Focus: For Writers

Tears, Joy and Awe in Africa

Ever walk out of a movie, chuckling at the same time you’re wiping tears of emotion from your eyes? That’s what it was like for me when my husband and I visited Africa this summer. And each time I tell someone about our marvelous adventure, I fight back tears. It was without doubt the most memorable, rewarding and moving trip in my life.

We spent ten days in Kenya, visiting the staff, students and directors of Caring Hearts High School, in Nguluni. The school is about a ninety-minute drive on bumpy, crowded roads from where we stayed in Nairobi. Our host was Dr. Vincent Kituku, president of Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope, the force behind Caring Hearts High School.

Dr. Kituku grew up in nearby Kangundo, Kenya, and now lives in Boise, Idaho. I met Vincent in Boise through Toastmasters and later edited many of his articles and two of his books.

Classrooms at Caring Hearts High School
Classrooms at Caring Hearts High School

A visit to his native Kenya in 2010, where he saw the horrendous toll AIDS and poverty were taking, prompted him to take a hiatus in his career as a professional motivational speaker and become a fundraiser. When he realized that providing scholarships for girls and boys still didn’t help those most in need, he began the quest to buy a boarding school for girls. There they could be safe and nourished.

Kenya is a country of social and economic inequities. According to Unicef, 42 percent of its 44 million people live below the poverty line. Access to basic services such as health care, education, clean water and sanitation, is a luxury for many people. Yet everywhere we visited, we were greeted with warmth and food and entertainment, and usually left bearing gifts.

On our first afternoon at Caring Hearts, the students thrilled us with a remarkable display of talent and energy—singing, dancing and

Welcome to Africa!
Welcome to Africa!

recitations. We heard from their formidable, live-in principal, Miss Pamela, and from other local board members. They,

CHHH Principal, Miss Pamela
CHHH Principal, Miss Pamela

and of course, Dr. Kituku, had inspiring and encouraging words for the girls.

We were amazed at how hard the girls work and by the sheer volume of their course load—11 subjects a day. They rise at 4:30 a.m. to work on personal studies (homework) and are in class or other structured activities, including sports, drama and music, until

Dr. Kituku on dreaming big
Dr. Kituku on dreaming big

lights out at 9:30. They may even sneak in a few minutes for TV, but I’m not sure when.

Despite their rigorous schedule, these girls are happy—they smile and giggle a lot! One day I served them lunch and couldn’t believe I needed to dole out the entire pot of Githeri, a yummy staple of

lunchtime-2
Githeri: yum!

beans and corn, for one table of hungry teenagers. They set me straight.

We spent a morning working in the garden with the students and another collecting trash with them in Nguluni, the nearest community. There the conversation was more relaxed and we got to chat about the

Me, delivering manure!
Me, delivering manure!
trash-pickup-2
Collecting trash in Nguluni

differences between our country and theirs. And laugh a lot. When Mark and I asked one girl to summarize a story she’d told in their opening entertainment—we had a little difficulty hearing and understanding it—she recited it again. When Mark said, “Wow. You’re only a sophomore. Imagine when you’re a senior—you’ll be a star! She smiled with pride and said, “I’m already a star!” And indeed, she, and the other young women we were fortunate to meet, are stars. Stars that represent hope for a country mired in corruption and poverty.

 

giraffes-4-small

eland
Eland, zebras and buffalos

Later our group trekked six long hours by van over yet more bumpy roads to visit the Maasai Mara. The bumps were forgotten as soon as we began to see animals. Lots and lots of them

One day our adventure may be fodder for a novel. Today, it is food for my soul. If you want to learn more about Caring Hearts High School, visit their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/CaringHeartsandHandsofHope.

What about you? Has a trip or a project changed you in a significant way?

Lions
Lions

 

 

 

 

Fit or Flat: Getting Your Novel in Shape Part II

Let’s chat about sagging middles. Pilates works at strengthening the body’s core, creating a taut, attractive, strong middle. That’s what we want in our writing, too.

exercising womanOne way to create that taut core in a novel is to strengthen the connecting tissue by applying tension and conflict. That strong line of tension and story question pulls you through to the end.

Throughout the story arc, your protagonist must face a series of obstacles. Things must get worse, then worse yet. Oh, and even worse, before she uses her wits and talent to resolve those problems.

But each chapter, each scene, also needs tension. An argument between the main characters isn’t necessarily conflict. Or at least not compelling, page-turning tension.

In each scene, the focal character wants something. You can create tension by making it hard to achieve that objective, by putting up obstacles and by showing the emotions created in your point of view characters as they struggle to achieve their objectives. Even better? Show the emotions created in the non POV character in the scene, as observed by the POV character.

Pacing creates tension. Taut, rapid fire dialog without tags and with lots of white space on the page moves the scene along. Contrast that pace by using telling details to stretch a physical act beyond what you’d normally expect, or by allowing your character a moment for reflection. A moment. A brief moment. Too much internal thought drains tension.

You want to make sure your protagonist is not getting what he or she wants from the scene. Nor is the reader. And that creates fat-30252_1280tension. And tension is like a girdle for a sagging middle.

Another cause of the sagging middle is including too much back story. We’ve learned that you need to delay back story until after the first 50 pages. That’s a good lesson. It doesn’t give you permission to dump back story, like a four cheese lasagna, into your middle. It will sag. Sprinkle the bits of essential back story throughout the middle and avoid the back story bulge.

Make things difficult for your protagonist, season lightly with the right details, show the emotion that each obstacle, each event, creates in your characters, and don’t drown your reader in back story. You’ll avoid flabbiness and achieve a tasty, toned tale.

How do you keep your writing trim? Please share your tips.

 

CONFLICTED ABOUT CONFLICT? A guest post from Conda V. Douglas, short story maven

Today I welcome Idaho writer Conda V. Douglas. Conda’s had more than 100 short stories published and has written a great book on writing short stories, Write Short to Succeed. Recently she mentioned to me how many stories lack real conflict, so I asked her to share her thoughts here. Welcome, Conda. And congratulations on The Mall Fairies: War winning the Epic eBook Award 2016 for children’s/young readers!

Now to the conflict.

Write Short to Succeed - Conda V Douglas front coverConflict: that most necessary element of writing anything and yet sometimes the most difficult for authors to grasp. Conflict: often the easiest way to construct a story and yet sometimes the most difficult for authors to use. Conflict: a tool that every author needs to know how to use.

One way to learn what conflict is and isn’t is to deconstruct a story or article. For this post, I’m using common romance. Why? Because romances are one type of story that it’s easy to confuse the different elements, conflict with plot, for example.

Most romances are “Girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back.” This is not conflict. This is the plot. The conflict is inherent in the plot. Where is it?

Three questions can lead to finding the conflict:

“What’s the problem?”

“What’s the goal of the main character?”

“Are the stakes high?”

The problem is: Girl loses boy and wants boy back. This is the conflict. She wants what she doesn’t have. The conflict always raises questions. Will the girl be able to get the boy back? How? What will she do to accomplish that?

Her goal is to get the boy back. What she does to accomplish that is the action of the story. When the goal is thwarted—what the girl tries doesn’t work, that leads to more conflict. Now what will she do? Will that work?

The stakes are high because she’s lost the love of her life. It will be terrible if she can’t get him back. The higher the stakes the more conflict there is.

This is why writing coaches always advise to make it as hard as possible on your characters. The more problems, the higher the stakes, the bigger the goals and the harder to achieve those goals, the more conflict there is.

Conflicting questions? Conflicting answers? Let me know in the comments!

Here’s a little more about Conda V. Douglas:

CVD crazy photoConda glories in writing both short and long, always with oodles of conflict. She credits winning the Epic eBook 2016 award in children’s/Young Reader for her title The Mall Fairies: War to using conflict! (And no, it’s not the war that’s the conflict, that’s the action.) Her latest book, Write Short to Succeed, in which she devotes an entire chapter to the vagaries of conflict, is out now. On May 3, 2016, Conda will teach a class in Hows and Whys of Writing Short for Boise Schools Community Education, more details here.

Fit or Flat: Getting Your Novel in Shape: Part I

Just like the people who pen them, novels in progress (and some in print) are subject to several physical ailments:  flabbiness, sagging middles, lack of tension and tone, and just plain old flatness, no zip.

And as we do for our bodies, certain practices or exercises will help get them into shape. In today’s post, I’ll give my take on ways to control flabbiness. Possibly because flab has been on my mind (and above my waistline) of late. Next time we’ll tackle sagging middles.

sunset-163479_640Beware. While walking the dog can help tone you and the dog, what Margie Lawson terms “walking the dog” in your novel can lead to flabbiness and bored readers.

When you include every detail of your protagonist’s life, from the alarm’s pealing to the kind of shower gel he uses to the cracking of two free range eggs into a cast iron skillet, you’re walking the dog. TMI, too much information. And then…and then…and then….sounds like the report of an excited kindergartner, who assumes the listener wants to hear every moment of the day.

eggs-932189_1280Details are effective ONLY when they provide useful insights into your character’s personality or the problem he or she faces. Details mean more when they are specific, and have meaning to your character. Possibly some of the facts in that first sentence told you something about the character, but I would only include it if, say, I wanted my reader to know my protagonist uses iron skillets because he’s deathly afraid of using aluminum.

Telling details, as they’re often called, tell us something about the character or the scene. Showing the character cutting her food into tiny pieces and moving it around on the plate instead of consuming it provides more insight than her hair color, body type and facial characteristics.

In description, include details that are important to your point of view characters, details that evoke their emotions. Don’t just catalog the scenery because you like your setting. Make it count for your characters and it will compel your readers to keep reading.

How much detail do you think works in the books you read and/or write?

Avoid Embarrassing Goofs

I’m working on a book that compiles many of the articles I wrote for The Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider when I lived in Boise.  I’ll be posting them throughout the next months and welcome your comments and corrections.

Before you hit “print” or “send” on any document, you need to be sure it is as free of errors as possible. This is most important when dealing with words with a longer life span, such as website copy, but mistakes weaken any communication.

First, for fun, let’s define grammar, punctuation and mechanics. Grammar is the way words are put together to make units of meaning. Punctuation refers to those symbols used to help people read sentences the way we want them to be understood.

Mechanics refers to the arbitrary “technical” stuff in writing: spelling, capitalization, use of numerals, and other conventions.

Usage is the way language is used. Usage evolves and changes with time and attitudes. Usage affects grammar, punctuation, and/or mechanics.  write-2400px

Let’s move on to ways to check our documents. The best proofreader is someone else, because it is hard to find our own typos. But if you don’t have that luxury, try these hints.

1.) Print your document instead of proofreading it on the computer screen. You’ll find more errors.

2.) Read the document backward. You’ll see words you’ve skipped.

3.) Pay attention to, but don’t blindly obey the spelling and grammar checkers on your computer.

4.) Use the auto-correct feature in your word processor to correct words you consistently mistype. Add your personal bugaboos to the program.

5.) Read your work aloud. If you are bored by your voice, consider trying a free program such as Text Aloud, which converts any text into spoken words. Standard voices are free, premium voices come at a fee. I don’t know exactly what a premium voice is, but perhaps sultry comes at a cost.

6.) Use the tip of a pen or pencil to physically touch each word (on the printed page) to force yourself to read each word. Try putting a ruler under a line. Or (idea thanks to Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing) cut out a small rectangular window on an index card and slide it over your copy as you read. I think the hole would be hard to cut. Maybe a notch in the top?

7.) Several automatic editing  programs may provide the help you need to  check your manuscript for style: overuse of words, unvarying sentence lengths, clichés, too many “ly” adverbs, passive voice, ending with a preposition (not always wrong), misused homonyms, repeated words (close together), common misspellings (such as mispel) and other flaws. Some are free; most give free trials. Google automatic editing for reviews and try them. I’ve tried a couple and they do indeed find errors. I don’t always agree with them or have the patience to use them. However, some people love these programs.

Error-free may be a dream, but these hints will lead to fewer typos and a better finished product.

How about you? What’s your best hint for avoiding those embarrassing goofs (the kind on the page)?

Rorters, spruikers and malarkey

While researching the art of the long con for a new novel, I came across an article from Australia and was introduced to two delightful words: rorter and spruiking. Exploring them led me farther astray. What a great way to procrastinate.

A rorter is generally considered Australian slang, and is a noun meaning a swindler, a small-time confidence trickster or cheat. Say it out loud, with or without the Aussie accent. It simply sounds cool, nicely insulting.hog in meadow

The same article referenced spruiking, which means speaking in public, especially to advertise. Ever visit North Beach in San Francisco? No doubt you’ve heard spruiking from the people trying to lure you into the strip joints. The term also is used—by the opposition, no doubt—to describe political speeches. Proponents call it orating.

A rorter might be found spruiking near a bank, hoping to snare a mark with a pigeon drop scheme. A pigeon drop is a confidence trick in which a mark or “pigeon” is persuaded to give up a sum of money in order to secure the rights to a larger sum of money, or more valuable object. In reality, the scammers make off with the money and the mark is left with nothing.

The wise—or bitterly experienced— passerby will recognize the con artist’s spiel as malarkey and keep passing.

Malarkey. Ah, yes. Love the word. Malarkey is defined as foolish words or ideas, or bunkum. Another great word. While the origin of malarkey appears murky, bunkum has a specific and colorful history.

Around 1820, U.S. representative Felix Walker, from Buncombe County, North Carolina, rose to make a spDSC01016eech during a debate. He spoke on and on. And on, refusing to stop, even though most of what he said was irrelevant and foolish. He maintained he was speaking for Buncombe. Because it was not used as an intentional delaying tactic, it was not filibuster, a technique and a term introduced a few decades later. It quickly transformed into bunkum and took on the general meaning of nonsense or balderdash. Balderdash originally meant a jumble of liquors but now means a senseless jumble of words, or claptrap.

Claptrap, according to an online etymology dictionary, originated showy stage action designed to trap applause or claps and has evolved to mean nonsense.

A quick search for synonyms reveals a basket of words—beans, blarney, blather, blatherskite, bosh, blither, drivel, codswallop, fiddlesticks, humbug, guff, taradiddle, and more. Is this because we encounter it so often?

Have you encountered a flim flam man (person) or written about one? What’s your favorite film about con artists? I figure watching several could extend my procrastination for weeks!

 

National Day on Writing

Today, October 20, is the National Day on Writing, a day championed by the National Council of Teachers of English to honor the role written words play in our lives.

If you tweet about it, the sponsors suggest using the hashtag #WhyIWrite write-2400px

For many of us, every day is, or we wish it would be, the day for writing. But not often do words get national attention, so, hey, let’s celebrate!

I found out about this day at my very first visit to the Tucson Writers’ Table. Writers get together and write in silence for two hours, no chatting. Another writer teaches at the University and mentioned it. The official hashtag (#WhyIWrite) prompted me to think about why I write.

Many writers say they have always known they were writers; that they must write. If that is true for me, why then did I need to come to The Writers’ Table to force myself to write for two hours? I am hoping that taking this weekly time will help me achieve focus when I’m away from the group; will help me at the very least get started on a few projects I’ve been pondering but have yet to commit to words.

Because, despite blithely professing, “Oh, I’ve always known I’d be a writer, can’t help but write,” few people accomplish the productivity and creativity that statement suggests. Even those born writers encounter blank pages, are interrupted by the responsibilities of daily life, or simply lose their direction and impetus in writing.

At a recent meeting of Tucson Sisters in Crime, two speakers focused on what keeps us from writing and ways to overcome those obstacles. One helped us probe and approach our fears in general and our fears about writing (and how writing what we most fear can strengthen our words); the other provided hints for achieving writing (and life) goals and getting into the “flow,” of our activities, whatever they are. In regard to flow, she cited Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who contributed pioneering work to our understanding of happiness, creativity, human fulfillment and the notion of “flow” — a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.

I can recall times when I’ve been in flow when writing: when I lose track of time, ignore distractions, and generate lots of words. Sometimes those words evoke tears or laughter. Ideas come to me as gifts instead of hard sought. Those times of flow are too rare for me, so I’m hoping my time at The Writers’ Table with a group of focused writers will help me find it more easily.

Book5Back to why I write: I love words and have enough ego to think others might enjoy the way I use them. I love lying with impunity. Writing about offbeat characters and their misadventures gives me a chance to explore behaviors the good girl in me won’t allow in real life. Because I was blessed with parents who read and who read to me and who loved words, I grew up with a love of reading and an ability to articulate my thoughts.

Silly me. I thought that’s all I needed to write great fiction: a facility with words and a few ideas. I’ve found learning the craft of writing novels and stories a lot harder than I ever imagined. Yet still I continue. I think one reason is the joy of getting into “flow.” Another is the desire to improve. I won’t ever be a great distance runner or a professional tennis player, but with hard work and practice, I might turn my love of words and story-telling into some passable writing.

Maybe it’s like parenthood. Women can give birth to children, with assistance from men or science, but parenting those children well takes dedication, practice, hard work, patience and wisdom, and arguably an innate propensity or talent for parenting.

Okay, celebrate the role words have in your life. And share with me why you write! It’s our day.

Point of View Pointers

kathymc_cover for twitter
Make me squeal with delight!

Before my post, let me remind you that my campaign on KindleScout for a contract with Amazon is coming to an end. I need all the nominations I can garner in these last few days. It ends on September 19th.  It’s easy to nominate books and if they’re chosen, you get a free pre-release copy. Just go to KindleScout and read more about my book and others.

Let me know you nominated Foul Wind, and I’ll be sure you get a free ebook whether or not I get the contract.

Okay, that’s my point of view. Now on to some thoughts on point of view. From, of course, my viewpoint.

Stories are told from some point of view. Somewhat like the different lenses of a camera, the viewpoint can be distant or very close. Omniscient point of view sees and reports on the characters and the action from some point where “all” is known and can be seen. Stories told in this point of view can share descriptions of setting and characters and the thoughts and opinions of all characters, because the narrator/writer knows all and sees all. This point of view can get up close and personal with a character’s emotions or remain distant.eyeglasses

Second person is written using you. “You go to the dermatologist and she tells you those ugly age spots are ‘wisdom spots,’ and you want to throttle the thoughtless tadpole.  Or tell her to wait until she turns into a frog.”

Third person point of view, and I am simplifying a lot here, tells a story as if one person is reporting on the action, in “he ate three potato chips,” style.

First person point of view tells the story from one person’s viewpoint. “I felt like a French fry among scalloped potatoes in my elegant family.”

The protagonist of a first person novel knows only what she sees or hears or is reported to her by others. The reader’s knowledge is also restricted to that which the POV character knows.

A strong, close point of view helps tell a stronger story.  When you reveal a scene through the eyes of the character who cares most about its outcome, the scene takes on power and emotion.

A story can talk about a hanging, let’s say. In omniscient point of view (POV), the narrator would describe a crowd of onlookers, andnoose[1] tell us they are watching because they’re pleased that a notorious killer is meeting justice. Tell us about this hanging  from the eyes of the daughter of the killer’s third victim, and we care more. Tell us from the eyes of a woman who escaped his knife and helped in his capture and we perhaps care even more. We’ll see different details and feel deeper, stronger emotions. If we’ve had the chance to meet the daughter or the would-be victim before, seen her do something that endears her to us, we’re likely hooked. She need not save a kitten. She could simply exhibit a few natural emotions and frailties that we can identify with. We’ll want to know what happens next.

Writing point of view can be tricky. You need to restrict what the point of view character observes only to what is outside that character, and through the eyes of that character. For example, if you’re in the point of view of a self-conscious teen, you might not want to write, “Cara shook her long, lush curls free from the restraining scarf.” More likely it would be something like, “Cara dragged the stupid scarf from her head, snagging her hair and leading no doubt to yet another mare’s nest of split ends in her mouse brown mess of curls.” And you’d have to consider whether a teenager would use the term mare’s nest.

To better understand point of view (and if you enjoy historical romance), you might want to read a few of Lauren Willig’s fun “flower” novels, beginning with THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION. Romance, espionage, history, and humor abound in the series.

What I found fascinating is how the shifting point of view of a character portrays an almost totally different person. I’ve always known that the villain is a hero in his/her eyes. In this series,  one character is “foiled” in achieving her goal in one novel, and appears rather frivolous and ill-intentioned from the point of view of the protagonist of that novel.  In the next novel, the “bad sister” becomes the heroine and the writing is from her point of view and she no longer seems villainous.  Behavior that seems tacky from one point of view becomes justified, thoughtful, normal from within that character.

Novelists these days take liberties with the old rule of choosing a point of view and sticking with it. They may include one section that’s in first person and add others that are in third person, or mix it up even more.

The objective is to tell a good story and not confuse the reader.

I’ll save my rant against head-hopping for another post.

I’d love to know the POV you choose and why.

I’d also love your nomination on KindleScout!

Kindle Scout: One Path to Publishing

Time’s running out to nominate Foul Wind on KindleScout! If you haven’t time to read the post, just click, nominate and run on to your next project, reading this after my deadline! Thanks. 

There-are-threeSince he died in 1832, I’ll forgive Mr. Cotton’s sexism. He makes a good point.

Right now I’m on a search for some sensible folks to read my first chapter and nominate me for publication on Kindle Scout. If my book is published, you’ll get a free pre-release copy. It’s fast and easy.

If you’re ready, here’s the link: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/3VDS86RNJSQOE

kathymc_cover for twitterWhy did I decide to try Kindle Scout? My path to published author has been long and crooked. When I began writing fiction, I naively assumed that someone who’d been a successful marketing communicator would quickly whip out several bestsellers and soon be on the road, exhausted by smiling at and signing books for, my many fans.

Oops! Lesson 1: writing fiction is NOT like writing data sheets or product brochures.

My first novel was a finalist in the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic contest. Hoorah! Agents wanted to see the whole manuscript. I’d soon be a published author on that exhausting book tour.

Not so. Some liked it, but no one LOVED it enough to want to take it on.

Lesson 2: The good grammar that thrilled the weary eyes of a contest judge is not enough to sell fiction. I needed to learn a lot more about creating interesting characters and presenting them with nearly insurmountable challenges that cause said characters to change by surmounting them.

Times changed. The publishing industry changed. Some of my colleagues found success publishing independently, others with small presses.

Several books and countless query letters later, I submitted my novel, Mustard’s Last Stand to a small publisher, L&L Dreamspell. They loved it! They published it. But sadly, soon after publication of my novel, one of the partners died. The remaining partner chose to close the company.Change-is-the-law-of

Instead of seeking a new publisher, I decided to independently publish my novel, the first in a madcap series of books set in North Idaho. I did. I also produced an audio book of the novel, narrated by JoBe Cerny, the voice of the Pillsbury Doughboy. Really.

Ready to vote? Yes! I nominate Foul Wind!

Times changed. The publishing industry changed. Those authors who’d found great success publishing independently struggled with declining sales. My sales had no declining in their future, only an upward path. That has been a rugged one.

When I completed the second book in the series, Foul Wind, I decided to try Kindle Scout. That’s an Amazon program where readers can read about a book, read the first chapter, and nominate it for publishing. Success means a contract with a nice advance and some help marketing the book from Amazon. If I don’t get the contract, I’ll publish it myself.

I would greatly appreciate your going to my page on Kindle Scout and taking a look at Foul Wind. While you’re there, nominate two others. You’ll get a free pre-release copy of any of your nominations that are selected for publication.

Let me know what you think of Kindle Scout. I think it’s a win-win in this changing world, at least worth a 30 day wait for independent publication. It was very easy to post my book, with some marketing information that will always be useful.

Now. Go. Nominate. Tell your friends and family about my books. And look for Mustard’s Last Stand to be free sometime during this promotion. I’ll let you know when.

Have any of you tried Kindle Scout? What do you think?

Don’t Needle Me: Sports and Sewing Metaphors

While traveling not long ago, I saw a woman toting a sewing machine as her carry-on luggage. No one stopped her.

99K Singer Hand Crank Sewing Machine
99K Singer Hand Crank Sewing Machine

What is the matter with the Transportation Security Administration? Don’t they realize the dangers inherent in sewing machines? Consider the terminology.

A needle is a small, slender, pointed implement used for sewing or surgical suturing. Have you never punctured yourself while attempting to attach a button or stitch a hem? I inevitably bleed on my blouse or skirt. It’s no wonder the verb needle also means to goad or provoke. I’m often provoked when attempting to sew.

This line of thought led me to consider the analogies used in business and wonder for a moment why sewing analogies don’t show up as often as sports. I assume it is because until recently the majority of business strategists were male, and the majority of sports enthusiasts were also male. “Let’s figure out our game plan so we’ll be in the catbird seat.” I’ve wondered where the catbird seat is and where the phrase came from. It apparently was used in the south to mean an advantageous position, high up where the group of birds that includes the mockingbird choose to sit to sing their tunes. The term was popularized in a story by James Thurber, who cited its frequent use by sports commentator Red Barber.

When things are going well, the company is batting 1000, perhaps with the assistance of a cleanup hitter.

Although these terms are easily understood by most Americans, even those who aren’t fond of sports, the full court press utilized by basketball teams and business strategists may be more obscure. Any of these could be misconstrued by those not familiar with the sport.

Some years ago, former Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice, urging patience to critics of a plan to shut down North Korea’s nuclear program, assured them we were only in the first quarter, with a lot of time left on the clock.

Rice’s language was familiar to others on the Bush White House team, but less to the Asians she was addressing. But that’s okay. Ms. Rice took one for the team and kept her eye on the ball. A good thing, else her gaffe might have become a political football for Democrats to kick around.

Let’s level the playing field and consider the other endeavors and hobbies that we employ to add spice to our words. Want to postpone making a decision? Put it on the back burner. Let your ideas simmer for a while. But don’t stew about the problem and by all means, don’t cook the books. However, if the issue rises to the top of the list, consider your opportunity to curry favor with your manager by putting some heat under it.

The phrase curry favor has nothing to do with Indian cooking. It comes from an old French morality poem about a vain donkey named Fauvel that deceived the leaders of the court and rose to power. Those who wanted to please him and gain political power stroked and curried Fauvel. A later English moralist changed the term and it evolved to currying favor.

Let’s end where we began, with sewing. Two basic stitches in knitting are the knit stitch and the purl stitch. Is it possible the word purl is related to purloin? Purloin, meaning steal or misappropriate, has its origins in Middle English, meaning to put away or set aside. I’d love to hear from knitters out there if there’s any sense in my thinking. One website referred to the purl as the opposite of a knit stitch. The purl stitch is yin, the dark, shady hillside, to the knit stitch’s yang, the bright, flat open space.

Or am I merely missing a stitch?