The Principle of Least Interest

The Principle of Least Interest for Writers quote

Sociologists, economists, therapists, and every other sort of -ists have studied The Principle of Least Interest, but it’s incredibly important for writers as well. This is one of those areas in which science has confirmed what common sense has long maintained: the person who cares the least has the most power. This principle works everywhere from the housing market to the marriage market. (I wrote about this topic previously in 2015.)

That’s definitely a selling point.

If the buyer is more eager to buy than the seller is to sell, the seller will determine the selling price. If he loves her more than she loves him, he could end up the proverbial hen-pecked husband of so many comedies; vice versa and she is a candidate for the downtrodden foot-wipe—perhaps abused—wife of so many tragedies.

This principle is so well understood that sometimes people try to disguise their true levels of caring/interest (talk of other great offers forthcoming, flirting with or dating a rival). Inherent in disguise is the understanding that what counts is often the perception of least interest.

The First Take-Away for Writers:

For your characters, know who has the power (the least interest) and who is perceived to have it. And if your work has more than two characters, you need to understand the power relationships for each pair.

The elephant has the least interest in this relationship.

Unlike a credit score, people can’t go on-line and check out their power ratings. The primary reason that power relationships are often unclear is that the bases of power are virtually limitless: expertise, physical attractiveness, intelligence, wealth, athletic ability, knowledge of secrets, ability to make the other’s life miserable, being popular, great sense of humor—anything and everything that is important to that pair. Knowing the facts doesn’t tell you/the reader who has the power.

If she married him for the money and he married her for the Green Card, who cares more? What if we add in that she is beautiful and he’s a great problem-solver; she’s moody and he’s uncommunicative; he’s a natural athlete and she manages their money; they’re both extremely intelligent and care mightily for their two children. As the author, you can determine who has the power by giving weight to these factors based on the characters’ perceptions of what is important.

The Second Take-Away for Writers:

Anytime you think humans have total power over dogs, just remember which one is picking up the other’s poop.

Power is seldom one-dimensional, and if you don’t recognize the complexity, your characters will be flat and unrealistic.

In many relationships—for example, boss/employee, parent/child, older sibling/younger sibling, teacher/student—the general expectation would be that the total power package would favor the former. But my guess is that most readers don’t read to confirm the norm; they like to be surprised.

The Third Take-Away for Writers:

You should at least consider writing against common power expectations.

And just to end on a high-brow note: according to Lord Acton, “Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Consider how less-than-absolute power might corrupt your character(s).

Bottom Line

  • Know who has the power and who is perceived to have it.
  • Power is seldom one-dimensional, and if you don’t recognize the complexity, your characters will be flat and unrealistic.
  • You should at least consider writing against common power expectations.

Learn more

“Who Has the Upper Hand? Power, Sex, and Seinfeld” by Dr. Benjamin Le

The Personal Use of Social Psychology by Michael J. Lovaglia (2007)

Social Psychology and Human Sexuality: Essential Readings by Roy F. Baumeister (2001)

THE NOSE KNOWS!

Suku Jahai from Penang, Malaysia – Suku Jahai, CC BY-SA 2.0
By Muhammad Adzha

English is pretty anaemic when it comes to scent. We have to attach adjectives like “putrid” or “mown grass.” On the other hand, the Jahai people of Malaysia have words attached to specific smells, with meanings like “to have a stinging smell, to smell of human urine,” and “to have a bloody smell that attracts tigers.’

Horse nose (scent)

Researchers at Rockefeller University estimated that humans can detect at least a trillion distinct smells. That leads me to conclude that need determines what we do with specific ones.  This conclusion is supported by other evidence: in tribes that have recently switched from hunting and gathering to farming, smell words often vanish. 

Abigail Tucker explores the sense of smell in the Smithsonian Magazine article “Scents and Sensibility.”  (Full reference below). Do read it! To whet your appetite, here are some bits that I found particularly interesting.

Cow nose (scent)

Scents and the Body

Proboscis monkey nose (scent)

Females are more sensitive to smells than males.

Research indicates that infants are habituated via mothers’ milk to react more positively to the smell of things the mothers eat.

The human nose comes in 14 basic shapes and sizes.

(FYI, not in the article: noses and ears do not continue to grow during adulthood. They do change shape, however, due to skin changes and gravity.)

Many “tastes” are actually smell; chocolate, for example.

(I remember a classic psychology experiment that demonstrated that, without olfactory or visual clues, people couldn’t tell bits of apple from bits of onion.)

Nose (scent)

The exposed nature of scent receptors in the nose make them especially vulnerable to environmental toxins.  

Apparently olfactory receptors can become fatigued.

The sense of smell declines with age, especially in those over 50. By age 80, 75% of people exhibit what could be classified as a smell disorder. (Oh, sigh.)

Pretty much everyone has “blind spots” when it comes to smell. For example, not everyone can smell asparagus in their pee—but if you can, you can smell it in anyone’s urine.

Also not covered in this article: virtually everyone can become noseblind when exposed to the same smell for a prolonged period of time. Consider entering a room and noticing an odor at first but not later.

Vintage advertisement

Scent Power

Tapir nose (scent)

A human without visual or auditory cues can track a scent through the grass of a public park—but not as well as a dog can.

Some psychological conditions affect sense of smell. For example, research has linked autism to an enhanced sense of smell. On the other had, depression and Parkinson’s disease are related to decreased sensitivity.

Culture affects what we smell and how we react to specific smells. 

Besides genetic and cultural factors, certain smells evoke a visceral reaction specific to the individual, depending on life history.  Research participants are able to access more emotional memories when exposed to a smell as opposed to a picture of the source of the smell. 

Anteater nose (scent)

Andreas Keller, a prominent neuroscientist specializing in olfaction, has opened a gallery, Olfactory Art, where smell is central to the experience!

How does the nose know? We still don’t know!  “Olfaction has always been an underdog sense. It’s both primitive and complex, which makes it hard to study and harder still to transfer to our increasingly digital existence. … smells cannot at this point be recorded or emailed or Instagrammed.”

In a 2011 survey, more than half of the young adults said they’d rather give up their sense of smell than their cell phones. Little did they know what that sacrifice would entail.

BOTTOM LINE: COVID’s notorious effects on the sense of smell has triggered a new appreciation of the role of scents in our lives, for both pleasure and safety.

“Scents and Sensibility” by Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2022, pp 66-80.

Pig snout scent

PUMPKINS: THE MEATIEST FRUIT

Pumpkin patch

Having consumed all the pawpaws, I’ve turned to pumpkins. Pumpkins, too, are a native fruit. (Yes, botanically, pumpkins are fruits, a type of berry known as a pepo, to be precise. But cooks and diners commonly class pumpkins with vegetables—along with squash, tomatoes, eggplant and other “vegetables” that have their seeds on the inside—allowing pawpaw to be the largest native food that is considered and eaten as fruit.)

Pumpkin History

Three sisters: pumpkins, corn, and beans
Three Sisters by Garlan Miles

Pumpkins and winter squash are native to the Americas, from the southwestern part of what is now the United States through much of central and South America.  People have cultivated pumpkins at least since 3500 B.C.E. Corn and pumpkins are the oldest known crops in the western hemisphere. 

And who hasn’t heard about the Cahokian, Muscogee, and Iroquois “three sisters” system of companion planting: corn, beans, and squash/pumpkins grown together to the benefit of all.

Native peoples baked pumpkins whole in wood ashes, stewed them, and sometimes made a sort of succotash with beans and corn. Pumpkin was a popular ingredient in meat stews. They roasted long strips of pumpkin on an open fire until edible 

Dried pumpkin
Dried pumpkin

Roasted seeds were (and are) eaten as a delicacy.  In fall, people cut pumpkins into rings and hung up the strips to dry, later to grind the strips into flour to add to bread. 

Perhaps more unexpectedly, Native Americans dried strips of pumpkin flesh and wove them into mats.  And, they made a fermented drink from pumpkins. (Researchers have recently found that fermenting pumpkin reduces insulin-dependent sugars, making it a particularly suitable beverage for diabetics.)

Native Americans introduced colonists to pumpkins and they, too, relied heavily on pumpkin for food as evidenced by this poem (circa 1630):

For pottage and puddings and custard and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies:
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins, we should be undoon.

Anonymous Plymouth Plantation colonist

Early colonists used pumpkins as the Native Americans taught them, also making pumpkin butter (similar to apple butter) and pumpkin syrup (as a substitute for molasses). 

During the Revolutionary War, they made pumpkin sugar! (Pumpkin, Pumpkin, Anne Copeland) FYI: at one time, the Port of Boston was called Pumpkinshire.

Pumpkin pie

Now, eating pumpkin is more seasonal. Come October, one can easily find pumpkin muffins, bread, meatloaf, soup, ice cream, and drinks. Thoughts of pumpkin pie stir. (FYI, the canned product sold for making pumpkin pies actually is Cucurbita moschata, a species of winter squash. The FDA does not distinguish among varieties of squash when labeling canned foods.) 

Pumpkin Folklore

The Pumpkin Effigy 1867
The Pumpkin Effigy“, from Harper’s Weekly, November 23, 1867

Although once an important food source, pumpkins are now more prominent in Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations. 

Jack-o-lanterns originated in Ireland. According to legend, Stingy Jack fooled the devil so many times that when Jack arrived at the gates of hell, the devil wouldn’t let him in. Instead he sent him off into the night with a burning lump of coal, which Jack put into a hollowed out turnip and has been roaming the Earth ever since. 

“If you knew the sufferings of that forsaken craythur, since the time the poor sowl was doomed to wandher, with a lanthern in his hand, on this cowld earth, without rest for his foot, or shelter for his head, until the day of judgment… oh, it ‘ud soften the heart of stone to see him as I once did, the poor old dunawn, his feet blistered and bleeding, his poneens (rags) all flying about him, and the rains of heaven beating on his ould white head.”

Dublin Penny Journal 1836
Does this count as cannibalism? Jack-ibalism?

Immigrants to America continued the tradition of making jack-o-lanterns but switched to easier to carve pumpkins.  The influx of Irish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries greatly increased the popularity of Halloween celebrations. They adapted the customs and traditions of Samhain to their new homes in North America, including dressing in costumes, trick-or-treating, pranking houses, and carving jack-o-lanterns.

Pumpkin Varieties

Imagine a pumpkin. Chances are, what came to mind first was a “typical” pumpkin, 12-18 pounds, oblong and orange, as commonly seen around and about in October, suitable for painting and carving. But consider the variety!

Jack Be Little Pumpkins
Jack Be Little

One of the most popular miniature pumpkin varieties is Jack Be Little, orange, about 3” in diameter and 2” high. Typically used for fall decorations, they’re also edible and grow well on trellises, making them ideal for small growing spaces.

Baby Boo Pumpkins
Baby Boo

Baby Boo are small white pumpkins, also suitable for decorating and eating. Each plant produces about 10 pumpkins. Extreme sun and frost don’t affect growth adversely. 

At the other end of the continuum, you’ll find giant pumpkins: in 2022, a pumpkin set a new North American record, weighing 2,560 pounds. This was at the 49th Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Half Moon Bay, California, though Travis Gienger grew the pumpkin in Minnesota. 

Half Moon Bay considers itself the pumpkin capital of the world because local growers produce more than 3,000 tons of pumpkins each year. But in 2021, Stefano Crutupi, an Italian grower, set the world record for giant pumpkins with a 2,703 pound pumpkin.

Pumpkin Celebrations

Legoland features jack-o-lanterns made of Legos at their annual Brick or Treat Halloween Festival.

To truly appreciate pumpkins, go to a pumpkin festival. My home state of Ohio hosts the Circleville Pumpkin Show—“The Greatest Pumpkin Show on Earth”—always held the 3rd Wednesday through Saturday in October. There is, of course, every pumpkin food and beverage you might want available for purchase. Plus you can enjoy a giant pumpkin weigh-in, pumpkin carving demonstrations, and the crowning of Little Miss Pumpkin Show. And concerts for music lovers (this year featuring DJ Tune Stoned and The Poverty String Band).

The New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival boasts the largest display of lit jack-o-lanterns every year. At the Great Pumpkin Farm in Clarence, NY, visitors can “hunt zombies” in paintball tournaments. Stone Mountain, GA has an annual Play By Day / Glow By Night Pumpkin Festival at the end of October. Milton, WV hosts an annual Pumpkin Park at the beginning of October.

Truth be told, once upon a time, I used canned pumpkin for cooking and fresh pumpkins only for jack-o-lanterns . But when I had three daughters, and thus three pumpkins, I couldn’t bear the waste, and started collecting pumpkin recipes. I once thought of writing The Great Pumpkin Cookbook, but never got beyond a notebook full of clippings. I lost momentum when I found the following:


But I will share one pumpkin soup recipe, I made up based on a side dish my son-in-law made.

Savory Pumpkin Soup
1-2 cloves chopped garlic 
Chopped onion
Vegetable or olive oil to sauté
Equal amounts of pumpkin puree and diced canned tomatoes
Vegetable or chicken broth
Optional: your favorite herb or spice, such as basil, curry, etc.
Blue cheese or feta cheese

Gauge the garlic and onion on the basis of your taste and the amount of soup you are making. (For 15 oz. cans of tomatoes and puree, I use 1 clove of garlic and half a medium onion.) Sauté garlic and onion till soft. Add the pumpkin and tomatoes, and enough broth to make a soup of the consistency you like. If using additional seasonings, add now. Simmer to blend.  When hot, add cheese to taste and stir to melt.

BOTTOM LINE: there’s a lot more to pumpkins than decorations and pie!

Pumpkin patch
You never know what you might find in a pumpkin patch!

THE WONDER OF WATER

I’m in Corolla, NC now, reveling in the wonder that is water. I grew up more-or-less in the middle of Ohio—not exactly water country. I first saw the ocean at age twenty, during spring break on the east coast of Florida near Tequesta/Jupiter. It was love at first sight: soft, white sand; clear, warm water; and the sounds of moving water… 

Since then I’ve been near—or better yet, sailing on—water at every opportunity. Life is just better on water.

And this isn’t a placebo effect, specific to me! 

The Wonder of Water Outside the Body

There are psychological benefits to water, especially oceans.  Research indicates that, being by the sea has a positive impact on mental health.  (Psych Central)

  • Minerals in the sea air reduce stress
  • Negatively charged ions in the sea air combat free radicals, improving alertness and concentration
  • Salt in the water preserves tryptamine, serotonin and melatonin levels in the brain, which aid in diminishing depression or increasing your overall sense of wellness
  • The sounds of waves alter the brain’s wave patterns, producing a state of relaxation

So, even the sound of water is powerful, soothing. Water sounds have long been used in meditation.  The benefits of “blue space” – the sea and coastline, but also rivers, lakes, canals, waterfalls, even fountains – are less well publicized, yet the science has been consistent for at least a decade: being by water is good for body and mind.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏)
from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai

Whenever I’m near the ocean, a bay, a river, I’m awed by the vastness and the interconnectedness of water. Water makes up 71% of the Earth’s surface. I often think about cells sanded off my feet and ending up oceans away. 

And I’ve experienced nothing more awesome than being on the water in a small boat during a storm. Watching lighting go from the earth up. Furling the sails and trying to hold the tiller steady. And knowing that the water is primal, and ultimately has all the power. I’m inconsequential.

Listening to ocean sounds is a popular sleep aid:  people are able to let go of thoughts and allow sleep in.

And then there is the beneficial environmental factors, such as less polluted air and more sunlight. Also, people who live by water tend to be more physically active – not just with water sports, but walking and cycling. (The Guardian)

The Wonder of Water Inside the Body

In addition there are physiological benefits of water: reducing muscle tension and joint stress, and keeping skin moisturized, hair shiny, etc. (Fix)

When was the last time you thought about—really thought about—water? (Not counting hurricane Ian, of course.) How many times a day do you unthinkingly turn on a faucet? Water is so prevalent it’s easy to forget that life depends on it. People deprived of food and water will die of dehydration first. 

Water makes up 75% of the human brain. People who consume too much alcohol often wake so parched that their tongues stick to the roof of their mouths and their lips stick together. Imagine what has happened to your watery brain. (For the handful of you out there who have never had such an experience, think cotton balls and glue.)

The Wonder of Water and the History of the Body

The Nile, as seen from space
Even in modern times, human settlements cluster around rivers and seashores.

Much of our nutrition comes from seafood. Waterways have long been a means of transportation and an avenue of trade. But the wonder of water goes way beyond its utility.

Once upon a time, our ancestors slithered out of the sea. People still want to live and stay by water. Water property values are consistently higher than others. Of course, which water, and whether there is access to it, etc., count for a lot, but still… 

For suggestions about how to bring more water benefits into your life, see Blue Mind: The Health Benefits of Being by the Water.

BOTTOM LINE: There’s nothing more wondrous than water.

WHY?

You and I are perfect, of course—but the people we live with? They drive us nuts all around the house, in ways too numerous to count! And some rooms are more irritating than others. Some say such minor annoyances are the signs of imploding domestic happiness. Others claim habits like these are simply what happens when people become comfortable with each other, possibly even a sign of healthy relationships. Consider the ways irritability might be bad for you. And think about ways these little things can add tension to writing scenes.

Kitchen

~Putting the peanut butter on top of the jelly or the jelly on top of the peanut butter
  • Leaving scraps in the sink, even the side that has the garbage disposal
  • Leaving empty or near-empty cups, mugs, and glasses all around the house instead of taking them to the kitchen
  • Leaving cuttings/crumbs on the counter
  • Using twice as many utensils as necessary
  • Not turning off the stove burners/oven
  • Starting a dish cooking, leaving the room, and letting the food burn
  • Never adding salt and pepper while cooking (or adding far too much)
  • Leaving herbs, spices, and other seasonings on the counter
  • Not wiping up spills
  • Not checking the vegetable drawer for partials before cutting a new pepper, onion, or cuke
  • Leaving partially eaten food out (pizza, sandwich, fruit)

Bathrooms

~Washing dishes in what is clearly the dolls’ bathtub
  • Soaking the bathmat
  • Leaving dirty clothes on the floor
  • Sprinkling the counters with grooming products
  • Not flushing
  • Not replacing a spent toilet paper roll
  • Putting new TP roll on so new sheets come from the back, when everyone knows the new sheets should come over the top. (Or vice versa!)
  • Leaving hair in the washbasin
  • Using your washcloth or towel
  • Running out the hot water
  • Leaving the cap off toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo, whatever

Bedroom

~Kicking while dreaming of chasing squirrels
  • Restless sleeping or kicking
  • Snoring
  • Using a C-Pap machine
  • Taking too much closet and dresser space
  • Leaving clothes around
  • Hogging the covers
  • Insisting on a night light—or total darkness
  • Needing a noise masking machine
  • Eating in bed
  • Reading in bed
  • Allowing pet on the bed

Living Room/Family Room

~Taking up the whole sofa, even if they’re actually the smallest member of the household
  • Toys/games sprinkled about
  • Putting feet on furniture
  • Cluttering end tables, coffee tables, ottomans…
  • Not using coasters
  • Spilling food and drink on upholstery, carpets, curtains, etc.

Dining Room

~Eating your fingers when you’re just trying to eat your mush
  • Chewing with mouth open
  • Wolfing food or eating absurdly slowly
  • Talking with mouth full
  • Not using a napkin
  • Reaching for things that should be passed
  • Making a mess around the plate/bowl

All Around the House

~Forgetting to pay the gravity bill, leaving everyone to float upside-down
  • Squeezing tubes from the middle (toothpaste, anchovy paste, etc.)
  • Playing TV/radio/etc. too loudly
  • Controlling the TV remote/program
  • Flipping channels on TV or radio
  • Not picking up after her/himself
  • Singing, humming, whistling out of tune
  • Dominating the conversation
  • Interrupting
  • Not saying please or thank you
  • Leaving doors open/unlocked
  • Leaving lights and fans on when leaving a room
  • Not setting the alarm
  • Not watering houseplants 
  • Leaving bird feeders empty
  • Paying bills late
  • Leaving the newspaper a mess

Bottom line: These are just a very few examples of domestic minor annoyances. There are always more, especially when you’re looking for them. Is the irritating behavior really worth the irritation? Or could you make use of it?

THERE’S A WORD FOR THAT

My friend and colleague Kathleen Corcoran sent me an archaic word.

  • Spuddle (v)
    • To work feebly and ineffectively because your mind is elsewhere or you haven’t quite woken up yet.
    • To make a lot of fuss about trivial things, as if it were important.
    • To work tirelessly without achieving anything of worth. To put in a great deal of effort and achieve only very little.
    • To loosen and dig up stubble and weeds left after a harvest with a broadshare or similar device.

I took one look at it and said, “That’s got to be one of the best, most useful words ever!” Indeed, I’ve been spuddling for years.

So began my search for old, forgotten, seldom used, and archaic words and phrases that need to take (or retake) their rightful places in our written and the spoken vocabularies.

Autophoby (n) Fear of referring to oneself, usually exhibited by a reluctance to use the pronouns I or me.

Balderdash (n) Spoken or written nonsense.

Blithering (adj) Complete; utter (Used to express annoyance or contempt, as in “a blithering idiot.”)

Bloviate (v) To speak in a pompous or overbearing way. (Made popular by Pres. Warren G. Harding.)

Caddywonked (adj) Southern slang for sideways, unconventional, askew.

Caddywompus/cattywampus (adj) Variations of catawampus, meaning askew, diagonal, first recorded in the 1830-1840s.

Catty-cornered (adj) Diagonally opposite someone or something

Flagitation (n) The act of asking or demanding with great passion; begging.

Clishmaclaver (n) Idle talk; gossip.
(chiefly Scottish)

Conniption (n) Informal, meaning a fit of rage

Crackbrained (adj) extremely foolish; crazy; insanely irresponsible.

Embrangle (v) To entangle, mix up, confuse, perplex. Embranglement, the noun form.

Flapdoodle (n) Nonsense; a fool

Flexanimous (adj) Having the power to influence, move, affect

Gabble-monger (n) Gossip

Hoik (v) To move or pull abruptly; yank.
(also a wild hook shot in cricket)

Lollop (v) to move in an ungainly way, in a series of clumsy paces or bounds.
(n) A person or animal who moves in such a way.

Mizzle (n) Light rain or drizzle.

Skellington (n) A skeleton

Percolation (n) The process of something spreading slowly.

Pilgarlic (n) Literally “peeled garlic” the word is used for a bald person or a person held in amused contempt or treated with mock pity.

Runnel (n) A narrow channel in the ground for liquid to flow through; a crook or rill; a small stream of a particular liquid, e.g., a runnel of sweat.

Sitooterie (n) A summerhouse or gazebo; also an out-of-the-way place to sit with your partner at a dance (or other event).

Skiwapiddy (adj) Crooked, off-kilter

Stramash (n) Disturbance or racket.
(chiefly Scottish)

Taradiddle (n) Petty lie, nonsense.

Trug (n) A shallow basket made from strips of wood for carrying flowers or vegetables.

Ultra-crepidarian (n) A person who expresses opinions on things outside the scope of his/her knowledge or expertise. Can also be an adjective.

Whinge (v) To complain persistently and in a peevish or irritating way.

Bottom Line: Linguists say you can make any word, even an obscure or archaic word, your own by repeating it aloud five times and using it in a sentence every day for a week.

MY BLOG PHILOSOPHY

That I’m not the next King, Atwood, or Gabaldon became apparent years ago, but I’ve kept writing. That’s how I realized I write to feed my soul, not to put food on the table.

It then follows that I don’t write this blog to sell goods or services. That said, do feel free to buy any/all of my four books!

Why I Blog

Where the magic happens

Early on, my blogs were geared exclusively toward writers: tips, prompts, potentially useful information, etc., such as the value of writing every day for 15-60 minutes.

Over the years, I’ve shared all the advice I have at least once. Plus, there are whole books dedicated to instruction, tips, and prompts.

Research is sometimes the most fun part of writing!

More recently, I’ve focused on potentially useful—and generally interesting, at least to me—information. Thus, I’ve researched such diverse topics as the prices of human body parts on the black market and Shiva Lingam, a sacred stone of India.

I’m an educator by training and profession. For me, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of blogging is researching new information, and then sharing it with others. In that sense, my target audience is the world.

Other Reasons to Blog

A few of my shorter publications

My blogs avoid politics and religion. I have strong feelings on both, but blogging about them feels like proselytizing. Sharing views and opinions seems better left to dinner with family and friends—some of them, anyway! 

But sometimes the line gets blurred. For example, the story of the Ohio ten-year-old who had to go to Indiana to get an abortion has filled the news recently. Doubts about this story initially abounded (now thoroughly debunked), but it turned out to be heart-breakingly true.

However, reports of child (even infant) sexual abuse are all too common. According to the WHO, “Approximately 12 million girls aged 15–19 years and at least 777,000 girls under 15 years give birth each year.” Research by the CDC has found, “In 2009, approximately 410,000 teens aged 15-19 years gave birth in the United States, and the teen birth rate remains higher than in other developed countries.” Can child pregnancy really be that rare?

F.Y.I., Lina Marcela Medina de Jurado, born 23 September 1933, is a Peruvian woman who became the youngest confirmed mother in history when she gave birth aged five years, seven months, and 21 days. 

Perhaps it is apparent that I don’t put a premium on optimizing my blog. (See last week’s guest blog on how to do that by Kathleen Corcoran.) Sometimes long sentences and long words are appropriate, even necessary! And I doubt many 11-15 year-olds (theoretically the target audience for all online writing) read my blogs, so why dumb-down the vocabulary?

BOTTOM LINE: Who knows which of my weekly blogs might interest you? Check out some of my past entries just in case!

Blog optimization cares nothing for lightning or lightning bugs.

How Optimized is Too Optimized?

Optimus Prime

Guest blog by Kathleen Corcoran

Optimal Optimus Prime

Among other services, WordPress offers SEO (Search Engine Optimization) analysis and optimization. These are, essentially, writing guidelines to draw readers to a webpage and then to make that webpage easier to read.

When every website bristles with ads (or is itself an ad), the primary goal of any author must be to drive traffic to a website, whatever that traffic may be. Disseminating information, discussing ideas, arguing viewpoints, and every other method of communication becomes monetized. Some might argue that this is why so much of online content today looks the same.

Yoast SEO

When a reader types a question or phrase into the search bar of Google, Bing, Duckduckgo, or any other search engine, the algorithms of that search engine sort possible results based on how likely they are to provide the answer.

Title

“Clickbait” is the phenomenon of ambiguously or misleadingly titling an article for the sole purpose of convincing readers to visit a webpage. Social media accounts have popped up just to point out the silliness of these titles, often with hilarious results.

Search Engine Optimization begins with the title of a webpage. Ideally, the title of a website should be six to ten words, with 10% uncommon words and at least one “power word.”

Emotionally triggering headlines drive more traffic to a website. The more strongly emotional a headline is, the more effectively it brings readers to a page.

Even within the headline, word percentages come into play. Analysts have sat down and worked out the figures for how many uncommon words, how many common words, how many positive and negative and neutral words are most likely to convince a web searcher to click on a link.

  • Titles By the Numbers
    • 6-10 words
    • First 3 words are most important
    • 10-15% emotional words
    • 20-30% common words
    • 10-15% uncommon words
    • At least one power word
    • Sentiment positive or negative, never neutral
    • Lists and how-to articles are the most effective

Keywords

My Favorite Key Words!

The other method search engines use to determine how well a webpage fits a query is to look for keywords. In order to reach the most viewers, writers are encouraged to create and use particular key words and phrases throughout the text.

This is similar to an essay’s thesis or an operatic motif. Of course, there are numbers for optimization of keywords.

Readability

Optimus Primal

Humans process information differently when reading on a screen than when reading on a page. Scrolling text creates different memory maps than turning pages. Serif fonts register more easily in print; sans serif fonts register more easily on a screen.

Beyond the physical, readability optimization focuses on how easily a reader can absorb the information presented on a website. Online, readers tend to skim information and look for particular words or phrases rather than reading thoroughly.

The readability is calculated by the Kincaid-Flesch reading score, originally developed for military use. 

Text Formatting

Rudolph Flesch and Robert Kincaid developed a system for evaluating reading ease and relative grade level, summarized in the table here:

ScoreSchool level (US)Notes
100.00–90.005th gradeVery easy to read. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student.
90.0–80.06th gradeEasy to read. Conversational English for consumers.
80.0–70.07th gradeFairly easy to read.
70.0–60.08th & 9th gradePlain English. Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.
60.0–50.010th to 12th gradeFairly difficult to read.
50.0–30.0CollegeDifficult to read.
30.0–10.0College graduateVery difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.
10.0–0.0ProfessionalExtremely difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.

They based the scores on a formula derived from the number of words in a sentence and the number of syllables in each word.

Once again, everything is reduced to numerical value.  Breaking up blocks of text into smaller paragraphs or adding pictures makes it easier for a person reading a screen to glance through a text and pick out information. However, none of this information actually measures the quality of writing.

  • Text By the Numbers
    • Breaking text up with sub-headings, calculated per 300 words
    • Readability score, calculated by average number of words per sentence and syllables per word, recommended between 60-70
    • Paragraphs less than 150 words
    • Sentence length calculated as a percentage of sentences with more than 20 words
    • Text length between 300-900 words

Writing Style

Once a reader has ventured beyond the title and the keywords, they must confront the actual writing on the page. Again, SEO has all the answers! Some of this is common writing advice, such as varying sentence structure and avoiding passive voice. 

What’s the Point?

When everyone writes by the numbers, driven by selling, I have to wonder how much the actual writing quality and style suffer. News outlets and health information present information formulated to drive in visitors rather than to educate. Bloggers deliberately trigger emotional responses for the sake of increasing ad revenue. How much real skill and work goes into crafting articles, stories, arguments, or any other accumulation of words when everything can be decided by formula and reduced to the lowest common denominator (or at least to 13-15 year olds)?

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, ESL teacher, luthier, favorite auntie, turtle lover, canine servant, and rapidly developing curmudgeon.

Un-Optimized Optimus Prime

Just for the sake of playing with this page’s readability score, I present to you the beginning of “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust. This sentence has a Fleisch-Kincaide readability score of -515.1.

“But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold—or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam—or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling.”

Marcel Proust, “In Search of Lost Time” (1922)

COMPENDIUM OF MARRIAGE

Say “They are married” and your listener/reader makes a whole host of assumptions. But are they correct?

Arranged Marriages in Assam
Maison Vie New Orleans

An article at Maison Vie New Orleans cites Psychology Today for a list of 7 types of marriage possibilities.  I’ve supplied definitions not given in the article.

Perhaps the most famous “Starter Marriage” participants
  • Starter Marriage: First marriage, five years or less, no children.
  • Companionship Marriage: Based on companionship, both partners have mutual consent and equality.
  • Parenting Marriage: Non-romantic, spouses come together to raise happy, healthy children.
    • This can also be the case of parents who would otherwise divorce but stay together for the sake of the children.
  • Safety Marriage: Marrying a “safety” partner, such as a long-time friend or old flame.
  • Living Alone Together Marriage: No standard definition found.
    • Each member of a marriage maintaining a separate household, sometimes far apart. (Jezebel)
    • Unmarried people living in communal (or roommate) arrangements, for financial and social benefits. (Psychology Today)
    • Married people who live together but maintain separate financial and social arrangements. (Center for Growth)
    • People who wish to divorce but cannot for social, religious, financial, etc. reasons. (Marriage.com)
  • Open Marriage: Spouses in a dyadic marriage agree that each may have extramarital sexual relationships, which are not considered infidelity.
  • Covenant Marriage: A legally distinct kind of marriage in three states (Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana) requiring pre-marital counseling and accepting more limited grounds for later seeking a divorce.
Psychology Today

On the other hand, an article on Marriage.com lists 25 types of marriages, including the following. In addition to those listed above, the author provides the following variations. This list includes both “legal” and emotional/motivational aspects.

“The Arranged Marriage” by Vasili Vladimirovitz Pukirev
  • Love Marriage: The ideal of romance movies and wedding magazines, though love is not necessary to marriage, as delineated throughout this blog.
  • Civil and Religious Marriage: when the marriage is recognized by the state, or the recognition is received from a religious body, such as the church, respectively.
  • Interfaith Marriage: When people from two different religions decide to get married, it is called an interfaith marriage.
  • Common-Law Marriage: when two people have declare they are married and live together but do not have a certificate of registry.
    • Cohabitation is not sufficient to be a common-law marriage but it is usually necessary.
    • The laws regarding common-law marriages vary not only from country to country but also between states in the US.
  • Monogamous Marriage: When the married couple “forsakes all others” and doesn’t get emotionally or sexually involved with anyone else outside the marriage.
  • Polyamorous Marriage: When the marriage involves more than two people
    • Polygyny, when a man has more than one wife
    • Polyandry, when a woman has more than one husband.
  • Group Marriage: one or more men are married to one or more women.
    • Differs from polygamous or polyandrous marriage primarily in that all members consider themselves in a relationship with all others rather than being “divided” along gender lines.
Morganatic Marriage: King Frederik VII of Denmark and Countess Danner
  • Left-Handed Marriage: (Not a term I was familiar with) when two people from unequal social rankings marry.
    • It’s also called a Morganatic Marriage, most often in reference to inheritance or succession.
  • Secret Marriage: When the marriage is hidden from society, friends, and family.
  • Shotgun Marriage: When a couple decides to get married because of an unplanned pregnancy or threat of pregnancy. Sometimes, they marry to save their reputations or embarrassment to their families.
  • Inter-Racial Marriage: Also called a mixed marriage, when people from different races marry.
  • Same-Sex Marriage: Legal in many parts of the world, though still not as universally socially acceptable as other types of marriage.
  • Arranged Marriage: When the family finds a suitable match for an eligible person, based on factors such as race, religion, caste, and other specific criteria they might have.
  • Convenience Marriage: When two people get married for reasons that bring convenience to their lives, such as financial security or childcare.
Um… Perhaps not this kind of zombie marriage…
  • Zombie Marriage: Both parties are docile and nice to each other in public but behind closed doors, they do not share any sort of a relationship.
  • Safety Marriage: When a marriage occurs because something tangible, mostly materialistic, is decided to be given in return. These terms are decided before marriage.
  • Open Marriage: When two people who are officially married agree that it’s okay to see others outside the marriage.
  • Partnership: Both spouses are equals, probably both work full-time and share household and child-rearing responsibilities equally.
  • Independents: Spouses live separate lives alongside each other; they may spend their free time apart; around the house, they tend to work separately in their areas of interest and on their own timetables.
    • (See “Living Alone Together”)
  • “Traditional” Marriage: One wife who does not work outside the home but takes care of the house and children; one husband who is the breadwinner and has few if any household duties; works only when/as long as both spouses like it that way.
  • Companionship: Both spouses want a life-long friend and their relationship is familiar and loving.
“The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife” by Daniel Maclise
Non-Romantic Reasons for Marriage

And there are still other marriages not covered above.

Polyandri: Draupadi married the five Pandava brothers in the epic Mahabharta
  • Advancement: Enhancing social and/or financial standing; the classic/stereotypical case is a man marrying the boss’s daughter.
  • Age: It’s “time” to get married; varies by class and culture and time period.
  • Alcohol: In Reno or Vegas, it might literally be an inebriated service; more likely an inebriated engagement that turns out to be binding.
  • Duty or Obligation: Feeling duty-bound to marry to carry on the family name (more often males) or to provide some sort of support for children or others.
  • Escape: Leaving an unsafe, unpleasant, or otherwise intolerable living situation.
  • Family Pressure: Could be any want or need that the marriage is expected to fulfill.
  • Financial Security: Assuring the basics of food, shelter, health care, etc.
  • Lust: Less common than formerly, marriage as a way to get sex.
  • Politics: Reinforcing a political or financial arrangement by creating a familial tie through marriage.
  • Religious Orders: In the Catholic Church, nuns are referred to as “Brides of Christ.”
  • Social Pressure: “All my friends are married!”

Bottom line: Just something to think about. Marriage is many things to many people, not a single entity.

Behind the Silver Screen

from The Muppet Movie

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, ESL teacher, luthier, favorite auntie, turtle lover, canine servant, and cinephile.

If you’re like me, reading a book is like watching a film inside your head. Casting is entirely up to your imagination, there’s no need for stunt doubles, and the special effects budget is unlimited. It even comes in Smell-O-Vision, which is not always fun.

To learn more about how a writer’s mental movie is translated into a box office hit, I spoke with Sean Williams, a film producer, director, actor, and writer. Williams recently graduated George Mason University, where he directed No Endings, winner of the 2022 Mason Film Festival award for Best Horror/Thriller Film.

Sight and Sound

Alfred Hitchcock said, “A lot of writers think they’re filling the page with words, but they’re filling the screen with images.”

Every writing teacher’s favorite bit of advice seems to be “Show, Don’t Tell.” That is even more true on film than in prose. A film writer must convey everything to the audience entirely through visual or audio input. The sense of dread, nauseating smells, motion sickness, feeling hungry, nostalgia, and every other part of the story must be either seen or heard.

Star Wars: A New Hope provides exposition through the use of an opening title.

Screenwriters have lots of techniques they can use to provide background information. Voice-over narration, overheard radio or television broadcasts, shots of newspaper headlines, letters, text messages all provide exposition.

Here are some great examples of exposition written into the screen play:

Diegetic Media: Text messages are displayed on screen in BBC’s Sherlock, letting the audience know what off-screen characters are doing.
  • The audience learns about flying broomsticks and magical racing by overhearing a group of children exclaiming about “the new Nimbus 2000; it’s the fastest broom ever!” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
  • The narrator’s voiceover in A Christmas Story explains why he hates his gift of fuzzy rabbit pajamas so much: “I knew that for at least two years, I would have to wear them every time Aunt Clara visited us. I just hoped that Flick would never spot them, as word of this humiliation could easily make life at Warren G Harding School a veritable hell.”
  • Characters in The Office and Deadpool frequently “break the fourth wall” by directly addressing the audience to explain their motivations or provide further information.

Sir Terry Pratchett included lots of footnotes in his novels, often providing extra jokes or humorous observations. In the screen adaptation of Wyrd Sisters, this footnote is shifted to a dialogue between two characters.

Writers for the screen use a variety of techniques give the audience necessary information without background essays. Writers of short stories, novels, memoirs, etc. can make use of some of these techniques to “show, not tell” the story.

Simplification

When moving from page to screen (or stage). writers must keep in mind the attention span of the viewer. A reader who forgets the details of military supply trains in War and Peace can just flip back a few pages, but it’s a bit more difficult for a film or TV audience.

Simplified Plot

Even without Tom Bombadil, the film adaptation of Fellowship of the Rings was nearly three hours long.

Remember the Mafia in Jaws? How about the romance between Idgie and Ruth in Fried Green Tomatoes? The controversy around Project 100,000 in the Vietnam War as experienced by Forrest Gump?

There are lots of reasons to cut subplots from a film adaptation. The running time might not allow for it. Corporate or government sponsors might require controversial themes to be removed. It might just be a case of special effects or budget constraints.

Simplified Characters

Many film adaptations don’t include all the characters in the source material. They might clutter the screen, they might be too difficult to film, they might simply be another name and face that the audience would have to remember.

Screen writers might shift a cut character’s dialogue to another character, or they might remove it altogether.

Often, screen writers will combine similar characters for the sake of clarity. Michael Green’s adaptation of Death on the Nile has many such changes. Apart from the murderers, the murdered, and Hercules Poirot, nearly every character from the original Agatha Christie novel is combined with another character or removed altogether.

Glinda, Ruler of the Quadling Country and Tattypoo, Good Witch of the North, merged into one character in the 1939 MGM Wizard of Oz film.

One could argue that the same principles apply when writing any sort of fiction. Short stories certainly have a finite number of characters and sub-plots they can include before they are no longer “short.” At what point does including or omitting details in a non-fiction work change it to a work of fiction? The question of whether to include or cut, develop or combine characters and themes is ultimately down to the writer.

Beyond Words

Film editors, CGI artists, composers, costume designers, set designers, directors, actors, and hosts of others contribute to the final creation of a film that an audience sees. The screenplay is only one component of the finished product.

Editing

Consider the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first arrives in Munchkinland. There is no dialogue. The editor created a transition shot showing the change from the sepia-toned farmhouse to the full-color world of Oz.

Costumes

Amy Westcott, costume designer for the 2010 film Black Swan, dressed the main character all in white and pink during choreography and classroom scenes. This illustrates the character’s naivety as well as drawing the audience’s immediate focus. Character development is reflected in the gradual darkening of the costume, demonstrating internal conflict without a single word being spoken.

Music

The score composer(s) are responsible for a huge part of an audience’s emotional involvement in a film. The ominous Jaws theme by John Williams (no relation), the Moonlight score that “splits the difference between classical and codeine” by Nicholas Britell, the iconic music establishing time periods in Forrest Gump all tell a huge part of the story beyond the visual.

Other unspoken storytelling devices Sean Williams suggests

The opening scenes of Up illustrate the main character’s relationship, career, heartbreak, and slide into depression entirely without dialogue.
  • The camera panning along a series of family photographs with fewer and fewer people, showing a character’s increasing isolation
  • Focus on a clock face, burned down candle stubs, or an overflowing ashtray to demonstrate the passage of time
  • Camera angles above or below eye level to demonstrate the relative importance, ego, or intimidation of a character
  • Distorting and muffling background sounds to reflect a character’s disorientation
  • Changing color palettes to take advantage of humans’ hard-wired responses to red (danger), blue (calm), etc.
  • Adjusting camera focus to draw audience attention to foreground, background, or in between

Ultimately, this must come from the directors, editors, actors, composers, lighting specialists, sound editors, etc., etc., etc…. The screenplay is really just the beginning.

Prose writers may not be able to include fantastic music or ambient colors, but there are other tools available. Point of view shifts, chapter divisions, physical descriptions, and sensory details (beyond sight and sound) can all be used to direct a reader’s attention.

Sean Williams gave me a lot more information about writing for the screen, but I’m afraid I’d need about four years to learn what he covered over the course of his degree. For more details, check out George Mason University or The Los Angeles Film School.