Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 02•18

Quick take: secondary characters need to shine

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 01•18

Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book’s about them.” ~ Jocelyn Hughes


Writers can Change the World

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 29•18

Every time I leave home more autumn colors are blazing and flaming, transforming the countryside. A few times when I was in my car on back roads I just wanted to keep driving into the changing light. Like millions I watched the Kavenaugh hearing this week and like many millions I joined the important conversations about sexual assault and who belongs serving on our federal courts. With my thoughts spinning and my mood pingponging, I’ve started writing down ideas and memories, trying to shape my experiences into a meaningful contribution.

Jeff Flake listens to assault survivors demanding to be heard

I’ve also been so heartened by activists demonstrating, citizens marching, phoning, writing, and visiting their representatives. Americans are becoming engaged and taking our roles as citizens and global citizens seriously. While this difficult process unfolds, a midterm  election is fast approaching. There’s so much you can do to contribute, to help candidates and causes you believe in. If you cannot travel to embattled states or districts, you can  make phone calls, you can contact representatives, and you can write and get out the vote via postcardstovoters.org. It has all the how-tos you’ll need including templates you can download and inspiring examples. I’ve been buying the plain, pre-stamped cards at my post office and these days I’m sketching in blue waves.


Word of the day: glean

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 25•18

The Gleaners, Jean-Francois Millet 1857

GLEAN: Original meaning was to gather grain left behind by reapers after the harvest (Middle English). These days it has come to mean gathering information or other resources bit by bit, with some effort or to gather gradually.

With thanks from Robert MacFarlane.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep collecting words

Word by Word: Is Anglo-Saxon the answer?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 13•18

We had our first significant rain since June on Tuesday and yesterday a rattling, loud downpour smashed down along with thunder and lightning and made you grateful for your roof. Phew. As you can imagine, nothing is more welcome during wildfire season. I’ve also got friends and family in the path of Hurricane Florence, so like many people, I am weather-obsessed these days.

I’ve been working on projects about the tools of writing–solid nouns, words that resonate, verbs that power sentences. As I’m working I’m scribbling and underlining in every novel and article I read, analyzing authors’ techniques, and building words lists. My idea of fun. And I’m reading a translation of Beowulf by Seamus Heaney. Beowulf was written in about the eighth century and it’s been years,  make that decades, since I tackled it.  Back then when my eyes were younger I read the original. The basic story is about a hero defeating three monsters and then dying. Heaney’s translation is laden with footnotes, printed in small typeface, contains photographs, and essays written by experts.  Next I’m hoping to compare it with Tolkien’s translation and reread The Canterbury Tales because I want to wallow in Old English.  Well, actually Chaucer lives in the fourteenth century so his language is called Middle English.

Since I began teaching I’ve been advising writers to lean on words of Anglo-Saxon origin, but lately I’ve been revisiting this concept. One problem with this advice is that there aren’t that many of these words still in use.  The English language, or Old English, originated from Germanic tribes in northern Europe who invaded Britain between the fifth and seventh century. It was mostly a spoken language and Britain was populated with Celts though Roman influences still lingered. The Anglo-Saxon impact lasted about 600 years. The  Vikings raided and settled in parts of England and brought Old Norse, also a Germanic language, between the eighth and eleventh century.

The Norman Conquest  in 1066 and the conquerors brought William as king and Old French.  French is a romance language with roots in Latin and borrowings from the Greeks. It was also called Romance English. Old French began dying out in England and was replaced by Middle English from about 1100 to 1500.

English has always been an adaptive, vital language and was influenced by the King James Bible, the Renaissance which flooded the language with new words, and Shakespeare, who added more than 4,000 words and phrases. Modern English and American English in particular  resulted from borrowings, gleanings, and adaptations–a mongrel language. Which is one reason why you’ll find a list of synonyms for many words.

But words of Anglo-Saxon origin have always been considered more down-to-earth and concrete. They’ve also been considered more working class, crude, and simple.  Words of French (and Latin) origin are considered softer, elevated,  elegant and sometimes pompous. For example:

Anglo-Saxon                            French

  1. gut                                         intestine
  2. fire                                         flame
  3. ghost                                     phantom
  4. buy                                        purchase
  5. earthly                                   terrestrial
  6. stench                                   odour
  7. heaven                                  celestial
  8. wild                                       savage

So how is a writer to choose? Generally opt for punchy, potent, and plain diction. Old English makes readers pay attention. It is typically literal as in ‘bone house’ for the human body. Or ‘whale road’ as one word that describes the sea.  Anglo Saxon words are leaner, single syllable words that are:

  • terse
  • easier to read
  • punchier
  • less formal
  • ‘of the body’

Examples: blood, sweat, tears, toil, stone, wood, bless, wish

French and Latin words are usually

  • formal
  • more abstract
  • harder to read
  • multisyllabic
  • ‘of the mind’

Examples: Excrement, intercourse, cogitate, enquire, imbibe

But, and this is an important but; it all depends on voice, tone, and purpose. Is your viewpoint character a professor or modern-day Huck Finn?  Is  your character 55 or 12? Are you writing for kids or adults? Humorous tone or deadly serious?

Rely on Anglo-Saxon if you’re writing: picture books, YA, humor, adventure, thrillers, fantasy. Use it when you want to reveal emotions and get into your character’s body.

Rely on French or Latin origin words if you’re writing: romance (cherish, desire, infatuation),nonfiction, science fiction (alien, dystopia, alchemy) technical writing and documents.

It’s always helpful to know a word’s etymology. And you’d be silly to omit the offerings of Yiddish (chutzpah, glitch, schmooze), Italian ( facade, vista, replica, bizarre) or Old Norse (dazzle, ransack, berzerk). So many treasures, endless tools.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, collect words

Bonus: A link to the prose style of George R. R. Martin.

Fun bonus: From The Guardian, writers on words they love best.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 01•18

Jeanette Winterson’s 10 Rules for Writing

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 29•18

I write lists, I love lists, I live by lists.

Writers’ lists of advice distill hard-earned wisdom and common sense.  I don’t always agree with their suggestions, but am always curious about what other writers have learned about craft and butt-in-the-chair sticktoitness. I’ll be adding some of my own lists here in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, check out Jeanette Winterson’s advice:

  1. Turn up for the work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline means no freedom.
  2. Never stop when you are stuck. You might not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.
  3. Love what you do.
  4. Be honest with yourself. If you are no good, accept it. If the work you are doing is no good, accept it.
  5. Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went into the drawer, it will be just as bad when it comes out.
  6. Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect.
  7. Take no notice of anyone with a gender agenda. A lot of men still think women lack imagination of the fiery kind.
  8. Be ambitious for the work but not the reward.
  9. Trust your creativity.
  10. Enjoy this work!

Keep writing, keep dreaming, enjoy this work



Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 23•18

Hooked: The Dropper by Ron McLarty

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 17•18

We’ve got a few days respite from the heat here and the wildfire smoke that was choking our region has dissipated, though fires are still burning. The good news is that one fire to the east of the Cascades is nearly contained.

Ron McLarty wrote one of my favorite all-time novels, The Memory of Running. If you’ve never read this big-hearted book, I cannot recommend it enough. And it follows one of my favorite protagonists, hard- luck Smithy Ide. I was thinking about McLarty a few days ago and realized I hadn’t kept up with his writing career and was happy to discover that he’s written two books I haven’t read yet.

Which brings me to The Dropper, a book I’ll be buying in the next few days. I wanted to point out the elegant opening paragraphs because they’re a terrific example of how to hook a reader. It does so with a sorrowful narrator looking back at his life with regret, guilt, and nostalgia. A narrator-protagonist, who at 87 has upended his life and moved to England.  And his name is Shoe Horn.

The Dropper, Larry McLarty:

My brother, Bobby Horn, has lived in my dreams for seventy years.  He stands bouncing his ball in the shadow of the special school for special people, staring out at a world he cannot understand. He is fifteen, and his sweet, beautiful round face perches on that tall skinny body like a new moon. He sways and jerks his hands and shoulders but keeps his eyes on some distant mystery. I stand facing him night after night, year after year, decade after decade, and while Bobby Horn remains unchanged, I have shriveled into an eighty-seven year old man slowly disappearing from this earth like smoke from a cigarette.

For some years now, when I wake from this dream, I must lie still in my bed until whoever I might be returns and fills me. I lay staring at the ceiling wondering if today I will not come back but linger inside the dream to face my brother forever with shame and sorrow. I catch my name and say it for one more day.

“Shoe Horn. Shoe Horn. Me.”

I struggle from my bed into a chair by the window and look out over the Irish Sea. Yes. I remember now that I have come back. Back to familiar smells and murky skies. I light a cigarette, my eighty year habit, and gasp between puffs.

“Shoe Horn.”  I say to the sea.

Three days ago I closed my shop and left East Providence, Rhode Island, for England. For Barrow-in-Furness for the life I must call upon and be sure of. This day I will walk through the places and people of that life again and left my old bones do the remembering. I’ll start at St. Mark’s Church. Yes. That minister. How can I remember what he said as if it was only yesterday and I was seventeen once more.

“Some say it’s Death, Some say it’s darkness,

I say it’s a game of light.”

I’m old enough to report that the dead and long-ago dead visit my dreams and I wake with a churn of sadness and relief.  I need to find out what the title means. I need to understand Bobby Horn’s vision of a distant mystery. ‘Game of light’ has been playing in my imagination since I encountered the words yesterday. And why Shoe Horn?  Want to join me in reading this beauty? I promise you’ll be in the capable hands of wise and wily storyteller.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Amp up Tension Word by Word

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 13•18

Here’s a project I’ve been playing with –1130 words that will amp up tension in your writing.

Because no tension, no propulsion.

Because no tension, no unease in your readers. And you want your readers worrying, fretting, wondering. Not to mention frayed nerves. (You’ll find more information on tension and how to achieve it in the pdf I’ve attached below.)

Meanwhile, yet another heat wave starts baking our region today. Color me parched.

Here you go: Amp up language list

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart