Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Joy of Prosody: Free Verse versus Metrical Verse?

By Liz Mastin

Sorting out the confusion

I have been told by several poets that metrical verse (formal verse) is making a steady come-back so that knowledge of metrical prosody is good thing for the modern poet to have. Most of the famous and memorable poems of the past have been written in metrics, many in form, and for that reason alone, it is good to know how it is “well” done. Several poets of our modern time, have led in this current formalist revival; two of these being Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht. Their poems are anything but mundane and for the metrical poet, they are really worth studying. Their use of metaphor and images are superior. Beauty marks their poems as well. They have done something new in getting away from the too much sing-song aspect of metered poetry as well.

So, I am taking this brief hiatus from my metrical Poetry and poetic forms study, to try to clear up some confusion between free verse and metrical verse. I believe there are many questions being asked, such as “Which type should I write? What are the rules? What are the non rules?” In free verse, for example, it is said that there are no rules. Thus, it would be inconsistent (with this premise) to say one may never rhyme the lines in a free poem. I know a fine poet who has. Even among the greatest authorities however, one occasionally finds inconsistent opinions. I will turn to a prominent “authority” as I try to help clarify some of the differences between free verse and metrical verse. I have gathered this information from Timothy Steele’s book: “All the fun’s in how you say a thing.” In this book: an explanation of meter and versification, he explains this way:

In metered poetry, he says “The definiteness of expectancy is greatly increased, reaching in some cases, if rhyme is used, almost exact precision…. With every beat of the meter the tide of anticipation turns and swings, causing sympathetic reverberations in our beings.” He continues: “ A skilled craftsman of metered verse will tease the reader’s anticipations with metrical substitution, enjambment, and other devises.” Timothy Steele says “When we begin to read metered poetry, we anticipate a form and beat which heightens our expectation and pleasure.” I think of John Masefield’s “Sea Fever or Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” or Lord Byron’s “She Walks in beauty”: all examples of famous, memorable metrical poems.

Why was so much poetry of the past written in meter? Steele explains: “Eighteenth Century poetry reflected an ordered world. Order, to the populous of that time, was what made poetry so pleasurable. Also, the microcosm that a poem presented was reassuring. Plus the poet may imagine the metrical order as reflecting some greater order. It is quite humorous that Steven Dobbins, in his book “Best Words in Best Order” states “When the first metrical substitution was made, free verse became inevitable.”

Free Verse began to take hold in the 20th century. Reaction against the regularity and structure of the prominent iambic pentameter line occurring partly due it having become a bit monotonous. It had been, after all, used extensively with two thirds of all English verse having been written in it, including all of Shakespeare’s plays etc.

With the arrival of the lyrical Romanic Period, other feet were now used for the prominent footage producing trochaic, anapestic, dactylic and other experimental poems. “The Song of Hiawatha” is a trochaic poem. This was a getting away from the predominance of the iambic foot. It represented more freedom too!

Free verse, unlike metered verse which anticipates the expected, -- is governed by the unexpected! Thus free verse would not have occurred in the orderly past Age of Reason. The 20th century has been typified by “constant disruption and speed.” Poets today, are working in a different world from the poets of the past, enjoying many more possibilities. Gone are the class-distinctions, for instance, along with many other strict societal structures. The use of surprise in today’s free verse poetry stems directly from the speed and the change of the 20th century. It is, however, foreshadowed by Walt Whitman and indeed by the “Psalms” of the King James Bible. A poet named Apollinaire further developed the idea of surprise. In free verse, the poet uses surprise in not allowing the reader to anticipate the rhythmic direction of the poem.

“He keeps the reader from ever resting or gaining his balance as he is sent tumbling down the page.”

Osip Mandelstam said, “The capacity for astonishment is the poet’s greatest virtue. The fresh air of poetry is the element of surprise.” Ezra Pound said “Make it new.” Pound also said “surprise and metaphors are the true hallmarks of genius.”

End Note: For free verse poets as well as formal poets, it pays to study the best poets in order to keep improving. Free verse poets should be studying Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, for example as well as some of the prominent free verse poets of today like Billy Collins. “Poets, learn your craft!”

Night Watchman
by Liz Mastin

Ocean slowly waking,
Salt in the morning air,
The Mexican night watchman;
Still there, still there, still there.

Throughout the long warm night
He paced with angel’s wings,
As he guarded this time-share shore
Until the first bird sings.

With just the moon for companion,
His mind like an orphan’s, caught,
And tossed about on the ocean
As he walked and walked and walked.

I know one time he saw me,
Out on my balcony here
As he surveyed the fading darkness,
As brilliant dawn drew near.

Today will find him sleeping,
Young man having had his fill
Of the lovely but lonely night,
So still, so still, so still.

Liz Mastin is a poet who lives in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho during the summer and Bullhead City, Arizona in winter. She thrives on the study of the great poets, their biographies, the schools of poetry to which they adhered, and the poetic conventions of the times in which they lived.

While she enjoys free verse as well as metrical poetry, her main interest lies in prosody. She notices that most of the enduring poems are those we can remember and recite. Liz enjoys poetry forms such as the sonnet, the sestina, the couplet, blank verse, simple quatrains, etc. and she hopes to see modern poets regain interest in studied metrical poetry. Liz is currently putting together her first collection of poems which should be completed this winter. The poems are a mixture of metrical and free verse poems.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Five Top Reasons to Attend a Writing Conference

By: Jan Cline
Spokane Valley freelance writer, author & speaker

It was my first writer’s conference. I sat close to the stage where an author I had never heard of spoke about her writing/publishing journey. Her words were inspiring and discouraging at the same time. Even though she was enjoying great success as a bestselling author, her road to fame had been long and arduous. Rejection after rejection had left her wondering if she would ever be good enough to be published.

But she stuck it out. She endured years of rewrites and committed herself to learning her craft. It paid off in a big way for her, not everyone is so lucky. As I listened to her story, I wondered if I would have the fortitude to hold tight to my dream to be a published author.

After attending wonderful workshops that weekend and networking with other writers who had the same dream, I knew I had to give it my all. I would listen, read, learn and push myself to be a better writer. That conference was the turning point in my writing journey.

Since that day I have attended three more conferences and met more writers and publishing professionals than I can count. One of those conferences is the Inland NW Christian Writers Conference here in Spokane, which I founded and direct. This Spring I will attend a large conference in California and present a workshop at another conference in Seattle. I have learned more about the publishing industry, especially in the Inspirational genres, than I thought I would ever need to. I have become friends with other writers in the Northwest and beyond. Doors have opened and I have stepped, no, jumped through them.

All this because I attended that very first conference.

My experience is not unusual – except for the part about starting my own conference. However, I’m still amazed at how many writers I meet that have never even considered attending a conference. Partly because they are often expensive, and partly because they don’t realize how much they would benefit from attending one. I know I had no idea where it would lead for me.

Writing classes are good, writing and critiquing groups are even better. But I believe every serious writer should consider a conference. Why? Here are some key reasons.

1. Networking with other writers

2. Access to a variety of workshops all in one place

3. Meeting publishing professionals that could help your career

4. Inspiration and idea exchange

5. Clarification as to whether you were really meant to be a writer

You may ask why I listed that last point. At each conference I’ve attended, I’ve talked to at least one writer who has told me they knew after it was all said and done that they were not committed enough to pursue writing anymore. Some said they were actually relieved to put to rest a dream that was no longer a passion. It’s not defeat, it’s direction.

Do you ever wonder if you have what it takes to live your dream to be published? Do you need a gentle nudge or a kick in the backside to take your writing up a notch? Do you need to be inspired by other writers and authors to refresh your dream?

A conference might be just what you need.

I would love for you to come to my conference – but it may not be the one for you. You can check us out at There are lots of other conferences to consider. I hope you will keep an open mind and save your pennies to attend one of them in the next year. You won’t regret it.

Here are some possibilities.

  • Pacific Northwest Writers Association
  • Pikes Peak Writers Conference
  • Northern Colorado Writers Conference
  • Northwest Christian Writers Renewal

  • South Coast Writers Conference

Happy writing!

Jan Cline

Jan is a freelance writer, author, and speaker from Spokane Valley. Since 1996 she has been speaking to women’s groups at retreats and meetings, on a variety of topics. She is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association, NW Christian Writers, and leads a writers group in her area. Jan is also founder and Director of the Inland NW Christian Writers Conference. She has had numerous articles and short stories published, including a Chicken Soup for the Soul book coming out in March 2012. She is currently on the final edit of her book, A Heart Out of Hiding, which she hopes to have published by the end of the year.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Downton Abbey and the tale of Two Classes.

Julian Fellowes, Academy Award winning screenwriter for "Gosford Park," created a remarkable series for Masterpiece Theater called, Downton Abbey. To any readers who find themselves out of this loop, please do not despair. Boxed sets are available for purchase and the website will furnish past episodes. This series has created a great stir on both sides of the Atlantic.
The tale begins when the man set to inherit the estate of Downton Abbey, goes down with the Titanic. As his son perishes with him, the next in line is a distant cousin, a man who works for a living and is not 'to the manner born'. He has to be brought in to learn how to manage, not only the enormous house, but the thousand acres that go with it. He arrives with his mother in tow, and meets the three unwed daughters who grace the drawing room. Archly referred to as “the great matter,” the race is on to insure the survival of the estate. In this story, the house itself is a character.
The drama skips along at a tremendous pace encompassing the events of the outside world, the downstairs realm of the servants, and the upstairs affairs of the Grantham family. The Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, is the supreme matriarch of the clan, having much social advantage over her American daughter-in-law, Lady Grantham. The fictitious Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle, a very real establishment in Yorkshire. The setting is as magnificent as one could possibly imagine and is described as “a statement of aristocratic confidence.” The audience cannot look upon it without imagining the staggering upkeep. Many great houses in England would have gone to ruin towards the end of the Edwardian age, had it not been for the large infusion of cash coming from Newport and New York. A crush of American brides came over; they were affectionately known as the buccaneers- some three hundred in all. Many were given the deep freeze by the old aristocracy who were glad of the funds, but would not soften. They stiffly insisted on perpetuating the status quo.
“Will you have a change of heart?” This is the question raised time and time again, episode by episode, from characters inhabiting roles both upstairs and down.
Wondering about the enormous popularity of the show, many have asked if there is not a sort of longing for the old days, a nostalgia, if you will, creeping throughout modern day England. Julian Fellowes responded by saying that perhaps there is a fondness for a more courteous time when working society involved respect for others. Even if that may have some appeal, he is quick to say, “the cheese of it is that you don't have to live it; you're not the one lugging the coal.” The quaint picture of the devoted servant has long been the fantasy of the employer and not so much the dream of past employees who longed for a proverbial ladder. Toiling from before dawn until midnight, they sought every way possible to improve their lot in life.
In the story, the Grantham family know their lifestyle is not sustainable. They are well aware that change is coming, and that the labor movement is gaining strength. The Great War sees servant and master side by side in the trenches, both willing to give their lives for England. Many voice the belief that war changes everything. The servants hope that change will come: the upper classes fear it.
Highclere Castle has its own first family, namely, the Carnarvorns. Like all great estates, they made changes in order to survive, opening the house for tours, serving tea, and hosting weddings and private events. The staff fluctuates between sixty and eighty people and they have a ninety year old living under their storied roof.
The Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey states that she is not a Jacobean revolutionary. She is perfectly comfortable with her life and extends her fan to blot out the glaring lights brought by electricity. Yet we sense that when the changes come, she will be able to manage.
Ghandi said, "The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms. It requires change of heart."
The rules were clear back then and the dress code very exact. Was it a simpler time? That would depend on the lens through which it was perceived. The higher one climbs, the better the view tends to be. As the story continues to move through the twentieth century, we know the lines will be blurred and we wait with joyful hope to see both sides weather the coming storm. Julian Fellowes says the next installment is "done and dusted," but we will have to wait almost a year before it airs. As far as Downton Abbey is concerned, I for one will not have a change of heart. I shall wait with baited breath.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath

The greatest dialogue in plays, films, or books, manages to impart that which is said and that which has been left unsaid. The elephant in the room, as it were, will keep everyone guessing. A literal definition of subtext describes a message which is not stated directly, but can be inferred. It pertains to the hidden, less obvious meaning perhaps archly delivered by some of our greatest actors.

How is it done? Isn't dialogue hard enough without adding this to the mix? The answer is yes.

Studying the book entitled, Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath, by Linda Seger I have gained some insight as to how a writer can manage to achieve this. If the audience is let in on a secret, there will be much that can be read into the simplest of statements. A daughter may pretend to like the suitor her father picked out for her, but if we know that she secretly loves someone else, there will be a subtext to all she says. If a mother only wants what is best for her son, but does not want a daughter-in-law who is above her in social standing, she may seem to be welcoming this newcomer, but we will read into her attempts to be friendly. In some cases, such as the world of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the whole of Denmark can be slightly rotten. If the ascendency to power is suspect, the dialogue will be full of subtext. Obviously, Shakespeare was a master at this skill. He would even have a character walk down stage and let the audience in on a few secrets. A sudden windfall, an unlikely suitor, a change of leadership, or even a new invention, can put all known truths under a new microscope. Perhaps everyone is trying to make the adjustment, but no one wants to. There you will see subtext.

A character at odds with the culture about which the audience is familiar, will provide many a laugh as the poor fellow bumbles along, unaware of his missteps. Subtext is an essential tool in the comedians toolkit. In a tragedy, the very elements left unsaid, can be the ones propelling everyone to their doom.

While thinking about this topic, my thoughts lead me straight to a much loved play, namely, "The Importance of Being Ernest." Oscar Wilde states it flat out in Act 1, Scene 1. Two characters, Algernon and Jack, have a discussion while waiting for guests to arrive for tea. Discussing names Jack says,

"Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country."


"I have always suspected you of being a confirmed Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now."


"Bunburyist? What do you mean Bunburyist?"


"I'll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country."

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious and modern literature a complete impossibility."

By the time the guests arrive, we have learned that both Bunbury and the Jack/ Ernest situation, are used as an excuse. When in town Ernest must leave at once as his brother Jack is in a pickle. When in the country, it is Ernest who calls him away, thereby providing the perfect excuse to escape social functions to which he is less than enthusiastic. Bunbury provides a similar ruse. Through the remaining scenes of this immortal play, all references to these characters are loaded with subtext.

Characters sometimes do not know themselves. Their most basic drives and instincts may be covered up by social convention, or self delusion. The stage may be full of actors whose roles are at cross purposes. Therein lies the subtext.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Charles Dickens, Two Hundred Years On

2012 is the two hundred year mark since one of our most cherished writers was born. On February 7th, 1812, in Landport England, Charles Dickens arrived as the second child, and eldest son. While he lived, he enjoyed fame and fortune. As time marches on, we look back at his work with renewed reverence.

Growing up, we had a personal tradition of watching "A Christmas Carol," on December 24th as we wrapped presents. Like many viewers of this timeless classic, I felt grateful in the knowledge that conditions had vastly improved since the days of Dickens. Knowing that there are no workhouses, no child labor, no parents beside themselves with worry about being unable to get medical care for a sick child, I thought that as human beings, we had evolved to create more caring societies. The world depicted by Dickens, based on his terribly real experience of being sent to work in a factory while his father languished in debtor's prison, I believed had come and gone.

The Hindustan Times has this to say regarding the Dickens bicentenary: “Adam Pushkin, Head of Arts, British Council, India says, 'Dickens wrote about urban development, capitalism, corruption, private wealth, misery of the destitute and failings of the government. Now look around and what do you see? Celebrating him is not looking backwards but looking at the contemporary society through the world of Dickens.' ”

Two years ago we had a brief but lovely stay in the dear old city of Boston. In the Parker House hotel, we stepped into the bar for a nightcap after dinner. Long in the habit of reading any information found on menus, I was stunned to learn of the hotel's history. In the 1800's a group of writers met there every week one of whom was Charles Dickens. Unaware of his American experiences, I was surprised to learn that he kept company with the illustrious Transcendentalists.

In a search for the ladies room, I was directed to a staircase. As I climbed to the second floor, a powerful sense of heightened awareness caught hold of me and led me down a long hall. Doors holding plaques described different events in the hotel's history including naming the room where Dickens first read aloud from the freshly penned chapters of A Christmas Carol. I carried on down this passage as if floating, until I stopped in front of a large mirror.

The brass plate at the bottom held these words. “Mirror from the room of Charles Dickens.” I gazed at my reflection feeling as if I was not looking at myself so much as looking for the answer. I spoke out loud as I was alone in that vast corridor.

“Help me please,” I asked. “Help me as a writer, please Mr. Dickens.”

It did not take but a minute for a curious thought to literally pop into my mind. “Start the story where the story begins.”

I ran downstairs to the bar to tell my husband the good news.

In looking up facts about the life of Charles Dickens, I read that he stood in front of a mirror, spoke his character's dialogue out loud, found their quirks and odd habits, and indeed, discovered their very souls mirrored in his own reflection.

Here are the opening lines from "Great Expectations":

"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name being Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing larger or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip and came to be called Pip."

As a creative writing major, I heard these words many times: “Put the reader in the story.” We have many masters and many works of genius who managed this skill brilliantly. Some stand above all others. Consider this, if you will, from the first page of "Great Expectations":

“Ours was the marsh country down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrup, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried, and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes and that low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair for which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry was Pip.”

One hundred years from now, at the three century mark, at the tricentennial, we will marvel once again, with awe and reverence, this vivid and masterful writing.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens.

Friday, February 17, 2012

To Rhyme Or Not To Rhyme

Not along ago I joined LinkedIn , one of the  popular social media  sites  to  help  business people network and promote themselves.   I was happily surprised  to find LinkedIn has many  groups   created  for those who write  poems , and enjoy reading poetry.    One question  posed for discussion by   a member of  the group Poetry Editor intrigued me, Is rhyming poetry passe ?

Responses have been many and varied.  One member in favor of rhyming  commented,  I don’t think rhyming poetry is passé at all. There are publications who like what they call ‘crafted’ poetry which includes all sorts of rhyming traditional poetry , plus free verse and post modern styles. The Cortland Review   (  is a publication where rhymes are okay. 

Mary  Saylor, creator of Poetry Editor offers her opinion, For many years, yes, rhyming poems were passé, but poets are not locked into schools of poetic thought as we once were. We’re free to write free verse and free to not !  However, editors of poetry journals, e-zines, and books of poems tire of the poem that bounces to a steady beat and pings with end-line rhyme. By contrast, the poet who studies, practices, and begins to write well in such rhyming forms as a sonnet or villanelle will eventually find a market.

While I agree with Ms. Saylor, I also agree with the fellow who  posted, “ And rhyme can be fun”. 

Think of the famous rhyming poem , Cloony the Clown by  Shel Silverstein

I’ll tell you the story  of Cloony the Clown
Who worked in a circus that came through town.
His shoes were too big and his hat was too small,
But he just wasn’t , just  wasn’t funny at all.
He had a trombone to play loud silly tunes,
He had a green dog and a thousand tunes,
He was floppy and sloppy and skinny and tall,
But he just wasn’t, just wasn’t funny at all.

In Chapter III of  The Complete Rhyming Dictionary  edited by Clement Wood, Rhyme is the identity in sound of an accentuated  vowel in a word, usually the last one accented, and of all consonantal  and vowel sound following it; with a difference in the  sound of the consonant immediately preceding  the accented vowel.

According to the Rhyming Dictionary “Rhyme deals exclusively with  sounds and has nothing to do with spelling. They rhyming dictionary  terminating this book is strictly phonetic and therefore logical and useful. 

Correct rhymes my be spelled alike:
Ate, plate, mate, abate, syncopate.
They may be spelled differently:
Ate, bait, straight, freight.

I asked my mother, a long time lover of poetry about the rhyming question.  She thought for a moment, then said, “When young people first learn about poetry,  and become interested in writing poetry,  it is from their early introduction to rhyming poetry”.   Mom may be onto to something.  I thought of  one of the first poems she read to me when still a toddler at her knee ; Eugene Field’s Little Boy Blue

Little Boy Blue,
Come blow your horn,
The sheep's in the meadow,
The cow's in the corn;
Where is that boy
Who looks after the sheep?
Under the haystack
Fast asleep.
Will you wake him?
Oh no, not I,
For if I do
He will surely cry.

There was something pleasing about  the repetition  of identical or similar concluding syllables  in different words to me then,  as there is now.   Rhyme is  predominately a function of sound  rather than spelling  -  a sound that just makes one  want to  smile.

***  Rhyming poem sites:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Calling All Writers - Let The Contest Begin !

WNI Free Short Story Contest Begins Today

Contest begins: February 15
Contest ends: March 15 (UPDATE: NOW MARCH 30)
Winners announced: April 15

Short-story writing requires an exquisite sense of balance.Novelists, frankly, can get away with more. A novel can have a dull spot ortwo, because the reader has made a different commitment.
Lynn Abbey (American author and short story writer)

Everything has to be pulling weight in a short story for it tobe really of the first order.
Tobias Wolff (American author known for his memoirs and shortstories)

Are you a winning writer? Find out by entering WNI’s Short Story contest.  This time around we’re asking entrants towrite a 1,000 word short story that begins with this first line:

Herlong journey through pain was almost over.

This sentence, composed by Robert Norwicke of New Jersey, wasthe winner of our Brilliant Beginnings Contest held last year.  We can’t wait to see what you come up with! 


2nd& 3rd Place Prizes


The winning entry will receive a $30 cash prize.  Second and Third place winners will alsoreceive a prize.  Winning entries will beposted on our website at 

Contest Rules

1.  Write a 1,000-wordshort story opening with the line, “Her long journey through pain was almostover.”  Entries over 1,000 words will bedisqualified.

2. This contest is open to all writers and readers except thoseassociated with (Writers who have writtenguest-posts for WNI are eligible.)

3. The contest will end on March 15. Winners will be posted on March30.

4. The story must be your original work.

5. You may submit up to 2 entries.

6. Send entries to  Your entry must include your name andlocation.  You will be notified that wehave received your entry. 

7. By entering, contest entrants agree to allow their name,location and entry to be used for advertising and promotional purposes atWriting North Idaho's discretion.  Winner’snames will be announced on our Home Page. Winning entries will be posted on our Writer Showcase page.  Entries will be posted unedited and verbatim.

8. Entrants will retain full publishing rights to their work.

9. We reserve the right to refuse any entries consideredunacceptable to a general audience.

10. Published writers will judge the contest. Judging is blind(the identities of the writers are not shared with the judges).

Wewould love for you to become a Follower of WritingNorthIdaho.  Just click on the Google Follow Us! gadget onour Home Page and join us through Google Friends Connect.   

Monday, February 13, 2012

Biography - Abraham Lincoln & a Passion for Writing

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite book genre is,  I quickly answer biography. Since I was a young  girl  in grade school I’ve enjoyed reading about kings and queens, the popes, saints and presidents.  As  I grew  older, my interests grew,  as did my  reading list — to include  biographies about poets and playwrights  like Emily Dickinson and Oscar Wilde, sports stars and movie moguls, newspaper publishers and famous cowgirls.

Yesterday, February 12  the United States commemorated  Abraham Lincoln’s   birthday. I was fascinated to learn more books have been written about the 16th President than any other person in  American  history.  ( Pictured  here  -  A three-story sculpture "Tower of Books" representing over 15,000 titles that have been written about Abraham Lincoln, are part of an exhibit at the Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D. C )

Contemporary biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin , whose book Team of Rivals The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln  numbers one of the 15,000,   says she has always   been fascinated by President Lincoln, and alludes to   turn of the century biographer, IdaTarbell who said “One reason so many books have  been written about Lincoln is , “because he’s so companionable”.    Kearns  agrees and says , “ I wanted to live with him (Lincoln), but wasn’t sure I could come up with a new angle”.   Initially Goodwin  thought she would write about Lincoln and his relationship with his wife, Mary Todd, but  as she investigated  Lincoln’s life,  she  discovered the time he shared with his cabinet members  - Steward,  Chase, Stanton and Bates—to be more interesting , especially  in midst  of civil war.    Kearns  also tells of the many years of research she put into her work, and the research she had to do.  In my humble opinion, work and research that paid off, giving the reader a new, inspired and thoughtful look at President Lincoln.

 What Goodwin is telling us is this,   to write biography, research is most important.  That, and a passion for whom we’re writing about.   Someone we want to live with.  As biographer , that’s what we'll be doing—living with that person. Perhaps for many years.   To get the facts right is also important, to find what motivates the person, and makes them special.  What effect did they have on the world ? The immediate people in their lives ?

Other tips about writing biography come from Tameri Guide for Writers:

1. Begin with a defining event, regardless of its chronology
2. Maintain consistent voice and style
3. Use dialogue or excerpts from historical records when possible
4. Describe all scenes as they relate to your protagonist –especially if you are the protagonist
5. Omit events and even people when they add nothing to the theme
6. End the biography with another defining moment, a personal revelation, or a recounting of the opening moment.

Goodwin ends her biography of Lincoln in just such a way - with a personal revelation.
With his death, Abraham Lincoln had come to seem the embodiment of his own words - " With 
malice toward none; with charity for all" - voiced in his second inaugural to lay out the visionary 
pathway to a reconstructed union. The deathless name he sought from the start had grown far
beyond Sangamon County and Illinois, reached across the truly United States, until his legacy, as 
Stanton had surmised at the moment of his death, belonged not only to America but to the ages
-to be revered and sung throughout all time.

And  the same  for us—whether we choose to write about some famed historical figure or our mother, brother,  grand-mother, teacher,  dear friend or long ago ancestor. We must   determine our motivation and have a passion for what/whom  we write,  then focus on the theme of the work with a detailed , factual account of events - helping to make what we  write, who we write about interesting to others. 

*** Click link for list of books about Lincoln

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Slang Terms for Law Enforcement

I was recently reading an English mystery and the author talked about "panda cars." It took me a minute and absorbing the story content to realize he was talking about police cars. I did research on the term “panda cars.” This opened up a plethora of terms about law enforcement terms. While looking up panda car, I came across several sources that listed dialectic and slang terms for police cars and police officers used in the United States. You might choose to use one of the following terms to make your story or novel more believable or fun.

Alternate names for police cars:

---in England the slang term is “jam sandwiches” because their cars are white with an orange strip running through the middle, i.e., orange jam between two pieces of white bread

---cherry tops, bubble tops (red light atop police cars)

---spooks, bares (aka bears), no see ‘ums (unmarked cars)

---cruiser cars, squad cars, area cars, marked unit, chase cars, Tijuana taxi

---Black Maria (Mariah), Black Mary for police vans; origin unknown but it is thought it started in Great Britain where police carriages painted black and drawn by horses were used for transporting large numbers of prisoners or police officers. Often called Mother’s Heart as there is always “room for one more”

---paddy wagon; origin possibly from US immigrants where people of Irish descent were often policemen or the beds of horse drawn wagons were padded; pound wagon

---bear in the sky, bear in the air, spy in the sky, fly in the sky (police officers in helicopters)

Alternate names for lights on police cars:

---blue light specials, bubble gum lights, rotary lights, bar lights (most commonly used now), roof lights, flashers, turret lights, rotating lights

Alternate sounds for sirens:

---hi-lo (sound can be regulated to high or low), continuous, wails or yelps

Alternate names for police officers; (remember some of these are used by gang members, criminals, movie characters and are not to be perceived as racial slurs by the author)

---5-0 (from TV series (Hawaii 5-0 which got its name from Hawaii being the 50th state admitted to the union)

--pig, bacon, swine derived from the 1960’s and now popular again

---Barney (for Barney Fife in the Andy Griffith TV show); Bronze (from Mel Gibson movie “Mad Max”)

---bear (Smoky The Bear because of the uniform hats many police departments issue)

---berry, blueboy, boys in blue (because of the color of the uniforms)

---bulls (usually from police for railroad cars but often for regular police)

---city kitty, cherry toppers, copper

---do-do nutters, the do-dos (stereotype of policemen always stopping to buy doughnuts

---DRCs ( dirty rotten coppers)

---Evil Knieval or county mountie (motorcycle police personnel)

---New York’s (or other city) finest; flatfoot, the fuzz

---FBI (fibbies, first bunch of idiots)

---urban cowboys, or urban posses; mounties (police on horseback)

---LEO (law enforcement officer), local yokel

---mama bear, and derogatorily Miss Piggy, honey bear (female officer )

---Po-po or Po slang used by youth and gang artists

---rollers, snippers (usually used by blacks in North America)

---The Thin Blue Line

---disco pig (policeman driving in a police vehicle with lights flashing)

---furry torpedo (police dog)

---shoofly (undercover police investigating other police officers)

Of other interest to writers of crime are the codes used by police personnel to communicate via their radios. Research showed me that there are no standardized codes used across the United States. The meaning of a number such as 10-40 or 10-67 can vary from state to state. Check with the law enforcement department in the state in which your scene takes place.;;

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Incorporating The Five Senses into Our Writing

In order to sell our writing in this competitive market, we need to develop our work as fully as possible. Characters and settings take up the bulk of the plot. The more real, believable or imaginable both are, the easier it is for our readers to engage and want to continue reading.

Writers can easily describe the physical looks of a character or setting . . .a cattle ranch with a slim, hardened, tanned, cowboy and a petite, pale blond widow next door. If you draw the reader even closer into the scene by using touch, smell and taste to sight and sound, he engages more quickly because he has more information to form a picture in his head. Instead of just writing it was “ a beautiful mountain stream,” you could add how it sounds and have your character take a drink. She notes that it tastes slightly of blood and is scared. As she quickens her pace through the crunchy leaves, she starts to smell the tang of iron and the fear increases. Where is Jeremy? She shouts his name more insistently and looks down at the reddening color of the water. Her stomach churns at the thought of that drink and bitter bile wells up into her throat. In another scenario, when the trail riders sit around the campfire, what did the grilled steaks and hot coffee taste like? Tangy, bitter, strong, tender, burnt? Your characters will be doing all these things. Why not give your characters more of the five senses rather than tell the reader?

Writing about smell, touch and taste is harder than writing about seeing and hearing. In order to sharpen our skills, we need to observe, record and practice. Try walking through the grocery store, take a hike in the woods, ride the bus, hold a newborn baby or puppy, bake cookies or plant flowers. Record what you see, feel, smell and what you touch and taste. Write down what color the soil was. Was it brown, black, cinnamon or tan? Did it feel dry, wet, sandy or rocky? Did the baby smell like powder, soap, sweet, milk? Was the bus dirty or clean, did it smell and if so of what, did the different riders on the bus smell, and how did they act and talk differently? Did you swipe your finger into the batter before you added the shaved chocolate? What did it taste like, how did it feel on your fingertips and tongue?

Another exercise to increase our senses is to have a friend assemble a bag of different objects. Blindfolded and using earplugs, take them out one at a time and orally dictate to your friend what they feel like, what they smell like and even taste like. Practicing will develop your senses. A third exercise is to describe different objects without using its color. How would you describe a banana without saying it was yellow? Write down the description of chocolate ice cream without saying it was brown. Learn to expand your descriptive vocabulary.

Many fund-raising events are titled “The Taste of Dallas,” “The Champagnes of Napa,” “The Italian Food Festival” or “Diamonds and Chocolate.” Organizers know these types of names evoke emotions that are pleasurable by associating taste with something good ergo people will want to come. Writers of fiction or nonfiction can do the same with our stories or poems. Bring in the five senses and you will elevate your writing.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Neologisms Specifically Retronyms and Portmanteau Words

A retronym is a new name, modifier or phrase for an object or event used to differentiate it from the original form or version. A change is necessary because the first word is ambiguous or technology has advanced so that a single word or phrase no longer adequately describes the word. One example is The Great War. The "war to end all wars" it was called until another world-wide set of hostilities erupted. Thus The Great War was retronymed World War I and the second global war World War II. "Please bring me a glass of milk and my book" no long gives enough information.

MILK: whole, 2%, 1%, fat free, soy, organic, calcium enriched, lactose free, chocolate, raw, acidophilus, condensed, evaporated, powered, buttermilk
BOOK: hard cover, soft cover, paperback, trade paperback, self-published, e-book, audio, phone book, address book
LAWN MOWER: push, electric or riding
MOVIES: silent, talkies, DVDs, in-theater, in-home, video cams
COFFEE : regular, decaf, flavored, instant, latte, espresso, iced, Irish, white, frappe, cappuccino, cafe au lait + 65 others
MOTHER: biological, adoptive, surrogate
OVEN: microwave, conventional, convection, gas, electric, toaster
COKE: regular, caffeine free, diet, Classic, diet caffeine free
SOAP: bar, gel, anti-bacterial, body wash, f0am, lotion, natural, African black, exfoliating, anti-aging, acne fighting
TELEPHONE: push button, rotary dial, land-line, mobile, cell, wireless, iChat, Skype
TELEVISION: analog, digital, plasma, high definition, LCD, wall-mount, stand alone
SUIT: men's suits, pants suit, skirt suit
FRESHMAN: first year student, red shirt, true freshman, walk-on
DIAPER: cloth, disposable
BICYCLE: two-wheeler, unicycle, electric, recumbent, retro, mountain, street, racing
WATER: tap, sparkling, designer brand, flavored, distilled, filtered, rain water, gray water, bottled
COPY: hard copy, carbon copy, electronic copy, paper copy, FAX
[New York Times, "Retronym", William Safire, 1/7/2007]

PORTMANTEAU WORDS are new words made from two existing words. (Lewis Carroll, 1871 in Alice Through The Looking Glass) Plural: portmanteaus or portmanteaux. In French, a portmanteau is a suitcase with two compartments.

BIONIC: biology+electronic
MOPED: motor+pedal
MOTEL: motor+hotel
REPUBLICRAT: middle of the road political believer
EZINE: electronic+magazine
BLOG: web+log
SNIRT: snow+dirt especially blowing in the air
GLOBISH: globe+English, an international business language of 1,500 English words and grammatical structure understood and used around the world
GLEETS: gloves+feet, shoes with individual spaces for toes
GEEP: hybrid animal mixing a goat+a sheep
CHUNNEL: English Channel+tunnel
INTERNET: international network
GOOD-BYE: God+be(with)+you
CROISSANDWICH: croissant+sandwich ingredients
GENOME: gene+chromosome
VOLUNTOLD: volunteer+told, being told you were "volunteered" for a task
DIABESITY: diabetes+obesity
PIXEL: picture+element
KARAOKE: two Japanese words meaning empty orchestra
PULSAR: pulsating+star
LIGER: lion+tiger

Look this week for another post on neologisms: backronyms.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Co-Working: the writer's new "home away from home" (and a special offer!)

Have you ever dreamed of setting up a home office, perfect in every detail, where you could write uninterrupted for hours on end--but when the day came, found yourself drowning in loneliness and isolation, constantly checking the refrigerator and the mailbox, the ticking clock your only companion? Goodbye, productivity!

Or have you ever sat in your home office, writing furiously against a looming deadline, surfing the wave of creative flow, when suddenly your child knocks on the door, needing a ride to sports practice, or your spouse wants to know where you've hidden the scissors? Adios, concentration!

Or say you've finally landed a coveted writing assignment for a glossy magazine. Lacking an office, you arrange to conduct an important interview at a local coffee shop, which works out fairly well, despite having to strain to hear your soft-spoken companion over the blaring music--until the woman at the next table decides to change her baby's dirty diaper, right there, right then. (True story.) So long, professionalism!

For many writers, writing at home isn't always practical, and public spaces--the library, the coffee shop--present problems of their own, like a lack of privacy and the perils of unsecured WiFi. Yet renting a traditional office is prohibitively expensive. If you're a writer in this situation, co-working might be the answer.

Are you familiar with co-working? I wasn't, until I spoke with Anita Aurit, cofounder (with Mitzi Vesecky) of The Office Sandpoint, a suite of offices in Sandpoint, Idaho, that rents space to individuals by the day, hour, or week. "Co-working is huge on both coasts," Anita explains, "but it's a new concept here in North Idaho."

In a co-working situation, individuals can rent comfortable, professional office space for whatever time period suits their needs--one or two days a week, or one week a month, or an afternoon now and then, etc. Depending on the facility, an array of support services are offered. For example, The Office Sandpoint offers conference rooms, secured WiFi, printing, copying, and a kitchenette. Ride your bike to work? They've even got a shower! And there's the comforting presence of fellow warm-blooded bipeds and chitchat around the proverbial water cooler--no small thing for a solo worker emerging from a self-imposed cocoon.

People who choose to co-work run the gamut from freelancers to telecommuters to traveling sales reps--just about anyone who needs access to an office for just a day here and a day there, not 24/7, year in and year out.

So how does co-working apply to writers? Maybe you normally write at home in the bosom of your family, but once a week you prefer to get out of the house and write in a quiet, interruption-free office. Or every so often you emerge from your monk-like existence and write in an office to experience the energy (and potential creative collaboration) of having other people around. Or a deadline is pressing and you absolutely, positively need to finish a project, or else--so you rent an office for two or three days until it's done. Or instead of conducting interviews in a public place, you arrange for a few hours in a private conference room. There are plenty of ways for writers to take advantage of a co-working arrangement. Rates are reasonable, and best of all, unlike a traditional office, when you don't need the space, you aren't paying for it.

"Writing can be a lonely profession," acknowledges Anita, who is a writer herself. "The writer's nemesis is interruptions. Sit down, plug in earplugs, and make time to write. Give yourself the gift of time to work on your craft."

To help writers do just that, Anita is extending a generous offer to Writing North Idaho readers, through the end of February 2012: one FREE day to do your writing at The Office Sandpoint, so you can try it out for yourself. If you're within driving distance of Sandpoint, Idaho, it's an offer that can't be beat! Contact Anita at 208-953-1419 or

If Sandpoint's out of range, check around for co-working spaces in your area; they're becoming common in larger cities, and catching on elsewhere, too.

Where do you do your best writing?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Amazing Greats: Stalking the Super Superlative

My recent post on copywriting reminded me that one of the biggest challenges facing copywriters (especially those who specialize in marketing and promotion) is to come up with fresh, original ways to say that something is good. After all, how many times can I say a product is great, fantastic, or new-and-improved before readers start tuning me out?

I was in high school when I first realized the inadequacy of the word nice. The very common description "Jane Doe is nice" could mean anything or nothing, and generally meant only that Jane Doe exhibited no overtly objectionable qualities, at least in the opinion of the speaker. Faint praise at best. Nice told me next to nothing about Jane. What exactly made her nice? Was she friendly? Polite? Smart? Funny? Thoughtful? Kind to animals? Skilled at games? Without really being aware of it, I started a little personal boycott of nice, substituting more precise descriptions. I didn't always succeed--after all, nice is an overused word for a reason--but the attempt did boost my vocabulary a bit.

Recalling this former aversion to nice, I consulted my friend Webster to discover what the word actually means. Imagine my surprise to find that nice comes from a Middle English word meaning foolish, wanton, silly, or simple. Huh? Only further down the list do we find the more common modern take on nice: pleasing, agreeable, appropriate, fitting, well-bred, virtuous, respectable, polite, and kind. In my opinion, any of those terms goes a lot further in describing a person than nice does.

What is your favorite positive descriptor of choice? Are you fond of awesome? Did you know that awe comes from the Greek achos, meaning "pain," and is "an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, or wonder"? If you're using it to describe a hamburger, you might want to rethink your word choice.

Another adjective currently repeated ad nauseum is amazing (apparently most effective if you draw out the second syllable: ah-MAAAAAAY-zing!). Knowing that this word descends from the Middle English amasen, meaning bewilder, confuse, or perplex, "to show or cause astonishment," do you still want to tell your kid every day, "You're amazing!"? (You might, but you should at least understand what it is that you're saying!)

Of course we all know that language changes over time, and Middle English definitions don't necessarily apply to current usage. My point is to encourage you to be precise in your descriptions--to choose descriptive words carefully and not always fall back on the current well-worn favorite. Keep a list of appealing descriptions you run across in your reading, and refer to it if you get stuck. Think carefully about word choices and soon you'll be an awesome writer who gets amazing results! And what could be nicer than that?