Caught you thinking naughty thoughts, didn’t I?! No, I am not talking about hot sex scenes in some of the soft porn that passes as romantic fiction these days. (Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters must be fairly spinning in their graves!)
I mean the writer’s use of sensory allusions to add dimension to any passage in a work of fiction—and in non-fiction, too, as a matter of fact. My writing group—bless them! bless them!—often catch me up on my “talking heads.” A timely appeal to any of the senses can add hugely, albeit subtly, to a scene and help ground the characters and the reader.
Basically, those sensory touches add mood. Weather is almost a cliché in setting mood—think Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” which Schultz borrowed from someone else (Edward Bulwer-Lytton?) Colors alone can do it—that fiery red dress on the heroine is meant to communicate passion as opposed to the melancholy of her mother’s mourning gray.
Moviemakers spend jillions on background music for everything from scary horror scenes to sunny sailing excursions. Writers do not have such audio tools, but we can be aware of things like a falling ember in a fireplace, the sounds of cars or carriages from outside, the sounds of footsteps—shuffling? determined? skipping? approaching? receding?—even the clearing of a throat may lend dimension to the message being delivered.
Tactile details help too. Is the seat on that chair smooth leather or cool horsehair or plush velvet? What shade of green is that grass? Has it the softness of spring or is it the straw of late summer? How does such a detail contribute to the overall impression of a room or an environment? How does it contribute to the broader purpose of the passage? Touch is obviously the key element of sensuality in love scenes, but it can be tremendously important in any scene.
Don’t forget the olfactory sense. The reader’s nose is sensitive to more than just the perfume or shaving soap of a character. Describing a kitchen? Mention the smells that might emanate from that place—in real time or not. A stable or a barn? ‘Twould take a real novice to ignore the nose in that description. Sea air just smells different. The forest after or during a storm smells different from when it is dry and the sun is drifting through tree limbs and making shifting patterns on the ground.
Taste? Incorporated with other senses, this one, too, must not be ignored. Want a reminder of the effects of the essential tastes of sweet, salty, bitter? Watch a baby experiencing these sensations and try to describe his or her reactions!
Finally, pay attention to shapes. Take a cue from theatre stagers when creating backgrounds for your characters to act in. Stage directors know, for instance, that harsh, jagged lines will reinforce highly dramatic clashes, while circles and swirls subliminally suggest a smooth, unthreatening mood for another kind of scene.
Do keep reminding me, Lone Mountain Writers!!
Oh, dear. Oh, dear. Oh, dear . . .
Those are the cries of a writer caught in a dilemma of her own making. Plotting is always difficult for me. So the problem is: I’ve got this character—my heroine—a “lady” in Regency England who must spend a good deal of time alone with a man—the hero—without compromising them to the point they have to marry (yet). So far I’ve fiddled with the timing, added and deleted characters, but nothing quite works. And this is the first book of a three-book series and I’ve already signed a contract, and it just ain’t working and if I could just get it firmly started and—and—and—
And life is a bitch.
I know: this, too, will pass; screw your courage to the sticking place—and I’m sure there are dozens of other clichés I could incorporate here, but none comes to mind. Can you imagine that? I am usually the queen of clichés!
I’ve never written a series before. I have to get this first book right! Mind you, it is the plotting, not characters that is frustrating me. So far, I really LIKE my people.
Many of my writer friends write “from the seat of their pants”—that is with little in the way of an outline. That ain’t me, babe, that ain’t me. I must have a detailed outline—I need to know precisely where I am going and how I am going to get there. That is probably the essential problem here. I usually have a 20- to 25-page outline for a full-length novel. This time I tried it with about half that. Back to the drawing board! (I know: yet another cliché.)
In 1991 the mother of two of my students twisted my arm to talk me into sponsoring a student exchange with a secondary school in Ivanovo, Russia, a former textile center about 300 kilometers NE of Moscow that had fallen on hard times. (Think Detroit in recent years.)
My Russian counterpart was Marina Belova who, among other duties, taught English. I suggested that if the Russian students were interested in a foreign exchange, they might also be interested in the Model United Nations program in a year or so. They were interested—NOW! (This was occurring only a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ordinary Russians were hungry for outside contacts.)
The problem was that THIMUN (The Hague International Model United Nations) assigns countries to participating schools a year in advance. There was no way this Russian school could have a delegation NOW. But these kids were so eager to become involved, it broke my heart to see them turned way. There had to be a way . . .
Turned out there was.
There were at that time over fifteen American high schools in Germany; most of them were involved in THIMUN. My school, Ramstein American High School, already had two full delegations of 14 students each, but I knew that some other schools did not have the full complement.
However, there was another problem: money. The registration fee for THIMUN was $135 per student. Our American students did fund-raisers all year for these fees plus hotel accommodations and train fares. Remember: the Russian students came from very ordinary families in an area suffering economically. They could get to The Hague and stay with families of Russian Embassy personnel, but that was it.
I called MUN directors at other American schools. My first question was could you add a Russian student to your delegation? Oh, yes. Sure. And could your club pay the registration fee? Yes, they could do that. In the end, one school added two Russians and another took three! Those teachers and their students saw this as a great people-to-people opportunity. And it was! Just a few years after Ronald Reagan’s famous line— “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”—American teenagers were tearing down walls of a different sort.
The Ivanovo school had its own delegation the following year. After that, they promoted Model United Nations in other schools in their area and held their own conferences. Today MUN is a thriving concern in Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as Ivanovo. And several Russian schools send their own delegations to THIMUN.
Sadly, when I returned to the States, I was unable to interest any local high school principals in this truly remarkable educational program. (See my previous blog.)
But, boy! does it ever work in Russia!
For nearly a decade I sponsored the Model United Nations at Ramstein American High School on Ramstein Air Base in Germany. MUN was an important element in the educational program at most of the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) in Germany.
MUN is quite simply one of the best educational programs—EVER! (However, in the interest of fairness, I must admit that the Model Senate programs in many schools is similar.)
The title MUN is self-explanatory. Students represent countries and organizations of the United Nations in a mock conference. In order to do so, they must research everything about their assigned country or organization: geography, culture, politics, relations with neighbors and the world at large—everything and anything that will help them truly identify with “their” country.
Even as they are gathering information on the assigned country, they are also researching issues and determining how officials of “their” country would regard such and such an issue. Having to put themselves in others’ shoes for a time is often eye-opening. (Yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor, but it works.) I doubt many former MUN students view the world with the kind of absolutist view we see so often in public discourse these days. Imagine the perspective gained by American teenagers thinking like Ukrainians or Russians regarding the Crimea!
The U.N. itself publishes materials on hot topics for each year’s studies, but it is up to the students to go beyond those sources—and beyond Wikipedia. Enterprising students often write letters to officials of the countries they represent or visit embassies and consulates if they can.
Students must then write resolutions and position papers and be prepared to argue effectively in a formal debate the position of, say, China on air pollution or Iran on nuclear proliferation. And they do so most enthusiastically. Role-playing allows them to understand another’s position, even if they themselves could never endorse it.
I think you probably already see the educational value of this program. It improves research techniques, writing skills, and leadership skills—all of which carry over to other academic areas.
THIMUN is the acronym of The Hague International Model United Nations which meets for a week-long conference every January in The Hague, The Netherlands. About 3,000 students, aged 15-21, from schools all over Europe and beyond, meet to resolve international problems. The operative language is English as most of the delegates are from American international schools, but those schools often have students from their local populations as well. (Today’s king of The Netherlands was once a THIMUN delegate.) The tone truly is international.
The thrill of getting a resolution passed is not unlike the thrill of winning a tennis match or a cross-country race.
More next time . . .
While I fully understand and endorse the modernists’ wish to be gender neutral in writing about general topics, I sometimes find their efforts to be politically correct so annoying that I lose interest in the points they are trying to make.
For example: A writer’s primary goal is to communicate clearly. He or she strives to present his or her information precisely in order to be sure his or her reader will “get” exactly what he or she is offering him or her. OK. I made up this ludicrous exaggeration, but I think you get the picture.
I recently read an otherwise quite useful book—on writing, yet!—in which the author attempted to solve the problem by using s/he. I found that slash thing even more irritating than having those pronouns spelled out—and somewhat pretentious at that. In discussing the possibility of writer’s being interviewed on television or radio as part of a book promotion, she (the author was, indeed, female) wrote this gem:
Don’t expect the host to make you look good. S/he wants to look good. It’s his bread and butter.
The word host is clearly masculine, and the writer acknowledges that fact in “his bread and butter.” So what the devil is the point of that distracting S/he in the second sentence? Other than wanting to impress her reader with her own grasp of what is and is not PC?
Teachers of English grapple with this issue all the time. A possible solution may be to use second person (you), but formal discourse is rarely presented in second person. Or, one may use the distancing one, only to find the problem cropping up later: Is that one a he or a she, a him or a her? I used to advise my students to use the third person plural forms (they, them, their) as a possible solution—but to guard against illogical problems in agreement (e.g., “a writer wishes to entertain and inform their reader”).
English is such a versatile language that there is almost always another way to phrase an idea.
Perhaps I’m just an old curmudgeon looking at the past through rose-tinted bifocals, but I honestly do not remember a time when America was as polarized as it is today. Well . . . maybe when we were all either protesting the Vietnam War or arguing the dangers of the “domino theory.”
But that was one issue. Today it seems we see public discourse on all issues only in stark absolutes (and at a high decibel pitch!). No wonder we’ve had nothing but gridlock in Washington for nearly two decades now. And God forbid that an “opinion”—whether expressed on Facebook or on the floors of Congress—should be supported by statistical or anecdotal evidence! This is a democracy. All opinions have equal value. Moreover, they are invariably expressed as absolute truths. No room for discussion. No admission that there might—possibly—be alternative views of such evidence as is (rarely) presented. My way or the highway. That’s it! Take it or leave it.
Consider the issue of guns, for instance. WHY do some insist that any attempt to curb unlimited access to firearms is a red flag signaling that “they” want to seize all weapons and deny “your God-given right” to own one or several? (The right was not “God-given” at all; it was ensured by men, but that is beside the point.) Why can we not have reasoned discussions of this issue and put some reasonable guidelines in place?
Hunters and collectors—actually anyone who wants them—are entitled to their weapons! But, is it really too much to ask that legitimate ownership of firearms be granted on the basis of background checks and passing safety courses? True: Regulations would not give us a magical solution. (We license autos and drivers, but drunk drivers kill thousands every year.) Still, it would probably help. It is not an either/or situation. Just how many Columbines, Auroras, and Newtowns do we need?
Or take the issues of abortion, planned parenthood, and women’s healthcare in general. I fail to see the logic in closing down clinics because some among us believe that “life” is viable the instant that sperm wiggles its way into the wall of that egg. By all means, let us worry about this petri-dish stage of “life” more than the quality of life that will eventually ensue—or more than the quality of the life of the woman involved.
I would be far more sympathetic to the anti-abortionists’ views if more of them showed genuine concern for the lives of those they seek to “save.” That means ensuring proper feeding, clothing, health care, and education as well as merely breathing. Anti-abortion vs. pro-choice: the issue is too complex for the oversimplified, absolutist views in which it is often couched.
Or, take immigration, race relations, the Middle East, stem-cell research—you name it! “Us” versus “them”—how’s that been working so far in the body politic? Gridlock, anyone?
We need to get back to compromise as one of the basic tenets of the American system. But that would require listening to, trying to understand others’ points of views. Too few of us are capable of such a profound degree of tolerance.
Just look at some of the things he said in that trumped-up announcement—complete with paid actors to cheer his idiocy. (Yes, inane pun intended.)
I’m really rich.
Well, goody for you, Donald.
So you will try to buy your way into the White House. The influence of money on American politics is one of the most despicable aspects of the system, whether the money comes from an immensely rich individual engaged in self-promotion or from those buying influence—and access—through Political Action Committees. How many truly good potential leaders are precluded from even thinking of running in this dollar-driven nomination process?
Aristocratic elites though most of them were, I seriously doubt the founding fathers had this situation in mind when they drafted the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the Constitution. And I do wonder if the Supreme Court Justices who gave us that infamous Citizens United decision are still proud of what they did? Corporations as people, indeed!
I will build a great, great wall on our southern border.
Oh, yeah. That’ll work.
Walls—from those surrounding ancient and medieval cities to notable ones such as the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, and, in recent times, the Berlin Wall—walls are made to be breached. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . .” And human ingenuity being what it is, they almost always are breached. Besides, can the Donald simply wave a magic wand to deal more efficiently with those miles and miles of coastline? Maybe build great walls in the oceans at the twelve-mile mark?
I have a plan to deal with ISIS.
This claim is eerily reminiscent of Nixon’s claim in 1968 to have a “plan” for dealing with the debacle in Vietnam. Turned out there was no such plan at all. It was mere bloviating hot air on the campaign trail. In other words, it was a lie.
Of all the things Trump said, this was the most pernicious. He has a plan, but he won’t share it until after January 20, 2017? How many people (including American military people) must die in the meantime? I would suggest that IF he really has workable plan, he’d not only be a shoo-in for the Republican nomination, but for the Nobel Peace prize, and probably sainthood as well!