Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

Ferris wheel and fairgrounds at night

 

Earlier this week I posted a blog about the Iowa State Fair, because it is so in the news just now. But it turned my thoughts to fairs in general.

Writers note: fairs are a national cultural phenomenon, but with regional differences worthy of attention. As you read this blog, think how a state fair might fit your plot.

 

Catherine Pond
Catherine Pond

 

How did State Fairs start?

 

Kentucky farmwife Catherine Pond wrote about this topic. She traces the beginnings of State Fairs to the New York State Fair of 1841. She notes that State Fairs are big, raucous events in large agricultural states while smaller states and county fares are quieter. Nevertheless, fares at both levels offer fair food, wild rides, tractor pulls, 4-H and other judging events (pies, canned goods, quilts, flowers, pigs, cows, etc.).

“In addition to focusing on agricultural offerings and economy, in the 19th century the state and county fairs also became showcases for recipe judging and all manner of domestic arts.”

 

How Did State Fairs Start screenshot of article and canned food with prize ribbons

 

WikipediA


This site defines State Fairs as a larger version of a county fair, often including only exhibits or competitors that have won in their categories at local county fairs. If you move on to the WikipediA article on county fairs you are directed to “Agricultural Show.”

 

American Traditions: A Short History of Agricultural Fairs

 

The word fair can be traced back to the Latin feria, meaning “holy day.” These events consisted of games, competitions, and festivities. The Roman feriae of the Middle Ages morphed into a place when foreign merchants could buy, sell and trade with the public along with the earlier activities.

 

Fairs in America

 

In the U.S., agricultural fairs started to catch on in the early 19th century, when the first one was held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Organized by Elkanah Watson in 1807, it was a small fair featuring only sheep shearing demonstrations.

 

Black and white portrait of Elkanah Watson

 

Watson urged other farmers to showcase their livestock, where they were judged and recognition awarded. Later county fairs had merchants selling goods and activities for men, women, and children. Soon many small, rural communities held fairs from the Northeast to the Midwest.

 

The upshot was the New York State Fair of 1841, held in Syracuse for two days. It featured animal exhibits and speeches intended to educate people about agriculture. It included products for both farms and homes. It was “a great success” with 10,000-15,000 attendees. Today that fair attracts 1.2 million visitors, one of the biggest in the country. It spans nearly two weeks, ending on Labor Day

 

photograph of a cow

 

From their roots in agriculture. fairs grew to include new technology such as electricity and airplanes. Then, too, entertainment came to fairs: musical performances, horse races, carnival rides, and vaudeville entertainers. Today there are approximately 2,000 state and county fairs nationwide.

 

Texas State Fair at night
Texas state fair at night (Photo: wickedchimp from Dallas, Texas, United States [CC BY 2.0])

The Biggest State Fairs

 

  1. The State Fair of Texas (2.25 million visitors). The number of visitors may depend in part on the fact that this fair runs for 24 days.
  2. Minnesota State Fair (2 million attendees). Established in 1859, it celebrates the Land of 10,000 Lakes and features more than 300 concession booths.
  3. The Big E (1.5 million visitors) a.k.a. Eastern States Exposition. It includes all 6 New England States (Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire) each with its “state day” showcasing individual histories and traditions.
  4. New York State Fair (1.2 million visitors)
  5. Tulsa State Fair (1.15 million visitors) a.k.a. the Tulsa County Free Fair, overshadows the smaller Oklahoma State Fair.

 

FYI: State Fair of Virginia has fewer than 400,000 attendees.

 

Navajo Nation Fair parade
The 65th Navajo Nation Fair Parade. Window Rock, Arizona. (Photo by Jared King / NNWO [CC BY-ND 2.0])

Which states have the most fair participation by citizens?

 

  1. Navajo Nation Fair (Arizona): 57.58% of Navajo Nation
  2. Alaska State Fair (Palmer): 40.68%
  3. North Dakota State Fair: 39.64%
  4. Minnesota State Fair: 36.70%
  5. Iowa State Fair: 35.93%

 

FYI: Virginia State Fair: 2.86%—which still exceeds 16 other fairs. Some of these are from states that have multiple fairs.

Kentucky State Fair horse show
Kentucky State Fair horse show, 2018 (Photo: Communications Department, Kentucky Venues)

 

“The 20 Best State Fairs in America”: Top 5

 

  1. Kentucky State Fair: incredible horse shows, chef demonstration, live music from popular artists. It started more than 100 years ago with trick bears, award-winning horses, and the Parade of Champions.
  2. The Great New York State Fair
  3. State Fair of Texas
  4. Iowa State Fair
  5. Minnesota State Fair
person on horseback at fairgrounds
Iowa State Fair image library

These—and virtually all others—now offer free live concerts, deep fried everything, carnival rides, and crazy competitions based on state identity.

 

two men log rolling at state fair
Minnesota State Fair

 

Fair = Fair Food

 

Iowa State Fair image library

For many, fair food is the highlight of the visit. Classics like funnel cake, burgers, corn dogs, candy apples and candy are everywhere. But there is always a local twist: wine slushies in California, a beef Reuben burger in Nebraska, maple syrup soft serve in Vermont. And offerings are ever more exotic: fried dough injected with Pepsi, chocolate-dipped scorpions, alcohol fried in pocketed pretzel dough, the Indiana Hot Beef Sundae (mashed potatoes, marinated beef, gravy, cheese, corn “sprinkles” and a tomato “cherry” on top).

 

chocolate peanut butter buckeyes
“Buckeyes”

 

My personal favorites are the “Buckeyes” found at Ohio fairs—Ohio being the Buckeye State. They have peanut butter centers and chocolate shells that cover all but the required tan spot.

 

For more information, search fair food online. You can get info by state.

 

My personal connections to fairs

 

The only time I went to the Ohio State Fair I was well into my twenties. Most of my fair connections are with the Fairfield County Fair. First held in Lancaster, Ohio, the second week of October, 1851, it’s one of the oldest county fairs still operating. This year it will be October 6-12. It is known as The Last and Best of the Season, being arguably the last county fair in the country.

 

This fair includes bull riding; truck, tractor, and horse pulls; demolition derbies; concerts; band; horse races; and judging of companion animals, farm products, foods, swine, poultry, garden clubs, pygmy goats; as well as a veterans celebration, auction, and monster truck throwdown–and that’s just the first two days!

 

 

My sister was born during Fair Week. My mother and sister were taken home from the hospital by ambulance, which swung through the fairgrounds on the way. My sister celebrates her birthday by visiting the fair in the fall. So perhaps her connection is stronger than mine.

 

On the other hand, the earliest picture I have of me is my mother holding me in a fair photo booth—the sort where you put in coins and get four postage-stamp-sized pictures. One of my favorites is the picture of me and my sister some years later—not looking happy to be there.

 

photograph of two girls

 

I walked through the fairgrounds holding hands with my boyfriend. One year I won a blue ribbon for my 4-H entry of homemade apple sauce. Every year I envied my best friend Sharon whose 4-H project was a milk cow she raised. She got to sleep in the animal barn with her cow and all the other kids who had animals entered. Getting a broken foot when her cow stepped on her seemed a negligent price to pay. I played percussion in the high school marching band that every October marched around the racetrack during the opening ceremonies, often sweltering in our purple wool uniforms trimmed in gold.

 

 

Bottom Line for Writers: if you have a character who has a particular attachment to an annual event, such as a fair, be sure to personalize it.

From the Archives: Alcohol for Writers

"alcohol for writers" whisky poured into tumbler

 

In 2016, I wrote Alcohol for Writers: the famous authors infamous for drinking, facts writers should know about alcohol (even if they don’t imbibe), and what to know about your characters’ interactions with drink.

On the subject of alcohol, you can read about its consumption with tobacco in Smokers Drink and Drinkers Smoke. Perhaps not surprisingly, the people who drink the most, as a group, also consume the most tobacco.

Each of these posts explore the dangers of addiction, which I dive into in The Upside of Addiction for Writers. In addition to substance abuse, writers should also consider behavioral addiction, such as gambling, eating, or working. (And don’t forget Workaholics Day.)

Now it’s your turn: how do you treat alcohol in your writing? Let me know in the comments.

 

This Gun for Hire

Information Writers Need About Contract Killers

handgun
I recently blogged about the going rates for body parts on the black market, and for human trafficking. Given how my mind works, that led me to murder for hire. Murder for hire is so much a part of popular culture and fiction—and so much info seems to be out there about illegal activity—that I was surprised to find only sparse and conjectural data about murder for hire. But here’s what I found, starting with the most concrete and mind-blowing.

Cost Per Hit

list of contract killers cost
Although the average payment for a “hit” is $15,000, if the offered rates are anything to go by, it can range from a few hundred dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars. And per the above list, it varies greatly by country.
From what I could find, hitmen are almost always men, between the ages of 25 and 49, unmarried. Murder for hire might stem from revenge, expediency (easier than getting a divorce), or a misplaced wish to spare the victim hurt. But by far the most common reason for murder-for-hire is either insurance policy payouts or a romantic relationship gone wrong. A study in Australia (supported by less rigorous data in the U.S.) indicates that contract killings account for 2%-4% of murders. The most common weapon is a firearm.  In determining a fee, the hitman needs to consider both risk and expected expenses.
Reliable information on the cost of murder for hire is hard to come by for several reasons—most especially that successful contract killers go unpunished and don’t talk about it. But fees depend on a number of factors, including:
  • the difficulty of the hit
  • the prominence of the target
  • the financial standing of the employer
  • the financial needs of the hitman

And from low to high cost:

  • straightforward murder
  • murder that looks like suicide
  • murder that looks like an accident
  • murder that looks like natural causes

HOW TO HIRE A CONTRACT KILLER

  • search online
  • check for references (really)
  • don’t meet the killer in person
  • don’t exchange names
  • don’t give a reason for the hit
  • pay in bitcoin to avoid traceability, use an escrow to pay when job is done
  • other than bitcoin, if you do know the hitman, consider jewelry, barter, etc.
  • don’t pay 50% up front because he might take the money and run
  • if you advertise, don’t accept the first two respondents, who are probably undercover law enforcement
  • to hire anonymously on line, don’t give real name, address, credit card, or phone number, and hide your IP through Tor Browser

WRITERS BEWARE

You can’t just troll around on sites like 18th Street Gan Hitmen on the dark web marketplace. If you try to get info by pretending to be a hitman, you will be asked to prove yourself by hurting a specific person in specific ways.

Why might no one take on your job?

  • You don’t have the deep pockets for an assassin who specializes in political targets, disguising homicide, or disappearances.
  • If you don’t have a reputation within the criminal world, you are a liability: you might be an undercover cop, get cold feet, or brag about it when drunk.
  • You don’t seem to have enough to lose if it fails.
police car with lights illuminated

Reasons for failure.

  • Most people who want someone killed don’t know the criminal underworld, so look to family, acquaintances, neighbors, or others who are inept or inexperienced.
  • Most people won’t do it, and would likely call the police.
  • Talking publicly and widely about wishing someone dead.
  • Mistakenly believing that not actually doing the act means no criminal liability.
Bottom line for writers: Murder for hire could be a powerful part of your story

Is There a MacGyver in Your Story?

Richard Dean Anderson Angus MacGyver
[Source: EW]
In case you didn’t know, MacGyver was a superhero type TV series from 1985 to 1992 starring Richard Dean Anderson. As the series unfolded, Angus “Mac” MacGyver became a wonderfully rich character, a great example of what a well-rounded character looks like on the page as well. Here, to help you flesh out your protagonist are things you need to know—or at least consider. Your readers will love you for it.

 

Name: A character needs a full name, and (in my opinion) should have a reason to have been named that. Family name? Parent’s favorite from history or fiction?

 

Personality: MacGyver was portrayed as a non-violent problem solver who always carried a Swiss Army knife and refused to carry a gun. When the plot called for physical violence, his acts were always in self-defense and he strove to subdue or disable rather than kill. He is pretty much the opposite of macho, having a sensitive nature and showing it. He (appropriately) showed grief, pain, fright, guilt, depression and self-blame.

 

Social awareness: MacGyver was passionate about social causes, with a particular affinity for things related to children and protecting the environment. At some point, he became vegetarian. What is your character’s attitude toward such things as social justice, global warming, etc.?

 

Intelligence: MacGyver had a genius-level IQ and had a college education in both physics and chemistry.

 

Skills: MacGyver could speak six languages—plus he could communicate using American Sign Language, Morse code, and International maritime signal flags. He skied and had mastered outdoor survival skills. He possessed superb engineering and applied physics knowledge. Besides his Swiss Army knife, MacGyver usually carried duct tape, an ID card, a Timex Camper watch, strike-anywhere matches, paperclips, chewing gum, and a flashlight—plus whatever was in his Jeep or pickup truck. Thus, he was able to save a man’s life using a paperclip, a wrench, and shoelaces.

 

rock climbing
His hobbies included dice hockey, racing, guitar, and painting. Although suffering from acrophobia (fear of heights) he managed mountain/rock climbing, hang gliding, parachuting, etc.
 
What skills and/or specialized knowledge can your character draw on? Think education, past job experiences and military service as well as hobbies and sports.

 

Biography: MacGyver’s biography—which I believe was fleshed out as the series progressed—accounted for all of his special skills, fears, and taboos, from the outdoor survival skills taught by Mrs. Fogarty, his Cub Scout Den Mother, to a fatal accidental shooting that led him to eschew guns. Advice to writers: as soon as you give your character a skill, fear, etc., jot down—if only for your own use—how and when it was acquired.

 

macgyver lucas till
[Source: EW]
In 2016 the series was revived starring Lucas Till as a younger Mac MacGyver. Supposedly this is the equivalent of a “prequel.” Thus, this Mac functioned between the original’s birth (January 23, 1951) and the beginning of the original series. And therein lies the rub. This “younger” MacGyver carries through with major characteristics, including intelligence, preference for non-lethal methods, and the ability to use his Swiss Army knife plus anything in his environment to accomplish his mission. In addition, he’s an accomplished field medic and uses modern crime scene techniques—in which he might just have been ahead of his time. But DNA sequencing procedures? That I couldn’t quite accept.

 

Last advice to writers: Should you ever want to write a prequel, be aware of what your character couldn’t have known or experienced at the time.
 
And just in case you want some MacGyver type skills for your character, check out these books.
 
MacGYVER story

Observe More Closely

Amy Ritchie Johnson
Amy Ritchie Johnson [Source: Twitter]
I am currently enrolled in a four-week class on “Nature Writing” at the VMFA Studio School, taught by Amy Ritchie Johnson. Frankly, I took this class because I like taking writing classes with Amy and this was what was on offer. To my surprise, I’m loving it!

 

observe more closely
If you do an online search for books on nature writing, you will come up with approximately a gazillion choices—not that I am urging you to do so!

 

I just want to share with you an insight that was surprising, at least to me: nature writing can happen in any genre. If the work explores, draws on, or uses nature in a significant way, it’s nature writing. Think about it. Here are several examples (merely examples) mentioned in class.
  • science writing (Lab Girl)
  • memoir (also exemplified by Lab Girl)
  • environmental advocacy
  • mystery (e.g., Where the Crawdads Sing)
  • poetry (e.g., Mary Oliver)
  • fiction (The Secret Garden)
  • creative non-fiction (H is for Hawk)
  • description (think field guides to anything, from snakes to edible plants)
Two weeks in and I am already wishing it were twice as long! Indeed, because of class discussion, I bought The Naturalist’s Notebook, a five-year diary for recording daily observations about nature. So, in my own way, the class will continue.

 

The Naturalist’s Notebook
[Source: Barnes & Noble]
Assignments in this class, including keeping a nature diary for four weeks, are honing our skills in observing and describing. The short version of the advice is observe in minute detail and be specific in your descriptions. This last is an oft-repeated injunction: avoid vague words such as beautiful, stuff, blue, comfortable—words that can mean many things to many people. In nature writing, that means the name of the flower, the kind of tree, the shade of green, the breed of the dog, the type of clouds, etc.

 

BOTTOM LINE: lessons from nature writing are lessons for good writing. Go for it!

Why Procrastinate?

why procrastinate
Procrastination has been my long-term companion, and I’ve got to tell you, it isn’t all bad. Procrastination is voluntarily putting off an unpleasant task, often against one’s better judgment.

 

Procrastination is typically perceived to be a bad thing, so I will start there. Research indicates that procrastination generally leads to lower-quality work performance reduced feelings of well-being. As a group, students who procrastinate get lower grades. Procrastinators put off a lot of unpleasant tasks, for example, getting medical treatments and diagnostic tests.
procrastinate
[Source: Wonderopolis]

Here are 5 reason for procrastination, according to Psychology Today.

  1. absence of structure
  2. unpleasant, boring tasks
  3. timing: when present activities are rewarding and longer-term outcomes are in the future
  4. lack of confidence about one’s ability to do the task
  5. anxiety: postponing getting started because of fear of failure
 
My personal favorite isn’t on this list: the ego-defensive function of feeling better about oneself. This related to #5 above. Whatever the outcome, the procrastinator can always say to him/her self, “Not bad for the amount of time I spent on it. Of course, I could do better.”
procrastination
Exceptionally bright, capable people are highly rewarded for procrastination. Examples include students who get A’s without studying. Teachers who get good reviews when they lecture spontaneously. Etc.

 

According to Stephanie Vozza, procrastination has gotten a bad rap. She listed 6 reasons why procrastination can lead to greater success and happiness.
 
  1. Structured procrastinators get more done. While putting off one thing, they do something else.
  2. Procrastinators make better decisions. I’m doubtful about this one, but if while delaying making a decision a person is gathering relevant information, it could be.
  3. Procrastination leads to creativity. When a task seems too hard to do, you might invent a better way.
  4. Unnecessary tasks disappear when you procrastinate.
  5. Procrastination leads to better apologies.
  6. Procrastination reveals what you find important.
procrastination today
BOTTOM LINE: Like so much in life, there’s both an upside and a downside to procrastination.

The Upside of Addiction for Writers

upside addiction writers
When we think addiction, our first thoughts are likely to be drugs and/or alcohol, possibly nicotine—i.e., substance abuse. These addictions are defined by the psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm. These addictions provide almost limitless possibilities for tension, conflict, and drama—and they are well documented.

 

upside addiction writers

But wait! There’s more! Some addictions also involve an inability to stop partaking in activities, such as gambling, eating, or working. In these circumstances, a person has a behavioral addiction.

Addicts cannot control how they use a substance or partake in an activity, and they become dependent on it to cope with daily life. As writers, think of addictions as a path to comfort for your characters. As such, any comforting activity or substance could become an addiction.
 
shopping therapy
[Source: Pinterest]
Usually, people start using a drug or engaging in an activity voluntarily. But addiction reduces self-control. There have been many cartoons and jokes about shopping therapy. Consider the implications of a shopping addiction.

Symptoms

  • Uncontrollably seeking drugs or uncontrollably engaging in harmful levels of the addictive behavior, e.g., the shopper spends so much money that it endangers the family finances.
  • Neglecting or losing interest in activities that do not involve the harmful substance or behavior, e.g., dropping out of exercise classes, bridge, etc., in favor of eBay.
  • Relationship difficulties, which often involve lashing out at people who point out the dependency. In the shopping example, arguments with one’s significant other are obvious!
  • An inability to stop using a drug, though it may be causing health problems or personal problems, such as issues with employment or relationships. So, maybe the shopping addict is shopping online during work hours.
  • Hiding substances or behaviors and otherwise exercising secrecy, for example, by refusing to explain injuries that occurred while under the influence. In the case of the shopping addict, maybe shredding credit card statements so family members won’t see the dozens of PayPal charges.
  • Profound changes in appearance, including a noticeable abandonment of hygiene. For the shopping addict, noticeable changes might include a sudden increase in fashionable accessories, new golf clubs, etc.
  • Increased risk-taking, both to access the substance or activity and while using it or engaging in it. You fill in the examples! Maybe the money runs out and theft results.

 

Withdrawal

depression addiction symptom

Stopping the use of a drug can lead to anxiety.

These symptoms include:

  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • tremors and shaking
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fatigue
  • a loss of appetite

Some of these symptoms are more typical of substance abuse than of behavioral addiction, but all could work for a character. On the other hand, if a person has regularly used alcohol or benzodiazepines, and stop suddenly or without medical supervision, withdrawal can be fatal

In Summary

Addiction is a serious, chronic dependence on a substance or activity.

A person with an addiction is unable to stop taking a substance or engaging in a behavior, though it has harmful effects on daily living.

Misuse is different from addiction. Substance misuse does not always lead to addiction, while addiction involves regular misuse of substances or engagement in harmful behavior.

BOTTOM LINE: Nearly any comforting activity—be it eating in general or chocolate, drugs or gambling—can become an addictionSymptoms of addiction often include declining physical health, irritation, fatigue, and an inability to cease using a substance or engaging in a behavior. Addiction can lead to behavior that strains relationships and inhibits daily activities. Ceasing to use the substance or engage in the behavior often leads to withdrawal symptoms, as listed above.

bookaholic
The last word: A book addiction is relatively benign, although it seriously endangers your ignorance!

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!

Why Bother With Short Stories?

Many people—arguably most people—consider book authors as the only “real writers.” After all, that’s mostly what bookstores are all about. Plus, most of the best known writers are/have been book authors. I’ve published three novels, and I must admit that completing a book is very gratifying. But let’s not diss short stories or their authors!

 

At this point, my short stories—fiction, memoir, and essays—have been published by more than fifty literary journals and anthologies, from Adanna to Xavier Review. (Visit this page of my website to see a complete list of publications and read some examples of my short stories.) One answer to the why bother question is that once there are enough, one can publish a collection. And I’ve done that.

 

different drummer vivian lawry
Another reason to bother is that it’s a way to start writing for publication. People who blanch at the thought of writing 70,000 to 110,000 words can face the challenge of writing 3,000-5,000 words. Several of the contributors to Virginia is for Mysteries have subsequently published books, including Maggie King, Fiona Quinn, and Heather Weidner. I published several short stories before my first novel (Dark Harbor) was finished.

 

virginia is for mysteries volume i
Also, sometimes a short piece in one anthology can lead to another. Many of the contributors to Virginia is for Mysteries also appear in Virginia is for Mysteries Vol. II.  And several also will appear in Southern Deadly Charms. All of these are projects of Sisters in Crime/Central Virginia.

 

And having made friends with compatible fellow writers, some might choose to peel off and go in another direction. One example of this is an anthology, Fifty Shades of Cabernet. Another example is the collection of four novellas, To Fetch a Thief.
 
Other ways to get short stories into anthologies.  One is to find a call for submissions for a themed collection. This is how I placed a story in Malice Domestic Mysteries Most Historical (#12). “The Tredegar Murders” is set during the Civil War. Another path is to have a story accepted and then included in a subsequent anthology. My short story “Aunt Fan’s Private Journey” was published in Drumvoices Review in 2007. When Drumvoices Review produced a 20th anniversary volume (Volume 17) in 2011-2012, my story was chosen for inclusion. When shall I ever again be in the same collection with Maya Angelou?
drumvoices review 17
So, short stories can end up in books in several ways. But publishing “beyond” literary journals and magazines isn’t necessary for writing short stories to be gratifying.

 

The gratification of writing short stories comes in many forms.

 

(1) The variety is endless. My short stories include magical realism, horror, memoir based fiction, historical fiction, mysteries. fantasy, literary fiction—no holds barred! Short stories are usually one-off, unlike a series of novels; the characters often have nothing to do with one another. But they can! I have now published four short story mysteries featuring the same Civil War prostitute/amateur detective, Clara.

 

(2) Writing short stories hones one’s writing skills because every word counts. There isn’t room for wandering off on tangents.

 

(3) Publishing short stories doesn’t require long delays of gratification. Traditionally publishing a book involves not only writing it, but months or years finding an agent, more months or years while the agent finds a publisher, and a couple of years in production. (Much of this can be short-circuited with self-publishing, but that’s a different topic.) Although there can be lags between acceptance and publication of short stories, it doesn’t typically stretch over years! Indeed, I had an acceptance last week that should be out in April! The publishing speed for short stories is especially fast for online journals.

 

(4) Having one’s work accepted by an edited journal is an ego boost! It’s an affirmation of the quality of the writing. Every time I get an acceptance, I paste a virtual star on my forehead.
gold star sticker
Bottom line: Short stories are wonderful! Try it, you’ll like it!