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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.

Louis L’Amour Saved My Life

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245Just to dispel any misunderstanding up front, I never actually met Louis L’Amour. He never reached out his hand to pluck my struggling body from a rain swollen river. He never yanked me out of the path of a careering city bus. But what he did do was just as vital to my survival—he wrote fiction.

When I was twenty-one, married with three children and trying to survive a spiritual, emotional, mental, and financial train wreck, I discovered Louis L’Amour’s Sitka. That phenomenal piece of literature bore me on a magic carpet of woven words, away from the turmoil that was my life, and into flights of escape. The harsh expanse of Alaska, the tough men and often tougher women, the struggle to not only survive, but thrive against overwhelming odds, those all spoke to my depressed, lonely, fearful spirit.

After that, I haunted the local public library in search of more L’Amour titles. I grew to crave the sensation of being ferried into the past while watching from the safe distance of the present. I thrilled in the knowledge that everything would turn out okay for the men and women with whom I found myself identifying. I read everything Louis L’Amour wrote, and his words comforted me. They gave me hope.

Over the next few years I branched out into other areas of fiction. I reveled in the excitement of spy novels written by Helen MacInnes, feasted on the haunted offerings of Stephen King, and devoured the cerebral musings of Isaac Asimov.

My world changed and expanded. Eventually, the idea that I myself could change took root. At the age of twenty-nine I went to college, where I learned how to teach others to read and write.

Thirty years later, I still look forward to those quiet times when I can burrow into my pile of pillows, a cup of hot tea at my elbow and a compelling story in my hands. I still thrill at being escorted into other realms, other dimensions, other realities.

Some people believe that every person has a unique niche in this world, a slot molded in her image and into which she alone will fit. I don’t know if that’s so. But I do know that writers hold a special place in the human experience, some even to the point of sparking world change.

So, thanks to those of you who answer the call to write in whatever genre beckons. Thanks for meeting deadlines, for struggling with agents, for doing hours of research, for rewriting innumerable times and not giving up. Thanks for following the tugging of your muse. And thank you Louis L’Amour, for saving my life.

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the October 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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