It’s no secret that Halloween is one of my favorite times of year. It’s an excuse to spend my time doing the same thing I do throughout the rest of the year—but without explanation or justification. Which is to build costumes and props. (I’m highly conscious of those stares coming from the clerks at my local Dollar Store when I’m frequenting their shop in Mid-May and buying an armful of wigs. In my defense, they’re not all for me. Some are for my art therapy and creative writing students.)
This year was a double-dip for me. The Surrey International Writers’ Conference always takes place the week before Halloween and this year I was invited to present. The conference had a theme on the Friday Night: Once Upon a Time Machine.
“You don’t have to dress up,” board member kc dyer told me.
Yeah, right. I probed further to find out that the “Once Upon a Time Machine” theme was basically to do with fairy tales. Or steam punk. Or both.
I could have easily just used my costume that I was working on for Halloween, but I’ll take any excuse to build. So I decided to go as steampunk White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.
The inspiration came when I found a hat in the local costume shop with a pair of rabbit ears and a clock on it. It didn’t quite make sense, since the designer seem to be conflating two characters: the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit.
But it was enough to get me started. I bought the hat, removed the cheap plastic clock and put on my own steampunked version using the lid from a glass milk bottle and a plastic plumbing component. I still wanted a proper clock for the White Rabbit to carry, so I started building the clock at the same time. Here’s my work in progress:
As you can see, the cat was wholly unimpressed. Here’s the completed clock and hat. For the hat, I also ended up goggles decorated with different steampunk components.
I still needed some other pieces for the costume. I swooped into Carousel Theatre’s annual costume theatre in early October and scooped up some great pieces for my costume, including a colorful vest. Then it was just a matter of tracking down a few other pieces, such as white gloves and a fake nose. Luckily, I had kept an old pair of round spectacles. People think I bought Harry Potter glasses at a costume shop, but these used to be my real glasses that I wore long before Harry Potter existed. Back then, we called them John Lennon glasses.
The final costume came together very well:
The costume was a big hit at the conference. As kc dyer told me, “That’s the best thing you’ve ever done.” (Well, I have written a book or two, as well. Which I thought was the reason I had been invited to speak at the conference—but, hey, I’ll take my invites any way I can get them.)
Speaking of kc, here is a photo of me and her at the conference. She went as steampunk fairy godmother. So, we pretty much rocked.
After the conference, it was time to turn my attention in earnest to Halloween. My wife and I had decided way back in July that we would go for a Narnia theme. Marcie decided to be Jadis, the snow witch. I wasn’t entirely sure who I would go as. My initial thoughts were Digory from The Magician’s Nephew—I could wear an English boy’s suit and carry a silver apple.
But then I decided it would be more fun to go as the snow witch’s dwarf slave. He goes unnamed in the book, though in the Disney movie he is known as Ginarrbrik. I already own many bits and bobs that would go well with his outfit. The main things to figure out were the nose, the beard, and his hat.
As it turned out, my mom found a faux-fur coat at Value Village and was able to make me both a hood and a vest from it. I pinned my ears to the hood so that I wouldn’t have to contend them falling off all night (which they always do when I put them on my own ears.)
As for the beard, I bought two of the exact kind from the costume shop then set out using pieces from the one to augment the other, distressing them with paint and braiding them with bits of twine. I didn’t want it to look too polished—after all, this was just a dirty minion of the snow witch!
I was able to buy a fairly high-quality nose from the costume shop and just attached it with spirit gum. I also took snippets from the beard to attach to my eyebrows. Put it all together and the result turned out quite well:
Here’s me with Marcie as Jadis:
She ended up buying a wedding dress from Value Village then augmenting it was a white faux-fur throw rug. She made the staff with a Christmas ornament. As for the crown, she procured that from Etsy.
A key part of the costume was all of her make-up:
We attended our annual “Scooby-Gang” Halloween party. The costumes there can get quite intense. Here are some fun photos from the party . . .
First of all, here is the amazing cake made by my friend, Carrie. YES, that’s a cake. (And it tasted delicious. Though, admittedly, I ate a part that didn’t involve the eyeball.)
Here’s this year’s host, Luke and Kallie, as a phoenix tamer and dragon tamer. The phoenix cried real tears and had flapping wings while the dragon could open it’s mouth.
I guess Ginarrbrik can’t compete with Dilbert. He ended up getting a kiss from the snow witch. That’s my friend Jeff inside the costume. He built Dilbert from scratch.
This is my friend Carrie (of cake fame) as a zombie hunter.
My friend James also went as a zombie hunter.
James has already stated in one of his blog posts that his costume has inspired his writing in all sorts of ways. That’s really cool—because it underscores something I’ve long believed: when you are a creative writer, you have to be creative in many areas of your life. And that’s why I spend so much studio time not staring at a computer screen, but building props and costumes. And that, takes us full circle.
To begin with, this is a true story. It’s about George Washington—but not the George Washington you’re thinking of. The only thing famous about this George is his name—that, and the fact that he once lived a whole week by eating nothing but tomatoes.
First, we have to stick with this business about George’s name. You see, his full name was George Washington Richard Spoonemore. The way folks tell it, it was his Pa who named him such. I guess you could say that George’s Pa was an eccentric old coot. He was happier than a skunk in a hen house whenever he thought about his son walking God’s green earth with such a famous name.
Well, there was a mess of kids in that Spoonemore brood. George was closest to Ben and Perry, one being married to George’s sister (that was Ben) and one being his younger brother (that was Perry). Those three boys were inseparable.
George and his kin lived on a small ranch in Nowaday County, Missouri. They worked hard and most everything they had came from the land, which they worked like mules.
George worked hardest of all, but he played hard too. This was especially true when it came to his fiddle, which George had learned to play by ear as a boy. The way folks tell it, he could play a jig that would give the devil a hotfoot.
Many a night George’s Pa would tap him on the shoulder and say, “Why George Washington, you oughta play a tune fer yer ol’ pappy.”
“You stop pesterin’ that boy,” George’s Ma would always say. “He’s worked himself to the bone all day and oughta be able to put his feet up for five minutes.”
George’s Ma came from fiery Irish stock. Her eyes flashed blue, like lightning skies in May, and she had a nest of red hair. She was a tiny woman, George’s Ma, but most people judged her by her heart, which folks used to say was as big as the Ozarks.
“Go on now, Ma,” George’s Pa would protest. “I’m but askin’ fer a song or two. Surely the boy has ‘nough strength fer that?”
“That boy has more strength in his baby finger than most have in their whole soul, and you know it!” George’s Ma would always say.
But George didn’t need much convincing when it came to performing. He loved to play his fiddle more than a possum likes to play dead. Many a night all the family would gather around the cooking stove in their small kitchen and listen to George’s bow dance across his fiddle.
George was just a boy when his mother passed away. These were sad times, but it wasn’t long before George’s Pa married again. It was a heap of work to look after all those “younguns” and George’s Pa couldn’t do it all himself.
George called his Pa’s new wife “the old Widder Woman.” Folks say this was because she had been married before. They also said she was as nasty as a raccoon being treed by a hound.
George and the Widder Woman didn’t get on at all. She’d yell and shake her fists and call his fiddle the “devil’s instrument.” She wouldn’t stand for music, save Sundays in church.
For George there wasn’t anything worse than not being able to play his beloved fiddle. He hid it out in a hollow log in the woods and every now and then he’d sneak out there and play a jig. The only difference now was that he didn’t have an audience—just the foxes and possums and raccoons that came to see what all the fuss was about underneath that canopy of yellow stars.
One night, wandering back home, George came caught a glint of red in the moonlight. Upon closer inspection he found it to be a ripe tomato, growing right there in an open spot in the woods. He plucked it, brought it home and set it on the table.
Ben was sitting by the kitchen stove, whittling. He turned around and said, “What ya got thar, George?”
But before George could reply, the Widder Woman came storming into the kitchen. “What y’all doin’, bringin’ the devil’s fruit in here?” she screeched.
“Now, what you talkin’ about?” George retorted. “I jist found this a-sittin’ thar in the wild. I thought maybe one of them younguns can eat it fer dessert.”
“That thar is a tomater!” the Widder Woman cried, eyes wide as two griddles. “Everyone knows they is deadly pizen.”
“Well, I’m not sure I believe in that thar nonsense,” George argued.
But before he could say another word, that old Widder Woman snatched the tomato and hurled it into the stove. “You’re a fool of a boy, that’s fer durn sure,” she scolded.
Well, those were dark times for George, dark as a well in winter. But they grew a whole lot darker when war broke out. It was 1861 and the North and South were itching for a big fight.
Pretty much everyone was going to sign up for the war, and that included George, Ben, and Perry. Now those three boys had been born in Indiana, so they figured on fighting for the North.
“My heart belongs up thar,” George said, “an’ I reckon a feller kin’t go against his heart.”
And so the three young men—not much more than boys, really—struck out for the north and enlisted in the Yankee army out of Indiana.
They saw a great deal of action, and the early days of the war were hard on those three. The sky roared with cannon fire. Bullets whistled. Horses whinnied. Men yelled, and gasped, and died.
“By gum, George,” Ben said one somber night after a terrible battle. “I shore got a hankerin’ fer sum of that fiddle music of yers.”
“Shore, George,” Perry added. “It’s a might intolerable with no music.”
George missed his fiddle too—sorely. So he said crossly, “Now, boys, y’all know I ain’t got my fiddle with me. Besides, I don’t see what’s musical ‘bout war. It jist ain’t proper.”
“Why. I don’t see why not,” Ben argued. “I reckon the way ya play that ol’ fiddle, ya could jist fiddle these dern Rebs into surrenderin’ and we could git on back home. I ain’t miss that old Widder Woman’s tongue, but she kin shore whip up a fine plate o’ grits.”
Well, the war brooded and fumed until, in 1864, it killed young Perry. As you can imagine, this was a great blow of sorrow to George and Ben.
“I shore don’t wanna tell Pa,” George confided in Ben. “But I reckon I oughta write him and lit him know how it happened.”
George never got to post that letter. He and Ben were captured just a few days later by the Confederate army. They were tossed into a prison camp, caged like a couple of hens waiting for the axe. It sure didn’t look like there was going to be fiddle music anytime soon.
George and Ben made a sorry pair. They spent the remaining days of the war in that camp, eating and living poorly.
When the war finally came to an end in 1865, the two young men, along with they rest of the prisoners, were set free. The problem was those two boys weren’t anywhere near home.
Now they had no money, George and Ben, and no food either. Their clothes were in rags and their boots were all but falling off their feet. Still, they were left to go home as best as they could.
They were many hundred miles from Missouri, a long way to go on foot, and barefoot at that. But George and Ben were determined to get back and see their Pa and the rest of the Spoonemore clan. So they set on their way.
It was tough going. The country was rough and the mountains were high. They lived on wild berries and the odd meal they were able to get from some friendly ranch houses. Mostly they slept on the ground, in fair weather or foul, but they kept on plugging along, day after weary day.
Those two had courage, but even courage won’t feed you after awhile. Those boys were plum tuckered out. Finally, after going several days without a lick of food in his belly, Ben just collapsed to the ground. He rolled up like a possum, and didn’t move a stitch.
“I shore wish ya had yer fiddle now, George,” Ben murmured. “I could use some o’ that music ta send me on up ta them pearly gates.”
“Ben, if I had my fiddle, I reckon I woulda ett it a week ago,” George told him. “Now git up, Ben. Y’all kin’t go dyin’ here whan thar might be an orchard right ‘round the bend.”
So Ben wearily picked himself up and the two men trudged off again, two tired mules trying to plow a field they thought might never end. But, sure enough, they were just struggling over the next hill when they came across a patch of glorious, ripe tomatoes. They were growing wild, right there along the trail, untouched by human hand. To George and Ben, these tomatoes seemed to stretch on for as far as the eye could see, round and red, glowing brighter than candles at Christmas.
“That’s a passel o’ tomaters,” George said, gazing upon them with a ravenous gleam in his eye. “I got me a dern notion ta eat some of them.”
“No, George, ya daresn’t eat them!” Ben cried, clutching the sleeve of George’s ragged shirt. “Don’t ya ‘member? Tomaters is deadly pizen!”
“Well, I ain’t ever met no folk that got sick from tomaters,” George said.
“That’s cause they all gone and died, them folks that ett the tomaters,” Ben said. “They’ll kill ya, shore as a bullet.”
“Heck, Ben, I don’t care,” George argued. “I got me a hankerin’ ta eat these tomaters. Fer all we know, the good lord put ‘em right here so we kin make it home agin.”
“Or it mighta been that ol’ devil,” Ben said. “Maybe he’s jist tryin’ to pizen us. He could be in with that ol’ Widder Woman.”
“Well, a man oughta die tryin’ and not jist a settin’ down ta take it,” George declared.
“Lemme see if I can rustle me up a shovel,” Ben announced. “I reckon I’m gonna need it ‘fore long.”
But George didn’t have an ear for anymore of Ben’s sass. The way folks tell it, that dirty, scraggly boy just squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and marched right into that field of wild tomatoes.
“I might jist as well die of pizen, as starve ta death,” George proclaimed. He said this loudly, like a preacher on Sunday.
Then, to Ben’s horror, George picked one of the tomatoes and gobbled it down. To George, nothing ever tasted so good! Why, that tomato tasted better than Aunt Mercy’s blackberry pie at the county fair. It tasted better than the sweets Joe Boot charged a whole penny for down at the general store. It tasted better than roasted hog at Christmas.
George just smacked his lips as he finished that tomato. He let the red juice and small yellow seeds trickle down his scraggly beard. Then he picked another tomato and ate that one too.
“Yer gonna keel over dead!” Ben warned.
But George kept on eating the tomatoes, and Ben kept on watching, expecting any moment that his brother-in-law would drop dead. But George didn’t drop dead. He just kept eating. Ben’s stomach now growled with hunger. His stomach told him to eat those tomatoes, but his brain told him no, that they were deadly poison.
After just a few minutes, George had eaten his fill. He sat back in the tomato field and stared up at the blue sky. He had never felt so full, so satisfied. Ben stared at him, expecting him to turn yellow, or green, or to just keel over. But George looked the same as before he had eaten the tomatoes. Just fuller.
“By gum, George, how ya feelin’ now?” Ben asked him anxiously.
“I feel good,” George replied. “I don’t reckon them tomaters wuz pizen! That’s jist an ol’ wives tale.”
Well, Ben couldn’t wait any longer. His stomach won out over his head. He dived into that field of tomatoes and just started wolfing them down. Afterwards, he lay down beside George, happy and engorged. They slept more soundly that night than they had in weeks.
The next day George and Ben got up and took off what was left of their shirts and filled them up with some more of the tomatoes. They set off for home again. They lived off the tomatoes for a whole week, eating them morning, noon, and night.
The landscape soon became more familiar. They were back in Nowaday County. Before long, the old ranch house came into sight.
“Thar she is, home,” George said, gazing wistfully upon their Pa’s farm from the hill above. “Ya know, Ben, I reckon them tomaters done saved our skins. It’s all we ett fer days. You imagine we never ett them tomaters? We’d be gonners fer sure!”
“All I know is I ain’t ever gonna be skeered ta eat tomaters agin,” Ben said.
The two men laughed and ran the whole last mile towards the ranch house. They never even stopped to consider how they looked. They were ragged and dirty and hadn’t shaved in weeks. They had no boots, no shirts, and their trousers were just rags. When George and Ben reached the yard, the old Widder Woman came out to the porch, a rifle raised.
“Y’all git, ya durn carpet baggers,” she warned, pointing the gun right at George’s head.
George and Ben looked at each other, exhausted. “Doncha see it’s us?” George asked. “It’s me an’ Ben!”
“Ya ain’t no sech thing!” the old Widder Woman hollered. “George an’ Ben never had no beards, and they never looked like you fellers, so git!”
Just then George and Ben’s Pa came riding around the house. He jumped off his horse and yelled, “George Washington! Ben! By gum, it’s good ta see ya!” He hugged the two boys, even though they were dirty and ragged. “Put that gun up!” he told his wife. “This here is George Washington an’ Ben, back from the war.”
The old Widder Woman glared hard at the two scraggly men. After a few moments, she finally lowered her gun.
“Wal, I’ll be,” she said. “Y’all don’t look like George and Ben. Ya jist ain’t the same as whan y’all left.”
“No, ma’am,” George said. “We shore ain’t.”
* * *
This is a true story, based on the oral account handed down by my Great-Great-Grandfather, George Washington Richard Spoonemore. My Great-Aunt, Hazel Agar, wrote it down some years ago, though I have expanded many of the details, such as George’s love for his fiddle. From what I can glean, it was a widely-held belief in the American South of the nineteenth century that tomatoes were poison. When George and Ben found the famous field of “pizen tomaters” it took a great leap of faith to eat their fill. For the rest of his days, my Great-Great-Grandfather swore up and down that the tomatoes saved his life.
I shared this story with my students this past week as part of my creative writing class on family stories. This week’s assignment is to retell a family legend.
I’m continuing to teach my class on creative writing through the lens of family stories. This week’s assignment was for the students to choose an old family photo and then tell a story from the perspective of one of the people in the photo.
I thought this would be a good method for my teens to explore a bit about their past, while at the same time practicing point of view. The purpose of the assignment is not to accurately convey the events that are captured by the photo, but to find a story in it. So, there is a bit of embellishment and historical fiction involved . . . but don’t all family stories involve those things?
I decided to do this assignment myself, choosing the photo below for my inspiration:
The photo came from my grandmother. It was taken in Valla, Austria, sometime near the beginning of the Great War—my family’s best guess is 1915. The man on the right is my grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather, Georg Thuringer, in his soldier’s uniform. The man on the left is a local cobbler and friend to my great-grandfather.
Here is the story I chose to tell, from the perspective and point of view of my great-great grandfather. Some things, such as the names of the cobbler and the photographer, and the circumstances of the photograph are inventions of my imagination. The facts of the story (such as my great-grandfather’s illness) are true.
* * *
I watch in sorrow and agony as my Maria, only seven years old, lifts the bucket by my bed and lugs it out of the room to empty it of the blood and mucus that I burdened it with throughout the night. The bucket is so heavy because of the gravel and sand Maria fills it with each day. It’s meant to help absorb the poison I retch out every few minutes. Now I think there is more of me in that bucket than there is sand.
But at least I was able to find the bucket in the darkness, able to control my bout enough to not soil the entire room. Not like two days ago, when I coughed so violently that I splattered the bloody contents of my lungs all over the sheets, the floor, and even the walls. Franzeika did not let Maria help with that clean up. My daughter has seen so much, but there are some things her mother still tries to keep from her.
Now Franzeika trudges into the room, her expression somber and unrevealing. My wife is ever the stoic one. She pulls the stool alongside my comfortable coffin, a bowl of steaming soup in her hands.
I struggle to sit up and greet her, which only increases the sharp whistling emanating from my chest. I sound like a machine. That is what I have come to, now, just a bag of slowly deteriorating parts, and a fleeing soul. I’m more mechanical than human.
As a soldier, I dug trenches twelve hours a day, ate slop, and slept on cold cement floors with no blankets to warm my body—and I still managed to plow forward like a horse. I withstood the bombardment of enemy armaments upon my unit’s fortifications and watched in horror as my comrades collapsed around me—and still I trudged on. But the one thing I could not overcome was the gas. That wretched vile fog besieged my lungs and now slowly gnaws away at them, bit by bit.
“Eat, you must eat,” Franzeika says, lifting a spoon to my lips.
It is what she always says and I find myself beginning to wonder why. There is no purpose to it. Even the hospital in Nagykaniza gave up on me and had the grace to send me home to die. Or perhaps they just needed the bed for some other poor soul. Whatever the case, my life is spent. Eating will not save me. It will only prolong my days of watching my wife and daughter mopping up bits of me.
Franzeika forces a spoonful of broth between my lips and, as much as I want to protest, I accept her nourishment. It’s the least I can do for her. As I let her feed me, like the invalid I am, my eyes wander the walls and I notice something new in my grim surroundings. A sepia photograph is pinned crookedly to the wall—certainly by a child’s hand, because Franzeika is far too fastidious to permit something so askew. But she notices my recognition of the photo and says, “Andris brought it to the house after you left. Maria thought it might cheer you up.”
I contemplate the photo. Standing there in the frame, rigid and unsure, is myself and my best friend, Petr, and I am reminded of the day I went to war . . .
The day I leave for the front is crystal clear in my mind. It is a cold spring day, 1915, but I do not mind the temperature—I have my sharp and comfortable uniform, with its long coat and double rows of buttons. The truth is that I do not want to go to war; it has taken conscription to get me there, but today, as I march through the streets of Valla, everyone seems to be looking at me in a new way, regarding me with a sense of pride. I tip my soldier’s cap in response, slightly embarrassed by the attention.
When I reach Petr’s shop, I pause and peer through the window to see him stooped over his bench, mallet in one hand, a shoe in the other, and his mouth full of hobnails. How I wish he was coming with me, my oldest friend. My best friend. But he has not yet been conscripted—and he is not about to enlist.
“You think too highly of the empire,” he is fond of berating me. “They demand your service. But will they look after you when this terrible affair is done?”
Yet Petr does not launch into sermon or lecture on this morning. When he realizes I’ve arrived, he simply stands and wanders into the street to greet me.
“So today has come, Georg,” he says simply.
“I take the train to Liberec in an hour,” I inform him. I offer him my hand, only to realize that his are full; he is still holding his mallet and shoe.
“Hey, there, George! Petr!” someone calls.
We turn to see Andris standing across the lane, in the doorway of his shop. “How about a photograph? It’s not every day you go to war.”
“And not often that you come back,” I hear Petr grumble under his breath.
“There is not enough time,” I tell Andris, thinking that he means for us to come inside and to pose in his studio. I say this partially because it is true—there is little time—but also because I know Petr will refuse to participate in making this occasion seem momentous.
“Come, come, let’s capture two friends together on this fine morning,” Andris persists. “We will do it here. On the street. Alida! Fetch me the camera.”
I stand there awkwardly as Andris and his deferent wife set up the apparatus. It is a complicated device and takes a moment—a moment in which I’m left to linger with Petr while passersby pause to stare at us. It’s an unusual event for someone to have his picture taken so informally.
At last, Andris is ready. “Stand still,” he tells us, though in truth Andris has the latest in camera equipment and we do not have to pose like statues, like my father might have had to do in the old days.
The photo is taken and Andris is disassembling his equipment when little Maria comes skipping down the lane.
“Papa,” she says, “Mama says time to come. We must go to the station.”
She leaps into my arms and I lift her up. Then, turning to Petr, I offer him a smile. His hands are still full and, now, so are mine.
“Farewell, Petr,” I tell him before turning to trek down the road, towards my fate.
I can’t imagine lifting Maria in my arms now. She is two years older, but that is not why. I simply don’t have the strength. She returns to the room with the bucket cleaned and refilled with fresh gravel. She sets it by my bed then lingers by her mother, watching the slow and agonizing enterprise of me being fed.
“Maria,” Franzeika chides, “go find your brother and help him with his chores.”
Maria nods, her large brown eyes staring at me, hopeful and frightened at the same time.
I return my attention to the photo on the wall, gazing upon the face of my old friend. That moment captured by the photo was the last time I ever saw him. He had not eluded conscription for very long. Shortly after I left he, too, went to war. Franzeika told me he was killed only after three months, shot through the chest. At least he died quickly. At least he does not suffer, like I do.
Juliet famously said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet . . .”
. . . But was she right?
Well, this was a question we pondered in my creative writing class on the theme of family stories. I was inspired to do this assignment after digging through my old university papers and finding a composition in which I explored my own identity by deconstructing and analyzing my name.
This subject has obviously been one that has long interested me. When I look back on the books I wrote a kid, I’m amused by the fact that each of them seems to have a different name assigned to it:
As you can see, there are a lot of variations . . . maybe I was having an identity crisis! And, as you can see in the illustrations above, even my last name was in play. That’s because I was born with “Fodey,” but learned at a young age that the true Hungarian spelling of the name should be “Födi.” The corruption of the name happened when my grandfather immigrated to Canada. Upon arriving here in 1926, his name was anglicized—common practice, I think, back in the day. So I often used that spelling on my books. I’ve always been a very visual person, and I think I just wanted to see how the different letters looked in comparison to each other.
Eventually, when I was in my mid-twenties, I took the legal steps to formally change the spelling, and to reclaim that Hungarian spelling. When I was first professionally published, I decided to go with “Lee Edward Födi.” It was a name that was decades in the making!
So, for me, there is a lot of power in names, and I think that’s true for all of us. Next to how we look, our names are perhaps one of the most significant aspects of our personal identities.
Any author knows this, of course—we tend to spend a lot of time on developing and choosing character names. As a fantasy writer, I often invent names, but I do so ever so carefully. When it comes to borrowing names from our world, I still pick them carefully.
The go-to factors for me when it comes to naming characters are, in this order:
Of course, that is the process I use for naming fictional characters. But what about how we ourselves are named? Are we named and then grow (or shrink!) to fit our names? Or do our names get mutated to fit us? Because so many of us have multiple names and types of names:
Given names (first and middle)
Nicknames (usually given to us by others)
Names that are chosen (many people give themselves an English or Anglicized name when coming to an English-speaking country)
As part of the process for this assignment, I had my students follow these steps:
Step 1: Identify all your names: first, middle, last, nicknames.
Explain why or how you were given your names.
Define the meaning and etymology of each name and explore the feelings you have about them.
Of course, I had the benefit of having already done this assignment in university, so was able to tell the students about my personal analysis . . .
STEP 1: My names
First name: Lee
Middle name: Edward (named after my father)
Confirmation name: James (picked because I just liked the sound of it)
Original last name: Fodey (anglicized from Hungarian Födi)
Current last name: Födi
Nickname: Mr. Wiz
STEP 2: How I was given my names
My parents didn’t know what to name me upon my birth because for some reason it never occurred to them that I wouldn’t be a girl. My name was supposed to be Jacqueline. I went unnamed until my father decided “I looked like a Lee.”
I was named “Edward” after my father (his first name).
When I was confirmed in the Catholic church I picked the name “James” because I liked the sound of it. It upset my grandfather severely, since he was my sponsor and wanted me to be named after him. But I didn’t want “Thomas” as my name because it was already my brother’s middle name and I wanted to be unique. I regretted this decision almost immediately. But I like to think I did the more important thing, which was to eventually change my last name to the Hungarian spelling.
As for my nickname, “Mr. Wiz”, well this developed organically, as many nicknames do. When I first was published, I had a friend who called me the “Wizard of Words” and there was a magazine article with that title, too. Many of my students called me by that title. Of course, it’s long and it eventually got shortened to “Mr. Wiz.” It became a very easy name to use when I started spending a lot of time in Asia, where the most common last name is “Lee.” From that sensibility, it is absolutely incomprehensible that I would have a last name as a first name. Plus, in Asia, you list your last name first, so it is extra confusing! So, Mr. Wiz became way easier.
Step 3: The meaning of my names—and my feelings about them.
“Lee” means “shelter from wind or weather provided by a neighboring object.” The feminine version, “Lea”, means “a meadow, pasture, or arable land.” My name, therefore, means both “nature” and “structure”!
This reminds me of a story from my childhood. When I was about ten, I found a mouse trapped in the grain bin of our feed shed. It scurried around and around the smooth, synthetic slopes of the plastic bucket where we stored the chicken grain. I knew my father would kill the mouse if he discovered it, but I did not have the heart to report the thief. Instead, I scooped the infiltrator from its plastic prison and set it free in the long grass behind the chicken run. So, if you think about it, I acted as a “lee” or “weard” to protect the mouse from the dangerous storm of my father and set it free in the lee (the meadow)! However, I did not guard the fortune of our grain, so failed the “Edward” part of my name (and also my father, Edward).
So I am a person in conflict: “nature” versus “cultivation.”
My father and grandfather were both good at sowing and reaping crops. But, as a kid, I reaped trouble—like the kind you get when you unleash hordes of gluttonous mice on the farm your father is trying to guard. The only thing I ever successfully planted was an idea.
So I have decided that I am a gardener, too—just of a different sort. It’s at this point that I think of the Apostle Paul, who famously said, “You reap what you sow.” (He underwent a name change, too—just like me!)
Another aspect to consider in my first name is the “Ly.” A completely different spelling, of course, but with the exact same sound as “Lee.” “Ly” is a suffix, meaning to have “the qualities of.” For example: Brotherly, angrily, happily, mostly . . . or, in other words, a name that causes other words to change! I feel like this really fits me; as a creative writing and art therapy teacher, my task is to inspire change.
“Edward” comes from two old English words. “Ead” means wealth or fortune. “Weard” means to guard. Together, the name means “to guard wealth or fortune.” I like to think you can morph the word “guard” into “gardener”—this really fits my father because he is a farmer.
As for my last name, Födi, The “i” at the end of Hungarian names means “to be from”, which means my family must have hailed from the area of “Fod.” I can’t find a place called “Fod” on any map of Hungary . . . but it could easily be a corruption of the village of “Fót” in Pest county.
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So there you have it: the quick cheat sheet to the exploration of my name. I explained to my students who I was, then asked them: “Who are you?”
Even though many of them struggled with this activity, they also discovered new things about themselves.
Incidentally, that paper I wrote in university? I received an “A”!
I’ve spent the last week restructuring a manuscript for a book after receiving some notes from my agent, Rachel Letofsky at The Cooke Agency.
Truth be told, this book—or at least the germ of it—has been percolating in one corner of my dusty mind for over a decade. It’s only been the last couple years or so, however, that I’ve been working on it intensively.
One of the things that I have enjoyed about working with Rachel is her editorial advice. She has demonstrated a key eye for finding weak or soft areas in a book and helping me improve them.
For this latest round, I took my usual approach to a round of editorial notes on a manuscript. I read through all the comments and suggestions—then produced pages of chicken-scratch response.
To be clear, these aren’t notes for my agent—I don’t expect anyone to possess the patience to read the above musings. They are simply meant to clarify things for me. And my brain works well with chicken-scratch notes in various notebooks or on scraps of paper. Oh, and with lots of doodles.
The end result of all these notes is that I realized I had to add at least one new important scene into the book, which meant taking my reader into a new room within the overall setting (a sort of station house). If you’re a writer, you know what that’s like. It’s like putting an addition on to your house. You have to figure out how big the room is, how to furnish it, and—especially important in a fantasy book—how to make it unique and interesting. Then, after making all those decisions, you have to then choose what to tell the reader and what not to, just to keep the plot moving along without bogging everything down in detail.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to invent new characters for this additional scene; I just had to plug in the ones already wandering around in my world. I know my characters so well at this point that I can just stick them in a location together and listen to them interact. It’s particularly helpful when the characters don’t exactly get along, and that is the case with this new chapter. But, just to keep things a bit more interesting, I stuck a fire-breathing bat in the corner.
Oh, and I also doodled him.
Further along the process, I realized one chapter had ballooned so much that I had to break it into two to further expand a scene in which my characters escape from an army of little beasties. I’m not sure if these two chapters will stay separate . . . but we shall see!
Alas, all of this work did not come without casualty. Sunday morning, before I was preparing to roll up my sleeves and cook for an army of people for Thanksgiving Dinner, I decided to work a bit more on my manuscript and ended up introducing my keyboard to my coffee. I cleaned up the spill quickly and avoided damage. At least, I thought I had, until this started happening as I typed:
I like unexpected turns in my writing . . . just not like this! Well, it was probably the universe telling me to take a break. I replaced the keyboard the next day and kept on going. Eventually, the new scenes were shuffled in and it was time to review the overall manuscript to see how it flowed. Along the way, there was a lot more pontificating—and doodling—in my notebook.
It’s funny how simple changes can have such a ripple effect on a manuscript. I noticed many tiny things that suddenly didn’t make sense. For example, the simple addition of a location in my setting, meant in a future scene my character was suddenly walking the wrong direction when I was trying to get him from one place to another. Those sorts of continuity errors are probably what stress me out the most.
Thankfully, this book isn’t near publication stage, so there is still plenty of time to catch those sorts of things. What I do hope I’ve accomplished with this most recent round of writing and editing is the big stuff—which is improving the plot and the emotional resonance of the characters.
I’m currently teaching a creative writing program through the lens of family stories. This week, the students are tasked with bringing in a family heirloom to inspire their weekly writing. Personally, I use a lot of objects to invigorate my own writing process. Of course, I normally write about dragons and other creatures of enchantment, so I have to build most of my objects. However, there are many objects in my family handed down from my paternal grandfather . . . and so I’ve written a short piece below about my memories of my grandfather’s “cabinet of curiosities”—otherwise known as his workshop.
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I remember my grandfather’s workshop vividly. It was a tiny room sequestered in the basement of his and my grandmother’s house, down the stairs, around the corner, at the end of the hallway, as if the rest of the house might have been ashamed of it or at the very least wanted to keep it a secret.
The room itself was immaculately organized. My grandfather was a fastidious man and he did not tolerate clutter or disarray. Every tool and piece of equipment had its place, tucked away in a clearly labeled drawer or hanging on its rightful peg, sometimes with a forensic outline to mark its absence while in use. I’m pretty sure my grandfather knew every splice of leather, every knob of wood, every hinge of metal that occupied that workshop. The central piece of the workshop—the altar, if you will—was the Singer sewing machine, a beautiful relic from his time as a cobbler.
The dominate color in the shop was a peculiar turquoise green color. My grandfather used this color for everything: the handles of his tools, the trim of his workshop counters, the marvellous wooden barn he built for me when I was six or seven.
I never actually witnessed my grandfather at work in his shop. I think time spent there was a holy occupation for him, perhaps in evenings after dinner or on a Sunday morning before church. But I can imagine him tinkering away there—gracefully, methodically, magically.
Yes, that workshop was like an enchanted place to me. My grandfather was a creator of found-object art, long before that term was ever coined. He threw nothing away—or let others do so either. Each item he salvaged would be cannibalized and transformed into some new garden tool or household implement, or perhaps a strange trinket or toy. He’d cut an old cottage cheese container into pieces and use the plastic flaps to make a windmill to frighten away the birds from his vegetable rows. Or an old gourd from the garden would become a musical instrument for his grandchildren to play. The workshop was a place where broken things were mended, where abandoned objects received salvation.
For my grandfather the workshop might have been a sanctuary, but for me it was a place of stories. Each of the objects residing there had something to tell. You could walk in, pick up an item (if you dared to disturb that pious place) and see when it was made and what year. That was my grandfather for you. He was a recorder; he wrote or engraved names, dates, and places on everything. Some of the things in that workshop had come with him all the way from the old country.
Other items were like the Singer machine, remnants from his various careers: shaving brush from when he was a barber, awls from when he was a cobbler, notepads from when he ran his billiards hall and other businesses. The notebooks were written in Hungarian, English, or German—or sometimes a combination of all three!
Sometimes the stories in this place were not told by the objects, but by my grandfather himself. Every Sunday I would go to church with my grandparents and, afterwards, for a good old-fashioned European lunch. While my grandma prepared cabbage rolls, roast ham, or duck, my brother and I would gravitate down to the basement to listen in wonder as my grandfather regaled us with tales of his life.
The story I inevitably think of first is about the night the soldiers came to his hometown of Farkasgyepű, near the end of the Great War. My grandfather was just a kid—he would not have been more than fifteen or sixteen at the time, though I must confess I don’t know exactly how old he was and, as a child myself, I never had the sense to ask for clarification.
So I don’t know the exact date or even time of year or day when the soldiers came. Just that they came, their intention to round up every man or boy who could hold a gun—or a pitchfork—and to enlist them for the war effort. When I imagine this scene now, it’s raining. Not a torrential rain, but drizzling down, slow and steady, methodically and machine like. Dull. Relentless. A harbinger for things to come.
The soldiers rounded up everyone in the village, assembling them for inspection and registration. If you were fit for service, you were pinned with some sort of ribbon or badge. My grandfather knew what was coming, the fate that was being presented to him and the other men. When the soldiers addressed my grandfather, he feigned deafness and affected a slight limp. He did not receive a ribbon. He was not loaded up on the trucks and carted away to be sacrificed to a doomed war effort.
As my grandfather tells it, everyone who was taken away that day did not come back. So he survived, the war came to an end, and my grandfather toiled away for another few years before finally deciding he needed to find a better life. At the age of twenty-six, he set off by himself to cross the Atlantic and immigrate to Canada. He had a suitcase of Hungarian money (which turned out to be mostly worthless) and a few keepsakes. He set up a humble life in Canada, started a family, and never returned to Europe.
Sometimes I ponder that story of the soldiers coming to Farkasgyepű and wonder if my grandfather was a coward or just extremely clever. I guess sometimes the line between the two is blurred. The hard fact of the matter is that he survived—while others did not.
The truth is, I can’t see my grandfather as a soldier. Sometimes I think the mere act of enlisting might have killed him. Reminiscing about his workshop reminds me that he was a maker and repairer of things—not a destroyer. On that miserable day in Farkasgyepű, at the end of the Great War, he might have fashioned the most important thing of all: his destiny.