Category Archives: A Writer’s Way

Where the stories come from…

From MACBETH, Act III, Scene 2: “Light thickens, and the crow/ Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.”

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The words in the title that are spoken in Act III, Scene 2 of Macbeth convey the subtext of the whole play, from the opening scene of thunder and lightning and three witches to the moment MacDuff places MacBeth’s severed head before the new King Malcolm. In their subtle layering the words are of great portent, as Shakespeare intended them to be. MacBeth is speaking to his wife, whose own state of mind has become precarious because she is wracked by guilt. Each word is significant and none wasted. The two of them are already complicit in the murder of King Duncan, two guards, and the heir apparent, Banquo. More death and guilt will follow for them, but by now in the play they have both succumbed to an evil grown out of their shared and fierce political ambition. There are no boundaries. Nothing matters but that Macbeth should be King.

How is so much conveyed? There is a current beneath these eleven words, a motion and emotion as meanings intertwine. The beauty of English lies in the variations that create its subtext, so the same word can have multiple meanings. It is, after all, a language that was repeatedly subjected to invaders who altered some words, left others intact, and gave us new ones in turn. The Anglo-Saxons used the word kingly, the Norman French used royal. The term my lord is from 800 A.D., my liege came after 1066. Ghost is Anglo-Saxon, phantom is from the Normans. So much else in the language runs the same course, no word denied attention, changes often accommodated, yet both versions giving—almost, but not exactly—the same intention. We live even now with Old English and Old French in everyday use, both the language of the inhabitant and that of the invader:  foe/enemy; weird/strange; woodland/forest; deathly/mortal; green/verdant; graveyard/cemetery; reckless/intrepid.

Shakespeare knew the differences, but he also knew how to choose which language to use to create the layers of meaning that would give to the audience—whether they realized it or not—the weight of his intention. In the line I quote here at the beginning, the words light, crow, makes, rooky, and wood are Anglo-Saxon in origin and these ancient words carry something pithy, earthy, fundamental. They already convey something intrinsically real to us. But how does Shakespeare play with this? In Old English, “rook” was the word for crow, but the meaning of rook as a chess piece came from old French. By Shakespeare’s time, rook was also used as a verb that signified to defraud by cheating. Crows are scavengers who feed on carrion, notoriously symbolic of deception, death, and war–and witchcraft–but they are also creatures of prophecy, and this line Macbeth speaks is prophetic, setting the stage for his downfall, though to him the words are a signal that it is time to act under cover of darkness, to grab his unholy prize.

“Light thickens” announces more than it seems. Shakespeare could have simply told us that day is ending, that dusk has arrived, that it is the twilight hour, or eventide, or even half-light. But none of those terms would have given the sense of weight that “Light thickens” brings. It is the harbinger of the encroaching disaster that is already damping out any light of reason Macbeth could have kept–or Lady Macbeth could hold as she listens to him. Macbeth feels the enveloping darkness not only of time but of spirit. He has made a pact with himself and entered into tragedy, for the weight of his ambition is too great to give him a way to stop. Not anymore.

This quote has haunted me often. Would that I could write such a line? Oh, yes. Yet it is not envy I feel, but awe. Because of such writing as this, I learn what it means to tell a story.

10 Quotes That Explain American Politics by Mark Twain and Others

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10 Quotes by Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, and Others on American Politics

These ten quotes by Mark Twain and other Americans on our politics are but a small selection. Americans have been watching, observing, and commenting on their politicians for several hundred years. As yet, there are very few positive offerings, for most appear (how extraordinary!) to doubt the actual effectiveness of our elected officials to uphold the principles of our Founding Fathers.

As July 4th approaches, here are a few observations that struck me as relevant today, in this election year, suggesting that our candidates would do well to remember the people at least half the time (instead of themselves all the time) when they set up their eager agendas.

Some American Classics

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” –Mark Twain

“The taxpayers are sending congressmen on expensive trips abroad. It might be worth it except they keep coming back.” –Will Rogers

“I love to go to Washington, if only to be near my money.” –Bob Hope

“There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” –Mark Twain

“This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when a baby gets hold of a hammer.” –Will Rogers

 “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession.  I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”  –Ronald Reagan

“Members of Congress should be compelled to wear uniforms like NASCAR drivers, so we could identify their corporate sponsors.” –Caroline Baum

“If his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.”
  –Molly Ivins, about a member of Congress

“Congress is so strange; a man gets up to speak and says nothing, nobody listens, and then everybody disagrees.”  –Will Rogers

“We have the best Congress money can buy.” –Mark Twain

What Is the Passion That Drives You?

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"Tempête de Neige" exposé en 1842 de J.W. Turner Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead

“Tempête de Neige” exposé en 1842 de J.W. Turner
Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead

The Artist’s Way

As a writer whose life is immersed in words, I have an inevitable and contrary fascination with the passion of artists who paint and draw their images instead of writing them, people like J.M.W. Turner or Georgia O’Keeffe or Thomas Hart Benton or Monet. For them there was a need to create their works non-stop, as if they were trying to keep up with the flow of what they saw and felt before they were trapped into stasis by the avalanche of ideas that came to them unceasingly. They had nothing like the angst that writers so often describe, no blocks, no hesitation or self-doubt. With or without applause, their lives were too filled with the passion to get the image on paper or canvas to worry very often or very much about whether someone approved. Yes, they felt competitive, yes, they made choices that were sometimes flawed, and many succumbed to a life that seldom held a cautionary approach, be it with their lovers or their families or the way they chose to live. What they did do was live their passion.

Musicians are much the same. I recall Philip Glass answering an interviewer when asked if there was ever a time he didn’t think about music. He said it was always with him, that often he felt he was holding down a cauldron of sound, letting a little of it out at a time, but worlds of it waited to be released. No, he said, there was never a moment when he didn’t hear the music.

Seeding the Stories

The point here, one to be explored in other posts to follow, is that it is the same for writers. We are never without the image and sound of the words that grab us. A phrase on a piece of scrap paper is as much evidence of this as a formal page typed in its final revision. I find notes everywhere…in old boxes of forgotten stories, in the pocket of a coat, in a drawer of receipts, in a handbag, or pushed between the pages of a book. I find the outline of a story on the back of bill envelopes from years ago. They serve as the apprentice notes for stories not yet written or ones that don’t need to be, or that appear later as if out of the blue, having already been seeded, and they are as ubiquitous as breathing.

I think writer’s block is not a sign that inspiration is not there but rather a sign that so much of it is, we can become afraid of opening it up, like Glass’ cauldron. When we do, we sense the passion that won’t let go. We take a step that can’t be retracted, and we can’t assume an instant longer that we don’t care. We do. The words are there.

Thoreau’s Reflections in “Walking”

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Thoreau's Reflections in "Walking"

Thoreau’s reflections in “Walking” give us such a clear vision of the sacred experience of being in the natural world, and more, of being free in our soul, and knowing who we are.

It was the precursor to Walden and influenced Ralph Waldo Emerson and early environmentalists. He wrote this in 1851 for a lecture at the Concord Lyceum. What I would give for a time machine to go back there and listen.

Excerpt from Thoreau’s “Walking”

“We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold, gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon and on the leaves of the shrub oaks on the hillside, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever, an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.

The sun sets on some retired meadow, where no house is visible, with all the glory and splendor that it lavishes on cities, and perchance as it has never set before–where there is but a solitary marsh hawk to have his wings gilded by it, or only a musquash looks out from his cabin, and there is some little black-veined brook in the midst of the marsh, just beginning to meander, winding slowly round a decaying stump. We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening.

So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.”

 

7 Amazing Ways to Write a Mystery Short Story

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Have you ever started to write a mystery short story and have it stall on you? Have you gotten to the middle chapter and realized you have no idea how to end the story, much less how to keep the pacing, momentum, and dialogue enthralling for your potential readers?

Unless you manage to sort that out, two things are likely: either you give up writing the story altogether, or you finish it somehow and hope the magazines you send it to won’t notice the problems. Of course, they will notice, and you will receive a rejection slip you’d rather live without.

You want to keep readers (and magazine editors) turning the pages until the end, preferably in one sitting. The thing is, many of us create good characters, have a great setting, and know who our villain is, BUT . . . if our plot is in limbo?

Here are 7 ways to write a mystery short story that just might help you pull that plot together, discover its inner logic, find its core purpose, and speed forward to a timely–and satisfying–conclusion:

  1. Write the plot backwards. Seriously. Write the ending. Write down what happens just before the ending. Write down what happens just before that. Do this for ten steps back. You’ll be amazed at what you discover. Sometimes this process can reveal hidden elements of a character’s behavior, or even lead you to change who the villain is!
  2. Read what you have written so far out loud to yourself. When you get to the point where you’ve stalled, put down the pages, look steadily into the space in front of you, and keep telling the story. Don’t worry if it sounds ridiculous, just keep talking for at least three minutes–nonstop talking and no thinking is the key.  (This can be done in a train station or a grocery line, safely–pretend to be one of those people who wear Bluetooth devices and constantly look like they’re talking to themselves.)
  3. Sometimes the stall in your writing is because you don’t relate to one or more of the characters. This is a good time to write up some back story–information you’ll never put into the story but that makes the character more real to you. You aren’t likely to include in the story the fact the female detective has a hobby making bead earrings to relax, but it adds a dimension to her character that makes her more accessible to you. The villain could have a back story that includes a violent temper that is never shown (until the end). Every character benefits from a bit of back story, and so does your writing.
  4. Read the first line of your story as it would be spoken by each character. This will change your perception of your opening line, and help you decide if it is a good hook, but it will also help you see if you have set up the story well. A stall in the writing can occur if we’re not sure about how (or why) everything starts.
  5. Turn the pages you’ve written upside down and skim through them one after the other. Of course you can’t read them (unless you’re a typesetter, and few of those are left anymore) but you will get the feeling of how much you have done. Looking at the pages upside down, you can’t distract yourself by editing anything, so you get instead a feeling-tone, the weight of what you are doing, and it holds power.
  6. Write six titles for the story that do not resemble each other. Throw them in a box and pick out one at random. Type it on the computer (or write it on the yellow legal pad) as the title of your mystery short story. Imagine adding it to the “Subject” line in emails you send to magazine editors. Then discard it. Do the same for two more you pick at random. Discard them. Leave the story title space blank. Amazingly, the plot begins to surface with a clarity that wasn’t there before.
  7. Listen to the characters you have created. They always have something to say, and often they can reveal (or become) the solution you need to whatever plot point is stopping you from finishing the story.

Writing a mystery short story is a wonderful thing to do. Give it your patience, and trust. Keep in mind it’s a willing collaboration between imagination and heart.

Why Do English Words Have So Many Meanings?

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Why Do English Words Have So Many Meanings?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In actual numbers, consider this–the word “run” in English (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) has over 170 meanings, the word “set” has over 400, and the word “turn” has over 200! At Dictionary.com you can see at least 119 definitions for the word “set” along with origin of the word before 900 A.D. and other variations!

Why indeed do English words have so many meanings? The richness–and confusion–of the English language has arisen out of twenty centuries of adjustment to invaders of the British Isles since before the Romans stepped on shore, and a subsequent willingness to incorporate and integrate new words from the cultures of those same invaders. To make the words belong

The influences that shaped the words we now use have come from Latin, German, French, and Scandinavian (those ravaging Vikings!) sources, among others, and those sources were constantly in flux, changed, and altered. Each one overlaid another and was woven as well into local dialects. As a result, the language we use now evolved out of a vast kaleidoscope of multiple definitions for the same word, words that sound the same but have different meanings, words that lend themselves to double meanings, and words that mean the opposite of what they seem to be. Those are just some of the aspects that have created this complex and fantastic language.

The outcome of all this for English has been the development of a deep and creative and omnipresent subtext, the subtle meaning that underlies the intention of words, so that what is said, says more. Take, for example, the phrase from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.” It appears at a point when day is turning into night, when sleep should come. It implies the darkness of the woods, made even deeper by the use of “rooky”–for rook is another name for crow, but also for a piece in a game of chess. There is an anticipation implied in the words “makes wing”–some event is in transit. A few short words hint and summarize the import of the play–the impending darkness of the choices Macbeth will make in the terrible game he has chosen to play that flies in the face of reason.

If that seems like interpretation, it is–but the intention comes through the words themselves, even without explanation. The very sound of the words creates the sense of impending doom.

In the next post I’ll explore a few more of these. They really are intriguing in other contexts, as well.

 

Why Readers of Genre Fiction Rock

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genre fiction

P.D. James once said that she wrote mysteries because it was a way to bring order to a chaotic world, to restore what had come apart into balance again.

Ray Bradbury said that “Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time– because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.”

Josh Vogt wrote that “Hope gives us strength, and fantasy and science fiction—to me, at least—embody that virtue in many ways… Even if there’s danger or even death along the way, we have the ability to be brave and persevere in the hope of reaching a better existence.”

These three writers describe the quintessential element of genre fiction— the mysteries and explorations and world building give a feeling of what is possible and hopeful in a world that often seems hesitant to embrace either. This is unlike literary fiction—contemporary literary fiction, at least—where there seems a consistent and continuous need to create grim plots, characters who cannot prevail, and bleak settings.

Why else does genre fiction appeal to us so much? Because it is real storytelling, and readers of genre fiction know this. It draws us in and engages us and we find that we are the better for it. When we close the book we feel that something is right with the world and that this is a good thing to know. If some message is in those stories, it is likely disguised, and we do not need to dissect it to appreciate the experience of receiving whatever it is.

All good writing brings escape of some sort, makes time disappear and the characters live for a while in our minds or hearts or both. The marvelous aspect of the detective story, the science fiction journey, or the shimmering fantastic world is that we want to be there, and for a time, we are.

It could be said that all great storytellers write in genres, be they the ancient myths of the gods to Shakespeare’s dramas to all ventures into inner and outer space. The readers know this, too.

William Tyndale – A Life Lived with Passion

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The letter of William Tyndale to those who had imprisoned him. The image below is reproduced from William Tyndale: A Biography, by R. Demaus, New Edition, revised by Richard Lovett (London, 1886), p. 437.

William Tyndale

An Englishman driven by a desire to render the Bible into English, William Tyndale created language so powerful that some say without him, there would have been no Shakespeare. Eighty percent of the King James Version of the Bible, including the Psalms and The New Testament, comes from his translation. Its lyrical depths reach us now.

He lived from 1494–1536, a time when kings had divine right. He was accused of heresy, betrayed for money, captured overseas, and sent to prison in Antwerp in 1535. For over a year he was held in the castle of Vilvoorde not far from Brussels. In 1536 he was placed on a scaffold, strangled, and once dead, then burned at the stake. Nice times.

He was a scholar, a linguist, a Christian, and a creative man. While in prison, he wrote requests to the authorities. Of particular concern he felt bereft of anything to do in the dungeon cell where he was, and requested material for study. This was denied. The image attached shows a copy of the letter he wrote asking for warm clothes as well as books. The translation can be found at http://www.bible-researcher.com/tyndale3.html

His life was lived with a passion and commitment and influence to such a degree one would think he would be honored for all to see, not imprisoned and abandoned. But then, not all did see.

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Dreaming a City

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Voices TEST for blog-1

This image is from my book Voices from the Old Earth.

A city appears in many of my books and stories. I remember the first time I saw it in my mind, arriving unbidden. I was living in Belle Harbor, New York, and writing a film script set in a mental hospital in the desert. Fifteen years later that would become the novel Force Field, but back then it was just the script. I had described a mountain range bordering the desert when in the distance appeared a city, not unlike the one shown in the slider image on the home page and in this book. It showed up eventually, too, in a short story called “Rose-Colored Glass,” set on a planet that was a prison outpost…and in other stories here and there. It stays, as if there is some intent to be solved about its presence. When (or if) I manage that, I imagine it will no longer appear at all.

I recently watched an old interview with Stephen King–it occurred somewhere around the time he was writing Christine–and he was in his own living room in Maine. The reporter asked him why he didn’t write about other subjects instead of horror stories, and King’s answer to him was “You say that as if you think I have a choice.” What we write comes to us–out of what inner impulse, who knows, though it is most likely at the subatomic level, some deep, inner self–but its energy is its own, and the voice and subject are what they have to be.