Killing the Mosquitoes in Your Fiction

by James Scott Bell

Dave Barry once said that the best time to visit Florida’s Disney World is 1965. Makes sense to me. I never saw the value in taking out a second mortgage to pack the family into a metal tube for a six-hour flight to an extended stay in a hot and humid swamp when we have Disneyland an hour away by car.

I once went golfing in Florida. It wasn’t the gators who eyed me on the tenth fairway that bothered me so much as the dang humidity. I felt like I had hot, wet towels draping my entire body, including my head. Swinging a club in a steam bath is not my idea of a good time.

And then there’s the skeeters. We have them in L.A., of course. But Florida has 80 different species of mosquito. They range from mere pests to carriers of potentially deadly pathogens. A perfect spot for a theme park!

Thus, when the Disney World location was selected, one of the first issues was, How are we going to get people to come to the Magic Kingdom in the middle of mosquito country?

Certainly that was on Walt Disney’s mind from the jump. So it was serendipity when Walt met a man named Joe Potter at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. This impressive gent was a graduate of West Point and MIT (engineering). As one bio puts it:

During World War II, he directed logistical planning for the invasion of northern France, an operation nicknamed “Red Ball Express.” After the war, he served in Washington, D.C. as assistant chief of engineers for Civil Works and Special Projects.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tapped Potter to serve as governor of the Panama Canal Zone. You know what they have in Panama? Skeeters the size of canned hams. Carrying malaria, no less. One of Potter’s duties was figuring out how to control the blood suckers. Which he did.

Which is why Walt hired Joe Potter right there at the World’s Fair.

So Potter set about his task, and the first order of business was to take away the mosquitoes’ favorite breeding ground, standing water. Potter drained all the surrounding swampland and turned it into drainage ditches, so water would constantly flow.

Inside the park, you won’t find any standing water. There’s always a fountain or some sort of watery movement so the bugs can’t lay eggs.

Then there’s the architecture. Every building in Disney World is designed so that water from rain runs right off and has nowhere to collect.

And the flora: Disney World eschews plants that have soil where water can puddle.

And the fish: Disney World stocks their pools with the kind that love to eat mosquito larvae.

Now, someone may ask, why doesn’t Disney World just use a pesticide? The answer is, Walt was against it. He wanted to preserve the environment.

But they do spray….garlic! Mosquitoes hate garlic. So they use a garlic spray around the park that humans can’t smell but is decidedly anti-skeeter.

In other words, Disney World had a major problem and found a way to fix it.

Like with your novel.

First, you have to drain your novel of swampland. That’s any part of your story that is squishy, serves no purpose, doesn’t build on anything or provide a foundation for essential story material. The primary sign is a scene with no conflict or tension. Get rid of any such scene.

Second: keep the tension flowing. In every scene there should be the rushing waters of direct conflict, or at least the babbling brook of inner tension. Upon revision, look at every scene and see if you can ratchet up the tension by 10%. Doing that over and over throughout the novel creates tremendous momentum. (See also the tips from Becca Puglisi here.)

Third, eliminate any prose that feels like standing water. Cut flab and write tight. Every word counts. (You might try running sections through the free Hemingway app.) Keep special watch for the type of skeeter known as the adverb. Almost always you can squish them without any adverse effect.

Finally, spray the book down with the garlic of a good proof reader. Typos are like those annoying little mosquitoes called No-see-ums. They’re so small you almost don’t notice them, but man can they bite. Kill every one of them with extreme prejudice.

Then sit back, relax, and enjoy the release of your pest-free novel!

So…do you notice certain kinds of mosquitoes popping up in your fiction? What do you do to hunt them down?

*Research for this post came primarily from here and here.

46 thoughts on “Killing the Mosquitoes in Your Fiction

  1. This is gold from beginning to end, Jim. The title is irresistible and so is what follows. Thank you.

  2. I do notice mosquitoes in my WIP’s. They tend to be two people who are both too nice, no arguments, no lying, no tension. If I make one of them sneaky or ticked off, that usually smacks the mosquito.

    • Great point, Priscilla. Having two people who aren’t adversaries having a chat is one big skeeter. And as you suggest, all you have to do is add some inner tension in one of the characters that is an obstacle to “nice” talk.

  3. First, “thanks” for the reminders about why I hated living in Florida. And love living in Colorado, where I’ve seen six mosquitoes in the eleven years I’ve lived here.
    More in my novels, though. I’ve just hit the first round of edits phase, and I’m at least 3K words over what I wanted. I’ll be swatting and squishing.

  4. Great post!

    I went to Disney World in 1975/76. I was there for the New Year’s parade – full of the red, white and blue. In fact, everything was red, white and blue. It was my first experience with American patriotism.

    And nope. Did not notice any mosquitoes. Being from Manitoba, Canada, at that time, I knew the skeeters by name. Don’t remember running into a single one.

    I can’t say the same for my drafts. I read through them, and all those skeeter names come back to me: passive prose in active passages, ambiguity, pace-killing sentence lengths, filter words, and those pesky typos. Thank goodness for revisions!

  5. Great analogy, Jim. My biggest mosquitos are scenes which lack enough tension, especially during the early part one, showing the normal world. My favorite technique for finding those little No-see-ums is text-to-speech. Scrivener allows speeding up or slowing down the speech. Even with the speech zipping along faster than I read, those little No-see-ums stand out like lightning bugs.

    Have a great weekend!

    • Great reminder, Steve, about text-to-speech. It’s a great skeeter trap. I usually use it for these posts…and when I don’t, my wife inevitably reads it and says, “Um, honey, you have a typo…”

  6. Maybe it’s because I live in Theme Park Heaven, but our skeeters are not as impressive as other areas. Ours mostly just come out at night. Alaska’s win on sheer size. They can carry off small children. The ones that freaked me out the most were the Stealth Skeeters in New York and Maine. My friends and I played in the woods on a perfectly clear summer day and were literally covered in mosquitoes in about ten seconds. It was like a horror movie. I’m still not over it.

    I tend to hear literary skeeters when I read aloud.

    • “Nor am I greatly moved by jocular inquiries such as, ‘Where will you put all the mosquitoes?’ — a question to be answered on its own level by pointing out that, if the worst came to worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”
      – C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

  7. I love this, JIm! What a brilliant visionary Walt Disney was. Thanks for sharing this fascinating inside history of Disney World.

    Another effective mosquito repellent is to have a spouse who’s tastier than you are. As long as I’m with him, they leave me alone. Even though he’s a Florida native, mosquitoes give him no quarter.

    Right now I’m in the first draft of my WIP. Based on this post, I’ll be mindful to build the landscape from the beginning to be inhospitable to those pesky writing mosquitoes. An ounce of prevention…

  8. My worst bad habit is to repeat verbs. A character will shiver, and darned if other characters don’t start shivering a couple of paragraphs later. But Jim, I think it was your suggestion to read a ms out loud that helped me all but eliminate the problem.

  9. Great analogy, Jim. And a fascinating story about eliminating mosquitoes from Disney World. Walt Disney was a genius on more than one level.

    The first drafts of my novels are always infested. There are weasel words, adverbs, and I seem to have everybody raising their eyebrows. I swat as many as I can, and then I bring in the pros. My editor has cannon-sized spray, and she seems to enjoy using it. Then the proof reader picks off the remainders. Walt Disney would be proud.

  10. That was one of the best writing/editing analogies I’ve ever read. Thanks. 🙂

  11. Great story, Jim. I had no idea about the eradication of mosquitoes at Disney World–my family took an epic cross-country train trip to Florida in 1974 to spend visit friends on the Gulf Coast, and we went to Disney World for a day. No mosquitoes. 13 year old me had no clue.

    My first drafts are infested with out-of-character behavior, thin characterization, weak attitude for the hero on occasion, as well as lots of looking, nodding, smiling etc. Oh, and contradictions from changing my mind about a story point, and that old classic, forgetting a character for fifty pages 🙂

    Which is why I revise, have beta readers, edit once more, and have an editor.

    Have a great Sunday!

    • Dale, good point about all those innocuous movements…I see a lot of that in MSs where the author never uses a dialogue attribution. These weak substitutions wear the reader out for no good purpose.

  12. Excellent analogy/backstory, JSB! I’m getting ready to do some swatting and will take a look at the Hemingway app.

    And I remember walking on a beach in Mexico with a friend many years ago. The skeeters were constantly attacking him, but leaving me alone. Never figured out why. Maybe it’s in the blood.

  13. Yes. Been worker with an editor and found that two of my main characters are not likeable. When this was brought to my attention, I didn’t notice, but it’s a major problem nonetheless. Turns out my “Bad Guy” is the most enduring character – not what I was going for.

    • And yet, Ben, Hitchcock always said the strength of his suspense was in the villain. And think of Lecter. So never worry about making the bad guy unforgettable!

  14. Great post, Jim. Save-worthy for the newbie . . . 🙂

    We have skeeters in the PNW. Some people not from here might be surprised at that. But we also have a large skeeter look-alike who carries the local moniker of Skeeter Eater. Seriously, he looks just a like a skeeter only twice, sometimes three times as big. I’m convinced you could saddle and ride them.

    We try not to kill them. This summer, for awhile, they perched on our siding in droves . . . just waiting.

    So, here’s my plan: See if I can hire some of them to sit on my MSs and kill the tension-sucking, adverb-laying, word-glut-building sections. Might work.

  15. Scenes set in restaurants and other sit-down spots can turn into skeeter ponds full of talking heads.
    There are certain words that are red flags for onrushing boredom: delicious, calmly, welcome, wonderful, pleasant, and so forth. Avoid anything resembling “. . . and then they all sat down and had a delicious meal.” Give priority to “. . . ‘Does your vichyssoise taste funny?’ Cousin Larry asked, just before silently planting his face in the soup.”
    In fact, there’s an entire SciFi swamp known as “Utopian Fen,” a sure-fire way to quash conflict with the writer’s notion of social perfection. Arrrrgh!
    Then there’s the subtle hazard of action scenes written as tromp l’oeil, instead of sumi-e, bogged down in endless descriptions of whose foot went exactly where.
    Or taking your MC downtown step-by-step, instead of just jumping to: “It was raining by the time Sledge got downtown . . .”
    Inner tension can help, but not if it’s so neurotic, the reader gets disgusted.

      • My characters eat a lot. Must be my heritage. But yes, the restaurant gives the opportunity for a new setting, and yes, there needs to be conflict/tension/more than food. Something else to make sure I have in the wip as I go through the first draft.
        For context: My characters have recently met and he invites her to lunch

        Their server brought chips and two kinds of salsa. They placed their orders—Frank went with Carne Asada—and once the server had left, Kiera asked what he’d discovered when he’d talked to the man at the plaque table. “Do you think he could be your rustler? His wife said he’s a schoolteacher, and he’ll be back to work in the fall. You did notice she’s pregnant, right? Seems like they’re trying to earn a little extra money. Teachers don’t make much.”
        Frank gave the soft chuckle that warmed her more than the salsa their server had left.
        “What’s so funny?” she asked.
        “You ask a question, but don’t give me a chance to answer.”

    • Oh, my gosh! How funny . . .

      ‘Does your vichyssoise taste funny?’ Cousin Larry asked, just before silently planting his face in the soup.”

      🙂 🙂

      • The others all gasped in alarm. I was not worried, nor was I amused, this being the fourth–or was it the fifth?–time I’d seen Cousin Larry do his impromptu soup dive.

        But this time was different.

  16. Fun blog, Jim. As someone currently living in Florida, Disney World is the last place I want to go. I am blessed with an editor who’s good at swatting mosquitoes.

      • I’ve been a local to Disneyland in LA (went the year it opened–another Disney brilliant move, showing the construction, etc., on his Sunday night TV show), then moved to Florida. 22 years in Orlando. Everyone worked for, or knew someone who worked for a theme park, so comp tickets were exchanged readily. Our biggest “use” of the parks was off-season, going in later in the day, having dinner. Super Bowl Sunday was perfect. You could roll a bowling ball down Main Street and not hit a soul. My favorite was the big sphere (can’t remember it’s name) ; listening to Walter Cronkite’s narration was a must on our way out.
        I do know a couple of locals who have annual passes and go dozens of times a year. Not my thing. Animal Kingdom was pretty good. We lived next door to the vet.

  17. GREAT post! A thousand thanks for that Hemmingway app.
    Literary style allows for a touch more wiggle room, but even we need to keep our gardens in order. I’m going to have fun with that app.

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