Almost there

One more day to go in National Novel Writing Month, and we’re pushing hard. I just wrapped up a doozy of a chapter, with consequences that will hit my heroine hard, and have less than a thousand words to go to reach the month’s goal of 50,000. It’s been a challenging month, because I want to do my trilogy proud and wrap it up with a bang, not to mention tie up all the loose ends, mete out proper justice to a few bad guys, and leave my future readers well satisfied with the journey. So, no pressure at all. Next week I’ll have more time to chat, but for now I’m going to take a break from a very intense writing day and chill for a bit, probably with a Hallmark holiday movie or something else light on the brain. See you next Tuesday 🙂

A great book leads to a great movie and then an amazing travel experience

“Sometimes we gazed through a succession of arches, its course very like the aisles of a Gothic cathedral. The great artistic sculptors and builders of the Middle Ages might have here completed their studies with advantage.” Chapter 16, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne

***

I was introduced to Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre through the awesome movie made in 1959. My dad and I would watch it every time it aired, on Sunday afternoons; it was one of our favourite things to do together. As I later found out, the movie retains the overall premise from the book, but otherwise differed substantially to make it such an exciting visual adventure. According to Wikipedia, the script-writer, Walter Reisch, said that “The master’s work, though a beautiful basic idea, went in a thousand directions and never achieved a real constructive “roundness”.” 1

Reisch changed the professor who instigates the journey to Scottish, and his nephew, who accompanied him on the great adventure, to one of his enthusiastic geology students. The professor was still crusty, and played with panache by James Mason, while the student was played by a young and handsome Pat Boone who got to lose his shirt for female viewers, and the beautiful Arlene Dahl was added for a love interest deep in the bowels of the earth. The script was delightful, the actors wonderful and the special effects superb, and Hollywood produced a movie that can be watched time and time again.

One day I’d love to go to Iceland, to visit the volcano mentioned in the book and movie: Snæfellsjökull. It’s a real place, and though I have no plans to get inside it, I’d love to see it in person. None of the movie was filmed in that country, and Verne himself never actually went there to gather background material for his novel, but the landscape is such a vivid part of the viewing and reading experience.

Some of the underground scenes were filmed in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, in a massive cave called the Big Room, and my hubby and I made a point of going there on our recent vacation. We’ve been to other cave systems, including Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and Luray Caverns in Virginia, so I wasn’t sure how impressed we’d be with Carlsbad, but given how much I love the movie, it was a must-see.

The park lies about twenty minutes away from the small city of Carlsbad, out in the Chihuahuan desert, which of course looks nothing like Iceland, but it’s what’s inside the mountain that you drive to the top of that matters (although the desert is full of things to see as well).

The caverns have been forming for about 250 million years, from an area that was once part of an inland sea. As a result, the limestone of the area was full of carbon-based fossils, which transformed into a really unique interior as tectonic movement shoved the former reef over 4,000 feet into the air.

Visitor Centre at Carlsbad Caverns NP

To visit the Big Room, which is one of the most accessible parts of the Caverns, you take an elevator down 750 feet from the Visitor Centre at the top deep into the mountain. (Hopefully you’re not claustrophobic.)

Disembarking at the bottom into a spacious underground room, follow the sign to the self-guided tour. The trail, though very walkable, is 2km long (1.25 miles); if you can’t manage the entire thing, there’s a shortcut.

Let me say that the Big Room is one of the most spectacular things my hubby and I have ever seen, and through 24 different countries, that’s saying a lot. Mother Nature always wins, and Carlsbad is no exception. The handful of photos below give you only a sense of how magnificent Carlsbad is; you really have to experience it yourself. They’re all taken without a flash, showing the drama of the shapes that have formed over millions of years, and are continuing to transform.

The caverns are pockmarked with all kinds of strange holes and indentations. This one reminded me of a skull face, and you can see the ‘popcorn’ formations that are found in many parts of the caves
The walking path is edged with handrails, and is textured to prevent slipping on the damp surface. It’s surreal as it winds through the caves.
This is the Lions Tail formation, as the popcorn clusters on the ends of the stalactites resemble the fluffy-ended tails of the big cats

The Big Room is so massive that it’s impossible to take a photo of the entire thing – about 4,000 feet long, or 11 football fields. It’s the largest single cave in the U.S. by volume, rising up to over 200 feet high. I couldn’t find information about where exactly the filming took place, but it was a brilliant choice!

I took this photo looking back across the Big Room from the far end. If you look closely, you can see the handrails of the walking path as it meanders through. This huge space is only a small part of the entire room.
A stalactite (growing down from the ceiling) and a stalagmite (‘growing’ upward from drips from the ceiling above) eventually meet in the Big Room

Great art, in whatever form, inspires people to explore further, and we’re so lucky to live in a world that provides the opportunities. For more information about Carlsbad, visit the NPS website.

All photos were taken by me. They’re posted at lower resolution than the originals, and may not be used without my permission. E. Jurus

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_to_the_Center_of_the_Earth_(1959_film)#CITEREFMcGilligan1991

On hiatus this week

Hi everyone. I’m taking a break this week, as I had to have some minor surgery yesterday and am recovering. In the meantime, for your viewing pleasure or possible inspiration, the photo above is one that I took at the Bottomless Lakes in New Mexico recently. See you next week.

All photo rights are reserved by me.

A Taste of Culture

Best Sopa Azteca ever at the Antigua Cocina Mexicana restaurant in Roswell, New Mexico

Eating good food is, for me, one of the joys in life. I especially love to explore the cuisine of the different places my hubby and I travel to. We’ve doing this for many years, and it’s really come in handy since I started writing novels.

I can provide ambience just by describing what a character is eating, or being served. My parents, and my in-laws, were all European, and put out very representative meals, for example – very different than what we’ve eaten at our Italian best friends’ place, or Middle Eastern households we’ve been to. Since I love to cook myself, I’ve learned a lot about a variety of cuisines and can write about them with a fair amount of confidence.

In October hubby and I spent a couple of weeks in New Mexico. As it happens, we love southwestern food, and we made the most of it. Chilies, both red and green, are ubiquitous, of course. The state has turned their take on a classic cheeseburger – a good quality beef burger topped with chopped roasted green chilies and melted white cheese – into an official culinary experience. The New Mexico tourism website provides a map of selected restaurants on the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, but most of the places we went to made their own version. Below, you’ll see a photo of the GCC slider stack that I tried out at the Shark Reef Café in the ABQ Bio Park in Albuquerque; it was superb.

Chilies are native to Central and South America, although they’ve now spread around the world as many countries cultivate their own varieties.

Apparently wild peppers grow upright, to attract birds that will spread their seeds out the other end, but through the process of domestication the peppers droop downward. Chilies all start out green, but can be allowed to ripen until they turn red.

A high-res photo of this image, and other selected images from the trip, can be purchased in various formats through my photography site on Fine Art America.

At the annual Santa Fe Harvest Festival, we learned that green chilies are hotter, but they don’t keep as well. For preservation purposes, the chilies are allowed to fully ripen, and then are picked and knotted by their stems into long bundles called ristras. The ristras are hung outdoors to dry out, and can then be used bit by bit throughout the winter until the new batches grow.

If used fresh, the chilies could be roasted in beehive-shaped adobe ovens. The ones shown in the photo here are what would have been used by early settlers in New Mexico, but these ovens are still really popular today; many people build them in their back yards. On the afternoon of the festival, two of the docents were baking fresh bread and rolls, for which they heat the ovens to 700 degrees F inside. The pans are set on the brick bottom and the opening is sealed shut with a wooden door soaked in water, with water-soaked rags around the edges to complete the seal.

Samples were given out for free, and my hubby and I spent a most enjoyable hour or so waiting for the hot rolls to come out and chatting with another couple from the northern part of the state around Taos. Every sample was delicious, especially the rolls studded with dried fruit.

After that, we sat down to rest and bought the last two homemade tamales being sold by another docent sitting across from us out of an insulated bag on a little walker-style cart. Tamales are basically a savory stuffing wrapped in a masa (corn) dough and steamed inside husks of banana or corn leaves. They made steam come out of our ears, I think. I asked the vendor what was in the filling and she listed only two ingredients: pork and chilies. Wahoo!

But there’s more to the experience than just consuming the food. Entire cultures are build around the sharing of food, whether it’s years of tradition in a family home, or the communal wait for fresh buns at a festival, sharing a little bit of your life on a sunny afternoon with people you may never see again. It might even be the conversation you strike up when you’ve sat on a bench next to two women eating tamales that they bought from a couple of bright-eyed women across from you, and you decide to take a chance on a pair of foil-wrapped bundles that emerge from an insulated bag on a little cart.

The kind-hearted vendor even gave us a courtesy bottle of water to wash our impromptu lunch down with. Between that and the sweet rolls, we had a complete, and completely unexpected, meal.

As travellers, hubby and I live for these unplanned experiences – they’re often the best memories. As a writer and photographer, I pay attention and take lots of photos so that I can recapture the details long after we’ve gotten home, either as a piece of artwork, for a meal for friends/family, or as a sample of authentic culture in my novels. The different styles of food and food production might even make their way into a tale on a different planet – maybe it’s a less-developed civilization that still cooks in earthen ovens, or grows unusual plants on its farms.

Whichever the case, you can’t beat an authentic actual experience to understand what a different culture is really like, from the myriad varieties of potatoes (over 700) that are served with every meal in Peru to the cups of tea made famous in English novels of all genres to the little chilies that have caught on so much that they even get hung up as decorations.  For all travellers and aspiring novelists, our world is a rich source of cultural inspiration — don’t forget to make time to stop and smell the ristras.

All photos were taken by me, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Book 3 is under way

Two years ago I began my tentative adventure in fulfilling a long-held dream: to write a novel. I’ve always loved reading — taught myself to read when I was four — and began writing stories somewhere around the age of eight or nine. Many years later, I’m getting the first book of my trilogy ready for publication, editing the second book for my beta readers, and have put ‘pen to paper’ for Book 3. It’s a little startling to realize how far my adventure has taken me already, and a little weird to think about typing The End to the entire saga in a few months

How does one get to this point? In my case (because all writers are different and I can’t speak for everyone):

  • By having a story to tell, that must pour out until it’s finished.
  • By getting that first rough, crazy draft done.
  • By having beta readers who’ve loved your work and keep pressing for the next installment.

There’s still plenty of work to do. The front cover art for Book 1 is set, having been vetted by the members of the small-business group I belong to; I’ve been working on the blurb for the back cover, and need to get some publishing details finalized (e.g. the ISBN number). I’ve had several requests to include maps of the small town where much of the action in the novels takes place as well as the private college where my protagonist works; I’m researching software to help me create versions that are more polished than the sketches I produced in PowerPoint. And finally, as a self-published author, all the advance promo rests in my lap, but I’m looking forward to working on it and posting the first pieces here on this site!

The entire process repeats for Book 2 — feedback from beta readers, a couple more edits to bring the novel to its best state. The cover art will be a variation on the version chosen for Book 1, so that won’t be too difficult, and I’ll build on the promo that’s already been put out there since Book 1. Hopefully I’ll already have a solid fan base.

Book 3 will undergo the same transformation, from rough draft to final product. And then what? Two years ago, when I wrote the first words of Book 1 (whose title has evolved constantly until a few months ago), I wasn’t even sure I could produce an entire novel, or that anyone would like it. There was no thought of what I’d do once I finished the entire trilogy.

I assume all successful writers (as in, have finished and published a book) go through this, the ‘what’s next?’ state of mind. I’ve given it some thought, and for some reason have decided to write a horror novel — even though I’m not a huge reader of the genre. Having watched stylish horror movies and turned off a few gore-fests, I do know what I like and don’t like, and the idea of penning my own chiller feels like a thrilling challenge to take on. Can I scare the pants off my readers in a way that burrows into your minds for a long time afterward? We’ll find out 🙂 It will be set in the same ‘world’ as my Chaos Roads trilogy, but with a different protagonist who brings her own peculiar baggage to the story; still fleshing out the details and how her journey will play out.

For now, however, I’ll keep you posted on Book 1, Through the Monster-glass, as it heads toward the day when it becomes available to the public on Amazon Kindle! Check back for many more details in the next few weeks; the cover art will be coming soon.

Once upon a midnight dreary

photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

What a great opening line, and for a poem no less!

Once upon: a classic fairy-tale starter, used by generations of storytellers to immediately ready our minds for an adventure.

Midnight: the archetypal time of night for the gates between our world and the world to open, for mischief to commence. It’s a strangely transitional time, marking the end of one day and the beginning of another…perhaps hopeful, perhaps not.

There’s an inky darkness implied in ‘midnight’, and the hour that follows it has long been considered the ‘witching hour’, or ‘devil’s hour’ (along with the hour between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.). In Western Christian tradition these hours were considered a peak time for supernatural activity, and in 1535 the Catholic Church went so far as to ban activity between 3 a.m. – 4 a.m.. The Middle Ages were a time of raging fear and superstition about witchcraft and all things diabolical.

Apparently our bodies experience a peak in melatonin levels around 3 a.m., which also corresponds to the time when people have reported the most apparitions (and probably explains why so many of us wake up around that time to go to the bathroom 😉). Before we wake in the middle of the night, we’re typically in REM sleep, during which we may experience more sleep disturbances like nightmares and terrors, and oddly enough it’s also the time period when symptoms of illness get worse and there’s a concomitant rise in white blood cells to fight the infections.

See, this is why I think we should all stay up until 4 am watching creepy movies – might as well enjoy the ambience.

Dreary: this word is so expressive within just six letters. It conveys listlessness, discouragement, depression, gloom.

And so the tone of one of the most famous poems in history, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, is set. The narrator only reveals himself through his actions. He’s ‘weak and weary’, mourning the loss of his love. At midnight he’s, strangely, pondering volumes of forgotten lore; there’s a suggestion of forbidden knowledge – perhaps he’s going to try to bring her back through unnatural means.

His gloomy thoughts are interrupted by a rapping sound, which he thinks is at his door, but he finally opens the door to find only darkness and vague whispers of his amour’s name, Lenore. At length he realizes that the rapping emits from his window, and when he opens that, a raven flies in to perch itself on top of a bust of the Greek goddess Pallas Athene, symbolizing wisdom…and warfare.

For some reason which makes sense only to a depressed brain in the middle of the night, the narrator then begins to plague the bird with a variety of questions, hoping, for some reason, that the raven can give him the answers he seeks. When the raven only manages to croak the word “nevermore” each time, the grieved man becomes increasingly angry with it, but in the end, leaves it sitting there to torment him with its uselessness.

At least that’s the way it comes across to me. It’s been analyzed many times. Poe himself said it wasn’t an allegory, although the story is so odd that you have to wonder if he wrote it from some amount of experience.

Poe lost his father at only a year old from abandonment, and then his mother died the following year from consumption, aka tuberculosis. He was taken in and raised by John and Frances Allan, who seem to have been acquaintances of his mother when she was an actress. Frances was a beautiful socialite in Richmond, Virginia, John Allan a wealthy merchant. They weren’t able to have children themselves, and after Eliza Poe’s death the couple fostered little Edgar, who apparently had lots of precocious charm. Unfortunately, that choice split the Poe family up, as Edgar’s older brother was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Baltimore while the baby sister became the ward of another family in Richmond.

Edgar was treated well, for the most part; his new family gave him his permanent name, but never formally adopted him. He loved his new mother, but she was sickly and complaining, and the marriage was troubled. John Allan fathered at least three illegitimate children out of seemingly numerous affairs, and regularly threatened to toss Edgar out whenever he misbehaved, as well as denying him enough money for a proper education.

Poe enrolled in the army for a while, flunked out of West Point, and amassed some gambling debts. He ended his relationship with his foster father and pursued a career in writing. When he was 27 he married his 13-year-old cousin, something that would later become illegal, and she died of tuberculosis only 11 years later.

Surrounded by so much turmoil, uncertainty and death, it’s easy enough to see how the adult Edgar would channel it into his writing. He’d become a master of the macabre, and The Raven was a success, if not so much financially, at the very least making him a household name. The poem has been hugely influential through the decades, as all of Poe’s best works have been.

In 1963 Roger Corman, the successful director and producer who became known as “the Pope of Pop Cinema” for his B-grade but very popular films, decided to have fun with Poe’s poem, and produced one of my favourite comedy-horror movies by the same name. Don’t expect anything highbrow from it; the movie is just gothic, melodramatic fun. It features the inimitable Vincent Price as Dr. Craven, a widowed and grieving sorcerer visited one night by the eponymous bird, who turns out to actually be a rather inept sorcerer, Dr. Adolphus Bedlo, trapped in bird form by another sorcerer, the evil Dr. Scarabus.

Advertising poster for the film The Raven (1963), directed and produced by Roger Corman.
By Reynold Brown – The Raven. Wrong Side of the Art. Retrieved on 2013-02-21. See The art of Reynold Brown. for additional film posters by Brown., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4727190

Craven eventually breaks the spell on Bedlo and is persuaded to go with Bedlo to Scarabus’ dark and foreboding castle – Bedlo to get revenge and Craven to look for his wife’s ghost. They’re accompanied by Craven’s lovely daughter Estelle, and Bedlo’s handsome son Rexford (played by a very young and earnest Jack Nicholson). Of course mayhem ensues as the gleeful Scarabus (played to the hilt by Boris Karloff) draws Bedlo (Peter Lorre in the opposite of his sinister other movie roles) and Craven into a wild sorcerers’ duel.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot. Apparently Peter Lorre liked to ad lib a lot, which confused Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. In an early scene where Price as Craven is lamenting the loss of his wife and asks Lorre/Bedlo “shall I ever see the rare and radiant Lenore again?”, Lorre responded with “How the hell should I know?”

Both Karloff and Price hated some of their gear for the special effects, and apparently Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson didn’t get along at all, but as viewers we get to ignore all of that and just enjoy one of the earliest funny horror movies that had no other purpose than to entertain.

Vincent Price was the perfect actor to portray Dr. Erasmus Craven, bringing his impeccable horror-film chops and paradoxical capacity for comedy to the role of the beleaguered but determined sorcerer. He was tall and good-looking in a rather gothic way, with a face that could be convincingly mild but often gave a sense of something hiding behind the genial façade. An accomplished actor, his breakout role was in Laura, made in 1944 – it’s one of my all-time favourite mystery movies, so beautifully stylish and a classic of the genre. He also played the sophisticated, contemptuous Baka the Master Builder in The Ten Commandments.

But his initial forays into horror films showed an affinity for those roles, and arguably his most enduring legacy is the character of the ironic, outwardly-charming but internally nasty villain he played to perfection in so many films. He was my favourite host for the PBS series Mystery in the 1980s, and perhaps most famously added his haunting voice to Michael Jackson’s greatest musical hit, Thriller. In his spare time he loved to ride roller coasters, was an art collector and also a gourmet cook who published several cookbooks. All in all, he seems like he had a great time using his many talents.

You can watch The Raven, and a whole host of other mid-century horror movies, many of them with Vincent Price, the master of horror, on Tubi https://tubitv.com/movies/305023/the-raven

The full text of the poem is given below. Aside from a rather irritatingly sing-song rhyming patter, Poe’s use of language to convey mood is masterful, and all of his works have so much atmosphere that they were naturals for Hollywood’s gothic horror classics. If you’ve missed out on reading Poe’s works so far, cry “Nevermore!” and start in time for Halloween.

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door—

“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

               Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

               Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,

“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—

               This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,

“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;

But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,

And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,

That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—

               Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”

This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—

               Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,

Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.

“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;

Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—

Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—

               ‘Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;

Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;

But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—

               Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,

“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,

Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”

               Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,

Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;

For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being

Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door—

Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,

               With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.

Nothing further then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—

Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—

On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”

               Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,

“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store

Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster

Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore

               Of ‘Never—nevermore.'”

But the Raven still beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;

Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking

Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore

               Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing

To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;

This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining

On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,

But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,

               She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.

“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee

Respite—respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore;

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

               Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—

Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,

Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—

On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—

Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

               Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil—prophet still, if bird or devil!

By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—

Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,

It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”

               Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—

“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!

Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”

               Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

               Shall be lifted—nevermore!

By Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

Oh the Horror!

A moody ruined castle in Ireland – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

If I were you, I would never tell ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people, for you never can tell but that some one at the table may be tired of his or her nearest and dearest.”
The Screaming Skull, F. Marion Crawford

Do you love all the Halloween competitions on television at this time of year? Halloween Baking Championship is my personal favourite – it’s so much fun to watch what demented inventiveness the bakers come up with! Halloween Wars and Outrageous Pumpkins are also great. If you like any of those, horror may be your preferred reading/writing genre.

I’m more into stylish, eerie horror than gore. Some gore is okay – wouldn’t really be horror without it – but as a main ingredient I don’t love it.

H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of horror was probably one of my biggest influences growing up. I discovered his strange, compelling world of terrible, ancient god-monsters early on, and ever since have loved that sense of creeping dread that infuses his stories. Lovecraft’s horror lives in the shadows, with the things you suspect are there but can’t see, or in awful dreams that make you want to stay awake for the rest of the night. It leaves a lot to your own imagination, which to my mind is where it should be, tapping into your personal nightmares.

So what is horror fiction? Essentially, it’s where bad things happen to people. They don’t get rescued or have a happy ending, unless it’s with a twist that disturbs your mind long after the tale ends.

Classic horror lets the reader follow along as an awful creature OR an evil/maniacal fellow human pursues the protagonist(s) for their own terrible purpose. The first Alien movie did a superb job of that kind of horror. Fear of the unknown is very powerful – viewers and the crew know that there’s something nasty on the ship Nostromo, but neither know exactly what it is, just that people keep dying. The remaining crew race to find it before it gets them, and the movie allows the viewer to feel their increasing terror. We hosted a watch party with that movie when it first came out on video, and I remember spending the entire two hours quite literally on the edge of our sofa.

Horror that has a psychological edge is some of the most effective, I think.

Psychological horror is the kind that messes with the protagonist’s head, and the reader’s/viewer’s. Is what the heroine or hero thinks is happening actually happening? Is the villain who the protagonist thinks it is, or maybe the villain is able to draw them into their tainted web despite themselves? Or there’s something increasingly wrong with a person the protagonist cares about – can the hero/heroine figure out what’s going on in time to save them? You get the idea.

But be careful – many tropes in this kind of horror, like ‘I’m seeing crazy things but no one believes me’, have been done to death, pardon the pun. If, as a writer, you want to head in that direction, I feel you need to give it an effective twist for some freshness.

One of the reasons the movie Scream was so successful was that it took the old clichéd horror movie elements, where the characters do stupid things that inevitably get them into trouble, and mocked them at the same time that it used them. Very clever!

Certain houses, like certain persons, manage somehow to proclaim at once their character for evil. In the case of the latter, no particular feature need betray them; they may boast an open countenance and an ingenuous smile; and yet a little of their company leaves the unalterable conviction that there is something radically amiss with their being; that they are evil.”
The Empty House, Algernon Blackwood

Buildings soaked with evil combine elements of both classic and psychological horror. People either: enter innocently, and are trapped in the building’s malevolent web; go in with knowledge of the building’s reputation and want to either investigate or disprove the stories; or themselves somehow trigger the madness. And so an abode that should provide shelter becomes the terror. We want to find out what the cause is – a lingering ghost, an evil entity that’s crossed into our world, an event so awful that its residue has permeated the building’s walls

“It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,” said the sergeant-major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”
The Monkey’s Paw, W. W. Jacobs

And then there are the tales of people who insist on messing a cursed object, either naively or despite every warning. We readers know that nothing good is going to come of it, as in the classic tale The Monkey’s Paw, but we read on to find out just how fate is going to punish the protagonist who persists regardless. The results are always horrific  – hence the adage ‘be careful what you wish for’.

Why do we enjoy horror stories? I believe it’s for the same reason lots of us enjoy a good thunderstorm or blizzard – we love the thrill while we’re safely protected from any real danger. We can curl up with a cup of hot tea, snuggled under a lap blanket with a book in our hands, as shivers run up our spines. If the power goes out with a shrieking blast of wind or crack of lightning and we have to read by candlelight, so much the better!

If this post has inspired you to try your hand at writing horror, sign up for this year’s round of National Novel Writing Month, which starts on November 1st. Have some fun, explore your darker side!

I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!
The Cask of Amontillado, Edgar Allan Poe

How do I creep thee out, let me count the ways

The 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary, in Greenfield Village at the Ford Museum, Dearborn Michigan – photo by E. Jurus

“Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” Robert Bloch

“Everyone is a moon and has a dark side, which he never shows to anybody.” Mark Twain

“I fear not the dark itself, but what may lurk within it.” Unknown

Isn’t “lurk” a great word? Makes you think of something that shouldn’t be there, that wants something from you that you don’t want to give, like a piece of your soul. It’s a simple word, but so evocative for writers and their readers.

October 16 is Dictionary Day. It celebrates the birth of Noah Webster, an American writer who published the first dictionary in America in 1806, and it’s the perfect time to also acknowledge the wonderful world of words for thriller, suspense, fantasy and horror writers to enthrall their readers with.

The first single-language English dictionary ever produced was created by Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster and clergyman in England. Cawdrey drew on word lists published earlier in educational texts, and in 1604 he published Table Alphabeticall. It listed only about 3000 words, considered ‘hard’ words, as in those unfamiliar to the general public of the time. Defining each word with a simple and brief description, his goal was to organize the English language and help people to become better at speaking it. The archaic terms and spelling would stymie most of us today, though, such as Cawdrey’s description of how “far journied gentlemen” would collect words on their travels and, returning home, “pouder their talke with over-sea language”.

As the English language grew, other kinds of dictionaries began to arise. In 1658, Edward Phillips published one that included technical terms. There were also ‘canting’ dictionaries that listed slang terms. Eventually book publishers started compiling general dictionaries with more expanded entries.

Noah Webster attended Yale College and passed his bar exam. When he wasn’t able to find work as a lawyer, he earned money by writing a series of educational books, later moving to New York City to publish articles, essays and serve as editor for a newspaper. After publishing his first Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, he continued to compile words and definitions, and 22 years later published an even more comprehensive version. There were seven ensuing editions, and his mantle was taken up by George and Charles Merriam, who hired his son-in-law, a professor at Yale, to continue the revisions, including the addition of illustrations. The Merriam-Webster dictionary is a staple today, along with the OED, the Collins English Dictionary, and numerous others.

We tend to take dictionaries for granted – a thing of dread in school when words and grammar were pounded into us – because they’ve been ever-present in our lives, but language has been evolving from the time it was first developed. Cultures began to take note of changing words and meanings as far back as the ancient Greeks, who began creating dictionaries in the first century C.E. (A.D.).

English, in particular, is an amalgam of many other languages – we have borrowed freely and frequently over the centuries. In looking up a word in the dictionary, we find information about its ancestors: OE, or Old English, is common, as you might expect, but Latin is the root of words in many contemporary languages in Europe that have influenced the English vocabulary today.

Take the word “Dragon”. It comes from Middle English (the form of English spoken from the 11th to late 15th centuries) dragoun, which in turn was borrowed from the Old French (version of French spoken in medieval times) word dragon, which came from Latin draco and/or Greek drakon.

We all know that it was a huge mythological creature in somewhat serpentine form, typically depicted with large wings, small legs and a toothy mouth that breathed fire. Wiktionary lists quite a few other definitions, though, including one I wasn’t aware of: “A luminous exhalation from marshy ground, seeming to move through the air like a winged serpent.” The page also lists a number of fun synonyms (should you be writing about a dragon), hypernyms (the broader categories that dragons fall under, i.e. monsters and serpents), derived terms (terms that have ‘dragon’ in their names), related terms (dragoon, dragonet…) and all kinds of other interesting tidbits. An entire page for one little word!

Words are a writer’s best friend, and dictionaries our best resource. If I’m writing high fantasy, I might want to refer to a wyrm or a wyvern instead of a plain dragon. Drawing other cultures into urban fantasy (which is the genre I write), I might want to set part of my story in Kenya (which I’ve actually visited and so can write about authentically, to some extent) and mention their legends of dragoni, perhaps terrorizing a village and eating all of the mbuzi (goats).

Writers can use words in such creative ways to make a scene come to life. Consider this brief excerpt:

She’d been sitting in the kitchen, Chris recounted, when Regan ran screaming down the stairs to her, cowering defensively behind her chair… The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty

We only cower if we’re absolutely consumed with fear. We can picture the girl, Regan, behind that chair, trying to escape from the demon terrorizing her. I read the book when it first came out, and had trouble sleeping for a full week. My hubby, then boyfriend, worked part-time at a movie theatre, and told me how often people in the audiences for the film version fainted. Movies have visuals and ominous music to help set the mood, but writers depend entirely on words.

It’s a good thing there are plenty of them. Apparently “the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use (and 47,156 obsolete words)”, according to the Word Counter website.  The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) currently contains over 600,000 entries!

In tune with this month and Halloween, I found even more fun stuff online about words. Dictionary.com offers these eerie words to describe nighttime and all its darkness and mystery:

Gloaming – a noun that means ‘twilight’, but in a spooky story, it would be so much more atmospheric

Fuliginous – an adjective that means ‘sooty’ or ‘dusky’; this one is a little obscure for the average reader, imho

Evanescent – an adjective that means ‘abbreviated’, or more specifically ‘quickly fading or disappearing’; it’s often used to describe something like bubbles, or life, but it could be used for something darker

Ether  – a noun that has several meanings, but in this context would more romantically refer to space, as in the heavens, or the air around us

Tenebrous – an adjective that means ‘shut off from the light’, as in dark and murky, or ‘hard to understand’, obscure – very poetic word from the gothic era of literature, useful or not depending on your writing style

All the light had fallen away from the world, with only the fog illuminated now. Even the stars struggled against the black, managing only the slightest pinpricks of twinkles through a gloom that was both everywhere and nowhere at once. It wasn’t the dark of night; it was the tenebrous shadow of bad omens. — C. Robert Cargill, Dreams and Shadows

Horripilation – basically, goosebumps, i.e. the hair on your body standing up, usually from fright, but could be from excitement; the majority of readers would need a dictionary, which is probably why writer Stephen King used it but then went on to explain it:

“Suddenly he was swept by horripilation. The goosebumps swept up from his ankles all the way to the nape of his neck, where the hairs stirred and tried to lift.” Under the Dome: A Novel

A thesaurus can help us find good synonyms for words so we’re not being too repetitive as writers, but it’s a dictionary that gives us clear definitions for the nuances of each word.

I leave you with a sample of classic writing from Bram Stoker. He’s often been chastised for being overly dramatic, but I think his style, and choice of words, worked well for a spectacular Victorian horror story. Here’s part of the scene where Lucy Westenra has finally succumbed to the predations of Dracula (still a mystery to Dr. Sewell and her other suitors at that point). But instead of looking sadly dead, she looks miraculously beautiful – the reason for which, as Van Helsing suspects, will soon become apparent:

“Before turning in we went to look at poor Lucy. The undertaker had certainly done his work well, for the room was turned into a small chapelle ardente. There was a wilderness of beautiful white flowers, and death was made as little repulsive as might be. The end of the winding-sheet was laid over the face; when the Professor bent over and turned it gently back, we both started at the beauty before us, the tall wax candles showing a sufficient light to note it well. All Lucy’s loveliness had come back to her in death, and the hours that had passed, instead of leaving traces of “decay’s effacing fingers,” had but restored the beauty of life, till positively I could not believe my eyes that I was looking at a corpse.”

Happy Dictionary Day!

Orange, the colour of autumn, pumpkins and Halloween

Classic orange pumpkins in the autumn sunshine, Ontario

Tickled orange! I’m coining a new phrase to describe how I feel every September and October.

Orange is one of my favourite colours, in small doses. That may sound contradictory, but a little orange goes a long way. A friend of mine loved the colour so much that she wore orange outfits frequently and painted her entire living room tangerine – attractive, but I couldn’t visit when I had a migraine.

The colour sits between red and yellow on the spectrum, meaning scientifically that our eyes perceive it when through light between 585 and 620 nanometres. (For sci-fi novels that might be important.) It’s named after the classic citrus fruit whose juice makes Screwdriver cocktails and Creamsicle martinis so delicious.

Invasive orange goldfish, pond at the botanical gardens, Niagara Falls

Orange as an English word comes from the Old French for the fruit, pomme d’orange, which in turn was derived sequentially from Italian arancia, based on Arabic and earlier roots.  

Artists as far back as ancient Egypt used an orange colour for skin tones on their famous murals, made from a reddish-orange mineral called realgar, an arsenic sulfide compound that would have been very toxic to work with, as so many of the early pigments were.

Orpiment, a related yellowish-orange mineral (also toxic), was more in use by medieval times, as it had been an important trade good in the Roman Empire. It was common in illuminated manuscripts.

Orpiment crystal, By Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10145584

Interestingly, it was also in use as a medicine in China, despite its toxicity. Its name was a contraction of the Latin word for gold (aurum) and colour (pigmentum), and coupled with its yellowish tinge, medieval alchemists thought it might help them make gold, and ultimately the Philosopher’s Stone.

In the late 15th and early 16th century, Portuguese merchants brought the first orange trees to Europe from Asia, along with the Sanskrit word naranga, which eventually morphed into our current English name.

The old Latin word for orange fruits was pomon, and by the 18th century orange was sometimes used to depict the robes of Pomona, the goddess of fruitful abundance; she was a popular subject in paintings and sculpture. her name came from the, the Latin word for fruit.

“Pomona”, By Nicolas Fouché – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150971

Initially oranges were an exotic delicacy in Europe, England, and even North America, but they became more common thanks to the invention of the heated greenhouse in the 17th century. Wealthy homes had buildings of this type attached; they were called orangeries. There’s a well-known one at Kensington Palace in London (the official London residence of The Prince and Princess of Wales and their children, including Princess Diana), where you can enjoy a lovely Afternoon Tea.

Screenshot, Kensington Palace Orangery website

A French scientist discovered the mineral lead chromate In 1797, which led to the invention of the synthetic pigment chrome orange. The Pre-Raphaelites in Britain loved the colour, using it particularly to paint shades of red hair. The Impressionists prized orange for depictions of the sun and its reflection in water, especially because they understood colour theory and how beautifully orange and blue compliment each other. Some painters used it straight from the tube, like Renoir, while others mixed their own custom hues, like Cezanne. 

Toulouse-Lautrec used orange regularly to represent gaiety in his paintings of Parisian clubs and cafes in turn-of-the-century Paris, while for Van Gogh orange, together with yellow, captured the glorious sunlight in Provence. He often contrasted his yellows and oranges with blue and violet, apparently writing to his brother that he was “searching for oppositions of blue with orange, of red with green, of yellow with violet, searching for broken colours and neutral colours to harmonize the brutality of extremes, trying to make the colours intense, and not a harmony of greys.”

Blue and orange in an old Gulf Oil sign in a cafe in Virginia

In modern times, orange’s visibility has made it a popular colour for certain kinds of clothing and equipment, like life jackets that can easily be spotted by search-and-rescue, vests worn by cyclists and highway workers to avoid being hit, astronauts to highlight them in space and against the blue of the ocean when they splash down.

Life jackets on a cruise to see the Ballestas Islands off the coast of Peru

On the flip side, it’s also been used for prison uniforms to make escapees easier to spot. The ‘black boxes’ on airplanes are actually bright orange so they can be found more easily, and some warning icons used orange to indicate danger.

Orange mixed with yellow in the background of this wall mural in Belfast enhances the impression of toxicity

Orange, like all colours, has a split personality. In Paganism, orange represents energy, attraction, vitality, and stimulation, and Buddhist monks are famous for their saffron-orange robes, but in Christianity, orange represents the Deadly Sin of Gluttony, because of its association with fruitfulness. It can be a decidedly vivid colour, as in the clothing of various cultures around the world.

Colourful robes, Samburu tribe, Kenya

As a wall colour, it can be unexpected, spicy and pungent, especially when used in a normally sedate setting like a monastery.

Monastery of Santa Catalina, Arequipa, Peru

But the ubiquitous fall fruit, pumpkin, produces a mellower colour of orange that, for lovers of the flavour, instantly makes our mouths water.

Pumpkin whoopie pies on a fall picnic

International orange is a deep, medium orange hue used by the aerospace industry to differentiate certain objects from their backgrounds, surroundings or other objects. It’s the colour of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to increase its visibility in fog.

If you’ve ever wondered why some street lights have an orange tinge, it’s because of the type of bulb. Most street lights are high-pressure sodium vapour (HPS), which give off a warmer light that I, for one, find soothing on the eyes. However, studies have shown that whiter lights give drivers better peripheral vision, leading to  improved braking speeds. Sodium vapour lights are more efficient than the other bulb options, like incandescent, and have a much longer lifespan.

In colour psychology, orange is considered optimistic, energetic, dynamic and stimulating. It attracts attention without being too aggressive. It symbolizes adventure (probably another reason I love it 😉), spontaneity and creativity, although for some it represents exhibitionism and insincerity.

For me, orange represents all kinds of good things – the warmth of a wood fire in chilly weather, pumpkins (as in pies and jack o’lanterns during my favourite time of year), autumn leaves (after the green chlorophyll wanes) and sunsets.

Blazing orange and purple sunset (another pleasing combination), Africa

I also like sweet potatoes (as in fries with spicy aioli dip), and carrots (such a useful and healthy vegetable), although before the 18th century, carrots from Asia were usually purple, while European carrots were either white or red. It was Dutch farmers who bred an orange variety, possibly as a tribute to William of Orange, ancestor of the monarchy of the Netherlands).

The orange colour in the Flag of Ireland represents the minority Protestants who were supporters of William of Orange

In nature, orange colours can represent toxicity, or just indicate the presence of a gorgeous Monarch butterfly.

Orange has become synonymous with Halloween, especially in combination with black, which it complements wonderfully.

A blazing orange octopus carved from pumpkins at Pumpkinferno, Upper Canada Village, Ontario

If you haven’t been a fan of the colour orange, I hope it may now start to tickle your fancy. There are so many shades to love, and its appearance on trees signifies arguably the most beautiful, sensual season in the year — the season of cozy sweaters, wood smoke on a cool day, celebrating the spookiest date of the year with a big helping of goofiness (and treats), the warmth of a Thanksgiving table surrounded by friends and family … and pumpkin spice lattes!

Autumn on an Ontario golf course
Fishing ginger cats, island of Mauritius
Orange chrysanthemums look spectacular in a flower bed with white flowers and brown grass plumes
Jack o’lanterns warding off Halloween spirits that have crossed the Veil

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved by me. E. Jurus

Symbology of numbers

Butterflies in the genus Diaethria all appear to have a number tattooed on their wings – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Today I was moving the little magnet on my decorative Halloween wall calendar, and noticed that it’s now only 40 days until Oct 31, aka Halloween — woohoo! (Hopefully that’s not too triggering for you, like the people who want to drive you crazy by counting down the number of shopping days left until Christmas.)

We have many methods of marking the passage of time, and certain dates hold special significance. Some dates float, as in Thanksgiving ; others are fixed, whether as a birthdate, a chosen commemorative day, or a date that may live on in notoriety. On September 10, 2002, who would have ever thought that the very next day would become infamous from then on? (Other than the perpetrators of the attacks.)

Throughout history, certain numbers have taken on more mystical qualities.

The number 13 has become so associated with bad luck that hotels won’t even list a 13th floor, and hostesses have refused to have thirteen people at a dinner party. Fear of the number even has a name: triskaidekaphobia.

Theories abound as to why people link 13 to bad things – in Norse mythology, Loki the trickster god showed up uninvited to a banquet as the 13th guest and tricked a blind god into shooting an arrow at another god, killing him; Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Romans, was supposedly the 13th man to sit at the Last Supper; King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest (and killing) of all the Knights Templar on Friday 13, 1307; and so on. In some minds, the superstition was probably reinforced in mid-20th century America by the nearly-disastrous Apollo 13 moon mission.

But there are cultures who believe that 13 is a lucky number, and in Asia, a different number is considered extremely bad: 4. It’s a homonym for the word ‘death’ in some Asian languages. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, Bad-Luck Numbers that Scare Off Customers, most companies in that part of the world avoid using the number entirely (such as in a company phone number), and potential business partners would be wise to do the same.

The number 40, which gave me the idea for this post, was used over and over again in the Bible. The rain of the Great Flood fell for that many days and nights, Noah waited for 40 days after the rains stopped to send a bird out to look for land, Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for that length of time, the wandering Hebrews took 40 years to reach the Promised Land, the season of Lent lasts for 40 days.

Even today, 40 can be found throughout many cultures. The practice of isolation to prevent the spread of disease has traditionally been 40 days, and in fact that’s where the name ‘quarantine’ comes from. Maybe we need a special word for the 10 days of isolation following a Covid diagnosis 😉. A full week of work in North America is traditionally 40 hours, and 40 ounces is a standard size of bottle for liquors. And who decided that the term ‘catching forty winks’ represents having a short sleep?

Of course, once our brains decide that a certain number must have significance, we tend to see it everywhere.

The number 23 has attracted a dedicated following. There’s a Facebook group of people who believe that 23 follows them through life, called the 23rdians, as well as a group on Twitter. While that number, like all numbers, has mathematical properties, people looking for what’s been called the 23 Enigma will recite ‘statistics’ such as adding up the four digits of the year performer Kurt Cobain was born, and was died (1967, and 1994), which with each year comes out to 23, and the fact that criminals Bonnie and Clyde died on May 23, 1934 (I’d have been more impressed if they’d died in 1923). I’m sure that if you could widely research birth and death records, you’d find a lot of people who entered or left the world on that date, just as you’d find plenty on the 24th of the month, or the 4th, or the 31st.

What is one to make of animals that appear to have numbers printed on them? Does it mean something? Hubby and I spotted one ourselves, a Diaethria butterfly, in the Amazon jungle. It’s a pretty white butterfly with a splash of red on the wings, and what looks like the number 88, 89, or 98 outlined in black. It’s even called the ‘89’98 butterfly’. If I were a superstitious sort, I’d probably think it was a lucky sighting, since in Chinese culture the number 88 is considered a symbol of good fortune. But enough things went wrong after that trip that I’d have to say it didn’t bring us any luck.

Humans have a built-in predilection to look for patterns — Survival 101. Patterns are one of the ways we learn, either to repeat actions that are beneficial, or avoid those that aren’t (although for some reason it took me over 40 years – there’s that number again – to learn to stop sticking my head in a hot oven as soon as I opened the door to check a roast or a cake). Patterns are legitimate, but sometimes people let pattern-spotting get out of hand, and will begin finding coincidences that validate their pet theory. That’s how conspiracy theories get started.

For writers, pattern-spotting and superstition are rich mines for motivating their characters, or even entire civilizations. Entire movie franchises have been built around it.

Tomorrow will mark 40 days to the start of this year’s annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). What that means for you, if you’ve always wanted to write a novel, is that you have essentially the length of the Biblical Flood to build your ark.

A couple of years ago, the NaNoWriMo organization surveyed winners as to what contributed to their success, and one common theme was advance preparation. You could start with not much of an idea and just dip your toes in the water, but I don’t think you’ll find the experience very satisfying.

If you’re serious about starting a novel this year, get your ducks in a row: basic plot outline, a good sense of your protagonist, her/his/their goal, obstacles to achieving that goal, where and when the story will take place. And my suggestion: where the story will start, and where it will end (then you just need to fill in the steps to take your protagonist from beginning to finale). You won’t need to finish your novel by November 30th, but if you reach the 50,000 word goal, you’ll be well on your way.

To help you, NaNoWriMo is offering a five-week course, NaNo Prep 101. It’s self-paced, so you can work on the contents whenever you’re able. From their website, this is the course outline:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 19-25)
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 26-October 2)
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (October 3-9)
  4. Build a Strong World (October 10-16)
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 17-23)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 24-30)

Each week’s module includes numerous resources as well. You can find all the details and start the course here.

I’ve had so many people, when they find out I’ve written a novel (and am working on books 2 & 3 in the series), tell me that they’ve always dreamed of doing the same. If you have the same dream, this could be your year!