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.


[i] “Understanding Bullying,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013 Fact Sheet, Atlanta, 10 April 2014 <>

[ii] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus, 10 April 2014 <>.

[iii] Michal E. Hunt, “The Many Names of God,” 2003, 10 April 2014>.

[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.

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.

Paranormal Traits

A trait is a distinguishing characteristic or quality, especially of one’s personal nature, defined by 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!

Have No Fear

“Don’t be afraid to fail, be afraid not to try.” Randy Rubin

How many times have you thought about writing a story, poem, essay, or memoir and failed to even try. How many times have you questioned your desire to write and thought, “What’s the use? No one will want to read my work.”

Do you want to write the great American novel or at least a manuscript that you want published? Did you start writing the murder mystery that has kept you intrigued for a couple of years or the steamy romance that makes you need a cold shower? Did you finish your story including the revisions, and then decide that it wasn’t good enough? And then did you put your project away without sending it to an agent? Why? Afraid of failure? If you don’t try, you’ve already failed.

You must learn to ignore those negative thoughts filling your head. Also avoid the naysayers in your life who think your writing is a hobby. Listen to honest critics, not cloying friends and relatives who think everything you write is perfect. Connect with people who can give you helpful feedback on your work. Listen to the suggestions of your critique group, but remember to stay true to your own voice.

If you really want to be a writer, understand that sometimes you may fail to find an agent, fail to sell your work, or fail to win the writing contest. Continue to write your stories because you will improve with practice. But if you do not try, you have failed yourself.

Nathan Hawke: Fantasy lost, Fantasy found

In the United States, if you visit a bookstore’s Fantasy section, urban and contemporary genres are dominant. Kelly Armstrong, Jim Butcher, Simon Green, and Patricia Briggs are some of the authors you’ll find that define fantasy literature. Magic and paranormal races exist in worlds that are familiar to us in interesting and personal ways. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series is based in Chicago where I grew up. Although Butcher does not live in Chicago (as of this post) he does a great job using the city as a base for great storytelling.


The age of sword and sorcery, middle age and ancient world time periods, are not passed, but just explored by a smaller group of authors. Just look at a store’s bookshelves to see what’s present on the real estate. Jennifer Roberson, Tamora Pierce, Brandon Sanderson, George Martin, and R.A. Salvatore offer worlds of wonder, magic, and swordplay that entertains with strong characters and in-depth culture and/or politics.

The fantasy writers that may be on the endangered species list represent the gritty underbelly of the ancient worlds as told by Robert Howard, David Gemmell, and Mary Gentle. Battles are unsanitized, the heroes are not clean spirited individuals who’s actions can go mostly unquestioned as the “right” and “fair” choice. Authors like George Martin have such elements—although his stories fill the need for taking a balcony view of intrigue and governance from mostly the leadership perspective.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 8.45.06 PMNathan Hawke represents the next cohort of authors who picked up the banner from David Gemmell and others to continue to tell the gritty tale of complex heroes whose choices leave the reader unsettled even while accepting the choices made. Nathan Hawke’s Gallow—a 3 book series—uses the motif of the loner warrior who reluctantly takes on the cause of others.

Character Complexity

“Beside him Sarvic turned to run. A Vathan spear reached for him. Gallow chopped it away; and then he was slipping back and the whole line was falling apart and the Vathen were pressing forward, pushed by the ranks behind them, stumbling over the bodies of the fallen. For a moment the dead slowed them. Gallow turned and threw himself away from the Vathan shields. The earth under his feet was slick, ground to mud by the press of boots and watered with blood and sweat. A spear point hit him in the back like a kick from a horse. He staggered and slipped but kept on running as fast as he could. If the blow had pierced his mail he’d find out soon enough. The rest of the Marroc were scattering, fleeing down the back of the hill with the roars of the Vathen right behind. Javelots and stones rained around him but he didn’t look back. Didn’t dare, not yet.”[i]

With this opening in the first book, Nathan Hawke takes readers on a grand and gritty journey with Gallow, a warrior gifted at killing in a shield wall or alone against many. All he wants is to be left alone as a family man and a blacksmith for a community that despises him. Yet his sense of honor drives him along a path that takes him far from home, risking his life and those of others, and making deadly enemies of those he once called friends.

Hawke’s writing style is spare, reminiscent of Hemmingway. If a camera represented his writing craft, it would be tight focus images of people and places, exposing the imperfections and failings—so that no character that moves the stories forward is static or stock. And none are completely good or evil. Cruel men are capable of random acts of kindness, and good characters may commit heinous acts in the name of what they hold dear. Such character complexity effectively engages readers to follow each story line, and wonder at the potential unpredictability. For example, after a battle where Prince Medrin orchestrates the death of one of his generals, Screambreaker, he attends his funeral and speaks genuine words of honor to the dead:

“…the Lhosir stopped what they were doing and honoured the Screambreaker and the dead who’d fallen beside him. [Medrin] let the old ones do that, Tolvis Loudmouth and the rest. Let them start the pyre and, when the pyre was built, put the bodies of those they most wanted to honour on top and set it alight. [Medrin] said a few words himself, because he was their prince after all, then let the old ones who’d fought with the Screambreaker against the Marroc finish speaking him out. The pyre was huge and there probably wasn’t a single Lhosir who hadn’t put a piece of something on it.”[ii]

Prince Medrin enjoys torturing common people and then mutilating their bodies on stakes along roadways for all to see and fear. Yet, he pays honor to a fallen champion who he perceived as a rival. This is Hawke’s gift for character development that also moves the story forward.

Sword and Sorcery

In Nathan Hawke’s world there are ancient artifacts of power such as a red sword that cuts through steel like butter, which can only be effectively blocked by a special shield. There are ghoul dogs that hunt tirelessly in swamps and forests for human flesh. All of these pale to the much feared Shadewalkers:

“When Oribas walked toward the end of the arc of salt, the shadewalker moved with him. It kept moving, stepping gingerly along the line until it found its end and looked up. Its dead face didn’t change but perhaps its eyes gleamed a little brighter as it sensed its victory. It advanced quickly. Addic cried out, turned and ran while Oribas simply stepped over the line of salt to be on the other side. The shadewalker came at him, stopped abruptly at the salt and began to walk along the line again, looking for a way past.”[iii]

Shadewalkers are undying or undead warriors, who are nearly impossible to destroy, unless you have knowledge of the ancients and unshaking courage. The magic does not dominate the story. Hawke uses it judiciously in parts of the story for the greatest impact.

Some would point out that authors like Robert Jordan, George Martin, R.A. Salvatore, Steven Erikson, and Glen Cook also carry the mantel for Sword and Sorcery. All deserve credit for skillful craft in their own right. Of these authors, only Glen Cook comes closest to the grainy side of fantasy in ancient settings that brings alive the starkness of humanity through complex characters. David Gemmell was the leader in this area in recent decades, until his passing.

Last November I visited several bookstores in Sydney Australia. I was immediately struck by the volume of authors who wrote in this genre of Fantasy. Many have yet to land on American shores, but can be found via e-books and places like Abebooks. Perhaps on my personal journey to find more like Nathan Hawke, I will find that the lands to explore are across oceans.[iv] Until then, check out Nathan Hawke’s stories for engaging and powerful author’s craft.

nathan_hawkeUS(As of this posting, Nathan Hawke comes to U.S. Bookstores: BN in Ann Arbor MI)

Next Month: Lead with a Story by Paul Smith

[i] Hawke, Nathan (2013-07-11). Gallow: The Crimson Shield (p. 7). Orion. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Hawke, Nathan (2013-07-11). Gallow: The Crimson Shield (pp. 265-266). Orion. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Hawke, Nathan (2013-08-08). Gallow: Cold Redemption (Kindle Locations 709-713). Orion. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Fantasy listing of books by sub genres: