Quirky Signs and Witty Words are useful Writing Triggers

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Some days you have to dig deep for smiles – make that some weeks! At the beginning of January because it is John’s birthday, our household struggles with grief – it may be 12 years since his untimely death, but I can close my eyes and it could have been yesterday. We pine for those lost years, imagine all the what ifs…

The girls and I have worked out ways of supporting each other and we have a shelf of DVDs for escapism – movies combining clever dialogue and good old fashioned slapstick, allowing the suspension of disbelief and belly laughs – plus comfort food and cider!

I admire quick wit and words used in a clever, unusual and/or unexpected way. Even in the most tragic circumstances something humorous may happen, and often when reflecting on a bad experience a funny side appears. It may not have seemed funny at the time, but put in perspective we laugh and consider ‘it could have been worse,’ or as my Irish Mother would say, ‘worse things happen at sea.’ We make a point of recounting happy memories of John rather than focusing on the sad effects of his illness and death. One of the attractions, which drew me to John was his keen sense of humour and the ridiculous and we like to honour that!

Social media is full of funny memes, jokes and succinct messages to leave me in awe of the creativity of fellow human beings. There’s the obvious and the subtle, but it’s great someone took a moment to think about what words to use and how to use them, or to search for inspirational quotes, comments and graphics. So many are thought provoking and can inspire  writing.

This quote from Jim Morrison reminded me of how The Doors wore  out my turntable at university, along with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez records! However, daughter Anne loves the music of that era and returned from Canada with vinyl in her suitcase (yes, records are making a come-back), including a rare record by Ian Mathews, which I will listen to when I write about my sojourn on the Isle of Arran in 1973. Listening to music a great trigger for writing memories, but also setting a mood and firing the imagination.

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However, some signs can be excruciating – blatant spelling or grammar mistakes that make wordsmiths cringe. We’ve all been guilty of pressing send/post/submit to soon or with mistakes we’ve overlooked, but when commercial or government companies pay for professional signs and hang, print, publish or concrete them into the ground for posterity, you have to shake your head and wonder who’s head will roll?

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Frankston Council is not sure what word is right so they made several signs – for the same street near Chisholm TAFE of all places – were they looking for ‘exempted’ ? Not sure!

There were many innovative signs to raise a smile when MaryJane and I travelled around the USA by train in 2012. Some were curiosities, some clever, some confronting and all could inspire a poem, travel anecdote or story.

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Poignant signs on the sidewalk in Astoria, Oregon and John Lennon’s Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields memorial and memorial seats to regular users of Central Park New York all fodder for the imagination as did being in LA the day Neil Armstrong died and seeing his pavement star decorated with beautiful flowers, or the seat in honour of the woman who spearheaded the domestic violence awareness program.

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The main reason we visited Portland Oregon and took a trip down the Columbia River to Astoria was to discover more information about an ancestor – Captain John McInnes of Skye, who went down with all hands when his sailing ship, the Cadzow Forest, hit the infamous and treacherous waters near Oregon in 1896. Reading the captions in the maritime museum and seeing relics, emotional as well being informative.

Cadzow Forest article

I kept a journal while we travelled, as all writers should, even although some days it was just random jottings to remind myself to write more detail later. When I write  I focus on character because when I read stories it is the characters who interest me the most, curiosity and caring about their lives a must for me to continue reading.

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Here are two characters from our few days in LA – both encountered at Union Station:

Union Station LA

The taxi ride to Union Station short and uneventful and after I booked us in, I went looking for a coffee and snacks to take on the train. Famima Supermarkets everywhere and if you buy goods, they give you a chit for a free coffee. I laughed. ‘It’ll be another month before we return to Union Station.’

The young assistant smiled and said, ‘that’s fine, there’s no expiry date.’

‘But my memory will probably expire or I’ll lose the chit!’ I said, raising a chuckle of understanding from another middle-aged customer.

I return to our seats and find MJ deep in conversation with Roger and Zac, a father and 14 yr old son  on vacation. They approached Mary  to take their photo. Our waiting time flies as Roger chats non-stop – we learn about his divorce, his recovery from alcoholism, his ex-wife’s bipolar, his 19 yr old daughter’s heart operations and her desire to study film and his son’s college aspirations. Roger, an engineer was born and raised in San Francisco. His job pays well and he pays a lot of taxes, but doesn’t mind and hopes Obama is re-elected. He hates George Bush and Mitt Romney, fears America will go into Iran. He goes dancing every week, has joined single parent and divorcee organisations, wants to lose weight, wants to be in a relationship again, but not ready yet. Would like sex, but is prepared to wait; went skinny dipping at the hotel the night before and dallied with another recovering alcoholic, but she has too many issues… All of this gushed in what seems a single breath, but random order. He’s excited we will be on the same train and suggests we have dinner together that evening.

We are in the same car, but MJ and I go to the Observation Car and get chatting with some other people.  We never see Roger and an embarrassed Zac again – I have a feeling it’s not only Roger’s ex-wife who is bipolar because he appeared manic to me.

However, I dropped the hint I was 10 years older, a widow and not looking for another relationship I think I halted his pursuit and so heard no more of extremely personal confessions!

LA Again
It’s 4.15am and we have time to kill on our return to Union Station because although we told  Jeremy, our Airbnb host we’d arrive early, we didn’t want to outstay our welcome immediately!

In Starbucks, a strange lady takes over two stools in a corner and starts to change her clothes and repack her bags. She’s in her 60s, maybe older, or maybe late 50s with skin wrinkled and leathery from the Californian sun. Her blonde/black streaked hair has tips or highlights, or just a bad result from hairdressing at home. It is short and  frames her face and she wears a brightly striped rosette clip. A cotton crocheted top, an eye-hurting fluoro pink is pulled over a black skintight t-shirt. She’s petite and has a lead pencil stuck behind her ear. Sunglasses hide her eyes and reapplied bright red lipstick gleams. She’s making heavy weather of all her luggage reorganising hindered only slightly by  a leg brace velcrozed to the outside of her three quarter denim-look pants. Socks and shoes are changed after meticulously placing the insoles on the tiled floor as if they are walking into her bags! Silver geometric earrings dangle from pink ears and a thick elastic band adorns one wrist – perhaps she is compulsive obsessive or suffers anxiety and the rubber band is to remind her to stay calm?
At last she has packed a tapestry carpet bag and a green enviro bag. Two black leather bags, one a smaller handbag, are strung across her back criss-cross fashion.  She limps out of the cafe where she has been for over an hour, abandoning a coffee cup  as evidence she has been there,  it’s not binned despite all her luggage tidying!

I have a description and the beginning of questions about these fleeting cameos in my travelogue. If I want to include them as characters in a piece of fiction I must work to give them a life, personality, dreams and disappointments, goals and obstacles – and make readers be interested, intrigued, engaged and care about them – something I wouldn’t be able to do, if I hadn’t observed with a writer’s eye and recorded details to help set the scene.

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