Place Names Can Inspire Plots

sleephollowsign400pxc2016wordsonthefly

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.

The Story in the Spoon

spoons-350px-c2015wordsonthefly3

Are you stuck for an idea or plot line?  Try this trick.

Look at an everyday item — or even better, an usual item   — and think about it.  What are its origins? Its purpose?  How did it get here?  Mostly… does it have a story to tell?

Emptying the dishwasher, I was reminded about 3 strange serving spoons. They’re nothing  special in terms of style or silver quality … just good, old functional Rogers silverplate– probably picked up from a consignment shop or yard sale when we needed some.

I decided to gather them together for this exercise. Here are 4 easy steps to get you started:

First –  observation: These are well-used spoons as evident by the skewed tips. Instead of a rounded oval, we see the left side angled – worn away. What could have caused so much wear? Were they used in a restaurant? In a soup kitchen?  In the military? In a hospital?  Did they pass through generations?

Although relatively plain, the handle is engraved with a “B.” What does that tell us about the owners?   Were they of simple means or simple taste? What happened to the rest of the set? Who or what was the “B?”

spoon-b-c2015-wordsonthefly3

Does that “B” represent a family name? Baker? Bleufort? Brill? Could it signify an establishment? The Biltmore? Brigham? Birmingham? Might it represent a city or organization?

Second – research:  The imprint on the back side of the handle says “Rogers & Bros. SA? ½” or so it seems.  Thank goodness for the internet. I turn there to learn about silverplate and to try to identify the pattern.  After a long educational scroll, it appears that this is called “Tipped” and was produced in 1879, made by “1847 Rogers Bros” which is a mark common to other utensils in our drawer.

Third – discovery:  This is the interesting and dangerously distracting part… In searching, I pulled out two other, more ornate serving spoons. I identified one pattern as Old Colony, 1911, also from 1847 Rogers – but I cannot place the third design. This one is extremely elaborate with lots of scrolls and intertwined elements that run down the stem to the bowl. It almost looks as if an ear of corn or cluster of grapes is represented in the metalwork.

Fourth – inspiration: Now take what you have seen, learned, and imagined and turn it into possible plot lines. Let the story go where it ‘wants.’ If it holds up as a blurb, chances are it can be developed.  Let your mind wander. For example…

POSSIBLE PLOT: There could be child’s book or an historic fiction novel about “The Lost Pattern” – the story of a silversmith apprentice who created a concept so elaborate and wonderful, that he wanted to keep it to himself. Every night, when the factory was closed, he would sneak in and produce one utensil at a time, working from scrap that was going to be discarded. Overlooked because of his age and lack of experience, it wasn’t until the factory was commissioned by visiting royalty to create a place setting that he quietly stepped forward. The rest is history – as he joins the royal family for a remarkable adventure abroad.

POSSIBLE PLOT: Another plot line might be around the journey of a spoon as it moves across the country from an east coast city to a sod house on the plains… a story that explores migratory routes of settlers and ties together the women in a family who used the spoon to feed their loved ones and nurse them in times of illness. Perhaps the spoon is all that’s left when a prairie fire forces the pioneering family from their land…perhaps it become a simple object used in barter to rebuild their lives.

spoons250pxvertical-c2015wordsonthefly2

POSSIBLE PLOT: Then there is the ubiquitous hotel setting which, as we know from modern movies and TV shows, is an inviting stage for colorful characters. Perhaps the spoon was used to serve an official of state and in an assassination attempt, was flung behind a table and wedged into the molding of a grand ballroom. Lost until a renovation crew discovers it decades later, the spoon becomes a critical clue. Dented by a ricocheting bullet, the spoon could prove whether another shooter existed or another shot was fired… an outcome that could change history.

POSSIBLE PLOT: But let’s not forget the love story… two simple place settings were purchased as a dowry for a daughter in 1892, by a young mother quietly fighting the repression of the Victorian Age. Wanting her daughter to grow up and experience all the joys of womanhood, the silverware was set aside until the daughter fell in love, right before World War I broke out. With her fiancé called to arms and separated by an ocean, the daughter waited three years for her lover to return – while the spoon took an entirely different trip all its own.  Reunited after the war, the couple finally found the spoon in a most unlikely location where it became a symbol of hope and endurance.

Wow – now I have 4 great plots to ponder! Happy writing to all.

The Non-Christmas Cactus — or The Art of Continuity

christmas-cactus-350px-c2014-wordsonthefly

Today, on the shortest day of the year, a soft snow is falling and the skies are as gray as my sweater. Our bird feeders, now on new hooks, have attracted a fresh invasion of feathered friends: woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches.

The holidays are upon us which means traditions are everywhere.  Old toys and ornaments… candles and song … costumes and centerpieces… are surfaced by families across the country. Handed-down recipes come to life in kitchens big and small, turning the air into a sweet and spicy cultural celebration that says ‘home’ in a U.N. of languages.

In the corner of our front room sits a “November Cactus,” a cactus that never learned it was supposed to bloom for Christmas, but rather, selects its moment of glory just before Thanksgiving.

Whenever I look at this now-woody plant – a plant that has since begotten many “children” that live on counter tops and kitchen tables far and wide – I think back to its origins. A close aunt had passed away unexpectedly, and my young son had joined me in cleaning out her apartment.

With most of the heavy lifting done, we turned to her window sill and saw a little Christmas cactus struggling in rock hard soil. It was stunted, misshapen and not particularly attractive, but just when I was about to toss it out, my son suggested we bring it home.

My thumb was never as green as my mother’s, but I’ve generally had good luck with plants, so we rescued it and repotted it. We put it outside under a tree in summer and brought it in before the frost. Shortly after, we saw pale white points appear at the ends of the succulent leaves that grew from the thick branches. Within days, the plant became a sea of light pink blossoms that dangled delicately, lasting a few weeks and then dropping, as our own special autumn, on the living room floor.

It really doesn’t matter that our cactus runs ahead of schedule. By holiday time, it’s fresh and green again and each year, it reminds me of my aunt.

The continuity of this cactus is not unlike what writers need to do in developing ideas and plot lines. There has to be a “constant.” It could be a premise, a quest, a catch phrase or gesture. It’s something that recurs and creates familiarity with the character or theme.

Continuity in writing, much like in cinema, has to be monitored closely.  A stubbly beard in one scene can’t suddenly be long in another. That limping gait so carefully described at the outset can’t carelessly be forgotten when the character breaks into a run.

Just like this cactus, continuity anchors us when writing. It’s a stake in the ground, a frame of reference. It gives us bearing and perspective.

Some writers keep careful notes to track character development lest they forget a small detail. Was that scar on his left hand or on his right wrist? Did the dog have three brown patches or four? Was the music playing before or after dinner on the night the crime was committed?

As our November cactus nears its 20th year, we pause to think of all that occurred during this fleeting expanse of time. Despite the ups and downs and unplanned changes, the joys and disappointments, the misadventures and the good adventures, this slightly confused but persistent cactus soldiered on and gave us a gift each year.

What nice assurance that all was right in our small corner of the world.

Let this post serve to wish you the comfort of continuity in the New Year — and a profusion of unexpected blooms.

The Little Shoe

litte-shoe-cwordsonthefly2014

It might seem trite to say that every item has a story, but surely, some items have better stories to tell than others – and for a writer, this is a magnetic pull that wants to be drawn out.

So it is with a little shoe I found at an antique shop in Prescott, Arizona. Truth is, this isn’t a shoe but a wooden shoe mold, style 600, size 6 ½ E – most likely intended for toddler feet.

In that Prescott was a lively ranching and gambling town at the turn of the century, I sensed that this mold shaped shoes for the children of local farmers and homesteaders, shop keepers and adventurers– children who no doubt grew up being part of the nation’s historic fabric.

Prescott is home to “Whiskey Row,” the 100 Block of Montezuma Street that at one time, as I recall, boasted 18 saloons… establishments with names like the Bird Cage, Hooligan’s and Jersey Lilly. This shoe mold may not have been crafted there but perhaps transported from Lynn, MA, where the shoe industry began.

That’s another piece of history lost to most of us: Jan Matzeliger, born in Dutch Guiana (Suriname), invented the shoe-lasting machine which could produce 150 to 700 pair in a day. This innovation forever changed the industry and turned Lynn into the “shoe capital of the world.”

But I digress…

Regardless of origin, this little shoe carries mystery with it, and for writers, mystery means intrigue, and intrigue means good reading.

I’m currently using “concealment shoes” in a book I’ve been writing for the past 12 years. This is the kind of manuscript that’s complete in my head but requires a vacation by a lake or solid block of time to be typed out.

In this context, old shoes were sometimes entombed in Colonial homes to ward off evil spirits. Perhaps it was thought that they contained the essence of the people who wore them – a human quality that would surely scare away ectoplasmic intruders.

The point here is that we writers should be aware of our surroundings and nurture the ability to look at everyday things with a sense of curiosity.

An old door key is one item that stands out. Ditto for a letter from a soldier. A seashell can conjure up images of pirates landing on a beach; grandmother’s sewing kit brimming with jet buttons and souvenir needle cases from a World’s Fair certainly tells of another time; that gnarled piece of roadside metal might well have fallen from a space ship or a car wreck that changed someone’s life.

Imagination is the lifeblood of writers, and just as a ‘medium’ is said to be a conduit to ‘the other side,’ intriguing objects can be a path to a plotline.

My little shoe makes me think of a small grave on a grassy hillside where the Great Plains spread out to accommodate Conestoga wagons.  I see a tow-haired boy in patched overalls; I feel the dust in his throat and behind his neck. But I also hear the squeals of a little girl in gingham as she scampers after her siblings, unaware of a danger about to befall.

This little shoe suggests hearth and home; a hard life, simple joys… but perhaps it is just the beginning of a bigger story that tells of celebrity or crime. Perhaps it is literally “a first step.”  Who wore this shoe – and what ever happened to the other one?

Bee Sting

bees-on-asters-captioned-sm-c2014wordsonthefly As writers, we tend to look for parallels in life, but sometimes they find us. Lately my life has been filled with  bees – hardworking, pollen-laden bumble bees turning flowers into fruit in my garden — and cartoony, symbolic bees, contributing gifts to the “honey fund” at a recent wedding shower.

But yesterday, I received 2 stings of a different kind.
The first one was physical – an unexpected piercing as I pulled English ivy from a fence, obviously disturbing a hornet’s nest and releasing a plume of angry critters. The second one was psychological – an onslaught of the emotional sort that was no less painful.

Both evoked words:

The first brought forth four letter words… words that were slow to form as I looked at the yellow jacket on top of my garden glove and realized it was related to the searing sensation in my forearm. The second evoked a crushing sadness brought on by words of the frightening kind… words that required re-reading multiple times as I learned about a writer friend battling Early Onset Alzheimer’s.

The assaults were similar but opposite in certain ways.
The first drew heat to the site of the sting as venom spread into a firm white mound around it. I immediately applied ice which soothed the area.
The second drew a chill around my shoulders at the thought of a strategic, gifted mind in the strangle-hold of this cruel disease. There was no source with enough heat to warm the wound.

I waited for the signs of anaphylactic shock after the insect attack. Fortunately there were none. My breath continued to be steady… no sweats, no extraordinary swelling — so I resumed my yard work, hardly worse for wear.  The second onslaught, though less visible, produced a paralysis that lingered until the next day when I could reach out to my friend and share my concern.


But isn’t life ironic?
Here is a wordsmith struggling to clear his thoughts so he can write a book and be a voice for others … and yet there are so many others with crystal clear thoughts but no voice at all. Ah, the power of a writer!

The pain in my forearm has since subsided, but the pain in my heart lingers. The first experience reminds me to be more careful before plunging my hands into a tangle where I have no visual reference. The second one reminds to be less cautious when approaching the tangle of life… to resist the urge to assess and postpone – and to just go for it.


Stings of either kind hurt.

I did make sure, as not to malign the honey-bearing bee, to verify the difference between a honey bee and a hornet (aka yellow jacket, aka wasp). The honey bee is “robust, hairy, and sociable.” Wasps are hard-bodied and not particularly nice. Bees live in well-organized hives; the hornet lives in nests or in the ground. Here are some sources that further explain: Difference in bees, What’s a hornet? , What’s a wasp? ; Do bees die after stinging?

While the soft-bodied honey bee does die after stinging, the wasp lives on. Why? Because when a bee stings, it embeds its barbed weapon into the flesh and can’t fly away without disemboweling itself. The wasp, on the other hand, is tougher and thicker-skinned, and its slick stinger (technically the ovipositor of the female), can be more easily extracted which frees the wasp for flight.

This source notes that there’s actually a word for the process: “The process of stinging and dying is called autotomizing and only various honey bees are susceptible, not honey wasps or yellow jackets.”

So to ponder some philosophical truths, is it better to autotomize (that is, make a bold final statement and then die), or make a less dramatic statement and be free to fly away? As writers, we can imbue our characters with either fate.

But as a humble human being, I wish my friend the best of both worlds — to be a bumble bee in order to sting the public with a book that is brilliant and deadly to a destructive disease — but to be a tough-bellied wasp so he can leave his mark and then fly into light.