like terrorists by going on strike for one day

  • Boycott: Organized refusal to buy or use a product or service in protest of the owners, the vendors, the production, or another aspect that is in need of changing.
Customers and employees call for a boycott of WalMart to push for higher wages and better HR policies.

Employees at a stocking factory opposing a boycott of Japanese goods, including silk

American consumers were told to fight Nazis with their wallets during World War II

After Rosa Parks’s arrest in 1955, the Montgopmery Bus Boycott led to thousands of people walking and bicycling to work in protest of bus segregation. 

  • Picket: hold signs, placards, or banners and walking around circles, with or without singing, chanting etc., point is to impede access to a place or to address the people going into that place, there are legal lengths now to how long a picketer is allowed to physically impede someone trying to cross the line
Miners on strike picketing in 1984

Women working in clothing factories went on strike for safer working conditions and better wages following the deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Sanitation workers on strike picketing to protest segregation during the Civil Rights Movement.

Verizon employees on strike form a picket line.

  • Civil Disobedience: Deliberately breaking laws (often seen as unjust) is a way to protest their enforcement. The laws broken are typically not violent ones (such as those against murder or driving drunk) and are usually broken with the deliberate intention of being arrested, possibly causing a scene and raising attention while being arrested.
Leshia Evans stood to be arrested in defiance of police orders trying to break up protest after the deaths of Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.

Henry David Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes going to support the Mexican American War.

Students sat at the lunch counters in defiance of segregated Whites-Only rules.

Civil Rights protesters deliberately entered spaces marked for segregation, such as the Azalea Room.

Flower arranging without a license in front of Louisiana courthouse

Protesters kissing outside the DUMA in Moscow to push back against new laws against public shows of affection in same-sex couples

Kristen Stewart was disgusted by a dress code requiring women to wear high heels at Cannes Film Festival, so she took off her shoes and went barefoot.

Irish protesters kissing outside DAIL in support of gay marriage

Lebanese protesters for government reforms used multiple means to block roads, including burning tires, practicing yoga in intersections, and setting up living space in the middle of highways.

The Kiss of Love Campaign in India is a protest against moral policing forbidding public affection.

Protesters blocked traffic to the courthouse in Kansas during a Black Lives Matter rally.

Graffiti artists are illegal in most areas, but protesters like this woman send messages of solidarity with suffering and demanding government action.

  • Sabotage, property destruction, assasination, riot, mob

Bottom Line for Writers: Someone will always want change, and almost any method they choose to create it has some example in history.

WHEN YOU AND/OR YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT WHITE: INFO FOR WRITERS

As everyone should know by now, given recent events and news coverage, who you are and how you look makes a difference across the spectrum of American life. Writing (and publishing your writing) is no exception. I want to thank Kathleen Corcoran—friend, colleague, and occasional guest blogger—for suggesting this topic. In case you missed the photos on the header of my blog, I should clarify that I am a white woman and thus am relying on outside resources.

Surprise, surprise! (Hear the sarcasm dripping.) 

Black Authors Get Fewer and Smaller Advances Than Their White Counterparts

L.L. McKinney

Take a look at the author photos on the shelves of just about any bookstore, and you’re likely to be confronted by an overwhelmingly pale gallery. The science fiction and fantasy shelves tend to be even more monochromatic.

The disparity in pay is one reason Black authors are less likely to be full-time authors. Through the magic of Twitter, people were shown just how wide that disparity is. Here are a few instances from #publishingpaidme, started by Black fantasy author LL McKinney.

  • White American sci-fi author John Scalzi wrote that to the best of his recollection: he received $6,500 for his first two books in 2005 and 2006, then several five-and six-figure advances before a $3.4m deal for 13 books in 2015.
N. K. Jemisin accepting the Hugo Award
  • In comparison, Hugo-winning Black sci-fi novelist NK Jemisin said that she received $40,000 for each book of the Inheritance trilogy, $25,000 for each book of the Dreamblood duology, and $25,000 for each book of the Broken Earth trilogy, each of which won a Hugo award.

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  • Black American literary novelist Jesmyn Ward said that she wrote her second novel, Salvage the Bones, before securing an advance. “Even after it won the [National Book Award], my publishing company did not want to give me 100K for my next novel.”

Black American author Roxane Gay’s opinion: “The discrepancy along racial lines is very real. Keep your day job.”

Possible explanation: according to a survey earlier this year by Lee & Low Books (publishers of children’s books), 76% of workers in U.S. publishing identified as white. 

Romance writer Jasmine Guillory said, “Publishing is still a business owned by white men,” and “And, you know, the people at the top are all white men.” She made these comments in a Washington Post podcast titled Black Women on Race and Genre, in which Martine Powers talked with N.K. Jemisin, Jasmine Guillory, and Lauren Wilkinson about these issues. 

Lauren Wilkinson

In that podcast Wilkinson noted that in spy novels, from James Bond and John le Carré on, the super spies look very male and very white. So she wrote American Spy featuring a Black woman, Marie Mitchell.

Japanese American author and literary critic David Mura has written extensively about the race, gender, and identity the world of publishing. In his article about changes in the traditional path to publication, Mura identifies another challenge facing Black science fiction and fantasy authors.

The divide between the way whites and people of color see the social reality around them is always there in our society…. 
Creative writing involves the very description of that reality, and so the gulf between the vision of whites and people of color is very present right there on the page. And so, conflict ensues.

David Mura
“The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program”
Gulf Coast

Science Fiction Definitely Has Problems of Inequality  

Octavia Butler

As far back as 1980, Octavia Butler (afrofuturist writer, “The Grand Dame of Science Fiction”) was asking why science fiction is so white. Transmission Magazine published her essay, “The Lost Races of Science Fiction.” It has been reprinted in GARAGE Magazine, Issue 15, September 4, 2018.

Traditional wisdom held that making a main character a person of color will change the focus of the story. The advice was to substitute some sort of alien for the minority human. These things were actually taught in creative writing classes! Butler maintained that if a writer can see minorities for all their humanity—faults, skills, problems, aspirations—writing minority protagonists won’t derail the plot.  Butler’s essay still seems spot-on to me, and I recommend reading it!

[R]emember when men represented all of humanity? Women didn’t care much for it. Still don’t. No great mental leap is required to understand why blacks, why any minority, might not care much for it either. And apart from all that, of course, it doesn’t work. 

“The Lost Races of Science Fiction”
© 1980 Octavia E. Butler
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

An Evolution May Be in Progress 

The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind was published in March, 2015. Edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. I just came across this title and haven’t read it, but it seems to be on point.

Ramón Saldívar received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2011

Ramón Saldívar is a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University whose scholarly work is with ethnic literature.  Stanford NewsJanuary 17, 2017 profiled Saldívar prior to the publication of his book The Racial Imaginary: Speculative Realism and Historical Fantasy in Contemporary Ethnic Fiction.

Nichelle Nichols – Lieutenant Uhura
Not a well-known writer, but she broke many science fiction b
arriers

He studied works by African, Asian, Mexican, Dominican, and Native Americans. All were born after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. His overall conclusion is that these writers find new ways to imagine and talk about race through fiction.  “They are combining representations of race and racial identity with the wildest literary experimentations one could imagine.” And this is across all genres.

If you want to read what he’s talking about, here are examples of authors he studied, including several prize winners.

  • African Americans: Colson Whitehead, Perciival Everett, Touré Neblett, Darieck Scott
  • Asian Americans: Sesshu Foster, Karen Tei Yamashita
  • Native Americans: Sherman Alexie
  • Latinos/Latinas: Marta Acosta, Michele Serros, Yxta Maya Murray, Salvador Plascencia
  • Dominican American: Junot Diaz 

April 17, 2018 The New York Times Match Book replied to the following query: “I’m hoping you can save me from the literary doldrums. I’m looking for black authors who can both get me excited about reading again and inspire my own writing.” The writer then gave examples of writing she likes, following with, “I need to know that there is an audience out there for mystery, suspense and science fiction written about black characters by black authors, so I don’t feel like I’m writing in vain.” Here are The New York Times recommendations. If you want descriptions of each, check out the post online.

Bottom Line for Writers: the time is long overdue to break the molds and end systemic bias in publishing.

Why Do So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing?

Always the same, sweet hurt,
The understanding that settles in the eyes
Sooner or later, at the end of class,
In the silence cooling in the room.
Sooner or later it comes to this,

And she has to know, if all music
Begins equal, why this poem of hers
Needed a passport, a glossary…

Cornelius Eady  
The Gathering of My Name (CMU press, 1991)

JUST THE FACTS

Below you will find facts, maybe useful in your writing, definitely fun—IMHO. As the title says, this is just the facts. If something catches your eye, you can find more about it online. (Most of these are on multiple websites, so list is just for your convenience.)

Showers really do spark creativity

Five of the ten deadliest poisonous snakes are native to Australia

Many dogs have served US military campaigns, even earning medals, awards, and combat ranking.

  • Sergeant Stubby served in the 102nd Infantry Division in World War I, the only dog to be promoted through the ranks by serving in combat. He was awarded several medals alongside his handler.
  • Rags was a stray terrier mutt picked up by an AWOL soldier who used him to bluff his way back into the 1st Infantry Division commander’s good graces. He delivered messages in the trenches, warned of incoming shells, and replaced field telephone wires. After being injured in a gas attack, Rags and his handler were both honorably discharged and sent home. Rage is buried with full military honors.

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  • Smoky the Battle Dog was found abandoned in a foxhole during WWI and earned eight battle stars in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, despite weighing only four pounds. In addition to running radio cables, alerting soldiers of incoming shells and gas, and delivering messages, Smoky is unofficially recognized as the first military therapy animal.
  • Chips was part of the Dogs for Defense program initiated in World War II. He was awarded the Silver Star for Valor and the Purple Heart for being injured in battle. (Those medals were later taken back by higher-ups who claimed Chips was “equipment” rather than a soldier, despite the fact that Chips took out several German pillboxes and disabled all the enemy soldiers within entirely by himself. He is buried with his medals, but don’t tell the generals.)
  • Nemo A534 was wounded in combat during the Vietnam War but still guarded his handler long enough for the man to radio for help and receive a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Nemo was one of the first dogs given an honorable discharge from Vietnam and sent home to retirement.
  • Lucca lost her leg while clearing IEDs in Iraq on her second tour of duty. She was awarded the Dickin Medal by the PDSA and a (unofficial) Purple Heart by one of the hundreds of service members whose lives she had saved.

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The longest wedding veil was the length of 63.5 football fields (6,962.6 m or 22,843 ft 2.11 in)

Superman didn’t fly until 1943 — before that, he could jump 1/8 mile high

The first mechanical computer was invented in the 1822 (by Charles Babbage, not Superman) — the first electrically programmable computer was invented by Tommy Flowers in 1943 (also not by Superman)

Space smells like seared steak or welding fumes

The official state drink for Ohio is tomato juice

The national animal of Scotland is the unicorn

Bees sometimes sting other bees (when bees from another colony or species tries to enter the hive without bringing pollen)

Hmong, Silbo Gomero, Yupik Inuit, Amazigh, Wam Akhah, and Kuskoy are only a few of the more than seventy communities who communicate by whistling

Whistles travel about ten times farther than spoken words, up to five miles

There are about ten thousand trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) ants on earth

Depending on age, kids typically ask 40,000 (between ages two and five) to 300 (between ages five and twelve) questions every day

The letter E occurs in 11% of all English words

in 1998, twelve hundred human bones were found in the basement of the London house where Benjamin Franklin lived, dating from the time when Franklin was staying there. Whether the constantly curious and observant Benjamin Franklin knew what was in his basement… the world may never know.

The healthiest place to live is Shangri-La Valley in Panama

The first iPhone was made by Cisco

Romanian police officers often take ballet lessons to improve spatial and body awareness

King Pepi II, Egyptian pharaoh, had a slave coated in honey to draw insects away from himself

barreleye is a a large deep-ocean fish with a completely transparent head

Approximately 10-30% (depending on the source) of people have a fabella bone in their knee

Technically, Pringles aren’t potato chips

Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard (John Frederick Parker) left his post at Ford’s Theatre to go for a drink — he told family members that Lincoln had dismissed him with the valet

Dolphins have been trained to be used in wars: Russia, Ukraine, Iran, and the US have all had Military Marine Mammal divisions at some point

Playing the accordion was once a requirement for teachers in North Korea

Several patent medicines once contained morphine

Donald Weder holds more patents than Thomas Edison

There are approximately 2,000 moving parts in a modern pedal harp

Pouring cold water makes a slightly higher-pitched sound than pouring hot water

Pro baseball once had women players, mostly to keep stadiums full during WWII

One California Highway Patrol officer (Kevin Briggs, “Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge”) has talked-down over 200 potential suicides

In 16th and 17th century Europe, cannibalism was fairly common—for medical purposes!

Onesimus, an African slave in Boston, was the first person to introduce inoculations to the American colonies in 1706

Koalas have fingerprints

Riding a roller coaster could help you pass a kidney stone (renal calculi passage if you want to be fancy)

Most dogs can learn to recognize about 165 words

Dinosaurs lived on every continent

Bee hummingbirds are so small they are sometimes mistaken for insects (only 0.056 – 0.071 oz)

Sea lions can dance to a beat (though I can’t say much for their taste in music)

The legend of the Loch Ness Monster goes back nearly 1500 years, first spotted in 565 AD

Two-three teaspoons of raw nutmeg can induce hallucinations, convulsions, pain, nausea, and paranoia that can last for several days, and rarely, death

For 100 years, maps (including Google Earth) have shown Sandy Island off the north-west coast of Australia, though cartographers have been demonstrating that it does not actually exist since at least 1974

A Lone Star tick bite can make you allergic to red meat by transferring a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into your blood

It is illegal to allow a dog to fight a pig in an enclosed space in Florida, but perfectly legal to use dogs to hunt wild pigs

Greenland sharks can live for 300-400 years

If a pickle doesn’t bounce, it cannot be called a pickle, according to Connecticut law

The English Monarchy owns at least two private properties, one in the Moors of Shropshire and one in London near the Royal Courts of Justice, addresses unknown

Note to writers: plot lines and/or esoteric knowledge for characters, use as you will!

Snopes.com is an excellent resource for making sure your fun facts are actually factual, and it can also be an inspiration for plots or characters from urban legends. My favorite is the one about the bodies hidden under the motel floorboards!

WRITING TIPS: OLDIES BUT GOODIES

Officially authentic Italian style

You are likely to recognize at least some of these tips.  They turn up in writing classes, critique groups, and books on writing well.  Still, a review never hurts.

Kill Your Favorites

How much pepperoni is too much pepperoni?

People have speech patterns, habitual gestures, familiar facial expressions, and characteristic ways of walking. Writers also have writing habits–favorite words or expressions that often seem apt. Maybe you like voices that rumble like thunder. Perhaps you are partial to jettison for flummoxed. Take care that you don’t over-use these darlings. Once in any short story is sufficient, unless their repetition is part of the story. Think twice before repeating them even in a book-length manuscript.

Is it possible to have too much cheese?

Other words aren’t necessarily favorites, just so common – so universal – that they slip in unnoticed. Probably your readers won’t notice, either. But they are so insipid that they deaden your writing. I’m talking about words like smile, frown, scowl, laugh, sigh. I’m talking about faces that flush, eyes that fill with tears.

Make a list of words that you use a lot – that you suspect that you use too often. Use the edit function of your word processing program to find each instance of each of these words. Consider which can be replaced with more precise and/or more vivid alternatives.

Beware Wrap-ups and Extensions

All that added cheese is doing no one any good.

To take an example familiar to most people reading this blog: if you have a child narrator/POV for telling the Biblical story of Noah’s ark, stop when the child is out of the story. Do not then add an authorial note about global warming, animal evolution, or anything else that is modern. If you have a mother narrating the loss of three children in a natural disaster, don’t add an authorial note after the mother’s death that tells how the one remaining daughter became a nun and devoted her life to working with children following natural disasters.

These examples are blatant, but beware of more subtle wrap-ups as well. If you have a wrap-up at all, as opposed to an ending, ask yourself whether it takes the reader out of the story itself, whether it adds anything relevant, whether you can do without it.

Make Use of Your Dreams

Keep a notebook/journal/folder – whatever suits your style – in which you record your especially vivid or disturbing subconscious ramblings. Record the dream as soon after the event as you reasonably can, and include as many details as you remember, however bizarre, disjointed, or impossible they may be. You can make use of these dream records in at least two ways.

The most obvious way to use these dream records is when you need your character to have a dream. You can either lift it in total or use it as a starting point. Much easier than creating a dream out of whole cloth.

Because dreams often contain odd juxtapositions, they also are useful when you are writing something that calls for a supernatural, mysterious, or merely unexpected series of events.

Once you are in the habit of collecting your dreams – and maybe the dreams told to you by family or friends – you may find yourself using them in surprising ways.

Use Uncomfortable Words

Potato chips? Lobster? Marshmallows?

Uncomfortable words are perfectly correct and not obscene. Nevertheless, they often surprise – or even shock – the reader. Sometimes they make the reader uncomfortable. These latter words can simply be highly personal. My high school English teacher was bothered by the word “bother.” She said it made her think of dirty old men. One of my personal preferences is to use “it isn’t” rather than “it’s not,” the latter sounding too much like “snot”–which is an uncomfortable word for a lot of people.

Kiwi?!

Consider succulent, flaccid, penal, ovoid, horehound, hump, abreast, coldcock, excretion, floppy, fondle, globule, goiter, lipid, niggardly, onus, rectify, and more.

Choose uncomfortable words for effect. Use them sparingly.

Listen

There’s something about listening to the pizza original that just seems to get lost in CD or digital files.

Pay attention to the sounds around you – speech and non. Think of how to describe that bird call – or the rainfall, or the traffic, or the crowd at the game – really sounds, and write it down. But also listen to what people are saying. Pick up on strong phrases such as “plucking my last nerve” or anecdotes containing disturbing images, such as a man on a bus with a dead rabbit in a paper bag. Jot these things into your writing journal for later inspiration.

Remember The Five Ws

You probably have a vague recollection that sometime in the past – perhaps in high school – someone told you that when writing a newspaper article, you need to cover all five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. That is good advice in general, including fiction–and even memoir.

Where is this pizza and how can I get some?
  • The Who covers both the character(s) and the Point of View. 
  • What is generally what the POV character is striving for – anything from making the team to becoming the richest person in the world.
  • When can be as specific as April 19, 1945 or a vague as once upon a time… 
  • Where is, of course, setting.
Why? Really, just… why?
  • And Why is motivation – what is driving the character. Much depends on Why, and within the context of your story it must be both believable and sufficient to justify the act. If your character kills someone to secure a spot on the team, the stakes for making/not making the team must be very high indeed, and fully developed in the story.

Writing Both Sides

Characters who are either too good or too evil are too flat! Settings – whether rooms, cars, or countrysides – that are unmitigated beauty are likely to be unbelievable. Pick and choose the good and the bad, especially for your protagonist. 

Bottom line for writers: Good tips for good writing will never grow old!

If you feel stuck, try approaching your writing from a different angle.

WHEN PEOPLE ARE STRESSED OR ANXIOUS

And who isn’t, these days? But a pandemic isn’t the only trigger for defense mechanisms.  For example, the death of a loved one, loss of a job, life-threatening illness, relocation, demotion . . . the possibilities are endless. So, for you reading pleasure and maybe your writing of believable characters, here’s a quick overview of ways people cope with thoughts, feelings, or acts that are too psychologically painful to tolerate.

Hulk throws the ultimate temper tantrums.

Acting Out 
Performing an extreme behavior when a person cannot otherwise express thoughts or feelings. A child’s temper tantrum would be one example. Hurting oneself is one form of acting out—cutting or burning oneself, literally banging one’s head against a wall.

Aim Inhibition
Rather than admit to failure, a person accepts a more modest goal. Think of someone who had hopes for a career in the NFL who becomes a high school coach.

If he can’t be the Flash, at least he can be Whizzer!

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Altruism
Rather than admit having no control over a situation, a person copes by helping others, perhaps compulsively. This is a person who needs to be needed and may promote helplessness in those close to him/her.

The Angel had such a strong compulsion to help everyone that Dr. Charles Xavier of the X-Men diagnosed him with “heropathy” (not an actual disease).

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Avoidance
Refusing to deal with the situation. In the current pandemic, choosing not to watch the news, read the newspapers, or respond to online postings.

Deadpool has been using running and laughing to avoid his horrible life situations since he was a child.

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Compartmentalization
Keeping different parts of one’s life in separate compartments, often with different moral guidelines. For example, someone who lies, cheats, steals, or hurts others to make a living but is unfailingly kind, helpful, and loyal to family and loved ones. Another example would be someone who enjoys extramarital sex but would never have “an affair” because that involves emotional intimacy and thus would be “cheating.”

Matt Murdock is a blind defense lawyer by day and the superhuman illegal vigilante Daredevil by night.

Compensation
Overachievement in one area because of failure in another. For example, throwing oneself into professional achievement because of failure of a marriage or intimate relationships. Or the opposite: not making it professionally and then becoming a helicopter parent.

Hartley Rathaway was born deaf and became obsessed with sound manipulation, eventually becoming the Pied Piper.

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The Amazons on Themyscira spent centuries denying the existence of any world outside their island paradise.

Denial
Basically, this is saying it isn’t so.  “There is no pandemic. It’s all a hoax—or an exaggeration.”  “It isn’t that dangerous.” Addicts often deny that they have a problem.

Displacement
Taking out frustrations, feelings, or impulses on people or objects that are less threatening. It usually applies to displaced aggression. The classic example is the boss criticizes the employee, the employee yells at his/her spouse, the spouse scolds the child, and the child kicks the dog. Of course, the person might just abuse the child or pet. Or one might smash a fist into the wall or break something.

Reed Richards “Mr. Fantastic” frequently expressed his frustrations with the world by beating his wife and children. This panel occurred immediately after such an outbreak.

Dissociation
Mentally separating oneself from one’s body or environment in order to keep an overwhelming experience at a distance. An example would be someone unhappy with his/her job has trouble concentrating at work, frequently “daydream” or finding his/her mind wandering.

Trance used her astral projection ability to escape the demonic Limbo pocket dimension and get help.

Fantasy
Retreating to a safe place in one’s mind. If one can’t find relief in fantasizing about being turned into a movie star or whatever, you can get much the same effect by binge reading or tv watching or gaming.

Michael Jon Carter hated his life in the 25th century, so he traveled back in time with stolen gadgets to live out a fantasy life as the superhero Booster Gold in the 20th century.

Humor
Seeing the funny or ironic side of any situation. This is actually a pretty adaptive way to handle stress and anxiety. For example, wearing a face mask with giant mustache attached or creating silly photo shoots of pets in quarantine.

Spiderman is a master of using bad jokes to torture his enemies.

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Dr. Manhattan is so brilliant that he loses all touch with humanity.

Intellectualization
Focusing on the problem/problematic thoughts in a cold, factual way. For example, putting the current pandemic into the context of  pandemics through the ages, how devastating they were, how they were transmitted, how they were dealt with, etc.

Passive Aggression
This is often the refuge for someone who can’t express anger or aggression directly (by scolding, hitting, etc.). For example, a teenager who is assigned a chore, such as mopping the kitchen floor, who begins by asking a gazillion questions about where to find and how to use the necessary equipment, then doesn’t sweep before starting, then mopping around the table rather than under it, and finally leaving soap scum behind.

Emma Frost generally straddles the line between passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive, depending on her allies.

Projection
Ascribing one’s unacceptable qualities, thoughts, or feelings to others. Think Donald Trump accusing reporters of being rude.

Harley Quinn projected her brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome onto Flash and tried to “cure” him.

Rationalization
Basically, this is making excuses. You did it, you aren’t denying that you did it, but you give rational or logical reasons for it. What makes this a defense mechanism is that the stated/acknowledged reason isn’t the real motivation. For example, you pawned your mother’s wedding and engagement rings and claim you needed the money when you really wanted to hurt her—or you hated your dead father and don’t want the reminder around.

Gin Genie can create seismic shock waves in direct relation to the amount of alcohol in her system. To be a powerful superhero, she also has to be an abusive alcoholic.

Kamala Khan wants to fit in and avoid trouble but goes out of her way to stand up and confront super villains and terrorists when she shifts into Ms. Marvel.

Reaction Formation
Replacing an unacceptable feeling, impulse, or behavior with the opposite. For example, subconsciously wishing a sibling would fail and so going out of one’s way to be helpful and promote success — the perfect fan.

Regression
A person reverts to a pattern of behavior that worked when one was younger. Think thumb-sucking, crying, sulking, or temper tantrums.

Zatanna feels such guilt over using her powers to erase the memories of her enemies and friends that her powers revert to a level she had when younger.

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Repression
I like to think of this as motivated forgetting. Things that are too painful are kept out of consciousness awareness, but may have a powerful effect on behavior. For example, a victim of early childhood sexual abuse who doesn’t remember the event(s) but has difficulty becoming intimate.

Jessica Jones has years of repressed memories thanks to brainwashing and mind control.

Suppression
Much like repression, but one consciously decides not to think about or remember something. This is fairly tough to pull off!  Every time it comes to consciousness, one distracts oneself with something else. One example: having an obsessive thought running through one’s head is a way to block other scarier or more stressful thoughts from surfacing.

The Red Room training forced Natasha Romanoff to remove all empathy and mercy and become the Black Widow. She had to retrain herself to join the Avengers.

Sublimation
Act out unacceptable impulses by transforming them into a more acceptable form. For example, aggressive impulses channeled into martial arts. Someone who likes looking at naked bodies takes up figure drawing.

Batman has turned the anger and grief from watching his parents’ murder into a drive to fight crime.

Undoing
Closely related to Reaction Formation but usually on a more conscious level; trying to make up for unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors — sort of like an unstated apology. For example, a child who is jealous of a younger sibling and wishes s/he were dead might make a point of giving that sibling toys, one’s cookie, etc.

Tomorrow Woman is an android created to destroy the Justice League. She achieves artificial consciousness and sacrifices herself to destroy her creators instead.

BOTTOM LINES FOR WRITERS: Everyone uses defense mechanisms. It’s how we cope. Choose defense mechanisms for your characters that are in line with his/her character in general. So, for example, a scientist is unlikely to use denial and more likely to use intellectualization.

Although using defense mechanisms is natural, normal, and helpful on an episodic or “acute” basis, long-term or “chronic” use can lead to emotional problems because the underlying threat or anxiety is never actually addressed.

The most emotionally stable superhero out there seems to be Zephyr aka Faith Herbert, from Valiant Entertainment. We should all be as awesome as Zephyr!

PANHANDLING 101

Why would you have a character panhandle?  I can think of several reasons just off the top of my head.

Buddhist monk in Thailand with a rice begging bowl
  1. S/he really is down and out and desperate
  2. It requires less training, credentials, etc., than a regular job
  3. To win a bet or meet a dare
  4. To put one over on the gullible
  5. To conduct undercover surveillance
  6. To collect research data
  7. Funding a backpacking tour (“beg-packing”)
  8. Several religious orders are mendicants and depend on donations from devout followers

Thanks to wikiHow, we have a clear recipe for successful panhandling—or failure, depending on the needs of your plot. Here’s the basic recipe, taken largely from the wikiHow panhandling page, but visit Marginal Revolution or Prepper Press for more detail and the rationale behind recommendations. See also Inc.com, Bill Murphy, Jr. on sales techniques.

Location

  • Choose a place with lots of foot traffic:
    • Subway stations
    • Metro stops
    • Truck stops
    • Urban campuses
    • These places may require talking
  • Alternatively, a place with lots of auto traffic:
    • These places need a clearly visible sign
    • Doesn’t work as well in cold, rainy weather
Panhandlers in Shanghai have gone high-tech!
  • If feasible, move location to take advantage of changing seasons and weather
  • Stick to downtown commercial district and middle-class neighborhoods
  • Don’t use the same location more than once a month
  • Choose medium to large cities
  • Do not beg near ATMs
  • Don’t walk in the street
  • Don’t block traffic

The Big Ask

  • Ask politely
  • Say thank you
  • Be believable, whether truth or fiction
  • Make the story fit the location, with props if appropriate (see notes on animals and children)
  • Ask for a specific amount of money, e.g., the precise subway fare
  • Keep it simple: I need XXX  for YYY
This may be a little too specific
  • Alternatively, spew something long and convoluted, hoping for money to make you go away
  • Make signs easy to read at a glance
  • Evoke sympathy (a homeless veteran, a disabled person, etc.)
  • Be funny, make a joke, especially with college students
  • Remember the regulars; greet people by name if feasible
  • End politely, even if you don’t get any money

Safety

  • Know the local laws about panhandling (locations, times, during events)
  • Stay on good terms with businesses and other panhandlers
  • Obey No Soliciting or No Loitering signs
  • If told to move, just move
  • Don’t panhandle after dark
  • Stash money frequently, and/or spread it around your pockets, etc.
  • Be aware that panhandling is actually hard work and dangerous
  • Women need to be especially cautious

Miscellaneous Bits

  • Having a baby or child with you increases vulnerability exponentially
  • Never bring a sick or malnourished animal with you
  • Do not wear fashionable or expensive clothes
  • Disheveled is okay, dirty isn’t
  • Don’t smoke or drink anything while panhandling
  • Don’t take money from people after the light turns green
  • Use language and body language that is non-threatening

If you want your panhandler character to fail, break all the rules!

Writers note: If your character is panhandling because s/he really is down and out, consider community services, churches, soup kitchens, shelters, etc.

A row of beg-packers in Hong Kong next to an elderly man digging through trash to find food

“Beg-packing” is a fairly recent phenomenon. Tourists, often college students, hitchhike and panhandle as they travel, allowing them to spend very little money on the way. Some see this as a way to open up sight-seeing opportunities to people outside the ultra-wealthy.

Others see it as a drag on local economies, with tourists begging for money from already impoverished communities without actually contributing anything. Some countries have outlawed panhandling tourists; police arrest beg-packers and drop them off at their respective embassies.

The St. Paul’s station on the London Tube is in particularly high demand for buskers

Street performers, technically, aren’t panhandlers.  The definition of panhandling is seeking money without providing anything in return. Street performers are (presumably) providing entertainment and therefore are busking. From a writer’s point of view, it may make little difference. 

Depending on local ordinances, street performers may need to be licensed or scheduled by a central authority. For example, busking at platforms on the London Tube is so profitable that performers must audition and apply for time slots.

N.B. writers: Money made by street performers is taxable as tips; begging/panhandling income is not taxable.

Ghostly white women selling flowers in Stockholm are one of the creepier variations of this activity

Another variation is “selling” worthless trinkets or single flowers for an exorbitant price.  For example, braided bracelets offered in exchange for $10. Selling flowers is common, particularly to tourists seated at outdoor cafes. Because so many panhandlers have begun taking flowers from funerary wreaths in local cemeteries, many florists in cities where this is common now deliberately snip the stems of funeral flowers just below the bud.

Consider Other Characters

Dominican and Franciscan orders were both founded as mendicants in the Twelfth Century
During Ramadan, panhandling becomes so common that several majority-Muslim countries remove all beggars from public spaces to channel charity through official groups – a somewhat controversial move
  • What motivates people who do or do not give money. Is giving money satisfying a “customer” need?
    • Many religions encourage or require charitable giving of some sort.
  • What are the attitudes of others toward panhandling?
    • Sympathetic, disdainful, hostile, etc.
  • Does the panhandler have family or friends?
  • What about a boss who “runs” panhandlers the way a pimp runs prostitutes?

Bottom line for writers: Regardless of monetary success, panhandling is a rich opportunity for writers!

ALCOHOL: OTC MEDICATION?

Stress and alcohol go together like peanut butter and jelly—a burger and fries, mac and cheese, bread and butter, mashed potatoes and gravy, milk and cookies, or any other iconic duo you can think of. Yes, they can be separated but—oh, so often—you don’t have one without the other.

I started thinking about this when the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a front page story (above the fold!) about liquor sales in Virginia. You will recall that ABC Stores have remained open as “essential” services. And according to numbers from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, sales now hover around $22 million a week. 

In March, as the social distancing began, the ABC stores had more than $30 million per week.  Sales in April 2020 were up about 15% over a year ago. The article goes on to identify the top selling brands for the state and for the Richmond Planning District (City of Richmond, Henrico, Goochland, Hanover, Chesterfield, and Powhatan counties). I was less interested in the rankings than in the sheer volume!

Alcohol consumption is up all over the country. To look at one other location, in Tulsa, OK, one liquor store reported that looking at sales March 15 to April 15, liquor sales were up 56% and beer 48%. Compared to a similar date in April of 2019, one-day sales in April 2020 were up by 100%. 

According to one store owner, buying habits are changing in that people are buying more at a time, shopping more during the day and less in the evenings and on weekends.

In order to facilitate buying alcohol, providers are offering digital ordering and delivery, curbside pick-up, hosting, hosting virtual tastings and/or cocktail hours. And some are branching out by stocking hand sanitizers and face masks. Virtual cocktail parties among friends and families are now common.

If your aim is absolutely perfect, your cocktail parties with neighbors don’t have to be virtual!

Estimates of the increase in U.S. alcohol consumption from now to the same time last year vary from 25% (WHO) to 55% (Healthcare Home [//healthcare.utah.edu]).

The uptick in alcohol consumption is not solely a U.S. phenomenon. The World Health Organization has issued statements urging countries world-wide to try to curb drinking during the current pandemic. They cite several health reasons to try to control excessive alcohol consumption. No matter how bad a situation is, excess drinking can always make it worse!

Magic Snowman Tea is guaranteed to be 100% alcohol free.
There are other substances one can turn to in times of stress. This is one of my favorites.

Also according to WHO, alcohol-related deaths number 3 million every year—before the pandemic.  And the WHO now has the added difficulty of trying to quash the misinformation that has circulated to the effect that drinking can make someone immune to the COVID-19 virus and/or cure one if infected. The presumed medicinal value of alcohol has a long history (see below), perhaps with roots in the dulling of physical pain.

Jackie Chan is a master of Drunken Fist Kung Fu ( 醉拳 )

The link between stress and alcohol consumption is so well established that it’s actually called “self-medication.” In fact, such self-medication can be pretty effective, at least initially, in relieving anxiety and depression. Alcohol is a “downer” (i.e., a system depressant) so if people are wound up, rapid heart beat, etc., alcohol can definitely make those symptoms of stress go down. But as mentioned above, alcohol also depresses inhibitions, increases risk-taking, decreases logical decision making, increases violence, and — after all that — is still likely to interfere with restful sleep.

Being home all day with bored and curious toddlers is a very stressful circumstance.

COVID-19 presents a set of circumstances that are problematic with regard to alcohol consumption.

  • High levels of anxiety associated with the unknown
  • Isolation from one’s usual support system
  • Loneliness
  • Economic distress/job loss
  • Food insecurity
  • Fear of infection/death
  • Mourning the loss of a loved one
  • Stress at having to work from home
  • Stress of having to work in an “essential” job interacting with the public

COVID-19 is dominating today’s headlines, but it is far from unique. Research indicates that alcohol use and abuse increase during and after “violent conflicts”—e.g., wars, periods of martial law, government coups. Other psychotropic substances are also used to deal with psychic strains and trauma, but alcohol is generally the most likely to be readily available, legal, and (at least within limits) socially acceptable.

Totally non-addictive!

During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, bootleg whiskey was viewed as a respectable medicine. At the time, more than half the states in the U.S. had passed Prohibition laws and thus were “dry.” But for medicinal purposes, some officials decided to tap the vast stores of liquor that had been confiscated initially to aid the military, although the Army mostly remained silent about using it. In Richmond, Virginia—reportedly—two railroad cars of confiscated whiskey arrived for the benefit of Camp Lee. Over time, confiscated whiskey was distributed to civilian hospitals, too.

Medical isopropyl alcohol is now available at vending machines in Moscow.

The United States Pharmacopeia dropped whiskey, brandy, and wine from its listing of therapeutics in 1916. In 1917, the American Medical Association resolved that “the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be discouraged.” Even so, more than half of physicians believed it was “a necessary therapeutic agent.” It continued to be available by prescription in dry states. To this day, strong alcohol is prescribed for medicinal purposes in some areas, even by doctors!

Besides the demand for alcohol, the Spanish Flu pandemic shared other characteristics with COVID-19:

  • Wearing masks
  • Social isolation
  • Use of disinfectants
  • Limiting group gatherings, including churches
  • Hospitals and funeral homes were overwhelmed
  • During Spanish Flu the treatment of choice was aspirin, up to 30 grams daily which is a toxic dose; currently, think ingesting bleach or disinfectants.
Bootlegger tunnels in Miami during Prohibition

Bottom line for writers: people use alcohol to self-medicate for stress. The current stressor is COVID-19 BUT consider all the other stressors out there, which might occur alone or in combination with COVID-19: death of a loved one, job loss, divorce, physical illness, mental illness, physical disability, too little money, going hungry, being homeless… Do you have a character who does—who could—self-medicate with alcohol?

RATS: WHO KNEW?

And who would want to?  

The Country Rat and the Town Rat

Writers, that’s who. Rats have long been characters—sometimes major—in literature old and new. Fables from around the world feature rats/mice and the moral usually relates to survival in one form or another.  In these fables, rats are often presented as clever and resourceful. Aesop’s Fables, the Fables of Bidpai, and Panchatantra all feature rats involved in moral lessons.

In some languages, rats and mice are interchangeable. When there is a distinction made, rats usually come off worse. In fiction and in popular consciousness, rats are almost always portrayed as more devious or dirty than mice.

Rats are extremely important in Chinese mythology. The rat is the first of twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac, corresponding to Sagitarius.  Both are assigned the traits of creativity, hard work, generosity, and optimism.

The Year of the Rat is reputed to be one of prosperity and hard work. FYI: 2020 is a year of the rat.  The rat rules daily from 11:00 p.m. till 1:00 a.m. and its season is winter. 

N.B. writers: if you are inclined to write a rat fable, this might be the place to start.

The German cover is so much more horrifying.

Often rats are included in stories to add a touch of horror to scenes involving dungeons, torture chambers, vampires, the unknown… Authors from Edgar Allen Poe (“The Pit and the Pendulum“), to George Orwell (1984) to Stephen King (“Graveyard Shift” and “1922,” for example) have made effective use of rats. Shakespeare included rats in eight of his plays. Perhaps the epitome of horror would be The Coming of the Rats by George H. Smith (1961), suggesting the aftermath of the H-bomb.

And of course, if it’s in books, it’s in movies as well. Think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Some movies, such as Ratatouille, Chicken Run, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Flushed Away, include rat characters who are funny and likeable in addition to being clever. Willard, Of Unknown Origin, and The Missing are Deadly are horror movies that focus on twisted relationships between humans and rats. Many films, especially The Food of the Gods, Deadly Eyes, Rodentz, and Rats: Night of Terror, focus on swarms of rats pitted against humanity.

Rats and mice are depicted very differently in The Secret of NIMH.

If you do write about rats, it may help to know the terminology.

  • A group of rats — a mischief
  • Male rat — buck
  • Female rat — doe
  • Infants — pups or kittens
  • Musophobia (suriphobia) — fear of rats and mice

Rats have such a horrific reputation that threats of being eaten, taken, overrun, etc., by rats are a common tool used around the world to frighten naughty children into better behavior. In Canada—Newfoundland—rat threats were second only to bear threats, and twice as frequent as big fish (in third place out of seven). 

Writers consider the possibilities: “I’ve got an attic/cellar full of rats for naughty little girls and boys like you.”

As mentioned above, rats are often depicted as smart, and turn up in unexpected places. Consider this poem by Emily Dickinson:

The rat is the concisest tenant.
He pays not rent—
Repudiates the obligation,
On schemes intent.
Balking our wit
To sound or circumvent,
Hate cannot harm
A foe so reticent.
Neither decree
Prohibits him,
Lawful as
Equilibrium.

Emily Dickinson

Rat Facts 

A Rat King was a group of rats whose tails were knotted together, often ascribed mystical powers by rat catchers.
  • Rats are everywhere in the world except Antarctica, where it’s too cold for them to survive outside and there are too few humans to provide for them.
    • In some places, especially islands, aggressive rat control policies have reclaimed the land.
  • Rats are one of the world’s worst invasive species.
    • Transported around the world on ships, rats have been credited with the extinction of untold number of small native animals and birds.
New York City rats can take down pigeons.
  • Rats often live with and near humans (commensals).
  • Rats carry many zoonotic pathogens, all sorts from The Black Death to foot-and-mouth disease.
  • Many rats in the wild live only about a year due to predation.
  • By and large, rat vocalizations are pitched beyond the range of human hearing.
  • Rats have been kept as pets at least since the late 1800s, most often brown rat species, and are no more of a health risk than cats or dogs.
  • Rats are omnivorous.
    • Rats are cannibals.
Rats made of food?

Rats as Food 

The Bible forbids eating rats, and  parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, consider rat meat to be diseased, unclean, and socially unacceptable. Islam, Kashrut, the Shipibo people of Peru and the Sironó people of Bolivia all have strong taboos against eating rats. However the high number of rats and/or a limited food supply have brought rats into the diets of both humans and pets worldwide.

  • Human food
    • Rat meat is part of the cuisines of Vietnam, Taiwan, and Thailand.
    • National Geographic (March 14, 2019) featured Vietnamese rat meat.
    • In India, rats are essential to the traditional Mishmi diet, for women are allowed to eat only fish, pork, wild birds, and rats. In the Musahar community, rats are farmed as an exotic delicacy.
    • Aboriginal Australians’ diet regularly included rats, as did traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures.
    • Rice field rats were an original component of paella in Valencia (the rat later replaced by rabbit, seafood, or chicken). These rats were also eaten in the Philippines and Cambodia.
    • Rich people ate rat pie in England in Victorian times, and others ate rats during the World Wars when food was strictly rationed.
    • Alcoholic rats trapped in wine cellars in France became part of a regional delicacy – grilled rats, Bordeaux-style.
    • Rat stew was (and maybe still is) eaten in West Virginia.
Remy insists that rat food of any kind must be properly seasoned.
  • Animal food
    • Snakes, both wild and pets, eat rats and mice. The rats are available to snake owners both live and frozen. However, in Britain, feeding any live mammal to another animal is against the law.
    • When included in pet food, rats are counted as “cereals” in the ingredients list.

Rat Contributions to Science 

The first rat research I know of was conducted at Clark University (Worcester, MA) in 1895. Since then, rats have been used to study disease transmission, genetics, effects of diet, cardiovascular conditions, and drug effects. 

Psychologists have studied rats to further our understanding of learning, intelligence, drug abuse, ingenuity, aggressiveness, adaptability, and the effects of overcrowding (the “behavioral sink”).

Working Rats

Besides acting in movies, rats are good a sniffing out gunpowder residue, land mines, and tuberculosis. They also can be trained for animal-assisted therapy. 

N.B. writers: consider a PI or amateur detective who has a trained rat sidekick!

The stereotypic rat: Besides the horror aspects of ratness, their image is mainly that of pest. 

They infest urban areas, particularly multi-family housing. They like areas with access to food, water, and a moderate environment, such as under sinks, near garbage, in walls, cabinets, or drawers.

In rural areas, rats are a threat to both grain supplies and small birds. (Think chicks.) They live in fields, barns, cellars, basements, and attics. 

And as with so many things, rats are a bigger bane for the poor, whether rural or urban.  Picture this: a baby crib is set in the middle of a room, all four legs in buckets of water to try to keep rats and mice from climbing into the crib. Meanwhile, beady eyes stare from darkened corners.

Rat in Everyday Language 

Any way you cut it, rat is not positive.

Rats shredded nearly $19,000 worth of rupees in a safe in India in 2018.
  • Noun: backstabber, betrayer, blabbermouth, canary, deep throat, double-dealer, fink, informant, sneak, snitch, source, squealer, stoolie, stool pigeon, tattler, turncoat, whistle-blower.
    • In unionized workplaces, anyone who doesn’t pay dues and/or crosses picket lines is called a rat.
  • Verb: the act of doing any of the above.
Master Splinter is living proof that rats can train turtles and fight ninjas!
  • Rats!—exclamation of surprise, frustration 
  • Drowned rat
  • Gutter rat
  • Mall rat
  • Rat’s ass (as in, I don’t give a…)
  • Rat faced
  • Rat fink
  • Rat hole
  • Rat king
  • Rat’s nest (hair or residence)
  • Rat pack
  • Rat race
  • Rats from a sinking ship
  • Rat tail (hairstyle)
  • Rat tail comb
  • Ratted hair
  • Rat trap
  • Ratty
  • Smell a rat

Bottom line for writers: it’s worth your while to know about rats!

WHO KNEW?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARE ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS BIRDS?

Some people I know could definitely be harpies!

During more than fifty days of staying at home, I’ve become increasingly attentive to the flora and fauna in my yard.  Is this happening to you? 

Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) and mock strawberry (Potentilla indica or Duchesnea indica)

For the first time I bothered to identify the wild strawberries invading my flower beds as Indian or mock-strawberry, not the luscious Virginia wild strawberry. (Big clue is the white vs. yellow flower.)

Stanley jumps from the bayberry tree onto the bird feeder several times a day.

But in spite of Stanley, we are gifted with a wide variety of bird visitors, too. As I watch them day after day, noticing patterns is inevitable. (To all the bird lovers and watchers out there: I realize that this reveals a certain—shall we say—naiveté. But there are more of us around than you might believe.) Watching our feeder, one of the main characteristics I’ve noticed is, for want of a better term, sociability.

Bluebirds always come in pairs or with their young.
Catbirds come one at a time.
Goldfinches come in small groups.
And grackles, crows, and starlings tend to flock.

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Writers: Based on sociability, what sort of bird would your character be?

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Perhaps a King Vulture?

While finches are happy to share the feeding stations, and linger for communal eating, bluejays tend to chase other birds away, and they don’t settle. They dart in, grab a bite, go back to a tree, and repeat.

I’ve always been interested in birds in a casual sort of way. I have three daughters whom I’ve associated with white throated sparrow, goldfinch, and bluebird based on their coloration and behavior. 

My grandson is a cardinal, theatrical and flamboyant.  My older granddaughter is a crow, based on her black hair, her preference for wearing black and her keen intelligence. My younger granddaughter is a chickadee, based on her liveliness and sociability.

And my husband is a red bellied woodpecker, because that bird has red, black, and white markings and links the three grandchildren together.

So, I have my own personality profiles of various birds. Do you?

Although I’m convinced that birds—typically by nature of their species—have personality types, being a scientist at heart, I wanted a bit of authority to back me up here. But while searching online for bird personalities, again and again I came up with the same question—“Which one are you?” And the answer was a multiple-choice of four, the DOPE model: dove, owl, peacock, or eagle. 

So, writers, for what it’s worth, here it is.

Emerald dove

DOVES are associated with terms such as neutral, loving, and kind. Although passive in communication, they are highly emotional. Dove people exhibit a long list of personality traits, both positive and negative.

Laughing dove
  • Positive traits
    • Patient
    • Giving
    • Trustworthy
    • Introverted
    • Avoids risk-taking
    • Respectful
    • Honest
    • Reliable
    • Easygoing 
Mourning dove
  • Negative traits  
    • Dependent
    • Predictable
    • Follower
    • Gullible 

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Spotted owl

OWLS are perceived as logical and intelligent, but conservative, introverted and not communicative. 

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Great horned owl
  • Positive traits  
    • Calm
    • Meticulous
    • Just
    • Mindful
    • Determined
    • Detail-oriented
    • Careful
    • Curious 

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Barn owl
  • Negative traits  
    • Distrustful
    • Self-centered
    • Indecisive
    • Vindictive
    • Short-sighted

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Peahen with blue peacock

PEACOCKS are showy and outgoing, very active communicators—i.e., talkative—and possess high “emotional intelligence.” These are competitive, emotional birds. 

Red peacock
  • Positive traits  
    • Open-minded
    • Energetic
    • Charismatic
    • Social
    • Enthusiastic
    • Adventurous 

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Brown peacock
  • Negative traits  
    • Scattered
    • Selfish
    • Controlling
    • Dominating 
    • Power-hungry

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Golden eagle

EAGLES are bold, decisive, and aggressive. They have high logical intelligence and are very active communicators.  Within the general population (allegedly) 29% of people are eagles.

Black eagle

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  • Positive traits  
    • Charismatic
    • Honest
    • Initiator
    • Independent
    • Driven
    • Motivated
    • Compelling
    • Fearless 

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Philippine eagle
  • Negative traits  
    • Blunt
    • Unsympathetic
    • Egotistical
    • Controversial
    • Impatient
    • Pushy
    • Stubborn

You can take the 40-question, 4-bird, DOPE personality test online. Click here

Writers note: Be aware that any given personality trait could be either helpful or not, positive or not, depending on the demands of the situation.

Writers’ option: identify a bird of your own choosing and research it, finding how/whether it reflects one of your characters.

Why bother? Assigning birds to your characters helps keep them consistent and distinctive.