My growing up years in North Dakota were idyllic in the sense that our parents more or less left my sister and me on our own. It was the time in history when kids played outside from dawn to dusk without interference from adults. A quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich at noon and we were good to go for the rest of the day. We were sent into the world with certain instructions however. “Wear shoes!” “Stay away from the river.” “Don’t chase strange dogs.” “Leave your sister alone.” “Be home by dark.”
Those were words that made an impact because they described the limits of our freedom. My neighbor, an eccentric woman who scared the liver out of us, had other words for us. “If you step on my geraniums I’ll call the cops.” “Keep your muddy shoes off my grass or I’ll tell your Pa.” “If you take an apple from my tree you’ll get worms and die.”
The rumor among the kids I ran with was that my crazy neighbor loved to sneeze, so she kept a little bowl of black pepper in each room of her house. They had heard that when she wanted a good sneeze she would go and inhale some pepper. That was the absolute truth as far as we knew it. We felt it accounted for her bizarre behavior and had probably driven her crazy as a loon. We affectionately referred to her as “Old Lady Looney” and did everything in our power to aggravate her. We—as they say now—“used our words.”
By now you’re wondering what this has to do with writing, right? Words are oxygen to a writer. Driving Old Lady Looney over the edge had much more meaning for us if we could describe our actions to friends. After all, they hadn’t had the courage to stick around and see what would happen when we rang her doorbell for the seventeenth time. The action would have been far less enjoyable if we couldn’t tell one of those slackers about it.
Words brought joy, fear, obedience, tears, laughter— emotions we want our readers to feel. When you’re writing, imagine that you’re telling your friend about something so exciting that you just can’t keep it to yourself. Then use the words that will keep that friend enthralled to the end.