reader mail

Fictional Hiccups, as I use them

Over on the forum there was an interesting question from CBigbee, which I answered there, but am duplicating here because links aren’t showing up over there properly.

The question:

First, I read the Wilderness series a few years back.  When I completed the final book I thought that I could never read another book again….So sad to see it end.  When I started Gilded Hour it took me a while to catch on to the connections back to Wilderness, and I was delighted! My burning (& odd) question is about hiccups.  I remember them from Wilderness.  Please help me understand what those are.  Do they sound like an actual hiccup, as in when one has the hiccups?  Because that doesn’t seem to work for me.  Is it a gasp?  What are those hiccups?  You are a brilliant writer and your novels complete me!

My answer:

Hi CBigbee —

First, thanks for stopping by.

When I use ‘hiccup’ metaphorically I’m thinking of the way people pull in a short breath in a noisy way. It’s heard a lot in European languages (Scandinavians tend to think of it as a feature of their languages alone, but it’s heard in languages across the world). You’ll hear it a lot of Scots English and less in American English, where you’ll most likely hear it as a sound of surprise.

Technically, in linguistics, this is called ingressive phonation. That sounds weird, but once you hear it you’ll know what I’m talking about. And thanks to the magic of the internet, you can hear it, right now, if you care to.

Eklund JIPA 2008 Figure 7b

Eklund JIPA 2008 Figure 7b

There’s an article on Wikipedia with a pretty good description of an inhaled affirmative, including a sound file. There is also a very technical website by Robert Eklund, here. Probably most useful from Eklund’s site is this sound file (and if you’re really interested, the corresponding spectogram, seen here.[1.This is phonetics, a branch of linguistics. Phoneticians (Robert Eklund, for example) study  the production of human speech sounds.] You will have to turn the sound on your computer way up and listen to it more than once, but the speaker of Scots English starts out the short sentence with what I have called a ‘hiccup’ sound to describe this phenomenon when I’m writing fiction.

See what happens when you hit my linguistics button? I miss teaching.


prequels, sequels, alternate realities and the wilderness series

There’s a page for the Wilderness series on Facebook, but I don’t often check it. Supposedly I get email notification when someone posts something on that page, but that doesn’t always work. Today I went over there to see if there were questions to answer, and found about ten of them dating back to the summer.

The common question I get — on Facebook or anywhere else — is about Ethan and Callie, but second most common are requests for new novels about specific characters. I’ve had people tell me they’d love to hear Blue-Jay’s story, as well as Wee Iona’s, Robbie’s, Nathaniel’s parents, even Jemima’s story. I am truly touched by these requests.  I take them as evidence that my characters live on in the minds of the readers, which is a great compliment. The series has been very successful over the years which isn’t so much about me writing as it is about you reading.

Here are the reasons I can’t just sit down and write (for example) Blue-Jay’s story.

1. Characters are not always forthcoming, If I can’t get into the head of a particular character, it is next to impossible to write a story focused on that person.

2. The biggest road block has to do with the nature of publishing.

Authors who produce true best sellers — books that top the NYT charts — those are the writers who have clout.  In this context, clout means the freedom to write the book you want to write and to know that it will be published. Most writers, even those of us who have had good, long-term success, don’t have this kind of clout. We have to submit proposals to the publisher to get a contract on a novel, and that is by no means guaranteed. Which is why almost all novelists have day jobs.

And that’s the simple truth about the way things work.

Advice for aspiring authors of fiction

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited.

It is a great responsibility to read the work of aspiring authors, and it is also a delicate, involved, and time consuming one. When I have a piece of work in front of me, I hold a person’s hopes and dreams in my hands. The wrong word or approach could crush those aspirations.

This is true no matter what the relationship. I exchange work with my best friend, and we both step carefully even though we give each other honest criticism. Over tea I can say to her “This just doesn’t work for me,” or “The transition here falls short” and she will not be crushed, because she knows that I respect her and her work. She can say to me “You just can’t use that name, it evokes too many associations to X” or “You’ve used this image before” or “huh?” and I’ll just nod, because she’s right and I know she is.

But an author who is just starting out may need commentary on many levels. From how to open a story to where to end a paragraph, from word choice to dialog, from story to character. When I teach introduction to creative writing I don’t let my students write a whole story to start with, simply because they will give me ten pages that require so much commentary it would take me longer to comment than it did for them to write it.

I once had a graduate student in creative writing who was very talented. She was writing her master’s thesis — a collection of short stories — under my direction. She had a whole file of stories she said were “junk”, but I asked to see them anyway. She believed that they were junk because a previous teacher had handed them back to her with the words “not worth the effort” written on them. But in that pile of rejected stories (about seven of them) I found four that had wonderful promise. Strong characters in interesting conflicts, but the rest of the story was in poor shape and needed extensive work. Over a summer I worked with her on those four stories. Each went through ten or even fifteen revisions, and she worked them into something wonderful. But it took tremendous effort.

The moral of that story is that the wrong reader can do a great deal of damage; the right reader is just the beginning of a long writing process.

I am sure that some or even many of the people who ask me to read their work are talented. They may need direction and help, and need it very sincerely. If I am not the person to provide it, what other choices do they have?

My strongest suggestion is to make connections to other writers around you. Community colleges often have classes in creative writing. Even if a new writer feels they are beyond the “introduction” stage, this can be a great way to make contact to others with the same interests and concerns. I found my first writing group (an excellent one) through a creative writing class. The other real advantage of taking such a course is this: it teaches you to accept constructive criticism gracefully, something that is often very hard for beginning writers, but absolutely necessary.

If for whatever reason it isn’t possible to take a course, then there are very good writing communities on-line. I highly recommend the authors’ forum at CompuServe, which includes sections where people submit and critique each other’s work, according to genre. CompuServe was very helpful to me when I was in the early stages of writing Into the Wilderness. Finally, I am always happy to suggest two books which were (and still are) helpful to me. The first one because it looks at the nuts-and bolts of putting together fiction with great insight, wonderful examples, and most of all, common sense; the second one because it is hopeful and wise and funny.

Jane Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 5th edition July 1999. Addison-Wesley Pub Co. ISBN: 0321026896

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. October 1995. Anchor Books/Doubleday. ISBN: 0385480016

Writing is a demanding business, but a rewarding one. It’s hard for everybody; take comfort in that. And then get down to work.

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a laughing matter: dialogue tags

I had an email from a very irritated reader:


I am three quarters of the way through your book “Tied to the Tracks” which I think is a good book however I am so irritated, no more than that.. infuriated, that I almost threw your book across the room.  The reason for my angst…your stupid description of a laugh.   “burped a laugh”?…”hiccuped a laugh”?  For God’s sake.  I have never heard a person ‘hiccup a laugh’ or ‘burped a laugh’. Maybe you could get away with the description once but when it is repeated 2 orthree times in a book …geez.


If I may confess: on reading this, I hiccuped a laugh.

Only the serious know how to truly laugh


Now I’ll be serious. I’ve had this discussion before.  There is a contingent of people who are very adament — even passionate — about the way the word laugh is used. It seems that for purists, a laugh must stand alone. You can’t do anything while you’re laughing. You can’t talk, for example, while you’re laughing, or at least, this is the claim. I talk while I’m laughing all the time, but to claim that a character is doing so offends some readers.


In fact, biologists are pretty clear on the fact that there is more than one kind of laughter. One kind is stimulous driven, and other other is self-generated and strategic.


Laughter that occurs during everyday social interaction in response to banal comments and humorless conversation is now being studied. […] The unstated issue is whether such laughter is similar in kind to laughter following from humor.

[…] neuropsychological and behavioral studies have shown that laughter can be more than just a spontaneous response to such stimuli. Around 2 million years ago, human ancestors evolved the capacity for willful control over facial motor systems. A

s a result, laughter was co-opted for a number of novel functions, including strategically punctuating conversation, and conveying feelings or ideas such as embarrassment and derision.

Humans can now voluntarily access the laughter program and utilize it for their own ends, including smoothing conversational interaction, appeasing others, inducing favorable stances in them, or downright laughing at people that are not liked.


Gervais, Matthew and David Sloan Wilson “The Evolutions and Functions of Laughter and Humor: A Synthetic Approach.” Quarterly Review of Biology, Dec. 2005.

Even without scientific studies, it seems to me a matter of simple human intuition that there are many kinds of laughter and that voluntary laughter   can be used for a variety of purposes. A laugh can sound like a hiccup or a burp or a bray, most usually because there’s a message that goes along with it.


So I don’t get the outrage. Everybody has pet peeves and they are under no obligation to be logical or rational, but I don’t even get where this strong reaction to the use of the word laugh comes from. Anybody want to enlighten me?



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