Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 02•20

Quick tip for fiction writers: threat and more threat

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 22•20

Fiction is action, conflict, threat, repercussions from conflict, and more threat. Since fiction is based on threat–something bad might happen to the protagonist and other characters– the tension this causes keeps your stories sizzling, makes that element real. Along with suspense, it makes readers turn pages.

The beauty of writing fiction is that the real world offers up a stunning array of threats all the time. Just check your news feed. More than 500 fires are raging across California, many caused by lightning strikes.

The US Post Office is being dismantled and hindered for political purposes. This threatens people who received prescriptions by mail as one example. The threat increases if the medication is needed for a life-threatening illness.

Conspiracy nuts who apparently have little interest in reality (they have my sympathy there)  have invented QAnon–a wide-ranging, lunatic theory that believes an elite group of cannibalistic pedophiles are taking over the US government. This must come as a blow to beef ranchers and vegans, but I digress.

Meanwhile, two hurricanes are heading for the US shores, Iowa has suffered massive crop losses from a derecho. (Am I the only one who never heard of this storm type?) And then there’s the COVID pandemic stealing and wrecking  lives all over the planet.

Threat is all around us, but it needs to haunt your characters, spur your characters, breathe in your story with an ever-present potency. Threat makes characters vulnerable and we all hate feeling vulnerable–which is why fiction is addictive.

Now, all stories can slow down from time to time, provide breathers for the readers, even places to set down the book. And of course good things can happen to your characters and happy endings might conclude the whole shebang.

But please don’t forget: In all fiction at least one character has everything to lose and the reader never forgets that.

Join me in September for Virtual Workshops

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 17•20

How are you doing out there in Writing Land? Can you believe it’s August?

We’re in the midst of another heat wave in Oregon today (insert profuse sweat and gnashing of teeth) which is beyond unwelcome since we need rain and forest fire season is upon us. I rose early to water, so ended up napping with the punishing sun blazing down and when I woke the sky was smudged, like a dirty blackboard and the temperature had dropped a few degrees.

I’ve been  creating a routine that holds me up despite heat waves and rising death tolls from COVID, and assaults on the US Postal Service. I mean, who doesn’t love the Post Office?

But back to routines–my days start with gardening and end with reading. In between is work and healthy meals, stretching and walking and staying in touch with people.  Because the best routines are strengthening in every way. How are you managing your time these days? How are you staying grounded?

Some exciting news: I’m teaching virtual workshops for the Write Now! Conference hosted by Phoenix-based Sisters in Crime Desert Sleuths and Chanticleer Writing Conference in beautiful Bellingham, Washington.  I’m especially excited that I’m teaching Between the  Lines (9/17 & 18) about writing the subtler aspects of fiction because it’s based on my book and Secrets of the Dark Arts (9/12) which helps fiction writers tackle not-for-the-faint-hearted  editing and revision.

I’ll also be teaching workshops on Captivating Costars: Why Secondary Characters Need More Love (9/8) and Subplots: Stories within Stories. (9/11) I’ve learned a lot as developmental editor and love passing along insights and practical methods. The dates are September 8-18.

Check out the Conferences and Workshops pages here and later this fall expect news about other places to enroll in my virtual classes. You and me on your computer or tablet.  I promise to make it elucidating and lively. With some laughs thrown in, because if we can’t laugh we’re doomed.

There are still many parts of the Before Times that I miss, especially dinner parties and outdoor concerts, gatherings of all sorts,  including teaching at writing conferences. And of course travel. But staying in touch with friends, keeping my garden alive, planning and planting new varieties, and renovating this long-neglected yard keep me going. I’m cooking away, as usual. Walking in quiet, tree-filled places.  And I’m returning to my hippie ways, stocking up on dried beans and drying herbs, canning pickles and making jam, filling my house with plants so that I’ll be tending green things year round. Nourishing routines to take me into autumn.

Here are a few things I’m up to that spark my creativity and feed my curiosity. As soon and I hit ‘publish’ I’ll remember more, but that’s okay. What is feeding your creativity these days?

What I’m reading:

A short story, Baikal by Lindsay Starck  at The New England Review. It’s about a marathon, set on a frozen lake in Siberia. It’s also about a marriage and looking back and regret and aging.  This one keeps slipping back into my memory–the small,  important details sprinkled in just so, the innovative structure, perfect words in perfect places. Let’s just say it wouldn’t be the first time that a fatal combination of sun and ice has confused and beguiled a fragile human in the cold. And here’s a link to the actual frozen lake and marathon in Siberia.

The Orphan of Salt Winds  Ive just started reading it, so have no review yet, but I’m intrigued.

Longing to travel again? Here are 7 Literary Journeys courtesy of The  Lily by Nneka McGuire.

What I’m watching:

Alone, because well, you know why–and it’s not about longing for winter.The latest episodes I watched were The Wolves and Pins and Needles if that gives you an idea of what’s going on. It’s a fascinating reality show on the History Channel where participants are dropped in remote places like Patagonia and the Arctic and north Vancouver Island. I’m generally indifferent to reality programs and was skeptical of the Vancouver Island location in the first seasons until I watched the marauding bears and relentless miserable weather. The participants must build shelters with basic tools, find food, and generally avoid starving and getting mauled by wild animals. (while the beasts try to steal their hard-won food) No guns and such are allowed though some do bring bows and arrows. All bring knives.

It makes you ponder how humankind survived all these centuries and the incredible skills and stamina it required.  It makes you ponder what it’s like to feel like prey. And just a note,  this series is not for the squeamish. A few too many close-up shots of skinning and butchering creatures for dinner, but I turn my head away for those parts…

Stockton on My Mind–an inspiring documentary about Michael Tubbs, the young mayor of Stockton, California and his innovative programs to rescue this ailing city and its young people.

The Chicks March March. It’s a call to action, an anthem to the power of protest. It’s haunting and potent.

HBO’s period drama, Perry Mason. I’m a sucker for a period drama, but just getting started with this series. Set in 1932 Los Angeles, the atmospherics are palpable, the casting brilliant and I suspect that this is much more akin to Erle Stanley Gardner’s vision of his noir stories than the Raymond Burr series from earlier decades. Matthew Rhys adds a brooding, soulful presence that suggests layers of angst and regret.

What I’m listening to:

Listen in to Home Cooking with Samin Nosrat  of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat fame and her friend composer-musician Hrishikesh Hirway– they’re hilarious and Samin knows sooo much about cooking. If you’re in a food rut, this is your go-to.

Storytelling, humanity, foibles, heartbreaks, break throughs, the folks at The Moth tell all and do it with panache. I never miss an episode.

How to Fail is unfailingly reassuring. As in successful, attractive, educated, and talented people screw things up badly, but then learn lessons and rebound. Recommended for days when your writing isn’t going great.

Another podcast I recommend is The Daily from The New York Times–it’s a quick way to catch up on the latest news stories. Hosted by Michael Barbaro it’s a 20-minute or so segment, with really smart people discussing the important events of our lives.

Music-wise I’ve heard so much buzz about Taylor Swift’s new CD Folklore, and now I understand the hype. I’m on my third listen and really paying attention to the lyrics. My music guru Mark Phialias sent it to me (you all need a music insider like Phialias in your life.) He wrote: “I have assumed Taylor Swift was lightweight, sweet-tea-esque-cultural-void. To be honest, I don’t recall any music she has done. But, and this is a big BUT, members of one of my favorite bands, The National, worked with Swift on Folklore. The National excels with hypnotic, mesmerizing melodies and lyrics that fit like snug jeans. So, Leaped with less faith and mostly hope, and to my ear, vastly rewarded.” (can you see why I’m also a Phialias fan?)

Please vote and make sure your friends, neighbors, and family votes.

Please donate to food banks–the need is enormous.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep wearing a mask. And hope to see you soon…on my computer that is.

And when the day reaches its end…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 02•20

“And when the day reaches its end I hear the crickets and become completely full and unintelligible. Then come the early hours bulging with thousands of blaring little birds. And each thing that happens to me I live by noting it down because I want to feel with my probing hands the living and quivering nerve of today.” ~ Clarice Lispector


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 02•20

Reboot/Course Correction

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 05•20

With July fourth behind us, in the beginning of the second half of the year, I’m assessing my goals because it’s time for a reboot, or more accurately, a course correction. 2020 has been a discombobulating, scary, uncertain slog. It’s like being in an endless storm, the eye of the storm, and nightmare all combined. Now, of course there have been lighter moments, joys, and reasons for hope. I’m especially heartened that more than 26 million Americans protested the death of George Floyd. And the beautiful, heartfelt response as the world joined in.

But no matter how your year is going, or your goals are progressing, there’s still plenty of time to recalculate the months ahead. I’m thinking of the big course corrections that are sometimes required—a space shuttle, a wagon train headed west, a ship exploring the unknown, a polar expedition. Life or death situations.

Some days writing or the need to write feels like life or death. Or a deep, immutable soul need. And has there ever been a time when the world needed writers  more? I think not.

What about you?

Are you on course toward your goals or avoiding or not even focusing on goals?

Are you reading for sustenance and elucidation?

Is a friend or another writer helping you stay accountable?

Have you finetuned  a daily routine that sustains you?

There is still time for accomplishment despite the headlines, the looming election, the terrifying number of COVID cases.

Keep writing, keep  dreaming, have heart 


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 30•20


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 01•20

Peace Rose, named to celebrate the end of WWII

Write in the Midst of Chaos

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 31•20

I was awakened early by thunder yesterday. We don’t get a lot of  thunderstorms in the Pacific Northwest  and so I stayed in bed just listening.  It’s been a nightmare week in the United States. Another black man murdered by police in Minneapolis. Righteous anger, outrage,  and protests over systemic police abuse  at some point shifted to riots, looting, fires, destruction, terror, and despair. Violent militia groups are taking advantage of the situation and wrecking havoc.

Monsters roam our streets. Troops in our streets another hellscape.

You don’t need me or newscasts  to tell you that we’re living in terrifying, uneasy, and unnerving times. As our cities burn all I can think is how I’ve lived through this before and how neighborhoods do not come back from this level of destruction. And now during a pandemic how will communities rebuild?

So many unknowns and terrors.  We’re floundering amid failed federal leadership, seemingly impossible odds, and an unnerving uncertainty. And besides our burning cities, invisible, minuscule DNA materials can slip into our cells with the power to kill us and people we love.

Uncertainty is painful and can be numbing. It creates anxiety and worry during the best of times. But these days it means we don’t know what the future will bring and if we can survive it. If our battered republic can hold.

We’re already grieving more than 100,000 deaths of our fellow US citizens. And now another black man choked to death after centuries of racism, injustice, and abuse of power.

All the grief these deaths have caused is unimaginable.

All the rage is justified.

Here’s my small suggestion: No matter your  situation or coping methods, take notes about your day-to-day experiences, coping methods, interactions or lack of interactions, and deeply felt emotional and physical reactions to the multiple crises we’re all living through. While the future is unknowable, what’s happening within you is discernible.  Do you feel trapped, paralyzed, stumbly? Are you leaving home and experiencing new freedoms as your state eases its restrictions?  Are you living in a city where you’re terrified as dark falls?

Julio Cortez, Associated Press

Julio Cortez, Associated Press

Do you have small kids at home so you have little time to tend to your own fears because you’re cooking, cleaning, and keeping cooped-up kids engaged?  Do you have no answers to your children’s questions about the lawlessness in our streets?

Then dial into the nitty-gritty of this shared nightmare and  your inner world and write it down.

Do not censor your thoughts or worries. This is the time to leave nothing unsaid. Write raw and scared and hopeful and worried and out of your depth.  Write about the powerful ache of loneliness and your fears of violence.  Write when you’re paranoid and lost and you need a vacation from your family or long to leave this battered country.

What does it feel like when your world looks like a battlefront, when rumors are ricocheting around you,  when even grocery shopping feels scary, when you feel choked by wearing a mask?

Are you noticing/feeling solidarity and hope amid the strangeness? Are you optimistic that there might finally be social justice and equality?

If you’ve read my words here or in my columns or books you know I preach the gospel of writers’ notebooks. Recording with your hand observations, inspirations, memories, and data. Writing by hand is good for the brain and your mood. Here’s more information on the topic.

Why write in the midst of chaos?

So you are never desensitized to horror.

Because story telling and truth telling needs to stir our  readers’ most primal emotions. Because the majority of people on this far-flung planet also experience your most primitive, unnerving emotions.

Because fiction and nonfiction often need an unsettling atmosphere to create needed tension.

Because you need to learn how write dread. misery, pain, fear, and grief effectively.

Because paying attention will help translate disgust, body language, and churning emotions onto the page.

Because even in the midst of savage truths stories teach us how to cope and hope.

With deepest sympathy for the family and friends of George Lloyd.

Keep writing, Keep paying attention, Keep safe.

Summer reading

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 25•20

When I think of long-ago childhood summers, I think of reading. Dappled light filtered through maples is easing through my bedroom window or a heavy storm is pounding at the panes, and I am worlds away, lost in a story. There is nothing like the simple luxury of reading a good book.

With this in mind, I’m providing this link to The New York Times  wonderfully curated list of Summer Reads. These days I’m reading Paulette Jiles gorgeous novelSimon the Fiddler. Let me count the ways that Jiles is a writer’s writer. Glistening and hardy prose, impeccable research, quirky and endearing characters, and a poet’s eye for the world. Set during Reconstruction, it’s the tale of itinerant musicians scraping together a modest living amid uncertain times. Oh, and there is an epidemic underway that they’re trying to outrun.  Music holds the tale together and deeply speaks to the protagonist as in this lovely passage: “He knew he didn’t play music so much as walk into it,  as if into a palace of great riches, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet other mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.”

I promise Jiles’ figurative language, demonstrated in this passage, will inspire. And her characters will thereafter live within you.

With a debt of gratitude to all who have served this country and their families.

Keep writing, keep reading, keep washing your hands and wearing masks.