Browsing in a gift store the other day, I came across a shelf devoted to mice. There were mice figurines, plates with mouse pictures, tea towels covered with images of mice and mice earrings, to name a few. Over it all was a sign that read “Mischief of Mice.” The term was so apt I chuckled, then went home and looked it up. In fact, the collective noun for a group of mice is “mischief” so the shop owner had it right.
The English language is blessed with over a million words, yet most of us have a vocabulary of about 20,000 to 35,000 words. Even then we tend to use only about 50% of that vocabulary on a regular basis. According to a study done by The Economist in 2013, native speakers learn one new word a day until middle age, then no new words are added. A curious fact, given that our technical world is adding new words at a rocketing rate. When did Google become a verb?
Another finding in that same study cheers the heart of a romance writer. People who read lots of fiction have a larger vocabulary than those who read lots of non-fiction. When you think about it, that makes sense. We fiction writers need to use language imaginatively to make our stories clear and entertaining. We want to touch the heart, stir the soul and challenge the mind. That takes a lot of nuance, stretching our vocabulary. Did our hero walk, stride, stroll, amble, stomp, race . . .? The word used makes a difference! Someone writing a technical paper needs far fewer words to describe his experiment.
I confess to being middle-aged, but I resolve not to stop learning new words. For a start, here are some collectives that tickle my funny bone. Look for them in my writing.
Mischief of Mice
Romp of Otters
Scold of Jays
Storytelling of Ravens (Does that mean of group of writers is a Raven of storytellers?)
Murder of Lawyers
I mentioned previously that I’m an inveterate reader of the obituary column in my local newspaper. This week I came across a real gem, a loving remembrance of a lady who died at 101 years of age. It was a long column, and I found myself reading every word. The writer had detailed the life of the deceased like a story. I learned of the moral precepts that shaped her character. I learned of the hardship she’d endured — born at the outset of World War One, marrying during the Depression and living through World War Two.
She was widowed in middle age and had to reshape her life, returning to work when she might have been looking at retirement, learning the computer at age 70 and carrying on with her career until she reached 80 years of age. She outlived three of her four children. The story was told with warmth and affection. By the time I reached the end of the column, had had a fondness both for the deceased and for the son who wrote the obituary.
As a writer, I try to make my characters come alive to the reader, but details like birthdate, hair colour and profession, don’t create a personality the reader can root for. Like the man who wrote the obituary, I need to draw a picture of my character that includes motivation (moral precepts), her reaction to events — even if the events themselves are ordinary her reaction will tell us about her. It is the inner workings of the character’s heart and mind that bring her alive. I’ve learned all that in various workshops I’ve attended, books I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had with other writers. But an obituary in the Saturday paper really brings the concept to life.
So, thanks to the loving son who reminded me of some basic rules of story-telling, and introduced me to a remarkable woman. May she rest in peace
When my book, The Man for Her, was sold to Kensington, a shock wave went around the romance writer’s circle. You see, my book was purchased in public at a writer’s conference, “Royal Rendezvous,” in Victoria, B.C. No one goes to a conference expecting to sell a manuscript. We go to conference and hope to meet an editor or agent who will request a partial of the manuscript and then we wait and hope and wait some more that she will request a complete manuscript.
When Hilary Sares from Kensington Books announced that she wanted to buy the top three entries in the historical category of the conference contest, the room went wild. I, on the other hand, sat there in a stupor. My friends had to tell me that, yes, she had said “buy” and yes, my book was sold and yes, I would get money. There was still more waiting and writing and re-writing and editing to come, but I had a contract.
The story of that sale spread through the romance community because it was so unusual. I’ve never heard of a similar contest result since. So, that book actually has two stories — the one inside the cover and the one about its publication.
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of its publication, I’m offering it free on Kindle on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, Sept. 16 and 17. Hope you take advantage of the offer, and tell your friends.
This past weekend was the annual Fall Fair where I live. I entered some roses, even though the poor things had taken a beating from wind and rain the previous week. I kept telling myself I was supporting the Fair by entering and not to expect any prizes. Imagine my delight when I found this ribbon attached to one of my entries. We all thrive on encouragement. At the Fair, a blue ribbon encourages. For writers a contract is the best encouragement of all, but a kind word from an editor, a spike in sales for self-pubbed authors, a nice review — all give a writer a jolt of confidence and the courage to keep working, keep trying, keep getting better. Even for those as yet unpublished, a comment from a fellow writer can make the difference between giving up and trying again.
On my desk I have a pretty jar filled with bits of pretty paper. On those bits of paper I’ve written down kind words I’ve received over the years. I read them when I feel discouraged. Here’s a sample. “I like your writing. I like your descriptions. It feels happy.” That came from a chapter-mate in my local writers group. Since I write romance and HEA is paramount, I’m thrilled that my writing “feels happy.”
“If you come to a path in your life and you look back and wonder whom did you touch, think of [name deleted]. I know that when [she} and I look back and think who touched us, we think of you.” That came from the mother of a child I taught.
As well as exhibiting at the Fair, I volunteer. The woman in charge of volunteers is a master at making us all feel useful and vital to the organization. She sends a thank you card to each one and includes a personal note on the work we did. With over a hundred volunteers, that’s no mean feat.
We could all do with more blue ribbons in our lives. If you have the opportunity to hand one out, why not take it. You just might make a difference in someone’s life.