I’ve been forced to ask myself this question over the last couple of weeks. Why do I write? What are my ultimate goals? Why do I sit alone everyday for hours at a time staring at my laptop screen, and what do I hope to gain from it? Why do I dredge up experiences I’d rather forget, talk to people who scare me, and endure the blank stares of family and friends who say, “I don’t get it. What do you do?”
Description is my Achilles heel. My writing tends to be so sparse it’s practically naked, and to make up for that lack I’ve done some pretty embarrassing things in the pursuit of details.
It’s fun to go back to my earliest manuscripts and see how much my writing’s improved. And then shake my head – I showed that to an agent? *smacks head* Live and learn. But those stories have taught me a lot – and one of the lessons I’ve learned is that description and sensory details are things I have to consciously add in, adding layer after layer with each edit. And then my co-writer reads it and says, ‘You need more description.’ lol. So, I’m still learning. [Read more…]
Connotation helps add unspoken meaning to readers through subtext. Connotation helps you show your reader backstory and character traits without telling them anything. It’s the writer’s job to be as economical as possible and make words pull double duty (say as many things to a reader as possible) so getting connotation to work FOR YOU is very helpful. At the very least, make sure it’s not working against you.
When someone drags their past into a situation we say they’ve got baggage. Every word has baggage. Every word has a past, an association, a history, and that’s brought with it into your work. Sometimes that baggage belongs to the reader – you can’t help that, sometimes it’s a historical event or etymology.
History Lends Connotation
If you decide to set your story in Chernobyl, that place name brings a lot of baggage with it. It could be a phrase: “I am no man!” or how about “Live long and prosper.” If a character uses those phrases that gives readers insights into your character.
My kids have each taken a turn reading The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald uses the term “concentration camp” to mean something other than a reference to the death camps in World War 2. Of course, Gatsby was written before World War 2, but my teenagers stumbled over that trying to understand what Fitzgerald intended by using that term. I was editing a translation and the writer used ‘concentration camp’ which I substituted for ‘forced labor camp’ because the association to the death camps in World War 2 wasn’t intended.
You can’t shrug off connotation. You can’t say to yourself – well, I mean this word this way — because you won’t be in the ear of every reader explaining that to them, right. Be specific with your words.
Part Of Connotation Is Etymology
et·y·mol·o·gy: The study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.
Anyone who’s studied Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Chaucer, etc. knows that language changes, it evolves. We don’t speak the same way they did in 1066 or 1546, and while we still use some of the same words, the meanings and usage may have changed. If you look in a dictionary, it will give you the etymology of a word whether its roots are in French, Old English (OE), Latin, or another language. Etymology is why English words have so many nuanced meanings based on context.
Nude is from the Latin (1525–35) nūdus: lacking clothing or covering, color of a white-person’s flesh
Naked is Middle English from the Old English (pre 900) nacod: lacking embellishment, lacking confirmation or support, unaided by device or instrument, devoid of concealment or covering
(definitions from Merriam-Webster.com)
One word is older than the other, and both have distinct origins. This should tip you off that though they mean basically the same thing, the connotation (added layer of meaning) is different for each one. There’s a vulnerability to naked – as though a naked person is lacking something – is deficient in some way. Whereas nude is more refined – leads me to think of art, of shedding the burden of a covering, nude is a choice, you’re au naturel. The history of the word is especially important to those writing any historical genres. Jamie Fraser from Outlander would never say something was “spic and span” but Claire might.
Connotation Adds To Character Voice
I’ve read many manuscripts that didn’t take these nuanced meanings into account when choosing a word. These nuanced meanings come into play with character voice as well. What word would your point of view character use based on their upbringing, past experiences, prejudices, etc.
Maybe your teenage point of view character would describe school as a concentration camp–that would show us a few things about how that character sees the world, right. I’ve had people say to me, “I feel naked with my …” fill in the blank. I feel naked without my wedding ring. What would that show readers about a character who said or thought that? Their identity is wrapped up in marriage somehow – who they’re married to, that they’re married, they feel vulnerable, etc.
In an intimate scene, a woman who sheds her clothing to stand nude before her man strikes me as natural, confident, alluring, unashamed. In that same scene, if the woman is naked there’s a raw sexuality to it, she’s lacking something she should have – she’s exposed. A nude woman gets up from the bed and walks to the bathroom unconcerned if she’s observed. A naked woman wraps the sheet around herself before walking to the bathroom.
These distinctions add layers and depth through subtext to readers, about how they feel, how they perceive things, their prejudices or experience.
Personal Associations Bring Connotation
While you can’t help the personal connotations a reader brings to your work, you should manipulate the connotation your characters bring to the story. If your character is a woman who was sexually abused as a child, she might not ever use the word nude, even when it’s appropriate.
Feminist is a word loaded with social connotation right now. Some see a person wearing that label as a left-wing zealot and others see them as couragous social warriors. Sometimes a word can be both things, so you’ll either need to explain how your character means it or choose a different word.
Connotation Can Be Negative Or Positive
Often, we turn to the thesaurus when we’re stumped for the right word and there’s nothing wrong with that. But be aware that words often carry connotation with them, and may not be as interchangeable as you’d like to think. We do this all the time as writers, we just need to do it consciously and strategically. Is your character thin or gaunt? It’s all in how you frame it.
Let’s look at a common word: seductive
The dictionary gives me these synonyms: attractive, captivating, charming, enticing, fascinating, flirtatous, inviting, irresistable, provacative, tempting, beguiling, bewitching, desireable, come-hither…
A woman who is attractive and charming is not necessarily provocative or flirtatous. Be sure of the connotation the word brings to your story and your character’s intentions and feelings.
You can get a copy of my book Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point of View Using Emotional Layers here.
I was a painfully shy, naive bride with apparently bad research skills. I’d never really seen a man full-on naked, and I had limited intimate knowledge of too much else. I learned the hard way that not all honeymoon suites are created equal.
We got married young, both of us still in school with no money, no plans beyond finishing school. Didn’t know what we didn’t know and no one could tell us. Livin’ on love. Hopped up on birth control pills, we had the world by the tail!
I booked a honeymoon suite sight unseen. All honeymoon suites are created equal, right? They all looked fairly comparable in the yellow pages (dating myself right there aren’t I? This was obviously before online reviews).
We were stereotypical students. We had no money for anything, let alone a wedding. I had done gardening in exchange for dressmaking, the hall rental was $50 (yay for small towns), the flowers were donated, the church was free, the organist was the mother of a friend, and the official only asked for a donation. I booked the cheapest honeymoon room I could find.
We arrived with faces aching from smiling so much, exhausted and nervous. Did you know a motel and a hotel aren’t the same things? Yeah, you can see where this is going, right?
We were shown how to work the jets on the tub and left to ourselves. Wow – nervous. The only thing I could see was the gigantic bed in the middle of the room covered in faux leopard fur. At least the bed wasn’t coin operated, I’d have probably turned around and run home if it had been. Then I looked up. There was a giant, full-size-of-the-bed mirror glued to the ceiling over the bed. I hadn’t known that was possible. At first, I marveled at the feat of engineering until the implications of said fixture hit me. There was not one corner of the bed where you could hide from that thing – I checked.
I suggested we try out the tub. That seemed a safe place to start. It’s funny how you don’t talk a lot when you’re that nervous. We filled the tub and got the jets running. Everything was going according to plan. The tension drained away in the massaging hot water. I relaxed. I could do this. No big deal. We started talking, laughing together. I remembered that I’d decided he was worth all this nervous energy.
Then the jets stopped.
No more bubbles.
Just calm, very clear water.
A W K W A R D
We could not get the jets working again. So, there we sat. Not talking.
Finally, he convinced me to abandon the tub. Of course there’s no TV in the room to distract you from what you’re supposed to be doing. Light from the neon signs outside the room (yes *head hits desk* it was THAT kind of motel) streamed in the windows even with the curtains closed. Not nearly dark enough to hide from that horrible mirror.
The 18hour drive back to school was nice, felt a little surreal to actually be married, and we had no buyer’s remorse. We didn’t go back to our apartment, but right to the camp where we were to stay for the week. It was owned by my husband’s aunt, and she’d offered it to us for free. We were all about free. My husband had shared glowing childhood memories of the family camp, of jumping off the dock, campfires, and such. I was expecting a Muskoka paradise.
Now in Southern Ontario a camp and cottage are pretty much synonymous. We’re talking electricity, indoor plumbing, pristine dock, and the like. Turns out a camp in Northwestern Ontario is a small step above a tent.
Now, I love camping – when I’m prepared for it. Roughing it wasn’t exactly how I pictured spending my honeymoon. Was not a fan of the outhouse. September in Northwestern Ontario is cooler than Southern Ontario, a lot cooler, and the cast-iron stove made my allergies flare up. We lasted two days. We retreated to our apartment in town, deciding we wouldn’t tell anyone we were back. We were both missing the first week of school, and were determined to enjoy this supposing it killed us.
Lubricated condoms decorated every doorknob, every light fixture and drawer pull in our apartment. Our shower stall was filled with water balloons. My husband, warrior king to the rescue, taped a steak knife to a broom handle, jumped up on the counter in his underwear, reached over the top of the shower unit and speared all the balloons. The burst balloon bits blocked the drain and flooded the bathroom. Friends had strung bells under our mattress. We found empty condom wrappers in our clothes pockets for months at the most inconvenient times – like dinner with the in-laws. :/
I’ve never been so glad to go back to school in my entire life! I don’t regret anything about our honeymoon, but I’m not interested in reliving it either 🙂
Got a dating fail or honeymoon disaster to share? Heard of one? Has to be true! Leave a note in the comments.
This is not that kind of post – this is a true story. It wasn’t a bet, I wasn’t drunk…I didn’t plan to bike 15 kilometers (just under 9.5miles) in a t-shirt and panties. It’s funny now, but at the time I wanted to crawl into a hole and die from embarassment.
I spent a glorious summer working at Fort William Historical Park – the world’s largest recreated fur-trading post. The summer before my final year at university, I got paid to dress in period clothing, (or rather, modern period clothing because we wore bras and panties and deodorant) pretend I was someone else, and research history. Sweet deal. It was actually a huge dream of mine to work at an interpretive historical site like this.
The Fort portrays the year 1815 and is located outside Thunder Bay, Ontario. I interpreted a young Métis woman (French father, Native mother), Jeanne Chouinard, who spent her days giving tours of the Fort and trying to convince a guy to marry her because she was tired of sleeping on the floor of her sister and brother-in-law’s bedroom with her 5 yr old niece. She wasn’t picky, and Voyageurs could always be counted on to flirt, dance, and tease. I was proposed to at least once a day, and went home each night to my husband with a clear conscience. I had opportunities to play the doctor’s wife, and the jailer’s wife also.
The whole summer was an absolute blast.
Except this one day…
I was late one morning, flew into my costume, and ran out for the staff meeting. Normally, I folded and placed all my outside clothes neatly in my locker, but that day I barely had time to change and run. At the end of the day, I was assigned an extra tour and was late returning to the change room. My shorts were gone. GONE! Could not find them anywhere.
It was a 15km bike ride from my apartment to the Fort. I mean, as a starving student why pay bus fare when you have a perfectly good bike to get you there. This was before cellphones fit in your pocket. My parents lived too far away, we didn’t own a car, and I was NOT calling my father-in-law to come and pick me up in my panties.
I seriously considered turning back and just hiding out in one of the historic buildings for the night. But, the thought of bumping into my boss trying to sneak back in was less than appealing. To wear my costume outside the Fort would have cost me my job, the logistics of biking in the A-line cotton floor-length dress aside.
So, I pulled my t-shirt down as far as it would go, hopped on my bike, and headed home.
The kick-back riding past the pulp mill with flying wood chips was not fun at all. Of course, every stoplight was red on the way home. It’s impossible to keep a fitted ladies t-shirt pulled down over your bottom when you have to put one foot down at every intersection, by the way.
My path home required me to bike through town on one of the busiest east-west routes in the city. Why not take an alternate route – go through the bike paths and parks? Because I’m also directionally handicapped. Having to bike home in your panties is bad enough, getting lost on a bike in your panties is much worse.
I wasn’t wearing a thong (thankfully), but nothing fancy enough to pass for short shorts, and nobody is mistaking white cotton for a bathing suit. Absolute total humiliation. I was biking through town about 5:30-6pm – so yeah, rush hour. Old ladies covered the surprised O on their faces with their hands. Guys stared extra long as they passed in their cars. Had to bike through the university campus – that was fun…surprisingly busy for summer.
When I finally arrived home, I burst through the door, my t-shirt stretched beyond recovery trying to cover my behind. I pushed past my husband (who didn’t seem to notice my pantless state – the one person I wouldn’t have minded noticing – figures), slammed the bedroom door, jumped into bed, and pulled the covers up over my head.
The next morning I stuffed an emergency pair of shorts in my backpack in case the pair I was wearing disappeared too, and biked to work. I was too humiliated to ask if anyone had picked up my shorts – I was willing to lose them to keep the whole incident quiet. At the end of the day, the girl with the locker next to mine holds up my shorts. “Whose are these? I just found them in my locker.”
Lesson learned. Always pick up your stuff. What about you – ever learned a lesson the hard way?
I blog when I have something to say, not on a set schedule. Make sure you don’t miss any posts by subscribing using the box below to have updates arrive in your inbox. I would love to meet and chat, find me on Facebook here.
“It would be different if one had tried to tell the whole truth. That would have some value.” – Ernest Hemingway
“A woman is like a teabag – you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Eleanor Roosevelt