Apr 22

More Voices from the Past

When I was thinking about my blog post for April, I had several ideas. But one gripped me and wouldn’t let go. It came from other letters I’d read and copied when I was in California last month. This time they were from my mother’s side of the family.

In Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hitler was annihilating the Jews as fast as he could. Grandma’s oldest brother, Abram Bonomi, was Jewish, born in Romania but an Italian citizen. He been knighted by the king of Italy and now he was stuck in Beirut without papers, and trying desperately to get to his family in the United States.

Grandma and Papa were doing everything they could think of to get him a visa to come to America. They weren’t having much luck. My parents were dating at the time and my father offered to help.

The letters are so frustrating. Apparently my father had written to his senator, Hiram Johnson from California, asking for help and saying that he and my grandparents would be financially responsible for Abram when came to the United States.

On February 5, 1941, Leslie Reed, the American Consul in Athens, Greece, writes back that “The records … show that on two occasions during … 1940 Mr. Bonomi called at the Consulate General requested a visitor’s visa to proceed to the United States for the purpose of travel and for visiting his sister Mrs. Clara Wein, 1855 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco. In the course of these interviews it was established that Mr. Bonomi had no fixed domicile in Greece and no occupation or interests which would require his return to this country or to Roumania, where he had formerly been in business, and that as a retired businessman with near relatives in the United States the inducements would be rather toward strengthing his ties in the United States and prolonging his sojourn there. Accordingly it was decided that Mr. Bonomi could not qualify under the regulations for non-immigrant visas.”

From reading the letter, I get the impression that the American Consul thinks he has all the time in the world. It doesn’t seem to faze him that there’s a world war going on, Greece is falling to the Nazis, and this man, as well as others, desperately needs to get out.

On June 10, 1941, four months later, never having been contacted by Leslie Reed, Abram writes from Beirut “My Clara dear, my dear Josephine (my mother), my dear Julius” that “the Palestine Government refused me the entrance visa, as there arrived a disposition from the Foreign Office, not to accept any Rumanian, who left after February 15th.”

He says he cabled my grandparents in San Francisco on June 2 but received no answer back. He “cannot continue to remain here, as my means are very anemic and I am not allowed to accept a position because I am a stranger. Besides, I am continually asked to leave the country, as they do not want us.”

He goes on to say that “The Mexican Counsul over here cannot understand why you did not succeed yet. If I get an engagement over there with a Company which needs me as specialist, the immigration visa is quickly granted. In case one wants to go there as a tourist for six months, he must have over there a deposit of 200 pesos for his monthly expenses (that means about 40 per month, total 240) and the visa is quickly given. If somebody goes there for six months, he easily can arrange to remain more. All other ways are difficult – he says.

Well! I’m sure you know quite well what can be done. Otherwise nothing new. I hope you are all well.

With best wishes,

Abram”

After that there are more letters to the person in charge of visas in Beirut, to the representative from California, etc., etc., etc.– all very bureaucratic and proper documenting the fact that they were doing nothing.

I keep thinking, what must it have been like for him, older, in his sixties, running out of money, not allowed to work, knowing he had family in the U.S. that wanted him and would take care of him and no one, no one would give him the paperwork he needed?

Only when they were prodded by Washington, would they do something. But only if Abram would come them. How was he to know that if he came back a third time, he might actually get the precious papers? They never looked for him, assuming he was no longer there. But he was for four more months at least, February through June and maybe even longer.

During this time, Grandma and Papa were frequently writing letters to Abram in Beirut, to the Red Cross and sending telegrams.

The saddest letter is the last one, written to Abram in care of the “Hotel Diana, Ekali (Athens), Greece, Europe”. My mother writes how much she misses him and of her coming marriage in August. My grandmother writes how they haven’t gotten any mail from him in a long time and “are very anxious to hear from you.” My grandfather’s ends with “We haven’t heard from you lately and hope to receive good news from you real soon.”

Stamped on the envelope is the message, “Return to Sender    Service Suspended.”

Apr 18

Does your car need a poetic license plate?

Bet’cha you’re a poet and didn’t even know it.

However, ask me if I’m a poet, and my immediate response is no.  After all, poetry is sing-songy rhymes sung by first graders.  Classic poets are older writers spewing stylized language for pages upon pages.  The new wave of poets are hipsters baring their raw, tortured souls for 20 minutes on coffeeshop stages, waxing on the dearth of the human landscape. I’m just a wanna-be hipster, but I do appreciate Spoken Word.  I just don’t “get” a lot of it.

Poetry intimidates me.  I feel pressured to find something meaningful from the long strangling paragraphs of confusing and deep intense emotions.  When I don’t get some passionate, life-changing insight, I feel like a numb, witless slug.  Shakespeare frustrates me because my reading flow is disrupted by looking up too many word definitions.  Again, I’m the imbecile.  Too often, poetry is dissected in a class assignment to study form and intention, not enjoyed for the words themselves.  Poetry becomes work, stale and tedious.  There are ways to make poetry approachable, and that is to have fun.

One of my Top Five Favorite College Projects actually came in a poetry class I took as a junior.  Our assignment had a list of specific rules, including writing in a particular meter with rhythm and using a specific number of words from the glossary provided.  The challenge was the intrigue, and my submission, “To Catch a Frog,” is the only poem I ever committed to memory.  This is the first stanza of the one page poem:

To kiss a frog, some say, may lead

to warts upon one’s foolish head.

So it occurred that fateful eve,

when I was lured to test belief,

departed with my sturdy trap

to catch a frog down Boggy Swamp.

 Poetry can be a space to play and experiment, even for the non-poet writer.  It is fractured storytelling.  You can choose not to follow the traditional rules of grammar or punctuation.  April is National Poetry Month, the NaNoWriMo for poets.  This is the time to celebrate something new or forgotten.

About 14 years ago, I discovered the appeal of haiku. My friend and I traveled to a book expo in New York City.  She is a poet, so it was no surprise that the haiku year caught her eye.  The book features haikus written on postcards and mailed amongst a group of friends.  The poetry form itself presents a limited commitment composing three lines of 5-7-5 syllables.  It is short and structured with some boundaries, thus user-friendly.  Perfect.

We both loved the creativity of it, so we emailed daily haikus to give out Inbox joy and mailed weekend postcards to keep our mailboxes from becoming jealous.  We still do this today, with our subject material less nature-focused and more snippets of life in the style of senryu.photo

I discovered an iPhone app, Heyku, which encourages anyone to post any type of poetry, with the option to add interactive sketches, photos, or sound to each poem. I do not know the size of this online community, but I find it welcoming because I have followers of my poetry.  I feel safe here, and thus more confident in my approach.  You can find me there at d.w.Hirsch, always under the #haiku tag.  Many of my haikus are now posted on Instagram (dwhirsch) where I can become more hipster with the trendy, special filters.  Whatever the format, whether the month is April or beyond, my writing is whimsical and casual, the way I think poetry should be.

Be your own poet.

Apr 16

Express Yourself with the Perfect Word

I remember being a child and responding to my (now beloved) sister’s taunts with the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me.” How anyone ever thought that was an effective way for children to deal with ridicule is a mystery to me. Today it’s more commonly understood that youth and adults on the receiving end of verbal attacks aren’t always able to fend off the pain of negative comments. The problem is so prevalent that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has studied it and identified name-calling and teasing as a form of bullying.[i] Words are extremely powerful.

Considerate communicators, particularly authors, have to choose words purposefully. Words act as building blocks to a story. Stacked together, they impart feelings, inspire or motivate. They determine action, setting, and point of view. They convey conflict and emotion. And they should compel readers to rush ahead one page at a time, one word at a time, to discover the surprises that await them.

As we’re writing our manuscripts, the goal is to be clearly understood. The skill, however, is difficult to achieve, because writers and readers don’t always interpret things the same way. Compounding the problem is that a word usually has various definitions associated with it. Consider sanguine. The word means confident, which may be interpreted as a positive trait. It also means bloodthirsty and depicts a more sinister quality.[ii] When writing an article, the author needs to make his intent as clear as possible for the reader. At times, he may actually need to specify the correct attribute—for example, self-assured as opposed to homicidal. My friends who write fiction will not entirely agree. For their creative process, it’s more effective if they show, rather than tell, readers what they mean. They create this understanding through meticulously scripted action, scenery and dialogue. Regardless of the type of writing we do, the underlying premise is that we pay strict attention to the words we use for each of our given scenarios.

History gives us a concrete look at the significance of word choice. Biblical scholars examined Sacred Scripture and identified many different names the Hebrew people used when they referred to God. Each name revealed something important about God’s character. He wasn’t just addressed as God. He was Creator God and they professed thanks to Elohim; He was God Most High and they humbled themselves before El Elyon. He was God Almighty and they praised El Shaddai.[iii] Faithful Hebrew people found one word was inadequate in describing the many qualities of their provider and their relationship with Him. They selected appropriate words as needed—words which reverently reflected their view of God’s sovereignty, omniscience, and love in precisely the way intended.[iv]  Although not everyone will identify with these ancient terms of endearment, I’m certain that God is still adored by many present-day believers with these highly expressive names.

So how does a modern writer figure out which word is best for his given situation? Experience, education, and intuition are part of the answer, and I believe that a good dictionary and thesaurus are essential tools for the author’s toolbox.

DWV word choice articleOne of my favorites is a double volume Webster’s dictionary published in 1951. I bought it secondhand. The burgundy binding appears to be leather, but it’s so worn I can see threads of fabric beneath. It smells a little musty. The spine of volume II has suffered and is a little loose. It’s possible that someone dropped it or simply overused the extra features in the back of the book, where little tabs with descriptive labels are so hard to read that they are no longer useful in identifying the subject matter lying beneath. My treasured reference book simply looks old and feels old. There’s even an image of gray haired Mr. Webster tucked opposite the title page. The whole thing is wonderfully frail, and I appreciate the ambiance and feel that go along with opening the cover and delicately turning the pages.

For DWV articleSince I’ve known Noah Webster all of my adult life, I can’t seem to bring myself to recommend any other dictionary source (although many other good options, including convenient smart-phone apps, do exist). I won’t give up my hardbound set, but I have to say that I most often use the free online version available at Merriam Webster. There you will find expected features, such as spelling, definitions, and synonyms, and some additional perks not available in printed versions.

Interesting online features allow you to answer quizzes, play games, test your vocabulary skills and view video tips addressing common language and writing issues. “The Awkward Case of ‘His or Her’” takes a look at a popular, long-standing dilemma. I also recommend “Ghost Word” to those of you who would like to learn about a non-word that made its way into a 1934 edition of the Webster’s dictionary.

A thesaurus is part of the online site also. It’s extremely helpful during the final stages of your writing, when you’re revising. Look over your manuscript and identify words that you’ve repeated. Don’t tire the reader with redundancy–engage him by finding other terms that describe the same thing. With just a click of your mouse and a few taps at the keyboard, you instantly discover new, more interesting ways to express yourself. The online method is so quick, I have to concede: it negates the “Easiest to use!”[v] marketing claim emblazoned on my 1989 paper thesaurus.

In the creative process, don’t work so hard at being original that you end up compromising your voice. Pick words that you are familiar with and that sound natural to you. Your choice should reflect your personality and reveal subtle information about yourself to the reader. For instance, by reading this article, you should be able to tell that I greatly respect Noah Webster’s legacy.

So whether you prefer books that you can physically rummage through or you enjoy the ease of using electronic tools, make sure you have good reference materials on hand. Then, when you want to entertain your readers with extra pizzazz, you can find the perfect word.

Notes


[i] “Understanding Bullying,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013 Fact Sheet, Atlanta, 10 April 2014 <http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullyingfactsheet2014-a.pdf.pdf>

[ii] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus, 10 April 2014 <http://www.merriamwebster.com>.

[iii] Michal E. Hunt, “The Many Names of God,” 2003 AgabeBibleStudy.com, 10 April 2014 http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/documents/the%20many%20names%20of%20god.htm>.

[iv] Beth Moore, The Patriarchs: Encountering the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (2005; Nashville: LifeWay Press, 2006) 11-39.

[v] The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus (Springfield: Merriam-Webster Inc, 1989) spine.

Fig1: Noah Webster, image from Harold Whitehall, ed., Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1951) frontispiece.

Apr 14

Potty Mouth

Last November, one of my favorite cozy mystery authors, Ali Brandon, who writes the Black Cat Bookshop Mysteries series, blogged about her characters’ reluctance to use bathrooms. (Check out her blog here.) If you think about it, you don’t read about characters using the facilities. You don’t see this often on TV either. I mean how many times did Jack Bauer go during the 24 hours he spent saving the world?

Ever wonder why that is? After all, it’s perfectly normal to have to use the restroom. Considering how much coffee, baked goods, dinner, and alcohol are consumed by cozy characters, Ali Brandon points out that there’s no reason why an author can’t include a bathroom trip or two in her story as long as it doesn’t slow down the action.

During our last Deadwood Writers holiday dinner, a very nice lady asked me about my day job. I was happy to answer that I’m a janitor for a professional cleaning company and I currently clean at an institute of higher education. Then she asked me if I had learned anything from my job that I could apply to my writing. Hmm . . . how to answer that question, considering we were at dinner, and the biggest lesson I had learned was how gross people can be. My coworkers and I were constantly picking up half-empty beverage bottles, paper towels, discarded pens, and those little pieces that students tear off the edges of paper that’s been ripped out of spiral bound notebooks.

But the most disgusting thing I learned while doing my job is that a lot of people have absolutely no concept of restroom manners–I mean the basic things we were all taught during potty training. Things like flushing the toilet or urinal, washing your hands, and throwing your trash in the trashcan have literally gone by the wayside.

These activities are social mores we learned at a young age. They are not optional. Have you ever heard a mother tell her child, “You can skip washing your hands. Nothing bad will happen”? No. How about, “Don’t bother flushing the toilet. The next person will get it”? No.

That’s why I don’t understand how people can leave a bathroom stall in such dire straits. If they tried leaving such messes at home, their mothers would knock them into next Tuesday. Wives would turn husbands out of their bedrooms for some of the infractions I’ve seen. Bathrooms across the metro area would ring out with admonitions like: “Were you born in a barn?”; “Didn’t I teach you better than that?”; “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred thousand times. . . .”

So writers, what does this mean for you and me? Pundits advise us to make our characters believable. I’m here to tell you that a believable character not only uses the restroom, but he or she leaves evidence of the visit behind. Either the facilities are just as clean, or cleaner, as they were when the user entered; or sometimes, the floor, seat and/or bowl is covered with biohazardous material. And believe me, you can’t get more graphic or gross than what I’ve seen in real life.

Take the potty break as an opportunity to reveal your character’s true self. After using the restroom and washing up, your character grabs a soap-covered paper towel and cleans the seat, handle, stall door lock, and the faucets. Why? Is he obsessive-compulsive? Is he getting rid of fingerprints–or DNA? Does your character have a disease that’s spread through contact with biological material which he hopes to contain? Is he a twisted bioterrorist spreading infected blood or urine throughout the bathroom instead of cleaning it?

Don’t forget the humorous aspect of bathroom use. A fish-out-of-water character, who is unfamiliar with motion-controlled facilities at an upscale restaurant or hotel, might do battle with the auto-flush toilet, or the self-dispensing hand soap. And if you write for middle grade readers, you can get away with a lot in the name of potty humor. Just ask Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park.

So don’t fear leading your character into the bathroom, just be sure to put the seat down when you’re done.

Apr 11

Paranormal Traits

A trait is a distinguishing characteristic or quality, especially of one’s personal nature, defined by Dictionary.com. When using traits with a paranormal twist you can go with classic takes, such as mind to mind communication that Bram Stoker uses in Dracula and, one of the most common vampire traits, the elongated fangs. Stoker takes Dracula’s desire to speak to Mina enhancing it into a physical experience in mind and body transcending all logic, creating intimacy where there was none.

Taking things a step further, let’s look at the Argeneau Series by Lynsay Sands. The mind to mind communication in Sands vampires (Immortals as she calls them) becomes sexually charged as the heroes and heroines learn they are life mates. They share each other’s pleasure to a point their intimacy boils to such a peak they pass out, anywhere. She’s created a situation where she uses all the five senses, smell, sight, sound, taste, and touch. However, what happens goes beyond the physical and becomes a sharing between the two characters on a mental level. With humans, to the extent she explains, this would not be possible in real life. This adds something to her vampires that no one had ever seen yet in the genre.

Conflict develops when the no-fangers, vampires without fangs come on the scene. Let’s just say, they’re a tad bit crazy. To make it even more fun she adds a third type without fangs called edentates, another generation not touched by the crazies. She goes into detail about the three distinctions adding history to the series and to her characters. These are some of the steamiest, funniest, and scariest scenes I’ve ever read. Lynsay Sands uses the physical trait to drive the plot arc in several of her books, motivating good and evil in a race to meet their goals.

My favorite character trait is smell. With most predators, smell is a basic tool in their repertoire. J.R. Ward uses the trait brilliantly in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Introduced first in Dark Lover, Wrath and Beth meet, and at first, Wrath is lead to her by duty. However, when he gets near her, her scent is so intoxicating he has to have her. Eventually Beth can’t resist him either. His scent is headier than a spicy merlot laden with pheromones. He’s like a drug and she’s drawn to him in every way. As intimacy grows, the musky scent cloaks the chosen mate of the vampire, warning any other males or females to back off. With this one trait, J.R. Ward creates some sexy heart pounding moments in and out of the bedroom.

Werewolves, another classic paranormal creature, can also compel readers with the use of unique traits. For example, take a snap shot of the wolf in its normal habitat and find traits that translate into the human hero or heroine. Nalini Singh does this in her Psy/Changeling series. Ask yourself, how does a male wolf act/react to a female wolf? Outside forces threaten the female, how would the alpha wolf handle the threat? Immerse yourself in the five senses of a wolf. What would he do around a female to show his interest? Would he rub, lick, or bite the female to mark her with his scent? Even the words rub, lick, and bite spice up a scene, heating up the romance between human characters. How would it enhance a paranormal romance? Would he use sound, his howl to attract a female or scare away an enemy, let someone know he was hurt? How do these questions translate from wolf to human characters? Does the alpha male fight other males to stake his claim of the female? Is the human hearing extra sensitive alongside sight, smell, taste, and touch?

My examples above of vampires and werewolves are not the only human traits to translate into paranormal characters; the two are just more widely recognized. You decide what traits work best for your characters helping create intensity, intimacy, and excitement that ramp up your plot, compelling readers to turn pages. Use the five senses and physical traits to open doors in your mind. But be careful. The traits you decide on have to have purpose that drive the story forward, twisting the normal into paranormal.

Happy Writing!