By Sharla Rae
We’ve all experienced brain freeze and no, I don’t mean writers’ block. Writers’ block is when you don’t know what comes next in the story or you’ve written yourself into a corner and can’t find a way out.
Think of brain freeze as a frozen lake. All the fish are still alive swimming under the ice, but the fisherman can’t get to them. In other words, you can’t for the life of you come up with the right words.
Some writers type a few Xs and return to the problem later. Not me. I’m wa-a-a-y linear. I’ll beat my head against the desk trying to excavate precious jewels, those perfect words that convey emotion, setting, image and atmosphere.
Since beating my head on the desk works about as well as chipping away at a frozen lake with a soup spoon, I developed faster methods.
I’ve used the The Word Finder by J.I. Rodale or a thesaurus, but sometimes words need to convey more than their face value. And that’s when I pull out my homemade antifreeze, that is, word and phrase menus.
My menus are on-going. Whenever I discover a common word or phrase used in an uncommon manner I add it to one of my lists according to the subject it describes. Familiar descriptions are also added because the purpose of word menus is to be a reminder, an antifreeze to melt brain freeze.
- Aging word menu: bedridden, sedentary, calcified, stooped, tottering, Methuselah, doddering, dowager, arthritis, fossil, codger, crone, geezer, gout
- Aging Phrase menu: old and decrepit, old duffer is deaf, old fogey, banging his cane, rheumy eyes, humped over and leaning, skin like well-worn leather, crotchety and gruff, Old goat, Queen of the rocking chair
- Aging terms: Centenarian – 100 years or older; Septuagenarian – person in their 70s; Atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries; Alzheimer’s – progressive neurodegenerative disease
Caution: When recording a phrase, NEVER use someone elses' exact words. Legal ramifications aside, it's more fun to use the connotation of the phrase and create your own idea.
Some of my own word and phrase menu subjects include:
- Types of people: fat, skinny, babies, old people, females, males, crowds
- Body movements: sit, stand, lay, move from place to place, arm and hand
- Body language
- Busy cities: Sounds, smells, imagery
- Bodies of water: rivers, lakes and oceans
- Weather: all types
Most of my menus are generic and not specific places. When I start a new book, I research the location and familiarize myself with the setting. Specific location menus go into a notebook compiled for the corresponding title.
The roots of my menu obsession can be traced to my high school poetry class. While the teacher belabored iambic pentameter and other poetic tools, I was more enamored with the poet’s ability to use common expressions in uncommon settings.
Poems, however beautiful, aren’t the only source for word menus. Be prepared with highlighters, paper and pen. Frequently, writers need to populate their writing with cultures and images of exotic places they’ve never visited. National Geographic Magazine works great, but state publications like Arizona Highways and vacation magazines are good too.
Don’t forget technical terms and definitions. Sometimes they can be used interchangeably. How many times have you read about sharp and piercing eyes? It may work just as well to say gimlet-eyed. Note the old age terms and definitions above as well as a few eye terms below. The eye-term menu might also include disorders and diseases.
Examples of Eye Terms:
- Goggle-eyed – bulging, rolling or staring
- Megalophthalmic – having unusually large eyes
- Moon-eyed – round eyed
- Sloe-eyed – (1) shaped like sloes, a kind of plum, slanted. (2) soft dark bluish or purplish black eyes.
- Strabismaic – cross-eyed, walleyed
- Walleyed – eyes diverging instead of focusing simultaneously on the same point; eyes turned outward away from nose; also used to define a wild irrational staring, glare or fierce look
A quick reminder: While some technical terms are so common they no longer sound formal, others may be too formal for the story's setting. Channel the tone of the scene and ask yourself if the character would know, use or even think the technical term?
I mentioned common terms used in uncommon settings and words that convey more than their face value. As an example let’s talk about love/sex scenes. The following words are common to many subjects, but used in the context of a love scene, they take on more than their face value. Just the act of browsing a list like this, generates new ideas. This small sample comes from my 4-page list of Sensual Words.
Acute, adventurous, anchored, animal, beguiling, burn, clench, clever,
cursory, dangerous, daring, flowed, glide, haven, hazy, heady, impulse, incite, possessive,
potent, practiced, skimpy, sleepy, slender, tenacity, tender, tense etc. .
Now for the biggest and best anti-freeze tip: Look for descriptive words under the wrong subjects. Yep, you heard me – the wrong subject.
Have you ever heard a man compared to a Mack truck? Ever heard of monkey ears, pig nose, a beak, a car that purrs? Of course, you have. A sea might be dark and unfathomable -- like eyes, maybe? These are common usages that have become cliché, but I’m using them to defrost your brain and make a point.
Seeking descriptions under the wrong topics will yield amazing images, sounds, tastes and smells. Also it encourages you to think harder and before you know it, you’ve defrosted your brain freeze.
What? You don’t have time to brew homemade antifreeze? That’s okay. I know a few short cuts.
Two Writers’ Digest books, Descriptionary, A Thematic Dictionary by Mark McCutcheon, and The Fiction Writer’s Silent Partner by Martin Roth offer excellent subject related words and phrases. Every writer needs the Random House Word Menu on their reference shelf. It’s a tome of over 800 pages containing definitions, terms, and descriptions of hundreds of subjects including military, health issues, emotions, professions, weather and more.
More great books:
- Words At Work by Mim Harrison: Professional terms
- The Describer’s Dictionary by David Gramb: Similar to Descriptionary
- Fighting Words From War, Rebellion and Other Combative Capers by Christine Ammer: Everything from fist fights to military terms and more.
- A Sea of Words, a Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales by Dean King: Most of these terms are still used today. This book includes: nautical and naval terms, medical definitions, weapons, food, drink and a little on customs and culture.
- Street Wise Spanish, Dictionary/Thesaurus by Mary McVey Gill and Brenda Wegmann: includes thematic categories.
- A Dictionary of The Old West by Peter Watts: I own several western dictionaries and while this has become rather pricy, it’s still my all-round fav.
- How To Read A Person Like A Book: Body Language book with great explanations and illustrations.
On The Internet: While you may have to visit quite a few sites to find what you’re looking for, this is an inexpensive alternative.
- A Writer’s Guide to Words.
- Action verb list to improve your writing style. Action verbs are usually descriptive in nature especially when it comes to body language. Yep, I have a body language menu as well as one on body movements such as sitting, standing and moving place to place.
- Body Language : One of the best sites I’ve found.
- National Geographic online: Find exotic places, storm descriptions, info in science articles that describe, oceans, forests etc. .
If you have helpful word menu ideas, please share them with us in the comments. Also, I’d love to hear what kinds of antifreeze you use.
REMINDER: The Going To The Chapel contest deadline is fast approaching. Not only is this contest a great writing prompt exercise for the long weekend, the winner receives a critique from at least three Writers In the Storm bloggers!