Monday, June 27, 2016

Food for Thought

Today we talk about food.  Or more specifically, it's place in a story.  Food is one of those things where everyone knows that it is there, or should be there, but no one really knows where to put it, or how to talk about it.  In other words, food a bit of an elephant in the room for writers. 

Also, this post is late.  Really sorry about that.

Also this should technically be Faith's post.  She's really busy and totally forgot that she had a blog, so here I am.

Now then, back to food.  I love food, and I love it to pieces.  I love it maybe a little too much.  Particularly chocolate.  Chocolate is the best.  Anyway, as I said, food is a bit of an awkward subject for writers because it doesn't usually have any use in the story, but everyone knows it's there.  I am going to provide some points, if you ever can't decide whether or not to put food or descriptions of food in your story, but first I'm going to talk a little about it's significance in a setting, adding a little history for good measure. 

There are two main equations to remember when writing.  Food = Status, and Food = Ethnicity.  Let me explain:
Brown bread and vegetable soup?  Probably a Medieval, European, peasant.
Pizza, soda, and cheese puffs?  Probably a middle-class, 21st century, American.
Corn bread, vegetables, and sausage?  Probably an 18th century, middle-class American.
Anything created from thin air and served by a robot?  Probably somewhere in the future.
Cookies?  Probably a follower of the Dark Side.
As you can see, food is something that helps secure the setting and give you an idea of the kinds of people you're reading about.  A peasant would not be eating a rabbit unless he stole it, therefore if you read about one eating such a thing, you can imagine that he is a bit of a law-breaker, and will probably end up in trouble with the law.  However, a peasant who eats only vegetables, herbs, and fish on Fridays, would come across as a decent, respectable fellow, who knows his place.  As another example, you wouldn't find a medieval lady eating coarse brown bread, and if she was, you could guess that something was terribly wrong.  

When describing food, you should only have to talk about it once or twice.  This will come up more in the tips bit, but for now here's some advice on how to introduce your readers to the feast. 

First of all, use words that fit the kind of food your characters are eating.  For example, don't say "the juicy peacock", say "the succulent peacock".  A very rich person is eating that peacock, and "succulent" evokes a much fancier, more upper-class image.  

Also remember that whatever food you're describing, even if it's new to the reader, is probably very normal to the character who's eating it.  If you have a member of the Holy Roman Empire who eats fish every Friday, he will be used to the event even if fish is the last food he'd like eat.  If it is perfectly normal for your character to push a few buttons and have an all-you-can-eat buffet appear in front of him, then he's not going to think much of doing so.  In other words, don't act like it's totally new for Michael to eat fish on Fridays, or for Joe to push buttons and eat his buffet, because it's not, and it should not be described that way.  

Okay now for the tips.  

#1.  If your character is a foodie, so are you.
This basically means if you have a main character who's interested in food wherever he goes, you are going to be describing food wherever he goes.  When he goes to a festival, you're going to go into more detail than usual about the lavishly spread tables and the red, glistening wines.  Home is not so important and can usually be mentioned in passing, but if Andrew loves a good pretzel he's going to notice the shining, salted treats lying in a tray at the baker's stall, just waiting for him to spend that penny he'd been saving for a chicken.  

#2.  Big events require at least a paragraph.
Is there a feast at the castle?  A party at the Capitol?  A black-tie dinner at the local museum, by invitation only?  Well then you've got to talk about what they're eating, and you've got to do it well.  These sorts of things don't require as much detail as foodie Andrew up above, but you've got to mention the cakes and champagne, and the peacock surrounded by jellies of all sorts.  

#3.  Is there a deviation from the norm?
If your fine lady is dressed in silk and eating strawberries and cream, why should we care?  But if this fine lady in all her silks is dining on thin vegetable soup, something is not normal.  Describe this change, and do mention why at some point.  Why is she spooning the watery, tasteless mush to her mouth?  Does she suffer from some complaint which caused the physician to recommend nothing but gruel for a month?  Is she poor?  Silk can last, but food must be bought every day.

#4.  And last but not least...what's for dinner?
Aaaah, home life.  Not the most exciting, usually, but vital.  If Marigold spends a lot of time at home, you don't really need to talk about every meal.  Of course, if she's binge-eating her favorite chocolate-peanut butter-cheesecake ice cream, that might need mentioning.  However if dear Marigold is rarely home and only returns for quick visits, you should describe the meals a little more.  She might miss her mother's pork roast with apples and green beans, or she might groan at the thought of eating another plate full of baked potato with rice and orange slices.  Whatever her feelings, the dish should be described accordingly.

All that being said, food is an important part of life, and always ought to be entered at least briefly.  It tells us things about the setting that we might not have gathered otherwise.  Keep talking about food, and keep eating food, because food is yummy and you need it to live.

I'll be in my hobbit-hole and tea is at four,
Grace Weiser

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Batman Fallacy

Today’s post is about a fallacy in reasoning.  This is not a fallacy you will find in a textbook on the subject, but Faith and I consider it a legitimate fallacy  The Batman Fallacy is simply when your reason for doing something is that you have the right simply because of who you are.  This can also be applied to stating things.  Here are some examples:

Robin: Holy insanity, Batman! You can’t blow up the asylum!  
Batman: Yes I can.
Robin: But why?
Batman: Because I’m Batman.  

Student: But how can we trust that what you’re saying is true?
Teacher: Because I’m your professor.

Defendant: Where is your proof?  How can you know that my client would stoop to so low a crime?
Witness: Because he’s Moriarty.

Now this fallacy doesn’t have to be used in an argument.  It could also be a motive, and not necessarily a bad one.  If a villain has unlimited (or mostly unlimited) power, it is perfectly reasonable for him to do something simply because he can.  Honestly, there are a lot of things that people do for that very reason, whether or not they should.  Riding a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, for example.  

Back to the villainy.  Most bad guys have some form of strategy, with an end goal in mind.  However, as my last post pointed out in many more words, there is no one kind of villain, and each one has a different way of going about his business.  Usually in order to successfully use the Batman Fallacy in your writing, the person carrying it out must have some measure of insanity, or at least a more prospective personality (there are very few cases where this INFJ could ever do something just because I can.  If you’re not familiar with personality types, I’ll put a link at the end of this post).  My point is, before you give your villain a motive like this make sure you know his or her personality, and see whether or not they are more prone to impulsiveness.  

Some villains who might use the Batman Fallacy:
The Joker (Batman)
Smaug (The Hobbit)
The White Witch (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
Charles Augustus Magnussen (Sherlock Holmes)

Some villains who might not use the Batman Fallacy:
Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes)
Thanos (Marvel Universe)
Sauron (The Lord of the Rings)

That was by no means a complete list, but it was an example of the types of villains that you encounter.  Now how do you tell if your own bad guy uses this fallacy?  Here are some questions that you could ask him, if you can get him for a second.  I’m assuming he’s rather busy, but if you get the chance...

#1 -- Does your villain always have a detailed plan of attack or a particular strategy?  
If the answer is yes (unless that strategy is total unpredictability), don’t count on your bad guy using the Batman fallacy very often, if at all.  This is not a hard and fast rule, but you can generally assume that someone who makes a plan and sticks to it is not a very spontaneous person.

#2 -- Does your villain make decisions as the story progresses?
If you have a bad guy who tends to leave planning on the shelf until he knows all the recent events, well then you might have a Batman on your hands.  He might do some planning ahead of time, but if he leaves a good amount of planning until the last minute, he could end up doing something simply because he can, or he wants to.

#3 -- Does your villain have a clear end goal in mind?
Every villain wants to get away with what they’ve done, and/or catch the hero.  That’s a given.  What isn’t the same all around is what exactly they intend to do to close the story.  If your evil mastermind knows exactly how he wants everything to end, he’s probably not going to act rashly or without at least checking to make sure it’s not going to affect his grand finale.  This means that he might do something purely out of power, but only under certain circumstances.  

#4 -- Is your villain willing to do anything to win?
If yes, then you can use the Batman fallacy as many times as you want.  The villain can throw a bomb in the hero’s car, simply because he’s the bad guy, or he can swoop from the sky and steal an ice cream truck, just because he has the ability to do so.  

#5 -- Is your villain insane?
If yes, then you have hit the unpredictability jackpot.  Go ahead and have fun.  Writing.  Obviously you won’t actually be the villain.  You’re writing the villain.  Just thought I’d make that clear.  

Now you have a few ways to analyze your character and find their strategy.  This was a very long post, but I can do that, because I’m a writer.  


~ Grace Weiser

Monday, June 13, 2016

How to Weave Description Into Dialogue

Hey guys! It’s actually me, Faith, again! Sorry it’s been so long.

Too often, I open these blog posts by bashing my lack of experience in writing. (Today I’m bashing the frequency of my bashes.) So today, I’m going to talk about something a friend of mine recently complimented me on -- weaving description into dialogue!

Dialogue is my baby. My chosen child. My firstborn...okay, never mind. You get the point -- I love it. The best stories are character driven, and what better way for characters to drive a story than by speaking? Plays make full use of this -- after all, the characters aren’t doing anything BUT speaking. Of course, they’re also acting on a stage with a set, and that’s where the description comes in. A writer’s job is to make the reader feel as if he or she is right there with your characters. What better way to do that than painting a picture of the character’s surroundings as he argues, compliments, or soliloquizes?

Tip #1 - Forget Dialogue Tags
Oh, the age-old argument comes back to bite us. Use said! Never use said! Only use said! Use adverbs! No, never use them willingly! Use exclaimed! That’s cheesy! Oh my goodness, just STOP ARGUING, guys. In my humble opinion, dialogue reads a lot more naturally when tags are hardly there at all. For example, you could write an exchange like this:

“Bill!” Martha exclaimed. She dropped the keys on the table. “Did you buy bananas?”
“No,” Bill grumbled. “I was busy.”
“But the neighbors’ pet monkey is starving! It wants to eat my dog!” Martha yelled.

Or you could write it like this:

“Bill!” Martha dropped the keys on the table. “Did you buy bananas?”
“No.” Bill hardly glanced up from the stack of junk mail advertising Justin Bieber's new single. “I was busy.”
“But the neighbors’ pet monkey is starving!” Martha swept the envelopes off the table, enveloping Bill in a flurry of pubescent faces. She planted her nose an inch from her husband’s moustache. “It wants to eat my dog!”

...Okay, I might have gotten a little carried away there. Point is, the dialogue tags in the first example don’t add anything to the story. We know Martha exclaimed -- after all, there’s an exclamation point within the quotes! Bill grumbling and Martha yelling both accurately describe their actions, but don’t give us any clues about the setting. Now we know that Bill and Martha are married and receive atrocious amounts of Bieber-related junk mail. Much more interesting.

Tip #2 - Use Active Verbs
I’ll give this tip in basically any circumstance. “What can I do to improve this action scene?” Use active verbs. “How can I make my story more vivid?” Use active verbs. “My house is on fire and the phone line is down!” Use active verbs.

I am not liable for any damages that occur as a result of following my advice.

In all seriousness, active verbs make stories much more engaging. Nothing irritates me more than an author interrupting a fight scene with “his spleen was ruptured by the orc’s foul blade.” No! Just say “the orc’s foul blade ruptured his spleen”! (Of course, now we’re confused as to whether the orc is rupturing his opponent’s spleen or his own spleen. Either is interesting. But you should probably name the spleen’s owner in this case.)

Tip #3 - Use Mood to Your Advantage
Great stories are character-driven, right? (Note that character-driven is an adjective in this case, so I am not using passive tense right after it was bashed by me.) So use your character-driven dialogue to set the mood. For example, you could describe a suburban home objectively, like so:

Jane’s house was located between two rows of hedges, which served as fences in the surrounded neighborhood. Children’s toys were scattered across the lawn and a golden labrador lay on the front porch. The door was blue and slightly faded.

Now let’s add some dialogue as angry teenage Jane faces off with her mother on the sidewalk.

“Why can’t I go anywhere?” Jane glared at her mother, who crossed her arms in front of the prickly hedges that fenced in the yard.
Mrs. Doe narrowed her eyes. “You knew I needed you to babysit tonight.”
Jane glanced scathingly at the garish children’s toys scattered carelessly across the lawn. “Get a babysitter, then!”
“You are the babysitter, Jane!” Mrs. Doe pointed to the door. “Now get inside.”
Jane stormed onto the front porch, stepping over the golden lab, Sheila. The dog whimpered, rubbing her electric collar against her neck. Jane jerked open the door, causing flakes of faded blue paint to flutter to the ground. “I won’t be around to take care of your children much longer, you know!” She turned her back on her mother and slammed the door.

In this example, I’ve used words like “prickly,” “fenced,” “garish,” “carelessly,” and “faded” to express Jane’s feelings of confinement. I also described Sheila’s electric collar to illustrate the same thing. If you’re writing in first person or deep third, you can get even more up-close-and-personal with the surroundings, including the character’s thoughts about the setting.

Whatever you do, don’t confuse the character’s opinion about the setting with your own opinion. If you want readers to think that the king’s castle is evil, at least make your character think so. If he’s a country boy who’s always dreamed of meeting royalty, there’s no reason to describe the castle as evil. Foreboding might do you better service. Or better yet, describe the castle in a totally positive light, and whang your reader across the head with a betrayal later.

Tip #4 - Chekov, Get Your Gun
Chekov’s Gun is a widely-known rule that if you mention a gun on the wall in the beginning of your story, someone must fire it by the end. Of course, rules are made to be broken, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing an apparently harmless piece of scenery come into crucial play. J.K. Rowling is a master at this. You never know where crucial information is going to show up -- in the library, during a feast, on a chocolate frog card -- and as a result, her readers are constantly searching for clues. Be like Rowling -- don’t disappoint them.

Dialogue is the perfect place to put foreshadowing, because the conflict distracts your reader. In the examples above, the Justin Bieber flyers may be a clue leading to a sinister killer...or Sheila’s collar might allow her to escape when the power goes out.

Hopefully you’ll find these tips helpful. Feel free to leave any questions or suggestions in the comments section. I’ll see you next time!

Monday, June 6, 2016

June's Challege: MYSTERY!!!!!!!


I am so sorry guys, time really got away from me.  I was finishing school, and now I have a trip coming up that I have to prepare for.  Add that to historical re-enacting, and I've basically just been frantically busy.

Anyway, here I am, and better late then never, right?

Just nod and smile, okay?  Nod and smile.

As for writing, well, I have been writing, but not on any of the short stories.  Speaking of short stories, it's time for this month's project!


Yes, my friends, it is the final problem.  It is the who-don-it.  It is the puzzle of puzzles.  And it was Lady Scarlet, in the bathroom, with the lead pipe.  Now I shall attempt to offer some advice to help you in your mystery writing, while I wibble-wobble over my own short story and finish the month with a very good idea of what to write, but without any of it actually written.  

1. The Antagonist
Yes, you need a villain.  Now, he (or it can be a girl, but I'm saying he) doesn't have to be an obvious villain from the start, although in a short story you don't usually have time to develop that kind of a plot twist, but at some point he must be clearly evil.  This can come out in more than one way.  For example, you can have a character that your audience absolutely loathes.  He is disgusting and despicable, and defiles all he touches.  Picture the White Orc from The Hobbit, or President Snow from The Hunger Games.  These are the characters that you can't wait to kill, and you wince to think of.  However you could also have a villain who is evil, yes, but also really cool.  Picture Loki from The Avengers, Jim Moriarty from BBC's Sherlock, and Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.  These are the guys that you know should be killed, and will be eventually, but you really...well...they're, probably have a crush.  Both of these villains can be equally powerful, and they aren't even the only two types out there.  Anyway, the guilty party needs to commit a crime.  I'll come back to this more later, I just got a little carried away with the whole villain thing. 

2. The Protagonist
This is the jolly good chap who brings it all to justice, and solves everybody's problems.  The sad part is, he usually has half the character depth of any given antagonist on any given day.  Heroes are people too!  Give your protagonist struggles and hardships.  Make him (or her....whatever) question his beliefs!  His faith in humanity!  His love!  His passions!  Okay and I suppose he has to solve a mystery at some point.  Right.  He has to be smart enough to figure things out.  Now there are many different ways you can do this.  In the seventies, a TV show called Colombo aired.  I suggest you at least watch the first few, because the detective who solves the murders is very intelligent, but also very interesting, because it doesn't seem like he's smart at all.  In fact, to the people he's questioning, he's an ignorant bother.  After a few episodes things begin to homogenize, but try it out!  It's on Netflix (or it was...).  On the opposite end of the spectrum is Sherlock Holmes.  Really any version, I believe, but my favorite is BBC's modern rendition.  He knows what's going on, and he's not the idiot -- everybody else is.  Basically my point is, give your protagonist some way to figure out the who, what, where, when, why, and how.  

3. The Mystery!
Aaaaah yes.  Now we come to the heart of the matter.  You need a mystery.  You could, of course, stick with a good old-fashioned murder, but remember that while the majority of mystery stories revolve around someone dying, and most people imagine a murder scene when you bring up the genre, it doesn't have to always be that way.  In fact, this might be one of the cases ("cases"....haha....moving on....) where you want to mix up the soup a little and keep everyone alive, or at least make something besides a murder be the central focus of the story.  A murder is all fine and well (if you're not a writer please don't arrest me), but rather boring, unless it has an unusual twist.  Something like, I don't know, the detective figuring it out being the one who actually committed the crime?  Or whatever.  Something different, basically.  Make sure it has a good motive, though, and can be wrapped up sensibly.  If you must leave a plot hole, don't leave it gaping in the middle of the sidewalk where everyone can trip over it.  

4. More About Villains
Now I rambled on for quite a while on the first point, and as I was rambling, I forgot something rather important.  The guilty party in your short story does not have to be the same kind of bad guy that other genres (action/adventure, etc.) include.  In fact, he could be the most normal bloke on the street.  But he must have a history, he must have a motive, and more importantly, he must, at some point, be so clearly evil that you could never doubt him to be otherwise.  A mystery short story is sort of a one-shot wonder (omg these puns are killing me...hahahaha...killing wonder.....I'm going back to bed), where unless you're planning on a series, you probably won't ever see that bad guy again.  If he's the sort of person who commits a crime and then moves on, you still have a villain, and you still can give him motives and a background.  He also doesn't have to be sane.  He also needs to have some kind of power.  He needs to have some kind of key.  Because remember:

5. And Last but not Least....RED (oh wait there's a unicorn over there...) HERRINGS!!!!
A red herring or two, if done well, will really spice up your short story.  In the shortest way that I can think to describe this, a red herring is a distraction from the main point.  These funny little fishies pop up in mysteries in one very common form, which I will attempt to explain, but they also take little twists and turns in other disguises.  Generally, though, a red herring is a person or piece of evidence that distracts you from the track of one suspect or conclusion, and puts you on the track of another.  This red herring will probably never leave you with a resolved crime if you keep following it, but it does give the real villain time to get his act together and skedaddle.  These fish are usually most effective when you use them to distract the reader, but not necessarily the protagonist.  He might look like he's following the red herring's trail, but he was really gathering evidence for the conviction of the real criminal.  When properly pulled off, you can give your characters that "ooOOOOoooH" moment, where it all clicks, and they have a conclusion to their murder.  Or break-in.  Or kidnapping.  Or...whatever.  

Well now that you've read all those and hopefully gleaned something from them, I will leave you to your writing.  Faith and I will also try to post our next post on a Sunday, we're really sorry about this one.  

~ Grace Weiser

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