A Post-Turkey Post (Encore)

There’s something to be said for writing about the history of holidays, and the one that occured last week is a great example.

Just about the time our Halloween pumpkins rot down to puddles of orange slag, Ta-Da — it’s time for Thanksgiving. Second only to Christmas in popularity, Thanksgiving is one of those rare holidays which doesn’t focus as much on religion or patriotism as it does on over-eating and football.

Even the Canadians have Thanksgiving, though they choose to celebrate it earlier than we do, most likely because they know the snow’s coming, and they’d best get in one last celebration before they’re forced into hibernation. As we’re prone to saying here in the deep, (warm) south, “Bless their hearts; they’re mounting their snow chains.”

But, back to Thanksgiving on this side of the border. There are some little-known but curious facts which bubble up during a search of historical references to this holiday and its American traditions, and this is a great time to share them. Prepare to be enlightened!

Many of us focus solely on the traditional Thanksgiving feast. Vast amounts of time and energy go into the preparation — and consumption — of this annual nod to gluttony. Don’t believe it? Then explain why we serve up some 535 million pounds of turkey on Thanksgiving Day. That’s over two pounds per adult. [Burp!] It’s serious business. In fact, according to the National Turkey Foundation (a real thing, by the way), the American turkey industry boasts an economic impact on the US of $97.5 billion bucks.

With so much turkey on the table, the great majority of Americans are doing their part to eat it. In fact, the average American will gobble down 4,500 calories on T-Day. That’s broken down by food: 3,000 and snacks: 1,500. Estimates for the number of calories in beer, wine, and sundry other spirits are not available.

And what Thanksgiving meal would be complete without green bean casserole? Thank Campbell’s soup for that. They put the recipe in a cookbook half a century ago and now harvest $20 million annually selling cream of mushroom soup.

After the meal, many of us waddle to the nearest sofa and settle in to sleep through an NFL football game on the tube. But the tradition of  NFL games played on Thanksgiving day didn’t start until the 1930s. The “real” first Thanksgiving day football game was in 1876, between Yale and Princeton. The latter’s cheer, by the way–“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Tiger! S-s-s-t! Boom! Ah-h-h!”–dates back to the following year and remains in use with slight modifications today.

Eventually, we’ll succumb to what we misguidedly believe is the effect of the tryptophan we’ve ingested thanks to the turkey. Not so. There’s more of that sleep inducer in the average chicken. We get dopey because of all the other stuff we eat and drink, and digesting that takes energy.

We then drift off to sleep dreaming about turkeys and/or cheerleaders. With any luck, we won’t dream about “Turkasaurus,” the recently discovered, prehistoric critter more correctly called the anzu. Some clearly delusional reporter types referred to it as the “Chicken from hell.” They obviously failed to look at the skeleton or the artist’s renderings. This was no chicken as anyone can plainly see.

And while domestic turkeys usually weigh twice as much as wild turkeys and are too large to fly, the anzu had all the necessary ingredients to terrify the average clan of cave-dwelling proto-humans, if only they had been around back in the late Cretaceous.

Anzu stood over 11 feet tall and probably weighed around 600 pounds, maybe more. It had the body of a raptor, the head of a turkey, and the crest of a cassowary; it sported big sharp claws and, almost certainly, feathers. That’s enough to keep me awake!

But, lest we end on a carnivorous note, this is probably a good time to toss in something less creepy. Like, oh I dunno, a poem. How ’bout “Mary Had A Little Lamb?” Most of which was written by Sarah Josepha Hale. Why is that important? ‘Cause she’s the one who convinced Abe Lincoln in 1863 that declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday would be a good idea. “Black Friday” retailers should have been thanking her ever since.

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part Nine (Encore)

While far from a complete discussion of emotions, we’ve touched on those I think are the most critical and/or difficult to convey in any kind of writing. But one emotion that’s gone smiley-g6931816ca_1920undiscussed until now is also one fiction writers should treat with extreme caution: happiness.

Waitaminute! Treat happiness with caution? But why? Happy is good, right?

One of the hallmarks of great fiction, or at least readable fiction, is conflict. So how does one square the happy character with one who must face a dilemma or two? Or more–like an attacking horde of zombie Viking cannibals?

The thing to remember about happiness is that it’s usually temporary. People who run around perpetually happy are instantly suspect. They’re either up to something, or they’re insane. Either way, there’s potential for conflict. If they’re always happy, and nothing dreadful comes their way, there’s no story. G’nite Irene. Zzzzz….

There’s also the issue of mistaking contentment and happiness. They aren’t the same thing. You could think of it this way: happy is when your team wins; contentment is when you pay off your mortgage.

There’s nothing wrong with having a happy character, even one who’s diabolically happy. But more often than not, you’ll have a character whose happiness is either illusional or about to abruptly end. Perhaps even tragically.

For writers of fiction, that tragedy is usually a good thing. It means there’s a story coming, and if an author is willing to do something dreadful to a beloved character, the chances of that story being truly compelling multiply exponentially.

So, how does one depict happy? By following the same guidelines provided for any other emotion:

  • Eschew clichés. Don’t tell your readers Egbert was happy as a clam, which besides being a cliché is just stupid; clams can’t even smile much less giggle, chatter, skip, or hum. Any of which might be useful in portraying someone in the throes of happiness.
  • Be specific. There’s bound to be a reason for this joyful moment in your player’s life; don’t keep it a secret. If your character has just discovered a cure for something awful, make sure your readers know exactly what that awful thing is.
  • Emotional range. Like every other emotion, being happy can and usually does encompass a range of feeling. A newly engaged female might experience a sharp burst of bubbly energy when she gazes at the sparkly new adornment on her ring finger, but that initial zing will likely dissolve into a contented sigh or maybe even one of relief.
  • Trust your own life experience. Unless you’ve never been happy, and that would truly be unfortunate, find something in your own history that made you gleeful, exuberant, or just plain silly. Examine those feelings and amp them up or down to meet the needs of your character.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the formula I offer for depicting all these widely varying emotions is exactly the same. The emotions aren’t, but the strategy is. All I ask is that you try it. You might surprise yourself!

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part Eight (Encore)

Last time around I presented the opening scene from a work in progress by writer Nancy James. Many of you who took the time to read it may have come away with the same question in mind that I had, once I got over the sheer impact of what I’d just read. How on Earth did she craft such a powerful and evocative piece? (And if you’re fortunate to know Nancy, you will have instantly recognized how different this bit of prose is from her usual, bubbly, out-going persona.) Click here if you missed it.

So with apologies in advance to anyone disinterested in looking behind the curtain, here’s my take on why this scene works–and works so incredibly well. Simply put, it has: So, just as the Flash Gordon spaceship on the left–complete with the white fishing line that suspended it during filming–is laughably phony, the artist’s conception of the Space shuttle Atlantis on the right is easy to believe. It’s better art. It feels real.

If we focus on the elements I’ve been repeating over the course of this discussion, it’s fairly easy to see why this scene is so effective.

For openers, there are no clichés. Instead, simple language is used to describe both the macabre and the everyday, and the even-tempered mixture of the two only heightens the inherent tension.

The degree of specificity also contributes to the feeling of reality. We see the blood seeping into the gold carpet. We hear the awful sounds that go with it. There’s no hiding from this; the scene sprawls before us, a grisly image, in all its awful detail.

The point of view character experiences a range of feelings, albeit feelings blunted by the violence she has just witnessed. Her mind ricochets between thoughts of what just happened to how the furniture is arranged, from his still-beating heart to her concern for her neighbor if either had opened the door at that critical moment. She experiences someone in her face, yelling at her, and yet she’s strangely calm.

Sadly, Nancy is writing from tragic personal experience, and it is this which undoubtedly gives the entire scene its rock-solid grounding in reality.

From the standpoint of writing mechanics, one technique stands above the others: it’s the rapid-fire quality of her sentences. Short. Pointed. In some cases, brutal. Just like the terrible event which just occurred. These blunt, fast, often jolting sentences pound the reader like a hard-beating heart. Again, and again. They often eschew the niceties one expects to find in well-behaved sentences: subjects, verbs, and all the connecting tissue of evolved language.

As we read, however, we realize none of that matters in a moment like this. We’re not thinking in sentences; we’re thinking in images, and those images run the gamut from harsh and intense to soft and demure. It’s this overall juxtaposition of sensory messages which drives the truth of this scene home. We believe it, and we pray we’ll never have to experience anything like it.

Most importantly, we can’t stop reading it.

My hat’s off to Nancy, and I sincerely appreciate her allowing me to comment on her work in such a public forum. I’ve no doubt there’s a great deal more which can be said about this, and I invite my readers to offer their thoughts.

Hopefully, I’ll provide a less demanding emotion to dissect next time around.

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part Seven (Encore)

In the past few posts, I’ve discussed a number of emotions. This time I’d like to focus on an emotional state which isn’t as easy to sum up as fear, anger, jealousy, or passion. I’m talking about shock. Like most emotions, it manifests in a wide range, from mental and physical paralysis to babbling incoherence. Shock may be induced by an equally wide range of triggers including the surprise return of a loved one or an abrupt and unexpected death. Unlike other emotions, real shock is an extreme emotion. One might claim to be shocked that Ben And Jerry don’t make a certain flavor of ice cream, but recovering from that discovery would normally be trivial.

This post is longer than most, so be forewarned. It’s not that I’ve grown wordier, it’s because of the writing sample included. It’s the work of a talented writer and friend who has experienced more than her share of emotional upheaval. Time has granted her some much-needed perspective, but it hasn’t dimmed the power of her words or her ability to paint vivid, sometimes haunting, word pictures.

Because of the excerpt’s length, I won’t be adding any commentary until my next post, so please stay tuned. The following is the opening scene from a work in progress by Nancy James:

Secrets

The body lay before me on the floor. No, that is not true. When the knees buckled after the shot, I found myself across the room. I listened to his throat gurgling with blood. Saw the dark halo spread around his head onto the gold carpet. The needlepoint pillow I held when seated had flown from my arms and landed in the scarlet stream. Days later I would see where it had been carefully placed on the washer in the kitchen. A stitched sampler I had painstakingly created as a teaching piece now tarnished like all of life. Its rust and golds now darkened. His clothes would be returned to me later. The leisure suit carefully folded but stained also. Funny how people seek to preserve unnecessary tokens after a life is gone.

But that was later. In that instant, I knew what needed to be done. Late night rehearsals prepared me for this moment. Call for an ambulance. Call Bill for help and advice. But the phone rang as I touched it. The young woman who had rung the doorbell asked if everything was okay. “No,” I answered and replaced the receiver. A March of Dimes volunteer, she did not know she had prompted that now or never moment. She could not know the look in his eyes before the final decision, the finger on the trigger. She did not know the fear I felt when I realized the door was unlocked, and she might enter into uninvited danger. She did not know.

Neither did most of the world know our secrets. Don’t tell Daddy ran across my thoughts; he has a heart condition. That final attempt to keep our secrets from the gossips’ mouths and off The Meridian Star’s front page would fail. I made my calls.

I returned to the living room and knelt by the body. Still breathing, but gone. A runner’s heart that could last forever. I thought I should tell him l loved him. I could not.

Bill arrived with the ambulance. The body was carted away. A neighbor, Cathy, came. Sought to comfort. Marian came. I remained calm.

Somewhere in there, two police officers arrived. One pinned me down in our wingback chair. Tastefully covered and decorated. A nice cozy arrangement around the fireplace. A farce of comfort. His hands were on the chair arms, and he was screaming in my face. I wondered vaguely why he was so angry. Why he was yelling. Later I learned he thought I had killed Coach Cameron. No, in the doorway he had committed the crime himself.

I sit now in the blue channel-backed chair inherited from his parents. A gallery of ancestors stare at me from their matched frames on the wall. Such a formal, organized, beautiful room. Everything carefully coordinated. Proper. Tasteful. Now filled with chaos and confusion. Soon I will leave to have my hands dusted at the police station, to be interrogated, to spend the night elsewhere. Secrets exposed. Shame exposed. Now everyone will know.

{End of excerpt}

We’ll discuss this in more depth next time around. See you then!

–Josh

[Secrets excerpt: Copyright 2018 Nancy James]

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A Fairy Free Fairy Tale

It’s Halloween 2021, we’re supposed to post scary stuff, right? Well, this is about as close as I’m liable to get. Yes, I know it’s a bit long, but I think you’ll like it.

The Crown and the Crone (Encore)

“It’s time for a name change,” she said, smiling at herself in the mirror from behind long, raven tresses. “The old Magda is dead.”

She slipped into a lacy undergarment which somehow, free of magic, supported her bountiful cleavage; it would take some time to adjust to her new dimensions. The lingerie bordered on perfect needing only a pinch here, a pull there. Satisfied, she placed a graceful hand on her shapely hip and turned toward the window. Her smooth and freshly bleached flesh would benefit from a bit of sunlight.

“Perhaps I should become a Heather,” she mused then glanced at Filch, an associate from the old days. The feline gave no hint he’d even heard her question. She assumed he was an associate no more, thanks to her agreement with the warlock. Such is life, she thought, then turned her attention back to the question of a name change. “No,” she told herself, “Heather won’t do.” The name reminded her of the color green and ridding herself of that had cost too much.

“Fawn, perhaps?” She turned her head from side to side admiring the reflection of her now tiny nose, and the soft, mole-free contours of her formerly knobby chin. Her teeth were perfect, her tummy flat, her butt tucked, and her feet dainty. She was, unquestionably, the most desirable witch who ever lived. “But Fawn? No. Too dainty.” And beneath her new exterior she remained anything but dainty.

Still admiring her image in the full-length mirror, she relaxed. Names were silly things. She’d find the right one in good time, and if not, Magda would do.

“The old saying holds,” she said, quoting it, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

And she would prove it. “Look out, Prince Charming, you asshole. Magda’s coming!”

~*~

King Laurence had been ill for months, and turmoil threatened the land.

Everyone from Lord Evan, the High Chamberlain and the King’s closest advisor, to the lowest scullery maid assumed the great monarch was the last of his line. The once formidable presence had outlived every known heir. The search for a successor had been intense, but fruitless. The other lords of the realm petitioned the crown for permission to conduct their own search, one limited to the nobility which had served Laurence during his family’s long and peaceful reign.

Though it pained him, the king acquiesced. “So be it,” he whispered to his Chamberlain. “With any luck, I’ll be dead before those jackals choose my replacement.”

In the kingdom’s dark past, several of the families had battled ferociously to gain the throne. Laurence’s grandfather had found a way to subdue them all and established a bountiful peace which lasted for generations. That the land might be thrown back into bloody turmoil had everyone from lord to lackey fearing for the future.

Then, as if decreed by the gods themselves, a whisper of hope arrived in the guise of a young man who claimed to share King Laurence’s bloodline. The High Chamberlain agreed to judge the claim and summoned the youthful petitioner who marched straight through his quarters, ignoring the high ceiling, the massive windows, and the lavish furnishings.

Stopping before the official seated behind an expansive desk, the new arrival took a breath, summoned all his courage and focused on projecting the proper image. Anything less could spell his doom.

“I’ve heard your claim,” said the Chamberlain. “Why should I believe you? Why should anyone believe you, for that matter? You come unannounced, unaccompanied, and unknown. I don’t even know your name.”

“You may address me as Prince Harmon, milord. King Laurence is my father.”

The official regarded the young man with undisguised skepticism. “Your father?

“Indeed.”

“How odd he never mentioned you.”

“He and my mother spent very little time together.”

“Enough, evidently, to generate an heir.” The High Chamberlain drummed his fingers on the heavy desk. “Can you prove your lineage? Where is this woman with whom you claim the King dallied?”

“Alas, she’s no longer among the living,” Harmon said. “She succumbed to a swamp demon.”

“A what?” The High Chamberlain laughed out loud. “What would a noblewoman be doing anywhere near a swamp?”

“The best she could, milord; she did the best she could.”

“This is absurd!” The Chamberlain slapped his hand on the desk. “I should have you thrown in irons!”

The young man merely smiled and offered his hand for inspection. “Do you recognize this ring?”

The King’s premier bureaucrat stared at the ring with the gold-encrusted gem on the youngster’s middle finger. “How? Who? Where did you get that?”

“T’was a gift of gratitude from the King to my mother.”

“That ring has been missing since the reign of Laurence’s grandfather, King Stefan.”

“Missing?” The young man chuckled. “My mother and I have known its whereabouts all my life. I cannot speak for anyone else’s.”

“Remove the ring. I’ll take it to the King. If he acknowledges it, I’ll accept your claim as genuine. If not, well, you’ll find the accommodations in our dungeon to be less than pleasant.”

“Sadly, that’s not possible,” Harmon said. “My mother bade me swear to never take it off.”

“But—”

“You’ll simply have to take the ring, and me, to see the King.”

The Chamberlain’s growl spoke volumes about his displeasure at such an impertinent suggestion. “I could simply have your hand removed.” He scissored his fingers in the air.

“You could,” said Harmon with a shrug. “And if the King acknowledged the ring, he’d likely have something of yours removed. Your head would be my guess. Are you willing to take that chance?”

The official grumbled an acknowledgment of his defeat. “You leave me little choice. Just know that I can—and will—summon the royal executioner if you’ve bothered the king over nothing.”

“I’ll settle for that,” Harmon said suppressing a shudder. I had hoped to leave you no choice at all.

~*~

Despite the stunning image Magda knew she projected, approaching the castle grounds still gave her pause. So many things could go wrong. With the King ill, tempers among the nobles flared quickly. Fights had broken out everywhere, some between rivals who had lived peaceably for years. Keeping that peace, however, was no longer Magda’s job. It ceased to be her concern the day the swamp slut’s son stole her ring.

She had been a fool to think the youngster possessed an ounce of integrity, let alone a shred of honesty in his finely formed body. She’d watched him grow from toddler to teen and beyond. He had the looks and bearing of someone born to the upper classes, and in truth, his sire might have had a drop or two of lordly blood. But if any of it still coursed through his veins, the nobility had long since been diluted to nothing. His mother’s niche in the social hierarchy could not have been much lower. She would sleep with anyone, man or beast, who could afford to share a bed and a bowl of grog. It was through just such a union that she claimed a stake in the swamp‑side tavern where she birthed the brat.

The tavern had previously been run by a man of equally questionable caste, but Harmon’s mother somehow wormed her way into his trust. When he died, an event fraught with unanswered questions, she claimed an inheritance. Magda suspected that event had inspired the boy to seek even greater rewards for his own treachery.

She recalled the times the boy had been good to her, had earned her trust and thereby induced her to lower her guard. She had no doubt he was the one who snuck into her room in the tavern’s shabby guest quarters and slipped King Stephan’s ring from her hand. Who else could have given her a sleeping potion? Who else had access to the cooking grease with which he oiled her finger? Why else would he have fled in the night?

With the thief gone, Magda’s wrath fell on his mother. She had raised the boy after all, and taught him how to cheat and lie, how to take advantage of others to advance himself. Magda killed the harlot quickly, much as she had those who previously threatened the peace of the kingdom, for that had been the arrangement she’d struck with the old King. He had given her his ring, the greatest single symbol of his reign. In exchange, she agreed to use her powers of enchantment to halt anyone’s efforts to upset the peaceful tenor of the realm. If someone attempted to stop her or interfere in her affairs, she had but to produce the ring and invoke the power of the throne. The bargain had been beneficial to all for the better part of a century. Best of all, she secured for herself a lifetime supply of gravas, the kingdom’s most valuable export. Gravas—the liquor of the gods.

But then, along came Harmon.

Blissfully unaware of the calamity he engineered, he forced Magda to take steps she would otherwise have never considered. The most egregious of these was the trade she struck with Rathbone, the grand warlock. She traded her entire store of magic power for a meager pair of skills: the ability to change her appearance and the power to disguise the appearance of others. There were side effects, of course, but she felt comfortable with them since they offered her no personal threat.

Finding the warlock, striking the deal, and perfecting her image had taken time, but she wasted no more in tracking down the monster who had ruined her life. She knew where he would go, and she was close to catching him.

The walls of the castle keep loomed ahead. Shifting the unaccustomed weight of her bosom to better display her cleavage, Magda approached the guardian of the gate with a smile and a wiggle of her hips. Such movements, once foreign, now felt entirely natural, and she liked the way men responded to them. Such simple creatures, they had no idea how easily they were manipulated. In her natural guise, men shunned her. Now, they groveled at her feet.

~*~

“Prince” Harmon sucked a grape from the bunch held above his mouth by an accommodating serving wench. He’d had his choice of the lovelies available in the King’s manse, which, if all went well, would soon be his, along with the rest of the kingdom. He laughed to himself at the memory of his one brief encounter with the ailing monarch. The High Chamberlain had crept into the royal sickroom with Harmon in tow, flanked by a pair of brawny guards, one of whom kept a sword tip nestled in Harmon’s back.

“Your Majesty,” the Chamberlain began, his posture a study in obeisance, “I’m loathe to disturb you, but I had no choice. It appears you may have a son.”

The aging king opened one eye and gradually focused on the Chamberlain who motioned Harmon forward, ring hand first.

Harmon’s heartbeat reached a crescendo but he somehow managed to keep his fear and excitement hidden.

The King’s eyes went wide when he saw the gaudy ring, and his sharp intake of breath launched a coughing fit. When it finally subsided, the Chamberlain continued. “This man,” he said, gesturing toward Harmon, “claims to be your son.”

The King, however, could not take his eyes from the gold-encrusted jewel on the supplicant’s hand. “My… My son—” he began, then collapsed back onto his pillow, unable to utter another syllable.

To Harmon, the King’s words sounded like a question rather than an acknowledgment, and he shifted his focus to gauge the Chamberlain’s reaction. That worthy, however, ignored the King’s words and instead raced from the room in search of a physician. The two guards ushered Harmon from the chamber and kept their weapons drawn while they waited for the Chamberlain and the doctor to arrive.

That had been nearly a fortnight earlier, and the King had yet to awake. Harmon dreaded that moment, and when he wasn’t busy bedding the younger members of the great noble’s female staff, he prayed the man never would wake up.

~*~

Magda’s efforts to reach the false prince had not gone well. It seemed everyone she met made it their business to delay her, if not rape or seduce her. In the process, however, she learned a valuable lesson about taking care of herself. More than one overly aggressive guard had found himself walking into a bedroom with a winsome wench only to discover she had turned into a hag of the lowest order. This unexpected conversion usually left them more than a bit stunned, and Magda was only too willing to put that hesitation to good use. Though she lacked the mystical powers with which she had once policed the kingdom, she had no trouble using her fists, her feet, and a measure of rage to disable any undesired paramours.

It’s not that she had little interest in casual liaisons; she merely preferred to focus such efforts on men of noble blood, even though her primary target had none. The side effects about which she’d been warned would make a perfect reward for that miscreant, provided she could get close enough to take him to bed.

~*~

To Harmon’s great relief, King Laurence never awoke and therefore never said anything beyond, “My… My son—” Fortunately, the two guards who had been in attendance were called upon to testify and both recited the late monarch’s exact words. Firmly backed into a corner, the High Chamberlain had to declare Harmon the one and only legitimate heir. As soon as Laurence was laid to rest, the lad would be crowned King.

The new king’s first order of business was an immense coronation ball. Every single female in the kingdom, regardless of social status, was summoned to the castle to stand for the Monarch’s Review. Those younger than sixteen or older than twenty-five were excused, as were any with health issues. According to the decree, the King would select a dozen ladies to form his coterie. Though not specifically stated, most believed the King would select one lucky member of the group as his Queen. Despite a short timeline, the competition promised to be fierce.

~*~

Magda heard the proclamation since the new King ordered it read throughout the realm. The whoreson had given her the perfect means to breach his defenses! With the powers she possessed, no one else stood a chance. And while her age was older than twenty-five by at least a century, no one would guess she was other than she appeared. She would soon own the little sod and make his life as miserable as he deserved. Her passion for revenge would be sated, and her place in the kingdom’s history would be assured. And, if there were truly any justice in the world, she’d once again be served all the gravas she desired.

~*~

Laurence’s funeral preceded the coronation ball by a matter of days, and the city’s population swelled in response to the King’s summons. Despite the limits the sovereign placed on his order, far too many of the women who answered the call failed to meet his restrictions. Guards were assigned to question the respondents and group them by height, weight, age, and hair color. King Harmon drew up additional limits for each category. Though fewer than one female in ten passed the screening, there were still more bodies available than ballroom space to accommodate them. Harmon opted to organize multiple affairs.

The nobility responded with outrage. Not only had the new king stepped outside traditional boundaries, he had trod them into oblivion. The High Chamberlain maintained order, but with a profound impact on the state treasury. King Harmon remained unconcerned and claimed the kingdom would never again run the risk of lacking heirs; something he vowed to take care of immediately. His logic seemed unassailable though his methods drove the nobles to the brink of rebellion. Only the history of what happened to those who sought to challenge any of the last three kings kept them in check. Those punishments, though absent lately, had been swift and gruesome, with the results typically displayed for all to see, though who performed the executions remained a mystery.

Magda would likely have been selected on the strength of her enhanced appearance, but she took no chances. She surveyed the field of beauties surrounding her and selected several she thought would draw the most attention. Moving casually but consistently, she approached each one and cast a minor spell to temporarily obscure their finest features. Harmon would never see those attributes. Hers, of course, would be spit-polished.

The results were exceptional. Magda not only made the first cut, she stood at the head of the entire cadre. When the final ball ended, King Harmon had assembled fifty potential queens, only one of whom claimed noble status. Magda felt a title would give her the additional edge she needed, especially since the Chamberlain was in a state of extraordinarily high dither over the hurt feelings of the nobility. Perfectly willing to be magnanimous, Magda promoted herself from mage to minor member of the aristocracy.

It made little difference as Harmon was so taken with the raven-haired beauty that he paid little attention to the rest of the contestants for the throne. And, after a single passionate evening spent with Magda, he dismissed the rest and married her.

~*~

Slipping silently toward her own quarters, Magda could not have been more pleased as she left the imposter king behind, sleeping. With a wave of her hand, she revealed the early effects of their union—a touch of green and a bit of mottling on Harmon’s face, a discoloration which would grow more profound over time. Even more pleasing, she’d never need to bed the bastard again.

Harmon, however, was anything but pleased. Magda heard his anguished cry from the adjoining room and reached the distraught ruler even before his servants. “What is it, milord?” she asked sweetly.

“My skin! Look at it.”

She pretended to examine him as carefully as a child might inspect a captured butterfly. “It’s definitely green,” she said, hiding her joy as best she could. “And a bit scaly.”

He leaned closer to the mirror and verified her observation. “By the gods!” he groaned. “What’s happening to me?”

“It’s but a taste of what you deserve,” Magda said. She gestured with two fingers, and the discoloration instantly went away.

“What do you—” Harmon went silent. “It’s gone. Look! The green is all gone.”

“For now,” Magda said.

Harmon’s brows dropped into a sharp V as he stared at her. “I don’t understand.”

“You will.”

A handful of retainers entered the room and interrupted their conversation.

“I’ll explain later,” Magda said.

Harmon gave her the evil eye. “Damned right you will.”

~*~

The court physician could find nothing wrong with his new sovereign, despite the latter’s claim that he was turning green. “No, my liege, I assure you; you’re mistaken. Your complexion is perfect. You have nothing to fear.”

Armed with this knowledge, Harmon hurried to the Queen’s chamber. “Ha!” he barked as he burst into the room. “If there’s any color on my cheeks, it’s merely the flush of youth. The Royal Physician says I’m in perfect health.”

“And you probably are,” Magda said, “except for your wretched hide.” Once again, she wiggled two fingers at him. “See for yourself. My mirror stands ready.”

Harmon pushed his face close to the reflecting surface and examined his features. In the bright light of the Queen’s chamber, he could easily see his skin had taken on a subtly darker shade—distinctly olive. “What witchery is this?” he cried.

Magda set aside the tall glass of gravas she’d been sipping and yawned. “It’s actually quite basic witchery. Nothing fancy at all.”

What?

“And nothing less than you deserve. But know this, the color will only grow darker. And you’ll soon begin to see a few other delightful features as well.”

“What are you saying? Have I been bespelled?”

“Of course you have, you idiot. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

While he pondered her words, she allowed her appearance to shift from that of the stunning woman he’d wed to that of the vile crone he’d robbed near the swamp. Magda quivered with joy at his horrified reaction.

“You!” he whispered, his voice thin and shaky. “I’ll have you cut to pieces and fed to the hogs! Such treachery—”

“Treachery?” Magda broke into a peal of laughter. “You dare speak to me of treachery?”

“Guards!” screamed the young king.

Magda casually consumed her beloved gravas. “Just remember, my dear king, I alone control the way you look. Kill me, and that control is gone; everyone will see your true colors evolve. They’ll watch you change, and in a matter of weeks, you’ll resemble a prodigious toad. How long do you think the nobles will let you occupy the throne looking like that?” She laughed at a new thought. “Imagine the names they’ll have for you: King Croaker! Monarch of the mud! Sovereign of the swamp!”

Harmon waved his guards back as they swarmed into the room. “Never mind!” he yelled. “Go away.”

“That’s better,” Magda said when they left. She restored his appearance with a flick of her fingers. “Y’know, I think I’d like you better in a shade of emerald.”

He ignored her. “I’m surprised the guards didn’t attack you when they saw me in the company of a witch.”

“They saw no such thing,” she said. “You’re the only one who sees my true self.”

He covered his eyes with his hands. “Must I see it all the time?”

“Oh, indeed you must. Especially when I enter your chamber at night. I want you to see exactly who you’re making love to.”

Harmon gagged. “That will never happen.”

“It already has, my sweet. That’s how you’ve come to look the way you do. Consider it my gift to you.”

He appeared on the verge of tears. “If I give you back the ring, will you go away and leave me alone?”

She shook her head and made pouty lips at him. “That’s no longer an option. I no longer need the ring. You can swallow it for all I care.”

As he scrambled to leave her room, Magda finished off the bottle of gravas she’d opened that morning. It would be a lovely day; she just knew it.

~*~

Several weeks passed, and the loathing Magda and Harmon felt for each continued to deepen. When forced to be in the same place, typically in some official capacity, their bickering quickly reached a boiling point, but the High Chamberlain always intervened before they hurt each other. One day, however, he summoned them for a meeting which had nothing to do with their positions as royals.

Seated in a room once reserved for councils of war, the two sovereigns and their chief functionary faced each other across a narrow table. It sported a pitcher of gravas and two goblets. As soon as they were seated, the royal couple each grabbed one. Magda took two swallows for each one of Harmon’s, but they eventually drained both glasses.

“That’s the last of the gravas, by the way,” the Chamberlain said. “It came from my own private stock.”

The look on Magda’s face registered shock. “It’s gone? All of it?”

He nodded. “By a crown decree. The King ordered the royal stock sold to replenish the treasury.”

Magda turned on Harmon. “Are you completely insane? What will we do without gravas?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m not the one who can’t stop drinking it.”

“Swine!” Magda said with a snarl. “I’ll—”

“Please! This constant quarreling must stop,” the Chamberlain advised. “It’s wreaking havoc on the kingdom. For the good of the people, and for yourselves, you must find a way to end it.”

Harmon eyed the official with disdain then let his eyes wander the length of the room, taking in the pikes, swords, daggers and other tools of war on display. “Kings listen to the advice of subordinates. We do not take orders from them.”

“Ordinarily, milord, I would wholeheartedly agree. But we face two grave threats to the peace and safety of the realm.”

“Only two?” Magda asked, her tone falsely innocent as she continued to stare daggers at the King. “What might they be?”

The official took a deep breath before responding. “Despite our sovereign’s heroic efforts at procreation, there’s not a single female on or near the castle grounds who’s with child.”

Magda’s wrath softened to a chuckle. “He has the need but lacks the seed.”

“Silence, woman!” Harmon growled, then in a softer voice addressed the Chamberlain. “What’s the other issue?”

“It’s a plague of some kind,” he said. “Thus far it has afflicted over half the noble families. The male heads of households all report the same symptoms.”

“Which are?”

Clasping his hands in helpless angst, the Chamberlain answered, “They’re turning green, milord. Green and scaly.”

Harmon turned on Magda in a fury. “You’ve done this!” he cried.

Magda ignored him and walked the Chamberlain to the door, closing it once he’d left the room. She turned and faced the King with a smile of satisfaction.

“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” he asked. “You stand accused of infidelity with proof aplenty, and yet you smile at me like a fool?”

“I’m not the only one guilty of infidelity. Or did you forget you’re my husband?”

“That’s different.”

“Is it? You’ve taken to bed nearly every female within walking distance of the castle! I’ve at least restricted myself to a higher class of lover. And, if you must know, the worst of them was still far better than you.”

Harmon seethed and jumped to his feet, snarling, “Harlot!”

“Bastard!” Magda yelled back. She, too, stood upright, her face flushed with anger.

“Witch!”

“Fraud!” Magda emphasized the point by throwing her goblet at him.

He dodged the missile and threw one of his own.

In short order, the warring royals had cleared the table of projectiles and worked their way toward the weapons standing racked and ready around the room.

Though untutored in the art and tactics of combat, they knew enough to hurt each other and did so. Thrusts and parries were awkward and ill-timed, but occasionally effective. Pausing to catch their breath, the combatants quickly assessed the damage they’d sustained, then went back on the attack.

Magda drove a pike into Harmon’s belly eliciting a sharp, high-pitched wail, but the wound wasn’t immediately fatal. He countered with a downward stroke of a battle axe which split Magda’s skull in two. As she dropped silently at his feet, Harmon landed in a chair at the table and quickly bled out. He was dead before he slid from his chair and joined his dead queen on the hard, cold floor.

~*~

The High Chamberlain stood just outside the aptly named war room and waited until the sounds of battle from within subsided. It hadn’t taken nearly as long as he thought it might.

The potion he’d procured from Rathbone, the warlock, mixed easily with the gravas and worked as advertised. Anyone who drank it could be driven to a state of uncontrolled rage over the most innocent of remarks. Nonetheless, the Chamberlain made sure his remarks were anything but innocent, and the royal couple had responded with anticipated vigor.

Finally, the kingdom stood a chance of survival. The warlock had also provided a cure for the green plague, which the Chamberlain used as a bargaining chip to secure the support of the nobility when he soon declared himself King. In exchange, Rathbone accepted the role of Royal Enforcer and the lifetime supply of gravas that went with it. All in all, the arrangement bode well for the realm.

Harmon and Magda were buried side-by-side in a remote corner of the royal cemetery.

~End~

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Character Emotions — Part Six (Encore)

These discussions about how to convey character emotions don’t come in any particular order. So, if you’re trying to guess what comes next, good luck! But here’s a visual clue for this go-round: Please try to restrain yourself, even though we’re going to be talking about excitement. Considering all the emotions fully drowning in clichés, excitement has to be near the top of the list.

16129360_m rev crpdThere’s a good reason for that since excitement can come in so many forms–from sheer joy to abject terror, and a pile of other triggers in between. Like virtually all emotions, excitement is only part of the equation, and it’s not strong enough to stand on its own. It’s most often partnered with something else.

The problem for most writers is how to avoid being snared by the verbal form of a leg-hold trap: clichés. It’s just too damned easy to resort to them! Consider these tired, worn-out, overused examples:

  • Jamal was so pumped he could hardly stand it.
  • Betty had butterflies in her stomach.
  • Looby couldn’t sit still, the excitement was killing him.

I have no idea what’s fueling the excitement of these three characters, but with just a tiny bit of effort, it’s possible to make those clichés useful. Consider:

  • Jamal tried to sit still, but his heels kept bouncing off the floor, and his knees pummeled the underside of the table in a nervous staccato. Do it, damn it. Do it now!
  • Betty choked back the butterflies abandoning her belly. She squirmed as she held back the firey eruption she expected at any moment. For God’s sake, what was taking so long?  
  • Looby bounced in his seat like a caged jumping bean. It chafed his butt, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t think about anything other than the puppy they’d promised him, and today was the day.

More often than not, the excitement phase of an event occurs before something happens. It’s the anticipation that drives those butterflies and pounds that drum. Time is a relevant factor as well. Imagine one of your characters standing in line to ride what they’ve been told is “the world’s scariest roller coaster.” You don’t just need a word picture, you almost need a word video to show the mounting anticipation as your player nears the boarding gate. It works the exact same way in a memoir.

Not surprisingly, it works that way in the case of someone waiting for something bad to happen. Imagine your character being transported to the gallows or the guillotine. Again, there’s excitement and anticipation, but it’s hardly the kind anyone would envy. But knowing what goes through your character’s head will make the reading of it irresistible. Or it should!

Excitement has so many wonderful flavors, it’s hard to know which to write about here. Consider the excitement of a first date, a first kiss, or a wedding night. Or consider what a young man goes through the first time he works up enough courage to ask a girl out (and I pray our over-stimulated society hasn’t yet made that an easy thing). And what about the young lady who receives the call? Has she been waiting for it? And if so, how? Eagerly? Impatiently? Or maybe with dread? Please, oh please, oh please God, let Alonzo call me first!

The whole “first kiss” thing bears further review, and not just because my work-in-progress involves a coming of age story. (Seriously? You think I’d try to plug a forthcoming book here? In these <cough> sacred pages?)

Okay, the first kiss. From the male perspective, it’s pretty cut and dried. The thoughts drifting through a young guy’s head are along the lines of: Oh crap, I’m sweating; can she smell it? What’ll she tell her friends? What if I suck at kissing? What if I mess it up? How long should it last? What if she laughs? What if I fart? Oh, God, I can’t do this!

All the while, the object of our young swain’s affection will be having thoughts of her own: Should I eat a breath mint first? What if he doesn’t know what he’s doing? What if he realizes I don’t know what I’m doing? I’ve only ever kissed my parents, my dog, my arm, and my friend Wanda, but she’s never kissed a boy either. Oh, God, I can’t do this!

If you’re going to write about excitement, you’d best be prepared to handle what comes next, because it’s often the exact opposite of what’s anticipated. At least, that’s the way it happens in good books. <smile>

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part Five (Encore)

Jealousy is one of the toughest emotions to convey without scattering clichés like rose petals at a wedding. Knowing your character is essential to achieving anything like realism.

As a child, I recall sneaking across the street to peek through the window of a neighbor’s house to watch my favorite shows on their color TV set. Color–imagine that! Color made all the difference in the entire universe. Black and white movies were a thing of the past, so why shouldn’t TV follow suit? Best of all, you didn’t have to buy a ticket, or worse, stand outside to watch. Oh, how I wished we could have one, too. When I asked my dad why the Nelsons had one and we didn’t, he answered with, “‘Cause Mr. Nelson’s a doctor. Besides, color TVs will never catch on.”

I remember wondering why doctors could buy color sets, but the people who dreamed up the TV commercials couldn’t. It wasn’t fair! Anybody could see my dad’s work on TV. How many of Dr. Nelson’s patients ever showed up on screen? Once in a while, maybe, as extras. So there! Pifffbt!

Now, cursed with the wisdom of age, I’d have to categorize that issue as a solid case of envy. But jealousy? Nah. Not really. So, what’s the difference? For me, it’s the degree of passion one has for the desired object, be it a car, a cat, a condo, or a courtesan. Had I been willing to hatch a plot to break into the Nelson’s house and make off with their gigantic, 21-inch, RCA color console, hide it in my room and refuse to share it with anyone, then one might call it jealousy. Tinged with a hint of obsession.

The idea of possessing the object of one’s desire–provided someone else already claims it as their own–is one true test of jealousy. In my mind, at least. Another possible test would be the degree of guilt associated with it. If, for instance, your character is willing to admit he’s “jealous” about something, it’s likely only envy, because he’s not concerned about owning up to it. Real jealousy, on the other hand, bestirs significant feelings of guilt, and the person experiencing that guilt, and its cause, won’t be keen on letting the world know about it.

Like so many emotions, it’s a matter of degree. Spouse abusers, for instance, allow their jealousy to override rational thought. How many times have we heard, “If I can’t have her, no one can!” But please, spare your readers; don’t dump something that horribly clichéd in your opus. Instead, paint a word picture of your character. Show his passion, as unreasonable as it is. When he’s in his car following the object of his overwrought “affection,” let the reader hear his rambling commentary, his guesses about what she’s “really” up to. This can be especially effective if the reader knows his target is engaged in something entirely innocent, perhaps even altruistic. Of course, the jealous “lover” would never be able to recognize anything but betrayal, whether there’s any truth to it or not. What does he feel when he sees her on the phone or stopping to talk to another male?

Thankfully, not all those stricken with jealousy take it to extremes; they don’t let their feelings carry them overboard. A jealous aunt, for instance, may be quite reluctant to release her hold on her charming little niece, Rosebud. Maybe it takes a bit of extra energy from the child to make the aunt realize she’s being unreasonable. Auntie’s face flushes, but not from exertion. It’s the shame she feels because she allowed her jealousy to drive her actions. A perceptive parent would recognize what’s happened, and would likely act to smooth things over and lighten the mood. Alternatively, the parent might allow his or her own jealousy to fuel a sharp response, possibly followed by a dose of recrimination, or perhaps a smidgeon of fear. Is it safe to leave little Rosebud anywhere near aunt Matilda?

Jealousy can take hold of almost any character, provided they’re capable of emotion. Imagine two children fighting over a particular kind of candy bar when they both have bags loaded with sugary swag collected at Halloween. Who would be the real monster in that scenario? When one child eventually takes ultimate possession, what does he or she learn from it? And what new knowledge does the loser in that same battle acquire? How do such things play out later in their lives? Who becomes the true winner?

Remember your own past and draw on it to create characters readers can believe in. Don’t be satisfied with bland expressions like “green with envy.” Find a fresh way to present your characters and what they feel. You could start by never even using the word “jealous.”

–Josh

Postscript: I’m reaching out to my readers for some help. I’ve entered a short story in a contest that might be a great fit for anyone who regularly visits this blog. This particular tale is an attempt at blending humor with horror. (I’ve been told it’s difficult. [shrug]) Anyway, a link to the story is posted below. I’d be greatly obliged if you’d be kind enough to read the story. And feel free to click on the heart-shaped button at the end. More importantly, if you’re interested in a new place to post your work, sharpen your skills, and build up your reader base, this might just be the venue!

Here’s the link: https://vocal.media/fiction/symbiote

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Character Emotions — Part Four (Encore)

Before I launch into the next emotion on the agenda, I want to pass along a link to a website which provides an interesting look at emotions. Click Here! It provides a good discussion of Plutchik’s Wheel, a tool used to show the various levels of an emotion, from mild annoyance to mindless rage, for example. As I read the article, I thought about how a character might progress through an emotional range before reaching a point which could justify some dramatic action.

I’ve seen Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions rendered a couple ways, including this format suggesting a flattened cone. Draw the petals together in a point, and the scale of emotion grows in intensity as the size of the cone increases. The areas between the petals represent compound emotions.

We’ve all heard that a hallmark of great fiction is the way a character evolves as their story unfolds. The same could be said of a character’s emotional state. A person is unlikely to wake up one morning and decide to murder a co-worker unless something happened previously to trigger the thought. (And yes, I’ve been sorely tempted to snuff out someone’s lights, typically someone in middle management. Fortunately, I never had sufficient motivation to do it. I did, however, conceive a number of brilliant methods for pulling it off. Those will likely show up in my fiction.)

But, back to handling character emotions. This week it’s fear. Of all the many emotions we’re likely to write about, fear is one of the most common. Just consider how many flavors it comes in–everything from cautionary concern to full-on, pants-crapping panic. Use a thesaurus to review the synonyms for it. (See for yourself, right here.)

All too often, when I read the work of my students, too little time is taken to parse out the precise levels of fear their character(s) face. It’s one thing to hear the sounds a house makes as it settles or when the ice maker deposits a fresh batch of cubes; it’s an entirely different thing to see a zombie tearing down your door. Good storytellers will almost always add an intermediate step.

Fear mounts, as pointed out in the Plutchik discussion, and it’s a technique commonly employed in horror, suspense, and thriller tales. For example:

Let’s say your character is a waiter in a restaurant, and thus far his day has offered no challenges. When a strange old lady is seated in his section, he takes her order, but he’s concerned by the furtive glances she casts around her.

The lunch crowd builds, and her order is delayed, so he stops by her table to let her know she hasn’t been forgotten. As he looks into her rheumy eyes rimmed by blood-red glasses, his pulse quickens. She squints at him, her face registering suspicion.

“I asked the kitchen to speed up your order,” he says. She responds with a grimace. There’s something wrong with her, he thinks, then quickly dismisses the notion as silly.

At last, his customer’s sandwich emerges from the kitchen, and he hurriedly delivers it. Though eager to distance himself from her, he asks if there’s anything else he can do. “Refill your tea, perhaps?” She responds with a mumble and a timid poke at her food with one gnarly finger.

He backs away, then halts as she lurches up from the table, her face contorted, and lunges at him with a carving knife, all the while screaming about something wrong with her order.

In this scenario, even as narrowly as it’s painted, there are no clichés. It has enough specificity to drive the scene; it depicts a range of emotion (two, actually, one for each character), and it relies on my personal experience of dealing with testy people.**

Of course, the scene could be more fully developed with additional customers, a cantankerous sous chef, a description of the venue, etc. But the emotional elements, especially the point of view character’s fear, are adequately conveyed. In the process, a mini-tale evolves, and the writer is free to let it fuel a much broader plotline.

Fear can be a great motivator, but taking the time to build it can make the difference between a sale and just another ho-hum story in your drawer.

–Josh

(**Full disclosure: I’ve never actually been attacked by a customer, but there was one cranky old reader who dressed me down for the way I ended a novel. She demanded a sequel.)

Until next time,

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part Three (Encore)

The next emotion up for discussion is something that’s often mistaken for something else, especially in fiction. I’m talking about passion. At first blush, most people will automatically link the word to human intimacy. There’s nothing wrong with that; if our ancestors weren’t intimate, we wouldn’t be here. (And for those who might find this illustration improper, I hasten to point out that it captures merely part of a statue from a park in Lyon, France. And, to round out the mistakenness, the female depicted isn’t even human; she’s a centaur. Art lovers may click here for a look at the entire sculpture.)

So, what is it that passion is so often mistaken for? Obsession. I’ll explain more soon, for now, I want to recap my suggestions for improving emotional expression. The list includes:  losing clichésbeing specificavoiding ambiguityusing a range of emotions, and relying on personal experience.

When we talk about passion, however, it’s important to know precisely what emotion we’re trying to convey. In addition to being in the throes of passion, one can be passionate about something. One can also be obsessed with something or someone. The difference is critical.

When it comes to expressing sexual passion, which I’ve written about several times before, I prefer not to see the word “passion” used at all. It’s very nearly a cliché by itself, and if not, almost all the phrases which use it do fall into that category. To wit:

  • He wrapped his muscular arms around her and hugged her with a passion she’d never known before. <Yawn>
  • The passion in her eyes told him everything he needed or wanted to know. <Fer real?>
  • Armond’s passion knew no bounds. He leaped upon Dagmar who lay panting and exposed. Soon they…. <Okay, okay. I get it.>

In short, don’t tell me about their passionate encounter, paint a picture of it for me. But only if you’re absolutely convinced that including the graphic details of such a tryst is essential to the story. (My thoughts on writing sex scenes can be found here. Oh, and here. And here, too. Plus this one. I’m not obsessed–I use the topic less than once a year!)

One could argue that a character might be obsessively passionate, and that might actually make for an interesting player. I’m thinking of someone who can’t stop thinking about sex, and/or sex with a specific partner, or partners.

But people can be passionate about many things: art, music, dance, and collections, among other things. I had a relative who collected Pez dispensers. He had hundreds of them, if not thousands, proudly on display in his rec room. I wouldn’t say he was obsessed with them, but he was certainly passionate. He didn’t make the focus of his life finding and obtaining every last variation of the gadget; he had a life and a family he dearly loved, and they were far more important to him.

The point is to be sure you know how your character feels about things. Then figure out how to convey those feelings. Try getting inside the head of a man who is so narrowly focused on his yard, that he cuts his grass with scissors and uses a ruler to be sure he gets the height exactly right. I’m not saying a character like that would be worth writing about, although if I knew one in real life, I sure wouldn’t make the mistake of walking across his lawn. That, however, might make for a good opening scene.

All this, and we haven’t even touched on the concepts of religion. People can be amazingly, and often annoyingly, passionate about their beliefs, even without being fanatical about them. Whether you’re talking about characters central to a particular faith, the leaders and/or teachers in a faith, or simply about one of the faithful, there are many levels of passion from which to chose.

Remember the keys when writing about emotions, especially passion: lose the clichés, be specific, avoid ambiguity, use a range of emotions, and rely on personal experience.

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part Two (Encore)

In the last session, the discussion focused on suggestions for improving emotional expression. The list included ditching clichésbeing specific, avoiding ambiguityusing a range of emotions, and relying on personal experience.

Let’s see if we can figure out how to pull this off.

Emotions manifest in twos, and threes, and…: Emotions rarely occur by themselves. We typically experience a mixture of them. That’s why the words “fear and loathing” are so often used together. (And yes, that’s a cliché.) There must be a hundred or more flavors of fear, for instance. Fear of failure, fear of the dark, fear of heights, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of attracting too much attention, etc.

Example: Let’s say we’re writing about fear. It would be a simple thing to toss out something like:

   Harvey’s knees buckled; his hands shook, and his teeth chattered. 
Something was after him.

Readers need more than a handful of clichés patched together with semicolons and commas. And even jazzing up the tired expressions–perhaps, “his teeth chattered like castanets”–won’t really improve it. If anything, they’re liable to lead to something humorous. Castanets? Really?

But consider this excerpt from Sue Miller’s The Good Mother in which a young mom finds her little girl terrified when she wakes up alone in a car:

   “Molly,” I whispered, and pulled her to me as I clambered in. Her 
body began to shape itself to mine, to cling to me, even before she 
really woke up. “Molly,” I said. “Molly.” And then suddenly, with 
consciousness, her grip tightened, and she started to cry, screaming 
in sharp pain like a child who’s just fallen, who’s bitten her 
tongue, who’s put her hand on a hot kettle, who’s lost.

This is marvelous stuff, and if one looks at it closely, it’s evident Ms. Brown managed every item in the list we started with. She didn’t rely on any clichés; her character’s actions were quite specific; there was absolutely no ambiguity; there was a range of emotions involved–from fear to pain–and I’m willing to bet the writer relied on personal experience to make the child’s emotional reactions not just clear, but real.

There’s a great deal of artistry in this sample. While the child’s feelings are described through tight and specific descriptions of her physical responses, the mother’s empathy is expressed in comparisons of the child’s fear response to a pain response. The reader is given the opportunity to connect with both characters since so many of the circumstances are common enough to be shared. The reader can easily place themselves in either position–the child’s or the adult’s. Extraordinarily well done.

We’ll examine another emotion or two next time around.

–Josh

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