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A Rainbow of Petes Tags: Collective nouns Sinterklaas A Zeal of Zebras Zwarte Piet

It's 'Sinterklaas' in the Netherlands on 5th December. In the evening, children who still believe in St Nicholas and Black Pete put out their shoes to receive their presents. This children's festival has been dogged by controversy for many years because of the tradition of adults blacking up to play Sinterklaas's mischievous helper,'Zwarte Piet.' At long last things are changing and this tradition of blacking up is fading out to be replaced by multi-coloured 'Pieten.' While there is only one 'Sinterklaas' there are always several helpers, so even though Dutch doesn't have a tradition of collective nouns, I believe a catchy collective noun would speed up the transition to multicoloured Petes. How about a rainbow of Petes or a kaleidoscope of Petes?

Collective nouns seem to get the associative synapses firing in a way that ordinary words like herd, flock, pack and group, don't. Compare a flock of parrots with a pandemonium of parrots. With the latter you can hear their squawks, see their jungle bright colours flashing through the trees. Even the weird ones that appear to make no sense at all, such as an embarrassment of pandas, make you ponder the nature of pandas. Are they perhaps very shy and easily embarrassed?

Some collective nouns hint at the otherworldly and even attribute human characteristics to our feathered friends. A parliament of rooks, a murmuration of starlings, an unkindness of ravens can each be traced back as far as the fifteenth century. The etymologist Michael Quinion has noted that the first collection of collective nouns in English is, The Book of St Albans, printed in 1486 in three parts on the subjects of hawking, hunting, and heraldry. In the sixteenth century, the book was apparently reprinted many times over, which kept the lists of birds and beasts in the public consciousness, and indeed many of the nouns are still in circulation today.


A Zeal of Zebras
A friend celebrated a milestone birthday recently and as she was just about to start a textile design course and she loves the combination of graphics and letters, I found a really beautiful print book which I hoped would inspire her for her forthcoming course. A Zeal of Zebras is an illustrated book of the alphabet, using collective animal nouns for each letter. It was a great conversation piece at her party and I know it's something she will treasure and love for years to come. A great gift for writers and artists alike, methinks!


That is the wonderful thing about this language which we have chosen to write in. While some languages, such as Spanish, French, German and Dutch are ruled by committee there is no academy or governing body that decides on how English should evolve. So if there isn't a collective noun for something, feel free to make one up. Put it out there and if people use it enough, you can rub shoulders with Shakespeare as one of the movers and shakers in the ever-evolving journey of the English language.

What about us?
Lastly, I really think us writers deserve a collective noun, don't you? My one for the hat is an insurgency of writers. What would yours be? Do you have a favourite collective noun? An Onomatopoeia of Ocelots perhaps? A sniggering of sausages? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


This Week on Writers Abroad
Category: Site News

As the 11:59 pm deadline for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWrMo) looms Angela and Nicola have already exceeded the 50,000 words total! Congratulations to them and to other Writers Abroad participating.

In this week’s excellent Blog, ‘Just a Memory’, Dianne has drawn attention to the value giving characters a memory to ensure a reflective dimension. Also, to add to her recent collaboration with Vanessa on a World War II anthology of short stories, Dianne is about to release a new story for Christmas.

Nicola has once again provided a collection of Muses to inspire more writing this week. Further proof that this very busy author has an abundance of creative ideas to generously share.

In the Work in Progress Forum Jill has been shaping up her piece ‘The Weatherman’ to join Alyson’s entry in the Icelandic Escape competition.

Jill and Alyson have also brought our attention to the following December Writing Challenge opportunities:

Words Magazine - Theme Murder - closing date 31st December (great theme for this time of year!)

Plymouth Writers Group - Closing date 31st January 1500 words

Writers and Artists  - Closing date 13 February, 1300 words

Good luck everybody for a creative and productive week’s writing.



Just A Memory
Category: Writing
Tags: writing devices memory flashbacks writing technique

On Saturday I attended a writing workshop tutored by Anthony J. Quinn, a Northern Irish crime writer. We spent considerable time discussing how to develop three dimensional characters. One of the interesting suggestions he offered was to give your characters memories.

Memories make a character seem more real and can also be used to explain what they think, believe, feel and do. Like real people, characters should have thoughts, feelings and issues from their past that make them who they now are.

The writer needs to weave the memories they create for their characters seamlessly into scenes. When an event happens in the plot, the character may have a one or two sentence thought about the past that relates to the event, or a short flashback to a memory that will give the reader an insight into how the character feels or will react in the present. But it’s important not to let the memory dominate the narrative. Long flashbacks should be avoided as they will slow the pace of the plot.

A character’s memories can be triggered in various ways. A conversation with another character or an event in the plot may make the character remember something from the past. Or seeing a particular object may trigger it. Using an object as the trigger can be particularly useful if it is an item the character sees regularly or possibly one that he owns. This provides the opportunity for the character to be constantly reminded of a particular memory. If it is an unpleasant one this can be used to create anxiety, fear or sadness in the character and add to the tension in the story. If he owns the object that is tied to a powerful memory, this also may say something about him. Why he has kept the object and what it means to him may be important to explore in the story.

Something that triggers a memory doesn’t have to be physical either. In a story that I’m currently working on, one of the main characters has very vivid memories evoked when she hears a particular song. This could work with a film clip or television ad as well. In my story, the memories evoked are good ones but remembering earlier, happy times makes the character sad because she now lives hundreds of miles from the people she cares about and misses them. This illustrates that even a character’s happy memories can be used to create tension and internal conflict in a story.

One of the interesting points the tutor raised yesterday was that the landscape and the weather can both be used to evoke memories for a character. Selectively using items in the landscape, such as perhaps a dead tree or dark hills, can set the character off on a frightening or sad memory, whereas the sight of a field filled with meadow flowers on a summer’s day will likely trigger happier memories for the character.  

Another interesting point to consider when creating memories for characters is that the memory doesn’t have to be accurate or reliable. The character doesn’t necessarily have to remember the past as it actually happened. This can highlight the character’s concerns, fears, desires and pre-occupations. An inaccurate memory may cause the character to feel aggrieved about something in his past and give him ‘an axe to grind’ in the present. Or it may give him unrealistic hopes and expectations about how his present should be. This could also be used as the trigger for the conflict in the plot. If the character eventually realises the inaccuracy of his memory this might provoke changes to his actions and thoughts and resolve a conflict. Or he may never realise his error and this could set him on a path to his own destruction. It depends on the type of story you wish to write.

So, when you are writing a story, allow your character to think and remember. This will draw him off the page and make him seem more real and believable to the reader. 


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