Mental images: zombies and coffee

Good, strong writing is found all in the presentation.  Consider the images that come to your mind when you read the following sentence: She was a zombie in need of more K-Cups.

So, what does that refer to?

Right now, you may be floundering and drowning in a sea of possibilities.  You need context to anchor your thoughts.  What should you be thinking of?

Figuratively, that sentence could describe a human female who cannot function without that first morning cup of coffee.  Literally, it could mean that a reanimated female creature drinks coffee and is running low on the packets.

Either way, the writer has set up the scene with specific, descriptive words about setting and circumstance.  Human or supernatural, your female character is of a certain social status to prefer the disposable, single-serve packets used in a Keurig brewer.

Let’s not forget the implied tension.  What if either one of them runs out of the single-serve packets?

Certainly, the story subject matter material is crucial to the events that happen next.  However, without any specific framework, your mind still generated images, thoughts, or presumptions about what that sentence means.  The presentation of that one sentence was strong, just strong enough to engage the reader and yet give freedom to create his or her own specific image.  After all, what does the female look like: blonde or brunette, or is her hair matted and covered in mud?  Is her skin dark or light, green or blue?

You want to choose the right nouns , words that create dancing images in the readers mind to solve the puzzle of the author’s intent.  If done well, the descriptions keep the story moving forward and the reader interested and engaged.  Are you intrigued?

If you’ve read this far, then you are and I did my job.  This is how inviting your writing should be.  What kind of images do you want to create for your readers?

How do you do this, find colorful language words to express nuances?  Start with a basic word and look to thesaurus or dictionary.  Typing the word “zombie,” an online thesaurus gives synonyms and antonyms for “odd person,” “ghost,” and “machine.”  Various dictionaries define a zombie as, among other things, a supernatural spirit inhabiting a dead body; a snake god; a tired, apathetic human; a spicy rum drink; and a computer virus.  Think of what other magic you’ll find typing in a different word.

Consider colloquial slang.  At some point zombie came to mean a lethargic person.  The word “shorty” now refers to clothing, cookies and an often-derogatory term for women.  What words can you mesh into new meanings?

You can also create your own connection.  It’s easier to take liberties in fiction and fantasy by the nature of creating a new world with your own rules, but nonfiction benefits from it.  That’s how I wrote the zombie sentence, with a human in mind.  It’s much more exciting than writing The tired woman had no more coffee. It also creates images that are more vibrant.

After writing it, I wondered, what if she was waking up in a post-apocalyptic world?

What does a sleepy zombie look like to you?

What Happens in Vegas, Doesn’t Have to Stay in Vegas

Timing is interesting. Just before our meeting at Barnes and Noble was to begin, my writers’ group was interrupted by an adorable boy who was obviously young enough to be an elementary school student, maybe about seven years old. He held his arms straight down at his sides as he stood tall and still, almost at attention, just outside our circle of chairs. Adorned in a dark-colored dress shirt and slacks, he looked like a miniature version of a suit and tie guy on business casual Friday. This young entrepreneur didn’t waste time on pleasantries or even smiling. He had a very serious look upon his face as he spoke clearly and loudly. I listened as he rushed through a well-practiced, robotic-sounding speech and asked us to donate five dollars for a Mrs. Fields cookie. The money would help him travel from Michigan to Washington, D.C. where he would visit the nation’s capital with his school.

Despite the formality, he was cute as could be. I compared him to my own boys, now young men, who used to get dressed up (at my insistence) for church and significant occasions. Neat and tidy, clean and respectable, he was dressed for success. The innocent youthfulness of this child was persuasive enough to cause several of us to waver as we tried to determine if we had any cash on hand. One verbally acknowledged what some of the rest were thinking: five dollars for one cookie was a lot (unless it happened to be really big).

That’s when a young adult woman stepped forward from a nearby aisle. I hadn’t noticed her until that moment, but it made sense that the boy wouldn’t have been there alone. She pulled a cookie out from the purse she was holding and restated the need for our help in sending the boy to DC with his class at school. Was she his older sister or his mother? I sized her up based upon her appearance, her voice, her request. The two didn’t really look very much alike. I remembered that my own children didn’t go to our nation’s capital with their school until they were in eighth grade.

Her intrusion into the exchange had made me uncomfortable. Because she was hiding the cookies, I was confident that the bookstore management didn’t know the two were working their way through its customers. I wasn’t sure if the money would ever help that little boy. How would it really be used? Had this woman just engineered a very good way of soliciting? I wanted to ask questions of the pair and caution the other writers, but I felt like such a scrooge and I certainly didn’t want to appear like one.

I had a good reason to be skeptical. Years before, my husband and I helped a stranger at a service plaza along the Ohio Turnpike. The stranger claimed he had left his wallet behind as he rushed out from home to drive to a hospital where his daughter was giving birth to her first baby. He had run out of gas and needed money to fill his tank before he could continue the drive. I was at that rest stop long enough to witness the man hand over our $20 donation to a female companion, who then went shopping inside the plaza and came out with a newly purchased video to watch in their gas-tank-empty car as the not-so-much-in-a-hurry-anymore man continued to ransack the parking lot.

Based upon that experience, with the boy standing before me at the bookstore, suspicions flowed freely through my mind. I found an easy way to avoid the conflict going on between my cynical thoughts and my interest in helping the child reach his goal. Since I didn’t carry cash on me that night, there was no way I could have contributed to his trip even if I had become convinced of his sincerity. Instead, I sat and watched as several writers each traded their money for an over-priced cookie. The woman and boy left, and I felt relieved that the confrontation was over.KellyDeadwood-20146June-VegasPhoto

Two days later I left for Las Vegas, Nevada. Popular entertainers, including Britney Spears, Celine Dion, and Rod Stewart, commanded hundreds of dollars for good seating at their shows. Their performances took place inside richly ordained, tall and extravagant buildings set along streets lined with lowly panhandlers, who had positioned themselves (somewhat strategically) amidst bustling crowds. Bachelors out to party, girls on their nights out, married couples hoping to reconnect, singles looking for excitement, business professionals, mothers, fathers, families with children, and now I walked by the homeless.

First I saw a thin, unshaven, dirty man about my age, sitting on the edge of the sidewalk in his work clothes: a gray hoodie and jeans. The same clothes, I presume, he wore to sleep in. Video advertisements towered above us on the sides of The Mirage. The bold efforts to entice passersby to spend money were in sharp contrast to the small 10” x 12” cardboard sign this frail man held in one hand as a cigarette dangled from his rotten, tobacco stained teeth. My first reaction was to look away, but instead I stole a quick glance at what the sign said: “Need money for weed.” I’d been in Sin City before, but this was the first time I wondered whether a marketing exec had developed a new business plan for one of the locals. I couldn’t help but smile at the creative ploy. The man saw my expression and thought it gave him the opening he needed. He asked, “Hey, where ya goin’? Got any spare change?”

I didn’t want to talk to him or address his need, so I quickly continued on. I passed several more casinos, restaurants and hotels before I came across another homeless man, sitting opposite an escalator that led to a busy McDonald’s. He was in between two other men; all were smiling and laughing with one another. (Perhaps the location was lucrative.) This man held the top of a large 3’ x 4’ cardboard sign which was resting on the ground in front of him. On it was written the same proclamation I had recently seen: “Need money for weed.”

The writer in me wondered who plagiarized whom. Would there be a fight between the two at some point because one was profiting from another’s creativity and hadn’t given credit where credit was due?

I overheard a woman’s reaction to seeing the larger sign. She didn’t just smile. She burst out laughing and pointed the sign out to the man she was with. They talked about the “truth in advertising” approach to begging and seemed as impressed as I had been when I first spotted the novel way to pander. It made us take notice. For a fleeting moment, we actually paid attention to the plight of these destitute individuals.

The awareness spurred serious thinking within me. Do I or don’t I spare a little something? Do I really help someone by giving directly to his cause, or am I enabling him to continue a forlorn lifestyle? I found it difficult to decide.

During the next ten minutes of my walk, I encountered a woman who struggled to take care of a handicapped son, a young man who was stranded and needed to get home, a middle-aged man who was being encouraged to “Keep moving!” along the sidewalk of a posh hotel (The Venetian) and another man holding nothing but a plastic cup as he huddled at the base of a highly traveled escalator. Each down-and-out individual brought me closer to giving. They seemed to be in far greater need than the freshly showered salespeople who stood outside store fronts, shoved cards in my face, and slyly forced samples of pricy lotions (that I didn’t want) into my hands.

I passed a woman dressed neatly in a white shirt and jeans. She was holding a bucket and asking for donations to “Help the Homeless.” The permit sticking out of her white container made her look official…but I was once again suspicious. I wondered if the money collected would be used as promised. I thought back to the boy who was selling cookies at Barnes and Noble. Whether or not he and his female guardian were actually fundraising for a trip, I may never know.

So there I was, withholding spare change and scrutinizing the intentions of each beggar I had passed, even that cute little boy back in Michigan. I wondered why some people give so freely and others, like me, have to strictly analyze situations. Yes, too many people knock on my door to try to sell me something. Yes, my phone often rings with incessant telemarketers. Yes, I’ve been taken advantage of by unscrupulous strangers. Admittedly yes, because there is no end in sight to the number of upturned palms that are in need, I am compelled to carefully consider how best to share what God has blessed me with.

He directs Christians like me to “…stop just saying we love people; let us really love them, and show it by our actions” (1 John 3:18 of The Living Bible). Knowing there is widespread poverty means that I can’t ignore the situation. What I offer may seem like just a small drop in a very large bucket, but it’s the least I can do.


Human beings deal with fear every day, be it from external forces or internal pragmatisms. Usually hidden behind a fake smile or a cocky demeanor, it haunts our thoughts and bogs down decisions. Fear affects how we do things, see things, poisoning or strengthening us from the inside out.

Think about this. What happens once fear breaches the surface? The outcome depends on choice. Do we allow this particular poison to spread inward or outward? Or, do we stop it in its tracks? With each of us, the results are about how much we allow the fear to control us. How each of us deals with it is what can change everything. Or, if you’re a writer, it’s how it can change a character.

Paranormal romance novels can carry fear as suspense novels carry tension. Say, for backstory, ghosts or demons start haunting your character as a child entering puberty. What kind of adult did fear create ten years later? Would the incorporeal creature shape a hero or villain as it influences a child surrounded with love? Or is the child without love? In these circumstances, the result pushes either him or her, in most cases, to get help. Sometimes characters respond by dealing with them internally. If they don’t have a good support system, fear of ghosts or demons might result in a negative outcome, possibly causing some kind of psychosis. In walks your villain.

Paranormal romance can also take a fear and turn it into a positive giving enlightenment or sending the hero to rescue the fair maiden. Picture a child surrounded by loving support, she befriends the ghost she originally fears, because children are supposed be scared of what lies in the dark, but as the child grows up, the ghost becomes a safe, constant presence. It warns her of danger or tells her when something bad might happen, acting as a familiar, strengthening her against evil and those that would harm her. In walks your heroine.

External fear is everything else that isn’t inside a person’s head already. Take for example a dark alley. Do you like walking down dark alleys? Not many of us do, but it’s a good way to add fear as it applies to your characters physical reactions.

Imagine a demon, which you can only hear, not see, chasing you down a dark alley. The silence is heavy; the only thing you can hear is your own heartbeat, uneven breaths make your chest itch as you struggle to breathe. With no warning, something crashes behind you, breaking glass shatters the night, and you look back. There’s only darkness and the slapping of your high heels on cracked pavement. The second you turn your head, you trip and fall. In shock, the pain overwhelming, you struggle to get up on cut hands and knees when an icy chill slithers around your leg and up bare skin. What feels like a hand reaches and curls around your neck, tightening, the cold seeping into your flesh, darkening the world to nothing. You gasp for air as another hand, and then another, and another, violates you. You try to scream, but the fingers closing around you won’t allow it. About to die, a cold tongue eliciting a putrid smell licks the line of your jaw, your eyes start to water, the creature loosens its grip, and laughs but you’re the only one who can hear it say, “You’re mine now.”

Pretty creepy, right? How many of the five senses did I use in the scene? Sound, sight, touch, and smell. I didn’t use taste, unless you count the demons wayward tongue. Using the senses adds immediate fear to your characters vision, and you can connect with your readers as they fear for your characters well being.

Fear is part of a characters growth, or decline if that’s your desire, but it’s important that you look at it from both an internal and external point of view. How does it effect and affect the character you’re building? Think about what you want your character to be, a sociopath who hates cops, or a paranormal detective that sees dead people.

Happy Writing!


“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” — Philip Roth

Don’t feel guilty because you have too many works-in-progress with no end in sight. Take a look at your unfinished manuscripts and ask yourself why you can’t complete them.

Afraid your work will be rejected by publishers? Consider the case of Marvin V. Arnett whose memoir was rejected by publishers over 90 times. She decided to put the manuscript away until her family helped self-publish the book. Each chapter stands alone yet threads together a story of urban social history beginning with her birth during the depression and ending with Detroit’s 1943 race riots. Ms. Arnett’s successful book and standing-room-only lectures about Detroit were brought to the attention of the University of Nebraska Press which reprinted the book under the title, Pieces from Life’s Crazy Quilt. The book was required reading in one of their classes.

Afraid you don’t know enough about a particular topic to complete a convincing plot? I admire the persistence of author Heather Buchanan in completing Dark River, a well-crafted book about scandal, love, murder, and a 100 year-old tragedy. Her manuscript was a work-in-progress for ten years as she researched Detroit’s history, rewrote, and finally published her successful novel. The idea for Dark River came when Ms. Buchanan read a Detroit 300 newspaper article which mentioned the first known slave in Detroit. The woman was buried at St. Anne’s Church near the river and Ms. Buchanan imagined what the woman’s story could have been.

Afraid you have too much story for one book? Highly rated romance writer, Karen White Owens, changed her works-in-progress to a multi-book series, several additional novels, a novella, and has recently published two Angels-in-Waiting eBooks, using non-traditional angels to move her heartwarming stories along. The ethereal comings and goings of her angels and their non-typical interplay with humans is surprising.

Are you afraid readers won’t like what you’ve written? You can’t please everyone, but you’ll miss the opportunity to entertain or inform readers if you don’t finish and publish your work.

I’m working on all the above issues. My manuscripts include a want-to-be novel that needs more historical research, a romance with characters whose story seems to never end, and short memoirs that may not interest anyone except my family and perhaps not even them.

After putting aside my writing out of frustration, I realized that Philip Roth was talking about me. My many works-in-progress are going to be my path straight to hell. Care to join me?


Voyaging at the Dawn Treader

When writing non-fiction, there is much from fiction that can be incorporated. Metaphors and storytelling are important tools in such a writer’s toolbox. In what may be a series of pieces about bookstores across the United States, and a few other countries along my travels, I will explore these locations with an eye for using tools that are similar to writing fiction. I hope you share this journey. Please share your favorite bookstores in the comments section. If I pass through your area, I’ll visit, and bring the experience to this blog… John McCarthy

DT Sidewalk

The Dawn Treader is one of those ports of call that from the outside appears to be a typical storefront. Bookshelves line the sidewalk in front with the bargain books for a dollar or less. All are used or well loved in usage depending on your view point. Like any seafaring ship, you must enter to find the treasure inside. And oh what plunder there is to be gained.

On first setting foot inside, I’m reminded of the time I took my son on a sleepover in a submarine. For such a small vessel, the inside was packed with compartments that, had I’d not known better, I’d think the sub was much larger from the outside. The same illusion occurs on first entering the Dawn Treader. The store entrance is spacious and open–that is if you consider a 6’ by 10 foot area surrounded by bookshelves as open. On the left is the cash register with stacks of books on the floor and desk, siren’s temptation that calls to you when making a purchase—“buy me, just one more book.” There are a few shallow steps up into what can only be described as narrow winding passageways of shelves filled with books. The different paths take you deep into the store–more so than one would believe could be the capacity from the view outside of the store front.

DT pathway

Antiquities to contemporary books pack the shelves. Along one passage there is a cart of mystery and suspense novels that are all signed by the authors. On this sojourn, I found two such treasures, King of the Corner by Loren D. Estelman and The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer–both 1st editions & 1st printings.

DT signed

At the furthest depths of the store the “passageway” opens up into the best collection of Science Thieves WorldFiction/Fantasy that I’ve seen anywhere. It rivals even King Bookstore, a 5 story monolith bookstore in the heart of Detroit. A curving 20-30’ wall contains floor to ceiling shelves of tightly packed hardcovers. Three rows of 2 sets of bookshelves, also floor to ceiling, are tightly packed with paperbacks. Many decades are well represented by great stories, such as the 1970s. I uncovered original paperbacks from classic, and still incredible series, such as Thieves’ World, Conan, and the original Star Trek.

DT tall shelves

Part of lore for the magical world of the Fey is that time spent there does not measure in the same way as the mortal world. Time exploring the “decks” of the Dawn Treader is the same. Beware of entering the store, thinking you have ten minutes to kill, as an hour will pass when next you leave the premises. Enter if you dare.

DT WindowDawn Treader – Established since 1992 (per website)

514 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor, MI 48104

(734) 995-1008
11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday,
11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday,
11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.