Story Ideas and Techniques

Where do you get ideas for stories? Many of mine come from observations I’ve made and experiences I’ve had. Once in awhile something will just pop into my head. When I am on a “roll” and things are moving along,  it’s so exciting to me. I lose all track of time. Does that happen to you?

I recently wrote a short story (and I think it’s a work in progress) and ideas came so quickly, I couldn’t keep up. My fingers were flying across the keyboard. I couldn’t keep up with the thoughts in my brain.

I am grateful for my education in journalism in the 1970’s at UNL. As a student, I learned to type and think. It was much different than the leisurely handwritten thoughts that I was used to. I had to sit at the typewriter and, in rapid fire, put down my thoughts. It was daunting. But now I have difficulty putting pen to paper because my hand is slower than my brain when I write.

I have discovered that I like to write mystical stories. I’m a reader of mysteries, thrillers and spy novels so this has come as a surprise to me. My latest short story is called “Dream Catcher” and it’s about a museum curator who has the uncanny ability to sense things “other worldly.” I got the idea while looking at the dream catcher that hangs in my bedroom window.

Dream catchers started with the Native American of the Great Plains, the Lakota and Sioux. They believed the air is filled with both good and bad dreams. Dream catchers were hung in the tepees and on the babies’ cradle boards for protection.

According to legend, good dreams pass through the center hole to the sleeping person. Bad dreams are caught in the web where they die in the light of dawn.

Traditionally, the frame was made of willow hoops and animal sinew or cordage made from plants. The circular shape represented the sun and moon (and time) as each day moves across the sky.

Now, soft leather cord or synthetic materials are used. The hoop is likely wooden or plastic. They are often decorated with feathers and beads. Mine has an arrowhead in the center.IMG_3865

I have several dream catchers in various forms. I’m not sure when my “collection” started. Like many of my collections, it was inadvertent. I received some from the St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota after making a donation. I continue to receive them now and then, even if I don’t send a donation. I bought the one I have in my bedroom while vacationing in Colorado Springs. I also bought a dreIMG_3868am catcher necklace on another trip to Colorado. I’ve had one of my dream catchers so long, I don’t recall when or where it came from. It is made of leather and is very simple but beautiful with pinkish webbing. It’s one of my favorites.

http://www.dream-catchers.org/category/history/

In my story, the protagonist, Frank de Salle, is a museum curator who was born with microtia. The character is loosely based on my brilliant younger brother who is deaf. My character’s name is Frank de Salle, named for the patron saint of deaf persons, St. Francis de Salle.

Frank and his sister, Christine, a reporter, travel to the Pine Ridge reservation where they attend a powwow. Things happen as they journey onward to the Black Hills and into Wyoming to see Devil’s Tower. All culminates when Frank returns home and is visited by a ghostly figure one night.

Excerpt from “The Dream Catcher”

Frank de Salle was born with a missing ear.   He could speak but he knew he didn’t articulate very well. Strangers treated him as though he was retarded. He sensed it was because of his slurred speech and very loud nasal voice. But he held advanced degrees in both anthropology and history.

 He worked at the college museum as a curator where he set up traveling exhibits,  cataloged museum pieces, and conducted research on artifacts. He worked alone and lived alone and he was fine with that.

His modest two-bedroom home sat ten blocks from campus. He had a drivers’ license but preferred to walk. Pedestrians didn’t cut in front of one another or flip each other off as they hurried down the sidewalk. A nod or smile made it a much more genial mode of getting from point A to point B. Oh, he’d drive in the winter sometimes but leave early in the morning before there was much traffic.

When he spoke, he could hear his words echo in his head and thought they sounded fine, even though strangers looked at him in an odd way. “Don’t yell so loud,” Christine would say, but then he couldn’t hear his words. His speech therapist explained that, with his hearing aid on, he could hear about as well as someone underwater in a swimming pool might hear, whatever that was.

Sometimes he’d feel a vibration before hearing a sound through his hearing aid. Doctors told him that his other senses were heightened. He overcompensated because of his deafness. An oncoming car felt like he was holding an electric razor with the sensation passing through his entire body. He liked vibrations, his connection to the world.

Want to read more? Let me know. Leave a comment below. 

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“Everything the Power does, it does in a circle.” Lakota Proverb

“A man’s life is a circle from childhood to childhood, and thus it is in everything where the power moves.” Black Elk

 

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My Short Story

In the midst of a class at the local university on short story writing, I just finished writing about being a fat person. The story has been brewing in my head for several years.

Several years ago, a national debate began about the rise in obesity in the US. Some fat people were blaming everything from McDonald’s and other fast food places to corn syrup in processed foods to sedentary lifestyle with the onset of personal computers, video games and other devices that kept kids from going outside to play and adults from going on long evening walks.

I pondered this and came up with  list of “excuses” for being fat.

  1. My parents. “When you grow up, when you’re BIG and strong, you can do this, you will know that, you will understand.” Hypothesis: To get big and strong and therefore independent and smart, EAT!
  2. “Clean Plate Club.” As I child I often heard, “Clean your plate. There are starving children in China (Africa, Bangladesh…)” Never did figure out how my eating everything on my plate would help those children.
  3. My paper route. I rode my bicycle all around town, delivering newspapers when I was in 5th grade. You would’ve thought that would enhance muscle strength and normal weight. But two of the places I delivered papers to were the local Dairy Queen and a small cafe along the highway that made the best cinnamon rolls. Any calories burned while circling the town on my bike were more than replenished by dilly bars and warm sticky buns.
  4. The image of a girl in the 1950’s and early ’60’s. Girls didn’t sweat. Girls sat at home and embroidered. Girls didn’t do things that might mess up their dresses. Dresses were not conducive to climbing jungle gyms, running up hills or throwing baseballs. The only place acceptable for sweating was in gym class where we wore ugly one-piece short outfits and couldn’t wait for it to be over.
  5. Food supply. In the Midwest, summer was great when we had fresh vegetables and some fresh fruits like cherries and apples from our trees. Otherwise, in the winter, we relied on shipments of oranges and other produce from far off places like California, Arizona and Texas. The fresh foods were expensive and not as tasty as they would be in their native states. Who wants to eat pink bland tomatoes?Much of our diet consisted of meat and potatoes. I never had a green salad until I was in my late teens.
  6. Terminology. Instead of cutting to the chase and calling it “fat,” there was a tendency when I was growing up for people to say things like “pleasingly plumb,”overweight,” and “chunky.” Even children’s clothes were labeled as “hefty.” I remember when I first identified myself as being “fat” it was liberating. People around me were shocked to hear that word, though, and it took awhile before society was ready to “tell it like it is.”
  7. News reels at the movie theater. Before the cartoon and main feature was shown, many cinemas showed MovieTone newsreels. https://youtu.be/FsPKD4tNe-Y  I remember seeing the films of the released Nazi films showing the concentration camps. As a little kid seeing (on the big screen, larger than life) the emaciated people with sunken faces, ribs sticking out, skin and bones. And the stacks of dead bodies piled high like so many haystacks, it had a profound effect on me. I never wanted to be that thin and emaciated. So, I ate more, thinking it was like a “reserve” I could store in my body in case something horrible like that happened to me.

Once I became fat, it was my identity, my defense mechanism. If someone didn’t like me because of my appearance, that was their problem, not mine. I had lots of friends and had lots of fun. My fat didn’t stop me.

As an adult, I decided I needed to lose weight for my health. I had lost two siblings and my father to heart disease. I lost 90 pounds after the birth of my second child. But then people commented on how good I looked and it bothered me. I didn’t want to hear that. My appearance was not who I was. I’m sure they thought they were complimenting me, but I saw it as a devaluation of my previous life. I also started losing friends, normal-weighted friends. One was killed in an earthquake. Another had a heart attack at age 42 while deer hunting. A tiny, active college friend had a stroke just before her 50th birthday. At that point, I decided I really have no control over the length of my life and I gained my weight back.

Now, I realize it’s more about “quality” than “quantity” of life. I have no control over when I will die, but I have control over how I will live.

My short story is called “Adolph Hitler Made Me Fat.” It will be read in class in the next week. I am anxious to hear what the other students think about it.

Friday the Thirteen, Again

March 13th lands on a Friday, just like last month. This piqued my interest and I decided to look into common superstitions and what their origins are.

My mother was a Pennsylvania coal miner’s daughter and she had so many sayings and superstitions. I don’t think she truly believed in bad luck or good luck, but she told the superstitions much like parents and grandparents pass on adages and folklore. On a whim a few years ago, I wrote a short story based on Mom’s folklore. I called it “I Itch” because it seems that my mother had a superstition for about every part of the body that itched. (Well, I take that back–there are a few places that itch that I won’t mention and that she had no saying for.)

A few of the itchy places and their reasons for doing so include:

  • Nose–you will kiss a fool
  • Ears–someone is talking about you
  • Right hand–you will meet a new friend
  • Left hand–you will receive money
  • Feet-you will travel

My little story included all of these and at the end, I said, “And if you itch all over, you need a bath.”

While looking up superstitions, I found some of Mom’s itchy ones so they seem to be well-known.  I wondered about Friday the 13th. Why that date?

Turns out, long before Jason and the slasher movies, Friday the 13th was considered unlucky. It is tied to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Since tradition holds that Jesus and the apostles gathered for the Seder meal the evening before the crucifixion, the Passion of Christ occurred on a Friday since the meal would have taken place on a Thursday. There were 13 people present at the Seder meal, 12 apostles (until Judas left) plus Jesus. Therefore, Friday the 13th was considered unlucky. Mention of Friday the 13th being unlucky first appears in the written work in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

What about other common superstitions? Last month, I took a couple hundred pennies to work and put up a sign that read, “Lucky Pennies–Help yourself. Happy Friday the Thirteenth!” I decided to look up the reason why picking up a penny  would be considered lucky. Here’s what I found:

Lucky Penny

“Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck.” This superstition probably goes back to ancient times when it was believed that finding metal was a gift from the gods.

Black Cat

The black cat was revered until the Middle Ages when black cats became associated with witches. Some believed witches could turn themselves into black cats. Having a cat cross your path and bad luck may have started in the 1500’s when people saw a cat cross the path of a woman and she was limping the next day.

Walking under a Ladder

There are several possible explanations for this:

  • In medieval times, when people were going to their death at the gallows, it was believed that if you walked under the hangman’s noose, you would die.
  • The ancient Egyptians revered the pyramids and if a ladder was against the wall, it resembled the shape of a pyramid. Walking under it “broke” the good “vibes.”
  • After Christianity took hold in Europe, the ladder reminded people of the Trinity and to walk under it was considered blasphemous.
  • Obvious, it is unwise to walk under a ladder since it could be dangerous. No one ever mentions the guy ON the ladder. Seems it could be really bad for him if someone jostled the ladder as they walked under it!

Breaking a Mirror Brings 7 Years Bad Luck

This superstition can be traced back to the Romans, who were the first to create glass mirrors. If the user broke the mirror, it meant that his or her soul would be trapped inside the glass. The Romans also believed that a person’s physical body renewed itself every seven years, so in seven years the soul  would be fully restored to the body.

Lucky rabbit’s foot  (Not for the rabbit!)

The belief of the lucky rabbit’s foot has probably existed in Europe since 600 BC amongst the Celts. The “donor rabbit” possessed certain attributes, had to be killed in a particular place and in a special  manner. Rabbits were considered “shape changers,” with the ability to change into other animals or people. Carrying one around protected the person.

Opening an umbrella inside

In ancient Egypt, royalty had umbrellas to protect them from sunlight. The Sun God was a very powerful god. They felt it would offend the Sun God if they opened the umbrella indoors where the rays of the Sun God couldn’t reach them.

 Step on a crack

Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Most of us know the old rhyme. Whether the rhyme is the cause of or a result of this superstition is uncertain. Of course, avoiding uneven sidewalk and cracks is probably a good policy if one wants to avoid tripping.

Spilled salt

A widespread explanation of the belief that it is unlucky to spill salt is that Judas spilled the salt at the Last Supper. “The Last Supper” by Davinci shows the salt knocked over by Judas.

Salt was a valuable commodity in ancient times. A friend would not spill your salt since it was a symbol of friendship and trust.

Salt is also a religious symbol.  Jesus referred to the “salt of the earth”.

The most common belief or “ritual” these days requires you to toss a pinch of the spilled salt over your left shoulder, into the face of the Devil who lurks there.

“Blow out the candles and make a wish”

Birthday candles have been around since ancient Greece who put candles on round candle to honor the moon goddess, Artemus. The cake represented the moon and the candles, moonlight. People came to believe that the smoke from the candles carried their wishes and prayers to the gods and also warded off evil spirits. Eventually, making a wish and then blowing out all of the candles meant your wish would come true.

What other superstitions can you think of? Whatever they are, they are simply that—superstitions!

Good luck to you all! Enjoy your Friday!

Now where did I put my lucky four-leaf clover?

 

 

“Fifteen Minutes of Fame” and Other Adages

 

IMG_0972Most people know that the saying, “Fifteen minutes of fame” originated with Andy Warhol.  The expression was first used when a catalog of an exhibition of Warhol’s work was published in 1968,  In it, Warhol discussed the nature of celebrity and wrote, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.”  The phrase caught on and was shorted to “fifteen minutes of fame.”

It is interesting to research the origin of common expressions.  Some expressions are so ingrained in our language that we don’t give them much thought.

After being out the night before, celebrating their birthdays, my adult son and his friend debated the practice of having a “hair of the dog” and it’s efficacy or lack thereof.

“Where did that expression ever come from?”  his friend asked.

In this world of SmartPhones and the internet, they found their answer in a flash.  It comes from ancient Rome where similia similibus curantura was common medical practice.  Back then, if one was bitten by a rabid dog (or even an uninfected dog), treatment was putting a hair from that dog onto the wound and bandaging it up.  The thinking was, that the very thing that caused the illness could cure the illness.  The practice of the dog hair on a bite wound was in use for nearly 200 years before it was called into question.Funny_dog (2)

In time, the popular saying came to mean taking an alcoholic drink in the morning cures a hangover.

What adages interest you?  Here are a few of my favorites:

“I’m on cloud nine.”  This expression means that a person is extremely happy.  The U.S. Weather Bureau is responsible for this one.  Clouds are classified by the Bureau into nine types. Cloud #9 is cumulonimbus, a cloud that becomes very large and high.

Cloud

“Pass the buck”  Meaning to blame someone else, “passing the buck” originated as a poker phrase.  The “buck” was the token passed to the next person up to deal the cards.

Originally, the buck was a buckhorn knife.  The handle of the knife was made from the horn of a male deer or “buck.”  The phrase was written down by Mark Twain in 1872, the earliest recorded version.

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“Sleep tight.”  There are a couple of theories of origin for this one.  The first explanation I ever heard was that it was a nautical phrase.  Since sailors slept in hammocks, they tightened the ropes at night.  Thus, “sleep tight.”

Another theory is that “tight” is old English for soundly, properly, efficiently.  Personally, I like the sailors’ version better.

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“Snug as a bug in a rug.”   It is hard to pin down this expression, but it can be broken down word by word.  The origins may not have anything to do with bugs or rugs.  The expression means to sleep comfortably and soundly and is thought to be a whimsical adage from the 18th century.  “Snug” can be traced back to the 16th century when it meant a parlor inside of an inn or pub.  This form of “snug” is still used in Irish pubs where small walled off areas provide privacy for couples and small groups.

According to several sources, “snugge” meant “neat, trim, well-prepared” until 1630 when John Lane used the word “snugginge” to mean comfortable.  “Bugge” meant ghost or ghoul.  In 1642, Daniel Rogers used the word “bugge” to mean insect.

It is believed that the expression “Snug as a bug in a rug” was in full use in 1769, but rugs as we know them were not around.  At the time, a “rug” was a thick woolen cover for a bed–basically, a blanket.

So, the origins of “snug as a bug in a rug” could actually translate as “well-prepared as a ghost in a blanket.”

Benjamin Franklin is usually credited with the adage. However, evidence shows that the expression was around long before Poor Richard’s Almanac.  Benjamin Franklin used it as a epitaph in 1772 for a pet squirrel named Skug.  “Here Skug lies snug as a bug in a rug.”

In 1769, a Shakespeare  festival advertisement in the Stratford Jubilee printed, “If she has the mopus’s, I’ll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug.”thWH1180F4

Many adages are from the Bible.  Some are verbatim while others are based on words or stories in the Bible.  These include:

  • An apple of one’s eye (Psalms 17:8)
  • To the bitter end (Proverbs 5:4)
  • By the skin of your teeth (Job 19:20)
  • Cast the first stone (John 8:7)
  • The eleventh hour (Matthew 20)
  • An eye for an eye (Exodus 21:24)
  • Kiss of death (based on Judas’ kiss in Gethsemane)
  • Old as Methuselah
  • Pride goes before faith (Proverbs 16:18)
  • Wash one’s hands of it (based on Pilate’s washing of his hands)
  • Wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15)open-bible-hi

Can you think of others?

Some adages are ancient while others are fairly new.  It is fascinating to look at our language and its roots, contemplating how we, as writers, create our stories.  Who knows?  A sentence you write may become the next popular adage.

Write your list of adages in “comments” below.