Truth vs Stereotypes, or Do Grandmothers Giggle?

by Janis Patterson

In these days of fraught political correctness when being offended at something has become almost a career choice, we as writers have to be very careful about what we say. We must always be on our guard against using stereotypes and prolonging misconceptions. But sometimes it’s hard.

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story for inclusion in an anthology centered on wedding days. I thought it was a pretty good piece – four generations of women in a family (girl, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother) and their reactions to a wedding coming up the next day. Of course – as you have doubtless already noticed – I am a dyed in the wool contrarian, so naturally I had to do something different. The bride in this case was the grandmother, who was marrying against her mother’s and daughter’s wishes – the granddaughter was in favor of the match. During the course of this familial sturm und drang the grandmother/bride and granddaughter have a special moment and the grandmother giggles. This is when the reader first realizes that the bride is the grandmother, not the granddaughter.

I thought it was a special moment.

The editor thought differently. She almost exploded with angry disbelief. “You mean the bride is the grandmother? And she giggled? Grandmothers,” she stated unequivocally, “do not giggle.”

I replied with my usual tact and polite restraint that I was a grandmother, and I giggled frequently. In fact, a dear friend once stuck me with the nickname of ‘Giggles.’ The editor was openly disbelieving. Well, after a lengthy and sometimes acrimonious discussion the giggling stayed in the story, but the editor was most vocally unhappy about it and we’ve never worked together since.

Another story, this time a stand-alone novel, another year if not another decade and another editor. I had my characters out driving in the remote wastelands in the Texas panhandle. This is the area where you can drive for two hours and never see another car or sign of human habitation. My characters found a bad car wreck, but the driver was still alive. They picked him up and drove him to the hospital in whatever town was closest. (It’s been years, and I don’t remember…)

Well, the editor went ballistic. How, she asked, could I be so uncaring and stupid as to move an accident victim? My characters should have called (as if there were any cell service out there) for an ambulance and waited with him until the ambulance arrived. To do anything else, she yelled, was irresponsible.

I tried to explain that in that part of Texas it would be irresponsible not to get the man to the hospital as quickly as possible, as he might die in the time it took an ambulance to respond. This editor – who, by the way, was openly proud she had never been west of the Alleghenies – was completely disbelieving, and turned down the book simply because of that. She had offered me the out of rewriting, and (if I really insisted) making them closer to a town where an ambulance was a logical inclusion, but I declined. The loneliness and isolation of the area were too deeply interwoven into the story – almost a character in itself – and part of the moral understructure of the book. We agreed to cancel the contract.

Yet one more story about a New York editor, though it has little to do with a book. I had worked with this editor several times, and was tossing around an idea about a couple being trapped in an ice storm. She absolutely hooted at my idea of setting it in North Central Texas, because, as she said “everyone knows Texas is tropical!”

Well, apparently the weather gods were tired of Yankees being so ignorant about Texas, because within a very few weeks we had a paralyzing ice storm that pretty much shut down the city… and it was the middle of April. There were photos on the front page of our newspaper of horizontal winds and trees breaking under an inch thick coating of ice. Smiling with unrepentant glee, I risked life and limb skating over the ice to get a fresh copy of the paper from a nearby box, stuck it into a big padded envelope and sent it to her. I didn’t even include a note. The subject was never mentioned again.

So – even when it does not even touch on the ungodly mess of political correctness (which to me brings up images of the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride) we all have to be very careful about indulging in the lazy shortcut of stereotypes and misconceptions. We write fiction, but to be believable fiction, it has to have a firm grounding in basic truths.

Confessions About the Covid Crazies

by Janis Patterson

How are you surviving the Covid lockdown, which – thankfully – is finally fading away?

While my office is in my home and I don’t go out too much in normal times (which, please Heaven, are finally coming back!) just the idea of not being able to go out or have any place to go to have driven me crazy. Crazier.

For the first time in many years I am not face-up against a deadline, usually multiple deadlines, which come racing at me like an express train. Well, I do have one, but it isn’t until October, and the way this year has been going who of us is positive there is even going to be an October this year?

And that’s why this post is so frightfully late. I forgot until last night, when the lights were out, our goodnights said and The Husband had drifted off to sleep. Suddenly I remembered and sat bolt upright, gasping at my unprofessionalism. Dragged from sleep he wanted to know what was wrong, but when I told him he merely snorted and said to go back to sleep. The sad thing is I did, which is very unlike me. This lockdown has activated my inner sloth – I chose the sloth as my spirit animal a few years ago when a prolonged bed rest was dictated while recuperating from a surgery, and the wee little beastie has played havoc with my work ethic ever since.

One good thing about this lockdown is that The Husband is only working half weeks – 2 ½ days – and this makes a perfect rehearsal for when he retires in the not-too-distant future. One thing I’ve learned – he is ignorant of the writing process, as I do 95% of it when he’s not here. Plus, he’s a science person, not a word person. I’ve been writing in our den for years, and not too long ago made the decision to turn the guest room into my office, a task about which I have been distressingly dilatory. I need to get on it NOW, so when he does retire fully I can retreat in there. I’m working on it every day, and trying to decide whether or not I can install a moat.

Plus, during this time of plague I have been slowly morphing from a writer who works at home into a housewife, a strange and alien creature I have never been before. I’ve been excavating the dining room (verb chosen deliberately) and for the last three days sorting through ancient tax papers that go back to 2007. So far The Husband has taken two enormous tubs of old papers to his office to shred in their commercial shredder.

I won’t bore you with tales of the strange wonders I’ve found during this time of excavation, but I did find my iron which I lost several years ago. It’s a fine example of cleaning making more work for you, because now I’m going to have to go to the trouble of losing it again, and do you know how hard it is to lose an iron?

Well, the clock is ticking (yes, we still have one that ticks, a Seth-Thomas kitchen clock that was a wedding present to my father’s parents in 1899) and I need to get this posted. I hope you all – assuming you have read this far – are safe and well and all in your world is good. Please take care of yourselves and believe we will get through this. At least, I hope so, because housework is making me crazy! Crazier.

We Are The Other?

Janis Patterson

In these tiresome days of Political Correctness and ‘woke-dom’ there is a small battle raging about using italics for non-English words in book manuscripts. “It is divisive,” shriek the PC crowd. “It fosters other-ness and is not inclusive.”

Well, duh!

When speaking of a book written in English for the use of an English-speaking audience, of course the writer should use italics for foreign words and phrases. The words are foreign words, not English words – they are ‘other.’ Italics show that. It’s not divisiveness, it’s clarity, showing the reader that this is a different language. Some words in other languages are spelled the same but have wildly different meanings. (For example : douche (French) and douche (English) while having the same familial root are totally different things.) Without italics to differentiate what is English and what is another language, the reader can be confused and pulled out of the story to puzzle it through, and no writer wants that. Of course, that homophonic mayhem happens in all-English books, too – if I read one more story that mixes up ‘grizzly’ and ‘grisly’ that book, like a number of others, will end up smashing against the wall. Words are the tools of the writer, and one should learn to use one’s tools properly. To do less is to disrespect both the art of writing and the intelligence of the reader.

To make things even more confusing, the PC crowd applauds the use of a bunch of weird self-chosen pronouns that a small portion of the population uses to describe themselves which, while doubtless emotionally satisfying to them, are linguistically and societally bizarre. How can there be anything else but a deliberate ‘other-ness’ when an individual refers to him/her/itself as ‘they’? Talk about mixed signals!

Of course an individual has the right to call themselves anything they like; that is freedom of speech in its purest form and is guaranteed under the First Amendment. Those who want to use the ‘new’ pronouns are most definitely free to do so, but no one has the right to demand that everyone else use them, most especially in a written format. The result is a linguistic minefield.

The essence of language is communication. Language is nothing but a collection of sounds and syllables to convey ideas, but it only works if everyone understands what those sounds and syllables mean. This is especially true for writers, for they must communicate by written symbols only, without the supporting means of vocal intonation and facial expressions.

Can you imagine the delicious confusion (or might it be deliberate obfuscation?) in a mystery when a single individual obviously speaking in the first person refers to himself as ‘they’ or ‘we’? How does the poor confounded detective/sleuth react, especially if he is not up to speed on this linguistic trend? That could almost be a subplot in itself.

Conversely, the essence of communication – especially for writers and the written word – is language. We need the same reference points, the same starting points for efficient interaction. Standard linguistics offer this universal base. If a non-English word in an English language book is italicized, everyone knows it is not English, even if it is identical in spelling to an English word with a totally different meaning. If a writer uses the ‘new’ pronoun structure, he’d better have a really good reason that forwards the story or risk confusing and perhaps even alienating his readers.

Years ago someone coined the phrase K I S S – Keep It Simple, Stupid (or Silly, depending on to whom you’re talking). It’s still good advice. Good communication is simple, and the foremost tool in the writer’s toolkit.

 

Personal Note – if you have been a reader of this blog for a while doubtless you have been accustomed to seeing my picture with blonde hair. It’s red now, both in the picture and on my head. I finally decided that it would be a charitable act to give the general populace a warning label.

Confession Of A Pixelated Writer

by Janis Patterson

When I first started writing computers were the stuff of science fiction and cheesy space opera movies. If you wanted to write a book, you either wrote in painful longhand, talked into a recorder for someone else to transcribe or typed it yourself on a typewriter. Just to set the record straight I learned to type on a Smith Corona manual portable the summer before I entered the fourth grade and have regarded any kind of handwriting more than a simple signature as cruel and unusual punishment ever since!

Now, of course, like most everyone else I use a computer. It’s faster, it’s easier to edit (I remember in the old days when ‘cut and paste’ meant exactly that!), there’s no need for multiple filing cabinets to hold different versions of different manuscripts, you don’t have to go scrabbling for cheap or even pre-used paper to use for rough drafts, there’s no need to do a complete retype in order to have a clean copy… all in all better. A single thumb drive or dvd can hold every version and every note or bit of research on several novels. Several filing cabinets’ worth of data can be held in a small box on your desk.

So why isn’t my house neater?

I digress…

Since I still tend to mistrust technology, I not only keep dvds of my projects in my desk and in the safety deposit box, I also have them in cloud storage and… wait for it… in a paper copy. Yes, I know what I just said about paper, but this is different. I print out a copy of the final manuscript using both sides of the paper, the narrowest margins I can manage, single-spaced and in a tiny type – 8 or 9 point – not so large as to be bulky, but still able to be retyped if the unthinkable happens. This can reduce the biggest book to a manageable size. Then I drill the manuscript and put it in a 3 ring binder, along with a dvd (yes, that’s 3 copies per book on dvds), a photocopy of my contract (the original is in the safety deposit box as well as scanned to my computer), and any other ancillary things specific to the book. Usually I can get 3-4 novels or 6-8 novellas in a ring binder. It’s a lot smaller than a couple of file cabinets!

I have been writing for a long time, which means I have a lot of partials, multiple copies and extras of all kinds of manuscripts. My husband and I are living in the house where I grew up, and boxes of old manuscripts are still turning up in the garage and attic. I think they’re breeding.

Still, I hate to lose any of my work, even if it’s juvenile or unfinished or just plain unworkable, so I scan what I don’t already have copies of. Then, once assured that I do have a record or that the manuscript I just found is one of many duplicates, I split the pages in half and stack them up for notepaper.

For someone who hates to handwrite, I use a lot of notepaper. Have a quick idea for a cute or a scary scene? A great idea of a different way to do murder? A reminder of an appointment? An appealing name that may fit a character in a future project? Whatever? I scribble it down and affix it to a huge corkboard against the wall. When it starts to resemble some weird sort of scaled creature I do have to go through that board and pare it down. The paper recyclers just love it when that happens…

So, even though I am an admitted techno-naif with only the sketchiest kind of détente with technology, I have to admit that the computer has made this writer’s life much more simple. I have no choice but to do so. I sold all my filing cabinets.

If Seinfeld Can, Why Can’t I?

by Janis Patterson

While The Husband loved the TV show Seinfeld and still occasionally watches DVDs of it, I found it stultifyingly boring and even more uninteresting. It was heralded as a show about nothing, and as far as I am concerned it definitely succeeded. However, it was undeniably popular. (Does that say something about me, or about everyone else?) I much prefer shows in which the actors are attractive, shows in which there is something going on – explosions, genuine humor, dead bodies, passionate kisses on a sunset beach… something!

Still, I have to admit that the show did something right to be so popular and on the air for so long, so I’ve decided to explore its particular trope and find out what made it so successful. Except I can’t find what it is. All I can find is that it is regarded as a show about nothing. (Perhaps a metaphor for the supposed emptiness of modern urban life?)

Okay, I can run with that. Most of our lives are filled with nothing. Oh, we’re busy all the time, usually with things that seem important at the time but have little cosmic impact. Things like deciding what to serve for dinner tonight. (Always a biggie for me, as The Husband is a very picky eater and I am a rather indifferent cook.) Shopping for same. Making lunches in the morning. Laundry – what gets tumble dried and what gets line dried and if any of it gets bleach. Deciding if I really want that cute pair of shoes we saw at the mall. Trying to switch the appointment for a much-needed oil change because that’s the only day I can take an elderly neighbor to a much-more needed dental appointment.

See? All important at that minute, all demanding your immediate attention, but in the grand scheme of things generally dismissed as the minutiae of life. Six months – heck, six weeks – afterward, are you going to remember if you had that oil change on Wednesday or Friday, or if those shoes were the red ones or the blue ones?

So what does this digression have to do with murder? Because everything in a murder is important. How many times does the detective (professional or amateur) bring the miscreant to justice by reason of a single fact uttered some time before? Jessica Fletcher was a master of this – a throwaway line uttered perhaps days ago in the storyline, perhaps at the very beginning of the show, and she remembers it. Worse, I can’t remember it at all. Of course, now that I write mysteries my ‘sleuth’ instinct is honed to dangerous acuity, watching every line and usually being able to figure out what is a clue. That, however, is a reader/viewer trick, trained by far too many hours spent absorbing other people’s stories.

Real detectives, however, don’t have that luxury. They can’t automatically know that the fact so-and-so wore red shoes on Tuesday is important. They have to give every bit of information weight. They don’t have editors and beta readers and directors and cinematographers giving focus to every necessary nuance. I think that’s the main reason most real-life cases are not wound up in 20 chapters or 47 minutes. There is too much everything to deal with and that unfortunately translates to nothing to deal with.

So – I am getting too close to saying something instead of sticking with my intended policy of blogging today on nothing. That’s perhaps fortunate, as I have nothing else to say on nothing.

Stay warm this during this cold winter, write well, read widely and don’t get overwhelmed by nothing.