The Short Story part 2: Setting and Atmosphere #amwritng

When I begin writing a short story, I want my first paragraphs to surprise an editor in a good way, to make them suspend their disbelief long enough to finish reading the story.

Especially in a short story, we must use the setting to establish a feeling of atmosphere, a mood that will hint at what is to come. Atmosphere is the part of a world created by your inclusion of colors, scents, and ambient sounds. The words you choose determine how the visuals are shown.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s reality is affected by emotions they aren’t even aware of. So, in a short story those first paragraphs must give the reader a sense of familiarity even though it’s a place they’ve never been.

We give the reader something they can understand without being bluntly told.

Do you want to convey a sense of danger? Imagine a woodland pond. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it. When a storm rolls in, things change. The waters move. Ripples and small waves stir the surface, reflecting the dark gray of the stormy sky.

Use the colors of the sky, the chill of the wet earth. Allow the scent of rotten leaves to linger in the air.

In the previous installment of this series, we talked about how important word choice is when attempting to communicate a feeling of action.

This is also true when you want to show the atmosphere of a setting. A dark, gloomy setting created by “weighted words” establishes an ominous atmosphere. This will be reflected in the mood of your characters.

“Weighted words” are those with strong descriptive power. Choose words that are intense and bold in their own right. This is crucial when writing a short story because you have a word count limit to consider.

Lighter words, such as those that begin with softer consonants, will create an atmosphere that feels gentler.

We have mentioned this before: while the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, they are different from each other. In literature, mood refers to an individual’s internal feelings and emotions as often as it does the piece’s overall atmosphere. The term atmosphere is always associated with a setting.

The characteristics we call mood and atmosphere are created by inference. We offer the reader a word-picture that is hinted at and suggested rather than bluntly stated. Writers give the reader something to infer, something they can interpret.

What is the interpretive aspect of this layer? The author’s job is to use inference so that the reader can interpret their intention. That is, a reader can effortlessly understand what the author was attempting to convey.

The general mood is heavily influenced by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s atmosphere is affected by a character’s emotions. Emotion, as written on the page, is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again.  As the characters’ emotions change from high to low throughout the story, the overall mood is influenced.

In this layer, visual objects in a room or an outdoor space color the atmosphere and affect the characters’ moods. Think about the word” Gothic.” Gothic atmosphere has a winter feel to it, even in summer.

Barren landscapes and low windswept hills feel gothic to me. The word Gothic in a novel’s description immediately tells us we are looking at a dark, moody piece set in a stark, desolate environment. We know it will include some supernatural elements.

The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the story’s emotional experience specific. It is not a substitute for emotions that an author can’t figure out how to write.

For me, as an author, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood. The right mood can help you articulate specific emotions.

Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks for the reader. Thinking about and planning symbolism in an environment is key to developing the general atmosphere and affecting the mood.

In a short story, you have only the first few paragraphs to set the scene and establish the mood. If you can do it in one sentence, even better.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

And so, to wind this up, setting, atmosphere, and mood are intertwined. Getting those three aspects right and establishing them at the outset means making good word choices. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters.

To do that, go to the thesaurus and look up synonyms and antonyms for your mood word. Are you writing a dark story? Is the mood ominous?

Synonyms & Antonyms of ominous

Definition: being or showing a sign of evil or calamity to come.

Synonyms: baleful, dire, direful, doomy, foreboding, ill, ill-boding, inauspicious, menacing, portentous, sinister, threatening.

Related words:

black, bleak, cheerless, chill, cloudy, cold, comfortless, dark, darkening, depressing, depressive, desolate, dim, disconsolate, dismal, drear, dreary, forlorn, funereal, gloomy, glum, godforsaken, gray (also grey), lonely, lonesome, miserable, morbid, morose, murky, plutonian, saturnine, sepulchral, somber (or sombre), sullen, sunless, wretched.

Other related words:

discouraging, disheartening, hopeless, unfavorable, unpromising, unpropitious, ill-fated, ill-starred, star-crossed, troubled, unfortunate, unlucky, evil, malign, malignant.

Antonym for ominous: unthreatening.

Near Antonyms for ominous:

auspicious, benign, bright, encouraging, favorable, golden, heartening, hopeful, promising, propitious, prosperous.


Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

Short Story part 1 word choice

 

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The Short Story part 1: word choice #amwriting

Last week, we discussed how important exploring the theme is when writing for a themed anthology. This week, we are going deeper, finding ways to show a story and keep it within the word count limits.

Skill as a writer comes with practice. As we continue to work with our writing groups, we become technically better at the mechanics (grammar and punctuation).

Voice is how we bend the rules and is our authorly fingerprint. It will always be distinctly ours, because we all speak differently. However, many of the ways we express ourselves when speaking don’t translate well to writing within a tight framework.

Writing to a strict word count limit forces an author to pare away all that is unnecessary. To do that in 4,000 words or fewer, we choose words that have power.

We have talked about this before: active prose is Noun-Verb centric. If you are writing only for yourself, write any way you choose. But if you are hoping to sell books, it’s wise to keep in mind that today’s reader has high expectations and a great many other books to choose from.

We who write genre fiction (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller, Romance) must use words that are dynamic and convey a feeling of action.  In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and more powerful.

Say you have been invited to submit your work to an anthology. You have been given the theme which plays well to an idea you’ve had for a short story, and you are ready to write it.

But what is the mood you want to convey with your prose? Where you place the words in the sentence dramatically affects the mood, which either highlights or plays down the theme.

  • Placement of verbs in the sentence
    1. Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
    2. Nouns followed by verbs feel active.

Let’s look at four sentences, two of which are actively phrased, and two are passive. All describe the same self-destructive person, and none are “wrong.” Each conveys a different mood because of how they are expressed.

  1. She runs toward danger, never away.
  2. She never runs away from danger.
  3. Danger approaches, and she runs to meet it.
  4. If it’s dangerous, she runs to it.

I like it when an author makes good use of contrast when describing the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence. Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

Verbs are power words. If you choose forceful words, you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be an intense scene.

How we add depth to our prose without weakening it takes time and involves thought in the revision process. Consider word order, think about where you place your verbs, and use ordinary words that most people know and don’t have to look up in a dictionary.

We who write fiction create pictures without paint. We must learn to convey an inner landscape and imaginary world by painting a picture of the setting with a few deliberately chosen words. We also must show the atmosphere, the emotions, and the action.

Readers want us to use words that are “primary colors,” the words most people with an average education understand without having to go to a dictionary.

An example of this is Escape from Spiderhead,” a short science fiction story written by George Saunders and published in his 2013 anthology collection Tenth of December. It was first published in the New Yorker on Dec. 13, 2010.

This is a riveting story, one that challenges the reader to consider the ideas of free will and determinism. It also points out how easy it is for a society to strip certain individuals of their humanity, and how we justify it to ourselves.

Escape from Spiderhead is gut-wrenching and memorable because the words Saunders used to paint it with and the way he used them have power.

Emotional impact is created when an author combines common, everyday words in uncommon ways. I love finding an author whose words speak to me. Their stories surprise me, and the ideas they transmit fundamentally alters my perceptions of the world around me.

Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

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#FineArtFriday: Peasant Wedding, David Teniers II (revisited)

The Peasant Wedding by David Teniers the Younger  first appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on Nov 2, 2018. It’s one of my favorite Flemish paintings, because it depicts an event that is intrinsic even in today’s society–the wedding. The families of the bride and groom go all out, and weddings tend to be as big a party as the pair can manage no matter how rich or poor they are.

This painting is full of movement and life, and shows real people having a great party. The musicians are playing, some people are singing, some are talking, and some are dancing. Most are eating and just enjoying themselves. A few of the men are becoming a little familiar with the ladies, who are not really having any, and a few people have indulged a little too much.

Even the dog is having a good time.

Teniers was a prolific and skilled artist, a man remembered today as much for his lofty social ambitions as he is for the quantity and excellence of his work. He wanted to be a nobleman; indeed he once falsely laid claim to being descended from a noble line. Several times he nearly succeeded in this ambition, but nobility was one accolade he never achieved.

About David Teniers II, from Wikipedia:

Teniers married into the famous Brueghel artist family when Anna Brueghel, daughter of Jan Brueghel the Elder, became his wife on 22 July 1637. Rubens, who had been the guardian of Anna Brueghel after her father’s death, was a witness at the wedding.

Through his marriage Teniers was able to cement a close relationship with Rubens who had been a good friend and frequent collaborator with his wife’s father. This is borne out by the fact that at the baptism of the first of the couple’s seven children David Teniers III, Rubens’ second wife, Hélène Fourment was the godmother.

Teniers’ wife died on 11 May 1656. On 21 October of the same year the artist remarried. His second wife was Isabella de Fren, the 32-year-old daughter of Andries de Fren, secretary of the Council of Brabant. It has been suggested that Teniers’ main motive for marrying the ‘spinster’ was her rather elevated position in society. His second wife also brought him a large dowry. The couple had four children, two sons and two daughters. His second wife’s attitude to Teniers’ children from his first marriage would later divide the family in legal battles.

At the behest of his Antwerp colleagues of the Guild of Saint Luke, Teniers became the driving force behind the foundation of the Academy in Antwerp, only the second of such type of institution in Europe after the one in Paris. The artist used his connections and sent his son David to Madrid to assist in the negotiation to successfully obtain the required licence from the Spanish King. There were great celebrations in Antwerp when, on 26 January 1663, Teniers came from Brussels with the royal charter creating the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the existence of which was due entirely to his persistence.

Teniers petitioned the king of Spain to be admitted to the aristocracy but gave up when the condition imposed was that he should give up painting for money.

He was an innovator in a wide range of genres such as history,  genrelandscapeportrait and still life. He is now best remembered as the leading Flemish genre painter of his day


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:David Teniers de Jonge – Peasant Wedding (1650).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:David_Teniers_de_Jonge_-_Peasant_Wedding_(1650).jpg&oldid=225700063 (accessed November 2, 2018).

Wikipedia contributors, “David Teniers the Younger,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=David_Teniers_the_Younger&oldid=858638339 (accessed November 2, 2018).

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Theme part 2 #amwriting

Not every anthology is themed, but many are. Most will also be restricted to one genre (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, crime) or a particular location, like a city or a place such as a coffee shop, etc. This is because theme alone isn’t enough to unify a book encompassing ten or more stories that are widely divergent in genre.

The concept of how to create a cohesive anthology was explained to me this way:

Consider a community art project where you ask five local artists to paint murals of cats to be displayed in the local community center. You will get five wildly divergent styles, and clashing colors, and cats that don’t go together well. But, if you ask them to paint black cats (or orange or red), your community wall art will have a consistency that celebrates the variety of the artists’ different styles rather than an eye-bleeding jumble of cats.

Therefore, when planning a story for a particular anthology, you must take the theme and any other setting or genre restrictions and run with it.

The first thing I do is research all the synonyms for that word. I recently wrote for an anthology with the theme of Escape, and it had to be set in the Pacific Northwest. I set my story in Olympia, Washington, in the area I grew up in. With my setting established, I went online and looked up every synonym for the word “escape.”

The above list is an image and not text, but feel free to copy it for your files.

Then after I had all the synonyms, I looked for the antonyms, the opposites.

Capture. Imprisonment. Confront.

Once I had a full understanding of all the many nuances of the theme, I asked myself how I could write a fantasy set in my real-world environment. My solution was to set it in a historical time, the late 1950s. I was a very small child then so anything I know about that era is a fantasy that I learned from television.

Then, I began plotting. I asked what my character needed most in her effort to escape. My gut answer was courage.

Sometimes, it helps if I use polarities (opposites, contrasts) to flesh out a character. These polarities helped me in fleshing out a protagonist and also the antagonist:

  • courage – cowardice
  • crooked – honorable
  • cruel – kind

As an editor, when I begin reading a short story, I want the first paragraphs to hook me. Those opening sentences establish three vital things:

  1. They introduce the problem.
  2. They introduce the characters and show us how they see themselves.
  3. They introduce the theme.

When writing a short story, it helps to know how it will end. I suggest you put together a broad outline of your intended story arc. I’m a retired bookkeeper, so I have a mathematical approach to this. Divide your story arc into quarters, so you have the essential events in place and occurring at the right time.

Assume you have a 4,000 word limit for your short story.

The Setup: The first 250 words are the setup and hook. You must have a compelling hook. In some cases, the first line is the clincher, but especially in a short story, by the end of the first page, you must have your reader hooked and ready to be enthralled.

The next 750 words take your characters out of their comfortable existence and launch them into “the situation” –will they succeed or not? What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?

The next 2,500 words detail how the protagonist arrives at a resolution. What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme? How did the underlying theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story?

The final 500 words of your story are the wind-up. You might end on a happy note or not—it’s your story, but no matter what else you do, in a short story, nothing should be left unresolved. For this reason, subplots should not be introduced into the short story.

Word Count: Many times, publications and anthologies will have strict limits on the word count, such as no more than 4,000 or less than 2,000. For this reason, when writing short stories, we keep the cast of characters to a minimum.

When you’re only allowed 4,000 words, you must make each one count. You want that story to be the one the publication’s editor can’t put down.

We also keep the setting narrow: one place, one environment, be it a cruise ship, a restaurant, or a gas station—the location shouldn’t be epic in scale.

In a novel, side-quests and subthemes help keep the story interesting. This should go without saying, but you would be surprised at how often it doesn’t: you have no room to introduce side-quests in a short story.

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes. It helps to remind myself of the elements that really drive a plot.

Allegory is an essential tool for the author who wants to underline a theme and express crucial ideas with the least number of words. Using allegory and symbolism in the objects in the environment is a way to subtly underscore your theme. It allows you to show more without resorting to info dumps.

Consider a scene where you want to convey a sense of danger. Go to the “D” section of the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and look up “danger”:

  • danger – safety

Just past danger, we find

  • dark – light

And just beyond dark, we find

  • despair – hope

All of the above polarities would play well to the theme and would give your characters depth.

In any work, novel or short story, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting
  • Conversations

One final suggestion: Don’t think you can pull out some old story you have in a drawer, dust it off and tack on the theme word in a few places. No editor will be fooled.

Editors will look for many things when they are reading submissions. But no matter how brilliant the story is, if it doesn’t explore the theme well enough, they won’t accept it.

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Theme part 1 #amwriting

As an editor, one aspect of a story that I look at is theme. It is the invisible backbone of your story, a thread connecting disparate events that would otherwise appear random. Themes are often polarized, and multiple themes can emerge, creating opportunities for adding depth.

How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult unless you start out with one in mind. Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey and detail how large events shape, and sometimes skew, the protagonists’ morals and ethics.

A common theme in fantasy is the juxtaposition of chaos and stability (or order). Good versus evil is a trope of the speculative fiction genre. Evil is usually portrayed by taking one or the other of these concepts to an extreme.

Riffing on the hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood and love of family. These concepts are important to me personally, so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here; instead, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common? That commonality is probably the theme.

A crucial consideration in planning a short story is plot structure or how the story is arranged. The underlying theme is introduced with the first paragraph and supports the plot through to the end.

Theme is rarely stated baldly. Even if it isn’t overtly stated, it’s a unifying thread that goes through the story from beginning to end.

When an author is new to writing short stories, limiting the background information, and sticking to the theme can be the most challenging part. In my own early drafts, I often have a lot of information that doesn’t advance the story.

Still, I have found that writing backstory is a form of mind-wandering, an exercise that helps to cement the story in my mind. For this reason, I write the backstory in a separate document.

In the final draft, that 2000 words of background information I so lavishly laid down is not needed. Nor is any background on the setting required unless the location is a core plot point.

You must focus on one idea in a short story and riff on it until you reach the end. If you are writing for a themed anthology or magazine, you are fortunate! The editors have given you a framework on which to hang your plot.

So, what is theme actually? It’s different from the subject of a work. An example that most people know of, is the Star Wars series and franchise. The subject is “the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.” The themes are “moral ambiguity” or “the conflict between technology and nature.”

At some point, serious writers become brave enough to submit their work to a magazine or anthology. Most anthologies and many magazines are themed.

When you choose to submit to an open call for themed work, your manuscript must demonstrate your understanding of what is meant by the word ‘theme’ as well as your ability to craft compelling prose and produce a clean, well-edited manuscript.

I write and submit many short stories. It’s always intriguing how some find good homes in anthologies and other publications, and others don’t. When the story is good enough but “lacking something” indefinable, even our writing group members may not see why a particular story doesn’t work.

Possibly, there is no unifying theme to give events and conversations meaning.

The next installment in this series will go further into building a plot around a theme, or conversely, identifying and expanding on the theme in your already-written story.

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#FineArtFriday: The Way you Hear it is the Way you Sing It by Jan Steen ca. 1665

Artist: Jan Steen  (1625/1626–1679)

Jan Steen: ‘As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young’

Title: ‘The way you hear it, is the way you sing it’

Genre: genre art

Date: circa 1665

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 134 cm (52.7 in); Width: 163 cm (64.1 in)

About this painting:

Jan Steen’s work The Way you Hear it is the Way you Sing It depicts a Dutch Proverb, As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young. It shows us a family carousing and overindulging in rich foods. Luxurious fabrics, a foot warmer, and rare birds show off this family’s wealth, which they are spending lavishly as fast as they can.

A young piper, who closely resembles a young Jan Steen (possibly one of his sons?), entertains them. He looks directly at us as if to ask what he’s gotten himself into.

Mother and Father, dressed as the King and Queen, are sumptuously attired, being served wine in an overlarge crystal goblet by the family’s servant. Both are indifferent to the chaos, too sated and drunk to care.

To the right of Father (his left, our right), a younger woman, perhaps an unmarried sister or eldest daughter, is holding the baby but has nodded off, having indulged too freely.

The wasting of money on so much luxury that one can’t consume it all is clearly represented here. Mother raises her glass high to have it refilled, as if it is the most important thing–indeed, the wine cascading down into the crystal goblet is the focal point of the picture.

A bottle of clear liquor (distilled?) and a beaker of ale are set on the windowsill behind Father, and a covered pitcher stands on the floor beside Mother. The table is laden with grapes and oysters, expensive luxuries.

Grandmother is singing from sheet music, leading the song that the family sings. This is the direct allegory for the proverb, as the old sing, so twitter the young.

A youngish man, either the eldest son or the Drunk Uncle (every family has one), finds it hilarious to teach the children to smoke.

Neither the dog nor the piper is impressed with the carrying on, and the servant has no comment, merely serving the wine as required.

In essence, Steen tells us that children learn what they live, so if you want sober, morally upstanding children, you must be a sober, morally upright parent.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Jan Havickszoon Steen (c. 1626 – buried 3 February 1679) was a Dutch Golden Age painter, one of the leading genre painters of the 17th century. His works are known for their psychological insight, sense of humour and abundance of colour.

In 1648 Jan Steen and Gabriël Metsu founded the painters’ Guild of Saint Luke at Leiden. Soon after he became an assistant to the renowned landscape painter Jan van Goyen (1596–1656), and moved into his house on the Bierkade in The Hague. On Oct 3, 1649 he married van Goyen’s daughter Margriet, with whom he would have eight children. Steen worked with his father-in-law until 1654, when he moved to Delft, where he ran the brewery De Slang (“The Snake”) for three years without much success. After the explosion in Delft in 1654 the art market was depressed, but Steen painted A Burgomaster of Delft and his daughter. It does not seem to be clear if this painting should be called a portrait or a genre work.

Steen lived in Warmond, just north of Leiden, from 1656 till 1660 and in Haarlem from 1660 till 1670 and in both periods he was especially productive. In 1670, after the death of his wife in 1669 and his father in 1670, Steen moved back to Leiden, where he stayed the rest of his life. When the art market collapsed in 1672, called the Year of Disaster, Steen opened a tavern. In April 1673 he married Maria van Egmont, who gave him another child. In 1674 he became president of the Saint Lucas Guild. Frans van Mieris (1635- 1681) became one of his drinking companions. He died in Leiden in 1679 and was interred in a family grave in the Pieterskerk.

Daily life was Jan Steen’s main pictorial theme. Many of the genre scenes he portrayed, as in The Feast of Saint Nicholas, are lively to the point of chaos and lustfulness, even so much that “a Jan Steen household”, meaning a messy scene, became a Dutch proverb (een huishouden van Jan Steen). Subtle hints in his paintings seem to suggest that Steen meant to warn the viewer rather than invite him to copy this behaviour. Many of Steen’s paintings bear references to old Dutch proverbs or literature. He often used members of his family as models, and painted quite a few self-portraits in which he showed no tendency of vanity.

Steen did not shy from other themes: he painted historical, mythological and religious scenes, portraits, still lifes and natural scenes. His portraits of children are famous. He is also well known for his mastery of light and attention to detail, most notably in Persian rugs and other textiles.

Steen was prolific, producing about 800 paintings, of which roughly 350 survive. His work was valued much by contemporaries and as a result he was reasonably well paid for his work. He did not have many students—only Richard Brakenburgh is recorded—but his work proved a source of inspiration for many painters.


Credits and Attributions:

The Way you Hear it is the Way you Sing It, Jan Steen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The way you hear it.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_way_you_hear_it.jpg&oldid=428340634 (accessed January 8, 2021).

Wikipedia contributors, “Jan Steen,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jan_Steen&oldid=994869815 (accessed January 8, 2021).

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Do the research before you do the murder #amwriting

I recently began reading a murder mystery where the author used a mushroom to kill the first victim. That’s where this book fell apart—the idea was good, but the facts and execution weren’t.

Using a mushroom stroganoff to poison him was a poor choice because fungi is an undependable weapon unless you are an expert. Also, individually, one mushroom may be more or less poisonous than another of the same kind, rather like people are. Judging how many one would need to kill a three-hundred-pound man takes more thought than I am capable of plotting out.

Also, it was stroganoff, which is basically beef and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce. This author danced over the fact that serving the food at this dinner party would have been a tactical nightmare. It would have been nearly impossible to ensure the intended victim got the poison mushrooms and no one else did, which is how this murder was written.

Agatha Christie knew that and regularly poisoned entire dinner parties, literarily speaking. Her murderers made everyone at the table sick but only the intended victim actually died.

This particular mystery was set in Scotland, and I don’t know how poisonous their mushrooms are, but I think that logic would hold true there as well as it does here in the Pacific Northwest.

If I hadn’t been on several nature walks with Ellen King Rice, a wildlife biologist and amateur mycologist who writes well-plotted mushroom thrillers, I would have accepted the slightly contrived fatal dinner as written and focused on the other failings of this novel.

This experience reinforced my belief that readers are often more knowledgeable than we authors are. E-readers can do the research just by highlighting the word and hitting search.

For this reason, having a solid base of information to back up what we are writing is critical.

My disappointment as a reader could have been avoided if the author had gone out to several mushroom hunter websites or even if she had found a local person to talk with. With only a small amount of effort, she could have made her plot a little less flimsy.

Targeted research is essential if you want your fiction to convey a feeling of truth. Identify what you want to know, use the internet, ask an expert, and create a searchable file or database of information that backs up your assertions.

Once you establish the technological era you are writing in, you know what you need to research and how theoretical you may have to get.

Here are some of my go-to sources of information:

If you seek information about low-tech societies (the past) :

My best source of information on low-tech agrarian (farm) life and culture comes from a book I found at a second-hand book store in Olympia in the mid-to-late-1980s. Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley is still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon. This textbook was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who personally knew the people she wrote about.

I also find a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons.  Under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830), you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters, artists living in what is now The Netherlands.

These painters created accurate records of ordinary people going about everyday life. Their genre art depicts how they dressed, and what was important to them.

Talk to police, talk to doctors, talk to lawyers–many are willing to help you with your quest for accuracy about their professions. Also, you can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there.

Looking things up on the internet can suck up an enormous amount of your writing time. Do yourself a favor and bookmark your resources so all you have to do is click on a link to get the information you want. Then you can quickly get back to writing.

Resources to bookmark in general:

www.Thesaurus.Com (What’s another word that means the same as this but isn’t repetitive?)

Oxford Dictionary (What does this word mean? Am I using it correctly?)

Wikipedia (The font of all knowledge. I did not know that.)

TED Talks are a fantastic resource for information on current and cutting edge technology.

ZDNet Innovation is an excellent source of current tech and future tech that may become current in 25 years.

Tech Times is also a great source of ideas.

Nerds on Earth has useful information about swords and how they were used historically.

If you want to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society, go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Big Name Bookstore, and look at the many publications available to the reading public. You can find everything from mushroom hunting, to culinary, to survivalist, to organic gardening. If people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.

We can only extrapolate how societies will look in the future by taking what we know is possible today and mixing it with a heavy dose of what we wish were possible.

SpaceX

NASA

Digital Trends

If you write sci-fi, you must read sci-fi as that is where the ideas are. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the era of classic science fiction is today’s current tech.

Ion drive, space stations—these are our reality but were only a dream when science fiction was in its infancy.

Think about it: your Star Trek communicator is never far from your side, and your teenagers won’t put theirs down long enough to eat dinner.

MAPS: If you are writing a story set in our real world and your characters will be traveling, walking a particular city, or visiting landmarks, bookmark google maps for that area and refer back to it regularly to make sure you are writing it correctly.

USE GOOGLE EARTH!

If you are writing about a fantasy world and your characters will be traveling, quickly sketch a rough map. Refer back to it to ensure the town names and places remain the same from the first page to the last. Update it as new locations are added.

Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the many bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing. And for the love of Agatha Christie, make sure your literary murders are done in a way that doesn’t fly in the face of logic.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Jan Steen, Dutch (active Leiden, Haarlem, and The Hague) – Rhetoricians at a Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Jan_Steen,_Dutch_(active_Leiden,_Haarlem,_and_The_Hague)_-_Rhetoricians_at_a_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=355150081 (accessed September 10, 2020).

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Chapter Length #amwriting

I was recently asked in an online group what length a chapter should be. I’ve discussed this before here, but I’m always happy to repeat myself. In my opinion, there is no hard and fast rule.

When we commit to writing daily, our writing style grows and changes. Fifteen years ago, I wrote long chapters, some over 4,000 words.

However, as time has passed, my writing style has evolved. Chapters have become shorter, averaging between 1,500 to 2,250. Some will be much shorter, for reasons I will go into further on down this article. Some might be longer if the story demands it.

However, it’s a good idea to consider comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. I’ve attended seminars given by authors who say they have a specific word-count limit for their chapter length, a personal choice.

I’ve read and enjoyed many books where the authors made each scene a chapter, even if it was only two or three hundred words long. They ended up with over 100 chapters in their books, but the chapter-length went unnoticed by me when I read it.

L.E. Modesitt Jr. sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each point-of-view character’s storyline separate and flows well.

For me as a reader, books work best when each chapter details the events of one large scene or several related events.

Chapters are like paragraphs. Packing too many unrelated ideas into one place makes them feel erratic and disconnected. In the end, you must decide what your style is going to be.

The key to a smooth, seamless narrative is how an author handles transitions.

This could be a conversation that moves the story forward to the next scene within a chapter.

Conversely, the transition conversation could end a chapter by offering a tidbit of information that compels the reader to turn the page—the hook.

Information is crucial but should be given only as the reader requires it.

A good conversation is about something one or more characters don’t know. It builds toward something they’re only beginning to understand. A conversation is an opportunity to close a scene or chapter with a hook.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter. Each should reveal something new and push the story forward toward the final showdown. If a scene is there to fluff the word count, I suggest removing it.

Fade-to-black: I don’t like fade-to-black transitions except as a finish to a chapter. Fading-to-black in the middle of a chapter makes the story feel mushy.

Hard scene breaks: When a length of time has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, it makes sense to use the old 1-2-3:

  1. Wind it up with a firm finish
  2. Leave the reader with a hook that makes them want to turn the page
  3. Start a new chapter.

Short stories are different. If you are writing a short story, dividing it into chapters isn’t an option. At the end of a scene, you may find that a hard break is required. Editors with open calls for short stories will often ask that you insert an asterisk or hashtag to indicate a hard scene break.

Pacing is deeply intertwined with chapter length. Most readers find it easier to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the narrative.

Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view. That is my choice also, as a hard transition between characters is the best way to avoid head-hopping.

Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck” and makes following the storyline difficult.

Sometimes an event occurs where more than one character has a point of view that needs to be shown. How you navigate this will significantly affect the readability of the narrative.

If you switch POV characters, I strongly suggest that you either change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs, or consider ending the chapter.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the complaints some readers have with Robert Jordan’s brilliant Wheel of Time Series is how he wandered around between storylines as if he couldn’t decide who the main character was.

Rand Al Thor begins as the protagonist, but Matrim, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are also given prime storylines.

I’m a dedicated Wheel of Time fan, but I was halfway through reading the series when I realized there was a good chance that we were never going to see Rand do what he was reborn to do. At that point, I kept reading because the world, the characters, and the events were so intriguing.

As very few of us are writers at Robert Jordan’s level, I suggest you concentrate on developing a single compelling, well-rounded main character, with the side characters well-developed but not upstaging the star.

Now we come to a commonly asked question: Should I use numbers or give each chapter a name? The authors I am acquainted with seem divided by this question.

What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If good titles pop up in your mind for each chapter, by all means, go for it. Otherwise, numbered chapters are perfectly fine and don’t throw the reader out of the book.

Whether you choose numbered or titled chapter headings, be consistent and stay with that choice for the entire book.

Limit point of view characters to one per scene.

Each chapter should detail scenes and events that are related, rather than a jumble of unrelated happenings.

In regard to chapter length, you as the author must decide what the right word count is.

End your chapters at a logical place, but do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.

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#FineArtFriday: Beneath the Snow Encumbered Branches by Joseph Farquharson 1903

Title: Beneath the Snow Encumbered Branches

Publisher: Hallmark Cards

Genre: landscape art

Date: Circa 1903

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: 82 x 119.25 cm. (32 5/16 x 46 15/16 in.

What I love about this painting:

There is something haunting, a nostalgic echo of times long gone in this picture. The snow is thick and heavy, and the sheep are fluffy in their long coats. Winter has come and the shadows are long, but the conical haystacks across the lane contain plenty to last through the harshest season. The afternoon light is reflected on the snowy landscape and in the branches, a perfect golden luminosity, the hue that presages imminent dusk. 

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Joseph Farquharson DL RA (4 May 1846 – 15 April 1935) was a Scottish painter, chiefly of landscapes, mostly in Scotland and very often including animals. He is most famous for his snowy winter landscapes, often featuring sheep and often depicting dawn or dusk. The unusual titles of many of Farquharson’s paintings stand out and are sometimes long. Many of them were taken from poems by Burns, Milton, Shakespeare, and Gray. Farquharson was very patriotic and well versed in Scottish literature.

The remarkable realism of Farquharson’s work can be attributed to his desire to work en plein air. This had to be carried out in a unique way which was adapted to the harsh Scottish climate. Farquharson had constructed a painting hut on wheels, complete with a stove and large glass window for observing the landscape. Likewise to achieve as realistic a result as possible when painting the sheep which frequently appear in his snowscapes, he used a flock of “imitation” sheep which could be placed as required in the landscape of his choice. Farquharson painted so many scenes of cattle and sheep in snow he was nicknamed ‘Frozen Mutton Farquharson’.

Farquharson inherited the title of Laird in 1918 after the death of his elder brother Robert, a doctor and MP for West Aberdeenshire.

In 2008 the original of the 1901 painting Beneath the Snow Encumbered Branches came to light, for the first time in 40 years, when the lady owner put her house up for sale. The painting, which she had bought from a Bond Street dealer in the 1960s for £1,450, was expected to fetch up to £70,000 when it was offered for sale by auction at Lyon and Turnbull in Edinburgh. Nick Carnow, a director at the auctioneers, form said that the unnamed seller was moving to a smaller house and would not have room for the painting. In fact it sold for more than twice that estimate to another private collector in Scotland for £147,600.


Credits and Attributions:

Beneath the Snow Encumbered Branches Joseph Farquharson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia contributors, “Joseph Farquharson,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Joseph_Farquharson&oldid=982764133 (accessed January 1, 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The shortening winter’s day is near a close Farquharson.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_shortening_winter%27s_day_is_near_a_close_Farquharson.jpg&oldid=354603464 (accessed January 1, 2021).

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#AudiobookReview: The Hope Store by @DwightOkita #amreading

Today I am reviewing an audiobook version of a book I read in the digital form several years ago, The Hope Store by poet and playwright, Dwight Okita.

His debut novel, The Prospect of My Arrival,  was one of the more absorbing sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. So, I was quite intrigued when he first published the The Hope Store.

And how amazing it was to discover that Dwight Okita himself has narrated the audiobook! Okita’s narration of  The Hope Store is perfect, as is the music he has chosen for each chapter break, bringing this wonderful book to life. Wow, where to begin… I was up all night listening to this book.

But, as always, my reviews begin with THE BLURB:
Two Asian American men who are lovers, Luke and Kazu, discover a bold new procedure to import hope into the hopeless. They vow to open the world’s first Hope Store. Their slogan: “We don’t just instill hope. We install it.”

The media descend. Customer Jada Upshaw arrives at the store with a hidden agenda, but what happens next, no one could have predicted. Meanwhile, an activist group called The Natural Hopers emerges, warning that hope installations are a risky, Frankenstein-like procedure and vow to shut down the store. Luke comes to care about Jada, and marvels at her super-responder status.

But in dreams begin responsibilities, and unimaginable nightmares follow. If science can’t save Jada, can she save herself – or will she wind up as collateral damage?

MY REVIEW:

I love Okita’s cerebral yet poetic prose. The narrative feels gentle and approachable, even when depicting the harsher realities of his world, and Okita’s voice is perfect for the tone of the book.

Set in a Chicago of the future, the story opens with Jada Upshaw, a memorable, multidimensional character. A well-educated woman, Jada is, at the outset, intent on killing herself. Her despair and confused emotional state are laid bare, shown with the delicacy and respect Okita brings to all his characters.

Luke Nagano describes himself as “a boy with a big heart but no idea where to put it.” This holds true throughout the entire novel, as Luke himself is the embodiment of hope. Of Japanese descent, Luke is a native of Chicago and is deeply rooted in Midwestern American culture. He is deeply in love with Kazu Mori, a rock-star scientist from Tsukuba, Japan. Luke’s thoroughly American blundering through life causes him to make occasional missteps, inadvertent cross-cultural clashes, which create tension. Kazu is forgiving but is wholly dedicated to his work. Their love/work relationship drives the plot, also creating tension.

The relationships and thoughts of both Jada and Luke are shown throughout the narrative. However, they still have secrets from the reader, keeping me turning the pages.

Okita shows the actual science behind the Hope installation with masterful strokes. Instead of devolving into a drawn-out explanation, he offers just enough information about the key elements, a framework for the reader to hang their imagination on.

Beyond the great characters and the futuristic setting is the deeper story.

Belief and disbelief, hope and the lack of it, the desire for it, and the lengths we will go to acquire it is what drives this tale. Intrigues, private agendas, and in some cases, desperation drive the story to a satisfying, logical, yet surprising finish.

I highly recommend the audio version of The Hope Store, as much as do the kindle and paper book. I found it cerebral, sexy, and thought-provoking, as all Okita’s work is. His narration takes this novel to a new level. If you are looking for a good winter’s read or an audiobook to take your mind off the end-of-the-year doldrums, this is one I can recommend with no reservations.

Definitely five stars.

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