About Kathryn Lilley

A crime writer, former journalist, and author of IMBA-bestselling mystery series, The Fat City Mysteries. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two neurotic cats. http://www.kathrynlilley.com/

Dog Days, Mad Or Otherwise

Last Friday, on the heels of discovering that my flight out of Newark had been canceled due to violent thunderstorms —and that flights the next day were also being canceled in rapid succession—I Googled the phrase “dog days of summer”.

It turns out our ancient forebears coined the phrase “dog days” to describe the stretch of days in late July when Sirius the Dog Star appears at the horizon just before sunrise. To the Greeks and Romans, dog days were associated with fever, war, and general mayhem. In ancient Egypt, the Dog Star would appear just before the commencement of the Nile’s yearly flood season. They regarded Sirius as a “watchdog” heralding of that event.

The way people interpret the notion of dog days has evolved over time. In the 1930’s Noel Coward wrote a popular cabaret song with the lyrics “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”.

My adventures in Newark has convinced me that the ancients were onto something when they blamed Sirius for causing late summer mayhem. After an unscheduled overnight stay in Newark, my husband and I finally boarded a flight that took off between squall lines. We had a grand time over the next couple of days at Gene’s fiftieth high school reunion in upstate New York.

But the night before our return to LA, my phone started blowing up with messages and scrolling alerts. It was the airline—they were reaching out to issue dire warnings about thunderstorms in the city where we were supposed to change flights the next day.

I think Sirius is definitely dogging us this year. I feel like I should sacrifice something and throw him a bone.

How are you spending the dog days of late July and August? Has Sirius caused you any trouble this season?

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The Quiz Question That Inspires Fear

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“Describe the theme of this novel” is one of those pop quiz questions that can inject terror into the soul of an eighth grader in English class. Sometimes even an experienced writer can struggle to identify a specific theme in his or her story, especially during the writing process.

A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. If a plot could be compared to the body of a race car, the theme would be the engine turning its wheels. In King Lear, for example, one of its main themes is authority versus chaos.

Theme vs. Subject

We should not confuse a story’s subject with its theme. The subject of a story would be a one-word descriptor of its main idea. “War”, for example, would be the subject of many stories. A theme would be an opinion related to that subject, such as “In War, everyone loses.” Joe Moore wrote an excellent post a while back about how to distinguish between a story’s subject and its theme.

Some writers approach theme almost as an afterthought. But having  a well-crafted theme adds dimension and depth to our stories.

Using a character-driven approach to develop a theme

I like to use minor characters to explore a story’s underlying theme. I call this method the “360-degree” approach to developing theme. In this approach, the secondary characters represent various aspects of the main theme, and they act as foils to the main character’s experiences. For example, the theme of A KILLER WORKOUT was “Mean Girls Suffer Last”. That theme was explored through the story arcs of several characters. One woman had been victimized by bullies in her youth; another was a bully. Another character was a protector of abused women.  Each of these characters explored different facets of the subject of bullying and  emotional abuse.

What’s your theme?

How do you explore theme? What’s the theme of your WIP? How are you working that theme into your narrative?

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The “eLight” League, And Other Commonly Mispronounced Words

The other day I was talking casually with a sports fan acquaintance, and  heard him refer to an “eLight” (EE-light) league. After hearing several more references to this strange-sounding league, I realized he meant to say “elite”.

The fear of mispronouncing a word is one of my secret social anxieties. I grew up in a world where one would be mocked or loftily dismissed for mispronouncing any word in the dictionary. As a child, I loved discovering new words through reading books, but I grew fearful of using them in speech after an unfortunate run in with the word “redolent “. It seemed logical to my 12 year old brain to pronounce it as “re-DOH-lent”. The drubbing I received for that mistake (turns out it’s pronounced “RED-i-lent”) made me phobic about using any fresh word in conversation unless I had looked up the pronunciation in a dictionary first.

My strict pronunciation lookup rule protected me from social humiliation until age I was 37, when I tossed the word “detritus” (pronounced as “de-TREE-tus”) into conversation with a British friend. He gave me a puzzled look.

”Do you mean detritus (dih-TRY-tus)?” he asked.

Immediately I realized my mistake. Fortunately my British friend seemed to interpret my gaffe as one of those across-the-pond linguistic mutations, and we moved on. But I renewed my commitment to my childhood pronunciation lookup rule.

By now of course, someone has written a book, YOU’RE PROBABLY SAYING IT WRONG,  about 150 commonly mispronounced words.

I fared pretty well on the article’s extracted list of commonly mispronounced, probably due to my lifelong lookup rule. It turns out I have been mispronouncing “gif”, however. The guy who invented the gif says it’s pronounced “jif”, not “gif” with a hard “g”. My dictionaries are no help on this one: they provide both pronunciations.

Damn the techie torpedoes; I’m sticking to “gif”, with a hard “g”.

Have you ever felt embarrassed because you mispronounced a word in conversation? What are some words that you tripped over?

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What’s In An Author’s Chair?

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Back in 2002, author JK Rowling donated the chair she had used while writing the first two Harry Potter books to a children’s charity. Instead of donating the humble chair in its original condition (Rowling reportedly described the chair as something that could have been “purchased from a junk shop for a tenner”), she hand painted it in rose, gold, and green paints, infusing it with a bit of literary magic.

Do you gravitate to a special author’s chair while writing? If so, what is it about that particular chair (or couch, or coffee shop booth) that helps get your creative engine running?

Update: Sorry for delays in responding to folks: I’m away helping the family celebrate my father’s 90th birthday, too busy celebrating!

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

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