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Get Your Words’ Worth

By E.H. Hackney

“Grandpa, I think you have scurvy.” The three-year old we met, while waiting for our table at the Range Cafe, had heard the word on the television the day before and was diagnosing everyone with it, her mother said. It’s easy for me to understand how a child can become enchanted with a new and different word, especially a word like scurvy, that feels so good squirting out of the corner of your mouth, between tooth and cheek. It’s got a strong “r” in it, like a pirate word, and sounds exotic enough that you might just be getting away with something.

I was hooked on words before I became a writer and have never gotten over it. There are still words that I overuse and often probably misuse because I like the feel of them in my mouth and my ear. Accoutrements is one. Fumfer is another. A decade ago a radio host used fumfer to express her stumbling in trying to get her point across. You won’t find it in a dictionary, but it’s a perfectly functional word, and, in context, there was no doubt as to what she meant.

I like the word skookum, a Chinook word I learned in Seattle, meaning good or hearty or strong or brave. Bumbershoot, canoodling, perspicacity, loquacious—all fun, rhythmic, nearly musical words.

But the strength of words, and most of the fun, is in their use. Questing for the right word is an adventure. What words are best to inspire a child, welcome a friend, inform a colleague, threaten your protagonist, seduce a lover? What word catches the light just so and casts the best shadows on the narrative and on those words before and after? Is there one word that will replace three? Sometimes the apt word glows from within, illuminating the page.

The right word must provide the right function at the right time—propelling ideas when needed, reining in when the pace has become too quick, or pushing off in a new direction. “Propel” and “push” are the chosen words here but, in another mood or context, “thrust” or “drive” might be better. Yes, they hint at sexuality.

How does the word fit with its neighbors? Does it stand too tall and dominating, drawing attention to itself rather than conveying meaning? Is it so timid that it hides, embarrassed, begging to be replaced or deleted?

And it’s the power and vitality of words that are important, not their splendor. Clarity is more important than eloquence. So, though I like the feel of rare words, I prefer to use those I can find in my battered, paperback Webster’s.

Words are ecological. They can be used and used again, even overused, but never used up. They can be consumed by the reader yet they remain.

And they’re democratic. They’re free! The same words are available to you and me as to J.K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett—well, mostly, they are British. The vocabulary that built the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution belongs to all of us. The parts and pieces needed to construct the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the works of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, James Thurber and T. H. White, and the diatribes of the TV pundits for that matter, are there in our toy box, ours to use as we want. Or misuse. Part of freedom is the right to be wrong.

Words! We love them. So, fellow writers, get out your kit of words and build a story. Have fun. But choose your words carefully.

ByTheBloodCover125E. H. “Hack” Hackney is a retired engineer turned fantasy writer who lives on the east slopes of the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. His articles and essays have appeared in East Mountain Living magazine, Albuquerque the Magazine, East Mountain Telegraph, The Independent, and SouthWest Sage. He published his first novel By the Blood, Book One: Revelation in 2013 under the pen name Geoffrey Ganges. You can find Hack on Twitter and Facebook and his website

This article was originally published in the January 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

An Interview with E. H. Hackney

E. H. “Hack” Hackney is a retired engineer turned fantasy writer who lives on the east slopes of the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. His articles and essays have appeared in East Mountain Living magazine, Albuquerque the Magazine, East Mountain Telegraph, The Independent, and SouthWest Sage. He published his first novel By the Blood, Book One: Revelation in 2013 under the pen name Geoffrey Ganges. You can find Hack on his websites at and, and on Twitter at @ehhackney and Facebook at E. H. Hackney, writer.

By_The_Blood200What is your elevator pitch for By the Blood, Book One: Revelation?
Quint is a wizard and healer—and a dwarf, abandoned by his mother as an infant and tortured by his stunted, distorted body. By accident he discovers that the Torg, an ancient enemy of his people, are returning. While he and his apprentice are drawn into a dangerous quest to find the Torg, Quint begins to discover his own history. As the wizard confronts his origins his world is shaken. He doesn’t know that of all the dangers he faces his own heritage may be the most deadly.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
The biggest challenge was creating this world and making it and the characters believable. It is a fantasy, so there’s magic, but I tried to make everything, including the magic, genuine and rooted in nature. My goal was to set it in a real place you would like to visit, populated with characters and creatures you would want to meet.

What was the most rewarding aspect of writing it?
Regardless of sales and reviews, writing a book is an achievement. That is a reward in itself. Most rewarding is that a number of readers have enjoyed the book and get what I’m trying to do.

Tell us more about how By the Blood came together.
The seed of the novel was the first chapter of the book, which was to be a short story. When I got into it, I realized there was a great deal more to tell. I didn’t know it would be a trilogy until halfway through the book. It took a year and a half to reach a version I was willing to show my first readers. That’s a long time, but I was writing a book and learning how to write a book at the same time (and still am). A little less than a year passed between sending drafts to my first readers to completing the final version.

Some of my characters surprised me along the way. For example, I didn’t know Quint, my main character, had a lopsided walk until I saw him walking in my mind. That’s one of the reasons I don’t develop extensive character profiles beforehand. I don’t really know the characters until I see them in action and involved with other people, even animals.

The development of the story surprised me, too. Once I realized By the Blood was going to be book length, I developed a complete outline down to brief descriptions of each scene. The first half of the book mostly followed the outline, but the last part changed drastically. I tried writing an outline of the second book of the trilogy and failed. Now I don’t feel like I am inventing the story, but that it is being revealed to me as I write.

How has your experience with nonfiction/technical writing helped with your fiction? What did you have to learn in order to write fantasy?
I was an engineer in a previous life and contributed to many proposals to government agencies. Proposals are page limited, so you need to make your words count. The second thing that carried over from my earlier work is to strive for clarity. Regardless of how brilliant your ideas might be, they will be lost on your readers (or proposal reviewers) if they don’t understand them. The one thing I’m learning now is to trust my instincts. As an engineer I planned and worked with reason and logic. I relied mostly on my technical ability. Now, writing fiction, it is hard for me to trust in my creativity (or that I have any).

What are you most happy with in your writing, and what do you struggle with most?
When I think about By the Blood, there are a number of scenes I still feel very good about. There are some scenes with humor that I had fun writing and I hope people get. What I struggle with most is fear of failure—those times when I ask myself, “Who do I think I am, trying to write a book? Who would ever read this drivel?”

Does music play a part in your creative process?
I feel a kinship between music and writing. Sometimes I can see rhythm and tempo in dialog, or in short or long paragraphs, or short vs. long sentences. I can sometimes see theme and variation, one of the foundations of music, in writing—varying words with similar meanings or changing word order.

Why did you decide to use a pen name?
My full name is Ewing Haywood Hackney. There was no form of that name that sounded like a good author’s name to me, especially for a fantasy. I have used the nickname, Hack, for half a century, but that was no help. Geoffrey Ganges sounded like a good name for a fantasy author. Also, I have started two action-adventure books, a young adult novel and a contemporary morality book, and have written several short stories. If I were to publish in another genre, I would want a different pen name, anyhow.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I am 80,000 words into the first draft of Book Two of By the Blood. I am also working on what might be called a self-help book, about how to live life. It is the closest I have come to writing a journal. I doubt if it will ever be published, but if it is, the subtitle will be “Life lessons from seventy years of dumb decisions, most of which seemed like good ideas at the time.”

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

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