A Writer’s Power Tool

A Writer’s Power Tool

Ruth E. Walker

A recent newscast featured a Saskatchewan couple who’ve been waiting for months to celebrate Christmas with their grandchildren. As the pandemic lockdown has eased in their region, and gatherings are now possible, they could celebrate together at last.

But they didn’t have to pull out the holiday trimmings. The holiday tree, adorned in lights and ornaments, and the carefully wrapped presents under that artificial tree have been waiting since December for restrictions to loosen and for family to gather.

What on earth could inspire a family to be ready for Christmas all this time? Day after pandemic day, looking at the reminder of what didn’t happen. The grandkids’ gifts unopened. The goofy animated décor gathering dust, still and silent. What kept them optimistic?

Hope

It is the saving grace of the human race. The thing that keeps many of us going when everything seems impossible, frightening or deadly. Hope.

John William Waterhouse

In Greek mythology, Pandora (meaning All Gifts) was created by Zeus’s order to punish mortals for receiving the gift of fire from Prometheus. Zeus designed Pandora to have insatiable curiosity and when he gives her a jar as a wedding gift, he tells her never to open it. Sure enough, she eventually can’t resist and the miseries and evils – greed, avarice, jealousy, hatred, cowardice, illnesses, pestilence – were all released.

Interestingly, ancient versions of this myth have all sorts of variations:

  • the jar was full of blessings, not evils
  • Zeus had two jars in Olympus, one with blessings and one with evils
  • Pandora’s husband, Epimetheus (meaning Afterthought), opened the jar, his name suggesting he learned from making mistakes like that one

Good with the bad

Not only did the ancients write various interpretations of the myth, over the centuries, translations and poetic license gave readers alterations to Pandora’s tale. In the version I learned as a child, the jar was a box like in Waterhouse’s painting and one thing remained inside: Hope. Hope begged to be released too and when released, gave all suffering mortals something to keep them going.

But is Hope a two-edged sword? Does it underpin all stories from the romantic to tragedies? Do readers hope for the lovers to finally find each other or hope that survivors will find the strength to carry on?

And what about our real lives? Hope surely underpins real lives, keeping us going when all is bleak. But sometimes Hope prolongs our agonies, offering something to sufferers that cannot be.

What drives your stories?

Just as we writers hope our work will find an audience, hope provides powerful motivation to characters in stories. And as we’ve suggested again and again, motivation drives your characters and keeps a forward momentum in your stories.

Your characters want to win the race, to learn the family secret, to escape from poverty, to slay the dragon and release the captives. And your readers are right there with them, cheering them on, hoping they achieve their goal. Unless, of course, you’ve not capitalized on the idea of motivation.

As you edit, look for motivation:

  • Make it clear in beginning chapters – what does your character want?
  • Keep it the driver of your main character – tie in reactions, choices, behaviour
  • Avoid motivation that makes no sense – unless it is key to creating a conflicted character

As your character grows emotionally (character arc) that motivation (want) can change and often does.

Winning the race becomes less important when she realizes the prize at the end is not worth leaving friends and family behind. Releasing the prisoners won’t succeed even if he slays the dragon unless he finds and defeats the dragon master.

Hope holds lots of power to motivate your characters. But you can motivate your characters through other powerful emotions: fear, longing, grief and so on. No matter the choice, don’t lose sight of it as you write and look for its presence as you edit.

Speaking of Hope:

Gwynn and I hope you don’t miss our summer contest, closing June 30th. It’s a fun way to imagine Summer ’21, the most hopeful summer in a long time.


Celebrate with us the Summer of ’21 and create a poem in any form as long as it has 21 lines. There will be prizes, bragging rights and the top 3 entries will be published right here over the summer.

Visit the post to get all the details and a boatload of inspiration and ideas — 21 of them, in fact. Entries are already coming in and we hope to read yours soon.

Summer 21 Poetry Contest

Summer 21 Poetry Contest

Summer 2021 is just around the corner and following the success of Summer 2020’s Writescape Postcard Story Contest, we’ve decided to run another contest this summer:  Summer 21 Poetry Contest.

Where I grew up, 21 was the age of majority, the day on which you were considered a fully-functioning adult. When I turned 21, I had the traditional big party bash and with appropriate speechifying and good wishes, I was presented with a large brass key – the key to the rest of my life.

Numbers have fascinated and affected people for centuries—superstitions, numerology, feng shui, important dates, rituals and traditions. From nature to metaphysics, gambling to currency to games, the number 21 can be found in all aspects of our lives.

21 Fun facts involving the number 21

  • The total number of spots on a six-sided rolling die is 21.
  • The most commonly recognized gun salute as a military honour is 21-gun salute.
  • The English guinea, used as currency from 1663 to early 1800s, contained 21 shillings.
  • The total number of Bitcoin to be released is 21 million
  • Singer Adele released her album titled “21” in the year she turned 21.
  • “The World” is the 21st card in a Tarot deck, the final card of the Major Arcana.
  • In WW1 Japan sent a list of 21 demands to China over the control of Manchuria.
  • In the USA, the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, thereby ending prohibition.
  • 21 is the atomic number of the rare-earth element scandium.
  • 21 is a “triangular number” because it is the sum of the first six natural numbers (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 = 21) which when represented as dots on sequential lines forms a triangle of six dots each side.
  • In the famous Fibonacci sequence, 21 is the 8th number, lying between 13 and 34
  • Points required to win a game of badminton is 21.
  • According to physician Duncan MacDougal, who weighed patients just before and after death, the weight of the soul is 21 grams.
  • The USA Food and Drug Administration’s Code of Federal Regulations is known as CFR Title 21.
  • 21 is most often the date of the solstices and equinoxes. In 2021 the summer solstice or first day of summer is June 20.
  • The Kurdistan flag features a sun in its center with 21 golden rays radiating from it.
  • In the card game Blackjack, anything over 21 is a “bust.”
  • Many song titles include 21 such as Alanis Morissette’s “21 Things I Want in a Lover”.
  • Movies too: “21” (2008); “21 Grams” (2003) and “21 Jump Street” (2012)
  • In Israel, an exemption from military service is known as a Profile 21.
  • In numerology 21 is a number symbolizing inspiration and creative self-expression.

There are, of course, many other ways that 21 shows up in our lives: dates and times, sports shirts, temperature, and addresses ….. and this year 2021!

And what has that got to do with the contest…….?

Contest details

What: Compose a 21-line poem in any form, where the subject matter evokes some aspect of the number 21.

You can use the list above to spark your imagination, or come up with something entirely different.  Your poem does not have to actually contain the words “twenty-one”, although you are welcome to do so. The title is not considered one of the 21 lines.

Your poem must be in English and be your own original, unpublished work. By entering this contest you give us permission to publish your poem should it be one of the top three winners.

Deadline: Midnight, Wednesday, June 30, 2021 (12:00 midnight. EST)
Winner and runners up will be announced on July 21. 2021.

Prize: We’ll publish the winning poem and 2 runners-up here in Writescape’s The Top Drawer weekly blog, along with your bio and a friendly interview on what inspired your entry. Bragging rights!

Judges: Gwynn and Ruth. And we might invite one more judge to join us — someone to balance out the panel.

Who: Open to writers age 16 or up at any stage of the writing process: published, unpublished or in-between.

How to Submit: 

  • by email to info@writescape.ca with your entry attached as a Word document (.doc or .docx) in 12 pt. MS font. (e.g. calibri, Arial, TNR)
  • Email Subject Line: [Your last name] Summer 21 Poetry Contest
  • As this is poetry, DO NOT DOUBLE SPACE. If your poem uses a format that includes specific spacing within lines, please also attach a PDF, so we can see how you want your poem to sit on the page. 
What a Touching Story

What a Touching Story

Ruth E. Walker

I imagine you’ve heard this kind of phrase more than once:

I’m touched by your generosity.

I swear he’s been touched by an angel.

I can’t wait to get my hands on that ring.

As soon as this bloody plane touches down, I’m out of here.

And so on. It is interesting that the sense of “touch” should be used in such emotionally charged moments. I believe it speaks to the power this sense has to connect our hearts and minds.

In any kind of writing, the power that all five senses can bring to your material is enormous. In previous posts, we’ve written about smell, taste, hearing and sight. Then just to keep you thinking, we followed each post on the sense with a companion post focusing on poetry using that sense.

Today, we bring it all home with a focus on the sense of touch and ways in which it can power up the emotions in your writing and immerse your reader in the story.

A trio of touches

We touch through our skin. As our bodies are 99.9% wrapped in the stuff, this massive organ is constantly sending messages to our brains. Once there, our brains choose what signals to notice and what signals to put aside.

There are three types of touches.

  1. A light touch, also known as a “protective touch” includes tickling. A light touch engages our brain immediately so, if an insect starts crawling along your arm, your body responds right away. Depending on your history with bugs, you might swat or brush away the insect immediately or, if you’re less bug-averse, take a closer look to decide if it’s a threat or benign.
  2. A fine touch, also known as a “discriminative touch” is responsible to give your brain specific information about what is touching your body. So, the fine touch alerts the brain that the insect left a slimy trail on your arm as your fingers touch the yucky stuff. Ewww. Get. Slime. Off.
  3. Touch pressure and deep touch pressure is the last of the trio. Shoes that are too tight or that dear old auntie who gives everyone a hug are examples of touch pressure. Covered with a soft feather duvet or a double-layer woolen blanket, it’s your touch pressure sense that tells your brain how heavy each one is. If you’ve ever caught your fingers in a car door, you’ll know what deep touch pressure is like.

Be aware of the degree of touch in your writing. I’ll have more to say on that in a moment.

Touch in writing

It’s easy to use ordinary actions. He touched her face. She picked up the stone. They hugged each other. But it’s useful to consider the variety of ways in which humans give and receive a touch and apply those to your writing.

Touch is more than hands. All of our body is touching something all the time. Even naked, our skin is touching the air.

  • Do your characters touch only with their hands?
  • If the hands are the logical body part to use, can you get more specific? Fingertips, nails, palm, heel, knuckles – all can be used to “feel” something/someone
  • What degree of touching? He felt for a pulse versus he pressed two fingertips against her cold neck, seeking a pulse.
  • What other body parts can you use for touch? Our bodies bump into things all the time and we don’t notice – are there places where a hip brushing against a doorway or when a thorn lodging inside a thigh could give a bit more of setting for your reader? Lean back in your chair and what parts of you are connecting with it? Now write a paragraph or two with one of your characters sitting in a chair, describing the physical connection with that chair.

Go beyond the physical

And touch is not simply physically connecting with something. There are degrees of types of touch that relate to more than the object itself. Touch as an action either being delivered or received is affected by a person’s emotional state and by their own history (stove=hot!) and sensory input levels. Someone with acute sensitivity to physical touch will back away from a hug or even a handshake. And that same person may avoid wools, corduroy or nylon materials. A person with low levels of sensitivity may not notice the texture of rough wool and, in extreme cases, not have any sensory input for types of pain.

With the emotional in mind, remember that the act of touch includes many qualities, and as infants, we learned about our world through the senses. Touch taught us so much through physical explorations. If you want to bring your reader deep into the story, you’ll be wise to keep those qualities in mind:

  • Texture – every physical thing has an exterior that has a texture. Sharp, smooth, ridged, pocked, spongy, liquid, etc.
  • Size – from tiny seeds to cardboard boxes to solid walls, touch informs us of size
  • Shape – similar to texture and size, our 3D world holds all of geometry. Round, flat, oval, rectangular, bulgy, pyramidic, etc.
  • Temperature – cool to the touch, barely warm, flaming hot, ice cold. Our skin is our constant thermometer
  • Pressure – a squeeze of an arm or a chokehold on our throat, we feel the touch and can decide if it’s good or bad
  • Vibration – Place a hand on the washing machine in the spin cycle and the movement and noise reaches us but it’s our skin that is the “first responder” to that vibration
  • Pain – So many kinds of pain that come from our skin being touched by something or someone and yet, so many kinds of pain that can be relieved with a soothing or loving touch

This is just an overview of this last of the five senses. When you finish your first draft, remember to give at least one edit pass that focuses on your use of the senses. If they’re missing or just given a superficial treatment, then you are probably missing the opportunity to immerse your reader in the physical and emotional heart of your story.

10 Effects Mothers Bring to Stories

10 Effects Mothers Bring to Stories

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, where mothers are brought breakfast in bed, given floral bouquets of appreciation, and celebrated by everyone with Hallmark sentiments. Well, perhaps not “everyone.”

North American social norms tell us mothers are this mid-twentieth century wonder woman, taking care of her children, ensuring they are fed and nurtured in every sense of the word, juggling the needs of the family and always putting herself second.

Except mothers are people and therefore complicated human beings who can find a home in your stories far outside of the ideal. Here are 10 “kinds” of mothers you can consider in your writing. These mothers can offer conflict, safe spaces, scene-stealing, selfishness — they can hold the promise of the future or inject fear, confusion or coldness into your stories.

Villains or saints, mothers hold power in your fiction.

1.  Birth Mothers

This group of mothers offers readers reflections of beginnings, the vital importance of nurturing and often suggests a position of power/strength. Birth mothers hold the promise of the future through the next generation. They also hold the lineage and that echoes the stories and traditions of the past.

In Camilla Gibb’s acclaimed novel, Sweetness in the Belly, the story begins with a birth in a rain-damp alley behind an old hospital in London, England. The infant girl’s “mighty and unconscious wail” sets the tone for power even in grief that our main character, herself an orphan, must draw on.

2.  Grandmothers

Long held to be vessels of great wisdom from years of life experience, grandmothers are seen as elders and teachers rich in unconditional love. A fine example of a selfless grandmother is in Roald Dahl’s The Witches. In Dahl’s usual quirky style, this grandmother is a retired witch hunter, and teaches her grandson (an orphan) how to spot the evil witches in their disguise. Expect the unexpected in any Dahl story.

And who can forget Little Red Riding Hood’s dear sweet bedridden grandmother? But if we go “unexpected” in this classic tale, what if Granny conspired with the Big Bad Wolf to get rid of Little Red? Can you think of a reason for Granny to turn bad? There. We knew you could do it.

3.  Stepmothers

Long painted as the villain in fairy tales, stepmothers work well as an interloper/newcomer character. They can add the quality of the unnatural, of being outside the family “clan” and subject to suspicion and even hatred and perhaps a target to kill off. From Snow White’s cruel stepmother to the artificial stepmothers in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale where slave women are forced to bear children to be raised by ruling class women in a patriarchal dystopia.

But turn the “evil stepmother” upside down, and you have dear Mrs. Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The second wife to deceased Mr. Dashwood, she suffers at the hands of her stepson and his conniving wife. Kicked out of the family home with a small annuity, she must find husbands for her two daughters.

4.  Absent Mothers

These characters will serve any longing for/searching for scenarios in your stories. Because mothers are key figures in our lives, an absent mother calls our attention. Like stepmothers, absent mothers are not “natural” in terms of social expectations. A fine option for a mystery can be made with a missing mother. Or a simple set up could be a mother who is dead. But even there, fiction holds a lot of possibility and complexity.

In Yann Martel’s brilliant Life of Pi, we see his mother as a loving and caring parent. But with her death, as related by Pi to investigators about the ship sinking he survived, readers are never 100% certain about what happened. Except that she is gone during much of Pi’s story. And because she was a memorable character, we feel her absence.

5.  Adoptive Mothers

Like the grandmother figure, an adoptive mother can be a source of unconditional love. She symbolizes a form of motherhood but from a distance. Whether she adopts by choice or adopts by circumstances, the adoptive mother can be either wonderfully selfless or perhaps an opportunist.

In Heather Tucker’s haunting novel The Clay Girl the caring adoptive mother figure is found in Aunt Mary who offers Ari temporary sanctuary by the sea but constant unconditional love. But what if there’s an inheritance to be had or the need to put on a show and appear selfless? There’s room for a calculating adoptive mother to find life on a page somewhere. A page of yours, perhaps?

6.  Neglectful Mothers

Careful writer. This one is a minefield of missteps if you don’t bother to humanize even the most neglectful mother. We’d all like to believe that no mother could be intentionally neglectful. If you’ve read Tucker’s The Clay Girl, you already understand why Aunt Mary is so necessary to Ari’s tender soul as her birth mother consistently and completely misses all the marks for even basic motherly instinct.

Fiction is full of selfish, vain, flighty, inattentive mothers, or mothers who (Jane Austen once more) like Elizabeth’s mother Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice who manipulates and plans and frets to get her daughters married off. But she’s not a cardboard character once you recognize the fate of husbandless women. Mrs. Bennet is highly motivated but neglects the fact that like and love are essential ingredients in a happy marriage.

7.  Overprotective Mothers

Well, the average mother might question herself on whether she’s being too cautious in the raising of her children. So, it’s good to have your mother characters doubt themselves from time to time.

But in the hands of the psychological horror master, Stephen King, the overprotective mother can get notched up to an awful (in)human being. His blockbuster of a first novel Carrie gave us Margaret White, Carrie’s fanatically religious mother who swears to keep her daughter “safe” from her developing teenaged body. The results are, well, an inevitable explosion of repression let loose with horrific consequences.

8.  Animal Mothers

From Bambi’s ill-fated mother to Peter Rabbit’s cautioning mama, there are plenty of animal stories that feature loving mothers. Animal mothers are instinct-driven, protective and nurturing. The top animal that demonstrates all this and more is the female elephant. Pregnant for 22 (!) months, these massive beasts deliver calves that are blind and completely dependent. But that mother instinct kicks in for the entire matriarchal herd, and all the females (grandmothers, aunts, sisters, etc.) pitch in to nurture and protect the very young. Unless you want a full-on trampling, never be a threat to a baby elephant.

Some females in the animal kingdom offer the ultimate sacrifice after doing their “mother” thing. For example, salmon, octopus and squid devote all their energy to laying their eggs before dying.

And then there’s the not-so-perfect animal mommas that neglect their young or kill and even eat their newborn young. Pigs, rabbits, prairie dogs, and other species commit infanticide but fortunately, it’s a rare behaviour. Check out Wikipedia if you want to follow that “rabbit hole” of horrifying facts.

9.  Mother Earth/Mother Nature

Oh my, this Mother has been personified and worshipped for as long as sapiens walked the ground. In Greek mythology, she is Gaia. To the ancient Romans she is Terra. In Indic faiths, she is Prithvi (the Vast One) or Bhumi (the mother of gods) representing the earth. Throughout the world, various cultures and faiths cast our planet as an all-encompassing nurturer and revere her for her many gifts.

And yet, we do make a mess of Mama Earth, don’t we? And sometimes, Mother Nature gives us a good whipping: hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, droughts, landslides, avalanches and — dare we suggest it — pandemics serve to remind us that she, like most mothers, is a powerful force. And silly us, we’re not serving her very well. Let’s hope that with more interest in harnessing her renewable resources and reducing our carbon footprints, we might get her to settle back down.

10.  The Mother Of All…

So it seems only appropriate that this figure in all our lives — yes, until cloning becomes fully automatic, we all have to be born — that this figure should somehow represent the ultimate, where we can simply use any noun to notch up something to the biggest, the greatest, the most impressive. The mother of all construction projects. The mother of all vacations. The mother of all wedding receptions. But it is not always complimentary. For example, the mother of all headaches. The mother of all snowstorms. The mother of all… well, you get the drift.

So, as we’ve just got through the second pandemic-restricted Mother’s Day let’s not wait for the next second Sunday in May to celebrate a woman special to you. Mother, grandmother, stepmother, adoptive mother and so on, why not designate a random day in the future to make it The mother of all Mother’s Day.

Visual Poetry

Visual Poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

Coming out of an oral tradition, poetry leans heavily on sound and syntax to carry its message and to make it memorable. Poetry also paints word pictures through images, and creates sound patterns in your head through meter, rhyme and other sonic devices.

But how poetry is presented on the page plays a part too. Mass access to printed poetry on the page is fairly new in historical terms, but that transition opened up a whole new—or should I say additional— way of engaging with poetry and new visual forms.

Poetry in shapes

Most of us were introduced to concrete poetry in elementary school. We were asked to “make shapes” with the words on the page so that the shape gave a clue to the meaning.

Although the term “concrete poetry” is a modern term from the days of ee cummings and Ezra Pound, the concept of shaping the visual form of the poem to enhance the meaning goes way back.  In Alexandria copies survive from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Simmias of Rhodes wrote a poem in the shape of an egg, and Theocritus shaped his poem like panpipes. In 1633, George Herbert wrote (among others) “Easter Wings” in the shape of angel’s wings.

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Here a 1966 poem by John Hollander, “Swan and Shadow” shows how complex and rigid the form can be, and “My Lolipop” written by an elementary student shows how playful and free it can be.

Blackout poetry

Shape is also important as a statement when poetry and visual art collaborate. Blackout poetry is an example of this—and lots of fun to do.

In this form of “found poetry”, take an existing page of text, a newspaper article, a pamphlet, a performance program, a letter, the page of an old book, or even an existing poem. Identify anchor words within the text and then “blackout” the remaining words with a marker, leaving a new poetic message on the page. If the message can interact with the original text, all the better.

Of course, although the original redaction method popularized by Austin Kleon, involved using a black marker and literally blacking out text, the form has evolved now to a much wider collaboration of visual art and text. Who knows what might come next, especially in our animated digital world.

Erasure

This form of visual poetry is similar to blackout poetry, except that not just words, but even single letters are retained and left in their original place, but the rest is “erased”.

The result is a visually confusing form that forces the reader to piece the remnants together as they read and allows time to dwell on the message of the new poem. It plays with white space, allowing meaning to bubble up as much from the negative spaces as from the words. Like all found poetry, there are also endless deconstructive possibilities if the texts used are well-known or weighty in terms of issues or political or religious texts.

Haiga

Another form of poetry/visual art collaboration is the Japanese form “haiga”. In this form, a haiku interacts with a painting. The aim is not to present the same message, but to juxtapose or contradict, or create a synergy where one expands the other. Haiga enriches the already inherent aspect of the haiku tradition where the last line plays one idea or image against another.

Here is an example from the famous poet Matsuo Bashō with an image by Kawanabe Kyōsa :

on a withered branch
a crow is perched
an autumn evening

枯朶に  烏のとまりけり  秋の暮

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

The image was painted by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889) but Bashō’s poem was written in 1680, when he was living in Edo (Tokyo) and teaching poetry. How the painting interacts with the haiku is explained beautifully here.  

Graphic Poetry

In Western culture, poetry has often been illustrated, especially in children’s anthologies. Graphic poetry goes one step further, using visual images to bring the poem to life visually as an aid to understanding. Dr. Seuss immediately comes to mind.

This form is not limited to poetry for children, however. Several of Richard H. Fay’s poems in Abandoned Towers are good representatives of graphic poetry.

Motion Poems

For me, one of the most exciting new ways to present poems, is what is being called a “motion poem” These poetry films came out of a collaboration between filmmaker Angella Kassube and poet Todd Boss in 2008.  Their company Motionpoems, pairs video artists with poets to produces films, multimedia installations, pop-up programs, and television documentaries.  The process always beings with the poem.  Watch a sample at their website.

Last word

As someone who loves to dabble with visual art as much as write poetry, I hope the collaboration of poetry and all things visual will continue. I still cherish the experience of sitting quietly with a poem on the page, but opening other avenues for experiencing poetry can only be a good thing. A wider way of sharing the poetic word.

And to this end, I decided to give it a try. Here is my first feeble attempt at reading and illustrating one of my poems, titled Un/natural World.

Out of Sight

Out of Sight

Ruth E. Walker

Sight, as a sense, is what the eye can see. You open your eyes and look in front of you and you see exactly what is there. Ah, but dear writer, as you see the words in this post, there is a tiny voice whispering in the back of your head and it is saying: But…but…but…

Of course, what you see is, in fact, there. But – and there it is – but what you see and how you see it depends on many factors. And if all your stories are full of factual descriptions of what is seen, you are not using this sense to your best advantage.

This post is not about description; rather, it’s an exploration of how to use the sense of sight to bring layers and interest into your writing.

To begin, our ability to see is found in the eye’s ability to reflect all the light in our field of vision. For example, if a gorgeous red cardinal sat outside my office window, I see that bird because its body reflects the existing light. My brain “sees” what reaches my eye’s retina then travels through an electronic signal to my brain where it interprets the signal to be an image.

All sight is a form of interpretation

Miriam-Webster definition reminds us that sight is what we construct into a representation of the position, shape, brightness, and usually color of objects.

How we construct the interpretation of what we see is shaped by an accumulation of our individual experiences from infancy to the present. Think about that when your characters act and react to their surroundings.

  • How do they truly “see” their world?
  • What colours, shapes, shadows and light would they notice first?
  • And does that change as their experiences in the story accumulate?

Perception is all

Remember that red cardinal? Could it be a robin? What if my family always said those all-red cardinals were male robins and the ones with the red breasts were female robins? The family belief would go on to ingrain a kind of logic – why do they sound different? “Because males sing a different sound from the females”, and so on.

Of course, that’s not what I grew up thinking. But – and there it is again – but I might have.

In the Young Adult novel, The Giver, a community creates a peaceful and stress-free life for all citizens by removing all emotions and creative stimulation. No one sees in colour in this bland and predictable place.

Until 12-year-old Jacob begins to have flashes of colour and discovers there is so much he and the others have been missing. This sets him off on an incredible journey of discovery.

“I” witness accounts

With our sight, we see what we see and, accordingly, should all be seeing the same thing even if we might call it something different. Except when we are affected physically (like with Jacob’s story) or emotionally, like when high levels of stress and the release of adrenaline puts pressure on a person’s vision resulting in blurred vision. Or skewed vision. Or fragments of vision. Or a vision of something that isn’t even present.

Consider an accident scene and the statements of a number of witnesses. They all “saw” the same thing but – here is that whisper again – but they don’t necessarily see the same thing in the same way.

It used to be that criminal cases were deemed to be watertight if the prosecution had an eyewitness to the crime, a believable person who could identify the criminal. But – yup, once more – but, we humans are fallible and what we are certain we “saw with out own eyes” has increasingly been of less value without lots of corroborating evidence.

Add into the mix the explosion of video evidence with more and more cell phones and CCTV surveillance in public places. A reliance on individual witness accounts is even more problematic.

But – are you tired of that one yet? – but grainy images, unclear shadows and the possibility of “doctoring” those images add the possibility of errors of perception — or even just the power of suggestion to change what is “seen”. And this suggests great ideas for writers, especially those who write thrillers and mysteries.

Losing sight

Finally, let’s consider the possibilities when sight is altered or has the power to alter someone’s life. Many myths, fables and stories include strange abilities with sight or complete blindness. In Greek mythology, to look upon the face of the snake-haired Medusa would turn you to stone.

Sight has also long been connected to our hearts. From the Greek myth of Odysseus and Penelope to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and beyond, love at first sight is a recurring theme throughout the ages of storytelling. In more modern times, sight continues to take centre stage in fiction. Even in comics, Superman’s x-ray vision proves useful to battle evildoers.

The absence of sight is key to some spectacular fiction. Portuguese author José Saramago’s novel Blindness explores what happens when a virus renders a population sightless. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See, a young blind girl in WWII occupied France and a German boy soldier connect through secret broadcasts of her reading from a braille copy of a Jules Verne novel.

Can you see the possibilities?

There are many more examples of sight as a tool for writing. The inability to “see” can be a metaphor for other kinds of “blindness.” An unreliable narrator may not see the truth around her but a character with limited vision might be the first one to see what needs to be done.

Playing with sight and perception can be a powerful tool in your toolkit. Discover where you might bring it into your story. Try using the “but, what if” approach to perception or view, and maybe you’ll see what difference it can make in a scene or a character.

Tasting Poetry

Tasting Poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

Taste is an involving sense, an immediate sense, a memory triggering sense, and because it revolves around something we all do—eat—we can use it in our writing to connect viscerally with the reader.

Everything Ruth talked about in last week’s post about taste applies to poetry as much as it does to fiction, so in this post, I’m going to share with you how some poets have used food and meals and the rituals around food to draw the reader into their poems.

Trigger emotions

We all have tastes we like and those we don’t: comfort tastes, bad tastes, tastes that make us fearful, tastes that remind us of childhood. Each of these has emotions attached: joy, fear, disgust, nostalgia, longing… The simple detail of food can concentrate the emotion in a poem.

In these two examples, notice the difference in emotions. “Edible Child” is full of love and gentleness; The excerpt from “Feast Days” is lonely and sad. Both draw on our knowledge of the foods mentioned and the state of that food. In the first poem, the tastes are good and sweet and fresh, like the child. In the second, the food is rotting and unappetizing.

EDIBLE CHILD
by Elisabeth Rowe

Sleeping child
I bend to breathe your
melon-scented infant skin,
I taste the soft bloom
on your plum-skin arms,
tickle my nose on the hairs
of your gooseberry legs,
nibble your fillet toes.

Edible child
once upon a time
I heard my mother’s hunger:

I love you so much
I could eat you all up.

Excerpt from FEAST DAYS
by
Annie Dillard

The apples in the cellar
are black, and dying inside their skins.
They pray all night in their bins,
but nobody listens;
they will be neither food nor trees.

Outside the norm

General opinion is often a fickle thing. People who don’t follow the norms tend to be noticed, sometimes mistrusted, or pitied or disliked: eating meat raw, dumpster diving or dumping a full plate of food. Images of baking apple pie or cooking Sunday roast point to family and security and love—unless you create a tension by turning that expectation on its head.

Excerpt from CHRISTMAS EVE: MY MOTHER DRESSING
By
Toi Derricotte

Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her;
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us unless it was
weighted and bound in its mask.

Excerpt from RETROSPECT IN THE KITCHEN
By
Maxine Kumin

After the funeral I pick
forty pounds of plums from your tree…
…stand at midnight…
putting some raveled things
unsaid between us into the boiling pot
of cloves, cinnamon, sugar:

Loves’s royal colour
The burst purple fruit bob up.

The sensory and the sensual

Ah yes! The senses and sex, an inevitable pairing. The hot and the cold.

HONEY
By Gwynn Scheltema

I want to dip you in honey
all stem and skin and juice
dripping
I want to press your flesh to my lips
feel you break in my mouth
like sun through rain

THIS IS JUST TO SAY
By
William Carlos Williams 

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Identity

Excerpt from I’M MEXICAN
By
J Arceo

I’m Mexican.

No, I’m not spicy. Or feisty. Or exotic.

I’m just not bland.

Because my culture is too rich.
Because my hips give in to the beats of a drum.
And my tongue rolls with passion.
Because I come from vibrant colours
And full skirts.
And intricate patterns in my gene pool…

…Because I come from women with rifles and food that
excites you. And the very hands that harvest the land,
hold the very hearts that harvested me.

Meals

Excerpt from EATING TOGETHER
By 
Li-Young Lee

In the steamer is the trout   
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.   
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,   
brothers, sister, my mother who will   
taste the sweetest meat of the head,   
holding it between her fingers   
deftly, the way my father did   
weeks ago.

MUTTON
By
Jonathan Swift

Gently stir and blow the fire,
Lay the mutton down to roast,
Dress it quickly, I desire,
In the dripping put a toast,
That I hunger may remove —
Mutton is the meat I love.
On the dresser see it lie;
Oh, the charming white and red;
Finer meat ne’er met the eye,
On the sweetest grass it fed:
Let the jack go swiftly round,
Let me have it nice and brown’d.
On the table spread the cloth,
Let the knives be sharp and clean,
Pickles get and salad both,
Let them each be fresh and green.
With small beer, good ale and wine,
Oh ye gods! how I shall dine.

Last Word

And to end, here is a fun poem calling you to action:

HOW TO EAT A POEM
by Eve Merriam

Don’t be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that

may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.

You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

Writing with Taste

Writing with Taste

Ruth E. Walker

In today’s dive into one of the five senses, this one is more complicated than I’d given thought to. I’ll try to be tasteful, but truly our mouths hold both the good, the bad and, well, the ugly. Understanding how the sense of taste works can help you with developing your stories and your characters. But first, let’s take a quick trip over the tongue.

Number five is magical

Just as there are five basic senses (sight, sound, touch, smell and taste) there are five basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. That last one, umami, was new to me and science had only identified it during the 1980s. It’s a Japanese word meaning “a pleasant savory taste.” Most often associated with meats, umami helps us recognize amino acids. Elements of umami are found in broths and gravies, cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes and soya sauce.

Most of us know our bodies have taste receptors on our tongue. There are plenty of places to research about those receptors if you want a deeper dive. For example, did you know that those receptors, or taste buds, are also located on our palate, our cheeks, the upper part of our esophagus? As food travels from the tip of the tongue and to the back of our throats, we are tasting. So even if the tongue is damaged, we are still able to taste.

That looks yummy!

Unlike sight, taste is based on chemical reactions in our body. But is it just the flavour of things that make up taste? My dear friend and colleague, Gwynn, says “We eat with our eyes” and I agree. A gorgeous plate arranged with brilliant colours and diverse textures (leafy salads, ripe berries, tomatoes, rainbow peppers) is far more appetizing than a bowl of gluey grey mash (think 9-days-old porridge here.) But you just have to take a big bite out of a slender red chili pepper to understand your eyes aren’t the only factor (even as they water from the extreme heat of that bite.)

Imagine a world without flavours. Where bland is the norm and spices are heresy. Or where nourishment is delivered through injection, directly into the stomach or handed out in pill form, ingested ten times a day. Where liquid arrives through osmosis, taken in only when the body is immersed in water.

Some of this is the stuff of science fiction and some of it, like tube feeding, is a reality of some people. And others have lost the ability to taste through a brain disfunction or injury. Remember that as you develop your plots and your characters: the world is not simply as you know it.

Add more spice

We also eat with our nose. How about when you have a stuffed-up nose from a cold? We seem to lose some of our sense of taste. But we don’t really; we lose the ability to smell and that sense works in partnership with our tastebuds. Inhale the aroma first and then we taste the deliciousness. Without smell, taste loses a lot of its punch.

If everything in your stories is mint chewing gum, apple pie and roast beef, you might want to switch things up a bit. Or completely upend the ordinary with some extraordinary.

Remember Harry Potter and those Every Flavour Jelly Beans? From cotton candy to spinach to soap to vomit. OMG – that caught our attention. And the attention of marketing geniuses – you can order that delicious (?) every-flavour candy through Amazon. Of course.

Challenge the recipe of ordinary

Let’s not forget that taste is a matter of, well, taste. Individual taste from culture and experience. And, of course, environmental and physical effects. I didn’t like the pervasive smell of curry in our old apartment building as a teenager. But oh boy, do I love it now. Some of my family and friends cannot tolerate dairy. And some are pescatarian, some are vegetarian and some are vegan. Diets – and therefore, taste – can be a matter of choice or a matter of health, or both.

So what about your characters? Can a meat lover learn to leave it all behind and delight in soy burgers? Does a vegetarian “cheat” in secret? Tastes in food can create complex situations and complicated people.

Taste can form an important part of character arc. Stereotypes and bigotry can melt away when the power of new flavours and foods is unstoppable. The novels Chocolat and The Hundred Foot Journey are delightful explorations of how the gulf between cultures and beliefs can be filled in with a range of life-changing tastes.

And, of course, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we learn that only the child who is “honest and kind and brave and true” is able to win the ultimate prize.

Writerly taste test

Our world is full of explosive and amazing flavours. If you want to make sure your readers are experiencing a diverse palate of taste, considering expanding your own horizons. And, in these days of limited indoor dining options, you can help support local restaurants through takeout.

If your Chinese food go-to is standard fare: chicken balls and chow mein, check out the specialty items. What about trying Korean, Moroccan, Indonesian, Thai? Have you tasted shawarma? Greek dolmades? Scared to try sushi? C’mon writer, step outside the flavour box and dip your tongue into tastes you’ve never tried.

The internet is awash in recipes you can engage your taste buds with. Notice how your body reacts to the different tastes. And notice what other senses kick in. As we’ve often pointed out — our senses work together to give us a full body experience. Reflect that in your writing.

Try fun experiments: put a pinch of salt on one side of your tongue and a pinch of sugar on the opposite side. Pay attention to your response. Then rinse your mouth with water and put a pinch of salt and sugar together and see how your taste buds react. Is sugar dominant or is salt?

If you stay aware of the importance of the power of taste, you can apply that knowledge to stories and the characters within them. And that is a big plus for your readers.

10 Senses Writers Should Know

10 Senses Writers Should Know

In our regular Wednesday Top Drawer blogs, we been exploring the five senses which are so helpful when a writer wants to immerse readers in their stories. Sound, taste, touch, smell and sight are all basic tools in any storyteller’s toolkit.

In today’s 10 on the 10th, we’re offering up a few of the other senses that exist for human beings and which will be just as useful in your toolkit as you write and edit your work.

1. Original Five This is our go-to when working with writers in editing and workshops. It’s vital that all writers are conscious of the value of the senses in stirring connections for readers. The constant in writing is sight – it’s obvious because how else can you get readers to “see” what’s happening. But if you want your readers to feel character emotions, to recognize mood and tone, and to immerse themselves in the story instead of hovering above, successful writers use the other four basic senses.

But read on to discover nine other senses the complex human body has to contend with.

2. Proprioception.  This is one sense you don’t really think about. Let’s test it: Go ahead. Close your eyes. Now touch your nose.

Your body uses three main things that help it with proprioception – skin, muscles and joints. These tell us where our body parts are in relation to the rest of us. With your eyes closed, you can find your nose with your finger, scratch an itch on your big toe, or clap your hands together because proprioception tells you where your arms, legs and head are positioned.

But what if you have a character whose proprioception is not working well? Bruises, bumps, trips and falls would be far more common.

3. Nociception: Ouch! This sense lets you know when you are in pain. That sensory system carries three main receptors: the skin, bones and joints, and your organs. When we feel pain, we recognize it. The greater the pain, the more it takes up our attention. But when it’s over, the intensity of it leaves us, fades and in some cases, is completely forgotten.

When you’re writing a scene that involves great pain, you have to recall moments in your life when you experienced it. Remember how your body felt – a cut on the skin is different from a twist of an ankle, smack against the skull from a baseball, or spasm in the gut from food poisoning.

4. Time: Oh my – have we been gone that long?Connected to our brain functions, time is being debated by science over whether this is a sense at all. They do agree, however, that our ability to sense time is stronger in younger people. But overall, science recognizes that humans are surprisingly accurate with measuring time. Our brains process time through the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia found deep in the brain.

So imagine what might happen to a world that has a shift in time, a shutdown of existence for a few seconds and then, back online. How would that mess with our sense of time? What would our world look like now?

5. Thermoception (external): Time to turn on the furnace, dear. This sense is our body’s ability to notice external temperatures.

6. Thermoception (internal): Can you take my temp because I feel like I’m burning up? This sense is our body’s ability to notice our body’s temperature.

Numbers 5 and 6 have the same name but they are two distinct senses. Our bodies have two separate hot & cold receptors, but we also have is a different type of thermoceptor in our brains to detect temperature. These thermoceptors in the brain are used for monitoring internal body temperature.

So what happens if one thermoceptor (say, the external) goes wonky. The body would feel internal heat but external heat would not exist? Wow. Talk about conflict in your writing.

7. Equilibrioception:Whoa! Where is up and where is down? Anyone who’s ever had vertigo, will know immediately how this unbalanced moment feels. The sense that let’s you keep your balance also is the sense that recognizes when things speed up and change direction. Astronauts in gravity-free space notice this sense the hard way when they return to Earth and, suddenly, gravity is back with a bang.

Buried inside your inner ears, this sensory system is the vestibular labyrinthine system. When you lose your balance, this system is where the search for balance is taking place. So without this system, a body cannot sense what is up and what is down. Besides the nausea, people with vertigo often shift into fear – the unknown takes over and distress sets in. Fortunately, for most, it’s a temporary condition. But when it’s not…

8. Magnetoreception Haven’t you always wondered how birds know to fly north in the spring and vice versa in the fall? Besides the fact that the temperature is changing, they know their direction from their ability to detect Earth’s magnetic field. It sets them off in the right direction each time.

We are not like birds, so we don’t have much in the way of magnetoreception. But it is there – experiments show we’re not entirely without a sense of north and south. There’s a theory that ferric iron deposits in our noses (our noses? really?) may be part of our sense of the magnetic field. It might be worthwhile to research magnetic implants. Some people implant magnets in their fingertips to gain sensory perception of magnetic fields. Now, THAT’S an interesting character, don’t you think?

9. Synesthesia:This sensory phenomenon is experienced by about 3% of the population, and most often people who experience it are born with it or develop it in early childhood. Synesthetes have a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one sense also stimulates another at the same time. I see numbers and words in colour; my granddaughter asked me to “turn down the music” on a painting I was doing.

Could a character who hears voices be a synesthete and not suffering from delusions as others think he is? Perhaps for the child who refuses to eat, it’s not disobedience, but the fact that this plate of food tastes “pointy” and hurts.

10. Extrasensory perception (aka – ESP or sixth sense):From mixed up senses in synesthesia to senses beyond the physical, ESP is sensing through the mind. Scientifically we don’t know much about the how and why of this sense, (yet) but many of us have experienced it or known someone who has.

It occurs often enough that we have many names for it: intuition, telepathy, psychometry, insight, clairvoyance, visions. That sense of retrocognition – knowing what went before, we often call déjà vu; precognition – knowing what is about to happen can be experienced in something as simple as knowing who is calling when the phone rings.

Literature is alive with this sense, from people who see and interact with ghosts to prophets or wise sages declaring destinies. But you can include it in small ways too, the chill some-one feels when a particular character approaches, or the dog who growls at a new visitor.

Rhyme Time

Rhyme Time

Gwynn Scheltema

So here we are in Poetry Month once again and Ruth is busy doing a series on the senses, so I thought I’d marry up with that and write a poetry-based blog that speaks to last week’s blog, Can you Hear Me?  Specifically I thought I’d speak to the often heard comment: “Why doesn’t poetry rhyme anymore?”

When someone says that, they are usually referencing the kind of recognizable rhyme we think of associated with Hallmark verse or Robert William Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee.  [no disparaging here, just identification]. Of course, the debate over the merits of “traditional rhyming verse” versus “free verse” continues with no resolution in sight, but given the myriad aspects associated with poetry, it’s interesting that that debate usually centers around rhyme or the lack thereof.

The truth is, free verse is alive with rhyme. All kinds of different rhyme. Let’s take a look.

Traditional rhyme

Rhyme is based on an identity of sound between words or verse-lines, “sound echoes” if you will. Traditional verse relies largely on end rhyme or external rhyme – placing rhyming words at the end of a line:

Lets take the first few lines of Robert Frost‘s famous poem, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.”
The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

In traditional verse forms, the end rhyme is usually organized into rhyme schemes. The rhyme scheme in excerpt above is ababcdcd.

Anything but end rhyme… 

Now compare that with these lines from a “free verse” poem, The Anniversary”, by American poet Ai:

…I’m not afraid of the blade ninja-877220_640
you’ve just pointed at my head.
If I were dead, you could take the boy, ….

There are no end rhymes here, but there is plenty of rhyme nonetheless.  In the first line we see an example (afraid; blade) of internal rhyme – rhyme that occurs within a verse line. As in a lot of free verse, rhyme also occurs from line to line, just not necessarily at the end. (head/dead).

Rhyme, rhyme rhyme….

These are perfect, strict, full, or pure rhymes– the last fully accentuated vowel and end consonant are identical. Be aware that we are talking sound here, not spelling. – cat/hat; tree/bee; fool/mule; tough/huff.

hands-1345059_640Perfect rhyme can be further divided: masculine rhyme, where one final stressed syllable rhymes (sang/rang), and feminine rhyme, where at least two syllables rhyme and the final syllable is not stressed (mo-ther/bro-ther; com-par-i-son/gar-ri-son).

Additionally, Ai’s poem contains slant rhyme (also known as off rhyme, near rhyme, imperfect rhyme or half rhyme) – words whose sounds are closely related but not identical. If the poet plays with consonants at the beginning of words, that’s alliteration; at the end of words, it is called consonance. If the poet plays with similar vowel sounds, it is known as assonance. Blade and head at the end of the first and second lines have the same end consonant sound, although they have different vowel sounds. Other slant rhymes would be bend/hand; home/same; trophy/daffy; fellow/fallow; kind/conned.

Rhyming choices don’t end there. Eye rhyme, for instance, plays with sight, not sound: two words that look like they ought to rhyme, but don’t. (love/move; lull/full; though/cough).

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool”, is chock full of rhyme and other sonic devices:graffiti-8391__180

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon.

I’m sure you’ve already found internal rhyme (thin/gin); and slant rhyme (real/cool). There’s also assonance (sing/sin), alliteration (lurk/late), and consonance (real/cool) and repetition (We). This piece also has para rhyme, or rich consonance, that uses consonant blends and the order of consonants to create sound echoes. (left/late; strike/straight; jazz/die-s).

Conventional verse was primarily rooted in the oral tradition, and rhyme helped us remember the lines. Free verse is largely a written medium, appreciated visually as well as through sound.

Rhyme creates emphasis and structural unity, and draws attention to the relationship between words and thoughts. In Brook’s poem, notice how the absence of repetition (We) in the last line emphasizes the thought that their lives will be truncated too. Good rhyme goes beyond the obvious.

I love rhyme, but end rhyme is my least favourite. In many ways I prefer to discover the patterns and links as I read. When used effectively, I believe rhyme adds to the sensory impact of poetry by creating a pleasing network of related “sound echoes”.