Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

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


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 01•18

We’ve almost limped through another heat wave around here and it’s ending not a moment too soon. I’ve been living in Oregon since 1991 and the weather has profoundly changed in these past 27 years. I never imagined unrelenting sunshine could be so punishing. When I first arrived here I’d marvel at natives splashing around in the wet without umbrellas or rain gear, raving about the endless rainfall that fed our emerald landscape, and wondered if they were all mad. Now there is rain in the forecast for Friday and I’m practically giddy. Typically we get little or no rain in the summer, and it’s tinder-dry around here, forest fires are raging in the West, so any moisture is welcome.

August, named after Augustus, the first Roman emperor, always seems like the beginning of the end of summer, the school year beckoning. When I was a kid, the “dog days” named for the Dog Star, Sirius or the hottest, most humid days meant that although heat dazed, we were forbidden to swim in the local creeks and rivers because of algae blooms. So we just slumped around the house and yard, rode our bikes to the library. It was a good month for Popsicles and fat novels and running under the sprinkler. And while I’m no longer the Popsicle type, I’m ordering a few thick novels that will take me through the month.

Here is a link to information on Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky.

As summer slips away, snatch spare minutes and hours for your writing. When autumn arrives you don’t want to feel as if  you’re starting over or struggle to regain your writing rhythms. Take your laptop to the park, the beach, the back yard. Look around, then really feel the ambience of the day. Perhaps slip some of the ease or tenor of the day into your writing.

Look ahead. August means another year is winding down so keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

PS Just for fun here is the link from the Oxford blog about the names of the months. I like their emphasis on Oxford being a living dictionary and, of course,  their mad love of language. Check out their thesaurus for synonyms for august as an adjective.

The power of silence

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 26•18

When we write we are wrapped up in words. Descriptions, expositions, verbs, adjectives, and conversations. A great way to get wrapped up. However, don’t forget the enormous power of silence. The dirty look, the words we wish we’d said but didn’t, the cruelty of a withheld compliment, the generosity of withheld cruelty. Think of the worlds you can create with silence. Overcoming silence when we speak different languages, when we are tongue tied and shy, when we have been silenced. Judicious use of silence might be the biggest noise you make. ~ Carmen Walton

Make Them Sweat

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 22•18

I’m so happy we had a few days of milder temperatures. Another heat wave is beginning today and lasting through the week. I’ve developed systems for keeping my hanging plants alive, and so far they’re all still blooming. Early mornings spent watering as the day began simmering, meant I returned indoors already slick with sweat. And thirsty. And not for the first time I wondered how people living in hot climates were adapting to climate changes. And how places where it’s not normally hot will cope with the challenges of high and sometimes dangerous temperatures.

Which brings me to writing about people and climate and weather and stress. Because people, including people in fiction, sweat. A natural biological reaction designed to cool the body. People who spend time outdoors can also end up with a sunburn. Sunburn is painful and peels and blisters.  Hot temperatures weary and can cause heat stroke and exhaustion and all sorts of health problems including organ failure and death. In fact, heat kills more Americans than other natural disasters.

Heat infiltrates every part of life. Gardens wilt and crops fail.  Car interiors are punishing. Swimmers take dangerous risks and drownings happen. Dogs pant and seek shade. In our region lightning strikes  cause forest fires.

Heatwaves and excessive heat have widespread consequences. In  fiction all weather should create consequences and reactions, even balmy weather.  Sustained heat will cause bigger dangers and ramifications. Droughts devastate agriculture and economies. Power shortages and outages happen.  Ice caps melt. Sea levels rise. Fields dry out and reservoirs shrink. When forests burn, smoke chokes the air and areas are evacuated.

If you’re writing any story where heat or exertion are going on, your characters need to react with realism, authenticity, and with lingering effects. A heat wave means waking up to a stifling apartment if you don’t have air conditioning. Day after sweltering day. In your historical novel set in the 1800s during summer (or even spring or fall) afternoon temperatures can be sweltering and punishing. Kitchens will be hellish. Ladies in the household might lie down for a nap wearing only a petticoat. Fieldhands drenched and parched and bent.

In dystopian fiction where climate change has caused  worldwide changes (called cli-fi) sobering realities shape the story. Often a collapse of the electrical grid or massive droughts are happening  or have occurred. Systems, institutions, and characters will suffer and  on every level.  It’s crucial that the inner rationale for how the situation came to be is established and consistent. Day-to-day survival might be medieval and punishing. The people  hungry and exhausted. Thirsts unquenched, fires unstoppable. Crops will fail or be raised using old-school techniques. Dust storms will swallow the landscape.

In every season notice the effects of weather and climate. In my book Between the Lines I wrote a chapter called Sensory Surround and make this point: Writers sometimes add weather to scenes, but then don’t portray the characters affected by it. For instance, a blizzard rages in a story, but then characters don’t shovel the sidewalk, slip on ice, or become chilled when outdoors. The furnace never fails and the pipes never freeze. Or, it rains in a scene, but no one becomes drenched, or jumps around puddles, or turns on the windshield wipers.

One more thing while we’re on the topic of sweat. People and characters can also sweat from anxiety, a panic attack, fever, or hot flashes. Excess sweating can be embarrassing. (been there) Sweating also can be an indication of an illness and medication. Puberty and pregnancy can also cause sweating.

I’m focusing on sweating here because it’s universal, it’s visible, and it’s another way of depicting a character reacting. So how often do your characters sweat?

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