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

Building the world of your novel

Very gothic-looking church and graveyard near the Hill of Tara, Ireland

Novelists create fictional worlds for their story to take place in, even those novels set in the real world. The best world-building makes readers feel like they could be reading about an actual place, even if it’s completely imaginary. While some people find it difficult to get into the extensive details of Middle-Earth provided by J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, for legions of fans it’s almost heart-breaking to finish the final chapter and have to leave the hobbits, elves, and the Shire behind when the back cover has been closed.

Tolkien spent years creating his many-layered world, from different cultures and their history (like the dwarves, who loved to mine for gold and had a reason for hating the forest elves), to vividly-imagined landscapes and even several languages and songs. Tolkien even created his own artwork to depict the worlds within worlds his characters inhabited.

It took Tolkien twelve years to complete his masterpiece, and not many writers will follow in his footsteps, but we also have much easier access to research than he did, at our fingertips.

Authors may put together thousands of words in backstory, a large part of which may not make it into their book, but it nevertheless creates a realism in the writer’s mind that they can refer to again and again. Think about how many details and layers to our actual world.

Of course, writers don’t need to build that complex a picture, and if you enjoy research it’s easy to get distracted by and lost in all the material you can pull off the internet, to the point where the book doesn’t get written. But whatever world you’re creating, the details you do put in the book need to be plausible enough that the reader doesn’t get unintentionally ejected from the story by something that doesn’t work.

A photo like the one I included above could provide a lot of information if you were writing a scene involving an old cemetery in Europe. There are so many useful details in it — the hoary old trees, the puddling of rain on the gravel path (from which you might surmise how heavily the rain was falling), sagging old tombstones scattered seemingly randomly around the grounds (rather than the neat rows of our North American cemeteries), the pale stone of the old church looming like a ghost among the trees.

I’ll write more on this subject in the future, but for now I’d recommend the World-Building Guide offered as a free resource by Reedsy on their blog: Worldbuilding Guide & Template: Your #1 Resource.

I invite you to imagine a story around the photo. I can tell you what I was doing there — walking through the grounds to get to the Hill of Tara — but you could think of any other number of reasons why someone might be there. Have fun with it!

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

On writing: Gold among dross

Gilded artesonado ceiling in the Guest Room of the Convent of Santo Domingo in Lima, Peru

Every now and then you stumble across articles that make you snicker, help you take the world less seriously. The Paris Review, a literary magazine established in Paris in 1953, has all kinds of interesting tidbits for inspiration and historical material (if you’re a budding author, you might want to check it out). It also, as I recently discovered, has a delightfully-themed column called Sleep Aid, which they describe as “a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific texts available in the public domain”.

Here’s an excerpt from one featured article that caught my eye, one of the chapters in the 1905 book Glue, Gelatine, Animal Charcoal, Phosphorous, Cements, Pastes and Mucilages, by F. Davidowsky, for which the Review has thoughtfully provided the link to the full text on the Project Gutenberg website:

“Gilder’s glue is found in commerce in very thin, pale yellow cakes tied up in packages weighing about 2 lbs. each. It is a variety of skin glue bleached with chloride of lime, and dissolves with difficulty in water.”

Despite that less-than-scintillating introduction to Gilder’s Glue, the subject is one that would interest me as a writer. The heroine of my trilogy is a professional archivist who specializes in illuminated manuscripts. Gilding, i.e. applying a thin leaf of metal – like gold – to another surface, was a technique used historically for everything from manuscripts to picture frames to architecture. Gold and other metals had to be applied, of course, with something sticky to make them adhere to the other surface – hence, ‘gilder’s glue’, made from things like egg white, gums, collagen from animal skins and other materials.

Although my books are technically fantasy, they take place in the real world and incorporate a fair amount of genuine historical detail to provide authentic background. I spend a substantial amount of time doing research, wading through articles like the one on glue mentioned above.

Those articles actually don’t put me to sleep. It’s like a treasure hunt sifting through all kinds of materials to find the golden nuggets that I can use in my writing. Admittedly, the internet makes research a lot easier – keywords are a godsend 😊

I copy many articles verbatim into Word documents so that I can refer back to them as needed. That way, if our wifi connection goes down, I can still access the material (instead of just bookmarking the site). I imagine all writers have their own methods for accumulating relevant details for their backstory – the thousands of details that may not make it directly into their novel, but that fill in the picture just as the pixels on a colour television screen do. Readers/viewers don’t see all the individual pixels, only the completed image that tells the story.

So don’t discount the snoozers, even if they can be as unintentionally amusing as bad sci-fi movies – they must have served a purpose at the time, and there could be valuable things tucked amid the dross. And speaking of gold, the more I look at my lead photo above of the gilded ceiling, the more I think I’ll use that piece of architecture in one of my books!

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

You say viridian, I say verdigris

Shades of green in an Irish forest

Did you know that there are 171, 146 words1 in use in the English language, plus another 47,1561 obsolete words? For writers, language is a rich and delightful playground. Like the great old radio dramas (The Shadow, Philo Vance, Dimension X, and the famously infamous War of the Worlds), we use ‘theatre of the mind’ to engage the imaginations of our readers.

The Foley artists who created the sound effects that helped radio audiences see the action and the settings in their minds used all kinds of techniques to replace the lack of visuals. Authors describe the action and settings, providing prose keyed to readers’ five senses, and one of these revolves around colour imagery.

I’ve always loved the lushly-coloured old movies filmed in Technicolor, ever since I first saw The Wizard of Oz, made in 1939.

The Technicolor process was actually a series of improvements beyond the British film industry’s Kinemacolor, starting in the 1930s. The three-color version was known for its new highly saturated color, and was used by Hollywood for the blockbusters pictures, like the Wiz, The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, Gone with the Wind..

For The Wizard of Oz, the colour of Dorothy’s shoes was changed from silver in the books by L. Frank Baum to ruby specifically to take advantage of the new colour advances. It was a small, but wise decision – those ruby slippers became ultra-famous and iconic. In 1989, to honour the 50th anniversary of the movie, Harry Winston Co. even created a replica version, decorating them with approximately 1,500 carats in rubies and an additional 25 carats in diamonds. They’ve been valued at $3 million.

Colours are one of the ways we understand the world and appreciate its beauty. For writers and graphic designers, colours play a key role in how we get a message across with pizzazz. In honour of Earth Month, we’ll take a look at the colour Green.

I’ll bet you could easily name a dozen versions of green just off the top of your head – lime green, mint green, grass green, jade green, olive, emerald… A simple walk through a spring garden, such as the one I did the other day, will yield myriad shades of green:

The classic green of boxwood hedges
Striped green crocus leaves
Jade green sedum
Glossy green leaves contrasting with fairy-pale green inside a hellebore blossom

Green is a complex colour, created by combining the two primary colours of blue and yellow. It has many shades and connotations.

When I think of the colour, it immediately makes me think of nature, freshness, renewal.

“When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, And the dimpling stream runs laughing by; When the air does laugh with our merry wit, And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.” William Blake

Interestingly, though, there are negative associations with green as well: greed, envy, poison. For someone with allergies, the greens of springtime might conjure up visions of hay fever. It’s all in your perspective.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on.” William Shakespeare

A few shades of green have been so iconic that they’re become famous and instantly recognizable. One of the earliest of these was Nile Green, also sometimes used interchangeably with Eau de Nil. I can tell you categorically that the waters of the Nile are not green (though perhaps they once were, when the Pyramids were young), and the origins of the nomenclature are murky. The best that I’ve been able to unearth is that somewhere in the haze of Egyptomania that gripped the fashionable world after Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, a light-to-medium green with perhaps a slight bluish undertone came to represent the exoticism of the Orient, and in particular Egypt.

A stunning pendant made around 1900 by a renowned French jeweller, George Fouquet, in collaboration with Alfonse Mucha, the Czech artist who captured Art Nouveau style, and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, epitomizes the colour and the Egyptomania style.

Screenshot of the pendant on the Metropolitan Museum website, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/493766

The Benjamin Moore paint company quite aptly describes Nile Green as: “Classic and subtly shaded, this green conveys mystery and Old World elegance. “ If I was writing a scene set in the 1920s or 30s, I’d likely include the colour to evoke the flavour of the era, and perhaps even add a tone of mystery, in the same way that red is often used to bring out a sense of horror or dread.

Another shade of green that will be instantly recognizable to a lot of people is Harrod’s green.

My souvenir Harrods mug

The olive-toned green, always paired with elegant gold lettering, has an air of poshness that few other brands in the world have managed to represent so thoroughly. Created by Minale Tattersfield Design Group in 1967 as a way to unify the department store’s disparate packaging in its 300-plus departments, the signature look has taken on a life of its own, as all good branding does. Harrods, like any business I’ve ever come across, is extremely protective of their brand, and will sue any other brand that even approximates the Harrods lettering font.

Producing green tints for artists’ paints has been challenging throughout history. The first pigments, used in cave art 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, were made from a combination of chalk, burnt charcoal, soil and animal fat, and the colour palette was limited to red, yellow, brown, white and black. As painting progresses, there was an ongoing effort to produce more colours, and to improve the stability of the paints.

Artists and dyers began to experiment with extracting colour from natural materials, like flowers. You might think that it would have been easy to achieve a nice green, since it’s all around us in nature, but that wasn’t the case. If you look at the photo below, which I took at the Awanacancha Textile Centre in Peru, which is a cooperative of families dedicated to preserving the traditional methods of dying and weaving, the only green colour you’ll see is a rather drab sage.

A vibrant green, like the almost fluorescent shade on this lizard in the Amazon jungle, was much harder to create.

Amazon Racerunner Lizard, Peru

Blue, a colour that rarely appears in plants, was much easier, although very expensive – it was made from the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli, which for a long time could only be mined in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. Also called ultramarine blue, it’s the colour that we all associate with the robes of the Virgin Mary in medieval art.

Red came from red ochre, plentiful in iron-rich soil, and is still in use today. Black was originally called ‘bone black’, as its source was indeed charred bones.

Yellow was another challenging colour, for which the artists who loved it went to strange lengths to achieve. J. M. W. Turner, famous for his dreamy 18th century landscapes, used a watercolour paint called Indian Yellow, which apparently was sourced from the urine produced by cows who were fed only mango leaves. (It was soon banned as animal cruelty; the cows became badly malnourished on their forced diet.) Vincent Van Gogh was arguably the most famous painter using yellow, and he used a synthetic compound called Chrome Yellow, which contained lead and was known to cause delirium.

In ancient times, the colour green was made using malachite, a vibrant green mineral of various shades. Verdigris, the greenish coating that develops on weathered copper and bronze, was used by the Greeks, and was also subsequently created artificially by exposing copper plates or strips to acetic acid (such as that found in vinegar).

In 1775, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a bright green pigment named after him. It became enormously popular, but the arsenic used to make it ended up poisoning both artists and customers. Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom in his home on the island of St. Helena, where he spent many years in exile, contained Scheele’s Green, and historians believe that’s what caused his death. It was replaced by Paris Green in the late 19th century, which was more durable but still contained arsenic, and was sometimes used as an insecticide. It may have caused Claude Monet’s later blindness, perhaps the ultimate nemesis for someone who dedicated his life to capturing the world around him in his art.

Classic shades of green, with their colour values in the Red-Blue-Green (RBG) scale

I have bedimmed

The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,

And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war-to the dread rattling thunder

(Shakespeare, The Tempest)

For writers, a well-chosen word or turn of phrase can magically create an image in a reader’s mind. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but we can’t use that many to create our mental pictures or we risk losing our readers in a mire of details.

So when I’m looking at scenes that I might use in my books, I’m also thinking about whether I could describe the scene well enough that my readers can envision what I’m writing about. I’ve actually discarded ideas because I felt I couldn’t capture them adequately in words, whether the details weren’t vivid enough, or too fleeting, or I’d just need too many words to describe it.

In honour of Earth Month, and the many beauties of our world that have enriched stories for eons, here are some of my favourite scenes of green from my travels. Pick your favourite and let me know how you’d recreate it with words!

Green waters of the Zambezi River tumbling over Victoria Falls
Layers and layers of green in the Amazon jungle canopy
The pastoral green of Ireland in the autumn
A lazy hippo among water hyacinth in Lake Naivasha, Kenya
Some of the most vivid greens I’ve ever seen on an oxbow lake in the Amazon jungle
Blue-green peaks of the Andes surrounding Machu Picchu, Peru

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

References

  1. Sagar-Fenton, Beth & McNeill, Lizzy (2018). “How many words do you need to speak a language?” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44569277

Fascination with the Supernatural

Hall of Dracula memorabilia at Bram Stoker’s CASTLE DRACULA Experience, Dublin, Ireland

I discovered a new (for me) newsletter on the weekend. The attraction was an article titled “Goblin mode: a gothic expert explains the trend’s mythical origins, and why we should all go ‘vampire mode’ instead”.

Actually, it was the word “goblin” that caught my eye. As supernatural creatures go, goblins aren’t particularly popular at the moment. Zombies and vampires are everywhere, goblins not much at all.

As the article explains, “goblin is a ‘general name for evil and malicious spirits, usually small and grotesque in appearance’ “ (from Dictionary of Fairies by Katharine Briggs).

The reason my literary antennae immediately quivered is that in my first book, the defining event that sets my heroine on the first steps of her journey takes place at a charitable fete called The Goblin Ball.

When I write, I often storyboard in my head, and one of my first boards for my upcoming Chaos Roads trilogy was a vision that just popped into my mind of my heroine holding a chic black invitation embossed with dancing orange stick-goblins, and so the event was christened.

(Note: If you’re not familiar with the concept of storyboards, which is a story planning technique heavily used by filmmakers, this article, “What is a storyboard and why do you need one?” explains it beautifully.)

I’ve been interested in the supernatural since childhood, probably inspired by movies like The Wizard of Oz. The scene in the Haunted Forest fascinated me, and, like everyone everywhere, I found the flying monkeys really creepy. Also definitely inspired by dressing up as anything other than a (semi-)normal girl and walking around in the cool, leaf-scented October night without my parents every Halloween.

My older brother and I became obsessed with the Dark Shadows television series after we discovered it, and my mom quickly joined us. While modern viewers might find the special effects cheesy, it was a ground-breaking supernatural soap opera at the time, with a dark and spellbinding atmosphere that developed a cult following. Strange Paradise was another gothic soap running around the same time period, and it also became a favourite of my mom and me. When I discovered vampire movies, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and other authors that wrote in his universe, and the Elfquest saga by Wendy and Richard Pini, I was hooked.

What is it about the supernatural that engenders such an enduring love among its fans? There are lots of theories, but for me it symbolized all the possibilities beyond our largely humdrum daily lives. As many adventures as my hubby and I have experienced in our travels, I still long for a world where Halloween opens the doors between realms, foggy days might hold anything in their clouded horizons, and the shadows of the night cloak all the creatures I love to dress up as.

The popularity of sci-fi/fantasy/comic conventions attests to our widespread desire to find some fun in our lives, to spend some time in alternate realities. One of my favourite episodes of the Castle tv series is Final Frontier, an affectionate tribute to conventions and dedicated fans. In the episode, a murder takes place at a fan experience for a fictional short-lived sci-fi series called ‘Nebula 9’, a purportedly cheesy production that nevertheless garnered a raft of passionate fans. At one point in the episode, Castle himself comments “Such is the power of fantasy”; his detective partner Kate Beckett, notoriously of the mind throughout the series that everything has a logical explanation, was herself one of the ‘mega fans’ of Nebula 9 during her university days.

That resonated with me. The original Star Trek series in syndication got me through some tough times in my university days when my parents were constantly fighting and my mother’s battle with alcohol caused me many sleepless nights.

Returning to the original article that prompted this post, the writer makes reference to the modern trend for vampires to be sexy and cool, as in the mega-successful Twilight series of books/movies. I’ve seen that trend treated with scorn by a variety of writers over the past few years, but I would argue that the challenge for modern authors is to make the supernatural work in our modern world, which isn’t full of the convenient dark and isolated places that authors in the 1800s and earlier could draw upon to offer their supernatural creations a place to hide in.

Stephenie Meyers clearly gave some thought as to how modern-day vampires might exist in the world without being discovered. Other authors, like Kim Harrison for her The Hollows series and Nalini Singh in her Guild Hunter series, create complex alternate realities in which the supernatural is open and accepted. Either way, the author has to craft a believable ‘world’ for their story to play out.

Our fascination with the endless possibilities of the supernatural continues unabated since the earlier days of the genre and the original publication in 1897 of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire novel that has had such a profound influence on subsequent writers. An article in The Guardian in 2014 placed Dracula as number 31 on its list of the 100 best novels. That’s quite a distinction and something we modern authors can dream of.

If you’re reading my blog, I’m assuming you’re also a fan of tales of the supernatural and fantastic, and I’d love to hear why you personally love the genre. If you’re not such a fan, I’d love to find out why it doesn’t appeal to you. Polite, respectful comments are always welcome!

One of my fine art photos, “Carfax”, in my Gothic Dreams collection, available through my Fine Art America site

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

Go to camp – for writers

camping in the African bush

If you’ve ever wanted to write a book, this may be your time to give it a shot. The National Novel Writing Month organization (NaNoWriMo for short) doesn’t just take place each November — it also holds two less formal events, Camps, in April and July. In just two days’ time, you could embark on your own writing adventure.

What’s the difference, you may wonder? While the big November event requires you to start a new book and write 50,000 words of it, for the camps you can choose your own goal. You can start a new book, revise/edit an existing book, or finish a book you’ve been working on for a while. You’ll keep track of your progress however you want, by word count if you like, or perhaps by committing to writing so many hours per day, or producing a certain number of pages.

To help you achieve your goal, there are plenty of online resources, camp counselors to help struggling writers, support groups with different themes, and regional events you can attend (in November they were still all virtual, but some in-person events may start opening up). You’ll find much more information on the NaNoWriMo site.

I’ve never participated in one of the camps, so I can’t speak from personal experience. Last year I signed up for the April camp to get some words down towards a travel memoir, but just a few days later my hubby and I found out about a terminal illness in his family, and that became the focus of our lives for the ensuing two months. However, it’s my understanding that, once you’ve signed up for the camp and announced your project for the month, you can sign up for a ‘cabin’. i.e. a group of cabin-mates you hang out with and get support from. You can choose to be assigned randomly, direct your cabin choice by listing some preferences, or create a private cabin that you’ll share with whomever you invite.

There are also discussion forums on different topics, a ‘campfire’ circle general discussion group, sponsor offers, and other interesting things that can be fun BUT can also be gigantic time-wasters. Distraction is one of the greatest enemies that I’ve seen participants fall victim to in the writing groups I’ve been in so far.

Just fyi: I have no vested interest in NaNoWriMo, but I’ve found it a very valuable way to focus on a writing project, and I highly recommend it as a great opportunity to crank out that book you’ve always dreamed of.

To novice writers, I can give you one essential piece of advice: you’ll only achieve your goal if you’re serious about tackling it in the first place. You’ll have to push yourself and remain steadfast in your quest. It takes determination and fortitude to write an entire book, even without editing it as you go along. But, whether or not you complete your entire book within the 30 days, by achieving your camp goal you’ll have created a solid foundation that you can keep building on.

After becoming one of the winners of the 2020 NaNoWriMo, it took me until the end of July 2021 to complete the first draft of my first novel. Finally, on July 31st, I was able to type the words “The End”. Hot damn, I’d written an entire novel! It was a dream I’d been nourishing for well over a decade, and achieving it was exhilarating, empowering, satisfying -– so many layers of emotion. My hubby and I opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

If you stick it out, the reward for all your hard work is a powerful sense of validation. You’ll be able to say “I’ve written a book.” Not many people can do the same. Of the writers’ group I joined last November, no one else has posted that they finished theirs; I hope that they do some day so that they can experience the same joy.

If you decide to try out one of the Camps, I wish you all the best, and I hope you’ll let me know how you’re doing from time to time.

Cheers,

Erica

The artistry of gardens

“If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly our whole life would change.”– Buddha

Irony: “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result” (Oxford Languages)

As in, how ironic is it that someone who has no green thumb at all loves taking photos about flowers? Or maybe it’s cause and effect.

I’ve always had a love of flowers – no one ever had to tell me to stop and smell the roses. 

To me, flowers are Mother Nature’s paintings, and there’s no human artist who can rival Her. It’s one of the reasons I’m rather obsessed with taking pictures of them. I’m endlessly amazed at their tiniest details. And every garden is like a little piece of the original Eden, waiting for us to experience its magic.

I find walking along garden paths very soothing. It’s as if the gardens are in their own realm, separate from the hustle and bustle of the world around them. Once you enter them, you leave cares behind and give yourself into the hands of the sunshine, the breeze, the glorious blossoms that seem to say, ‘Here I am; look how beautiful life is.’

I’m very fortunate to live in an area full of fruit trees that blossom in early May. The masses of thick blossoms are only on show for a couple of weeks, so it’s tricky for visitors to time it just right, but for those of us who live here, we have only to drive a couple of miles outside the city into the rural areas to check on the progress.

Lilac gardens are multi-sensory, as much about the wonderful scents as the pretty panicles bobbing in the breeze. They invite strolling, sniffing each different variety’s unique aroma as you go, like clouds of delight on a branch. I can only imagine how captivating they must smell to bees and butterflies.

Wherever we travel, I try to visit a garden. They tell you a great deal about the place they’re located. You’ll find them in my writing because their contents speak volumes. When I’m writing, I look for ways to express an idea as succinctly as this wild orchid in the cloud forest in Peru. It has a subtle beauty – nothing that smacks you in the face, just sits there quietly and evocatively.

In Ireland my husband and I visited the magnificent garden at Powerscourt Estate. Its many moods revealed themselves as I wandered around with my camera – formally lovely near the manor house,

blowsy and almost pagan down by the lake,

serenely celebrating the glories of autumn in the Japanese Garden.

At Kylemore Abbey, on the west coast of Ireland, the garden has a job to do, producing fruit and vegetables, but still in the loveliest way possible.

This week I visited one of our local gardens, looking for signs of life after a cold winter. I was amazed by the variety of flowers bravely poking their heads up in our fickle early-spring weather. It was like a party thrown by Mother Nature herself to celebrate the change to a new season.

Gardens are special places for me. They calm my soul when it’s troubled or needs a pick-me-up. They give me a reason to get out of the house and get some exercise. The flowers and plants inspire me artistically — the way they express so much in a blossom, in its shadings, its complexity, in where it chooses to reveal itself. If you can look at the photo of the lilac earlier in the post and almost smell its aroma through your screen, or see such vivid detail in your mind’s eye through my writing, then I’ve done my job well.

Ultimately, flowers make me smile, and that is perhaps one of the greatest possible gifts.

“Earth laughs in flowers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

All photos are by me, and all rights reserved.

Do you have a book inside you?

When I was still employed full-time, and dragging myself into the office from Monday to Friday, I used to watch the television series Castle and fantasize about having that kind of life. The freedom to spend your days doing interesting research, having a group of writing buddies to play poker with (backgammon would actually be my game of choice), attending book signings and comic cons – in short, having a really fun day instead of slogging away behind a desk.

Now, slogging away earned me a pension and enough money to do much of the travel that populates my books, so it was a viable means to an end. But it was far from fulfilling. After I took early retirement, I decided it was time to try writing the book series I’d been scribbling notes about for years.

The key word here was ‘try’. I suffered from what most novice writers do: a lack of confidence. Until you’ve completed your first novel (or other form of book), you truly have no idea whether you’re capable of it. And the only way to find out is to try. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.

I’d made fits and starts for many years while still working, but I was always worried about whether I was wasting my time. And it’s difficult to really get into a book while squeezing it in after work and between things like cleaning the house.

That autumn I decided to finally jump on the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) bandwagon. The idea is to write 50,000 words of a new book between the beginning and end of November. It’s a marathon: roughly 1667 words every day for 30 days straight. But I decided a month wasn’t a huge amount of time to have devoted if it didn’t work out, and if I did complete my quota, I’d have the makings of a full novel. And I really liked the event mantra of just getting those words out of your head and onto ‘paper’, not worrying about editing or polishing it. After all, nothing else happens until you write that first draft. The freedom to just write, good or bad, broke through that fear wall I’d been standing on one side of. If I decided it was garbage afterwards, I didn’t have to show it to anyone. And if it was pretty good, well then…

There are hundreds of writing groups that convene, loosely speaking, during NaNoWriMo, for any writing theme or type of writer. There’s also a very active Forum where people toss ideas around, ask questions, or pass the time. What surprised me the most about some of the comments was the number of people who signed up for the writing sprint without any idea of a book to start with.

For me, everything starts with that nugget of an idea. You flesh it out into a story, nurse it along, sweat over it, and hopefully produce something you can work with. But there has to be that idea, that ‘hmm, what if this happened?’ concept.

It’s said there are only seven basic plots, and each of these has been told again and again and again, in different variations. What fascinates me is how many great writers find ways to put a different spin on a time-honoured plot.

So you have your nugget. How do you turn that into a full-fledged novel?

All stories consist of several essential components:

  1. Your protagonist – the heroine/hero of your story. They must be a fully-developed person (or other creature): strengths, weaknesses, faults. You must know them inside-out – where they came from, what influenced their lives, what they think, how they’ll react in the situations you’re going to put them in. Well, mostly; it’s fun when they surprise you on occasion.
  2. The “Inciting Incident”. This is the change in your protagonist’s life that sets her/him/them on the path taken in the novel. Maybe it’s a vengeance plot, or a romance, or a quest for a magic sword. And because of this important incident, the protagonist then has:
  3. A strong goal. This goal drives the protagonist forward to the climax of the plot.
  4. Antagonist(s). There will be people (or creatures) that get in the way of achieving that goal. They may want to prevent the heroine from achieving her goal for reasons of their own, or they may want to harm the heroine, or they’re just inimical to the heroine’s existence. Whatever the case, the antagonist must be strong enough as a character to keep the ultimate outcome unpredictable (unless the book is a romance, where the outcome is fairly obvious but the journey to get there is the interesting part).
  5. Challenges. These are the ups and downs of the protagonist’s journey that form the plot.
  6. All of the challenges build until the blockbuster climax of the story. If you’ve done your work well, the climax resonates with your readers on many levels.
  7. The denouement, where everything wraps up and ties up – unless you’re writing a multi-book series, in which case everything doesn’t tie up, and this section leaves some intriguing questions in your readers’ minds that will make them pant for the next book.

Some authors advocate writing backwards – that is, knowing what the ending of the book is going to be, and then filling in the protagonist’s journey to bring her/him/them to that conclusion. That is the plotting method I used, not on purpose really, but I already knew where my heroine had to end up at the close of each of the first two books in my series in order for her to face the situations she has to face in the final book.

There was a lot of work to get her through the first book. Although my books are a mix of urban fantasy and science fiction, I incorporate real places in the world (although I tweak them a fair bit) and real history (tweaked also 😊). I conducted a great deal of research to get the feel and the details right, to create a level of authenticity in my readers’ minds that would give them the sense that my story might actually have taken place, somewhere in another layer of our world that isn’t seen by most people.

I have files on all my main characters – their backgrounds, where they live, their wardrobes even. I have a fictional town that I’ve mapped out in considerable detail, and a fictional college that lives in full colour in my head.

There’s a lot more that goes into creating a book than will fit into a single blog post, but you can see why I was amazed at people who start the November challenge without even an idea. I think you could bang out a quick book in 30 days, but it would be very superficial, or very short. My favourite kind of book is full of layers and adventure, so that’s what I strived to write. According to my beta readers (my recruits who very kindly volunteered their time to read the second draft and critique it), I succeeded. Now I’m working on the final edit and plan to publish later this year.

That’s been my journey so far. If you have an idea for a book that just won’t leave you alone – that keeps pushing at you enough that you’re frequently jotting notes for a scene, or a plot twist, or a conversation – and you’re willing to see what you can do with it, maybe there’s a complete book somewhere inside you just waiting to see the light of the computer page.