Tag Archives: interesting words

The Dog Days Doldrums: Or, Be Good to Yourself Even When You’re Doing Nothing

It’s the dog days. It’s the doldrums. It’s the nothing’s happening time. When I was growing up in sunny SoCal, this was the deep middle of summer, which for us ran from when school was out in early June until school started again after Labor Day. Endless days, warm nights. Lots of time with nothing to do but run the imagination. Read a book. Play solitaire (with cards; didn’t have computers then). Try to stay cool without A/C. A lot of time doing nothing.

I don’t know if any of that has anything to do with why I can’t seem to focus on getting anything done now. I’m eager to write. I have a number of stories I’m trying to push forward, but mostly I just keep pushing things back and forth, side to side. What am I doing? I don’t know.

The other day, while trying rather unsuccessfully to focus on a story, I ended up stumbling on a blog post by my advisor from my MFA days, the author Stephen Schwartz. The post is called “Feeding the Lake,” and it’s full of great advice for writers. But perhaps the one that struck me the most was this:

Realize that you’re writing even when you’re not. It’s called wool gathering. Lying on the couch daydreaming, mulling over a story in the shower, waiting to pick up your kids from school, spacing out in a staff meeting. Give yourself credit for all these.

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The Strange Dichotomy of “Life”

What do you do with those really great moments of life, those times when you’re most happy? Like when you’ve just sold your first short story, or a novel. Or it’s your wedding day, or the birth of a child. Maybe you’re celebrating a fiftieth anniversary. It’s your parent’s or grandparent’s eightieth birthday and they’re in great health. So you’re beaming. And do you, at that moment, spare a thought for the ending, the fact that no matter where we are in life, eventually it ends in death for all of us?

Of course not! Why would you? Revel in the now. (Unless you’re of a particularly morbid character.) . . . And yet, that death is still out there waiting for each of us, isn’t it?

Before I lose you, I’m not here to dwell on death, but rather to examine the uplifting message in the song “Life” by Devin Townsend. As the two or three people who read my posts regularly will recognize, I’ve been rather obsessed with the music of Devin Townsend recently. And I’m OK with that. “Life” is a happy song; you can have a listen while you continue reading below:

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“Pixillate”: Fractured Identity & the Power of Art

I spent a lot of time writing about literature in college and during my MFA program. As a writer, learning to evaluate and talk about writing is a pretty handy skill, some might say an instrumental skill. Even when I read for pleasure now, part of my mind is always evaluating, trying sentences in different constructions, trying to predict character actions or upcoming turns of plot, and so forth.

Because music is a vital part of my daily life, it’s probably no surprise that I frequently run the same mental games on the songs and albums I listen to—evaluating how or why a song achieves its effect, explicating how lyrics and music combine to form meaning. I’ll show you what I mean.

A while back, I wrote about a musical selection by the Devin Townsend Band called Synchestra and how it had influenced a short story I was writing (“Synchestra: Unleashing the Transdimensional Space Goat on America’s Wickedest Street”). I’d like to take a look now at one of the tracks from this album, a song called “Pixillate.” The song comes on the second half of the album; if we were to consider the album as a novel—a not inappropriate comparison, considering we’re talking about progressive rock here—this song would be well into the rising action, heading into the dark of the woods, approaching the black moment or crisis.  Continue reading

Examining Wretched Words: Plotting & Pantsing

If you’ve been part of the writing community for long, you’ve probably at some point been asked: Are you a plotter or a pantser? If you’re a plotter, you write by plotting—that is, you outline or otherwise work out the details of your story before actually writing it. If you’re a pantser, you engage in pantsing—flying by the seat of your pants, writing to find out what the story is.

As a description for what we do as writers, I think these terms are ugly, detestable, and reductionist. Almost no one claims to be purely one thing or the other; they’ll answer, “I’m mostly this, but with a little bit of that.” The idea behind using these terms seems to be to pigeonhole writers into types, although reality fights against such narrow definitions.

As far as what these terms define, the two writing methods (and shades in between) that they describe, both types are perfectly valid. Depending on what I’m working on, I might find myself working at either end of the spectrum—different types of stories call for different approaches to the writing process. At least for me.  Continue reading

Bobby Socks Trees, Lake Music, and the Evocative Nature of Yellowstone

Because I often write fiction set in Yellowstone National Park, it should be no surprise that I follow the social media streams from the park. Of course, it’s also a favorite vacation spot, although my aversion to cold keeps me away at this time of year. A few days ago, the Yellowstone Facebook page posted a lovely picture that called to mind a scene from one of my stories and also introduced me to an interesting new term.

Bobby socks trees at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

Bobby socks trees at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

The picture showed a scattering of standing dead pines covered in morning frost and in the background just a faint hint of a dark forest tree line through a thick fog. According to the caption, the photo was taken at the Lower Geyser Basin; the location around thermal features explains the dead trees as they don’t tend to thrive in the hot water, steam, and excessive minerals typical in such locales.

These dead lodgepole pines are known as bobby socks trees because of their white bottoms, which is caused when the trees soak up the mineral-rich water of the thermal area. After the water evaporates, they appear to be wearing white ankle socks because of the minerals left behind, and thus the name. With all my many trips to Yellowstone over the years, it seems like I would have heard this term before, although if I did, it certainly didn’t stick.

I like the term bobby socks tree because it’s so wonderfully evocative: The name describes the thing. I tried to discover how common or scientific this term is through a variety of online searches, and although there isn’t a wealth of source material, it is in fairly common use, even by the National Park Service. (Along the way, I also got to learn a bit about the history of bobby socks themselves, and why not?) It just makes me wonder why more scientific terminology doesn’t follow such obvious or descriptive naming conventions—I’m sure we’d all find it much easier to remember our science lessons if so.

You can see the picture that sparked this musing here. Although I might not have known the term, I find I’ve been taking my own pictures of bobby socks trees for quite a while. They frequently provide an interesting foreground for some larger and more colorful background, such as the Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park, which is where my photos that accompany this post were taken.

Bobby socks trees form from minerals in the water around thermal features

Bobby socks trees form from minerals in the water around thermal features

Yellowstone contains a wealth of evocative names. Dragon’s Mouth Spring. Frying Pan Spring. Dot Island. Fairy Falls. Castle Geyser. Even Old Faithful, for goodness’s sake. They’re names that describe the feature or perhaps have some significance in its history. And they’re names that call to mind fantastic stories, which goes a ways to explain why I’ve spent so much time writing about this place.

I learned a new Yellowstone term this morning, also from the park’s social media. From a post called “Unexplained and Unreported Phenomenon in Yellowstone” on the park’s In the Shadow of the Arch blog, I learned about “lake music.” Apparently, this is a phenomenon where people hear a buzzing sound above Yellowstone Lake and Shoshone Lake, and it was reported as far back as the 1880s. Something else I’d never heard of—or heard!

I’ll be listening for lake music on my next Yellowstone trip, and I imagine this phenomenon will have to end up featuring in a story at some point. I haven’t decided about Bigfoot yet.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Perspective and Blind Spots

They call it the Front Range, this east-facing stretch of the Rocky Mountains that runs north to south across Colorado. Along the Front Range, you’ll find most of Colorado’s well-known non-mountain towns: Denver, Boulder, Pueblo, Colorado Springs—all the stuff that lies along I-25. And when I moved to Colorado from California eighteen years ago, I had no idea why they called it the Front Range.

Growing up in Southern California, and looking at maps from that perspective, I felt like I had crossed over to the back side of the mountains when I moved to Fort Collins. Shouldn’t this be called the Back Range? It probably took me longer than it should have to figure out that it was an eastern-centric view of the world (or at least the U.S.) that led to this name. And I suppose it could even have a historical basis since settlers moving westward across the continent encountered this giant range first after the long flat of the Great Plains.

Pikes Peak, part of Colorado's Front Range

Pikes Peak, part of Colorado’s Front Range

I couldn’t understand this name because I had a blind spot. My vision of this country was from the left. I didn’t have the perspective to see the back side of the mountains as the front. I wasn’t able to view the country from New York, as most of the world seems to do. (I feel a digression coming on here about how growing up as a Dodgers fan in the late ’70s taught me to hate the Yankees and New York by extension, but perhaps that’s best left for another time.)

This sort of blind spot could be a useful character trait in fiction—provided you can portray it believably. A bigger question, however, might be whether you have your own blind spots that affect how you portray your characters. Can your characters see viewpoints that you can’t see yourself? Can you write from a perspective that you don’t understand or maybe don’t agree with?

At the most basic level, you might need to write from the point of view of the opposite gender. Some writers can do this without any trouble, while others can’t pull it off. And what about writing from a contrary political or religious viewpoint? Or even just a character with an unfamiliar occupation? Research can take you only so far; to really present a vivid character, you have to be inside their perspective. You have to imagine that life, which you can’t do if your own blind spots prevent you.

In my own writing, traits or beliefs I don’t agree with usually show up as negative character traits—ways to present the bad guys, you might say. For instance, I can’t stand smoking and have little tolerance for smokers, so if one of my characters smokes, he’s probably an antagonist in some form. (I’m working with such a character in a story at the moment.)

It would probably be a great writing exercise to try to find your own blind spots and failures of perspective and create positive characters that nonetheless carry these traits. Maybe I’ll try this by having a character that believes Front Range is a beautiful and appropriate name for this Colorado stretch of the Rockies—because even though I understand it now, it still seems backwards to me.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Krummholz: Transition, Tenacity, and Mystery

Last week, I took a drive over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is a beautiful excursion above the tree line with some truly majestic vistas. Every time I travel that road, there’s a spot where a certain word pops into my mind. It happens where the road rises to transition from the subalpine forest to the alpine tundra, and the word is krummholz.

If you know this word, the reason it springs to mind at that point is probably obvious. I don’t remember when I first learned the word, but I’d guess it was on a trip to a national park—perhaps even RMNP when I was about 8 years old on a trip out to Colorado from California. Krummholz refers to the trees and other vegetation in the transition zone between subalpine and alpine, plant life which is typically twisted and deformed by the struggle to survive in extreme winds and temperatures.

alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Vista of alpine tundra and distant mountains from Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Krummholz trees frequently include pines and firs. They cling to rocky ground, dwarfed, bent, and gnarled. Those that still survive frequently have green branches on only the lee side, away from high winds, forming flag trees. Those that fail leave white twisted tree corpses. It’s a stark yet beautiful landscape, as well as a reminder of the tenacity of life and the unforgiving climate of the high mountains.

I love the word krummholz. From German, it translates literally as “bent wood” or “crooked wood” (and keep your off-color jokes to yourself!). It sounds like it should be the name of a character from a Charles Dickens novel, some old curmudgeon, or maybe even a cagey and twisted villain. I’m not opposed to the Dickensian naming convention in my own writing, so I could see using some variant of Krummholz someday for a baddy.

alpine tundra, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

On top of the world, Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Part of what gives the word power, to me anyway, is its existence at that transition point. The krummholz zone, though fairly small, is a grand visible sign of metamorphosis: one thing becoming another, a tree-covered land rising to where no tree can survive. Transitions are powerful—more powerful than the states on either side, which are static. As a fiction writer, it’s the transitions that matter, that are important to demonstrate. Maybe that’s why krummholz has always stuck in my mind.

When I looked up the proper spelling of krummholz (and actually there are acceptable variants), I found another word, a synonym, that deepened my appreciation for this transition zone. In 1903, an English translation of the German Krummholz was rendered as elfin-wood. The term elfinwood survives as an acceptable variant for krummholz. As a fan and writer of fantasy fiction, how could this word not spark the imagination?

I don’t believe I’ve ever written fiction about the krummholz zone—although thoughts are churning now. What sort of elfin creatures could live in this stunted wilderness? What would they look like—twisted and gnarled like the landscape itself or somehow resistant to the elements? Why do they live there, and for how long has this been their home? Good questions to start with, and perhaps if I choose to answer them, a story will evolve to solve the mysteries.

elk herd, Trail Ridge Road, Colorado

Elk herd along Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins