Redux: Does Creativity Pass Through Generations via DNA?

With a deadline nipping at my heels, and losing two days to the holiday, I’m sharing a post I wrote in 2018. Still as fascinating today, IMO. Enjoy!

This video sent me down a rabbit hole of research.

As you can imagine, my writer brain lit up. Turns out, the research was even more fascinating than the video. A scientific study showed that a traumatic event could affect the DNA in sperm or eggs and alter the brains and behavior of subsequent generations. This breakthrough is an important discovery in the fight to treat phobias and anxiety.

Do you fear spiders, heights, or small spaces for no apparent reason? This may explain why.

Neuroscientists trained mice to fear a cherry blossom scent prior to copulation. While breeding these mice, the team at the Emory University School of Medicine looked at what was happening inside the sperm. Incredibly, the sperm showed a section of DNA, responsible for sensitivity to the cherry blossom scent, was indeed more active.

The mice’s offspring, and their offspring — the grand-mice, if you will — were all extremely sensitive to cherry blossom and avoided the scent at all costs, despite never experiencing a problem with it in their lives. They also found changes in brain structure.

In the smell-aversion study, scientists believe either some of the odor ended up in the bloodstream, which affected sperm production, or the brain sent a signal to the sperm to alter the DNA.

The report states, “Our findings provide a framework for addressing how environmental information may be inherited transgenerationally at behavioral, neuroanatomical and epigenetic levels.”

Environmental change can also critically affect the lifestyle, reproductive success, and lifespan of adult animals for generations. Exposure to high temperatures led to the expression of endogenously repressed copies of genes — sometimes referred to as “junk” DNA. The changes in chromatin occurred in the early embryo before the onset of transcription and were inherited through eggs and sperm. In mealworms, they traced the DNA changes through 14 generations.

Why mealworms? It’s quicker to test generation after generation on an animal with a short lifespan.

Another study showed that a mouse’s ability to remember can be affected by the presence of immune system factors in their mother’s milk. Chemokines — signaling proteins secreted by cells — carried in a mother’s milk caused changes in the brains of their offspring, affecting their memory later in life.

Memories are passed down through generations via genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors. These switches, however, can be turned on and off, according to Science Daily. Scientists have long assumed that memories and learned experiences must be passed to future generations through personal interactions. However, this research shows that it’s possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA.

Creativity counts as a learned behavior, but I also believe it goes deeper than that. Think about how deeply you feel about your writing. For most writers I know, when we’re “in the zone” our soul does the writing. One could argue we’re merely vessels who type. Have you ever read a passage that you don’t remember writing? Our ability to create burrows into the core of who we are, and thus, leaves an indelible mark. How, then, can we not pass that part of ourselves to future generations?

How many of you have creative folks in your family tree, be it writers, artists, musicians, singers, or other forms of creativity?

To test my theory, I asked the same question to my fellow TKZ members. Please note: this revelation occurred to me yesterday, so I’ve only included the members who saw the email in time. Hopefully, the others will add their responses in the comments.

For those I did catch on a Sunday, check out what they said …

Elaine Viets said, “My late cousin Kurt was a talented wood carver, and my grandfather was known as a great story teller in the local saloons.”

I love wood-carved pieces. The smell, the texture, the swirl to the grain. It’s not an easy creative outlet to master.

Jordan Dane comes from a long line of creative people. Here’s her answer: “My paternal grandfather was a writer for a Hispanic newspaper. My dad was an architect and artist (painter), my older brother went into architecture too, specializing in hospital design. My dad is a real renaissance guy. He could sculpt, paint, draw and he has a passion for cooking. My older brother Ed and I share a love for singing. I sang in competitive ensemble groups. He played in a popular area band and has sung in barbershop quartets. My mom was the original singer in our family. She has a great voice.”

Joe Hartlaub has two talented children. Here’s what he said, “Annalisa Hartlaub, my youngest daughter, is a photographer. My oldest son Joe is also a highly regarded bass guitar player locally.”

He’s being modest. When I checked out Annalisa’s photographs on Facebook and Instagram they blew me away. A photography project she created at 15 years old also went viral.

When I prodded further, Joe added, “My maternal grandfather played guitar, but we never knew it until we came across a picture of him taken at a large Italian social club gathering where he was strumming away. He was in his twenties at the time. As far as the source of Annalisa’s talent goes…her mother is a terrific photographer. The conclusion is that Annalisa gets the form of the art from her mother and her creativeness from me.”

Laura Benedict stunned me with her answer. “Someone doing genealogy linked my maternal grandfather’s family to Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Talk about a creative genius!

Laura added, “I remember a few very small watercolors that I believe my maternal grandmother painted. Trees and houses. But while we were close, we never talked about art. My aunt also did some drawing.”

John Gilstrap also came from a long line of creative people. Here’s his answer…

“My paternal extended family has always been fairly artistic.  My grandfather, I am told–he died long before I was born–had a beautiful singing voice, and for a period of time worked whatever the Midwest version of the Vaudeville circuit was.  My father, a career Naval aviator, wrote the Navy’s textbook, The Principles of Helicopter Flight, and had two patents on helicopter cargo handling operations.  He passed away in 2006.

My brother, four years older than I, plays a number of instruments, but his primary proficiency is the piano.  His daughter is a very accomplished cellist who makes her living as the director of a high school orchestra that consistently kills at competitions.
Closer to home, my only musical talent is to be a passable tenor in the choir.  For years, I sang with a choral group that performed all over the DC area, including a number of gigs at The Kennedy Center.  As a high schooler, our son was a pretty good cellist, but he walked away from it in college and never really looked back.”

Although I wasn’t able to catch her in time, PJ Parrish is the sister team of Kris Montee and Kelly Nichols.

As for me, my maternal grandfather was a highly regarded artist (painter) in his time. My mother was a beautiful writer, even though I never knew it while she was alive. After she passed, I discovered notebooks full of her writing. UPDATE: In 2020, two years after I wrote this post, I found out she worked as an editor for many years.

So, can creativity be passed through our DNA? Judging by this small pool of writers, I find it hard not to entertain the possibility.

I’m betting the same holds true if I expand the test subjects to include you, my beloved TKZers. How many of you have creative folks in your family tree?

Wings of Mayhem by Sue Coletta

FREE on Amazon.

When the cat burglar and the serial killer collide, HE looks forward to breaking her will, but SHE never gives up. Not ever. And especially not for him.

Emphasized Words in Fiction

Many new writers struggle with how to emphasize words in fiction. It’s tempting to stick a word in ALL CAPS.

Please resist that urge. Yes, all-caps draws the reader’s attention, but not in a good way. All-caps become annoying after a while.

In fact, a 1955 study found that all-caps slowed reading speed by 9.5% over a five-minute period.

For example:

“I AM NOT HYSTERICAL!”

Notice how all the letters blend together in all-caps? It’s difficult to read. Imagine an entire novel littered with all-caps? In dialogue, it’s even more exhausting and amateurish.

If your character is shouting, use one exclamation point—not three!!!—or show us with a body cue.

“I am not hysterical!”

Or…

She slammed her fist on the table. “I am not hysterical!”

The combination of body cue, italicizing not, and the exclamation mark show the reader she is hysterical.

To the best of my recollection, I only used all-caps once in nineteen books. In my latest psychological thriller that releases at the end of this month (Yay!), the MC finds an engraved invitation, and I used italicized all-caps to show the heading across the front. Because all-caps is so offensive and jarring, I took special care to break up the text with an em dash, spacing above and below it, and double-tabbed to set it apart from the narrative. Offensive and jarring was exactly what I was going for, so all-caps worked in this case.

If you can think of another exception, please share in the comments.

What about changing the font to indicate emphasis?

I know it’s easy to change fonts these days, but the end result doesn’t enhance the reading experience. If anything, it pulls the reader out of the story. Please, stop. Let the writing speak for itself. If it can’t, then the problem is the writing, not the font.

What about bold to emphasize a word?

The short answer is no. The reading experience isn’t enhanced by bold, either. Both bold and all-caps look like the author’s screaming for attention.

What are we left with?

Italics. Yes, but don’t overdo it. Italics work best for emphasis when used sparingly. Like all-caps and bold, if used too much the eye passes right over the words we want emphasized.

We do have one other trick.

Em dashes. I love the little suckers. Maybe too much. 😉 At least I’m in good company. Jim professed his love for the em dash on Valentine’s Day last year.

“It is a crisp, efficient dash used to set off a word or clause for emphasis or additional information.”

Couldn’t say it any better. It’s a beloved, versatile punctuation mark.

Hope he doesn’t mind if I steal his example from Romeo’s Hammer:

So what about the lack of clothing? A love scene gone bad? Someone who had been with her while she was drinking—or drugging—herself? Her condition when I found her was such that she had to have come from one of the beach houses. Access to the sand is cut off all along PCH. She didn’t wander down from the street.

See how drugging stands right out? The em dashes draw the eye right to it. They tell us to pay attention. They pique interest. They emphasize.

With italics and em dashes, we have all the tools we need to emphasize words. Now, go forth and finish that novel.

For fun, share a sentence from your WIP, published work, or a book you’re reading that shows how a word–or words–are emphasized. Don’t forget to include the title!

Pumpkin Spice and Writing

Ever wonder why pumpkin spice is so popular? The fascinating part is not only does it taste amazing, but many are obsessed with how it makes them feel on an emotional level.

Dr. John McGann, a sensory neuroscientist at Rutgers Department of Psychology, explains how it all reverts back to the olfactory system — our sense of smell — which is complex to say the least.

“Most of what we refer to colloquially as taste is actually smell,” McGann says. “About 70 percent of our [perception] of taste is retronasal smell and then maybe 25 percent of it is true taste: salty, bitter, sweet. But there also additional components: the feeling of creaminess, which really contributes to a perception of flavor [and] your sense of touch. Then there’s an additional sense of pungency, [as in] the burning feeling of pepper from hot wings. That’s your trigeminal system. So, your brain is putting all of these things together.”

The human brain also assembles memories and emotions. In this way, smell is unique from all other senses, which first passes through the thalamus — a relay station of the brain — and goes straight to the olfactory bulb.

“From there it goes to the amygdala, which controls emotion, and to the hippocampal formation, the entorhinal cortex,” McGann explains. “Smell anatomically has a more direct connection to classical memory regions in the brain.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? A scene becomes more impactful and memorable when we include smell.

  • If your character is in the forest, include the fresh scent of pine.
  • If your character is in the bowling alley, include the stench of bare feet.
  • If your character is in a boat, include the salty ocean air.
  • If your character is at an Italian restaurant, include the signature tomato sauce.
  • If your character is at the gym, include body odor or sweat.
  • If your character is in a sauna, include cedar.
  • If your character is at a pool, include chlorine.
  • If your character is home, include a scented candle, tart warmer, or air freshener.
  • If one character is cradling a toddler, include baby shampoo or talcum powder.

McGann recalls a famous scene in Proust’s masterpiece, “Remembrance Of Things Past”, where the narrator eats a madeleine cookie and feels as if he’s transported back in time. The same thing happens to us when we drink or eat something flavored with pumpkin spice.

What makes the flavor so widely relatable is the inclusion of spices like cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg that are more prevalent during the holidays. The aroma of pumpkin is associated with Thanksgiving and autumnal harvest — historically, a prosperous time of year.

Food chemists hit an olfactory jackpot. Hence why pumpkin spice became more than just a fad. It’s a seasonal staple.

“The pumpkin spice blend… It’s about making people happy and connecting them to moments: the changing of the season, of being warm under the covers, but also the memory of spending enjoyable time with family and friends.” Thierry Muret, executive chef chocolatier at Godiva

Think about how the aroma of hot buttery popcorn triggers memories of movie theaters or how lobster tails remind New Englanders of the beach.

Where does your main character live? Does the area have a signature dish? Tickle the reader’s sense of smell to transport them there.

“Pumpkin spice is a novelty smell because you don’t smell it very often and it’s usually a pleasant smell,” explains Dr. Gabriel Keith Harris, director of Undergraduate Programs in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University. “Combine that with the fact that the part of the brain that processes smell is closely tied to the part of your brain responsible for memories and you have part of the secret to the success of pumpkin spice.”

Makes sense, right?

“Your brain fills in the gaps between the scent of the spices and the memories associated with the smell,” Harris adds. “It takes in everything we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, and it combines those sensory inputs with what we already know and believe about our environment.”

This helps to explain why scent is such a powerful driver of emotion.

The irony is that pumpkin spice doesn’t smell like pumpkins. Pumpkins are members of the squash family, and don’t smell like spices. On their own their taste ranges from bland to bitter. What we’re actually smelling and/or tasting is a combination of cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg.

The true genius of the pumpkin spice craze is all about timing. Same holds true for writing. Don’t include a scent merely to check off an item on the to-do list. Include smell for a reason.

Examples:

  • To enhance the setting—the MC is hiking up a mountain trail.
  • To transport the reader back in time and/or place—flashing back to a memory.
  • To pack a more emotional punch—a mother loses her son, but she can still smell him on his favorite football jersey or bed pillow.
  • To set the scene—the MC meets a blind date at a restaurant.

“Pumpkin spice plays on what’s known in psychology as reactance theory, which refers to the idea that people will want something more if they are told they cannot have it,” according to Harris. “The seasonality of it is really intentional. If pumpkin spice were available year-round, it wouldn’t trigger such powerful memories and people wouldn’t want it as much.”

Also, when the pumpkin spice craze starts, people don’t want to miss out. They crave being part of a community.

“If you add it all up, the powerful ability of smell to summon up old experiences becomes a mental transportation device, shifting you from summer to fall and it becomes an event people want to be part of.”

Let’s pretend you are the main character. What scents should I expect to smell while reading your life story?

Happy Halloween!

How To Craft a Compelling Character

Last week, Sisters in Crime approached me to do a SINC-UP! video tip for their YouTube channel. Volunteers from the national education committee post video writing tips several times a month to provide inspiration for new writers and promote the value of Sisters in Crime membership. All the videos are only 2-5 minutes long and easily digestible.

I chose characterization. After we taped the video, the volunteer told me she finally understood why beta readers couldn’t connect with her main character. She’s not alone. Many new writers struggle with how to deepen their characters. After all, we can have the best concept, premise, and plot, but if readers can’t connect with our characters then the story won’t work.

How do we craft a compelling character?

It starts with three dimensions. We’re all layered. Who we portray to the world falls under the first dimension of character. That’s not to say we aren’t acting genuine, but when we are in a public setting we act appropriately—or we don’t, but that’s what you’ll have to figure out for your character.

  • Who is your character in public?
  • Do they put their best foot forward?
  • Or are they so uncomfortable in a public setting, they make a total fool of themselves?

Jotting down how your character might react in public places will help you nail down the first dimension.

The second dimension of character is the person we show to family and close friends. At home we let our guard down. We’re more relaxed, more ourselves. We don’t need to try to portray a certain image or level of professionalism because we’re surrounded by close friends and family.

  • How does your character react around close friends and family?
  • Are they goofballs?
  • The practical jokester?
  • More loving, more reserved?

The perfect real-life example of the first two dimensions of character is Richard Simmons. To the world he was a gregarious, loud, sensitive, and passionate workout guru who pranced around in flashy outfits, the more outrageous the better. Everyone loved him. He was so open, so seemingly transparent, even casual viewers of his workout videos felt they knew the real Richard Simmons. He was a shining light of inspiration to many over the years. When he disappeared from public view, the public feared the worst.

  • Did he die?
  • Is someone holding him hostage?
  • Is he being abused?

No one knew. One day he was performing for the camera, and the next day—gone. No explanation, no paparazzi photos, nothing. He vanished.

What very few knew in the decades that followed was that the Richard Simmons he portrayed to the world was who he longed to become. An alter ego, if you will. At home Richard was an extreme introvert, a recluse with only one or two close friends, a quiet, emotionally scarred, deep thinker who preferred the solace of silence—the polar opposite of who he was in public.

Richard Simmons is an extreme example of the first two dimensions of character but keep him in mind while crafting a new character.

The third dimension is our true character. And by that, I mean, if your character is sitting in a crowded theater when a fire breaks out, do they help others find the exit? Or do they trample the crowd to save themselves? One’s true character is tested when they’re put into perilous situations.

  • Who is your character then?
  • Are they the savior or the selfish?
  • Do they think they’re the savior but when trouble ensues, they run in the opposite direction?

Ask your significant other or best friend to describe who you are in public, who you are in private, and how that might differ. Unless you’ve been in a dangerous situation you may not even know your third dimension…until it’s tested. Then you’ll find out quick. 😉

Once you’ve mastered these three dimensions and have gotten to know your characters on a deeper level, then ask them questions like,

  • What’s your greatest passion?
  • What’s your favorite genre of music?
  • Do you travel?
  • What places have you gone?
  • How did each trip affect you?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Are you an animal lover? (I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like animals)
  • Did you have a favorite childhood pet?
  • How did you feel when they died?
  • What type of things are on your bucket list?

The more questions you ask, the better you’ll get to know them.

Apply the same three dimensions to all your characters, even your villain. You need to know the villain as well as your main character. After all, the two characters should be equally matched. Thus, even if everything they stand for rubs against who you are as a person, you’ve gotta fight for them, win their arguments, understand why they do the things they do. Most villains don’t know they’re the bad guy. They’re on a mission to fulfill their goals, and you, as the writer, need to champion their efforts, especially if you plan to write from their point-of-view.

Do you concentrate on the three dimensions of character while crafting characters?

For those who struggle with characterization, did this help connect a few dots?

Telepathy and Writing

Deep down each of us have a strong but underused connection to the world around us.

Consider the time when you sensed someone watching you, even if you couldn’t see them. Or the gut feeling, telling you something significant was about to happen. Or the intuitive, instinctive feeling that gave you the name of the person on the other end of the line before checking the caller ID.

If we learn how to tap into this sixth sense, we begin to notice when someone—dead or alive—is thinking about us, even when we’re physically apart.

Telepathic communication explains why, when you randomly thought of a friend and she texted you the next day. Or that time when you spontaneously called your third cousin, and he said, “Oh em gee, I was just thinking about you!”

Writers are especially attuned to the “little voice” inside us.

Some are more intuitive than others, but we all have an underutilized sixth sense. Once we learn its power and how to use it, new doorways open up, doorways that enhance our writing.

The more we open up to the possibility of telepathy, the more we’ll start to notice the messages from our spirit guides and ancestors, and the synchronicities or coincidences that have always been present in our lives.

The Natural World thrives on telepathic communication.

An animal’s survival depends on it. If you’ve ever wondered how one species warns another about potential threats, telepathy answers this question. And humans — as members of the Natural World — can tap into that same energy.

The notion of telepathic communication first intrigued me as a way to chat with animals, wild and domestic. Because when we watch and listen to animals, they help us reach our full potential. Animals enrich the mind, body, and soul. They’re sentient, intuitive beings who communicate with us in many ways. Body language, vocals, and telepathy, whether we’re cognizant of it or not.

Think about this: Most animals know more about their environment than you or I ever will.

An intuitive exchange with any animal — cats, dogs, guinea pigs, crows — begins the same way. First, with physical body cues. Then with the silent language of love.

So, how can we telepathically communicate with animals?

Step 1: Rest your hands over your heart and practice deep breathing exercises.

Step 2: Once you’re relaxed, pay attention to your heart, to your soul, and feel the gravity of your love for the animal.

Step 3: Express your love for that animal by visualizing a soft beam of light, a tether connecting the two of you.

Step 4: Silently or vocally ask the animal for permission to telepathically communicate with them.

Step 5: If you don’t sense any reluctance, express how you’re open to receiving messages in return. Keep it light in the beginning and progress deeper once you build trust, confidence, and strengthen your bond.

Keep in mind, animals live in the moment. They’re not distracted by the phone, the to-do list, or regret. And so, you must also be in the present moment to connect with them.

The only obstacle is you.

Trust the flow, the energetic pulse of life. Align with, not against, this flow. By blocking out all distractions, the energy exchanges between you and animals will occur effortlessly. You are in the present, anchored by love and grace, and coming from a place of neutrality. You are part of the Natural World, connected across space and time.

The same principals apply to human-to-human telepathic communication. Both parties must be willing participants. Don’t use this life skill for evil (unless you’re targeting fictional characters).

Remember These Three Simple Truths

  1. We are all part of divine consciousness.
  2. Love creates alignment with all creation.
  3. We all have the ability to listen with our heart.

When we refocus on lowering the frequency of emotions — fear, self-doubt, anxiety — we raise our cognition, enhance the vibration of our energy, we align with nature. Animals are drawn to bright inner lights, and therefore will be enthusiastic about communicating with you.

That’s all well and good, Sue, but how does that help our writing?

Glad you asked. 😉

In On Writing, Stephen King provides the perfect example of telepathy and writing.

“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists—and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s The Purloined Letter. All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”

What does the quote mean?

The best way to think about writing is the process of transferring a mental image from your mind to the mind of a reader. As writers, we envision scenes, settings, characters, etc. Our job is to transfer that mental image to the page for the reader to experience later.

Sounds a lot like telepathy, doesn’t it? Because it is!

Hence why writing coaches tell us to envision our ideal reader, carrying that image with us while writing. The trick is learning what images to include and what to leave out. Hint: Less is more.

Want to hear something bizarre?

While writing this post in Word, the document kept disappearing. One second it’d be on my screen, gone the next. And I had three other documents open at the time. The other two stayed on the screen. Coincidence? You tell me.

Releases tomorrow! Preorder on Amazon for $1.49 before my publisher raises the price.

She may be paranoid, but is she right?

A string of gruesome murders rocks the small town of Alexandria, New Hampshire, with all the victims staged to resemble dead angels, and strange red and pink balloons appearing out of nowhere.

All the clues point to the Romeo Killer’s return. Except one: he died eight years ago.

Paranoid and on edge, Sage’s theory makes no sense. Dead serial killers don’t rise from the grave. Yet she swears he’s here, hungering for the only angel to slip through his grasp—Sage.

With only hours left to live, how can Sage convince her Sheriff husband before the sand in her hourglass runs out?

 

 

 

What Writers Can Learn from I Was Prey

Please excuse my absence over the last 7-10 days while I was on deadline. I’m usually a better multitasker. *sigh*

Every once in a while, a TV show comes along that’s a goldmine for writers. I Was Prey is that type of series.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, each episode recounts the hauntingly true stories of people who found themselves in a life-or-death struggle with a dangerous animal. Whoever puts these shows together knows story structure, because each episode grips you, holds interest, and keeps you watching. It’s like a car crash. You cannot look away.

The benefit for writers comes through observation.

As each victim recounts their harrowing tale, watch their facial expressions, their involuntary tics and body movements. Listen to the inflection of their voice. It’s all real, raw emotion. These victims carry lifelong emotional and physical scars.

The grizzly bear and hippo attacks are my favorite. Not because I enjoy watching people fall prey to these animals, but because of their reaction to the animal’s power and strength. And we can use that to our advantage. The shock when they first encounter the animal, and what that looks like as they relive the moment on screen. More importantly, how they felt at the time.

Stories thrive on emotion.

It’s how we breathe life into characters.

By studying real people in dangerous situations, we can then transfer that emotion to our characters. It’s especially helpful for the young writer who has never experienced trauma, thus has an empty well of emotional upheaval to dip into.

Emotions add to the credibility of the story.

In a much-cited experiment, researchers showed several versions of the story of a father whose son is dying of cancer. The goal was to encourage listeners to donate money to charity. The versions of the story that emphasized statistics yielded the least donations. Versions focusing on the father’s feelings for his son’s condition gained the most.

Surprising? Not really. When we connect on an emotional level, we react.

Emotionally infused messages are more memorable.

Researchers have also shown how compelling stories boost hormones, oxytocin and cortisol. These hormones help us forge powerful connections. Stories that unlock strong emotions linger in a reader’s mind.

Evocative storytelling overcomes objections.

If we focus on “Just the facts, Jack,” the reader can experience analysis paralysis. Hence why there’s a fine art to weaving in research. Emotion allows readers to mark choices as good, bad, or indifferent, which in turn allows them to move beyond objections.

Emotional narratives inspire change.

For centuries we’ve told stories around the campfire. We’re wired to respond to traditional narrative structures. And so, emotion encourages empathy (say that five times fast). That emotional connection grounds the reader in the scene. Because they’ve been transported into the story, rather than merely reading words on a page, we’ve changed their mindset. Whether it’s temporary or permanent depends on the story.

A vivid, emotional story packs an extra punch and feels more real, more important. If you look back through times at moments when somebody’s beliefs changed, it’s often because of a story that hit home.

Emotion encourages word of mouth.

Emotion begets emotion. Readers who are moved by a story are more likely to recommend the book to friends, family, coworkers. They may even sing the author’s praises online.

Visceral emotion commands attention and creates a shared experience between character and reader.

Don’t tell the reader how the character feels. Show them through body cues, dialogue—external and internal—and unspoken truths. By doing so, the reader bonds with the characters.

Have you ever seen I Was Prey? Any suggestions for other documentary-style shows that writers can benefit from?

Tips to Deceive Characters and Readers

Fictional truth is never quite as clear as it seems on the surface. Deceptiveness boils down to manipulation, disguise, and misdirection. The writer can deceive characters and readers in numerous ways.

A villain might murder another character, then lie to avoid detection. This leads to more lies, more misdirection, and deepening deceptions, creating tension and conflict.

What if the main character lies to themselves about who they are or their current circumstances? Because the truth may be too difficult to accept, the charade continues. One of the most widely known examples is The Sixth Sense.

*Spoiler Alert*

Dr. Malcom Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, could not accept the fact that he died from a fatal gunshot wound. He was an unreliable character from the start of the movie, but viewers didn’t know it. Because he couldn’t accept his fate, he fooled himself into believing he survived. Thus, we believed. In hindsight, we can see where the writer dropped clues. At the time, though, most viewers didn’t catch any hints the first time they watched the movie.

Creating an unreliable narrator takes a skilled hand.

Fail, and the reader feels tricked. Succeed, and reap the rewards.

The one advantage we have is that trust is often automatic. Because narrators act as our guide, deception isn’t something readers expect. Trust is woven into the fabric of our lives. Thus, we often take it for granted.

  • When we slip behind the steering wheel or into the passenger seat, we trust the wheels will stay bolted to the car.
  • When we eat at a restaurant, we trust we won’t get food poisoning.
  • When we crawl under the covers at night, we trust the legs won’t snap off the bed.

This presumed trust is why and how authors can manipulate readers. It’s reasonable to presume we can trust the main character. And so, we do. Should we, though? No narrator is 100% reliable. Stories that force us to question our own perception are often compelling page-turners, unputdownable, and unforgettable.

Deception can occur anywhere.

We tend to first think of antagonists who are manipulative and deceptive, but heroes can deceive, too. In fact, even secondary characters are capable of deception.

What if a main character lies to protect a child?

What if a foil thrives on deceit? Or it only appears like they thrive on chaos when in truth, they’re hiding a secret? The higher the stakes, the more they’ll lie to protect it.

What if a character believes they’re right? They genuinely want to help and don’t mean to misdirect the detective. I’m talkin’ about eyewitnesses to a crime.

Think about this…

We each view the world through a filter of our past experiences, emotional baggage, scars we carry, profession—past or present—worldview, religion, politics, the list goes on and on.

For example:

When I look at an old mighty oak tree, I see a living, breathing being who’s survived for decades, maybe even hundreds of years, and has provided housing and comfort to thousands of animals. And I think, Imagine the stories it can tell.

Someone else might only see firewood.

Neither view is wrong. We’re admiring the tree through different lenses.

Psychologists refer to this as the Rashomon effect, also known as the Kurosawa effect.

This refers to a phenomenon wherein the same event is interpreted in vastly different ways by different people. The Rashomon effect is named after the popular 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie Rashomon in which a murder is described in four different ways by four different witnesses of the same crime. It is often used to emphasize the point that people’s perceptions about an event can differ considerably based on their individual personal experiences.

Thus, it is entirely possible that an event may be described in different ways by different people without any of the witnesses consciously lying.

The same holds true for our characters. And that’s where the fine art of deception comes into play. If we stay true to our character, deception could be automatic. The reader might not catch on right away, but once the truth unravels it’ll make perfect sense. Why? Because they’ve come to know how the character views the world.

Another way to show a character disguising their actions, emotions, or a secret, is through subtle clues.

Subtle clues of how characters behave can tell the reader a lot about them. Imagine people in real life when they’re not being completely honest. How they act and react say a lot about who they are. Characteristics can also show the reader a character might be deceptive—things like suspicious behavior, not wishing to engage with others, indecisiveness, or apprehension.

Dialogue is another way for writers to manipulate the reader. What characters say—and don’t say—can show a character acting evasive or blatantly lying. Tone of voice also disguises the truth, as does ambiguity.

Symbolism and atmosphere can reinforce a specific message, feeling, or idea. If you look at the setting and the character’s state of mind, think about what you want the reader to see. Is there a symbol or setting that might help foreshadow the truth or reinforce the deception?

For example, the following foreshadows danger:

  • Mirages
  • Heat waves
  • Venomous snakes
  • Fog
  • Poisonous plants

Symbols of triumph and joy:

  • Breathtaking sunrise
  • Rainbow
  • Four-leaf clover
  • Butterfly
  • Cardinal

Both these lists are so common they’ve become cliche, but we can use that to our advantage. What if you took a symbol that commonly brings joy and flipped the script? Now, the reader will no longer be able to trust their own instincts. You’re toying with their perception. Thus, able to deceive.

These are just a few ways to create deception. The possibilities are endless.

What are some ways you’ve deceived a character and/or the reader? Or name a favorite author/novel that hoodwinked you.

What Writers Can Learn from Animal Communication

Zoosemiotics is the study of animal communication, and it’s played an important role in the development of ethology, sociobiology, and the study of animal cognition. Writers can also learn from zoosemiotics. Think characterization and scene enhancement.

In the animal kingdom, the sender and receiver of communication may be part of the same species or from different species. Crows, for example, warn the chippies, squirrels, and numerous small birds when dangerous predators are in the area. They do this with a vocal alarm, and every animal pays attention. When crows are around good people and animals they’re comfortable with, they blink several times per minute and have a relaxed, roaming gaze. If a predator prowls or coasts into their domain, their unblinking, hard stare at the threat warns other wildlife in the area.

Warning Coloration

In species such as wasps that are capable of harming potential predators, they’re often brightly colored, and this modifies the behavior of the predator who either instinctively knows to be wary or has learned to use caution through past experiences. Some forms of mimicry fall in the same category. For example, hoverflies have similar coloring to wasps. Although they’re unable to sting, wasps avoid them.

Coloration changes in characters include reddening or flushed neck and/or face (anger or embarrassment) or the lack of color i.e., pale (fear, anxiety, or nervousness).

Behavioral Changes

Canines such as wolves and coyotes may adopt an aggressive posture, such as growling, head leveling, or baring teeth to warn a potential predator to stay back, that if they approach, the canine is ready and able to fight. Rattlesnakes use their telltale rattle—it means, if you come near me, I will strike. Certain amphibians with a bright colored belly and a back that blends into the environment, flash their belly when confronted by a potential threat, indicating they are poisonous in some way.

Behavioral changes in characters include a snarled lip, clenched fists, pitching forward, or lunging at the threat (anger), mouth dryness, licking lips, avoiding eye contact, clenched hands/arms, jerky steps, fidgeting, defensive posture (fear, anxiety, or nervousness), slumped shoulders, tears, flat speech (sadness), raised eyebrows, eyes widening, slacked jaw (surprise), open body language, smiling (happiness) etc.…

Stotting

An example of prey to predator communication is stotting, a highly noticeable form of running shown by some antelopes such as a Thomson’s gazelle. Stotting indicates the animal is healthy and fit, thus not worth pursuing.

Stotting behavior in characters: Think about the difference between jogging and running for your life. The feet may be sloppy or the character zigzags, trips, or falls (fear).

Predator to Prey

Some predators communicate to prey in ways that change their behavior. The deception makes them easier to catch. Take, for example, the angler fish. Fleshy growth protruding from its forehead dangles in front of its jaws. Smaller fish try to take the lure, thereby positioning themselves directly in front of the angler fish’s mouth.

Describing deceptiveness in characters would take an entire post, but you get the picture. 😉

Human & Animal Communication

We are all part of the Natural World. Various ways in which humans interpret the behavior of domestic animals and/or wildlife fit the definition of interspecific communication. Although dogs can use vocal communication, they mainly display nonverbal communication through the use of body language, such as tail carriage and motion, ear and eye position, body position and movement, and facial expressions. Recognizing the correct nonverbal cue will help decipher what the dog is telling us.

More character nonverbal cues include sweating, trembling, damp eyes, muscles tensing, crossed arms or the drawing in of limbs, the body recoiling (fear, anxiety, nervousness), sudden backward movement (surprise), relaxation of muscles (happiness), etc….

While observing a dog’s body language it’s crucial to observe the entire dog, as well as the situation or context. For example, a dog’s wagging tail does not always mean Fido’s happy. A tail in motion is often noticed first, but the rest of the dog is board-stiff, and the ears are back and the dog’s in a couched position, the full picture tells you Fido’s not happy with the situation.

5 Common Groups of Canine Signals

Keep in mind, a dog could use more than one response at a time. Hence why it’s important to analyze the entire dog, not just one body cue (the same applies to characters).

Fido may start with a display of excitement, then decide the stimuli is a threat and switch to aggressive posturing, or send fear signals, or both.

As we review each group, notice the similarities to us (characters).

Fearful Communication

When a dog is frightened, he’s likely to react with his whole body. He may lick his lips, yawn, keep his mouth tightly closed, cower or lower his body, lower or tuck his tail, or flatten his ears. He may also tremble or shake, avoid eye contact, or lean back to avoid the frightening stimulus.

The body language may be a combination of several signals and/or may appear as a progression through these signals as the dog’s response intensifies. Sometimes, the complete absence of active signals can speak volumes. A dog that won’t eat food or treats, is avoiding people when they approach, or freezes when someone reaches for him—a “shut down” appearance—is demonstrating fear. Sadly, we often see this behavior in shelters if the dog doesn’t get adopted. Shelter dogs also may display high arousal or excitement.

Arousal Communication

The arousal in shelter dogs could be due to many factors, including age, confinement, lack of physical and/or mental outlets, and personality. An arousal/excitement response could indicate joy directed at a certain person, another dog, or toy. If the context is a favorable one, the dog should have soft, relaxed body and eyes and mouth, along with a wagging tail that jumps for attention. He may also play-bow—rear end in the air, front end lowered—to demonstrate excitement. Other cues are jumping, mounting, and mouthing. Mouthing should be soft (no teeth).

Arousal behaviors can also be directed at unfavorable stimuli, such as an unwanted human, animal, or situation. Arousal signals in this context may be coupled with fear signals, such as trembling or a low/tucked tail. Or the arousal signals are paired with aggression—barking, lunging, anxious pacing or spinning, or biting of leash, clothing, or the unfavorable stimuli. The dog’s fur can pilo-erect (hackle), his ears bent forward or at attention, his stance upward and erect. The tail is often up and wagging stiffly, and the eyes are wide-open and focused on the target. He could also bark, growl, and/or lunge.

Anxious Communication

If a dog becomes stressed, he may exhibit excessive panting, pacing, and lack of focus. Similar body language to a fearful dog, when in reality, he’s filled with anxiety. Which is why context is key. A dog that jumps at the kennel door as a person approaches is displaying arousal/excitement. Whereas a dog bounding off the side walls of the kennel displays anxious communication signals.

Aggressive Communication

Aggression is a normal and natural behavior in animals, triggered by a perceived threat. Aggressive vocalizations and body posturing are warning signals.

In dogs, we understand aggression through body language that includes stiffening or freezing, eyes wide with the whites visible (called whale eye), tense mouth or curled lips, wrinkled nose, bared teeth, barking, growling, and air snapping.

Relaxed Communication

We all love dogs in a relaxed position, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Mouth relaxed, lips slightly parted. A smiling appearance. Head and ears relaxed in a neutral position, body loose, eyes soft. His tail may be swishing back and forth, or even wagging in a circular motion. My favorite is when a dog’s lying in the frog-leg position. Those froggy legs are hard to resist!

Over to you, TKZers! You may be using animal communication and not realize it, because many behaviors are similar to our own body language. If you’d like to give an example from your WIP, go for it. Otherwise, please include different animals and how they communicate.

 

 

A BUT Means Complications and Obstacles

As an animal lover, wildlife documentaries are my jam. My husband and I often joke about one particular aspect that is true in the natural world—there’s always a “but.”

Wolves are fierce hunters, but they need to take their prey on the run i.e., predate.

 

Bears can kill with one strategically placed swat of the paw, but they have terrible eyesight.

Unrelated fun fact: If an ant is decapitated during a battle, the disembodied head can continue to fight for hours.

Penguins live in huge colonies—there’s safety in numbers—but they have to swim past their greatest enemy (sea lions) to reach the open ocean to feed.

 

A giraffe’s long neck helps them reach leaves at the top of trees, but that same neck that aids them in gathering food also causes the highest blood pressure of any animal.

 

 

A rhino’s horn is their greatest asset in a fight, but that same horn makes them targets for poachers.

 

Mongooses are carnivores, but their favorite prey is venomous snakes, including cobras, adders, and vipers, and one good strike could kill them.

Boreal Owls are usually monogamous, but when prey numbers peak, males cheat with up to three females and female boreal owls often have at least one beau on the side. So much for monogamy, right?

Using sharp claws on their fore-flippers, seals punch out 10-15 breathing holes in the ice and maintain the openings all winter but using these holes can mean sudden death if a hungry polar bear is nearby.

Fun fact: Sea ice is as important to the Arctic as soil is to the forest. It supports the entire Arctic food chain. When ocean water freezes, it expels salts, causing channels to form inside the ice. As sunlight filters through the ice, algae grow within these channels, creating an underwater garden that forms the foundation of the food chain.

Mudskippers are fish who live in the ocean, but they need to walk on land and dig mud burrows to mate.

Skunks use an overpowering odor for defense and can spray six times in succession, but once their foul-smelling liquid runs out it takes up to 10-14 days to refill the glands.

Roadrunners can sprint at 40 mph, plenty fast to outrun prey, but food is scarce in their dry, desert environment, so they hunt venomous snakes—like rattlers who feed on roadrunners—and risk death.

Fun fact: A rattlesnake can shake its rattle twice as fast as hummingbird wings flutter.

Wildebeests need to migrate to find food once resources dry up, but to make it to the promise land they need to cross croc-infested water.

Corvids are some of the world’s most intelligent animals, but that same intelligence is what attracts ignorant people to hunt them for sport. (Yes, I’m bias. #BlackFeatheredLivesMatter)

Cuttlefish can change shape, color, and texture—20 million pigment cells create a magnificent light show—but they can only mate once in a lifetime.

Gray whales can submerge for 15 minutes at a time, but a mother’s calf can only hold its breath for 5 minutes, so when under attack by orcas the mother will flip onto her back to create a platform for her baby to lay on, but Momma can’t breathe upside down.

See where I’m going with this? All these complications and obstacles make the natural world even more interesting.

The same is true for writing.

So, while crafting your storyline—plotted or pantsed—keep “but” in mind. Because without complications and obstacles, you risk boring the reader.

Over to you, TKZers. In your WIP or recent book you’ve read, give us an example of a “but.” Or share a “but” found in nature.

 

Tips To Write a Character You Hate

Have you ever written from the perspective of a character you hated?

It’s a unique experience for me. Which is sayin’ something, considering I write psychological thrillers involving serial killers. With all my other serial killer characters, I could find at least one endearing quality, and I clung to that while I wrote from their perspective. I may not have agreed with their motivations, but at least I understood how they justifIed their actions.

Let me back up a minute.

I mentioned in one of my Reader Friday questions that I’ve been teaching a virtual course about serial killers as part of the Advanced Education Program for a school in Connecticut. I’m also racing toward the finish line in Book 5 of my Grafton County Series. I drew a firm line between the two projects until an Ah-ha! moment slapped me across the face. I was working on the lesson plan for Week 3 of my course when a deliciously evil idea popped into my head.

Don’t you love when that happens?

Even though the finish line was within reach, I couldn’t ignore the new idea. It’s a game-changer, and the perfect way to round out the series as a whole. It also required me to go back to page one, drop a few new clues, and include POV chapters from the killer.

Writing from a serial killer’s point of view isn’t anything new for me. In my Mayhem Series, readers expect a cat-and-mouse chase with alternating POVs between protagonist and antagonist. The Grafton County Series is different. I don’t normally include scenes/chapters from the killer’s POV.

To write a character in deep POV we need to know everything about them or slipping into their skin would be challenging to say the least. And here’s where my two projects—fiction and nonfiction—blurred together.

Out of all the serial killers we’ve discussed during class the most frightening of all was a nasty individual named Israel Keyes, whose MO happened to fit my plot. As part of my research for class, I sat through endless video confessions from Keyes, and learned a lot about who he was as a person and what motivated him to kill. Subconsciously, I must have had in mind all along and only now realized it. After all, if I fear him, so will my readers.

To write from his point of view, I had to view the world as he did. Think as he did. Feel—or more accurately, not feel—as he did. This was problematic for one huge reason—I despised everything about him. He’s evil to the core and didn’t possess even one redeeming quality.

Now, you could say, but Sue, this is fiction. You can add anything you want to his characterization. True, but then he wouldn’t be as frightening.

See what I’m sayin’?

The part of him that most frightened me was his complete lack of empathy toward anyone or anything, his arrogance, his inflated self-worth, and the violent blitz attack of his home invasions. If I softened his psychopathic personality, I’d lose the qualities that made me choose him in the first place. A softer villain wouldn’t pack the same punch. And let’s face it, after going head-to-head with numerous other serial killers in Books 1-4, my protagonist is no shrinking violent. She needs a frightening opponent.

Basing an antagonist on a real serial killer is hardly a new concept.

In the 1960s, Thomas Harris was visiting the Topo Chico Penitentiary in Nuevo Leon, Mexico while working on a story for Argosy, an American pulp fiction magazine that ran for 96 years, between 1882 and 1978. The 23-year-old Harris was interviewing prisoner Dykes Askew Simmons, who was committed to the prison’s psych. ward and sentenced to death for a triple murder. Simmons bribed a guard to help him escape. The guard took the money but had second thoughts during the prison break and shot Simmons.

As Simmons lay on the ground, bleeding out, another inmate, Dr. Alfredo Balli Trevino, treated the gunshot wound, saving his life.

This led Harris to develop an interest in Trevino. He interviewed the doctor and learned Trevino was convicted for the murder of his boyfriend, Jesus Castillo Rangel, in a “crime of passion” after an argument.

Apparently, Rangel had attacked Trevino with a screwdriver. The enraged doctor administered anesthetic to Rangel’s body and dragged him to a bathtub, where he slit his throat, draining all the blood out of his body. Trevino then chopped up Rangel’s body into small pieces and packed them into a box, drove to a relative’s farm, and asked if he could bury medical waste there. One of the farm workers called the police.

Thomas Harris said the doctor “had a certain elegance about him,” even as he discussed dismembering his boyfriend in a bathtub.

I found no such qualities in Israel Keyes.

How do we write from a hateful, despicable point of view?

Much like an actor who plays a villain, we must become one with the character. We have to identify with him. Win his arguments, even if those twisted views rub against our values. I despise this antagonist as much as I do Israel Keyes. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to breathe life into him, bring him to life on the page. The only time we can express our own personal feelings is through the protagonist if, and only if, the protagonist shares our views.

I find it easier to skip over a hateful character’s chapters while drafting the storyline. Then I take a day or two, get into character, and bang out his chapters. The next day when I reread those chapters I’m stunned by his actions and comments. That’s a good thing. If it shocks me (the writer), imagine readers’ reactions.

In my case, though the real killer can’t hurt anyone else—he committed suicide like a coward—it’s left me with one burning question: How many other Israel Keyes walk among us? I’d tell you, but I don’t want to shatter your reality. 🙂

Have you ever written a hateful, angry POV character? Did you handle it in a similar way?