Tips for writing compelling tales

What is real and not real at the same time? The answer is: fiction, a literary work produced by the imagination. Fiction is a good way to explore topics and issues in society, or to illuminate your reader without giving them a lecture or a list of bullet points. It’s a way to make your soul grow and connect with others.

From inspiringquotes.com

You might be afraid to start a story, to even try it. But do. Do start.

In general, a story should open answering these questions:

  1. Whose story is it? (protagonist) Unlike a non-fiction essay, a protagonist is not neutral. A protagonist will have a bias and will elicit feelings.

2. What’s happening and what will happen next? (plot)

3. What’s at stake? (trouble/conflict)

I’ve already written about plot formation here. .

Here’s your assignment:

Write an opening including all of the above. Put your heart on the page. Risk being sentimental. Don’t be just an observer. Have an action. Have a setting detail. Add an object. It’s your first scene! You’re on your way to writing your first novel.

Believe it or not, having a few restrictions can help you focus your ideas.

I picked up these tips from writing conferences, books about fiction writing, and from teaching short story writing. Hopefully, they will help you write a compelling story. You can always break the rules, but consider these:

  1. Have authority. Know what you are talking about. You may remember taking a quiz about what do you seek most in a mate”? Maybe you said fun. Wrong answer. You need trust. Your readers have to trust you. You need to be trustworthy, to know what you are talking about, and have AUTHORity. When I taught short story writing it was quickly obvious when students had authority or not. One wrote about a town where he’d never been or even researched. When he changed his story to be set in his hometown, it became more detailed and real. Another wrote about a hapless Mexican drug dealer. The story came across as hateful and fake. He wasn’t Mexican or a drug dealer. He changed it to a hapless college student trying to sell drugs. It became more believable.

2. Write what you know, especially what you know emotionally, or what you want to explore. This will help your story be relatable. What about being human can you tell about and relate to?

3. Avoid big reveals at the end for the purpose of shock—story should reveal itself through the unfolding conflict. See plot.

4. Ask if you can help people learn something new, see things in a new way. 

5. Once you have a chapter, make it readable.

Are tenses simple and consistent?

            Good They sat in the classroom. (past) or They sit in the classroom. (present) I sit in the classroom. (First person present)

            Too complicated They were sitting in the classroom.

Is the action efficient? Make sure every action is needed.

            Good: The professor sat down and took a knife from her purse.

            Too complicated: The professor walked in the room.  She took off her coat. She sat in a chair. She unzipped her purse. She reached in. She took out a knife.

Take out junk words and over used gestures, telling words, such as these:

            So, Very, Then, And, Just, Really, Few, Only, Caused, Myself, Exactly, That, Like, Bit.

            Smiled, grinned, smirked, sneered, clenched jaw, giggled, chuckled, peered, squinted, raised brows, gazed, glanced, wondered, noticed, shrugged, bit lip, shook head, tapped fingers.

6. Not all readers like flashback. Don’t be compelled to use it.

7. Be specific.

Instead of walking your dog, walk your pug shedding like a snowstorm or your Bernese who sits down when she sees a person a block away and waits for them to pass.

Keep in mind that even though fiction is not real, it should seem real. It should also entertain.

This post has run long. I hope it’s been helpful. I can’t wait to see what you write!

Why Write?

One of the very weirdest things about being an author is spending a year or more writing a novel and not being sure anyone will want to publish it or read it. You’ve got to wonder why a person would ever do such a thing.

Why write?

Telling a story seems to be part of being human. Our brain edits our experiences to create logical interactions for future reference. We think of ourselves as a hero in our own narrative and one reason to write is to share what we have experienced so others can learn from our mistakes and successes. One reason to read is to learn about the world from the safety of your own chair.

Story is the language of experience. To be honest, being older and an author is not a bad thing. You’ve overcome a lot. But anyone with an experience can share it in a story. Tales of love, adventure, and triumph or defeat evolved to help us explore our own mind and the minds of others. Story is a dress rehearsal for the future that might come. (Mine in particular take this direction.) Stories introduce us to issues we might face someday and the outcomes of various strategies comfortably at home. Stories allow us to explore life and its complexities, to understand yourself and others. Stories help us feel less alone. They can also foster social relationships and give us a window on cultures, promote civic responsibility, and share information. https://education.uic.edu/profiles/rebecca-woodard/

Most importantly, stories entertain. Being entertaining has always been one of my life goals. I started out as a kid writing tiny books for my siblings. Most of them ended with everyone dying. Endings are hard.

One of the fun parts of being an author is watching your book come to life in the hands of skilled professionals. Here’s a peak at the novel coming out this month, Wrinkles in Spacetime.

Picking art work for chapter headings was a fun task. How do you like the broken doll? What does it mean? More about it in a future post.

In celebration of my upcoming release, I’ll be writing about the author life this month and how you, too, can enjoy it and get started on it yourself, if you haven’t already.

Playing the science long game

You’ve probably heard the phrase, the bigger they are the harder they fall. It’s true. Isaac Newton discovered that force equals mass times acceleration or F=ma. But you’ve never heard the bigger they are the faster they fall. There’s a reason for this. Acceleration due to gravity (falling to Earth) is a constant which doesn’t depend on mass. Yes, somethings encounter air resistance but masses of the same shape and air resistance hit the ground at the same time when dropped from the same height. Recently, I visited the birthplace of the scientist who convinced people of this truth, Galileo Galilei.

Galileo was born in Pisa. The airport there is named after him along with a highway to get there. He’s much more famous for perfecting the telescope and convincing people that the Earth travels around the Sun, but the Leaning Tower is where he did his weight dropping experiment. And it’s a delight to behold. I visited there along with several family members, including kids.

The adorable city of Pisa, Italy

Galileo has been called the Father of Modern Science. He questioned the idea that the sky is heaven and a perfect sphere made of crystals from which God sits and looks down on us. His telescope showed imperfect things in the sky such as sun spots and mountains on the moon. He even showed that Jupiter had moons–breaking the crystal spheres and that Venus had phases as if it was going around a light. In fact, the planets going around the sun explained Mercury in retrograde better than the planets traveling around the Earth on the crystal spheres. He noted that the Milky Way was stars. Wasn’t the sun a star as well? Of course, this was heresy. God was in the sky–not the Earth! God looked at all of us from his heavenly perch. Galileo dared to write it all out in a what I would call a satire in Italian for the public to read. He was put under house arrest for it and made quite famous.

There is quite a lot to see in Pisa, but we focused on viewing the tower area and I set my sights on a Galileo souvenir.

The tower is quite easy to spot.

It has all sorts of wonderful details. You can go to the top but I put it on my list of things I didn’t climb.

But upon my visit, I had some trouble finding Galileo souvenirs, even close to the famous tower where he dropped his weights and observed them fall at uniform speed, despite being different masses. One shop owner showed me soccer jerseys and Einstein and DaVinci T-shirts. Others had nothing at all related to the Father of Science.

You could however, get seafood pizza and pasta made with boar meat. My dining companion dislikes seafood, but it didn’t stop me.

At last, I found a plastic bust of Galileo in a specialty shop. The shop was right on the street where he was born.

Here I am with my find!
Here is Galileo with the picturesque Tuscany countryside in the background.
I also went to Florence (which Italians call Firenza) and saw his grave.
I lit a candle for him. I made a donation but I’m not sure how much it was because my money skills were not good.

There is quite a lot more of Galileo to see in Italy (click here) including his middle finger (in Florence aka Firenze) and his lantern in Pisa. We didn’t do it all but if you are a die-hard Galileo fan, I recommend a trip to his beautiful native land.

Most people know that Galileo was tried and accused of heresy in 1633 at the age of 69. He was kept under house arrest for saying the Earth moves around the Sun. He was pardoned in 1992. And he wasn’t burned at the state because he recanted his beliefs. (In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for postulating that there were many suns and planets. )You could say Galileo played the long game.

We still see plenty of science denial with regards to covid and climate change. The rich and powerful want inventions, not science’s truths. The thing is, the truth usually comes out, if you have time to wait for it. For now, light a candle for the truth. It needs it.

Porn and drag queens. How dangerous?

Recently, an acquaintance lost a political primary. He dared to not vote the governor’s way just once and groups backing her mounted a smear campaign, and won. They accused him of supporting porn in school libraries.

People in my hometown have a porn obsession. You can’t walk your dog without seeing a sign like this. They think porn is in the library. It’s not. The book they are worried about is a coming of age tale regarding someone who decides to be asexual.

Of course, porn-mania has been used in the past to ban birth control. And in my first novel, Mixed In, any unmarried man is assumed to be a pervert. Calling someone a pervert is a sure way to shock those around them and rally people against someone.

My own definition of porn is that it is sex that involves exploitation vs mere erotica. Most people now days call erotica “porn.” It’s confusing to have such a vague term blanket something so emotionally charged, but I’ll try to discuss some concerns about run of the mill porn/erotica, leaving out child porn and sex offender material, which most people can agree is bad and is a sign of severe mental illness. We are talking about BOOKS here so, hello Lolita, here’s looking at you. And we won’t get into PornHub, which exploits people to make a buck. We are discussing library books.

Misogynistic men watch a lot of porn. (I’m not sure how much they read.) The porn itself doesn’t cause them to be sexual jerks, but it might give them ideas that being a jerk is normal. But most people who watch porn use it as a release valve, not a how-to lesson. Several studies say that porn can cause crime to go down. But of course, it can be very exploitative. Again, we are talking about library books being porn. There are not many studies about reading porn, but anything that hyper-stimulates dopamine release can cause the brain to act in a juvenile matter.Porn that shows/writes about short term one-night stand fantasies is favored by more of the “Dark Triad” types. Some porn needs a disclaimer: being a pizza delivery boy probably is NOT realistically going to get you more action. It could even contain Dark Triad warnings, although people with those traits really love to celebrate them.

You might think porn would encourage people to act out dangerous fantasies, but most studies say, this doesn’t happen. “Hostility, callousness and delinquent behavior were determinants of sexual aggression and that the effects of those personality traits are much stronger than those of pornography consumption.”

And although watching lots of porn is associated with low IQ, watching it in moderation will not shrink your brain. It’s probably not good to have porn in school. Of course, there isn’t any. It’s a scary threat.

What about drag shows? My governor, who is a hater, points out school drag shows as being a reason to defund public schools. This is very opportunist, coming from a party that has numerous domestic abusers running for office. The state of Iowa paid out a huge fine because someone in the governor’s inner circle was guilty of sex abuse and creating a sexually charged atmosphere. Yes, taxpayers were on the hook for it and she dismissed it as ridiculous. This person has turned her eye towards drag shows. What can I find about their harmful effects? Not much.

The University of Northampton writes, “Our findings overwhelmingly evidence that attending drag events has a positive impact on happiness and mental well-being. People feel that they can express themselves in a non-judgemental, safe space where they can escape from everyday life and feel a sense of joy and liberation. With the absence of events over the past 18 months I’m sure this impact on mental well-being resonates with many people.” The people who perform generally experience feelings of well-being, although they might have injuries during the performance.

Since female clothing can be uncomfortable and even cause injuries, what’s the psychology of dressing in drag? It can be anything from a desire to entertain, embracing an art form, pushing against gender boundaries, or the wish to fit in with a close-knit community. One concern about drag shows is that people in positions of power can use them to parody and stereotype women. This is a valid concern, which leads me to suggest that school drag shows be supervised by a qualified sponsor who has had some sensitivity training. They shouldn’t be mocking women. We all know that women wearing pants on stage freed other women to don them. Misogyny comes from people who believe in strict gender norms. Therefore, dressing in uncomfortable clothes and enjoying make-up should be something anyone can do, not simply women.

The ironic thing is, hostility creates an environment where all sorts of bad behaviors come bubbling out of damaged people. It’s kind of like spanking, which can create hostile and even deviant adults.

Accusing people of being deviants by applying your own vague definition of it is hostile and harmful. It’s encouraging authoritarianism. In fact, banning art and authoritarianism go hand in hand. As for drag, it’s pretty harmless, even an art form. It might even make people laugh at the absurdity of gender norms. Which will in turn, fight misogyny. Or at least, we can hope.

The answer to all of this is to do whatever it takes to put a damper on hostility. Like with this nice sign:

Reducing hostility can solve a myriad of problems.
Will this drag queen warp your kids? It’s doubtful. But…

Unstable States Series: How to Live, Love, and Laugh in an Autocracy

A beanstalk holds special meaning in this series.

My publisher is getting ready to release Book Three in my Unstable States series this August. I’m grateful to my publisher, City Owl Press, for helping me push through a bad review on the first book and thankful for all who believed in this tale which must be told.

The premise is: the Midwest (specifically Iowa) becomes the willing victim of an autocratic agricultural government, which breaks away from the US and its freedoms.

Each book is stand alone and told from a different perspective. Book 1 from that of an outsider who gets mixed into trouble, Book 2 from a citizen who wishes to elevate her status in the society, and Book 3 from a scientist who reluctantly hatches a plan to save a friend in need.

I wanted to show people questioning a society where there is no concept of public good and I wanted to show this without blaming religion or having blazing gun battles.

What you will find:

  1. Satire. Makes fun of unstable authoritarian dictators and their slavish followers all the while pretending to be Iowa nice.
  2. Corn, hogs, & water pollution. This series pokes fun at “big ag” in the Midwest.
  3. Romance, body parts mentioned. These stories are sex positive but I’m not sure I could write a totally serious sex scene. In fact, sex scenes are meant to be absurdly technical, Masters and Johnson style. This is a satire.
  4. Scifi, science, & gadgets. But you won’t have to be a science-nerd to enjoy them. For example: wouldn’t you enjoy having a No-Regrets, which will scan potential partners for STIs and detect pregnancy early? I think we need one of these asap. And how would you get rid of a giant lagoon of hog shit? What would you do if ordered to create a homunculus? These require some scientific know how.

I’m posting today because the first book, Mixed In, is on sale. Here’s a universal link. It’s got a bad review that follows it everywhere due to misunderstanding. It’s NOT a torrid romance, it’s more of an informative rom-com or a Shakespearean style comedy with social commentary. Think Don’t Look Up or maybe How I got Drunk and Saved a Demon. If that’s for you, click the link or message me and I’ll send you a copy free of charge. This week only, while it’s on sale.

The second book, Lost in Waster (think Hunger Games in Idiocracy with manure) is also on sale but Kindle only. https://books2read.com/States2UBL

Here’s a good review and description of Book 1:

First in the electrifying series set in “a dystopian future that feels relatable and real . . . Wonderfully entertaining” (InD’tale).

When Catrina moves to Cochtonville to work as a chemist for Cochton Enterprises, she has no idea how dangerous her life is about to become.

  1. Mass shootings, insurrection. I’m not a fan of gun violence as entertainment. It’s got a killer plant though because we all know if plants could kill us, they would.
  2. Rape, non-consensual sex, women tortured.
  3. It was just a dream endings.

Here’s Each Book

Mixed In

An outsider moves to the city-state of Cochtonville in what used to be Iowa and finds herself mixed into its trouble.

Lost in Waste

A scientist must come up with a way to rid the nation of Cochtonia of an immense pool of agricultural waste in order to move up the social ladder.

Wrinkles in Spacetime

A scientist agrees to help Sir Isaac Newton create a homunculus in order to please the rulers of Cochtonia and save his neck.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any questions!

Living in our own private air pollution

Woman in protective mask holding aerosol in her hands closeup. Allergy to cosmetics concept

For the past two days, I’ve woken up, smelled the outdoor air, and was greeted with an acrid smell. Was it a local factory? My underarms? It was clearly some type of air pollution. Air pollution is one of my pet peeves. Iowa is a state with more air pollution than most. What was the smell? Why should we care? Here’s why:

Air pollution has been linked to severe covid.

Pollution, especially particulates, has been linked to depression.

Pollution such as ozone and particulates has been linked to miscarriages in early pregnancy. Pollution can cross the placenta and cause low birth weight or a silent miscarriage where the fetus fails to form properly. It is also associated with an increased risk of ectopic pregnancies. Air pollution can also cause still birth. Many pro-life groups are frauds. They don’t care at all about pollution.

Pollution is as bad or worse in rural areas as it is in cities with agriculture being a major source of air pollution. Rural people are more likely to be resistant to any warnings having to do with science. They just don’t care about air pollution.

There’s not much I can do in the short term to keep those around me from polluting. Here in rural Iowa, few take responsibility for polluting the air.

But what about our own private air pollution? I’m not talking underarm smell here. What about stuff we do to ourselves?

Recently, doctors discovered plastics in the lungs of living humans when they took samples of lung tissue from people with lung ailments. Where could it come from?

One source can be the materials we live with such as our clothes, plastic products including toys, and furniture. How about our personal care products? I was asked: What about hair spray?

I admit. My hair isn’t easily tamed. I gave up on hair spray but do use it on occasion. What’s in it?

Hair spray is used to create shine and hold hair in place. Silicone creates the shine while Styrene/Acrylates which are plastics fix the style. Hairspray contains more than plastics. Many contain formaldehyde and scents which can contribute to air pollution and cause symptoms such as light headedness and headaches. Older style products such as used in the helmet hair look are particularly bad for the wearer.

How dangerous is hair styling in general?

A recent study of Beauty salon air found that it was filled with everything from microscopic snippets of hair and nails to particulates and fumes from products. Bridal party procedures were particularly polluting. Besides spraying, things such as heat and UV styling released harmful fumes into the air.

But it’s not only the salon.

Another study showed that people emit a plume of synthetic scents and toxins, especially after they have showered.

As for hair spray specifically, Hair spray may be asscociated with alveolitis which is a rare but fatal lung inflammation. It and other scented products, along with dander, and air pollution can exacerbate COPD.

There are no doubt worse things you can do to your lungs than apply hair spray, especially on occasion. However, you probably should wear a mask when applying spray. For a lot of reasons, avoiding the Fox News anchor look is good for your health. That’s not nature, it silicone.

And what about my outside air? It turned out, that acrid scent was lawn chemicals. I’ve already written about dandelions being good for you and your lawn and a source of rubber. There’s no need for the toxic smell of lawn chemicals. Or Fox News hair.

Medusa Party Week

When it comes to Greek/Roman mythology, nothing makes me more angry than the story of Medusa. Although the myth changes throughout history, Medusa was punished for being raped in Athena/Minerva’s temple, and that punishment was to have her hair transformed into serpents along with the power to turn people who looked at her to stone, although it’s not clear if she could control this power. She becomes ugly and alone.

Medusa’s tale has changed over time from a seductress to a rape victim to, more recently, an icon who has stepped into her own power and embraced her anger as in Ann Stanford’s 1977 ”Medusa.” In another poem, she’s celebrated as a women who seeks retribution for enslaved and marginalized people as in Jamaican poet Shara McCallum’s “Madwoman as Rasta Medusa.” (read here.)

Throughout the ages, Medusa and her hair have been discussed and parsed. Hair, of course, is associated with female beauty. How a person wears her hair represents how controlled she is, her sexuality. Medusa’s Hair possibly even represents female genitalia and the power to frighten and psychologically castrate men according to Freud. Although what Freud had to say about Medusa’s head makes little sense to me, it involves something along the lines of the snakes being phallic and so a cut off snake head reminds a guy that his beloved penis can possibly be chopped off. Or it represents a scary vagina.

In any case, Medusa has rightly gained recognition as a sort of everywoman. As Uma Thurman states, Medusa is a woman who was punished for her own rape. And it has been pointed out that Athena herself was first in line asking Medusa the equivalent of what were you wearing?

So what about Athena? She’s the one who laid the curse and put a bounty on Medusa’s head. She saw Medusa getting raped as a sign of disrespect to her temple. Yes, it was all about her. Eventually Athena even wore Medusa’s head on her breastplate as a weapon. What’s up with the bitch Athena? As goddess who sprung from Zeus’s head (since he had eaten her mother), Athena represents a woman fully invested in the patriarchy. She had to go along to get along. But, as many women who rise to power and then stab other’s in the back, she needed Medusa and robbed her power to get by. Damn, to be nice to a fallen women would make her look bad.

Athena’s a bitch but a predictable one. Studies have shown that women are likely to be snarky to other women, especially if that women has something appealing about them. The theory is that women have to keep men, not other women, happy in order to survive in this patriarchal world and take their frustrations out on each other. Athena was outranked by the rapist (Poseidon) and couldn’t punish him so she was mean to Medusa. Women aged 20-25 are the most likely to be “mean girls.” This is also around the time when estrogen levels peak. Estrogen makes animals, both male and female, more aggressive. One could say that Athena was simply flaunting her estrogen and being a prude at the same time.

In any case, Medusa has become an apotropaic symbol, a guardian meant to keep away evil and symbolize survivorship. She is popular in film, plays, and on tattoos. There’s even a guppy, a galaxy, and a nebula named after her. Yes, she survived.

It’s always a good idea to take a look at the symbolism behind a story. When the myth was first told, snakes were the symbol of rebirth and favored by the god Bacchus/Dionysus. We all know him, that god of wine. Snake hair with a stone-cold twist could thus possibly be a symbol of someone uptight punishing another for being too free and not protecting her innocence.

The hard partying festival of Bacchanalia, a Bacchus party, occurs right now, this week in April. It began a couple thousand years ago as a female only festival in Rome and morphed into a mad orgy, drawing the ire and later suppression tactics of respectable citizens. (You can almost draw parallels between Medusa and Eve here. This is a story about a female who should not have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, perhaps.) One could say it’s Medusa Party Week for outcasts everywhere. Either she was birthed from terror or is a terror herself, but raise a glass, read a provocative book, and celebrate the gorgon, cuz Medusa has been reborn and she’s got a following.

Should you line dry your clothes?

The last time I cleaned out the dryer vent, I felt like my clothes were disappearing before my eyes. So much lint, all produced when my clothes break off fibers as they tumble in the hot air. My use of cotton, which gets more linty than synthetic fibers helped fill the lint trap.

However, a switch to non-natural fibers produces other problems. Many synthetic fabrics shed dryer lint microplastics which can be can be bad for birds, and if the particles come out in the wash, bad for aquatic life. And plastic clothes disappear, too. The shirt I have on in my profile picture has gotten almost see-through! Fragrance from dryer vents is a source of pollution. Not only that, lint is flammable. It’s estimated that many home fires start in the clothes dryer or uncleaned ducts . Yes, your dryer is a fire hazard.

Clothes dryers were developed in the late 1930s and became popular in the 1960s. I used to consider line drying something older people did. I have memories of staring at bras on the neighbor’s clothes line and wondering if I’d ever need one that large. (Turns out, I didn’t.)

Eek, it’s underwear–these are going to smell wonderful!

Each load of laundry dried at home costs about $1 . Most families do nine loads of laundry per week. It adds up to$468 per year. Dryers use more energy than refrigerators–about 4% of your total electricity costs. One solution could be to use dryer balls , which allow air circulation between your clothes and this reduces drying time and possibly keeps items of clothing from rubbing on each other.

Likewise, using the shortest wash cycle possible, avoiding hot water, and sorting clothes so that rough clothes like jeans don’t rub on soft clothes like t-shirts will help cut down on the wear and tear and broken fibers on your clothes.

I’ll be honest, I have another solution. I can’t wait until the skies clear, the sun comes out and with the help of a gentle breeze, it dries my clothes. If you find joy in the the smell of line-dried clothes, you’ve got a discriminating sniffer. Line dried laundry contains special scents, created by the sun. One, nonanal (not pronounced as you might think), is found on the skin of older people, is called aldehyde C-9 in the perfume industry, and it was one of the magic ingredients that made Chanel No. 5.”

Line drying won’t wear out your clothes or shrink them as dryers do. The sun can sterilize clothes to some extent. Some items such as Turkish towels, with extra long fibers, are meant to be hung to dry, not put in the dryer.

One concern about line drying is outdoor pollen falling on your laundry. There are a few ways to minimize this problem such as not line drying when pollen counts are high or putting the laundry in the dryer for five minutes after it hangs outside to rid it of the allergens.

Currently, only about 8% of homes in the US use a clothesline. In some places, they are banned as being unsightly, especially if used for underwear. Most people find line drying too time consuming. I must admit that a sunny day plus time to hang clothes is a luxury. Until self cleaning clothes became a reality, I’m going to indulge and breathe in the nonanal as much as I can. Please try not to look at my underwear.

Rising action: the baking powder debate

While working on a new novel, I needed a way to determine if something was acidic. I asked myself, how about adding baking powder and seeing it if fizzes–ala the volcano kids like to make with our kitchen supplies? But, since this is a paranormal historical, I wondered: was baking soda or anything like it even used in 1872? The answer is Yes. Baking soda’s near twin, soda ash or sodium carbonate has been used since the days when chemistry was alchemy or “the dark art of Egypt” and was used in mummification. It can be mined or produced chemically.

An old bottle of sodium carbonate, NaCO3, also known as soda ash

Baking soda, a less caustic close relative to soda ash, known to chemists as sodium bicarbonate, can be found along with sodium carbonate in natural mineral springs. Saratoga New York and Manitou Springs Colorado are examples of highly bicarbonated waters. It’s believed that an underground reaction produces the bicarbonate. Carbonates are common in nature and are found in limestone and shells in the form of calcium carbonate, and even in geodes.

The baking product, baking soda, was developed in by Church & Dwight to replace potash or potassium carbonate made from wood ashes, which was hard to make, not very pure, and had a weird smell.

Most laboratories have some baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO3) handy to neutralize acid spills

Baking soda, soda ash and baking powder act as rising or leavening agents, producing bubbles of carbon dioxide to make baked goods rise and become fluffy. This rising action is called leavening. An alternative to adding a leavening agent is to whip the substance and stir in air.

Yeast is biological leavening agent, releasing carbon dioxide as an an exhale. The problem is, it takes a while to act.

Baking soda works almost instantly, but must be mixed with an acid such as cream of tartar, sour milk, sour cream, or vinegar, creating the carbon dioxide producing reaction. It’s also dependent on the amount of acid added and some things such as sour milk are not consistent in their composition.

The first baking powder contained baking soda and cream of tartar (tartaric acid, a by-product of wine making) which reacted together quickly and was expensive. Modern double acting baking powder contains an acid and baking soda plus corn starch to keep them from reacting when solid.

And believe it or not, controversy surrounded it.

Created in 1859, the first modern version contained monocalcium phosphate, calcium dihydrogenphosphate to chemists, made from animal bones. Corn starch, and baking soda were additional ingredients. It slowly activated when water was added and fully reacted when heated (making it double acting and slower rising) Later, the monocalcium phosphate used was mined. This company was Rumford, which still makes this version of baking powder. Rival companies sprung up and alum, which was very cheap, was used in products such as Clabber Girl, clabber being sour milk. Thanks to politicians bought with baking powder fortunes, the alum based products were temporarily banned as being unhealthy.

Despite politics, the alum based powders won out due to their low price. But was the competition right, are alum based powders are bad for you? What do we know about the health effects of aluminum, the third most common element in the Earth’s crust?

Recently, nanoaluminum particles were found to impair memory and cognition in zebra fish. (Fan, Rong, et al. “Effects of Nano-Alumina on Learning and Memory Levels in Zebrafish: Roles of Particle Size and Aluminum Ion.” Huanjing Yu Zhiye Yixue = Journal of Environmental & Occupational Medicine, vol. 36, no. 6, 2019, pp. 526.)

Miners exposed to aluminum dust have elevated incidences of Parkinson’s. (Zeng, Xiaoke, M.Sc, et al. “Aluminum Dust Exposure and Risk of Neurodegenerative Diseases in a Cohort of Male Miners in Ontario, Canada.” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, vol. 47, no. 7, 2021, pp. 531-539. )

There are perhaps links to aluminum exposure through dust or food and neurological problems. However, most studies do not find aluminum to be easily absorbed when eaten or put on the skin. (Lead is a much greater risk and is associated with breast cancer so it would be better to worry about bullets than your leavening agent.) Aluminum and other metals are found in the brains of people who had Alzheimer’s, but it’s not known if the aluminum caused the disease since healthy brains also have some aluminum in them. One except is if aluminum is mixed with a fluoride product. This combination is toxic. One thing to keep in mind is that aluminum is commonly used in water treatments to remove cloudiness.

In any case, most baking powder now is alum based for better or worse. But there are exceptions for those who want the good-old fashioned formula. So bakers, rise and shine!

No need for sour milk. Have some alum instead.
No bones about it, alternative baking powders are still out there.

How is a lab report like a short story?

If I had one piece of teacherly advice to give to parents, it’s this: read to your kids. Read them stories, fiction stories rich with detail. Stories transcend culture. They’re a way of organizing the chaos of this word so it makes sense. Stories convey information and give warning. And the story plot form is a brilliant and universal way to convey information.

When teaching story form to beginning writers, I find most have an instinctive understanding of it. But to keep them on track, a plot diagram as shown below can be used.

This is a plot diagram. (I bought it from teachers pay teachers.)

Lab reports, too, have distinctive sections. These might include the following:

Purpose and Introduction

Experimental Details

Results

Discussion

Conclusions

References

This is much less intuitive to students. There are different types of lab reports such as formal lab reports and informal lab reports which adds to the confusion about how to write a lab report.

I applied the plot diagram to a weekly lab report assignment. Here it is on my tackboard:

The plot diagram applied to a lab report.

The purpose is to hook the reader, much like the inciting paragraph of a story. The introduction tells why the lab is important. The procedure, observations, and hazards tell what was encountered along the way.

The introduction points to where this lab is going and why it will be important. Vivid, concrete, relevant observations and information gathering build labs and stories, as does attention to hazards along the way. Recognising these takes practice and experience in the craft.

One thing to note is that the results of a lab are similar to the climax in a story. This is where the perception shifts. The scientist or the protagonist finally learns something. The writer’s inclination is to rush the climax/results. Once you get to the summit, it’s such a relief, all you want to do is get to the end and rest. But don’t. This is what everyone wants to read. it’s why they read through the rest. To see what happens. Be sure to tell it carefully.

Conclusions, statistical analysis, and any type of discussions wrap the report up. If print references were used, they are like the “thank-you”acknowledgements.

A lab report sounds so clinical but it is really a story. Being exposed to stories is good for kids no matter what they want to be when they grow up. And in my opinion, everybody needs to take a class in fiction writing.