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Choose Your Words…Carefully

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Words ha800px-1896_Merriam_ad_BradleyHisBook_v2_no1ve meaning. Sounds obvious, right? Right. That’s why it’s important to choose our words carefully. That is, that we use correct diction.

It’s fine to go ahead and whip out our first drafts. They’ll be trite, maybe even cliché-ridden, and certainly amateurish. After this, though, approach our words like a professional. Professionals revise, revise, revise till their diction is as accurate as they can make it.

When we look at our manuscript, is each word precise? Can we find better words to express our thoughts? Spend time pondering our words, searching for ways to say what we mean with greater clarity.

Though we writers should develop a habit of building our vocabulary, we should also consult a thesaurus whenever necessary. Unfortunately, when most folks use a thesaurus, they simply look up any ole synonym to put on paper. This is a mistake.
Since every synonym possesses its own nuance of meaning we can’t use just any word. Research each synonym’s definition. Once we find one that means what we mean, use it in our manuscript.

Diction also affects our writing’s tone. By carefully selecting our words, we can convey whatever atmosphere we want. To illustrate, I’ll write a birthday party scene. Through diction, I’ll first paint it as a happy scene, and then I’ll portray it as an angry event.

Happy Party

Hugging the birthday present she’d purchased close to her chest, Mary practically skipped toward the laughter behind her friend Becky’s house. Soon as she passed through Becky’s patio gate, a dozen smiles greeted her.

“Sorry I’m late.” Mary set the present on a picnic table and flashed a grin. “My car got hungry so I had to stop to feed it. Happy birthday, friend.”

Becky grasped her hand and patted it. “Thank you, dear.”

Mary scanned the balloons attached to Becky’s white picket fence. They danced in the wind like colorful ballerinas, bobbing and swaying and twirling on their long strings. A coconut cake sat on the table. Thirty pink candles circled its perimeter. Hard to believe Becky had turned thirty. Mary chuckled. “Well, Becka, looks like you’ll be drawing social security soon.”

Becky burst into laughter, accompanied by their friends’ giggles.

Mary knew she was no Carol Burnette, but she did know she had some good one-liners every now and then. Making people laugh gave her pleasure.

Angry Party 

Clutching the birthday present she’d wasted her last dime on, Mary stomped   toward the cackling behind her friend Becky’s house. Soon as she shoved her way through the patio’s gate, a dozen smiles irritated her.

“Quit showing me your teeth, y’all. It ain’t funny. I know I’m late again.” Mary slammed her gift on the picnic table. “My stupid ole wreck of a car needed gas.”

Becky grasped her hand and patted it. “That’s all right, dear. We’re all glad you could come.”

Mary scowled at the balloons bound to Becky’s white picket fence, jerking and twisting on their long strings as though trying to escape their shackles. A coconut cake sat on the table. Thirty black candles stood around its perimeter like bars in a jail cell. Becky tuned thirty today. Tomorrow, they’d all be old maids drawing social security. Growing old, and alone was no fun.

Though I didn’t change the details in each scene, I did change the words as well as the dialogue. Each tone was conveyed through diction: word choices in action, dialogue, and how the point-of-view character, Mary, viewed the party’s details such as the balloons and the cake’s candles. 

Till next week, everyone. Keep on writing!

Dr. Johnson’s Advice

 

Doctor Samuel Johnson ?1772 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792Here’s a quick tip from one of eighteenth century England’s greatest writers, Samuel Johnson. A poet, essayist, literary critic, and editor, he compiled and organized  A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. This dictionary was used for 150 years before the Oxford English Dictionary’s publication. He said: “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.

Hare or Tortoise–Which One Are You?

 

close up photography of tortoise near leaves
Photo by Jonny Lew on Pexels.com

I have a confession: I’m a tortoise. No, not a literal tortoise, a writer tortoise.  My writing speed is…well…it’s slow.

When I see advertisements about helping writers “write fast,” I often take a pause. Me? Write fast? Well, I have nothing at all against writing at hare speed so long as the writing is well-done. However, I prefer to write slow. For me, writing is akin to eating a half-gallon of ice cream during a four-hour long, Oscar-winning movie. Both take time to enjoy.

I love playing around with words and phrases, taking things out and putting things in till I’m comfortable with how my writing sounds. Sometimes I do catch myself envying those who can write both fast and well, but if I write too fast, I feel that my writing is sloppy. This is just me, though.

close up of rabbit on field
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Every writer is different, I’ve come to realize. Tolkien spent twelve years writing his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949). Other writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates, are super-prolific.

No, it’s not wrong to write fast as a hare,  neither is it wrong to write tortoise speed. Each writer must write at the pace that he or she is most comfortable with. And even though I’m a literary tortoise…Hey!  I’m enjoying the process!

The Writer’s Warehouse

 

man riding on yellow forklift
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When we look at our manuscript’s pages, imagine them as a verbal warehouse. A literal warehouse uses different machines for lifting different types of products. Neat warehouses, like neat writing, are well-organized. Some machines, such as forklifts, can lift heavier items than other machines, such as hand trucks.

The same is true in our English language. Some parts of speech are forklifts, others hand trucks. Our language also has “pasteboard” boxes, as we shall see.

The Forklifts: Nouns, Pronouns and Verbs

These parts of speech, if well-chosen, do the heaviest lifting in a sentence.
More often than not, hand trucks aren’t needed.

The Hand Trucks: Adjectives and Adverbs

Sometimes, though, these verbal hand trucks are needed. When? When concrete nouns and dynamic action verbs alone can’t create a precise image in readers’ minds.

Pasteboard Boxes: Prepositions and Conjunctions

Every warehouse I’ve ever been in has merchandise in boxes, usually pasteboard boxes. These keep the merchandise clean and well-organized. Similarly, verbal “boxes” are necessary to help our sentences flow smoothly and clearly by keeping them well-organized. But do they pack a lot of weight? Most often, they don’t. But we do need them, and when we use them with “forklifts” and “hand trucks,” they help make our sentences the strongest and clearest they can be. Use them carefully, though. Too many in a sentence can also cause clutter.

Examples

1. The horse ran very fast through the field.
2. The thoroughbred galloped through the cotton field.
3. The brown thoroughbred galloped through the cotton field.

Which of the three sentences is the strongest? The third one, because it creates the most visual image in the reader’s mind.

Sentence 1: 

“horse” and “field” – too general. We don’t know what kind of horse, nor do    we know what kind of field the horse ran through.

 “very fast” – also too general. How fast is “very fast”? More often than not,  “very” isn’t needed, so be on the lookout for this adverb.

“through” – this preposition, though lightweight, is needed for clarity. It shows us the direction the horse is running.   

Sentence 2:

“thoroughbred” – a strong concrete noun. Here, we see a specific breed of  horse.                      

“galloped”  — more specific. We can see how fast the horse is running.

 “cotton field” — more specific/concrete. We can also visualize the field.

Sentence 3:

“brown” – an adjective that’s needed. Because thoroughbreds come in several colors, “brown” helps readers visualize the horse even better.  

Coming next week, an interview with Jodie Wolfe. author of To Claim Her Heart, a novel set during the Oklahoma Land Rush. Be sure to visit the Interview page next week to read it.

 

Cicero’s Take on History and Historians

 

CiceroBust

The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.” Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.)

As a historian and historical fiction writer, I’ve always loved this great Roman statesman’s quote.  If we aren’t objective in our study of history, if we twist the facts or rewrite history to suit our own opinions about the past, we not only cheat ourselves–we also fail to learn our ancestors’ past lessons that we can apply to today’s events.

We historical fiction writers should strive for objectivity, which also means accuracy. While weaving our fictional characters’ stories into historical events, we should accurately depict these events and the historical figures involved in them.

Is it ever acceptable to engage in a bit of artistic license? Maybe twist a small fact? I believe it’s acceptable, but shouldn’t  be done often. Bernard Cornwell shows us how to do this in his novel, Redcoat, set during the American Revolution. In a historical note at the end of the book, he tells readers that he took “some liberties with the Revolution’s chronology,” and then he explains what these liberties were. So if we do engage in a bit of license, follow Cornwell’s example and let your readers know.

Cicero’s advice is sound, though. We historians and historical fiction writers do well to heed it.

 

Becoming a Writer: Are You Called?

 

WritingThroughout my thirty-plus years of writing professionally, people have sometimes told me they want to become a writer. Well, that’s great.

Once I start explaining everything that’s involved in pursuing the craft, though, most of them, but not all, back away.

On some occasions when people tell me this, I just nod and smile unless they ask for advice. Why? Because I’m waiting to see how serious they are, to see whether or not God has truly called them.

Let’s face it. Writing isn’t for the faint-hearted. Like any ministry, if a person isn’t called to write, then I don’t recommend doing it. I wouldn’t recommend myself to join a choir, either, since I sing like a coyote with a sore throat.  

How does someone know whether or not God has called him/her into the literary world? Here are a few things to consider.

1. Psalm 37:4 “Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.”

This verse doesn’t mean we can desire anything and the Lord will give it. It means that if we delight in Him and put Him first in our lives, He’ll put His desires in us. If we follow this pattern, He’ll give us a desire to become a writer. This desire will grow into a passion which will become so strong that we’ll refuse to quit no matter who or what tries to hinder us.

2. John 10:10 “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”

Our Lord and Savior has called us to an abundant life, one that overflows with joy and fulfillment. If we’re called, we’ll feel that joy while we write. If we miss a writing day, we’ll feel let down. In my case, I am sometimes miserable.

3. I Samuel 17:36 “Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God.”

Before David accepted Goliath’s challenge, God had prepared him by teaching him to fight lions and bears. Likewise, God prepares us for whatever He’s called us to do. Just as He enabled David to kill Goliath, so He’ll enable called writers to succeed. Not fame and fortune, necessarily. Few writers have this. But they will reach the skill level where they can sell their work. It may not happen overnight, and usually doesn’t, but through hard work (preparation) and a little bit of  God-given talent the bylines will come.

Has God called you to be a writer? Don’t ever give up your dream. He will always bless it. 

Till next week, friends! So long!

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Historical Novels: Their Importance

 

Louis_L'Amour

“Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.”

Louis L’Amour (2008). “Education of a Wandering Man”, p.15, Bantam

Mister L’Amour’s words have proven true in my life. My three favorite genres have always been history, historical fiction and biographies, even as a child.

The historical fiction books I read during my growing-up years, such as The Horse Soldiers (Harold Sinclair), The Black Arrow (Robert Louis Stevenson), and The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) spurred my youthful hunger for more knowledge about these books’ eras. Getting lost in the past was, for me, sheer joy.

Sadly, many people today have little knowledge of the past. They learn their history from “historical” movies, most of which aren’t entirely accurate. It’s become easier to watch a film than it is to read.

So, we historical fiction writers have a challenge. Our writing must be at the “top of our game.” Not only must we write well, we must also keep our facts accurate. Our books may not win a Pulitzer Prize write like Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, about the Battle of Gettysburg, but if our historical novels get more folks interested in learning about the past, our time and labor is worth it. 

Research, write, and read! Till next time, friends. Have a great week.

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