Monthly Archives: October 2016

Dissecting Halloween: Origins of a Sugar-Filled Night

Happy Halloween, Everyone!

I hope you all found some time over the weekend to celebrate with costumes, candy, and scary movies. Though, Halloween didn’t originate as a night for ghoulish fun and tummy aches.

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The origins of Halloween date back to Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival. Samhain is a sacred celebration honoring harvest’s end and the beginning of winter. It’s often considered the start of the spiritual New Year and is a fire festival. People light bonfires over a series of days and dress in masks and costumes to ward off lost spirits.

During the eighth century, Pope Gregory III borrowed Samhain traditions into a festival known as All Saints’ Day. A holy day, All Saints’ Day honors the Catholic Church’s saints; all Catholics must attend Mass on this day.

The night preceding All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallows’ Eve, which, eventually, became known as the modern day Halloween. While All Hallows’ Eve started as a night for prayer before a holy day, Queen Elizabeth’s break with the Holy See began the transition of All Hallows’ Eve to Halloween. Following this break, the English tradition of begging at peoples’ doors for “soul cakes:” shortbread cakes with currants for eyes, in exchange for the beggars praying for the household’s dead, grew. But the food itself became more important to the poor than praying for the dead.

When Irish immigrants, fleeing the potato famine, entered America, they brought with them the developing Halloween traditions from Ireland and England. Americans began wearing costumes and going from door-to-door asking for either money or food. Nowadays, children run from house-to-house, dressed up, and asking, “trick-or-treat, give me something good to eat,” while adults attend Halloween parties.

Even though Halloween is a far cry from its original purpose, spirituality and superstition still predominate the end of October and the start of November. People say goodbye to the hot weather and prepare for the cold of winter. There’s an electricity to the air, a dark energy that fuels all the stories of ghosts and goblins, and as people huddle around campfires, drinking hot chocolate, and sneaking in bits of leftover candy, there’s the feeling that we might not be the only ones watching the flames.

Have a wonderfully spooky night, and remember, that when the embers cool and go out, you might not be alone in the dark.

(Photo courtesy of Dan Taylor-Watt.)

When the Ghouls Come Out to Play: How Plague Victims Became Vampires

Between Halloween rapidly approaching and recently burying my grandmother’s ashes, death and what lies beyond has been on my mind. Are some of those who’ve passed away still around? Are all those we bury truly dead?

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Throughout history there have been stories about the dead coming back to life or the spirits of the dead haunting the living. One of the most notorious myths of the undead is the vampire. In modern society, the vampire is seen as a romantic, gothic figure, whether you’re examining Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice’s Louis, or Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Cullen. Each of these vampires is tortured in some way, while being irresistible to mortals.

However, vampires weren’t always seen as beautiful, tormented creatures that have a soft spot for particular humans. Vampire lore originated from superstition and misunderstandings about post-mortem decay in the middle ages.

Between 1300 and 1700, plagues swept through Europe at an alarming rate. At the time, people didn’t understand how disease spread or how decomposition worked. They believed that dark, evil forces caused plagues, namely vampires.

Sometimes mass graves would be reopened to add more bodies and gravediggers would stumble across corpses that were “bloated by gas, with hair still growing, and blood seeping from their mouths.” These gravediggers would think these corpses were still alive. The corpse had been possessed and had become one of the undead, a “shroud-eater,” whose purpose was to spread disease throughout all the corpses, until the vampire had gained enough power to rise from the ground.

The only way to prevent a vampire from rising was to exorcise it. When a person died, a shroud would be laid over his face. The person would be buried with the shroud, and as bacteria ate away at the shroud, it would appear like the corpse had eaten through the shroud, hence the name “shroud-eater.” This shroud would be removed from the corpse’s mouth and a brick would be jammed between the corpse’s teeth. This would prevent the corpse from being able to spread disease to more corpses and gain enough strength to rise from the ground and spread plague to more people.

While today we know how disease and decomposition work, it’s fascinating to discover how people explained horrific events before they were scientifically understood. And while vampires and other supernatural creatures are considered hot in modern literature and film, it’s beneficial to know how supernatural myths came about. In writing, even if you’re writing about sparkling, vegetarian vampires, knowing what humans would have considered vampires as a hundred(s) years ago is vital to understanding that vampire’s character.

Expanding beyond vampires, knowing a character’s history is important to comprehending that character’s personality. Knowing where a character comes from and what that character’s been through before page one of a novel or short story allows you to understand what that character wants and why that person behaves the way he does. If you don’t appreciate a character’s background, that character’s personality will shift unnaturally and readers won’t make connections with why that person makes the decisions he does.

Have a wonderful final week before Halloween, and, remember, if you’re going to a midnight graveyard reading, watch where you step. You never know one-hundred percent what’s laying beneath the ground.

(Photo courtesy of Otto Magus.)

Halt! How to Not Lose Readers on Your First Page

 

When it comes to enticing readers (or literary agents) to read your novel, the first page is extraordinarily important. Many people, including agents, believe that they can tell whether a book is worth reading from the first page. This means that your first page has to deliver what a reader expects it to.

495969512_f317d59719_oThink about how many times you’ve gone into a bookstore, the library, or onto Amazon in search of the next book you’re going to read. You probably first look at the title and the book cover. If those two aspects draw you in, then you read the blurb. If you’re still interested, you’ll open the book or, if on Amazon, go to the free preview, and check out the first page. If the first page doesn’t impress, then you move on to the next book. After all, why would you stick around to read an entire novel, if the first page isn’t interesting?

So, what can you do to make your first page enticing?

While there’s no hard-and-fast rules, certain elements can help or hurt your first page. Oftentimes, starting a novel with dialogue or weather will not catch readers’ interest. Readers want to picture what is happening. Have you ever read a scene where two people are sitting somewhere and having a conversation? The conversation may be intriguing, but you have no idea where the two people are or what the two people look like? Or, maybe it’s the opposite, where you have so much description that you’re overloaded. You can probably think of a novel where the author spends the first pages describing the weather, the house, the landscape…and nothing else happens. Nothing occurs that sets the scene in motion.

When it comes to writing a novel, readers want and expect the novel to read like a movie. They want scenes to be visual, as if a camera is guiding them.

Why is this?

Because readers want to be immersed in the story. In essence, readers want to be shown a story instead of told it.

How do you go about writing a scene like a movie?

Think about scenes the way a director would. Where should the camera be angled at this moment? Where is every character positioned in this scene? If something happens at point A, how does that effect point B? For example, your two protagonists (sisters) are fighting a gang of five people. The younger sister is stabbed. This effects the older sister’s actions. She may get distracted, and so gets punched in the face. Does the camera catch the younger sister getting stabbed, or is the camera focused on the older sister, so that the older sister, and readers, only hear the younger sister scream? It’s only when the older sister whirls around to look at the younger sister that she and readers realize the younger sister’s been injured.

When combining the camera technique with a novel’s first page, set the scene with a brief camera shot. This shot shows where the character is by using sensory detail. By setting the scene, your readers can follow what is occurring.

Notice that I said, “occurring,” instead of “about to occur.” Begin the first page in the middle of an action. Readers don’t want to be told that something is going to happen; they want to be immersed immediately in what is happening. Here’s a great opening line from Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett: “The small boys came early to the hanging.”

This line throws readers into the story. Something morbid is occurring, and a group of children are about to witness a horrendous act that will change their worldview. Readers want to know more.

No matter what, the camera should never feel like it’s stuck in one place. You want to choose the best angle for each shot. A close in view will limit what readers’ experience, while a faraway shot will give readers a bigger picture view. However, while a close in shot will showcase small, vital details, a bigger picture will pass over the details for a more bird’s eye view.

You want readers to notice what you want them to see. Give readers enough information to make them want to know more.

(Photo courtesy of Stephen.)

When You Have Too Many Characters, Let the Zombies Loose

 

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I’ve been commenting on a friend’s work in progress. It’s a fantasy novel, and the number of characters is large. The novel is the first in a planned seven book series, and many of the characters are important. There are ten children/teens and three adults, for a total of thirteen main characters.

While there is no firm rule about how many characters to include in a novel, oftentimes fewer characters is better. Fewer characters tend to mean increased readability and emotional power.

When you have too many characters, several things can happen:

  • Reader confusion. While you have thoroughly thought out your story, readers haven’t. They don’t know all the ins and outs of every single character. As more characters get involved, plots and relationships grow more complex. It’s a lot easier for readers to forget what’s going on. Characters are forgotten and readers get frustrated.

 The most recent chapter I commented on for my friend’s book was one scene that contained ten characters. The chapter was about twenty pages because my friend wanted each character to get an equal about of time in the limelight. However, this novel is in limited third-person point of view, which means that the story is told through the eyes of one character. This sole character should have the lion’s share of the story. By my friend attempting to give all the characters equal show time, the protagonist’s voice was lost in the shuffle.

  • Tedium takes hold. When you have a large cast of characters, you need to take time to introduce them all. Characterization is pivotal. But, each character should get a percentage of readers’ attention. The more important a character is the more she should be in the story. Spending too much time explaining isn’t interesting. You don’t want readers to say that your novel was slow.

Many of my friend’s novel chapters are intense. I want to keep reading. Yet, I find that the characters spend too much time conversing. I want action, and too often I get five or more characters in a scene and for some reason all of them have to voice their opinion or I have to know what each one is doing at all times. This slows down the action and the tension.

  • Too much fluff. Writing characters is fun, as is creating playful banter and showcasing each character’s viewpoint, for the writer. Readers are only interested in characters that serve a purpose. If you’ve got characters in your story that don’t add to the plot, get rid of them. It’ll do your book good. The tighter your cast is, the more impactful your story will be.

As I’ve been commenting on my friend’s chapters, I’ve used track changes to delete swaths of text. At first I felt bad, but after a while, I realized that what I was doing was cutting out the fluff. There are so many characters that many times the important parts of the plot were pushed to the side. And, too often, when I wanted to know what the protagonist was thinking and feeling, I couldn’t find the protagonist anywhere in the story.

Having a large cast of characters is fine, as long as you’re honest with yourself. Do you need all those characters? How many of those characters will be in the story’s climax? Will anyone miss character 13 if you cut him out?

Like the title says, when you’ve got a huge cast, it might be time to let the zombies chow down on a few of your characters.

(Photo courtesy of Birgit Fostervold.)

Creating a Creativity-Fueled Workspace

16389062895_f1863e1609_oA few of my professors told me to write every chance I got. One professor in particular stated that she would take advantage of every opportunity, including while she was waiting in her children’s school pick-up line. She said she could get a good fifteen minutes of writing in. All you had to do was block out any distractions. Focus on your writing.

I tried something similar to that. However, it was an utter disaster. I kept getting distracted by all the people and noises around me. Plus, the air conditioning was cranked way up. All I could think about was how I wished I’d brought a jacket.

Even writing in my house, while other people are moving around me, is distracting. In grade school I never was able to watch TV/listen to music, while doing homework. The same goes for my writing. For me, I need to have a separate space, a space that’s distraction free. That means no music, TV, or other people. This is doubly so for revision, because I like to read aloud and talk to myself, while editing. I may even act out a few scenes to get all the staging straight.

Some things I’ve found that help me focus and get my creativity flowing are:

  1. Choose your space. This one seems obvious, but it can be more difficult than it first appears. Some people are able to work anywhere. I envy those people. If I don’t have a place, where I feel inspired and motivated and won’t be distracted, my brain will shut down. There’s a good chance I’ll end up watching TV or reading.

Think about the places where you’ve written your best pieces. Maybe it’s a specific bench at a park. Maybe it’s in your sunroom. Maybe it’s laying in the middle of the floor. The spot you choose should be relatively quiet, because you want to escape into your head.

Pay attention to the position your write in. For me, I write best when I’m sitting upright at a desk or cross-legged on the floor with my laptop and notebook on the coffee table. I like to be able to spread out, so I need a decent sized writing space.

  1. De-clutter. If you’ve ever done spring cleaning, you know that after you cleaned out your closets and drawers and have vacuumed and scrubbed every surface, you feel a lot better. De-cluttering is one of the best ways to increase motivation and productivity.

You may not notice it pre-cleaning, but clutter blocks creativity. The times that I’ve allowed clutter to accumulate, I’ve felt overwhelmed looking at the mess. I also felt cramped. I kept thinking about the mess. Once I cleaned up, my creative juices flowed a lot easier.

  1. Have natural light. This one is very important. Sunlight improves mood, alertness, and productivity. There’s a reason seasonal affective disorder occurs more often in the winter months than summer or why Alaskans tend to drink a lot more alcohol in the winter than summer.

Without good lighting, a space can appear dull. A fog settles over our brains decreasing our ability to think clearly and cohesively. Poor lighting affects our emotions. Good lighting induces feelings of elation, while dim lighting creates depressive feelings.

I write better when I have exposure to natural light. I’m able to concentrate on my writing and am in better touch with my emotions. However, I can’t face a window, while writing, because I’ll end up watching what’s going on outside.

Where’s your writing workspace?

(Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.)