For the Love of Motivation

Image result for St. Valentine + imageIn honor of Valentinus–the Patron Saint of Valentine’s Day–it seems only proper to examine motivations of the heart today. While there are many slightly different takes on what the true story behind the man sainted on February 14 may be, one thing remains, he was sainted. And to be sainted is to die for one’s faith–martyrdom–amongst other things.

Why would anyone die for something unless they believed it and loved it with all their heart?

Each of the varying accounts holds that Valentinus [his true Latin name] was executed for trying to convert Emperor Claudius [Gothicus] in the mid-to-late 200’s. He may or may not have secretly married Christian couples who were being persecuted by the Roman government [and therefore unable to marry publicly]. So the fact that his Saint Day connotes romantic love today is believed to have little to do with his actual life.

However, true love–whether for faith or friend or family or marriage–is truly love because of the motivation of the heart. And motivation is key to developing character. How love is expressed may outwardly depend on the culture. But inwardly, what motivates love is one of those universal needs that transcends culture.

In each culture we write from, people long to be loved–at least at some point in their lives they do or did. Perhaps they’re now jaded. Perhaps they’ve lost their one true love and are satisfied to wait out eternity to be with them again. Perhaps they enjoy familial love, or have never really known it but want to. Perhaps they mistake physical passions for the choice of lifelong love.

Whichever circumstance our characters find themselves in, we must probe the motivations of their love lives. Who do they love? In what way? Why? Or why not? The love motivation question list should go deep, and outwardly, our culture investigation should go deeper still, getting to the heart of character.

Paris or Passion?

Image result for gypsy dancerThe City of Love? Paris.

The Culture of Passion? Latino.

Cliché? Maybe. But even clichés are rooted in some perspective of the truth.

Though Paris has been consistently occupied for over 2,000 years, its reputation as The City of Love is much younger…maybe as young as 100-150 years at most. Consider why it has been so named in recent history? The cafes, the river walk along the Seine, and other sights submerged in the sounds of the beautiful French language.

Why honey, it’s the perfect place for a honeymoon! But even honeymoons of this sort are a more recent cultural development, starting in England and migrating through the rest of western Europe in the early 1800’s. Affluent people had money and time to burn with lavish trips. The average westerner though–and the rest of the world–didn’t adopt the practice of honeymooning until much later. And there are probably cultures where honeymoons still haven’t caught on–remember, it’s a time and money thing.

So where does the Latino passion come from? The word passion comes from the Latin root meaning to suffer or endure. But today it connotes a sense of energized adoration. And I believe that suffering/enduring creates that energized adoration response.

Historically, the Moors of North Africa occupied Spain beginning in 711AD. I’ll never forget my high school Spanish teacher sharing about a time when she saw a Moorish gypsy woman passionately dancing barefoot on a wooden chopping block in a kitchen. The dancer stomped and clapped and moved so much like–like a Flamenco dancer. It seemed obvious to my teacher where the roots of the passionate Spanish Flamenco dance came from–a nomadic people group that suffered and endured much in its history.

Obviously, Spanish and Hispanic history is too wide and deep to trace all of it into the single stem of passion, but it is worth keeping in mind as you study Spaniards coming to the New World, intermarrying with Native Americans, and their biracial-descendants later fighting for freedom from their own European parentage.

It’s no coincidence that people often identify both Paris and Latino passion as ideals for love stories or blooming romances. However, it may behoove our young reader generations to paint the historical backstory for two romantic ideals that often fall prey to cliché.

Romance Languages

Image result for TreeThe term Romance Languages refer to the five modern tongues descended from Latin–French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. The Romance family name has nothing to do with love, instead this adjective derives from the word Roman, the empire that spoke the Latin that died giving birth to the languages we know today.

It is interesting to consider that while much of western civilization stems from the Roman world, its linguistic influences have spanned the globe, weaving itself through many less than western cultures.

Of the five, Romanian has basically stayed isolated in its home country. While Italian extends to many countries in Europe.

Portuguese expanded into the west, but was then divided into continental and Brazilian variations. Spanish laid claim to most of Latin and South America and the Caribbean, one African country and even influenced the Tagalog language of the Philippines, and continues to reach ever northward in the Americas. Interestingly enough, while Spain and Portugal are European nations, their American descendants often bear the title of minority groups unlike other European-Americans.

Still, French is the only language besides English that is spoken on five continents. It remains, along with English, one of the international languages of medicine, sports, business, and politics. Yet as high as it reaches for power, French is also a language spoken by some of the poorest countries on the planet–namely Haiti and much of Africa.

With such far reaching cultural influences, knowledge of any of the Romance languages–and/or Latin–is useful for infusing multicultural diversity into voice. Try adopting common idiomatic expressions that use to have in place of the English idea of to be. For example [parentheticals: French on the left and Spanish on the right]:

to be hot- to have heat [avoir chaud/tener calor]

to be cold- to have cold [avoir froid/tener frio]

to be afraid- to have fear [avoir peur/tener miedo]

to be hungry- to have hunger [avoir faim/tener hambre]

to be thirsty- to have thirst [avoir soif/tener sed]


Summarily, while sharing their roots with that of western culture, Romance languages branch into many diverse people groups and therefore offer an opportunity to introduce readers to non-western voice.

What nonwestern idiomatic expression do you know? What culture/language family is it from?

Je t’aime.

Image result for love around the worldEvery language has a literal way to translate the phrase, I love you. In French, Je t’adore literally translates, I love you, but the phrase, Je t’aime [I like you] is the one used to express affection.

Yet the words themselves don’t always communicate love to the intended recipient.

In his book The Five Love Languages, author, Gary Chapman posited that people understand and receive affection differently. Some understand gifts to mean love. Others quality time or words of affirmation. While still others understand acts of service or physical touch [distinguished from intimacy] as love.

Apply this idea to character and culture. Perhaps a character understands she is loved when she receives a gift, but the guy who loves her communicates love through acts of service. He may mean well and work hard to reciprocate her affection, but his attempts fall flat because she–unintentionally–doesn’t get it.

Perhaps in another culture, quality time is the universal language of love, but your character is either from outside the culture or a unique individual within the culture who just needs a hug to feel like she belongs.

And possibly, Chapman’s observations are western love languages only. How many love languages would there be in a small Taiwanese town or in an Ethiopian village? Would these same love languages look different or be looked upon differently by these cultures? Since women tend to migrate toward love and men toward respect, do these same languages apply to men feeling respected?

Do a little digging as you consider weaving the depth of love expression, with a bent toward multicultural diversity, into your character. See how the world says I love you and let your readers feel loved in a way they’ve never before imagined.

Notable Book Voices: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Image result for the boy who harnessed the windIt only seems fitting to wrap up this food-focused month with the voice of hunger. And no hunger experience that I’ve read has ever brought me into its depths like William Kamkwamba’s story of his own near starvation during a time of famine in Malawi.

Though the story is focused on Kamkwamba’s unlikely successes, his richly detailed telling of the famine experience includes feelings that go beyond the desire for food–things that I’d never even considered might accompany true hunger, down to the effects on his beloved dog.

But as much as his voice spoke hunger into my understanding, it also spoke hope and joy as the first dowa proved ready to eat. How it is even possible for a starving family and community to patiently wait for seed to grow and corn to mature is beyond my comprehension. But reading of their struggle and how they eventually overcame elevated me as a human being to want to do more to help others in need around the world.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer is a must-read mentor text for any American author, who has never known what it is to truly be hungry or starving, before trying to write a character from such an experience.

When Life Gives You Kake [Kaga]

Image result for krumkake + imageOkay, I know that Norwegians are considered white European and therefore western culture–I know that now anyway. But as a child, my siblings and I were extremely loud and proud of our Norwegian heritage. My grandfather had grown-up in Norway, my grandmother’s family had moved back to Norway for a portion of her young adulthood, my mom spoke about her visits and our Norwegian family came to visit us.

And there were no other “true” Norwegians like us in Northeastern PA [that we knew of, anyway]. So being Norwegian, if only 50%, was like a kake [pronounced kaga] of honor in our family.

So the first time I had to complete the demographics portion of a form, I was shocked to discover that Norwegian was not an option.

Wait what?

But that’s what I was! What do you mean I don’t exist? That was when someone had to explain to me that I was actually just lumped into a much larger group known as Caucasian–nothing special thank you very much. So not cool!

For me, multicultural diversity goes deeper than race, it goes to national, regional and even local heritages. My grandparents were from two different parts of Norway, and since grandma was Norwegian-raised in Brooklyn and returned to Norway–they had different cultural backgrounds with some overarching similarities. But even neighbors can have diverse home-life cultures!

Good writers turn these cultural nuances into experiences for the readers so that they feel like they know firsthand what it is to live in someone else’s life. So that they can develop understanding and appreciation of others’ experiences.

In our Norwegian house, everything was a kake [aka cake]. And not just the birthday variety or the one that grandma always had prepared in case a neighbor–make that when a neighbor–stopped in for a visit. Cookies were krumkake, meatballs were kjottkake, fishcakes were fiskekake, and the like!

And what do you do when life hands you so much kake? Share it with the world around you! And hopefully that world will share their cultural experiences back.

Preservation, Storage and Other Lost Food Knowledge

Image result for hanging kitchen shelfWhen my family and I visited the country’s oldest home in St. Augustine, FL, I was delighted to learn about the hanging cup board. It was literally a wooden plank suspended from the middle of the ceiling by ropes tied in such a way that if a rat tried to climb down them, it would fall off. So any leftover food stored up there was completely rat-proofed.

Of course, the explanation made perfect sense, and there are still plenty of places on the planet that I could go live today to experience these conditions. But I wonder how many times I would have lost food to the rats before discovering this solution for myself.

It’s amazing to think about how many basic survival skills have been lost in American culture because of all of the academic learning and technological entertainment that fills our time. In other times, as in other parts of the world, children learn food preparation, preservation, and storage basics fitting to their society and housing needs from their family.

As a middle school teacher, I’m regularly astonished by student confessions that they don’t know basic food prep. It’s even more astonishing when I hear a parent confess that unless it comes out of a box mix or a microwaveable something, then they don’t know how to make it!

Just gardening taught my family so much they never knew about where food came from, but we’ve never learned about identifying edible wild plants–beyond wild strawberries, blueberries and apples anyway.

What food knowledge does your main character have? Where did they get it? Is there anyway to infuse some food knowledge from another culture?

Chocolate Connotations

Image result for ChocolateThe Valentine candy boxes have hit the shelves, and this got me thinking. When you say chocolate a few things automatically come to mind. This chocolate cliché list, however, can be reworked to infuse writing with cultural diversity.

In America, chocolate means: a gift of love to the woman in your life [i.e. Valentine’s], a special treat for children [for every holiday celebration], and the number one demand of moody women [particularly corresponding to cycle]. And chocolate is, usually, liberally administered in each of these instances. In fact, chocolate is as plentiful in our grocery stores as pavement is on our highways.

However this widespread availability is a more modern cultural feature. In talking about St. Nicholas Day [December 6], my students are always amazed to learn that less than a hundred years ago in European cultures–as is the case with many other countries still today–a chocolate truly was a special treat for a child. Perhaps they would only receive one or two chocolates in a whole year! So they wouldn’t hork it down in one gulp without tasting it, as our children sometimes do. They would nibble and savor, letting each bite melt and linger on their tongue.

In Maya and Aztec culture, we know that xocoatl was a bitter cocoa drink which may also have been infused with chile pepper spice. It was considered a drink for the wealthy rulers and the religious ceremony, so commoners and their children would not have had an opportunity to taste it–at least not very frequently. And even if they had, they wouldn’t recognize our chocolates today as being related.

And what about the things we dip in chocolate? Traditionally in western society–though chocolatiers started in Europe in the mid-1600s and didn’t come to America until the mid-1700s, so this is not a very long held tradition–chocolate was sweetened with sugar and vanilla, and sweet centers were rolled in a chocolate covering. However, as cultures mingle, more and more fillings have become acceptable. Not just the salty sweet phenomena, but what about chocolate covered insects? This notably African protein source has become a novelty even among westerners, which begs the question of what else could become a chocolate covered sensation–fish perhaps or vegetables?

Things to consider when busting the chocolate connotation cliché:

  1. Who, in your culture, has access to chocolate?
  2. How frequently?
  3. Is it solid, liquid, powder–gas? Maybe another form that we haven’t seen in history yet?
  4. What things are covered in chocolate? Or perhaps, which things serve as a covering for chocolate?
  5. What else is chocolate used for? [Some cultures traded in cacao–so basically it was currency!]
  6. What if chocolate had no value in your world–nobody liked it–is there another ingredient that essentially holds the same weight/position as chocolate does for us?

Have fun brainstorming the possibilities, and infuse your chocolate writing with a little nonwestern flavor–or a lot!

Notable Book Voices: Hope Was Here

Image result for hope was hereSince we’re talking about food voice this month, it’s only fitting to include Joan Bauer’s novel, Hope Was Here.

Delightful diner-ese blends seamlessly with regular small town speak to develop both setting and character. The protagonist, Hope, demonstrates her mastery of diner-ese from the outset, slipping in bits of her own backstory through this unique vernacular as naturally as butter melting on fresh toast. As the plot develops, so does Hope’s ability to use the small town speak of her new environment to connect with the people she’s growing to love.

Hope Was Here, with all its rich voice, demonstrates that the categories of American culture and Western ideas are often used too broadly. Many subcultures–complete with their own linguistics–exist underneath these vast umbrellas. Subcultures that microcosmically embrace and promote the understanding of multicultural diversity.

I recommend this novel as a mentor text for anyone delving into rural American voice, or for those working to let character voice set the stage and embody growth.

Lucky Foods

Image result for hazlenut + imageFilipeanut! Not sure if that’s how it’s spelled, but in my Norwegian heritage home, when we cracked open a hazelnut–using good old fashioned nutcrackers at Christmas time each year–if there was a double meat inside, you were to say, “Filipeanut,” and share one of the nuts with someone else to get good luck.This practice seems to be a hybrid of breaking the wishbone with someone else and being the first to say, “jinx” to confer luck on the winners.

It got me thinking that many foods are and can/could be associated with luck while developing or delving into a character’s culture. In Eastern cultures, it is considered lucky to eat sweet foods–such as oranges or buns [aka pastries]–on special days, like New Years, in order to bring the sweetness of luck to the year ahead. Conversely, it is wise to avoid bitter foods so that you don’t invite bitterness into the year.

What lucky or unlucky food practices have been traditional  in your home? How about your main character’s culture? If you’re developing a new culture, consider patterning these superstitions after a lesser known people group to increase the cultural diversity your writing has to offer today’s readers.