Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Going Bananas

You like bargains, right? Look around the supermarket, and you’ll discover bananas are among the few good-for-you foods priced under $1.00 per pound.

How good are they? Several sites on the Internet would have you believe they are a miracle fruit. They show a picture of bananas with a few dark spots. The photo’s caption says bananas so marked are better for you than greener ones. It goes on to mention a Japanese study which states the TNF in ripe bananas fights cancer.

Before you grab the last banana from the dining table's fruit bowl, think about what Mother said. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Off I went, hopping along rabbit trails in search of the truth. On Face Book “theunknownbutnot hidden” included the banana claim. If not skeptical to begin with, I certainly was when I discovered a captioned photo of wheatgrass on the same site. That one encouraged me to drink wheatgrass to turn my gray hair to its youthful chestnut brown. Oh, for a fairy godmother! 

Another site,, repeated the banana story. How much credence to you give something found on a site named Funzug?

I continued to look. Who exactly conducted the study? What is the substance TNF? And how many miraculous fruits must you eat to enjoy their wonderful properties?

Hoax or Fact provided a few answers. TNF is an acronym for Tumor Necrosis Factor. The site which says “And yes, you can share this healthy information with everyone,” did not answer all my questions about the subject. It does, however, include positive and negative facts. The article cautions readers against overindulgence: bananas are high in calories and sugar. It also states that overripe fruit loses some of its nutrients.

The article at Hoax or Fact may lack complete information, but is less simplistic than much of the hype found elsewhere. Check it out. When reminded of all the good bananas have to offer, I believe you’ll agree they represent a great value for your shopping dollar.

© 2013, Bernice W. Simpson

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Full-Bodied Characters


My apologies to the psychologist I’m quoting without attribution. “You insert something of yourself in every character you invent.” The key word here is something. The speaker did not infer that a suspense novelist hid a killer’s temperament. She pointed out that the better you know yourself, the more you can use that knowledge to create believable characters.

In writing workshops we've made “people identification” lists: achievements, assets, disappointments, dislikes, dreams, likes, motivators, and so forth. But listing nouns is only a start in your creation of full-bodied characters. Lists, even when expanded to include a person’s pocket contents or household furnishings, are apt to trap an inexperienced writer into telling instead of showing.  

Ask questions: Why? What does that mean? How do the items listed under your characters’ names affect the entanglements in their lives?

For practice, examine yourself:

  • Is it true we use their past performance as a benchmark for judging people? Discuss how your past performance has influenced others’ opinions of you. Be specific. What have you done to cause certain individuals to like or admire you? What have you done to turn people off? How have people reacted? How have you felt about the reaction of others and their treatment of you?
  • What are your dreams—both practical and those that are pie in the sky? Consider how each, if/when actualized, would change your life.
  • List opportunities you've missed. Do you plan to make up for them? How? Will the actions you take affect anyone else? How? Do you regret missing certain opportunities? Do you blame anyone for your loss? Describe your feelings.
  • What are those innermost thoughts you’d never express out loud? Can you, using a pseudonym if concerned about exposing secrets, rise to the challenge and let them out on paper? Why are they private?
  • What are your turn-ons? What excites you, elicits laughter, or at least a smile from you, or motivates you to action?

In an effort to understand a particular trait, you can interview friends, but will they be truthful? Talking or writing honestly about yourself, awakens you to emotions and situations you may have forgotten, or perhaps were not consciously aware of. You can trace your personal conversion from who you were in the past to the present.

What happens when novelists probe into their own minds, relive particular emotions, and see how the cause-and-effect relationships affected their lives? They automatically use bits and pieces to enliven their novels’ characters. Try it.

© 2013, Bernice W. Simpson

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Case of Bad Timing

Dianne G. Sagan of Amarillo is a writer and speaker, and was the intended subject of my blog tonight. Then, I planned to follow it in a week or two with a review of at least one of her books. 
So much for plans. To write good articles about other people takes research. That means interviews with them, as well as their friends and acquaintances.

It's through research a writer learns about anecdotes that pop up in conversation, but rarely in formal interviews. For example, a friend, using her GPS to find an address, followed its directions, and indeed arrived at the address she had entered, but … well, you've already guessed, haven’t you? The GPS led her to the wrong town.

I hope Diane Sagan was exactly where she wanted to be last week. I’m glad to know (via Face Book) she arrived home safely. To call her this week would have been the epitome of bad timing, if not plain rude. Undoubtedly, she had a stack of mail to go through, and list of emails several pages long.

I’ll keep the book review on my do list for next Thursday. In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about Dianne, simply do a search on Dianne G. Sagan, and watch her name come up. You may not collect any tidbits—those morsels caught in conversation, but you can learn about Dianne as a writer.

I find a book review more interesting when I know a bit about the author, don’t you?

© 2013, Bernice W. Simpson 

Monday, February 18, 2013

At a Future Time; from Another Place

Monday's blog belonged to KittyCat. He's gone. His voice is gone. Perhaps he'll laugh, complain, and present his point of view at a future time--from another place.

No doubt, I'll soon wish to laugh, complain, or present my point of view--on a future Tuesday or Wednesday.

KittyCat's readership surprised me at times. Thank you.

--Bernice W. Simpson
  February 18, 2013

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Roads Less Travelled


Geraldine Brooks had advice for writers. If you want to set scenes and create characters that draw in your reader, leave the country. Open yourself to discovery. Savor the uniqueness of foreign people—their language, their festivals, and their everyday lives. Experience exotic places, from grass huts to castles.

So off I went to England, and headed straight for Windsor Castle. Well, vicariously. My tour through a souvenir book found at an estate sale cost ten cents. If an airline ticket doesn’t fit your budget either, expand your knowledge on the cheap with The National Geographic, The Smithsonian, or souvenir books instead.

Below is a sampling of my visit to Windsor Castle. To help you pick up on the flavor of it, I left a word out of each sentence. Select the correct word (labeled a through l) from the Word List to replace the blank line in each sentence. Each word is used once. Answers follow.

Word List:
 a. motte, b. audience, c. dado, d. castellated, e. Royal Standard, f. apogee,
g. fulsomely, h. tridents, i. vestibule, k. collegiate church, l. undercroft, m. curtain wall

1.       The Queen is kept closely informed about all aspects of national life and the Prime Minister has a weekly ___________  with her.
2.       The Castle contains, as well as a royal palace, a magnificent ___________ and the homes or workplaces of a large number of people, including the Constable and the Governor of the Castle, the Military Knights of Windsor and the Dean and Canons of St. George’s Chapel.
3.       Whenever the Queen is in residence, the ____________ rather than the Union flag, is flown over the castle.
4.       Henry II also began to replace the timber and outer walls of the Upper Ward with stone. The basic ____________ dates from this from his time as does the Round Tower, built in 1170 on top of William the Conqueror’s original Norman motte.
5.       On the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 Charles II determined to reinstate Windsor as his principal non-metropolitan palace. The architect Hugh May was appointed in 1673 to supervise the work which took eleven years to complete. May retained the blocky ____________ appearance of the buildings but regularised their exterior and inserted round-arched Windows, some of which are still visible today.
6.       In many ways Windsor Castle reached its ____________ in the reign of Queen Victoria.
7.       Visitors make their way to the state apartments in the Upper Ward, walking past the round tower on its steep artificial ____________ . The moat protecting the tower has always been dry, and is now the enchanting gardens of the Governor of Windsor Castle…
8.       The visitor now enters of vaulted ____________, originally created by James Wyatt and extended by Jeffrey Wyatville as the principal entrance to the state apartments.
9.       The grand ____________ is dominated by statute of Queen Victoria by Sir Joseph Boehm (1871).
10.   It was one of a series of thirteen painted ceilings that celebrated the Rrestoration of the English monarchy in 1660 all had  ____________ royalist subjects, and were influenced by Charles Lebrun’s work for Louis 14th at Versailles.
11.   The 17th century cornice by Grinling Gibbons with crisply carved acanthus leaves survives as do the waist-height paneled ____________ and 8-paneled doors.
12.   William IV eliminated the old painted ceiling and installed the existing moulded plaster design sporting his own monogram and arms, while the anchors and ____________ recall his career in the Navy before he ascended the throne.

Answers: 1-b, 2-k, 3-e, 4-m, 5-d, 6-f, 7-a, 8-l, 9-I, 10-g, 11-c, 12-h.

The above selections were taken from:
 Windsor Castle: Official Guidebook ©2004 Royal Collection Enterprises, Ltd. London
Guidebook text written by John Martin Robinson

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Meet Diane Neal


In the July, 2012 issue of Accent West a magazine published in Amarillo, Diane Neal finished her article, Goodbye, Baby Dog with a heart-felt sentence. “Chumley was not born of my bone or flesh of my flesh, but in every other sense, he was my baby.”

You can learn a lot about a person by reading what they write. If you weren’t already acquainted with her, that article would tell you Diane is a person of intelligence, compassion and a woman you’d like to know.

I met Diane in 1997 at a Frontiers in Writing conference, the first for both of us. Diane had just returned from England, and was working on her thesis to complete her Masters of Arts degree. Since then, Diane has been an active member of Panhandle Professional Writers, and served as president.

The times may be tough for free-lance writers, but in addition to the moving story about her dog Chumley, Diane’s considerable publication credits include book reviews for magazines, her "Big Mother" series about growing up in Amarillo, and published in Accent West. She is also one of the contributors to Flash Tales: An Adventure in Words.

Visiting her critique group, I had the privilege of getting a sneak peek at some of her “Big Mother” stories. Full of humor and local color, I knew they would have a strong regional audience. But the writing of Diane’s I’ve enjoyed the most, has been her annual Christmas-time letters, complete with pictures of her husband; sons Herschel III, Terry, and Jarrod, and grandchildren.

“Writings not a big money maker.” Diane laughed as she said it. 

But writers write. If the primary motive for writers to spend long hours alone pecking at computer keys, we would miss the stories Diane has to tell. “I’m a morning writer, but once started, I work into the afternoon,” Diane said.

She tickled my curiosity with a few comments about a book she has on the back burner. When she’s ready to publish it, she may post a heads up on Facebook. – Just one more reason to be among the hundreds of Diane Neal’s friends.

Monday, February 11, 2013


“I’ve learned of a baby who needs a good home—just like yours.”
Would you say that to a person who had just buried their child? Of course not. Yet you are quick to offer a stray cat hanging around your sister’s house to acquaintances, grief-stricken over the death of their cat. You beg them to take the sweet-natured calico an infirm neighbor can no longer properly care for, or the tabby of a coworker who is relocating, and can’t take her pet with her. You feel so sorry for those hapless creatures.
So do I, but like you, not enough to offer them our home. And certainly not enough to feed them from my baby’s dishes, play with his toys, or sleep in his favorite places.
At times I see him in those places, and smile. I also see him cock his little head as he sits, his two white-booted feet pressed tightly together in front of him. “What…you’re busy? Like I should care you’re busy? I want to play. With you. Now.”
Yes, animals do talk. Like humans, they express themselves with body language. At times it can be as clear as any sound uttered out loud. As with person-to-person communication, sometimes we miss the message. My husband and I missed it with KittyCat’s illness. So did his regular veterinarian. The next vet we rushed him to, Dr. Christy Webb, caught it. But the antibiotics and breathing treatments that could have saved him, had they begun earlier, mocked us with false hope. KittyCat endured horrific distress his last night on this earth.
“Oh, KittyCat,” I’ve sobbed a thousand times, “how your daddy and I loved you. How your suffering tortures us still. And we miss you terribly.”
“People, stop!” I’ve wanted to scream several times. On behalf of anyone who has lost a precious pet lately, stop. Please stop giving us  your ideas about what will fill the vacancy in our homes and hearts.
We may appear to have moved on. We act with our usual professionalism at work. We attend functions, hopefully displaying courtesy and friendliness. We perform our daily responsibilities.
But in private moments, we cry.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Selective Hearing

“Passive.” “I’ve circled your passive verbs.”

Pay attention when your critique group says, “Use active voice.” It’s good advice--usually. But if your fellow writers think the passive voice exemplifies mortal sins, Donald Maass in his book, The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success, has tossed out his ticket to heaven. On page 28 he writes: “that means as few as 19 are chosen for this limited appraisal.” Again on page 130 we see “the plan is formed.” And those are just two examples of the passive voice in his book.

So, does Donald Maass just write what he wants in any fashion because he’s a famous literary agent and can throw anything on the page? Not at all. The passive voice occupies an important place in speaking and writing. Try to substitute every passive verb, and you’ll produce awkward and wordy prose.

In fact, use of the active voice could cause legal problems for a writer. For example, a writer says “John Jones, dropped the bomb killing 200.” John Jones’ family could sue the writer who accused their loved one of killing all those people. Perhaps that’s why documentaries use the passive so much. “The bomb was dropped, apparently causing 200 casualties.” Listen to politicians. Speaking in the passive voice is handy when you don’t want to place blame or responsibility on one entity or individual, especially if a negative points to you.

In fiction, however, you must credit your villain or protagonist for the deed. “’I’ll bet I knocked out two hundred combatants when I hit that camp,’ John said after he landed.”

One of the best ways to prevent your writing from falling into the passive voice is to keep your mind on your subject. Who is doing what? Active: Bessie broke the dish. Passive: The dish was broken by Bessie. If you’re following Bessie around, it’s easy to stay in the active voice because in your mind’s eye, you’re living inside her as she thinks or moves. You’ll narrate less. Instead of “it was warm outside,” you’ll naturally describe your character’s response to the warmth.

In checking your work for the passive voice, do a Find on the word by. Also check for all forms of the verb to be. If you're not sure how to fix it, ask for your critique group's advice.

Most importantly though, focus on your story. When you’re finally in your 20th rewrite, almost ready to submit your story to an agent or publication, make sure it’s perfect. For your first-to-third time around with it, don’t obsess over stylistic errors. Write a compelling story, and then listen to your critics, but be selective. How many grammarians do you think can tell a great tale?