Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Talking about writing with Rachel Hanley

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 14•19

I was interviewed by the talented Rachel Hanley. A few thoughts on writing and editing and persevering.  With many thanks and yes, my head shot is dated.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart

Ben Okri on storytelling

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 07•19

The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection, there is no story to tell. 


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 01•19

A painterly approach: more on using colors in your writing

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 30•19

I’ve been studying the history of the English language and am fascinated by the period after the bubonic plague of the 1300s.  After the Norman invasion and occupation of England in the 11th century,  French came to be the language of the  nobility, courts, and education.  English, much of it based on Anglo-Saxon origins, was considered lowly and inferior, and was most often spoken by farmers, herdsman, and commoners. Then the pandemic, or Black Death, wiped out 75 million people, or about one-third (some experts say almost one-half) of all inhabitants of Europe between 1340-1400. The plague began in China, traveled along the trade routes, and landed in Italy aboard merchant ships, then spread throughout Europe and moved onto Russia. The devastation meant that it took about 200 years for the world to repopulate.

Oddly, this was a boon for the English language because many of the French-speaking noblemen and women, knights, tutors, scholars, clerics, and  government officials succumbed to the hideous disease.  This was also the era of the Hundred Years War between France and England (1347-1453) and societal structures were shifting and breaking down. For one thing, there were no longer enough farmers and laborers, so they began demanding higher wages. As the serf-based system deteriorated, the lower classes started owning land. Prices soared, unrest reigned, and amid these shifting tides, the upper classes in England struggled to maintain power and the class system.

One odd result was  a law  that restricted the fabrics  the lower classes were allowed to wear—wool, hemp and  linen. Meanwhile, the upper classes could wear silks, satins, and velvets; fabrics that would take dye and produce vibrant shades. Restrictions were even made about what furs the commoners could wear–they were allowed rabbits and fox, for example, while the nobility were clad in ermine. Purple and sable could only be worn by the royal family.

Color is everywhere. Color hides beneath the ocean’s  roiling surface, creates a new canvass with every sunrise and sunset, adorns every season.

Color inspires, affects mood and emotions, and communicates meaning.  Color ranks among a writer’s most effective  tools to create subtext, symbolism, and resonance.

There are obvious uses and associations: when characters blush when flattered or pale at bad news. The ubiquitous dark and stormy night associated with gloom and danger is a much-used trope as are cheery blue skies, verdant green forests or pastures, and  red for passion.  These associations are centuries old and yet still effective. And a lack of color– bleachedpale, pallid, ashen– also communicates.

Suggestions for using color:

Give your main characters their own color palettes. If you write fiction know why your character wears earth tones or primary colors.  How does your female detective dress in her off-hours? Would she wear a deep wine-colored dress to a holiday party? Black? A tuxedo? Does she ever wear pink? Doc Martens?

Also, you can distinguish secondary and minor characters with color. What colors would her arty neighbor Rosalee wear? What colors does Rosalee use for decorating her apartment?

Along these lines, one of the most fascinating depictions of a character arc happened in AMC’s Breaking Bad series. In this hard-to-define series, seemingly mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White transforms after a cancer diagnosis into a meth-producing drug kingpin. All in the name of supporting his family. One way the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan showed his dramatic arc was to change the colors White wore from nerdy khakis and earth tones in the opening season to villainous black as he delved deeper into criminal activities.

Another TV series that created powerful associations between colors and characters is the period drama Downton Abbey. The fashion designers not only created sumptuous period costumes that reflected their status and the occasion, their wardrobes reflected temperament, and personality traits. Here is a link that discusses the early seasons and the Crawley daughters’ wardrobes. Each sister was given their own palette season by season, shifting as the characters evolve.

Since social ranking was extremely important in this era, the many characters’ color palettes and jewelry also reflected their position.

Color in your settings. Here’s the Crawley’s drawing room where they often gather before dinner. The hues, gilt, ornamentations,  and bejeweled chandelier create opulence and luxury.

The family’s dining room where so much gossip, backbiting, and witty repartee happens.

In contrast, here’s the servant’s dining hall. It’s simple, located in a lower level and serves as their dining hall, gathering place, and break room.

The decor, and textures couldn’t be more different from the upstairs dining room, including the lack of color. And then there’s the wall of bells that summon them.

Anchor your whole story world via color.  Colors give readers substance, reality. They inform, reveal if  it’s overcast, wintry, a pink-hued dawn or a sultry August afternoon. And you know something? Coloring in bedrooms and ballrooms, classrooms and boss’ office is fun. Even more fun: gardens, parks, enchanted forests, castles, state fairs and amusement parks, light houses, echoing caves, and impenetrable jungles. Learn to describe the hues of each season, rain, oceans, river, lakes, starlight, and skies in many moods.

Choose analogies and riches from the natural world. Golds and orange are linked with harvest and autumn.  Then there’s emerald, dandelion, lilac, moon glow, sea green, honey, egg shell, shadow black, poppy red, marigold yellow, iceberg cream,  champagne, pumpkin, grassy, sapphire, strawberry, bone, peacock blue, olive, smoke, moss, sea green, plum, blush.Moonlight is pearly, ocean colors are often ever-changing and can range from steel to turquoise. As can sky. A raging fire will blaze in red, orange, yellow, and white.  In fact, the dominant colors in a flame will change with the temperature.

Take care with skin tones and eye colors. While green eyes are rare (about 2% of the population) fiction is filled with green-eyed temptresses and the like. And if your character has green eyes, then you need to know how he/she got them–some DNA combinations will not produce green eyes. Mostly if you’re mentioning skin color, it’s done for a reason.Freckled skin could mean a character has a Celtic background. A mixed race character in the US in the 1700 and 1800s will have a significant backstory.

Use cultural, historical,  and gender associations. Brides in the West wear white because it connotes purity and white while Indian brides wear red because it’s a celebratory color. White is also recognized as truce. In Asian cultures white is funereal associated with death, mourning, and bad luck. In Western cultures red is linked to passion and excitement, and Christmas (along with green). It’s also coupled with danger as in stop signs. Chinese New Year is linked with red and it’s often associated with religion throughout the world.

Mourners at a funeral wear black or somber colors in North America while in the Middle East orange is coupled with loss and mourning. Westerners link orange to autumn, Halloween and harvest, while in Ireland orange is tied to protestants.  Purple has long been associated with royalty in Europe and North America, while in Asian and Eastern cultures  the color is yellow. In the West blue is considered masculine, while in Latin America it’s most linked with religion and the Virgin Mary’s robes. Black is often connected to masculinity and formality as in black tie events.  Black is also equated with bad luck, illness, magic and mystery. Green is the color of money, is linked to the Irish, jealousy, and the natural world. It suggests spring, fertility, and freshness.

Find fresh associations that create mood and emotions.  Clues can be found in advertising and design–there’s a reason why Golden Retrievers appear in commercials that suggest health, security, safety. Product packaging can also offer clues such as greens for natural ingredients. Pinks and bright colors can suggest a less serious product while yellow can suggest optimism and freshness. Silver and gold are linked to prestige, sophistication, elegance.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, use colors

Potent Beginnings Deliver

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 27•19

Potent fiction beginnings sweep readers far from their armchairs, or airplane seats, or beds. The first words yank, tug, propel them into a new world or a familiar world that offers new insights.  Potent openings introduce characters readers start caring about immediately.  Or at least wonder or worry about. Openings begin an immersive experience for readers.

Openings awaken curiosity.

And opening paragraphs need to  deliver a hefty dose of  information:

  • place
  • voice
  • atmosphere
  • mood
  • situation
  • tension
  • a question
  • and, of course, a character to worry about

So here’s an example of a potent beginning, Tomato Red by the incomparable Daniel Woodrell:  

You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo.,and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some in a trailer court of East Main, and the coed circle of bums there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat and there’s two girls millin’ about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things, and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time it’s three or four Sunday mornin’ and you ain’t slept since Thursday night and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain’t had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they’d taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, ’cause with crank you want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin’ to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.

That’s how it happens.

keep writing, keep dreaming, write potent beginnings

Reframing writer’s block: Maybe the Secret to Writing is not Writing

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 24•19

It’s a drizzly morning in Oregon and I was gazing out my window at a raised bed of tomatoes, drooping in the wet, with many fruit still on the vine. Peering into the gloom and wondering how many are ready to pick. I was wondering about my next gardening steps since this autumn seems too wet to plant fall crops. Should I let the bed go fallow over the winter, plant a cover crop?

And then I returned to my computer and clicked on this insightful, thoughtful and practical piece by Kate Angus  at LitHub. I believe you’ll find reassurances and wisdom as you read along. Especially if you’ve felt stalled or stymied lately.

I understand my process as a field–sometimes I’m harvesting and sometimes I must let the field lie fallow or seed it with new experiences so new growth can germinate.”

Keep dreaming, keep finding inspiration wherever you go

A writer is someone…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 13•19

A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is: when I speak of writing , what comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or literary tradition, it is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward; amid its shadows, he builds a new world with words. ~ Orhan Pamuk


More from Pamuk: his Nobel prize lecture My Father’s Suitcase

The potent opening of “Haunting Olivia” by Karen Russell

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 05•19

The weather is warm these days, but bearable and I’ve got a sprinklers running. My tomatoes are ripening so fast I need to check them every morning. Which isn’t that easy because one bed is an untidy jungle of branches, no matter how often I trim suckers.  I love the smell of tomato leaves on my hands, though the scent is hard to describe.  My harvest overfloweth, so I’ll have plenty to give away.

If you don’t have a lot of time for reading because you’re so busy writing, one thing you can always do is read and analyze story openings and ask yourself why the opening works or doesn’t. Here’s one worth studying from the talented Karen Russell, Haunting Olivia.

My brother Wallow has been kicking around Gannon’s Boat Graveyard for more than an hour, too embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t see any ghosts. Instead, he slaps at the ocean with jilted fury. Curse words come piping out of his snorkel. He keeps  pausing to adjust the diabolical goggles.

The diabolical goggles are designed for little girls. They are pink with a floral snorkel attached to the side. They have scratchproof lenses and an adjustable band. Wallow says we are going to use them to find our dead sister, Olivia. 

My brother and I have been taking midnight scavenging trips to Gannon’s all summer long. It’s a watery junkyard, a place where people pay to abandon their boats. Gannon, the grizzled, tattooed undertaker, tows wrecked ships into his marina. Battered sailboats and listing skiffs, yachts with stupid names–Knot at Work and Sail-la-vie–the paint peeling from their puns. They sink beneath the water in slow increments, covered with rot and barnacles. Their masts jut out at weird angles. The marina is an open, easy grave to rob. We ride our bikes along the rock wall, coasting quietly past Gannon’s tin shack, and hop off at the derelict pier. Then we creep down to the ladder, jump onto the nearest boat, and loot.   

I’m in (and practically swatting at mosquitoes),  how about you?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 04•19

Do what  you can, with what you have, where you are. ~Theodore Roosevelt


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 01•19

Autumn Walk with Umbrella, R. Beal