On Life

Writer’s Toolbox: Tips on Writing Successful Description

Inn Significant | Available via Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com

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One of the tips I have students practice a lot in my college classes is writing using their senses. In case you have forgotten how to do this from your writing classes, it means to write using your sharpest senses. Start any passage by asking yourself these questions:

What did it smell like?

What did it look like?

What did it taste like?

What did it feel like?

What did you hear?

Sharpening your senses will make your writing vivid. Remember: we are shooting for the ideal, which is to transport people to that moment, place, or situation. When a reader becomes completely engrossed by your words—your magic ability to string words together to create a seamless paragraph that is telling and compelling—you have successfully transported them to that moment in your work.

Here’s an example from my latest novel entitled Inn Significant. In it, the protagonist and narrator, Milly, opens the contents of her dead husband’s box that she forgot she had moved with her into her new cottage at an inn. She loved her husband more than anything. Here’s the scene:

When one lone box remained, I opened it. I must have forgotten to label it. Gil’s belongings were inside the box. As soon as I lifted the lid, an aroma I had been familiar with for fifteen years wafted into the air, and I remembered all that I had saved. Gil’s favorite ballcap, the Orioles hat he bought at the ballpark when we went with a group of friends to the game; his favorite t-shirt from our trip to Italy; his college sweatshirt I seemed to wear more than he did; his wallet made of Italian leather; several cards and letters I wrote to him over the years; the Burberry watch I gave him on our tenth anniversary. I picked up the shirt, the one I could picture him in when I closed my eyes that said “Italia,” and brought it to my nose. He couldn’t really be dead; there was still a scent of him in the clothing. His wallet contained a picture of the two of us. I sat down on the floor of my parents’ cottage wishing I’d never opened this box. I wept uncontrollably, ignoring all the advice I’d received from Gretel, Angela, my parents, my sister, and even Miles.

After many minutes of inhaling the scent of my dead husband and having a complete breakdown, I heard the knock at the door. (from Inn Significant, by Stephanie Verni, copyright 2017)

In this scene, I wanted readers to understand that she could still smell her husband, even though he was no longer living. In her mind, she was having trouble acknowledging that he is dead. And while I never come out and say he smelled like——, it is understood that he had a smell that she could identify. The description of what she finds is vivid; she recounts each item for the reader so the reader can “see” what she’s uncovered from the box…his Orioles ballcap, his Italia shirt, the leather wallet. The reader can visualize all this stuff and can then, also, feel empathy for Milly as she removes it all, one by one, from the box.

When I’m teaching a writing course at my university, I use this example in class: What do you picture if I say, “The house at the corner of the street.”

If I say that to you, we all picture different houses at the corner of a street.

Diagon Alley at Universal Studios, Florida.

Now, if I say this, “The white house with green shutters, overflowing, vibrant flower boxes, and a curved slate walkway with a white picket fence,” a clearer picture comes to the reader’s mind. It’s easy for us to use our imaginations, but we appreciate that we actually can “see” the image the writer is creating for us.

Why do you think our mouths drop open when we visit Diagon Alley at Universal Studios? It’s because it looks exactly the way J.K. Rowling described it in the Harry Potter books. The description has come to life.

And so should yours when you are writing.

Allow yourself time as a writer to do this.

Practice using your senses; they will take you places.

 

 

Stephanie Verni is Professor of Business Communication at Stevenson University and is the author of Inn Significant, Baseball Girl, and Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Along with her colleagues Leeanne Bell McManus and Chip Rouse, she is a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.

 

On Life

Friday Fiction: A Haunting One and A Romance

Creative fiction writers out there tend to dabble in flash fiction, which, quite simply is short form writing. It’s just like writing a short story, but even shorter. I practice writing short, short stories often, as they help writers tell a narrative within a minimum word count. I have my students engage in writing prompts, too. They are a great place to get an idea going to see where it may lead you. Of all of the pieces of short fiction I’ve written, the two below are my favorites because I think there’s potential for a longer story to grow out of each of these, whether it’s a short story or a novel.  The first is a ghost story (I never write ghost stories, so that one surprised me), and the second is the beginning of an interesting story that involves love and a fortune teller. I hope you enjoy them. Have a great Friday, all, and let me know what you think about these two that I picked and whether you think they are worth tackling in longer form.

If you’re looking for an update about my upcoming novel, I’m almost done editing. Looking forward to getting in your hands shortly!

Story #1 : AFTER I WAS DEAD

Photo credit: Daily Mail

A F T E R   I   W A S   D E A D

The enduring span of lifelessness is enough to drive me mad, as if I wasn’t driven half as mad when I lived in this ramshackle of a cottage. The cobwebs in the corners seem to have lingered for years, and yet, I haven’t been gone that long. The chandelier is full of heavy dust, the curtains look as if they may disintegrate into nothing, and the rug is almost unrecognizable, as it is covered in soot and dust and grime. It angers me that no one has cared properly for this place—this place I tended to daily. I’ve become bored with waiting, and so I decide to visit the larger home on which the cottage is set—the Hamlin Mansion.

After I was dead, I set out to let people know the truth about what happened that wintry Friday evening when the wind whipped and the trees were bent with snow. No one ever suspected that someone could have murdered me on the grounds of Hamlin Mansion, just five steps from the front door of the cottage. Why would someone want the governess dead? I could hear the roars from the folks in the town…she must have fallen and hit her head…the winds must have caught up with her and she did not see the tree limb…it was an accident of happenstance. I grew weary of hearing the townspeople make excuses for my death. It was covered up so well, I have to give him credit. There was little to no bloodshed, you see, so he was lucky in that regard. He struck me in just the right place, and where he became luckier still was that the snow piled so high that Mother Nature neatly disguised his tracks. All for the better for him, you see.

Light as feather, I can walk through walls now, something I only dreamed of doing when I was alive. I find my way to his room in the mansion, to the seemingly unlikely murderer, a boy of just sixteen, with demon eyes and glossy, albino hair. He is still unlike any other person I have—had—ever met in my lifetime. There was always something ruthless and unsettling about his looks as well as his manners. In this he is frighteningly unique. I dare say, he has no remorse about anything he does or says. He is an unlikely offspring to the lovely husband and wife who own Hamlin Mansion, Greta and Theodore Hamlin. This child of theirs is a sad outcome of what should have been proper breeding.

He sits in the corner of the room reading by lamplight, though the room is dingy and unkempt. He is permitted to treat his belongings and his part of the home with a complete disregard, and that is perhaps one of the final straws where I was concerned. As his governess, I did not accept his lazy ways, his cruel retributions, his off-putting mannerisms. It was my mistake that I stood up to him…questioned him…demanded that his studies be turned into me before the snowstorm hit…and reported his questionable behavior several times prior to my demise to the Mistress of the house.

I glide toward him. His water glass is next to the lamp on the table, and I focus with all of my might and lift it, then tilt it ever so gently, so that the full glass fills his lap with water. He screams. He stands up and begins to frantically wipe the water off of himself. He stares at the empty glass on the floor. I’m going to have fun with him, I think. Again, I concentrate and will the glass to float in the air and place it firmly in its place back on the table.

His face goes whiter than it ever has been, and his hair stands on end. He is a most unattractive creature.

“Who are you?” he shouts into the air, a frightful, frantic question piercing the silence.

I try to yell, but realize I make no sound.

But there is a quill pen on the table, and his book remains there as well.

I use all the power I have inside of me to open the book, grab the quill, and start to write. Much to my pleasant surprise, the ink is showing up on the page.

“You killed me,” I wrote.

He begins to hyperventilate, and I stand by and watch. The little brat. The little brat who got away with murder.

This could entertain me for days upon end, I think.

Story #2: THE FORTUNE TELLER

“That boy loves you,” the old woman next door calls to me as she sees Nick peel away in his black BMW. She is sitting on her stoop in the 98 degree weather, her dyed red hair in old-fashioned rollers, her socks gathered at her heels in her slip-ons. The look on her face indicates that she wants me to engage in further conversation. We have been friendly since we’ve lived next to each other in the row homes of Baltimore, but have never had a long, in-depth conversation.

“He may, but he’s leaving,” I say.

“Probably for the best,” she replies.

I’ve lived beside this odd-looking woman for almost a year, and she pretty much keeps to herself. She knows nothing of my personal life. Her name’s Mable, and I’ve heard others on the block refer to her as “the palm reader,” though she has no official business. I don’t believe in fortune tellers and have never engaged in any sort of it.

“Come here,” she says. “I’ll show you.”

For curiosity’s sake, I walk down the steps from where I am, and climb the four steps to meet her on her stoop. I’m tempted to see what she knows, trying not to let the tears fall in front of her. Her appearance alone warrants concern; there seems to be a twitch in her eye, and she’s wearing more mascara than a runway model. It looks uneven and gloppy. Her coral-colored lipstick goes beyond the outlines of her lips. It is difficult to take her seriously.

She stretches out her hand and asks for my palm. I extend my hand and turn my palm over for her to see.

PalmreadingShe examines it. “There is a lot of passion, here,” she’s pointing to the line that runs up across my palm in a curve where the line ends at the base of my fingertips. “There’s a great deal of love for that boy.”

I nod.

“However, you will not see him again after today,” she says.

I feel a lump build in my throat.

She continues to look at my hand. “You have a good career, but you’re not quite sure if you want to stay in it. You’re thinking of uprooting yourself and moving someplace far away.”

I get a little chill up my spine. I’ve had this particular thought on and off for the past month, and I’ve told no one. Not even Nick. Not my own parents, or my best friend, Ava.

She focuses on one particular line on my hand, tracing it with her fingertip for what feels like hours, studying it with concerned eyes. She looks puzzled.

“Interesting,” she says.

“What?” I ask, now confused.

“You will travel. You will go where you’ve considered going, and you will be happy.”

“Without Nick,” I say, more as a statement than a question.

“Yes,” she says. “There will be passion again, but only if you go.”

Nick and I have been together for a year. However, I can’t be with him long term, nor should we ever have been together. Nick is unhappily married. He lives apart from his wife, but they are not formally divorced. Nor are there any plans for them to be so. The passion with which Mable speaks is true; it currently exists, but it is a sick, twisted, unhealthy passion, and it has become the ruin of me.

Three weeks ago, I was offered an opportunity to work for my friend’s father’s business in Rome. I’ve always wanted to go abroad, and have seriously contemplated accepting it.

I scoff at the idea of leaving for a moment, and then I stop. She sees my face, and gives me a crooked, quirky smile.

Mable is offbeat, eccentric, ridiculously dressed, and the oddest person I’ve ever talked to, but something tells me to listen. Something makes me take her seriously.

xx |

Stephanie Verni is the author of Baseball Girl, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and the upcoming novel Inn Significant. She is also a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.

Fiction Friday - Stories & Poetry

Flash Fiction Friday: Lessons of Survival

There are no lessons of survival for the survivors.

Lessons of Survival

ChairCascading waterfall. A wall of rocks. The ocean, calmly rocking. Alone in her beach chair, she sat, stretched out wearing her sunglasses, dissecting what had happened. The rays of the sun warmed her body as she played the scene over and over in her mind, a movie trailer unable to stop. A dish she was holding crashed to the floor, and her knees buckled and bruised from falling on them hard, unable to stop her body from the weight of its own heaviness pressing down upon her feet. She couldn’t keep herself up; gravity had a mind of its own. Her head landed with a thud. She cut her arm on shaved porcelain.

She could only stare straight ahead, her mind locked on the blueness of the water being swallowed by emerald greens, as the sea swirled and created a vibrant turquoise so exquisite, the only option was to be mesmerized by it. The white shore reflected the water. Sunbathers were happy, soothing their skin as they lay on the sand.

She had mourned. She had cried. People had called and stopped by. There were trays of food she’d left behind in a refrigerator she had no intention of ever cleaning again. She would not go back. She would leave that to the cleaning service. Her name had not been on the rental agreement, and so, the rent would go unpaid, and she could walk away.

The accident happened on a slippery night. The rain had been unrelenting. She had warned him to drive safely. Why hadn’t he listened? Always pushing the limits with his car. Speeding, he had reached for his phone that had slipped between the seats. The car flipped. He was belted in, but the way the car moved, it pummeled the roof.  When the ambulance and police arrived, there was no hope.

There are no lessons of survival for the survivors.

Except to sit on a beach and breathe. Breathe for what was, what may be. Remember to never forget. Be angry and let go of anger. Smile when you know you must.

A wedding had been planned. His time on Earth far too short.

That time had not been enough.

Books & Flim

It’s Back: Fiction Friday

Below is a very short piece about a meddlesome mother who is only trying to get involved for the right reasons. With apologies to Frank L. Baum and Gregory Maguire, here’s what I pictured using a well-known bad girl and her mother.

 

Playing With Fire

She stood there watching the black telephone with the rotary dial ring. She didn’t want to answer it. She knew who would be on the other end of the line. The ring was so loud and so persistent; she tried to walk away, but ultimately knew that avoiding it wasn’t going to make it disappear. She could zap it, but she knew she’d pay the price for it down the road.

At about the fifteenth ring, she picked it up.

“Hello,” she said in an agitated voice, as she paced back and forth, her black dress sweeping the floor.

“Don’t hello me,” said the voice on the other end. “Don’t you make me wait this long to answer the telephone! When are you ever going to do the right thing the first time?”

She’d heard these complaints before. She knew she could never please her.

“What do you want, Mother?” she asked.

“What do I want?” she screamed back, her voice booming so loudly, it vibrated her ear through the line. “I want you to stop causing trouble! I know what you’ve been up to and I don’t like it one bit! I heard you were tormenting a scarecrow. Are you insane? We’ve already lost your sister, God rest her soul, and now you’re playing with fire?”

She walked over to the window and looked outside, holding the phone as far away from her ear as she possibly could. She hated when her mother got involved in her affairs. She’d been on her own long enough and resented ever ounce of interference. She could feel her green skin becoming hot, and knew she’d be red-faced before long.

“Listen, Mother,” she began in a low, steady voice. “I want those shoes, and that ridiculous scarecrow and some meddlesome little freckle-faced girl he was with was wearing them. They are mine.”

Her mother sighed into the phone, an element of disgust making its way through the wires. “They are not your shoes,” she said. “They were hers. And she is gone, and we have no need of them anymore. Besides, they were hand-me-downs from our neighbors. So, whose are they really?”

She couldn’t hear her mother rationalize things, not today. Her mother was acting as if she were noble and good. Ha! thought she. She’s a far cry from that! She wanted those shoes and she wanted revenge. Outside, another storm was brewing.

“Did you hear me?” she could hear her mother yelling, as she’d placed the receiver on the table, and walked away. “I’m talking to you! You listen to me right now! You’re going down a scary path and I want you listen!”

She took one last look back at the telephone, mumbled sounds emanating from it. She couldn’t listen to the incessant scolding for one more second. She grabbed her broom and walked out the door, determined to seek justice for the death of her sister.

 

Books & Flim

Fiction Friday: A Knight, A Princess, and a Dragon make up The Village of Happinyss

When my son was little, I used to tell him stories that revolved around a character I made up called Myron the Knight. I have the original story written down and perhaps, in the future, may do something with it.

Nevertheless, for this week’s Fiction Friday, I left behind my usual tragic romantic or happy romantic writing and used this character of Myron in a different type of piece. The challenge from Brian Kiteley’s book was to do the following: “…for the first part, tinge the world in dark hues and show us a narrative style that reflects frustration, sadness, and alienation.” Then later, we were to switch and “use a hinge sentence to change the tone and color of this short piece.”

What resulted is this old-fashioned, fairy tale-ish story. I have to give a shout out to my friend, fellow writer, and blogger, Charlotte English. She is English, and I want her to know that I can’t help but want to read this story out loud to my children in a British accent (though my British accent could use some serious work). This piece is rated-G, suitable for both children and adults who relish a fairy tale.

The Village of Happinyss

A Beautiful Castle. Photo credit: http://www.medievalists.net

After the Dragonmaster cast his spell on the Village of Happinyss, all was quiet. The sun was replaced by a smattering of grey and black clouds that zigzagged through the northern sky. The grass curled and darkened. Trees shriveled up and flowers pouted. The Dragonmaster had violently taken away the dragon, undoubtedly so they could again inflict fear upon the villagers. The dragon was removed in a caged, wrought iron dolly. The Dragonmaster was walking several captured men back with him up the hill to be both his servants and caretakers to the wicked dragon.

When the villagers had first heard the dragon’s awful roar, the Governor told the villagers to flee.

“Flee to your homes! Lock your doors! Be forewarned!”

The Princess had opened the castle doors to all who begged to come inside, for the castle walls were sturdy and secure enough to protect the public from the evil that lurked among them. Inside the dimly lit and damp castle, people gathered together, telling stories of the dragon’s fiery breath and of the Dragonmaster’s frightening demeanor.

“He is evil!” they chanted.

“Will we ever have hope?”

“Will we ever be the same?”

“Will he ever leave Happinyss?”

The Dragonmaster’s home was at the top of the hill adjacent to the Princess’s castle. She ruled the village, with the Governor by her side. The two peered out of the upstairs window in dismay; the town was blanketed in dread and trepidation. The townspeople questioned when it would be safe to return to their daily functions, to live again in the glory of Happinyss, no longer afraid of the Dragonmaster and his malicious dragon.

The Princess turned to the Governor and spoke softly, in a whisper barely audible, so no one else could hear. “I just know if Myron had been here, he would have slayed the dragon, rid our town of the Dragonmaster, and life would again be as it should,” she said.

“Alas,” the Governor said in dismay, “we can only hope.”

Just then from over the hill came the sounds of horses’ hooves, trotting hard against the dry and dark earth. The Princess scurried across the room to the other window where she had a much better vantage point.

“Gracious God,” she said. “Is it Myron? And his knights?”

“A miracle,” the Governor said. “A miracle.”

The others heard it too, and the Princess rushed down the spiraling staircase and ordered her guards to open the massive door. She would go to him and tell him of Happinyss’s woes; Myron would understand. For Myron had stood guard at the castle from time to time, though the Princess knew his intentions.  And she returned the sentiments wholeheartedly, for Myron was the greatest knight in all the land. He came from a long line of knights with power—magical powers—that serve the good of others. There was no doubt she loved him ardently.

When she reached him, out of breath from running, her long, brown hair knotted and messy, he smiled at her from upon his horse. She saw the freed men.

“Did you not think I knew of the trouble brewing in Happinyss?” he asked her.

“I wasn’t sure if you could feel the terror as it struck.”

“How could you doubt me, your Highness?”

“I promise I shall never do it again.”

As the Princess spoke, a magnificent thing began to take place in the village. People came outside; they ventured out to see what was occurring in front of the castle. They marveled at the sky. No longer was it laden in grey and black. It glistened. It shined.  Rainbows appeared as a backdrop to the castle. The sun cast rays and warmed the villagers from the cold. Indeed, the flowers perked up with pride. And yes, the verdant grass gleamed with the freshness of the morning dew.

“You will not hear from that Dragonmaster or his dragon again. It’s God he must answer to now,” Myron said.

The Princess held her hands high to command silence so she could speak. The villagers obeyed in awe, saw Myron, his glory.

“People of Happinyss. Let us rejoice and be thankful for our brave knight!”

The crowd exploded with applause. Myron the Knight bowed to his adoring and thankful crowd. The Princess beamed. The celebration began then and lasted a week, and the Village of Happinyss was forever in a state of bliss.

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Written by Stephanie Verni, copyright 2011

Books & Flim

Fiction Friday: Three Perspectives

From the Brian Kiteley book, The 3 A.M. Ephiphany, (a great text that offers exercises to keep writers fresh), I attempted to write the same story in two voices and then use a detached narrator. This exercise was a little tricky to stick to the story, but yet offer two takes on it. Detached narrator is more difficult once you get inside your characters’ thoughts and emotions.

Two Voices

First Voice:

I sit tapping my fingers at the bar waiting for her to arrive. My Cosmo’s half gone, and I’m about to order a second. She’s late, as usual. She had called me from her car to say she was on her way, so this was typical of Kate. That’s why we call her “Late Kate.” Sometimes, when she arrives ridiculously tardy for something—more than an hour or two—we go as far as to call her “The Great Late Kate” or “GLK” for short. The thing about Kate is you can’t get mad at her about her lateness. It’s just a part of who she is. The guy at the bar leans over and asks me if I’ve ever been here before. I chat with him for a few minutes about the baseball game on the television. Minutes later, I see the bouncy, redheaded woman enter the bar in her high heels, tailored jacket, and Louis Vuitton bag over her shoulder. Men notice her. When she sees me, she smiles, and is happy I waited the forty-five minutes for her grand entrance. The guy who was next to me quickly offers to buy us drinks. She agrees. She never passes up a free drink or the attentions of an attractive man. We end up talking to him and the three of us share some laughs over the hour. Her expression quickly changes when her former fiancé, Bill, enters the bar with another woman on his arm. In a matter of minutes, Kate’s behavior changes; she becomes nervous and wants to run for the door when the coast is clear. Who can blame her? The breakup was a messy one, and though it’s been a year since they’ve parted, she told me just days earlier, that she was still not over him.

Second Voice:

I hate being late, I think, as I weave in and out of traffic in an attempt to meet my friend for drinks. I call her from the car to let her know I’ll be late. She says she expected as much with a snicker. My friends all call me “Late Kate.” It’s a nickname that’s stuck because of my habitual lateness. Sometimes they’ll even go so far as to call me “The Great Late Kate” or “GLK” for short. I guess I’ve earned it, though. Why can’t I ever be on time for anything? I picture Christine sitting at the bar, tapping her fingers wondering where the hell I am. Guys are probably trying to pick her up. She’s one of the friendliest people I know and can talk to anyone, anywhere. I park the car and grab my purse from the car and I rush in the door. My “I Love Lucy” hair hasn’t been combed since lunch. I’m still in my work clothes, but wish I were in jeans and a cute top. I get a couple of catcalls when I walk in the door. Christine is at the bar. She waves and smiles. She jokes that she’s waited forty-five minutes to see me, but I know she is glad she did so. An attractive man appears and offers to buy us drinks; we accept, though Christine waivered at first. The three of us end up hanging out and laughing for an hour. My happiness comes to an abrupt halt when Bill enters the bar. There is a woman on his arm. She is his “new fiancée” I guess. I feel my heart sink. Even after a year, I am not prepared for this. I tell Christine I have to go. She understands. I love her for that. When Bill is not in sight, I head for the door, exhausted and troubled by the feelings I still have for him. I hate feeling this way.

Part Two: Detached Narrator

Christine called Kate earlier in the day to see if she wanted to meet for drinks. Kate accepted, and the two were excited to catch up and relax after work. Christine made it to the bar first and ordered a Cosmo knowing that Kate would be late. Kate had a knack for being habitually late for everything. It was part of her nature. All Kate’s friends lovingly gave her the nickname “Late Kate” because of her tardiness. Sometimes, when she was unforgivably late, they would call her “The Great Late Kate” or just “GLK” for short. Christine tapped her fingers at the bar, sipped her Cosmo. A man sat next to her and struck up a conversation about the ballgame that was on the television. Moments later, Kate appeared through the front doors. Her red hair bounced as she turned heads in a tailored jacket and high heels, a Louis Vuitton bag slung over her shoulder. Two men gave a catcall to her, which she ignored. She got a lot of attention from men. Christine smiled as she approached and the two exchanged hugs. Kate said she knew Christine was happy that she waited the forty-five minutes. The man who was talking to Christine earlier reappeared and bought them drinks. The three of them laughed and talked. Kate was having a good time until she saw Bill come through the door, a woman on his arm. Kate became nervous and fidgety and didn’t want to run into him; she wanted to get out of the bar before there could be a confrontation. He was her former fiancé, and after being apart for a year, she could not shake the way she felt about him. When he was engaged elsewhere, she said goodnight to Christine and made her way out the door and away from him and the pain that he brought her.