The Wearing of Beards

In my childhood I don’t think I ever saw a man with a beard, other than “Santa Claus.” Yeah, this dates me. Pre-1960. Hippies with long straggly beards and hair, worn in rebellion against the Establishment, didn’t come to Canada until I was in my teens.

Beatniks there were, but they hung out in far-off American cities, so I had very little idea about their appearance. My dad and his friends, of average Canadian farm folk background, would have considered a beard a disgrace to a man — an odd reversal of natural circumstance. Older men we’ve talked with, whose memories go back to small-town life in the 30s and 40’s, remember beards being ridiculed and young men who wore them being tormented.

When I did hear the word when I was young, it was usually associated with mumbling. If she couldn’t hear his reply, Mom might say, “Dad’s mumbling in his beard again.” I think they even accused me of mumbling into my beard a time or two. I suppose that’s a cliche now?

In my teens I did see some older men with beards, and decided that a neatly-trimmed beard or goatee looks quite distinguished.

Today, in contrast, beards seem to be everywhere. Or “shadow beards.” Look at book covers and magazines: most of the males I see have the three-day-stubble look; some might have a neatly trimmed beard. But clean-shaven men seem to be in the minority in photos. Plus, Amish romances are very popular; on those covers, beards are a given.

As an adult, starting to learn about church and religion, I discovered there’s a Bible-based reason for men wearing beards. Different religious groups (including the one we’ve joined) teach that this natural male-female distinction has been instituted by our Creator for a reason and men should maintain this natural order. This would include Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Muslims, the Amish, several Mennonite groups, Old German Baptists and others I’m not familiar with.

Jewish and Christian groups refer back to the Mosaic law where “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” (Leviticus 19:27) Some Jewish groups take this “corners” to mean “sideburns,” so they let theirs grow into what looks like long ringlets.

The Amish take it to mean, don’t trim your beard at all. However, coming from Europe where army officers had a lot of pride in their elaborate moustaches, the Amish have rejected moustaches as vanity. So, while Amish men have beards, they don’t wear moustaches. Looking at images on Wikki, I see the Old Order German Baptists must share this thinking. Both groups do cut their hair, but more in the style of the Quakers. (When they came to America and settled in Pennsylvania the Amish adopted a lot of the Quaker styles, like the broad-brimmed hat and plain coat.)

Our church believes “the beard” is a symbol of the sexual distinction, one that should not be removed. However, we aren’t living under the Mosaic Law now, so the Church doesn’t take this “not marring” as a rigid law. Our men believe in being all-round neat, and trim their hair and beards to look tidy.

And thus ends my quick overview in response to Fandango’s word for today: BEARD

When Two Adjectives Go Walking…

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve spent a fair bit of time this past week over at Critique Circle reading and commenting on various stories posted there. Of course this brings thoughts about improving one’s writing — which will now spill into this post.

I’ve posted my own story and gotten seven critiques. WONDERFUL! Being critiqued has been good for me. For one thing, I’ve had to go back to grammar books and other published authors to study up on the acceptable use of commas. Tricky little things. When it comes to separating clauses, there seems to be no uniform rule of, “Yes, one here,” or “No, none there.”

One of the things I often note in my critiques is the overuse and/or duplication of adjectives. Some genres tolerate more descriptive adjectives than others, but I do like the advice I once heard from some well known writer:
“Imagine you’re buying your story words for $1 each. You won’t want to buy more than you need.”

If you had to pay for words, you’d want to make sure each word is doing its job. You won’t want to pay for a bunch that need others to lean against because they don’t say enough on their own.

Mark Twain: “When you see an adjective, kill it.”

I’ve modified this bloodthirsty ink-thirsty version and adopted this maxim:
“When two adjectives go walking, flatten one.”
A little less gruesome, don’t you think?

Last year my husband enrolled in the Jerry Jenkins School of Writing and we both benefited from his lessons on “Becoming a Ferocious Self-Editor.” He gives demonstrations along with explanations, taking the first page of someone’s story and hacking it to pieces showing how it can be tightened.

When it comes to adjectives, he quotes another writing guru — sorry, I forget who — saying: “One plus one equals one-half.”
The idea being: when you use two adjectives, you weaken the effectiveness of both. Choose the most powerful and cut the other.

For example: The neat, tidy little cottage sat at the edge of a tenebrous, spooky forest.
I’d go with tidy, which means neat. A cottage is automatically little, so cut that, too.
Tenebrous means dark or murky — and dark murky places usually are spooky. Spooky places are usually dark and shadowy. Pick one or the other — preferably the one most people will understand.

Tom was a pompous, dictatorial boss who loved nothing better than ordering his cowering underlings around.
Dictatorial means ordering others around. Don’t throw this word away, though. Chances are, it will fit in nicely elsewhere.

Raiva was a loquacious chatterbox, always running on at the mouth.”
Here you have not only and adjective repeating the noun, but an adverb clause saying the same thing.
I’ve cut loquacious. Erudites like big, fancy words but the average reader may get a bit (cut qualifiers, too) ticked off if they have to stop and look up loquacious in the dictionary. A few fancies may be okay, but don’t make a practice of throwing in humongous, supposedly-impressive words.

I just read a piece which included the word pulchritudinous. My first thought was “ornery” but I decided to look it up and be sure. According to vocabulary.com:
“Even though it looks (and sounds) like it would describe a disease or a bad attitude, pulchritudinous actually describes a person of breathtaking, heartbreaking…beauty.”

Most readers will guess. They’ll read “Joe had a contentious nature.” And they’ll think, hmm… Sounds like content. Must be Joe’s easy-going.” If you do use an unusual word, give the reader a clue in the context.

But I digress. Let’s get back to Raiva the blab. Cutting the excess, all we have left is, She was a chatterbox. Or, Raiva was always running off at the mouth.

Instead of telling this fact, we could show it like so:
Pam and Bev sat in Bev’s living room drinking coffee when they saw Raiva coming to the door.
Pam nudged Bev’s arm and said, “Here comes Miss Mouthpiece.”
Bev rolled her eyes. “Gossip, her specialty.”
(Or, “Advice her specialty,” depending on which impression you want to convey. And check if it needs a comma after Advice. Or not?)

Rectitude & Security

The Word of the Day prompt this morning is RECTITUDE

This is one of those words I’ve known and seen often over the years. A fine word, but far enough out of my normal realm of speech that I wanted to look it up before I start writing.

Nelson-Gage Canadian Dictionary says:
1) Upright conduct or character; honesty; righteousness
2) Correctness, especially of judgement, procedure, etc.

Rectitude may sound like a rigid, stuffy word but, in reality, our society functions on the principles of rectitude. The economy ceases to function, lives are put in danger, and relationships break down when people stop being honest, careful, or correct.

People may make fun of folks who are “a stickler for rules.”
They may say, “It’s not such a big deal to cut corners. Everyone does it.”
They may think, “Being that hung up on honesty is so old-fashioned!”
Or, “If it feels good, do it.”

But this nonchalance is a bit hypocritical. Where it REALLY counts, we all demand integrity.

For example, would you mind very much if your bank teller takes a rough guess when adding up your balance? If you comment on the discrepancy — after your cheque bounces — and she says, “So what if I was out a few dollars,” will you say, “No, that’s fine.”

What if you‘re on the operating table being prepped for the bi-pass that will save your life and your surgeon leans over you and says, “I’m going to take a stab at it, but I have to admit I had other issues going on so I skipped out on the classes where we learned how to do heart surgery?”

My mind goes back to a young girl I worked with for a time. She was cheerful, a good worker, and ready to agree to whatever you asked — but commitment meant nothing to her. I observed this on several occasions. For one thing, she promised to join me and help out at a charity function. Totally agreeable to do it, but when the day came she never showed.

Even the commitment to be at work wasn’t always a priority. One day our boss at the Doughnut Shop had to call someone else in to work because this girl hadn’t showed up. Her excuse later was, “I’d promised to drive my aunt to Yorkton this morning.” (A small city three hours away.)

Having developed this attitude/lifestyle, I wondered how seriously she’d take car payments, a marriage commitment, family obligations?

Over the years I’ve seen that even people who are quite indifferent about honesty and integrity still expect this discipline in others. One acquaintance who thinks nothing of bending the truth or telling an outright lie if it’s convenient, gets furious if she finds out someone has lied to her.

People who cut corners themselves still go to a doctor and expect a thorough exam and an accurate diagnosis, not some nonchalant guess as to what may be the problem. They expect their optometrist will give them the right prescription for glasses and their dentist will fill the right tooth. They count on the pilot of their plane to follow all the safety guidelines and not just head out without proper clearance, hoping for the best.

As easy-going as she was in her commitments, my co-worker would have been furious if she’d had to stand at a bus stop for an hour in the rain because the bus driver decided to stop in and visit his mother on the way to work. Or if she’d been flying to Toronto and ended up in Edmonton because the pilot felt like going there instead.

Most of us go to work and we do our job to the best of our ability because other people depend on us, not just our bosses but the consumers of what we produce.Try telling a reader that a few dozen spelling errors and typos should be okay in a book—and see what he says.

In countries where people aren’t very conscientious and cut corners to save themselves a buck or two, some stress comes up and the lack of integrity costs lives. In Haiti, for example, builders who used poor quality rebar and cement, saw their buildings pancake when the earthquake hit. People were trapped and crushed to death because of poor quality materials.

Even if we don’t like them, most of us understand the importance of specs. We don’t steal because we’ve grasped a basic principle: “What goes around comes around” and we don’t want to be stolen from. We’re honest with others because we want them to be honest with us, and trust us. If we find out someone isn’t honest or trustworthy, we soon limit our contact with them.

There is a certain sowing and reaping going on in this world. I’ve lived long enough to see people receive a fitting reward for their actions.

In one place Jesus touched on the matter with these words:

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Galatians 6:7

Rectitude. Personal integrity. Honesty. Commitment. Carefulness. Old-fashioned virtues that make our society a safe and secure place to live. And they will for hundreds of years to come — if we can pass them on to the next generation.

Writing Prompt Sources

Like so many of you, I read the announcement last week that WordPress is discontinuing some of its regular features, including its Daily Prompts on May 31st. I haven’t been using their one-word prompts for a long time; nevertheless, this announcement sparked my curiosity. I decided to have a look at how many other sites on the net offer writing prompts.

Hello Mr Google… WOW! I could write a story a day for a hundred years with what’s available out there.

Some sites are maintained by publishers like Writer’s Digest. Some are blogs by published authors like Graeme Shimmin and John Matthew Fox. (For your convenience I’ve put their links at the bottom of my sidebar under Writing Help)

Searching specifically, you can find random first line generators, random plot generators, random character generators, movie script generators. There are prompt sources for teachers, for students, for songwriters. There’s one titled, “Twenty-one writing prompts to help you finish an entire novel this summer.” There’s even “80 Letter-writing prompts” from Compassion International.

Just for curiosity I clicked on THIS ONE and generated a random set of ideas; you can click the buttons and come up with a story line that suits your fancy. Much like WriterIgniter, a site I’ve used before.

Just for fun I clicked the buttons and this is what I came up with:
MC: A young man in his late teens who is very wise
2nd character: A woman in her late thirties who is very lively
Setting: The story begins in a nursing home.
Situation: something precious has been lost
Theme: It’s a story about justice
Character action: MC reluctantly becomes involved

This combination called to mind a real happening, back when I worked in a seniors’ home. Something precious really did go missing. I don’t know if the truth was ever revealed, so I’ll have to fake it. Stay tuned for my tale — with details changed to protect the guilty. 🙂

The Daily Post also has a free e-book of writing prompts that can be downloaded as a pdf. Get it HERE.

When I go to Amazon.ca and do a Writing Prompts search, again I’m bowled over by the 84 pages of books containing writing prompts — and I see a lot of these are “Read Free with Kindle Unlimited.”

The down-side of picking a prompt at random instead of using a central source like Daily Post Prompts is lack of the sense of community. You’re on your own; there aren’t hundreds of people using the same word or photo. For those of you currently connecting via the Daily Post will you miss this? Will you try another community like The Write Practice (link in side bar) or one of the various Flash Fiction groups going?

And for anyone reading this post, what writing prompts sources have you found useful?

Negative Self-Talk. Delete, Delete, Delete

A Reader’s Opinion

While I’ve been laid low with back problems this week, I took the opportunity to read a novel by P G Wodehouse. Like all his novels, Jill the Reckless is a great story! Six stars out of five. The author has created a memorable cast of characters and, like Agatha Christie, has such a delightful way with words and phrases.

Writers like D E Stevenson, Wodehouse, Sayers, Christie, etc., used strong story lines and an interesting cast of minor characters to showcase their heroes. There was a STORY in their story. Even in tales with a romance woven in, the overall focus was as much on the main character’s triumph over adverse circumstances as on their relationships.

Have modern genre formulas become like a corset, rigidly holding writers to a specific shape deemed to be attractive in our day? Stories tend to be so focused on the conflict between the two love interests. Furious outbursts, insecure characters full of negative self-talk, a lot of internal dialogue use up word count without adding variety. I read one novel awhile back where I’d estimate 75% of the word count was spent on the MC’s conversations with himself — basically why she’d never have him anyway so forget it.

I find almost no negative self-talk in those older novels. Miss Marple doesn’t constantly berate herself for snooping. Lord Peter may babble about his silly curiosity but the writer doesn’t devote long paragraphs to his self-chastisement. Wodehouse’s characters act and react in a lively way; they spend little time mentally rehashing their own actions and reactions.

In real life negative self-talk is usually destructive. It’s the devil on our shoulder that berates us for how we are without giving us any power to change. Sometimes we do need to admit faults and make changes, but negative self-talk rather tends to paralyze.

So, in our age of promoting self-esteem and ridding ourselves of guilt, why do we allow our book characters to indulge in so much self-criticism? Do readers really find it that appealing?

Imagine yourself standing in a long supermarket checkout line and striking up a conversation with the customer in front of you. You notice she has two boxes of Exquisite Caramel Ice Cream. You’re quite fond of it yourself. You say so, and she replies:

“I really shouldn’t be buying this. I know it’s not the best for me; it’ll only go to my hips and I really should lose weight. I can hardly resist the delicious taste but I know I shouldn’t indulge and it’s so foolish of me to be buying it. My best friend’s brother’s such a hunk and I wish some romance would take off between us but he makes fun of me for eating it and says I’m turning into a dumpling. Well I don’t like him anyway. But still, even if the taste is exquisite and I can hardly resist, I am just getting fat eating it every day. What kind of a wimp am I? I need to develop some backbone and not ever touch the stuff again. But then I might as well eat because no guy’s ever going to look at me anyway.”

Worse luck, every few days you visit that same supermarket, stand in line beside the Exquisite Caramel Ice Cream addict, with another two boxes in her cart, and hear her recite her insecurities again.

Welcome to the modern novel. No, not all. But too many. Recently read another one myself.

Let’s say you’ve been asked to edit some current book — your choice. So you open it in a new window, start at Chapter Two and delete all the negative self-talk. How much will be left?

Can you fill in those gaps with ACTION? An outside CRISIS they must deal with? Other issues going on apart from main character blow-ups. Maybe leave just a phrase here and there to let the reader know those feelings are still in the background. Once in every  chapter is often enough, IMO.

Can you add some ENVIRONMENT? In one story I read, the female MC and her parents had joined a wagon train. Though they would have been crossing amazing new territory, scenic description was scant. (Saves research, I guess.) Pages were filled with how she was attracted to/ couldn’t let herself fall for/ the scout or he was attracted to/ couldn’t let himself fall for/ her.

What about adding a new CHARACTER? A jolly old auntie or uncle to give readers a break from the intense focus on the lovers’ spats. Wodehouse added the smooth-talking, conniving Uncle Chris who squandered Jill’s inheritance in poor stock market investments, but was always ready to fleece some new lamb. The author devotes some paragraphs to Jill’s assessment and acceptance of her uncle’s nature and weaknesses; these in turn show Jill’s compassionate nature.

Maybe you could add a nosy neighbor? If the story already has one, write in another and have the two interact with each other and with the main characters. Sprinkle in their WRY COMMENTS ABOUT HUMAN NATURE and each other. Have them play “Pass the Rumor.” Display your hero’s nature in the way they deal with these minor characters.

I believe these subplots are what made novels so memorable and writers so successful in years gone by. As a reader, I’d like to encourage all writers to loosen the constrictions of formula and put more STORY in your stories.

Blogging: Using Categories and Tags

Some time ago I started dropping in on First Friday to meet and greet a few new bloggers. A lot of them are just learning the ropes and open to a little guidance, so I often leave some advice about categories and tags. I’m posting this here today in case these thoughts may help some other newbies and maybe some longtime bloggers who haven’t attached much importance to this angle.

Categories & Tags

…are very useful creatures. You can create them as you publish each post, using the sidebar on the right. Tagging our posts is how we invite other bloggers to check out what we’ve written. For example, if I create a Personal, or an Education, category or tag for my post, it will send my post title and a couple of lines to the Reader. Other bloggers searching for posts on Personal or Education will see mine listed and hopefully come and read what I’ve written.

Note:
WordPress says they allow only fifteen C’s & T’s per post. If there are more, their SPAM detectors will boot the post off the Reader. Like coming to a beach party in tux and tails, golden cuff-links and a flashy silk tie.“Too much is overkill; go home and change.”

Some bloggers use C’s and T’s; some may use only one or the other. It’s up to you. Both go to the Reader. However, categories and tags also become, over time, your blog’s filing system. I wish I’d understood better how they work when I started blogging. In fact, I started a brand new site last year and am slowly reposting all my writing so I can use Cs & Ts properly for each item.

For my own blog, I use Categories as the drawers of my filing cabinet. The big sections: Poetry or Fiction. Then the tags are like files within the drawer. Under Poetry you’ll find tags like: Nature, Seasons, Children, Inspiration, etc. Under the Fiction category you’ll find tags like Travel, Truth, Children, Relationships, etc

Among the Widgets there’s one bloggers can install that puts a list of Categories on your blog’s front page. You can put them in your top menu as I’ve done on this blog, or you can display them in your sidebar. Another option is to install the widget that gives you a Tag Cloud. You can choose how many tags will display.

To each his own, but in my opinion it’s better to limit the number displayed, or choose “Display as a drop-down list,” rather than having a list of seventy-five categories running down your Home Page sidebar. Generally speaking, try to make things as simple as possible for your visitors.

Be selective when choosing C’s & T’s. Pick something pertinent to your post, topics people are actually going to be looking for. “Aunt Sue” may be an intriguing person, but not a very compelling tag for someone who doesn’t even know who YOU are. Ditto with Flowers or My trip. Titling your post Cheap Vacation Spots and tagging it Travel, Adventure, River rafting, Timbuktu would be far more apt to draw visitors than Vacation. The specific English language tag will draw readers more than the general Grammar. For more ideas on what Categories and Tags to choose, check out the Reader:

One Sour Note:
When I first started blogging the tags were much simpler: Articles, Opinions, Home, Family, Religion, Books, etc. Thankfully these tags still show up, but one sad thing I’ve seen in recent years is some sites creating tags with their own (usually advertising) posts. So you get a tag relevant only to purchasers of, say, women’s t-shirts. As one example, right now I see a tag: Baby Bodysuit Designs. It appears that one site selling some of these outfits has published almost 3000 posts — most of them TODAY! Sigh.

Uncategorized Posts

I often see posts listed as Uncategorized. I consider this the waste of a perfectly good tag. Like dropping a luscious ice cream cone in a puddle.

Uncategorized is the default setting that comes with every new blog. It tells no one anything about your post. My advice: get rid of it.

A blogger can change their default by going to the left hand sidebar and selecting Settings. Next you see a screen where, across the center at top are four words:
General, Writing, Discussion, Traffic. Click on Writing
The first line under writing is for Categories. You’ll see how many you have and what the Default is.
Click on the arrow at right. Now you get to add more categories and also change the default to something that better suits your blog’s general theme. I’ve chosen Reflections.
If there’s a Save Changes button somewhere on the screen, hit it. You should be good to go.

And now I shall use as many pertinent categories and tags as possible, and hit publish. 🙂

When Cloud Banks Come Together

June 30, 1912

Citizens of Regina, Saskatchewan, a growing city on the Canadian prairie, sweltered in the sultry 100̊ F afternoon. The flags on display for the Dominion Day celebrations the next day hung limp on their poles. Folks sat on porches fanning themselves, longing for some ripple of breeze.

Some young folks and couples were spending the Sunday afternoon in Wascana park, or padding canoes on Wascana Lake a few blocks south of Regina’s business district. A flock of faithful Anglicans were gathered at St Paul’s Church listening to sermons by their local Bishop and Canon Hicks from London, England. Some women fainted because of the intense heat and humidity in the auditorium.

By mid afternoon storm clouds appeared in the south. Folks watched the cloud banks rolling toward each other, one system coming from the southeast and another from the southwest. At 4:30 pm the clouds were moving rapidly toward a collision. Folks began hearing rumbles of thunder; the sky took on a strange green glow; blue and red lighting bolts flashed along the ground. This phenomena was something prairie folks had never seen before. They had no idea what was coming.

The storm systems crashed into each other over the Saskatchewan Legislative Building beside Wascana Lake. There was a roar like two freight trains overhead and a colossal smoke-colored funnel dropped from the clouds. Packing a 500 mile-an-hour wind, skipping around crazily, the twister plowed a six-block-wide swath of destruction right through town, including the business district.

Reading in the book Great Canadian Disasters, © 1961 by Frank Rasky, one particular paragraph in the “aftermath” caught my eye:
Survivors today, with their varied memories, differ strongly on just about every aspect of the tornado’s aftermath: the degree of the onslaught, whether the government was generous (to victims), …the precise number of people wiped out by the catastrophe.

So true of any major event. Our own experience, our perspective on the scene, our general world-view, our position in society — all these make a lot of difference in how we process what’s going on, and later describe what happened, what helped, what hindered.

I’ve sometimes liken the Women’s Movement forming in the late 1800s to the two storm systems coming together over Regina. They came from different angles, when they united they formed a powerful force, and that force blew apart a lot of the status quo of their day. For better or for worse? Witnesses and historians don’t all agree.

I’d call one group the fore-mothers of the feminist movement as I knew it in the 1960s. Their agenda: universal suffrage; equal rights for women, including equal job opportunities and equal pay.

A lot of these women had graduated from women’s colleges in the Eastern States. They were sick and tired of the taboos of their day and did their best to prove these ideas false. I’ve lost my notes on this, but I recall that a number of these ladies met in Buffalo, NY in the late 1890s to form a group, establish their goals, and decide on a course of action.

Some of the misconceptions of their day were rather ludicrous. When trains were first invented some people raise the objections that women could never ride on a train because if women were to travel at speeds over 30 mph they would go insane, or mad with lust. Some “experts” of their day claimed girls’ educations should be limited to the basics because delicate female minds would shatter if forced to handle difficult mathematic equations. (I’m almost sad we lost that one — I’ve never been that good at math. 🙂 )

Some said physical training for girls was out because strenuous exercise would ruin their bodies and especially affect their ability to bear children. (That group should have rather taken a good look at the long term effect of wearing corsets.)

When you start setting up theories that can be so easily proven wrong, you can count on it that someone’s going to want to knock them down.

The other merging ‘cloud system’ was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. As I’ve already written, this group sprang mainly from a Protestant Evangelical base. They had embraced the ‘Social Gospel’, which basically translates as ‘How Christians should fix the world.’ Their agenda: stable homes; healthy, happy families; reduction of crime; no more war. Each and every one a worthy goal.

As these ladies looked at their society, they concluded that laws were needed to ensure these goals. Thus voters were needed so political pressure could be put on to get those laws passed. Which meant their launching point was getting women the right to vote.

Meanwhile, over in merry old England, feminist suffragettes took a more dramatic approach. Up against a more rigid and long-established social structure, their struggle for the right to vote was long and bitter. They chained themselves to posts, went on hunger strikes, were force-fed.

They also adopted what they referred to as the politics of the broken window pane. Genteel-looking ladies would appear on business streets during a busy afternoon and station themselves in front of store windows. At a given signal they’d pull hammers from large handbags and start swinging. The damage was done before anyone could react and the ladies would make themselves scarce, leaving merchants sobbing.

I don’t know how much the WCTU influenced the women’s movement in Britain but I rather doubt Prohibition was ever a serious goal. In Europe and Britain so many women accepted social drinking and drank socially themselves. Also Protestant Evangelism was never as large or powerful in Europe as it was in North America.

To be continued.