Sankofa and Other Birds as Symbols and Omens

sankofa
In writing class yesterday, one of the other students enlightened us all about “sancofa” bird. I found it fascinating and so did a little research on Wikipedia. It seems the more common spelling is “sankofa.”

 

Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates as “Go back and get it.” (San = to return, ko = to go, fa = fetch, to seek and take.) It also refers to the Asante Adinkra symbol represented by a stylized heart shape, common in adinkra cloth in Ghana and wrought iron fences in the U.S.

 

sankofa other birds
But the bird image is what really struck me. Its feet face forward, head turned back, an egg in its mouth. “It symbolizes taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent knowledge.” It appears on many objects to foster mutual respect and unity in tradition. In North America, sankofa symbols are featured at the African Burial Ground National Monument in NYC and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Indeed, such symbols are all over Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and New York City.

 

sankofa
Sankofa appears often in tattoos, songs, and the names of musical groups.

 

All of this reminded me of the ubiquity of bird symbolism and the belief in birds as omens of the future.

 

The flight of birds makes them good symbols of the links between heaven and earth. The bird as a symbol of heaven stands in opposition to the snake, a symbol of earth. A bird is often seen as a messenger from the gods or forewarning. In general, birds are associated with spiritual states, angels, and higher forms of being. But individual types of birds often have specific meanings. Here are a few of the most pervasive ones, from all over the world.
bustard
The bustard is a symbol of the marriage of souls, of fertility, and of the descent of souls into the material world. It is common to many Berber tribes of Marabouts. The tuareg of Aïr, south of Hoggar, have their shields charged with a pair of of bustard’s feet. This same type of symbolism can be found in the Far East, in the crow’s foot of the Celtic world, and on the robes of Uralo-Altaic shamans, and in the caves of Lascaux. Even though it’s old, it can still be useful to writers.
crane
In Asia, cranes are symbols of long life.
cuckoo bird
Cuckoos are welcomed as a sign of spring in Europe, and are omens of a happy marriage.
doves
Doves symbolize love and peace. Dreaming of them means happiness is at hand.
bald eagle
Eagles are held sacred by Native Americans. Their claws and bones are believed to drive away illness. And as the symbol of the U.S., the bald eagle stands for endurance, independence, and courage.
barn owl
Owls are considered prophets of doom. In ancient Rome as well as modern European and American superstitions, a hooting owl warns of death. In Greece, the owl is associated especially with Athena, goddess of wisdom and fertility.
 phoenix
The phoenix is mythical, of course, but supposedly it dies by fire, then rises from its own ashes after 500 years! Therefore, it is a symbol of renewed life.
raven
I especially like crows and ravens. Ravens, in particular have been revered by sailors, especially Viking explorers, for their ability to find land. Some cultures believe ravens can predict death and disease. Folklore has it that the raven’s sense of smell is so acute that it can smell death before it comes.
stork
Although a stork is among the unclean beasts, in general it’s considered to be a good omen. Storks are symbols of good luck, of filial piety. In folklore—fairytales?—storks deliver babies, and some endow the stork with the power to cause pregnancy by its glance.

 

Bottom line: Stories often include symbolism, so why not insert some on purpose? Practically any bird—or animal— will do. Just look it up. Alternatively, use the superstitions and mythology to begin stories of magical realism.

Word Wealth

oxford dictionaries

You may know that I love dictionaries! Indeed, I have four shelves of dictionaries that look much like the above—only less photogenic! And I’ll tell you right up front that my goal for today is to turn your liking for dictionaries into loving. After all, words are the building blocks of stories, the most basic tool of the craft. And dictionaries contain a wealth of information.
dictionary definition

Why one dictionary isn’t enough:

1. Language is constantly evolving. New words are added every year. So, depending on the time when you set your story, you may need an “age appropriate” dictionary. The current vocabulary is so important that books that are not actual dictionaries nevertheless have sections on language, books such as Everyday Life In The Middle Ages, Everyday Life in Colonial America, etc. The timeliness of language is particularly true for slang. Heaven forbid you should drop “far out” (meaning extraordinary or bizarre in the 1960s) into a story set in the 1950s. And there are dictionaries for that!

 

dewdroppers waldos slackers
2. Language varies by occupation or profession. I have dictionaries that focus on war slang by war, a dictionary of jargon by profession, a dictionary of mob speak.

 

3. Language is regional as well as time specific. I have dictionaries of American English (so labeled), Australian English, and South African English—and there are probably more out there reflecting English as spoken around the world. But some, such as Yankee Speak, are much closer to home. How To Speak Southern, published in 1976, may be dated (or not) depending on when your story happens. But in any case, it’s short and worth a read just for the laughs.

 

4. Using archaic words can spice up your writing as long as the context makes the meaning clear. For example, biblioklept (meaning book thief), fleshquake (a tremor of the body), or crop-lifting (to steal a crop of standing grain).

 

word museum
5. Actually—and perhaps not surprisingly—I especially like dictionaries of weird words. Where else would one come across words like “nihilarian” (meaning a person who deals with things of no importance)?
weird wonderful words
Of course, one person’s “no importance” is another person’s passion! So a character using that label/word says a lot about the speaker. Indeed, a character who’s makes a habit of using esoteric words is rich with possibilities!

 

word wealth
6. And then there are common, easily understood words that are seldom used. Some of these are very personal. For example, my high school English teacher had an explicitly stated aversion to the word “bother” and urged saying “it isn’t” rather than “it’s not” because the latter sounded too much like snot. Consider dropping uncomfortable words into your narrative and/or dialogue to create a bit of unease or tension in the reader, and/or to characterize your character. Consider your—or your character’s—uncomfortable words.

 

7. Why not just look words up online? Now this is getting personal to me. If you need to check the spelling and/or definition of a particular word, the internet is quick and dirty—i.e. efficient. The problem (in my opinion) is that you get what you ask for. With a physical dictionary, you can easily tumble into reading nearby entries. So you look fulminate (criticize harshly) and wander into fulsome (sickening or excessive behavior)—and there’s a whole new adjective you can use!
dictionary
Bottom line: We all know writers read. Try reading a dictionary or two!

Writers Keep Fit

My tai chi teacher is fond of saying that in terms of ill effects on health, sitting is the new smoking. She urges never sitting still for more than ten minutes at a time. Treadmill desks and Hemingway-style standing notwithstanding, most writers spend a lot of time sitting. So, here follows my humble suggestions about how writers can keep moving during their work days. And I’ll start with my personal favorite, stay flexible.

 

writers keep fit
No one can produce the Great American Novel with carpal tunnel syndrome. One possibility is to use all your digits. If that doesn’t particularly work for you, consider these alternatives to keep typing—or, as many say today, “keyboarding.”

 

Then there is the pencil twirl, which is good for dexterity and also good as a party trick. Keep an array of pencils and pens around and when you’re on the phone or whatever, weave a pencil (or pen) through the fingers of one hand, first one direction and then the other.
writers keep fit
writers keep fit
Hand function is crucial, but flexibility is truly a full-body need. Try these moves.

 

Of course, it’s also important to jiggle one’s brain occasionally. Whenever you feel especially groggy or frustrated, try banging your head on the desk/keyboard.

 

Which reminds me, use scrap paper to improve eye-hand coordination. Crumple all those discarded draft pages into paper basketballs and lob them toward the wastebasket—if you can find it.
writers keep fit
Attend to heart health with aerobic walking. The ideal might be a 60 minute walk every day. But if that isn’t possible, consider 360 10-second walks around your desk chair, breathing heavily.
writers keep fit
Flexibility and breathing are crucial, but so is strength. If lifting your coffee cup (or whatever beverage) isn’t doing it for you, consider these moves.

 

And yes, ladies, one can do the squats in pencil skirts: just jut your butt out and keep your knees behind your toes, while keeping your back flat.

 

There’s much evidence that exercise goes better with companions. Consider bringing exercise into your next critique group meeting.

 

But More Seriously…

Many successful writers urge physical activity as necessary for writers. Everyone knows about Sue Grafton and Stephen King.

“The writer must have a good imagination to begin with, but the imagination has to be muscular, which means it must be exercised in a disciplined way, day in and day out, by writing, failing, succeeding and revising.”

― Stephen King

But testimonials are out there, all over the place. Here is a list of writers who have publicly endorsed physical exercise. Look them up for details.

 

New York Times bestselling author of ten books, also an award-winning professor at The New School and NYU.

 

Wolf has had the #1 best-selling book on Amazon and was ranked #2 for all historical romance authors.

 

Meidav won the Kafka Award for Best Novel by an American Woman and the Fiction Prize for writers under 40. She teaches at U. Mass Amherst MFA program.
Her novel The Fallback Plan made the “highbrow brilliant” quadrant in New York magazine’s approval matrix. She’s published three books.

 

Marivi Soliven
Marivi Soliven [Source: Team Yellow]
Author of 17 books, The Mango Bride won the Philippine counterpart of the Pulitzer Prize as well as Best Contemporary Fiction at the 2014 San Diego Book Awards.

 

Bottom line: Consider the collective wisdom of many productive writers and figure out how to get more active! Here are two places to get started.

 

The Hair Has It

the hair has it
Hair has always been recognized as important: Sampson in the Bible, Cleopatra’s thick, black hair, the wigs worn by judges and others. It is one aspect of ourselves—our bodies—which we can control most, with relatively little effort, over decades. Much about hair is a choice. According to author and philosopher Alain de Botton, “We are using our hair to speak. We’re trying, through the syntax of colored protein filaments, to express key aspects of our soul—and to communicate some of the deepest truths about who we are.” So what do those choices say about a person—or character?

 

Of course, this is a topic that needs to be addressed separately for men and women, though there could be some overlap. Today, there is much more variety for women than for men.

 

What Women’s Hair Says

  • Side parting: compassionate, caring listener, big heart, empathetic and patient, no ulterior motives, realistic and reliable
  • Loose beach waves: embodiment of confidence, freedom lover, high energy, independent, comfortable around people but likes alone time

loose beach waves

  • Mid-length hair: practical, efficient, values common sense and committed to goals, work smart instead of hard
  • Blonde hair: approachable, friendly, good conversationalist, sexy
  • High ponytail: full of energy, sporty, problem solver, straightforward, good time manager, focused on things that truly matter, looks young
  • Polished high ponytail: goal-oriented, athletic, logical
  • Black hair: feminine, attractive, intelligent, confident, well-formed thoughts and convictions, classy, trustworthy

dark hair

  • Short bob: low maintenance, risk-taker, go-getter, professional looking, efficient and organized
  • Brunette: intelligent, self-sufficient, often consulted for advice, makes sound decisions
  • Red hair: fun, hate boredom, good sense of humor, ablaze with passion, temperamental and fiery, maybe fickle, or a drama queen
  • Bouncy curls: fun-loving, warm-hearted, celebrate uniqueness, courageous and outspoken, resists conformity; for black women, value roots, proud of who they are naturally

bouncy curls

  • Curly hair that is straightened: life is chaotic, seeks calm
  • Wavy hair: innovative and creative, high energy, strong willpower, emotional, easily gets hurt feelings, self-contained, monogamy might be a challenge
  • Thick hair: strong willpower, high energy, maybe stubborn, probably thick eyebrows, maybe lower sex drive
  • Thin hair: delicate, not into extreme sports, conserve energy
  • Straight hair that’s always curled: craves more fun and attention

curled hair

  • Medium-length hair, wash-and-go-style: good thinker, values logic, impatient, easily frustrated, values common sense, maybe competitive
  • Long hair, wash-and-go style: in touch with their feelings, romantic, creative, think hippies
  • Super short wash-and-go hairstyle: don’t want to fuss over things in life, less in touch with your feelings
  • High maintenance style: self-critical, anxious, worry about details, and/or drama queen who wants attention
  • Mumsy braid: put their own needs last

braided hair

  • Blunt cut: go-getter, to the point, values logic, driven and goal oriented
  • Layered cut: perfectionist
  • Unconventional hairstyle: fun, full of surprises, likes getting out of the box, carefree, creative, highly emotional, maybe an artist
  • Shaved head: super romantic, have a huge heart, sparkling personality
  • Hairline goes straight across: rebel, rule breaker or at least challenger, wants to make a positive change in the world
  • Irregular hairline: troubled adolescence, poor mothering
  • Rounded hairline: good girl, rule follower, well-mannered
  • Widow’s peak: sex appeal, mysterious charm, charismatic
crazy hair

What Men’s Hair Says

 
  • Man bun: practical, someone trying to pretend to be carefree, even though the look is contrived
  • Buzz cut: low maintenance
  • All bald: confident, he knows who he is, not afraid to embrace it; maybe thinks bald looks younger than gray

bald man

  • Same ol’ haircut forever: loves tradition, predictable, dependable, not going to change any time soon
  • The fade (whatever the top, a haircut where the hair on the sides and back taper gradually until there is no hair left on the skin): likely active duty or retired military, high and tight, disciplined; with a funky, spunky top, a with-the-times kind of guy, trendy

fade hair

  • The pompadour: worn by both women and men; for men, often combined with the fade, meaning a bit full of yourself, pay attention to detail, want to do things right the first time
  • Mr. Facial Hair: I’m a man’s man and I know it. Consider fancy mustache, tailored goatee, and full beard and the impression it makes
Note to writers: I found little on this topic relating actual hairstyles to personality tests. Virtually all of this is the impression these styles create. But for the writer, impressions are often what you are going for.

 

colored hair
[Source: MyWedding]

Shoe Story

University of Kansas researchers found that by looking at photos of the shoes people wore most often, their subjects could accurately tell a person’s age, sex, income, and political affiliation. But they could also accurately assign certain personality traits—e.g., people in practical comfortable shoes are perceived as more laid back and relaxed—and they are. Those with masculine shoes are more uptight. People with plain shoes that look new are more likely to be anxious and insecure.

 

Overall, researcher Omri Gillath found that by examining the style, cost, color, and condition of the shoes, participants were able to predict about 90% of the owner’s personal characteristics. 

 

  • Expensive shoes belong to high earners.
  • Flashy and colorful footwear belonged to extroverts.
  • Shoes that were not new but were spotless belonged to conscientious types.
  • Practical and functional shoes belonged to agreeable people.
  • Ankle boots reflected more aggressive personalities.
  • Uncomfortable looking shoes (surprisingly) were worn by calm personalities.
  • Brand new and well-kept shoes were worn by people with attachment anxiety (perhaps worry a lot about what others may think of them).
  • Shabbier and less expensive shoes marked liberal thinkers.
  • Boring looking shoes were worn by people who found it hard to form relationships BUT study participants couldn’t get that relationship.

What A Woman’s Shoes Say About How She’s Feeling

These are perceptions of current footwear, not what is worn most often.

 

  • Tall riding boots = Up for anything. Boots are a staple shoe when it comes to cold-weather fashion.
  • Ankle Boots = Sleek and fashion-conscious.
  • Ballet Flats = Cute.
  • Casual Sneakers = Lazy, yet productive.

  • Black Pumps = Sexy.
  • Wedges = Fun.
  • Peep-toes = Flirty.
  • Flat Sandals = Happy.

What a Man’s Shoes Say About Him

Again, these are perceptions, traits others attribute to the wearer, not validated by corresponding personality tests.
 
  • Suede ankle boots = masculine but not aggressive, detail-oriented
  • Driving mocs = knows style, a little high-maintenance
  • Black dress shoes = pulled together, high self-respect
  • Rainbow flip-flops = laid-back, doesn’t succumb to societal expectations
  • Timberlands = not-so-rough guy trying to look tough
  • Sperry boat shoes = traditionalist, follows dad’s footsteps, wears what he wore every summer growing up
[Source: eBay]
  • Merrells = his mom is still shopping for him
  • Air Jordans = serious sneakerhead, maybe too self-absorbed?
  • Lace-up oxfords = solid, responsible, means business
  • Retro Nikes = subtle but looking cool and trendy
  • Sandals with socks = lazy, looks silly, simply not acceptable
  • Vibram FiveFingers = marches to his own drummer
[Source: REI Co-op]
Usefulness to writers: (1) choose habitual footwear to reflect your character’s character; and (2) have your character choose footwear to create a particular impression.
 

Consider Coffee

Consider Coffee
In the U.S. 83% of adults drink coffee, and 64% drink coffee daily. In a study published in the Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, it was found that 17 percent of Americans drink more than five cups of coffee a day. So? Chances are most if not all of your characters drink coffee. But it turns out, drinking coffee isn’t always the same—e.g., you can order coffee 25,000 different ways at Dunkin’ Donuts. Here are the high points of what coffee choices say about your character’s personality, from a study by clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula.
 
coffee beans
Drink Personality Traits The Light Side The Dark Side
Black coffee
  •  Old school
  •  Purist
  • Keep things simple
  • Patient
  • Efficient
  • Can be quiet and moody
  • Abrupt and dismissive
  • Sort of set in their ways
  • Resistant to making changes
Latte drinkers (folks who add milk/cream and sugar)
  • Comfort seekers
  • People pleasers
  • Open book
  • Like to soften the bitterness of life (like they soften the bitterness of coffee)
  • Generous with time
  • Will go out of their way to help others
  • Can get over-extended
  • Don’t always take great care of themselves
Frozen/ blended coffee drinks
  • Try lots of new things
  • Socially bold
  • Trendsetters
  • Childlike
  • Spontaneous
  • Imaginative
  • Fall for quick fixes
  • Don’t always make healthy choices
  • Can be reckless
Decaf/soy milk/ Very specifically ordered coffee
  • Like being in control
  • May be labeled selfish
  • Obsessive
  • Perfectionist
  • Very aware of their health and bodies
  • Monitor their health
  • Tend to make healthy choices
  • Overfocus on rules, control, and order
  • Overly sensitive
  • Tend to be worriers
Instant coffee
  • Traditional in some ways
  • Laid back
  • Procrastinate
  • Take life as it comes
  • Don’t get too lost in details
  • Too laid back
  • Put things off and may neglect basic health issues
  • Poor planners
Bear in mind that these are group data and may not apply to every individual. But if you are trying to create an image, know when you are going with the majority and when you are working against it.

 

coffee
 
A study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 2014 found that heavy coffee drinkers were more likely to exhibit traits of alexithymia — aka, difficulty identifying and describing their emotions. What’s more, those who drank a lot of coffee were also more likely to have anxiety and be more sensitive to the negative consequences of getting in trouble. It’s important to note that this study used self-reporting methods and only included 106 participants.

 

Consider Coffee
Other research indicates that the only negative personality trait associated with excessive coffee drinking came after 10 cups. People who drink more than 10 cups of coffee a day are more likely than the general population to have a personality disorder. On the upside, the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Health Publishing reported that there are myriad health benefits to drinking a moderately large amount of coffee (say three to four cups per day: longer life expectancy, protecting against Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and liver disease, including liver cancer. Coffee also appears to improve cognitive function and decrease the risk of depression. For migraine sufferers, it can also help ward off a crippling migraine.
coffee beans

A Few Fun Facts that May or May Not Contribute to Your Story Line

Only two U.S. states produce coffee: Hawaii (Kona coffee), and more recently, California. Most of the world’s coffee comes from Brazil.

 

Coffee beans are technically seeds, the pits of the cherry-like berries found on the flowering shrubs. Coffee was originally chewed, and the cherries can be eaten as a food. The cherries can also be fermented to make a wine-type drink.

 

You can overdose on coffee. According to VOX, drinking about 30 cups of coffee in a very short time would be a lethal or near-lethal amount of caffeine. A video from AsapSCIENCE asserts that it would take 70 cups of coffee to kill a person weighing roughly 150 pounds.

 

Decaf doesn’t mean caffeine-free. Eight ounces of brewed decaf contains 2 to 12 milligrams of caffeine, compared to regular coffee which contains 95-200 milligrams. (A cup of cola has 23-35 milligrams of caffeine.)

 

instant coffee
Although coffee consumption has been around since about 800 A.D., there were periods when various movements to ban coffee were prominent, especially from 1500 through the 1700s, so be aware if you write historical fiction. Also, FYI, instant coffee has been around for nearly 250 years.
 
One cup of black coffee has only one calorie.

 

Coffee grounds can be used as an exfoliant, to make skin feel smoother and look brighter.

 

There’s a Starbucks at CIA.

 

We spend, on average, $1,110 per person per year on coffee.

 

Consider Coffee

The Perennial Student

vmfa studio school
Yesterday was the beginning of the spring semester fiction class at the Virginia Museum Studio School—and I was there! Why? I might say “Because I am a perennial student.” Depending on the dictionary, the definition of perennial is some form of lasting for an indefinitely long time: extending over several years, persistent, recurrent, etc. But that is a label, not a reason.
perennial student
It’s practically a cliché that writing is a lone activity. I find classes add the social dimension to writing. I never met a boring writer! I meet interesting people with similar interests and (usually) similar world views. Thus there is the potential to develop friendships.

Classes stimulate me to write in new directions. Yes, I write when I’m not in class, but it tends to get habitual, not to mention sporadic. In the last few weeks I have had three stories accepted for publication in 2019.

big muddy literary magazine
[Source: NewPages]
“Culture of Complaint and Commiseration” will appear in Big Muddy, the literary journal of the Mississippi River Valley. It is a story of women bonding over the struggles they face.

pretty owl poetry
“Rambling On About Uncle Leonard” will appear in Pretty Owl Poetry. This is a single sentence of 688 words that describes an old man and his context.

slab lit mag
[Source: The Rocket]
“The Doll” will appear in SLAB.  It borders on horror, beginning when a woman finds an empty baby stroller in the middle of the sidewalk, in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night.

Besides celebrating these acceptances, I mention them for two reasons: they are three very different pieces of writing, and each began with a prompt or assignment in a writing class.

Classes are structured to make me write regularly.The VMFA studio classes meet three hours per week for twelve weeks in the fall and twelve weeks in the spring, with shorter offerings in the summer. Tuition is a real bargain, when one looks at dollars per hour of instruction! Just saying.

Amy Ritchie Johnson
My teacher of choice for the last two years has been Amy Ritchie Johnson. Her in-class timed writing and assignments are tied to the basics of the craft. All three of the forthcoming publications mentioned above started in her classes.

When I write regularly, I also submit regularly, at least six times per year. This leads to lots of rejections, but without submissions there are no acceptances.

Most of my life has been spent in classrooms, as a student and/or teacher.Classes are my natural environment, the one in which I thrive. Classmates and/or teachers praising my writing is extremely gratifying. Every time I get something published, it’s like an A on my report card or a star on my forehead. With more than 50 publications in literary journals and anthologies, my writing life is sufficiently star-studded to make me smile.

Of course I’m a perennial student! Join me!

Beauty With Benefits

beauty benefits
The Book of Stones is a guide to the world of crystals, minerals, and gemstones, and their metaphysical energies. Many people believe that stones are useful for spiritual awakening and self-healing. Each entry in the book includes the mineral’s scientific properties, history, lore, elemental energies, chakra correspondences, and which stones work best together.

 

So why am I bringing this to writers’ attention?  For one thing, you could have a character who believes in the spiritual awakening and/or self-healing powers of stones.

For example, I relied heavily on this book when I wrote a magical realism story, published in 2015 in Clare Magazine, about a woman who turned to many non-traditional methods to heal herself after treatment for breast cancer left her with radiation poisoning. In this story, the character turned especially to stones reputed to ameliorate cancer, pain, nausea, and low energy. Among others, these stones include jasper, unakite, snowflake obsidian, green tourmaline, diamond, serpentine, and aragonite star clusters.

 
 
You might create a character who needs to be informed about stones and their properties for business/work purposes—a store proprietor, museum curator, or geologist.
 
mystic jewel
 
One of my favorite stores is The Mystic Jewel in Corolla and Duck, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Every piece of jewelry one buys comes with a small card with a brief description of the stone’s properties.
 
beauty benefits
 
Maybe you just want your character to have an unusual worry stone or favorite piece of jewelry. For example, green onyx.
 
green onyx
Green onyx [Source: Gemsmore]
 
Everyone is familiar with black onyx, some know about white onyx, but green onyx is more of a statement stone.
 
Last but not least, consider that your character might have an attachment to a particular stone or stones for personal reasons: each month has a birthstone, many anniversaries have stones attached to them, etc. Unakite is the state gem stone of Virginia.  I have a special fondness to vivianite for obvious reasons! Not so obvious, vivianite’s key words are compassion, love, inner peace, gentleness, refreshment, inspiration, and mystic awakening; the elements of earth and water; and the heart (4th) chakra. What’s not to love?
 
vivianite
Vivianite [Creative Commons]
 
Bottom line: You can add a little pizzazz to your writing in many ways by bringing in stones.

The Morning After the Night Before

beer and cigarettes
I have already written about smoking and drinking, but realized that there are several facts about alcohol—potentially helpful to writers—that I omitted heretofore. Other factors are so crucial to reality that I’ve repeated them here.

 

hungover

How much is too much?

 
When writing realistic drinking scenes, be aware of factors that affect the effects of alcohol. You probably know that eating—particularly fatty foods—slows the metabolism of alcohol and thus one gets high faster on an empty stomach. (I once read that ancient Romans drank straight olive oil to increase their tolerance before big feasts. Just saying.) You may also know that people who drink regularly and heavily have a higher tolerance. But regardless of anything else—as these two charts show—weight and gender are huge factors in alcohol effects.

 

Causes of gender differences: Besides weighing more in general, the male body tends to have more water to dilute alcohol. Also, women have significantly less of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach.

 

Bottom line: Even when controlling for weight, women get drunk faster and stay drunk longer than men.

 

what is a standard drink
 

How long does alcohol stay in your system?

 
A normal, healthy liver can process approximately one drink per hour. To put it another way, one drink of alcohol stays in your blood approximately one hour. More than that, and it takes proportionately longer to get clear.
Alcohol stays in your urine about 80 hours.
 
Alcohol stays in your hair follicles approximately three months.
 
Alcohol can be detected on the breath as long as there is alcohol in the systemE.g., with a blood alcohol of .20, that would be approximately 13 hours.
 
Using the EtG test, one beer was detectable 16 hours later; six shots of vodka taken in 3 hours was detectable 54 hours later. Important note: this is the most sensitive test to detect whether a person has had alcohol. It does not detect drunkenness, which can have passed off during the intervening hours.
 
So, consider those factors when your are writing about alcohol testing, e.g. for a job application or entrance into a treatment program.

 

holding liquor

How long does it take to sober up?

 
Short answer: it depends on how much you’ve had to drink. (See above.) In many states, a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .10 means that 1% of your bloodstream is alcohol—and therefore drunk. Writers: Be sure to confirm the level for legally drunk in the locale of your story.
 
More technical answer: most alcohol metabolism depends on the liver, which takes one hour to metabolize 1.0 to 1.5 ounces of alcohol (depending on study cited). If one ounce of alcohol produces a blood alcohol concentration of .015 will have no alcohol in his/her system after 10 hours. The healthy, average liver metabolizes alcohol at a constant rate.

 

prescription drugs alcohol

Ramping up the problems

 
One sure way to do this is to write a character with other health problems that require medication. (See list above.)

 

Given the frequency of use for pain, over-the-counter NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflamatory drugs) deserve special mention. According to my reading, Tylenol is the worst because it can cause severe liver damage from regular doses that are taken when drinking alcohol daily. Others are more likely to cause internal bleeding, ulcers, etc., which (in my opinion) would be likely to be detected sooner.

 

alcohol assessment

Conveying drinking problems without labeling them

 
You can find many self-tests online that would give you thoughts and/or worries for your character. Answers to the four questions on the CAGE assessment identifies 9 out of 10 alcoholics! Other resources include the MAST Alcohol Assessment Quiz, which comes in various lengths, and the 10-multiple-choice-question AUDIT Alcohol Assessment Quiz.

 

If the drinker is the POV character, these might be private concerns. If not, perhaps the character talks about these concerns with others.

 

Realistically, which characters are most likely to be problem drinkers?
 
risk factors drinking
Bottom line: I’ve tried to provide helpful info for realistic writing. Did I succeed?

Color Your Writing

rainbow
Colors come into virtually all writing. For many if not most of us, we’ve been doing this based on instinct and personal experience. But I believe we could be better writers if we are more intentional in our color choices. Psychological and marketing research has uncovered a wealth of information about the impact of color. Here are just a few ways you can use this information.

 

color emotion guide
[Source: HuffPost]

Color the environment.

 
Every scene is set somewhere. By consulting the Color Emotion Guide, you can set up a room, a house, a car, etc., to help your readers perceive the emotion you want to convey. Some research has concluded that black has both positive and negative associations: positive = sophistication, glamour, security, emotional safety, efficiency, and substance;  negative = oppression, coldness, menace, and heaviness.

 

strike force fiona quinn
[Source: Fiona Quinn]
I recently noticed that in Fiona Quinn’s books that feature the Iniquus organization, she uses black, gray, and silver as the signature colors for the headquarters and work uniforms—which totally fits the “personality” of that organization. Writers, if your character owns a business, what is its personality?
 
personality color panels
 

Match your character’s personality with his/her clothing choices.

 
Psychological research has focused on 5 personality dimensions associated with color: sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication, and ruggedness. Nearly every study on colors and branding concludes that it is far more important for colors to support the personality you want to portray instead of stereotypical images.

 

color writing
[Source: Amazon]
In general, men prefer bold colors and women prefer softer colors. Consider working outside the gender stereotypes.
 
 
What would be your inference if this sock drawer belonged to a woman? Would your inferences change if it belonged to a man? FYI: Variety seekers look for non-typical colors.
 

Use the Isolation Effect to enhance or obscure.

stand out crowd
[Source]
 
The Isolation Effect means that an item that stands out like a sore thumb is more likely to be remembered. Research clearly shows that people are able to recognize and recall something far better, whether it is text or an image, when it sticks out from its surroundings. Do you want your character/setting/object to be memorable or not? Of course you want your readers to remember a character when the book is done, but do you want other characters to remember him/her?
 

Color your language.

 
According to a study titled “A rose by any other name…” when people asked to evaluate products with different color names, such as makeup, fancy names were preferred far more often. For example, mocha was significantly more likable than brown, even when the color was the same. Bear in mind that unusual and unique color names are preferred for everything from jelly beans to sweatshirts. For example, crayons with names like razzmatazz were chosen more often than the ones with names like lemon yellowBeware: As a writer, you want the reader to appreciate the language but you are also trying to paint a picture; labeling a dress or curtains razmatazz with no context is likely to take your reader out of the story.

 

color chart
[Source: Wikipedia]
 
BOTTOM LINE: You can use color to enhance your writing in numerous ways. CAVEAT: Generalities about color are based on group data, and if you really want to get specific, look for generalities by gender, age, and culture.
 
Fun fact in closing: When more or less evenly matched athletes compete, those wearing red are significantly more likely to win. And even when a videotaped competition is manipulated to make performance identical, competitors wearing red are given higher scores!