Speaking Without Words

Last night I went to see War Horse, which is an intense and powerful performance focused on a horse (and the humans around him) that fought in World War I.

Just a few minutes ago, my dog kicked his empty food dish.

While these two things seem totally unrelated, they both linked in my mind because they are great examples of communicating without words.

Eli let me know that his bowl was empty, and he was hungry, by banging the metal bowl and making a noise.  He’s learned that this will get my attention, and food will appear.  He will also carry his empty water bowl into the living room, if kicking it or knocking it around didn’t work.  He has figured out a way to let me know his needs, and get them fulfilled.

War Horse uses huge, three-person puppets as the horses, but you don’t really notice the puppeteers most of the time.  The horses breathe, flick their tails, and move their feet in the same way as real horses.  People ride them, too, which is amazing.  But the coolest thing to me is the expressions.

Horses have very expressive ears, and they communicate a great deal by posture.  The creators of the show and the puppeteers have done an amazing job of capturing that method of communication.  Even from the mezzanine, I could tell when the horses were scared, nervous, or curious, simply by their ears and body positioning.

Animals can (and do) communicate very readily without words.  As authors it behooves us to notice these details and perhaps have the opportunity to capture one or two in our writing.


I like nicknames.  I use them in my stories for different reasons.  Everyone in real life uses nicknames for their friends and family, so incorporating them for your characters gives them that instant “real-life” feel.

Sometimes, too, it helps develop a culture.  In Dragon, my elves think it is disrespectful to use someone’s full name without their permission, so everyone in that book has a nickname.  (And by everyone, I mean everyone.) This even becomes a point of mild conflict, mirroring a larger culture difference, because the dragons believe it is disrespectful to use anything other than an individual’s full name.

I use a lot of nicknames for my pets, too.  Eli (my dog) has recently been called Beast, Beastie, Mutt, Mutthead, and Dog.  He’s got old nicknames, too, that don’t get used as much now.  These include Trouble, Trouble-Dog, Skinny Dog, Wrinkle-Dog, Mr. Wrinkles, and Muttface.  The bird has fewer, but he’s been in my life a shorter time.  I do call him Monster, Little Bird, Bird, and BatMax (when he’s hanging upside-down).  I am less specific with nicknames for friends and family, although I would like to take credit for my sister’s most oft used nickname.  I pointed out as a child that her initials spelled a name, and that name stuck!  (In an effort to preserve my secret identity, I will not reveal that name, as it will give you the first initial of my real last name.)

It’s fun to think of nicknames for characters, since the hard part (giving them a real name) is done.  The easiest way to do it is to imagine that you are friends with them and have to use their name over and over.  What would you end up calling them?  That’s the best nickname for them, the one that would come naturally out of the use of their name.

Animal Inaccuracies

A couple weeks ago I talked about avoiding terms in your writing that wouldn’t be applicable in your chosen time frame.  Today I want to talk about avoiding animals that wouldn’t be found in your chosen location.

I know that the average person isn’t going to think about where an animal is from, and the presence of an incongruent creature isn’t going to ruin a story for them.  There are a lot of people with some animal smarts, however, especially young adults who may be addicted to wildlife television.  As a person who knows something about critters, it can be very distracting to see an animal in the wrong place.

Want an example?  Fantastic!  I have some recognizable ones from movies.

Common to us in the USA, a raccoon should only show up if your story is set in the Americas.

I recently watched three of the Disney classics from the early 90s: Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.  Every one of them had at least one animal incorrect.  In B&B, Gaston has a raccoon hanging out of his hunting bag in a very early scene.  Every raccoon relative is native to the New World only, and wouldn’t be found in France.  (The red panda, often considered a relative, is currently classified in its own order and not in Procyonidae, so I didn’t count it.  Besides, it’s restricted to China – still not found in France.)  The Lion King, which took great pains to be incredibly detailed and accurate with all of the wildlife, has giant anteaters in “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.”  Once again, anteaters and their relatives are New World, and not found in Africa.

Aladdin is probably the worst, although I am willing to cut them a little slack.  It’s supposed to be set in the Middle East, but there are a lot of Indian influences (and animals) throughout the movie.  Tigers, Asian elephants, and peacocks are only found in Asia, but as the Middle East was a center for world trade, I think we can overlook these as possible to the scene.  My two main issues with the movie are both camelid.  First, they can’t seem to decide if they want dromedary (one-humped) or Bactrian (two-humped) camels in the movie; dromedary would be the correct choice.  Second, and bigger, is the “llamas galore” in the song “Prince Ali.”  Llamas are (once again) New World only, and unlike Asia that part of the world was not accessible to traders in the Middle East.

I can’t fault Disney too much; many of their later movies are very accurate with their species choices.  I’ve also had this difficulty.  In a scene in Butterflies, four characters are dressing up as woodland creatures for a masquerade ball.  I had them originally as a butterfly, a lizard, a wildcat and a raccoon.  After an interesting discussion with one of my First Readers, who pointed out that the others could be found almost anywhere while a raccoon is North American, I changed the fourth costume to a squirrel.  That change made the animals all generic enough that they weren’t setting a specific geographic location.  As the story is set in a world of my own creation, not specifying a real-world place with my animals is a good idea.

If you’re using animals in your stories, keep in mind where they are from.  Use generic animals (eagle) rather than specific species (Bald Eagle) when possible, and if you want to use something specific, there are many animals with wide ranges that won’t restrict you to a certain place.  The biggest message here is to do your research!  Putting in the right animals builds your scene, while the wrong ones can throw a reader out of the story.

A Torch? Or a Flashlight?

I’ve been watching The Life of Mammals, a BBC mini-series by David Attenborough.  I started with The Life of Birds, which is also what David started with, and now I’m almost done with the mammals.  Life in the Undergrowth, about invertebrates, is next, but I’ll have to wait until it’s available streaming from Netflix.  (That’s how I’ve watched the other two.)

As it is a British documentary and I am American, there are occasionally fun word moments.  The two that struck me tonight were his pronunciation of “sloth” (slowth instead of the slawth) and his referring to a flashlight as a torch.  My sister had some interesting stories about different terms when she came back from England.  I find it very interesting that two versions of English can have such a variety of terms and pronunciations.

There are tells in books, too.  If there’s a “u” in color or favorite, than the book was probably written and published in the UK.  If that’s the case, and a character is carrying a torch, there’s a good chance that it’s battery-powered.  🙂

Fun with Jargon

Every profession has its share of jargon.  These are words that are used by people in the field that outsiders probably won’t understand.  They are words from many sources: product names, acronyms, even words that are being used in a totally different context.  It isn’t even just professions that have jargon; hobbies have them, too!  If you don’t knit, you probably won’t understand if I tell you I “frogged” a project.

Today it’s time for Fun with Jargon.  I want to hear your favorite jargon.  If you’re a nice person, you’ll define it for us, but at least tell us the context so we can find it ourselves.  Below are some of my favorite jargon terms:

Tinking – slowly taking stitches out by un-knitting them.  (TINK is KNIT backwards…)

Clicker – I am obsessed by TV, but this isn’t your remote.  It’s a little plastic and metal contraption that makes a clicking sound, and it is used as a bridge in animal training.  And that leads to…

Bridge – this is something (typically a sound) used to tell an animal that it did something right and a reward is coming.  Learning the exact moment to bridge an animal is one of the trickiest bits of training for many people.

GISS – a naughty-sounding bit of birding jargon, this means “General Impression of Size and Shape” and it refers to the first impression you get from a bird before you identify it.

Fallout – another fun birding term.  This one refers to the rare moments when huge flocks of migrating songbirds will literally “fall out” of the sky.  It usually happens along the coast, after birds have been flying into a headwind crossing the Gulf of Mexico.  (One of the common places to hear this word is at High Island, Texas.)

And, of course, a writing one:  Slushpile – the collection of unsolicited query letters and manuscripts received by a publisher.

Now it’s your turn!!

Separation Anxiety

And now, because I can, a moment of reflection on my dog…

Eli is a sweet dog.  It is usually relatively easy to get someone to watch him while I am gone, as he is a generally well-mannered, laid back dog.  If a dog can be low-maintenance, Eli fits that description.

He has one odd behavior: his separation anxiety.

Forget what you are thinking when you hear that phrase.  He does not destroy my house when I am at work, or pee on things, or generally show any major stress behaviors.  No, Eli is simply heartbroken whenever anyone leaves, and shares that loudly and with everyone.

When someone leaves the house, even if the dog was afraid of them, even if they were only here for a few minutes, even if it we are at someone else’s house, Eli whines and moans and makes everyone feel bad!  It’s hard to describe unless you’ve heard it, but it is an incredibly sad sound.

The one thing that fixes this is if he is in his crate.  I crate him when I’m at work, and he’s figured out that if he goes in it, someone has to come let him out again.  He’ll whine a little if I take too long leaving, wanting me to let him out again, but the lament for a person leaving is not heard.

He’s a good dog, but a strange one.

Lots of Interests, One Focus

Reading and writing have always been interesting to me.  I created stories as a child, read voraciously, and started writing poems and fiction in junior high.  Completing novels and attempting to get published are relatively new interests for me, though.  As a kid I enjoyed many things but had only one focus: animals.

An interest in animals grew into an interest in biology, so my science nerd personality totally fits.  Now that I’ve become successful thanks to my dedication (or is obsession a better word) to my animal focus, I’ve realized that there are many other things I enjoy that I could have pursued.  If I hadn’t been obsessed with animals, of course.

Beyond writing, with which I have a long-developed relationship, I’ve found a few other interests.  If it had been encouraged of me as a kid, I might have made a good forensic scientist.  I loved dance in high school and college, and while I was never good enough to perform professionally, with a little more training I could have taught and choreographed.  And I’m re-reading Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language and I’m having a bit of deja vu as I realize that linguistics could easily have held my attention as well.

It’s fun to think about what might have been.  I do love my job, though, so my early focus hasn’t harmed me too badly.

A Strange Ad Campaign

I went on a road trip to visit family during part of my time off, and I saw a series of strange billboards in Missouri.  In a pale imitation of my friends at Interpretation by Design, I want to share these signs with you.  They had outdoors-type people (one had a couple of hikers, another had some folks with fishing poles) and the sign said in big letters “We Promise Missouri” followed, in smaller font, with “we won’t move firewood.”

Apparently Illinois needs this message, too. The image is from the listed website.

This seems like a strange message.  My first thought, when I saw one, was that it was a series of “good neighbor” type ads.  You know, don’t move firewood, pack out my trash, or any of a variety of outdoors-related etiquette.  (Although on reflection, moving firewood seems like a low-priority behavior change.)

When I saw a second one with the same wording, I got kind of curious, enough that I started wondering who I could ask about said signs.  On the third one I noticed a website in small (for a billboard) type near the bottom.  www.stopthebeetle.info.

I went to this site and discovered that several states have this message.  It is to help prevent the spread of an invasive insect pest called the Emerald Ash Borer.  Invasive species are a big issue for me, so I can appreciate this concept.  It seems that the billboards may be a little off, though.  Somehow the background information for the concept needs to be introduced – perhaps this is something that I didn’t experience (like TV or radio ads) since I don’t live in the affected area.

I doubt that most people are weird enough to look up the website just because of the billboards, though.

Please Use the Right Word

There are many incorrect terms that are in common use in our language, and most of them don’t bother me.  For example, there are specific criteria that define a “bug,” that make an animal a true bug.  Not all insects are bugs.  Ladybugs?  Nope, technically a beetle.  Lightning bugs?   Also technically a beetle.  Assassin bugs and stink bugs are true bugs.  This incorrect usage is common; more importantly, it doesn’t bother me.

There are three common incorrect terms that really do bother me.  Today I am going to share them with you.  One proves that I am a science nerd, another that I am a bird nerd, and the third simply proves that I am a nerd in general.

Let’s start with a simple one: buzzard or vulture?  That big, bald-headed bird that eats dead stuff is correctly called a vulture.  In the rest of the English-speaking world, a buzzard is a type of hawk, not a vulture.  Buzzard is not only an inaccurate term for the bird, but a very misleading one.

Vulture on the left, Buzzard on the right. See? They are very different.

The next one is really science-nerdy, so consider yourself warned.  Picture a cartoon with a character leaning his head on a textbook.  He says, “I’m learning through osmosis.”  This bothers me immensely!  The correct word is diffusion, because diffusion is the movement of any molecule across a membrane.  Osmosis refers specifically to the diffusion of water.  So unless our cartoon friend is getting hydration from his book, he should use the word diffusion instead.

The third one is writing-related, and it has to do with weaponry.  What do you call the weapon that is a ball on a chain attached to a club or stick?  If you said flail, you are correct.  If you said mace, you’ve hit my third pet peeve.  A mace is a stick with a metal-reinforced end.  If there is anything that can swing involved, it’s a flail.

So now you know three ways to be more accurate in your writing and your everyday speech.  I thank you in advance for using the right words.  What incorrect terminology bothers you the most?

Hi, Max!

I am working on a new behavior with my parrot.  Recently he’s started saying “hi” a lot, and I’ve decided that I want to capture that behavior on cue.  (Yes, this post is related to writing – bear with me.)

For those of you who are not animal trainers, capturing a behavior on cue simply means getting the bird to say the word when I ask for it.

The process is relatively simple, and Max and I have done it before with his “meow” sound.  First, anytime he says the word and I hear it, I enthusiastically reply with the cue.  In this case, it’s “Hi, Max!”  He figures out pretty quickly which sounds get a response from me; as a response is his goal, he’ll start offering those sounds more often.  (Consider this a warning to any other parrot owners out there – if there is a loud or irritating sound that your bird makes, don’t react in any way or you will hear it more and more often!  Yes, I have made this mistake, too.)  I’ve been saying “Hi Max!” a lot lately.

The big trick is to switch it, so the sound comes in response to the cue instead of the other way around.  Today I got Max to say “Hi” in response to “Hi, Max” twice, which is a step in the right direction.  Both times I made a much bigger deal about it than it was, so Max would know that I was pleased and he did the right thing.  Now it’s just a matter of practice to get it consistent.

Okay, so I know you are all thinking “What does training your parrot have to do with writing?”

Simple.  Training techniques work on humans, too.

One of the things that many people ask me about and other writers complain about is getting your brain to be creative when you want it to be.  The advice that many authors will give is to write at the same time every day, and this is an excellent idea which I try to embrace.  There is also a way to use positive reinforcement training (similar to my parrot’s training) to get yourself to write.

Set up small goals for yourself.  I’ve done this: post a blog every day, write a few chapters every week, and so on.  Then create a reward system.  I depend on others for my reinforcement, but you don’t have to if you have a better reward.  My reward system is two-fold: continuing readership and comments are my reward for my blog posts, and the reaction of my First Readers is my reinforcement for writing chapters.  Even with those big rewards, I use small ones, too.  If I have a day where writing is the last thing I want to do, I’ll set up a reward.  For example: complete one of the unfinished chapters (or whatever the goal is for the day) and then you can read (or whatever it is I’d really rather be doing).  While it is less useful on my diet, I will also use food rewards (which I recommend for animal training as well).  Write and then you can have candy/ice cream/lunch, etc.

I always say that a good animal trainer has the skills necessary to be a good people trainer.  That applies to yourself as well as other humans.  🙂

Want to learn more about positive reinforcement training for animals and people?  I recommend Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor.

Previous Older Entries