Monday, July 25, 2011

Dog Days of Summer

Where does the term "Dog days of summer" come from? Ages ago when the constellations were named by Europeans, the 'dog star' Sirius rose and set with the sun in the summertime. It's the brightest star of the Canis Major constellation and was believed by ancient Romans to help turn up the heat here on earth when Sirius rose in conjunction with the sun.

The official dog days period (20 days before and 20 days after Sirius's conjunction with the sun) is July 3rd through August 11th. To read more about the origination of the term 'dog days of summer,' click here

On Friday, July 22, the mercury in Newark, NJ reached a record-breaking 108 degrees. I just heard on the Weather Channel that Abilene, TX is on their 47th day of triple-digit temperatures, and the forecast predicts temps of over 100 the rest of the week. Yikes!

Are you one of those rare people who love the heat? Or are you like me? I turn into a zombie. My brain feels so fried, I can barely put a thought together, let alone compose a sentence.
How's a writer supposed to write during the dog days of summer?  

I think I'll grab an ice tea and write a poem. Maybe something about popsicles and ponytails. . .

What are you doing to beat the heat?

"Heat, ma'am! It was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones."  Sydney Smith

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mystery Ticking Case Solved?

Do Eerie Sounds Keep You Awake at Night?

In my last post, Mystery of the Strange Ticking Sound, (if you missed it, you might want to go back and read it) I wrote about a weird noise my mom and I heard in the wall of our hotel room in Laughlin, Nevada. It got so loud, we finally switched rooms at 1:30 a.m. Never mind all the other mishaps thrown into the mix, but our trip ended without learning the source of the sound. Surely, there had to be an explanation. Would it nag me the rest of my life?

A week later I mentioned the strange ticking at my writers' meeting just as everyone gathered their things to leave. Maria agreed that, indeed, it might have been a ghost. Annie chuckled. "Sounds like the Death Beetle," she said. Alana agreed. The meeting broke up before I could get an explanation about the beetle.

I was left hanging, but at least I had a clue.

A Google search led me to Wikipedia, which states that Death Beetles are found in old buildings and can be heard on quiet summer nights making a ticking or tapping sound. It bangs its head against wood to attract a mate.

They often infest timber in old buildings, especially those built with oak. Many hospitals and churches became prey to the creepy head-banging bugs. Superstitious people believed the beetles kept vigil over the dying, which resulted in the spooky name of Death Beetle or Death Watch Beetle.

Eww! Beware - The Death Watch Beetle!
(Photo from Wikipedia)

The ticking & tapping noise attributed to this freaky beetle made perfect sense and would explain why  the sound stopped when someone knocked on our door. The Death Beetle was watching and listening, perhaps wondering if its mate had come a knockin'.

I do believe the mystery has been solved and I can move on now. Of course, I can't prove it. Perhaps it was a prankster ghost imitating the sound of the Death Beetle, just to creep us out. We'll never know for sure. All I can say is, I'm glad my house isn't infested with Death Beetles 'cause sleepless nights can wreak havoc on a writer's imagination.

Have you dealt with any strange sounds that kept you awake at night?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mystery of the Strange Ticking Sound

In June I went to Laughlin, Nevada with my mom on the senior citizen bus. The stingy slots forced us back to Room 1632 by 8:30 p.m., where a series of strange events played out.

We settled in for a night of TV and some mother-daughter quality time. Soon a ticking sound distracted us. "What in the world are those people doing?" I asked, pointing at the common wall to the room next to us.

"Sounds like an alarm clock," Mom said.
"Sounds like a ticking bomb to me," I said.

Most of the seniors from the bus were on our floor. Was the sound coming from some kind of health gadget? Perhaps a life-saving machine? We turned up the TV and waited for the noise to stop. It didn't.

Never mind that our bathroom sprung a leak. Actually, it was more like a waterfall pouring from the seam of a rectangular panel in the ceiling.

Never mind that the engineer the hotel sent up to investigate the leak couldn't hear the ticking sound. As soon as he knocked on the door, it stopped. "It's probably the wind," he said.

"No, it's not the wind," I told him. "It's ticking and sounds mechanical."

Never mind that the leak was fixed (broken overflow valve in the tub of the room above us) and that the second engineer who cleaned up the leak blamed the ticking on the wind, too. "Although sometimes in the summer we get complaints of ticking sounds when it's raining. But it's not raining now."

No duh.

Never mind that when I asked the engineer what that rectangular-shaped panel in the ceiling was, he informed me it was just the AC unit.

Just the AC unit?

Never mind that I worried about water getting into the electrical AC unit and that a fire might break out or that a bomb might explode and blow us to smithereens.

Never mind that we tried our best to ignore the ticking, even though it got louder and louder and I wanted to scream.

Never mind that Mom called Room 1634 and asked the nice lady to please turn off whatever was ticking in her room.

Never mind that the nice lady said she had nothing ticking and the only sound she heard was from the elevators, which were next to her room.

We wondered how the lady's room could be next to the elevators when our room was next to them, and when it dawned on us that the elevators were in between the lady's room and ours, Mom ran into the hallway to check the number on the next room. It was #1630 and she had called #1634.

Never mind that the nice man who answered in Room 1630 said he had no machines running in his room, but he couldn't sleep either because of the constant tapping on his window.

Never mind that we checked the windows and there was nothing out there. No trees (we were up too high). No birds (no ledge to perch on). No wind. No rain.

Never mind that once we decided there was no way we'd ever get any sleep with that noise, we called for another engineer to come up and put an end to the incessant ticking. Again, the noise stopped as soon as he knocked, and we worried that no one would believe us. Boy, were we relieved when he said it was no problem to move us to another room.

"Can you be ready in, say, 15 minutes?"

Mom and I looked at each other. "Um, no, I don't think we can be ready that soon," I said.
"How about 20 minutes?" he asked.
Mom looked hesitant.
"I don't think so," I said.
"How about 30?"
We smiled. "Sure. We can be ready in 30 minutes."

As soon as he was out the door, we scrambled to throw our clothes and toiletries into our suitcases and were ready in five minutes. We sat on our beds listening to the ticking until the bell boy arrived to show us to our new room.

The bell boy wasn't able to hear the ticking sound either. He told us that there were rumors of hauntings in the hotel.

Hmm, that would certainly explain why the ticking stopped every time someone knocked, plus the hotel was old enough to have a history of ghosts.

Never mind that we pulled our suitcases down the hall at 1:30 a.m. in our pajamas. Mom wanted to change out of her nightgown, but I assured her that it looked like a summer dress, so she put a sweater on to hide the spaghetti straps. I threw a sweatshirt on and figured my capri PJ pants looked like a summer outfit, too.

Listen to the ticking in the video. Could you sleep through this noise?

To make up for all our troubles, they gave us a room with a view of the river.

No more ticking! Peace and quiet. Sleep at last. Zzzz . . .

I can't say we woke up refreshed. The ticking sound was now a nagging mystery. How could it ever be solved?

I believe I finally found the answer. Tune in to my next post and I'll share my thoughts.

All in all, it was quite a strange experience, and I felt like Mom and I were players in a sitcom or stooges in a hidden camera show.
Do you ever find yourself in real life situations that feel like a scene in a movie, a book, or a play? What was it, and did it spark ideas for your writing?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Is Your Character Cliché?

It's hard to get around making spooky characters dark and creepy. Seems like it's always been that way. Why? My guess is, because our fears are enhanced at night when it's harder to see, so our imaginations sometimes play tricks on us. Many people are afraid of the dark, so we associate "dark" with "scary."

How can you add a twist to a spooky character? 
Watch this video clip (less than two minutes) to see how I changed things up for my Goth lady. 
 The video has other clichés, too. See if you notice any.
How would you answer the question at the end?
I’m not saying that spooky characters shouldn’t wear dark clothes and look freaky. Just trying to think outside the box. Yikes! Another cliché. Sheesh, they’re slithering out of the woodwork.  

Here are some twists that came to mind for cliché characters:
  • Big bad biker dude who loves bubble baths
  • Sophisticated rich lady who chews tobacco
  • Fashion model who prefers to wear thread-bare repeat clothes and hates nail polish & makeup
  • The CEO who wears overalls to the office instead of suits
  • An auto mechanic who abhors greasy hands and gets regular manicures
Those are just a few. I bet you can think up some good ones.

How about real life examples of twists we weren't expecting?
In 1974, Tatum O'Neal showed up at the Academy Awards wearing a tuxedo instead of a dress. She was the youngest person ever to have won an Oscar. The category was Best Supporting Actress, and she was ten years old. She played Addie Loggins in Paper Moon.

Today on TV I just happened to catch the end of a news clip about beauty contestants running a race through the streets in their high heels! How crazy is that? The camera zoomed in on a high heel that fell off one of the women’s feet.

Zola Budd made headlines in 1984 when she ran barefoot in the Olympics. She grew up running barefoot in South Africa and preferred to run that way. She didn’t win the Olympics (instead, huge controversy ensued when Zola took the lead and Mary Decker, America’s sweetheart, tripped and fell when they collided), but Zola broke the world record for women’s 5,000 meters twice and also won the women’s World Cross Country Championship twice. 

I guess to sum it all up, idiosyncrasies in our characters can add cool twists and dimension, plus enrich our writing. 
Do you have fun creating quirky traits or habits in your characters? Care to share them?

P.S. June 8th was my blog's two-month anniversary. Time flies! (Sorry, just couldn't resist adding another cliche!)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Stepping Into Your Character's Shoes

If the shoe fits . . . well, it sure makes it easier to step into the role of your character. What if you're a male writing about a female? Stepping into her shoes might be difficult.

It can be tricky to balance, especially in spikes. At first it's awkward. You might fall. Dust yourself off and get back up on those heels. You'll soon find yourself strutting or prancing through your plot.

Does your character need to move with the poise and grace of a prima ballerina? Impossible? Not if you practice, practice, practice.

There you go. Much better!

Venturing into a new genre, exploring terrain your psyche never dared to conquer before? Those magic shoes could carry you off into mysterious, mystical realms. Try them on.

Don't forget to pay attention to little details. Does your teen female curl her toes when Dreamy Dude flirts with her?

What if you're a female stepping into a male character's shoes? What kind of stance does he have? Are you taking note of his features, like those hairy legs? With a little creativity (and some black eyeliner - yes, those hairs are drawn on), you'll be on the right track. 

Whether you're a female writing about male characters or a male writing about female characters, in the beginning you might have to tighten the reigns to head them in the right direction. Once they come to life, you could find yourself wrangling with the keyboard to keep up as they gallop down the trail, daring to leap off the edge of the page. Whoa!

So, what are we waiting for? Let's get to work!

How do you find a good fit filling your character's shoes? 

"Creativity often consists of merely turning up what is already there. Did you know that right and left shoes were thought up only a little more than a century ago?"   Bernice Fitz-Gibbon