Adding Nature to Your Writing

virginia wildlife squirrel

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Discover Richmond for Writers

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

My Smart Phone Writing Tool

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

my smart phone writing tool

I’m Not Alone Here

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

commonly misused english words

How Weather Affects Your Characters

weather affects characters

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

Symbolism/metaphor

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

weather affects characters

Foreshadowing/Mood

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

Health/Survival

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

Plot/Setting

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

weather affects characters

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

The Upside of Arguing Badly

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

 

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

 

upside arguing badly

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Best Time of Day to Write

best time day write

There are manuals about how to write, what to write, and where to write, but a bigger question for me is WHEN to write.

Often our lives get so busy that even when writing is a full time job, it’s easy to set it aside to take care of “more pressing matters.” Enough procrastinating like that and the work never gets done, so it’s important to find your best time of day to write, block it off, and try for as few interruptions as possible. (Yes, that means logging off of Facebook!)

But when is the right time?

Most people say that it’s best to write first thing in the morning. You have more willpower (your energy hasn’t been diminished by other tasks), the creative part of your brain is more active after sleep, and that time of day is quieter and less hectic than the rest of your day.

But writing in the morning might not be the best move for everyone.

best time day write

What if you’re not a morning person?

As Kevan Lee writes, Mareike Wietha and Rose Zacks conducted a study where they found that morning people best solved problems in the evening, while night owls were the reverse. Lee adds,

The theory goes that as our minds tire at our suboptimal times then our focus broadens. We are able to see more opportunities and make connections with an open mind. When we are working in our ideal time of day, our mind’s focus is honed to a far greater degree, potentially limiting our creative options.

What’s the bottom line?

Even if you don’t know what time of day works best for you, just try to be consistent. By training your brain to be in the writing mindset during a particular point of time, you’ll be able to jump back into writing quicker.

What time of day has worked best for your writing? How do you keep yourself consistent and focused?

best time day write

Consider Contests

consider contests
The May/June 2018 issue of Poets & Writers has arrived! And it brings thoughts of contests. The listings are very helpful. Each listing tells the genre(s) accepted, the size of the prize and other perks, the approximate number of submissions, the number of awards, the names of recent winners, the new/typical deadline, the frequency of the contest, and an online link for more information.

 

consider contests
The good news about this listing is that it has offerings for single works, collections, and books across genres. It includes publication awards, prizes, grants and fellowships—for writers at any level. The bad news is the same as the good news. You might want to take a more focused approach.
consider contests
If you google contests for self-published authors, you will find a plethora of websites offering lists of possibilities. And you will soon find that the same contests are listed in multiple places.
You can find info for any genre this way. I may be the last person to realize this, but the internet can make your search for outlets a gazillion times easier!

 

Bottom line: consider contests as a way to enhance your visibility and boost your ego—and do it as efficiently as possible.

Setting as Character Notes

setting character notes
 
Some of you will remember that last week I spent a day in Savannah, GA, taking a NOGS (North of Green Street) Garden Club tour of “Hidden Gardens.” They do one about this time annually. These gardens were small and walled. And as we toured, I thought about what theses gardens  said about their owners/creators.

 

setting character notes
Of course there were flowers. We could, perhaps, talk about the language of flowers and what the selection of plants might reveal. But, frankly, that seems a bit esoteric. instead, I want to focus on what people chose to put in their gardens in addition to the flowers.

 

setting character notes
Below I have grouped pictures of artifacts by garden. For each grouping, consider the character/s of the people who created and/or enjoy these gardens. As you page through, just jot down your first impressions.
Garden One
 
Garden Two
 
 
Garden Three
 

setting character notes

Garden Four

Garden Five

 
At this garden, the Garden Club woman hosting made a point of mentioning that this bronze fountain was imported from France in 1830.
Garden Six
 
In addition to the chandeliers in this garden, there was a gas grill, a bar, and a half-refrigerator.
Garden Seven
 
 
Garden Eight
 
 
Using setting elements as character notes is a fine old tradition. Consider Jane Austen’s Rosings Park, Pemberly, and Cheapside houses. Although these pictures emphasize garden ornaments, but objects reflecting character could equally well apply to paintings, bric-a-brac, furniture, Hummel figurines, etc. Think about it.

 

setting character notes

Pets: A Treasure Trove for Writers

pets treasure trove writers
This insert with the Sunday Richmond Times Dispatch has been lying around since March 11, thoughts of ways it might be useful to writers niggling at me. It’s finally come to fruition. And I can testify—on the basis of my middle daughter—that the points made in this brief article apply to pets other than dogs!

 

pets treasure trove writers
Most obviously, you might have a character who is overboard on his/her pet. (If your character owns a cat, surely you can get comparable info online.) Indulging a pet could lead to teasing, ridicule, even ostracism.
pets treasure trove writers
But moving on: What about the pet service providers? Suppliers of pet party items. People make and/or sell pet gifts and toys. Someone who runs a pet daycare. People who design, make, and/or sell pet clothes. Any of these could provide an interesting job for a character.
 

What about pets as a source of conflict?

Last year pet owners spent almost $70 billion on their pets, approximately a 70% increase over a ten-year period. Money spent on pets could be a source of conflict between characters, or a source of financial difficulty. The American Pet Products Association says dog owners shell out about $3,000 per year, depending on the breed. But owners say they spend $8,000, $10,000, or more on everything from pet health insurance to new furniture to travel. (Nearly 40% of dog owners take them on vacation.)

 

pet vacation
And what about other heirs of the 44% of dog owners who provide for their dogs in their wills?

 

More than half of dog owners let their dogs sleep in their beds. What if the spouse/partner/love interest doesn’t like that?

 

The Emotional Upside to Owning a Pet

pets treasure trove writers
 
Scientific studies have documented the positive effects of pets on mood. Your body produces oxytocin and endorphins, hormones that lift mood and strengthen the emotional bond between owner and pet. Oxytocin is the hormone that creates bonds between mother and child or between lovers. So how dependent is your character on animal love? And at what cost?
 

Other Bits that Might Come in Handy

 
My oldest daughter trained with her rescue dog to make therapy visits. Is that something your character might do? What about a character who is the recipient of such visits? Where might that lead?

 

My youngest daughter is surgical veterinary technician. During a recent visit, she gave us a tour of her workplace.
pets treasure trove writers
Most of us are vaguely aware that animal hospitals do things similar to human hospitals. But to actually see the oncology lab, the MRI equipment, the physical therapy suite, the surgical areas, the precautions for animals in isolation, the incubator for preemies, and the site of the future serenity garden brings home the parallel.

 

pets treasure trove writers
But one unusual bit: this hospital maintains blood banks for dogs and cats.
 
pets treasure trove writers
The dog blood bank is filled by donations from the pets of staff and clients. Star donors (like Bruce Lee, above, who is a universal donor) donate blood every six weeks or so. Each donation can be used to treat more than one patient.

 

The hospital maintains colonies of cat blood donors. The cats come from animal rescue. At the hospital they are treated, vaccinated, and spayed. Even so, there are separate colonies for males and females. The cats are maintained as donors for a year and then placed for adoption.

 

  • Cat donors must be 1 yr old and at least 10 lbs
  • Dogs must be 1 yr old, at least 50 lbs
  • Both: no blood born diseases, no condition requiring chronic medication except NSAIDS, hypothyroidism, or meds for flea/tick/heart worm
  • Bruce Lee (the dog donor pictured) is 6 yrs old, has been a donor for 18 mos., and donates more than 6 times per yr. He’s a universal donor, like Type O for humans.
What if your character has a pet that is or was a blood donor?

 

I would have adopted Olaf in a nanosecond but he isn’t yet available. He’s affectionate AND has one blue eye, one green one.

 

pets treasure trove writers
Bottom line: Consider the value of pets in your writing!