The Shakespeare Rule for Spoiler Alerts

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Don’t spoil the ending!

You think, “But the book is over a hundred years old. Everyone must know how it ends by now. Surely, I can talk about it before the new movie version comes out.”

NO! Don’t do it. You’re wrong.

Suppose a book or play has been made into a movie more than once. Suppose the original story was released decades or even centuries ago. At what point do “spoiler alerts” not apply? Does a “spoiler alert” renew itself every time a new cinematic portrayal of the work is released?

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I think the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ Don’t spoil the ending, even on old works that “everyone” knows. Why? Because the explosive, exponential growth of reading and viewing material makes it impossible for people to have the same kind of cultural literacy that existed a few generations ago.

We’ve gone from three main television stations to hundreds. We’ve gone from best sellers reigning for months, to best sellers being on top of the book charts for a day or two. People will miss things, even great things because of the volume of material available. Also, given the fact that great literature doesn’t spoil like fruit and given the movie industry’s penchant for recycling stories, new generations can and will be introduced to old “classics” when a new movie version is released. To a new generation who weren’t alive when the book was written or when the play was first performed, that movie is new.

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Most of Shakepeare’s plays, Treasure Island, Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Frankenstein, Murder on the Orient Express, and It, to name a few, have all been made into movies more than once. You may think, “How much are we really giving away if we discuss the endings?” If the work portrayed in the movie is a classic in its genre, like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, and generations of writers have built off of her surprise ending, adapting it to their own works, can we really not discuss the novel’s ending because a new cinematic version is released?

No, we can’t, because each new generation needs a chance to be exposed to the material as if it had been newly released.

For example, recently I sat down at a family party to watch the latest movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, featuring Kenneth Branagh as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Having read the book years ago and having written a short story that borrowed from Christie’s famous ending, I was extremely aware of “who done it,” but was looking forward to seeing if the movie was well done.

Making conversation before the movie, I mentioned the earlier versions of the movie and received in return blank looks. I was surprised to find no one else was familiar with either the book or the previous movies. As I took my seat, I was asked not to spoil the ending. None of the others in the room knew how the story ended.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published by Agatha Christie in 1926, is frequently cited as having had a significant impact on the mystery genre because of its twist ending. With the spate of mystery novels featuring unreliable narrators right now, am I allowed to discuss how much those books owe to Christie’s Roger Ackroyd? Maybe in a book discussion after everyone reads whatever the book in question is. However, if someone made a new Roger Ackroyd movie for world-wide release tomorrow, a spoiler alert would renew suddenly.

photo of black ceramic male profile statue under grey sky during daytime
Shakespeare: Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

I have noticed that when a new version of Romeo and Juliet is released, it is openly discussed from start to finish without anyone worrying about “spoiling” the story for someone who hasn’t seen or read it. As far as I can tell, Shakespeare is the only exception to the “spoiler alert rule”.

Shakespeare’s works are so much a part of the public consciousness, that people know Romeo and Juliet both die even if they haven’t seen or read the play. So, how old and how well-known does a story have to be to reach this stage? If nearly one hundred years and hundreds of authors influenced, as in the case of Agatha Christie, isn’t sufficient, I’m not sure what is. A work may have to be at least as old and well known as Shakespeare’s plays before no spoiler alerts are required. We could call it the Shakespeare Rule for Spoiler Alerts.

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N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her debut novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).

Expanding Your Cast of Characters

20160618_183444a (3)As a fiction writer, I am sometimes asked by readers “where do you get your characters?” Usually that question is followed by “are they based on real people?” My answer is “I make them up.” Followed by, “I would never use a real person that I know as a character.” However, all of my characters are based on the sum total of my knowledge of humanity. I build my characters’ appearances, personalities, speech patterns, and behavior based on humanity as I know it or can imagine it. The limitations on my ability to create characters, then, are the limits of my own experience plus my ability to imagine and extend my knowledge to its extremes.

Part of my job in writing fiction is to create fully formed, believable characters that people can recognize, identify with, or at least be able to envision as a functional being. The more types of people I can imagine, the wider will be my casts of characters. So how do I improve and increase my casts of characters? I have to improve my knowledge of humanity as a whole by increasing my knowledge of the unique individuals whose quirks and personality extremes exemplify the wide variations in human behavior. I have to read. I have to read widely on varied topics, particularly about people who aren’t like me, people who live in places I would never live, doing things the I can’t imagine doing. This means reading histories, biographies, memoirs, news stories, and magazine articles about people from all walks of life.

For example, I am a reader and writer of mysteries. Mysteries are what I prefer to read most of the time. However, a diet of strictly mysteries wouldn’t be enough to help improve my writing, so I  read a lot of nonfiction in an effort to broaden my horizons. I read Red Platoon by Clinton Romesha, American Sniper by Chris Kyle, and 13 Hours by Mitchell Zuckoff. These books gave me glimpses into the lives of ordinary soldiers, special forces soldiers, and former soldiers working in dangerous parts of the world. They also illustrated the varying responses of people, both trained and untrained, when pushed to their absolute physical and emotional limits.

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I read Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S. C. Gwynne. Only the most stubborn, most fanatical people were willing to settle on the Texas frontier in the 1800s, an area that saw 300 years of territorial conflict. The brutality of modern warfare could be matched blow for blow by what was historically referred to as the ‘depredations’ of the Comanches in Texas. That people, like Quanah Parker and special forces operators, can go from the visceral brutality of killing in warfare and step into lives as businessmen says a lot about the plasticity of human nature.

I also read The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis about the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, a pair of Israeli psychologists whose work developed the field of behavioral economics. I read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb about the random, unpredictable events that impact our lives in huge ways. And I read Isaac’s Storm by Eric Larsen about a meteorologist’s failure to predict the 1900 Galveston hurricane. These three books include the issue of scholarly hubris. They discuss how wrong scholars and scientists can be when they think they have all necessary data, but don’t, and the damage to society as a whole that this overconfidence can cause.

Writers, be diligent readers, particularly of nonfiction and particularly of subjects that aren’t already familiar to you. See the world through someone else’s eyes. Expanding your reading horizons will expand your ability to imagine new, unique characters to populate your own stories. Many people live in neighborhoods that are socioeconomically homogenized, work with people who do similar work, volunteer with others who support the same causes, and participate in hobbies, sports, or social activities with those who enjoy those same activities. When you look beyond your own circumscribed lives and interests, you may find personalities that you never knew existed and a range of people you never could have imagined. Step outside your own world and into a wider one to improve your writing.

Let me know your suggestions for great nonfiction books. I’m always looking for more great characters.

*****

N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her debut novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).

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                                          Do Your Characters Talk to You?

 

Writers sometimes get intimately involved with their characters. We will be addressing the topic of author-character communication.  The “experts” tell you that you must know your characters when writing. That’s true, but how do you interact with them and do you talk to them? (There are doctors that treat people like us). There are a number of character trait forms to help you in most writing books, and there is also the back of an envelope. To be successful with your story you need interesting characters the reader can relate to and get behind. The characters must be believable, do things that are “in-character”, and right for that particular character, even if outlandish. It is a very good idea to really know your characters, especially the hero or protagonist. You need to “get into that characters head and live and see things through his / her eyes. Next, your characters need to talk to you as well. Have a dialog with your main characters to help drive your story. (I wouldn’t mention this conversation to too many people—they might outfit you with a new white padded jacket).

Below is a series of questions for consideration when working with your characters. I hope they make you think and consider how well you know your characters before you try and write them into situations they have to get out of.

When you write your characters, do you have a character profile and use it?

 

Do you talk to your characters when writing?

 

How well do you know your characters before and when you write?

 

Do your characters talk to you and if so, how?

 

Do your characters lead you in the story or do you have the story pretty well established and they follow suit?

 

If you talk to your characters, do you talk to them out loud or just in your mind?

 

During the writing process, stories sometimes change, do your characters drive this or do you just get other ideas?

 

Do your characters change during the story or just solve the mystery?

 

How do you develop your characters? Do they evolve or do you have a plan for them?

 

Does setting play a part of your characters personality?

 

Are your characters real people to you when you write?

 

We want the reader to like our characters, at least the good guys, how do you do that?

 

Do you think about your story and the characters when doing other things and not writing?

 

Have you ever been out in public and looking at a place or see something you could use in your story and start to discuss it with your leading character? Do people look at you strangely if you do this?

 

If your characters talk to you, what do you talk about?

 

Have you ever had an argument with one of your characters?

 

Do you take medication for this?

 

Remember, your characters work for you and they don’t cost much in pay and benefits, so treat them nice.

 

Remember: There are meds for this condition and doctors who treat people like us.

 

 

Search and Rescue K9 Units

By N. M. Cedeño

 

 

A representative of the Travis County Texas Search and Rescue K9 unit was kind enough to come and speak to Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas Chapter this summer. She provided a wealth of information for crime writers on the workings of Search and Rescue K9 Units.

Most Search and Rescue group members are unpaid volunteers. The volunteers go through training and must pass a fitness test in order to qualify to join the team. Dog handlers train their dogs to participate in the searches following training guidelines. There are three different kinds of S & R dogs: live find, trailing, and human remains detection (HRD). Searches may be categorized as wilderness, urban, or disaster. Police in cars or on foot handle most urban searches. Dogs are mostly used for wilderness and disaster searches.

The human remains detection (HRD) dogs are not referred to as cadaver dogs anymore. HRD dogs must be able to identify hundreds of odors that come from decaying human remains and be able to differentiate those smells from those of decaying animals. Training the dogs to identify these odors requires the handler to obtain appropriate materials for training exercises. These materials may be donated to the trainer by dental surgeons, midwives, and other doctors or organizations with access to amputated or removed body parts. Places such as the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, also known as the Body Farm, at Texas State University’s Freeman Ranch, will allow dog handlers to use the facility for training only once a year. The dogs can identify these smells even when underground or mixed with other smells.

My dog, Petra, who is not a S&R dog. Picture by N. M. Cedeño.

Trailing dogs are usually on leashes and are following a scent trail looking for a missing person. These dogs are used when authorities know exactly where the missing person was last seen, giving them a starting point for using the dogs. The dogs are given a sample carrying the missing person’s scent to smell, such clothing the person wore recently. Then the dog is told to find that specific scent. Each person’s individual scent is distinctive, created by soaps, sprays, detergents, shampoos, conditioners, and their own skin particles. Relatives in the same home who use the same products may have similar scents. The dogs are trained to distinguish between the missing person and close relatives.

Live find, or live search, dogs are trained to find a person in a large area of land. They can be made to work in a grid pattern or can be sent to search an area independently, off leash. The dogs are fitted with GPS trackers so that the area they search can be followed and mapped. These dogs love their game of search and find so much that they will not stop unless their handler forces them to rest. Live search dogs are trained to find the missing person’s scent as it drifts in the wind. If the dog is working independently and locates the subject, the dog can be trained to either stay with the subject and bark, or run back and forth between the searchers and the subject, leading the searchers to the missing person.

Research has shown that lost people tend to follow specific patterns depending on their age, mental state, and what they were doing when they got lost. Search and Rescue operations will begin their search for a missing person based on what the research says the person is most likely to do. For example, small children, ages 1 to 3, tend to walk in circles. When they get tired, they lay down and go to sleep where they are. Children ages 3 to 6 get scared when it gets dark, find a protected area, and curl up in a ball.  Hunters who think they know the area in which they are lost tend to keep walking, reasoning that if they keep walking, they will find their way back.

If a missing person stays still in one place, their scent will build up around them like a puddle or pool. When the wind blows the scent pool, it will be stronger, allowing a dog to find and follow the scent more easily. If the person keeps moving, the scent will be harder for the dog to follow, a small scattered trail, rather than a concentrated pool. This is why it is important to stop moving if you know that someone is looking for you. A search dog will find you faster if you stop moving.

Finally, if an area has been thoroughly searched by Search and Rescue and the missing person is not found, the search ends with the missing person declared “R.O.W.,” rest of world. The searchers know the missing person isn’t in the search area, therefore, he or she must be somewhere else, out in the rest of the world.

*****

N. M. Cedeño was born in Houston, grew up in the Dallas Metroplex, once lived in Amarillo, and currently lives near Austin, Texas. She writes mystery short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her mysteries vary from traditional, to romantic suspense, to science fiction. She is working on the second novel in her Bad Vibes Removal Services Series.

Just Google It?

By N. M. Cedeño

 

What kinds of questions do you ask the internet to answer for you? I, like many adults who came of age before widespread usage of the internet, have learned to search the internet for answers to a variety of simple questions. We routinely ask Google or other search engines to spell words, find quotes, discover who that actor in that movie was, get driving directions, and find recipes. For these simple tasks, asking the internet has become a habit. We’ve even learned to check the internet for directions for easy projects around the house. Having an expert at the tips of your fingers is fabulous.

And yet, many of us still don’t automatically check the internet for information when we can. Perhaps this is because computers haven’t always been our place to go for answers. We grew up having to do research in books, having to consult the dictionary for spellings, and checking encyclopedias for basic knowledge questions. Consequently, despite knowing we have the internet at our disposal, we don’t always remember to go to it.

For instance, one time a small bird came into my house via the front door. It had been perching on the Christmas wreath when the door was opened inward. The bird took flight upward into a two story entryway and found itself upstairs. Although we chased the bird around the room from one perch to another and scared the bird poo out of it, we weren’t even remotely close to catching it. Finally, my husband looked at me, perplexed after another failed attempt to trap the bird, and said, “How do you get a bird out of a house?”

Then, something clicked in my head, and I said, “I don’t know. Google it!”

For some reason, until my husband phrased the problem as a straight-forward question, checking the internet for the answer hadn’t occurred to either of us. Once we realized that we had access to an answer, we asked, and the internet answered. To remove a bird, darken the room and get a blanket. The bird will settle in one place because, not being nocturnal, it doesn’t see well enough to fly at night. Once the bird stops moving, it’s relatively easy to walk up to it in the dark, toss a blanket over it, gather it up, and release it outside the house. This worked like a charm the first time we tried it.

Another time, I found an old recipe, possibly written by my grandmother, but originally intended for someone other than me. The recipe described a simple method for making wine from grapes, but it included a word that I assumed was Czech, a language spoken by my grandparents. While I could guess the meaning of the word based on context, I wanted to verify it. However, it was late in the evening, and I didn’t want to bother my then 97-year-old grandmother with the question. Of course, one of my kids said, “Mom, just google it.”

The word on the recipe paper was spelled “qvasit” or “quast,” neither of which produced a reasonable meaning in translating programs. Realizing based on family history that the recipe’s writer probably spoke Czech, but never had to write it, I tried varying the spelling, but still couldn’t find the word. Finally, I took the word I guessed for the English translation and asked Google to translate it to Czech. This worked. The word “ferment” in English is “kvasit” in Czech. Since it ended up taking a lot longer to find an online answer, it probably would have been easier to ask a speaker of Czech. Maybe I didn’t remember to check the internet since my brain had already identified a quicker or easier route. Or maybe I didn’t think of it because I don’t routinely translate words online.

How about you? Are there things you forget you can look up online?

****

N.M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her début novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).

My Brother versus the Honey Bees

By N. M. Cedeño

Photo courtesy of a neighbor. Beehive in the wall of my brother’s house.

What would you do if you discovered honey bees had moved into a wall of your house? My brother, who lives near Dallas, Texas, had this issue recently. Here is what to do.

In the thermal image bee activity is purple. Red is hive.

First, you call a beekeeper. The beekeeper will come to your home and takes thermal images of the area of wall where the hive is believed to be located. In my brother’s case, the hive was between the floors of his home. The bees had found a hole to enter between where the brick-covered ground floor ended and the HardiPlank covered upper story began. Based the on the thermal images, the beekeeper estimated 3 cubic feet of hive had been built between the exterior wall of the house and the floor joists supporting the second floor. The bees were under the floor of the upstairs master bedroom!

Next, you send notice to all your neighbors warning them to stay indoors and keep their pets indoors at the date and time of the removal. The beekeeper, in a piece of masterful understatement, said this is necessary because the bees will become “defensive” when he starts to remove the hive. And, 60,000 to 70,000 “defensive” honey bees are not to be trifled with. The extraction cannot be done during the workday. Instead, in order to remove as many bees as possible, the bees have to be removed around dusk as foraging bees return to the hive.

Putting the honeycomb in a frame.

On the day of the extraction, the beekeeper arrives and goes to work removing the bees and their home. For my brother, this meant the HardiPlank and plywood exterior wall on his house by the hive was removed, exposing the insulation. Insulation was removed to reveal a massive bee hive. The beekeeper went up and down a ladder for several hours, carefully cutting down panels of hive and inserting them into hive boxes that he brought with him, cutting the honeycomb to fit as needed. (For the enormous hive in my brother’s wall, a single box was not sufficient.) As he accomplished the removal, the beekeeper searched for the queen. Her capture was vital to the process. If he could find her, her colony would follow her.

If you are a normal person, you hide safely out of the way while the bees are extracted, allowing the beekeeper in his white protective suit to handle the matter. My brother, on the other hand, constructed a protected space for himself on his lawn: mosquito netting over a framework under which he placed a chair, so that he could sit and observe the beekeeper as he worked, with tens of thousands of angry bees buzzing around him.

The beekeeper working and my brother in his “safe” space. Picture from the neighbor.

Then, you, um, get a pizza delivered. As the hours went by, my brother in his netting safety cage, became hungry. So of course, he ordered a pizza to be delivered. But, how could he retrieve the pizza without endangering himself or the delivery person? Well, the hive was on the front of his home. He would see the driver arrive. It would be a simple matter for the beekeeper to walk over and accept the pizza, bring it to my brother, and slip it under the netting. The beekeeper agreed. So when the driver arrived, he stayed in his car, and the beekeeper asked him to lower the window just enough to slide the pizza out. This process worked as planned. Neither the delivery driver nor my brother was stung.

I suspect that the pizza delivery driver had never delivered to a fully suited beekeeper before. Hopefully, he wasn’t traumatized by the experience. My brother says he tipped the driver generously and shared the pizza with the beekeeper.

Honey comb in a bag. Picture by my brother.

Hours later, the bee hive is finally completely removed from the wall, and you get to taste the honey. The beekeeper supplied my brother with a chunk of honeycomb in a plastic bag. My brother reported that the honey tasted good. The next day, my brother received more news from the beekeeper. The hive had contained two queens, a mother queen and a new successor queen who had just emerged. The hive would have split with about half the bees swarming to follow the exiting queen, possibly within a matter of hours, if the beekeeper had not removed the hive when he did. With two queens and approximately 70,000 bees, the beekeeper was hoping to get two producing hives from the original one. A few days later, the beekeeper brought my brother two jars of honey.

Finally, the hole in the side of your house has to remain open for two days to allow bees from other hives to raid what is left behind. The raiding bees perform the final cleaning process, extracting any remaining honey. After two days, my brother got to repair and repaint his home. He planned to caulk very well to ensure no new bees move in.

***

N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her debut novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).

Mustang Grapes and Dewberries

By N. M. Cedeño

 

In the second week of March, the Bradford pear trees in my backyard burst into bloom, displaying a profusion of tiny white flowers. Within a few days, rain and wind caused the white flower petals to “snow” down from the tree, covering my patio in a layer of white. Following the flowers, came the tree’s budding leaves. And, what does the first burst of green bring to my mind? Jelly!

Signs of spring are my cues to start checking vines in the green belt by my house. I blame my father for this habit.  He learned to appreciate nature’s wild bounty in the form of dewberries and mustang grapes in his youth. Decades later, my parents moved to my maternal grandparents’ property in the piney woods north of Houston to be caretakers for my grandparents. There, the forest’s abundant supply of berries and grapes each spring and summer provided my father with a hobby: jelly making.

Mustang grapes by the gallon, picture by N. M. Cedeño

Each April, he would harvest gallons of dewberries from the property with the help of visiting children and grandchildren. Each July, the mustang grapes would ripen all at once. They had to be picked immediately or they would be eaten by birds. The mustang grape harvest typically lasted only one day.

After each harvest, my father would make dozens of jars of jelly with occasional help from my mother, my family, and my siblings’ families. The jars would be labeled with the date and contents and distributed to the family with instructions to return the empty jars.

For several years, my family enjoyed this process each spring and summer. We would make sure to visit my grandparent’s property during April and July. During those years, thanks to my parents’ presence, my grandfather died peacefully at home as per his wishes. When it became clear that my grandmother shouldn’t remain on the property, my parents moved her to the city, and her property was sold. My grandmother died about a year later. With the loss of my grandparents, came the secondary loss of the abundant dewberries and Mustang grapes that had thrived on their property.

Dewberries in a colander, picture by N. M. Cedeño

So, each spring as I walk my dog, I search the wild spaces around my home, keeping my eyes peeled for telltale signs of nature’s bounty. A few weeks ago, I found white flowers popping out on dewberry vines. As of last week, tiny green berries had formed where the flowers once were. The dewberries I’ve seen so far are disappointingly few in number. They are also surrounded by poison ivy. Picking them would require gloves, boots, hats, and insect repellent.

Dewberries, native wild blackberries, are typically much smaller than the large, plump blackberries available in grocery stores. So why go through the trouble, risking poison ivy and chigger bites, to get them each spring? We pick them because their flavor is so much better than the grocery store variety. As with grocery store tomatoes and peaches, blackberries have been bred to be larger, juicier, and prettier, but somewhere along the way, the taste got lost. Additionally, when I pick dewberries, I remember my grandparents, and I remember the fun we all had, siblings and cousins working together, picking berries.

Improvised dewberry picking tool: duct tape on a spaghetti ladle, Cedeño Family picture

In July, as I walk my dog, I will scan the trees for mustang grape vines. Unlike dewberries, mustang grapes straight off the vine don’t make the best eating. Their skin is thick, and downright leathery compared to other grapes. Their seeds are large. We pick mustang grapes because they make great jelly. I’m happy to have found an extremely large vine covered with small, unripe grapes in the flood plain by my neighborhood. When the grapes ripen in July, I hope to beat the birds (and the neighbor who also harvests them) and collect the ripe, purple-black grapes.

My kids will help me, and, hopefully, my father will join the fun. Then, of course, we will make some jelly.

***

N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her début novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).

Background Research Fun: Marketing Via Sensory Input

By N. M. Cedeño

 

 

 

 

Did you ever go into a grocery store and smell cooking bacon as you passed by the area where bacon was for sale? Or step into the baked goods sections and inhale the aroma of baking bread? Did you know that many grocery stores purposely “pipe in” those scents in the hopes of making you buy more than you need? Why would they do that? Because it works.

Fun fact: a research study found that the scent of baking in a grocery store increased the sale of baked goods three-fold. Certain food scents have been shown to not only cause people to overeat, but also to over-shop. Those employees cooking and handing out samples in the aisles of the grocery store are doing their job even if you don’t taste a sample. Just the smell of food cooking is enough to inspire people to buy more food.

Some of my favorite scents, picture by N. M. Cedeno

Scientists have discovered that the sense of smell has a strong impact on memory, consequently certain smells can evoke certain memories and emotions. The “Proustian memory effect” explains how childhood memories linked to scents last a lifetime. So when you walk into an apartment complex lobby and smell cookies baking, and suddenly feel safe, comfortable, and at home, there’s a reason for that. Similarly, real estate agents recommend staging a house for sale with the scent of cinnamon in the air.

But scent isn’t the only way that businesses try to manipulate people into buying, renting, or choosing a service. Sound plays a part as well. From the gentle sound of flowing water in a fountain at a spa or massage clinic to the music selected to play in a store, the sounds you hear in a business are frequently selected to set a particular mood or inspire a particular emotion. Researchers have even done studies to try and find the right combination of scent and music to increase impulse buying in stores.

Innumerable tricks are used to appeal visually to consumers, and not just in the advertisements, product arrangement, and signage. How about that fish tank in your dentist’s office? It’s there because many people find watching fish swim to be relaxing, helping ease the anxiety of patients awaiting procedures and making them more comfortable while they wait. Colors used in décor can be used to make a business seem more cheerful or calm or serious. A particular shade of pink paint has been used in jails for years because it is thought to reduce aggressive behaviors, although the research is inconclusive. Casinos have long applied methods of using décor and layout to manipulate people into gambling more.

Many businesses set out to create an atmosphere to send certain messages. Banks want to project security, professionalism, and respectability. Spas want to create an atmosphere of relaxation. Expensive car dealerships and casinos want create an atmosphere of wealth and luxury and to inspire risk-taking and impulsiveness in customers. Grocery stores want people hungry to buy more food. Upscale boutiques want to project a feeling of exclusivity. All of these places are going to try to send those messages via the sensory input that the customers receive as they approach and walk into the business. Savvy businesses will appeal to as many of your senses as they can.

So, the next time you walk into a business, pause and let your senses take in your surroundings. What do you smell? What colors do you see? What emotions are the scents and color scheme inspiring? Listen to the music. Is it upbeat? Or calming? Are there other sounds in the background that might have been selected to set the mood? How about the lighting? Is it soft or bright? What sensory input has been added to “enhance” your experience? Is the business trying to manipulate you into impulse buying or buying more than you need? Or are they simply trying to get you to relax before your regular dental exam or massage therapy? Not all sensory-based manipulation is bad, but an awareness of it can be very useful.

This blog contains some of the fascinating background research I came across for my Bad Vibes Removal Services series. In the series, the Bad Vibes Removal Services business has a list of available services that includes an emotional atmosphere interior redesign. Some of that redesign involves using the techniques discussed above. Because the books are fictional, paranormal mysteries, the Bad Vibes company services also include cleansing the built-up negative emotional energy from spaces and getting rid of ghosts.

 

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N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her debut novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017). Visit her at www.nmcedeno.com.

          

Ghost Stories

 

By Noreen Cedeño

 

 

Who doesn’t like a good ghost story? Ghost stories have a long history, going back as far as we have written records. In the Bible, 1 Samuel 28 records the story of King Saul seeking the ghost of the dead Samuel. In the 1st century A.D., Roman statesman Pliny the Younger recorded a ghost story in his letters. In 856 A.D. the first story of a poltergeist was recorded in Germany. Throughout history ghost stories have been recorded and told all over the world from ancient castles, to the White House, to ships at sea, to battlefields in Gallipoli and Iwo Jima.

Bad Vibes Ghosts drawn by N. M. Cedeno

Generally, ghost stories fall into three categories. First are ghosts who seem to be moving through a space they belonged to in life. These ghosts are experienced by a viewer via the senses (seen, heard, smelled, felt) and are considered to be restless spirits, people who died too young, unexpectedly, traumatically, or with unfinished business. The next type are echoes of intense scenes, such as groups of soldiers marching into battle or a crowd fleeing a fire. Last are poltergeists, ghosts who move or damage things or injure people.

American culture is rife with ghost stories in literature, video media, and in daily life. Many cities and towns have ghost tours available for the curious. Certain older hotels offer haunted rooms. A walk around any historical town square will reveal business owners with ghost stories to share. The stories of hauntings range from the scary to the simply odd. For an odd example, one hotel has a story of a haunted bathroom stall: people glance and see feet under the door, but no one is there. Television shows involving searching for ghosts are popular as are books of ghost stories collected from different countries, regions, states, and cities.

Most people know someone who claims to have encountered a ghost. If you bring up the topic of ghost stories, you can draw meetings off on a tangent and cause work to come to a standstill while people happily recount what they have seen, experienced, or been told. I knew someone who claimed to have seen a girl, ghostly white, standing in the walk-in closet of her college dorm room. Another person swore she’d seen books move themselves off a shelf, coming straight out and dropping to the ground without anyone touching them. Various family members have claimed to see ghosts as well.

Photo taken by my uncle. Some people see a ghost in the window.

In spite of the universal nature of the tales, ghost stories can be quite polarizing. Many people adamantly believe in ghosts, while others vehemently don’t. Those who don’t believe sometimes openly disparage those who do. While those who do believe shrug off the disbelievers, convinced of what they have seen or experienced. Then there are those in between, those who can’t take a strong position either way, open to belief but skeptical and open to other explanations also.

But no matter your opinion, people who claim to have seen ghosts have had an experience that affected them. I had a house guest who told me that a ghost stood over her bed in my guestroom and pulled the sheets off her. I found her, terrified, on a couch in my living room the next morning. I have no doubt that something scared her badly. The house was newly built, and I was the first occupant. However, others also saw a ghost in that bedroom in the ten years that I lived there. I never saw anything. Does that mean there was nothing there, or that I simply couldn’t see it? I have no idea, but I do recognize that the experience was very real for those who did see something.

Do you like ghost stories? Stories to terrify and mystify? I like to hear other people’s ghost stories and take the occasional ghost tour. I write ghost stories in my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mystery series. I admit to trying to find holes in people’s stories or ways to debunk their tales. Every once in a while though, I hear a story that’s hard to discount and sends shivers up my spine. How about you? Do you like to read ghost stories? Have you experienced something yourself? Or heard any good tales?

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N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her debut novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).

A Plantain is Not the Same Thing as a Banana: Merging Family Menus

by N. M. Cedeno

My husband got lucky in food when he married me. He didn’t have to adapt to a foreign flavor palette the way I did. When people create a new joint household, whether they like it or not, the foods they eat regularly will change depending on each family member’s culinary history. Recipes from each side of the family will get adopted, adapted, or eliminated from the household menu depending on how flexible the couple is and how palatable each finds the other’s food to be. While regional differences between couples can expose variations in traditional holiday meal dishes or recipe ingredients, cultural differences can introduce you to cooked critters you didn’t know anyone would eat.

Cultural differences can make the culinary learning curve particularly steep, a baptism by fire even. For instance, before I met my husband, I’d never had a plantain. Or seco de pollo. Or, ick, guatita. Or even weirder, cuy. If you can’t identify those items, they are traditional foods in Ecuador. My husband, on the other hand, had never had kolaches, homemade chocolate chip cookies, or Southern-style white gravy. I had to learn a lot about South American cooking. My husband, as far as I could tell, got off easy, since he’d lived in Texas for over ten years by the time we married and had been exposed to most of my cuisine.

Maduros with brown sugar

As I suspect happens in many cases, the first of my husband’s family’s dishes that got adopted in our household were the ones that I found the tastiest and that had the least ingredients. Consequently, plantain dishes were first. Plantains, despite looking like bananas, taste nothing like bananas. They must be cooked. You can eat them roasted, mashed, formed into balls, thin-cut as chips, thick-cut and fried as maduros, or fried, flattened, and refried as a tostones (also called patacones). It took me a while to learn to cook the variations.

On the next tier are foods that may take longer for the couple to adopt in their joint kitchen because they involve special techniques, or complicated recipes, or need adaptation from the original to work best in the household. Seco de pollo is one of those dishes in my house. Translated from Spanish, it sounds like it should be dry chicken. It’s not. It’s a chicken stew. It took me years before I attempted to make it because the recipe was complicated and included a few ingredients that I didn’t recognize. But, since I liked the dish, I made the effort to find the ingredients and to learn to cook it.

Two traditional Ecuadorean dishes that my husband likes were extremely outside my experience and tastes. In the melding of our family menus, these dishes got eliminated.  One was guatita, which is tripe in peanut sauce. Enough said about that. The other was cuy. Cuy got tossed because most Americans would consider eating cuy to be akin to eating your pet hamster or, well, your pet guinea pig. Cuy is, indeed, guinea pig. Any dish that I’d have to shop for in a pet store, I’m not cooking. Someone would send the SPCA after me.

{Guinea pig is a traditional food source for the indigenous tribes inhabiting the Andes Mountains. Since guinea pigs are an easily portable protein source, they were an ideal food for the environment. If you are wondering, they are roasted with the head still attached. I took this picture of cuy being cooked in Ecuador. Yes, it looks like a rat impaled on a stick.}

 

So, cohabitation forces a merging of disparate family culinary habits. What gets kept on the household menu and what gets eliminated can depend on a lot of factors. I’m sure you can all think of items that you were only served at the home of one set of grandparents (sauerkraut, anyone?). Those items didn’t make it into your parent’s family menu. What dishes did your parents toss? What items did you toss? What items did you adapt or argue over the “correct” recipe?

 

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N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her début novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).

Find her stories at www.nmcedeno.com or on her Amazon Author Page.