Writing a mystery novel

Here’s a fun question (for writers, anyway): how do you write a mystery novel?

Mysteries are a genre, which means they have conventions from which, if you want general acclaim, you can’t really deviate. There’s a crime and a sleuth and suspects and clues, and if it’s a modern mystery then the sleuth solves their own personal problems along with the crime–and if it isn’t then the mystery had better be “real”, by which I mean the reader has a snowball’s chance in hell of solving it themselves before the sleuth reveals the solution (I really hate murder mysteries that aren’t like that, don’t you?)

So not only do you have the usual conventions of story to adhere to–three acts, probably some character growth although the success of Knives Out proves that isn’t necessary even these days–but you have to figure out the moving parts of the mystery, and if you’re really a straight-A student, how to feed them to the reader to create an airtight conclusion.

I’m sure it helps to know that in order to commit a crime a person has to have means, motive and opportunity. It’s nice to know that your readers, if they’re savvy regular readers of mysteries, won’t believe any information they hear secondhand, ie, your sleuth has to confirm things at the source. It’s also good to have a generally cynical view of humanity. Murders happen for sex, money, and loyalty. In other words, power. Your reader will thus be paying special attention to suspects with those motives, and you, who live to serve, will jerk them around because of it.

That still leaves the writer fairly out at sea in how to get going, though. One thing that’s clear is that a mystery novel can’t be pantsed. While you might not have to outline it scene by scene, you absolutely have to know every detail about the crime before you get going, and it’s probably good to have a running list of which clues will eliminate every innocent suspect, so you can check them off as you drop them in.

But you need more, and this is where I’m moving away from what I’ve read in other articles about how to write a mystery and entering the realm of my own conjecture.

To write a mystery, you first have to outline a novel that isn’t the novel you’re going to write.

The protagonist of this novel is the killer.

The killer wants something. Something is standing in the killer’s way of getting it. The killer does something (a crime) to remove that obstacle, and enters what structural writers call the “False Victory” part of the narrative. They think they’ve gotten away with it.

It’s around this point that your actual novel starts. The one starring the sleuth, whose problem is that someone has done a crime, whose desire is to solve it, and whose roadblock to solving the crime is the killer’s sense of self-preservation. The sleuth gathers clues and eliminates suspects in what is the second act of their novel, but the third act–the Enemies Closing In–part of the killer’s story. Then, in the Grand Finale of the sleuth’s story, they reveal who the killer is.

And that triggers the Grand Finale of the killer’s story, in which they make a last-ditch effort to escape. But no one cares about the drama of the killer’s Grand Finale, because the real novel, the one they’re reading, has already entered its denouement. The story is over.

And that is how literature punishes the killer.

I hope this has given you something to chew on if you’re writing a mystery of your own. If you have more or better advice about structuring a mystery novel, PLEASE drop it in the comments. I am always looking for good advice.

Quarantine busywork: my planner game

Hello, everyone. Long time no blog, and hasn’t the world changed??? Good grief. Who could have seen all this coming.

(Last year my agent and I shopped a novel that began exactly this way; a statement probably true of many SFF and spec fic writers. Anyway.)

Quarantine has been long (3.5 months now, for us) and weird and we’ve all changed. At first I gained ten pounds in despair, but now I’m busy trying to lose it; not an easy prospect given my myriad metabolic malfunctions (I don’t care what writing advice books say, I personally love alliteration). Because my body is so ready to gain weight and so extremely stubborn about letting go of it, researching, designing, and trying out new health schemas has become an outright hobby for me. Calling it a hobby is weirdly empowering, but it’s the truth. I really enjoy trying new things.

In quarantine, I fell down the rabbit hole of planners. Remember Daytimers from the 90s? People still use paper planners like that, and they are a THING. You can search planner hashtags on Instagram. Planners, now, are as much or more about the BLING as about the planning. Stickers. Foil-stamped dividers. Saffiano leather binders. Gorgeous matte-on-shiny cards with inspirational sayings.

After a week or two of meditating on the phenomenon, I decided it exists because a lot of us never got over workbooks and stickers… and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is a satisfaction and a mental permanence to writings things out by hand that electronic planning simply doesn’t have. I have certainly gone head first down that rabbit hole.

Let me show you my bunny burrow.


First, my goody drawer. I went on a buying binge of sticky notes, sticky tabs, sticky dots, washi tape, and gorgeous metal divider tabs. I identify with deer and with the moon at this point in my life, so my selections reflect that.


Next, my actual planner, which continues the moon/night sky theme. This is an Erin Condren On the Go Folio. If you are a planner neophyte, let me unpack that: Erin Condren is a big name in the planner world. She sells highly structured, colorful planners that a lot of women credit with getting them into planning in the first place. These folios are a departure from her original planner scheme. They can be filled with special-interest mini planners for daytiming, journaling, budgeting, medical stuff… the list is long.

The folio itself is a form of traveler’s notebook. A traveler’s notebook is a tough cover–in this case PVC, in many cases leather–with several elastic bands running down the inside of the spine. You insert your own notebooks (blank cahiers, from Moleskine for example, or printed workbooks like Erin Condren’s) and when they’re full, they’re easy to remove and replace.

I don’t have mine filled with Erin Condren’s workbooks. I am using A5 cahiers by Simply Genius, ordered on A-zon. These little cahiers are as cheap as $2 apiece, depending on how many you buy at once, they have a ton of pages, and they’re *almost* as nice as Moleskine.


Here’s a top view of my setup. You see the metal divider tabs, which I LOVE. They’re widely available on A-zon and Etsy.

The tab with a sun on it is my main daytime book. The one with a moon is my gratitude journal, in which I write five things I’m grateful for every night before bed. The one with a bear is a cardstock insert I made with my recurring chores on it (more on that later). And the one with a star is my goals & intentions book.

Let’s dive in.


(The planner cover open, so you can maybe see how the notebooks are held in by elastic bands.)


Here is a sample spread. Each day gets one page (and the weekend days share a page, because I don’t track my food on Sundays). The page has the date and day of the week at top, some colored dots which are my system for tracking a few pet health issues, my weight which is blobbed out because you don’t need to see it, and the weather, as it presents itself just as I’m waking up.

Below that is my to-do list for the day. At the beginning of the week I do the coming week’s worth of headers and, using my chore insert, fill in what I intend to get done that day as well as any appointments (NOT A LOT OF THOSE IN LOCKDOWN, HONEYS).

Below that is where I track my food for the day. This is not detailed; some days I leave it at this level of tracking, and some days I go to SparkPeople to enter everything and get my calorie count for the day, just to keep it real. You can see that I have each line highlighted green, yellow, or red. This was inspired by the two week free trial of Noom I did. In the end the Noom app wasn’t for me, but I love this system as a way of giving myself an at-a-glance, numbers-free way to evaluate how the day went. As you can see these days weren’t ideal. Ah well.

At the bottom, if I have space and inclination, I flog myself with notes about how I did and didn’t work toward my goals that day.

Here’s my BuJo page with the general structure of my daily page outlined.


It is worth noting that I absolutely use Google Calendar, too. It is the primary landing place for future appointments. Haircuts, dentist and doctor appointments, birthdays: these things land on my Google Calendar, usually via my phone, at the moment they’re scheduled. Every week when I’m filling out my planner, I check my Google Calendar to see if anything is happening there.

For upcoming tasks that I can’t forget about but that will happen on an uncertain date, I use post-it notes until I’m ready to commit to actually writing it into my journal. Here’s a post-it about calling my town’s parks & rec department about a refund for summer camps that probably won’t happen, depending on whether my county moves to Phase III of reopening or not.


Moving on. The gratitude journal book is fairly self-explanatory, so I won’t show pictures of it. Either first thing in the morning or last thing at night, write down five things you’re grateful for. Oprah told us this in the nineties. It helped then, and it helps now.

Now for my chore insert. It’s a regulation-sized piece of cardstock, folded in half to make it approximately A5 size and to make it into a booklet that can be held in the notebook cover. It thus has four pages.


The first page are chores that recur on a weekly basis. Happily this is a fairly short list, which leaves space at the bottom to write temporarily recurring stuff on post-it notes, which I can discard when those appointments stop recurring.


Page 2 is monthly recurring chores. I don’t have a specific day of the month for these; I just add them to my to-do lists as I have the opportunity. I use sticky dots to indicate how many times they have to be done per month; for things like washing sheets and cleaning bathrooms, which apply to multiple areas, I also write numbers on each tab to indicate how many beds or bathrooms I’ve cleaned so far.

The next page is my yearly recurring chores, sorted by the month in which they should happen. Again, these are inserted into my to-do lists as I have an opportunity to get to them. While the list looks short, some of them are Really Big Deals. Edging garden beds, for example. I have lots of garden beds, and they have English edges, which are work to maintain. I also have lots of rooms in my house with carpets that need to be shampooed.

Other than those, the most interesting chore listed here is Chore Bear. What the heck is that, you ask?


It’s called that because its original form was a little bear my daughter bought me, which holds either a pack of standard sticky notes or 3×5 index cards. I used it for index cards, and wrote the name of one area of the house on each card, and every morning I put the old card to the back and a new one came to the top and that was the room I had to clean that day.

The cards are fiddly to deal with, so Chore Bear has been retired as a physical object, but his spirit lives on. Four times a year (because we need to put a cap on these things, otherwise they take over our lives) I work through the Chore Bear. Every day one area in the house is It. That area is targeted for special attention and for Final Reckonings.

You know what I mean. That pile of papers you haven’t sorted out. That closet you haven’t tidied. Those baseboards that need dusting. Those are all Final Reckonings, and a room’s Chore Bear day is the day those reckonings happen.

So there’s my recurring to-do list. I don’t have a page for daily stuff, because it’s so ingrained and automatic that I don’t need to list it.


The last cahier in my planner is my goals & intentions book. I am only just getting this one going, so it’s still experimental, but in general I have two cycles of goals: quarterly, which I check in on at the solstices and equinoxes, and weekly, which I check in on every Sunday afternoon.


Each week takes up a two-page spread. On the left I write what my goals are for the coming week; on the right, one week later, I observe how many of them I met, give myself gold stars for meeting them, or writing somber reflections on why I didn’t and on how I can improve in the week to come.

Because my health schemas are constantly evolving, this suits me. I can give myself new goals to meet my new schemes every week.


The quarterly goals at this point involve only one thing: the Health Point Average from a self-help book I’m currently reading called Better!: 11 Simple Habits to Improve Your Life by Jason Piken. It’s a really nice book which encourages you to create your own rules for constantly challenging and improving your own health practices. Here, every quarter, I intend to grade myself according to my own rules and to see how I’ve improved in the past three months (or haven’t, heaven forfend.)

And there, darlings is my planner. Plenty of bling to keep me entertained, and since I have the attention span here in quarantine to keep up with it, it is really helping me to 1. actually get things done, and 2. feel like I’m getting things done, which is just as important.

Hope this was interesting!

Designing a fictional language: part 2

Hello all! Welcome back to this series of articles on how to design a real-sounding naming system for your scifi/fantasy culture. In the last article we talked about designing a phonological system for your culture, which decided what sounds the members of your culture can make, followed by deciding what sounds they do make.



Today we’re going to design the syllable structure your culture uses. Once you know how your language’s syllables work, you’ll be able to design a few (or a lot) of them and begin stringing them together into a coherent-sounding set of names. Sound fun? Let’s do it.

A syllable, you might recall from school, is a string of speech sounds. They’re pronounced all at once, as a single gob of noise. In school you may have been taught that they tend to have a vowel sound at their middle (though this isn’t always the case) or you may have been taught that a syllable is the unit that gets assigned a poetic beat. However you want to think of them, the way a language builds them is a defining feature of the way the language sounds.

Before we continue, I’d like to remind you of the IPA chart, which you’ll want to refer to as you work. You’ll also want to have the phonological inventory you picked out for your culture, which you made after reading the previous article.

Have those? Good. Let’s go.

Natural languages show a ton of variation, and linguists have come up with a ton of theories of how syllables are structured. Some languages have whole parts of syllables that other languages never have. At the root, though, syllables consist of:

An onset: the first sound of the syllable, which is usually optional (meaning it can be left off of some syllables), and which consists of a consonant or a string of consonants.

A nucleus: the middle of the syllable. This is the only non-negotiable part of a syllable; it has to be there. No nucleus, no syllable. A nucleus is most often a vowel sound, though nasal and approximant consonant nuclei are common, too (in American English, work has an ɻ for its nucleus). Some languages even allow plosives to be nuclei. English allows fricatives to be nuclei for a few onomatopoeic words like shh and zzz.

A coda: the end of the syllable. Again this is often a consonant or group of consonants, and it is optional.

In addition, tonal languages have a tone for each syllable, which is considered to be part of the syllable structure.

Of course, a lot of languages do more complicated things than this. If you want to dive really deep into syllable structure and come up with something really complicated (and awesome!), I recommend you visit the Wikipedia article on syllables. There you can read about variations. Keep in mind that it is perfectly possible to build a complex, realistic, and beautiful language with only the basic structure, though. Only go deeper if you’re really interested.

Now let’s continue to design your language. Which of the syllable components does it include?

Onsets are optional but very common. They can consist of any consonant or string of consonants, though your language will have rules about precisely which strings of consonants are allowed. English allows st-, sp-, tr-, and str-, among others, for example, but it doesn’t allow sr- or tl-. Onset clusters tend to consist of sounds that are made around the same point of articulation. St- is two alveolar sounds, for example, and str- is those two alveolar sounds sliding into a retroflex, which is practically next door. Sp- is an alveolar followed by a bilabial—all near the front of the mouth. Kr- and gr-, both allowed by English, start with velar noises and roll them forward into that ever-friendly retroflex.

Take some time to consider what kind of onsets your language allows. Make a list. There is nothing wrong with making every consonant in your inventory into a possible onset.

Now to the nucleus. Your list of legal nuclei will include every vowel you chose from the IPA chart, including diphthongs and triphthongs. It can also include some consonants, though realistically, probably not all your consonants. Approximants and lateral approximants are common nucleus consonants, as are nasals. As I said earlier, a few languages even allow stops and fricatives.

Make a list of everything that can be a nucleus in your language.

Now for the coda. Like the onset, this consists of consonants. Like the onset it can be optional, either for some syllables in your language or for your language in general. Like the onset it can consist of a string of consonants as well as single consonants, though you need to define precisely what strings are acceptable. Again, there is nothing wrong with saying that every single consonant in your inventory is fair game for the coda—but there’s also nothing wrong with excluding some.

Make a list of everything that can be a coda in your language.

Lastly, is your language a tone language? Decide what tones it has. Rising, falling, high, low, and flat-but-whatever-the-previous-syllable-ended-on are common options.

Okay. Guess what you do now?

That’s right. You start to build syllables according to the rules you’ve just designed. Then you string the syllables together into names (or just leave them as single syllables.) You have a limited phonological inventory to work with as well as limitations on syllable structure. As you compose names by following these rules, the names will begin to have a characteristic look to them (and I say “look” because we’re only reading them at this point), just the way names from real cultures have characteristic looks to them.



As you design names, keep in mind that many names mean something. Prefixes and suffixes that indicate who a person’s parents are, what clan they belong to, or where they come from are very common. Think about your fictional culture. What do they value? What’s important about a person in that culture? Are those things likely to be represented in some of the culture’s names? Or maybe in all of the culture’s names? Think of the Mc-/Mac- prefix in Scottish and Irish culture. Think of -ovich and -ovna in Russian, of -son and -dottir in Icelandic.

Think of how many names a person likely has. A given name, a parent’s name with a prefix, and then a clan name, maybe? A family name with a suffix that indicates which branch of the family the person is from, followed by a personal given name? There are so many possibilities. Tap into some of them.

So there you go. You designed a phonological inventory and a syllable structure; now all you have to do is generate names, baby, all day and all night! You’re finished! You’re done! That’s all there is to it, huh?


For one thing, if you’ve been working in IPA you’re going to have to decide how to translate your names back into the Roman alphabet (or whatever other writing system you use.) But before that, you need one more lesson followed by a final, but dead important, exercise: PHONOLOGICAL TRANSFORMATIONS.

See you next week. Class dismissed.


Working Along

Okie dokie. Time for me to design my syllables.

I don’t know any tone languages, and I foresee difficulties in representing tones on the page using the Roman alphabet, so I’m not going to make my language a tone language.

My two inspiration words were “Wampanoag” and “Momoa”. Wampanoag is written with a consonant at the beginning, but the sound “wa” is actually a dipthong…which means it’s the nucleus of that syllable and not the onset, so I made onsets optional. I included all the single consonants as possible onsets, and a few likely-looking combinations.

For my syllable nuclei I included all the vowels (the way one does) as well as the retroflex trill and lateral.

Lastly, because I made the onset optional, I decided to go ahead and make the coda required just so all my syllables have heft. I added all consonants as options as well as a few combinations.


With all that established, it was time to start building syllables and names. I like the idea of names indicating someone’s hometown, so I made a suffix that indicates that. People in my culture have a given name and a surname that consists of the name of their hometown plus that suffix.


Garden news: June 14

Summer is really here because I’ve lost the will to mulch anything else. I mean, I have a huge pile of mulch so I will keep spreading it, but I mind. The borders have been weeded, edged, and mulched. Only the hard stuff is left (the veg patch, which is more of a weed patch at the mo, and the shade garden, which is up a hill).

I’m ready to shift into summer maintenance mode: Watering Wednesdays, Feeding Fridays, Supplemental Sundays, and pick things over when I feel like it.


Stuff is coming out of the garden regularly now. We’re eating lettuce and chard as fast as we can (seriously, I have 15 chard plants and we can’t keep up), I have picked a couple handfuls of strawberries, and yesterday I cut the first big bouquet of the year out of peonies that had flopped all over (to do: order peony rings) and saponaria.

It is also time to cut some things down. The columbines are finished so their flowering stalks need to go, and the Siberian iris and roses need deadheading. I think I will cut off the flowering stalks of my hardy geraniums, too. Last year I did it, which produced a pleasing tidy mound of foliage, but the one or two stalks I missed continued to form new flowers at the tips all summer–so I thought I’d let them all do that this year. But now the plants are just obscured by a haze of mostly-dead flower heads and it’s ugly. So I will cut them back.


I have a couple of topical discussions for this entry. First, border design. Second, bouquet fillers.

Border design–the selection and arrangement of plants in a flower bed, for the other Americans here–has started to worry me, and I think that means I’ve leveled up. I’ve put in the beds and planted them and kept stuff alive for a couple years, and now I’m figuring out that that doesn’t necessarily mean they look good. I’m refining my color palette, for example: stark blues like nepeta have been ousted in favor of plummier hues like purple sedums, various Spanish lavenders (holy cats, I think I am collecting those), and dianthus. I added a touch of peachy-pink in the form of Georgia Peach dianthus and I think it’s good. White, plum, and peachy-pink is the color scheme I’m aiming for.

Then there’s the problem of making the borders look full and happy. This is partly a matter of letting the plants mature so I see how big they get, then moving them into final places. I have another theory, though: a flower border needs a good solid front and a good solid back. If you have that, you can flub the interior a little.


By “good solid” I mean solid, as in leafy and green and unmistakable at a distance. Lighter foliage is better than darker foliage for this, and fluffier foliage better than plants on tall thin stems.

My best front-of-the-border plants right now are various dianthus, with their silvery foliage that forms a solid mat and can’t be missed, pale sedums that form tidy mounds, and saxifrages, which provide less in the way of foliage but lots in the way of starry flowers, which are a nice interlude to the other stuff.

My best back-of-the-border plants are globe thistles for sure, and hollyhocks maybe. The weather here isn’t as warm as hollyhocks like it, and rabbits much on them, but the ones that survived last year are growing up tall this year, and they’ll be good. They’re also easy to grow from seed and in my experience many are true perennials.

The globe thistles are a reality I am coming to grips with. They are thistles, and they are huge and spiky and rather horrible in a very thistly way, until finally–in late July or even August–they bloom, and then everyone is impressed with them. I am still not convinced that their flowers make up for the monstrosity of their foliage but they do get tall and solid, they are cheap and easy to grow from seed, and I don’t have any better ideas. So I am growing lots of Star Frost (ie white-blooming) globe thistles.

The interiors of my borders won’t change much. Taller sedums, Siberian iris, foxgloves, peonies, gaura, and various tough Mediterranean things: salvias, lavenders, veronicas. And then there is the question of dahlias.

My husband left his dahlias in to over-winter. Over that winter, his garden flooded and we had a night go down to 17 degrees Fahrenheit, which is unusually cold for here. The dahlias at the soggiest end of the garden died but the rest lived, so I now feel confident that there’s no need to dig up my dahlias every autumn–which means I need to select my favorites and put them in permanent spots.

They get tall enough that they should go just in front of the back-of-the-border stuff. They don’t start to peek above the soil until May though, long after I’m usually busy burrowing around and mulching things. So how to mark them?

With bulbs. This fall I’ll put them in, and plant circles of tall alliums around them. The allium foliage comes up early, and will mark the dahlias’ places. The alliums will bloom while the dahlias are still putting on foliage. Then the alliums will die back just as the dahlias come into their own.

I really feel that I am rather clever for thinking of this.


Moving from the perennial border to the cutting garden: the question of bouquet fillers.

Listen, darlings, I have no taste or sophistication in the way of flower arranging. I’m happy to plunk a fistful of dahlias into water and call it done. But in the interest of expanding my horizons, and because Johnny’s pictures of all their flowers are so delicious, I experiment with growing bouquet fillers.

Last year I tried Sweet Annie and it was a failure. The plants grew tall and skinny, bloomed like weeds, and didn’t smell all that great. I ripped them up. Likewise this year the Persian Cress, which has already grown and been ripped out.

Successful fillers are saponaria, which looks like a cross between Baby’s Breath and Rose Campion and has the added bonus of actually acting as a surfactant if you want to wash your hair with it, and atriplex, which I still have in plugs but which has grown as lustily and beautifully as I’ve allowed it to.

Honestly, though, my two favorite fillers aren’t listed as fillers at all: cosmos and ammi. Cosmos is ridiculously hardy and easy to grow, and while it makes a profusion of attractive flowers, it also makes a riotous mist of greenery just perfect for tucking in between other things. It self-seeds like mad (because one can’t possibly deadhead all those flowers) so if you’ve bought seed once you can have it forever. Ammi requires a little more care, but also provides clouds of feathery foliage. The darker shades of Dara are absolutely killing and of course the white varieties look nice with anything.

Designing a fictional language: part 1

Hello all!

I’ve been thinking lately about scifi and fantasy, and worldbuilding, and how one of the earliest things a writer (or this writer, anyway) does when designing a character is to come up with a name for that character.

Are you a worldbuilding nerd? Do you have characters and places to name? Would you like the names you choose to feel like they really belong together, like they all come from a particular place with a particular culture and feel to it? And would you like to lay the foundation for making up a whole fictional language for them while you’re doing it?

Lucky you, because I have a doctorate in linguistics, and I can tell you how.

What we need to do is to come up with a set of rules to describe how your culture’s language sounds (or, since we’re writing fiction here, how it looks on the page). To do this you’ll need to decide what its people’s vocal tracts are like, which will tell you what sounds they can make. Next you’ll decide which of those sounds they actually use. Then you’ll design the structure of their language’s syllables. At this point, you will know enough to go ahead and begin constructing names…or, if you want extra credit, you can go on to make up some phonological transformations first. That would be Tolkien-level stuff though, and do you want to be doing Tolkien-level stuff?

Yeah, I thought you probably did.

So without further ado, here is installment 1 in designing your scifi/fantasy language, with the specific goal of creating names.


Vocal Tracts


Vocal tracts are what birds and mammals use to make noises. They include everything that can be manipulated to make sounds using air that flows from the outside into the animal’s lungs and back out again.

Different kinds of animals can have different vocal tracts. Birds, for example, have a vocal tract that consists basically of a trachea, a syrinx, an oral cavity, an upper esophagus, and a beak. Mammals on the other hand have a laryngeal cavity or glottis, a pharynx, an oral cavity, and a nasal cavity. Humans specifically can also manipulate their tongue and lips to change the sounds their oral cavities make.

Are your characters humanoids? Are they actually humans? Are they not humanoid at all? That will affect their vocal tracts, which will affect what sounds they can make.

Before you get too excited, let me take you aside for a moment and have a serious talk about that. If your creatures aren’t even humanoids, they’ll still have to communicate to your readers somehow, using symbols for sounds that your readers understand. Your hero might be a gelatinous blob incapable of any noise but low-frequency humming, and that’s all very well, but you’ll have a hell of a time conveying it on the page.

You’ll encounter similar questions if your characters are birds, or if they have a syrinx like a bird…or even if they are mammalian but non-humanoid, like horses. Jonathan Swift did a bang-up job giving names to his intelligent horses, the Houyhnhnms, in Gulliver’s Travels, by the way. Just looking at “houyhnhnm” you see that it’s a sound a horse could make.

But it will be easiest and most straightforward to say that your characters are humanoid, or at least that they articulate like humans. Just saying.



If your characters are humanoid then they can make consonant sounds at a few basic points of articulation. They have flexible tongues and lips that can touch those places of articulation in different ways, too.

The basic kinds of consonants that humans make, broken down by what parts of the vocal tract are making them, are:

Glottal sounds, made with the glottis. That’s down near your vocal cords, the farthest down in your throat that you can manipulate sound, and the most familiar English glottal sound is H.

Pharyngeal sounds, made with the pharynx. English doesn’t have these! If you’d like to make a pharyngeal sound yourself, try making an H, but make it hiss. Our glottal H is by necessity pronounced without much turbulence of air, but the pharynx can be tightened, and a hissing H will do that. Some people make this sound when they’ve just taken a bite of really spicy food.

Uvular sounds, made against your uvula, that fleshy blob at the back of your mouth. A few English dialects from specific parts of the British Isles use a uvular sound at the end of the word “loch.” Standard American English doesn’t use uvular sounds.

Velar sounds, created by putting the back of the tongue against the soft palate, which is the soft part at the back of your mouth. Familiar English sounds here include K and G.

Palatal sounds, made with the middle part of the tongue against the hard palate, which is a fancy way of saying the top of your mouth. The English Y sound happens here.

Retroflex sounds, made with the tip of the tongue rolled backward to touch the hard palate. The usual English R is pronounced here, and some dialects pronounce L here too.

Postalveolar sounds are made with the tip of the tongue behind the alveolar ridge, which is the downward slope as you move from your hard palate toward your teeth. Many English speakers pronounce L here, as well as N.

Alveolar sounds are the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge. D, T, S, and Sh are here.

Dental sounds are created with the tip of the tongue against the back of the teeth. Think Th.

Labiodental sounds are created with the lips and teeth together. F, V.

Finally, bilabial sounds are made with the two lips together. Thing B, P, and M.

In addition to places of articulation, consonants have a manner of articulation. This describes how the sound is made, versus where it’s made.

Plosives are made by completely closing the vocal tract at the point of articulation, building up air pressure behind it, then releasing the pressure. Plosives include B, P, D, T, G, and K. They can be made with the vocal cords humming (in which case they’re called voiced) or still (unvoiced).

Nasals are made by closing the vocal tract at the point of articulation and letting air flow out the nose instead of out the mouth. English nasals include M, N, and Ng.

Trills are exactly how they sound: air is rapidly passed over the point of articulation, allowing brief puffs of sound to escape.

Taps or flaps are sort of like light plosives. The vocal tract is closed lightly so air escapes with relatively little force.

Fricatives are formed by narrowing the vocal tract just enough so that the escaping air becomes turbulent; think of rapids in a river. English fricatives include F, V, Th, S, Sh, Z and Zh.

Lateral fricatives (and lateral approximants too) are the same, but the air flow is diverted around either side of the tongue.

Lastly, approximants are sounds in which the vocal tract narrows at the point of articulation, but even less so than with fricatives. They are almost vowels, and in many cases serve the same purpose as vowels (like in the next lesson, when we’ll talk about what’s at the heart of a syllable). In English these include R, Y, and L, which is a lateral approximant.

If you, like me, prefer your information in chart form, then jump over here to see a chart of all the sounds that are made in known natural languages, then here to see the sounds in English specifically. Keep those tabs open, by the way. We’re going to be referring to them.

But what about the vowels, you say? Vowels are wild, that’s what. They don’t depend on hard points of articulation—they’re squishy-wishy slippy-slidey timey-wimey…uh…you get the idea. Suffice it to say they can happen anywhere inside the oral cavity. They can be tense or lax, which means you either tense or relax your vocal tract while you pronounce them, and they can be rounded, which means you make a circle with your lips when you pronounce them, like in the sound “oo”. In addition to this, a vowel can be a monophthong, meaning it is pronounced at just one place in the mouth, or it can be a diphthong, meaning it slides from one place to another, or it can be—wait for it—a triphthong, meaning it moves between three places. All English dialects have several diphthongs: the vowels in face, choice, goat, price, and mouth are all diphthongs. The Wikipedia article on English phonology claims that Received Pronunciation (which is a prescribed “proper” English accent, now falling out of favor but still common on BBC broadcasting) includes triphthongs, but it hasn’t given us any examples of them in use (phooey.)

Go back to the chart I sent you to earlier. This chart is fantastic because if you turn the sound up on your device, it will pronounce the sounds for you. You’ll notice besides the runs of consonants that English has there are series of consonants pronounced as a pop or click, while sucking air in instead of blowing it out, with an extra puff of air…there are lots of fun possibilities.

You’ll also notice that the letters English uses to represent familiar sounds aren’t always the same as the symbols used on this chart. An American R, for example, is ɻ on this chart. Our th- is represented as either θ (unvoiced) or ð (voiced). This system of symbols is called IPA, which stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. These symbols are used because people make more sounds than any alphabet has letters to represent them with. If you really want to keep your head straight as we move forward with constructing your culture’s names, get familiar with those symbols. You can do it. I’ve taught them to a gazillion undergraduate students. You can learn them too.

Spend some time with the IPA chart. Learn about all the wonderful noises humans can make. Try to make them yourself. Get excited about it. Take time with this step, because the next step is to use this chart to construct your language’s phonological inventory.

What’s that?

You’ll notice that English doesn’t use all the possible sounds. No language does. All languages use only a subset of all the noises the human vocal tract can produce. So the first thing you need to do to figure out how your language sounds is…you guessed it. Decide what your language’s subset is, and make a list.

Pick some or a lot of consonants—somewhere between ten and thirty.

Pick some or a lot of vowels—somewhere between three and twelve, say. Also decide if your language has diphthongs and triphthongs, and what they are.

Make your list using IPA symbols, if you can hack it. If you really hate all those little symbols and would rather use the familiar alphabet to write your sounds down, that’s fine too (this is all just fun and games anyway, right?)

You might want to look at the phonological inventories of languages other than English while you’re doing this. Look up Arabic’s. And Mandarin’s. Look up Navajo and Hawaiian. Just google “X phonology” where X is whatever language you’re interested in, and charts will be easy to find.

If you look at enough languages, you’ll notice that languages tend to have “trends” in their phonological inventories. Hawaiian doesn’t have any voiced stops, for example. Arabic has lots of sounds in the velar, uvular, and pharyngeal positions, a part of the vocal tract that English practically ignores. Navajo differentiates unaspirated, aspirated, and ejective stops. Mandarin differentiates tones—sounds spoken using rising, falling, and flat tones of voice. Isn’t that amazing?

So. As you are picking out your language’s phonological inventory, keep in mind that languages tend to have trends in their consonants. You can add consonants that have tones, that are clicks, that are aspirated…whatever makes you happy. Just keep in mind that at the end, you’ll have to figure out how to write it in the standard alphabet for your readers (because you might be willing to learn IPA for your craft, but your readers won’t be.)

At this point, if you are still writing characters who aren’t human, you can impose some broad logic about their phonological inventories based on what you decide about their vocal tracts. Are they cat-people with cleft upper lips, who can’t pronounce bilabial sounds? Do they have teeth like ours that allow dental sounds? Flexible tongues like ours? Do they have an extra point of articulation?

Enjoy yourself, and settle your choices. In the next article we’re going to build syllables.


Working Along

Each article in this series will end with a Working Along section, where I’ll make up a naming system at the same time you do, so you can see how I work.

For the sake of simplicity, my characters are human. Say they live on a colonized planet, a couple thousand years after colonization, when the parent cultures have been forgotten.

Below is an inventory of sounds I chose. When choosing yours, I recommend that you start with a word or handful of words that “sound” like your culture, for whatever reason, and use the sounds in those words as the seeds of your phonological inventory. If you already have a character name that you’re attached to then use those.

I started out by thinking of lovely mellifluous words without a lot of hard sounds, like “Wampanoag” and “Momoa.” I picked out the sounds used in them. Then, because I like them, I expanded the series of nasals, added some more velar/uvular/glottal sounds because I guess this language likes that part of the vocal tract, and finally added a trill because they’re fun.

Then I filled out my vowel inventory with mostly mid and back vowels, because that’s where so many of the consonants are happening. I finished off with four diphthongs.



Garden news: Friday, May 31

Okay I’m late with this week’s garden news. On actually-Friday I was sitting at the computer feverishly finishing up a different series of articles for this blog so I could send them to beta readers. When I finished, I rightly thought that I’d put in my computer-work time for the day and went outside. To the garden.


The last week of May hit the garden like a bomb. All the bearded iris that budded this year are in bloom. All the Siberian iris are in bloom. The foxglove is sailing. The columbines and hardy geraniums are petering out. The rose bush I planted a year ago, a David Austin rose called Olivia Rose Austen, is in bloom (yay!) The Spotty Dotty’s flowers are fully unfurled (and “unfurled” is the right word, because they hang long and straight like crimson banners in a medieval hall).


The sweet peas…suffered depradations by my daughter, who was told she could pick as many as she wanted, and proceeded, over the course of two days and six bouquets, to literally pick every single one that was in bloom. That’s all right; they’re for cutting and she did me a favor by preventing any from going to seed. But I have convinced her to leave them alone for a week so they can re-bloom for her grandparents, who are coming to visit.


There has been laundry-related anxiety in this household, which I alleviated with two plant orders. From Schreiner’s I ordered irises Batik, Crimson Snow, Attitude, and Gnu’s Flash, and am having an Always and Forever thrust upon me as a reward. Where I will put all these irises is a problem, as I have a relative shortage of hot, sunny sites, but it has all come together in a flash of inspiration. I will move the front row of hellebores out of the corner driveway garden and into the shade garden, where they should get on fine, and put any homeless iris into that spot. It gets the closest thing to full sun I can provide.


Then, from Bluestone Perennials’ annual clearance sale, I bought variegated Solomon’s Seal, brunnera Alexander’s Great (a giant cultivar, apparently), three hydrangea Pillow Talk to line the back of the terrace garden and maybe hold back the damn hypericum, a tricyrtis Empress to add to my collection (which are happily growing in their new shade garden spots), three penstemon Mystica because OMG have you seen this plant???, a heuchera Marvelous Marble out of curiosity, and…holy cats.. a pink schizophragma, Rose Sensation.


I’ve had a white schizophragma for a couple of years now. I planted it in the crap part of the shade garden before I understood what I was doing, and last fall when I replanted everything I actually dug it up and left its root ball sitting out all winter and I’ll be damned if the thing didn’t leaf out anyway. So I have re-planted it and I wish it well.


But now I’m getting a pink one, which requires thinking about. Where do I put it? These are flowering vines with huge potential. They climb. I’d put it over the legacy arbor, but it wants shade. So maybe I’ll try to scramble it up our brick chimney. The chimney is made of an ugly shade of gold brick. It would be nice to cover it.

I also purchased, at Wally World, a shrub rose Icecap which had been grown in a dodgy bark chip media (like something you’d grown an orchid in) and needed deadheading and looked generally so forlorn that they’d reduced the price from $25 to $7.98. I put it in the ground and will treat it right, and I think it will pull through and be enchanting next year.


So that’s the flowers. The veg garden is making progress. I executed the rhubarb plant that always insists on bolting, and made a crumble out of it. I also picked a mess of chard, several messes of lettuce, and all the radishes, which developed poorly this year. Tiny tomatoes and artichokes are growing. One out of five kale plants is getting eaten by bugs. Pumpkin seedlings are up, and huge, and terrifying. Bean seeds didn’t come up, so I’ll start seeds in trays for planting out ASAP.

And that’s the week in the garden, folks.

Friday garden news: May 24

What a bloomiferous week in the garden. All the early spring stuff is completely finished, and all the late spring stuff has suddenly done its thing. Oriental poppies are blooming. Bearded iris is blooming. Siberian iris. Verbascum. Foxglove. Sambucus. Sweet peas. Columbines (though they’ve been going for a while.) Honey garlic. Even the Spotty Dotty’s buds are cracking open, which fills me with glee. Speaking of podophyllums, I have two hexandrum seedlings. I know, right? One white and one pink. I am chuffed.


Unfortunately things are not going so well with veg. Hardly any beans have come up. One of my kale plants keeled over. The radishes failed to develop this year. Tomatoes and artichokes are merely slow and steady. The only glory now, and it is a glory indeed, is the lettuce. It’s still tender and sweet and we are eating it up as fast as we can.

It’s been a week of contrasts, weather-wise. It started out dark and wet and chilly and has ended that way too, with two days of sun and warmth (heat?) in the middle. Suffice it to say my plants are equals parts confused and pleased.


This week I have edged, weeded, deep-watered, and mulched the first two sections of the righthand border. Section 1, I won’t lie, wrecked me. It has sleepers laid behind it to form borders for the auxiliary currant & rhubarb bed, and I had to dig grass roots out from under it. That section had also been invaded by creeping achillea and a giant blackberry root. I got it all out and moved most things in that section prior to mulching, because oh well.

Section 2 was a doddle in comparison. Now I am out of mulch and waiting for a new pile to be delivered tomorrow.


I have given up on the round corral as a place to plant anything, and moved my specimen peony collection into the driveway garden. This area is sub-optimal for peonies because it gets only a partial day’s sunlight, but I have bearded iris blooming under the same conditions so I figure the peonies can hack it for now.


I cleaned up generally in the planting-plants-I’ve-bought department. I have three out of four Spanish lavenders planted here and there now, planted the trio of hostas I bought as a just-in-case measure in March, planted my ground orchids in the shade garden, and put seedling globe thistles along the back of LHB4. Those sunny borders need a solid background of plants. I’m going to fill them in with globe thistles and hollyhocks (I have started some Halo Series seedlings). Dahlias can go in front. Speaking of dahlias, hus-tree and I received our emergency replacement tubers from Easy To Grow Bulbs and planted them. We each bought an assorted mix and…I don’t know. Two of mine had sprouts. The others looked a little dodgy. The tubers in mixes are not as nice as the single-variety ones, for future reference.


Last piece of progress this week was planting my cucurbits. Zucchini seeds went in, and winter squashes Butterscotch and Sweet Dumpling, as well as…oh dear…full size pumpkins Autumn Crown, Valenciano, Fairytale, Lumina White, and Blue Jarrahdale. If these vines grow to full size they’ll swamp the veg patch, but I don’t think they will. Frankly, I’m worried about them germinating at all.

Friday Garden News: May 17

Keeping a garden journal is important if you want to do well by your garden and if you have literally anything else in your life to keep track of. I have been journaling by hand this year, and so far I’ve kept it up, but to be honest I find it cumbersome to write by hand and I end up eliding information. So let’s try writing a Friday blog post every week, detailing what has happened in the garden, for future reference.

Let’s see. Last Friday was May 10. What has happened since then.

A freak heat wave of 80+ temperatures broke. High temps are back around 60-ish and last night we had a good, solid rain shower. NWS says we got half an inch, but a bucket left out overnight had a solid two inches in it. Everything is soaked and happy, except the cerastium.


I am finally picking lettuce. Red Sails leaf lettuce, three romaine mix, and radicchio Bel Fiore make an attractive and tasty salad mix. I ended up with bark chips in this batch no matter how many times I rinsed. Be more careful picking in future.
The Rattlesnake beans are germinating, which means I’m nervous about the places they haven’t germinated yet. Potatoes are coming up everywhere: where I planted them this year, where I planted them last year, and in the raised beds filled with compost. There will be lots of potatoes to dig this summer. Three of the shallot plants bolted, probably due to that freak late frost that also burned the potato leaves. Apparently shallots bolting means the bulbs won’t develop further, so I dug them and used them to make risotto. Tasty.
Other things are growing on happily: tomatoes, artichokes, kale, fava beans, basil, dill, cilantro, and leeks. Parsley and pepper seedlings are coming along nicely. Now where the hell do I put them?
Time to sow zucchini and pumpkins soon, though the weather forecast isn’t particularly warm.


Cut flowers
I am now cutting sweet peas. I planted them last fall so the plants grew on all winter and are enormous. They did not climb their supports, but they’re so huge and tangled that they sort of prop each other up. All other cutting flowers that have been put into beds are growing nicely. Seeded bachelor’s buttons Classic Romantic Mix where the lettuce was.


Sunny borders
The hardy geraniums are blooming in the sunny borders, and columbines, and saxifrages (still). Tulips, daffodils, and Italian anemones are over. Salvias and peonies are budding, and the Festiva Maxima peonies I started two years ago are startlingly huge. They might be best in the mid-back. I moved the LHB’s globe thistles to the right-and-proper back, which made me feel better about everything. Dahlias are popping up. Divided and moved three non-blooming bearded iris from the terrace into the sunny borders. Cor, I really need to get started on the RHB. The weeds are taking over. Also the rose is huge.


Lots of symbolic effort there this week. Moved two peonies from the round corral into there. Planted eragrostis Wind Dancer, Verbena bonariensis, and tons of ammi along the end of the path. Planted a swath of globe thistles and another of verbascum Southern Charm. Planted the three Humpback Whale hostas in a pod under the laurel. The regular foxgloves are sprouting up ready to bud. The strawberry foxgloves are sulking.


Shade garden
Added three maidenhead ferns and three strawberry begonias. Dug up some handfuls of bigroot geranium to spread around. Deadheaded Narcissus thalia, pulmonaria, and brunnera. Mulched some more but not finished.
Things there are *so happy*. It gives me joy. I want another trio of lady ferns. The black snakeroot is finally happy, hooray, and sending up all kinds of new fronds.


The fig twig is dead. The Italian plum is finally leafing out. I hope this rainfall did it good. Found a source for Cox’s Orange Pippin trees: Stark Bros. Best pollinator is Cortland, so will get one of those too. In the fall.


Pastures and hedgerows
Hawthorn is in bloom, hooray. Also buttercups and the teeny purple-and-yellow frondy things. Hummingbirds have nested, and give me hell.

Pulmonaria, lungwort

Time to celebrate another Very Good Garden Plant: pulmonaria, aka lungwort.

Pulmonaria growing in my garden in Illinois

Named for the spotted leaves that, I suppose, resemble the alveoli in lung tissue, or perhaps because it was used as a folk remedy for chest ailments (don’t quote me on that, I’m just speculating!), lungwort is a tough plant that, so far as I can tell, will take just about any treatment you throw at it and look great in the bargain.

They’re small plants, topping out at maybe a foot tall and 18″ across. In a harsh winter they will hide underground; in a mild winter their foliage will persist. In early spring they throw out a few new leaves and a lot of flowering stalks topped with numerous tiny, bell-shaped flowers that change from pink to blue as they mature. There are varieties that range from very palest pink and blue to rich and electric.

A pale pulmonaria in my garden in Illinois

After the flowers fade the stalks will droop. This is the time to cut them off–as well as any old foliage–before the plant puts out its new summer foliage. Then you just let it be, spotty in all its glory, with maybe a feed and a mulch to say ‘thank you’ until next year.

The foliage of a pulmonaria start in early spring, in my garden in western Washington

They will tolerate a wide range of conditions. I grew them in my Zone 5 garden in Illinois and I grow them in my Zone 8 garden here in the Puget Sound area. I’ve grown them in full sun and mostly shade. Good soil and extremely poor root-ridden soil. So far as I can tell there are only two things that really bother them.

The first is to be too cold. Our last winter in Illinois there was a night that went down to -17F. That killed my pulmonaria (and several other things, too). The second is to get too dry. Then their leaves will lay flat and they’ll look pathetic, but a watering will bring them back to life.

The best thing about pulmonaria, though, is that it propagates from root cuttings. That means that if you’re on a tight budget, or if you’re just cheap like me, you really only need to buy (or be given) a single plant. After that you’re golden.

Flowers on a pulmonaria start (transplanted the previous fall) in my garden in western Washington

You procure the plant in the spring and put it in a favorable place. Let it grow over the summer. In the fall, about a month before frost, dig it up and plant it somewhere else. Don’t fill in the hole left behind.

Next year, that hole will become a veritable cornucopia of pulmonaria starts, as each root fragment left behind sprouts into its own plant. Let them develop a healthy leaf or two, then plant them out where you want them. In a few weeks there will be more. In fact, it’ll be hard to ever fully get rid of them…but from my point of view, why would you want to?

I have a difficult border in my shade garden under a row of enormous black pines. I’m filling up the front of it with pulmonaria starts. In a year or two I’ll have a solid hedge of pink and blue flowers in the spring, and pretty spotted foliage all summer. Win.

Siberian iris

Everyone loves Dutch iris, but I’d like to draw your attention to their smaller, humbler, but undeniably more useful cousins, the Siberian iris.

Bagged Siberian iris roots for cheap. They start well this way

I’ve grown Iris siberica in both USDA zone 5 (central Illinois) and USDA zone 8 (Puget Sound area). They survived in both places, though their site in Illinois was hot, dry, and had poor soil. In that location, while their foliage came up, they didn’t bloom. Here on the shores of Puget Sound, in a bed of amended topsoil with clay beneath, they bloom like bonkers. This leads me to conclude that, while they’re indifferent to winter cold and summer heat, they do need some feeding to be happy.

Two colors of blooms in early June

The primary virtue of everything in my sunny perennial borders is that it produces gorgeous flowers, which Siberian iris undoubtedly does. They’re available in shades of blue, purple, yellow and white. Siberian iris provides a secondary and almost larger benefit, though, in its persistent foliage. The leaves are green and strappy, somewhat above knee height, and persist through the summer until cold temperatures turn them golden. Eventually they collapse onto the ground and then should be cleaned up, but in the meantime, they provide a spectacular backdrop for other things and have a knack for filling in gaps.

The grassy green foliage persists throughout the growing season, making a good backdrop for other plants. Second-year plant seen here on the far right

Every Siberian iris I have was grown from a bagged root. Above in this post were some I bought at my local major retailer. This was the first time I’ve seen Siberian iris roots there though, and I do pay attention, so if you don’t see them don’t be distressed. Turn to online sources. My bagged-root source of choice is Bulbs Direct, which has the virtue of being cheap and offering a large selection. Their drawbacks are that they have a confined sales season, some roots arrive dead and growing mold, and they have persistent problems with correctly labeling the varieties of their plants. That’s how I ended up with the two shades of purple shown above. For the price they’re asking I’m more than willing to swallow these failings, though, and I’ve always received prompt and friendly replies to inquiries.

Golden Siberian iris foliage playing backdrop to spent sedum heads in early November

Once established in a happy place Siberian iris is almost care-free. As I said the foliage will need to be cut short after it has collapsed in late fall or early winter; some other perennials stay upright and have winter interest but these just turn into a soggy mess. Do manure them in the fall and mulch them in the spring, just like you would anything else (riiiiight?). Other than that, once they’re in place, don’t mess with them. They dislike being moved and will probably sulk the next year. They’re far less prone to disease than Dutch iris and far less picky about their spot than some of the water-loving irises, though, and they are the only iris Piet Oudolf recommends for naturalistic planting.