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.

Cut It Out — How to Self Edit

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REPRINTED FROM MY POST ON LINKED IN PULSE

I’ve always liked the phrase that’s been attributed to Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead.” According to Quote Investigator, there are many great thinkers who value the concept of brevity and realize that being succinct isn’t easy.

Recently I embarked on a journey – writing a book that’s been in my head for ages. Now I understand why first-novel guidelines are around 80,000 words. That’s what it took to tell my story – but I also realize that writing 8 or 80 words can be challenging.

That’s where most of us get into trouble. We have information to share, experiences to convey, products to sell, so we say a lot. TMI!

How to find the key selling point?


Early in my career I was pulled aside by a veteran sales director who had roots at an ad agency. He whipped out a notepad and wrote on it. “Fresh Fish For Sale Here Today.” Although he knew I had been a copywriter, he wanted to show me how to find the strongest selling word. He proceeded to cross out “Here” because we knew where we were standing, and then he X’d out “Today” because clearly, it was just that. We could see that the featured item was “Fish” so he removed that word. And certainly, we could deduct, the flounder was “for sale,” so away that went – which left us with “Fresh” – our strongest selling word.

Here are a few other tricks I use to self-edit:


1. Beware the ‘its’ and ‘theys.’ If these pronouns do not follow the precise entity, rephrase the wording. Wrong: “Hal approached Bob because he wanted an apple.” Who wanted the apple? Hal or Bob? Better: Hal was hungry and wanted an apple. Bob had one.” OR “Hal had a bag of apples and knew Bob wanted one. Walking over to Bob, Hal selected the biggest fruit.”

2. Beware convoluted phrasing. “This company doodad is for customers so they can prepare apples for cooking or serving, and because it is a bright red color, it goes nicely with the fruit.” Instead try: “This bright red doodad cores and slices apples.” Who needs the rest?

3. Too many voices. “We think, you want, they need…” Ouch. Explain without ‘person.’ Use a neutral voice. Second person (you) can appear condescending. So rather than, “We think our product is the best, and you should use it so you can figure out how to do thus and such.” Try: “Here’s a way to do thus-and-such with ease and efficiency.”

4. Tense and conditions. Shifting tenses make me tense. “This company built widgets in 1883. They learned their widgets can be better if they fix them, but that will make them cost more.” Did this company stop building widgets after 1883? Actually, these widgets could be made better but that would make them cost more. Try instead: “This company has been selling widgets since 1883. Ten years ago, a new team of engineers (‘companies’ don’t have hands) found a way to build better widgets. This product upgrade increased price but added value.” Yes, positive spinning is generally good.

5. Avoid adverb angst. This tendency was flagged as a rank amateur mistake in novel writing. I had never really thought about it: Skip post-verb description. Don’t have your character say anything ‘longingly,’ ‘impatiently,’ etc. Instead, convey the feeling using other words. “As his eyes lingered on her silhouette, he said, ‘I’ll meet you there.’ ” OR “ ‘I’m waiting,’ she snapped, letting her pencil tap out a rhythm on the desk.” Same meaning, more interesting.

6. Don’t reuse words in close proximity. There are plenty of words to go around, so pick different ones. “The frog sat on a lily pad in the quiet lake as a dragonfly sat on another lily pad, because there were a lot of lily pads in the lake, and every frog and dragonfly needs a lily pad of their own.” Painful. Consider, “The frog and dragonfly sat side by side in a sea of lily pads.” OR even: “The frog sat on a lily pad as the dragonfly landed on a nearby flower.” Ahh… much better.

Whatever Happened to the Inverted Pyramid?

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(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON LINKEDIN PULSE)

Anyone who has gone to J School or taken a journalism course is most likely acquainted with the concept of the Inverted Pyramid – a style of writing that places the most important information up top and less important information at the bottom. More bluntly said: Start with the relevant stuff, end with the fluff.

That’s the way to accommodate busy editors and short form readers.

However, with the advent of storytelling, particularly in advertising, there’s a whole lot of waiting going on. I understand the value of making an emotional connection and the terms of engagement … entice, hook, nurture, and then slam home the brand… but sometimes as a consumer, I don’t want to watch a melodrama only to discover it’s brought to me by a box of crackers.

Don’t get me wrong: I love TV ads that are sequential – where characters are interesting enough to foster a following. And I often like the softer side of sales which is more about the experience than the product or features.

But sometimes when I’m busy, cranky, or impatient, I just want “the facts, ma’am.” What it is; how much it costs; and where I can buy it. I don’t want to trip down memory lane or prance along the primrose path.

When I see a press release that starts with a quote, history or promotional statement, I cringe and crave the old Inverted Pyramid: who, what, where, when, why and how. When that is missing, I assume the author is either inexperienced or not aware that there are different writing styles for different purposes. Once I had a supervisor who thought it would be creative to begin our PR with a comment. I had to track down an editor to convince this person that, “No one reads those quotes. In fact, we assume they’re made up.”

Perhaps that’s harsh, but point is, in this age where “everyone’s a writer,” prioritizing information warrants discussion.

After talking with someone yesterday (talented in his own rights as a videographer), it dawned on me that many people are just not familiar with news-driven information organization. For those schooled in narrative thinking, it’s more logical to set the stage, play out the plot line, then slowly lead up to the clincher. Unfortunately, this isn’t always effective — particularly for direct response — where buying decisions can be impulsive and made in a split-second.

So are we clouding the urgency of our message by weaving it into a fable? Are we diminishing results by not being direct? Should we invert content more often in order to get to the point and ask for the order?

Apparently the Sphinx and I aren’t the only ones pondering this enigma. Here’s an intelligent article from the Poynter Institute that discusses Inverted Pyramids as used in print with a link to Jakob Nielsen who discusses their use on the web.

For me, “Once Upon A Time” can be nice, but there’s much to be said for not scrolling until the princess is kissed.

The Story in the Spoon

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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?”

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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.

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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

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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.