Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

In case you missed it: Ruth Reichl on M.F.K. Fisher

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 03•19

I discovered M.F.K. Fisher in my twenties, not from her many memoirs and books about food, but by reading Sister Age. It’s an odd little book. As the title suggests, it’s about aging and features essays of sorts about ghosts, elderly women on a sea voyage,  encountering death, and facing one’s later years. And, as in all her writing, Fisher manages to espouse her bold and deliberate views on the lush pleasures of life.

I then devoured all her books and memoirs on food and cooking  from The Gastronomical Me to How to Cook a Wolf and upon reading them, felt like I had joined a secret sisterhood of women who truly appreciated the sensual pleasures of food and cooking. As Reichl notes, “To Mary Frances food was a metaphor for living.”

Ruth Reichl’s beautiful tribute and memory of her last visit with Fischer is a worthwhile read. Ruth Reichl on M.F.K. Fischer Lifetime of Joyous Eat is here at lithub. And if you haven’t read Reich’s memoir, Tender at the Bone,  I highly recommend it. Here’s Fisher’s website that includes a list of her 27 books and the delightful news that an unpublished novel was discovered then published in 2016. Finally, because I’m hoping to pique your interest in this remarkable writer, here’s an interview with Bill Moyers.

This interview contains one of my favorite all-time passages written by Fisher: “Once I was lying with my head back, listening to a long program of radio music from New York, with Toscanini drawing fine blood from his gang. I was hardly conscious of the sound, with my mind anyway. And when it ended, my two ears, which I had never thought of as cup-like, were so full of silent tears that as I sat up, they drenched and darkened by whole front with little gouts of brine. I felt amazed. Beyond my embarrassment in a group of near friends, for the music I heard was not the kind that I thought I liked, and the salty water had rolled from my half-closed eyes like October rain, with no sting to it, but perhaps promising a good winter.”

Perhaps this gives you a glimpse of why I’m such a fan.

….Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 01•19

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

From The New Colossus, Emma Lazurus. 1883

Happy July 4th out there to any citizen who holds this message dear.

Quick take: Story=problem.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 27•19

Fiction features a problem that needs solving and only the protagonist can solve it. In short stories the problem is often introduced by the inciting incident–an event that triggers or launches what follows. In longer fiction the inciting incident might lead to the problem. This event will disrupt the status quo, demand a response, and set actions in motion. It’s a threat that unbalances the story world and creates dilemmas that must be dealt with. So a simple plot structure is a protagonist struggling to solve an intolerable problem and re-establish order.

No matter when the problem begins (it’s always in Act One) the problem is weighty and vexing,  perhaps insurmountable. If the problem is not immediately personal,  it should become so creating a bond between the protagonist and antagonist.

As you know, in real life problems are sometimes unsolvable and don’t fit neatly into a satisfying narrative arc. Across the globe there are ‘forever’ problems of climate change, financial inequities,immigrants who need homes, corporate greed, and fascism. No shallow fixes will work, though incremental changes can chip away at underlying issues.

Closer to home, you might be dealing with a job that drives you crazy, but you cannot leave;  family members who refuse to reconcile; health or mental health issues that can only be coped with, not cured; or agonizing decisions about caring for elderly family members. In fact, studies have show that depression can be linked to seemingly unsolvable problems.

This is why some people turn to fiction. Where love wins in the end, crimes are solved and justice is served, and friends or families reconcile. But in well-told tales success never comes easy and it always exacts a toll. Often success comes from the protagonist tapping into inner resources he or she hadn’t accessed before.

A few tips: as the story progresses the protagonist formulates a plan. Now the plan can be shaky, untested, or desperate, but readers need a  strategy at work.

Force your character to solve smaller problems along the way to resolving the major story problem. A detective can dig up a much-needed witness or help a vulnerable street kid.

Endow your protagonist with specific, interesting skills and personality attributes that won’t waver and make him or her suited to the task.

Create a protagonist who is somehow lacking in something he or she needs for happiness or fulfillment. Burden him or her with emotional baggage and needs, personal demons or addictions, then toss in cast members and subplots that distract, undermine, or hinder.

Understand how the problem makes the protagonist feel in each scene: hesitant, unaware, outgunned, overwhelmed, weak, unqualified, terrified.

Setbacks and surprises should be baked into the plot.  Oh, and the protagonist should fail, fall on his face at least a few times along the way to the climax. Because your job as the master manipulator is to blindside, torment, and thwart your characters. Again and again so the outcome is in question.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 20•19


Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home. ~ Anna Quindlen

Are you using colors?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 18•19

A pearly full moon is rising through a stand of tall Douglas firs tonight. It’s casting an enormous, mysterious glow through the upper branches.  I’m stepping out onto the porch at intervals to watch its progress, as  meanwhile the Big Dipper shines above the back door.

What color is the moon in your part of the world?

This is the third summer I lived here and I’m still landscaping the front yard and creating a secret garden in the back. Ahead there’s lots of fencing, digging, edging, planting, and path laying.  I’m establishing the flower beds with deliberate color schemes. Lots of deep blues, purples, lavender, rich pinks. One bed is based around shades of sunshine and orange, and includes a pale rose, with variegated shrubs and cedars as a backdrop. Across the yard I’m creating a new curved bed of dahlias in wine, garnet, and berry shades. It will partially encircle a bench that in turn faces a bed of blushing bride hydrangeas lining the back of the house. Did I mention hole digging? And figuring out archway-slash-dramatic entrances?

Do you ever feel kind of invaded by or drunk on color? I know I do.  Season by season.

With summer only days away in the Northern Hemisphere, are you observing all the shades around you, while slipping them into your writing? Are you adding new colors to your repertoire: bone, alabaster, currant, merlot, sea glass, apricot, honey, marigold, butterscotch, daffodil,  flaxen, plum,  cobalt, ocean, sage, iron, onyx.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Each person has a song….

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 16•19

Each person whoever was or or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their song instead. ~ Neil Gaiman

Why So Many Adults Love to Read YA

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 12•19

Summer might be only a week away, but temperatures are hitting near 100 today. I’m in a bit of trouble in the watering department because I’ve been buying more than my share of ‘rescue’ plants lately. A nearby Fred Meyers garden department marks them down and I’m lured to them like other people might be to stray kittens.  Yesterday I came home with a Miss Kim lilac, 2 hydrangeas, 2  sunflowers, and 2 others whose name escapes me, but they’re pale purple and flourish in my yard.  I plant a lot of purple and blue.

This summer I have a new raised bed that’s 4X8 and 2 feet high. I’ve planted 7 tomatoes with an emphasis on Brandywines, my other bed has at least 8 volunteer tomatoes in it, the beans are off to a slow start, the basil loves this hot weather, mint is spreading as fast as I contain it,  and I’m battling slugs because apparently they adore tomato leaves.So gardening is taking up a lot of time, my back complains, and the results are soul-satisfying and delicious.

Ever since I learned to read I’ve spent many languorous hours in the summer reading. I was thinking back to that first week or two when school was over and summer stretched so full of promise and books and small adventures.

If you’re like me your to-read pile of books doesn’t diminish, it grows. And grows. And sometimes topples over.   And then if you mix in books you plan to reread… well, a  vacation cannot come soon enough.

As if your book collection isn’t big enough, I want to suggest that you also read YA (young adult). You’ll be in good company because 55% YA books are read by adults. In this Atlantic article Caroline Kitchner, a professor of young adult literature (what a great gig!) outlines why YA fiction is so compelling.  I agree with John Green that the emotional intensity and freshness of YA pulls me in, especially in a coming-of-age story where the protagonist is experiencing ‘firsts’–first love, first great loss, first taste of independence, first major moral dilemma.

Reading YA can teach writers how to get their story off to a quick and rollicking start because often the inciting incident occurs on the first page. YA literature can teach how to craft fiction on a budget since these novels typically fall into the 55-75,000 word range. And it needs to be said; some of our best contemporary writers are writing young adult fiction.

Here’s the middle grade (ages 9-12) novel  I’m reading now by the talented Randall Platt, Professor Renoir’s Collection of Oddities, Curiosities, and Delights.  It’s set in 1896 and is about a real-life giant girl, Babe Killingsworth. By her 14th birthday she measures 6’9″ and weighs 342 pounds. She lives in her father’s barn with the animals she loves. She doesn’t go to school because she can’t fit at a desk and the teasing from the other kids is unmerciful. Oh, and her pa is about to sell her off to a traveling carnival and Professor Renoir, a man of dubious reputation. I don’t know about you, but I adore a good misfit story.

Keep writing, keep reading, have heart

7 Tricks for Writing Terrifying Horror Fiction

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 30•19

For more on horror stories visit Writer’s Digest here.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

From The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 29•19

“This book is a train with many cars, moving clumsily along a track at night. One car contains a small supply of coal, which spills out into the passageway when an internal door is opened. You have to step over piles of slippery black grit to get through to the corridor. Another car contains grain, shipped for export. One car is full of musicians and instruments and cheap overnight bags, nearly half an orchestra sitting according to their friendships and rivalries in the seats of the second-class compartment. Another car contains bad dreams. The final car has no seats but is instead of sleeping men, who lie crushed together on their coats in the dark.

The door to that one has been nailed shut from the outside.”

*          *           *           *            *          *           *          *          *

From this intriguing intro, the story begins on the next page with a young woman, Alexander Boyd,  arriving jetlagged in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2008 to teach English. Mishaps start the story off with her taxi driver dropping her off at the wrong hotel. This leads to a chance encounter that propels the story forward. It also creates a deepening mystery when travelers she’s helped leave behind a satchel holding an urn of human remains.

However, even before this inciting incident, mystery is shrouding the story including the phrase ‘self-inflicted exile’ dropped into the second paragraph like a grenade.  Exile never has pleasant connotations, does it? And how does this all connect to the train images in the first paragraphs?

Here’s a link to this effective opening.

Joan Didion advises

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 21•19

I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t believe that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it.  To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave is a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck to you.