Place Names Can Inspire Plots

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Sleepy Hollow in New York State is a real place that inspired a classic story. Chances are there is such a place in your backyard.

I know of a small piece of land in Massachusetts tucked under an overpass, adjunct to an off-ramp, adjacent to one of 13 villages in a township near Boston – that absolutely has the greatest name. Every time I pass it, I pledge to use it in a book. “Hemlock Gorge” was probably dreamed up by the Department of Parks & Recreation or maybe it was passed down in local history. Either way, it always conjures up images of mystery and finality. There’s something foreboding in the name, yet alluring – as good plots should be. The name hints of darkness and danger, secrecy and deception.

Of course this piece of property is just a bit of green public land along a charming river bed, but like “Alligator Alley,” “Lantern Lane,” or “Coyote Gulch,” I’m drawn to it.

Many years ago, on a cross-country excursion, we drove through a town named “Shell.” As I recall, the population was 3 or 13. We were told it was named for the Shell gasoline station located there. I see in online search, there’s a Shell, Wyoming.  That name supposedly comes from the fossil shell beds in the region. Could be the same place, different story.

I’ve always liked Gorda, on the Pacific Coast Highway, en route north to Big Sur. There was a time when the entire town could have been purchased by a single buyer. Now it is a destination site – in fact, a resort. I, however, always imagined myself ensconced in the cliffs of Gorda among the orange coreopsis, overlooking the ocean, awaking to the sound of surf … a temporary hermit, writing my great novel.

For those seeking a compelling setting, or even the spark that ignites a story, I suggest scouting your region for names of interest. Here on the East Coast, our pond and street names are rich in Algonquin language; on the West Coast, there is a distinct Spanish influence.

It’s easy to imagine peaceful native villages and survival plots when you hear names like “Popponesset” in Massachusetts or “Mooselookmeguntic” in Maine.

In California, bustling missions, rich in ornate religious artifacts, come to life among the agaves off El Camino Real when you hear names like “La Purisma” or “San Juan Capistrano.” One name that jumps out to me does so because it was such a surprise, tucked away in the dry landscape of Arizona. Tumacácori dates back to 1691 when Father Kino visited an O’odham village and established a mission there. If that doesn’t suggest dramatic possibilities, I’m not sure what would.

If nothing strikes your fancy, try combining names. Some years ago, I noticed a “Dead End” sign near a local church. I quickly wrote a poem called “Dead End Church,” but I could see it becoming more of a Cannery Row. (Thank you, Mr. Steinbeck)

As an exercise, think about the places that influenced your childhood. Chances are, you will recall some pet names created by friends. In my small town, we always had “The Knoll,” a space on someone’s farm that was great for sledding. For years I never knew exactly where it was located in the context of the community, but with a few shortcuts over rock walls and between apple orchards, we could find it.

Aside from the rough and rigorous names, there are other names that evoke a sense of peacefulness and calm. Take “Baby Beach” in Aruba or “Mother’s Dock” at a lake in New Hampshire. Don’t you just see a turn-of-the-century plot unfolding where women carry parasols and wear bouffant bustles?

So, as the New Year gets underway, let’s stroll away from Main Street and Elm, and go to far-off and exotic places – or nearby haunts that just sound that way.

What’s in a name? It could be your next plot.

How To Freshen Up Dry Content

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Last week a friend of mine sent me an email with a sample of a corporate history he had written. He is one of the most thoughtful sales and marketing people I know. When I say “thoughtful,” I don’t really mean “considerate,” although he is that, too – but this is someone who thinks through a strategy, considers a variety of tactics, and weighs the potential impact before implementing.

He admitted he had struggled with this assignment, although it read perfectly fine. It was organized, interesting, and full of information. He asked for ways to make it more compelling, and that made me realize many of us face the same quandary. When should we switch from reporting to story-telling, and is there a place for both?

My friend, now a Marketing Director for a niche retailer, included an interesting tidbit on his page. He mentioned several celebrities who had worn their gear. This prompted me to ask, “How might we use this information in a different way?”

Here are a few tricks of the trade:

1. Back into the history. Rather than say “XYZ company was founded in 1895” and roll out the copy in chronological form, use that current color to capture the reader’s attention. Example: “Little did Celebrity know when he selected This Company Jacket to wear on his album cover, he was supporting an American institution.”

2. Show the benefits in use, rather than spelling them out. Instead of saying the product is handsome, durable, and guaranteed, make those points part of the story: “Celebrity probably thought this jacket was ‘cool’ – we do, too – with its brass studs and wide shoulder straps. In fact, we still manufacture that classic style today.” (This is where you’d link to the online store)

3. Use pull quotes. Sometimes even the best writing becomes dense, and in this case, visual relief is most welcome. A key phrase extracted and set apart in bigger, wider-spaced italic type, occasionally with accentuated quotation marks, lets the eye ‘take a break’ and quickly conveys a key point. Scattered throughout an article, pull quotes help guide readers to the most relevant parts if there’s no time for a complete read.

4. Intersperse infographics. Research data tends to be dry because people want the facts and want them fast. To this end, illustrations rock. Yes, there has to be text to explain the findings, but keep it short. Use pictures to tell the rest.  These save space, convey data quickly and can be repurposed. And don’t structure sentences the same way: “33% say this, 60% say that, 95% say the other thing.”  Try: “Nearly a third of respondents say,” “3 out of 5 believe,” “Most participants agree.” Variety adds interest.

5. Bring in another voice. Sure, it’s nice to hear ourselves talk, but other perspectives lend authenticity. Yes, it’s more work – but it’s generally worth it.  How much more intriguing it is to read a first hand account:  “I remember coming into the old store on Maple Street with my Dad and seeing a bright red bicycle on display. My father said I could have it if I helped earn it. I was mowing lawns that summer, so every time I got paid, I set half my earnings aside. My Dad matched it, and that fall, I rode home on a spanking new bike. I can still remember the salesman shaking my hand, congratulating me and telling me to ride safely. I also remember the first time I rode it to school– how proud I was and how my friends gathered around.”

The trick is not to forfeit selling points when telling a story but to infuse facts with feeling. Human emotion is a great driver when it comes to getting response, and done right, it can be incorporated into even the driest content.

Vignettes

I’ve been waiting for a brainstorm, a mental tidal wave, an epiphany that would inspire a brilliant blog, but the best I could conjure up was a series of vignettes.

In thinking about it, though, that isn’t so bad; it’s what writers do. We piece together snippets of information, insight and memories, crafting them into a patchwork of imagery and ideas. We weave together characters, stitch a sequence of events into a plot, trim the excess away as we edit, and with luck, roll out something creative.

blanketcroppedcwordsonthefly2013Vignettes can be discovered with observation, simply taking the time to notice the details, having the presence of mind to realize that what you are experiencing is special, something you can recall later and use when you need a nugget of authenticity.

Conversation in a clothing store:
I dawdled on the way home the other night, detouring to a chain store in hopes of finding some holiday gifts. I wanted to avoid the impending crowds sure to assemble in the weeks ahead. It was dinner time, and the store was quiet. While pondering sizes in the pajama aisle, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I whipped my head around, realizing a woman with a cart was trying to pass. I mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and pulled my cart closer so she could get by. But she tapped me again, this time harder, gesturing in a sweeping downward motion from my head to my toes. I realized she was mute, but her message was clear. She was complimenting me on my long coat, so I smiled and acknowledged with a thank you. I’m not sure if she could lip read, but it really wasn’t necessary. She nodded and moved on. We had enjoyed the nicest chat without a word spoken.

Twinkling in the twilight:
Rain was driving in, and like so many others, I was eager to get home for Thanksgiving. This was an unseasonably warm day with fog hanging in the streetlamps. Thanksgiving would be quiet this year, with only a few relatives in the area. Daylight was fading fast, and trees that had just been lush with orange leaves were now stark and bare. Facing a wall of oncoming traffic, I tried to focus on the yellow line but couldn’t help noticing a little shop off to my right. The door sign said “Florist and General Store.”  A few simple strands of white lights twinkled in the window and illuminated a hand-lettered sign… signs, actually… plural… posted to a pole. Each placard promoted a specialty item: cookies, honey, holiday greens… jam, fresh-baked bread… I thought it remarkable that the epitome of small town charm was alive and well, just feet away from a busy road.

Turkey Visitations
Wild turkeys come out of the woods at this time of the year. They had never visited before, then a few years ago, they started to appear. The first scouting troop consisted of 3 females and 4 young males, eventually increasing into a flock of twenty, gathering like clockwork in our backyard every morning. But it wasn’t until the weather changed to bitter cold, with the threat of snow predicted, that the toms came down as well, all pompous and puffed out with their tail feathers striking that familiar fan-like pose. They moved slowly, commanding respect. They “herded” the others and then finally, approached the seed. This morning, hearing a Bob Dylan retrospective on the radio… Subterranian Homesick Blues made me smile. Of course “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” You just need a turkey.

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Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

The Joy of Finding an Old Book

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We all have favorite books that we recall with a smile, but sometimes the greater joy is unexpectedly stumbling on a never-read, old, forgotten book. These are the ones purchased on rainy afternoons in back alley bookshops, tucked away despite best intentions. These are the ones rescued from Library book sales or picked from bins of publisher seconds. Sometimes they’re gifts from friends who forget you have no time.

But there they sit, gathering dust, getting older, holding treasures… until that random day you discover one behind a vase, under a pile of letters, wedged into a tight shelf.

Like finding an unopened letter, secrecy and anticipation await along with a rush of tactile and olfactory sensations – – a bold awakening in this day of antiseptic digital.

One whiff of an old book and I conjure up the two-room library in the small town where I lived… a place reminiscent of dreaded summer reading as well as shelves of well-worn Nancy Drew.

There’s a campground in New Hampshire – don’t think tents; think rustic resort – with a library in each office complex. Although the lake and loons beckon, I dawdle there to thumb through books donated by guests from summers past. There I’ve discovered vintage books filled with swashbuckling romance and jungle adventures … scientific journals documenting fish and wildlife. Some shelves contain best sellers; others hold gothic novels. Occasionally I stand there, in awe of the words around me.

I was recently cleaning a living room bookcase and found a small yellowed paperback behind a hardbound book. It was a John Steinbeck story called Sweet Thursday, and I have no idea how it got there. I think I bought it in a used bookstore near Cannery Row, in an effort to be closer to the author.

The cover price was 75-cents…a Bantam classic…. the original Viking imprint dates to 1954. Clearly this had been kicking around long before it found its way into my hands.

I really didn’t want to get sucked into it, but it was a lazy August afternoon filled with late-day sun and weary crickets. The hammock was calling me. The aspen in the neighbor’s yard beckoned with fluttering leaves that I could watch for hours. I couldn’t resist. I stretched out, book in hand, and swayed in the warm breeze.

The fragile pages transported to a time just after Cannery Row was written. When I came upon the line, “Over Doc and Mack a golden melancholy settled like autumn leaves,” the warm, gritty words felt familiar and in keeping with the impending season. What a gift to capture the human condition as poetic humor: “melancholy concocted equally of Old Tennis Shoes and old times.”

I accepted the fact that this wasn’t going to be a fast read and used it to balance the thriller-wannabe I was attempting to consume despite the mundane writing. Just 13 pages in, I found a phrase as relevant today as it was 60 years ago — it spoke of change — particularly fitting as I embark on a freelance project for an organizational change consultant.

I did the unthinkable: I dog-eared the page. It felt liberating!

Steinbeck wrote: “Change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. Change may be announced by a small ache, so that you think you’re catching cold. Or you may feel a faint disgust for something you loved yesterday. It may even take the form of a hunger that peanuts will not satisfy.”

Clearly the hunger for a forgotten book is not something you can satisfy either. You can never get enough if you’re a glutton for words.

Hoist the Baggywrinkle, Boys

There’s nothing quite like a trip to an historic location for an infusion of long-forgotten words. So was my experience on a recent visit to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

The day was glorious with bright blue skies and just a hint of breeze.  Arriving early, the grounds were quiet and the water was still. We approached a mooring and learned that the Emma Berry was a smack.   I didn’t know the term, but apparently that’s a kind of sloop, in this case, a Noank Smack made in 1886, and it’s one of the oldest preserved commercial fishing vessels.

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As we looked around, there were tall ships in the distance and dories at the dock.

Soon we found ourselves visiting the Rope Walk — an impossibly long assembly line where rope was made. After that, we had more appreciation for the craft as we strolled into a shop where rope was sold.  The proprietor (looking much the part), explained that hawser was a thick rope used for anchoring or towing. He talked about the difference between manila and true hemp. We saw a canister of oakum and learned that this kind of rope was mixed with tar and used for caulking.

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When I expressed an interest in words, the merchant shared his favorite word, pointing to what seemed to be frayed rope strung across the front of some wheels. He said it was called “Baggywrinkle” and was used to cushion against friction, just as one might use Bubble Wrap® today.

We strolled the paths, visiting the cooperage, bank, printing office and inn.
A parlor garden at the Buckingham Hall House caught my eye, all quaint and reminiscent of another time, a “riot of color,” as they say, with nasturtiums overflowing a picket fence. Here’s a more expansive gallery.

We boarded the Charles Morgan, the last remaining whaling ship, now under restoration. Descending  narrow stairs and ducking through low doorways, we tried to imagine married life in the Captain’s quarters, but any idea of romance and adventure vanished at the thought of whale blubber rendering on deck.

Perhaps the most vivid image was conjured up by a woman dressed in period garb (bustle, parasol, and a small hand bag suspended at the wrist). She appeared randomly in the crowds. She nodded demurely and made her way to the docks. Occasionally she’d pause at a store window or slip around a corner to a side street. I wondered for a moment if she were real or perhaps a ghost that had arrived to check on her ships.

Emerging from the glory days of seafaring, the walk to the parking lot was uninspired. I glanced behind me, hoping to see the vintage woman gathering her skirts and quickening her pace in order to catch up.  No matter. She was where she belonged. I knew at twilight she’d be pacing a widow’s walk , praying for a mainsail on the horizon.

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Other colorful nautical terms can be found here.