My Life This October: In Which I See a Broadway Show, Catch a Cold, and Start a New Book

Hello, everyone! It’s the last Saturday of the month, which means I’m summarizing my month here for you. October has been a pretty full month for me, what with studying and numerous exams and being sick for much of the month (see second item in the title), so I’ll just give some of the highlights.

Near the beginning of the month, I got to go to Boston to see a Broadway show, stay at a fancy hotel, and have dinner in a fancy restaurant thanks to the McNair Scholars Program, which I am a part of at UNH. (If you’re a qualifying college student, you’re interested in doing research, and your school has this program, DO IT. I’m going to do it next summer and I can already tell it’s going to be awesome.) The whole weekend was really fun. I’d never experienced Boston like that before; I’ve been a lot with my family to visit museums and stuff, but it was a totally new experience going with a group of students for a night out. It was a blast. I saw my first ever Broadway show (Jersey Boys), and it was really good apart from lots of language and innuendo which I didn’t appreciate so much. As a writer, though, I thought it was very well written, and even the language and stuff was probably pretty accurate to the characters. I really enjoyed the music, too.

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Not what my playbill looked like, but it gives you some idea.

Dinner was also really good. It was a sort of stir-fry place where you get all your ingredients yourself (they have pasta and burgers, too), and then watch the chefs cook it up on one of those big round grills. UNH actually has one at one of their dining halls, but it was cool to see it on a larger scale. The ice cream was also fabulous. And staying overnight in the fancy hotel was a lot of fun, too.

Unfortunately, the month took a turn for the worse the next week, when I caught a nasty virus, the current “UNH Plague.” As I’m writing this, I’ve had it almost three weeks. It’s getting better now, but for a while it was really messing things up for me–I got my first ever 59 on an exam partially because of it. (Granted, I was above class average on this exam, because it was too long and everyone found it really hard, but still . . . a 59. . . .) But life goes on, viruses or not. And since I’m taking organic chemistry, the labels on medications are a lot more interesting now, even if I don’t actually fully understand what they say.

And somewhere near the beginning of this month (or the end of last month–I can’t remember which), I finished outlining as much as I felt I could at the moment and finally let myself jump into drafting Circle of Fire! It feels so, so good. First drafts are kind of my writing happy-place because that’s what I’ve done most and therefore what I do best. (I’ve gotten really good about letting my writing suck, haha.) It’s so nice to just have a creative release of words again. It’s also interesting to write in a different genre than usual; CoF is difficult to define as one genre, but I’d say it’s mostly thriller with fantasy elements. For age range, I might place it as older YA or cleaned-up NA, new adult, something I’ve never done before. I think that’s all I’ll tell you for now, but I’m going to keep doing Beautiful People posts for CoF characters, so if you’re interested, you can get little tidbits from those.

As far as life in general, school goes on. Week 10 of the semester has just finished, and we march on steadily toward finals week. I have eight more exams between now and then . . . I just have a lot of exams this semester (counting organic chem “quizzes” as exams, that is). I have determined that, for all my ranting about organic chemistry last month, physics is that much worse. Physics, even dumbed-down physics for life science students, is no joke (that’s the exam I got a 59 on. Yeah.). I’m glad I’m getting it over with this year. Genetics, though, has only gotten more interesting with the introduction of molecular genetics, which I love. And I’m thrilled to be taking advanced genetics classes starting in the spring. (The fun will soon begin. . . .) I’m still working in the lab, doing PCR and DNA extractions and to a lesser extent looking after baby seaweeds. So . . . yeah, that’s about it for the month. I’ll be back next week with a Story Starters post!

What about you; how has your month been? Are you in college or school? Have you been sick this month? (If you have, I feel your pain, believe me.) What classes are you taking? Have you done any writing this month? Started any new projects recently? Let me know in the comments!

What I’m Reading: Persuasion by Jane Austen

Hello again! Normally I do book reviews on the third Saturday of the month, but since it’s a five-Saturday month, things got shifted around a little bit. And this will be a short review, since a) it’s a fairly short book and b) I’m writing this post rather last-minute (oops). So let’s jump right in!

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Information for Readers:

Genre: Classic Romance

Age Level: Probably all ages from teens up

Extreme Content? Not really; this is a pretty tame book.

The Story: Anne Elliot, the plain middle daughter of a noble family suffering from her father’s extravagance, wishes she had married her sweetheart Captain Wentworth eight years ago. When he unexpectedly reappears, interested in another girl, and in the midst of her family’s move to Bath to rent out their house, she must discern what his true intentions are and whether he or the charming Mr. Elliot is the better man.

The Characters: The characters were quite interesting. I didn’t see as much of Lady Russell as I would have liked from the beginning of the book; considering she was so involved in Anne’s prior decision to not marry Captain Wentworth, I would have thought she would be more involved toward the end. I loved how Austen used Sir Walter and Elizabeth, Anne’s father and older sister, to critique society. Mary, Anne’s younger sister, was delightfully annoying. Captain Wentworth was well-developed and well-rounded. Anne was definitely my favorite character; she just felt real to me. I appreciated her sensible outlook on life and logical, calm approach to problems like dealing with pesky family members. I think so much emphasis is placed on having “strong” female characters these days that the strength in quiet kindness gets lost a bit, so I found it quite refreshing to read about Anne.

The Writing: It’s difficult for me to critique Jane Austen, since she did write two centuries ago in another country and social class. I enjoyed the little tongue-in-cheek comments, a hallmark of Austen (as I know from reading three of her books), that she slipped in during descriptions and so forth. I think she really succeeded in transporting me to another time and place, something the familiarity of living in that time and place did a lot to help her with. None of the rules of inheritance or anything like that was explained, since, of course, the nineteenth-century upper-class reader would already know them. I really enjoyed it.

Overall: A pleasant short read. It made a nice break from classwork, and it was lovely getting to know Anne Elliot. Definitely recommended!

Have you ever read Persuasion? What do you think of it? If you haven’t, do you think you’d like to try it out? Tell me in the comments!

Chlorophyll, Carotenoids, and Anthocyanins, Oh My (Why Leaves Fall in the Fall)

Well, it’s October, which means that here in New England, it must be leaf-peeper season. Drive up Interstate 93 anytime around now, and you’ll probably see hordes of license plates from more southerly states on cars packed in to see the leaves in the White Mountains. We residents refer to them fondly as “leaf-peepers” (and sometimes do some leaf-peeping ourselves).

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The White Mountains with fall colors.

 

So what does all this have to do with those three long words in the title of this post? Well, for my science post this week (which I normally do on a second Saturday, but I had a guest post  last week–check it out if you haven’t yet!), I thought it would be seasonally appropriate to talk about the biology behind leaf colors, the defining symbol of fall. And since I’m interested in plant biology, this is also right up my alley.

So during the spring and summer, leaves are green. This is because of Pigment #1 listed in the title: chlorophyll, the major photosynthetic pigment in plants. Chlorophyll is very important for exciting electrons and causing biochemical cascades and so forth, and all of that eventually leads to the plant producing its own glucose, which it can then use in respiration to essentially make energy for cellular mechanisms. So for most of the year, trees are green. Then why does it change in fall?

Well, in the fall, the weather starts getting colder, and the plant starts to go dormant in order to survive the winter. As the U.S. Forest Service explains, leaves are thin and contain a lot of water that could easily freeze in winter, so deciduous trees must get rid of them in order to survive each winter. And as nights get longer in the fall, the plant senses that it’s time to get rid of the chlorophyll, and Pigments #2 and #3, carotenoids and anthocyanins, show their colors, so to speak. Carotenoids, which are always present in leaves, cause yellow and orange colors. Anthocyanins, produced only in response to sugar buildup, cause reds and purples.

What affects leaf color? Well, you may have noticed it depends on the kind of tree. Oaks mainly have brown leaves (which, incidentally, don’t usually fall off until spring), beeches have lighter brown, and maples can be orange or red or other colors depending on the species.

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Maples in fall.

I found it interesting to learn that weather also affects the colors of leaves. Warm, sunny days cause buildups of sugars, and cool nights constrict the plant’s vessels, causing the sugars to stay in the leaves and the subsequent production of anthocyanins. Soil moisture can also affect leaf colors; if there’s a summer drought, for instance, color onset will be delayed a bit. The best colors occurs if there’s a warm, wet spring and good summer weather, according to the Forest Service.

One last question: what causes leaves to actually fall off? Starting early in the fall, xylem and phloem veins (veins that bring water and nutrients to leaves) start to close off, eventually leading the leaf to fall. The tree is left with only its winter-hardy tissue, giving it a better chance of surviving the winter. As an addendum, some trees actually have winter-hardy leaves that only fall due to old age. We know them as the evergreens: pines, spruces, hemlocks, and other trees with needle- or scale-like leaves. The waxy coatings on their leaves make them hardy enough to keep on photosynthesizing all winter long.

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Which is why people use evergreens as Christmas trees: they’re still green.

 Are your leaves turning colors yet? Have you ever thought about why they turn colors in the fall? Are you going to go “leaf-peeping” this fall? Tell me in the comments!

Beautiful People: Digging Through the Archives

Hi, folks! It’s October, and most everyone in the writing world (except me) is preparing for NaNoWriMo. (If you don’t know what that is, just Google it.) That means it’s Beautiful Books month instead of Beautiful People. So since I’m not quite ready to unveil Circle of Fire yet, I went digging through the Beautiful People archives for ten questions to ask another character. I found the questions from July 2015, which pretty well suited Chase.

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Chase Hawkins, Circle of Fire communications technician.

Chase is a secondary character from my new book (and as of right now I’m drafting it–yay!) Circle of Fire, which as I’ve said I’m not unveiling yet. But here’s a bit more about him anyway.

1. What’s their favorite ice cream flavor?

Cookies and cream, but vanilla is also good.

2. Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where are they going? What are they wearing? Who will they be with?

He’s probably going to a burger-and-fries restaurant with a large friend group, wearing a button-down shirt and jeans (which is his standard dress anyway).

3. Look at your character’s feet. Describe what you see there. (There’s more detailed examples to this question, but I’m just going to go with that.)

Sneakers or well-worn cowboy boots, or just white socks with holes in them if he’s at home.

4. Do they have any birthmarks or scars? Where are they and how did they get them?

Not that I can think of. Wait, actually, he probably has one from falling off a bike and skinning his knee as a boy.

5. What kind of music do they listen to? Does it change depending on their mood or is it always consistent?

Chase loves country music, especially older country, and listens to it whenever he can.

6. Do they have any musical talent? Play an instrument? How’s their singing voice?

He is fond of saying that he has zero talent or he would’ve moved to Nashville and pursued a singing career long ago, but his singing voice isn’t actually that bad, just kind of average.

7. What kind of book would you catch them reading?

Either a Tom Clancy thriller or, to be honest, a kids’ sci-fi book. (Or the Bible.)

8. How would they spend their summers (or their holidays)?

Before he *ahem* got involved with the Circle of Fire (and no, I am not going to tell you what that entails), Chase used to work summers at a horse camp for kids. He enjoys being around animals, especially horses, and would really love to have a barn, but wound up with an information technology degree because there were more jobs in that.

9. It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details.

Before joining the Circle, Chase would be only just rolling out of bed, turning on country radio, and grabbing a bowl of cereal (most likely Cheerios, with lots of milk and not eaten until good and mushy). Now, he’d be at work already.

10. Is there anything your character wants to be free of?

Being in the Circle, he’d really like to be free of the threat of being attacked so he could go live in the back country somewhere, keep horses, and raise a family. He’d probably also like to be free of lack of money for aforesaid reasons.

Well, that’s Chase! Are you doing Beautiful Books this month, or just sneaking into Beautiful People archives like me? Whichever it is, do please post the link in the comments so I can read your post! What do you think of Chase? And out of curiosity, how many people are interested in learning more about his book? Share in the comments!

The Science of Storytelling: Guest Post by Olivia Hofer

Anna here! As it’s a five-Saturday month, today I have a wonderful treat for you: a guest post about story psychology and neurology by Olivia Hofer, who blogs at Story Matters. I’ll be back next week with another science post, but for now, let’s all read what Olivia has to say!

Those of us who read know the wonder of stories. They transport us to places and times and cultures and customs beyond our own, so vivid we can hear and touch and taste them. They transform us into people we are not, drawing on our common human traits to allow us to feel things we’ve never felt before. They enable us to experience, in a sense, things that can be understood only through experience, so that we may both make sense of the world for our own sakes and empathize with others who have undergone trials we haven’t. It’s magic.

It’s also science.

Let’s look at a few of the ways fiction demonstrably impacts us — and what that means to writers.

Increased empathy

Empathy — the ability to understand and feel the emotions of another — is an essential social skill, and arguably one of the major factors that distinguishes human beings from other creatures. And fiction has the capacity to nourish that ability.

According to studies, literary fiction in particular develops emotional literacy. Rich with subtext and nuance, it forces us to try our minds and sort out for ourselves what various characters are thinking and feeling. With so much unsaid, we must fill in the blanks. It’s a bit of an emotional logic puzzle.

And perhaps because of this, when researchers tested one thousand participants in theory of mind, by asking them to identify the emotions of strangers based solely on photos of eyes, those with greater familiarity with literary works scored higher than those exposed primarily to genre fiction. Previous studies measured the theory of mind of participants who read either a literary or genre fiction excerpt. Those who were given the literary sample were better able to read others’ emotions afterward.

Genre fiction, in its defense, has virtues in its own right. Studies suggest that reading books such as the Harry Potter series may alter attitudes toward marginalized people groups. The potential for societal impact is enormous.

As we write, we should consider the value of subtlety, and the impact that our portrayal of different groups might have. The power of fiction, on the individual and the societal level, cannot be overestimated. We as storytellers have a unique potential for influence. Let us use it wisely.

Further reading:

Literary fiction readers understand others’ emotions better, study finds

“Did you feel as if you hated people?”: emotional literacy through fiction

Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy

The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice

Sensory and motor activation

Spanish researchers found that when participants read words associated with distinct scents—like the Spanish words for coffee and perfume—they showed activity in the primary olfactory cortex that didn’t occur when they read “neutral” words such as the term for chair. In another study, reading metaphors that drew tactile analogies—phrases like “velvet voice” and “leathery hands”—activated the sensory cortex. This didn’t happen when the participants read descriptions such as “pleasing voice” and “strong hands”, which didn’t evoke tactile imagery.

And something similar happens as we read about the characters’ exploits. The motor regions of the brain that we use when performing physical activities and observing others’ movement are also activated when we read about characters doing the same things.

It seems there really is science behind “show, don’t tell”. Evocative imagery immerses readers in the storyworld.

Further reading:

Metaphors activate sensory areas of brain

The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction

Neurological changes

And these effects may last well after we close the cover. One study found that reading the thriller Pompeii by Robert Harris heightened connectivity in language and sensory motor regions of the brain that remained hours after reading assigned passages and at least five days after finishing the book. The researchers believe the changes may last much longer, especially when we’ve read one of our favorite novels.

Our writing will likely stay with our readers, consciously or subconsciously, for some time to come. Consider the emotional as well as the thematic takeaways you hope to impart to your readers.

Further reading:

A novel look at how stories may change the brain

And that’s not to mention the stress relief reading provides, as well as the enormous impact it has on young minds.

Stories, it would seem, are entwined with our very human nature. At last we are beginning to understand how they so move us. And if these are the effects we can see, how much greater those yet unseen?

Thank you, Olivia, for that wonderful post! It was absolutely fascinating. What do you think of these impacts of storytelling? Did you know about any of them beforehand? Does this change how you think about writing? Share in the comments (and be sure to thank Olivia)!

Story Starters #2: The Hobbit

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

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(Just to forewarn you, Mr. Tolkien is perhaps entirely responsible for my love of fantasy. I might gush a bit. And now that you’ve been warned, let’s all gush together. :P)

Hello, and welcome to the second installment of my “Story Starters” blog posts! On the first Saturday of each month, I analyze the beginning of a book, any book, and today, it happens to be a very good book: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

 

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Yes, that’s right: the hobbit.

So let’s jump right in and do a sentence-by-sentence analysis of the first paragraph!

  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This one is pretty self-explanatory. As we’re reading the first sentence (unless we’ve seen the movie first, precious), we are sitting here wondering: what the heck is a hobbit? It’s a great hook; it poses a question that we, the readers, would really like answered. Tolkien gets to that by paragraph three, but he has to give us some hints first, which leads us to sentence two.
  • Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. The first thing that jumps out at me is how long this sentence is. Grammatically, it makes a great contrast with the first sentence; it’s long and meandering and draws us in by Tolkien’s vivid imagery. And it gives us some great hints about what hobbits are not, and by the end, something of what they are. The mention of comfort particularly strikes me as foreshadowing the main character and theme of the book in the very first paragraph. (My analytical writer brain is geeking out right now. I mean, isn’t that foreshadowing just awesome?!?)

And that’s it for this extraordinarily short post. I hope it had enough insights to make up for its brevity.

What do you think? Isn’t Tolkien a genius? Have you read The Hobbit? (If not . . . *shakes head* Just go read it, okay?) Do you have any further analysis that perhaps my tired brain didn’t pick up? Tell me in the comments!