Secrets: A Writer’s Dear Friends

secrets writers dear friends
I’m a long time fan of the PostSecret Project.The photo above is one published secret that inspired me to write “Self-Portrait,” a short story published in The Griffin in 2012. In this story, a much-tattooed as well as pierced woman says something like, “People think I do this to get attention. I do it so I won’t be seen.”

secrets writers dear friends
If you don’t know about this project, check it out online. Basically, it started with Frank Warren working on an installation art project for which he dropped self-addressed, stamped postcards in public places, inviting people to anonymously share a secret. For example,

Over time, thousands of people responded, long after the original call went out. The result is five books of postcards with virtually no other text, plus the most recent one, which includes postcards (some from earlier publications) plus commentary on the meaning of the project for the author/editor, Frank Warren, and others.

secrets writers dear friends
I have all the books in hardcover and they are incredibly valuable. For one thing, virtually every secret could start a story. (See above.)

And several themes emerge. Many of the secrets deal with mental health and/or suicide.

secrets writers dear friends

This cover/title made me smile. Who else would have secrets? In any event, like the earlier books, the secrets varied widely by theme. A major theme is love, attraction and sex. People post about everything—not being interested in sex, adultery, masturbation, having been raped, fantasizing about rape, and sexual insecurity.

secrets writers dear friends

Secrets often have to do with faith (or lack thereof) and religion. Often these concerns overlap with others, such as being gay or lesbian—e.g., “I’m a lesbian and I wonder whether I can still go to heaven.”

secrets writers dear friends
Parent/child relationships are a major theme.  Of course, these often overlap with other themes.

The most recent book was copyrighted in 2014. Perhaps the project has run its course. As mentioned earlier, this one contains much more text and is about the project, beyond the publication of secrets themselves. (After writing this bit, I discovered that there is a PostSecret book published in 2008 that I don’t have. I just ordered it!)

secrets writers dear friends
Not surprisingly, yet another theme that emerges is the profound effect of childhood events.
 
Bottom line: These books of secrets are windows into human souls. Some secrets might seem trivial to the reader, some are humorous, some heart-wrenching, many surprising. A writer could only benefit from exposure to these  very human confessions.
 
secrets writers dear friends

Writing Roundup: Psychology for Writers

writing roundup psychology writers

I’ve written quite a few blog posts about psychology for writers. I’ve rounded them all up for you here in one convenient place so that you can browse at your leisure!

Do you have any suggestions for additional posts or questions about psychology for writers? Let me know!

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!

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!

The Worth of Flexibility

It’s never right to lie… unless you’re a writer. If you’re pulling your writing from real life, you mustn’t be bound too much by reality–e.g., just because someone said something that way doesn’t mean it’s a good way to say it. Just because it really happened doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

worth flexibility

Furthermore, just because it happened in 1964 doesn’t mean you can’t set it in 1934–and vice versa. Of course, if it is something famous, like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, you can’t move it around too much, unless you are writing sci-fi or magical realism. But if you have a story about a great uncle who was married five times (that the family knows about), there is no reason you can’t write about such a character in current time.

Similarly–with certain obvious exceptions–just because the actor was a male doesn’t mean you can’t attribute the action to a female. Ditto parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins.

worth flexibility

Bottom line: Be flexible when it comes to reality.

Hanahaki and Other Useful Diseases

Hanahaki useful diseases
Hanahaki comes from two Japanese words: hana, which means flower, and hakimasu, which means to throw up. It is a fictitious disease in which the victim coughs up flower petals when suffering from unrequited love. The most common version is when the victim’s lungs fill with flowers and roots grow in the respiratory system. The victim chokes on blood and petals and dies.

 

Hanahaki useful diseases
In another version, the flowers are surgically removed. The surgery also removes the victim’s feelings of love and s/he can no longer love the person they once loved. Sometimes this also removes the ability to ever love again.

 

Hanahaki
My 13-year-old granddaughter came across hanahaki disease while researching possible diseases for a book she and her friends are writing. Need I say the book is fantasy fiction? She also enjoys special effects makeup, and one evening created three generations suffering from hanahaki disease—me, her mother, and herself.

 

Hanahaki useful diseases
In researching hanahaki disease, I discovered a whole world of disease and disaster that I was previously unaware of. Wikipedia has 40 pages of fictional diseases in literature, film, TV, video games, and role-playing games, everything from the Andromeda Strain to Cooties.
stephen king
Fictional diseases is probably not the first association you have for Stephen King, but he has created his share, including the superflu in The Stand, the Ripley in Dreamcatcher, and the pulse in Cell. Authors from Edgar Allan Poe to J.K. Rowling have invented fictional diseases. Why not you?
 
Getting started is easy. If nothing comes to mind immediately, go to seventhsanctum.com and use the Disease Generator.  You can get 25 disease names in an instant.
Hanahaki diseases
And if nothing appeals to you—not ancestral heart or zombie’s malignant lunacy, not seeping sweat or torture itch—just push the button for more diseases.

 

Hanahaki diseases
Once you have a name, you need to develop the disease, starting with disease type (childhood/common/rare) and moving on to cause (bacteria, virus, parasite, fungus, imbalance of bodily humors, etc.). You need to consider transmission (airborne, body fluids, food or water, touch, etc.) and virulence (how likely a person is to catch the disease after coming into contact with it). How long is the incubation period? A person could be showing symptoms and become infectious almost instantaneously or it could take years. What are the symptoms of this disease? Is it treatable and/or curable? And last but not least, how do people react when they encounter someone with this disease?
 
Feel free to use symptoms from real diseases, past or present. For example, cholera, dysentery, small pox, consumption, syphilis, the Black Plague, etc. BTW, the Black Plague is a zoonotic disease, meaning it moves from animals to humans—as in bird flue or swine flu.

 

fictional diseases
The more realistic your story line, the more realistic your disease should be. For inspiration, check out Inverse Culture.

 

Bottom line: Consider the advantages of deadly diseases. As long as people fear death, they will push protagonists to the edge, and that’s a good thing.

 

Notes from the Holidays

notes holidays christmas party
Tis the season! The next three weeks will be tough for many writers. Family, friends, and special events abound. The best first advice is just power through. Protect your writing time and put in your ass-in-chair time no matter how tired, distracted, etc. you are. But if your writing isn’t putting food on the table—or even if you are—that may not be feasible.

 

So here’s plan B. For this limited time, attend to the demands of the season—but mine it for your writing in the new year. Below I’ve listed several typical holiday scenarios and suggested some things about them that might be noteworthy. These are not exhaustive by any means. Don’t focus on length, just write enough to bring the experience back to you in detail and technicolor.
 
notes holidays family dinner
 
After every family gathering take a few minutes to make notes on the emotional tone, with special attention to tensions, unhappiness, and surprises.

 

notes holidays lots presents
After any exchange of gifts make notes on the focus of those gifts. Was there competition regarding who gave or got the most? Was cost a consideration? Did anyone express disappointment—or envy? Were presents more token or substantial? Were any gifts homemade? Did someone give the same gift as always (e.g., a special ornament)?

 

notes holidays office party
For every party make notes on the emotional tone. Did anyone seem reluctant to be there? Did anyone drink too much? Was conversation restrained? Flirtatious? Political? Personal? Did anyone misbehave? How did you feel at the party?

 

notes holidays nutcracker ballet
For any cultural event, such as theater, ballet, musical performance, or special exhibit, start with why you were there. Why were others there? Is attending this event a tradition? A chance to see and be seen? A chore? A pleasure?

 

notes holidays travel
For holiday travel, note who traveled to whom. Was the traveler affected by work or family commitments? Does this happen every year? Is the trip a joy or a pleasure? During this particular trip, what went right? What went wrong? Was weather a factor?

 

Bottom line: Be conscious of how you are experiencing the holidays and prepare to jog your memory in the new year when you need specifics to strengthen your writing. You can do this in a matter of minutes.

 

notes holidays notebook pen
So put aside the guilt, enjoy, and prepare to jump back in!

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I’ve taken hundreds of pictures during my time in Portugal and Spain. Below you will find a selection of these pictures, along with a suggested writing prompt. Choose one or more of these pictures, and using the suggested prompt or one of your own, write 1000 words based on it. It doesn’t need to be polished or finished, just do it!

 

vivian lawry picture worth thousand words
Who would have a table setting like this?
balcony divorce
This is called the balcony of the quick divorce. It overlooks a 500’ gorge.
make own juice portugal
How is this to be interpreted?
Bottom line: Draw on visual cues to trigger your creativity.