Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Metaphors and Similes: The Bane of My Existence

I don't know about you, but I've always had a problem with metaphors and similes. First, telling the difference between them, and then coming up with imaginative ones to make my writing pop.
Why are metaphors and similes so important? According to Aristotle, figurative language can lend "metaphorical life to lifeless objects." And isn't that what we, as writers long to do, create something from nothing, make readers believe the truth of our story and our characters' story world? Make things come alive so that the reader can shout "Yes, that's right; that's exactly how it looks! That's exactly how I feel! I can identify with that!"
Aristotle said language should be appropriate in "sound and sense" and make the audience see things by using expressions that represent things in a state of activity. In other words, not just create word pictures, but moving pictures.
Here's the difference between a metaphor and a simile.
Simile: uses like or as (I try to remember the "s" in simile as referring to the "s" in the word "as". If you have a better way, let me know).
Example: "Your hair is like a river."
Metaphor: "Your hair is a dark river."
My next problem: How do you think of creative similes and metaphors? The simplest way and one that helped me is to ask: "What does this object remind you of?" Do the clouds remind you of gum drops? Do fireworks look like shimmering fairy dust? I just finished reading Sandra Brown's "Chill Factor", a wonderful book I recommend. She describes a face that looked like wild dogs had been gnawing on it and a falling power line tower as resembling a landing spacecraft with red warning lights flashing.
Here are some other ways that can help (From a marvelous book called "Word Painting" by Rebecca McClanahan):
1. Create your own "Constellation of Images" based on an event in your life. For example, the author lost her twin sister and found her writing laced with images pertaining to that loss--like sidekicks, twins, doubles, rubber dolls.
2. Play mind games with common objects like a colander, an egg beater, or chopsticks. The chopsticks could look like drumsticks or oars to you.
3. Spend time with children and watch how they create things from unusual sources: forts from Popsicle sticks, swords or riding horses form broomsticks.
4. Read a lot of poetry rich with metaphorical images.

If you have other ways for creating colorful metaphors and similes, let me know. I would love to hear them!

Next week: Keeping Track of your Plot Ideas

Monday, May 23, 2011


When a Good Plot Idea Goes Bad

A good ending is like, dare I say it, an orgasm, that perfect moment when everything in a book comes together in a perfect explosion of understanding, satisfaction and enlightenment. The ahhh moment. Am I wrong in wanting more from a story's ending--kapow--something I never saw coming, gripping and mind-blowing, a sudden burst of energy when everything becomes clear? Here are some good plot ideas gone bad: (Warning, contains plot spoilers. If you'd like to watch these movies and do not want to know how they end, please stop reading now!)

Mister Buddwing: This movie, starring James Garner (book by Evan Hunter) is the story of a man wandering around New York with amnesia (I always love amnesia stories). He thinks he may be an escaped mental patient and he meets three women who may help him unravel the truth. Unfortunately the ending is a clunker. After all this mystery and stunning intrigue, which frankly left me riveted, it turns out he only blocked out an accident involving his wife. Ugh, big letdown.
Deadly Encounter: A Lifetime Channel movie where a woman is involved in a road rage incident because a man is angry with her for cutting her off. Afterward, she receives threatening calls, is stalked, her mother is severely injured in a car accident and her son is kidnapped. Another clunker ending: after a deadly confrontation with her armed attacker in a deserted quarry, the man explains the reason for his rage: "You cut me off!" he shouts. So it's only because of the road rage, no surprise. I was expecting so much more.

Better Endings, Better Plots:

Mirage: Great amnesiac movie (one of my favorites) starring Gregory Peck as a man with amnesia in New York in lovely sixties black and white. His life is threatened and he is stalked because of what he knows. A woman claiming to be his former girlfriend feeds him tantalizing clues. More mystery surrounds the death of a big industrialist who has fallen from a high-rise building. Turns out Peck is really a chemist who has invented the formula for a perfect bomb--one that produces no fallout. He wanted the formula destroyed because it would make war too easy and munitions companies rich while his boss (the industrialist) did not. The irony is that the industrialist was also the head of a renowned peace foundation and Peck was responsible for accidentally causing his fall from the building because the man was reaching out for a copy of the formula Peck was trying to burn. Great ending, great irony.
Unknown: Another excellent amnesiac movie starring Liam Neeson as a doctor attending a biotechnology conference in Berlin with his wife. When he realizes he left his briefcase behind in a cab, he tries to retrieve it, but winds up getting involved in a car accident and is in a coma for four days. When he returns to the hotel, his wife does not recognize him and she is seemingly married to another man, who has assumed his identity. Once again, his life is threatened and he is stalked. In reality, he and his wife and the other man are really assassins supposedly sent to kill a Saudi prince. But there's another surprise, the target is actually a scientist who has discovered a new breed of corn with the ability to survive in any climate, easing the world's food supply problem. Once again, surprise and irony apparent in the fact that he thought he was a doctor, but in reality was a cold-blooded assassin.

While reading Writing Suspense and Mystery Fiction,I learned that Sherlock Holmes wrote stories that had surprises in them, but Edgar Allen Poe wrote stories that contained both surprise and irony. So really good endings should have both as well as providing the reader with that big kapow they were waiting for.

Next week: Metaphors and Similes, the Bane of My Existence

Monday, May 16, 2011

Secret Couriers, Secret Codes

The Six Unsolvable Ciphers

With the recent capture of the world's most wanted terrorist, a lot has been said about the importance of couriers. In my upcoming political thriller The Time of the Eleven, codes and couriers also play a substantial role. In ancient Greece, couriers had their heads shaved and secret messages written on their scalps. When the hair had grown back, the courier was sent on his way. After arriving at the destination, the messenger would shave his head to reveal the hidden message. When a more secure form of delivering messages was needed, (as well as a speedier one) the science of cryptography was born.

Derived from the Greek word Kryptos, meaning hidden, the purpose of cryptography is not to hide the existence of a message, but to hide its meaning, in other words, to scramble it. Hiding an already coded message is called Steganography, meaning covered writing. Invisible ink and microdots are examples. Today secret messages can even be hidden inside tiny pixels on a computer.

From the cipher of Mary, Queen of Scots, (the discovery of which led to her death) to the Zimmerman telegram during World War I and the Enigma machine during World War II, codes have been used extensively during wartime as a means of transmitting top-secret information. However, these codes have been solved. The ones listed below have not.

Kryptos--a large sculpture located in the courtyard of CIA headquarters in Virginia. Hidden from the public, the code on this sculpture is written in four parts. Three parts have been solved, but the last ninety-eight characters remain a mystery. The creator of the sculpture has been asked whether the rest of the code refers to something buried on the CIA grounds, but has declined to answer. Dan Brown made reference to this in the Lost Symbol.

The Voynich Manuscript--A rare book dealer bought this strange manuscript in 1961. Lacking a title and unsigned, the book is filled with eerie full color plates, strange symbols that do not match any known language and may be at least 400 years old. Now in the possession of Yale University, it can only be viewed under strict supervision and is valued at millions of dollars. This is the world's oldest and longest unsolved public cipher. Read Brett King's The Radix for a fictional account.

Shugborough--the Shepherd's Monument--The text is only ten letters long and is found in the gardens of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England, engraved on a stone monument, commissioned in 1748. The code is as follows: O.U.O.S.V.A.V.V. and beneath that, the letters "D" and "M" are written. Above the inscription is a carved marble relief of a painting: Les Bergers d'Arcadie II.

The Beale Papers--Anyone who solves this code will find a huge treasure trove hidden in Virginia--over 2,921 pounds of gold and 5,100 pounds of silver, worth over thirty million dollars today. The three ciphers consist of a series of numbers. Only the second cipher has been broken using a book code, where specific pages, words and letters on a page are each given a numerical value. A very famous text was used to solve a portion of this cipher. Think National Treasure. I also used the idea of the Beale papers in my book The Secret Sentinel.

Dorabella Cipher--a coded letter written by the famous British composer Edward Elgar to Dora Penny, dated July 1897. Consisting of eighty-seven characters over three lines, the code could be based on a twenty-four symbol alphabet or may even be more complex. Elgar, best known as the composer of Pomp and Circumstance, was interested in ciphers. The note lay in a diary for forty years and has never been solved. It may have contained sentiments of affection from an older man to a much younger woman. Romance authors, take note!

The Zodiac Killer's Code--The Zodiac serial killer operated in northern California in the late 60's and early 70's. His identity remains unknown. He sent a series of letters to Bay area newspapers, which included four cryptograms. Only one was ever solved. The code utilized a strange mixture of English capital letters, plus other symbols (the inverted V and the V filled in). In all, the killer used sixty-five symbols. It's suspected that the remaining three ciphers could have been written by someone obsessed with the case, rather than the killer.

Does anyone know what the picture above represents?
(Thanks to the wonderful book The Six Unsolved Ciphers by Richard Belfield)

Next Week: Plot Wreckers: When a Good Plot Idea Goes Bad

Monday, May 9, 2011

Top 5 Amazing Lost Treasures

5. The Treasure of the Pharaohs--Herihor, a high court official during the reign of Ramses XI, placed himself in charge of reburial proceedings at the Valley of the Kings after Ramses' death. This gave him an opportunity to pilfer treasure troves on a grand scale. Fate: Herihor's tomb has never been found. If it is ever located, historians believe many missing treasures of Egypt's pharaohs will finally see the light of day. For decades, mummies, pharaohs, and lost gold have been mega-hits, both at the box office and book stores.

4. Lost Inca Gold--The Spanish commander Francisco Pizarro captured an Incan King called Atahualpa. Pizarro promised to release him in exchange for a large amount of gold. The Incan people collected the gold and delivered half to Pizarro, but before the remainder could be delivered, Pizarro had the king killed. Fate: Many believe the king's followers buried the treasure in a mountain cave. In 1886 Barth Blake claimed he found the treasure, describing "golden vases full of emeralds" and giant gold statues. However, Blake died at sea before he could arrange an expedition to the site and no one has been able to locate it since. Remember Clive Cussler's "Inca Gold?" A real life account of the search for lost Inca gold can be found in "Valverde's Gold," written by Mark Honigsbaum.

3. The Ark of the Covenant--Described in the Bible as a vessel containing the Tablets of Stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed, along with Aaron's rod and manna. One recent study suggests the Ark represented man's first harnessing of electricity. Accounts of people dying after touching the Ark are consistent with high voltage (Remember Indiana Jones?) Fate: In the year 600 BC, Jerusalem was attacked and conquered by the Babylonians. When the Israelites reclaimed Jerusalem, the Ark was gone, possibly destroyed by the Babylonians, but some believe God reclaimed it. Indiana Jones loved this theme!

2. El Dorado--The legendary "Lost City of Gold." is actually the name of a tribal chief who covered himself with gold dust as an initiation rite and then dove into a highland lake. El Dorado became the city of this legendary king. Francisco Pizarro's half-brother, Gonzalo, would depart 1541 in an expedition towards the Amazon, which ended in disaster, with many dying from hunger, disease and attacks from hostile natives. Fate: Though many have searched for years to find the "Lost City of Gold," nothing has ever been found. In the movie and book, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls," El Dorado is actually the location of the hidden skulls.

1. King Solomon's Treasure--Sacred artifacts looted by the Romans from the Temple of Jerusalem,including silver trumpets heralding the Coming of the Messiah, golden candelabra, and the bejeweled Table of the Divine Presence. These were among pieces shipped to Rome after the looting in AD 70. Fate: Though long suspected of being hidden in the vaults of the Vatican, archeologists now believe the treasure that left Rome may have been taken to Carthage, Constantinople, and then Algeria before being hidden in the Judean wilderness, beneath the Monastery of Theodosius. "King Solomon's Mines," a famous book about the lost treasure, is only one of many written about this fantastic missing treasure trove.

Next week: The Six Codes No One Can Solve!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Amazing Treasures-More Great Fodder for Fiction

Fascinating tales of lost gold and treasures beyond belief, amazing expeditions, daring adventurers. Writers have used these real-life treasure hunts as the basis of their stories for decades.

1. The Amber Room--Dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," this eleven foot square hall consisted of large wall panels inlaid with several tons of amber, large gold-leaf-edged mirrors and four Florentine mosaics. Inlaid with precious jewels, the room was created for Prussia's King Friedrich I and given to Russian czar Peter the Great in 1716. Located at Catherine Palace, near St. Petersburg, Russia, it is valued at over 142 million today. Fate: Taken by the Nazis to Konigsberg Castle during World War II, but missing at the end of the war. Speculation: Russians destroyed the Amber Room when they bombarded the castle. Or it could have been buried in a bunker somewhere. Novelist Steve Berry penned a hit novel about this one.

2. The Lost City of Atlantis--According to the Greeks, Atlantis was a highly advanced island society that supposedly sank into the sea in 9600 BC. Philosophers say Atlantis was greater in extent than Libya and Asia, with luxurious palaces, abundant gold and silver and the best soil and climate in the world. However, Plato wrote that the people of Atlantis were defeated in war by other tribes and then disaster struck, destroying the island, perhaps by earthquakes and floods. Fate: Possible location 620 miles off the northwest coast of Africa near the Canary Islands. No treasure has ever been uncovered. Too many popular books and movies on the Atlantis theme to mention!

3. Blackbeard's Treasure--Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard the pirate, plundered the high seas for only two years (1716-1718) but managed to amass a great deal of wealth, pouncing on Spanish treasure ships returning from Mexico and South America. Fate: Researchers believe they have found the wreckage of Blackbeard's ship "Queen Anne's Revenge," in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Thought to have run aground near South Carolina, the wreck contained gold dust, apothecary weights, a mortar and pestle, and many other artifacts. However, the pirate may have transferred the treasure to another ship before his own vessel sank and none of his booty has ever been found, despite many searches in the Caribbean and the Cayman Islands. Remember "Pirates of the Caribbean?" Or what about "Treasure Island?" Some say Jack Sparrow is really Blackbeard!

4. Montezuma's Gold--Legends abound that after Montezuma was killed in the 1500's and the Spanish were driven from the Aztec capital, the Aztec people took Montezuma's treasure and hid it from the Spaniards. Fate: Some believe the treasure was hidden underneath mud and sludge on the outskirts of Mexico City. A former Mexican president even had a lake bed dredged, but found nothing. Other suspected hiding places include Guatemala and even Kanab, Utah! Read my book "The Montezuma Secret" to find out where I hid it!

5. Oak Island Treasure--Oak Island, on the south shore of Nova Scotia, Canada, is believed to hold a variety of missing treasures: the gold of Captain Kidd, Marie Antoinette's jewels, even the Holy Grail of the Knights Templar! Fate: After 200 years of searching, nothing has been found. Oak Island has often been called the "Money Pit," because archeologists found a deep pit 31 meters down, and layers of logs, along with a large stone inscribed with symbols deciphered to mean "Forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried." However, the pit is described as a natural phenomenon of the islands, similar to a sinkhole. Novelists Preston and Child wrote "Riptide" about the mysterious Money Pit.

Next week: More Lost Treasures!