Writing Animals into your Story

dog7On occasion, authors may choose to write animals into their stories. Animals can be valuable additions if done well. They can also detract from a story if an author isn’t careful.

I’m not talking about anthropomorphism in this post – the attribution of human characteristics to animals. Animals that bake cakes, sing show tunes, communicate by telepathy, shapeshift, form armies and conquer cities are more open to an author’s creative interpretation, and often human authenticity matters more than the animal traits.

I’m talking about your everyday animals (including imaginary creatures) that our characters share the world with and encounter in their daily lives and adventures.

There are times when writing animals into our stories isn’t an option. For example, many of my fantasy characters ride horses. Knowing something about horses – their abilities, needs, and personality quirks – is a requirement in order to bring a sense of reality to my books.

There are also times when we add animals for what they contribute to a story. I enjoy writing tales with animals and most of my books have at least one that plays a role larger than mere scenic backdrop. The larger the role the animal plays, the more the writer needs to attend to its needs, presence, and activities.

We might choose to add animals for a number of reasons:

  1. Animals add comic relief.
  2. Animals create tension or fear.
  3. A tough hero’s interaction with an animal can show a softer side.
  4. A villain’s love of an animal can add dimension.
  5. The maltreatment of an animal conveys a flaw.
  6. An animal can reinforce themes in the book.

In the Dragon Soul series, one of my favorite characters is Arful, a black mutt. Arful certainly adds comic relief, as well as moments of tenderness in a callous world.

dog6For a time, Morgen watched the woman and her children, accepted into the familial circle in the sandy lane, invited in by Arful, the dog that ignored all social respectability and did away with any form of restraint.

Aedan ran in circles, chasing or chased by the dog, somewhat difficult to distinguish between the two. 

The Seabourne’s cantankerous first mate shows his “softer” side.

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Tending the captain’s pet now, was all Treasach could think. What could possibly be next?

The dog ran up and down the deck, barking inanely at the men in the rigging as if they were crows nesting on the yards. It pushed its head between Treasach’s knees, nearly knocking him off his feet. If it hadn’t been so comical, and if he hadn’t some fondness for dogs, he would have tossed the beast overboard.

And most importantly, Arful contributes to the arc of the main character, Morgen, a sea captain who avoids responsibility and finds himself saddled with a dog. Responsibility for Arful leads to responsibility for a family, a people, and ultimately to a decision to risk his life for the archipelago in which he lives.

dog2With a frown, he threw a stick for Arful who bounded after it, overshot it, and got his legs tangled in a flailing turn. Morgen had never encountered a more uncoordinated dog. The thought that he collected misfits and lost souls rankled him, and he walked behind the house to sit on the seawall and stew.

Writing animals into a story comes with challenges that a writer has to keep an eye on. A few tips:

1. Know or learn the natural behavior of the animal. Most of us have experience with dogs, but we may have to do some research on wolves, elephants, or goats. You can’t beat hands-on experience.

2. Remember that domesticated animals need to be cared for. Your character can’t just leave without making arrangements. If your characters go on an adventure with an animal, consider how the animal is provided for and how it manages the obstacles along the way. Writing the details isn’t necessary, but knowing them is.

3. Be careful not to let the animal become a distraction that slows down your story. Weigh the benefits against the “intermissions” in your pacing.

4. Remember that the animal, like any secondary character, has to have reasons to be in the story. The more reasons, the better.

5. Avoid stereotypes and cliches – give your important animals authentic personalities and quirks.

Animals in stories can be wonderful additions. When well integrated, they can be amusing, reveal the character of your protagonist or villain, and augment the themes of your story and advance the plot.

Do you write animals into your stories? Have you had to research animal traits and care?

Baby Brains – Why Love Matters

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I usually post about the world of writing and books, though on occasion my old pre-writing vocation pops up in my opinions and commentary. Since my previous post broached the topic of brains, I thought it might be easy fun to share something from my previous life – an article I wrote on Baby Brains, based partly on the wonderful book Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt.

Why Love Matters

Happy_babyPart One: The difference between a baby and a squirrel

In recent years, brain researchers have pretty much resolved the nature-nurture debate when it comes to human beings. They’ve concluded that we are influenced by both.

Most of us who are parents understand the contributions of “nature.” Our infants are born with their own little personalities and temperaments. BUT “nurture” plays a gigantic part in who we ultimately become. And that’s because there is a big difference between a baby and a squirrel.

A squirrel is a squirrel. A squirrel in China isn’t so different from a squirrel in England or Oregon. Squirrels can be depended on to do squirrelly things – raid bird feeders, climb trees, store food. They don’t need much training or feedback to be successful squirrels.

A human baby on the other hand has to be highly adaptable. We are the ultimate in social animals, born to particular parents, families, communities, and nations. Layer family expectations and parenting styles on top of economic, religious and cultural differences, and it’s no wonder we are all so unique!

Which brings me to the baby brain.

Our need to adapt at a very young age to different social expectations requires human baby brains to be the least “hard-wired” of all baby brains in the animal kingdom, including squirrels. Interestingly, this means that most of the brain’s cortex develops AFTER birth. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that controls little things like thinking and language! Here we make meaning of our personal experience of the world, enabling us to interact effectively with others.

It makes sense that this interactive part of our brain develops through social contact. Who we are as social and emotional beings progresses through our interaction with the people we encounter in our first 2-3 years of life. Therefore, our earliest experiences as babies have a much greater impact on who we are as adults than many realize. It is as babies that we first learn what do with our feelings and start to absorb our experiences in a way that will affect our later behavior and thinking.

9477327336_3264f050a6_bPart Two: Baby stress management

Early social experiences shape the developing brain and determine how stress will be responded to in the future. Life is full of stress, you might say, and shouldn’t infants and babies get the picture early?

A small amount of stress is normal and unavoidable, but babies aren’t born knowing how to manage stress, so expecting them to figure it out on their own is a little silly—like expecting someone to learn French without hearing the language. How to manage stress is one of those skills that we teach through social interaction with our infants.

Babies learn that they can tolerate a certain amount of stress once they are confident that an attentive adult is available to help them. Once a baby has repeatedly experienced care from a responsive caregiver, stress hormones are less likely to flood the brain when the baby experiences minor frustrations. The baby’s little brain says, “No big deal. I can handle this, because I know I will get help if I need it.”

download (2)Part Three: Why you never forget how to ride a bicycle.

Can you imagine what life would be like if every time you rode a bicycle, made a sandwich, or used your TV remote you had to learn how to do it all over again? We wouldn’t be able to function. The brain handles this by creating templates, an amazing library of billions of bits of information that we access constantly and at a moment’s notice.

Babies’ brains are primed to absorb information at an incredible rate. Their libraries collect important how-to guidelines such as how to pick up a Cheerio with two fingers or empty a bin of toys. The libraries also file away very subtle observations of facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and the emotional meanings associated with them.

Every experience a baby has is stored in the huge warehouse of the brain and forms the basis for how baby perceives the world – as safe and loving, or as scary and unreliable. The more a baby has a particular experience the stronger the template becomes. That’s awesome when they are good experiences, terrible when they aren’t – because it takes ten times as many good experiences to create a happy template over an old crappy one.

Mother-Child_face_to_facePart Four: Why love matters.

Children need a satisfying experience of dependency before they can become truly independent and self-managing. This ability comes from having relationships with people who respond to their needs and help them handle their feelings.

Oh, Diana, you might say. We’re going to have all these spoiled children running around because their parents are trying to create happy brain templates! Don’t worry. Healthy emotional brain templates lead to healthy emotional and behavioral skills. Stressed emotional templates lead to difficulties handling feelings, which then can lead to difficulties with behavior. It’s all connected.

By 10 months of age, baby brains have the capacity to store lasting templates filled with emotion. These templates form the library for emotional regulation. At this age, baby is already observing how his parent or caregiver handles feelings and is making those strategies his own. He is already absorbing caregiver strategies for calming and self-soothing as well as absorbing negative experiences and expectations that trigger stress. These templates become a guide for behavior later when the caregiver is not available to help the child through the joys and struggles of growing up.

And that’s why love matters ❤

Here’s the Link to Sue Gerhardt’s book Why Love Matters on Amazon.

Image credits:
Sleeping father and baby: pexels.com
Pink baby: commons.wikimedia.org
Twins: flickr.com
Smiling baby boy: flickr.com
Mother and baby laughing: pixabay.com

Writing in a Small Town

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I live in a small town, always have.

Not that cities don’t have their allure, they just aren’t for me. I require a tour guide and someone to drive me through all the crazy traffic. My daughter became a city girl after 4 years at Boston University. The idea of living in the mountains makes her eyes roll back in her head.

20140718-banks-vernonia-01I moved to the Coastal Range of Oregon about 4 years ago, following the dream of grannyhood that’s since come to fruition. We live up winding roads amidst giant trees and autumn fog. The owls and coyotes sing for our nighttime pleasure. We heat with wood and I attempt to grow vegetables. Thank goodness for satellite despite its painful slowness.

Our community is cohesive despite our many differences. We know each other by sight, if not by name. I’ll get there as the years ramble by; I’m an introvert but rarely shy.

I like the history of the place I live – the pioneers and booming logging days. I love the stories, poetry, and songs that arose from the wilderness and a community close to the land. Many of the people in those stories and songs are still here. At the very least, they’re remembered. We have our local legends; we run into them at the hardware store or post office.

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Me and my helpers at the Saturday Market. I borrowed them from the neighboring tent and compensated them with homemade cookies.

Small towns are great places to be a writer. My books are popular at the library as my neighbors explore what the local author is dishing out. Our librarian called me about hosting an event and will stay open after hours for my November signing. I find space in the local newspaper and on the shelves of shops that don’t even sell books. I did a signing at the Saturday Farmer’s Market and had my best day of sales as the community stopped by with their enthusiasm and friendly support.

I may have to drive 40 minutes to the pharmacy or to purchase paper for my printer. The movie theater is an hour’s trip, the same haul for a host of other conveniences. But I love my small town. It’s a great place to write.

 

 

 

36 Plots and Mad Max

My husband and I watch a lot of action and superhero movies. Did I mention that he’s 10? A suggestion that we watch something with an actual plot earns the “Really? Do I have to?” face.

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Well, I’m a good sport, so last night we watched the latest Mad Max Fury Something or Another. I shouldn’t say it doesn’t have a plot, because of course it does (spoiler alert):

Car chase
Loner Hero Captured
Car chase
Loner Hero Escapes
Loner Hero Helps Beautiful Woman Save Beautiful Women
Car Chase
Car Chase 
Car Chase
Bad Guys Killed

I know, you’re shocked! Who would have thought?

In the early 19th century, Georges Polti compiled a list of 36 dramatic situations after studying Greek and French literature. Shorter lists also exist, but Polti’s outline has endured to this day. I have difficulty thinking of a story that isn’t a spin on one of his basic formulas.

The idea for this post rose from my “comment chat” with Carrie from The Write Transition on one of my posts Gardeners and Architects. She astutely noted that one key to breaking free of formula-writing is great characters. And she’s right – compelling characters can save a been-there-done-that plot.

I added unique setting as another factor (I’m a fantasy writer after all), but ANY opportunity to diverge from our readers’ expectations is worth serious consideration. Otherwise, were just churning out The Same Old Stories, right? Think of Pocahontas and Avatar…same plot, fresh take!

As I typed out the list below, I reminisced about the books I’ve loved. Each one contains an overarching plot complemented by a combination of subplots that wove a more complex tapestry for the reader. To think that millions of unique stories originated from such a small collections of human scenarios is pretty mind-boggling.

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Here are those 36 dramatic situations compliments of Wikipedia with my simple examples:

  1. Petition/Supplication 
    • A village is subject to a ruthless lord. The people ask the king to remove him. The king makes a judgment.
  2. Deliverance 
    • The townsfolk are threatened by the undead and the protagonists must rescue them.
  3. Revenge
    • A protagonist seeks revenge for a wrong, is the object of revenge, or is caught up in someone else’s plot for revenge.
  4. Vengeance by Family upon Family 
    • Feuding families. Romeo and JulietWest Side Story.
  5. Pursuit 
    • The Fugitive,  Mad Max.
  6. Disaster 
    • Towering Inferno. Titanic. San Andreas. 
  7. Victim of Cruelty or Misfortune
    • A common theme for Greek tragedy with Fate or Destiny being a source for somebody’s woes.
  8. Revolt 
    • Star Wars, Dune, Julius Caesar. Any historical revolution.
  9. Daring Enterprise 
    • Protagonists go on a quest to an enchanted island to defeat monsters and/or find a treasure.
  10. Abduction 
    • Save the princess, prince, or ransom victim.
  11. Enigma 
    • Most mysteries. Also the wise mentor who poses a riddle that the protagonist must solve.
  12. Obtaining 
    • Raiders of the Lost Ark. Romancing the Stone. A protagonist’s party is continually competing against a rival group for the coveted object.
  13. Familial Hatred 
    • The conspiracy and consequences of such hatred.
  14. Familial Rivalry 
    • The daughters of King Lear fighting over who should inherit the land. Two brothers battling over a woman.
  15. Murderous Adultery 
    • One or both adulterers plot to kill a betrayed spouse who stands in the way.
  16. Madness 
    • A common plot in horror and thrillers where the protagonist must escape the madman.
  17. Fatal Imprudence 
    • The general’s ignorance or arrogance leads to the destruction of his forces.
  18. Involuntary Crimes of Love 
    • The boyfriend kills his partner’s father and is seen in the act by a blackmailer.
  19. Slaying of kin unrecognized 
    • Stephen kills Amanda, failing to recognize they’re siblings. Generally identities are hidden.
  20. Self-sacrifice for an ideal 
    • The wizard sacrifices his life or his magic to rid the world of evil and bring lasting peace.
  21. Self-sacrifice for kin 
    • A ballet dancer gives up her dreams of the stage to provide for an ill sibling.
  22. All sacrificed for passion 
    • A prince gives up his royal inheritance to marry a commoner.
  23. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
    • Sophie’s Choice. Sophie must sacrifice one child or she will lose both.
  24. Rivalry of superior vs. inferior
    • An underdog faces a more powerful rival.
  25. Adultery 
    • Will and Angela conspire against Connie, the deceived spouse.
  26. Crimes of love 
    • A mob boss ruthlessly destroys a whole family and the boss’s disillusioned wife decides to leave him.
  27. Discovery of the dishonor of a loved one 
    • A boy learns his best friend has stolen a bicycle. A king learns his sister dabbles in dark magic which will destroy the royal family.
  28. Obstacles to love 
    • Two lovers, driven apart by obstacles, overcome those obstacles to come together or remain together.
  29. An enemy loved 
    • Romeo & Juliet. Enemy Mine. An enemy soldier is beloved by one of two allies and hated by the other.
  30. Ambition 
    • A girl overcomes shyness to win a singing contest. The dragon riders desire to take over the kingdom and are opposed by the king’s guard.
  31. Conflict with a god 
    • Hercules, Clash of the Titans, Immortals
  32. Mistaken jealousy 
    • Othello is purposefully led to believe that his innocent wife is cheating on him and he strangles her.
  33. Erroneous judgment 
    • Sandra’s necklace is stolen. Alexandra has always admired the necklace so Sandra assumes she stole it. It is ultimately revealed that Sandra’s husband took the necklace to have matching earrings made.
  34. Remorse
    • The Shawshank Redemption. It’s a Wonderful Life, Ebenezer Scrooge in The Christmas Story.
  35. Recovery of a lost one 
    • Rescuers search for lost skiers in the mountains. Protagonists seeks the sacred amulet that will restore the kingdom.
  36. Loss of Loved Ones 
    • The killing of a teenager by a gang member is witnessed by the victim’s sister.

What do you think? Can you think of a story that doesn’t fit the mold?

 

Images compliments of Flickr.com

Poetry through the ages…of me.

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On rare occasions, poetry pops into my dreamscape complete, every word in place and patient for ink. Well, last night that did NOT happen. Instead, what popped into my head was a poem I wrote when I was 8, followed by another I wrote at 20, and one beyond that.

What popped into my head was an idea for a post!
A good thing, since I was coming up with squat.

Below are those poems:

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Age 8 – as written

Patterns 

If all the world were patterns
Ill tell you what there woud be
A dot woud be a flower
A line woud be a tree.

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Age 20 – after staying up all night trying to write a poem for class, I gave up and wrote this

Two Ravens 

Two ravens sat one sunny day
Upon a scarecrow stuffed with hay.
They perched on his arm and pecked at his head
Just to see whether the bastard was dead.

Although not quite certain the poor soul was dead
They looked at each other and one raven said,
“He must be real stupid with a head full of weeds.”
“Pretty damn ugly,” the other agreed.

Up and down its arm they paced.
They looked in its eyes and said to its face,
“Not very kind of your family or friends
To leave you out here in the rain and the wind.”

The ravens they strutted in deep contemplation
Worried to death by the sad situation.
They sought for an answer to bring him relief
But the scarecrow’s position was far past belief.

When on came the evening the facts they did face
That the scarecrow was really a poor hopeless case.
They filled up their beaks with plenty of corn
And headed due west over cornfields toward home.

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Age 50 – written for The Melding of Aeris

In the Garden 

In the garden of eternity
Beauty unveils her secret soul
From the dark and silent soil
Unaware of her own loveliness

She is the verdant field, the quaking leaves
Arching branches heavy with summer sweet
He finds her entangled in creeping vines
Wending the pathways to his heart

She colors the lover’s ardent cheek
Burns in the flames’ crimson belly
Her fingers pry open the secret worlds of night
To find him, buried in a gemmed mine
Yet undiscovered
Longing

They travel this journey side by side
Beauty and Love
that the desert may become a garden
that timid wings may rise in flight

And when the petals fall
Carried by winter’s white wind
Love will bear Beauty beyond the veil of death
Into eternal spring.

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Poetry image from flickr.com
Flower image from commons.wikipedia.org