Tag Archives: fiction

Defying Mrs. Grundy.

Irony at its best.

I get a chuckle out of contemplating how writing gurus and publishing gatekeepers, by their sourpuss anathematizing of the adverb as an unnecessary part of speech, and by their stigmatizing proverbs, colloquialisms and idioms as “clichés” (all of which writers are told they must avoid using, or expunge from their writing), unwittingly transform themselves into poster children for the ultimate idiomatic expression: “Mrs. Grundy.”

If the Grundyists of the wordsmith world had their way, all writing would be as drab and unfocused as a week of winter rainstorms.

Proverbs, colloquialisms and idioms developed over millennia of communication. They paint pictures in the mind which are based on real human experience, thereby fostering reader empathy for fictional characters. In this way, they bring vibrant color to dialogue, in a manner which no amount of “turning the air blue” with profanity and obscenity can do.


No matter where their origins, or what language they speak, everyone comes up with these gems. I studied Hiberno-English usage when I wrote Irish Firebrands. Now, I’m  studying German idioms as part of the research for my work-in-progress, The Passions of Patriots, a prelude to my first novel (in which a character had discovered an ancestor’s involvement in the First World War). I’m impressed by the imaginative ways Germans have developed to express the experiences that occur in all people’s lives.

It’s not for nothing that the Bible admonishes, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). The familiar phrases that are used in every language are also like highly polished precious metals which can adorn our writing like beautifully wrought antique jewellery.

What are some of your favorite sayings?
Have you used proverbs, colloquialisms, and idioms in your writing?
If you write fantasy which has an imaginary language, does it have traditional sayings your characters use?


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Framing Fictional Families.

Is there a family tree in your fiction’s future?

If you write relatively short or simple stand-alone novels, it may suffice to treat the family backgrounds of your characters with brevity; however, if you write epics or otherwise complicated works, such as family sagas or lengthy world-building series, you may need a scorecard to keep track of generations of players. That scorecard is genealogical documentation.

It’s not strictly necessary to append one or more genealogical charts to your novel, but enough well-known writers have done so to demonstrate the value of the practice to readers, who may otherwise find themselves floundering in a “who’s who” morass of characters related by blood or marriage (or both). Any tale that purports to be historical (whether depicting a fictional take on real human history, or the history of an imaginary world), if it has three or more generations of characters, can benefit from the inclusion of a genealogical reference tool.

Identification based on one’s forebears is usually a matter of law, because it governs the rules of inheritance (whether of wealth, title, or authority), accountability for purposes of taxation (very important for constructing and maintaining infrastructure), and especially the need to avoid the health risks of inbreeding in the population. Most cultures have codified such laws to their benefit (although the ingrained traditions of royal families have greatly complicated the matter for centuries), and it would be a very unusual imaginary world that would have no need of such regulations.

Take the problem of inbreeding. Small, geographically or culturally isolated societies can still be found, in which physical and mental disability are rife because of intermarriage between persons who share too many genes in common to safely produce healthy offspring. In cultures where this potentially severe problem is understood, incest laws regulate the degree of consanguinity between persons that will permit them to marry and reproduce with the lowest possible risk to their descendants’ health. These laws prohibit marriage and sexual relations between first-degree relatives (between parents and children, and between siblings), and certain kinds of cousins: if cousins share only one set of grandparents, marriage and reproduction may be permitted; if they share both sets of grandparents (such as the children of siblings from one family who formed couples with siblings of another family), they are not permitted, because although those children are genealogically cousins, they are genetically siblings.

How the crowned heads of Europe got away with marrying their cousins is based on this legal and biological technicality, generally following the concept “(ordinal number) cousin (cardinal number) times removed;” although in the case of Queen Victoria’s descendants, it still backfired badly, in the sex-chromosome-linked transmission of the disease hemophilia.

This chart shows how the cousin relationship is calculated:

A blank version of the chart can help plot the relationship between any pair of persons, real or fictional.

The first generation of descendants from a common (shared) ancestor are siblings; subsequent generations are cousins. To work out a relationship, put the common ancestor’s name in one of the blank boxes at the top of the chart, and plot the descending lines of direct ancestors down two adjacent columns, until you get to the names of the cousins in question. Connect the cousins by drawing lines between them: A horizontal line is drawn between cousins of the same generation (1st cousins, 2nd cousins, etc.); a slanted line drawn between two cousins shows how many “times removed” they are (meaning how many generations separate them from the original same-generation cousin relationship). The abbreviations usually employed by genealogists are “1C1R,” “1C2R,” “2C1R,” “2C2R,” etc.

Genealogical reference charts found in the appendices to novels are usually descendant charts, although you may find standard pedigree charts for individual characters.

Some enterprising authors may fashion diagrams combining the features of the two kinds of chart; such a diagram resembles a tree  with names forming the branches, trunk and roots. This tree of Celtic knots suggests how complicated some family relationships may become:


As with other forms of research that have a bearing on fictional character development, even if a protagonist’s ancestors have nothing directly to do with the story,  sketching a family tree for that character can help writers visualize the person, and the personality and motivation which influence that individual’s actions and ultimate fate.

I’ve posted about genealogy and family history (fictional and factual) elsewhere on this blog: All in a Day’s Work, ‘A Tree is a Bush that Made It’, and Bitten by the Genealogy Bug?


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Another Author’s Insight: Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

I made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes, and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, draw the eye. There is no line of my verse or prose which has not been mouthed till the tongue has made all smooth, and memory, after many recitals, has mechanically skipped the grosser superfluities.
~ Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself, Chapter III. 

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