Archives for September 2016

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Food as a Writing Prompt

steaming hot coffee held by mittens

Look long enough, and you’ll feel the chill of the air and the heat of the drink in your hands.

You can’t use food as a writing prompt! Or can you? Hmmm… Food can be used for worldbuilding. It’s inspired the readers to recreate the dishes from books and movies (Did you check out the recipes from Studio Ghibli and Avatar: the Last Airbender or from the Harry Potter series and LOTR?). Heck, if people can find Jesus on a potato chip, then why can’t we find a scene or a character?

Ok, bad example.

Setting a Scene with Food and Sensory Language

Visions aside, if done well, food is something you experience rather than something that’s inhaled and forgotten. If it’s bad, on the other hand, forgetting it may be the best you can hope for. That’s why describing a food and the surrounding ambience can very quickly give the audience a strong impression of a situation (scary or otherwise). For this aspect, foods that inspire strong emotions or memories may be easiest to work with.

  1. Pick a food that you associate with a specific experience, situation, or person.
  2. Picture in your mind the feelings, setting, and flavors you associate with that food.
  3. Describe the scene using sensory language (language that appeals to 1 or more of the 5 senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, or hearing).
  4. Analyze the mood created and use it to guide you to the next step of the plot.

Some foods have a comforting or cheerful association: hot cocoa after playing in the snow or a soothing glass of wine after a hard day at work. Foods can be used to comfort, to romance, or even to intimidate, but it’s the trappings that surround them and the way they appeal to the senses (or don’t) that does the most to establish that atmosphere.

Building Character with Food

In any culture, there are norms for what people eat. For example, a grizzled U.S. cop drinking coffee isn’t going to make anyone blink (it’s a stereotype thing). If the grizzled cop only drinks herbal tea and milk, however, that’s going to get the reader’s attention and show very quickly and easily that there is more to this cop than meets the eye. It’s also a useful way to establish amusing and interesting quirks that can endear the character to the readers (or do the opposite).

  1. Pick a stereotypical character.
  2. List what foods or types of foods that character would be expected to like/have tried.
  3. List what foods or types of foods that character would be expected to disdain.
  4. Decide what the character actually likes (it will most likely be some of each).
  5. Use those choices to help direct you as you develop the character.
    • Is he more sensitive than he seems?
    • Is he a health nut?
    • Does she have a deathly allergy that could come into play in the plot?
    • Does she love junk food?

It doesn’t really have to be a stereotypical character (That just makes the exercise easier.) – you can use the same techniques with anyone.

Want to make a character that annoys the reader? Make him/her a really picky eater – excessively so. One who likes to complain about every little thing that isn’t to his/her standards. Like a kid staying at his grandparents’ house and saying, “That’s not how Mom makes it!” Or like an adult who only eats things that are a specific color (it happens).

We have all sorts of associations with what people eat or how people eat. It’s really interesting. Open-mindedness to trying new foods. Or definitely not. Using herbs. Meat and potatoes cooks. Practically a gourmet chef. Expert baker. Able to burn water. Did each of those make you think of a specific person or people?

We’re around some kind of food every day of our lives (we hope). That means we have tons of memories tied to it. That’s a lot of story fodder!

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Thought-provoking Writing

Lord Byron Quote “But words are things, and a small drop of ink, Falling, like dew, upon a thought produces That which makes thousands, perhaps millions think.” George Gordon Byron

It makes you think (funny how that works).

For a quote about how writing is thought-provoking, this is pretty darn thought-provoking, which, I guess, proves his point. But we expect poetry to be thought-provoking. We don’t normally think of general fiction as thought-provoking. Oh, sure. Books like Animal Farm and 1984 were written to jar people’s perceptions. But those are classics. The books that people read most of the time, they’re written to entertain, not make you think, right?

Then, you start thinking about books you’ve read and how they’ve affected you.

  • Did Ender’s Game make you think about how we deal with bullying, how schools are set up, what makes an enemy, or even whether the end justifies the means?
  • Did The Lord of the Rings make you think about nations working together, about how greed corrupts, about trained prejudices, or perhaps about how trauma can have lingering affects?
  • Did any Stephen King book make you think about human frailty and powerlessness? Did it make you want to lock your doors while at the same time make locking them at all seem pointless? (But I digress)

Part of what makes a book great is its power to seem real when you read it. Even when set in a fantasy world or some futuristic society, there have to be elements that we can relate to. And any time there are elements of reality, there will be the potential for inspiring thought – whether or not that was the author’s intention at all.

But that’s good, right? After all, I don’t think it would hurt our society to think more. Do you?

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What Do You Want in a Writing Resource?

what's next writing resource

Author interviews? Editor interviews? What would help you as a writer?

This is my question for you: What do you want in a writing resource? Or from a writing resource?

Let me give you a little backstory so you know where I’m coming from with this.

Words & Deeds started out as a writing blog  because blog articles said to write about what you know. Since writing about how to write is what I get paid to do, it seemed like the obvious choice – you know, branch out a little from work and get to do some of the fun things that bosses won’t let you try with school kids, that might be too challenging, or that don’t look so nice in black and white booklets (it’s a long list).

As the blog grew and people began to follow it, it began to evolve. At some point, I realized that I want to make this blog into a writing resource – something that writers can come to to get ideas or look something up and then go back to their work.

One problem: writing for writers is different from writing for people trying to learn to write. Writers already know (mostly, right?), so writing the same kinds of things I would for middle schoolers… seems a bit insulting. Is an article on the “loose” v. “lose” really helpful? Have you already had so many classes on symbolism that you’re sick of it?

I know they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and I can keep putting up writing prompts, inspirational quotes, and random writing thoughts for a long, long time. But I thought there might be more out there that people might want or could use.

So I’m putting the question out there – what do you want out of a writing resource? What would make this blog most useful to you? What’s missing?

You can answer in the comments or pm me. Either way, I’d love to hear your ideas.

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Forensic Linguistics as Dialogue Research

it wasn't me i am innocent

Anyone watching the special on CBS about the JonBenet Ramsey case? I saw part of it, and to be honest, what caught my attention most as a writer was the forensic linguistic part. In the section I saw, they identified a line of testimony as a lie because the wording was too extreme – too much of a sales pitch. That made me think that forensic linguistics could be useful dialogue research.

Areas of Forensic Linguistics That Relate to Dialogue

Now, maybe, you’re an expert, but I’ve never heard of forensic linguistics before. So I Googled it. According to wikipedia. it’s applying linguistics to trials, crimes, etc. (blah blah blah). I could’ve guessed that much from context clues.

Don’t worry – “The Forensic Text Types” section was more useful, especially relating to writing and dialogue.

Emergency Calls

Since 9-1-1 calls are usually intense, time-sensitive situations, the types of things forensic linguists look for would be most useful under similar circumstances. And they’re mostly about analyzing (or revealing) the honesty or dishonesty of the caller (is the call real?).

Some signs that it may not be real include

  • delay/pauses between answers
  • sidestepping or hedging answers
  • really short answers
  • incomplete answers

Translating some of that into writing could be hard, but it could definitely useful if you need to make it seem like a character is lying. Focus on timing and willingness to give information.

Notes for Ransoms or Threats

This section makes me think of motivation. Only this has the challenge of figuring out the motivation of characters you’ve never met.

It seems that combined with the actual message, when a ransom note was written gives a pretty big clue about the motivation of the person writing it as well as the potential honesty. Which makes a lot of sense but isn’t something I would have thought of.

For example, if they wrote “the child is safe” before they ever took the child, that’s not trustworthy. Sure, they might’ve planned for the child to be safe, but who knows if the kidnapping went as planned? It’s an interesting thought-process to apply.

Another aspect that came up in the JonBenet case was the idea that the ransom note could have a mix of motivations because multiple people were writing it. In that case (according to the theory promoted on the show), a lie got more complicated because two many people were involved in planning it.

But even if the note was intended as a true ransom, having co-criminals with different priorities could result in a mixed impression for the police.

Suicide notes, death row statements, and social media are also listed as specific texts studied; however, at a glance, they appear less applicable without having very specific moments in the plot or doing further research.

That’s kind of what I’m afraid of, actually. As much as this topic seems intriguing, it also seems like the sort of topic that could take a lot of sifting through before you find the kernel of information that you can use. The only problem is I don’t know that for sure – it could be a goldmine of strategies and techniques for figuring out if someone is lying. Or other tidbits that could be really handy for writing dialogue that conveys a certain impression.

That leaves me feeling really conflicted. Do I take the risk, or do I make use of this much and move on. Is it Pandora’s box or a pirate’s treasure chest? If anyone decides to research this further, I’d love to know the answer.