Sparked by Words

Archive for May, 2016


Charades is the game of finding the correct words to translate a silent pantomime. It’s a time filler when the party runs up the alcohol level and winds down the intelligence quotient.

imagesWriting is about finding the correct words to describe what’s going on in your book. Good writing sets the standard for intelligent expression and evokes authentic experience. We learn as young writers not to write, he was in despair, she was terrified, they felt horror run through their veins. What does any of that say? Is it the same despair you felt when you weren’t invited to the prom? Probably not if it’s the despair of a boy taken from his village to be turned into a soldier to fight an adult war. Is it the terror you experienced when your grades arrived in the mail and your parents got the envelope before you did? Not likely in comparison to the terror of a little girl snatched from her mother’s arms and pulled into a stranger’s van. Is it the horror you bore as your kid stuffed her dirty underwear down your toilet and flushed? Not quite like the horror of the child that stands at his mother’s bedside and sees the rise of her final breath, then wonders who will care for him.

Yet all we writers have is words. How I’d love the throb of a deep drum pounding out the steps of the boy as he is marched into the army. A volcano to erupt when the little girl is taken from her mother. A torrential downpour as the child stands beside his dead mother and doesn’t know where he’ll sleep that night. Those words – despair, terror, horror – have so many labyrinths of suggestion, depending on context. Context is everything. Writers must explain what we mean, how it really is.

Yet explain what you mean in too many disjointed words and your reader closes your book. “It was a jungle so dark that the leaves overhead blocked all the light, the way that a canvas tarp blocks out the sky when you go camping, but this was much more terrifying because they weren’t camping, they’d forgotten their compass and they were lost.” Your reader didn’t get that far – yawning with disorientation, he quit reading a description of a jungle the writer had never experienced.

This is the jungle of the 1959 Belgian Congo in the hands of Barbara Kingsolver from The Poisonwood Bible:


Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.


Here is the Nigerian jungle from Little Bee by Chris Cleave when Little Bee walks into it with her big sister, Nkiruka:


When we reached the jungle it was silent and dark…We walked for a long time, and the path got narrower, and the leaves and the branches closed in on us tighter and tighter until we had to walk one behind the other. The branches began closing in on the path so that we had to crouch down. Soon we could not carry on at all…We carried on for a little way, weaving around the plants, but very soon we realized we had missed the path and we were lost.


In this excerpt, Ann Patchett describes Marina Singh’s first view of the Amazon jungle from State of Wonder:


At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. Easter slipped back inside his shirt while Dr. Swenson and Marina wrapped their heads like Bedouins in a storm.


Three views of the jungle with very different depictions, each authenticated by distinctive detail. We didn’t have to read the books with the dictionary on our other arm; the words are basic. Master writers use language with precise nuance and we get the image. Novice writers must learn to apply that kind of expertise and insight to their stories.

The convergence of characters and divergent life paths becomes our story. How we describe those characters and divulge that action becomes our voice. There is no voice without adequate words but much opportunity with them. Our point of view suggests the cultural focus of character choices and reactions, and the multitude of words provides the means of expression.

How to choose, what to choose, what words will do the job best? It might be the smallest words, those that let us see details that reveal the truth because other words are rife with ambivalence or too many definitions. When describing the process of marquetry in The Inlaid Table, I couldn’t write, “A complex machine forms an intricate shape.” I want the reader to look through the pin holes pierced by a thin needle so they can see the precision of placement for tiny shards of wood to create a sunburst pattern. It’s the same information but one take is broad and general, the other, specific and detailed. The first example hints at the finished product. The second allows the reader to sense the breadth and skill of the task, achieved with perfectly chosen words.

A book is as much charade as the party game. The audience/reader tries to figure it out by watching/reading the clues. The master paints a vigorous picture – ah, I know exactly what you mean. That’s the level I aim for.

Come with me into the jungle.



Mime courtesy Google public domain images,

Jungle courtesy Google public domain images,

W is for Wonder



I’m a child when I write. I find splendor in the world and I wonder how it all works. As long as I wonder about everything, my mind is open to exploring everything about which I know very little, and that’s a great deal. Languages I can’t understand, cultures unfamiliar, history I never learned, rituals fascinating to observe, food strange to eat. Why, I ask, do mines drive men deep into the bowels of the earth? What conditions, I want to know, force children to beg amidst bounty? Humans are adventurers, pioneering flight across the continents, thrusting rockets into outer space, boarding ships to journey across oceans, climbing into wagons to roll over uncharted land. Why journey into danger? Four billion years of unrecorded history, a few thousand years of written chronicles, national policies misunderstood, cultural secrets misinterpreted, continents harboring mysteries my generation will never uncover. I’m guided by the scientists, prophets, inventors, philosophers, tinkerers, activists, and statesmen who have intuited and interpreted the condition of the world and still left plenty for me to discover.

Did Shakespeare know it all, or Confucius? What about Moses who spoke directly with God? Did Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony or Mohandas Gandhi? Or Sappho whose poetry is mostly lost but not her influence, or Maya Angelou whose poetry remains as well as her legacy? Does Stephen Hawking have all the answers? What about Toni Morrison or Bill Gates?  All the wisdom and experience of these great people, writers, scientists, ministers, poets, political leaders, philosophers, and yet they know only fractional slivers about the universe. There is more to learn.

All these things and more make me wonder how much I don’t know. How hollow I am, pretentious, assuming. But I’m willing to explore, to find out, because I can’t write if I don’t know my subject. Welcome to wonder. Investigate the world you don’t know. Then can you write with a voice of authenticity. Even fiction writers must know something first.

Consider the back pages of many of the great books where the writers leave off the fiction and reveal some of their sources. Michael Chabon visited Alaska to see for himself the state where he imagined The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon researched dozens of non-fiction books, including the history of comic art, to write The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Geraldine Brooks did the same to write The People of the Book. Brooks studied, wearing white gloves and closely supervised, the very rare Sarajevo Haggadah before writing People.  Anthony Doerr traveled to St. Malo, France, the setting for All the Light We Cannot See, to walk its walled city, and learned about radio transmissions and Braille for the book that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Jodi Picoult lists pages of resources she’s plumbed, including her interviews with people with careers in medicine and law, as well as books and articles concerning her subjects for every one of her many books. Shaun Ellis is a real life wolf expert whose experiences informed Picoult’s book Lone Wolf. For Change of Heart, she referred to almost a dozen books about Gnostic gospels, the death penalty, and heart transplants.

Barbara Kingsolver lists more than two dozen books in the bibliography she compiled while researching The Poisonwood Bible, the book about the Congo/Zaire and the Evangelical American family that moves to its dark jungle to convert its natives. Lisa See researched the hidden culture of nu shu, the secret writing of women, and visited China as background for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Amy Tan also went to China to explore her mother’s first, abandoned family before she wrote The Joy Luck Club. Kim Stanley Robinson studied the translated works of Galileo to write his historical fiction, Galileo’s Dream. In order to understand Ann Eliza Young, wife of Brigham Young and subject of David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, he read her memoirs and lectures, as well as the work of many others who wrote about her and about Mormon doctrine and early history.

Alice Hoffman wrote in her notes for The Dovekeepers:


I was initially inspired by my first visit to Masada, a spiritual experience so intense and moving, I felt as though the lives that had been led there two thousand years earlier were utterly fresh and relevant…In that great silence, standing inside the mystery that is the past, surrounded by the sorrow of the many deaths that occurred there, I also felt surrounded by life and by the stories of the women who had been there. In that moment, The Dovekeepers came to life as well.


All these writers were enchanted by something and wondered about it enough to learn so they could then write about what they’d discovered and convey their sense of enchantment to readers. Can I recoil from wonder and yet write anything approaching the achievements of the masters? My writing is only a poor mimicry of theirs, but that doesn’t stop me from asking the questions, identifying plausible answers, and writing what I’ve discovered. Like great art, it is our fascination with the world, even when we are disappointed with its direction or outcome, that moves us to create – poetry, painting, music, drama, comedy, dance, song, inventions, ideas, and books. Great ideas are born of great wonderment.

As Sappho wrote in one of the few salvaged fragments of her lyric work:


So must we learn in a world made as this one

Man can never attain his greatest desire.


Sappho was right. I won’t get close. Doesn’t stop me from trying. I wonder. I am the child who writes.


Image: child in lake, public domain,

Tramp with Me the Prairie


Tramp with me the prairie, shaft and grain

We’ll mow down the swat-knee grass

Share stalks of brittle wheat between us

Lips kiss, remind our hearts to beat again


Ford with me the river, pool and cascade

We’ll slosh through opaline ripples

Spray unfiltered water along our thighs

Hips touch, we slide and shiver, gasp for air


Climb with me the mountain, cliff and gorge

We’ll bushwhack a cloddy trail

Break live oak limbs that scratch our arms

Bloody wounds, mine into yours into mine


Hike with me the desert, sand and ravine

We’ll roam across arid gullies

Weave spiney ribbons around our heads

Cheeks sore reddened with sun, by wind


Surf with me the ocean, froth and wave

We’ll float on currents far from shore

Bind seaweed between our damp wrists

Ride a waxing swell ashore on our backs


Quest with me new frontier, stars and moon

We’ll explore the trajectory of flight

Orbit bare into milieu of solar dust

Universe small for the breadth of our being



Prairie image courtesy, public domain images

Talk Talk


Baby talk. Small talk. Sexy talk.

Rant, whisper, inform.

Stutter, harangue, order.

Insult, complain, gossip.


Share transgressions with friends and make them your confessors. Share plans with colleagues and make them your partners. Share rumors with neighbors and make them your enemies. Talk all day and long into the night.

Talk talk.

If I can talk I should easily be able to write dialogue as true as a razor is straight, right? Simply transfer all that talking to words on paper, just the way I hear it, the way I say it. “So we, um, just write what we talk about and, can you, um, pass me the chips, thanks, and it’s sorta like what I was saying, ya know?” Oof, a terrible take. That sentence, 28 words, said diddly squat.

Take two. “I happened to have encountered both of Nancy’s college children while Sam and I were negotiating the purchase of a new automobile.” Whew, not much better. Other than the queen, who talks like that? Not her either.

My travail with writing dialogue is speech that sounds just like someone who can’t grab a mouthful of articulate thoughts out of a spoon or it sounds formal, as if pretentious phrasing had been a college class aced by my characters. No one understands anything said by Spoon Girl while College Pretender talks about everything without saying a word. The delete button was invented for prevention of dialogue meltdowns and failures.

As part of my toolbox for writing I eavesdrop on people around me, listening for speech patterns and phrases I can export to my characters. The further I take my characters from me, the more honest they become. I listen and watch the way people move as they speak, sometimes concealing their angst while twisting key chains, or boredom by thrumming fingers. They slurp cokes or coffee, pace, text on their phone, grimace behind the hand held to their mouth. Physical interaction keeps reader and character grounded. Words convey much more than surface conversation when people interact. The plot progresses, the little white lies gather, and motive becomes apparent.

Read great literature to discover brilliant conversation. A character pulls the mask over his face or hides behind a big fib, like the little boy who doesn’t want to paint a fence. I was nine when I read Tom Sawyer. Though I missed many of the subtler implications of Twain’s novel in that first reading, I laughed aloud as Tom manipulated his friends to believe they wanted not only to do Tom’s work, but would gladly pay for the opportunity.


[Tom’s friend, Ben] “Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

[Tom] “Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

“…Lemme just try. Only just a little — I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly…If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it –”

“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say — I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

“Well, here — No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard –”

“I’ll give you all of it!”


[Mark Twain, chapter 2 abridged, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer]


The dialogue is simply stated, but in a few lines, Twain turns a skeptical Ben into willing free labor, Aunt Polly’s fence gets whitewashed, and Tom rakes in a carnival’s loot.

Applying everything I know academically about dialogue demands a moon’s orbit of time, a boatload of revisions, and sometimes a train wreck hauled to the scrap heap. In my second novel, two teenage girls park on a hill and wring their hearts out in a chapter driven by dialogue. The conversation revolves around sex, what one of the girls knows and how little the other understands about how things work and what boys expect. Each girl learns that words can only tell part of their stories, given that the meaning of words assumed to be mutually clear is stymied by naiveté or enriched by experience. As they realize how much innocence each has lost under different circumstances but with equal pain, both end up sobbing. Conversation has reverted to the mother tongue: crying for help.

Often it’s not what’s spoken but what’s intimated. Figuring out what to jettison requires a writer to trust readers, that they’re smart and attentive enough to fill in the blanks. Tension builds when you know the explosion is imminent, but writing about fiery debris and sharp objects rocketing through the skies may deflate a pivotal event. Too many words when the painted picture will do. Some explosions are internal, the moment when one grasps defeat, failure, betrayal. It’s a small death, and better left to the reader’s imagination than a tortuous passage. Consider Cordelia who with silence tells her father, King Lear, of the eponymous play, what he wants to hear in speech: that she loves him more than words can usefully describe and more than the false flattery of her sisters. Cordelia is unable to “heave her heart into her mouth.” The audience intuits her affection but Lear hears only his own rage. Shakespeare was a master at dialogue. It’s hard to find a better mentor.

My most recent WIP takes place in a residence for Alzheimer’s sufferers. A great deal of the story involves dialogue between the family looking for a haven for their ill mother and the staff of the facility. Language is an early enemy of Alzheimer’s victims, so while there is a cast of characters who live there, nearly everything they say is befuddled or nonsensical, peppered with curses, stares, or tears. If they speak at all. Their most articulate speech happens in their behavior – pointing, wandering, laughing. Readers may not know exactly what they’re thinking but can relate to their pain, joy, and confusion. No one has to say a word when emotions draw from one’s visceral core. Readers have responded by telling me they are overwhelmed by scenes where the dialogue is muddled but the intentions transparent. That’s what I want them to feel: as overwhelmed as the victims of this illness.

I’m learning to heave my heart into my mouth.

Talk talk, just say something worth reading.


Conversation image courtesy:, public domain images

V is for Vice and Villains


Every story must have an antagonist who makes the life of the main character, the protagonist, as miserable and dangerous as possible. You’d think this would be such an easy character to craft: just imagine the most odious monster or the sickest loser and write him or her into your story. Story needs conflict – a sharp rock on the path, a venomous bite without antitoxin, a trap with no key, and a reprobate who fabricates all the obstacles to the final resolution.

Enter the Villain.

Consider the woman who cooks dog food to serve her guests. Pat Conroy used that idea in The Prince of Tides, when Lila, angry with her husband’s complaints about dinner, returns to the kitchen, dumps a can of dog food into a frying pan, stirs in a few other ingredients, and serves the concoction to Henry Wingo’s booming praise. But wait, nasty as that act of revenge might be, Lila is not the villain here. Henry is. Maybe not as bad as Vlad the Impaler, but he’s aggressive, controlling, violent, cruel, and intolerant toward his family. His family lives in poverty because he’s such a fool at business, like when he buys a tiger. Conroy’s memorable story tracks the father’s unrelenting, abusive behavior as it ruins the lives of several of his kids, and of how Tom Wingo, now an adult, tries to save his suicidal twin, Savannah. What makes Henry Wingo such a compelling villain is that he considers himself, a World War II bomber, to be hero and defender of the nation. He thinks he’s building strong adults of his kids, and he’ll never believe proof to the contrary. Conroy captures the nuances of the South, of dysfunctional families, and of the search for personal identity like no one else. If you haven’t yet read this book, skip all other responsibilities for the next few days and devote yourself to reading the work of a masterful storyteller.

Think about the town strumpet, eager for a tumble into the hay with any male, no matter how devoted to his spouse he may seem. She does appear in Gone Girl, but she isn’t the book’s true villain, she’s just a poor-sweet-innocent-young thing. Strumpet is a distraction to hubby. Amy, the missing, presumed-dead wife of Nick Dunne in the book by Gillian Flynn, is the victim through the first part of the story, a perfect wife who devotes herself to supporting her husband. Nick’s reserved behavior sets him up as the likely perpetrator of Amy’s murder, (husband first, the usual suspect) and while everyone searches for her body, his quirky self-defense plunges him deeper into suspicion.  And he did have that affair with Strumpet. By the second part of the story, readers know Amy is entirely the antagonist, a manipulative sociopathic villain brilliant enough to fool everyone, murder without remorse, and hold her husband hostage to a vise like definition of loyalty and love. Lest you fear that Amy is one-dimensional in her evilness, you’ll have to remember her parents. The authors of a series of classic children’s books based on their daughter’s life, it’s clear they love her only for the income her childhood plights provided them. One of the many facile writing devices of the story is Flynn’s ability to portray believable unreliable narrators, a skill quickly turned to sawdust in the hands of less talented authors. When you finish reading Prince, lock your door and start on Gone Girl. No matter how much you think I’ve revealed, the story will stun you.

Imagine a filthy, backwoods, carousing lout of a man, ready to fight for – well, just ready to fight. Some people identify Lem Forrester, one of the drunken brothers in The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, as the villain of the story. He starts fights over petty issues, is never fair, steals everything in and out of sight, and burns down a neighbor’s house. Not much to recommend him, but I still think the real villain of the story is Poverty. Young Jody Baxter is enchanted by the beautiful Florida woods where his parents have built a cabin shortly after the Civil War. But the family lives in abject poverty as does every other family in the woods. The land doesn’t lend itself to easy farming, game is scarce, and though the place is verdant, not much that grows is edible. Limited economic resources mean almost no medical care, and hardly any food unless the inhabitants can grow it, hunt it, or scavenge it for themselves. Sickness and accidents are likely to result in death, pregnancy in stillbirth, meager crops in gnawing hunger. Poverty, indifferent to the goodness or meanness of people, is the stifling caul that forces absolute equality of horrific circumstances for every individual. Poverty demands that Jody choose between the life of the beloved fawn he’s raised as a pet and the welfare of his family.  Even Lem Forrester is nothing but a frayed vine to Poverty’s steadfast noose on the people of the community. The Yearling is the very first adult book I read a second time as soon as I finished the first reading. It’s the book that made the young Sharon Bonin want to be a writer.

A story must tell of turmoil: internal or external, mystical or historical. Nothing worth noting happens if a villain doesn’t emerge from his den, claws poised for attack, teeth bared for the bite, his body of might and power far greater than the main character can muster. The main character must fight back, overcome, and win the ultimate battle, or die trying. If your main character cannot be the hero of the tale, what’s there to tell?


Image courtesy of, from, public domain images, villains

My Story Means So Much to Me

man-jumpingIt’s the only way to write – your story must mean so much to you that a belly grumbling for food can’t distract your attention from your writing muse. It must grab inside your heart and not let go till you get it down in a computer or journal. It has to keep you up way past bedtime, demanding research, character sketches, and plot plans before allowing pillow face plants. Passion for story should be your motivator, and it must power a writing impulse careening at breakneck speed down the narrative track, not giving up a single phrase or story twist.

Sadly, I read many articles from people who say they get bored with their own work and can’t complete the tale. They start with an idea that chases them around the block for a few months, then are sidelined by the drudgery of writing every day. Polishing dress shoes becomes essential, another frappe calls from the local café, and the story wanes in the journal, ink smeared by drops of sweat left behind as they fled. The computer monitor goes to sleep. They claim to be bored because they know the outcome of the tale. The characters, based on friends and acquaintances, are too familiar. The plot, another murder mystery or fantasy or romance, bodes predictable. They have lots of story ideas, so they say, yet not one completed manuscript.

I think they’re choosing the wrong stuff to write – the wrong plot, genre, characters, situation, or crisis. Maybe they’ve chosen stories similar to the published books they enjoy reading. Maybe their writing is too derivative of what’s popular and they have little freshness to add to the catalogue. Perhaps they really aren’t writers so much as glory hounds, seeking literary fame the way teenagers imagine themselves as Olympic heroes.

I’ve never encountered such doldrums. My worst problems are not a drop in my incentive to write and rewrite, but a lack of time to do so because of other obligations. In fact, my determination to get my stories written and eventually published remains as high as when I first began to type (yes, type) out a story. Story isn’t one fabulous idea about a weird or compelling thing that happens to someone, or an iconic character who discovers one important crusade in his life, or a citizen who intercepts a singular brazen act of sabotage. It can’t be one thing because life isn’t composed of just one thing. It’s a complex and multidimensional constellation of people, eras, and moments.  Telling such a story takes the skill to be comprehensive with plot and subplot, nuanced regarding character development, and obsessed about craftsmanship.  A writer must be relentless about writing the story, beginning to end and all the parts in between.

I like to write but I write about what interests me, “like” being on both ends of the spectrum. Sometimes it isn’t like as much as it is loathe, but my feelings are intense. It’s key, I think, to staying with a story. I develop my characters fully, not only the protagonist and the antagonist, but secondary and even marginal characters. Everyone is important. Each has a history and contribution, not just a convenient link to propel the plot forward, but a significant portion of the development of the story borne on their shoulders. The location of my story is a place I love or hate, and I’ll spend hours investigating or creating it, even building a fictional home at the top of a real hill. I’ll research a moment in history to find out how a true historical incident developed, who was responsible for the events that identify it, what were the consequences of its treaties or partitioning or the destruction of its culture. I’ll find figures who represent the moment and the place and write portions of smaller story elements that fit the larger tale. Each aspect I consider expands the story and gives me something else to write about.

I can’t write if I’m not enthralled by my own stories, but because I am, I do write. I complete a story, and I move on the next story that grabs inside my heart. If you are lackadaisical about your story and stumbling as you try to write, you’re on the wrong track. Find another tale to tell. My stories mean so much to me. Yours must mean as much to you. Good writing, fellow writer.


Image courtesy