Story Nuggets: Where Does a Writer Find Them?

by Jayne Ormerod

Jane Ormerod author

VL: When I invited the four authors who have stories in To Fetch a Thief to contribute something to my blog page—interview, blog, rant, whatever—I was hoping for diversity. And they are coming through!


I’m a writer. I write cozy mysteries. When I’m not huddled in my writing hut, I’m out and about, either physically or cyber-ly, mingling with readers. The number one question I am asked is “Where do you get your ideas?” My answer: I collect “story nuggets” everywhere I go and in everything I do and all the crazy stuff I see in the news. All it takes is a teeny tiny event  and my imagination is off and running. It’s no secret I am particularly influenced by things in my life and events that occur in my coastal community.

For my most recent publication, I was challenged to write a novella (about 15,000 words) that involved a dog, a theft, and a murder. Two years later, a book was born. To Fetch a Thief is a collection of four novellas. My story is titled “It’s a Dog Gone Shame!”

Fortunately, I had a cache of “story nuggets” at the ready.

Jane Ormerod

The “dog” part of the story was easy. Although dog-less at the time, we’d been lucky enough to have been adopted by four wonderful rescues over the years. I knew how to write “dog.”

The “theft” part of the story was a snap. We have a wonderful place in our neighborhood to honor dogs that have crossed the rainbow bridge. It’s called The Dog Gone Garden. A local artist paints a colorful rock to represent each dog as it passes. The rocks are huddled under the shade of a Crepe Myrtle tree. Our own Norwegian Elkhound, Jamaica, has a rock there. One summer’s day all of the rocks disappeared! Just gone! Nobody knows where or why or how. (There were a lot of them so it was a heavy load!) Aha! my mystery-writer self said. A theft! I tucked that into my carton of story nuggets. (Although I solve this little mystery in my story, the real rock theft remains on the loose.)

dog gone garden

The murder part? We live on the Chesapeake Bay. It is a semi-annual occurrence for a body to wash ashore. Mostly they are traced back to a drug gang further up the bay. Sometimes it’s a result of too much drink and too little sense when a person climbs aboard their trawler to sleep it off. One misstep and they splash in the bay and end up sleeping with the fishes. The beauty of being a cozy writer is the amateur sleuth only has to discover a dead body. We don’t have to know how to kill. Interviewing neighbors who’ve discovered the “floaters” has given me enough “nuggets” for a dozen mysteries.

To answer the perennial question, “Where do you get your ideas?”; I get them from life. Once the “story nugget” is planted, I turn it over to my imagination. I then stand back and watch the words fly! (Most end up on the cutting room floor, but that’s another story for another day.)

VL: Big thank you to Jayne Ormerod! No doubt readers have enjoyed this peek into your writing process—and some may decide to emulate you! To read more about the stories in To Fetch a Thief and the writers who wrote them, check out www.MuttMysteries.com 


About Jayne Ormerod:  Jayne Ormerod grew up in a small Ohio town then went on to a small-town Ohio college. Upon earning her degree in accountancy, she became a CIA (that’s not a sexy spy thing, but a Certified Internal Auditor.) She married a naval officer and off they sailed to see the world. After nineteen moves, they, along with their two rescue dogs Tiller and Scout, have settled into a cozy cottage by the sea. Jayne has penned over a dozen novels/novellas/short mysteries.

Website: www.JayneOrmerod.com

Blog: www.JayneOrmerod.blogspot.com

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

Emojis: Yea or Nay?

hieroglyphs emojis
I approached this blog with the opinion that relying on emoticons—i.e., emojis—is dulling out ability to express emotions with rich language and subtlety. How can one retain, let alone develop, verbal and written skill if it isn’t practiced? The above image seemed to confirm my opinion: if hieroglyphics were sufficient for purposes of communication, why did other forms develop?
I searched online and did find some support for my original opinion. One study by YouTube (a survey of 2000, ages 16-65) found that 94% believe there has been a decline in the correct use of English, 80% of those saying youngsters are the worse culprits. Over a third of British adults believe that emojis are responsible for the deterioration of the English language—less command of spelling and grammar, due to use of spell check and predictive text. Although emojis convey a message, they breed laziness, diluting language expression. A common prejudice is that an emoji is the equivalent of a grunt, a step back in literacy, making us poorer communicators and maybe even dumber.

 

But all of this reflects what people think or feelWhere are the data? Academic research warns that peppering an email with emojis could harm your job prospects by making colleagues less likely to share information with you. Using emojis in the workplace doesn’t increase perceptions of warmth, it actually decreases perceptions of competence.

 

On the other hand, research commissioned by the dating site Match.com, released in 2017, a survey of 5600 singles found that the more emojis people used in their texts, the more dates—and sex—they have. The inference from this research was that using emojis made it easier for the potential match to gauge the message. Emoji users were concluded to be more effective communicators.

 

Originating on Japanese mobile phones in 1999, they’ve become increasingly popular worldwide since then. When Apple released a set of emojis in 2011, the uptake of emoji took off. Emojis to replicate non-verbal communication are used six billion times a day. Over time, the options to refine a particular emotional expression have increased.

 

When you look back over time, the power of image has always been there. Even prehistoric images such as cave paintings have been incredibly communicative: we can analyze those drawings and understand them thousands of years later. Pictures have the ability to transcend time and language—to be universal.

 

emojis yae nay
In the course of my reading, I found that Alexandre Loktiov, an expert on hieroglyphics and cuneiform legal texts, had this to say: “For me, they’re essentially hieroglyphs and so a perfectly legitimate extension of language. They’re signs which, without having a phonetic value of their own, can ‘color’ the meaning of the preceding word or phrase. In Egyptology, these are called ‘determinatives’—as they determine how written words should be understood. The concept has been around for 5,000 years, and it’s remarkably versatile because of its efficiency. You can cut down your character count if you supplement words with pictures—and that’s useful both to Twitter users today and to Ancient Egyptians laboriously carving signs into a rock stela.”

 

Emojis break down language barriers because people understand what the symbols mean, regardless of their native tongue. Perhaps its possible to learn a lot about a person from their preferred emojis. On the other hand, problems with emojis include cultural differences in the meaning of a given image. For example, two flagrant cases: apparently an eggplant has been taken up as a representative of a penis, a peach as a stand-in for a buttocks. One might inadvertently offend the recipient, even in more subtle ways. Public demand led to the option of modifying skin tone on the emoji.

 

emojis yae nay
[Source: TechCrunch]
In face-to-face interaction, up to 70% of emotional meaning is communicated via nonverbal cues. These include tone of voice, eye gaze, body language, gestures, and facial expression. Vyvyan Evans, an expert on language and digital communication, maintains that the emoji’s primary function is not to usurp language but to fill in the emotional cues otherwise missing from typed conversations.

 

He also had this to say: To assert that emojis will make us poorer communicators is like saying facial expressions make your emotions harder to read. The idea is nonsensical. It’s a false analogy to compare emojis to the language of Shakespeare—or even to language at all. Emojis don’t replace language: they provide the nonverbal cues, fit for the purpose in our digital textspeak, that helps us nuance and complement what we mean by our words.
One thing is sure: emojis are not only an integral part of e-communication. They are embedded in popular culture, and are making inroads in the general culture.

 

  • Over 90% of the world’s 3.2 billion internet users regularly send “picture characters” (as the word means in Japanese) with over 5 billion being transmitted everyday on Facebook Messenger alone.
  • The 2009 movie Moon features a robot who communicates in a neutral-tone synthesized voice plus a screen showing an emoji representing the corresponding emotional content.
  • In 2014, the Library of Congress acquired an emoji version of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
  • In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries named the Face with Tears of Joy emoji the Word of the Year.
  • May 2016, Emojiland, a musical, premiered in Los Angeles.
  • October 2016, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the original collection of emojis from 1999.
  • November 2016, the first emoji convention, Emojicon, was held in San Francisco.
  •  In 2016, a High Court judge in England included a smiley face emoji in an official ruling, in an attempt to make the judgment in family court clear for the children it affected.
  • March 2017, the first episode of Samurai Jack featured alien characters who communicate in emojis.
  • April 2017, Doctor Who featured nanobots, called Emojibots, who communicate using emojis only.
  • July 2017 Sony Pictures Animation released The Emoji Movie.
 
 
Alexandre Loktionov (mentioned above) said “. . .we have to think of the purpose of the means of communication, and in the case of emoji, we as a culture need to decide what they are: do we want them to be a bona fide script with full capability, or are they just a tool reserved for very specific purposes (alongside conventional means of writing)?”

 

In conversation with other writers, it seems we/they use emojis for specific purposes, limited entirely to electronic communications. For literary writing, they are irrelevant.
 
Some have asserted that the emoji is the fastest-growing language in history—for good or ill.  How do you feel about emojis? If you use them, how?
 

Historical Fiction

colonial heights high school
 
Yesterday, November 5, I met with Spotlight, the Colonial Heights High School club which focuses on literary and fine arts. I talked with these young, creative teens about fiction in general and historical fiction in particular.

 

Stating the obvious: in historical fiction, the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. What may not be so readily obvious is that beyond that, anything goes! Although this umbrella covers theater, opera, cinema, TV, etc., and my comments likely apply there as well, my focus has always been on the traditional: historical novels and short stories.
high school classroom
Historical fiction can be any genre and format. Romance, action/adventure, mystery, children’s literature, young adult novels, sci-fi, literary fiction, fairy tales, fables, satire, comedy, horror, even epic poetry—anything you can come up with is fair game. And it can be any length, from flash fiction to multiple-volume series.

 

steering craft ursula k le guin
The foundation of historical fiction is good writing. Therefore, start by mastering the craft. Ursula Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft is short, readable, and excellent instruction (although my personal opinion is that the sailing metaphor gets a bit trying by the end). But beyond that, consider what will give your writing authority and make it believable. So, here, in no particular order, are sample questions you would do well to answer.
cookbooks
What did people eat? People must eat. Beyond that, nothing is static. Food fashions change. The availability of various foods changes. Cooking methods and utensils change, how tables are set and what constitutes good table manners change. Even the timing of meals change—such as when the main meal of the day was eaten. And what was eaten: one example, a full breakfast is a staple of British cuisine, and typically consists of bacon, sausages and eggs, often served with a variety of side dishes and a drink such as coffee or tea. Prior to 1600, breakfast in Great Britain typically included bread, cold meat or fish, and ale. On an American farm table, pie for breakfast was common. You can search history of breakfast online and retrieve lots of valuable information by period of history and country.
historical fiction
How did people talk? The basic here is vocabulary, the words for ordinary objects and actions. Then, too, a word may not mean the same thing it once did. “Compromise” had a very different meaning for a couple in Jane Austen’s time compared to opponents in a political intrigue set in 1990. But phrasing comes into it, too: at some point, people became less likely to say “pardon me” and more likely to say “excuse me.” Besides the historical period, consider language specific to action; for example, carnival workers or mobsters.
value dollar
What did things cost? Everyone knows prices change. The basic point here is how much things cost during your time period. And perhaps even more interesting, what was bought? For example, in 1905 a household was likely to buy stove polish (at twenty-five cents a can). Or during the Great Depression in the United States, a man might berate his wife for “driving all over the county, like gas doesn’t cost ten cents a gallon.”  Inserting a few such details gives a story authority as well as richness—assuming you get it right. The latest edition of this book (the 5th) is available from Amazon, $155 new and $25 used. For your purposes, new probably isn’t necessary, and library discards come available for a dollar or two.
historical fiction
What did people wear? For example, did women wear underpants? Had bras been invented? Were corsets still in use? And related questions having to do with where the clothing came from, how much of it a person was likely to have, and how it varied by socioeconomic status.
mortal remains death early america
What was involved in birth, death, and marriage? Most historical fiction will touch on one or more of these nearly universal events. Where did births take place and who attended? What about funerary practices? Would bodies be embalmed, burned, put on a scaffold for birds of prey to clean the bones? For marriage, consider age, who consents, what the ceremony likely entailed. For women, what rights did she lose and/or acquire with marriage?
lindbergh baby newspaper
[Source: Timothy Hughes]
What was happening in the world at the time? Some awareness or mention of major events is unavoidable. For example, if your story is set in 1863, the American Civil War was a relevant event whether or not it was the focus of your plot, and even if your story is set in London or Paris. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and finding the body in 1932 was similarly followed worldwide. For an excellent one-volume history of the United States, try Jill Lepore’s These Truths.

 

historical fiction
Doing your research. The above questions are just examples of things you need to know to make your historical work of fiction live for the reader. The list is endless: recreation and entertainment, mode of transportation and the time it took to get from place to place, weapons, toys, houses or whatever dwellings, how tall people were, hair styles. . . If you know the question you want to ask, online searching is convenient and inexpensive. Personally, any information I’m likely to want to refer to repeatedly, I like to have in physical books. Reading about the time of your plot is extremely valuable. And I find it fascinating. I have many books like the ones pictured above to get an overview of life during the period of interest, presenting answers to most of your factual questions in one convenient package.

 

Last but not least, read books written during and set in the time you’re writing about. Read extensively—meaning both a lot and broadly. It will give you a feel for tone, pacing, and (probably) things to avoid in your own writing!

 

BOTTOM LINE: Besides the foundation of good writing, historical fiction is built on research. Enjoy!
 

Clichés—True But Tired!

Today’s blog is actually less a blog than a rant, a list of true but trite phrases that mark writing as unimaginative. So here goes.

bird hand
A bird in the hand
A piece of cake
Abject terror
Alcoholic haze
Angelic smile
Black as coal
Black as midnight
Black as sin
Bone chilling
Brothers in arms
cliches true tired
Cat-like
Catastrophic
Doe eyed
Drunken frenzy
Dumb as a stump
Easy as pie
Evil through and through
Eyes like saucers
Fighting tooth and nail
Guilty as sin
Hair raising
Heart pounding
heart pounding stopping
Heart stopping
Herd mentality
High as a kite
Honey tongued
Lion-hearted
Moaning and groaning
Need to know
Nubile young thing
Old as dirt
Paralyzed in fear
Pure as the driven snow
pure driven snow
Ran for his/her life
Rich as Croesus
Roaring like a lion
Rock hard
Scared stiff
Scared to death
Smoke and mirrors
Smooth as silk
Soft as butter
Soft as cotton
soft cotton
Strong as Atlas
Stood stock still
Sweet as sugar
The Midas touch
Tight as a tic
Tried and true
Walking on eggshells
Warm as toast
White as snow
Yelling like a banshee

Come up with better options. What are your pet clichés? Help your fellow writers by adding to the list!

When Writers Wait

when writers wait
Writers, like everyone else, can—and often do—use wait-time to read, check Facebook, etc. But writers have so many more options!

 

Things to do during any wait

 
when writers wait
Practice describing: Choose any one person and describe him/her in detail, and as vividly as possible. For the most benefit of this practice, try describing both stand-out characters and those who look as ordinary as possible.

 

when writers wait
Practice judging a book by its cover: Which is to say, consider another waiting person and, on the basis of what s/he is wearing, imagine socio-economic class, education, type of job, personality, and anything else that comes to mind.

 

Practice noticing non-verbals and extrapolating from them: If a man is fidgeting, repeatedly checking the time, etc., maybe his marriage is precarious, and he’s imagining confronting his wife, saying, “I swear! I was standing in the post office line the entire time!”
when writers wait
 
How are the waiters behaving? Is there generally patience, politeness, and/or acceptance? Grumbling, swearing, people leaving? What might contribute to the ambiance? Size of community? Geography? (E.g., Richmond vs. New York City.) Consider what would happen if someone behaved differently from the majority.

 

Practice disrupting the status quo: Do something unexpected, even if minor, and observe the responses around you. For example, sway from side to side, pat the top of your head, march in place, etc., and keep doing it. Don’t make eye contact—and don’t laugh!

 

Practice introspection: When stuck with a long wait—longer than expected—how are you feeling? Check your visceral reactions: breathing, muscle tension, heart rate, stomach. Are you relaxed, tense, bored, impatient, or something else? What are your inclinations—stay, leave, sigh audibly, complain loudly, try to jump the line, seek redress with someone who seems to be a gatekeeper, or something else? Why do you act on those inclinations—or not?

 

Things to do while waiting when noise isn’t an issue

when writers wait
Listen to ring tones: Try to identify them, or at least get the rhythm, and extrapolate from that their personality.

 

Practice eavesdropping—and spin a story from it: A woman says, “I noticed that your wife is wearing orthopedic boots.” Man says, “She has diabetes, and doesn’t have any toes on her left foot. She doesn’t have a big toe on her right foot. The boots are so she can try to balance.”  Listen to mobile phone conversations and proceed as above.

 

Incite responses: This is in line with disrupting the status quo. Say something outrageous! You can say it to someone else in line or you can pretend to have a mobile call and let others in the line “overhear” you saying something outrageous. For example, “I’ve had sex with thirteen men—and, no, I’m not promiscuous!”

 

Opportunities in specific places

when writers wait
Airports: Where is s/he going? Why? What’s in his/her carry-on? Traveling coach or first class? Why was s/he pulled aside for further security screening? Is this person traveling alone or not? Is it a family? Business colleagues? Lovers?

 

doctor waiting room
Doctor’s/dentist’s office: What’s his/her condition? Is it terminal? Does that bald person have cancer? Does that person have reason to be nervous or is it just “white coat syndrome”? If the former, what reasons? If the latter, what is the origin?

 

grocery store cart
Grocery store: Check out the carts around you. Is this person shopping for one or a family? Is this a health-food nut or a snack food junkie? Omnivore or vegan? What does it say if the other shopper brought bags, asks for paper, or goes plastic?

 

waiting in line
BOTTOM LINE: Use your waits to build your writing arsenal!

Horror Week is Here

horror week here
Celebrate it on Goodreads! Here you will find their list of the 50 most popular horror books on Goodreads, “From Mary Shelley to Stephen King.”  You can also read the Ghastly Horror Subgenres (sic), Book-to-Scream Adaptations, 13 True Tales of Terror, and—just for fun—The Nightmare Generator. My worst nightmare is supposed to be an incompetent vampire in the nursery. For my husband, it’s supposed to be a paranoid cannibal in the attic. FIND YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE!
complete works edgar allan poe
Edgar Allan Poe is only one proof that well-written horror is well-written literature. It’s timeless. And every set of tips on how to write horror includes the observation that good writing, and all the elements thereof, are the foundation with horror being an add-on. “Horror” means an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.

 

horror week here
Now Novel is a good place to start if you are thinking of dipping your toe into this genre. According to this blog, the 5 common elements of the best horror stories are these:

 

  • They explore malevolent or wicked characters, deeds, or phenomena.
  • They arouse feelings of fear, shock, or disgust as well as the sense of the uncanny.
  • They are intense.
  • They contain scary and/or shocking and scintillating plot twists and story reveals.
  • They immerse readers in the macabre.

 

The blog then goes on to discuss six tips:
  1. How to write horror using a strong, pervasive tone.
  2. The importance of reading widely in your genre.
  3. Giving wicked characters credible motives
  4. Using the core elements of tragedy
  5. Writing scary novels by tapping into common human fears.
  6. The difference between terror and horror.

 

horror week here
If you want even more advice, you can find it at The Ramble. According to Chuck Wendig, horror is best when it’s about tragedy. It contains subversion, admonition, and fear of the unknown. Horror works on our minds, our hearts, and our gut. It can be gross, but that isn’t necessary. What is necessary is for characters you love to make choices you hate. “SEX AND DEATH ALSO PLAY WELL TOGETHER.” You should never tell readers they should be scared. He writes much more than this, of course.

 

horror week here
In my opinion, one of the best sites is Bustle. It includes comments from ten authors, including Stephen King, who discusses gross-out, horror, and terror.

 

horror week here
Advice from others includes:

 

  • Shirley Jackson: Use your own fear.
  • R.I. Stine: Get inside your narrator’s head.
  • Tananarive Due: Don’t worry about being “legitimate.”
  • Ray Bradbury: Take your nonsense seriously.
  • Anne Rice: Go where the pain is.
  • Clive Barker: The scariest thing is feeling out of control.
  • Linda Addison: Just start writing and fix it later.
  • Neil Gaiman: Tell your own story.
  • Helen Oyeyemi: Keep it real (kind of).
horror week here
And the advice goes on. Bottom line: This is the week to read and/or write a little horror!
 
horror week here
goodreads horror week

Is the Quality of Writing Declining? And if So, Why?

mahjong
I recently played mah jong with other women of a certain age who were lamenting the quality of writing today, especially among their grandchildren. The opinion at the table was unanimous. But upon reflection (even after I noticed the poor writing in some recent novels I read), I wondered whether that is true. I searched online and here are the first several articles I found.
quality writing declining
According to Goldstein, “Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th grades lack proficiency in writing… And 40% of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level composition class…”

 

Goldstein says that the root of the problem is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves. According to a 2016 study of teachers across the country in grades three through eight, fewer than half had a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing and fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. The article then goes on to discuss various approaches to teaching writing.

 

In spite of the shortage of high-quality research on the teaching of writing, Goldstein cites a few concrete strategies that help.

 

  1. Children need to learn how to transcribe both by hand and through typing on a computer.
  2. Children need to practice writing great sentences before writing paragraphs.
  3. They need clear feedback on their writing.
  4. Students need a synthesis of freewriting without a focus on transcription or punctuation AND grammar instruction.
quality writing declining
Aalai says she has seen a decline in writing ability even over the last ten years, declines in critical thinking, proper syntax, spelling, grammar, even proper structure like paragraph indentation and how to cite sources. And she asks, “In the digital world where language is reduced down to 120 characters or less, is some essential part of ourselves that needs to be cultivated… also being lost in the shuffle?”

 

quality writing declining
Morrison’s blog post is very thorough. She presents facts on the writing skill gap, as well as “interesting data from The Writing Lives of College Students,” a list of strategies instructors might consider to develop students’ writing skills. “What is surprising is that students view sending text messages as a writing form and consider it to be the most valuable form of writing over all others.” There are also several enlightening responses to her blog.
quality writing declining
Gaille’s blog offers the following reasons for the decline in writing skills.

 

  1. Social Media Displacement of Reading. The basic issue is that students engage in social media rather than serious reading as a leisure activity.
  2. Digital Brains. Cites cognitive neuroscientists’ conclusions that touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text accounts for students’ difficulties with reading the classics.
  3. College is Less Rigorous. (He cites research.)
  4. Writing Skills Are No Longer Graded. I.e., “[c]ontent alone matters, not how well the student expressed it.”
  5. Text Slang. This includes shortcuts, alternative words, or symbols to convey thoughts in an electronic document.
quality writing declining
Ingraham cites data to the effect that in 2015 the percentage of American adults who read literature (novels, short stories, poetry, or plays) fell to at least a three-decade low. The data exclude reading for school or work, so I’d classify this as reading literature for pleasure. Only 43% read at least one work of literature in the previous year, compared to 57% in 1982.

 

Who reads?

 

  • 50% of women, 36% of men
  • 50% of whites, 29% of African-Americans, 27% of Hispanics
  • 68% of people with a graduate degree, 59% with a bachelor’s degree, 30% with a high school education

 

Across the board, there have been drops in literary reading among all ages, races, and educational levels.

 

Does it matter if people are reading fewer works of literature? Yes! “A number of recent studies have demonstrated that fiction—particularly literary fiction—seems to boost the quality of empathy in the people who read it, their ability to see the world from another person’s eyes.” And the world needs more empathy than ever!

 

quality writing declining
This post starts with six quotes about the deterioration of language, then goes on to note that these quotes come from 1785 through 1978! According to Harvey A. Daniels, Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered, “The earliest language ‘crisis’… that I have been able to discover occurred in ancient Sumeria… It seems that among the first of the clay tablets discovered and deciphered by modern scholars was one which recorded the agonized complaints of a Sumerian teacher about the sudden drop-off in students’ writing ability.”

 

According to this article, Daniels concludes the following:

 

  • our language cannot “die” as long as people speak it
  • language change is a healthy and inevitable process
  • all human languages are rule governed, ordered, and logical
  • variations between different groups of speakers are normal and predictable
  • all speakers employ a variety of speech forms and styles in response to changing social settings
  • most of our attitudes about language are based upon social rather than linguistic judgment
To paraphrase Gaille’s last paragraph: Just as good writing withstood the distractions of dance crazes, automobiling, and magazines, it also will survive social media.