Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

What Inspires You?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 20•23

We’re blanketed in fog on the hill where I live in Oregon. The roofs are coated in frost, the tall Douglas firs at the end of the block are muffled and spooky, and the kettle is boiling for my second cup of Earl Grey.

For months now I’ve been pondering the question of what inspires me. It’s a long list. Everyday magic always does–like Roz, who was in Trader Joes yesterday shopping with her mother on her birthday. She wore a pale pink sequined top and skirt and pink cowboy boots and glasses that kept slipping down her nose. I left the store with groceries and yellow tulips, my heart lighter and came home and made a pot of Italian sausage and vegetable soup, brimming with fresh herbs. And ate a bowl topped with a hearty mound of parmesan. Cooking has always inspired me along with travel, art, gardening, old forests, and skies. Naturally this is a partial list and includes a lifetime of reading.

As these wintery days wind down and storms whip through the region, I’m often reading fiction tucked under a cozy throw. After a few months of devouring and analyzing dystopian, post-apocolyptic novels and series, I’ve moved onto less grim fare and just finished Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.  Don’t let the pink cover of the US publication fool you–this story isn’t a bit of fluff.  It’s a marvelous tale, winding and witty and inventive. It  wraps around protagonist Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist who is struggling to work in her field in the 1950s and 60s when female scientists were not taken seriously despite their contributions. Or paid fairly.  Desperate to provide for herself and her daughter she’s hired in the unlikely role on a TV cooking show, ‘Supper at Six’ and teaches chemistry to her audience. The pragmatic Zott, wearing a lab coat with a number 2 pencil tucked into her updo is a grand success. But a cooking show is not a longed-for chemistry lab.

Writers beware–beyond the extraordinary and endearing Zott, Garmus has created an array of fabulous supporting characters that will make you envious. The cast’s artfully crafted backstories will only enhance that envy, but do study how she’s pulled off this realistic ensemble. And glory be, the family dog, Six-Thirty also has a viewpoint.  He’d flunked out of being part of canine bomb detection team, but as you might have guessed, is no ordinary pooch.

Am I the only one who adores canine fictional characters? Did I mention the wit? Make that hilarity.  I cannot recommend Lessons in Chemistry enough although I’ll warn you, you’ll hate it when the story ends.

What inspires you? Travel? Art? Music? I’d love to hear from you.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, stay inspired.



Instructions for Living a Life

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 15•23

Instructions for Living a  Life

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Mary Oliver

Check out the Poetry Foundation for more about Oliver.

I’ve been reading a lot this winter, but haven’t read much poetry lately. Going to remedy that and suggest writers everywhere devour poetry and song lyrics and forage for metaphors and figurative language in all its forms.

I’m feeling so inspired this January and hope you are too.

What inspires you? Are you seeking it out? What about an artist’s date or three ala Julia Cameron? I strolled through an antique mall on Friday and realize how much I seek out visual inspiration. Cameron calls artist dates ‘assigned play.’ One of the reasons I hang out on Pinterest. Too much actually. Do you?

Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

And just a reminder: make room for wonder.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 15•23

After nourishment, shelter and companionship,  stories are  the thing we most need in the world. Philip Pullman

A New Year’s Wish

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 02•23


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 02•23

Light, Lists, and Good Wishes for 2023

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 31•22

As the year wraps up I wanted to wish writers everywhere light, success, and wonder.

This time of year I ake stock, make plans, and peruse the ‘best of’  lists, especially when it comes to books. Here are a few you might enjoy:

Former president Barak Obama shares his favorite books, music, and movies here.

The thoughtful and beautiful Marginalian has wrapped up her best stories from 2022—You won’t be sorry.

Then there are the indie bookstores best books of 2022–always a reliable and discriminating source.

NPR has this delightful story on favorites you can listen to here. It’s from their Books We Love series and feartures a nicely diverse selection.

Literary Hub has fabulous end-of-year lists including the best literary dragons ranked, the best crime movies and literary adaptations. If you’re not a subscriber, I strongly suggest you check it out.

You might also enjoy Lit Hub’s podcast for writers, Just the Right Book.

So many stories, so much to learn.

Keep writng, keep dreaming, have heart



Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 04•22


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•22

A starting place for fiction writers

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 26•22

Well, we’re galloping through October and the region is finally getting real, soaking, save-our-parched-earth rainfall around here. In fact, we had a booming thunder storm–a rarity in the Pacific Northwest.

But since November and NaNoWriMo {National Novel Writing Month} are just around the bend, I wanted to mention a few things about starting a novel. I was on Pinterest  and I spotted my advice posted there. And then I noticed people were responding to it. Naturally I was curious…. One woman mentioned how she’d recently dreamed about a specific character and situation, and car {fun!}, and woke up and started writing, thrilled, but clueless about where the inspirations came from. Another writer said planning wasn’t necessary and another writer objected that knowing the ending to a story wasn’t necessary.  Then a writer added, ‘just write.’

If only writing fiction was that easy.

I tried to respond but there was a glitch in the software, so here’s what I attempted to say: I’ve taught thousands of writers and worked as a developmental editor for hundreds more, including wildly successful, best-selling authors. And here’s what I’ve learned: The more you know about where you’re heading, the easier it will be to arrive there. The more you know about the building blocks of your story, the easier it will be to plot, and the more likely you’ll finish.

Now, of course, you’ll entertain new insights as you write. You might slip in subplots that weren’t part of your original concept. Characters could simply walk onto the stage without your prior knowledge, much less permission. And if you’re lucky, your characters  might whisper their darkest secrets into your ear. Those whispers were key because you had no idea your protagonist harbored such as raw desperation, unresolved pain or grief. That’s all part of the delightful, kick-ass, {often} joy ride called fiction writing.

But even some planning and dare I say, outlining also helps your imagination launch and stay on course.

While I’m at it, let me add:

Stories revolve a central dramatic question: Who is Jason Bourne?

Your protagonist is the person who will be most hurt and changed by the story events. The antagonist is the character or entity that  forces the protagonist to change in ways he or she most needs to change.

Your storyline will transport your protagonist into new emotional and phsycial territory.

Early on, define your protagonist’s core personality traits–these are qualities and strengths that will help the character achieve his or her goals.

Jason Bourne would never succeed against the dark forces if he was addicted to video games, not a total bad ass. And marksman. Not to mention tough, fit, guarded, alert, think-on-his-feet human action figure.

Understanding the difference between what your protagonist wants and what your protaonist actually needs, is crucial becuase you’ll create conflict that drives the story forward.

In Toy Story Sheriff Woody Pride wants to remain the leader of the toys. Andy’s toys. But mostly he wants to remain Andy’s favorite toy. In order to stay on top, he needs to take down the newest, slickest toy, the brash Buzz Lightyear. The thing is, Woody is basically a decent sort, and believes a toy’s role is to be there for Andy or kids in general.  When he goes against his own nature and starts to undermine Buzz, things fall apart and he puts them both in serious danger. And the other toys are not having it. What Woody needs are frends–the underlying theme of the story.

A character’s needs creates the emotional core of the story.

When your protagonist figures out his or her true needs, he or she undergoes a character arc–the necessary change the story illuminates. A character arc is the difficult path of growth, such as dealing with an emotional need, overcoming fear, limitation, trauma or wound. Because often your lead doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know. Because characters, like real people,have false beliefs such as ‘I’m not loveable or I don’t deserve love’. False beliefs are potent because readers will likely catch on before the character does. Which leads to tension.

A lot of storytelling is about gaining knowledge–especially about the self.

It’s truely helpful to ponder these underlying factors. To analyze other stories.

To go deep.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

And those readers in the US,  please vote. Our democracy needs you.

The books I reread form a scaffold for my time

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 05•22

“The books I reread form a scaffold for my time and also a scaffold for my thoughts. I reread to mark the progression of my own thoughts, to agree or disagree with a sentence or passage, to further a conversation begun in the previous reading. Sometimes–this is rare though it happens–rereading does come to a natural ending. About ten years I reread every single book written by Turgenof, whom I read first when I was twelve, and after that I knew I would not return to his work for serious rereading.” ~ Yiyun Li from Literary Hub column on Writing Advice (The Best and the Bad)

Do you reread your favorite books? I do, though I’ve stopped rereading The Great Gatsby.

And isn’t this a gorgeous  cover? Li has written six novels, a memoir, and teaches at Princeton. I’m about to order at least one of her books–The Book of Goose is definetly a contender. I’m so intrigued, aren’t you?

Autumn has arrived in the Pacific Northwest. So far, goose flocks haven’t been honking overhead, but flowers are fading, the sky is becoming moodier, and moonlight somehow is more soothing, and even when there are no mists, mornings can feel misty. It’s Indian Summer weather and I’m still picking tomatoes, but I’m also starting to tuck away the garden. This requires digging up and moving plants, some rather large. I have more plants to move indoors than I have windows, but I’m looking forward to the crowding and the greens. And I’m so anticipating the burnished weeks ahead.

I’m going to share some thoughts on NaNoWriMo in weeks ahead.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart