Monday, March 25, 2013

Specific Choices

In March with the whole lion and lamb thing coming and going, we expect sudden changes of weather, from calm and mild to ferocious winds and cold, so it's a good time to talk about fighting chaos or enjoying clarity, in other words, choices. In this case, specific and concise wording in writing. My students, who are learning non-fiction academic writing, not fiction, still need to learn how one word can add layers of meaning. Meaning they don't have to explain because the word has done the work for them. One of my favorite examples follows:

A chain-link fence surrounds my girlfriend's(boyfriend's) house--change the pronoun to fit yourself accordingly:

Scenario 1) As I reach the gate and lift the latch, a dog comes charging and growling out of the shrubbery. It lunges against the gate, snapping.

Scenario 2) As I reach the gate and lift the latch, a Chihuahua comes charging and growling out of the shrubbery. It lunges against the gate, snapping.

Scenario 3) As I reach the gate and lift the latch, a Rottweiler comes charging and growling out of the shrubbery. It lunges against the gate, snapping.

What is your reaction to each scenario?
Probably: 1) potential risk; 2) limited perhaps comic hazard; 3) imminent threat.

This happens because one word changed. Each situation raises specific responses in the character the reader intuits. Yes, a Chihuahua can bite, but a Rottweiler can rip off your face. The character will act accordingly. The more specific the situation, the greater the visceral reaction the reader has. Like the winds of March, nouns and verb choice can dramatically change a situation. One other benefit occurs: elimination of unnecessary explanation makes the writing more concise.

(Cross Posted with Writer's Vineyard)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Interruptions from the Living

I am in the writing groove, keying out several pages of the new WIP, knowing where the plot is going and what happens next. The TV is on but the volume low, serving as white noise in the background. The other house inhabitant, Bill, is off to grocery shop.

Waking relatively early, I smelled bacon, fried onions, and potatoes emanating from the kitchen and felt famished. Slipping into shorts and a tee, I took the outside staircase to Trixie’s kitchen.

“Smells great,” I said, looking at the stove where Abhita, one of the morning shift’s help, worked.

“I’ll fix you up a plate,” she promised. I poured myself a huge glass of grapefruit juice and went to the front to take a seat at the otherwise empty bar. Trixie’s was busy this morning. Nancy and Elena bustled from table to table, taking orders, delivering food, checking on customer needs, and busing dishes.

A seemingly ungodly loud noise pierces my concentration. Grabbing the phone I assume a pleasant voice and say, “Hello?”

“Hello!” Bill’s cherry melodious, greeting grates on my nerves, and a brief image of me as curmudgeon drifts through my mind. “What’s up?” I ask.

“Did you say you needed flour? There’s a great sale on it.” Good question. I make all our bread.

“All-purpose or bread?”


“Get ten pounds each.”

“You don’t want more? We could store it.”

“Weather is too warm. No, ten is fine.”


Usual adieus. Hang up. Where was I? I reread what I’ve written. The phone rings again.

No greeting. “I forgot to tell you earlier, you need to make bread.”

“Oh, okay. I’ll get to it a little later.” Adieus. Hang up. Reread section, fall back into my alternative world and start writing.
Passing me, Nancy said, “We been discovered.”

“Again?” I quipped. Trixie’s has gone in and out of fashion for decades. Murder and notoriety as a come-on somehow felt wrong, but both Eva and I would accept the resulting business. Abhita shouted from the kitchen and seeing my plate on the pass-thru, I rose and retrieved it. Taking my first bite I saw Rhonda and the Elitist enter from the side door. Heat filled my face as I remembered the shouting from their apartment last night and returned my attention to my hash browns.

A familiar squelchy rubbing sound interrupts me. I look over at the upstairs porch door. My thirty-pound orange kitty dubbed Winston Churchill (he’s a dead ringer) runs his paws down the glass door as if trying to dig his way in. He sees me and I swear he smiles. As I rise from my chair, he sits down and waits for me to open the door. Win comes in; two others run outside. “And stay out,” I command to the tails already disappearing down the stairs. Before I sit down I fill my cup with the remains of coffee left in the percolator.

Back on my chair, I read the last paragraph. Was this the Elitist’s night with Rhonda? She is serially monogamous, each guy was given a specific night of the week, exclusively his. Do I have the right one? Doubting myself, I double-check my book’s fact book, which is bigger than the WIP. Yes. Okay, let’s go.

They slid onto the two bar stools to my right.

“Smells heavenly,” Rhonda said.

“Another treasure in visiting you, my dear, is the high quality of the food served so close by,” the Elitist said.

Rhonda and I both laughed at his compliment. I rose and found them menus. “I’m having the Friday morning special. What do you want to drink?”

“I’d appreciate coffee,” the Elitist said. I poured him a cup and plopped the sugar and cream next to where I put his cup. “I’ll have a large orange juice and a coffee,” Rhonda requested. “Early for you to be working, isn’t it?”

The phone rings again. I make an agitated noise and may have even made an evil utterance,  but my voice is resigned when I pick up the instrument of torture. “Hello.”

“Hi, Mom. Did you hear what xxx (name deleted as protection from libel accusations) that @%$x&! said?”

My discontent disappears. “You mean about


My son and I have frequent ongoing political, cultural, situation rant fests. He must be driving. He has to drive a lot for his job, and while I don’t generally approve cars, phones, and long conversations, he always gets leeway. Before he hangs up ten minutes have passed.

I look at my computer screen, sigh, and reread the page again.

“Helping out is expected from the owner even when having breakfast.”
“Sit down and eat before it turns cold,” Nancy said, coming up behind me. I gratefully relinquished my waitress duties as Nancy took over. She served Rhonda and the Elitist before pushing another large grapefruit juice in front of my plate. I quaffed several swallows down, enjoying the tang of the tart-sweet liquid.
“Didn’t you have dinner last night?” Nancy asked.
“No, I forgot.” I mashed my eggs into the hash browns and stuffed a forkful into my mouth, savoring the mixture of egg yolk, butter, onions, and potatoes. Within minutes I’d polished off the potatoes and picked up the crispy bacon. It crumbled on my tongue. Some inner sense made me notice…

I hear gravel crunching. Living in the country or BFE as my daughter refers to it, the driveway always alerts me when someone is approaching. I run downstairs, look out, and see the Fed Ex man coming up the walkway. We share thirty seconds of chit-chat and he is gone. The address on the envelop excites me. I go into the kitchen, careful open the package and unwrap the bottle of Madagascar vanilla and put it away. Hell, while I’m in the room I might as well start the bread, so I pull out the sourdough starter. Soon I’m back upstairs in my chair. Taking a relaxing breath I look at the page I’ve accomplished so far. I get to the last unfinished sentence. What did Kate notice? What was I thinking…? I sit, my mind stewing for a minute before the idea returns. Oh, yeah. I start keying.

…the Elitist watched me with an avid expression of interest while Rhonda hid her grin and sipped her coffee.
I was about to lick my lips. Remembering the Elitist’s stare and what I heard last night, I used a napkin to wipe my mouth.

Phone rings again. Greetings shared. “Robin, I have a question about what we decided at the last meeting, do you have a minute?”


“Sure.” An hour later I’m back to my story.

“Looks good,” Rhonda said, as Nancy delivered her breakfast.
Nancy handed me the kitchen phone at the same time with a brief, “For you.”

And so it goes. Without a life, I would be unable to write because my experiences offer so much insight, and I love all those who interrupt me. If there ever was a choice between one of them and a book, the answer is simple: them. Yet somehow when I go to work in my alternative world, I often wish I could somehow, just temporarily mind you, erase myself TOTALLY from reality.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Exotic Animals and Argumentation

The composition 2 class I teach is about writing persuasive and argumentative essays or using argument rhetoric in logical, courteous discourse. I have my students do short writing prompts on their opinion about many different contentious issues in the world today to help them find topics that interest them for their essays.

One topic came up about the private ownership of exotic animals. Students gave their opinion/solution on two counter-point arguments printed in USA Today editorials on September 15, 2011.

Should you or your neighbor own bears, tigers, lions, wolves, boa constrictors, alligators, crocodiles, or other unusual pets? These animals are easily procured from the Internet, but how many are privately owned? Specific numbers are hard to come by, but one article in National Geographic claims 15,000 large cats in the U.S. under private ownership. Zoos and other professional animal handlers of various ilk have to be licensed, but not all states require licensing of private owners. The situation is described at the Wildlife Research and Conservation blog.

The viewpoints of those opposed fell into three arguments: 1) human treatment of animals, 2) inherent danger to the owner, family, visitors, and neighbors and 3) environmental issues.

The major problem is the same one as found in many other issues: irresponsibility. 

First off, many owners don't know the dietary and housing needs their exotic pet requires, and information can be hard to find. Exotic animals can be very expensive to keep, not only the cost for secure habitats but also for food and veterinary costs. Because of this, many exotic animals can fall into the neglected and starved animal scenario. Before this situation arises, some owners ask their local zoo to take their animal, but most licensed facilities have already reached a limit of animals given by private owners and can't take any more. This leads many owners to release their exotics into the local wild spaces near their home even though the local climate and landscape are entirely unsuitable for the animal, leaving the pet to die when the weather turns. Owners also release animals into environments where they can overwhelm native species. The Everglades are full of boa constrictors released when they became too 'big' for the owner to handle. Alligators have been found in New York's sewers, and perhaps you remember the Ohio incident where a man released his private zoo, many on the endangered species list, before committing suicide. Most of the animals shared his fate of death. These animals can ultimately create dangerous situations or cost the taxpayer for their capture or eradication.

Those who approve ownership felt it was their right to be able to own any animal they want if it isn't against their state's laws. So, as long as they remain a responsible owner, leave them alone. They love their exotic pets and feel they are also helping to keep some species from extinction. You want to talk about the humane treatment of animals? Talk to your local ASPCA or Human Society. People can be very inhumane not only to their pets but to other people, including their own children. Deaths by dogs are probably much higher than deaths by exotic animals. Domestic cats also destroy native habitats by their superior skills in hunting native species of birds, reptiles, and small mammals, but no one is suggesting everyone has to get rid of their pet dog or cat. Plus, an owner's failure to neuter their domestic pet has also led to major problems. Why single out exotic pet ownership as irresponsible?

So, what do you think?
Winston, a dropped off on the road, now a thirty-pound, neutered pet and as big a cat as I want to handle.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Crocus, Spring, and Writing

I love flowers, but also the plants, the botany, and both their and my responses to the seasons, so somehow a garden scene of some sort shows up in my books. From my experiences and emotions about changing seasons, I hope I insert metaphoric meaning using gardens. Most of you, I am sure, have already had spring emerge where you live, but here in Northern Michigan, mounds of snow cover my garden, and although I had Snowdrops at this time last year, we had four more inches of snow yesterday. More is expected today. So I wait with hope for the promise of spring, just as I wrote in my first novel, Magic Aegis:

The garden looked beautiful even under the snow. The gray stems of parterre shrubs seemed to form a cleaner pattern, its framework more distinct. The hard work of pruning them had provided visual results. Swaying branches of the fruit trees, striated in smooth bark, created moving mosaics on the clear blue sky. Patterns in the wall were picked out with bright snow and the air held a frigid scent of promised renewal.

With fresh resolve, she rose at long last and shook the snow off her cloak and skirts. A bright color unseen at the side of the bench caught her eye. A small purple and yellow crocus bud emerged from the snowy blanket. The sight cheered her. Beyond the wall she heard crows cawing, and feeling different somehow, she left the garden.

~ * ~
I hope your spring has sprung. I’m waiting.