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The Magic Adjective

As you know, fantasy is one of my favorite genres to read and to write. I love to imagine fabled creatures, unearthly beings, secret worlds, and magic. I’ve discovered that one of my favorite tropes is shape-shifting – transforming one thing or being into another. A man into a hawk. A dragon into a dragonfly.


Shape-shifting doesn’t just happen in fantasy though. In the real world, ice changes into water and then into steam. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly. A tadpole turns into a frog. A seed into a tree, a bloom, an apple, and more seeds. And maybe for me, in the bigger picture, shape-shifting is a metaphor for the changes that take place within us as we journey through life.

We writers shape-shift phrases and sentences all the time, and one source of that magic is the adjective. We use adjectives to transform nouns, to paint pictures, to focus the reader’s senses. It’s not just a smell but a sharp smell, or an acrid smell, or a rancid smell, or a spicy smell. It’s not just the sky but the pewter sky, the sunset red sky, the dawn pink sky. Not just the river but the rushing river, the lazy river, the swirling river. Not just the voice but the faint voice, the harsh voice, the garbled voice. The adjective performs the magic, changes the picture, transforms the color, sharpens or dulls the smell.

The specific adjective can make a story ring with reality or fold it into the realm of fantasy.

Tolkein in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” found in the appendix to Tales from the Perilous Realm, wrote, “[H]ow powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. . . . We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy,’ as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”

There are editors and writers who warn against using adjectives (and adverbs as well), and for good reason. Inexperienced writers often rely too heavily on adjectives and adverbs when a more colorful noun or verb would make the writing more interesting and concise and would paint a clearer picture. The swirling river could be described more effectively as a maelstrom. The faint voice is perhaps better written as simply a whisper. Neither is wrong, but the wise writer goes for the noun or verb that carries the most weight and doesn’t need a qualifier.

Still, used sparingly and with intention, adjectives (and adverbs) perform magic, allowing us to shape-shift the generic into the specific, the usual into the unique, and sometimes the common into the fantastic.

Do the writers you enjoy reading use adjectives liberally or sparingly? For fun, describe an object with all the adjectives you can think of, then go back and see if you can think of a better, more descriptive noun for the object.


Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.


State Secrets: Naming the 50

“Sift apart.” That’s the literal Latin origin of the word “secret,” se + cernere. We usually think of a secret as information that someone intentionally hides, but it can also refer to something simply hidden from view, something anyone can see if they’ll just look. Something to be sifted out. That’s the feeling some of us writers get doing research. We’re sifting out secret information.


I’ve researched flowers and colors, personality and angels and more, and I’ve discovered that my original research sometimes detours me, and I end up learning something I hadn’t envisioned finding but find fascinating anyway. This week I was researching eponyms – names of people and places that became words (like Willem Beukelz, the first to preserve foods in salt and vinegar, whose name became the word not only for the preserving process but also for one particular product it created: “pickles”). Anyway, my research on eponyms led me to “America,” named for the explorer Amerigo Vespucci (who did not discover America, but that’s another story) and then to Georgia, named for King George II of England. From there I detoured into the names of other states, and here’s what I found.

First a couple of facts:

Only one state is named for an individual American. Which one?*

No states begin with the letters Q, X, or Z. Only two other letters (near the beginning of the alphabet) are not represented. Which letters?**

As for the names:

25 of the 50 states were named after words spoken by a variety of Native American tribes:

• Alabama from Choctaw alba (thicket) and amo (cleaner or reaper), thus “reapers of thickets.

• Alaska from the Russian based on Aleut alaesku for mainland or great land

• Arizona, probably from Papago arizonac (little spring or few springs)

• Arkansas and Kansas from Quapaw Sioux kansa (people of the south wind)

• Connecticut from Mohican quinnitukq-ut (long, tidal river)

• Illinois from the French version of an Algonquin trie, the Inini, changed to Illini (accomplished men)

• Indiana, meaning “land of the Indians”

• Iowa from the French version of a Dakota Sioux tribe Ayuhwa (sleep ones)

• Kentucky, probably from the Iriquois kenta (prairie)

• Massachusetts from the tribe of the same name; massa (great) + wadchu (hill)

• Michigan from the Algonquin word for “great lake”

• Minnesota from the Dakota word minisota, which probably means ‘white water’

• Mississippi from the Algonquin dialect akin to Ojibwa misi (big) + sipi (water)

• Missouri from the Missouri tribe, missori in the Illinois dialect (dugout canoe)

• Nebraska from the Oto nebrathka (flat or spreading water)

• New Mexico from Mexitli, the name of an Aztec war God

• North and South Dakota from the Dakotas, another name for the Sioux

• Ohio from the Iroquois oheo (beautiful)

• Oklahoma from the Choctaw okla (people) + homma (red), the name suggested by the Chief of the Choctaws.

• Oregon is uncertain, but probably from the Connecticut-English pidgin wauregan (beautiful)

• Tennessee from the Cherokee Village named Tanasi, meaning unknown

• Utah from the Ute, the meaning uncertain but probably referring to the mountains

• Wisconsin from an Algonquin word the French changed to ouisconsin, the meaning unknown

• Wyoming from the Delaware m’cheuwomink (large prairie)

[Of all the above, 10 were names of rivers before becoming names of states.***]

Hawaii was named by Polynesians for their mythical homeland, Havaiki.

A few states have French names: Louisana, named for King Louis XIV; Vermont from vers monts, meaning Green Mountains; maybe Maine, from the French province of Maine south of Normandy (or maybe English instead from mainland); Maryland, named for a French princess, Henrietta Maria, queen consort of King Charles I of England; and New Jersey, named for the largest of the Channel Islands

Some states have Spanish names: Colorado, named by Spanish explorers who called the river the Colorado (red river); Florida, or flowering, named by Ponce de Leon; Montana named either for the Spanish montaña (mountain) or Latin montana (mountainous region); Nevada, short for Sierra Nevada, the mountain range, sierra (mountains) and nevada (snow-covered); and Texas for the Mexican Spanish tejas (friends or allies – the Tejas was also a specific confederation of tribes)

California is a Spanish name, but has a more interesting story. Cortes, or someone on the scene shortly after him, named it for a fictional island in a 1510 Spanish romance.

Then there are the British names: Delaware, named after the river that was named for Thomas West, Lord Delaware (or De La Warre); New Hampshire, named for a county on the south coast of England; New York, named after the Duke of York, whose name can be traced back from the Viking jorvik (horse bay) that those conquerors applied to the region of York; North and South Carolina, named for King Charles I of England; Pennsylvania, named for Admiral William Penn (Penn + sylvania, Latin for woods); Virginia and West Virginia, named for Queen Elizabeth I, known as “the Virgin Queen”

Rhode Island’s name has two possible origins. 1) It was named for the Greek island of Rhodes. 2) Colonists thought they were on the Dutch-named Roodt (red) Island but were on another island instead. They called it Rhode Island, and the name not only stuck but eventually was extended to include Providence as well.

Idaho’s naming is unclear. A delegate from the territory said he based the name on a girl named Ida. But it could also be based on a Shoshone expression: ee (down) + dah (sun or mountain) + how (an exclamation) = light coming down the mountain.

*The only state named for an individual American is Washington.

**No states begin with the letter B or E.

***Rivers that became state names: Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon (now known as the Columbia), Tennessee, Wisconsin

So, Happy Independence Day to our multi-national nation!


Thanks to:


Guppies in Tuxedos by Marvin Terban

Our Fifty States, a National Geographic book


Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com


When authors (or Arthurs as younger children sometimes call them) visit schools, two questions often come up, even from older students:

  1. How old are you?
  2. How much money do you make?

askAs for the age thing, that’s easy to answer – if the author wants to divulge her age. Some of us give a vague, “‘way older than you” or “old enough to be your mom” (or grandmother). Or as my granny would have said, “Old enough to know better.”

The second question isn’t as easy, unless it’s asked as, “Are you rich?” In which case the answer is a definite no. I did try once to explain to a group of sixth graders how royalties work. I’m not sure how much they understood, but I think they got the point that the author gets only a small fraction of the list price of the book.

Of course, adults are curious about these things as well; they’re just too polite to ask. So in case you’ve ever wondered, here’s the scoop: Technical and business writing can be freelance or salaried. These writers (and others hired to write for newspapers, blogs, magazines, and ad agencies) make from $48,000 to $60,250 annually, depending on whose statistics you read. But what about novelists and children’s book writers?

Publishers Weekly categorizes authors’ advances, the money that publishers pay authors for the right to publish their book. It’s based on the number of books the publisher expects to sell. A “nice deal” is $1 to $49,000; a “very nice deal” is $50,000 to $99,000; a “good deal” is $100,000 to $250,000; a “significant deal” is $251,000 to $499,000; and a “major deal” is $500,000 and up. I’ve only ever had a “nice deal.”

One important point: The advance is split up, so the author receives a third of the amount on signing the contract, a third sw_eReaderCoins_cs21925upon delivering an acceptable revised manuscript, and a third upon publication. The author gets royalties (about 15%) only after the publisher has sold enough books to earn the advance back. According to book coach Nina Amir, quoted in the May 2015 issue of Publishers Weekly, “The average book today sells only about 250 copies per year and 3,000 in its lifetime.” So lots of authors never see another penny after the advance.

In general, a children’s book writer earns about $8,000 to $12,000 for an advance, but if the book is illustrated, half of that amount goes to the illustrator. Otherwise, The Author’s Guild reports that most novelists make about $8,000 a year. What if you self-publish, which is a popular option these days? Digital Book World reports that over 60% of self-published authors make less than five thousand dollars per year from their writing. According to one of their surveys, hybrid authors (both traditionally and self-published) earn the most money on their books, on average $7,500 – 9,999 a year, traditionally published authors earn about $3,000 – 4,999 a year, and indie (self-pub’d) authors earn about $500 – 999 a year. (As reported in “A Look Ahead at Self-Publishing in 2016,” Publishers Weekly, 1/18/16.)

So for me, the questions are easy to answer. How old am I? Old enough to know better. Am I rich? No. Like one of my good writer friends says, I just hope to make enough money to enable me to write the next book.

I guess the moral of this story is: If you like an author’s work, buy a book or two that he or she wrote. Support your favorite author.

Oh, and there’s another question kids ask authors: Do you have a pet? And the follow-up: What’s its name? And really, that brings into focus the truly important elements of life.

Happy Reading!


Text © 2014 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photo courtesy morguefile.com.


“Life Is . . .” – Writers’ Views of Life

“Life is like a trumpet –

if you don’t put anything into it,

you don’t get anything out of it.”

W.C. Handy

The month of May brings graduations, Mother’s Day, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Memorial Day – occasions when we focus for a moment on life in the big-picture sense. Writers can often help us see that big picture. Here’s an array of thoughts from a variety of writers on what life is, ranging from the funny to the poignant to the thoughtfully wise. I hope you enjoy them.


“Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale.” – Hans Christian Andersen

“Life is what happens to us when we are making other plans.” – Allen Saunders


“Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.” – Jean De La Bruyere

“Life is one long process of getting tired.” – Samuel Butler

“The first hundred years are the hardest.” – Wilson Mizner

Life is “a little gleam of time between two eternities.” – Thomas Carlyle

Life is “a B-picture script.” – Kirk Douglas

“Life is just a bowl of cherries.” – songwriter Lew Brown

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Life is a great sunrise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.” – Vladimir Nabokov

“Life is a gift, given in trust – like a child.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

“Life is a lot like jazz . . . it’s best when you improvise.” – George Gershwin

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” – Marcus Aurelius

“Life is like a play: it’s not the length but the excellence of the acting that matters.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

“Life consists not in holding good cards but in playing those you hold well.” – Josh Billings

“Life is not an exact science, it is an art.” – Samuel Butler

“Life is a zoo in a jungle.” – Peter De Vries

“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” – Omar Khayyam

“Life’s a Great Balancing Act.” – Dr. Seuss

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna’ get.” – Forrest Gump, fictional character created by Winston Groom

“Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.” – John Gardner

“Life is either a great adventure or nothing.” – Helen Keller

“Life is a creative, intimate and unpredictable conversation . . .” – David Whyte


Text and photos © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.


Chekhov’s 4 Qualities of Great Art

“In any true, great piece of art you will always find four qualities which the artist has put into his creation,” said Anton Chekhov. He called those qualities the “Four Brothers”: a feeling of Ease, a feeling of Form, a feeling of Beauty, and a feeling of the Whole.

I just spent the afternoon at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, which isFrist1 itself a work of art, built in the early 1930’s in classicism and Art Deco styles. Ease, Form, Beauty, Wholeness, the building fits Chekhov’s definition perfectly.

Frist3The main gallery is currently exhibiting a collection from a noble family in Spain, the House of Alba, which includes paintings by artists like Titian, Goya, Velasquez, and Rubens. Many of the paintings are portraits from as early as the 15th century, and it’s interesting not only to see how the people dressed and wore their hair but also to notice what else wanted in the painting. As one description of the exhibit points out, “[A] portrait declares his or her intellectual interests, social standing, and values. Crowns, gowns, hairstyles jewelry, military insignia, musical instruments and pets all give us insight into . . . how he or she wanted to be remembered.”

Because, really, it’s the person, not the painting, who is the greater work of art. We who are roaming the galleries are the masterpieces. In fact, in one version of ancient scriptures, St. Paul says, “We are God’s masterpiece” or poiéma in ancient Greek, which technically means creation or workmanship but became the word for, yes, poetry or poem.

It just so happens that April is National Poetry Month – a perfect time to think of ourselves as living, breathing poems, as works of art. I suspect that’s why Chekhov’s “Four Brothers,” those feelings of great art, call to the deepest places in us. Great art resonates with the desire of our souls for ease, form, beauty, and wholeness. Great art calls to the art that is you.

Text and photos © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.


Eat, Read, Write: Food and the Writer

I’ve often compared writing to cooking, because I usually have more than one book in the works. I let one pot – or plot – simmer on the back burner while I stir another pot that’s coming to a boil. Recently I read The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo and discovered that she has a similar take on writing. In her chapter “Why I’m a Writer Who Cooks,” she quotes from writer Michael Chabon‘s essay “Art of Cake”:

“Writing is a lot like cooking,” he says. It requires “stubbornness and a tolerance – maybe even a taste – for last-minute collapse. . . . You cook the foods you’d love to eat, you write the books you’d love to read.”

Cookies 2

I don’t know if the following writers think of cooking as a metaphor for writing, but they all have something to say about the prep, eating, or cleanup of food.

“The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” – G.K. Chesterton

“‘Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers.” – William Shakespeare

“Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.” – Mark Twain

“Hospitality consists in a little fire, a little food, and an immense quiet.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“No man is lonely eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention.” – Christopher Morley

“My favorite animal is steak.” – Fran Lebowitz

“There is only one difference between a long life and a good dinner: that, in the dinner, the sweets come last.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“Writing is like cooking. If you spill something, you should make it look like part of the act.” – John Keble

“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” – Agatha Christie

“Research tells us fourteen out of any ten individuals likes chocolate.” – Sandra Boynton

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” – T.S. Eliot

“You have to eat oatmeal or you’ll dry up. Anybody knows that.” – Eloise by Kay Thompson

“She thought that maybe – just maybe – Western Civilization was in a decline because people did not take time to take tea a four o’clock.” – The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

“That all-softening, over-powering knell,
The tocsin of the soul – the dinner bell.” – Lord Byron

Re: watermelon: “When one has tasted it he knows what the angels eat.” – Mark Twain

So until next time . . . Happy Cooking! Happy Eating! And definitely Happy Reading!

Text and photo © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.


Ah, Love! 16 Writers on the Affairs of the Heart

The word love is like ice cream that comes in so many flavors it’s hard to define them all. Sometimes we use love to describe an emotion that’s bubble gum sweet, blown out of proportion, and then gone with a pop, as in a recent Tumblr comment on a gif of a movie: “He just met her a moment ago and he’s already so in love!” Hmm. Really? Is that even possible? But then, that’s bubble-gum love for you. Love can also describe a rich “give-me-another-scoop-of-that-dark-chocolate” relationship. Then there’s the “what-is-that-tantalizing-exotic-flavor” type of love. Many versions of what we call love are temporary highs. On the other hand, you might own the dairy and the secret recipes and the freezer and be into love for the long haul.

What is love, then?

“Love in its essence is spiritual fire.” – Seneca

“Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone.” – Leo Tolstoy

“Such ever was love’s way; to rise, it stoops.” – Robert Browning

“Love is a great beautifier.” – Louisa May Alcott

“Love betters what is best.” William Wordsworth

“If you love someone, you do not ask them to destroy the best in themselves.” – Hester in Acceptable Loss by Anne Perry

“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.” – Wendell Berry

“Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

“Love always creates, it never destroys.” – Leo Buscaglia

“Where there is great love there are always miracles.” – Willa Cather

“Love can climb higher than reason can reach.” – Edmund Spenser

“The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” – G.K. Chesterton

“Love does not just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.” Ursula LeGuin

“What love can do, that dares love attempt.” – Shakespeare

“Real love is a permanently self-enlarging experience.” – M. Scott Peck

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” – Charles Schultz

May you be well and wise, loved and loving!
Happy Reading!

Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy morguefile.com


6 More Artsy Strolls for Book Lovers

Last fall, I posted a purely-for-pleasure celebration of books, a kind of sidewalk stroll through links containing bookish sights guaranteed to make you smile. Or laugh. Or at least say Wow! Here are six more for you to wander through and enjoy!

  1. Here’s one of my favorite strolls: intricate book art by Malena Valcarcel. A sample:


2. And cakes inspired by books? Mmm. I’ll take the Great Gatsby.

3. I would love to wander through some of these amazing looking bookstores.

4. Inspiring Book Statues – This one is from the Nashville Public Library:


5. More book art by Jacqueline Rush Lee.

6. And more book-lover cakes for your sweet tooth.


Happy strolling, happy reading, happy 2016!


7 Amazing Christmas Picture Books

When I was a child, illustrations drew me into books more than stories did (although a good story made the whole experience much more satisfactory). I’m reminded of that fact each December when I set a stack of my favorite Christmas picture books on an end table, ready for read-aloud time or simply for browsing. It’s the illustrations that fascinate me. Many of the books are older, collected over the years, but – happily – they’re still available. So if you’re looking for a great Christmas book, I can highly recommend each of these. They are truly amazing, worth giving as a gift to a child or adding to your own collection.

The Nativity, Julie Vivas


Okay, this has to be my favorite. The illustrations! So down-to-earth and fun. You have to see the angels. They’re just the best!






This is the Star, Joyce Dunbar, illustrated by Gary Blythe


Again, the illustrations! They’re magnificent! I can lose track of time sinking into these oil paintings. A treat for the spirit.







Peter Spier’s Christmas!


Told entirely in illustrations, this story shows a family preparing for, celebrating, and cleaning up after Christmas. Maybe I love it because it so perfectly describes the kind of holiday I experienced growing up.






Wombat Divine, Mem Fox, illustrated by Kerry Argent


I bought this in Australia and always enjoy reading the story (and seeing the illustrations) of Wombat, who wants desperately to be in the nativity play but doesn’t quite fit in each of the roles he volunteers for – until all the parts are taken except one, which fits him just right. Wombat’s friends are all animals from down under, and this book is just fun.





The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg


You probably know this book, but if you don’t, take a look. Both story and illustrations are rich and full of the wonder of the season.





And, of course, a Christmas collection wouldn’t be complete without some version of The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Here are two of my favorites:

Robert Sabuda’s The Night Before Christmas, a pop-up book, illustrated with intricate cut-outs.


Sabuda’s version is a spectacular way to experience this classic story.







Another stunning version is the one by Niroot Puttapipat


Each page has a flap to lift, which takes you through the story to the last page, a pop-up cut-out of the town with Santa and his reindeer soaring overhead. I open the book to this spread and use the pop-up as a centerpiece to decorate one of my kitchen counters.






What Christmas picture books are your favorites?

Happy Reading and Happy Holidays!



5 Artsy Strolls for Book Lovers

Here’s a virtual museum of book art – folded, painted, sculpted, and even baked. I think of each of these five links as a room in a museum containing bookish sights guaranteed to make you smile. Or laugh. Or at least say Wow! Stroll through and enjoy!

1. Secret Passage Bookshelves – I’d love one of these!

2. Bookstore sidewalk chalkboards:
This one from The Book Nook, Brenham, TX

3. Folded Book Art – this one by Luciano Frigerio
See what other amazing artists have done with folded pages at:

4. Dresses made from the pages of romance novels? Yes!

5. And look at these book staircases – you could do this with your own stairs!

Happy Reading!