Archive for November, 2009

More about Character Names

November 29, 2009

I said there’d be more, didn’t I?
Another pitfall that often befalls writers when they begin giving names to their characters is what I call the Name Out of Its Time.
Case in point; I recently read descriptions of two romance novels, both set in the Wild West. In one, the heroine was named Brianna. In the other, her name was Courtney. It doesn’t take a look at the name popularity lists on the Social Security Administration’s website to see the trouble here, does it? I won’t say it would be totally unheard of for a woman of that era to be named Brianna or Courtney, but I would have to say it’s highly unlikely.
Why do authors do this? I’d guess the main reason is simple ignorance, or perhaps the editor just didn’t catch it. But could other factors be at work? Could an author know perfectly well that the names she’s chosen are out of their time? Maybe she thought more “period” names like Mary, Eliza or Fannie just didn’t sound “romantic” enough. I think most people would agree that Courtney gives off quite a different vibe than Fannie, even if, way back in 1870’s Dodge City, Fannie would have been considered a fairly glamorous moniker, well-suited to a glamorous belle of the ball.
Another, less common problem is Names Which Do Not Match The Stated Ethnicity or Culture of the Character. As I said, this is less common, because most authors and editors know they can’t really get away with naming a medieval knight Cody, or an Old Order Amish woman Crystal. But it does happen occasionally, and even happens to the very best authors.
I hate to criticize Stephen King, because he may be my all-time favorite author, but in his otherwise excellent “From a Buick 8” he made a lulu of a boo-boo. One of his most endearing characters in that book is a groundskeeper for a police barracks in Pennsylvania. The groundskeeper is clearly described as Swedish and his accent is even written out, and compared to Lawrence Welk’s accent.
But here’s the problem: this guy’s name is given as Arky Arkanian. Not Axel Lundgren or Sven Olafson. If I had to guess I would guess that Arkanian is an Armenian name. Sorry, Steve, but you goofed that time. I only say it because I love you and don’t want you to make that mistake again.
As always, I welcome comments, either agreeing or disagreeing with my opinions. I’m sure all of us have felt that little bit of dissonance that happens when we run up against a misplaced name in our reading. I’d love to hear about others’ experiences with this phenomenon, if only so that I’ll know I’m not crazy.


You Name It!

November 28, 2009

But name it well! A poorly-named character in a book or story can leave a bad taste in a reader’s mouth, and can even negatively affect the credibility of the author and his work.
Case in point: Years ago, I was with my mother in a bookstore. She was browsing through a book, a suspense novel, I believe. After a very short time she put the book back on the shelf and said “Nah, I don’t think so.” I asked why, and she explained, as if it should be obvious, “Well, for one thing the main character’s name is Tiffany!”
Now, I happen to like the name Tiffany, but there’s no denying that it carries a certain stereotype along with it. A certain, rather strong stereotype. So strong that, ten or fifteen years later, though I have no idea what the plot of the book was, I can imagine it: a flimsily-constructed, not-very-believable quasi-mystery novel, where more attention was paid to designer clothes and expensive and exotic locales than to the actual plot, and the plot mainly revolved around the sparks flying between the beauteous Tiffany and the smoldering, dangerous bad guy.
Margaret Mitchell must have understood the importance of her characters’ names. When she began writing “Gone With the Wind,” her main character was named Pansy OHara, but of course we know her as Scarlett. Nobody knows exactly why Mitchell changed her mind abot Pansy, but I would like to think she thought about it for a minute and realized that Pansy just didn’t fit the kind of stubborn, tempestuous heroine she had in mind. Pansy, in fact, sounds like Prissy’s twin sister: whiny, flighty, and no use at all in an emergency.
Now, Scarlett! There’s a name that is bold and shameless and which refuses to be dismissed or denied! The kind of name (and woman) that could drive many a man to ruin! (I find it significant that Miss OHara’s full name is Katie Scarlett, yet Mitchell chose never to have her go by Katie.)
I’ll have a great deal more to say about the importance of character (and real-life) names in the future. Watch this space!

Soup’s On!

November 27, 2009

Credit where credit is due: One of the things that inspired me to start this blog was watching the movie “Julie/Julia’ and later reading the book upon which the movie is based. In the spirit of Julie Powell and Julia Child, today I am going to tell you what happened when I made Child’s famous Potage Parmentier, known in English as Potato Leek Soup.
As Child and Powell both claim, the soup is very easy to make and has only a few ingredients: potatoes, leeks, water, salt and pepper, and butter. I haven’t read “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” but I’m willing to wager that the soup is the easiest recipe in that book.
What neither Julie nor Julia mentions is that, once the soup begins cooking, it smells. Leeks are, of course, members in good standing of the onion family, and any doubts you might have about that will be erased once and for all once you smell them in the pot. An eye-watering, stomach-turning, appetite-destroying odor! Phew!
Bravely, I dipped a piece of toast into the simmering soup to see if it tasted as bad as it smelled. Surprisingly, it didn’t taste bad at all. If it had I would have had no qualms at all about pitching the whole pot out and ordering in a pizza. But I persevered.
You’re supposed to swirl the butter into the soup toward the end of the cooking time, and once I did that, the smell immediately got much better. It was really amazing how a little (okay, kind of a lot) of butter could go so far toward neutralizing that awful onion smell. My eyes stopped watering, my stomach stopped turning and my appetite returned.
The moment of truth arrived. Dinner is served! The verdict: mixed. The soup was good and hot, an important factor on a chilly and damp autumn evening. And anything with all that butter can’t be all bad, can it?
Those were the pros. The cons were:
First, the Texture. Very thin. It’s been my experience that potatoes tend to make any soup thicker when they’re pureed, but in this case the spuds didn’t do much in the way of thickening.
Secondly, and This is the most mysterious part of the whole business, the leeks just disappeared. If I hadn’t known they were in there, I’m not sure I could have detected them by taste. It was very strange. They’d smelled so vile earlier, you’d think they’d at least add a little oniony bite to the finished product. Not so. It was mostly a potato-and-butter flavor, and I would have to describe it as bland. I improved it somewhat by adding some leftover cooked bacon to it, but if I was ever to make this soup again, I’d add a nice chunk of ham to the pot and maybe some other vegetables and even a dash of hot sauce too.
so, the final word on Potage Parmentier: one thumb up, one thumb down.
Bon appetit!

Two Little Mysteries of the Language

November 26, 2009

Why do they call it “cream of tartar?” I know what tartar is: in this case it’s the residue left on the insides of wine casks after the grapes have fermented. Fair enough. But “cream?” That stuff is powder and doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to cream except in its color, and lots of things are that color. So all right, “powder of tartar” is something of a tongue-twister, and “tartar powder” sounds like tooth cleaner, but to call it cream seems very farfetched..
And here’s another little puzzler: When we first learned to read, we learned that a g followed by an a is always a hard g, like in “gavel” or “gasoline.” And that’s one rule of pronunciation that seems to hold true all the time, with one notable exception: margarine.
That g is followed by an a but is soft, like the g in “gentle” or “giant.’ Why is that? Of course, mar-gah-rin sounds funny and not quite right, but that’s probably only because we never hear or say it like that. What if, way back when margarine was invented, it was decided to follow the linguistic crowd and make the g hard, and everybody for generations was used to it that way? Methinks the soft-g pronunciation would sound pretty funny to us now.
“So, Ghostess, tell us,” asks the gadfly in the balcony, “What do YOU call the stuff you spread on your bread?”
To which I answer simply, “I call it butter, thanks. Real butter.”


November 26, 2009

At the front of many books, you find the “acknowledgements” page, where the author mentions and thanks all the people who’ve helped him with the book, in one way or another. You can do all sorts of things that might land you a spot on the acknowledgements page. You can be a great editor, a talented publicist, a first-rate researcher. Or you can be a friendly forensic pathologist who took the time to explain the ins and outs of rigor mortis so that hot new crime thriller has all the details right. You could be Joe the mechanic who makes sure the poor automotively-challenged author doesn’t make a fool of himself over solenoids, which, truth to tell, said author had thought had something to do with the nose.
Or you might not even realize that you did anything worthy of being mentioned in an actual, by-God book! That is going to be published! And read! By millions of people!
You could earn a spot on that thank-you page because you’re a patient husband who never complained about taking up the slack around the house while your wife raced to finish that romance novel. Maybe you’re an understanding wife who convincingly pretended to enjoy spending her weekends at Civil War re-enactments while Hubby gathered information for his collection of historical vignettes. Or perhaps you’re just a kid who was a good sport about eating all that Mongolian food that your parents fixed in the process of compiling their mammoth “Gobi Grub” cookbook.
Or perhaps you’re simply a friend who insisted (possibly with bribes, guilt trips and threats of bodily harm) that the author turn the computer off or put away the pencil and get up and do something, anything, and the author went, reluctantly, but came back to the grind refreshed and newly inspired and all the better for the enforced break.
What all this is leading up to is, my very own acknowledgements page. I just want to take the opportunity on this Thanksgiving Day to give a few shout-outs (or is it shouts-out?) to some people who have helped me get this website going. If you don’t see yourself mentioned here, know that you are still appreciated and that this will not be the only acknowledgements post I make.
First of all, I thank my family, as always, for their undying support.
To Jenn, who encouraged me right at the beginning that this was indeed something I could do.
To Brian, who held my hand and coaxed me along when I felt a bit overwhelmed by it all.
To Stacey, who put me in touch with Brian. If anybody ever illustrates the importance of keeping one’s eyes and ears open, Stacey does.
And to Anthony, for being an enthustiastic cheerleader, thoughtful critic and all-around true friend.
Happy Turkey Day!

The Dying Art of Letter-Writing: Time for a Revival

November 25, 2009

Recently, Dear Abby published a letter from a reader who confessed that, while she was very good at texting and e-mailing, she found herself at a loss when it came to writing “real” letters. This struck a chord with many people, I’m sure. In this day and age, we’re accustomed, even urged, to use e-mails, instant messaging and the like to communicate with friends, family, and even companies with whom we do business. There are plenty of advantages to this, of course. Electronic communication is much faster than “snail mail” so that often a problem can be resolved or a decision made within minutes.
But old-fashioned letters have many qualities that are lacking in the e-versions. For example, there’s a certain charm about letters kept in their original envelopes (sometimes with their original stamps) perhaps tied with ribbon and placed in a drawer or special box. Sure, you can keep e-letters, but taking the disk out of a box or clicking on the folder to view othem just doesn’t have the same feel to it. And it can’t be denied that “It’s a rainy day, so let’s take out all Grandma and Grandpa’s old letters and look at them” sounds much more fun than “It’s a rainy day, let’s boot up the PC and look at the saved e-mails Grandma and Grandpa sent back and forth.” No contest, really.
I’ve had a lot of experience with letter-writing. Long ago I acquired the reputation, by accident, of being “a good writer” and ever since, friends and family have come to me for help with their writing chores. I’ve done ’em all: thank-you notes, letters of recommendation for people seeking jobs, complaint, you name it.
So I created this website. I hope to use it to share some of the things I’ve learned about letter-writing and writing in general, and to offer my services “ghosting” things for people who feel awkward or unsure about their own writing skills. I plan to post samples of my writing so readers can get an idea of what kind of work I do. I also may post news stories that catch my eye, interestinf facts, or anything I feel liek spending two cents on.
I may be an experienced writer, but this is my first foray into working with my very own website, so any suggestions, comments and ideas are always welcomed.


November 13, 2009

Hello and welcome to my site. I offer Plain and Simple Ghostwriting as a service to those with something to say, but who feel uncertain of their writing skills. I specialize in short expository/instructional pieces, thank-you and complaint letters, and longer opinion pieces. I will soon be displaying examples of my work on this very site.
I also offer consultation and recommendation on business names, as well as on names for pets, boats, pen names, character names and even baby names. Watch this space!