A Loss for Words?

 

Photo by Alie Krohn, Photostream Creative Commons

Photo by Alie Krohn, Photostream Creative Commons

“What the hell kind of people read books about words?”

I love this. I took it from a interview with one of my favorite people who is also an author and a word wizard, Arthur Plotnik. I don’t know of anyone who makes reading about words, or how to “write words better” so much fun.

I don’t know what I would do without his book, Spunk & Bite. Mine looks a bit like a squished porcupine with all the tabs I have added for quick access to all the info.

Take a look at the interview on The Grammarist, if you’ve a mind, and you will not only learn something, but I bet you will smile doing it: http://grammarist.com/nofront/interview-with-arthur-plotnik/

 

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What is Historical Truth?

Charge of Terry's Rangers

Charge of Terry’s Rangers

I’ve been working on the timeline for my novel, Here We Stand, which concerns the Eighth Texas Cavalry, better known as Terry’s Texas Rangers, in the Civil War.

I began the timeline some years ago and obtained a good deal of information from the letters and diaries of these men on the Terry’s Texas Ranger Archives on the web, which has since been removed. After recently combining additional information from a purchased book, Terry Texas Ranger Trilogy, I noticed a difference in what these men at war wrote home and what they put in their reminiscences years later. Not surprisingly, they were much less forthcoming regarding the realities of war in letters to family and sweethearts.

In other words, first-person original accounts of history can only go so far.

Their letters, and often even diaries, were full of patriotism and enthusiasm for the war and bravery of comrades, as well as love for those left at home. Little emotion is shown concerning what is actually happening to the men who do the writing. For example, in one letter written by cavalryman M. A. Harvey: “Col Evans the best friend I had in the regiment was shot here I brought him off the field.” He immediately continues about the next move of the regiment. This is typical.

The letters and diaries are full of the wonderful local people they meet, how they are fed and taken care of by local citizenry when they are wounded or ill, even the beauty of some of the countryside (though not as wonderful as home in Texas).

It is only in the later reminiscences we hear of the frustration with poor leaders (nearly all the generals under which their regiment is brigaded), the lack of clothing, food, and almost constant combat and riding, often with little or no sleep. Yet even here, the horrors of war are written of as an everyday occurrence (which they were).

“‘Sam, you look for a place as smooth as you can find, as clear of the flint rock as possible, and let me know and we will fix for bed.’ In fifteen or twenty minutes he came to me [and] said, ‘I have found a fairly good place, but there are two dead men on it.’ I said, ‘They are as dead as they will ever be, are they not?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Then we will remove them a little space and occupy their place,’ He said, ‘All right,’ and we went to the spot selected and turned one an over one way and the other the other way “they were lying parallel with each other), made our bed between them and slept sweetly until day light next morning: and behold one of the dead was a Confederate and the other one a Federal soldier. Both had fallen on the same spot and died near each other.”

He wrote it; it obviously stayed in his mind quite clearly for all the years. Is PTSD only a modern ailment?

What do you think?

SOMEONE HAS

 

IMG_2894Ever wish someone would surf through all those writing, publishing and marketing blogs, pick out the best and most informative ones and drop them in your email?

Someone has.

His name is Gene Lempp, and once a week he compiles a list of all the best and lists them on his blog at http://genelempp.wordpress.com/

He even categorizes and writes a short synopses of each so you can choose which ones you want to read.

Gene is another special example of how writers go out of their way to help one another. Is there any other “business” like this?

Thank you, Gene!

Life In These United States

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Van at Slab City, California desert

Van at Slab City, California desert

If you live in the United States, you are familiar with those horrid drug commercials on TV.  Yesterday, there were three in a row for three different drugs. It’s not bad enough the pharmaceutical companies screw us financially, now they make us listen to them yant while waiting for our programs.  I record most of my programs these days, so I can skip through the commercials, but my husband still has to watch his football games live.

I did get a laugh out of it all though, when we received a “thermarest-type” pad in the mail from Overstock.com.  You know how the drug companies are required to chant (as fast as possible) their warnings at the end of the commercial?  This came with the pad.  You have to get through to the end:

WARNING!

“This product is or contains urethane foam.  Urethane foam is flammable!  Urethane foam will burn if exposed to open flame or other sufficient heat source.  Do not expose urethane foam to open flame or other sufficient heat source.  Do not expose urethane foam to open flames or any other direct or indirect high temperature ignition sources, such as smoldering cigarettes, space heaters, naked lights, burning operations, welding or other heat sources.  These can cause urethane foam to ignite.
Once ignited, urethane foam will burn rapidly, release great heat and consume oxygen at a high rate.  The lack of oxygen may cause death or serious personal injury by suffocation.
Burning urethane foam will also emit hazardous gases.  These hazardous gases can cause death or serious personal injury.
Once ignited, urethane foam is difficult to extinguish.  Foam fires that appear to be extinguished may smolder and reignite.  Always have fire officials determine whether a fire has been extinguished.
We wish you many comfortable nights sleep.

Whoever wrote that one, could never write decent fiction.  Or could he?

Be Your Character

My knees and arms are crossed and I’m trying to breathe slowly and evenly.  My fingers are cold, and I’m gritting my teeth.  Shoulders tight.  Mind buzzing furiously–put something down.  Now.

I just did.

Be in your character.  Write the emotion.  Write from where you dream.

I closed my eyes and went into my dreamspace.  I had no idea how to begin this blog, so I connected to the place I was in and wrote about that.

Sometimes the ideas come whirling out from mind to fingers to keys, and sometimes writing is like, well, pulling teeth.  I am sure you know what I mean.

What I am blogging about today is:  Don’t merely write about your character, be your character–particularly in what are, or should be, emotion-filled moments or scenes.  If you ever wanted to be an actor, this is your chance.  I close my eyes, relax, breathe deep and slow, and imagine I am that person in the situation I have created.  How do I feel?  What do I feel?  What is my body doing?  What am I thinking?  Can I think?  What do I hear, smell, see?

Being your character is handy for other scenes, as well.  Your character is lying in the grass.  How does the world look from down there?  Does she see a ladybug crawling up a blade?  Is the grass green with spring or dry in summer?  What do you smell?  Does she have allergies that make her nose tickle or make her sneeze, her eyes water?  What else does she feel?  Is the grass damp from early morning dew?

Of course, you can’t bring this kind of detail into every scene.  Detail only the scenes where such moments are important to character development, mood, plot, etc.  Choosing which moments are important is part of what good writing is all about–when to show and when to tell.  For example, perhaps you have a male character who, so far, has shown only aggression, anger, and contempt toward everyone.  You might have a key scene where, when alone, he  shows kindness and compassion for a hurt animal.  This scene would be best written in great detail in order to impress it upon your reader’s mind.  Aha, this character has more to him than he shows to the world–what does this scene mean?  You have made a flat, one-dimensional character intriguing.  Readers like mysteries and surprises, as long as they make sense.

How do I describe all these emotions?  Every serious writer should have a good Thesaurus.  Mine is a big, fat Roget’s International Thesaurus, and I have sticky-tagged much of it for quick reference.  Even better, a couple awesome ladies have just published The Emotion Thesaurus for all us writers which you can find on their blog here.  For a limited time they are giving away an Emotion Amplifier download.  Check it out–their blog is one of the best on the web for writers.

I watched Game of Thrones last night and what a scene between Lady Stark and Jamie Lanister!  I watched her as he went on about Ned Stark’s betrayal of her with another woman and imagined how I would write the emotions she was feeling at that moment.  Powerful stuff!

Cat, Cottonwoods and Tags

Dickens (my cat) is whopping my shoulder with his tail.  One of his favorite spots is on the back of my chair while I tap on my MacBook.  He can keep an eye on things outside the window and, at the same time, remind me that it’s nearly time for his dinner.

We have arrived at lovely Riverside RV Park in Bayfield, Colorado, on an overcast but fairly warm, 70 degrees, afternoon.  I have an internet connection here!  Though the country silence of our friends’ land is preferable to the nearly constant woosh of nearby Highway 160.  We do have spring-leafing cottonwoods, aspens and a nearby creek.

Today’s writing subject is, you guessed it, tags, without which a reader wouldn’t know who is speaking that marvelous dialogue you just wrote.

One of my favorite and, I think, most useful books on writing is Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk and Bite.

He states in the beginning of the book that there are situations where every rule can and, sometimes should, be broken.  A good writer must know when and how.

Many writing gurus (experts, maybe) declare that you must never use any tag but Said.  At least limit yourself to said, asked and replied.  Arthur Plotnik believes that this rule should apply  “when the context and content of the dialogue, narrative description and the speaker’s character” are clear.  He used this example:

A cry of terror broke from Dorian Gray’s lips, and he rushed between the painter and the screen.  “Basil,” he said, looking very pale, “you must not look at it.”  (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray)

Adding anything more than said in this tag would have been redundant.

Don’t use a tag that calls too much attention to itself (unless, of course, for some reason, you want it to make it stand out–humor, perhaps?).

Use descriptive tags when:

  • The sound of the speaker’s voice is important, but not clear in the dialogue.
  • To provide counterpoint where one speaker’s voice is neutral and the other speaker’s is not (anger v. calm)
  • When a character speaks against the line (“I love you,” he said angrily).

In the end, as the writer, you have the last word as to when you need to use an emphatic tag.  Only, as always, consider your reader.

To Be or Not To Be

These days, it’s hard to be anywhere when you have no internet or phone connection.  Absence is one of the trials of traveling around the country like we are–you never know when you will be out of touch.  I’m writing this from the local Ignacio, New Mexico, library on the Ute Indian Reservation.  All you readers and writers out there, remember to support your local library!

“There are eight computers lined up against the south wall of the library.”

Hey writers, do you know what is wrong with that sentence?  It reeks of dullness.  When I read it, I think, “So what?”  Unless, of course, your point is:  “Here’s a list of the things I see, a rather uninteresting list and they don’t do much but sit there.”   Your reader doesn’t know why, but is disappointed and unexcited by your writing when you use a “to be” verb phrase, especially at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter.  Like Hamlet, these items exist, but don’t contain any action.  Even Hamlet wasn’t all that interesting until he decided to act.

It is, there is, there are, etc.  When you are editing your work, look for these “to be” verb phrases and replace them with more interesting, active verbs.  Doing so might even lead you into a nice metaphor or simile.  As in:  “Eight computers strategically line the south wall of the library like little soldiers waiting for duty.”  Okay.  You may think the sentence is a little silly, but at least it’s interesting.

So, find these little devils and perk up your writing by replacing them.  You will be surprised by how much better your story or article will read.  I was.

I may be posting from the Sky Ute Casino next time.  They are supposed to have a pretty good buffet.  Oops, was that a “to be” beginning back there?