Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Science Fiction and Fantasy Mix Familiar and New to Create Language

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 23•19

Science fiction and fantasy writers are often burdened with inventing a vocabulary for their story world that deepens and explains an alternate reality. Because a crucial part of any culture is its language. They’re called constructed languages.  The best methods of using language to authenticate your fiction often lies in blending the familiar and new, including fresh word combinations.

This short piece by the folks at Miriam-Webster have examples examples of how this is done in the Star Wars universe. It’s easy to identify terms that have entered everyday usage —stormtrooper, droid, the dark side, the Force, and Jedi.

JK Rowling author of the Harry Potter series is known for creating spells from Latin terms (Avada Kadavera) and coining fresh word combinations like parseltongue for the language of snakes and serpentine creatures.  Humans who can speak this language are called parselmouths. She also brought us dementors, muggles, and death eaters. Here’s an updated Harry Potter vocabulary guide that proves the richness of Rowling’s language that anchors the Potter world.

George R.R. Martin also boldly mixes old and new in his Game of Throne series set amid the continent of Westeros. The rich and extensive vocabulary includes the Unsullied, eunuch warriors who were former slaves,  greyscale, an incurable, disfiguring skin disease,  sellsword, a mercenary for hire, turncloak for traitor, wildlings, a derogatory term for people who live in the far north, and wargs, people who can enter and control the minds of animals.

However, Martin went a step further and invented 11 new languages such as Dothraki and Valyrian. (The Star Wars series has 68.) These important languages in the HBO series were expanded by hired consultants who matched words with the culture and history. And wouldn’t you know it, people around the world are learning these invented languages. There’s also the Common Tongue spoken by most citizens of the kingdom, the Old Tongue mostly spoken north of the Wall, and the True Tongue spoken by the mysterious children of the forest.

And just for fun, here’s a link to a glossary list of sci-fi terms from   Writers Write.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Writing a Story No one has Read Before

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 16•19

I listen to a range of podcasts, but keep coming back to two fiction series from The New Yorker. These podcasts feature readings of short stories and include conversations with the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. In one podcast an author, but not the author of the story, chooses and reads a story from their archives and explains why he or she chose the particular story.  One of my favorite episodes features David Sedaris reading Miranda July’s short story, “Roy Spivey” and their discussing and dissecting it.  Sedaris was blown away by July’s story, claiming that it was a story that changed him and the ending devastated him. The story along with their conversation about its intricacies and power is worth listening to here. Like Sedaris the story has stayed with me and reminds me of the primal delights of a campfire tale. Of the origins of all storytelling.

I have a lovely doctor who is a voracious reader. We squeeze in discussions about books during my appointments and early in the year, she described how she’d opened a novel to begin reading and then abandoned it. She said, “I just knew I’d read the story before.”

Now, she didn’t mean she’d read that exact book before, but rather that it was predictable. Possibly stale. Not worth her time. It might not surprise you, but no sooner were the words out of her mouth when I suggested some titles. Since then I’ve been passing along some of my favorite books,many with bendy, offbeat story lines and quirky, often outsider characters. All the elements in these novels are indelible, yet somehow realistic.  On my recommendation she recently finished reading Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, can’t stop thinking about it,  and is telling friends about it. And I’m recommending this gem to anyone who stops by here. It will also stay with you, and you’ll find yourself remembering the characters long after you close the final page of the luminous tale.

It’s fun to be a book connector.

Because as you know, books are meant to be shared. To be discussed, relished, and pondered over long after the story ends.  On that note, in case you missed it, I want to nudge you toward Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. It’s a wondrous, raw, and powerful novel.

It’s a hard-to-describe story about an enslaved boy growing up on a sugar plantation in Barbados starting in 1830. The cruelty, brutality, and oppression in these circumstances can be felt. But then the novel takes a sharp turn, and shifts into an adventure and coming-of-age-story.

It’s also hard to describe how powerful and apt her language is. Soaring, lyrical, vivid, especially when she’s describing the natural world. Here are the opening paragraphs.

I might have been ten, eleven years old –I cannot say for sure–when my first master died. 

No one grieved him; in the fields we hung our heads, keening, grieving for ourselves and the estate sale that must follow. He died very old. I saw him only at a distance stooped, thin, asleep in a  chair on the lawn, a blanket at his lap.I think now he was like a specimen preserved in a bottle. He had outlived a mad king, outlived the slave trade itself, had seen the fall of the French Empire and the rise of the British and the dawn of the industrial age, and his usefulness, surely, had passed. On that last evening I remember crouching on my bare heels  in the stony dirt of Faith Plantation and pressing a palm flat against Big Kit’s calf, feeling the heat of her skin baking up out of it, the strength and power of her, while the red sunlight settled in the cane all around us. Together, silent, we watched as the overseers shouldered the coffin down from the Great House. They slid it rasping into the straw of the wagon and, dropping the rail into place with a bang, rode rattling away.

That was how it beganme and Big Kit, watching the dead go free. 

My question to you: Are you writing something no one has read before?

How would I write this?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 13•19

It’s been said that writers live twice–once in the moment, and again while writing about what happened.

I’ve been pondering this since yesterday afternoon. A “pineapple express” weather system arrived this week bringing warmer temperatures and heavy rains coming from the Hawaiian Islands. It had rained and rained the past few days, but then I looked up from my computer as the sun appeared like a brilliant omen in the south. I changed out of my slouchy yoga pants, slapped on some lipstick, pulled on a cap and jacket,  and headed to the store–about a mile and a half away.

My plan was to pick up two much-needed items. As I was driving north the ominous, dense sky was a deep charcoal and I felt a stab of unease since it was early afternoon. I parked as the rain returned and dashed into the store berating myself for not wearing rain gear.

As I selected my items, without warning, the heavens unloaded. I was in a new building with high vaulted ceilings interspersed with many oversized skylights. And the sounds of the storm beating down on the roof and skylights reminded me of a tornado I rode out years ago. The roar and pounding blasted at my nerves and obliterated normalcy.  All around me shoppers were exchanging uneasy glances, gazing upward, kids covering their ears.

Since returning to my car wasn’t possible, I grabbed a cart in the entryway noting the hail pounding the pavement, and started shopping for more items, taking my time. As I walked around amid the clamor, I felt like I’d entered another surreal existence. Like stepping into a Stephen King story. Strangers were huddling and chatting, their expressions guarded or wondering, and the atmosphere was eerie, charged, and unsettled.

I couldn’t help but soak in all I was seeing, hearing, and feeling, and wondering how I might write about it. How I would evoke the primal fears that come with nature’s harsh punishments or a startling changed reality. After the hail and deluge stopped it took me awhile to arrive home because streets were flooded and a sense of vulnerability never left me.

How are you gathering up these moments, both small and dramatic?The emotions that go along with them?  How do you make stories from everyday living?


Tuesdays and Productivity

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 10•19

Tuesdays are one of my favorite days of the week. The weekend is in the rear view mirror, I feel in gear and focused, and accomplishing everything on my to-do list seems possible. That is, if I don’t think too hard about what needs to be completed before Christmas.

As 2019 closes I’m pondering what I want  to achieve in 2020 and auditing what I accomplished this year. And the thought came to me, what if I treat every day like Tuesday with focus and a certain peace? What if I resume some former habits and stop answering emails when I start the day?  What if I snatch every spare minute for writing and spend less time following politics, logging onto Twitter and Pinterest?  What if I stop being busy and start being more prolific?

For me it all starts with identifying how I spend my time.

How about you? How are you ending your year? How do you fritter away writing time? What are your plans for 2020? Are they solid, doable, detailed, and specific?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, stay focused







Sarah Water’s 10 Rules for Writers

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 09•19

The Guardian’s Rules for Writers is a great resource. Here’s the link to Sarah Water’s ) rules. I especially liked her advice in number 9.

“Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes  lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes in terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, to linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.”


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 01•19

Winter Landscape, Caspar David Friedrich

A Guide to Using Semi-Colons

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 26•19

In my work I see writers struggle with certain punctuation marks again and again. The culprits are semi-colons :, em dashes, and the ubiquitous comma ,. Like me don’t you wonder who the heck came up with all these rules?

But all grousing aside, they’re brilliant little traffic signs and help move readers through text.

Here’s a simple, but elucidating guide to using semi-colons from Merriam-Webster.

If you’d like to learn more about a lexicographer’s gig working for Merriam-Webster, I can heartily endorse Kory Stamper’s memoir Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. It’s fascinating, fun, witty, and might make a great gift for the word nerd on your holiday shopping list.  And here’s more information about the book from The New Yorker. Stamper also hosts videos at several sites online.

Fiction is about the cost of things.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 26•19

Fiction is about the cost of things. The plot should always somehow scar or wound the protagonist and put something valuable at risk.  Protagonists suffer. Suffering and paying heavy costs make characters relatable. I swear by these statements. Use it to guide your storytelling because it creates stakes, motivation, and tension. What will your protagonist risk and lose along the way? How much will he or she suffer? Sacrifice?

Now, it’s important to point out that this doesn’t mean your protagonist will always be a martyr or your story must end in tragedy. But there’s lots to lose in the fictional universe: friendships and allies, family, love, prestige, honor, trust, hope, money. Secrets might be revealed. Obviously these possibilities create emotional distress.  Not to mention to physical costs like  pain, injuries and body parts. Remember the suffering doled out by psychotic fan Annie Wilkes in Misery? Gulp.

Because bad things happen to our favorite characters. Really bad things. Your character’s suffering will always reveal your protagonist’s depths and advance the plot.

Let’s look at some examples:

Jem Finch loses his innocence when he realizes the depth of racism in his small town in To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Rocky Balboa is brutally beaten and loses to Apollo Creed. But he goes the distance and wins love.

Juno not only gives up her baby, but learns that the father-to-be is a man-child. She’s forced to take a risk on giving her baby to a single mom.

Woody of the Toy Story series loses friends, risks his pride, leadership role,and life, battles greed and heartlessness. All these costs bring him maturity and wisdom.

In The Godfather the Corleone family lose their oldest son in the mob war that broke out, then Michael the youngest son, commits murder and is forced into hiding. The story follows his profound character arc from war hero and college graduate to cold-hearted mob boss. He loses his humanity with each act of revenge and power move.

Questions to consider when plotting:

Is the cost justified? Will readers realize the cost or sacrifice is too great before the protagonist will?

Does the protagonist understand the cost involved or is he or she naive? Untested?

Can you make the toll affect several aspects of the protagonist’s life? Can the plot exact physical, emotional, financial tolls?

Will the cost involve another character? A vulnerable character?

Will the protagonist be exposed, peeled bare while paying the cost?

Will other characters try to dissuade the protagonist from paying the price?

Can you make the cost or sacrifice or pain visceral and believable?

Can you identify the cost in stories you read?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Yoga for Writers

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 20•19

I don’t know about you, but I spend time every day trying to undo the effects of sitting in front of a computer. Always stretching and bending and taking breaks.

Here’s a yoga routine suggested by one of my medical providers from Yoga With Adriene.

The novels I remember best

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 20•19

“The novels I remember best have empathetic characters whose motives I understand–even if I don’t agree with them–and a plot I can’t stop thinking about. The best novels make me think–that could happen, and what would I do if it happened to me?”  ~ Amanda Patterson