10 Things About Hurricanes

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

While both of my children have recently battled sick tummies, leaving me to feel like I should wear a poncho around the house, I promise that isn’t what inspired this post. Though it is one of the reasons the blog has been a little quiet for the last week or so.

I have several family members and quite a few friends who live in different parts of Florida. My sister and several childhood friends live in the panhandle and are battening down the hatches if they didn’t get a chance to evacuate.

Whenever a dangerous storm makes landfall and leaves a wake of devastation and flood waters, I hear at least one person ask “Why didn’t they evacuate?” What that tells me is that this person has very little experience, if any, with hurricanes. And if you’re a writer, you might need to know a little something about it for a story someday. Or maybe just because you’re curious. Either way, board up the windows and move to the high ground. Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know About Hurricanes.

  1. There is a difference between a recommended/voluntary evacuation and a mandatory evacuation. And if evacuation isn’t mandatory (and in some specific cases even if it is) if you don’t have vacation time, you risk losing your job for not showing up to work.
  2. Not everyone has somewhere to go. And if you can’t afford a hotel or the gas to travel to one far enough away, evacuation is difficult. Most government organizations suggest having a plan in place in which you can call on family or friends for help, especially if you don’t have a vehicle of your own, but not everyone has that option.
  3. Some emergency personnel must stay to help with the evacuation efforts, help run storm shelters, hospitals, etc. My sister is a nurse who is in the path of Michael. She is on-call during the storm and while everyone else is evacuating, she’s making sure the storm shelters are fully stocked with emergency medical supplies.
  4. When people start evacuating, a common obstacle is filling up your gas tank. The lines to get to a pump at your local gas station are going to get long very quickly. And if the station runs out of gas, there likely won’t be a petroleum truck coming to restock it before the storm arrives.
  5. If you live on an island, evacuation may be hindered by the wind. Wind gusts of dangerous speeds could mean bridges close down long before the storm arrives.
  6. This type of storm is called a hurricane in the Atlantic. In the North Pacific, it might be called a hurricane or a typhoon. In the South Pacific and in the Indian Oceans they are more commonly called cyclones. A rose by any other name.
  7. Hurricanes rotate clockwise on one side of the equator, but counter-clockwise on the other.
  8. One of the more dangerous parts of a hurricane is the “storm surge”. That means that those high-powered winds are actually pushing water towards the shore causing high waves and flooding. Hurricane Katrina produced the highest storm surge on record at 27.8 feet.
  9. The eye of the storm has no rain and no clouds. It is the center of the storm and it is the point around which the rest of the storm rotates. And this is a scary place to be because what follows the eye is the “eye wall”. It is the most dangerous part of the storm with the heaviest rains, darkest clouds, and strongest winds.
  10. Hurricanes are given names in alphabetical order each season and a name must wait a minimum of six years to be used again. If the storm gets particularly bad, the name may be retired.

And just in case you need more, I’ll throw in this tidbit: the largest hurricane by diameter was Typhoon Tip in 1979. At its strongest, the storm was 1,380 miles in diameter. That might not help you in a story, but it’s pretty impressive. Note: The name Tip has not yet been retired and there have been two more since 1979.

Please keep those in the path of Hurricane Michael in your thoughts and prayers. And if the storm has cut short your plans for Fall Break, please be considerate of those whose full-time homes are in danger as you complain about returning early to yours.

Banned Books Week

I didn’t know there was a specific week to celebrate banned books until my local library posted about it on social media. I think it’s marvelous.

Until I was a senior in high school, I thought banning books was something that happened in other countries. Less developed countries. Less democratic countries. Not the United States. Where I lived, even when the local helicopter moms got hot and bothered about Harry Potter books, the rest of the PTA rolled their eyes and out-voted them.

But when I was in twelfth grade, I took a Southern Literature class. My teacher, who was amazing, gave us an unusual assignment. She passed out a list of the most often banned and challenged books in America and made us choose one to read and report back to the class. I had heard of all the books on the list, and had already read several, but had not realized that they weren’t carried in our school library. Our local public library had most of them. I went to the local bookstore and, as was my habit, spent a lot of time examining the book flaps and blurbs of the ones I had narrowed it down to before choosing one. I probably would have bought more, but back then my book budget was even smaller than it is now.

Part of our report had to include why the book had ever been challenged and then we had to discuss whether we agreed with the censorship of it or not. One by one, each of us vehemently disagreed with the banning of the books, regardless of whether or not it portrayed ideals different from our own. Because banning a book doesn’t change the fact that someone thinks or feels that way. And if we aren’t willing to even read a book written by someone who thinks differently than we do, then we are confining ourselves to a very small worldview.

I sometimes wonder if everyone in my class back then would still agree with that sentiment today. I hope so.

So let’s all celebrate Banned Books Week and read something controversial. Something rebellious. Something contradictory to our views or opinions.

I am reminded of a quote that is often wrongly attributed to Voltaire, but is actually from Evelyn Beatrice Hall (writing as S. G. Tallentyre) and meant to describe Voltaire’s attitude. It seems a fitting end to this post, so I’ll leave you with these words. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

10 Things About Team Mascots

I love sports. Not only am I riveted by the competition and strategy, but I enjoy the ice-breaker that sports often provide. Whenever I’m far from home and begin to feel isolated, sports have always found a way of making me feel connected again.

When I traveled to Europe for the first time, I was fourteen. I traveled with an educational tour group and the only person I knew at the start of the trip was the chaperone from my school. I can be a bit awkward socially, so this was a recipe for disaster. But early in the trip, I wore a t-shirt bearing the logo of my favorite sports team and someone from another school started a conversation with me about it. I was no longer alone.

When I got an internship in New York City in college, I had no idea where to even look for housing. I had a very small stipend to live on and, as you might guess, things are expensive in the Big Apple. My options were limited. Until I found someone from my alma mater, a fellow Bulldog, who had a loft to rent.

Those are just two of a plethora of stories I can share about how sports connected me to someone. In fact, the first time I met my husband he was the referee for my game. Though, to be fair that meeting did not go well and, thankfully, we met again under other circumstances a few months later.

My point is sports are about more than rules and uniforms. Wherever there are sports, there will be a fandom. Wherever there is a fandom, there will be people that fandom connects, for better or worse. So why deny that to your characters? Build them a world in which they can connect through sports. Give them a common ground. An ice-breaker. Or, if necessary, a jumping off point for their animosity. Because that can happen too.

And if you need a bit of inspiration to build your athletic world around, maybe I can help. I am, after all, more than a sports fan. I’m a nerd. Trivia is my jam. And since school is back in session, let’s talk about school mascots.

  1. The term mascot is actually derived from a French word meaning talisman or lucky charm.
  2. Mascots can and in some cases should change. Many schools have voted to change mascots for a number of different reasons over the years. Common reasons include lack of fan support and/or a racist connotation.
  3. The on-field mascot, meaning the human in costume, might change more often than the mascot itself. Two examples: 1 – Ole Miss is officially the Rebels, but their on-field mascot of Colonel Reb was offensive in his design because he looked like a Civil War Confederate. They have changed their on-field mascot a couple of times in the last few years trying to find something that both resonates with the fan base and is less controversial. 2 – At Stanford, each year the students get to redesign the Cardinal (the tree) on-field mascot to their liking. The school has not had an official mascot since 1972 when they voted to stop being the “Indians” out of respect for cultural issues. The school is simply represented by cardinal (the color).
  4. Sometimes schools don’t actually pick their own mascots. A single line from a sports reporter can sometimes stick. Such is the case for my own Mississippi State Bulldogs. Originally Mississippi A&M, the university was first called the Maroons for the color of their uniforms, and then the Aggies because it has a large agricultural school. But in 1905 a sports reporter wrote about the tireless efforts of our “bulldog defense” and the name stuck. And now Bully is a treasured member of the MSU family. In fact, when the first Bully (Bully I) died, his funeral procession was a half-mile long and included the Famous Maroon Band and three ROTC battalions. He was buried under the bench at the fifty-yard line of the football field. The funeral was covered by LIFE magazine.

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    There have now been twenty-one dogs who have played the role of  Bully. 
  5. And sometimes a school can end up with more than one mascot when nicknames or images stick. The University of Alabama earned the official nickname of the Crimson Tide when a reporter in 1907 described how the offense, in their deep red jerseys, rolled down the field like a crimson tide. However, on the sidelines today, and on their logo, you will also see an elephant named Big Al. This stems from another incident in which the Offensive-line was said to be like a herd of elephants as they stampeded over their opponent (in this particular case it was Ole Miss and has led to a rivalry across state lines between the schools).
  6. The mascot and the battle cry are also different. Auburn University is a good example of this. Auburn’s mascot is a tiger named Aubie. However, many people confuse their battle cry-“War Eagle”-with their mascot. The battle cry is separate and there are many different stories about its origin, but the most popular is from a game against Georgia in which an Eagle that had been found wounded on a Civil War battlefield and restored to health escaped its caretaker and swooped over the team. The fans began pointing and calling out “War Eagle” after which the Tigers won the game. The battle cry remains popular to this day.
  7. Not every team at a school shares the same mascot. Long Beach State is officially known as the 49ers. However, their baseball team is the Long Beach State Dirtbags. Why? Because in 1989 their sub-par baseball team got a new coach who would make them practice on a local all-dirt field that was nicknamed “Dirtbag Field”. They practiced extra hours and ended up with a berth in the College World Series. The nickname is meant to represent the scrappy effort of the team in those days and is proudly claimed today by the baseball team, but no other team at Long Beach State.
  8. Sometimes a mascot is about owning and reclaiming a disparaging nickname. Teams at Delta State University in Mississippi, for instance, were officially the Statesmen while being mocked by those around them as “The Fighting Okra” because of their location in a heavily agricultural area, among other things. Today, you can find Fighting Okra merchandise at Delta State because they have decided to bear the name with pride.
  9. Mascots don’t have to be real things. For instance, there is no such thing as a Nittany Lion. Penn State made it up. And they aren’t alone. Virginia Tech uses “Hokies” as their mascot. It stems from a filler word in a school cheer from 1899 because they decided they didn’t want to be “The Gobblers” anymore. It doesn’t stop either fan base from loving their school.
  10. When a team has an on-field mascot (not all of them do), that mascot is often portrayed by more than one person. It’s often a small team of three or four people and each of them has to try-out with a routine before earning a spot on the team. This is, of course, not true at every school, but for many of them. A lot of the costumes get very hot and cannot be worn by a single person for the duration of a football game without risk of overheating.

Part of me really wants to keep going, but this is only a “10 Things” post and my geek is showing. So that’s it for this month, but I’ll be back with more trivia in October!

Living that Curly Life

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Not everyone has straight hair. And not all curly hair is created equal. Yet, the vast majority of book characters (in books that I’ve read) have straight hair. If they have curls, they are often ” perfectly windblown” or some such nonsense.

Sigh.

Confession time. I have curly hair. More specifically, I have 2c/3a low porosity hair. For the majority of my life (**cough cough** three decades **cough cough**) I only let my hair be curly on days when I couldn’t bear to heat style it or couldn’t, for whatever reason, tame it into a ponytail. Even on my wedding day, my hair was carefully blown out straight and then curled with hot rollers.

Recently, thanks to some encouragement from my curly headed sister, I have embraced my curls. That means that I have had to start “unlearning” all of my bad hair habits. It also means I have to figure out how to care for my curls. It’s not as simple as it might seem. My hair actually gets curlier every week that I don’t try to straighten it, so I have to figure out how to handle it at each new stage of curliness too.

And so it hit me, almost every fictional depiction of characters with curls is complete nonsense.

First, there are a lot of different kinds of curls. From wavy all the way to coils and everything in between. And a person can have more than one type of curls at the same time.

Second, just because someone has hair that is naturally curly doesn’t mean they don’t have to work to style it. If you have a curly headed character on a long camping trip with no styling creams or gels, no satin pillowcases or head scarves, and no access to any kind of conditioner, those curls aren’t going to look the same anymore.

Third, if you have a character with curly hair and they go through some kind of makeover to become more attractive to a love interest, don’t straighten their hair. Curly hair is beautiful too.

I could go on, but at this point, I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t make a 10 Things post about curly hair at some point. I want to see more curly headed characters in fiction. And I want to see them depicted realistically.

If you are unsure, there is a wealth of videos on YouTube specifically dedicated to the care and styling of curly hair. Curly Penny. India Batson. Real life + Curly Girl. Hair Romance (her microphone is a hairbrush, which is just glorious). Joy Before Her. Bianca Renee Today. And those are just a few. Go down the rabbit hole.

Let your characters live their best life. The curly life.

A Matter of Distinction

A friend and I were talking about different books that we had started lately and decided to DNF. The premise of each book appealed to us, but we weren’t pulled in. We couldn’t immerse ourselves in the world the author created. After talking for a just a few moments, she said something about her book that was one of the main reasons she couldn’t connect. I realized it was the same reason that I couldn’t get on board with the one I was reading either. The character voices weren’t distinctive.

When I talk about character voices, I mean more than the way the character speaks in dialogue. It’s their attitude, air, personality. It’s their essence. If characters are distinctive enough, you could theoretically tell which one of them is “talking” without any kind of tag or beat.

Think about opening up a text from someone you know and immediately knowing, without needing to be told, that their significant other sent it from their phone. How did you know? The feel of it was all wrong. Your friend wouldn’t say it that way. But their partner would. That’s what character voice is.

Think about the music you listen to. If you heard a new song, just the first few bars before the lyrics begin, do you think you’d have a clue which of your favorites was performing? Perhaps. What if you read the lyrics. You might be able to figure it out. Because different artists/acts/bands do more than sound different. They feel different. Their voice is different.

So when you write characters, each of them should have a distinctive voice just like the people in your life. Even if there are similarities, no two people sound exactly the same. I have two sisters. They each look a bit like our mother in their own way. They shared a room growing up. They were taught the same idiomatic expressions. But they don’t say things the same way. When I answer the phone, I know which one of them is calling me without looking at the name on my phone. Even with similar tones and pitches to their voices, their “character voice” is very different.

Because this happens with real people, it needs to happen with fictional characters. Otherwise, each character comes off as a wooden copycat. Unless you’re writing a story about creepy Stepford clones, that shouldn’t happen. And if you’re writing a romance, character voices that sound too similar will seem like the main character is falling in love with himself/herself/themselves. And not just in a healthy self-esteem kind of way.

So when crafting characters, explore their personalities. What are their idiosyncrasies? Everyone has at least one. Do they use different idioms? Does everything they say have a passive-aggressive bite? Maybe they’re more direct? Do they say exactly what they are thinking, or do they expect everyone to hear what they aren’t saying? It will affect how you write their scenes. And it should. Characters should sound different because people are different.

Book Review: Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal

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Using glamour is an art form. A young lady must be very skilled to master the art of pulling folds of it from another plane and using it to create images and sounds in this one. And all well-bred young women are expected to be skilled. It is, after all, one of the “womanly arts”.

Jane is nearing the age of spinsterhood and has accepted her fate. Her gorgeous sister, Melody, can wrap men around her finger with very little effort, but Jane is not considered beautiful and feels awkward instead of flirtatious. But working glamour is where Jane shines. Everyone in the county knows of Jane’s particular skill and she is often called upon to entertain during parties.

It is at one such party that Jane meets a professional glamourist. Like all “womanly arts” such as painting and playing music, the paid professionals are actually all men. And Mr. Vincent is one of the most lauded glamourists in all England. But his haughty manner rankles Jane. She wants to learn more about his techniques, but his company tests her composure.

Jane would prefer to dodge the handsome but infuriating Mr. Vincent, but his work is exquisite and she is desperate to know more. As she studies his creations, she tests her own version of his technique. While testing one such technique, one that obscures her from view to anyone outside the fold of glamour, she overhears some distressing things regarding her sister and her latest suitor. Jane must use her skill and her wit to save the family from potential ruin because, in a world where illusions can be pulled from thin air, nothing is quite what it seems.

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This was billed as Jane Austen meets magic and I was sold. I found the series in a used bookstore in the Staff Picks display and bought the series. Jane Austen, magic, discount. That is a powerful combination, my dears. I was all in.

With hints of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and written in an alternate history where magic is quite literally an art form, this hooked me from the first chapter. Having said that, if you don’t like Jane Austen, historical fiction, or alternate histories, stop here. This book isn’t for you. If you are practically squealing with delight, carry on.

As always, let’s visit the high points first.

I like that this wasn’t a simple retelling. It definitely paid homage to specific Jane Austen tales, but it was not the exact same story plus magic. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I enjoyed that this was a little something new.

Jane isn’t beautiful. She knows it and everyone else does too. She is not one of those girls who thinks she’s plain when she’s secretly gorgeous. While not ugly, she isn’t pretty either, and no excuses are made for it. Once or twice she does wonder what it would be like if she were pretty like her sister, but she isn’t the type of character who dwells on it. Her talent with glamour earns her as much praise as her sister’s beauty, even if it feels a bit harder to come by.

She loves her sister, but she does get annoyed by her behavior. Jane is not a saint or a martyr. She hides her feelings behind a mask of propriety, but her ire–and the guilt over the ire–are there. As someone with two sisters, I appreciated that her love for her sister didn’t erase or negate other emotions. You’re allowed to love someone and not like them all the time. But I digress.

On the flipside of the coin, let’s look at the low points.

The magic system can be hard to follow. The rules are clear, but what the characters are actually doing can sometimes be difficult to picture. It is described using terms most often associated with laundry or linens (wraps, folds, sheets), bubbles, and ropes (braiding, knotting). I just had to roll with it at first until it started to make sense.

I have to grade using the same rubric for everyone, so I have to bring up diversity. There isn’t any. Although, I will point out that, having read all but the final book in the series now (I haven’t had time to read the last one, but I do have it), that the author does remedy that. She brings in new characters of different ethnicities and sexual orientations, though the latter is talked around as you would expect for characters living in the early 1800s. But in the first book, nada.

I found that to be true of most of my criticisms of each book. Whatever I found lacking in one book, the next book in the series seemed to address. It’s as if (I know it sounds crazy, but just hear me out) the author was learning from her mistakes and growing as a writer. What a concept. Let’s all try it.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I recommend the series, or at least books 1-4 since I haven’t actually read number five yet. Did you really think I was going to give it a thumbs down? Jane Austen with Magic! The only way this could have hooked me faster was if it had been set in outer space.

Your mileage may vary.

A Family Library

Earlier this summer, my younger child took his first steps. He’s one. It was a big moment. As every parent would be, I was beyond proud of this milestone. I took pictures. I called dad at work. I gave him a big hug and lots of mommy kisses. But I wasn’t the only one cheering him on.

Let me back up a little.

My older child is four years old. During the school year, he attends preschool twice a week. If he gets a good behavior report, I take him to the library as a reward. He loves it. There are toys, games, puzzles, and books. It’s an air-conditioned playground filled with magic and stories. Sometimes when the weather is nice we will also visit the city park’s playground. But his first request is the library.

All throughout my second pregnancy, I marched into the library with my older child and the librarians would give me knowing and sweet smiles when I was a tired, bedraggled mess. When I didn’t show up for a few weeks, but my older child made his appearance with alternating grandmothers, they commented that they couldn’t wait to meet our newest family member.

And then, for months, they let me break the “no food or drink” rule as I brought everything I needed to be prepared for feeding a hungry baby. Granted, it was usually just a bottle of water, but it’s still a rule and they still purposely ignored the fact that I was breaking it.

As he started crawling, the staff would each come to coo at him and cheer him on. And then one day, he did it. Right there in the library, with one of the librarians in the adjacent aisle. He walked. From the fire truck activity table to the bookshelf filled with toddler favorites. Three steps. His first.

Once again, I was allowed to break a rule. This time it was the “no cell phones” rule. I called my husband and in very excited but hushed tones told him that our little munchkin could walk. The librarian spread the word to the other staff members and by the time we made it to the circulation desk to check out my older son’s selection for the week, everyone knew. And they congratulated him (and me). And they asked to take his picture.

They got my permission to use that picture on the library blog. They didn’t tell me when exactly it would happen, but I gladly granted their request.

Well, now the day has come. It wasn’t just a happy moment to add to our library’s specific page. They made my son Patron of the Week for the entire regional system, which covers a lot of our state. The post points out that a library can be a place for a lot of firsts, “first library card, first storytime, first “a-ha” moment, and…your first steps.”

It is such a silly thing to be proud of and excited about, and yet I am. My son’s first “award” is (tangentially) related to books and my book nerd self is loving it. It’s sweet and fun. And it makes me feel more connected to my community in a way. The library staff isn’t just a group of smiling, kind faces that we see each week. They’re almost like extended family. They want to celebrate life’s big moments with us.

They noticed when my older son moved into the “I can read alone!” books. They cheered him on with gusto. And when my younger son started walking, they got out the camera and shared the news like proud grandparents. That’s special to me because my family lives several hours away. My husband has cousins a little over an hour down the road, but most of his family is more than a hop, skip, and a jump too. And it takes a village to raise a child. Knowing that we have people seeking to be a part of our village, at a time when it is easy to feel alone, is a blessing I can’t describe.

So don’t you ever tell me that books don’t bring people together. Because that post is right. The library can be a place for a lot of firsts, including the first time you realize that you’re home, you belong, and you’re a part of something bigger.