Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
May 27, 2011

Writing Antifreeze: Word and Phrase Menus

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
  • Emotion
  • Body movements: sit, stand, lay, move from place to place, arm and hand
  • Body language
  • Busy cities: Sounds, smells, imagery
  • Forests
  • Mountains
  • Bodies of water: rivers, lakes and oceans
  • Weather: all types
  • Lovemaking

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: 

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!

0 comments on “Writing Antifreeze: Word and Phrase Menus”

  1. Sharla,
    Wonderful post! Your analogy of the fish under the ice is a hoot. And I'm in awe of your organizational skills. I have two or three lists, mainly action verbs and some descriptive stuff, but they don't hold a candle to all your terrific lists. As for the treasure chest of books you included, I can't wait to get my hands on some of them. Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge! Lyn

    1. Well, Lyn there's a story behind the ice fishing as you might guess. 🙂 As a kid my grandparents owned a lake resort in Minnesota and Grandpa took me ice fishing. Let me tell you, it takes a heap of patience for a little kid to sit there and stare at hole in the ice, knowing the fish are down there somewhere, but she can't even see them. Ah, those were days, but I'm not about to say how many years ago that was. Ha!

  2. You have some really great resources here, and thank you for listing mine. Oh and just to let you know, the Body Language one goes to the action verb site.

    I find a great site to boot my brain to find the right word is the Reverse Dictionary. It's great when you have an idea of the word you want, but not quite. It finds words that are associated to other words. I'll post it here in case you aren't already aware of it: http://www.onelook.com/reverse-dictionary.shtml

  3. Wonderful post, Shar. I must start a "sites to vist" list. I have a tendency to hop on over to sites I find interesting immediately. Which usually leads to another "must see now" site reference. It's a trait some (including my CP) might call compulsive.

    Hmm. Wonder if that has anything to do with my 3 minute under-the-wire entry in The MOLLY.

    Love this site, btw. I registered for updates. Keep them coming!

    1. Thanks Gloria, glad you liked the blog and I do know what you mean about getting caught up in interesting web sites. I know friends who set a timer and allow themselves only so much fun web fun before getting down to work. 🙂 I'm going to try it too. Shar

  4. This could not have been a better blog. Redundencies are my villians in writing and these sites and books will help reload my weapons and sharpen my tools.

    Thanks, Mary George.

    1. Connie, Our thought processess all work differently so writers should store their menus in a manner that makes sense to them. Mine are in a large 3 ring binder with dividers. You can use large dividers for the bigger topics like characters and smaller tags for everything descripes characters, including body movement. Because emotions are a wide range they get their own lg. divider in my binder and the small dividers are anger, excitement, happy, etc. You see how it goes. 🙂 Scene descriptions are filed in the same manner.

      1. See why she is the Queen of Craft? Just listening to the rundown on those binders makes my eyes cross!! I have a basket...I toss stuff in and dig it out when I need to. 🙂

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved