Choosing Words to add Depth #amwriting

Words with few alternatives become problems for me, as in certain circumstances, they can become repetitive. Sometimes, the thesaurus that comes with my word-processing program doesn’t offer me enough substitutes to make a good choice.

For that reason, I have both the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus near to hand. When I find myself searching for an alternative word, I refer to these books.

I find it saves time to refer to the hard copy book rather than the internet. However, that is a perfectly reasonable cost-free alternative. Having good reference books at hand keeps my attention on my work, rather than surfing the net.

We all use the same words to tell the same stories.

Why do I say such a terrible thing? It’s true—there only a few basic plots from which all stories are derived, and we have only so many words in the English language with which to tell them.

Ian Chadwick offers us this observation in his article, Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots?

 Last summer, a story in The Atlantic told of university researchers who used software to parse through 2,000 works of literature to determine there are six basic plots:

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Which is one less than Christopher Booker lists in his lengthy 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Around the end of his book, Booker actually lists two more plots which are, historically speaking, not as common (by his assessment, they are late additions to our literary canon, although I think that could be argued against), so he discounts them as less important:

Rebellion Against ‘The One’

Mystery

So, yes, we are all telling the same stories, and we all must use words with the same meanings, but we sound different on the page.

Why is this?

The way we habitually write prose is our unique voice. The words I use might mean the same as those you use, but I might choose a different form of it.

Take the word loud:

  • Noisy
  • Boisterous
  • Deafening
  • Raucous
  • Lurid
  • Flamboyant
  • Ostentatious
  • Thunderous
  • Strident
  • Vulgar
  • Loudmouthed

These are only a few of the many options we have – www.PowerThesaurus.com  lists 1,992 alternatives for the word loud.

When we write, we are building a specific image for our readers. We select words intentionally for their nuances. We want to convey our idea of the mood and atmosphere as well as the information. What ambiance does the setting convey, and how can our word choices add depth to that feeling?

Thunderous conveys more power than loud, even though they mean the same thing in the context of sound.

Lurid conveys more power than loud, and in the context of color, they mean the same thing.

Don’t get too creative, though. Do your readers a favor and use words that are common enough that most people won’t need a dictionary to understand the narrative.

Would you choose the word obstreperous or the more common form, argumentative? They mean the same thing, but both begin with a vowel and feel passive. Hostile, confrontational, surly—many common words convey different shades of the meaning in a more straightforward, more powerful way.

This is not to say that less commonly used words should be ignored. Your prose should never be “dumbed-down.”

The point is, don’t use words that my Texan editor refers to as “ten-dollar words.” A ten-dollar word is a long obscure word used in place of one that is smaller and more well-known.

The origin of ten-dollar words dates back to the early 19th century when writers and speakers would use pretentious words to seem smarter than the average person. This obnoxious habit turns potential readers away, as no one likes to be talked down to.

When it comes to word selection, consider the image you want to convey as if you were an artist. Make an effort to find the right words to show the story.

Words are the paint you will use to draw the picture for the reader. Plot, no matter how well constructed, is only a framework for the story.

As a reader progresses through a narrative, their imaginations supply images about the people and the events. The real story happens inside the reader’s head.

The reader’s experience is made richer or poorer by the words you choose.

If you build your story out of words that evoke powerful images, they will get to know the characters, feel as if they live in that world, and absorb the events more quickly.

They will be compelled to keep turning the page.

As a reader, I live for those books written by authors who aren’t afraid to choose their words.


Credits and Attributions:

Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots? by Ian Chadwick © 2017 Scripturient. http://ianchadwick.com/blog/three-six-seven-nine-how-many-basic-plots/ (accessed 16 June 2020).

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Mood and Atmosphere: Where Inference meets Interpretation #amwriting

Mood and atmosphere exist in the inferential layer of the story. They are two separate but entwined forces that form subliminal impressions in the awareness of the reader. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters.

What is the interpretive aspect of this layer? The author’s job is to deploy inference in such a way that the reader can interpret their intention. That is, they can effortlessly understand where the author was going with that thought.

The aspects we call mood and atmosphere are created by inference, a word-picture that is shown rather than bluntly stated. Writers infer, readers interpret.

Books have two authors. The first author is obviously the writer.

The second author is intangible, a ghost, and doesn’t influence the story until after it is published. It is the intended reader whose imagination will recreate the story as they read the words on the page.

How a reader feels the emotion and absorbs the atmosphere is the interpretive layer.

Emotion is a constant force in our lives. On the page, it must be truthful, or it becomes maudlin. A character’s mood is an emotional backdrop that begins with their experiences. It encompasses the reader as they immerse themselves in a story.

The way emotional inference is conveyed on the page determines the success or failure of the author’s intention.

Let’s explore one of the all-time masterpieces of atmosphere and mood: Wuthering Heights, the 1847 gothic novel by Emily Brontë.

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, and it will include some supernatural elements. In classic Gothic novels, these elements are circumstantial and often later proven to be figments of the protagonist’s mind.

Also, the word Gothic in a novel description means a story will be fraught with emotion and intensity, and take place in a dark, forbidding setting.

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

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.

This is because the reader has suffered through emotions in real life and can easily recognize and relate to a character’s experience.

Consequently, for the atmosphere and mood of a setting to affect the reader’s interpretation of a story, the author must convey a sense of familiarity to a place the reader has never been.

“Familiar” does not mean safe or comforting. It means the elements of the environment are recognizable on a subliminal level, something the reader can understand without having experienced it, or being bluntly told.

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

Barren landscapes and low windswept hills feel gothic to me.

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

However, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood, and the right mood can help you articulate the specific emotions.

In Wuthering Heights, the atmosphere contributes to and magnifies certain characters’ obsessions. It lays bare hate, selfishness, and revenge. These elements are demonstrated in the course of exploring the destructive power of obsession and fixated, unchanging love.

The Gothic aspects of Wuthering Heights expose how upper-class Victorians benefitted from and perpetuated gender inequality within their society.

Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks for the reader. In Wuthering Heights, the landscape is comprised primarily of moors. These desolate places are wild and starkly beautiful. They are vast expanses, which although high in elevation, are dangerously boggy. These moorlands are often made of peat, a high-carbon-content muck composed of decomposing vegetation.

About Dartmoor, via Wikipedia:

Much more rain falls on Dartmoor than in the surrounding lowlands. As much of the national park is covered in thick layers of peat (decaying vegetation), the rain is usually absorbed quickly and distributed slowly, so the moor is rarely dry. In areas where water accumulates, dangerous bogs or mires can result. Some of these, topped with bright green moss, are known to locals as “feather beds” or “quakers” because they can shift (or ‘quake’) beneath a person’s feet. Quakers result from sphagnum moss growing over the water that accumulates in the hollows in the granite. [1]

Historically, we find many accounts of people drowning in bogs. Moorlands, as a setting for a novel, present a recognizable danger. People and animals are known to stumble into waterlogged places and drown. Becoming lost and drowning is a possibility that is raised several times throughout the novel.

Thus, the environment of the moors sets the mood by raising the specter of murderous, untamed nature. Setting the story in that environment immediately implies infertility and death.

Another aspect of this setting that contributes to the atmosphere is graphic: Moorland is visually the same wherever you look, so the lack of visible landmarks makes it easy to lose your way. In this novel, the setting conveys a powerful emotion: the fear of being both lost and trapped.

Most of the action occurs at Wuthering Heights, which is the manor from which the novel takes its name. The neighboring house, where other scenes are set, is Thrushcross Grange. They are neighbors, but a vast stretch of moorland lies between the two houses. These houses are far from neighboring towns, in their words, “far from the stir of society.” Distance emphasizes the loneliness of the setting.

Thinking about and planning symbolism in an environment is key to developing the general atmosphere and affecting the mood. Brontë made each house symbolic of its inhabitants.

Those who reside at Wuthering Heights tend to be intense, wild, and passionate—untamed like the moorlands.

Conversely, the characters living at Thrushcross Grange are closer to town, and are passive, civilized, and calm.

That underlying threat of danger in the environment affects the mood and emotions of the characters. It affects the overall atmosphere of the novel.

Thus, before we are even introduced to the characters’ motives or the plot, we find that the mood/atmosphere of Wuthering Heights is dark and gothic.

And so, to wind this up, atmosphere and mood are intertwined. They are fundamental aspects of the inferential and interpretive layers of the story and getting them right takes a bit of work.

But making the effort can result in a novel that is deep and well worth reading.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Dartmoor,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dartmoor&oldid=959755158 (accessed June 14, 2020).

Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm by George Lambert. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Lambert – Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm (1751).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Lambert_-_Moorland_Landscape_with_Rainstorm_(1751).jpg&oldid=234912081 (accessed July 16, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An architectural capriccio with figures amongst ruins under a stormy night sky, oil on canvas painting by Leonardo Coccorante.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_architectural_capriccio_with_figures_amongst_ruins_under_a_stormy_night_sky,_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Leonardo_Coccorante.jpg&oldid=291488853 (accessed May 19, 2019).

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#FineArtFriday: Home, Sweet Home by Winslow Homer (reprise)

We now live in challenging times with the pandemic and social upheavals occupying our conscious minds and social media. I’ve chosen to revisit one of Winslow Homer‘s most poignant images as a reminder of our humanity, that we can come together and be better than we were.

Homer traveled with the Union Army, but the story of the moving event that he depicted in this painting is told by a Confederate soldier who was present. That story follows, toward the bottom of this article.

Home, Sweet Home is one of the most famous paintings of the American Civil War, depicting a moment in time, painted by Winslow Homer. On opposite shores of the Rappahannock River, opposing armies are caught up in an awareness of brotherhood, as music becomes the medium that lays bare the humanity of the soldiers on both sides.

Winslow Homer was best known for his landscapes featuring the many moods of the ocean, but he also painted many iconic images of that turbulent time before, during, and after the American Civil War. His art captures a sense of familiarity, a feeling that the viewer knows these people and their stories intimately.

Wikipedia says, “Harper’s (magazine) sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War (1861–1865), where he sketched battle scenes and camp life, the quiet moments as well as the chaotic ones. His initial sketches were of the camp, commanders, and army of the famous Union officer, Major General George B. McClellan, at the banks of the Potomac River in October 1861.

“Although the drawings did not get much attention at the time, they mark Homer’s expanding skills from illustrator to painter. Like with his urban scenes, Homer also illustrated women during wartime, and showed the effects of the war on the home front. The war work was dangerous and exhausting. Back at his studio, Homer would regain his strength and re-focus his artistic vision. He set to work on a series of war-related paintings based on his sketches, among them Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1862), Home, Sweet Home (1863), and Prisoners from the Front (1866). He exhibited paintings of these subjects every year at the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1866. Home, Sweet Home was shown at the National Academy to particular critical acclaim; it was quickly sold and the artist was consequently elected an Associate Academician, then a full Academician in 1865.[10]”

The story behind the painting, Home, Sweet Home, is told poignantly in the autobiography, Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson, who served in the Confederate Army.

“The Yankee band would play the popular airs of theirs amid much yelling and cheering; our bands would do the same with the same result. Towards the wind-up the Yankee band struck up “Yankee Doodle.” Cheers were immense. When they stopped our band struck up “Dixie,” and everything went wild. When they finished this, both bands, with one accord and simultaneously, struck up “Home, Sweet Home.” There was not a sound from anywhere until the tune was finished and it then seemed as if everybody had gone crazy. I never saw anything to compare with it. Both sides were cheering, jumping up and throwing up hats and doing everything which tended to show enthusiasm. This lasted for at least a half hour. I do believe that had we not had the river between us that the two armies would have gone together and settled the war right there and then.”

Quote from: Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson (1910)


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Winslow Homer,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Winslow_Homer&oldid=817253575 (accessed January 4, 2018).

Home, Sweet Home: “Had we not had the river between us,” posted by Marek,  https://civilwarfolkmusic.com/2013/12/15/1862-home-sweet-home/ accessed 04 January 2018.

Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson (published 1910 by Columbia, S.C., The State Company)

Home, Sweet Home (oil on canvas) by Winslow Homer – circa 1863 | Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed 04 January 2018.

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The Inferential layer: A wide layer of unknown quantity #amwriting

The inferential layer lies just below the surface of our story. Here is where we attempt to show why Chekhov’s gun hangs on the wall. We insert small clues in the early pages, hints that raise the specter of chance, the suspicion that the weapon will be fired.

We offer conflicting hints that might explain who will fire it and show their journey to the place in the story where they squeeze the trigger.

Who will take down the gun and fire it? Which of several possibilities will be the victim?

And when the gun finally does go off, everything that has gone before, all the hints and allegations—it all comes together in the reader’s mind.

The inferential layer of any story, not just murder mysteries, is the realm of conjecture and suggestion.

In this part, the pieces of the puzzle are placed on the table, seemingly randomly.

We insert implications along with a few false clues about the core problem, hoping the reader will draw their own conclusions. If they guess wrong, we hope they aren’t disappointed.

The path to the moment of the final event should be logical but complicated. Perhaps no one knows precisely what led to it, but your task is to fill the layer with clues, hints, and allegations.

This is where inference and implication are good tools to employ. If the reader is given hints regarding the deeper story, they will stay with it, hoping to uncover more information on the next page or the one after that.

Humans are as curious and tenacious as cats.

The apparent story is displayed on the surface. Perhaps you bought a sci-fi book featuring a murder on a space station.

As you get deeper into the narrative, you might discover a profound philosophical story folded within the outward mystery.

Consider an envelope with the word “murder” written on it.  Inside is a folded note, and when that is opened, you find only one word, “avenger.” The story of the murder is the plot, the outer shell.

Folded within the first note is a smaller folded note, one with the words “honor,” “betrayal,” and “abandonment” written on it. We’ll say that in this case, an officer’s overconfidence is the “what,” the mechanism that starts the dominoes falling toward the inciting incident.

And finally, the core note, folded in the shape of an origami swan. When you unfold it, you see only one word: “sin.”

Whose sin? What sin? Why is it so egregious that someone had to die for it? The dominoes stop falling here: An older brother’s death in a preventable accident is the why of the story.

In reading the inferential layer of the story, readers open the metaphorical envelope, draw out the notes, and begin deducing the meaning of what is about to happen.

Serious readers want this layer to mean something on a level that isn’t obvious. They want to experience that feeling of triumph for having caught the meaning. That surge of endorphins keeps them involved and makes them want more of your work.

Murder is not confined to political thrillers and cozy mysteries. It’s an event that can be written into any kind of setting, from romance to sci-fi to fantasy, and makes for brilliant westerns.

In this story, grief is our theme. Grief is an emotion common to the human experience, and one we can all relate to.

But it’s not the only theme in this story. There could be one or more supporting themes, all of which add substance and depth to it:

  • Ambition
  • Fall from Grace
  • Redemption
  • Coming of age
  • Alienation/loneliness
  • War
  • Bullying/Abuse

Supporting themes are shown through:

  • Actions taken by the characters
  • Random thoughts and conversations
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting

Symbolism in the visual setting can reinforce the overall theme and the subthemes. Dark objects, sharp objects, photographs, private mementos—take, for example, a locket containing the picture of a deceased brother as a young cadet.

These are subtle nuances and don’t work well if they are shoved out into the open.

Imagine: the MC is dressing for her shift. She picks up the locket, opens it, and gazes at the picture before she closes it and puts it around her neck, concealing it under her shipsuit. She goes to her job on the bridge, where she does the work of a science officer, and the day begins uneventfully. The reader is introduced to the other players, all of whom seem like good people with no dark secrets.

The scene with the locket is a good clue that some more profound event is in the works.

Getting the hints into the story so that they are just visible but not glaring requires thought and careful planning.

We have to be cautious about how we apply this layer. Not too much, because readers of all genres love to puzzle things out for themselves.

Yet, we need to insert some clues as to the fundamental cause of the murder, or the reader will be left with the dreaded “WTF?” reaction—something we never want.

This layer is best applied in the second draft of a novel. Because the story is written, you know just what clues the reader will need.

Foreknowledge is good. Armed with the logical plot, the author can instill the subtler hints and also insert the occasional misdirection while keeping the flow of the story plausible.

That quality of intrigue and plausibility is what I as reader will seek out when I am in the mood for a good sci-fi novel.

One of my favorite sci-fi novels is 1992’s Starliner, by David Drake, an action adventure written in a leisurely style. Politics, racism, and the privilege of class and wealth dominate this tale of a cruise gone bad.

Drake applies the sort of attention to detail that one might find in an Agatha Christie novel, if she had decided to write political thrillers set in interstellar space. In some ways, despite being solidly sci-fi, it’s a period piece.

When I look at the many layers that make up this book, I see a classic example of the inferential layer done right.

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The literal layer #amwriting

McLane Pond, taken in July 2018

Stories are created from countless layers. Today we are looking at the many outwardly visible aspects of a story. These are the surface features that define not only genre but which either attract or repel a reader at first glance.

If you’ve ever seen a pond on a calm day, you may have noticed the sky and any overhanging trees reflected on the still surface. The picture I’ve included at the top here is one my husband and I took while walking the McLane Nature Trail, not far from our home. We took it in July of 2018.

If you were there on a stormy day, things were different. The waters were gray, reflecting the color of the clouds. Ripples and waves stirred the waters.

The surface of a story is the Literal Layer, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

In a story, events and the way our characters move through them stir the surface, creating the image our reader sees.

This surface is comprised of

  • Setting
  • Action and Interaction
  • All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.

When we look at the surface, we immediately see something recognizable.

Setting and props – things such as:

  1. Objects the characters see in their immediate situation
  2. Ambient sounds that form the background
  3. Odors/scents of the immediate environment
  4. Objects the characters interact with
  5. Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)

The mechanical order of events forms the structure of the literal layer because they appear to be the story. This framework is the easel on which the setting and props are displayed:

  1. The opening.
  2. The inciting incident.
  3. Rising action and events that evolve from the inciting incident.
  4. The introduction of new characters.
  5. The action that occurs between the protagonist and antagonist as they jockey for position.
  6. The final showdown

How do we shape this literal layer to entice the casual reader? We can add tropes common to a particular genre. Sci-fi or fantasy elements offer an immediate clue to a prospective buyer.

Many sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in close-to-real-world environments. The settings are familiar, akin to what we know. As readers, we could be in that world.

Good world-building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019

An obvious point I still want to make, is that the literal layer is also comprised of word combinations and word choices. This aspect distinguishes the level at which the intended reader will be able to comprehend and enjoy.

I prefer the prose in my casual reading material to be suitable for the average adult, not too pretentious, and not dumbed down. I seek that happy medium when I peruse the paperbacks or use the “Look Inside” option for eBooks at the big store in the sky.

What we put into the surface layer of our story draws the reader to look more closely at the depths. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components should give the reader a hint that there are profound aspects of the story, more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

While the surface elements of the story ruffle the surface and stir things up on the literal layer, they are only a glimpse of the deeper waters.

A memorable story has soul and hidden depths. It makes you think about larger issues you might not have considered before.

Plot charts the twists and turns of events, but depth opens our eyes, enabling us to see how other people think, feel, and experience life.

Depth changes observers into participants.

Prose and how we choose words to express emotion and ideas most powerfully is the medium by which we convey depth.

Writing to formal constraints, as I’ve discussed in several previous posts, forces us to find words that drill down and say what we really mean. By using the dictionary of synonyms and antonyms, we can find ways to write concise prose that isn’t repetitive, isn’t longwinded, but still has a cadence to it that is our voice, our style.

Have you read the opening page of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss yet? That is your homework.

Go to the eBook section of the library or go to the online store of your choice and use the “look inside” option or the “download sample” option. You don’t have to do more than read the first paragraphs to complete this task.

Use one of the above cost-free methods to see how a master wordsmith uses prose to stir the surface in the opening pages of a fantasy novel.

With that ruffling of the waters in the first paragraphs, you are given a glimpse into the depths that lurk below.


Credits and Attributions:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019 (One of the Needles, Cannon Beach) © 2019 by Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved (author’s own work).

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#FineArtFriday: Off the Coast of Cornwall by William Trost Richards 1904

Artist: William Trost Richards  (1833–1905)

Title: Off the Coast of Cornwall

  • Genre: landscape art
  • Date: 1904
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Dimensions : Height: 55.9 cm (22 in); Width: 91.4 cm (35.9 in)
  • Collection   Private collection
  • Inscriptions: Signature and date bottom left: W.T. Richards.04.

What I love about this painting:

It is a blustery day, along a rugged seacoast. Intermittent rain squalls blow through, and when one passes the sun peeps out, the bright lull between storms. The sea is that dark greenish color reflecting the sky, a quality stormy waters here in the North Pacific coast often have. It is of a shore in Cornwall, England, but it feels as familiar as if it were the coast of my home, Washington State.

What I love most about how Richards depicted the water is the milk-glass opaqueness of the green water and the way the light seems to shine through the waves.

About the Artist via Wikipedia:

William Trost Richards  rejected the romanticized and stylized approach of other Hudson River painters and instead insisted on meticulous factual renderings. His views of the White Mountains are almost photographic in their realism. In later years, Richards painted almost exclusively marine watercolors.

In the summer of 1874 Richards visited Newport, Rhode Island, and became enthralled with the area’s sublime coastline. He purchased his first of several Newport area homes in 1875 and continued to paint there for the rest of his life, dividing time between Newport and Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he purchased a farm near the Brandywine in 1884. Richards made many excursions to Europe, especially Britain and Ireland, where he produced an important body of work.

He was married to the the poet and playwright Anna Matlack, with whom he had eight children, only five of whom lived past infancy. Matlack educated the children at home to a pre-college level in the arts and sciences. One of their sons, Theodore William Richards, would later win the 1914 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Anna Richards Brewster, their sixth child, went on to become an important painter in her own right, having received an early arts education from her father as well.

Richards was one of the few 19th century American landscape artists who was equally skilled as a watercolorist and a painter in oils. His drawings are considered among the finest of his generation. Many of his drawing still survive.

Today, Richards is highly regarded for the luminist seascapes, images imbued with light and atmosphere, that he created along the Rhode Island, New Jersey and British coasts. Luminist landscapes emphasize tranquility, and often depict calm, reflective water and a soft, hazy sky.


Credits and Attributions:

Off the Coast of Cornwall, by William Trost Richards / Public domain

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:William Trost Richards – Off the Coast of Cornwall.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:William_Trost_Richards_-_Off_the_Coast_of_Cornwall.jpg&oldid=288660467 (accessed June 4, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “William Trost Richards,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=William_Trost_Richards&oldid=939570835 (accessed June 4, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “Anna Matlack Richards,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Anna_Matlack_Richards&oldid=933481876 (accessed June 4, 2020).

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The Inferential Layer: Drama #amwriting (reprise)

Today’s post is a reprise of one first posted August 26, 2019. Circumstances beyond my control meant I didn’t have a post ready for today–sorry! The reason I chose this post to reprise is that it deals with drama, and how we instill it into our work. I feel it dovetails nicely with the discussions we’ve had recently regarding poetry. We want to instill emotion and impact into our work so the words we use must be powerful.


Whether you are writing a screenplay, a short story, or a novel, you are writing something that you hope will resonate with the reader and move them. A lesson that screenwriters learn early on is that each scene must be viewed as a mini-story; a complete story within the larger story. They learn this early because they don’t have the luxury of space that we who write novels have. The entire story of a screenplay must be told within a finite framework of time, so the writer must wring the most emotional impact out of the least amount of words.

I’m still working on this, myself. But I’m getting there.

So, where do we start? We begin with the most fundamental reason people purchase books or go to plays and movies—drama. The inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story is all about the drama, and I’m not talking over-the-top hysterics here. We combine emotional highs and lows with action and reaction in each passage to create dramatic scenes that leave a mark on the reader.

Of course, we understand large, emotionally charged, outwardly noisy dramatic scenes. They impact us and leave us reeling. But the only way those events have power is if they have context. They must be balanced by quieter, more introspective moments.

Drama can happen in the mildest of scenes, places where it looks as if nothing important is happening. The follow-up/regrouping scenes are places where you have the opportunity to waylay the reader with something unexpected. This is where you show the reader what is happening beneath the surface, the inner demons and fears the characters now face.

Consider  The Two Towers by J.R.R.Tolkien. Let’s look at the emotional impact of the scene that takes place in Shelob’s Lair. Frodo and Sam have survived incredible hardships and have made it to Cirith Ungol.  The passage is an excellent example of the dramatic story within a story that advances the overall plot.

Drama is the hope we feel in the moment when Frodo faces Shelob with the Phial of Light. Drama is the moment Frodo fails, the moment he is stung.

It is the shock, the horror, the moment where Sam reluctantly takes up Frodo’s sword, Sting.

It is triumph when Shelob impales herself on Sting, a weapon made of Mithril and a sword in the hands of a hobbit. But really, Sting is only a long-knife, and despite its mythic properties, it is not long enough to kill the giant arachnid, Shelob.

Still, she is wounded and scuttles away.

Drama is in the despair, the quiet moment afterward, where Samwise realizes that everything they have just endured was for nothing.

Drama is the moment of sharp introspection, the internal conversation when Sam fears his own weakness; the moment when his faith is not just shaken—it is lost. It is that moment of profound despondency in Shelob’s Lair, the dark night of the soul where Sam believes the spider has killed Frodo.

What about love? Few emotions have as much dramatic potential as that of love. It has many shades, from friendship to affection, to desire, to passion, to obsession, to jealousy, to hate.

Let’s look at the Pulitzer Prize winning short story, Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx (synopsis via Wikipedia):

In 1963, two young men, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, are hired for the summer to look after sheep at a seasonal grazing range on the fictional Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Unexpectedly, they form an intense emotional and sexual attachment, but have to part ways at the end of the summer. Over the next twenty years, as their separate lives play out with marriages, children, and jobs, they continue reuniting for brief liaisons on camping trips in remote settings.

Ennis and Jack are tied to each other, but they love their wives and children. They are products of their society, and their personal reactions to the intensity of their relationship are both hurtful and understandable in the context of their time and situation. People have love affairs in books all the time, and we often find them forgettable. It is the complexity of external societal pressure and deep, confusing emotion that makes Ennis and Jack’s attachment memorable.

Then there is the novel, Possession, by A.S. Byatt, winner of the 1990 Booker prize. This is a complex relationship that begins in a rather boring manner – it opens in a library when Roland Michell, a scholar and professional man of high morals commits a crime: he steals the original drafts of letters he has come across in his research. This act has the potential of becoming his professional suicide. The synopsis via Wikipedia:

(Roland Mitchell) begins to investigate. The trail leads him to Christabel LaMotte, a minor poet and contemporary of Ash, and to Dr. Maud Bailey, an established modern LaMotte scholar and distant relative of LaMotte. Protective of LaMotte, Bailey is drawn into helping Michell with the unfolding mystery. The two scholars find more letters and evidence of a love affair between the poets (with evidence of a holiday together during which – they suspect – the relationship may have been consummated); they become obsessed with discovering the truth. At the same time, their own personal romantic lives – neither of which is satisfactory – develop, and they become entwined in an echo of Ash and LaMotte. The stories of the two couples are told in parallel, with Byatt providing letters and poetry by both of the fictional poets.

Love, whether unacknowledged or returned, physical or platonic, is complicated. The sections of movies, books, and short stories where the arc of the scene showcases true emotional complexity stick with me. I find myself contemplating them long after the story has ended.

In all three literary examples, The Lord of the Rings, Brokeback Mountain, and Possession, it is the interpersonal relationships entwined with the action that illuminates the drama. Action scenes require some sort of emotion to give them context, to shape them into an arc:

  1. Opening, the linking point where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications and emotional responses.
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the scene.
  4. Falling Action, the “what the hell just happened” moment where we regroup.
  5. Closing, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved as best as can be expected, and we move on to the next scene.

The resolution of one scene is the linking point to the next, the door that takes us further into the story. The dramatic arc of each scene ends at a higher point in the overall story arc.

The emotions surrounding the drama in our literature attracts us, captivates us, keeps us interested. In every story, drama is the moment you, the reader, realize you must take up the hero’s task; you must carry the evil One Ring to Mount Doom.

Drama done well can take the reader from joy to despair to resignation and back to hope within the arc of the scene. This is good pacing and urges the reader to keep turning the page to see what is coming next.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Brokeback Mountain (short story),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Brokeback_Mountain_(short_story)&oldid=902058091 (accessed August 24, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Possession (Byatt novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Possession_(Byatt_novel)&oldid=909067002 (accessed August 24, 2019).

The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, first edition cover, Publisher George Allen & Unwin, © 11 November 1954, Fair Use.

Possession by A.S. Byatt, first edition cover, Publisher Chatto and Windus, © 1990, Fair Use.

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The Drabble #amwriting

Right now, we have a lot of opportunities to sell our extremely short stories. Many online publications are looking for drabbles (100-word stories) and flash fictions under 750 words.

These editors are looking for new, unpublished work, so get out your pens and start writing.

You might ask why you would want to write something that short, and I do see your point. But 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.

When you force yourself to create within strict wordcount limits, you increase your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition. We grow in the craft and gain different perspectives when we write short stories and essays.

This is especially true if you practice writing drabbles. Trying to tell a story in 100 words or less teaches you several skills.

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

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

I hear you saying that any investment of time is difficult if it takes you away from your longer works. It’s hard to not feel jealous of the scant time we have for that.

Look at this as a muscle-building routine. Writing a 100-word story takes far less time than writing a 2,000 word short fiction, or a 70,000-word novel.

Something you should consider: you are more likely to sell a drabble than a short story, and more likely to sell a short story than a novel.

Just saying.

Writing a drabble is like any other form of writing. 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 basic 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.
  7. Every sentence propels the story to the conclusion.

First, we need a prompt, a jumping-off point. Some contests give whole sentences for prompts, others offer one word, and still others no prompt at all.

A prompt is a word or visual image that kickstarts the story in your head. The prompt for the following drabble was sunset.

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.

The above drabble is a 100-word romance, one I have used here before. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 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 in front of the fireplace.

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

I think of drabbles as the distilled essences of novels. In 100 words, they offer everything the reader needs to know. A good drabble makes the reader ponder what might have happened next.

In this way, writing drabbles teaches us how to write a good hook. Knowing how to write a great hook is critical. The first paragraphs of our longer works must intrigue the reader or they will set it aside.

Write your story ideas in the form of drabbles and flash fictions. Save them for later use as they could hold the seeds of a longer work.

Save the drabble/flash fiction for submission to a publication or contest, as it won’t spoil whatever novel you think it might grow into.

When you can’t write on the project you’ve given your soul to, it’s time to take a break. The act of writing random ideas and emotions down is a kind of 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 or hang on to it doesn’t matter. The idea is written down and accessible for when you need a new project.

In that regard, drabbles are the literary equivalent of dried beans and rice. They are resources we can set aside for a rainy day.

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#FineArtFriday: Silver Lake at Dusk, by Diego Delso

Silver Lake during dusk, Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and PreserveAlaska, United States, Photographed by Diego Delso on 23 August 2017. This image was selected as picture of the day on Wikimedia Commons for .

About the Photographer:

Diego Delso roams the world photographing nature and contributes his work to Wikimedia Commons. He is a free content and knowledge supporter, whose photographs are regularly featured as the Image of the Day, and several of his images have been selected as finalists for Image of the Year.

I love the mood and serenity of today’s image. The clarity and depth of both the water and the sky makes one feel as if we know this place.


Credits and Attributions

Silver Lake at Dusk, Diego Delso / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Lago Plateado, Parque nacional y reserva Wrangell-San Elías, Alaska, Estados Unidos, 2017-08-22, DD 135.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Lago_Plateado,_Parque_nacional_y_reserva_Wrangell-San_El%C3%ADas,_Alaska,_Estados_Unidos,_2017-08-22,_DD_135.jpg&oldid=419215168 (accessed May 29, 2020)

 

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On Poetry: Interview with Alan Shue, creator of the Bug Rhymes Stories

This is the fourth and final installment in my series of interviews on the craft of writing poetry. Today Alan Shue, author of the hilarious Bug Rhymes Stories series of children’s books, talks to us about his approach to the craft.

Writing for children is a bit different than for older readers, and Alan kindly explains why.


CJJ: When did you begin to write poetry?

AS: I began to write poetry in small amounts during the 1960s and 70s, mainly in the form of song writing (little of which I can find now). In the 80s I started writing poems mainly for Christmas, family birthdays and other events to send out with cards and found I really enjoyed it. After a while I branched out into writing just for fun, playing with alliteration and various rhyming patterns and broadening my mix of topics to include humorous, romantic, and more serious themes. When I retired in 2008 I also started writing rhyming stories for children.

CJJ: Your published work is primarily children’s books. When did you realize this was your calling as an author? Have you written in other genres?

AS: I’m not sure I’ve had a calling as an author per se – I more or less stumbled into writing children’s books. When I reached retirement I knew I wanted to spend more of my newfound free time writing poetry and maybe also take a shot at writing short stories or novels. One warm summer day in 2008 I lay on my back in a grassy area in a park, looked up into a clear blue sky, and casually thought about what kind of writing I’d like to do. Within moments a few rhyming lines and silly plot ideas about fleas and other bugs popped into my mind. They felt fun and funny enough that I decided to give rhyming children’s stories a try, to see if I could create something I liked. That impulse turned into a series I call Bug Rhymes stories.

I have tried a few other genres. In the poetry realm I have written lyrics for a set of “New Age” compositions whose melodies I loved so much I felt compelled to put words to them. In the past five years I have also tried my hand at adult prose in the form of a short story (more like a novelette) and a fiction novel currently in progress. I find writing prose for an adult audience to be far more difficult than writing goofy rhymes for kids.

CJJ: What do you enjoy most about your work?

AS: I like the creative process of trying to communicate ideas and stories via rhyme. I enjoy the challenge of finding unusual and clever rhymes, giving rhythm to poetic verse, and employing alliteration to make lines and quatrains “roll off the tongue” (although admittedly I sometimes create tongue twisters). I’m a member of a local writing group and like the learning process involved in receiving critiques of my work and making improvements to it. It also has been a pleasure to visit elementary schools to read my books aloud and talk to students about writing. My greatest enjoyment comes when I receive feedback from kids and adults who have had a good laugh or a nice feeling from my ditties and stories.

CJJ: What do you find easiest about writing for children, and conversely, what is most difficult?

AS: My children’s stories tend to “anthropomorphize” bugs, i.e. they put bugs into situations faced by humans. I think having bugs as characters allows me the freedom to make the stories as humorous or dramatic as I want while still appealing to a child’s sense of fun and fantasy. I can create my own culture and world, e.g. a pair of bedbug bicycle cops on the trail of a bedbug bed burglar.

My greatest difficulty is keeping my children’s stories as short as most publishers recommend. Many children’s books are just a few hundred words long. My stories sometimes creep up to around a thousand, plus or minus, which can exceed the attention span of some who are in my target 3 to 9 year age range.

CJJ: What advice would you give other authors who want to write for children and who may be just starting out?

AS: My books are all self-published, which is far easier to do now than it was in 2008, so I would suggest considering that approach as it is far quicker and easier than acquiring an agent or publisher. By all means join a good critique group where you can get constructive criticism from other authors. I was not academically trained as a writer and listening to other writers has resulted in far better finished work from me. Read as many children’s books as you can to see what is getting published, what the market is looking for, and what your niche could be. Think about your goals. My niche has been the adventures of bugs scorned or overlooked by most other children’s book writers (e.g. fleas, mosquitoes, bedbugs, gnats, etc., no butterflies) and my goal has been to write stories kids and adults will enjoy, not necessarily to achieve commercial success.

CJJ: Finally, what are you currently working on?

AS: I’m about 35,000 words into my first full length novel. I’ve discovered that it takes far more research and skill for this type of writing – to make it realistic and keep adults engaged – than for fantasy-based rhyming stories for children. Additionally, I have several more finished Bug Rhymes stories that need illustration to become books. Kudos to my wife Linda (creative director and colorist) and my illustrator Elisa Wilson for the three Bug Rhymes books completed so far. I’ve found my participation in the illustration process immensely interesting and rewarding, but expensive, so am not sure what the future holds for additional books. I am also still writing poetry as new ideas, events and holidays stimulate.


Thank you for allowing me to prevail upon you, Alan.

I highly recommend Alan’s books for the fun rhymes, the overall stories, and the wonderful, detailed art.

My 7-yr-old grandson, Byron, loves “Grant the Ant.” We had a long discussion on the phone about the redemption of Zeater and what a great ending the book has.  After all, in Byron’s mind, the best stories have fun words, a lot of action, and a certain amount of “ew!”

Also, Byron thinks I should add a glossary at the end of my books as he liked the one at the end of “Grant the Ant.” I’ve always listened to marketing advice from my grandsons, as they are rarely wrong.

This series of interviews with working poets/novelists has been fun. I’m always interested in how other authors work. In case you missed them, here are the links to the three previous interviews:

Stephen Swartz

Shaun Allan

Maria VA Johnson

Writing poems doesn’t stop us from writing novels, or vice versa. We can give ourselves permission to approach the craft of writing in whatever way makes us happy.

Beginning Monday, I’ll continue the series on poetry and short fiction with Drabbles (100 word stories).


About Alan Shue:

Raised in Las Vegas, Alan moved to the Pacific Northwest to attend Oregon State University and then made Olympia, WA his home. As a published author Alan has a not-so-secret love for the written word and rhymes in particular. In addition to writing children’s stories, over the years he has written a great deal of poetry for family, holidays, and just fun.

As a contrast, during his career Alan wrote thousands of pages of information systems analysis and technical design. So, a little right brain here … a little left brain there … add in some bugs, rhymes, goofiness and imagination, and you have the origins of his Bug Rhymes Books series.

Alan lives with his wife of 50+ years, Linda, who has been instrumental in the illustration of his books. His published works so far include: Chee the Flea, Tweeter and Jeeter, and Grant the Ant. Alan is coordinator for the 150+ member Olympia Writers Group.

To find out more about Alan’s books visit his web site: http://bugrhymesbooks.com/

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