Threads of DNA

By Janice McCaffrey

I’ve been a genealogist for over forty-years. When I began there were no computers. I wrote letters to government registries, cemetery offices, and church personnel asking for help. Even enclosing the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) didn’t guarantee a reply.

With the onset of online digitized records, books, family trees, and photos, I felt like a kid in a candy store. And most of the goodies were free!

Then Genealogical DNA testing came into vogue. First I had my son send his saliva off for three tests: 1) his ethnicity 2) his fathers, fathers, fathers DNA matches and 3) his mothers, mothers, mothers DNA matches. Years later I sent my own sample to a different organization. I like to imagine how my ancestors might have lived through the centuries.

Long before the DNA results I’d learned that there is no royal blood coursing through my veins. My ancestors were hard working farmers and tradesman (blacksmiths, weavers, saddle & harness makers, teachers, telegraph clerk, and prison turnkey). They migrated from the United Kingdom to Canada and eventually my father to the US moving to better lives. But, yes, we had bastards born out of wedlock, alcoholics, gamblers who lost fortunes, and some say insanity (though not proven).

A couple years ago my daughter and I visited Marseille France. The first day we strolled along the rampart of Fort Saint Jean beside the vibrant blue and green hues of the Mediterranean Sea. IMAG0457We stayed in Panier, the mysteriously ancient looking Old Town, and soaked up its ambiance. Then riding in a rental car keeping up with speeding traffic I caught a second’s image of a handsome bearded man standing on the sidewalk laughing with friends. He wore the traditional Moroccan jabador—mid-calf, off-white, cotton tunic worn over baggy trousers—and Muslim taqiyah cap.

I fell in love!

And a story began to weave itself through my brain. My protagonist, Madge a sixty-something widow, visits Marseille and finds herself on a quest. She must travel back in time to 12 century BC Lebanon to save the Phoenician civilization from the marauding Sea Peoples (see Ancient History Encyclopedia online for historic background).

Every few weeks I check my DNA results because people’s names are added as new DNA results match mine and as the organization’s DNA bank grows they tweak individual ethnicity reports.  Recently I noticed that my ethnicity percentages had been recalculated a smidgen. Geographic areas are listed with descriptions of its peoples and their migrations. The West Middle East region had been added to my report. I clicked on it and read the history. At first I sat silent—in awe.

Then in delight—I laughed out loud.

Traces of the ancient DNA I proudly carry match Phoenician remains. Threads of my DNA are telling me stories to share.

 

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A Journey through Chaos

my kingdom

By Janice McCaffrey

Where do creative ideas come from? I didn’t know so, of course, executed a Google search. One of the sites I found suggested that a person write down a word and follow that word with another that begins with the last letter of the previous word. And so on, and so on. The idea being that while your left-brain is busy thinking up words your right-brain will be inspired. H-m-m-m. I gave it a try.

Since I needed ideas for a Montana Women Writers blog entry, I started with the word “writers,” And this is how it went:

words for blog

How many creative ideas did I have at the end of this exercise? NONE!

Weeks later while working on another project I found an interesting article on creativity (of course, through a Google search). Nancy C. Andreason, M.D., Ph.D. directs research at the University of Iowa using brain scans and wrote a paper entitled: A Journey into Chaos: Creativity and the Unconscious.

The paper first describes four steps that her team established after interviews with creative people. 1). Preparation-when basic information and/or skills are gathered. 2). Incubation-a relaxed time during which the person does not work consciously to solve the problem. 3). Inspiration-what she calls the “eureka experience” when suddenly ideas come to mind and 4). Production-when the ideas are put into action.

Her group then ran brain scans on people while they were in a relaxed state. Their minds wandered freely without censorship. She reported that while the participants experienced a relaxed state, their neural level association cortices were working actively. She explains that while we’re relaxed our brains throw out feelers for concrete associations of colors, images, and concepts. These ideas collide until pairs interlock and make stable combinations. Then the brain’s self-organizing system spontaneously and frequently changes the pairs to produce something new. Her Take home message: The creative process is characterized by flashes of insight that arise from unconscious reservoirs of the mind and brain.

Oh, that’s why the good ideas come when in the shower, in bed but awake, or taking a walk alone.

So, need to enhance your creativity? Think about what you need…ideas for a blog, description of a setting, a character’s name, plot points, best color to paint your living room? Whatever. Find a quiet spot and relax, meditate or just sit in quiet (without falling asleep) and without thinking about what you need. Just float for 20-30 minutes. Inspiration will come to your mind either right then or some time later.

The journey takes our thoughts from chaos to creativity. Enjoy the ride!

Hope & Joy in a Classic Tale

By Janice McCaffrey      a christmas carol

While pondering the upcoming holidays my stream of consciousness meandered over past memories and future dreams. A few quiet moments of reflection led of course to Dickens’ ghosts.  My favorite version is The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine.

I love the little mice bookkeepers working dutifully and diligently in the cold office under the supervision of the kind-hearted Bob Cratchit performed by Kermit. Best of all though is the interplay between Rizzo the Rat acting as sidekick to Gonzo while he narrates the story as Charles Dickens himself.

My thoughts bumped over the moral of the story and what it means in today’s world. I got stuck on ‘don’t be stingy’ but wanted more. So what else is Dickens telling us?

On enotes.com’s website where they proclaim “We’re the Literature Experts” I found an article by Christian Themes (literary essentials: Christian fiction and nonfiction) titled     A Christmas Carol Themes. Let me paraphrase:

Scrooge’s initial penny-pinching reflects the values taking hold during the Industrial Revolution. Dickens illustrates what happens when individuals view relationships and other people through their financial worth. The author exposes the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor.

Then he illustrates a solution, individual redemption. The world becomes a better place almost immediately after Scrooge changes his outlook. The story implies that a renewed connection to humanity is, in fact, the very essence of redemption. His change is not introspective and personal; it is outward-looking and social.

While the results of Scrooge’s change didn’t alter the social structure itself, the compassion he showed to individual people did change the social relationships they shared. Despair turned to hope. isolation to belonging, and unhappiness to joy.

Wow! And I thought it was just fun to watch.

Yes, it’s a Christian based tale, but certainly can be applied to all of us no matter our beliefs. Let’s follow Scrooge’s example, enhance our relationships, and join Tiny Tim in his prayer.

tiny tim 2

 

“God bless us, every one!”

 

Learning my colors

By Janice McCaffrey

One of my first blogs back in February 2016, I shared a technique that helped me enhance first, second, third, and so on story drafts. Layering. I start with a very rough draft and then work on applying layers: dialogue, body language, physical descriptions of characters and settings, etc.

Currently I’m layering color.

In my July 2018 blog I listed online resources to help improve descriptions. I’m working with site kathysteineman.com to learn my colors. It lists adjectives that help describe a certain color.

For example

cat black

Cat Black

and

smoky black

Smoky Black

Then there are words like hue, tone, tint, and shade to describe differences in colors. According to DifferenceBetween.net a hue is the brightest, purest form of a color…red, yellow, blue, etc. A general term that refers to a pure color that has been lightened or darkened is tone. A true color that has been lightened is a tint. A true color that’s been darkened is a shade.

cornsilk blonde

Corn silk

 

 

apricot blonde

Apricot Blonde

 

Hair colors are fun to play with. There are many descriptions of blonde online. Here are two:

 

color wheel

 

Reviewing the color wheel has helped me dress my characters and decorate their space

 

 

 

 

And check out dailywritingtips.com’s How to Punctuate Descriptions of Colors By Mark Nichol – It’s a short two minute read and very helpful. Easy to understand explanations for  the correct use of hyphens and commas and how their misuse can change your intended meaning.

Metaphorically, I’m a three year old. No, not in dog years . . . in writers’ years. learning my colors

And I’m having fun learning my colors!

de·scrip·tion dəˈskripSH(ə)n; noun 1. a spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, or event.

By Janice McCaffrey

My critique buddies tell me I need more detail in my descriptions.

Oh, my heck!

The word description gives me sweaty palms and heart palpitations just like the phrase dangling participles.

Whenever I hear any grammatical term I’m transported back to Mrs. Foster’s eighth-grade English class. She’s handing back our descriptive paragraph assignment. I’m sitting at my desk waiting, feeling confident in my efforts. After all one day I’ll be a famous author.

Standing next to me, Mrs. Foster clears her throat and places a piece of loose leaf paper on my desktop. Face down. Beside the next desk she repeats her ritual. The room reeks with the smell of nervous teenagers. Kids clear their throats, cough, and squirm in their seats.

I take a deep breath and gather my courage. I worked hard on this assignment. I’m proud of the result. How bad could it be? I watch as my shaking fingers squeeze the paper so tight I leave a deep wrinkle. I wonder, is my heart still beating? Clinching my jaw I turn the paper over.

“WHAT?”

Stunned, I don’t move. I stare at too many red check marks to count. And right at the top of the page is a big, fat D–.

I hold my breath and bite my lip to stop the tears from streaming down my red face. I swallow hard to get the acidy taste off my tongue.

The bell rings and I watch my classmates sprint to the classroom door. I don’t know if my knees will hold me up. But I do know if I don’t move, I’ll be late to my next class. I stand and walk trance-like into the crowded hall.

That’s it, I think. I’ll never be an author.          edhs empty classroom 

I hate composition and especially grammar.

Afterwords:

I never learned how to repair my errors. That assignment didn’t teach me how to write descriptive paragraphs, it just screamed, “You’re Dumb!”

Today I ask myself, can my inner-teenager overcome her self-doubts and embrace grammatical terms? Will I ever forget those few minutes of shame so many years ago?

Well, the good news is: I’m workin’ on it.

How? How else? Google, of course.

I love Google!

Don’t ask why, but I began my Google exploration of descriptions with noses. I found Zwivel.com Sniffing Out Nose Shapes which lists the twelve most common nose types: fleshy, turned-up, Roman, bumpy, snub, hawk or aquiline, Greek, nubian, East Asian, Nixon, bulbous and combo.

I examined a multitude of images (photos of people and famous statues) testing my power of observation by identifying which nose would be categorized under which type.

Another search led me to word lists for writers on KathySteinemann.com Resources for Writers & Poets, 300+ ways to describe noses. She also has word lists to describe necks, ears, smiles, eyes, etc. etc.. At Wattpad.com there’s Vocabulary – Word Lists for Writers by The Otakunerd and at tumblr.com Reference for Writers.

At WritingWorld.com I found a blog called The Art of Description: Eight Tips to Help You Bring Your Settings to Life by Anne Marble. Her topics in this discussion are: Avoid Huge Lumps of Description; Make Description an Active Part of the Story; Describe What Your Characters Would Notice; Words, Words, Words; Use All the Senses; Fit the Description to the Type of Story; Avoid Excessive Name-dropping; and Don’t Let Description Hang You Up during a First Draft.

And last, but not least, at Wiki How.com how to do anything . . . I found How to Write a Descriptive Paragraph:

 Descriptive paragraphs include details that appeal to the five senses: sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing. In a descriptive paragraph, the writer must convey information that appeals to all the senses in order to give the best possible description to the reader. Descriptive paragraphs are commonly used in fiction and non-fiction writing to help immerse readers into the world of the author.

I’m impressed with the amount of free information online to help writers. Not only words, but how to: outline, plot a story arc, bring characters to life, edit, rewrite, and find editors or publishers. This is a great time to be a wanna-be-author.

As I pursue my quest, I repeat to myself, I think I can, I think I can.

And every so often I declare,

“I can . . . I will . . . and . . . I did!”