Images in Words

A member of my book club mentioned that she skips speech tags and descriptive passages when she reads. I was amazed. Sometimes, I might be able to keep track of who’s talking without tags, but I always want to know where the scene is set. In a mystery, especially, any aspect of the layout of a house or the geography of a canyon might be essential to the plot. Also, I feel that setting affects characters. I read for immersion as well as for the plot.

I’ve read a book by one currently popular author that featured too much description of upholstery and curtains, but that same author also said too much about the food, about the details of love-making, about the clothes characters wore—about everything—for my liking.

I’m now considering how I choose what to describe and what to let readers imagine. Is the setting so ordinary that “small town” or “café”  will suffice, or is it so off-beat that readers would never imagine it without help? Does the image have symbolic or evocative meaning? Does it reveal something deeper about the story? Does it help the reader enter the character’s experience? Is it necessary to give the scene form and grounding? Smell and sound can touch emotions. And while I find excessive food description gratuitous, taste is part of the sensory wholeness of certain scenes. So is weather. There are writers who scarcely describe characters, but how we look—both naturally and through self-presentation—affects how we interact with the world.

Now I’m curious. Do you skip descriptions when you read? If you’re a writer, how do you choose what to describe?

Another Reason to Read the Classics

In my work in progress, the seventh Mae Martin mystery, Mae’s ex mother-in-law is running for office again in North Carolina. I didn’t become a campaign volunteer to do research, especially since I’m door-knocking in New Mexico, but I’ve gathered a few good stories which may have a future in this book or another. FYI: Though this post does involve a political campaign, it’s non-partisan. If you suffer from political burnout, relax. I don’t even mention names or parties.

Today’s story:

In a pleasant neighborhood of one-story stucco and adobe houses with a view of the open desert beyond, I walked up to the second-to-last house on my canvassing list. On the street where the incumbent representative in our NM house district lives, I was volunteering for the opposing candidate. I’ll call them Incumbent and Challenger. Incumbent’s neighbors tended to support her, even if they were members of my party and not hers, and even though Challenger might better represent their views. They like Incumbent. That’s local politics. In another neighborhood a few weeks earlier, I met a woman who had never heard of Challenger, but said, “Is she running against Incumbent?” I said yes. The woman replied vehemently, “Then she’s got my vote.” It was obviously personal. She added, “Am I awful?” I smiled and said we were happy to have her vote.

Back to today’s second-to-last house. I’d been through a thunderstorm earlier, was now walking in heat and sun, and was ready to wrap things up. A black pick-up truck with Harley-Davidson bumper stickers pulled into the driveway just as I approached. A man with a long shaggy white beard sat at the wheel.

“Hi,” I began my perky canvasser bit. “Are you Mr. X?”

He was. And my list of voters to contact said he was a member of my party. I went on with my introduction, telling him who I was and that I was volunteering for Challenger. I asked, as I always do, if he had heard of her. People are often unfamiliar with a new name at the bottom of the ticket.

“I don’t vote. All politicians are liars.” Still sitting in his truck with the door open, he nodded meaningfully toward Incumbent’s house. The politician her other neighbors liked so much they’d vote for her even when they generally disagreed with her party.

Not sure how to handle his blanket aversion, I offered him Challenger’s flyer. “In case you should decide to vote, you can read about what she stands for.”

He actually read it, right then and there. “Hm. Social work.” He’d noticed her career field. “I studied social work in Colorado.” He told me what jobs he’d had, working with youth and then with drug users, and then informed me that “My wife, who is not a citizen, made me vote in 2016. But that’s the only time I’ve voted in decades.”

“That’s a powerful woman, if she could get you to vote when you’re so turned off by it.”

“She is. A powerful woman.” But, he told me, he’d moved to New Mexico alone because his wife didn’t understand why he had to have his motorcycle.

His way of getting involved in the community wasn’t political, he continued, but rather volunteering at the new animal shelter. “I don’t have any animals.” With a half-smile, he inclined his head toward the pair of dogs barking behind his fence.

“We all have our ways of trying to make the world a better place. You’ll take care of the animals, and I’ll knock on doors for Challenger.”

I was about to say goodbye and wish him a good day when he got out of his truck, revealing long skinny legs in shorts and knee-high black socks. “Let me show the motorcycle. So you’ll understand.”

There was a black Harley in the driveway. Apparently this was not The Motorcycle. He opened the garage and revealed a bigger bike with ivory fenders. It looked like a vintage machine, and I sincerely admired it. He said, “That’s Rocinante,” then paused. “You know who that is?”

“Don Quixote’s horse.”

Mr. X beamed. “Not many people know that. I’m gonna vote for Challenger. She’s got good people working for her.”

I felt as if I’d just won Jeopardy as well as Incumbent’s neighbor’s vote.

Relative Discomforts

Cloudy winter days aren’t as blissfully beautiful as the sunny ones with pure bright bowls of New Mexico blue overhead, but the payoff comes later, with mind-blowing, psychedelic color and texture at sunset. The changes happen so fast, I have to time my sunset viewing exactly right and pick the right location for it. The sunsets may technically be in the west, but the colors can show up anywhere. There was a thick, creamy, red-purple display in the southeast one evening, a blazing orange total-sky event on another, then a softly glowing purple radiance in the north the next night. On a cloudless day, all we get is a pale rim of gold on the edge of the bowl.

Most of these lovely clouds haven’t rained, though. Yesterday’s shower was the first in around two months. It’s been a warm, dry winter. One day in December was actually cold. One day. High temperatures should be in the fifties, not sixties or seventies. I wonder if the snakes ever brumated. The other day, a little yellow jacket wasp was walking around on the top of my shoe while I was working out by the river. I like bees and wasps, but should they be out and about in January? The pines trees have shoots of new growth and I think they’re pollinating. The fig tree in my yard is budding. A mosquito tried to bite me. I’m comfortable, but too comfortable. The bugs and plants and I should be enduring bit of a chill. I’m sure my East Coast friends would like to ship a big load of winter to the Southwest about now, and I wish you could. Without snow in the mountains, we could be headed for a dry year.

The following is not a complaint: My home internet was down for a week and I had a cold—events so insignificant in the realm of human difficulties that they remind me my life isn’t hard. My immune system probably appreciated the chance to do a little work. I wasn’t knocked-out-flat sick for even a day. To avoid spreading germs, I was less social, but less dancing meant more writing. And while I had to schedule my limited online time and leave home to do it, my reading changed for the better. Fewer news articles, and more in articles in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, a medical journal I still find fascinating even though I’ve retired. A challenging read keeps the dust off my brain, and I occasionally get plot material from it, including the remarkable studies that help shake up Mae’s world view in The Calling and the Tibetan medicine material in Death Omen.

I can cope with minor personal discomforts and even benefit from them. The uneasy comfort of the weather troubles me more.


I’m reading a pre-publication review copy of a book on fascial anatomy and updated, science-based stretching techniques for athletes. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to review it here, but I am glad this publisher still wants a former professor as a reviewer.) Part of the pleasure in reading it today is that I could keep going for two and half hours, fascinated and intellectually refreshed. While I was working, that much unbroken time to read a book in my field was rare. Days were chopped up by e-mails and appointments and of course classes. Time was always tailgating me with papers to grade and endless pop-up tasks to organize.

 After reading for as long as I felt like reading today, I applied concepts from the book to my yoga practice, intrigued by the way the authors’ research lines up with things I’ve heard some of my teachers say and that I have discovered through exploration. The undulating wave of the breath moves through each stretch. You should experience no pain in stretching. Don’t exit a stretch by tightening the region of the body you just lengthened. Effective stretching releases connective tissue, fascia, not just muscles.

 I have all the time I need to study the charts and try out the techniques before integrating new skills into my yoga teaching—when I get around to setting up a teaching schedule. I’ll finish the review before it’s due. This spaciousness plus engagement is something I hadn’t experienced at work for years, probably not since the advent of email. In my windowless office, I used to read books like this in ten- and fifteen-minute spurts when I could grab the time, or read a page while the computer woke up. Today I read in sunlight with a view of flowering trees. Uninterrupted.


Why Reading and Writing Can Make You Happy

BookFlow is a state of absorbed, continuous attention in which skill and effort are perfectly matched. I’m half-way through reading the book on it, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmilahlyi, and it’s given me a lot of food for thought

If your skill is high and the effort asked of you is low, a task could lead to boredom. For example, folding laundry. Most of us probably use some sort of additional stimulus like music or television to make it less dull. Sometimes I work on plots or blog posts in my head while I do things that ask too little of my mind. Boredom is also likely when you’re not paying full attention to a task, due to the lack of effort. Students who skim their textbooks often complain that the book was dull. Oddly enough, according to Csikszentmilahlyi, the man who named and first studied flow, paying more attention to a presumably dull thing will make it more interesting. If I turned laundry into a contemplative awareness activity, it could create flow. His research is full of examples of people who turned repetitious jobs into flow activities by how they focused their minds.

However, even if you are focused and aware, if the required effort for a task is too high and your skill is too low, you’re going to be stressed and frustrated. I ran into this trying to follow directions for using Canva, a web site that supposedly lets even tech-impaired idiots create complex images. My skill was too low even for that!

If skill required and effort involved are both low, you’ll be relaxed or apathetic, depending on the circumstances—or you might have flow, if you’re mindful. A massage requires little effort on your part, and little skill, and the match is perfect. Relax and receive. Unless, of course, you stop paying attention to the experience. I’ve sometimes caught myself becoming absent and had to invoke the skill of mindful presence so I could relax and have a low-key flow.

Paying attention in an unbroken way is a rare blessing for a lot of us. Many of our jobs are built around interruptions. Studies have found that people who get interrupted a lot, when left alone, will continue to interrupt themselves for up to an hour before being able to focus again. Flow is lost.

Fragmented attention is the nature of social media. Each click is a new activity. I like chatting with Facebook friends, but the process is fractured, like conversation at a noisy party. It creates connections, but not flow. Books create flow, either a flow of focused ideas in nonfiction or the flow of a story in fiction. According to Csikszentmihalyi, reading is one of the most reliable sources of optimal experience, aka flow. Unlike more passive entertainment, it requires effort, skill, and imagination. Writers and other creative people know flow when we play our part in this exchange of vital energy. When we’re wrapped up in our work, we lose our sense of self, our sense of time, and become one with the creative process itself. Athletes, scientists, and mathematicians know it, too. What gives you flow?


Writing about Readers, and a Writer’s Reading

I like to think about what my characters read, even if I don’t mention it in a book. Do they read fiction? Self-help? Science? Biographies? Magazines? Newspapers? Poetry? It helps me see them offstage, and then I can bring that material onstage if I need it. A friend who read The Calling said she was struck by the magazines Mae sees lying on the coffee table in one of the last scenes in Tylerton, when Hubert’s reading reminds Mae of the complex person he is. My friend subscribes to The American Prospect, and seeing it on that table along with Runner’s World and Car and Driver told her a lot about Hubert.

My magazines and scholarly journals started piling up while I was reading four books at once: two works of literary fiction, one genre novel, and one nonfiction book. (I’m down to two books now, almost done with one of them.) In spite of all this reading, I feel intellectually unplugged without the magazines, out of touch with the worlds of nature, history, politics, culture and science that I’d usually be reading about. The only periodical I’ve kept up with is the weekly Santa Fe Reporter, and I’ve only been reading a few major stories in each issue. I normally read everything cover to cover.

Do I need to know how to survive a kayaking disaster? No, but I read the “Survive” articles in Sierra anyway. I read recipes in New Mexico Magazine I have no intention of cooking, and research in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine on therapies I may never use, as well more applicable articles on yoga and meditation. In IDEA Fitness Journal I read about new workout programs I might or might not ever teach. All this material finds its place somewhere in my life, enriching my knowledge, making me think,  helping me understand others’ lives, or showing up in my books.

For example, I learned about the Arts in Medicine program at the UNM Hospital through New Mexico Magazine. I wasn’t looking for this information, but volunteering with Music in Medicine was a perfect fit for Jamie’s talents, character and personal history. It became part of his background in Shaman’s Blues. I found an article on voodoo as a healing tradition in Alternative Therapies that I’m using in depth for one of my works in progress. The Reporter plays a role in Shaman’s Blues, as Mae gets acquainted with Santa Fe.

I owe it to my protagonist as well as myself to get caught up on my magazines. Mae Martin would not get behind on IDEA Fitness Journal. I need to be current with what she’s reading.

Writers—what do your characters read? Readers, do you notice if a character does or doesn’t read?