- alimony paid or received (or not)—and associated hostility
- business use of home—and the strain it puts on family
- casualty or theft loss—and the aftermath of being a victim of crime
- child and dependent care expenses—meeting them, but also finding such services in the first place
- contributions—a willing tithe to church, or possibly being pressured to support your alma mater
- education expenses—and doubts about whether the degree is worth it
- foreign assets, expenses, taxes, and income—and what to do about off-shore accounts and tax shelters
- gambling winnings (or losses)—and whether to join Gamblers Anonymous
- gifts—and why they were given
- medical and dental expenses—and the trauma of diagnosis, surgery, recovery (or not)
- miscellaneous income and adjustments (They really expect people to report illegal income??)
- mortgage or education loan interest paid—and the continuing burden from years ago
- moving expenses—whether the move was up or down, willing or forced
- sale of home, stock, or other capital assets—and why the sale? Was the market down at the time or up?
- unemployment compensation—whether it was enough, whether it ended too soon, whether filing for it was humiliating
Or if not fun, at least rich material for writers.
My most recent blog, Embracing Death, touched on this topic tangentially, but really, given all they can do for a story, funerals need their own focus. So, how can writers use funerals?
Burial rituals reflect culture, socio-economic class, and time period—without having to specify such things in the narrative.
Within those broad parameters, many decisions need to be made. What if the relevant relatives disagree on things? Music, prayers, cost of the casket, who speaks at the service, what happens at the graveside. . . What if there is no grave? (The same could apply to memorial services.) Where will the body be buried or the ashes scattered? And so we have the possibilities of coalitions forming. Maybe these reflect already existing ties or loyalties.
What if the deceased person’s wishes to donate organs—or the whole body to a medical school—horrify the survivors? Who will have the final word? Will s/he just announce, or work for cooperation and consensus? And will that succeed?
Often a funeral will bring together people who haven’t seen and/or talked to each other in years. This makes possible happy reunions, but also the resurgence of past rivalries, jealousies, and grievances.
Heirs may start squabbling over their inheritances before the funeral even happens! And it doesn’t have to be millions at stake. In my novel Nettie’s Books (forthcoming), the hostilities erupt over quilts, stoneware pitchers, and a cake plate!
I often find the fun in funerals. My story “The Red Glove” features a drive-through funeral home in Maine. “Wanted” also features a father lying in state at Herschel Southern Drive-Thru Mortuary, resting peacefully behind plate glass.
What about you? If you’re a writer, have you looked on the light side of funerals, or do you write about their inherent tensions?
TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS
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Fantasy, on the other hand, is making it up out of whole cloth. Even so, it could draw on science for an idea. For example, another book I came across recently has such possibilities: TEMPERATURE-DEPENDENT SEX DETERMINATION IN VERTEBRATES edited by N. Valenzueta & B. Lance. It contains articles by leading scholars in the field and reveals how the sex of reptiles and many fish is determined not by the chromosomes they inherit but by the temperature at which incubation takes place. Fantasy would be a story in which human sex is determined by ambient temperature. And perhaps it can vary as the temperature varies. And so forth.
TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS
Heads up, writers!
If—for some reason—you prefer weekly celebrations, the 3rd week in February is International Flirting Week. And FYI, the internet makes international flirtations available to virtually everyone.
February Writing Prompt
Like so many other people affected by the recent extreme weather, I had plenty of time to consider snow. And as with so many other things that I consider, I started reading about it. Yes, Elmore Leonard is adamant that you never start a book with the weather—but that is not to say weather is taboo in your story. Your task as a writer is to make weather interesting. As an exercise, consider the following snow-related facts, and how you might fit them into a story in a way that seems natural, preferably relevant to the plot!
BIG TAKE-AWAY FOR WRITERS
Janet Burroway once said, “In literature, only trouble is interesting.” Trouble is the source of tension, conflict, struggle, etc. And what better source of trouble than characters caught in toxic relationships.
The Psychology Today website published a blog by Peg Streep titled, “8 Types of Toxic Patterns in Mother-Daughter Relationships.” (Yes, I know that scholars consider Psych Today to be pretty light-weight. I’m a card-carrying psychologist myself. But I like Psych Today. It isn’t intended to be a scholarly journal. It is a magazine for the public, and often prints what’s trending. And if a writer creates great fiction on a faulty premise, who cares?) But back to the main point. Streep labeled eight types of unattuned and unloving mothers:
The labels are pretty indicative of the toxicity described. Read the actual blog. The good news for writers is that these toxic relationships needn’t be limited to toxic mothers and vulnerable daughters. (You may recognize here an echo of what I said about Deborah Tannen’s analysis of mother-daughter communication patterns: what one says isn’t necessarily what the other hears could apply to virtually any long-germ relationship.) In this instance, consider toxic relationships between husbands and wives. Consider boss and subordinate. Consider role reversal in that it’s the daughter who is toxic.
Three cheers for toxic (literary) relationships!
Psychology For Writers series
More on Characters
I’m currently at the James River Writers Conference. Here’s more about the conference.