Bygones

Today we have a recommendation for a useful website from WF member Dave Smith. And a little historical perspective.


Bygones

By Dave Smith

The Saturday Evening Post, a magazine that in its heyday towered by size over others in the rack and often had a cover by Norman Rockwell, popped into my life a few weeks ago.

While cleaning out the back room (one of those Covid-generated activities) I found a book that contained short stories from the Post, and vaguely remember picking it up at a book exchange sometime in the past. The title is Mystery and Suspense and the subtitle is Great Stories from The Saturday Evening Post. It’s not a recently published book. The last printing was 1976.

The book contains sixteen stories, and since the Post was such a quality magazine for a hundred-plus years, I thought I had found a nugget to read and learn about great writing.

One of the stories was ‘The Black Cat’ by Edgar Allen Poe. Yes, because the Post began in 1821, Poe could indeed have been a contributor.

The cat story was good, but Poe tends to write superfluously and pleonastically (he uses big words, and a lot of them). I think it may have been because writers often got paid by the word in those times.

I decided to pick a more recent story for my next read, ‘Pen in Hand’ by Ben Ames Williams, dated 1933. This turned out to be a cozy mystery, set in a backwoods country village, and the protagonist was an elderly lady who lived by herself on a ridge a few miles from town, and who once a week hooked up her horse to the buckboard and went to town. She was Grandma Ankers, referred to locally as Marm.

The story was intriguing, and I got caught up in trying to solve it, as this is what mysteries do to you. But the writer in me began to notice a verbose style and unusual dialogue tags. That’s okay, the story was good. Then near the end I came across a dialogue tag I don’t usually see. Here it is, after Marm had solved the puzzle, she spoke:

“There!” she ejaculated. “Sheriff I dunno what you think, but that’s enough for me.”

Every book about writing published in the past forty years has derided such tags—no, even longer if you consider the Elements of Style by our buds Strunk and White. And yet here it was, in the Saturday Evening Post no less.

Did the Post have editors? Did people talk like that back then?  Even though as used here it is technically correct, wouldn’t another word have been less interruptive?

I had to find out, so I did what any reasonable person does today—Google. And damned if I didn’t find something really cool and useful for us writers.

It’s called Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Maybe I’m showing my ignorance here, and I apologize for that, but this is one interesting tool I was not aware of. Ngram takes any word, phrase, or group of words, and can show relationships, usage in writings over time, and a hundred other too-deep-for-me things. And then Google puts it into a graph form which can cause one to exclaim, “Aha.”

The answer to my question was yes, ejaculated was used as a dialogue tag in many stories from the early 1800s to about 1940.

If your writing involves history, Ngram could help determine the written usage of a particular word at any time in the past. And even better, Ngram will show you the exact books and passages they found to support their data.

I now realize I was born 100 years too late. Today the golden  rule is to use he said or she said, with an occasional whispered or shouted if absolutely necessary, and yet in the not too distant past one could sell to a national magazine a story containing words like *insert your favorite*. I can write stuff like that, and would have made a fortune selling my stories, if only I had not been misplaced in time.

But all is not lost even if bygone words are bygones.

From where the sun now stands until forever, whenever I am disgusted with my writing, when the words smell so bad even my wife turns up her nose at them, when I am positive I am the worst ever, when I want to fast-ball my coffee cup—or beer bottle—through the glass patio door, when I want to throw open the window and shout I can’t take it anymore, when I want to stab my writing hand with a pencil to keep me from using it to waste my time, when I want to crumple up my computer and toss it into the wastebasket, when the deepest depth of despair threatens my sanity, … at those times I promise I will remember Marm ejaculating in the Saturday Evening Post.

And the black clouds will part, and the writers’ sun will shine on me once more.


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Christmas Then…And Now

Today we share a piece from the 2016 December Read Around.

Christmas Then…And Now

By Jeanne Crownover

jeanne-crownover

Am I the only one who resents going to the store in October and finding I have to wade through aisles of Christmas decorations to get to the Halloween candy?

Reflecting back on my childhood in Wisconsin, Christmas preparations never started until after Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until the leftovers had been eaten, the little ‘potato turkey’ we brought home from school had begun to rot, and the cornucopia along with the fall-colored tapers had been packed away that anyone even began to think about Christmas.

Not until people had recovered from one holiday did they start preparing for the next: shopping for gifts, writing cards, baking cookies. The tree was a distant concept, not having to be dealt with until before shortly before the actual holiday.

I know that not all families were like mine, waiting until the 23rd or 24th to purchase their trees. In our household, however, the week before Christmas found my mother reminding my father on a daily basis, more harshly as the days wore on, that with the only car in the family, he needed to go get the tree!

But the selection obviously remained good, as a tall, fragrant pine was always obtained, and on the 24th was brought into the house and decorated. The lights were tested briefly to make sure they were all working, but the formal lighting of the tree did not take place until darkness fell on Christmas Eve.

I remember coming home from church at night and seeing how splendid the tree looked in our big bay window. After a glass of milk and some freshly baked stolen, I was hurried off to bed, being told I needed to allow Santa ample time to make his delivery.

Christmas morning, the family arose to find the tree surrounded by a profusion of brightly wrapped packages. After opening gifts, they were left under the tree for several days so friends could see them when they came to call.

What a shock years later when raising a family in Southern California, to have my kids tell me on Christmas afternoon that at our neighbor’s house across the street, all gifts, save the few that the children were playing with at the moment, had already been put away.

This feeling of disbelief was eclipsed only by the disappointment I experienced a week later when attending a New Year’s Eve party at the same home. The house felt like a tomb. Not a scintilla of Christmas remained.

It made me pause and wonder. Had it been around so long that the magic was gone?

As a child I’d heard about the twelve days of Christmas and assumed that was why we left our tree up until at least the fifth of January. None of us grew tired of Christmas. We never wanted it to end.

So as an adult, I’ve always felt a bit out of sync as the holidays approach. While my California offspring never let me wait until the 24th to put up the tree, and I realize that keeping a tree up until the 5th of January could be construed as flirting with a visit from the fire department, I know my cards are always the last to be sent, my gifts the last to be wrapped, and my tree the last to be decorated.

Customs ingrained in childhood are difficult to erase. I’ll always view Christmas Eve as the beginning of my holiday, and while I know the enchantment won’t last forever, I hope that it lingers at least a little while, before it slowly…only slowly…fades away.

Who is Ethical Norm? by Sharon St. George

Welcome back to Member Monday. Today we feature a piece by Sharon St. George. Here’s a little more about Sharon.

Abridged_excerpt_from_Chapter_1_of_CHECKED_OUT 2Sharon Owen, writing as Sharon St. George, is the current program director of Writers Forum. She is also a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Visit Sharon at www.sharonstgeorge.com or on Facebook at Facebook.com/sharonstgeorge.

Who is Ethical Norm?

by Sharon St. George

Who is Ethical Norm?

Sorry, trick question. Ethical Norm is not the husky man from Cheers who sat at the corner of the
bar. Norm’s ethical boundaries might have been compromised by his appetite for beer, a
proclivity that, on more than one occasion, caused him to behave in an unethical manner.
Ethical norm is a term I first heard in a college fiction writing course. My professor assigned
Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, to be read by the class. During the discussion that
followed, the professor pointed out that the ethical norm of that community was an integral part
of the story setting. Without it, there would have been no story.
I recently refreshed my memory by searching out a definition of the term. I found that Webster
tells us norms are standards of proper or acceptable behavior; ethics are rules of behavior based
on ideas about what is morally good and bad. When these are combined, we have standards of
acceptable behavior, not necessarily mandated by law, but based on a particular society’s ideas of
what is morally good and bad. There is general agreement that as a society, we expect certain
behaviors from society at large, even when they do not fall under the purview of law.
Some of literature’s most memorable works have used the concept of a given society’s ethical
norm to startle readers’ minds into active thought about the behaviors they expect from
themselves and others who share not only their community, but their nation and their planet.
Another example, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, demonstrates what happens when a group
of young boys become castaways on a tropical island. Does their survival depend on establishing
an ethical norm different from what governed their behavior before they became shipwreck
survivors?
This important element of setting reaches beyond fiction. A 2016 Academy Award-winning
documentary short subject film titled A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is a stunning
example of the concept of how one society’s ethical norm differs from others. Set in Pakistan, it
sheds light on the practice of honor killings, and involves a 19-year-old woman who survives an
honor killing attempt by her father and uncle for marrying the man she loves. It brings to light
the statistic that approximately a thousand Pakistani women are murdered each year by male
relatives for dishonoring their families. The film has already prompted Pakistan’s prime minister
to address the need for a stronger law against honor killings in his country. In her Oscar
acceptance speech, courageous woman filmmaker Obaid-Chinoy stressed the “power of film” to
bring about social change.
So when we consider the setting for our novel, short story, or work of nonfiction, we’re not
looking merely at the time and place, but we also consider the ethical norm of that setting. We
know that it will affect the main characters, it will affect the other characters in the story, and it
will affect the reader’s reaction to the work. It is inspiring to realize that writers who expose
unacceptable ethical norms can do more than entertain and inform, they can make a better world
possible.
  1. Breach CoverIn Breach of Ethics, Sharon St. George’s third novel in the Aimee Machado Mystery series, a troubled surgeon faces an ethical dilemma while operating on a ten-year-old girl. His efforts to save the life of the child prodigy pianist result in ominous consequences involving Aimee and her band of intrepid crime solvers.

    Breach of Ethics will be released by Camel Press on May 1, 2016. It is available now to preorder from Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and eBook format.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

Member Monday: Grandmother’s Skirt by Alicia McCauley

Welcome back to Member Monday. Today we feature an essay by Alicia McCauley. Alicia is a teacher, a writer and the President of Vigilante Kindness. Her essay, Grandmother’s Skirt, was recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas. Welcome, Alicia.

Grandmother’s Skirt

by Alicia McCauley

A tiny crack splintered through my heart when I hung my grandmother’s skirt up in my closet this Christmas.  It’s a red and green plaid skirt that sits perfectly on my hips and floats at my knees, a traveling pants sort of miracle being that I’m six feet tall and my grandmother was five feet tall on her tallest days.

The skirt is one of two items I took from her closet when she passed away.  The other was a bland oatmeal sweater that smelled like her.  I kept that sweater on for days after she died, breathing in her smell even as I laid in bed nights, listening to the sounds that felt all wrong in her house.

But the skirt went unworn.  

The first Christmas season after she died, I couldn’t put it on without crying and so it hung at the back of my closet, its red and green merriment lost in a dark corner.  The second Christmas season after she died, I was able to wear the skirt with only the slightest quiver in my bottom lip when I looked in the mirror.

I paired my grandmother’s skirt with a black jacket zigzagged with zippers and tall, black boots with the skinniest of heels.  For good measure I added my favorite leather studded bracelet.  I remembered my grandmother wearing the skirt, so proper in her heels and pantyhose and a red sweater on top.  She would’ve laughed and shaken her head at her modest skirt paired with my hints of edginess.  

A thousand times I wanted to send her a photo.  I wanted our pictures to stand next to each other, each of us wearing this magical skirt, her red lipsticked mouth smiling next to my own pale grin.

Every single time I took her skirt out for a spin, I was showered with compliments.  I’m not fashionable or trendy in any sense of those words.  I’m gangly and awkward and when I can find pants that don’t look like I’m readying for a flood, that’s a fashion win in my book.

When I stepped out in my grandmother’s skirt, it was a whole new experience.  Compliments were showered upon me.

“I love that skirt.”

That is a fantastic skirt!”

You look radiant in that skirt.  It really brings out the color in your cheeks.”

Needless to say, I felt great in that skirt, so great that I carefully put it in my clothing rotation as often as possible.  I took the skirt to see ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.  I wore it to three Christmas parties.  I wore it to the Christmas sing-a-long on the last day of school.  Finally I donned it for our Christmas morning church service.

As we read the Communion passage, I held the plastic Communion cup, complete with wafer sealed on top, and swirled the grape juice so that it coated the sides of the cup in red.  I thought about how Christ’s sacrifice covers my sins. I savored the wafer on my tongue and washed it down with the bittersweet juice, running red down my throat.

After church and after all the gifts were opened, a knot caught in my throat when I hung my grandmother’s skirt up that Christmas afternoon.  I ran my hand over the wool and slipped the skirt back into the recesses of my closet.  

Later that day I strapped on my helmet and pedaled out for a Christmas bike ride.  Under a blindingly blue sky and with the taste of Communion still on my lips, I thought of all the gifts I’ve received this past year, both tangible and not.

I smiled because somehow in spite of her passing, my grandmother still manages to give incredible gifts.

In her skirt I felt vibrant.

I felt confident.

I felt beautiful.

And the most magical gift of my grandmother’s skirt is that when I took it off and placed it back in the closet, all of those feelings still remained.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

Member Monday: Sleepover from Walks with Thurber: A Memoir by Jennifer Levens

Welcome back to Member Monday. Today we feature a piece by Writers Forum Treasurer, Jennifer Levens. Welcome, Jen.

Sleepover

from Walks with Thurber: A Memoir

by Jennifer Levens

Author’s Note: This is all from the dog’s point of view, so the misspellings are his and on purpose.

I had a sleepover at my house. I know, it has been a long time since I got to talk to you. Mom has been busy, whatever that means. I have been going for more and more walks. But I have to tell you about my sleepover. You know I like white fluffy things and purple things. (That’s because Mom likes purple things. Sometimes she is a purple thing herself), but anyway about my sleepover. Mom brought my friend over and he stayed here. He got to sleepover at my house!!! Mom took us both for walks but not at the same time.

His name is Stan, but Mom calls him Sweetie Pie. Is that a food? Mom and Dad get pie a lot. They don’t let me have it. I get bananas and apples and grapes (not many of those) and a cracker at the morning and a cracker at the night and fish oil pills and then sometimes if I have itchy places or I sneeze a lot I get other pills. Sometimes I fake sneezing, because Dad wraps pills in meat. I like meat a lot too.

About my sleepover, the car smelled funny after Stan was in it. He wasn’t in my seat, but something happened. Mom brought him home and my blue thing for my seat wasn’t there again. I have another thicker blue thing. It is softer and more fun. Anyway, Stan stayed for a long time. Why does he get a bowl of food all the time and I only get two bowls a day? I wouldn’t eat his food. It is hard and in really small balls. He throws it up and catches it. I can’t do that with my food only the apples and bananas and grapes.

Anyway Stan slept in a cage. Mom would never let me sleep in a cage. I couldn’t even fit in Stan’s cage, but Stan says he likes it. It is like a cave and it smells like him and he sleeps real good in it.

The first night Stan woke everybody up. He grrr…d and he woofed and he was real loud. I only do that when there is danger like from that gray thing that crept along the fence and hissed at me and made mean faces at me. I don’t really know what Stan was grrr…ing about. I mean, I guess I am used to the stuff that happens around here. When I go to Stan’s house he says he likes it, because he gets out of his room for a while and my Mom walks him. He says she rescues him from the smelly place where there are all sorts of us and other people like, eeuwwee, cats and stuff. I don’t think I would mind a snake. Snails live at my house and I don’t mind them. They are really easy to catch. Anyway, back to Stan and me. Mom didn’t take us to Dog Park. She left us all; me, and Stan, and Dad all the next day after Stan got here. She came home smelling of woods and trees and why didn’t she take me? I would have really liked that.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!