Category Archives: writing

Character Creation: the sacrificial lamb #amwriting

I rarely kill off my characters, but sometimes the only way to achieve a goal is for someone to die.

In the very first Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan deliberately allowed Darth Vader to kill him. He had several reasons for doing this, one of which was to spur Luke and Princess Leia’s Rebel forces to defeat the Dark Side.

WritingCraftSeries_sacrifical lambObi-Wan is a complex mentor, arriving on the screen with a past. He has lived and lost and made choices he wished he hadn’t. When he faces Darth Vader in his final showdown, you get the feeling that the old man planned his exit perfectly.

His death was a catalyst, lighting a fire in Luke precisely as he intended.

But there are stupid, gratuitous sacrifices that don’t advance the plot.

David Harth of cbr.com gives us this example of a meaningless sacrifice:

Batman was captured by Darkseid’s forces in Final Crisis and played a pivotal role in the final battle against the God of Evil. For his troubles, he was hit with the Omega Sanction and sent back in time. This was all part of Darkseid’s plan, as Batman would move forward through time, chased by the demon Barbatos, building up Omega radiation. If everything had gone as planned, his arrival in the present would have destroyed everything.

Batman put himself in this position, making a “heroic” sacrifice but he didn’t have to do this at all. He could have given the Radion bullet to one of the Flashes who were also fighting Darkseid at the time and gone and done anything else. [1]

I suggest you don’t resort to killing off characters because you can’t think of what to do next. In any story, the death of a character must have meaning.

The character arc of the sacrificial lamb has to be thought out in advance, or there is no real reason for their sacrifice other than the need to wring tears from the reader/viewer.

If shock value is what your stories are about, then that may be your purpose.

However, we spend a lot of time and energy creating characters. Why throw them away for nothing?

We form our characters out of Action and Reaction. This chemistry happens on multiple levels.

First, it occurs within the story as the characters interact with each other. At the same time, the chemistry happens within the reader who is immersed and living the story. The reader begins to consider the characters as friends.

Lord_of_the_Rings_-_The_Two_Towers_(2002)For this reason, every sacrifice our characters make must have meaning and must advance the plot, or you have wasted the reader’s precious time.

Good characterization offers me hints of an individual’s speech habits, history, and personal style. It will show me a person with values or sometimes without boundaries. There are things they will or will not do. They have secrets they believe no one knows, secrets they will deny to the grave.

In the books I love and refer back to, great characters dominate. They behave and respond to the inciting incident naturally, in a way that makes me say, “Yes, this is exactly how they would react.” As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.

Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ individual stories intersects seamlessly. To do that, motivations must be clearly defined.

  • You must know how the character thinks and reacts as an individual.
  • What need drives them?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal?
  • Conversely, what will they NOT do? What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?

Now that you know these things about your character, ask yourself what would inspire this person to sacrifice themselves for others? We know the obstacles our characters face. The choices they make in those situations are the story. Write nothing that seems out of character!

In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path.

When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices. They will sometimes take the narrative in new directions, surprising even you, the author.

The character of Spock in the Star Trek franchise is a classic example of a person who would and did sacrifice themselves. In The Wrath of Khan (via Wikipedia):

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_KhanMortally wounded, the antagonist, Khan, activates a “rebirth” weapon called Genesis, which will reorganize all matter in the nebula, including Enterprise. Though Kirk’s crew detects the activation and attempts to move out of range, they will not be able to escape the nebula in time without the ship’s inoperable warp drive. Spock goes to restore warp power in the engine room, which is flooded with radiation. When McCoy tries to prevent Spock’s entry, Spock incapacitates him with a Vulcan nerve pinch and performs a mind meld, telling him to “remember.” Spock repairs the warp drive, and Enterprise escapes the explosion, which forms a new planet. Before dying of radiation poisoning, Spock urges Kirk not to grieve, as his decision to sacrifice himself to save the ship’s crew was a logical one. An epilogue shows Spock’s space burial and reveals that his coffin is on the surface of the Genesis planet, foreshadowing the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. [2]

Spock explains his decision by saying, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.”

When they have unique personalities, it becomes easy to give our characters an active role in choosing their fate. When I am first writing any story, allowing my characters agency is difficult to do. At this point in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me.

I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth, so I create a personnel file that is updated as they evolve. I make each character known to me as an individual, down to their taste in clothing.

And yet, they harbor secrets to the end, things that surprise and shock me.

Within the plot outline, the individuality of the characters drives the story. I try to portray them as truthfully as possible because, to me, they are real.

You, as the author, must understand what drives and motivates even the walk-on, disposable characters. Are they “a red-shirt,” that iconic Star Trek symbol of the throw-away character? Why should we care if they die? Your job is to make us care.

When a character has history, has agency, and chooses to sacrifice themselves as Obi-Wan did for Luke or Spock did for the crew of the Enterprise, you see their decision is not out of character.

Their death raises the emotional stakes for both the protagonist and the reader, making a complex, memorable novel.


Credits and Attributions:

[1]10 DC Characters Who Sacrificed Themselves For Nothing, by David Harth  10 DC Characters Who Sacrificed Themselves For Nothing | CBR published February 18, 2021 Copyright © 2021 www.cbr.com (Accessed April 18, 2021).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Star_Trek_II:_The_Wrath_of_Khan&oldid=1015970109 (accessed April 18, 2021).

Images:

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Paramount Pictures: 1982); art by illustrator Bob Peak. © 1982 Paramount Pictures; Fair use under United States copyright law.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucasfilm Ltd. Distributed by 20th Century Fox: 1977), art by illustrator Tom Jung. © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd; Fair use under United States copyright law.

 

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Character Creation: the mentor #amwriting

Wisdom is not about having all the answers. As we experience the sorrows and joys of life, we remain filled with as many questions as answers. Perhaps the questions aren’t intellectual as much as they are emotional—a longing for a lost time of contentment, a time of security and peacefulness that wasn’t appreciated as much as it should have been.

WritingCraftSeries_mentorMaybe that moment in time that we long for didn’t shine with the golden glow that the mirror of memory now gives it. Nevertheless, we hope to feel that innocent happiness that we will never experience again.

Wisdom—a word that represents so many things. In a mentor, it’s an implied knowledge of a fundamental human truth: naïve enjoyment of life is gone forever, and accepting its loss makes us feel old. Experience makes us wiser and can change us in two ways. We can become hardened and callous as a form of self-preservation. Conversely, we can become gentler, more understanding of human frailty.

Tolkien took much of the philosophy for his world of Middle Earth and the character of Aragorn from the 6th-century poem, The Wanderer. As a Professor of Anglo Saxon Studies at Oxford, he had translated it into modern English and had a deep connection to the epic story told in the poem.

In that poem, the speaker reflects upon his life while spending years in exile. He considers what he has lost but goes beyond his personal sorrow. For this reason, some scholars consider The Wanderer a “wisdom poem.” The speaker tells us that the disintegration of earthly glory is inescapable, supporting the medieval Christian view of the underlying theme: salvation through faith in God.

The sense of loss and resulting strength that the protagonist in The Wanderer offers us is reflected most strongly in the way Tolkien portrays Aragorn. He is wise as a mentor, more approachable than Gandalf, and is relatable because he has suffered many losses. Aragorn has spent most of his life wandering and fighting to protect people who look upon him with disdain. Now, as he approaches middle-age, he “looks foul but feels fair.”

An excellent short talk on the original medieval poem can be found on YouTube here: WANDERER | The Profound Anglo-Saxon Poem that Tolkien Used in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The first scene where Aragorn is introduced adds a new character into the mix, a man of mystery and one who feels a little dangerous. Yet, we sense there is more to him than we see in the dark, smoky taproom of the Prancing Pony. Aragorn is only known as Strider, and in that role, he offers them the information they need.

In that chapter, titled “Strider,” Frodo reads Gandalf’s letter. Having read it, Frodo says, “I think one of his (Sauron’s) spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”

“I see,” laughed Strider. “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.”

Lord_of_the_Rings_-_The_Two_Towers_(2002)In the scene at the Prancing Pony, Aragorn is quoting a poem that is later revealed to reference him as the Heir of Isildur. He is the prophesied king who will once again wield the Blade that was Broken. These are wise words from a poem-within-the-story, a signature literary device Tolkien used regularly.

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

By quoting those words, Strider (Aragorn) cautions Frodo to look beyond the surface and see the strength that lies beneath. He also implies that the converse can be true, that beauty can disguise what is evil.

In Aragorn, we have a mentor who is later revealed to be the heir of Isildur, the last King of Gondor. Yet, he may as well be heir of nothing, for all the good it does him in the first half of his life. He leads the Rangers, the Dúnedain of the North, the descendants of his ancestor’s knights. The respectable landlord of the Prancing Pony looks down on him, seeing Aragorn as little more than a vagrant.

In the guise of Strider, Aragorn is a good mentor from the first moment we meet him. This is because he is shown as having history. While the history is only implied, and Frodo knows nothing about him, he knows Strider is a friend of Gandalf. Frodo senses the knowledge that Strider possesses, the wisdom he has to offer. Frodo feels he can trust Strider’s guidance, even when he disagrees with him.

When we create a mentor character, we must give the reader reasons to believe in them as having wisdom our protagonist needs. Strider arrives in his first scene with the impact of unspoken history, an immediate sense that here is a person who has seen much and survived many things.

Here is a person who knows what secret Frodo carries but won’t try to steal it. He understands the comfortable life Frodo has sacrificed to take the Ring to Rivendell and knows what the hobbit faces further down the road. Here is a person who genuinely wants to help Frodo escape the Black Riders.

At the outset, when we find Strider in the Prancing Pony observing Frodo making his worst blunder, we feel there is more to this unkempt vagrant than we see on the surface.

Lord_of_the_Rings_-_The_Two_Towers_bookAs I create my mentors, I hope to convey a sense that they have history without beating the reader over the head with it. I want to evoke a feeling of rightness, that this person knows things we don’t, that this person has knowledge our protagonist must gain.

Creating a mentor with depth and a sense of history without dumping info is tricky. This is where getting good insights from my writing group really comes into play. Their thoughts and opinions nudge my creative mind to find solutions for rewriting muddy characterizations and confusing passages.

Hopefully, their insights will guide me to write memorable narratives filled with characters who leave an impact.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Illustrated edition (February 15, 2012); Fair Use.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Lord_of_the_Rings:_The_Two_Towers&oldid=1018153423 (accessed April 18, 2021).

Images:

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers theatrical release poster. Release Date December 5, 2002.  © 2002 Production Companies New Line Cinema, WingNut Films; Fair use under United States copyright law.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Two Towers” first edition book cover, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Two_Towers&oldid=1006164402 (accessed April 18, 2021).

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Writing the Short Story part 5: The Narrative Essay #amwriting

We’re working our way through a series on writing short fiction. However, we’re not done—yet another short form of writing to explore is the essay. For Indy authors who wish to earn actual money from their writing, the narrative essay is often easier to sell to reputable magazines. This is because they appeal to a broader audience than genre fiction does.

narrative essayNarrative essays are drawn directly from real life, but they aren’t necessarily factual or accurate representations of events. They often detail a fictionalized experience or event that affected the author on a personal level.

One of my favorite narrative essays is 1994’s Ticket to the Fair (now titled “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All“) by David Foster Wallace and published in Harpers. Told in the first person, it is a humorous, eye-opening story of a “foreign” (east coast) journalist’s assignment to cover the 1993 Iowa State Fair.

At the outset, Wallace states he was born several hours drive from the fair but had never attended it. A city boy, he has no knowledge of farms, farm culture, or animals. After high school and college, he had left the Midwest for the East Coast and never looked back. When the essay opens, Wallace hasn’t really thought about the fair beyond the fact that he is getting his first official press pass for covering the fair for Harpers.

Wikipedia summarizes Ticket to the Fair this way: Wallace’s experiences and opinions on the 1993 Illinois State Fair, ranging from a report on competitive baton twirling to speculation on how the Illinois State Fair is representative of Midwestern culture and its subsets. Rather than take the easy, dismissive route, Wallace focuses on the joy this seminal midwestern experience brings those involved.

The primary purpose of an essay is thought-provoking content. The narrative essay conveys our ideas in a palatable form, so writing this sort of piece requires authors to think. You must consider both content and structure.

Just like any other form of short fiction, a narrative essay has

  • an introduction,
  • a plot,
  • characters,
  • a setting,
  • a climax,
  • an ending

oxford_synonym_antonymChoose your words for impact! Writing with intentional prose is critical. A good essay has been put into an entertaining form that expresses far more than mere opinion. Narrative essays sometimes present deep, uncomfortable concepts but offer them in a way that the reader feels connected to the story.

Good essays offer a personal view of the world, the places we go, and the people we meet along the way. Names should be changed, of course.

Literary magazines want well-written essays with fresh ideas about wide-ranging topics. Some will pay well for first publication rights.

If you want to be published by a reputable magazine, you must pay strict attention to grammar and editing. Never send out anything that is not your best work. After you have finished the piece, set it aside for a week or two. Then come back to it with a fresh eye and check the manuscript for:

  • Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are actual words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.
  • Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you, the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
  • Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
  • Digits/Numbers: Mis-keyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
  • Dropped and missing words.

Don’t be afraid to write with a wide vocabulary. With that said, never use jargon or technical terms only people in certain professions would know unless it is a piece geared for that segment of readers.

Above all, be intentional and active with your prose, and be a little bold. I enjoy reading David Foster Wallace and George Saunders because they are adventurous in their work. Saunders’ style is always approachable, but others may find Wallace wordy and difficult to wade through. He was often accused of being too “literary” in the arrogant sense of the word.

real-writers-writeAnd on that note, we must be realistic. Not everything you write will resonate with everyone you submit it to.  Put two people in a room, hand them the most exciting thing you’ve ever read, and you’ll get two different opinions. They probably won’t agree with you.

Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Rejection happens far more frequently than acceptance, so don’t let fear of rejection keep you from writing pieces you’re emotionally invested in.

This is where you have the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. Always take the high ground—if an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, respond with a simple “thank you for your time.” If it’s a form letter rejection, don’t reply.

And when you receive that email of acceptance—crack open the fancy cider and celebrate! There is no better feeling than knowing someone you respect liked your work enough to publish it.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Supposedly_Fun_Thing_I%27ll_Never_Do_Again&oldid=815132504 (accessed January 9, 2018).

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Writing the short story part 4: making it submission-ready #amwriting

You have written a short story and edited it. You have decided what publication you want to submit it to. Now you must format the manuscript to make it submission-ready. Your next steps will show the prospective publisher your level of professionalism.

WritingCraft_short-story-formattingEditors at magazines, contests, and publishing houses have no time to deal with poorly formatted manuscripts. Their inboxes are full of properly formatted work, so they will reject the amateurs without further consideration.

You must learn to use your word-processing program. I use Microsoft Word, but Google Docs and Open Office are very similar.

FIRST: Read the submission guidelines your prospective publisher has posted on their website and follow them.

Publishers who accept electronic submissions will most likely want them formatted similarly. For the most part, this formatting is basically the same from company to company, so once you know what the industry standard is, it’s easy to make your manuscript submission-ready, at least in the area of formatting.

Running across the top of the page in your word-processing program is the ribbon (toolbar). Everything you need to create a manuscript is right there, waiting for you to learn to use it. Sometimes you can’t see it, and this is because it is hidden.

On the far right-hand side in Word is a tiny arrow for expanding or hiding the ribbon. We are going to expand it so we have access to all the tools we will need. If you are using a different program than mine, don’t be afraid to google how to unhide the toolbar/ribbon for your program.

Formatting_final_Fonts_2_LIRF03292020First, we must select the font. Every word-processing program has many fancy fonts you can choose from and a variety of sizes.

Use the industry-standard fonts: Times New Roman or Courier in 12 pt. These are called ‘Serif’ fonts and have little extensions that make them easier to read when in a wall of words.

If you are using MS WORD, here are a few simple instructions: to change your fonts, open your manuscript document, and click on the tab marked ‘Home.’ In the upper right-hand corner of the ribbon across the top of the page in the Editing group, click: select> select all. This will highlight the entire manuscript.

With the manuscript still highlighted, go to the font group on the ribbon’s left-hand end. The default font, or predesigned value or setting, will probably say ‘Calibri (Body),’ and the size will be .11.

You can change this by clicking on the menu. Scroll down to Times New Roman or Courier (depending on the publisher’s guidelines). Click on that, and the font for the entire ms will be that font. If you have clicked on the wrong font, it can be undone by clicking the back-arrow. Once you are satisfied with your changes, click Save.

Now we are going to format our paragraphs and line spacing. Editors and publishers want their copies double-spaced so they can insert comments as needed in the reviewing pane, which will be on the right side of the page when you receive your work back for revisions. Having it double-spaced allows for longer comments and is easier for an editor to read.

Do NOT ever use the tab key or the space bar to indent your paragraphs. If you used the tab key to indent your paragraphs, the indents might fail when the manuscript is electronically uploaded. This creates a wall of words with no way to tell where one paragraph ends and another begins.

If you have done that, you can fix it by using one of the two following ways.

To remove tabs from a manuscript in Word or most other word-processing programs, open the “Find” box (right side of the ribbon on the home tab). In the “Find” field, type in ^t. (Caret + lowercase t) (press the alt key 94 to make ^ and key the t). This only works if you have a ten-key (number pad) at the right side of your keyboard: ^t.

Then click “Replace.” In this field, type nothing. One click on “Replace all” will remove every tab.

That will leave you with no indents whatsoever. This will temporarily make your manuscript look like a wall of words, but you will resolve that the proper way.

If you don’t have a ten-key pad on your keyboard, you will have to remove each one by hand. Beginning with the first paragraph on the first page, scroll down and use the backspace key to remove the tab indenting every paragraph.

Once the tabs are all removed, use the following instructions to format paragraphs.

FIRST: SELECT ALL. This will highlight your entire manuscript.

select-all-printscreenStep 1: On the Home tab, look in the group labeled ‘Paragraph.’ On the lower right-hand side of that group is a small grey square. Click on it. A pop-out menu will appear, and this is where you format your paragraphs.

Step 2: On the indents and spacing tab of the menu: Use standard alignment, align LEFT. The reason we use this format is we are not looking at a finished product here. We are looking at a rough draft that will be sliced, diced, and otherwise mutilated many times before we get to the final product.

Step 3: Indentation: leave that alone or reset both numbers to ‘0’ if you have inadvertently altered it.

Step 4: Where it says ‘Special’: on the dropdown menu, select ‘first line.’ On the ‘By’ menu, select ‘0.5.’ (Some publishers will specify a different number, 0.3 or 0.2, but 0.5 is standard.)

Step 5: ‘Spacing’: set both before and after to ‘0.’

Step 6: ‘Line Spacing’: set to ‘double.’

To summarize, standard paragraph format has:

  • margins of 1 inch all the way around
  • indented paragraphs with no extra space between
  • double-spaced text
  • Align Left. This is critical.

formatting_paragraphs_in_MSWord_Do not justify the text. In justified text, the spaces between words and letters (known as “tracking”) are stretched or compressed. Justified text gives you straight margins on both sides. However, this type of alignment only comes into play when a manuscript is published. At that point, the publisher will handle the formatting.

Now we need to make the “Header.” This is the heading at the top of each page of a word-processed or faxed document, consisting of page numbers, title, and author name. If an editor likes your work, they might print it out to look at it more closely. If the printout of the manuscript falls off a desk, it can easily be reassembled because the pages are numbered.

We insert the header by opening the “insert” tab and clicking on “page number.” This opens a new menu. We add the page numbers using the small dropdown menu.

This is how the ribbon and menus look:

Headers and Page numbers prnt sc 2Now your manuscript is submission-ready. It is in Times New Roman or Courier .12 font, is aligned left, has1 in. margins, is double-spaced, has formatted indented paragraphs.

The header contains the title and your pen name. The first page contains your legal name, mailing address, contact information in the upper left-hand corner, and the word count on the right.

First_page_topThis may seem like overkill to you. If you are serious about submitting your work to agents, editors, or publishers, it must be as professionally formatted as is possible.

I hope these general instructions will help you find success, but be sure to check the publisher’s website as each publisher may have different requirements. If you don’t follow your prospective publisher’s submission guidelines, you have wasted your time submitting it.

 

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Writing the short story part 3: extremely short fiction #amwriting

If not having the time to sit down and write a novel is holding you back from writing, you have another option: extremely short fiction.

WritingCraft_short-story-drabbleYou are more likely to sell a drabble than a short story in today’s speculative fiction market. You are also more likely to sell a short story than a novel.

Many online publications are looking for drabbles (100-word stories) and flash fiction under 500 words. These editors are looking for new, unpublished work, so this is an opportunity to use the limited time you have for writing and still get published.

Perhaps you’ve heard other writers use the term drabbles, but you don’t know what one is.

Drabbles are extremely short fiction. In 100 words or less, they offer everything the reader needs to know, so drabbles are the distilled essences of novels. A good drabble tells the story of one scene and makes the reader ponder what might have happened next.

Writing drabbles teaches us how to write a good hook in only one sentence.

In literary terms, what is a “hook“? Wikipedia says: A narrative hook (or just hook) is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that they will keep on reading. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story or several pages for a novel, but ideally it is the opening sentence in the book. [1]

Writing a 100-word story takes far less time than writing a 2,000-word short fiction or a 70,000-word novel. However, itOregon Sunset Taken August 12, 2016 CJJasperson does require plotting and rewriting the prose until the entire story is told in exactly 100 words. You should expect to spend an hour or so writing and then editing it to fit within the 100-word constraint.

A 100-word story has the same essential components as a longer story:

  1. A setting.
  2. 1 or 2 characters.
  3. A conflict.
  4. A resolution.
  5. No subplots are introduced.
  6. Minimal background is introduced.

Every sentence propels the story to the conclusion. Trying to tell a complete story in 100 words or less teaches you several skills.

  • You are forced to develop an economy of words.
  • You begin to see what the core plot elements of a story might be.

When you have a backlog of drabbles and extremely short pieces, you also have a vault full of ready-made characters and premade settings to draw on.

First, you need a prompt, a jumping-off point.

prompt is a word or visual image that kickstarts the story in your head. The prompt for the following drabble was sunset. Some contests and publications give whole sentences for prompts, others offer one word, and some will post an image. The difficult ones are those with no prompt at all.

I break short stories into acts by taking the number of words I plan to fit the story into and dividing it into 3 sections.

A drabble works the same way. We break it down to make the story arc work for us.

For a drabble, we have about 25 words to open the story and set the scene, about 50 – 60 for the heart of the story, and 10 – 25 words to conclude it.

For this drabble, I used:

24 Words (opening): We sat on the beach near the fire, two old people bundled against the cold Oregon sunset. Friends we’d never met fished the surf.

51 words (middle and crisis): Wind whipped my hair, gray and uncut, tore it from its inept braid. The August wind was chill inside my hood, but I remained, pleased to be with you, and pleased to be on that beach.

Mist rose with the tide, closed in and enfolded us, blotting out the falling stars.

25 Words (conclusion): Laughing at our folly, we dragged our weary selves back to our digs, rented, but with everything this old girl needed—love, laughter, and you. [2]

Sunset_Cannon_Beach_05_August_2019The above drabble is a 100-word romance and is an example I have used here before. It has a beginning (hook), a middle (the conflict), and a resolution. The opening shows our protagonist on the beach with someone for whom she cares deeply.

The conflict in this tale is the weather. Wind and blowing mist make it too cold for our protagonist to stay on the beach and forces her indoors.

The resolution is a romantic evening spent indoors.

Drabbles contain the ideas and thoughts that can easily become longer works, such as this drabble did in my poem, Oregon Sunset.

If you are thinking about participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), write your story ideas in the form of drabbles and flash fiction. That way, you won’t forget them, and you can save them for later use as the seeds of a longer work.

Submitting the drabble/flash fiction to a publication or contest won’t ruin whatever novel you think it might later become. Whatever it grows into will be vastly different than the 100-word premise.

Sometimes, you reach a point where you can’t write any further on the novel you’ve given your soul to. That is when it’s time to take a break from that project and do something completely different.

Drabble_LIRF_1_jan_2018_cjjapThe act of writing random ideas and emotions down in drabble form rejuvenates your creativity, a mini-vacation from your other work. It rests your mind and clears things so you can return to your main project with all your attention.

Whether you choose to submit a drabble to a contest/small press or not is your choice. The important thing is this: that idea is written down and accessible when you need a new project.

I have always considered drabbles as the literary equivalent of dried beans and rice. They are the staples we can set aside for later when we need inspiration.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Narrative hook,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Narrative_hook&oldid=1010359448 (accessed April 10, 2021).

[2] Oregon Sunset Drabble, by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2016, All Right Reserved.

Images:

Oregon Sunset, © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, author’s own work.

Sunset on Cannon Beach, © 2019 Connie J. Jasperson, author’s own work.

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WordPress Block Editor work-around part 2: Using Images the Easy Way with the Classic Editor Toolbar #amblogging #wordpressfail

‘Life in the Realm of Fantasy’ is a WordPress blog. I originally went with WordPress for this website because it is a free, open-source blogging tool and content management system.  I also have several other blogs on Blogger (Blogspot/Google), also a free, open-source blogging tool and content management system.

Free-Range Pansies photo credit cjjap copyI prefer Blogger for ease of use, but I love the way WordPress looks when you get to the finished product stage. I do pay an annual fee to both WordPress and Blogger so that my readers aren’t subjected to random and sometimes obscene-looking advertisements.

We discussed how to find and use the classic editor tool bar in the Block Editor menu in my last post: WordPress Block Editor work-around part 1: how to find and use the classic editor toolbar. Today we’re going to source and use images to make our posts more eye-catching.

Open the Classic Editor Toolbar. Once you have your text the way you want it, it’s time to add images.

Place your cursor in the body of the blog post and click once at the spot where you will want the image. Then go to the right side of the ribbon/toolbar and click on the little camera/music notes.(When you hover your mouse over it, it will say ‘add media shift/alt/M).

When the image loads, click on it and a small toolbar will appear.

insert images classic editor toolbar

  1. Position your photo via the small toolbar. Do this first!
  2. To change the size of the image, click on the little white square in the upper right of the image. Hold it and drag the image to the size you want.

freerange daisies and image toolbar

If this is your first blog post, you won’t have anything in your media library yet, so click on “Upload Files.” Practice uploading images and inserting them, playing with it until you feel comfortable and know how to ensure the image will appear where you want it, and will be the size you want it to be. Then, once the image is in the body of the post, you click on the picture, and a new toolbox opens up. That is where you make your adjustments for positioning and size. You can even add captions.

But how do we find our images?

When we first begin blogging, sourcing images seems like no big deal. You google what you want, see what images pop up, right click, copy, and use them, right?

Wrong! Photographers and artists are just like writers—they are proud of their work and want to be credited for it. Protect yourself and your work by responsibly sourcing your images, giving credit to the authors and artists whose work you use.

You can get into terrible financial trouble and lose your credibility if you use images you don’t have the right to use.

A very good friend recently pointed out that even if you reblog a post where the images weren’t sourced properly, you might get into trouble, even though you reposted it in good faith.

I’ve mentioned this post before: The $7,500 Blogging Mistake That Every Blogger Needs to Avoid!

blogging memeSo, now that we are clear as to our legal responsibility, what does the cash-strapped author do? I go to Wikimedia and use images that are in the public domain, and I also create my own graphics.

An excellent article on using Creative Commons Images can be found here:

Wikimedia makes it easy for you to get the attributions and licensing for each image.

Another good source I have used is Allthefreestock.com, where you can find hundreds of free stock photos, music, and many other things for your blog and other projects.

Sometimes I need images I can only get by purchasing the rights to them. I’m not rich, so for those, I go to Dreamstime or Canstock, and several other reputable sources. For a few dollars, usually only two or three, I then have the right to use the image of my choice, and it’s properly licensed.

The proper legal attribution is also there on the seller’s website, clearly written out with the copyright and artist name, so all you need to do is copy and paste it into your footnotes.

credits and attributionsI keep a log of where my images are sourced, who created them, and what I used them in. One thing WordPress has either removed or hidden is the ability to insert the attribution into the image details so that when a mouse hovered over the image, curious readers could go to the source. But that doesn’t seem to be an option any more.

Since we’re talking about citing our sources, what about quoting an article or other literary work? Sometimes we want to quote another blogger or use the information we have learned from them.

Plagiarism is a bad word, and you never want to be accused of it. To that end, we cite our sources—but there is a caveat here:

  1. If we are quoting from a book and we intend to publish that passage in our book, we go to the publisher and get legal written permission to do so.
  2. If we can’t get legal written permission to quote them in our book, we do not use that quote.

Composing the body of my post in a document rather than WordPress’s content window allows me to spell check and edit my work first, and I feel more comfortable writing in a document.

I keep a log at the bottom of my page of what website, who the author was, the date of publication, and the date I accessed it. I have found the simplest method is to list them in this order:

  1. Author/contributors (for Wikipedia quotes, use “Wikipedia Contributors” rather than author names)
  2. Title of article/book
  3. Publication or website title
  4. Link to the article
  5. Date you accessed it.

Simple attributions/citations will look like this in the footnotes:

Wikipedia contributors, “Gallows humor,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gallows_humor&oldid=759474185 (accessed  January 30, 2017).

When you quote from Wikipedia, citation is simple. ‘Cite this page’ is listed in the left-hand menu under ‘tools.’

Clicking on this link takes you to a page offering citations for that page in CMoS, APA, or MLA style, whichever suits your need. Just copy and paste the one you prefer into your footnotes, and your due diligence has been done.

Clementines_Astoria_Dahlia_Garden2019All this information for your images and any quotes from other sources should be listed at the BOTTOM of your current document as you find it, so everything you need for your blog post is all in one place.

When my blog article is complete and ready to post, I will insert a line to separate the body of the post from the credits and attribution notes.

Authors should talk to the reading world about who they are and what they do. There is no better way to connect with potential readers than by talking to them. Using pictures and quoting good sources makes your website more interesting and informative.

Hopefully, this has helped you be more comfortable in finding and using the classic editor to position your images within the body of your posts.


Credits and Attributions:

All images, screenshots, and graphics in this post are the author’s own work.

Free-range Pansies, © 2021 by Connie J, Jasperson

Sentinel, © 2019 by Connie J. Jasperson

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WordPress Block Editor work-around part 1: how to find and use the classic editor toolbar #amblogging #wordpressfail

WordPress has decided to force us all to use Gutenberg, their Block Editor. This has created a new, less intuitive, and needlessly complicated “blogging experience” for those of us who regularly write posts. I’ve been at this since 2011 and despise being told I’m having a “blogging experience.” I write words and add pictures, for the love of Tolstoy. All I need is a simple, easy-to-use toolbar, which we did have in the classic editor and the old Admin Dashboard.

I don’t “experience,” and I don’t want to.

block editor failLIRF04042021While this mess of a blogging experience is utterly the worst example of bored people who aren’t bloggers deciding to fix a product that wasn’t broken, there are ways to make it work. Since we’re stuck with it, I will share what I’ve figured out.

There are two significant aspects of writing blog posts that I intend to cover this week. Today I am focusing on the easiest way to produce a decent-looking post despite WordPress’s efforts to the contrary. In the next post, I will cover the easiest way to insert and position images.

Step one: Write your post in a document. I use Word, but Google Docs or Open Office are great—any kind of word-processing document is fine.

Step two: After you’ve written it, let it sit for a day or two and then come back to it and check it for spelling and typos.

  1. Have the Read Aloud Function read it back to you and make changes as required. Trying to accurately make changes once it has been uploaded is a nightmare, so make it as perfect as you can before you upload it to WordPress.
  2. Use Grammarly or Pro Writing Aid to check for spelling and typos if you have access to them. They’re not cheap, so go out online and use the free versions—you’ll be glad you did.

Step three: Open WordPress by clicking on My Sites in the upper left corner of your website. Click on Posts and click on Add new Post.

Step four: Schedule your post now so that it posts when you want it to. You have to click on the word “Immediately” in the right-hand menu, but when you do, a calendar will pop out, and you can schedule it then. Click on the calendar when you’re done but hit save draft.

schedulingPostsLIRF04042021

Step five: Select a category and add your tags, and hit save draft.

Step six: Hit the little blue square with the white plus sign in the upper left. It will turn black when you select it. An extensive, complicated menu will open. Look for the tiny little icon that looks like a keyboard. THIS IS THE CLASSIC EDITOR TOOLBAR. Click on it. A gray bar will appear on your screen. Click on that, and the old classic editor toolbar will appear.

Classic Editor Icon

BE WARNED: Any time you click on the body of your post, it may revert to the Block Editor. You may have to keep clicking on the classic editor.

classic editor toolbar

Open your document and copy the title. Paste the title into the place marked title and hit save draft.

Step seven: Copy your document and paste it into the body of your post. Hit save draft.

When it comes to Grammarly and Pro Writing Aid, look at each instance the program flags, and then decide to change or keep it. Don’t just blindly accept their suggestions because they work on algorithms, not intuition.

I write my posts in advance because I want to make my work as clean and free from bloopers as possible. However, as my regular readers know, I don’t always catch typos and other things. In my word document, I use Grammarly to spell check and find most errors. Then I have the Read Aloud function of Word read my post to me. Hearing the mechanical voice read it back, I always find things Grammarly missed.

First of all, you must understand that each paragraph is a “block.” If you write your posts in a word document as I do and then copy and paste them, each paragraph will be its own entity. Try to remember this if you must make edits after you’ve pasted it into the body of the post, even if you use the classic editor.

Inserting and positioning images is much easier with the classic editor toolbar. I will discuss this in my next post.

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#FineArtFriday: Le repos à Pont-Aven (La gardeuse d’Oise) by Émile Bernard

Émile_Bernard_-_Le_repos_à_Pont-Aven

Artist: Émile Bernard  (1868–1941)

Title: Le repos à Pont-Aven (La gardeuse d’Oise) [English: Rest in Pont-Aven (The Keeper of Oise)]

Medium: oil on canvas mounted on cardboard

Dimensions: Height: 85.1 cm (33.5 in); Width: 110 cm (43.3 in)

Inscriptions    Signature bottom right: Emile Bernard

What I love about this painting:

Whoever this woman is, she is determined to enjoy the day. The geese don’t mind, and spring is in full swing. The tree (an apple tree?) leans sharply above as if to shade her. Why shouldn’t a hard-working woman take a well-deserved rest?

The style is intriguing, straight lines of the church against the round lines of the landscape, the woman, and the geese.

About the Artist, Via Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia:

Émile Henri Bernard (28 April 1868 – 16 April 1941) was a French Post-Impressionist painter and writer, who had artistic friendships with Vincent van GoghPaul Gauguin and Eugène Boch, and at a later time, Paul Cézanne. Most of his notable work was accomplished at a young age, in the years 1886 through 1897. He is also associated with Cloisonnism and Synthetism, two late 19th-century art movements. Less known is Bernard’s literary work, comprising plays, poetry, and art criticism as well as art historical statements that contain first-hand information on the crucial period of modern art to which Bernard had contributed.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Émile Bernard – Le repos à Pont-Aven.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:%C3%89mile_Bernard_-_Le_repos_%C3%A0_Pont-Aven.jpg&oldid=292287019 (accessed April 1, 2021).

Émile Bernard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia contributors, “Émile Bernard,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=%C3%89mile_Bernard&oldid=1014462432 (accessed April 1, 2021).

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Writing the Short Story part 2: indirect speech #amwriting

In a short story, our words are limited, so we must craft our prose to convey a sense of naturalness. Scenes have an arc of rising and ebbing action, so let’s consider how conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

J.R.R. Tolkien said that dialogue must have a premise or premises and move toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the conversation is a waste of the reader’s time.

What do we want to accomplish in this scene? Ask yourself three questions.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. How many words do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

So now that we know what must be conveyed and why, we find ourselves in the minefield of the short story: 

  • Delivering the backstory.

Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. A short story has no room for bloated exposition.

Let’s look at a scene that opens upon a place where the reader and the protagonists must receive information. The way the characters speak to us can take several forms:

  1. Direct discourse. Nattan said, “I was going to give it to Benn in Fell Creek, but he wasn’t home, and I had to get on the road.”
  2. Italicized thoughts: Nattan stood looking out the window. Benn’s not home. What now?
  3. Free indirect speech: Nattan stood looking out the window. Benn wasn’t home, so who should he give it to?

Examples two and three are versions of indirect speech, which is a valuable tool in your writer’s toolbox

Wikipedia describes free indirect speech this way:

Free indirect speech is a style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech; it is also referred to as free indirect discoursefree indirect style, or, in Frenchdiscours indirect libre.

Free indirect discourse can be described as a “technique of presenting a character’s voice partly mediated by the voice of the author” (or, reversing the emphasis, “that the character speaks through the voice of the narrator”) with the voices effectively merged. This effect is partially accomplished by eliding direct speech attributions, such as “he said” or “she said”.

The following is an example of sentences using direct, indirect and free indirect speech:

  • Quoted or direct speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. “And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?” he asked.
  • Reported or normal indirect speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.
  • Free indirect speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

According to British philologist Roy Pascal, Goethe and Jane Austen were the first novelists to use this style consistently and nineteenth century French novelist  Flaubert was the first to be consciously aware of it as a style. [1]

When I began writing seriously, I was in the habit of using italicized thoughts and characters talking to themselves as a way to express what was going on inside of them.

That isn’t necessarily wrong. When used sparingly, thoughts and internal dialogue have their place. When they are used as a means for dumping information, they can become a wall of italicized words.

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_Pacing

In the last few years, as I’ve evolved in my writing habits, I am drawn more and more to the various forms of free indirect speech as a way of showing who my characters think they are and how they see their world.

The main thing to watch for when employing indirect speech in a short story is to stay only in one person’s head. Remember, short stories are limited for space, so it’s essential to only tell the protagonist’s story.

In  longer pieces, such as novels, you could show different characters’ internal workings provided you have clear scene or chapter breaks between each character’s dialogue.

If you aren’t careful, you can slip into “head-hopping,” which is incredibly confusing for the reader. First, you’re in one person’s thoughts, and then another—it’s like watching a tennis match.

When you are limited in word count, you must find the most powerful ways to get the story across with a minimum of words. Showing important ruminations as an organic part of the unfolding plot is one way to give information and reveal a character while keeping to lean, powerful prose.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Free indirect speech,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Free_indirect_speech&oldid=817276599 (accessed March 30, 2021).

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Writing the Short Story part 1: experimenting #amwriting

Before we begin, I hope you’ll bear with me as I learn to use the unnecessarily complicated dashboard WordPress calls “Gutenberg.” For a person who relies on images as much as I do, this isn’t a good fit, but I will make it work. They have removed the Admin Dashboard, which was perfect for uploading and positioning images and text. Please bear with me as I find ways to write my posts despite being forced to use the least intuitive dashboard the geniuses at WordPress could have come up with.


When it comes to learning how to write, experimentation is good. The best form for learning learning to write in different styles and genres is the short story.

Last week, we discussed why authors should write short stories and looked at one way to lay out the story arc. There are other ways, but that is my most commonly used method. If you are curious, this is the post: Gaining Readers Through Writing Short Stories.

This week we are going deeper into the many elements of writing a good, gripping story. Most of these features will be found in any length of story, from drabbles to novels. Today we are still focusing on getting all the elements into a piece that is less than 2,000 words long.

Before we go on, we need to remember that setting, atmosphere, and mood are intertwined.

Today’s example is from The Iron Dragon, a 1,025-word story I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2015. That was the year I focused on experimental writing, putting out at least one short story every day, and sometimes two.

The first paragraph of the Iron Dragon begins in the middle of a story:

Earl Aeddan ap Rhydderch turned his gaze from the mist to the strange iron road that emerged from it and then to where the road entered the cave. “Tell me again what happened.”

The opening sentences establish the story, set the scene, and introduce the first protagonist. The following three paragraphs show the world and establish the mood:

The peasant who had guided the earl and his men said, “The mist, the iron road, and the cave appeared yesterday, sir. We saw the beast entering its lair, and a fearful thing it is, too. No one dares to approach it, but the monster can be heard in there. It’s a most dreadful dragon — we found the carcass of a large wolf that had been torn to shreds, trampled until it was nigh unrecognizable.”

The man’s companion said, “Everyone knows wolves are Satan’s hounds. It must have angered its hellish master. We found it lying cast to one side of the Devil’s Road.”

Aeddan looked back to the iron road, seeing where it emerged from the mist. He walked to the low-hanging fog bank, seeing that the road vanished just after it entered the mist, leaving no marks upon the soil. He turned and strode back to the peasants. “I agree it’s the work of the Devil, but why does the Lord of Hell require an iron road that leads nowhere?”

The paragraphs that follow present the danger, the problem Aeddan must overcome:

A faint grumbling sounded beneath Aeddan’s feet. “A light! Look to the mist!” shouted one of his men.

Turning, Aeddan saw a white glow forming in the fog as if a large lamp approached from a great distance. “That’s no ordinary lantern. Mount up!” Moving quickly, he leaped into his saddle and turned his steed to face the demon.

A few sentences further on, I showed more of the world at the same time as I introduced the antagonist:

The light deep within the fog grew and strengthened, as did the rumbling noise.  It waxed brilliant, and the earth shuddered as if beneath the pounding of a thousand hooves. Smoke filled the night air, reeking of the sulfurous Abyss, combined with a howling as cacophonous as the shrieks of all the damned in Hell.

What emerged from the mist was impossible — an Iron Dragon of immense height and girth.

At this point, Aeddan knows that he must resolve the problem and protect his people:

The fiery light emanating from the burning maw lit the night, and the ground shook as the beast roared and raced ever closer. As the beast sped toward him, a burning wind blowing straight out of Hell knocked Aeddan and his horse to the side of the Devil’s Road, and using that opportunity, the Iron Dragon thundered past him, heading into its lair.

Stunned, Aeddan scrambled to his feet, staring as the beast passed him by, the body taller than a house and long, like an unimaginably giant, demonic centipede. The length of the beast was incomprehensible, lit by the fire within and glowing with row upon row of openings. The faces of the damned, souls who’d been consumed by the ravening beast peered out as they flashed by. Sparks flew from its many hooves.

Terrified his men would be crushed by the immense creature, he shouted for them to back off, his voice drowned by the din.

There is more to Aeddan’s side of the story, of course. But in what you have read already, you have made some guesses and are already aware that this is a story with two sides. Aeddan’s point of view is not the entire story.

Again, we must set the scene and establish the mood and characters. Here we meet the second protagonist, an engine driver named Owen:

Mist shrouded the small valley just outside of the village of Pencader. Engine Driver Owen Pendergrass looked at his pocket watch and opened the logbook, noting the time and that they had just departed Pencader Station. He said to the fireman, Colin Jones, “We should be approaching the tunnel, though it’s hard to tell in this mist. We’re making good time despite the fog. We’ll be in Carmarthen on schedule.”

“Sir! Look just ahead! What…?” Colin pointed ahead.

A group of mounted men dressed as medieval knights, complete with lances lowered as if prepared to joust, appeared out of the mist, attempting to block their path. “God in heaven — what next!” Blowing the whistle to scare them off the tracks, Owen pulled the brake cord, but there was no way the train could stop soon enough. In no time at all, the train was upon the knights, scattering them and blowing past. Owen looked out the window to see if they’d survived, but they were gone as if they’d never been.

The final paragraphs wind it up. They also contribute to the overall atmosphere and setting of the second part of the story. The story in its entirety can be read here: The Iron Dragon. It is an imperfect story, but as a practice piece, it has good bones. I didn’t feel that particular piece was suitable for submission to a magazine or contest.

Word choices are essential in showing a world and creating an atmosphere that feels believable. I had challenged myself to write a story that told both sides of a frightening encounter in 1000 words, give or take a few. I also wanted to show two aspects of a place in Wales but tell one story as lived by two protagonists separated by twelve centuries and a multitude of legends.

This brings me back to the layout aspect of a short piece. Some speculative fiction stories work well when the flow of the story arc is shaped like an infinity sign, a figure-eight laying on its side:

Instead of the usual bridge shape, the story arc begins in the middle, circles around, comes back to the middle, and circles around a different way. It ends where it began.

Writing short fiction offers me the chance to experiment with both style and genre. It challenges me to build a world in only a few words and still tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Sometimes what I turn out is worth sharing, and other times, not so much. The act of writing something different, a little outside my comfort zone, stretches my ability to “think widely.” It makes me a better reader as well as a better writer.

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Credits and Attributions:

Excerpts from The Iron Dragon, by Connie J. Jasperson, ©2015-2021 All Rights Reserved.

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