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

A Truly Historic Event

Buckingham Palace in London from a bridge in St. James’s Park

The years since the turnover to our current millennium have been filled with globally historic events. There have been other world-shaking events in the past, but with instantaneous news transmission, we now get to watch them play out as they transpire.

It’s a sign of the charisma of the British monarchy that millions of people around the world are affected by the death of its longest-reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The late queen was such an iconic symbol of an iconic institution that her passing is momentous, whether you’re a fan of the monarchy or not.

If you’ve ever been to London, you’ll understand how deeply the presence of a living monarchy runs through British culture.

Main gates at Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace dominates the central part of the city. Its ornate, imposing gates look just as they should for what was once the most powerful institution in the world. In the early 20th century, the British Empire, including all of its far-flung territories, dominions and outposts, covered almost one-quarter of the globe, all overseen by that small island off the coast of Europe and Scandinavia.

By contrast, my hubby and I were in Vienna a number of years ago and visited the Hofburg Palace, a magnificent building that’s now only a museum piece. You can visit remnants of Austria’s monarchy all over the country, from hunting lodges in the mountains to cafes where all the court gossip that was worth hearing could be had for the price of a cup of rich kaffee and a luscious pastry. But it’s all slowly becoming an annotated archive, whereas in England the monarchy lives, goes about its daily duties and celebrates milestones with flair.

The modern London Eye overlooks centuries of history on the Thames River

London itself is one of the great crossroads cities of the world, with a historical reputation to match. But even though modern touches can be seen throughout, London inevitably brings to mind grand architecture, atmospheric pubs, beautiful parks, and so many other things that are steeped in tradition.

For writers, the progression of events surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral are a study in the pomp and formality of a form of government that’s 1200 years old and still thriving. If you doubt that, look at all the attention the royal family still receives.

On top of that, the ripple effects of a change in monarch are widespread. So much speculation about the new King and how he’ll handle the many challenges still embroiling the royal family, how soon official portraits will be changed, how many foreign dignitaries will travel to London for the funeral, how many British-ruled territories will decide to become independent, and all the many other people and places impacted by the royal family in some way.

I can’t believe how many articles I’ve seen in Canadian news about our currency that has the late Queen’s image on it. Personally, I can’t see the Bank of Canada reprinting all of the millions of pieces of currency in circulation just to change the images. I’d expect to see new bills and coins slowly start to appear with King Charles III on them, and the old ones to disappear as they start to wear out. Likely there will be some commemorative pieces that are issued for avid collectors.

How long will the British monarchy survive? Only time itself will sort that out, but for now, the passing of the torch from the Queen to the new King is something worth watching. We’ll never see a transition of this magnitude again in our lifetime.

You can follow more of the historic event on the royal website, and if you’re curious as to how Canada is handling all of this, visit the “Commemoration for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” section of the Government of Canada’s website.

The Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham Palace

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

Deception – a risk/reward strategy

Spider well-camouflaged on tree trunk in the Amazon jungle – by E. Jurus

Should I tell you that I had some amazing reason for not posting yesterday as usual? I could try, but it’s not in my nature to dissemble. The truth is that my body is still fighting off this prolonged summer cold and I forgot. (Adding reminders in my phone calendar as we speak.)

Lots of people lie; I try not to hang around them. Starting a relationship with someone implies an inherent trust that neither of you will jerk each other around, and if one of you does, the feeling of betrayal is profound.

So why do people do it? That question has always mystified me. If the perpetrator gets some temporary jollies out of it, will they then, at the end of their life, have only this to reflect: “I spent my life behaving like an asshole and I’m so proud of it”? Perhaps they lie to themselves about their own motives, because I don’t see how anyone can feel good about damaging someone else.

Of course, these types of people are the scoundrels that populate all the great mystery novels and thrillers. After all, if no one ever did anything bad, what would we write about?

As a writer, we have to try and understand the motivations of the scoundrels so we can write them believably. Why do they do what they do? None of us are born as despicable people, so what happened in a scoundrel’s life to set them on their path of destruction?

If you happen to know a person like that well enough to track their journey, you’ve got a head start. But there’s lots of published material out there as well. The article I’m highlighting this week takes a look at famous imposters in history — the ultimate con, to convince quite a few people that you’re someone or something other than what you seem.

The impostor must always believe in their mind that there’s some great benefit to trying to pull off such a swindle. It happens all the time in the natural world; prey species often camouflage themselves to either hide from predators or look like something much more threatening than they really are. Predators camouflage themselves to look harmless — like the spider on the tree above, in the Amazon jungle. It blended so well into the bark of the tree that if I hadn’t been looking straight at it I’d never have noticed its presence. I can only imagine how many insects wandered unwittingly past, only to be snatched up for dinner.

For this week’s reading, I suggest you check out Body Double, in the JSTOR Daily newsletter. It’s a fascinating overview of several famous swindles over the centuries. They’ve inspired many well-known authors, and maybe they’ll give you some great ideas to use in your own novel.

And for all those lying, cheating scoundrels out there, remember: karma’s a bitch!

More writer info – children’s books, reality TV show

The start of the storybook trail on Foley Mountain, Ontario — in 2020 it featured The Gruffalo

This week’s post features two pieces of news I wanted to share with you.

  1. The Reedsy site has posted a comprehensive guide to publishing children’s books. This genre has never been in my wheelhouse, but if you have a wonderful concept for such a book you’ll want to check out all the information in the article, How to Publish a Children’s Book: A Guide for First-Time Authors. In a great illustration of synchronicity, or amazing coincidence (plotting note for you), the article begins by referencing Julia Donaldson, the author of the book featured in the photo for this post, which I took two years ago while on a pandemic vacation within the bounds of my own province.
  2. If you have a book idea inside you and would love the challenge of writing it in front of a huge television audience, this challenge might be for you! A new reality TV show specifically for writers is being put together; it’s called America’s Next Great Author, and the producers are taking casting calls right now. The show has several producers, including The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, who run an annual Pitchapalooza for writers who’ve created a book through National Novel Writing Month. Though not for the faint-hearted (like all reality shows), this could be right up your alley: tryouts in several U.S. cities where you’ll get one minute to pitch your book idea to a publishing panel; then “Six charismatic finalists from vastly different places and backgrounds enter the Writer’s Retreat together for a month of live-wire challenges and spectacular storytelling.” The finalists will have to begin their book ‘from scratch’ and complete it in 30 days. Whether you want to submit your name for the casting calls, or just follow information on the show as it develops, this is where you’ll find out more 🙂 Good luck!

When in doubt, wear red – Bill Blass

‘Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.’ William Shakespeare, Sonnet 98

I was inspired to write this post by the colours of the flowers at our local botanical garden, where I was testing my new camera. The roses are all in bloom, in their rich panorama of colours, and dozens of visitors have been out enjoying their beauty.

The colour red has a complicated history. It’s said to be the colour of love, but also of anger, seduction and temptation. Our blood is red, giving rise to the association of red with life and vitality in many cultures, as well as courage and sacrifice – and danger.

Many fruit turn red as they ripen, attracting birds and mammals to partake of them and scatter their seeds for natural propagation.

Ripening crabapples in September
The delectable red of berries served up at a local Strawberry Festival

Red is one of the three primary colours, which in combination produce all other colours we can see. On the visible spectrum of light, red sits next to orange in the longer wavelengths (at the far end from the ‘cooler’ colours of blue and violet).

Red, and all the colours of the visible spectrum, in the rainbow formed by the mist at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

For humans, unless you have red-green colour-blindness, red draws attention. If you want to make a conspicuous entrance into a room, wear red. There’s a reason that Jessica Rabbit was drawn with a slinky red gown.

I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way. Jessica Rabbit

For that same reason, red is used for warning messages – stop signs and stop lights, fire engines, biohazard labels.

The ubiquity of red as a warning colour means that people with colour blindness may be considered ineligible for certain jobs, like pilots and machine operators.

Certain animals can’t see the colour red. Primates can, including us, but dogs and bovines (cows, bulls) can’t. Bulls in an arena don’t respond to the colour of the red flag, just that it’s being waved at them. Crickets don’t see red, which is why, when I was a university student studying insect biology, my cricket population was set up under red lights so that I could watch the critters go about their normal behaviours without disturbing them.

Some of my fellow students referred to my lab as the ‘cricket whorehouse’, illustrating another connotation of red: prostitution. Along with yellow, red was worn to distinguish women ‘of ill-repute’ from respectable ladies, creating both marketing and stigma at the same time.

From our ancient need for fire, some shades of red are associated with warmth and heat.

In the photo below, the reddish-brown walls of the dramatic dining room at Kylemore Abbey (once a grand country manor for Mitchell and Margaret Vaughan Henry) in Ireland make the room feel warm and cozy, while the scarlet of the chairs and napery is tempered by the white trim and the subdued pastels of the carpeting.

Sunsets and sunrises contain shades of red because during those periods of the day, when sunlight travels its longest path through the atmosphere to the eye, the scattering of the light particles eliminates blue and green components almost completely, leaving red and orange light.

Shades of gold to crimson in the sunset over the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya

Children tend to be drawn to bright colours, and “red” is a common favourite colour for that age group. According to According Educare Child Center,  “Toddlers who love red are probably strong-willed. They are the ones who want what they want when they want it even more than most toddlers.” Red was my favourite colour growing up, all the way through my teen years, and I’ve often been characterized as strong-willed, so there you go 😊

Interestingly, in my adult years, I grew to love the colour grey – for foggy days, moody skies and storm clouds. I still like the colour red, but in small doses, and as a symbol of Autumn, my favourite season.

Leaves turn red and gold in autumn from pigments, called anthocyanins and carotenoids, that are produced towards the end of summer. As certain deciduous trees prepare for winter, they shed the chlorophyll that gives their leaves the normal green colour, leaving the red anthocyanins and orange carotenoids for us to enjoy as we go leaf-peeping in cool weather.

Vivid fall colours on a Muskoka golf course

Over centuries, artists searched for ways to portray the colour red in their paintings and other creations.

The earliest artists, painting in caves tens of thousands of years ago, made red pigment from ochre, a natural clay colour.

In ancient Egypt, where red was associated with victory, life and health, people would color themselves with red ochre for celebrations.

During ancient Greek and Roman times, a toxic form of red pigment known as minium created a bright orange-tinted red. It was also commonly used in the Middle Ages for the decoration of illuminated manuscripts.

Cinnabar red, another highly toxic pigment, was a natural derivative of mercury sulfide. Its brilliant red was loved by both Egyptians and Romans, and commanded a very high price. It was smeared on victorious gladiators as a tribute, and painted into the murals of upper-class villas. Centuries later in China it became synonymous with the carved lacquer used to create a variety of beautiful decorative items.

Vermilion originally referred to the pigment made from grinding up cinnabar, but Arab alchemists brought a synthetic version, invented in China a long time previously, to the West during the Middle Ages, where it eventually became glorified by Renaissance painters such as Titian.

Red was used in Renaissance artwork to draw observers’ attention. Belying its association with harlotry, artists of the period often used red for part of the clothing of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, and it continues to be seen in stained glass windows throughout history.

Stained glass window at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Ireland

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. – Isaiah 1:18

Red could also be obtained from plants and insects. If you’ve ever dropped a red beet on yourself, you know how vividly it stains cloth. Cochineal red is derived from a strange little bug; when my hubby and I were on a dude ranch in Arizona, our hiking guide instructed us to swipe some white foam off prickly-pear cacti and rub it between our fingers, whereupon it turned a vivid red colour from the critters hiding inside. (This same red is also used as food colouring, just fyi.)

This display of dyes at the Awanacancha textile centre in Peru includes balls of wool in various shades of red derived from cochineal

In the 16th century cochineal bugs became the third most valuable export from the New World after gold and silver. Cochineal red was soon transformed into a paint called “carmine,” which became an important tint on the palettes of many 15th- and 16th-century artists, including Rembrandt, and Vermeer.

Another insect that provided red colour comes from the genus Kermes, and that shade of red was used in biblical times to produce a scarlet tint for robes. Popular into the Middle Ages, pure kermes scarlet was the  colour of choice for luxury and regal textiles many parts of England and Europe. The rich red was favoured by Queen Elizabeth I when she was younger and less weighted with the cares of her office. You can see it in the painting below.

Formerly attributed to Steven van der Meulen – Scanned in the US from Sotheby’s Catalogue #L07123, Important British Paintings 1500-1850 22 November 2007, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3738721

Following the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Mexican cochineal, which produced a stronger dye, began to replace kermes in Europe.

Red lac was another pigment sourced from an insect, Kerria lacca, found throughout Asia from India to China. It was harvested from the wild but also cultivated, and it yielded soft, deep reds to purples.

Cadmium red came along in 1817 when a German chemist discovered a new element. Cadmium is a natural element found in tiny amounts in water, soil, and rocks. It’s also highly toxic. Henri Matisse was one of the artists who embraced its use.

To this day, red is an iconic colour in uniforms, flags and other public displays. According to Insider magazine, the famous red tunic of the Royal Guard in London was chosen back in more militant days because it didn’t show blood from injuries — very practical of them.

The famous Changing of the Guard in London, England shows off the iconic red and black uniforms

As writers, we have an enormous catalogue of ways in which to describe the colour red, in the shades of flowers, the heat of a blaze or a blazing passion, in rich Renaissance colours, in blood and death.

There are so many legends and associations with the colour red that they can’t all be included in a single blog post. Look for more about red in September, when its various shades begin dancing across the autumn landscape as part of Nature’s last vibrant celebration before winter sets in.

Designers want me to dress like Spring, in billowing things. I don’t feel like Spring. I feel like a warm red Autumn. Marilyn Monroe

All photos are by me, unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus You may enjoy looking at them, or share this post, but please don’t use my photos for your own purposes without my express permission.

Digging up background/favourite resources 

So you have a great idea for a novel. You’ve figured out your basic plot points to get you from the Inciting Incident to the climax. How do you fill in the rest, or figure out how to resolve a sticky situation, or make sure you’re getting the details of something right?

Background research may be your saviour.

This type of research is critical for thrillers, mystery novels and speculative fiction, but even if you’re writing one of the fantasy genres, information from various historic and cultural sources can give your writing a richness and authenticity it wouldn’t otherwise have.

I’ve gotten some of my best ideas from my research – if I need to set a scene and want it to feel right, if I’m stumped on how to move forward in a scene or chapter, if I just need to figure out whether one of my ideas would actually be feasible. Although my genre is urban fantasy mixed with science fiction, a lot of my scenes need to be grounded in reality; from there I can freely extrapolate with whatever my imagination comes up with, knowing that I started from a solid base.

Resources are practically limitless, but today I’d like to share one of my personal favourites: the JSTOR Daily newsletter. JSTOR is “a digital library of academic journals, books, and other material”, which sounds pretty dry, but their newsletter brings all kinds of fascinating cultural tidbits to my mailbox every week.

One of this week’s articles is a terrific example: a snapshot of the pearl industry, from all the way back to 5,000 BC, to later enslaved pearl divers, to the invention of cultured pearls and their adoption as a symbol of white privilege, to powerful modern women who are defying and changing that stereotype.

While the article, Pearl Jam, doesn’t include every historical detail, it provides a springboard for taking the idea of a commodity that’s been precious for millennia and fleshing it out into a concept you could use to make your novel so much more interesting.

Take, for example, the tradition of handing down a set of pearls from generation to generation as mentioned in the article. It used to be a thing in the latter part of the 20th century. My mother had a pearl necklace, as well as a mother-of-pearl necklace and earring set, which of course came to me in due time. Neither was my style of jewellery, although I’ve kept them in memory of her. I fell in love with the look of black pearls after watching the movie The Phantom (you’ll have to watch it yourself to see what I mean 😊), and my adorable hubby with fantastic taste gave me a beautiful black pearl pendant one Christmas, followed by matching earrings the next year. Although they’re not the least bit ostentatious, whenever I wear them, someone notices. Such is the power of something with a mystique behind it.

Consider the idea of a commodity that’s so revered that it’s passed on through generations, whether in the same family, or in a guild, or a sect, between women/men/non-gender/intelligent animals…the possibilities are vast. Think of the long history of such a commodity – how has it been acquired, stolen, smuggled, faked, written into wills, hidden in crypts, protected by secret societies, lost to the ages, and on and on and on.

A few tips when doing research:

  • Organize and store it in such a way that you can find it when you need to refer to it
  • I like to highlight the parts that stood out to me the most, even if I’m not sure how I might use them at the moment. When I return to the document, I can scan through easily
  • Research can be like a treasure hunt – don’t get so caught up in it that you neglect your writing. However, when you’re stuck for ideas or just need a break, good research isn’t a waste of time
  • Include images when you come across them; they often contain a lot of relevant detail that you can use to your advantage
  • Either bookmark your source, or include how to find it again in your stored document (the URL, etc.) – you may want to refer to it more than once for additional details once you start fleshing out your idea
  • Follow your gut. There may be other links in your original source that can lead to more good ideas – or not. That’s the nature of research. Not all of it may prove directly useful, but it may help you to eliminate other possibilities, or to narrow your search to one particular facet.

Above all, have fun, both in the research and in adapting it for use in your novel.

There are many ways to find and do research. If you’re interested in JSTOR Daily, the link to the featured article in this blog post also contains a spot to sign up for the newsletter, and if you have a personal favourite among your resources, I’d love to hear about it!

Writing Dialogue

Ilsa: “But what about us?”
Rick: “We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”
I: “When I said I would never leave you.”
R: “And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

Excerpted from The 20 Best Dialogue Scenes in Cinema History, by Juan Orellana June 3, 2016, Taste of Cinema – Movie Reviews and Classic Movie Lists

The prospect of writing believable dialogue was one of the most intimidating things for me when I began writing the first novel of my trilogy during my very first NaNoWriMo two and a half years ago. As a passionate reader, I’d seen lots of great samples of dialogue over many, many novels, and really wondered if I had it in me to do the same.

Tied in with that, of course, was the ability to create believable characters, who each had their own personalities and nuances. Every day, unless you’re a hermit, you see all of those facets when you talk to people you know or run into. How many times have you run into a chatty cashier at a grocery store (happens to me a lot), or cringed when your grumpy aunt/uncle/grandparent went on the same tirade they’ve nurtured for the past twenty years?

All of those conversations, even the ones you watched without participating yourself – they’re what help you write convincing dialogue.

Think about who your character reminds you of; what would they say in the same/similar situation that you’re writing about? Even if you’re writing genre fiction and placing your characters in situations that no actual person would face, like deciding how to kill a dragon or stop the world’s nastiest supervillain, the details may vary but the way the conversation plays out will follow certain speech patterns.

Now, I’m not even a published author yet, but I can tell you that all my beta readers for Novel 1 loved my dialogue and thought it was very believable (whew!). I felt really good about all the dialogue I’d written, which frankly surprised the hell out of me. But I’ll share with you what helped me write it:

When I write, I essentially live out every scene. I’m in the room, or the restaurant, or the forest, with my characters as they interact. I’m in the body of my protagonist, of course, but I’m also in the heads of the other creatures in the same scene. If the villain is in it, I think as they do, manipulating (or trying to) events to their own end. I envision how my protagonist would react to the other characters – is she amused, dismayed, angry, heartbroken, stunned, fed up… Much like an actor, but to a greater extent, you as the writer need to be in the head spaces of every person/creature that shows up in your novel.

I’ve read a fair bit of advice on how to write dialogue, and here are points I agree or disagree with.

  • Recommended: Don’t address other people by their names, as it doesn’t happen much in real life. I disagree – depending on the situation. If your protagonist is in a meeting or a group, for example, she might address someone by name to get their attention, or mention their name if she’s referring to something they said. In real life, the protagonist might just look at someone in the group to start talking to them, and if possible you could write that into the scene: Mary looked at Stuart. “How can you say such a thing?” In the dialogue sample above, from the final scene of the great classic movie Casablanca, Rick addresses Ilsa by name at one point for emphasis. So I wouldn’t discount using character names within a piece of dialogue if it suits the situation.
  • Recommended: Don’t overuse speech-type descriptives because they’ll interrupt the flow of the dialogue for you reader. Use ‘he/she/they said’ if needed, but preferably build it into the scene so that it’s obvious who’s speaking.

I agree that the word ‘said’ is the most unobtrusive way to specify who’s speaking if you need to. When the conversation is between only two people, you can just alternate lines of dialogue without needing to clarify who’s saying which, as long as you’re careful to use characteristic speech patterns and make the dialogue changes clear logically. I have come across a number of passages in different books where I had to reread the scene several times to make sure I understood who was saying what, and that does become annoying. (This is where editing comes in after you’ve written your first draft.)

However, I do think that descriptive verbs can really build nuance into a conversation. There would be a big difference in meaning between these two pieces of dialogue:

“I hate you!” she joked.

“I hate you!” she snarled.

You could make the lines even more powerful by adding the character’s movements:

“I hate you!” she joked, throwing a wadded ball of paper at him.

“I hate you!” she snarled, clenching her fists in rage.

When I read this type of dialogue, for me the adjectives flesh out my impression of what’s happening. But as a writer I would vary this technique with other dialogue where the character’s actions make the speaker or their mood obvious, such as:

She got up and hugged him. “You’re the best!”

The alternatives for the second sentence with description would be “I hate you!” she said, clenching her fists in rage, which doesn’t work because her actions don’t fit the verb said, or “I hate you!” She clenched her fists in rage, which would work just as well or possibly better, depending on what else is going on.

Too much of anything becomes boring, and that goes as much for writing a scene as for eating an entire meal composed of meat (although, yes, I know many guys who’d argue with that, including my hubby 😉)

  • Avoid redundancy, as in “No,” she disagreed. It’s obvious that the speaker is disagreeing because she said ‘No’. I haven’t seen this kind of thing much in published books, but it’s certainly a trap I hear a lot when people are speaking, and it’s something to be mindful of when you’re editing your novel – unless it’s a pattern of speech that your character uses frequently and annoyingly.

Some of my own pointers

  • If you haven’t done much of this already, study how people of different types, personalities, walks of life all speak. Make notes if you have to – writers do it all the time.
  • Do learn your grammar! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed/snarled when a writer gets something really basic wrong. Examples:
    • It’s – this is a contraction meaning ‘It is’. It is NOT the possessive form of ‘It’ – the correct word for that would be ‘its’, just as hers is the possessive form of she, his is the possessive form of he. Do you see any apostrophes in ‘hers’ or ‘his’? No. I read this type of misuse online every single day! But just because a lot of other people are doing it doesn’t mean it’s correct. Please, for the future of writing as a thoughtful artistic medium, learn how to write precisely.
    • ‘Should of’ or ‘would of’ or ‘could of’. No, no, no! People don’t say ‘I should of’ done something. They say ‘I should have’, or in its contracted form, ‘should’ve’. (Also notice that I didn’t put an apostrophe in ‘its’ there.)
    • Learn the correct word and its implications for what you need. We once heard a golf announcer say that a player’s golf ball ‘dissipated’ over the hill instead of ‘disappeared’. When people are speaking in real life in a hurry, they may choose the wrong word, but, a) as a speaking professional that announcer should have known better, and b) as a writer you have the time and research to choose the right one. There are plenty of online dictionaries and thesauruses to help you.

I hope all of this helps you in some way. Read and make note of pieces of dialogue that you like. Study people speaking in real life and pay attention to the flow of conversations and how each participant brings their own flavour. If you hear something brilliantly funny or poignant or persuasive or nasty, write it down and use it in your novel!

You might also want to take a look at this article by one of my favourite writer resources, Reedsy: Dialogue Examples: 15 Great Passages of Dialogue, Analyzed.

Good luck 😊

The language of your book (Part 1)

Ornamental cherry trees speak of the joys of spring and the fleeting beauty of flowers to everyone who chooses to come and appreciate them

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath!

Portion of a poem in Elvish in The Lord of The Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)

We communicate with each other in so many different ways. The things we say have intonations that speak volumes, accompanied by expressions that, if we’re being sarcastic for example, may completely belie the words coming out of our mouth. And then there’s context, subtext, jargon, slang, accents, and many other kinds of pitfalls that an unwary writer may fall victim to.

Everything has a language. Animals have languages, and are often remarkably adept at cross-species understanding, as anyone with a pet could tell you. Our friends used to scoff at us for spelling out words like “w-a-l-k” and “c-o-o-k-i-e” around our dogs – until they got their own dogs and saw how quickly they began to recognize human words.

Flowers have a kind of language; their colours, shapes and scents all mean something to the insects or birds they hope will spread their pollen. Carnivorous plants have a deadly vocabulary: a seductive outward appearance that lures unsuspecting insects into their trap.

Everything that we write speaks in and of itself. Is our writing style brisk, no-nonsense but evocative like film noir –

“The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighboring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully. On Spade’s desk a limp cigarette smoldered in a brass tray filled with the remains of limp cigarettes. Ragged grey flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.” From The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

— to the highly poetic and layered prose of William Shakespeare. This is one of my favourite Shakespeare passages; it so deliciously describes how Death waits patiently while kings go about their pompous, regal lives, believing themselves ‘impregnable’ within their crowns and castles. But in the end Death still comes with his little pin to bore through the castle wall, and ‘farewell king!’

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Richard II, Act 3 Scene 2, by William Shakespeare

Both samples of writing are iconic of the writer’s time period and culture. Film noir has great style and substance, but is seen through the lens of a hard-boiled detective, a seductive femme fatale, nasty criminals and shades of darkness. It makes no apology for its characters’ motivations.

Shakespeare wrote in the form of language that was spoken by the masses. As laborious as this manner of speech might seem to us now, at the time his audiences would have understood and followed it perfectly. We’re not used to such elaborate prose now, but if you were to watch a series of his plays, you’d start finding it easier to follow them as time went on.

Historical romance writers typically use the formalized, somewhat flowery language of Regency England, incorporating standard expressions that instantly transport readers into the era. You can read up on those tropes and how the popular Netflix series Bridgerton has been using them to great effect in this article, Everything You Wanted to Know About Regency London, the High-Society Setting of ‘Bridgerton’

Sometimes authors will go to great lengths to generate a special atmosphere for their books, like J.R.R. Tolkien, who created an entire Elvish language called Quenya, even going so far as to create the flowing script the elves used. It has enraptured fans for decades – I found numerous websites dedicated to Tolkien’s Elvish culture, including pronunciation guides, fonts that you can download to print your own Elvish-themed materials, even a course in the language of Quenya.

From a video standpoint, look at the popularity of the completely sci-fi language of Klingon. According to the Guinness World Records site, Klingon has become the most widely-spoken fictitious language in the world!

Such are the magic and power of beautifully-realized novel and movie worlds.

Of course, it’s quite possible to add flavour to your book without creating an entire language to back you up; a few words and consistent spelling/phrasing will do the trick.

When you’re writing, each character should have their own ‘voice’, or style of speaking, depending on their background, upbringing, education and other factors that makes each of us unique. For example, a friend once thoroughly astonished me by commenting that she could tell I’d been to university just by the way I spoke. On the other hand, I’ve read articles by people who haven’t had a university education, but their writing was still eloquent and authentic because it was their true voice.

In our modern world, we’re not tied to a time period as Shakespeare was, or even Jane Austen – we can play with every time period that came before us, or any culture, vintage or contemporary. We’d better do our research, though, to get things right.

One of the common wisdoms offered to new writers is to avoid jargon. I disagree with that to a certain extent; jargon defines a profession. I worked in various departments of a local college, from business to counselling to IT, and I can tell you that each one had its own very characteristic jargon. The trick for writers is to provide enough jargon to make a character’s dialogue authentic, without overwhelming the reader. One way to do that might be to mention a jargon term and then offer an explanation, perhaps via one of the characters in the scene.

Generational dialogue has its own nuances. Seniors will speak very differently than teenagers, and often reference very different terms or slang that belong to the time period they grew up in. Things like popular movies, hit music, what was in the news, street slang – they’re all highly representative.

For fantasy/sci-fi novels, it’s necessary to create an ambience that’s very different from what we readers live with each day. One thing I often find lacking is a complete alternate reality. Writers in these genres often describe an alien world as if it exists as a single city, not a complex world with varying geography, numerous cultures, hundreds or thousands of separate communities, all kinds of weather patterns, different belief systems. If we’re to create something believable, it will take time and thought, and often a pretty detailed collection of background material that won’t necessarily make it into the book, but will give our alternate world enough richness to make it live in our reader’s minds, hopefully for years and decades afterward – like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter…

While I enjoy light reads as much as the next person, for me the greatest success as a writer is when your work isn’t forgotten once a reader finishes the book. The characters and worlds you’ve created resonate so strongly with readers that they don’t want to let them go – they reread your work, buy memorabilia, join fan clubs, create websites. We don’t know what effect our words will have until they’re published, but we work hard and live in hope 😊

Stay tuned for Part 2, covering how languages are built, whether spoken or unspoken, aural or visual or even musical/tonal, for whatever pieces of one you might want to create.

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

Background material: seeing the world around us – Gardens

Allee of trees flanking masses of white bellflowers, Botanic Gardens, Niagara Falls

Having just read about a peculiar “Euro-Western” phenomenon called “plant blindness”, I wanted to write about how important it is for authors to pay attention to the world around us. Even when you’re creating your own fantasy world, the way that our environment functions can provide essential clues for populating your fictional world.

Plant blindness is defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment�leading to: (a) the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere, and in human affairs; (b) the inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features of the life forms belonging to the Plant Kingdom; and (c) the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration (Wandersee & Schussler, 1998a).” Plant Science Bulletin, Issue: 2001 v47 No 1 Spring.

The venerable maxim about taking time to stop and smell the roses may yield a clue about why people might be plant-blind: they’re too busy to notice their own environment and the small delights it holds. Studies have shown how beneficial nature is to our mental health; I routinely spend time walking around gardens and natural spaces to decompress, whether it’s from the gloomy pall permeating news media lately, or irritating neighbours, or any other stressor in my life. There’s just something about hiking through the woods on a nice day, or basking in the glow of sunlit flowers in a garden, that’s both soothing and reviving. It reminds me that there are still places of quiet and tranquillity in a chaotic world.

Flowers in particular are such a gift to us — we need to appreciate their wonderful beauty. So in homage to plants, and with thanks to the many gardeners who create amazing places to restore our souls, I offer these images from several gardens I visited today. Maybe they’ll inspire a setting for one of your novel’s scenes, or just soothe your soul if you’re having a stressful day.

Cherry blossoms are bursting out all around our region
Surprisingly, so are lilac blooms, weirdly early this year (usually they open up in June here)
A glorious tree of white magnolia lifts its eyes toward the heavens
Beautiful flowering quince set a shady spot aflame
The ruffles on these daffodils remind me of the flounces on a ballgown
The base of a tree holds a secret cavern that has a tiny doorway on the far side — a fairy house, perhaps?
A carpet of bellflowers among a copse of trees
A meticulously-laid geometric garden filled with daffodils holds court across from one of the oldest buildings at the Botanic Gardens, Niagara Falls
The gardeners are clearly not plant-blind — they’ve made the most of a pond and winding stream
White trillium, aka Wake Robin, are Ontario’s official flower, but they’re rarely seen in our woods nowadays
I’m not sure of the name of these little irises, but it would be a crying shame not to pay attention to their tiny magnificence

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

World-building: Just the Facts, Ma’am

The July 4th fireworks began just as the sun was setting, sprinkling their bright colours across the Niagara River as they rose and burst into a thousand stars. We’d just finished dinner at 7 p.m. and walked across the road from our house to see them …

Wait, what??? In the latitude of the Niagara River, which joins Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, at the start of July the sun doesn’t set until 8:58 p.m.

Information like this is easily looked up online now. A great many of your readers might not know the difference if they’re in distant parts from your setting, but even a detail like the timing of the sunset greatly influences a local culture. From living in the area, I could tell you the following about summers in southern Ontario:

  • Days are long and we make the most of the extended light in the evenings – at the beach, on a restaurant patio, on a golf course, in our back yards below lights strung in trees.
  • The humidity is high. The two great lakes in proximity generate a lot of moisture in the air year-round, but when the hot days roll in, the combination of ninety-degree heat and ninety percent humidity turns the area into a steam bath and the inside of a vehicle into a sweltering oven. It makes life challenging for anyone of low income who can’t escape from the heat, for senior citizens and those with health issues, for any pets unlucky enough to not have thoughtful owners. On the worst days, I’m typically hiding inside, because even the short trips between my air-conditioned car and air-cooled buildings are draining. I up the ante on my antiperspirant with dustings of baby powder, wash clothes more often. Several years ago we attended a family wedding where one of the guests, an elderly woman, fainted from the stifling heat inside the church.
  • The pollen count tends to be high. There are a lot of gardens dotting the landscape, as well as numerous orchards and vineyards. Allergy sufferers don’t love our summers. But, for garden lovers and photographers, summers are paradise.
  • Farm markets are abundant from June, when fresh strawberries make their luscious appearance, to juicy August peaches, to autumn when a wide variety of fat pumpkins fill market bins. I usually make a weekly trip out to my favourite market to see what they have that I can embellish our dinners with.
  • Canada geese, our most majestic bird, poop everywhere. It tends to drive golfers nuts, and some courses hire dogs to chase off the geese as much as they can. Personally, I’m happy to step carefully for the privilege of having these beautiful birds in our lives.

There are hundreds of other details that make up life in the area. Without living hereabouts, it would be impossible to know them intimately, and readers don’t expect that from you, but even a short vacation would give you enough information to add some authentic local colour to your book. Since most of us can’t just pick up and travel to every foreign place in the world to absorb the local culture, we can follow in the footsteps of one of the most famous mystery writers in history, who was equally famous for both her British flavour and her exotic settings – Agatha Christie. She wrote about what she knew, from the villages of England and 1930s London, to the places she visited on her travels – Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and more. Who are we to disagree with her methods? 😊

It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express. It consisted of a kitchen and dining-car, a sleeping-car and two local coaches.

By the step leading up into the sleeping-car stood a young French lieutenant, resplendent in uniform, conversing with a small man muffled up to the ears of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward-curled moustache.

Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express