Writing Tip — The Importance of Humor

happyw-3046563_1280Humor in the arts has a bad reputation.

It’s not considered as worthy as drama. How many comedies have won the Oscar for Best Picture? Not many. Yet humor helps us throughout our lives. I think it’s a necessary quality to cultivate. The importance of humor in my life is enormous.

I’ve suffered from anxiety since I was a child and from depression since at least high school. When I moved to a new city and spent a year looking for a job, Erma Bombeck’s funny essays on family life came to the rescue. When I was anxious while attending a writers’ conference, I relaxed with P.G. Wodehouse’s hilarious account of how he started his writing career. Damon Runyon’s tales of New York City gangsters and gamblers of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the outdoor misadventures of Patrick F. McManus have lifted my mood time and again.

Some people think if you retain a sense of humor in serious situations, it’s not that serious. But I think the opposite is true. When life is at its most tragic or serious, that’s the time to find something to smile about. The circumstances of the tragedy are nothing to laugh about, but we still need to turn to some kind of humor to ease our pain.

When my grandmother died, it helped my family to share stories, especially funny ones. Like her war with the moles who riddled her yard in the country. Once she moved to the house next door to my parents, she became convinced that groundhogs could tunnel under her deck and into her basement. Being able to laugh about good memories of a deceased loved one is a great gift for those who remain.

One of the best demonstrations of humor in tough times is enacted in the 1942 movie Sullivan’s TravelsA Hollywood director, who has made his career in slapstick comedies, wants to film a drama about the Great Depression because he thinks depicting real-world suffering is a more worthwhile project.

He disguises himself as a hobo to collect background material. Through a series of events, he find himself convicted of a crime and sent to a prison farm. When he and the other prisoners are shown a Mickey Mouse cartoon, he’s stunned to hear their uproarious laughter as well as his own.

After he makes it back to Hollywood, the director decides to return to comedy. He says, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Do you know that’s all some people have?”

How has humor helped you during a tough time in your life?

Writing Tip — Imagery

chalkboardw-2495162_1280The lesson I learned from P.G. Wodehouse is that a vivid description, especially a humorous one, not only makes the subject come alive but also makes it memorable.

Mr. Wodehouse was a master at creating with imagery that crystallizes a character or a situation. Here are some of my favorites:

He “looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When!’”

“Jeeves and the Impending Doom”

To describe someone completely taken by surprise, he wrote “Aunt Agatha, whose demeanour was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down-express in the small of the back.”

“Aunt Agatha Takes the Count”

Describing an angry school teacher who thinks a guest is about to tell her students an inappropriate story, he writes that the teacher cut off her guest, “rising like an iceberg.”

“Bertie Changes His Mind”

“As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps …”

The Inimitable Jeeves

“The Duke of Dunstable had one-way pockets. He would walk ten miles in the snow to chisel a starving orphan out of tuppence.”

“In moments of excitement she had that extraordinary habit of squeaking like a basketful of puppies”

“He resembled a frog that had been looking on the dark side since it was a slip of tadpole/”

compiled in Plum Sauce by Richard Usborne

I especially like the one comparing feuding aunts to mastodons. All these images are funny and memorable, and half the fun of reading Wodehouse is finding nuggets like these.

In My Own Writing

My novel is crime fiction and not humorous, but I gave my main character a sense of humor, so some of his descriptions can be funny. Because he lives in the West Virginia mountains and loves nature, he describes people in terms of animals, “like a toad ready to pop” or someone is “grinning like a grizzly.”

Even when humor isn’t appropriate for a scene or story, I still try to follow Mr. Wodehouse’s style, summing up a person in a brief but vivid way, what my writer friend Michelle L. Lavigne calls “a handle”.

In a short story I wrote recently, I needed a way for my teenage main character to describe two people he had seen for the first time. He call one man in his twenties “Mr. Smooth” because of his slicked hair, clean-shaven, pretty face, and fashionable clothes. He calls a well-dressed woman “Fashion Model”.

What are your favorite kinds of imagery? How do you use them in your writing?


Writing Tip — Favorite Authors — P.G. Wodehouse

conciergew-1184853_1920Whenever I want the literary equivalent of comfort food, I turn to the works of P.G. Wodehouse. He created a comic world unique in literature, as much as a fantasy world as Middle-earth and Narnia.

In the 1990’s, when the BBC produced a series about two of Mr. Wodehouse’s most famous characters, Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, the stories were set in a kind of alternative universe which looked a lot like the 1920’s but operated with it own rules. In Plum Sauce, a great book for readers just discovering the wacky land of Wodehouse or ones who are dedicated fans, author Richard Usborne outlines some of the rules of this world:

  1. “It is always hay-harvest weather in England: for 54 holes of golf a day, or for a swim before breakfast in the lake, morning in the hammock under the cedars, tea on the lawn, coffee on the terrace after dinner.”
  2. “Money is something you should inherit, get monthly as an allowance from an uncle, win at the races, or borrow” from a friend.
  3. “Country pubs are open all day long and their home-brew ale is very potent.”
  4. “All decent-sized country houses have cellars, coal-sheds and potting sheds for locking people up in.”
  5. “Most handsome men have feet of clay.”
  6. “Men and girls in love think only of marriage.”
  7. “No decent man may cancel, or even refuse, an engagement to a girl.”
  8. “A country J.P. can call the local policeman and have anybody arrested and held in a cell on suspicion of anything.”
  9. The night you go to a nightclub is the night it gets raided by the police.”

I prefer Mr. Wodehouse’s short stories to his novels, and my favorite ones are about Bertie Wooster, the idle rich young man who always gets himself into trouble because he’s not too bright and his friends take advantage of him, and his servant Jeeves, who always comes to the rescue. Bertie is the narrator of his stories and he’s such a likable character that it’s easy to be carried along on his escapades.

My other set of favorite characters is the vast Threepwood clan. Most of those stories concern Clarence, Lord Emsworth, Earl of Blandings, and his many relatives. Lord Emsworth is a widower in his sixties who would like nothing better than to hang out in his castle, smell his roses, and raise his prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings. But his troop of strong-minded sisters wants him to behave like a respectable member of the aristocracy. Not being the sharpest knife in the drawer and lacking a spine, Lord Emsworth is often at his sisters’ mercy, but his younger brother Galahad can be counted on to come to the rescue.

Because Mr. Wodehouse made his living at writing, he wrote A LOT. So you don’t have to wade through mediocre stories to find the gems, here are my recommendations:

From Wodehouse on Crime:

  1. “Strychnine int the Soup”
  2. “The Crime Wave at Blandings”. This may be my absolute favorite Wodehouse short story.
  3. “The Smile That Wins”
  4. “Without the Option”. A Wooster and Jeeves story.
  5. “Aunt Agatha Takes the Count”. Another Wooster and Jeeves story.

From Blandings Castle: The first six stories all concern the escapades at Blandings Castle. Two of my favorites are ” PIG-HOO-O-O-O-EY!” and “The Go-Getter”, but read them all because it makes the last one “Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend” that much sweeter. For once, Lord Emsworth finds his courage.

From The Best of Wodehouse:

  1. “Honeysuckle Cottage”. This story is a hoot for writers.
  2. “Jeeves and the Impending Doom”

Over Seventy is Mr. Wodehouse’s autobiography and may be the funniest thing he ever wrote.

On Thursday, I will write about what I learned from reading P.G. Wodehouse.

Continue reading “Writing Tip — Favorite Authors — P.G. Wodehouse”

Writing Tip

scooby-doo-2063042_1280Sheer Luck Holmes

I love parodies.  And I love the Sherlock Holmes stories, so reading a Sherlock Holmes parody is a lot of fun.  But only if the parody is good-natured.  If I read a story and sense the author’s aim is to be mean-spirited, then all the fun drains out of the parody.

Below are some of my favorite Sherlock Holmes parodies.  All of them can be found in The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler, who gives an introduction to each story.  Enjoy!

The Adventure of the Two Collaborators” and “The Late Sherlock Holmes” by James M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.

In the first story, Holmes’s deductions so amaze Watson that he leaps to the ceiling, noting  that the ceiling “is much dented”.

“From a Detective’s Notebook” by P.G. Wodehouse.  I love the beginning of this story.

” A private investigator asks a group of men, ‘I wonder . . . if it would interest you chaps to hear the story of what I always look upon as the greatest triumph of my career?’

We said No, it wouldn’t, and he began.”

“Detective Stories Gone Wrong: the Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs” by Robert Barr

This one makes me laugh because Kombs find the weapon used in the crime using ridiculous deductions.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had no reverence for his creation and wrote two parodies of his own: “How Watson Learned the Trick” and “The Field Bazaar”

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