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.

Bits and Pieces

bits pieces
[Source: Pixabay]
I never set out to collect random bits of information, but things just stick in my brain—for no particular reason and in no particular order. Some comes from life experiences but many come from books. I enjoy coming across these nuggets, and so I drop them into my own writing upon occasion. Just for the fun of it, I’ll share some of these with you.


The Northern Cardinal is the most popular state bird, adopted by Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Other bits and pieces about birds come to mind as well. When both the male and the female sit on the clutch of eggs in the nest, there is little differentiation in plumage between the two; when only the female sits, she is always the dull looking one. Female goshawks are significantly larger than the males, as much as 25% bigger, and this is called reversed sexual size dimorphism. Didn’t you always want to know?


murder crows
Goshawks are secretive and tend to fly solo, but other birds are considerably more social. Hence  we have a flock of geese, a murmuration of starlings, and a murder of crows! This is one of my favorites.
crash test dummies
[Creative Commons]
Real cadavers are used to calibrate crash-test dummies. At one time, before more modern—and reliable—methods of determining death were available, the fear of being buried alive was so great that in Germany they constructed death houses (I forget the term for them) where corpses were left unburied until they began to decompose.


skeleton bits pieces
[Creative Commons]
Together, the hands and feet make up more than half of all the bones in the human body, 27 per hand and 26 per foot, 106 of the 206 total. And check out disappearing human bone disease!
bits pieces daffodils
You Are One-third Daffodil is the title of a book which includes this tidbit: humans share 35% of their DNA with daffodils. Could this be the reason voles don’t eat daffodil bulbs or humans? Consider the possibilities for fantasy fiction.


And speaking of eating. . . Queen Anne’s lace is also known as wild carrot and the roots are edible when young. Hominy was originally made using dried corn and wood ash lye, which is still the way to have homemade hominy—which I don’t. Sort of related: lye soap is made using leftover cooking fat and wood ash lye. My maternal grandmother made it in big flat trays in the basement.
lye soap bits pieces
[Creative Commons]
In junior high school I learned that the Battle of Hastings was fought in England in 1066. I haven’t been able to unlearn it!


During the Great Depression ham was 10 cents a pound and gasoline was 10 cents a gallon. The first “rubber boots” were when people in South America coated their feet in latex from the rubber tree. Ex-Lax has been around since 1906, created by a Hungarian immigrant in New York. My list could go on and on, for there is no good stopping place.


ex lax
BOTTOM LINE: In addition to journaling about story ideas, drafts, etc., consider keeping your own list of bits and pieces that might fit into your writing life. Even if not, it’s entertaining.

Your Writing Tools: Search and Rescue Info

writing tools search rescue info
Robert J. Koester studied lost person behavior in a systematic, scientific, statistical way and the result is what many consider to be the best book on search and rescue ever written. So maybe you’re thinking Whoopdedoo. I’m into fiction. Maybe you’re yawning and about to browse elsewhere. Read on instead.
This book contains invaluable nuggets to make your writing not only accurate but also richer. Its usefulness for mystery writers might be more apparent than for more general literary fiction, but consider all the ways and reasons someone might go missing—either as the primary plot line, or as a subplot that complicates everything.


This book is useful whether you are writing from the POV of the missing person or the searcher(s). For example, it delineates strategies lost people use to try to get unlost, including the effectiveness of each.


To aid the searcher, data are organized into 34 subject categories, ranging from Abduction through Urban Entrapment and Worker. Data about children are partitioned by age. Data on Skiers are partitioned by Alpine and Nordic. And so it goes. And for each Subject Category, there is an brief introduction, followed by guidelines for getting the search started and—perhaps of most interest to writers—pages of Additional Investigative Questions. For example, consider the usefulness of these questions concerning abductions.


Perhaps my favorite chapter is 6. Lost Person Myths and Legends.  For example, is it true that lost people will turn in the direction of their dominant hand? To some extent. When forced to make a clear choice between right and left, handedness matters. But the extent to which it matters is influenced by learned driving patterns.


writing tools search rescue info
People without visual cues do, indeed, walk in circles. Why? When blindfolded and told to walk in a straight line, whether one circles clockwise or counterclockwise is strongly influenced by which leg is longer. Too bad that bit of information is seldom available to searchers!


Potentially relevant information is everywhere in this book. Do the mentally retarded and children behave similarly when lost? Yes and no. The distances traveled from the initial planning point are quite similar for those with mental retardation and children 7-12 years of age. But there are important differences.


writing tools search rescue info
Dementia wanderers essentially travel straight ahead till they get stuck. Therefore, the most important first question to ask is, “Which door did he go out of?” Despondents, on the other hand, are most likely to just walk out and are most often found on a path, trail, or at their destination. Despondents are not truly lost.


I became aware of Koester’s book during a SinC/CentralVA program by 4 members of the Piedmont Search and Rescue staff. The book is expensive but you might well find it worth adding to your shelf.
writing tools search rescue info
The organization has an enormous amount of information and experience. You can find lots of it online.

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.


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 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.


Writing Resolutions for 2018

writing resolutions 2018

 A new year links the past and the future. (You heard it here first!) So it’s your opportunity to wrap up things already started, launch new projects, and and develop (or strengthen) good habits. So here’s the plan.


1a) If you have a project underway, review a hard copy of all writing to date. DO NOT REVISE. Instead, note in the margins things to tend to when you do revise. If you want to make major changes (e.g., add a character, a death, a divorce, etc. that needs to have already happened) note those but don’t go back now. Write going forward as if you’ve already revised.


1b) If you have nothing new in the works, browse your files of old writing. (Of course you have these!) Pick one that strikes your fancy and work on it in the new year. If it’s old, you have grown and developed. You might change POV, add striking details. even use the same material in a different genre. Make use of work you’ve already done.


writing resolution 2018
2) Read current periodicals (at lest one) on a regular basis to see what’s trending. Choose something that you wouldn’t mind reading anyway. It might be Style in Richmond. Any major publication you follow, such as The New Yorker, etc. Who knows when knowing that early teens all across the country are into sexual fluidity and rating their degrees of homo or hetero tendencies might be fruitful.


3) Follow the news of the weird. You can do this online, by searching that phrase. But you also can find tidbits in the daily paper, church news bulletins, etc.


4) Write something every day! Depending on whether you keep a writing journal or something more like a diary, that might suffice. But ideally, it will be something totally creative. Consider any dreams/nightmares so vivid that you woke. If all else fails, start by writing about surviving the holidays.


Bottom line: Keep on truckin’! The only way to write is to do it.


writing 2018

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.

Check out this writing resource!

Someone recently forwarded this article about effective first-person writing to me. It’s a great resource for writers who are having trouble writing from different points of view. Here’s an excerpt:

A filter word puts distance between the reader and your character, filtering that character’s experience… What did I remove? I thought, I saw, I could hear. In other words, I removed anything that had you, the reader, looking at her looking at things, rather than looking at the things she saw.

This is true first-person: being behind the character’s eyes.

Check it out and leave a comment on the article with your results!

Effective Travel Writing

effective travel writing
In my humble opinion, effective travel writing starts with excellent writing—but it needs more!
effective travel writing
Taking the reader to places never visited, activities only dreamed of. The destination could be almost anywhere, foreign or domestic. The activities could be anything not experienced by the masses: eating insects, zip-lining, parasailing, petting dolphins, helping sandbag a levy.
effective travel writing
Taking the reader to a familiar place, seen from a different perspective. For example, airport security from behind the scenes, apple picking from the perspective of a child, a blind person white water rafting with a guide, walking across all the bridges in New York City.


Right now, I’m traveling, not writing about it! For more—and better?—advice, just search online for “effective travel writing.”
effective travel writing ideas

Use and Abuse of Passive Voice

elements of style william strunk eb white
[Source: Pearson]
Basically, passive voice is when the noun or noun phrase that could be the object of an action becomes the subject. Passive voice permits permits subjects to have something done to them by someone or something. For example, an active sentence would be “Our team won the trophy.” A passive one would be “The trophy was won by our team.”


In general, authorities urging good writing advise writers to use the active voice as often as possible. Among other things, in order to convey the same amount of information in the passive voice requires more words. In the example above, the passive voice required 7 words rather than 5. Using the passive voice is often labeled as flabbier, less direct, and wordier writing.
[Source: Andertoons]
But there are several reasons to use the passive voice. As writers, we should use all the tools at hand to achieve our ends.


[Source: Amazon]
Bryan A. Garner identifies six ways in which the passive voice is acceptable or even preferred.


—When the actor is unimportant or not worth mentioning (in the context). Cheering crowds were barricaded all along the race route.
—When the actor is unknown. Overnight, Thanksgiving food baskets were left on 205 doorsteps in low-income neighborhoods.


[Source: Almeida Theatre]
—When you want to hide the actor’s identify. This is the classic: Mistakes were made. When no agent is unidentified, no responsibility is claimed or allotted—passive voice can erase who or what performs an action.  On October 11, Anthony Ekundayo Lennon posted a powerful comment illustrating this aspect of the psychology of language. In part, he said, “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.”
—When you need to put the punch word or drama at the end of the sentence. In this instance, the agent is identified using a by-phrase. “Can you believe it? Earl was beaten up by his own son!”
—When the focus of the sentence is on the thing being acted on. The abused child was starved nearly to death.


Passive voice is not necessarily limp. For example, “. . .all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (U.S. Declaration of Independence, italics added)
—When the passive simply sounds better—often because of the modifiers creating long phrasesThe wedding was planned by Heavenly Options, event planners who specialize in weddings, birthdays, funerals, and anniversary dinners with a strong Christian theme.
use abuse passive voice
[Source: The Writing Rag]
Bottom line: If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice!