Risk Taking for Fun and Profit

My mantra has long been that whether I end up in heaven or in hell, I want it to be for things I did rather than things I didn’t do. Until I started developing today’s blog, I didn’t actually consider whether I am a risk taker or not.

 

Yes, I’ve long recognized that I am willing to give all sorts of fun things a try: water skiing for the first time on a Florida river with alligators sunning on the banks, parasailing in the Bahamas, white-water rafting on the Colorado River, zip-lining in Costa Rica, downhill skiing for the first time at night on a lighted intermediate slope, handling an anaconda and fishing for piranha along the Amazon River, riding out a storm on the Chesapeake Bay in a small sailboat, and other fun things I’m not going into.

 

What about money? I’m invested in the stock market, which some consider to be risky for women. But I’ve never invested in some hot new option, gambled for more than quarters, or bought more than one lottery ticket.

 

Health risks? I stopped smoking more than twenty years ago. I drive fast. I drink alcohol. But I never drink and drive. I get all the recommended vaccines and health checks. I exercise 5-6 times a week. And I eat vegan almost exclusively.

 

Professionally? Within limits. Yes, I resigned a tenured full professorship to pursue association management, eventually returned to college administration, and in the process embarked on an eleven-year commuter marriage. But I never totally changed fields, or launched into entrepreneurship or any other career in which my Ph.D. was irrelevant.

 

So why all this self-disclosure? Because I’m a “real people” and the best characters feel to the reader like real people. Protagonists often take risks and they should take them realistically. By that I mean, someone’s risk-taking is often complicated.

 

I’m here to help, so HERE ARE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF WHAT RESEARCH HAS TO SAY ABOUT RISK-TAKING!

Apparently there is a risk gap between the risky behavior we engage in personally and what we recommend to others. For example, virtually no one would recommend texting while driving, impaired driving, not wearing a seatbelt, smoking, etc., and yet many people actually do those things. In the case of texting while driving, 80% of people say they do so at least occasionally. Does your character say one thing and do another?

 

When it comes to personal risk involving health and safety, we are greatly influenced by knowing that others are engaging in that same risky behavior. For example, this is particularly true of smoking, drug use, alcohol abuse, juvenile delinquency, premarital or extramarital sex, or similar behavior. This might explain dangerous health fads and copycat suicides. Knowing “everyone’s doing it” doesn’t much affect our advice to others. Often our protagonists resist such social influences, but what about other characters?
Recreational risk or financial risk is less likely to lead to a copycat effect. I’m surprised by this, actually. However we advise those we love, what we do has a stronger effect than what we say.
 
In risk taking, there are gender gaps. Men take more recreational and financial risks. Women take more social risks than men—more likely to change careers later in life or express unpopular opinions in meeting. There’s lots of advice out there to the effect that taking professional risks is a good thing, especially for women. The reasons risk taking is good include the following:

 

  • great, otherwise unforeseen opportunities emerge
  • shows confidence and helps you stand out
  • lessons learned may lead us on a new path
  • success must be pursued
  • you don’t achieve dreams by playing it safe
  • embracing risk-taking helps you overcome fear of failure
  • researched and prepared for risk-taking pays off
So, consider whether your character epitomizes or defies the gender expectations.

 

People take fewer risks as they age and as they settle into stable relationships. But even with age, a change in relationship status (death or divorce) can lead to a spike in risk-taking. What does your character do after a change in relationship status?
Domains of daring; as implied above, people are a complicated blend of risk-taking and risk-averse. This domain-specific likelihood of risk taking includes five domains:

 

  • financial
  • health/safety
  • recreational
  • ethical
  • social
In general, a person’s likelihood of risk-taking in each category is stable over time, but says little about his/her risk-taking in other categories.

Some psychologists claim that risk-taking is a result of a personality known as sensation seeking—pursuit of novel, intense, and complex sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take risks in pursuing novelty, change, and excitement. Subcategories of sensation seeking:

  • thrill- and adventure-seeking
  • disinhibition (deviant lifestyles, pursuit of change to stave off boredom)
  • a means of expressing aggressiveness and hostility
  • generalized need for activity itself
  • part of sociability, another personality trait
Overall, for both women and men, high risk-takers score high on three of the five basic personality traits: impulsive sensation seeking, aggression-hostility, and sociability. Heavy drinking is associated with all three of these personality traits.
Risk-taking is a product of both genes and experience. Studies of identical and fraternal twins, whether raised in the same families or apart, indicate that sensation-seeking is about 60% genetic, which is a high degree of heritability for a personality trait. Genes also influence aggression, agreeableness, and sociability/extroversion. So for your sensation-seeking character, what are the similarities/differences among family members?
BOTTOM LINE: Chances are your protagonist will take risks of some sorts, sometimes. Consider the why and extent of risk taking.

Looking Back

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
 
Consider all the ways that writers look back. Historical fiction, memoir, biography, and essays come immediately to mind. Some sci-fi, fantasy, and time travel stories involve a ton of looking back. My newly released novel, Nettie’s Books, set in 1930-1935, is an example of what is traditionally considered historical fiction.

 

You can buy Nettie’s Books on Kindle here.
But think more broadly. Bradley Harper’s murder mystery set in 19th century London is also an historical novel.
knife fog bradley harper
Looking back can inform any genre: from romance novels to action/adventure, from “regional” stories set in the west, south, New England, or abroad to nature writing—and let’s not forget creative non-fiction. Even poetry? Yep.

 

So, it behooves writers to consciously look back, because you never know when doing so will enrich your short story, novel, children’s book, etc. Several ways of doing this are readily available. I’ll not even discuss the internet, because today that is just so obvious. But consider print media, particularly magazines that might come with your membership or donation.

 

This is well-written, and an excellent source of information specific to Virginia. But the contents also can spur ideas of topics to pursue beyond the borders of the Commonwealth. The publication is a benefit of membership in the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

 

Smithsonian magazine is a parallel sort of publication but with a broader mission, often reaching beyond the U.S. borders. The Southern Poverty Law Center and ACLU frequently send letters and newsletters that you might want to peruse rather than pitch. Check out historical notes in your local newspaper. Even The New Yorker has articles that “look back” in every issue.

 

Last but not least, consider things forgotten on your shelves or stumbled upon among used books as a way of looking back at what was, at the time, current. For example, Women’s History Month is ideal.

 

Bottom line: Look around you and look back because you never know how your writing might be enriched!

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.

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!

Smokers Drink and Drinkers Smoke

smokers drink drinkers smoke
Indeed, people who drink the most, as a group, also consume the most tobacco. According to NIH research, between 80% and 95% of alcoholics smoke cigarettes, and approximately 70% of alcoholics smoke more than a pack of cigarettes per day (compared to 10% for the general population. Drinking influences smoking more than smoking influences drinking, but even so, smokers are 1.32 times as likely to consume alcohol as are nonsmokers. So, consider this linkage when bringing in alcohol and/or smoking in your writing. Why might your character indulge in one but not the other?
 
Recovering alcoholics have told me that it’s harder to kick alcoholism than addiction to other drugs. In the U.S., alcohol isn’t just legal, it’s ubiquitous. Even so, approximately 30% of American adults don’t drink alcohol at all. This number includes recovering alcoholics, but also people who don’t drink for health reasons, for religious reasons, from not wanting to feel out of control, etc. Why might your character choose not to drink at all?
 
wine celebration
Many situations are loaded with expectations of alcohol consumption. Think of New Year’s Eve, wedding receptions, anniversaries, sporting events, fraternity and sorority parties, etc., etc., etc. How would your various characters respond to those situations?

 

sick patient
The last thing I want to say about smoking and drinking is that using both multiplies the effects of using either alone. For example, compared to nonsmoking nondrinkers, the risk of developing mouth and throat cancer are 7 times greater for those who use tobacco, 6 times greater for those who use alcohol, and 38 times greater for those who use both tobacco and alcohol.

 

The strong link between smoking and drinking is the result of chemical changes each causes in the brain. If, by chance, that brain chemistry is relevant to your writing, you can find a number of ALCOHOL ALERT papers at www.niaaa.nih.gov which offer more details and references. Suffice it to say, there is evidence that stopping alcohol and cigarettes simultaneously is more likely to succeed than trying to stop one or the other.

 

Earlier this week, I wrote a blog, “Why Smoking is Good for Writers.” In July of 2015, I wrote a blog “Alcohol for Writers.” For your convenience, I’ll excerpt some of that blog here:
…although I don’t advise writers to drink, I do advise knowing about alcohol. It’s such an integral part of life in America—celebrations, business dinners, relaxation, sports events, picnics, parties, all sorts of gatherings from weddings to funerals—that one can hardly write realistically without scenes involving alcohol. So here are a few basic facts you should be aware of and ready to justify if you go against them.

Why Smoking is Good for Writers

smoking good writers
Not that I’m suggesting starting or continuing smoking. But consider how your writing could benefit. (In reporting statistics and research findings, I’m not going to include academic citations. They clutter up the writing, and if you want to pursue something in more depth, you can easily find it online.)

 

As a Character Note

Given the general disapprobation of smoking today, chances are your hero or heroine will be a non-smoker. However, other characters are surely fair game.

 

A ten-year longitudinal study has reported that higher levels of openness to experience and neuroticism were each significantly associated with increased risk of any lifetime cigarette use. Neuroticism also was associated with increased risk of progression from ever smoking to daily smoking and persistent daily smoking over a ten-year period. In contrast, conscientiousness was associated with decreased risk of any of these.

 

smoking
Neuroticism is not a good thing! It is one of the Big Five higher-order personality traits in the study of psychology. Individuals who score high on neuroticism are more likely than average to be moody and to experience such feelings as anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness.

 

Other, less comprehensive research nevertheless is consistent with the above study. In this study, smokers had higher scores on measures of depressive symptoms, novelty seeking, and histrionic, borderline, passive-aggressive, and antisocial personality symptoms and lower scores on a measure of avoidant personality.

 

Not surprisingly, quitting smoking improves personality. Among adults 35 and under, those who quit smoking scored lower impulsivity and neuroticism than when they smoked.
smoking good writers

Which Characters Are More Likely to Smoke? 

(Compared to an overall rate of 15.5%)

 
  • men, 17.5%
  • people aged 25-64, 17.5%-18%
  • non-Hispanic American Indians/Alaska Natives, 31.8%
  • non-Hispanic Blacks and Whites, 16.5%
  • Hispanics, 10.7%
  • non-Hispanic Asians, 9%
  • living in the Midwest, 18.5%
  • living in the South, 16.9%
  • being lesbian/gay/bisexual, 20.5%
  • those experiencing serious psychological distress, 35.8%
  • those with disability/limitation, 21.2%
construction workers

More Frequent Occupations of Smokers

Actually, the field is pretty wide open here. But consider the likelihood that your smoker would be “different” from his/her peer group.
 
  • mining
  • construction
  • manufacturing
  • transportation industries
  • business contract (promoters, salesmen, retail and wholesale dealers and buyers)
  • business executives of all ranks
  • editors
  • educational administrators
  • museum curators
  • entertainment and recreational services
There is a notably smaller proportion of smokers among farmers, engineers, surgeons, elementary and high school teachers, and clergymen.

 

What is smoked varies, too. Pipe smokers are more frequently found among research scientists, lawyers, college professors, and schoolteachers. Cigar smokers tend to be business executives, bankers, editors, attorneys, and those in technological fields.

 

In general, more education is associated with less smoking, with the rate dropping to 4.5% for those with a graduate degree. The only anomaly is that those with 12 or fewer years of education have a smoking rate of 24.1%, while those with a GED certificate have a rate of 40.6%

 

Smoking is higher among those living below the poverty level, 25.3%. Besides everything else, a poor character who smokes would have the added burden of the cost of cigarettes. It is an expensive habit. A pack of cigarettes can cost as much as $10.45 (in New York state). But even the least expensive state (Missouri) has a cost of $4.38. FYI, in Virginia it is $4.78, second lowest.
 

As a Source of Tension

The most recent data I could find (from the CDC, 2016) indicate that more than 15% of adults 18 and older currently smoked. That leaves approximately 85% non-smokers, so lots of opportunity for negative comments, nagging, scolding, and downright arguments about everything from the smell and messiness to health risks to the smoker and to those exposed to secondhand smoke.

 

smoking good writers
Perhaps the most obvious source of plot complications would be the known health effects. More widespread smoking as well as increased life expectancy during the 1920s made adverse health effects more noticeable. In 1929, Fritz Lickint of Dresden, Germany, published formal statistical evidence of a lung cancer–tobacco link, which subsequently led a strong anti-smoking movement in Nazi Germany. The harmful effects came to notice in Great Britain in 1954 with the British Doctors Study, and in the United States with the Surgeon General’s report, 1964. So, writers, choose your illness!
 
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • cancer anywhere in the body: lung, bladder, blood, cervix, colo-rectal, kidney, liver, larynx, oropharynx, pancreas, stomach
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • cause or exacerbate Type 2 diabetes
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • exacerbates asthma
  • weakens bones
  • poor tooth and gum health
  • cataracts
  • increased inflammation
  • decreased immune function
baby
Smoking increases problems with fertility and pregnancy.  Smoking can make it harder for women to become pregnant. It increases the risk for early delivery, stillbirth, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, ectopic pregnancy, and orofacial clefts in infants.

 

Men are not immune. Smoking can reduce a man’s fertility and increase the risks of birth defects and miscarriage.

 

If you write historical fiction, know about smoking in your time period. Although smoking can be traced back to 5000 BCE in the Americas in shamanistic rituals, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the consumption, cultivation, and trading of tobacco spread. Before that, smoking was primarily opium or cannabis in the far East.

 

durham tobacco
[Source: Open Durham]
The modernization of farming equipment and manufacturing increased the availability of cigarettes in the United States. Mass production quickly expanded consumption, which grew until the scientific controversies of the 1960s, and condemnation in the 1980s. In 1962, research indicated that 78% of civilian men had a history of tobacco use.

 

From the 1930s through the 1950s or so, smoking was often presented and perceived as being sophisticated, sexy, and daring. In a time when smoking was not established as a health risk—when smoking was much more prevalent—the relationship between personality and smoking was probably less pronounced. I.e., a higher proportion of non-neurotics smoked.
old cigarette ad
Bottom line: You don’t have to smoke to benefit from smoking!

Writing Illness and Pain

injury writing illness pain
Both illness and pain can be either acute or chronic: acute is episodic, such as a bout of cancer, pneumonia, or a broken bone; chronic is ongoing. When acute, there is a presumption of a cure or healing, whereas with chronic conditions the focus is on coping or managing.
writing illness pain injury
Acute conditions can be excruciatingly painful, even life threatening. Most people have some experience with acutely painful conditions. As a writer, draw on your own experiences or those of family and friends to provide rich descriptions of symptoms and responses. Depending on the specific condition, activity will be limited. So, do your homework on the limitations and effects of a broken shoulder, so-called walking pneumonia, measles, a rabies bite, etc.

 

writing illness pain
Chronic pain is often the result of normal aging effects on bones and joints. But other causes include nerve damage and injuries that fail to heal properly. Plus, some chronic pain has numerous causes. Back pain, for example, could be a result of aging or of a single injury.
writing illness pain
As writers, be aware that pain affects behavior, mood, and interpersonal relationships. If your character in pain is the POV character, you can describe the effects directly. But if you need to convey chronic pain from outside your character, be aware of the symptoms and side effects.

 

writing illness pain

Side Effects

 
Chronic pain limits what one can do, or the amount of what one does in a day.
  • ability to work
  • play with children
  • walk
  • sleep
  • take care of personal needs
This, in turn, can cause disuse syndrome, the result of “use it or lose it.” Continued limited activity causes weakness, which leads to even less activity. Losing strength and flexibility makes one more susceptible to pain and additional injury—truly a detrimental cycle.

 

depression
Chronic pain has a huge effect on psychological well-being.
  • irritability
  • anger
  • depression
  • difficulty concentrating
These psychological effects can be as debilitating as the pain itself.

 

writing illness pain depression
Writer decisions: How does your character cope—or attempt to cope—with chronic pain?
  • exercise
  • relaxation
  • alternative or complementary treatments: massage, magnetic therapy, ultrasound, energy medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine
  • hired or volunteer helpers
  • support groups
  • traditional pain meds: consider side effects and possible addiction
  • self-medication (a.k.a., alcohol)
self medication
Bottom line: Pain can be great for complicating the plot and/or upping tensions among characters. Use it wisely!

You Are How You Eat

When writing food scenes, the eating and drinking are seldom central to advancing the plot, so people have coffee and cake or do lunch, and all the plot and character development are carried by the dialogue. Such dismissal of eating/drinking habits is a big opportunity missed.
 
juliet a boghossian
[Source: Twitter]

“Food-ology links FOOD RELATED HABITS to PERSONALITY TRAITS and BEHAVIORAL TENDENCIES. A PORTAL INTO THE LAYERS OF ONE’S CHARACTER. Learn more about yourself and those around you – to support better judgment, improve relationships, increase effectiveness and empower your life. You are HOW you eat.” ~ Juliet A. Boghossian, Founder, Behavioral Food Expert

Juliet Boghossian is a self-styled behavioral food expert. Her research has spanned 20 years. She’s cited all over the place, so here are her major assertions about eating style and personality. Now, in the interest of full-disclosure, I admit that I read secondary sources. I couldn’t quickly find Boghossian publications. (Make of that what you will.)

 

you are how you eat
The slow eater. According to Boghossian, slow eaters usually prefer to be in control, and they know how to appreciate life. They’re also likely to be confident and even-keeled.  Perhaps they put themselves and their needs ahead of others, are selfish, and do not give priority to others.
juliet Boghossian
The fast eater. Fast eaters tend to be ambitious, goal-oriented, and open to new experiences. They may tend to be impatient. May come across as overly competitive. Often finish tasks ahead of deadlines. May be considerate, putting others ahead of their own needs.
adventurous eater
The adventurous eater. These people never meet a food they don’t want to try. This person is probably a thrill-seeker and risk-taker in other areas of life, willing to try new things, maybe beyond his/her experience/comfort zone.

 

Picky eater
[Source: Today Show]
The picky eater. Does this really need definition? People who hesitate to try new food, continue childhood food preferences, etc. According to Boghossian, picky eaters are likely to be a little neurotic in general.

 

Julia Hormes, psychologist specializing in food behaviors at SUNY Albany, notes, “Research on ‘food neophobia’—the reluctance to try new foods—shows that it is related to certain personality traits, including sensation seeking, anxiety, and neuroticism. Those high in food neophobia appear to associate many avoided foods with a sense of disgust.”

 

The isolationist. These people eat all of one food before moving on to the next food, and so on around the plate. According to Phil Mutz, author of the LittleThings post, “You are a very detail-oriented person, and you are sure to always think things through thoroughly… You are a very careful person.”

 

Boghossian says, “This behavior conveys a task-oriented personality versus a multi-tasking individual. …Also, it conveys a disciplined and borderline stubborn tendency to complete one task before moving on to another.”

 

you are how you eat
Earlier this year, Tastessence  presented opinions on these and other eating habits. They discussed the personalities of people who adapt their eating speed to match the pace of companions, change eating pace based on schedule, experiment with food combinations, order without looking at the menu, take a long time to order, cut all their meat portion at one time, make noises while eating, ask questions about the menu, refuse to share food, and/or keep foods from touching each other. If any of these variations are of interest to you, look it up.
 
eating
In the meantime, I will turn to findings published in the journal Appetite. This is by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, who maintain that personality informs eating habits. This was a serial survey study of nearly 1,000 participants (not college students). They researched what psychologists have put forward as the five basic dimensions of personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

 

So, in a reversal of the above, here are the five personality types and what their eating habits are, according to who scored high on a personality dimension.

 

mediterranean diet
[Source: Cooking Light]
Openness: More likely to stick to a healthy, balanced diet, like the Mediterranean diet; not a huge red meat fan; more likely to have a plant-based diet, perhaps including fish; eats lots of fruits and vegetables.

 

Conscientiousness: Likely to seek information, control stress factors, and adopt behaviors with health benefits; less likely to eat meat; more likely to be a restrained eater; does not eat emotionally; prefers fruits and vegetables to sweets.

 

you are how you eat
Extraversion: Social, good at networking; engages in social eating, so more likely to respond to external food cues (like smell); eats more meat, sweet foods, savory foods, and sugar-sweetened drinks.
grocery store
Agreeableness: Less likely to consume meat, but otherwise no significant correlation between this personality dimension and most food choices.

 

comfort food
Neuroticism: Diet only when convenient, eat to cope with emotions; tend to eat “comfort foods,” not so many veggies, and fewer whole grains.

 

Bottom line for writers: Make more of your food scenes! Whether it’s your protagonist or another character, use their eating habits to establish and deepen the portrait of their characters.
ronald reagan
As the great communicator once said, “You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by the way he eats jellybeans.”

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