In an Elevator

So the question is, who is the last person on earth that I would want to be stuck with in an elevator, and why?

While several specific people come to mind,  she of the bathing suit at the Y, for one, I will instead write about a type of person, rather than a specific one.

I would abhor being stuck in an elevator with someone who doesn’t read. Not quite as bad, but still bad, is someone who only reads self-help books. But mostly, I would find it difficult to spend time with anyone who doesn’t read to expand their horizons.

I know that there are those people who don’t read fiction, not wanting to waste their time on anything that “isn’t real,” while there are others who read only fiction, not wanting to waste their time on biographies or history. But give me a person who reads, and I’m sure to find something to talk about with that person. Even if it isn’t something about which I am particularly interested, I know I will learn something in the time we speak. Recently, at jury duty, I made a point to try to meet the other eleven people in the jury. I spoke with a recent college graduate who answered my queries  shyly at first, and then with greater animation, as he told me of his desire to go into speech therapy analysis and the reading he has been doing on the subject; an older gentleman who had been with the CIA before becoming a master chef in New York, before becoming a dealer in fine jewels, selling to the original founders of the great jewelry stores such as Tiffany’s; a woman who is a “WWII orphan,” one among several hundred thousand of such children who lost their fathers in the Second World War, and who now writes about the research being done to link these orphans with the stories of their fathers’ war experiences; and  a man whose hero was Sandy Koufax, and who knew every detail about Koufax’s life; and several others.

The point is, I found something to speak about with each of these people because they  were interested in life beyond their own noses, and each turned out to be a voracious reader. Once we found we had that in common, the rest was a walk in the park. They knew about the world beyond their limited experience and they sought to know more through books.

I have neighbors who do not read. While they are nice people, I find I have little to speak about with them. They have opinions set in stone, circumscribed views on the world around them, and no interest in the lives of others who differ from them. They are like a cousin of mine who proudly declares, “Europe has nothing to offer me. Why would I ever travel there?”

Words and Meaning

I suppose it is inevitable that I became a writer and editor. Words have always held great importance for me. The precise word for a precise meaning: a concept vital to me as a child, and still.

I remember contemplating the difference between the word “marriage” and the word “wedding,” knowing that these two words, while sometimes used interchangeably, meant something very different. Because I couldn’t formulate my question properly at the age of seven, I didn’t receive a clarifying answer when I asked my mother about the difference. The question continued to haunt the recesses of my mind, until at the age of nine I finally figured it out. A wedding was the ceremony that joined two people into a partnership called marriage. The wedding was a one-time event, and the marriage was the result. Don’t laugh. I felt immensely satisfied to have figured that one out on my own.

Then there was the night when I learned that it was, in fact, the Civil War, not the Silver War. I had asked my brother, by spelling, if he wanted to go play “S-I-L-V-E-R W-A-R” with his Army men after dinner. My father overheard and corrected me. As he and Mom often did. A fact for which I am eternally grateful.

I also learned, by similar means, that one made a cavalry charge when one played cowboys and Indians, not a Calvary charge.

Even today I am enchanted by language and words. PD James is one of my favorite authors because of how she finds the absolutely perfect word for what she means to write. When her character Adam Dalgliesh is sitting in a fire-lit room with his aunt, she writes: “The firelight threw gules on her long face, brown and carved like an Aztec’s, the eyes hooded, the nose long and straight above a wide mobile mouth.” I was enchanted. What was this word “gules”? I looked it up. It means the tincture of the color red, but in heraldry it also means an area marked with vertical lines. This blew me away. I could SEE the aunt’s face, tinted slightly red, with vertical wrinkles at the sides of the mouth, and on the cheeks. Who but PD James would use a word like gules to such an effect?

I am adamant about the importance of word use and word choice and fervent in my belief that we retain an important edge when we know and use our language to precise effect.  Too often, we are lazy with our language, and I think that we, as a culture, suffer as a result.

Language Is Identity

I’ve been writing lately about the power of language, even down to the importance of individual letters for freedom of speech, so imagine my interest when I ran across this sentence in a book I was editing (Kurdish Identity, Discourse, and New Media, by Jaffer Sheyholislami).

“When admitting the fact that writing in Kurdish is so difficult that it pushes her to quit, Tewar writes:

‘But, I cannot quit . . . Language is a part of me. Words are mirrors that reflect my ideas and feelings . . . Without [our] language we are nothing . . . A language is as important as a country, history and flag . . . Language is a part of our personality . . . Language is identity . . . To express your inner thoughts and feelings … you need the language of feelings and the soul; no language is closer to one’s feelings and soul than the mother tongue . . . When writing we might make mistakes . . . We may not have a rich vocabulary . . . but, let’s not quit; let’s continue [writing].’ (Tewar, 2002a)

“For Tewar, language is important as a national symbol in defining a people; it is also a decisive factor in defining a person. This idea that the mother tongue is a strong link between the individual and the nation has been advocated by prominent scholars of nationalism and language as well.”

In another book I just edited, I learned that the Zaza Kurds of Turkey have an oral language; the Turkish government has forbidden any written record of their language, so that Zaza history, Zaza literature, and Zaza music must all be memorized and recited. For the Zaza Kurds, there is great truth in the African adage: When a man dies, a library dies with him.

In Alaska, my cousin Beth is working to record the Athabascan language, a language that a few decades ago was dying out, and which certainly had never been recorded or documented. Beth is working to save the language, and, thus, preserve a culture.

This speaks to one of the reasons I am a writer, and why I treasure our language so much, why I am adamant that we learn to speak and write with flair and focus. We are defining ourselves as a people through our use of language. It is so much more than a tool for conveying ideas. It is the means by which we identify ourselves, as individuals and as a nation. It is the avenue by which we share our souls with the world. When we rally for freedom of speech, we rally for freedom as a people.

Via Lucis Press: books, etc.

As Editor of Via Lucis Press, I spoke with the three other principals in the group (Dennis Aubrey, PJ McKey, and Tom Hanson) this weekend about our immediate plans for Via Lucis Press and our progress on the high-end photography  books we will publish. Dennis and PJ have now taken several tens of thousands of photographs of Romanesque churches in France and Spain, and it is time to begin writing the text that will accompany the photographs (  in preparation for publication of our first book.

The first step is to write an article about the Unknown Renaissance, the age of the Romanesque, during which all of the experiments that later led to Gothic art and architecture were made. This is a fascinating subject, as unknown architects and artisans from an unknown era pushed the boundaries of building and art, making those discoveries that later led to the renowned accomplishments of the Renaissance, including the expansion of stone arches and the buttressing of high vaults.

“… the ‘why’ of it all is hard to answer,” writes Dennis in one blog. “I’m not religious, although I think I have a deep streak of the need to believe, which takes expression in artistic work. I first fell in love with Romanesque architecture because of its beauty, durability, and variety. But over the years studying these buildings, I have come to believe that they are some of the most perfect expressions of faith that architecture has ever produced. Our Greek ancestors, with their temples, the Egyptians with theirs, the Chinese, Japanese, so many others have all found unique and powerful ways to match structure and belief. But it was, not to be showing disrespect, elitist. The Romanesque and Gothic, on the other hand, were “partout,“ everywhere. … They were not just the reflection of Man and God, as are the others, but the record of an entire people. When that faith dissipated, as is inevitable in any civilization, we were left with a stone record of incredible beauty, a direct link, as it were, to the aspirations of these people.”

Read more on this topic on our blog (

The Interview Process: Open Yourself to Surprises

I gave an assignment this week that sent my students into a most unexpected spiral. Their task was to conduct character interviews, one with each of two characters they were creating. This turned out to be much more challenging for them than I had imagined. In the past, students have caught on quickly to the idea; not so this week.

The idea of the interview is for the author to get to know a character. When we create characters and decide who they are, what they look like, and what they will do in the story, we leave no room for surprise. We are dictating everything about the characters, and risk making those characters flat and predictable.

But through the process of interviewing our characters, we can open ourselves to surprise. We can learn things about our characters that might be useful in the story, facets that will add depth and color to our characters.

Interview your characters and make them answer your questions. You’ll know the answers, of course, but in the process of interviewing, you may come up with some questions about aspects of that character that you had never considered. Perhaps you have a character who is a photographer. She is a photographer because you need her to be so for the story. But after interviewing, you may find out that she became a photographer because she was cripplingly shy as a child and finally discovered, in high school, that she could participate in activities if she hid behind a camera, present but unseen. This insight might come in handy later in your story when this character has to step forward and make a stand (as you had already planned). It would give both you and the reader insight into the inner struggle before she acts, giving greater depth to the action and greater interest for the reader.

That is just one example of how sitting down and interviewing your characters can lead to bits of character knowledge that can strengthen your story and your writing. If you simply say that characters “just are,” you lose the chance to be surprised. Talk to your characters, and never let them off the hook with the difficult questions. You’ll grow as a writer and your characters will live.

Make Characters Believable

In my class this semester, I am working with students on making their characters believable. One of the first “obstacles” to overcome is their tendency to want to describe each character in detail: hair color, height, weight, perfection of teeth, etc.

My task is to have them develop the characters fully in their mind’s eye, and then choose those elements of character that must be used, and those that must be set aside, for their knowledge alone, and perhaps to be used later as the story develops. It isn’t necessary for each character to be described exactly as the author sees them. Leave something to the reader’s imagination. If it isn’t vital that the woman is wearing a daffodil-yellow dress, simply mention the dress. And wouldn’t it be more interesting if a woman who dresses in the highest of fashions and has her face and body sculpted annually still smiles with crooked teeth? What does that say about her? It certainly makes her instantly more interesting than if she had perfect teeth.

I also spoke about the importance of names in character development, and how the name can create an immediate, if unconscious, expectation in the reader’s mind. A woman named Wonderly manifests a different expectation than does a woman named Malificent. And a villain named Mordred is much more menacing than one named Tubby.

Names can begin the expectations of character that will be further developed by physical and psychological description.

It’s Called a Style Sheet

Yesterday I learned something new. When you copyedit for a publisher, they want you to create something called a Style Sheet as you read. I’ve never done that in the past, not with all the books I’ve edited. At least not officially.

A style sheet is a guide for the proofreader and the editor, listing all of the punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation, and miscellaneous stylistic elements of the book. It also contains a long list of words used in the book, especially foreign words and names, for consistency of spelling.

I’ve kept lists like this when I edit, for my own sanity and edification (especially when I edited the book on Greek history), but never realized that such a thing would be useful to others along the publishing cycle. So, it’s an easy element for me to incorporate into my routine…but why had I never heard of it before?

I sit with the Chicago Manual of Style by my side as I edit because, though my brain is a treasury of grammar and punctuation rules, I sometimes double-think myself and have to verify what I already know.

It’s amazing how organized I feel now that I know about style sheets. I’ll use them for all of my clients now, for their own use and for them to pass along to their publishers.

Learn something new every day.