— R. Scott Decker, PSWA Vice President and author of Recounting the Anthrax Attacks.
Introduction – As I continue to write and refine my style, I find my mind visualizing the words as I form a sentence. I struggle not to use the same word twice on a page, to stay in the active voice, alter sentence length, and so on. My goal is that writing becomes second nature. It takes work.
I am also finding that I visualize spoken words and unconsciously critique the speaker’s use of words and phrases. My mind sees the spoken words on a page. I find myself cringing at certain phrases used in abundance and not always in the correct form. I evaluate discussions and media commentary for what would be suitable or unsuitable in written narrative. Overuse and misuse of the King’s English has become my unintended pet peeve.
I’m not alone. At the beginning of the year, two young TV announcers/anchors presented their list of overused and abused words. They put “literally” at the top of their list. Unfortunately, many celebrities, including Hollywood A-listers and popular talk show hosts, did not see the broadcast or pay attention if they did. At the top of my list for this season is “moving forward.” It’s everywhere—sports, politics, and the nightly news. Some examples:
Commentator during the fourth game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals – “We will continue to monitor COVID test positive results moving forward.” Redundant?
Tom Bevan, opening of the 9/29/2020 Presidential Debate – “Forward-looking vision for the future.” What?
A prolific and widely-read romance author recently penned advice for fellow writers: “I think the biggest mistake an author makes when writing a rough draft is stopping and rereading/editing their work. The key is to keep moving forward and get the whole story out.” Could forward be left out without losing the meaning? I vote, yes.
Second on my list is “transparency” and its negative, “lack of transparency.” When did this one replace the more articulate, “lying by omission,” “not being truthful,” “hiding the facts, “without explanation?” Candidate Joe Biden used “transparency” more than once during the 9/2020 Presidential Debate. Even my personal hero, Chris Wray, Director of the FBI, uses “transparency” in his public addresses.
Landing at third on my overuse list are adverbs—those ending in “-ly.” Usually (oops) they waste oxygen. What morning talk show doesn’t broadcast “literally” during every airing?
New Words and Terms – And there is the use of new words when the tried and true won’t do. For 2020 we have “impactful.” And “content” to describe information. “Break it down” for explaining things. “Deeper look” has replaced closer look and scrutiny. During a Las Vegas Springs Preserve TV ad this past summer, the narrator said, “during a rain event” to describe when it rains; and repeated it three times in one minute! And there is “price point” to describe price; “skill set” to mean skills. Is there no end?
Summing Up – Writing benefits from brevity, using less words to say more. More often than not, it lends itself to a faster paced narrative. As writers, we must embrace the use of a wide and varied vocabulary. Word’s thesaurus feature is a good start. I find reading the work of prominent authors especially useful, such as that of John McPhee. As I took breaks in my book writing to read his tome, Coming into the Country (FSG, 1991), I kept a list of words he used that were unfamiliar to me. The list grew to more than one hundred by the time I finished the book. I kept a dictionary close at hand.
Being a writer is being a lifelong learner. . .
I’m a guest this month for George’s blog, and if not for him, I would have made a huge blunder in my most recent book, EMBERS OF MURDER. I thought I understood the military. I guess I should have watched more television. I have a character in the book from NCIS. I thought it was a part of the military command. Fortunately, I happen to be talking to George about it, and he enlightened me that it’s a civilian personnel activity of the Navy. My character’s rank was changed from Lieutenant to Special Agent. Whew!
Each book brings about research. Whether it’s using Google Earth to stand on the streets of cities, I have never visited or trying to understand how various law enforcement agencies work across the world.
Like many authors, I occasionally glance outside, expecting to see an unmarked van surveilling my house to determine if I’m a criminal. Sometimes my research determines how long it takes someone to die from X poison. Did you know that most human bodies don’t burn into ashes if they die in a house fire? Well, you do now. Smoke inhalation is what kills them. I have a head filled with random knowledge ready in case the question is ever asked on Jeopardy.
I also shop online for random stuff as a part of my story. Where can I get a tank of nitrogen gas? How about a helium tank? Did you know that the mini helium tanks that you buy from party stores have twenty-one percent air in them? You can’t die inhaling the gas from a party-store purchased helium-filled balloon. Instead, you have to buy your helium tank from a welder’s supply. There you go… more random knowledge.
When I mentioned that EMBERS OF MURDER would be about an arsonist, a reader wrote to me to say that he investigated fires for an insurance company and could be a resource for any fire questions. He was very helpful and suggested I use isopropyl alcohol to start a fire rather than gasoline as it doesn’t leave a residue that can be traced.
It’s all fiction, so why bother to get technical parts of the story right? Because bad information can be a distraction. I watched an episode of “ER” in the late 1990s. They portrayed something so medically inaccurate that I never again watched the show. I missed the next decade of shows because of my outrage with that single inaccuracy. I lost faith in ER’s writers.
I feel the same way about fiction stories. Even though I’m reading fiction, there are parts of every story that need to be true or believable. A character needs to behave like they have for the past five books. Science must be true whether the story is set on earth or some imaginary planet. I have an arsonist trying to hide their work, and I can’t achieve that if I start a brushfire with gasoline and expect that the fire people can’t figure that out. Duh.
Sometimes the research is routine (What’s on the menu of a Queenstown pub-restaurant). Other times I’ll spend nearly an hour going down a rabbit hole fascinated by what I looked for. For example, I’ve never visited Israel, yet I had a part of EVERGREEN VALLEY MURDER related to the Dead Sea. Before I knew it, an hour passed as I looked at the sea with online pictures and Google Earth and read a little history of the area.
Being a writer is the best way to keep your brain engaged with the world around us!
Author of Jill Quint, MD Forensic Pathologist series (12 books), and Damian Green series (4 books)
Contact: www.AlecPeche.com or Author@AlecPeche.com
Lani Longshore introduces us to science fiction, quilting and writing about life (blog)
The Chenille Ultimatum (with Ann Anastasio). Susan thought she was done with space aliens when she sent her mother, Edna, and daughter Cecily as ambassadors to the planet Schtatik. Instead, she must travel across the galaxy to stop a civil war that Edna started when she made herself queen of one of the clans. As Susan struggles to make everyone calm down, she learns how strong she really is, and how important it is to carry an embroidery project wherever she goes.
When did you realize you wanted to write novels? I’ve thought of myself as a writer since elementary school. In high school and college, I produced short stories, poems, essays, and news articles. I was fortunate enough to find a good writing support group as an adult and wrote my first (still unpublished) novel.
How long was your road to publication? The first book in the Chenille series, Death By Chenille, was published twenty years after I began writing novels. I’m working on the fourth novel in that series with co-author Ann Anastasio.
Are you traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid author? I am indie published.
Where do you write? I write at my computer desk in the family room. I transitioned from writing by hand to a typewriter when I interned at a local weekly newspaper while in high school. In college, my portable typewriter took up most of my desk.
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? Since I write in the family room, I write to all sorts of sound. Sometimes there is music, sometimes the television is on, sometimes there is only the drone of the dishwasher from the kitchen. As other people are often in the room, the choice of music isn’t entirely up to me, so I’ve learned to embrace all genres.
How much of your plots and characters are drawn from real life? While aspects of the plots and characters’ are drawn from life, I avoid pulling too much from my own experience. My co-author and I used to perform on the quilt lecture circuit, producing 1-act musicals about quilts and the women who make them. The real story behind a quilt isn’t always entertaining. We took the part that fit our needs and made up the rest, a process we’ve continued in our cozy sci-fi novels about quilters who repeatedly save the world from alien invasions.
Describe your process for naming your characters? I go through a baby book first. If that fails, I start searching the bookshelves for author names I can adapt. If that fails, I go to actors’ names I can manipulate. There was an old movie on TV when I needed a name for a secondary character in the first Chenille novel, Death By Chenille, so Randolph Scott became Scott Randolph.
What’s the quirkiest quirk one of your characters has? One of my aliens puffs out colored smoke from his body whenever he gets emotional. The colors match the emotion.
If you could have written any book (one that someone else has already written,) which one would it be? Why? There are many books I wish I had written, but I am reading A Gentleman in Moscow now by Amor Towles and would love to have written it. His character studies are brilliant, and his plot devices are amazing.
What’s your biggest pet peeve? Complicated punctuation in dialog. People speak in pauses and full stops. Who do you know who speaks in semi-colons? No one, that’s who! It’s rare enough to find someone who speaks in full sentences, so I prefer authors to stick to dashes, commas, and periods (with the occasional exclamation point and question mark where required).
You’re stranded on a deserted island. What are your three must-haves? I don’t suppose I could pull an ocean-going boat, fuel for me and the boat, and a really strong radio from a parallel universe, could I? Okay, then I’ll want a food replicator because I’m a vegetarian, so all the fish in the sea won’t do me any good, and what’s the use of life without chocolate? I’ll also want embroidery supplies to make fiber art to decorate my hut (I get a hut, right?), and a crate of notebooks and pens.
What’s the best book you’ve ever read? I’ve never been able to answer that question because there are so many wonderful books available and more on the way. I also can’t settle on a favorite color or even a favorite candy bar.
What’s on the horizon for you? If the Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll finish the fourth book in the Chenille series, The Captain and Chenille, by spring.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books? When I finally outgrew imagining I knew everything, I realized if I wanted to know anything at all, I should say yes whenever someone offered to teach me. It’s why I know how to quilt when I don’t have a domestic bone in my body (okay, I love to cook, but that’s a survival skill), and why I’m a black belt in karate when I come from a long line of pacifists. Three bits of trivia: I’ve seen Lenin’s Tomb; two of my quilting students were recipients of presidential pardons for federal crimes; both sides of my family have scandals regarding running away from the clan and taking the reasons why to the grave. As to my books, The Chenille series came out of a failed plan to create a platform for a quilting technique book. Ann and I had a great idea, and our proposal received favorable comments, but we weren’t famous enough in quilt circles for a publisher to take a chance on us. We decided we would write a novel to get some publicity. Quilting mysteries were just starting to take off, but neither Ann nor I had enough confidence we could write a good mystery. Since we had already created quilting vaudeville with our 1-act musical comedies, we decided to create quilting science fiction. We still aren’t well known enough to get our technique book published, but we’re working on our fourth novel. The remarkable thing about our collaboration is that Ann and her family moved several states away before we had finished our second book, and yet we still managed to get that one and the third book completed.
A few readers commented that when I posted this article from Kirkus Reviews, it was much too small to read.
Jim said, “If we kill him, and get caught, they will electrocute us. If we kill him, we have to do it in a way that can’t be proved.” He went on, “We gotta make sure the rest of the prisoners know it was us, so they’ll fear us.” They spent weeks coming up with plan after plan.
* * * * *
Ben, the youngest and least threatening on the chain gang, was the water boy. He shuffled up and down the line passing out water from two canvas buckets hanging by ropes from a wooden yoke. A tin cup was attached to the yoke by a cord. The prisoners were allowed to dip bug laden and brackish water twice each hour. Pete reveled in his domination of Ben by forcing him to fill the cup and hand it to him.
Ben said, “We can grind up glass to a fine powder and put it in his cup. It’ll cut his innards to pieces.”
“It’ll cut you, and the guards will see your bloody hands.”
“I’ll carry it in something and slip it in before I get to him.”
“I like the idea, but not glass. There are too many risks. If you get caught, what’ll you say?”
The chain gang was on a particularly tough stretch of the swamp, clearing brush and bamboo. Hardly a week went by without someone getting bit by a snake. Everyone, including the guards, was jumpy. As one of the prisoners put it, “You had-ta look where you was cutting every time you swung your machete. Otherwise, you could-a hit a snake.”
The men carried long bamboo shafts to thrust ahead of where they worked to get the snakes to move away; even the guards had poles.
Ben had read somewhere that finely shaved bamboo slivers could kill a man slowly and painfully with little evidence. In these surroundings, he was sure he could conceal this deadly gift.
“I’ll try bamboo and see if it does the job.”
The next day Ben cut a few inches from his shaft. Working with a jailhouse knife made from a piece of tin, he cut fine shards. So fine, they were almost invisible to the human eye. He wasn’t careful, and a sliver got stuck in his finger. He felt the pain but could not see the offending shard. “Damn, this hurts.”
“How you gonna test it?” Jim asked.
A pack of mongrel dogs hung about the camp surviving on scraps, roadkill, and what they could beg off the prisoners and guards. “I’ll try it on one of the mutts.”
Jim asked, “How can you do that?”
“Easy, I’ll save my meat Saturday and mix in the bamboo.”
Angrily, Jim retorted, “I mean, how can you kill a dog?”
“Easy if it will help get rid of Pete.”
Jim slumped, head down as he whispered, “Oh, God.” After a moment, he looked up and said, “Okay.”
Two days later, Saturday, the one night a week they got meat, Ben saved what passed for meat, ground-up hog, beef entrails, and chicken scraps. Because it was his plan, Ben said, “I’ll do it.” After dinner, he slipped one of the dogs, a mangy collie mix, a handful of bamboo-laced meat.
Ben and Jim watched the mongrel. The first day they saw no change in its behavior. The second day the dog began whimpering and crawling around in pain—the third, it passed blood from its ass and coughed up more—the fourth it died.
Two days later, Ben gave Pete a water and bamboo cocktail. Based on their experience with the dog, they expected some sign on the second day. Pete seemed as healthy as a sadistic bastard can be. Ben thought about giving him another dose of bamboo. Jim vetoed the idea as too risky.
Ben smiled at Pete and said, “How’s the water?”
“What the f*@k are you talking about, punk?”
Ben smiled. He made sure that Pete’s crew overheard the exchange, a conversation he repeated as the day wore on.
On the third day, Pete began to complain of severe stomach pain. Walking up with a bright smile, Ben almost sang, “Hey Pete, you want another cup of water? I fixed it special for you.” Pete declined—by then—it was too late.
By the fourth day, Pete was shitting and puking blood. He couldn’t walk. Even the guards knew he was dying. Once again, Ben offered to bring him water.
It took Pete five days to die.
No autopsy, no investigation, just a quick burial in an unmarked grave: the other prisoners knew Ben had killed Pete, only not how. Life on the chain gang remained hard.
Ben was never attacked again.
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/george.cramer