A better lexicographer than Webster, tools of the fiction writer, and what we think we see: newsletter, September 6, 2019

September 9, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,674) on Friday, September 6, 2019.

Summer has drifted into September in East Tennessee with the temperatures unduly hot and the land remaining dry. Despite that, the bees seem to be thriving. We have been feeding them since July when we took our share of the honey off the hives. The beehive populations were up then, and we have made efforts to keep them high. We’ll know in two or three weeks if our efforts have paid off.

Some of my thoughts this week have been about fiction writing, and I have shared those below. Whatever your thoughts this week, I hope there are happy ones for the weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,680 subscribers and had a 33.9 percent open rate; 5 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Joseph Emerson Worcester produced a better dictionary than Noah Webster

If any American name is associated with dictionaries, it is Noah Webster.

The name we should remember, however, is Joseph Emerson Worcester.

Webster, whom I wrote about last year, made a fortune by producing the Blue Back Speller and by his determination, in the early days of the Republic, to produce a dictionary that put forward American words with American definition and American spellings.

That he did, finally, in 1828 after years of work, a religious conversion, a refusal to expand his reach beyond New England, and largely fanciful and meaningless trips into the supposed etymologies of words. In addition, Webster was a prickly, difficult personality whose dislike of Samuel Johnson was well known, even though he ended up borrowing many of Johnson’s definitions for his own use.

When his bulky dictionary appeared, it was immediately apparent that an abridgment was necessary, and that was undertaken by his son-in-law, Yale professor Chauncey Goodrich. He invited Worcester, then a Yale graduate student who was working on a dictionary of his own, as a collaborator.

Worcester, unlike Webster, was a thoughtful analyst, careful researcher, and largely free of the religious cant that had invaded many of Webster’s definition. Worcester knew the field of etymology in ways that had eluded Webster.

Webster died in 1843, and Worcester’s dictionary was published in 1848 to great reviews and wide acclaim. It was indeed superior to Webster’s work, and that should have clinched it in favor of Worcester. It didn’t.

It didn’t because of two publishers, Charles and George Merriam, who had gone to some lengths to buy the rights to Webster’s work. They knew the value of a brand, and they lacked the scruples to protect it honestly. What they did, and what they said about Worcester is chronicled in a new book by Peter Martin titled The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight Over the English Language.

The book has received excellent reviews from the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. Writing for the latter publication, Christopher Benfy says:

A largely forgotten figure in American letters, Worcester comes across, in Martin’s telling, as a far more attractive figure than Webster, moderate where Webster was vehement, liberal-minded in contrast with Webster’s narrow religiosity. Source: Cornering the Word Market | by Christopher Benfey | The New York Review of Books

You can find the New York Times review at this link. That page has a couple of other reviews of books about the language.

If you’re interested in the language, remember Joseph Emerson Worcester and track down a copy of Martin’s book.

Tools of the fiction writer: dialogue, action, explanation – in that order

Having written a little fiction and read a lot of it, I hereby humbly offer a few thoughts as to the tools that a fiction writer has when structuring a story. These tools are secondary to character and plot, but they are the engines of storytelling:

Dialogue. Characters have to talk to each other and to themselves. How they talk and what they say is enormously important to their development and vitally interesting to their readers, especially when they talk to each other. Dialogue is the number one tool that fiction writers have for making their stories engaging for readers.

A side note on dialogue: Characters should have conversations that are natural, not stilted. Characters shouldn’t make speeches to each other. Conversations are exchanges. If one character says something, the reader should have a fair idea of how the other character reacts to it.

There are lots of places to find good dialogue. For me, the place to start is with any Sherlock Holmes story.

Action. In order for the plot to develop, characters must not only talk, but they must also take action. They must move from one place to the next, but the movements that are recorded in the story should always be relevant to the plot.

Good thrillers often contain great action scenes. That’s what they’re all about. The fiction writer who wants to bone up on writing action should pick a couple of good thrillers and read them carefully.

Explanation. If you can’t explain a story with dialogue and action, then expository material can be used. But for the fiction writers, it is the least of the three tools (by far) and should be used only when other resources are exhausted. Most of what I am talking about here could come under the term of background.

Writers sometimes fall into the trap of believing they must explain their stories rather than tell their stories. They do not trust their own abilities to tell a good tale, and they do not trust the reader to be able to figure things out. They may begin a story with a good action scene or a good dialogue set, but then they panic and launch into expository material.

One reason for doing this is that writers find the backgrounds of their plot and characters more interesting than the stories they have set out to tell. But that’s not why the reader is there. The reader wants the story, not the background.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”

What we see, and what we think we see

One of my favorite artists — and YouTube video star — is James Gurney, who produces amazing paintings on-site (plein-air is the artistic term) and videos the process so that he can share them with his thousands of subscribers.

Gurney also has a website on which something new appears just about every day.

This past weekend, he posted a piece on the latest science of how our eyes work. When we look at something, we see many details. The latest research, however, says we’re not really seeing those details. We’re filling in what we know should be there.

Unlike a camera, the eye’s retina sends relative few signals back to the brain, according to Gurney who cites the work of some New York University scientists.

The magic happens in the visual cortex, which is much better connected neurally. As the brain begins to sort out the relatively meager information it receives, it elaborates the data into a richer representation. Until recently, scientists thought this process happened in a “feed forward” direction, a one-way trip from retina to visual cortex to higher vision centers in the brain.

But it turns out that information often loops back from higher to lower levels of processing, amplifying weak signals into richer images. This happens in real time, largely unconsciously, and sometimes inaccurately, such as when you think you see a snake, but it turns out to be a rope. Source: Gurney Journey: Our visual system elaborates meager input

Artists have intuitively known this for centuries. An artist cannot — and should not — look at a scene or an object and try to reproduce exactly what he or she thinks is there. Rather, what we produce are representations of those objects or scenes so that the viewer can fill them in.

Art instructors are constantly telling students to look at a subject and squint — that is, try to take in less information, not more. Get the big picture, the lights and darks, not the details. Draw the tree, not the branches and leaves.

When you view a representational painting, you generally see more than is there. Now scientists are telling us why that is.

Henry Timberlake, his adventure and his sad end (part 2)

When Henry Timberlake floated from the Holston River into the Tennessee in December 1761 and saw a small band of Cherokees on the bank, his first emotion was fear. He was in the middle of a harrowing journey where he had come close to freezing to death, starving, and being eaten by a bear.

He and his three companions had escaped those fates, but now this: reddish faces with dark eyes, staring at him from the nearby riverbank. Were they friendly or not?

Timberlake was a lieutenant in the British Army and part of a unit that had been sent south from Virginia to put down a Cherokee insurrection in East Tennessee. They had made it as far as present-day Kingsport and built a fort there when 400 Cherokees showed up and asked for a peace treaty. One of the terms they requested was to have a British soldier return to their villages as a show of good faith. Timberlake volunteered.

That was two weeks before, and he had plenty of reasons to regret his decision. But Timberlake had soldiered on. (His adventures on the Holston River appeared in the newsletter last week.) Timberlake later wrote about seeing the Cherokees.

Finding it impossible to resist or escape, we ran the canoe ashore towards them, thinking it more eligible to surrender immediately, which might entitle us to better treatment, than resist or fly, in either of which death seemed inevitable, from their presented guns, or their pursuit. We now imagined our death, or, what was worse, a miserable captivity, almost certain, when the headman of the party agreeably surprised us, by asking, in the Cherokee language, to what town we belonged? (The Memoirs of Henry Timberlake).

They were friendly, after all, and they conducted him and his companions to the main set of Overhill villages, located further south on the banks of the Little Tennessee River.

Timberlake spent three months with the Cherokees, experiencing every part of tribal life during that season. He also toured several villages and settlements and made careful notes about what he saw. Timberlake returned to Virginia with one of the Cherokee chiefs, Ostenaco, and several warriors. Once in Virginia, the chief asked if he could go to England to meet King George III. Timberlake arranged the trip, and when they were in London, the Cherokees created a sensation. Hundreds of people lined up to see them, and Ostenaco had his portrait painted by Joshua Reynolds.

Two years later, Timberlake arranged a second trip to London for the Cherokees, but this one got him into financial trouble when a benefactor who was backing the trip died suddenly. Timberlake was thrown into debtor’s prison, destined to remain there until the debts were settled.

While in prison, Timberlake wrote his memoirs in an effort to raise money. His writing was clear and direct, and his observations about Cherokee life fascinated readers. Timberlake published a detailed map of that part of the Cherokee nation (right) that was so accurate that it helped archeologists 200 years later locate some of the significant sites in the area, particularly the abandoned Fort Loudoun.

Unfortunately for Timberlake, he never made it out of prison. He died there on September 30, 1765.


Ann H.: Thanks for a very interesting newsletter.I was supposed to be unloading my motorhome after a trip to St. Ives in Cornwall UK. It’s a very long journey quite often full of people who try to dawdle up very steep roads leaving you to hope that your driving skills and good wishes (or maybe not! lol), will get you to the top. There were some very interesting points raised in all of the articles but honestly, I think sometimes only a stick of dynamite will move some people’s point of view or raise their awareness of how the other half of the world lives.

Annamaria G.: The only hassle I experience is flying! We are jammed in our seats like sardines for a long cross-Atlantic flight. The air pressure is extreme, some passengers are unpleasant and sleep is impossible when some people can’t stop talking. Also, the security is annoying and the flight information can change in a nanosecond! One must wear good shoes, pack light and be patient!

Despite the travel discomfort, arriving in countries like Greece is worth the adventure! It is a beautiful country with beautiful people and delicious cuisine. With a knowledgeable guide, one can experience why Greece is indeed the cradle of Western Civilization. The mountains hold the spirits of Greek gods and the aquamarine Agean beckons one to sail on to the sirens’ song.

Traveling is a wonderful opportunity to visit and appreciate other countries, people, art and culture!

Bon Voyage!

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Henry Timberlake on the Holston River, 1761

Best quote of the week:

“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.” Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: FDR’s wordman, an adventure into Cherokee territory, and a Mozart myth: newsletter, Aug. 30, 2019



Verse and Vision

I am always open to suggestions about poets, poems or topics for videos. I’ve received several and would love to have more.

Meanwhile, here’s the complete list of videos I have made since the beginning of April:

Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abby by William Wordsworth: http://bit.ly/wordsworth-tinternabby

The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at http://bit.ly/longfellow-villageblacksmith.

Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson here: http://bit.ly/tennyson-ulysses

1492 and The New Colossus by Emma Lazarushttp://bit.ly/lazarus-newcolossus

To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace: http://bit.ly/lovelace-toalthea

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennysonhttp://bit.ly/tennyson-lightbrigade

The House of Rest by Julia Ward Howehttp://bit.ly/howe-houseofrest

Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scotthttp://bit.ly/scott-lochinvar

Ole Bert: In His Own Words by Bert Garner: http://bit.ly/ole-bert

In the Highlands and Consolation by Robert Louis Stevenson: http://bit.ly/RLStevenson-2poems

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvellhttp://bit.ly/Marvell-CoyMistress

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer:http://bit.ly/Thayer-CaseyattheBat

The Old Clock on the Stairs by Henry Wadsworth Longfellowhttp://bit.ly/HWL-TheOldClock

Evening Star and Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poehttp://bit.ly/NPM-Poe-AnnabelLee

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Grayhttp://bit.ly/gray-elegy

My Heart and I by Elizabeth Barrett Browninghttp://bit.ly/EBB-myheartandi

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poehttp://bit.ly/poe-theraven

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespearehttp://bit.ly/shakespeare-sonnet18

And more are on the way.


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