Writing Activity: Describe A Church

Elisabeth Sonrel (1874 - 1953)

The church was a large and lonely one, and we loved to go there, especially upon bright nights. The path skirted a wood, cut through it once, and ran along the crest of the hill through two meadows, and round the churchyard wall, over which the old yews loomed in black masses of shadow. This path, which was partly paved, was called “the bier-balk,” for it had long been the way by which the corpses had been carried to burial. The churchyard was richly treed, and was shaded by great elms which stood just outside and stretched their majestic arms in benediction over the happy dead. A large, low porch let one into the building by a Norman doorway and a heavy oak door studded with iron. Inside, the arches rose into darkness, and between them the reticulated windows, which stood out white in the moonlight. In the chancel, the windows were of rich glass, which showed in faint light their noble colouring, and made the black oak of the choir pews hardly more solid than the shadows. But on each side of the altar lay a grey marble figure of a knight in full plate armour lying upon a low slab, with hands held up in everlasting prayer, and these figures, oddly enough, were always to be seen if there was any glimmer of light in the church. Their names were lost, but the peasants told of them that they had been fierce and wicked men, marauders by land and sea, who had been the scourge of their time, and had been guilty of deeds so foul that the house they had lived in—the big house, by the way, that had stood on the site of our cottage—had been stricken by lightning and the vengeance of Heaven. But for all that, the gold of their heirs had bought them a place in the church. Looking at the bad hard faces reproduced in the marble, this story was easily believed.

Man-Size in Marble by E. Nesbit

They lodged her in a little cell-like room adjoining a small chapel dedicated to the Magdalen, a darksome and forbidding little shrine with vaulted ceiling and a window scarce a hand-breadth wide, stained, rather than illumined, by the red glow of a vigil lamp.

“The Lady of the Bells”, Weird Magazine, 1939
Frederic Edwin Church - View of Olana in the Snow New York America
Frederic Edwin Church – View of Olana in the Snow New York America
'Stobo Kirk, Peeblesshire' by James McIntosh Patrick , oil on canvas, 1936
‘Stobo Kirk, Peeblesshire’ by James McIntosh Patrick , oil on canvas, 1936
“Please, madame, you are disturbing the tourists.” J.B. (BUD) HANDELSMAN, Cartoon for Playboy Magazine inside cathedral
“Please, madame, you are disturbing the tourists.” J.B. (BUD) HANDELSMAN, Cartoon for Playboy Magazine
Andrew Loomis (1892–1959) singing church
Andrew Loomis (1892–1959)
The COUNTRY GENTLEMAN Vintage Magazine Paperback April 11 1925 cover detail
The COUNTRY GENTLEMAN Vintage Magazine Paperback April 11 1925 cover detail
1959 cover by Dick Sargent
1959 cover by Dick Sargent
Henry Bacon - Christmas Prayers church
Henry Bacon – Christmas Prayers
Henry Bacon - Pay Attention
Henry Bacon – Pay Attention
Mary Whyte - South Carolina, USA  Sunday morning devotion - watercolor church
Mary Whyte – South Carolina, USA Sunday morning devotion – watercolor
Joseph Christian Leyendecker (American artist) 1874 - 1951 Easter church service 1918
Joseph Christian Leyendecker (American artist) 1874 – 1951 Easter church service 1918
Charles Dana Gibson 1925 Church
Charles Dana Gibson 1925 Church
Grant Wood, American, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931)
Grant Wood, American, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931)
Nils Hans Christiansen (Danish, 1850 - 1922) Walking to Evening Church in the Snow
Nils Hans Christiansen (Danish, 1850 – 1922) Walking to Evening Church in the Snow
by Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) cathedral
by Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987)
Cornelius Krieghoff - Village Scene in Winter
Cornelius Krieghoff – Village Scene in Winter
Babar Took Them to See the Cathedral of Notre-Dame
Babar Took Them to See the Cathedral of Notre-Dame
Philip Richard Morris - The Christening Party
Philip Richard Morris – The Christening Party
Louis Remy Mignot - Church at Dusk
Louis Remy Mignot – Church at Dusk
Emanuel Church, Lyons Plain Road, Weston, Connecticut 1957 New Yorker cover
Emanuel Church, Lyons Plain Road, Weston, Connecticut 1957 New Yorker cover
New Yorker cover by Garrett Price night delivery church
New Yorker cover by Garrett Price

Header painting is by Elisabeth Sonrel (1874 – 1953)

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Writing Activity: Describe Medical Rooms and Hospitals

William Simpson - One of the wards of the hospital at Scutari 1856

Medical rooms and hospitals are safe, infantalising, dangerous, creepy, life-saving, traumatising places, and I offer them here as examples of what Foucault called ‘heterotopia‘.

The hospital’s ambiguous relationship to everyday social space has long been a central theme of hospital ethnography. Often, hospitals are presented either as isolated “islands’ defined by biomedical regulation of space (and time) or as continuations and reflections of everyday social space that are very much a part of the “mainland.’ This polarization of the debate overlooks hospitals’ paradoxical capacity to be simultaneously bounded and permeable, both sites of social control and spaces where alternative and transgressive social orders emerge and are contested. We suggest that Foucault’s concept of heterotopia usefully captures the complex relationships between order and disorder, stability and instability that define the hospital as a modernist institution of knowledge, governance, and improvement.

Heterotopia Studies
Shutter Island landscape poster
In 1954, a U.S. Marshal investigates the disappearance of a murderer who escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane, making use of hospital as island symbolism.

Hospitals (like airports) elicit the full range of human emotion and are symbolically useful arenas for storytellers. Who better than writers to describe what it feels like to be inside a hospital?

I followed [the psychiatrist] down a depressing hallway into a tiny windowless office that might have housed an accountant. In fact it reminded me a bit of Myron Axel’s closet, filled with piles of paper waiting to be filed, week-old cups of coffee turned into science experiments, and a litter of broken umbrellas nesting beneath the desk.

I must have looked as surprised as I felt when I entered her office, for Rowena Adler looked at the utilitarian clutter about her and said, “I’m sorry about this mess. I’m so used to it. I forget how it looks.”

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
The "hospital" scene from the film Get Out
The “hospital” scene from the film Get Out
Samuel Richards - Evangeline Discovering Her Affianced in the Hospital
Samuel Richards – Evangeline Discovering Her Affianced in the Hospital
Tea in the Hospital Ward by Stanley Spencer set at Beaufort War Hospital
Tea in the Hospital Ward by Stanley Spencer set at Beaufort War Hospital

The author may have enjoyed writing that description because at James Sveck’s next appointment they are in a different room.

Dr Adler’s downtown office was a pleasanter place than her space at the Medical Center, but it wasn’t the sun-filled haven I had imagined. It was a rather small dark office in a suite of what I assumed were several small dark offices on the ground floor of an old apartment building on Tenth Street. In addition to her desk and chair there was a divan, another chair, a ficus tree, and some folkloric-looking weavings on the wall. And a bookcase of dreary books. I could tell they were all nonfiction because they all had titles divided by colons: Blah Blah Blah: The Blah Blah Blah of Blah Blah Blah. There was one window that probably faced an airshaft because the rattan shade was lowered in a way that suggested it was never raised. The walls were painted a pale yellow, in an obvious (but unsuccessful) attempt to “brighten up” the room.

The description of James’ psychiatrist’s rooms is broken up, judiciously, and fits around the action. James’ reaction to the rooms reflects how he feels about life at this juncture: He expected better. He expected different; instead he gets this underwhelming life.

I looked around her office. I know it sounds terrible, but I was discouraged by the ordinariness, the expectedness, of it. It was as if there was a catalog for therapists to order a complete office from: furniture, carpet, wall hangings, even the ficus tree seemed depressingly generic. Like one of those little paper pellets you put in water that puffs up and turns into a lotus blossom. This was like a puffed-up shrink’s office.

In a book of essays, Tim Kreider’s description of hospitals is one of the best I’ve encountered:

Hospitals are like the landscapes in recurring dreams: forgotten as though they’d never existed in the interims between visits, but instantly familiar once you return. As if they’ve been there all along, waiting for you while you’ve been away. The endlessly branching corridors sand circular nurses’ stations all look identical, like some infinite labyrinth in a Borges story. It takes a day or two to memorize the route from the lobby to your room. The innocuous landscape paintings that seem to have been specifically commissioned to leave no impression on the human brain are perversely seared into your long-term memory. You pass doorways through which you can occasionally see a bunch of Mylar balloons or a pair of pale, withered legs. Hospital beds are now just as science fiction predicted, with the patient’s vital signs digitally displayed overhead. Nurses no longer wear the white hose and red-cross caps of cartoons and pornography, but scrubs printed with patterns so relentlessly cheerful—hearts, teddy bears, suns and flowers and peace signs—they seem symptomatic of some Pollyannish denial. The smell of hospitals is like small talk at a funeral—you know its function is to cover up something else. There’s a grim camaraderie in the hall and elevators. You don’t have to ask anybody how they’re doing. The fact that they’re there at all means the answer is: Could be better. I notice that no one who works in a hospital, whose responsibilities are matters of life and death, ever seems hurried or frantic, in contrast to all the freelance cartoonists and podcasters I know.

Time moves differently in  hospitals—both slower and faster. The minutes stand still, but the hours evaporate. The day is long and structureless, measured only by the taking of vital signs, the changing of IV bags, medication schedules, occasional tests, mealtimes, trips to the bathroom, walks in the corridor. Once a day an actual doctor appears for about four minutes, and what she says during this time can either leave you and your family in terrified confusion or so reassured and grateful that you want to write her a thank-you note she’ll have framed. You cadge six-ounce cans of ginger ale from the nurses’ station. You no longer need to look at the menu in the diner across the street. You substitute meat loaf for bacon with your eggs. Why not? Breakfast and lunch are diurnal conventions that no longer apply to you. Sometimes you run errands back home for a cell phone or extra clothes. Eventually you look at your watch and realize visiting hours are almost over, and feel relieved, and then guilty.

Tim Kreider, “An Insult To The Brain”, We Learn Nothing
Margaret Mary Tempest (1892–1982) was a British illustrator and author
Walter Crane 1845 - 1915 London Town Children's Hospital 1883
Walter Crane 1845 – 1915 London Town Children’s Hospital 1883
by Alo (Charles Hallo ) (French, 1884-1969) 1924 poster Les Hospices de Beaune, Circuit de la Bourgogne
by Alo (Charles Hallo ) (French, 1884-1969) 1924 poster Les Hospices de Beaune, Circuit de la Bourgogne
Rudolph Belarski (1900-1983) 1953 nurse's dormitory for a cover of Nurses' Quarters magazine
Rudolph Belarski (1900-1983) 1953 nurse’s dormitory for a cover of Nurses’ Quarters magazine. Until a couple decades ago, this was a widely accepted gag: A man (haplessly?) blunders in on a woman or women in a state of partial dress.

It’s a fact known throughout the universes that no matter how carefully the colours are chosen, institutional décor ends up either vomit green, unmentionable brown, nicotene yellow or surgical appliance pink.

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

They are now the only two people in the upstairs waiting room of the dental clinic. The seats are a pale mint-green colour. Marianne leafs through an issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and explores her mouth with the tip of her tongue. Connell looks at the magazine cover, a photograph of a monkey with huge eyes. 

from “At The Clinic” by Sally Rooney

RELATED

What’s It Like To Work In A Psych Hospital? is a podcast from Psych Central with someone who explains how psychiatric hospitals are traumatising for everyone in and around them, not just for the patients.

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Header painting: William Simpson – One of the wards of the hospital at Scutari 1856

Creative Writing Prompts from Photos

TIPS FOR USING IMAGES AS WRITING PROMPTS

from @DoWise

  1. Go beyond the picture; use it as a stimuls; don’t be constrained by it.
  2. Start with a wide focus and then zoom in on specific details
  3. Flashback and then jump forward if it fits your narrative to do so
  4. Craft the way you start some of your sentences (e.g. triple-noun-colon)
  5. Vary the length of some of your sentences (don’t overuse one-worders)
  6. Proof-read your work; always be meticulous
  7. Try to finish your narrative by refocusing on the image

Unsplash is a website offering free, high quality images for blogs and whatnot. Sometimes when I’m looking for something else, I linger on certain images, wondering about the context, wondering what else is going on outside the frame. These are the photos I want to save for creative writing prompts.

WINE GLASS WITH CHICKEN LEGS

Photo by Jacob Rank on Unsplash

This story would (non-ironically) be horror or at least fantasy, though the writer could flip it and write comedy.

As it is, the coffee drinking guy seems unaware of what’s happening right outside the window, which puts the audience in superior position.

This is that old Hitchcockian trick of showing the audience there’s a bomb under the table, but not showing the character:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

― Alfred Hitchcock

We are fascinated by chicken body parts, in general. At least in the West, we’re a little grossed out by their feet. This is an age-old attitude and has surely influenced stories such as the Baba Yaga category of folk tale.

The glass and chicken-leg photo could prompt a modern Baba Yaga story in which writers practise the Hitchcockian technique of writing suspense (rather than surprise).

WHITE LADY IN THE WINDOW

white lady looks out of a window

Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

Do you know your neighbours? Do you really, though?

AN ELEPHANT’S TEA PARTY

a baby elephant walks past an outdoor dining set

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

This baby elephant looks sad to me. I’m thinking of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’m also thinking of that 1980s tearjerker film about Bette Midler and her best friend — Beaches — specifically that harrowing, resonant scene in which the teenage girl invites other girls to her birthday party. All the frenemies bow out at the last minute, phoning her one after the other, each with a bogus excuse. They have gathered somewhere else.

What about your take?

I WOKE UP AND…

man flies above his bed

If you could wake up with a super power what would it be? The ability to fly has been part of wish fulfilment stories since forever. What would you actually do, though, if you could fly? Would you let everyone know about this newfound ability, or would you keep it under wraps? Are you scared of heights? Is there some way you could put this skill to good use, Super-man style? Or maybe it only gets you into trouble, Icarus style.

Levitation, an illustration by Alan Lee, from THE GOLDEN BOOK OF THE MYSTERIOUS (1976 kids' book by Jane Werner Watson & Sol Chaneles)
Levitation, an illustration by Alan Lee, from THE GOLDEN BOOK OF THE MYSTERIOUS (1976 kids’ book by Jane Werner Watson & Sol Chaneles)

PUDDLE PORTAL

man in hoodie at night with his reflection in puddle

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

It can be super fun to play with mirrors and reflections in storytelling.

When I look at this photo, I feel like the puddle is a portal. The photographer has foregrounded it. At the very least, this guy has a double life.

Conflict In The Kitchen

Edwin Deakin (British-American, 1838 - 1923) Kitchen Corner, 1883

Kitchens are wonderfully useful for writers. Of all the rooms in the house, the kitchen offers props for fleshing out body language beats. It offers implements that might kill you, as well as food that might sustain you. People naturally gather in kitchens, even people who despise each other.

For a wonderful visual example of how a benign kitchen can be something truly sinister, see the opening credits to TV show Dexter, in which a sociopathic murderer gets up, shaves, cuts himself, then makes himself breakfast. However, the slo-mo and the close ups turn this into a sequence I can barely watch.

Not surprisingly, I find far more examples of kitchens in work by women. Some writers really enjoy the kitchen as a setting — Alice Munro is one such writer.

KITCHEN NUMBER ONE: “QUEENIE” BY ALICE MUNRO

I looked at the rusty-bottomed bread tin swiped too often by the dishcloth, and the pots sitting on the stove, washed but not put away, and the motto supplied by Fairholme Dairy: The Lord is the Heart of Our House. All these things stupidly waiting for the day to begin and not knowing that it had been hollowed out by catastrophe.

This contrasts with Queenie’s new kitchen, after she elopes:

The kitchen was the nicest room, though too dark. Queenie had ivy growing up around the window over the sink, and she had wooden spoons sticking up out of a pretty, handleless mug, just the way Mrs Vorguilla used to have them. The living-room had the piano in it, the same piano that had been in the other living-room. There was one armchair and a bookshelf made with bricks and planks and a record-player and a lot of records sitting on the floor. No television. No walnut rocking-chairs or tapestry curtains. Not even the floor-lamp with the Japanese scenes on its parchment shade. Yet all these things had been moved to Toronto, on a snowy day.

Alice Munro, “Queenie

KITCHEN NUMBER TWO: “FICTION” BY ALICE MUNRO

In the following scene, the reader is reminded that Joyce now feels old. The devilled eggs symbolise this change: once popular party foods of the 80s, by the late 90s, nobody was eating eggs anymore.

They are washing the dishes in the kitchen. Joyce and Tommy and the new friend, Jay. The party is over. People have departed with hugs and kisses and hearty cries, some bearing platters of food that Joyce has no room for in the refrigerator. Wilted salads and cream tarts and devilled eggs have been thrown out. Few of the devilled eggs were eaten anyway. Old-fashioned. Too much cholesterol.

“Too bad, they were a lot of work. They probably reminded people of church suppers,” says Joyce, tipping a platterful into the garbage.

“My granma used to make them,” says Jay. These are the first words he has addressed to Joyce, and she sees Tommy looking grateful. She feels grateful herself, even if she has been put in the category of his grandmother.

“We ate several and they were good,” says Tommy. He and Jay have worked for at least half an hour alongside her, gathering glasses and plates and cutlery that were scattered all over the lawn and verandah and throughout the house, even in the most curious places such as flowerpots and under sofa cushions. The boys—she thinks of them as boys—have stacked the dishwasher more skillfully than she in her worn-out state could ever manage, and prepared the hot soapy water and cool rinse water in the sinks for the glasses.

“We could just save them for the next load in the dishwasher,” Joyce has said, but Tommy has said no.

“You wouldn’t think of putting them in the dishwater if you weren’t out of your right mind with all you had to do today.” Jay washes and Joyce dries and Tommy puts away. He still remembers where everything goes in this house.

Fiction” by Alice Munro

KITCHEN NUMBER FOUR: “JAKARTA” BY ALICE MUNRO

Sonje’s kitchen is described via the viewpoint of an older male visitor, so Munro is channeling a male when she points out what he would notice:

The kitchen was another big room, which the cupboards and appliances didn’t properly fill. The floor was gray and black tiles — or perhaps black and white tiles, the white made gray by dirty scrub water. […] As they passed through the kitchen Sonje had put the kettle on for tea. Now she sat down in one of the chairs as if she too was glad to settle. […] The telephone was rining. A disturbing, loud, old-fashioned ring. It sounded as if it was just outside in the hall, but Sonje hurried back to the kitchen.

Jakarta” by Alice Munro

KITCHEN NUMBER FOUR: “PINE” BY ROBIN BLACK

This description opens the short story. The kitchen is used to introduce us to the first person narrator (our viewpoint character) and to Heidi, the focal character. This is an example of a character sketch—really two character sketches—using choices about kitchen design as a point of difference between them. So, a different kind of conflict:

Heidi’s kitchen floor is marble tile, a hard and unforgiving platform for her clumsy gait. If it were me, I think, watching her, I would have put down pine—soft, uneven planks of gentle pine to absorb the step-clump, step-clump sound of my own feet. My foot, and then the pause that would be seared into my soul, that sad and silent pause. And then my other foot.

If it were me, I would have built a smaller kitchen too, I’m sure, a room of easy reaches and rolling carts. But Heidi, with her latest-model leg—her fourth she told me, since losing the original—Heidi is more defiant than I, perhaps. More feisty. Or possibly just more in denial. And so her kitchen is bowling-alley large. Stadium large. Super-dome large. There are two cooktops, two dishwashers, two ovens, and a microwave. There are appliances so modern that their function is indiscernible, and these marvels are spread across three islands all in all, an archipelago of kitchen design, which Heidi navigates with great goodwill, cheerful as she clumps across each expanse.

KITCHEN NUMBER FIVE: A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED BY ROBIN BLACK

The father in this short story is seeing his estranged daughter for the first time in four years. He focuses on the knife in her hands, which makes him feel uncomfortable. Or is it really the knife that’s making him uncomfortable?

“We’re not there yet.” Zoe is peeling a potato — with a knife — so rapidly Jeremy is fearful for her hands. “But we’ll get there. We do have bills to pay, and designer veggies are like gold.”

“I’m looking forward to hearing all about it,” Jeremy says. His gaze is fixed on the course of her blade, on the flying strips of skin. “I’m looking forward to seeing it all.”

“I’ll give you a tour,” Colin says. “The whole operation.”

“Not today, though.” Zoe’s potato falls into a ceramic bowl: another takes its place in her hands. “Dinner’s in just a little while. I hope everyone’s hungry.”

“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black

KITCHEN NUMBER SIX: WIFEY REDUX BY KEVIN BARRY

In this short story, Kevin Barry’s main character — a middle-aged dad of a teenage daughter — is coming to terms with the fact he is no longer young himself. His own teenager is an unwelcome reminder of lost youth. Although he has everything he could possibly want — a nice middle class house, the works — now all he wants is to be young again.

Note how Barry paints a portrait of a well-off family — the food they eat, the alcohol of choice, the ‘island counter’ — these details turn the main character’s life into a caricature of middle class success, thereby questioning the very notion of success.

A sunny Saturday, heaven-sent, in peejays — it should have been perfection. Saoirse was sitting at the island counter, trembling, as she ate pinhead porridge with acai fruit and counted off the hours till she could start glugging back the ice-cold Pinot Grigio. I was scraping an anti-death spread the colour of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto a piece of nine-grain artisanal toast. Ellie was vexing between flushes of crimson rage and sobbing fits and making a sound like a lung-diseased porpoise.

“Wifey Redux” by Kevin Barry

KITCHEN NUMBER SEVEN: ITHACA IN MY MIND BY PETER TEMPLE

The main character in this short story is a self-important writer, annoyed after being fired by his literary agent. We see him take his annoyance out on everyone and everything. Here, it’s the toaster (I think it’s a dig at the Thermomix and similar kitchenware). I like this example because there can be conflict in the kitchen even when a character stands alone in it:

He made toast in the machine she had bought: five hundred and forty dollars. The bloody thing had twelve settings. Numbers one to six barely warmed the bread, seven and upwards charred it just as effectively as some twenty-five dollar piece of shit from Target.

“Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple
Cover by Jessie Willcox Smith; lower left bottom says H114; original is faded and watermarked; Bell, Louise Price, “Kitchen Fun- Teaches children to cook successfully”, Harter Publishing Co, Cleveland, Ohio, ©1932, 28 pages
World War 2 poster turn that gas down
World War 2 poster
Stevan Dohanos (1907 – 1994) Social realism art dishes
Stevan Dohanos (1907 – 1994) Social realism art dishes
Robert Fawcett kitchen
Robert Fawcett illustration

FURTHER READING

Painting in header: Edwin Deakin (British-American, 1838 – 1923) Kitchen Corner, 1883

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Writing Activity: Describe The Shops

The word shop originally meant a shed or booth for work and trade, like a workshop. Around the mid-1300s shop also became used to refer to a place for the sale of merchandise. The first use of the verb ‘to shop’ actually meant bringing something to a shop to sell. The sense of coming to a shop to look at and purchase things is from almost a century later, in the 1760s.

Superlinguo

A CONVENIENCE STORE

A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime tot he voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable nework, to the calls of the store workers, the beeps of the bar code scanner, the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store. It all blends into the convenience store sound that ceaselessly caresses my eardrums.

Convenience Store Woman, opening paragraph, by Sayaka Murata
Continue reading “Writing Activity: Describe The Shops”

Poof and the Piglet

poof-and-the-piglet-24

Poof and the Piglet is a homemade picture book written and illustrated by a 10-year-old who was given the title as inspiration. The 10-year-old has also been taught universal story structure.

Poof is the star of an entire series of books. Sometimes she has a sidekick called Worm-hoop (an English owl). This time Worm-hoop is replaced by a pig. I think she may have been influenced by the Elephant and Piggie series.

She has played with lettering on the front cover, understanding that one of the stand out features of pigs is their curly tails.

poof-and-the-piglet-24
Inciting incident

A single tree is used to stand in for a larger setting. This is a story in the minimalist tradition.

The size of the tree suggests both Poof and the piglet came towards each other. They want to be friends.

Here they are not doing anything but their faces say it all.

Plan

Poof adopts the piglet so they can always be together. But she is wrong about that. The best plans in stories involve the main character being wrong about something at the beginning of the story.

Poof is treating the pig as one might a dog. She gives him a collar with his name on it. But in the next image she is feeding him a bottle of milk, showing that she has upped her relationship from ‘pet’ to ‘baby’.

Interesting intratext with ‘Pigs in Area’. I wonder if this is inspired by Baby On Board signs in cards.

BIG STRUGGLE

Now for the Battle. A feature of Poof is that her eyes are often wayward. This must be deliberate because the eyeballs of other characters are not wayward.

I love the body language. The mother takes her piglet away under her arm.

Poof now has slightly manga-ish eyes and she is crying. She faces the viewer so we can see she is crying.

ANAGNORISIS

This is the Anagnorisis phase of the story in which she remembers all the good times they had together. The illustrator is making use of comic convention with the thought bubble, and the juxtaposition between happy and sad emotions.

This is a bit of a twist ending, but unlike most twist endings, this one is nice. The pig is approaching Poof as if he is a dog. This is a more appropriate relationship. This will never be Poof’s baby and she has realised that now.

The writer has not yet learned to keep verb tenses in agreement.

Quite a few picture books end like this, with a sunset.

There were extra pages in the homemade booklet so she had the idea to fill them up with snapshots of Poof and Porky in their new life as friends.

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Poof and Worm-Hoop Part One

Poof The Old Lady is a graphic novel created by two neurodiverse ten-year-olds. The running gag is that an old lady by the name of Poof goes Poof! at the end of each story. But she comes alive before the next.

The creators are best friends at school, and they both like to read and watch cartoons. They count among their favourites:

One of them loves dogs; the other loves owls. One has neat handwriting and is tidy by nature; the other can write and draw well, but her work is inclined to degenerate into scrawl, as ideas come faster than execution.

Telling stories is an advanced skill. As we learn to tell stories, we absorb the influences around us. Certain aspects of storytelling come easier than others.

Let’s take a look at a storyteller in early development. If you look closely at the stories of kids who’ve been exposed to a lot of story, it’s surprising how much they already know.

It’s not easy teaching kids how to write a story, but the writers have got a print-out of this blog post. They don’t use it as they’re writing, but if they get stuck, I point them in that direction and their plot problems are rapidly resolved.

POOF AND THE OUTDATED SAUSAGES

The young creators quickly established their own ‘rules of story’, and in line with Courage The Cowardly Dog, whoever dies or changes form in one story has to revert to their original form by the beginning of the next.

Another rule is that the mode of death must be comical.

In the Poof setting, eating outdated food is a common way to die. The authors understand the inherent comic value of sausages. Bananas work in much the same way.

Poof, as a character, has unexpected, and therefore comical, likes and dislikes. The authors have started this particular story in iterative mode, by describing Poof briefly and what she ‘always’ likes to do.

The sausage has been drawn with a Band-aid on it, because this is how the ten-year-old illustrator imagines an outdated sausage would look. Or, Poof thinks she can ‘fix’ the outdatedness of it by literally slapping a Band-aid on it. The illustrator is also making use of exaggerated size for comic effect.

As you can also see, Poof is an old lady archetype, with curly hair and glasses. Later, Poof acquires underarm hair, but the illustrator has yet to achieve character consistency and often forgets to draw it in. The pit hair is therefore random, a bit like the holes in Courage the Cowardly Dog’s teeth.

The narrator makes use of conversational narration, reminiscent of Wimpy Kid. “The thing is…”

The reader is encouraged not to buy into Poof’s fantasy of calling her fever inducing foods ‘Lord’. The speech marks around “Sausage Lord” indicate that.

By this point in the story the young writer has introduced a main character (Poof), her Shortcoming (a love for food which makes her sick, and a delusional fantasy about them) and an Opponent, the sausage, which has been somewhat personified.

Now the authors switch to the singulative (from iterative). This is the perfect place to do it.

Poof has been living on the edge, and now she has food poisoning, after a lengthy period of being okay. This is a classic story set up — a character does the same thing every day, but one day their life is shaken up. They must therefore change to cope with their new situation.

The boring details of how she got to hospital are skipped over. I believe there’s some unintentional comedy with ‘after a few weeks (3)’, which reads as if the time is the main thing, when it’s actually the sickness.

Then again, maybe it’s intentionally humorous, because the time humour continues, with the doctor saying a very non-doctor-like thing.

The writer has made comic use of a tall tale convention, or rather a shaggy dog tale convention. A shaggy dog tale is similar to a tall tale. The aim is to keep the listener interested, then end abruptly with no real climax. The listener will be disappointed and the teller will take delight in having strung them along.

Poof and the Outdated Sausages works as a story, though I did find myself wanting to know more about the Sausage Lord. As an opponent, this could have been extremely interesting. How exactly has Sausage Lord helped her out in the past? In Poof’s imagination, at least, he switches from an ally to an opponent, which is always an interesting turn of events in story.

POOF’S NEW PET

An adult writer might choose ‘shiny’ for symbolic reasons but I believe this young writer has chosen shiny because that’s how it feels to her. It’s an example of transferred epithet — it’s not the day that’s shiny, but rather than everything looks shiny, because of the strong sunlight beating down on it. In any case, I think it’s great.

The opponent is introduced right away, even before the main character is introduced. But because this is the second microfiction in a collection, and also because of the title, the reader can deduce that the main character is Poof.

Poof’s reactions are always beautiful to watch. They are over-the-top. As in every New York thriller, at some point the main character must run through traffic. This adds to the suspense.

Notice that in this one, Poof has hairy armpits.

Telling us that she nearly got hit (exclamation mark) is over-egging the pudding somewhat, but I’ll accept it.

Now we see the opponent. This is Worm-Hoop the one-eyed owl, though he’s not yet named. He is introduced very succinctly: We immediately know he is power hungry and that he desires to rule the world. He is an arch-villain.

The writer isn’t quite sure how to introduce him naturally.

The author has intuited that the main character requires both a ‘need’ and a ‘want’ and has incorporated them into one thing: The desire for a pet, and the need for something to keep herself calm.

Suddenly the opposition/hero status is flipped, and Poof becomes the predator. This is another rule of the setting: Poof and Worm-Hoop are evenly matched, like Roald Dahl’s creations in The Twits.

I can’t understand the reason for the ‘2 weeks later’ insertion. Perhaps they argue for a very long time.

Worm-Hoop, we deduce, is an English Owl, but pretends to be a different kind of owl so that Poof won’t claim him for her pet, though this is slightly ambiguous in the text. It helps to know that the creator’s favourite type of owl is the English Owl.

I do like the character design of Worm-Hoop. Owls have eyes one on each side of the head, but this is hard to draw in a cartoon. In order to anthropomorphise him by putting his expression on the front of the face, he has been given one eye in total, because you only really see one of an owl’s eyes at once. This also gives him a unique look. His beak functions equally as his mouth. Which is it? It doesn’t matter. Worm-Hoop also sweats like a human.

The narrator talks directly to one of the characters, breaking the fourth wall somewhat.

The metafictional insert ends after a minor conflict between character and unseen narrator. Sometimes these arguments go on for too long before the young writer brings the reader back into the main story. This one is a single page, so not too intrusive.

However, Worm-Hoop still appears to be talking to the unseen narrator, who seems to take the part of the reader rather than as someone who knows things the reader does not. Here, the narrator asks the character, “What are you doing?” The narrator knows no more than the reader does.

Worm-Hoop pops out of the story again, which is why the murder plot works — the reader is constantly reminded that this is just a story and no one actually dies. I suspect this narrative choice is the writer comforting herself.

The next part of the long-running gag is that Poof keeps calling her new owl a ‘parrot’, which is insulting because he is not. However, it’s natural she’d think so, since parrots can talk, and owls normally can’t.

When kids write their own stories for themselves, they get to use taboo language which they never see in their library reading material.

Worm-Hoop is so offended at this mistake that he accidentally dobs himself in as her perfect pet. If he’d only kept his beak shut, he’d have been safe and free. That is at the heart of the joke, though none of this is explained. If an adult had written this gag for a child audience, I’m quite certain they’d have explained it a bit more, but because the reader and writer are one and the same, the joke remains elliptical. Any outsider must work a little to get it.

More meta-intrusion:

Fast forward ‘a little later’ and these two now live together. The writer knows that in order for conflict to work, they must inhabit the same space, thrown together against their will. (Or, against at least one character’s will.)

It seems Worm-Hoop sometimes hoots as well as speaks English. Instead of perched on a branch, he’s perched on a chest of drawers.

He’s got his own bowl, but it’s a dog bowl.

And that’s the end of that story, which feels more like the end of a chapter. And it is. The young writer doesn’t make much distinction between stories and chapters. Some chapters are entire stories in themselves; others require several chapters.

WORMHOOP’S REVENGE

The gag in this spread derives from adult relationships, and the fact that in relationships, couples don’t always feel the same way about each other at exactly the same time.

I figure this has been absorbed from watching TV.

This chapter is more like two sequential gags than a complete story, because each follows the rule of comedy rather than the rules of story.

In the second gag, Worm-Hoop is terrified of Poof’s gigantic snoring, which juxtaposes comically with tippy-toeing by her room so as not to wake her. (How does she not wake her own self?)

Interestingly, two separate depictions of Worm-Hoop suggest he is looking at himself, sharing the uncomfortable feelings with himself. This works nicely for an owl, because of the two eyes on each side of the head, which I think the illustrator has really made the most of.

WORM-HOOP’S ORIGIN STORY

The writer knows that the reader won’t care about a character’s backstory until we’ve had a bit of action and started to wonder. This young writer is a big fan of super heroes, so is familiar with the concept of origin story.

The gag in which Poof treats her pet bird like a dog continues. I believe the writer has been inspired by stories such as The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems, in which one character completely misunderstands the nature of some other character, with disastrous results.

This amuses me because it’s almost a satire of all those picture books in which a baby bird/elephant/dolphin goes out into the world for the first time, by doing something scary.

Unlike your typical cute baby animal character, Worm-Hoop is gripped by unexpected bravado. Picture books don’t tend to exist for those characters, who don’t tend to require the ‘Be Brave’ books in the first place! However, these foolhardy tropes are great for comical stories like this.

A rule of thumb for illustrators is, you don’t need to illustrate what’s clearly been said in words, but breaking that rule works to great comic effect right here.

The illustrator must have realised one eye took up about the same amount of real estate on his face, and offered a comical explanation for that, too.

I think this chapter works as a series of comic gags. If an adult were writing this for children, they’d have depicted Worm-Hoop’s siblings, making him distinct from the others, Ugly Duckling style. They’d probably also have shown the doctor, and made more of that scene.

E.g. “Hey doc, can you fix my eye? It fell out when I got a surprise.”

“No can do. You lost it forever. But I’ll max the size of the other one, and then you’ll be good as new.”

“Okay.”

POOF GOES TO SCHOOL

Now we have a satire on all the ‘First Day At School’ stories, and Poof’s backstory. I believe this was inspired by the “Little Muriel” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog.

The first gag is that she doesn’t know how numbers work. I’m quite sure this is a gag taken from somewhere else (but I wouldn’t know from where).

Little Poof has drawn herself in a childlike way, which is quite an achievement, since the child drawing the rest of the illustrations is a child, and therefore also, quite naturally, drawing in a childlike way.

Then Worm-Hoop pops in. We don’t know what just happened yet.

The big reveal: This isn’t a flashback at all. Second reveal: Poof LIKES being seven again.  Third reveal: Worm-Hoop did this so he wouldn’t have to be Poof’s pet anymore. Though this writer doesn’t know what ‘reveal’ means, she has a good grasp of the technique.

The comedown is that making Poof younger doesn’t turn back time. It simply makes her younger.

I believe an adult writer would have explained this more thoroughly. And would have possibly left the reader with more of an ending. The writer has included a Battle and a revelation (not a Anagnorisis, because these comic characters never change), but she leaves off the New Situation. However, we can deduce what that is. They continue to live together, only now Worm-Hoop has the antics of a seven-year-old to contend with. Ideally, this chapter would have ended with a comic scene showing that. For instance, Poof uses him as a non-consenting cuddly toy when she takes him to bed.

POOF’S MATHS PROBLEM

Poof has poofed back into her usual form as an old lady, but the writer has decided to keep with the maths theme. Even when she looks like an old lady, it is now clear to me that Poof is basically a naughty, mischievous seven-year-old in an old lady’s body.

Poof’s shortcoming (she’s bad at maths) and her desire (she wants to do her homework) are introduced succinctly on the first page.

The illustrator has absorbed comic book conventions after reading lots of comics. (E.g. the lightbulb for a good idea.) The reader knew Poof would think of Worm-Hoop. (The writer is making use of audience superior dramatic irony.)

Her Plan is to call for him. He comes immediately.

The illustrator has decided to use Worm-Hoop’s eye as a window into his brain. The eye can contain all sorts of symbols, and in this case, a question-mark.

The gag is that Worm-Hoop knows even less than Poof does. Poof doesn’t know how to add, but Worm-Hoop doesn’t know the meaning of ‘number’.

He therefore delivers a nonsensical response, and that is the gag.

I expected the story to end there. It works as a complete gag. But the young writer has decided (subconsciously, of course) to turn this into more of a narrative than a simple set-up and payoff, so next we have a Battle sequence in which Worm-Hoop struggles (with himself) to understand the problem. (I asked the illustrator and she tells me that button belongs to a calculator, but I don’t think that’s sufficiently clear without author intervention. The machine which doesn’t work as characters expect it to is a classic Spongebob gag.)

The gag from a previous chapter is reused. I’m not sure who the characters are in the final box. I think the illustrator is getting tired by this stage.

https://twitter.com/PhysicsAndAstr1/status/1253866458054082562

Story Structure: Opponents In Fiction

Henry Gillard Glindoni - The Tiff

Every interesting main character in every story needs a worthy opponent. The opponent makes the main character interesting. The main character learns through their opponent. The opponent attacks the main character’s great shortcoming. The main character deals with their own great shortcoming and grows as a result.

The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.

John le Carre
Nemesis by Agatha Christie cover illustration by Tom Adams
Nemesis by Agatha Christie cover illustration by Tom Adams

OPPONENT AS SUM TOTAL OF FORCES

So something happens to a central character that throws them off the beaten track and forces them into a world they’ve never seen. A beanstalk grows, a patient collapses, a murder is committed. All of these actions have consequences, which in turn provoke obstacles that are commonly dubbed forces of antagonism the sum total of all the obstacles that obstruct a character in the pursuit of their desires. These forces accumulate from this initial moment as we head towards the climax of the story.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

THE MINOTAUR VS HUMAN LAYERS OF OPPOSITION

Usborne World Of The Unknown Monsters, 1977
The illustration above shows the Minotaur opponent (the twister) and the human opponents in a single frame.

The Minotaur is a really scary creature from Greek mythology — a part man, part bull monster who lives at the centre of a labyrinth. Because the Minotaur is so very scary, we can use him as a stand-in for any type of Big, Bad Baddie who threatens your main character’s very life.

Instead of the big bad opponent of Theseus, we might instead choose the bucentaur fought by Hercules or the dragon fought by Siegfried. Doesn’t matter. We’re talking about some kind of monster who stands in as the archetype of all mythic combat.

In most of the best stories the opponent will be another human but it can also be ‘nature’ (e.g. in a disaster movie). Where the opponent is ‘nature’, like in Twister, the Minotaur layer of opposition comes from the cyclone.

Twister by Angus McBride 1963

Three Days On A River In A Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams is a good example of a picture book narrative in which the main opponent is ‘nature’ rather than other characters: First it rains, thenthere is a gale, then the canoe almost overturns in the current of the river. Friction between the campers is hinted at, but they basically band together and fight against the opposition of weather and water current.

The problem with Minotaur opponents is that they aren’t inherently interesting. In fact one can easily be switched out for another — there is little to distinguish between a troll/ogre/tsunami/wolf or any number of mythical, archetypal villains.

The logline of It Follows sums up your archetypal Minotaur villain: It doesn’t think. It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t give up.

It doesn't feel. It doesn't give up.
It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t give up.

So what the storyteller needs, as well as the Minotaur, is a layer of human opposition. In the case of Twister, we have the rival storm chasers who serve as the humanised opponents.

In Arachnophobia, the spiders make for creepy but uninteresting opponents because their motivation isn’t to kill everyone — that just happens as default. They have no morals for us to judge. This is what makes Minotaurs (or spiders) uninteresting. Instead, the writers created a conflict between the old doctor and the bright young city slicker coming in to an unwelcoming community, where the older doctor refuses to step aside.

Importantly, not all stories contain a Minotaur layer of opposition. Traditional mythic stories do have this layer, but the new big struggle-free mythic form does not need one, because the main character thinks and feels their way through a difficult journey. She doesn’t fight a big, bad Minotaur.

Roger Ebert used the phrase ‘mad-dog killer’ to describe this kind of opponent.

Mad Slasher Movies: Movies starring a mad-dog killer who runs amok, slashing all of the other characters. The killer is frequently masked (as in “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”), not because a serious actor would be ashamed to be seen in the role, but because then no actor at all is required; the only skills necessary are the ability to wear a mask and wield a machete. For additional reading, see Splatter Movies, by John (“mutilation is the message”) McCarty.

Ebert’s Guide to Practical Filmgoing: A Glossary of Terms for the Cinema of the ’80s
Alice and Martin Provensen. The city is nice but it’s scary. In stories for children, cats are often Minotaur opponents.
PROBLEMS WITH THE MINOTAUR OPPONENT

Part of the reason I believe these new big struggle-free mythic forms are so important is because the concept of the Minotaur Opponent speaks to an adaptive but problematic aspect of human psychology: We like to imagine uncontrollable events in humanised/monster-ised form.

An excellent example of this can be seen with the clarity of hindsight in early to mid-14th century Europe. This was the era when witch trials began. The concept of the witch’s sabbath came about for several other reasons, but what made the popular concept of the evil witch really take off? A little ice age. This created a climate crisis. No one could sow their crops let alone harvest them. This had a huge impact on social networks of the period, and no doubt had psychological effects, too. These days we might call it PTSD. Many people felt alienated from their communities.

Rather than feel helpless, people invented a scapegoat. In order for a scapegoat to work, first you need a narrative. Here’s why my crops are failing, my kids are starving and my livestock has foot rot: There are witches in my village.

This belief is easier to deal with psychologically than the belief that humans are utterly powerless under the forces of nature. It gives people something to do: Medieval Europeans could regain a sense of power by surrounding their houses in witch marks, by performing counter magic and coaxing witches down their chimneys so they could burn her in their cooking pots.

In short, the witch was a significant Minotaur Opponent of early to mid 14th century Europe. As we can see from just this one example, the Minotaur Opponent is an extremely powerful storytelling technique, to the point where such stories can influence people’s real world beliefs.

The Minotaur layer of opposition continues to work so nicely in stories today because it both drives ‘regular’ people apart as well as uniting them together.

But we do need to remain wary of our tendency to translate this Minotaur Opposition into real life, especially with another climate crisis hanging over our heads.

In everyday English we now use the word ‘bogeyman’ to describe a monster who is not the real monster.

CAN A CHARACTER BE THEIR OWN WORST ENEMY?

You might be asking yourself at this point, can the main character be ‘their own worst enemy’?

The antagonist is … the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal. The detective and ‘monster’ templates illustrate this well, but antagonism can manifest itself in many different ways most interestingly when it lies within the protagonist. Cowardice, drunkenness, lack of self-esteem all will serve as internal obstacles that prevent a character reaching fulfilment.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

However, if your main character’s ONLY opponent is their own self, you’re in for a tough job. Sure great stories can be created in which the main character is their own worst enemy. An excellent example is Larry McMurtry’s Hud, from his novel Horseman, Pass By. That said, McMurtry knew that in order to show the audience that the character of Hud is his own worst enemy he had to do it via conflict with other characters. He couldn’t just put him on a farm alone. Even in The Martian by Andy Weir, the story was improved with the addition of other people the base back on Earth, and the backstory which included the other astronauts. The Martian environment is plenty oppositional enough, but doesn’t make for the best story.

In very short stories, such as children’s picture books, a main character can be their own worst enemy and the story works well. Two examples are After The Fall by Dan Santat (recent) and The Chicken Book by Garth Williams (classic).

Where the character is their own worst enemy, that part goes under the ‘psychological shortcoming’/’moral shortcoming’ banner, not under this one.

If you are writing a story in which the main character’s biggest enemy is themselves, you are writing what’s commonly known as a ‘Man vs. Self’ story. This article at Now Novel has some specific pointers on how to do it.

Woman's Home Companion August 1933 Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cat & Dog Puzzle
Woman’s Home Companion August 1933 Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cat & Dog Puzzle

OPPONENTS AND GENRE

The opponent will depend on the genre/type of story you’re writing.

In the simple detective story they’re catalysed by the murder; in the medical drama the patient. […] In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

Since ‘nature’ makes an uninteresting opponent, even when the opponent is plenty strong enough the writers will concoct human antagonists. In Twister the hurricane is the main opposing force, but none of the characters are getting on with each other, either.

If there’s a killer or an evil mastermind bent on planetary domination then they are, obviously, the antagonists [often called ‘villains’]; the patient may not behave antagonistically, but they effectively embody the illness that will be the true enemy in the drama. The antagonist is thus the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

RULES OF FICTIONAL OPPONENTS

They call it a conflict and with my limited grasp of the English language, the prefix “con-” is bad. Why can’t we just have a “flict”?

EJ (@cottone120) November 29, 2019

An opponent is not necessarily an enemy.

I always felt like you had to be important to have enemies. Example: Historically, Germany has had more enemies than Luxembourg. Margo Roth Spiegelman was Germany. And Great Britain. And the United States. And tsarist Russia. Me, I’m Luxembourg. Just sitting around, tending sheep, and yodelling.

John Green, from Paper Towns

The opponent is the character who wants to prevent the main character from reaching her goal.

The relationship between opponent/main character is the most important in the story.

The best opponent is the necessary one. The opponent is the character who is best able to attack the great shortcoming of your main character.

The main character will either overcome that shortcoming or be destroyed.

Opponents and mystery are closely related because a mysterious opponent is more difficult to defeat. In average stories, the main character’s only task is to defeat the opponent. In good stories the main character has to:

  1. Uncover the opponent and
  2. then defeat her.

In thrillers and mysteries there has to be some kind of mystery set up to compensate for the missing opponent (who is there, but behind the scenes). Detective stories purposely hide their opponents until the end. Until then, the audience needs something to replace the ongoing conflict between main character and opponent. In this kind of story you introduce a mystery at about the time you would normally introduce the main opponent.

It pleases contemporary filmmakers and thus audiences to think they are much more sophisticated than this, but cruelty continues to be the mark of villains, the thing that lets the audience know who they are supposed to be against. […] Innocence is central to determining whether the behaviour is cruel or not.

Howard Suber

Other characters [apart from the main character] in a story can act heroically — not just the designated main character. Even villains and baddies can very effectively portray heroic qualities. Every rounded character should manifest a touch of each archetype (The Shadow In The Hero).

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Frequently the main character and villain’s actions look very much alike. It’s what these actions are for that determines whether we think of the character as being obsessed or committed.

The Power Of Film, Howard Suber

It’s often said that the best cops would make the best criminals — by chance they’re working on the right side of the law. Crime drama makes the most of this. In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty is a good cop because he has an intuitive understanding of what motivates the criminals he’s working with. The audience sees Jimmy himself go against the rules and resisting the hierarchy that exists within the police force.

Keep the opponent AND main character TOGETHER

This goes against commonsense, because when two people don’t like each other they tend to go in opposite directions. But if this happens in a story, the writer has great difficulty building conflict. The trick is to find a natural reason for the main character and opponent to stay in the same place during the course of the story.

In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie is forced to spend time with Darcy when Mrs Bennett forces Jane to ride to Bingley’s mansion. There, she catches cold, and Lizzie must go and see her. Darcy happens to be there and flirting takes place after dinner, in which social convention dictates they share the same room.

The antagonist opposes the protagonist not just once but throughout. In this way the antagonist helps define the protagonist in the same way you invoke a shape by colouring in everything but that shape. Note that the antagonist needn’t be another character — it traditionally is, yes, but any persistent conflict can be truly antagonistic. A looming house foreclosure, a cancer diagnosis, a tornado made of biting squirrels.

Chuck Wendig

In memorable movies…the strongest guy around is not likely to be the main character.

Howard Suber
OPPONENT AND MAIN CHARACTER ARE EQUALLY POWERFUL
Art by Leslie Thrasher 1935

VILLAINS

A villain is a subcategory of opponent. An opponent equals anyone or anything that stands in the way of your main character getting what they want. A villain is ethically and morally bad. Villains tend to be power hungry, lazy, abusive, greedy all of the seven deadly sins.

The Carnaval A Book Of Poems by Sef Roman Semenovich and Leonid Roshidaev 1994. The most unambiguous villain is the character who wants to control the entire world.
The Carnaval A Book Of Poems by Sef Roman Semenovich and Leonid Roshidaev 1994. The most unambiguous villain is the character who wants to control the entire world.

The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.

Alfred Hitchcock

In traditional main character stories there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ (better known to adults as main characters and adversaries, or protagonists and antagonists). The activities of the main characters are sanctioned by society whereas the activities of the adversaries are considered wrong. Apart from pickpockets/thieves, the following groups tend to be depicted as adversaries in stories, because their ways of making a living undermine our perceptions of how decent society works. For example:

  • Smugglers e.g. from a Famous Five novel
  • Pirates in picture books pirates as just as often the sympathetic viewpoint characters, which is weird given that in real life they are criminals
  • Gypsies also oft-utilised by writers from the First Golden Age of children’s literature e.g. Enid Blyton
  • Highwaymen Julia Donaldson’s Highway Rat is a picture book example.
  • Wolves Since wolves became an endangered species recent stories often turn the wolf into the victimised character.
  • Foxes Straight out of Aesop, foxes are like wolves only more wily
  • Witches and other supernatural, folkloric creatures

Note that only two genres require a villain: mystery and thriller.

I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.

Stephen King

What puzzled me about villains was why, when they were masquerading as respectable citizens, their essential no-goodness wasn’t as obvious to people on the screen as it was to me in the stalls. How could Pinnochio be so stupid as to be led astray by the patently wicked Fox, or Snow White not know the Queen was up to no good? Had the Queen been flesh and blood and not a cartoon she might well have been played by Joan Crawford, who was always something of an enigma to me. I never liked her, and with her gaunt face, protruding eyes and instinct for melodrama she seemed the embodiment of evil, yet she was often cast in the role of heroine… Claude Rains was another puzzle. He was determinedly silky and seldom unsmiling, sure signs that he was a baddy, though not always. […] Banal though the general fun of films was, I learned, as one learned in fairy stories, about good and evil and how to spot them: the good where one would expect only degradation and squalor, and treachery and cowardice to be traced in the haunts of respectability. I learned about the occasional kindness of villains an the regular intransigence of saints but the abiding lesson had to do with the perils of prominence… Films taught you to be happy that you were ordinary.

Alan Bennett, from Untold Stories

People have a need to believe that bad things are done by bad people. And what is bad? Isn’t this defined as anything outside the common good, which is further defined as whatever the majority see as good? Why must the villain wear a black hat? Because if he didn’t, how would we know he was the villain?

Stephen Dobyn, from The Church Of Dead Girls

Charlie Jane Anders has some counter advice to a popular chestnut given to writers when creating villains, and I agree it’s time we need to say this:

One piece of writing advice I hear a lot is, “Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy. Everyone’s the hero in their own story.” Which is true, I guess. But I worry people understand this to mean “every character needs to have sympathetic, relatable motivations.” Which is NOT true. 

There’s no shortage of people in the world who enjoy being cruel to people who are more vulnerable than they are. There’s plenty of people who think of the world purely in terms of dominance and power, or who pride themselves on being able to “do what has to be done.” 

In my writing, I’m very interested in the problem of evil, and a lot of my stuff features well-meaning people who make horrible choices. But I’m not interested in excusing destructive behaviour, or necessarily sympathizing with it. Not all villains have to be lovable/relatable. 

George RR Martin is very good at showing the internal monologue of people who do monstrous things, without softening them at all. Meanwhile, Shakespeare famously has one of his villains declare his undying hatred, “yet I know not why.” Not everybody is equally introspective. 

Bottom line: evil is real. Cruelty is real. We have to grapple with them in our fiction, whether it’s a lighthearted romp or a grimdark adventure. And I don’t feel like sympathetic evil is always the right choice, depending on the story. /END

@charliejane

Charlie Jane Anders also advises writers to avoid the following when creating villains:

  1. Villain who are passive until the last few minutes of the story
  2. Inversely, villains who are super powerful all through the story, then implausibly start making mistakes right at the end (allowing the hero to win)
  3. Villains whose behaviour make no sense, doing whatever the story requires them to do in the moment.

I would add that commercially successful blockbuster movies don’t go out of their way to avoid those traps. The clown of I.T. is number three to a tee, but that is one successful franchise.

Related Links On Villains

VILLAINS AND GENDER

Villains are traditionally gendered male. A female villain is seen as just that a ‘female’ villain. Her gender is something extra. This means that decision makers can decide at any time that we’ve at ‘peak female villainy’.

CHAOS RATHER THAN VILLAINY

Often it is chaos, rather than evil, that is the enemy.

Howard Suber

You’ll find those attributes (chaos and evil) are embodied in people, or especially in children’s literature as people stand-ins such as talking animals.

In other words, the opponent isn’t necessarily of evil intent. The opponent isn’t necessarily a ‘villain’. Case in point, the frenemy opponent. Someone who pretends they’re on your side, but they are not.

THE FRENEMY OPPONENT

Elmer Cecil Stoner friends never you space pirate
Elmer Cecil Stoner

Sometimes the opponent tries to fake as an ally to the main character but their wishes are at odds with the main character’s. This character exists partly to showcase a contrasting value system, for example, the main character is loyal, the frenemy is disloyal.

The frenemy opponent relies on a storytelling technique involving a mask. The mask of ‘friendship/mentorship’ will come off before the story is over.

OPPOSITION DOES NOT EQUAL THE APPEARANCE OF OPPOSITION

THORN OPPONENTS

‘The thorn in the side’ is a low-level opponent who doesn’t really have the power to fully stand in the main character’s way, and who can even make the audience side more fully with the designated main character.

Examples of thorns:

  • The annoying kids in children’s book casts, such as Fregley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
  • In a detective story it’s that member of the public who wants to get in on drama and offers theories and speculation as fact to the detective trying to solve the case.

OPPOSITION CONVEYED IN PICTURE BOOKS

In an illustrated work, there will be an image in which the main character comes face to face with the opposition.

Take a look at the Hansel and Gretel illustrations below, by Gustaf Tenngren. Hansel and Gretel move through the book from left to right, absolutely typical for Western style literature. The witch is their opponent so she faces the other way.

But! When fortune is reversed and the children step forward to win the day, Tenngren reverses the direction of the witch. The children continue to face ‘forward’. Their mythic journey into the woods has not been stymied by that pesky witch.

Below are some examples from Little Red Riding Hood.

Little Red Riding Hood, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

Matthew Cordell’s Wolf In The Snow is a much more recent revisioning of Little Red Riding Hood, demonstrating that this layout is still very much used, because it is effective.

Gila Monsters Meet You At The Airport is an interesting example because these opponents exist to give the reader a parallactic view of two places, using two very different points of view. The effect is to help young readers challenge their own preconceptions.

THE LITTLE BLACK FISH (1986) Inge van der Storm
THE LITTLE BLACK FISH (1986) Inge van der Storm

In The Fog, the scene where humanity really sees the importance of nature is so central to the story that it’s used for the front cover.

The Fog picture book cover

The scene where the mouse meets the Gruffalo is another example, but illustrator Axel Scheffler has made it look 3D with inclusion of the tapering path.

And here is an example from Blueberries For Sal.

from Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
from Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

FURTHER READING

Popular film culture has been using facial injury as a shorthand for evil for so long that many filmmakers no longer treat scars as injuries, but as decorative features.

Despite appearances, not all people with scarred faces are movie villains
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Header painting: Henry Gillard Glindoni – The Tiff

The Secret To Russian Fudge

How to make Russian Fudge — a step-by-step guide for cooks with no sweet thermometer and no Edmonds Cookbook (which is only of limited help anyway).

Googling has so far not helped me out on this one, so while Mum was staying at our place this week I had an extended lesson in how to make it set every time, and now I feel obliged to put this up on the internet, because I can’t find anybody else who has adequately described what a ‘soft ball’ is, nor explain all the secrets to getting it right, though this description is a very good start. It really is all in the beating. Some of us noobs need a little more help, so for my own future reference as much as anything, I have taken some (relevant!) progress pictures. I’ve since made five successful batches without help, so I think I’ve got it now.

FROM THE EDMONDS COOKERY BOOK

  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup condensed milk
  • 125g butter
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup

Put sugar and milk into a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Add condensed milk, butter, salt and golden syrup. Stir until butter has melted. Bring to the boil and continue boiling to the soft ball stage, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Remove from heat. Cool slightly. Beat until thick. Pour into a buttered tin. Mark into squares. Cut when cold. Vanilla essence or chopped buts may be added to fudge before beating if desired.

EXTRA NOTES ON HOW TO MAKE RUSSIAN FUDGE

This is from a New Zealand cookbook (though I’m to assume it comes originally from Russia?) so be sure to use Australian/NZ/British sized measuring cups, which are larger than American. I don’t know if this works if you use American sizes — I guess it’s all relative, but what I had been doing is using the Pyrex jug to measure the liquids (American) and a local measurements for the dry ingredients. Don’t do that.

It takes a longish time to dissolve the sugar and milk properly over a gentle heat. When bubbles start to rise, that generally means it’s dissolved enough. This part can be made faster by using castor sugar, in which case it dissolves pretty much instantly, and you can start adding the rest of the ingredients.

BOILING IT UP

The colour in this photo isn’t true to life (too yellow) but this is basically what the mixture will look like once you’ve got it to the ‘soft ball’ stage.

Russian Fudge bringing to the boil

WHAT ON DOG’S GREEN EARTH IS A ‘SOFT BALL’?

To check whether the mixture is at the ‘soft ball’ stage, drop a bit of it into a glass of cold water.

Russian Fudge soft ball test

This is what a ‘soft ball’ looks like when dribbled off a spatula into a glass of cold water. Next, tip out the water and scoop out the fudge mixture. It should look like this once you’ve rolled it between your fingers:

Russian fudge soft ball

It’s hard to describe the feel of a soft ball in pictures, but you should be able to hold it briefly between your fingers like this:

Russian fudge soft ball squish

A MOTHER OF A BEATING

The secret to good fudge lies partly in the length of time beating, but then again, at other times I have made this fudge successfully without much beating at all.

A stick mixer won’t do the job.

Then again, if you’re a pioneer, you’ll get by with a wooden spoon and a sweaty brow. As for me, I have to use an electric hand beater, and it usually takes longer than I think it should, on a medium speed.

This is what it looks like before any beating, and just cooled enough for it to stop bubbling. I’ve transferred the mixture into a plastic bowl so I don’t damage the non-stick saucepan with the beaters.

Russian fudge pre beating

It takes about as long to whip fudge as to whip cream. Something I’ve never measured. The process is similar. Soon you’ll start to see it ripple a little bit.

Russian fudge beating

Continue to beat. A few minutes later, the ripples will be more pronounced and the texture will have changed to something lighter in colour and heavier:

Russian fudge thickening

What you really want to see is the Russian fudge starting to set around the edges:

Russian fudge enough beating

 
 
As you can see from the electric beaters, the Russian fudge has set into stalactites.
 
 
 

Russian fudge beaters

You know you’ve beaten enough when the mixture really starts to feel heavy on the beaters. (A good reason to use the medium setting on the beater — it’s easier to feel the texture changing.)

Here is the mixture poured into the pan ready for setting. As you can see, the mixture keeps its shape. The folds and peaks remain, unless I smooth them down with a wooden spoon. Be sure to grease the pan really well so that you can tip the whole thing out as a block later ready for cutting into squares, maybe on a chopping board.

Russian fudge setting

 
 
Mark it into lots of small squares with a knife once it’s cooled a bit. Then put it in the fridge. When it comes time to cut it, use a hot, wet knife to avoid making so many tiny crumbs.

Post Script

I cut up the fudge and put it into Glad bags, ready for the freezer. I’ve never frozen fudge before, but apparently it’s fine, as long as you seal the container properly. My husband came into the kitchen and said, ‘What are you doing?’

‘Freezing fudge,’ I replied.

After a short pause he said, ‘You can say it, you know.’

‘What?’
‘You’re packing fudge.’
 
And in case you think I planned on eating all of these batches of fudge myself, I gave a large portion to my husband, with strict instructions to share it around at work. According to his Indian workmates, this fudge is almost exactly the same as barfi. I’ve seen better phonetic correspondences. (Here’s Breaking Barfi, a Breaking Bad parody. Hell, why not.)

There can’t have been much work on at the office either, because it was agreed that Russian fudge is actually Scottish.

Enjoy!

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Writing Activity: Describe A Living Room

Henry Wallis - The Room in Which Shakespeare Was Born 1853

As a writing exercise, describe your own living room, or the living room of someone you know. For inspiration, I offer the following examples from literature.

EXAMPLE OF A LIVING ROOM DESCRIBED BY DAPHNE DU MAURIER

We were all sitting in the long, low room at Farthings, darker than usual because of the rain. The french windows gave very little light, chopped as they were in small square panes that added to the beauty of the house from without, but inside had all the appearance of prison bars, oddly depressing.

The grandfather clock in the corner ticked slowly and unevenly; now and again it gave a little cough, hesitating momentarily, like an old man with asthma, then ploughed on again with quiet insistence. The fire in the basket grate had sunk rather low; the mixture of coke and coal had caked in a solid lump, giving no warmth; and the logs that had been flung carelessly on top earlier in the afternoon smouldered in dull fashion, needing the bellows to coax them into life. The papers were strewn about the floor, and the empty cardboard covers of gramophone records were amongst them, along with a cushion that had fallen from the sofa. These things may have added to Charles’s irritation. He was an orderly man, with a methodical mind.

from the opening scene of The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier, 1949.

In the short passage above du Maurier conveys a lot of information.

  1. The reader learns right away that this house — and the people who live there — are not like the landscape outside. The house looks good from the other side but when you’re in it, not so much. The snail under the leaf setting, symbolised by a single house.
  2. The house is compared to a prison
  3. The grandfather clock is personified, which in turn makes the actual people seem part of the room. Since the clock is ‘like an old man with asthma’ we know something is about to end and another thing begin.
  4. We know the temperature of the room
  5. We have a sense of the light
  6. We have enough detail to place this room in its approximate time period — the bellows, the open fire which uses coke and coal for fuel, and the gramophone records all indicate this setting is mid-20th century
  7. Words such as strewn, flung, empty, smouldered and coax work together to not only describe the room but some of its occupants.
  8. The room is juxtaposed with the first character introduced — the orderly Charles. This is the story’s initial conflict.
Konstantin Gorbatov (1876 - 1945)
Konstantin Gorbatov (1876 – 1945)

What kinds of chairs are in this living room? Who sits in them, or who used to sit in them?

The Chintz Couch, Ethel Sands, 1911
Atkinson Grimshaw - Daydreams
Atkinson Grimshaw – Daydreams

French artist Monique Valdeneige creates living spaces remarkable for their labyrinthine feel. A single view offers glimpses into various parts of the house, aided by the use of mirrors.

Monique Valdeneige - French
Monique Valdeneige – French
Monique Valdeneige, French
Monique Valdeneige, French
Marius van Dokkum bachelor
Marius van Dokkum bachelor

Describe the lighting. Where do shadows fall? What might be shrouded in the dark recesses of this room?

Billiards room from Shutter Island
Living room from the film Darkest Hour
Living room from the film Darkest Hour

How does the high angle perspective change things for the viewer? How might you induce this view in a reader, using text only?

Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989 living room
Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989
Mrs McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie art by Tom Adams charwoman's parlour
Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie art by Tom Adams charwoman’s parlour

Are there living creatures in this living room? What about living creatures we don’t necessarily see at first?

How is the character connected to their space? Houses are highly symbolic. For instance, houses made out of glass tend to convey loneliness, suggesting isolated and vulnerable characters.

The living room from the film Arrival. The main character is a linguist who is about to be called to work with the military to communicate with alien lifeforms after twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world. This film makes use of the grieving woman called to greatness trope, though it is inverted. Amy Adams’ character is clearly lonely, right? We can tell just from seeing her in her living room.
THE ROSS CRANE GUIDE AND STYLIST, 1929
THE ROSS CRANE GUIDE AND STYLIST, 1929
Kiessling illustration from 'Malbuchgeschichten' (1949)
Kiessling illustration from ‘Malbuchgeschichten’ (1949)

EXAMPLE OF A LIVING ROOM DESCRIBED BY ALICE MUNRO

Alice Munro focuses first on a single aspect of this space — the soft furnishings. Why is the carpet daunting? Perhaps because white carpet shows up stains. But because this is a Munro short story, we know that the ‘stain’ is heavily symbolic, beyond the actual carpet.

Grant caught sight of two layers of front-window curtains, both blue, one sheer and one silky, a matching blue sofa and a daunting pale carpet, various bright mirrors and ornaments. […]

Kitchens are great because everything in them feels symbolic. Knives are especially foreboding, even if they’re not used to murder anyone in the end.

On the kitchen counters there were all sorts of contrivances and appliances—coffeemaker, food processor, knife sharpener, and some things Grant didn’t know the names or uses of. All looked new and expensive, as if they had just been taken out of their wrappings, or were polished daily.

The viewpoint character’s response segues nicely from the thumbnail description, telling us more about him:

He thought it might be a good idea to admire things. He admired the coffeemaker she was using and said that he and Fiona had always meant to get one. This was absolutely untrue—Fiona had been devoted to a European contraption that made only two cups at a time.

We also learn about the woman he has come to visit:

“They gave us that,” she said. “Our son and his wife. They live in Kamloops. B.C. They send us more stuff than we can handle. It wouldn’t hurt if they would spend the money to come and see us instead.”

Grant said philosophically, “I suppose they’re busy with their own lives.”

The Bear Went Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro

My favourite detail comes further down, when Munro describes an ordinary kitchen object in gruesome terminology:

She poured the coffee into two brown-and-green ceramic mugs that she took from the amputated branches of a ceramic tree trunk that sat on the table.

All it took was that one word — amputated. Grant feels entirely cut off from his wife, who has dementia, and who is also having an affair inside the care facility.

EXAMPLE OF A LIVING ROOM DESCRIBED BY KENNETH GRAHAME

The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs, between two at tractive chimney-corners tucked away in the wall, well out of any suspicion of draught. A couple of high-backed settles, facing each other on either side of the fire, gave further sitting accommodations for the sociably disposed. In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper. Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.

The Wind In The Willows

Badger’s living area is a sitting-room kitchen combo. As the description wears on, Grahame makes use of personification to bring the crockery to life. Live objects in the home was a popular Edwardian trope in children’s literature. Here it serves the purpose of contrasting the safe and cosy Badger’s sette with the faces Mole observed watching him in the dangerous, dark Wild Wood surrounding them.

"We shall probably spend the evening here with Miss Susan at the card table." Hugh Thomson illustrates J.M. Barrie's romantic comedy 'Quality Street', 1901 cards drawing room
“We shall probably spend the evening here with Miss Susan at the card table.” Hugh Thomson illustrates J.M. Barrie’s romantic comedy ‘Quality Street’, 1901 cards drawing room
Carl-Larsson-living-room-with-spinning
Carl Larsson, Swedish artist, who liked to paint one character staring right at the painter.
Carl Larsson Lazy Nook 1897 Sweden  living room
Carl Larsson Lazy Nook 1897 Sweden
Carl Larsson child peeking from cot
Carl Larsson often illustrated a character looking conspiratorially at the viewer, drawing the viewer into the picture.
Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Williams at home, illustration for Vogue magazine, Cecil Beaton. February 1937
Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Williams at home, illustration for Vogue magazine, Cecil Beaton. February 1937
Michael Ancher (Danish , 1849 - 1927) The Red Living Room, 1914
Michael Ancher (Danish , 1849 – 1927) The Red Living Room, 1914
Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1940. Father reads newspaper and smokes a pipe while son plays with a train on the floor.
Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1940.
Robert Fawcett for Sherlock Holmes
Robert Fawcett for Sherlock Holmes
Robert Fawcett for Sherlock Holmes
Robert Fawcett for Sherlock Holmes
Robert Fawcett for Sherlock Holmes
Ančka Gošnik-Godec (1927– ) Slovenian illustrator living room
Ančka Gošnik-Godec (1927– ) Slovenian illustrator
Mr Gumpy's Rhino John Burningham living room
Mr Gumpy’s Rhino John Burningham
Albert Chevallier Tayler - The Council of Three 1888
Albert Chevallier Tayler – The Council of Three 1888
Stephen Darbishire, Lake District painter
Stephen Darbishire, a Lake District painter

Header painting: Henry Wallis – The Room in Which Shakespeare Was Born 1853

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