Whiplashed: A.K.A., an Eventful Week

whiplashed eventful week
Last Saturday I participated in a memorial service for my beloved friend. It was one of the best celebrations of a life I have ever attended, so perfectly reflecting the accomplished, funny, strong, loving woman I remember. I first came to know Rita through writing classes—maybe 15 years ago? In years, I was one of the people there who knew her least. But through writing, we quickly came to realize we were more than classmates. She and I joined with 3 other women writers to form the Pentadames. A few times a year we would get together for a few days in the mountains, on the Bay, or at the Outerbanks. We talked writing, of course—and reading—but also families, personal histories, health. And we laughed a lot!


I don’t remember death dates. I choose not to. Instead, I remember and celebrate special people on their birthdays. I do this by having food that she often prepared or that he especially liked. Rita shared her birthday with another of the Pentadame, now also deceased. On March 29, I shall remember them both with a lentil/vegetable stew, a meal Pentadames often shared.
whiplashed eventful week
On Sunday I made real progress on a fantasy short story I have promised my granddaughter. It’s about hanahaki disease. You can look it up!
In the creative nonfiction class on Monday, one of the timed writings was to use a piece of art as a prompt. I chose the displays of artists’ collections on the first floor of the VMFA Studio School.
whiplashed eventful week
I wrote a rather lackluster bit about my many collections: rocks, dictionaries, cookbooks, napkin rings, placemats, Depression glass measuring cups, tableware, and drinking glasses…  I didn’t even remember to include the (approx.) 450 carved wood Santas, dozens of mah jong sets, or skull jewelry. Looking back on that bit of writing, I am struck that food and eating are strong themes in my collections.


whiplashed eventful week
Tuesday included new (to me) insights into Thomas Jefferson. Travis McDonald has been the director of architectural restoration at Jefferson’s retreat, Poplar Forest, for nearly 30 years.  He’s articulate and incredibly knowledgeable.


whiplashed eventful week
We had lunch together after the talk. (Always food!) I came away from it with a much enhanced admiration for Jefferson as a mathematician and an architect. And not to put too fine a point on it, he well might have been OCD: while president, he sent incredibly detailed instructions to those working on the Poplar Forest house, and he came down from DC to help lay the brickwork foundation for the octagonal house to make sure the workmen got it right.


I went from lunch to Core Basics to a meeting of the Ashland Women’s Club, where a friend of mine presented a paper on oystering. It wasn’t a topic I would have gravitated to on my own, but it was a pleasing blend of science, history, and humor. In the course of the talk, the speaker quoted M.F.K. Fisher’s book, Consider the Oyster. 
whiplashed eventful week
“An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life. Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrow of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean, smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger. He—but why make him a he, except for clarity? Almost any normal oyster never knows from one year to the next whether he is he or she, and may start at any moment after the first year, to lay eggs where before he spent his sexual energies in being exceptionally masculine. If he is a she, her energies are equally feminine, so that in a single summer, if all goes well, and the temperature of water is somewhere around or above seventy degrees, she may spawn several hundred million eggs, fifteen to one hundred million at a time, with commendable pride.”
whiplashed eventful week
The quote reminded me of what is (arguably) my favorite M.F.K. Fisher book, How to Cook a Wolf. This book was first published in 1942, when WWII shortages were at their worst. In the opening chapter, Fisher says, “Wise men forever have known that a nation lives on what its body assimilates, as well as on what its mind acquires as knowledge. Now, when the hideous necessity of the war machine takes steel and cotton and humanity, our own private personal secret mechanism must be stronger, for selfish comfort as well as for the good of the ideals we believe we believe in.”


Although Fisher’s books are dated in some ways (she makes no mention of microwaves, to mention only one) her recipes, philosophy, and stories are timeless.


whiplashed eventful week
In browsing my M.F.K. Fisher books, I was touched to realize that my mother gave me With Bold Knife and Fork—as a second-hand book published thirty years earlier—the year before she died.


So, come Wednesday, a fellow writer who knows I’m a John McPhee fan sent a link: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1972/05/13/the-conching-rooms.


whiplashed eventful week
Remembering the incredible conch salads made before my eyes in the Bahamas many years ago, I was thinking mollusks. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the article dealt with the making of chocolate!


I visited Hershey’s Chocolate World last December. Now the tour isn’t of the actual working factory, and I didn’t see chocolate actually being conched. So McPhee’s essay was interesting—as always—and it’s about food, so that thread of the week continued. And FYI: Hershey chocolate contains minute traces of New England granite from the conching machines. Who knew?
whiplashed eventful week
We had 4” of snow Wednesday, allowing me to mouse around the house in comfy fleece and let one cookbook lead me to another. Somewhere along the line, M.F.K. Fisher mentioned 19th century cookbooks. I pulled out my oldest. It isn’t in good shape—as might be expected given it was printed in 1843.


But there are several interesting aspects. First, recipes are presented in paragraphs. For example, this recipe for BEEF CAKES. “Take some cold roast beef that has been under-done, and mince it very fine. Mix with it grated bread crumbs, and a little chopped onion and parsley. Season it with pepper and salt, and moisten it with some beef-dripping and a little walnut or onion pickle. Some scraped cold tongue or ham will be found an improvement. Make it into broad flat cakes, and spread a coat of mashed potato thinly on the top and bottom of each. Lay a small bit of butter on the top of every cake, and set them in an oven to warm and brown. Beef cakes are frequently a breakfast dish.”


Then, too, there is an entire section on perfumery. And an interesting list of equivalents and measures.
whiplashed eventful week
Thursday, we re-ordered canned goods in the pantry to use the oldest first and I continued to dip into my cookbooks. By 1880 and 1887, Miss Parloa was something of a household authority on everything from kitchen equipment to marketing and the layout of the ideal kitchen, but by far the bulk of the content was recipes.


whiplashed eventful week
Over the course of the week, I realized that I like reading food writing almost as much as I like savoring new recipes. I like cookbooks with personality—of whatever vintage!


whiplashed eventful week
This essay may seem pretty tangential to a blog for writers, about writing—but bear with me! I now realize that the best food writing is, indeed, excellent creative nonfiction. M.F.K. Fisher lives!
whiplashed eventful week
So, the week started with fantasy, wended its way through history and food, and will end tomorrow with Mysterypalooza!


mysterypalooza vivian lawry
There will be a panel discussion on paths to publication and book signings by local authors. Come on down! I’ll be wearing skull jewelry.


whiplashed eventful week

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.

Dialogue Dos and Don’ts

dialogue dos donts

Dialogue is essential to every genre of fiction; however, sometimes it’s hard to get it just right. Bad dialogue can trip up a reader, and sometimes doing so will make them want to stop reading altogether. That being said, here are a few dialogue dos and don’ts that can help you with writing speech:


  • Try breaking up characters’ dialogue with action. Full pages of dialogue tend to make the reader’s mind wander (that being said… don’t overdo dialogue tags, e.g. said, exclaimed, whispered).
  • Do research. Sit in a coffeehouse, restaurant, movie theater, etc. and listen to the conversations around you (make sure you’re not caught!). This can help you establish natural ways of speaking without needing to rack your brains.
  • Read your dialogue out loud and act it out if necessary. Does it feel unnatural? Edit it out.


  • Don’t have characters tell each other things they already know just because the reader doesn’t know those things. For example, if two sisters are talking, it’s highly unlikely that one would say, “When Mom and Dad adopted our brother John, I was devastated.” Find another way to convey relevant relationships or bits of backstory to the reader.
  • Don’t have an exchange between two people weighed down by repeatedly calling each other by name. “Hello, John.” “Hi, Sharon.” “How are you doing, John?” “Oh, Sharon, I am so low I have to reach up to touch bottom.”
  • Don’t put in greetings and leave-takings that are pro-forma, tell us nothing about the characters, or don’t move the story forward. Just because they would happen in real life doesn’t mean that every amenity has to be spelled out to the point of diluting the scene.

There are many more resources online that can help you with writing dialogue. Check them out for more inspiration!

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 seventhsanctum.com and use the Disease Generator.  You can get 25 disease names in an instant.
Hanahaki diseases
And if nothing appeals to you—not ancestral heart or zombie’s malignant lunacy, not seeping sweat or torture itch—just push the button for more diseases.


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


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


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


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

A Writer’s Gift to Self

[Source: AudioFile]
David Morrell is incredible! His debut novel (1972) was First Blood which would later become the Rambo movies. He has published 44 books, including stand-alone novels (17), the Rambo series (4), Brotherhood of the Rose series (4), Cavanaugh/Protector series (3), Creeper & Scavenger series (2), Thomas DeQuincy series (4), comic books (3), and nonfiction (7). He’s also published short fiction, and edited several volumes.


If you go to davidmorrell.net, you can click on any book cover to get a description of the book plus his comments on why he wrote it. The latter are fascinating. For example, he has this to say about The Brotherhood of the Rose:


writers gift self backstory david morrell
Click to enlarge
So, he’s published impressively, but my focus today is about David Morrell the teacher.  He has a Ph.D. in American literature and was a professor at the University of Iowa for sixteen years. (He is a living contradiction to the adage, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t do, teach.”) In 1998, he decided to share his teaching in print. If you click “On Writing” on his website, you can access Five Rules for Writing Thrillers, What’s In A Name?, and Five Further Concepts. In 2002 he published The Successful Novelist, reissued in 2008.


writers gift self successful novelist david morrell (2)
A friend handed this book to me and said, “It’s great—and a fast read!” It sat around for a long time before I even opened it. I blush to admit that I’d never heard of David Morrell! (In my defense, I’ll only say that thrillers aren’t my usual escapist reading. And there are a lot of writers out there!) But now I am among the throngs who praise him. This book isn’t just helpful, it’s a good read!


Rather than try to describe it or review it further, I refer you to his website section “On Writing,” where you can access a sample chapter. Do it! And then give yourself the gift of David Morrell’s experience and insight.


writers gift self successful novelist david morrell

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!

Let Your Punctuation Speak for You

let punctuation speak writing
This is a variation on two themes: show, don’t tell and trust your reader. The point is that the reader will get your meaning without both the punctuation and the accompanying explanation.


Quotation marks. Once you’ve put dialogue inside quotation marks, it’s obvious that someone said it. You can skip the she said, he replied, she answered, he responded, etc. Put in an explanation only when you need to indicate how it was said AND you cannot do it with punctuation! For example, “I’m not so sure about that,” she muttered, turning her back on him. Even so, use descriptors like muttered, murmured, cooed, whispered, etc., sparingly. Let the reader get it from the context whenever possible.
Exclamations. “It’s Santa!” “Look out!” “I adore it!” Can your reader be in doubt about what’s happening? Your writing will be stronger if you skip such unnecessary add-ons as she exclaimed, he shouted, or (heaven forbid) she enthused. Use an exclamation point to indicate strong emotion.


Question marks. Here again, if you end a bit of dialogue with a question mark, you needn’t add he asked, she queried, he inquired, etc. The exception here is needing to identify a specific speaker when more than two are present. Even then, try to avoid the tag-on attribution. For example, Ellen joined the debate. “Who says so?” is stronger in communicating to the reader than “Who says so?” Ellen asked.
Commas. Usually commas indicate nonessential information—information which could be dropped without changing the basic meaning of the sentence. For example, “My parents, John and Linda, are coming for Christmas.” (Of course, this assumes one has only two parents!)


Other uses of commas include separating a series of items of equal weight to the meaning. For example, Jim packed shirts, pants, ties, underwear, shoes, and socks. Though this entire list might best be summed up as “his clothes”!


Dashes. Use a dash instead of a comma to give extra weight to a particular item. For example, John picked up the flowers, the candy—and the diamond solitaire. Also, use a dash to indicate that a speaker was interruptedI’m telling you— would be followed by something like the door banged open or another speaker. You needn’t say that he stopped talking when the door opened or that So-and-So interrupted him.


Ellipses.  If you write I’m telling you. . . you are indicating that the speaker trailed off—a whole different meaning from a dash. The use of ellipses to indicate that some material in a quoted passage has been left out is seldom relevant to a novelist, but can be very important in nonfiction.


And for heaven’s sake, never use double punctuation at the end of a sentence. For example, Where do you think you’re going?!  If you simply write, Where do you think you’re going! the combination of words and ! convey a question filled with strong emotion.


let punctuation speak
When in doubt, rewrite!

James Haddon as a Metaphor for Writers

james haddon metaphor writers
James Haddon is a wood carver. He came to my attention as a carver of Santas in particular—which I collect. His work is graceful, and each carving has character. These are characteristics true of good writing as well.
But my main point today is variations on a theme.  I was incredibly impressed with the breadth of his imagination when I noticed that he had carved both of these Santas.
Having noticed his range, I started looking for his work. Now that I have several of his pieces, I’m impressed with how his approach to the concept of Santa parallels what a lot of writers do with concepts crucial to them.


Many writers and teachers of writing say write what you know, or write your obsessions, or write your shadow (i.e., the dark side you usually hide). So, does that mean you write the same story again and again? Yes and no. Suppose your issue is abandonment—or poverty, crisis of faith, sibling rivalry, fear of failure, sexism, parent/child relationships—whatever. This will come up in your work again and again. The skill is to make it come up in different ways!
james haddon metaphor writers (10)
James Haddon’s concept of Santa is not unilateral! He looks at it from many perspectives. Sometimes, you need to change the entire shape of your presentation. A different genre, perhaps?
james haddon metaphor writers
Sometimes, Haddon just tweaks the externals. For writers, this might mean changing the gender or ethnic heritage of the protagonist. The internal conflicts, concerns, struggles, or aspirations could remain the same but present a new perspective.
james haddon metaphor writers
One can’t really change Santa’s age, but Haddon changes size sometimes, which I say is close enough. The point here for writers is, consider presenting your passion with a much younger or much older protagonist.
james haddon metaphor writers
Sometime changing the context—putting your character into an unexpected setting—makes the message fresh.  Consider what James Haddon did with these two unusual Santas.
Last but not least, consider going back in time (or forward). These two “old world” Santas are good examples. The concept is still clear!
james haddon metaphor writers
Bottom line: Take James Haddon as inspiration and let your imagination go!