Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Month: March 2022

Clockwise: a finished digital painting of Pamela Gómez, the illustration “Mac and Yo-yo in Their Workshop,” and design sketches of an EStee next to some studies for collar-mounted vocalizers all are examples of visualizing a character or a character’s tools.

Visualizing a Character

By Jan S. Gephardt

For a novelist, visualizing a character – bringing them into focus, learning who they are, and what makes them tick – is absolutely essential. Readers don’t read our books because they fell in love with the plot twists. They don’t seek out a book because they love murder, or war, or the scientific concept that makes a book “science fiction.”

They read our books because they fall in love with our characters.

At least, we writers desperately hope they’ll fall in love with our characters. Or anyway that they’ll be fascinated by them. Because if they don’t care what happens to our characters, all of our clever plot twists have no meaning. The murder or the war is just butchery or mayhem. That ingenious science fictional concept we invented might only make them say, “Oh. Well, that’s kinda interesting. But what’s happening on Tik Tok?”

No, the charactersare key. They’re the point of the story, as far as most readers are concerned. Their trials, their passions. The dangers they face, the risks they brave. And, most importantly for the core archetypal function of literature, the solutions they devise for their terrible problems.

“Books can change your life. Some of the most influential people in our lives are characters we meet in books.” — David McCullough
About a year ago, G.S. Norwood wrote about one of McCullough’s books. (See credits below).

Characters are Everything

When I was first learning to write, people sometimes asked, “is this a plot-driven story, or a character-driven story?” I have come to the conclusion that it’s a literature-analysis question making a point that is irrelevant to the way most readers of fiction engage with the stories they read. For me, every story is “character-driven.” It has to be, or it fails in fundamental ways.

That’s why it’s really important for a writer to know their characters. But it’s all very well and good to say that. How does one go about doing that? Especially when the person one is trying to get to know is an imaginary person in our own head? Because I am here to tell you, they don’t spring fully-formed from my forehead, Zeus-and-Athena-style.

No. Not even a little. Visualizing a character in all their dimensions takes effort and time.

Some writers “interview” their characters. They ask questions such as the character’s favorite color, their favorite food, music, and so on. I’ve tried that. It can be interesting, and occasionally enlightening. Some writers create elaborate backstories or dossiers on their major and semi-major characters. I’ve done some of that, too. And I always try to keep track of how tall, how heavy, eye color, age, and important skills, relationships, and so on – written down in a place I can remember! You might not believe how many times I’ve caught myself and said, “Wait! How much does Rex weigh, again?” (130 kilos, when in good shape). Visualizing a character only works for my readers if I’m consistent.

"Books can truly change our lives: the lives of those who read them, the lives of those who write them. Readers and writers alike discover things they never knew about the world and about themselves." – Lloyd Alexander
Possibly the most influential author in my own childhood, Alexander’s words continue to be true for me, whether I’m the reader or the writer. (See credits below).

How Best to Learn a Character?

I can only tell you what works for me. Sometimes I’ll get to a place in a story where I need someone to do something. Then a new person who is exactly when and where I need them sometimes steps forward. They do what the story needs, but add their own little personal touch to the way it’s done. That’s when visualizing a character is fun and easy. Occasionally I may decide that person needs a promotion to a bigger part in the story! (This is my “pantser” side emerging).

More often I’ll know, going into the story, that certain characters belong onstage. I’ll already know some basic aspects of those characters, but not enough. That’s when I need help visualizing a character. I like to use techniques such as the Character Flaw Pyramid or the Reverse Backstory Tool (see below). If this is getting too technical for you, feel free to skip over this part.

But for the writers and reviewers in my audience, I’ve found these very helpful for developing the Protagonist and Antagonist characters. I’ve also used them for supporting characters who have their own, smaller story arcs within the book.

The Character Flaw Pyramid asks a series of questions for the writer to answer about their character: What lie does the character believe about himself? What was the defining moment? What core flaws result from the lie? What lesser/secondary flaws stem from the core flaws? What are some of the character’s typical behaviors, thoughts, actions, or quirks?
From Jan’s “Writing Techniques” notes; source unclear. (See image credits below).
The Reverse-Backstory Tool is a chart. At the top is the question (with space to fill in an answer), “What is the character’s Goal/Outer Motivation?” An asterisk directs us to a note below the chart, which reminds: “inner and outer motivation are connected. If you know one, you can extrapolate the other!”
Below this heading area are two columns with four sections each, asking parallel questions as follows. Section One on the left: “What attributes help achieve the goal?” on the right: “What flaws hinder it?” Section Two, left: “What positive emotions does the character feel, regarding these attributes?” Right: “What painful emotions do the character’s flaws protect against?” Section Three, left: “Emotionally speaking, why does the character want to achieve the goal? What is the inner motivation?” An asterisk directs us back to the note below the chart about inner and outer motivations being connected. Section Three, right: “What traumatic event (the WOUND) triggers the painful emotions mentioned above in an intense, life-changing way?” Section Four, left: “What needs drive this character’s behavior?” Right: “Because of the wounding event, what incorrect belief (the LIE) does the Character hold to be true?”
From Jan’s “Writing Techniques” notes; source unclear. (See image credits below).

I got these . . . somewhere, at some point in the last five years. Probably/possibly they came from one or more of my friends (I hang out with a lot of writers. Possible sources include Dora Furlong and Lynette M. Burrows, but I really don’t remember. You might enjoy their books, though!). And I have no idea who, among all the many tutors, online courses, blogs, or writing gurus, originated them. I just know these tools work for me. But there’s also another important method in my toolbox.

Visualizing a Character . . . Literally

When I say I’m visualizing a character, I also mean that literally. I’m an artist, so I think visually and spatially. I make maps. Create floorplans. Collect visual reference photos, and make my own drawings. But I’ve never had the “illustrator” gift. Non-artists may find that confusing, but in my experience not every artist is cut out to be an illustrator. It’s a specific subcategory of skills that I’ve always wished I had! But the ability to create really awesome illustrations is just not a gifting I’ve received or been able to develop (Lord knows, I’ve tried!).

All the same, I am both lucky and blessed. I have many friends who are outstanding illustrators, richly endowed with that gift I wish I had. And, here in the later decades of my life, I also have been blessed with the ability to hire them to do what I can’t.

This means my longtime friend Jody A. Lee has made gorgeous covers for the first two novels in the XK9 Trilogy. If you’ve been following this blog since last summer, you may remember reading The Story Behind A Bone to Pick’s Cover. It also means I could commission some early character-and-tech-development images from artist and game designer Jeff Porter. And I could ask the illustrator Jose-Luis Segura to help me visualize two characters, Mac and Yo-yo, whom I intend to feature in a future story.

Clockwise: a finished digital painting of Pamela Gómez, the illustration “Mac and Yo-yo in Their Workshop,” and design sketches of an EStee next to some studies for collar-mounted vocalizers all are examples of visualizing a character or a character’s tools.
Jeff Porter’s 2016 visualization of Pamela Gómez is still the best one Jan has. Jeff’s design concepts for collar-mounted vocalizers and EStees influenced how later artists portrayed them. Jose-Luis Segura invented some creative ideas in his 2021 rendition of Mac and Yo-yo in Their Workshop. (images are ©2016 by Jeff Porter and © 2021 by Jose-Luis Segura. See credits below).

And it means I could embark on a long and ongoing creative collaboration with my good friend Lucy A. Synk.

Visualizing a Character with Lucy A. Synk

I chronicled my collaboration with Lucy to create the cover of my novella The Other Side of Fear on this blog almost exactly two years ago, in March 2020. Lucy was literally Rex’s first fan. She’s a well-regarded professional artist with years in the fantasy and science fiction world, a background in natural history museum murals, and a burgeoning fine art career. She’s about to unveil a brand-new website, so here’s hoping this link redirects properly. If you’re on Facebook, you also can see (and “Like,” if you’re kindly inclined) her Lucy Synk Fantasy Art page.

Last winter, she helped me visualize The Orangeboro Pack. She painted all ten XK9s from my books, both as head-and-shoulders portraits and in full-body action poses. I’ve used those a lot, especially in my monthly newsletter.

Head-and shoulders portraits of the ten Orangeboro Pack members.
Top row L-R: Razor, Elle, Crystal, Petunia, and Cinnamon. Bottom Row L-R: Scout, Victor, Tuxedo, Shady, and Rex. (All paintings are ©2020-21 by Lucy A. Synk).

This winter, her project has been to start visualizing the humans in my stories. Since she’s already posted the first two paintings from the new series on her Facebook page, I’ll show them here, too.

The two finished paintings: at left, all-business Hildie, working as a paramedic in microgravity; at right, in a saree on a balcony at home, ready for a party.
Here are the finished paintings, L-R: Hildie at Work and Hildie on a Balcony in a Saree. (Artwork © 2022 by Lucy A. Synk).

Next week, I’ll talk about our ongoing collaborative efforts, and the developmental stages we went through when we were visualizing a character named Hildie Gallagher for these two paintings.


Many thanks to Quotefancy, for the David McCullough quote. You may remember that G. S. Norwood blogged about one of McCullough’s books in this space about a year ago. And thank you very much, AZ Quotes, for the wisdom from Lloyd Alexander.

As noted in the post, Jan has no clear idea of exactly where the “Character Flaw Pyramid” or the “Reverse-Backstory Tool” came from. But the photo of the hands holding question-marks up in the air is definitely by “rawpixel,” via 123rf. And the pattern of books background certainly came from Madison Butler on LinkedIn and her “Unicorn Nuggets” newsletter. Many thanks to both!

The digital painting of Pamela Gómez and the sketches of an EStee, along with the designs for collar-mounted vocalizers, are all © 2016 by Jeff Porter. The digital painting Mac and Yo-yo in Their Workshop is © 2021 by Jose-Luis Segura. The ten XK9 portraits are © 2020-2021 by Lucy A. Synk. The two new oil paintings of Hildie Gallagher are © 2022 by Lucy A. Synk. Jan enjoyed every minute of those collaborations, and looks forward to doing it again! All montages in this post were designed and assembled by Jan S. Gephardt.

“In general, the more dysfunctional the family the more inappropriate their response to disclosure. Never expect a sane response from an insane system.” ― Renee Fredrickson, Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse

Inequality Lies at the Root

By Jan S. Gephardt

When you get right down to it, inequality lies at the root of Women’s History Month. Imagine if there were no historic, male-centric preponderance of lopsided favoritism. In that case, all months would be equally devoted to the historic achievements of both men and women. But there’s not. So, here we are.

Certainly, the same could be said for Black History Month, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. (Of course “all lives matter,” but there’s no enduring legacy of systemic brutality against white men. Only the stubbornly obtuse would argue otherwise). But that’s the thing. Inequality lies at the root of nearly every social ill. Inequality of access to health care. Of access to housing. Or education, or healthy food. It goes on and on.

All of these are undeserved inequities. That is, for the most part the people who suffer from them did nothing to deserve them. Oh, right. How dared they be born in a particular time, place, and social position! Very negligent of them! But of all the inequalities that surround us, perhaps the most foundational – and probably the oldest – is gender inequality.

Feminism isn’t about hating men. It’s about challenging the absurd gender distinctions that boys and girl learn from childhood and carry into their adult lives.” – Robert Webb

Gender Inequality Lies at the Root of All Inequality

When you can discriminate against your own mother without a second thought or the slightest qualm, that’s a special kind of low. When you can demean your daughters and turn your lifemate into a chattel, you’re beneath reprehensible.

No, I’m not talking only about men. We humans – all of us – have collectively been buying into some version of this arrangement for millennia. If anything, that only makes it more horrifying, not less. And once you’ve crossed that very basic, intimate line? Heck, what’s going too far, after that? Skin color? Spoken accent? Different religious tradition? Pick whatever you feel like hating, and do your worst! There’s a saying that common sense is not so common. In human history, it seems common decency has been all too rare, as well.

This pernicious insistence on a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority within our own families creates a powerful unconscious bias. It dictates many aspects of how we see the world and relate to others. And as a result it enforces a host of other arbitrary rules. “Boys are blue and girls are pink” is only the beginning.

Two Quotes-in-Point

This post was inspired two quotes I paired up and shared on this blog in 2017. Here they are (one re-envisioned a bit):

“We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons . . . but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” – Gloria Steinem
“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots cause it’s okay to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading cause you think being a girl is degrading.” – Madonna Ciccone

I didn’t say much about either quote when I first posted them (I didn’t have Yoast SEO critiquing me with red frowny-faces back then, for one thing). But it seems to me that considerably more could and should be said on the topic of the messages our families and our society send.

I’ve been both a teacher and a mom. Granted, that was a while ago (my kids are millennials). But with that background, I can attest that parents can’t control all – or even most – of the messages kids receive. Sorry, fundamentalist home-schoolers and cranky conservative legislators. It’s a losing game. No matter how draconian you are, you ultimately lose this battle.

In a society like ours, messages come through. They penetrate, in spite of everything a person tries to do to control them. The trick is teaching our kids how to evaluate what comes through. Preferably, we’ll do that in a way that doesn’t distort their thinking in even more dysfunctional ways than society already has adopted.

What are we Teaching Our Kids?

There’s a humongous battle going on right now in the United States, about what we’re teaching our kids these days. First, a moment of perspective: there have always been people (especially, but not exclusively, conservatives) getting their panties in a twist over what we’re teaching our kids these days (in whichever century “these days” are).

Back when my kids were in school, I remember how another mother worried about whether our children were being taught that “it’s okay for somebody to have two daddies.” She was outraged to discover the idea didn’t outrage me. And it’s a story that truly should be a remnant from another era. But lately it’s back again, along with deeply corrosive controversies about children’s sports competitions.

It’s pretty easy to see how inequality lies at the root of this thinking. People who self-identify within the LGBTQIA+ community have never been in a numerical majority. This inequality of influence made them easy to oppress. And yet we have evidence that there have never stopped being LGBTQIA+ people at any point in history. This inconvenient fact argues that they are a naturally-occurring phenomenon. Therefore, “born that way.” And therefore not a “lifestyle choice” that could be taught.

"The pain associated with the social stigma of being LGBTQ, of living in a culture that, for the most part, is homophobic and heterosexist, is traumatic." - Craig Sloane, psychotherapist and clinical social worker

What does it Mean to be . . . Whoever You Are?

The LGBTQIA+ community has nearly always alarmed and infuriated others who buy into the historic distortion. Because, put simply, they subvert it. A person who’s built their whole worldview on two genders, one of which is “superior” to the other, doesn’t know what to do with other expressions sexuality (or asexuality).

Except, maybe hate it.

What does it mean to be yourself? Whatever it means to be your true, authentic, full, rich, realized self, it’s the epic task of every individual to continue being it, all the time. All our lives until we die, we’re still becoming who we are in this moment.

Who are you? One of the books recently popular with book-banners is titled All Boys Aren’t Blue. And it’s true. Boys – yes, and girls – can be “any color” their heart dictates. But can they express that self safely? If it’s not safe for boys to be raised “more like our daughters,” then everyone suffers. The distortion persists, and thereby warps everything.

“In general, the more dysfunctional the family the more inappropriate their response to disclosure. Never expect a sane response from an insane system.”
― Renee Fredrickson, Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse

Rooting out the Root

People speak of toxic masculinity, and that’s certainly one facet of our dysfunction. My stubbornly feminist son has wrestled with the concept. With the ways it’s presented, argued, and too often discounted. But he’s not the only one who’s found toxic masculinity, in itself, presents an incomplete picture of the problem.

This is where we come back to that basic, fundamental point I made above. Because when gender inequality lies at the root of all inequality it’s got to be our bottom-line “first focus.” And it pretty much never has been. But I think everything will remain out of joint to one extent or another until we fix this first problem. Because the rupture within our selves, our homes, and our families ripples outward.

When our most intimate primary relationships are disfigured, that disfigures who we are in our core and distorts everything we perceive. When our perceptions are distorted, our understanding of the world is twisted. A twisted understanding of the world warps our interactions with others and contorts all of our interactions. No lasting good can take root until the root of the problem is dealt with.

It behooves us to start digging.


The first image in this post, with the quote from Robert Webb, is my own (Jan’s) design. I first published it in 2018 on my Artdog Adventures blog under the title, “Challenging Absurd Distinctions.” Find details about the image’s origins there. Likewise, the Gloria Steinem and Madonna Ciccone quotes were first published in 2017 under the title “Double Standards and Our Kids.” The photo of Gloria Steinem that I added to the original quote is courtesy of

The Craig Sloane quote (drawn from the source article) about the social stigma felt by LGBTQ individuals comes thanks to Healthline and their excellent article about substance abuse in that community. The quote about the “insane” system that develops within dysfunctional families is from Goodreads. I re-envisioned the quote with help from “yuliiahurzhos” and 123rf. Many thanks to all of my sources!

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense." - Tom Clancy

It Has to Make Sense

By Jan S. Gephardt

Along with the rest of the world, I’ve been watching with horror as Mr. Putin’s army invades Ukraine. It appears to be a senseless act, mindless in its wanton brutality. I’d never get away with this in a story, is a thought that has frequently recurred. In fiction, it has to make sense.

"It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." - Mark Twain
In case it’s ever bemused you, this is why (Thanks, AZ Quotes).

Putin was warned, and with each new development, he’s warned again. He had ample opportunities to turn back from this course. Now his country reels under the opprobrium and sanctions the world has leveled at them, with more to come. Is he, himself, feeling the pinch yet? Has it penetrated to that man way down there 20 feet away at the other end of his table, that he’s just joined the ranks of history’s most despised villains? Hard to say. But other Russians are certainly feeling it.

His military strategy basically sucks. Even his soldiers are conflicted, when they’re allowed a glimpse of what the rest of the world sees. This invasion is even more ill-conceived, ill-planned, and short-sighted than the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. But somehow it has to make sense to Putin, or he wouldn’t be doing it.

Vladimir Putin takes social distancing to a several-yards-away extreme in a meeting with his Defense Ministers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered that his nuclear forces be put on high alert on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (See credits below).

Villains Think They’re the Hero

One of the first rules of villain-construction that fiction writers learn is that the villain in a realistic story almost never sets outto be a villain. They think they’re the one with the clearest vision, the true grasp of how the world works or how things should be. Whatever they do, no matter how bizarre, it has to make sense to them.

This is essential, to support the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Cartoon villains in a parody may band together in a Guild of Calamitous Intent, create an organization like COBRA, or join forces in Skeletor’s castle. But nobody does this in real life (no, not even the Trilateral Commission or the Elders of Zion).

"Nobody is a villain in their own story. We're all the heroes of our own stories." - George R. R. Martin
You know it’s true. (Thanks, Brainy Quote).

When I look at popular media I also see another glaring disconnect. Other than a general mistrust of “people who are smarter,” I’ve often wondered why the trope of the evil, mad scientist persists so stubbornly. Especially since the greater dangers in real life tend to come from people being irresponsible with political—not scientific—power. (Like You-Know-Who-tin).

Why does popular media keep giving our kids villains like the Smurfs’ Wizard Gargamel, Big Hero 6’s Professor Callaghan, or other (anti-intellectual) bad guys when real-life bad guys are of a completely different sort?

Why do we Cling to the Mad Scientist?

Fictional “mad scientists” descend from Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, and other, similar bogeymen from an earlier century. Individual scientists of today may be arrogant or have a “god complex” that results in grief and pain. But the really dangerous people are the ones who want to be (or are) dictators in their spheres of influence. They generally have ambitions much grander than dominating just one lab or hospital.

But here’s the thing. Back in Mary Shelley’s or H. G. Wells’ day, you had to have a certain level of wealth, privilege, and thereby political power via your caste or social class, to get any kind of education at all. (Wells’ family was less exalted than Shelley’s, but he joined a more privileged, educated class as his career prospered). It may be that the “scientist” part got more attention because cultural blindness made “undeservedly rich and powerful” invisible to the trope’s progenitors.

Mad scientist laughing insanely by his laboratory desk
Here’s a classic mad scientist, by the Finnish cartoonist “gnurf” (Paul Soderholm, via 123rf).

When a person is determined that “it has to make sense,” they come up with explanations that fit their biases. Villainizing the intellectual was easier and far, far safer than calling out the undeservedly powerful. Especially because they were part of that undeservedly powerful class (or wanted to be), and thus were blind to it.

Questioning Undeserved Privilege, and Other Uncomfortable Ideas

We don’t have any excuses today. If we do not recognize the existence of undeserved privilege and its corrosive effects after the worldwide awakening in 2020, that makes two things clear. (1) We are among the privileged group (or we’d definitely realize it exists). And (2) we’re willfully limiting our inputs to head off and eliminate any such troubling realization.

“Man is not, by nature, deserving of all that he wants. When we think that we are automatically entitled to something, that is when we start walking all over others to get it.” - Criss Jami
Entitlement is seductive (quote by Criss Jami. Thanks, ReadersHook).

It’s frightening and threatening to question one’s own place in society. That tends to shake one’s sense of self. It’s equally scary to question one’s pet political ideas. We like our comfortable boxes, where everything makes sense. Well, makes sense as long as we don’t probe too deeply, or ask too many worrying questions. It has to make sense to us that we’re in our position, whatever it might be, so we frame it however we can to make it make sense.

All that said, it’s much easier and more comfortable just to blame all the ills of the world on that guy over there who’s too smart for his own good. He’s probably thinking subversive thoughts right now.

Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad. - Frances Hardinge
Gotta watch out for those shifty-eyed intellectuals! (Many thanks, Quotestats).

Is Actual Evil . . . Boring?

I believe there’s also another reason why a storyteller might be drawn to a villain of the Evil Mad Scientist variety. That’s because the Evil Mad Scientist, to be true to form, is also a genius. An evil one, of course. But one who is likely to have a variety of clever tricks up his or her lab-coated sleeve. Of course, I’m a fine one to criticize this trope! XK9 protagonist Rex’s primary antagonist in my novel What’s Bred in the Bone was an evil (greedy and self-centered, but not really “mad”) scientist named Dr. Ordovich.

Bottom-line, though. The protagonist must outsmart the antagonist. The outsmarting part must be hard to do, or where’s the fun in reading about or watching it? It has to make sense that the villain is intelligent and cagey, because if the villain is your ordinary stupid criminal, there’s no challenge for the hero.

And, can we talk? In factual reality, criminals are often not terribly bright. Ask any police detective. People commit crimes of passion or greed, and they often don’t cover their tracks very well because they didn’t think ahead before they acted. Or, really, think at all. They may get away with their crimes for a while, but if they do it’s likely because they lucked out or somebody on the investigation messed up. All too often, it’s both.

"He pegged criminals as impulsive, immature, deprived of affection, and lacking in restraint, all qualities that later studies bore out." - Jack El-Hai
An early, crucial linkage between psychology and criminal behavior (see credits below).

Criminals and Despots fall into Predictable Patterns

Most people have heard the phrase, “follow the money.” And it’s true that the spouse or significant other is frequently the murderer (consider the 2021 case of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie). The Jack El-Hai quote above points to the dawning realization in the 19th century that criminal behavior had a psychological aspect to it. Current law enforcement practice recognizes patterns of criminal behavior that often is linked to greed, strong emotions, or other related motivations.

Leo Tolstoy wrote in the opening of Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But I’d like to counter that blanket statement. There’s a consistent set of factors that characterize dysfunctional relationships and families (which I’d call “unhappy”). In the same way, there are several common factors that characterize much of what we define as criminal behavior. Despots and dictators fall into patterns, too. For case studies in point, watch the PBS series, The Dictator’s Playbook.

Slide four of Kohl’s presentation lists “Techniques of Dictatorship: Censorship of media and limitations (or elimination) of free speech. “Personality cult” or “Cult of the leader” – glorifying of a single leader as a great man beyond question. Use of military, police, or secret police to create a climate of fear to encourage obedience. Removal of political opposition, only one party or ideology is allowed to exist, rigged elections. Use of a scapegoat – blaming one group for society’s problems.”
Dictators follow tested and predictable patterns. Vladimir Putin has checked all of these boxes. (See credits below).

It’s not enough to say “They’re crazy. Who knows what they’ll do?” If that’s the extent of our thinking about it, criminal behavior seems terrifyingly random (and doesn’t generally “ring true” for readers). But people who do strange, horrifying, and vicious things usually have what they think are good reasons. They are delusional reasons, based on distorted understandings of reality. But it has to make sense to them, or they wouldn’t do it. Writers who want to portray either criminals or dictators need to study up on the patterns, and how they make sense to those who fall into them.

In Fiction it Has to Make Sense

Stories live or die by the readers’ willing suspension of disbelief. If I want my readers to believe in sapient police dogs with the ability to talk, I’d better give them good, internally-consistent reasons to accept the idea. And if my stories are to resonate with readers, they need to offer something deeper than novelty.

We read stories and we write them, tell them, perform them, sing them to fill the age-old need to make sense of the world. Tales from ancient religious texts or stories ripped from today’s headlines, they all have that same goal. They all have been told to help us make sense of things.

Even when things don’t make sense, as in the case of Mr. Putin’s brutal, violent, counterproductive war, we resort to fiction. We tell ourselves stories about how it might make sense, if only we knew more. It has to make sense, you see, or it messes with us. So we use fiction to fix it.

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense." - Tom Clancy
An important distinction! (Thanks, Brainy Quote).


We have a lot of images to credit, in this post – and for once, not a single one is a montage that Jan made! (well, she did kind of over-achieve on that score last week). Some of the sources for illustrated quotes are longtime favorites, such as AZ Quotes (thanks for Mark Twain’s words and photo) or Brainy Quote (thanks for the quotes from George R. R. Martin and Tom Clancy!). We’ve also previously used images from Quotestats (quoting children’s author Frances Hardinge). But we’re new to ReadersHook (thanks for the quote from Criss Jami!)

A Quote With a Story Behind It

We’ve used imagery from Wise Famous Quotes before. Thanks go to them this time for the quote from Jack El-Hai! But a bit longer story than usual must accompany that one. Thinking “it has to make sense,” Jan was curious to know who “he” was, at the start of the quote. She eventually tracked down the entire passage from which it was taken. It comes from a book titled The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, about Hermann Göering and Dr. Douglas M. Kelley.

The “he” of the quote is a 19th-century criminologist named Cesare Lombroso. As author Jack El-Hai notes in the full passage, Lombroso was often very far from correct in many of his understandings. He embraced phrenology, the idea of the ”born criminal,” and distinguished between “natural women” and “criminal women” (prostitutes), for three “biggies.” But in this case he made an important linkage between psychology and criminal behavior.

The Three Non-Quote Images

The photo of Mr. Putin’s long, long table actually comes to us from the Russian-government-controlled Sputnik News Agency and one of their photographers named Alexei (or Aleksey) Nikolsky (so identified by D. Hunter Schwartz on Yello). We also thank The Wall Street Journal, which is where we acquired it.

The personification of the Evil Mad Scientist comes from Finnish cartoonist Paul Soderholm, AKA “gnurf,” via 123rf.

After a fruitless search for images from the Dictators’ Playbook series, Jan found an informative presentation on the patterns and Techniques of Dictators via Slide Player. Its author, Frieda Lilli Kohl, possibly is a history teacher/professor, but she doesn’t have an active online presence under that name beyond this presentation, as far as Jan could find. We thank her and all our sources!

Three scenic views of the stone buildings, water features, and native plantings of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Lady Bird and the Wildflowers

By G. S. Norwood

It’s March in Texas, and that means wildflowers — specifically bluebonnets. For the next two weeks, roadsides and fields will be covered with our beloved state flower, a hardy lupine that loves rocky soil and early spring sunshine.

Fields of bluebonnets cover the hills of the Texas Hill Country, often peppered with clumps of Indian Paintbrush. People take pictures of themselves, their sweethearts, their babies, and their pets in bluebonnet pastures. Senior citizens who take up painting as a post-retirement hobby love to paint bluebonnet-filled landscapes.

Why are there so many bluebonnets along Texas roadsides? We all credit Lady Bird Johnson and her advocacy of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. But should we? It’s Women’s History Month, so let’s take a closer look.

Two photos of bluebonnet meadows at sunset.
A beautiful Texas sunset provides just the right colors to complement a gorgeous bluebonnet vista. (See credits below).

Lady Bird Johnson

Claudia Alta Taylor was born in the tiny east Texas town of Karnack in 1912, and soon gained the nickname Lady Bird. In 1934 the quiet, diminutive Lady Bird married the very tall, very loud, very ambitious Lyndon Baines Johnson, and a new political power couple was born.

Johnson ruled the United States Senate years before he was named John F. Kennedy’s Vice President. When Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, Johnson was sworn in as President on the plane back to D. C. and Lady Bird became the First Lady of the land.

Elegant, glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy was a hard act to follow when it came to setting the style for the rest of the country, so Lady Bird didn’t bother. Instead, she turned her energy toward something no prior First Lady—including the outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt—had done. She went back to the House and Senate, where Lyndon had wielded so much power, and directly lobbied for the passage of legislation she cared deeply about.

Five black-and-white photos from LBJ’s term as president give a glimpse Lady Bird’s active involvement with government.
Clockwise from top left: The signing of the Highway Beautification Act. LBJ hands Lady Bird one of the signing pens. Lady Bird addresses a conference in May 1965 before the bill was passed. She and Lyndon work with staff on a project in the Oval Office. Lady Bird on the phone at home with Lyndon. (See credits below).

The Highway Beautification Act

As an only child, growing up in rural Texas, Lady Bird had come to love the natural beauty of her native state. On the campaign trail for her husband, she began to see civilization encroaching on that natural beauty in the form of junkyards, billboards, and other roadside eyesores. Prior legislation that set loose, industry-policed guidelines for highway development, was set to expire in 1965. Lady Bird led the campaign for a more complete and permanent solution.

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 pushed roadside development back 660 feet from the edge of the road on U.S. and Interstate highways. It mandated fences to hide junkyards and other ugly roadside businesses; set limits on the size and type of billboards allowed along highways; and urged the use of native plants at the highway’s edge. D. C. powerbrokers called it “Lady Bird’s Bill.” Once it passed, Lady Bird became a doggedly persistent advocate for wildflowers and native plants—along the highways, and anywhere else they could be grown in the name of beauty and utility.

Two photos illustrate examples of the visual clutter that used to line US highways and obstruct travelers’ ability to see anything else. Two more photos illustrate contemporary roadsides with wildflowers and more open vistas.
The contrast isn’t always this extreme, but it’s easy to see how profoundly “Lady Bird’s Bill” changed the view once it became law. (See credits below).

Lady Bird and the Wildflowers

The Texas Department of Transportation—TxDOT to those of us who know and love it—has been using wildflowers along roadsides for more than 100 years. In 1917, when the policy was to completely clear all roadsides as new roads were built, TxDOT officials noticed that wildflowers and other native plants were the first to reestablish themselves in the cleared areas. These plants helped stabilize the soil, reduce erosion, and provide habitat for wildlife. They also required less mowing and watering than other plants, reducing costs. In 1937, after TxDOT hired its first landscape architect, promoting wildflower growth along roadsides became department policy.

Today TxDOT nurtures more than 5,000 species of wildflowers and native grasses along Texas roadways. The department buys and sows 30,000 pounds of wildflower seeds every year. Roadside mowing is prohibited in areas where wildflowers grow, until after the flowers go to seed.

Perhaps Lady Bird’s love of roadside wildflowers grew out of her familiarity with the results of TxDOT’s policy. She certainly would have seen many Texas roads as she and Lyndon campaigned across the state. Maybe her love of bluebonnets spurred her to work so hard for the Highway Beautification Act. Wherever that initial seed came from, it continued to flower after Lady Bird and Lyndon left Washington and returned to Texas.

Two photos show the multiple species and colors of Texas wildflowers.
Texas wildflowers aren’t only about bluebonnets. TxDOT nurtures more than 5,000 species of wildflowers and native grasses along Texas roadways. (See credits below).

The Wildflower Center

Once back on native soil, Lady Bird teamed up with her friend, the actress Helen Hayes, to create the National Wildflower Research Center, headquartered in Austin. “The founding of the National Wildflower Research Center was my way of repaying some of the debt for the delight and sustenance Nature has given me all my life,” Lady Bird said.

While research was important, many people wanted to see wildflowers in garden settings, learn more about how to use them in their own landscape plans, and to simply have a place where they could enjoy a natural setting surrounded by native plants. The research center acquired more land and renamed itself in honor of its founder and greatest cheerleader.

Today, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center sits on 237 acres of land just outside Austin. Not only is it the official botanic garden of Texas. It has become part of the University of Texas-Austin, allowing the important research on creating sustainable ecosystems with native plants to continue. Open to the public, it allows tourists, garden enthusiasts, and scientists to happily wander the botanic gardens and snap up bluebonnet earrings, books on creating home gardens, and other souvenirs.

Three scenic views of the stone buildings, water features, and native plantings of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
The buildings and plantings of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center reflect and honor the local native Texas climate. (See credits below).

Just do it!

Has all of this made you hungry for a taste of the great outdoors? There are lots of ways you can enjoy Lady Bird’s beloved wildflowers. TxDOT has a wonderful online brochure with pictures of dozens of native Texas wildflowers you can scroll through. The Wildflower Center is open to the public, but you must purchase tickets in advance.

Better yet, here in Texas, there are many chapters of the Native Plant Society of Texas. Every spring and fall, during planting season, local chapters host native plant sales, so you can bring the wildflower beauty home to your own garden. Native plants aren’t just a Texas thing, though. Other states and nations have native plant advocates too. Find them online or go to your nearest garden center to see if they sell native plants.

Texas offers lots of bluebonnet trails that allow you to take a weekend drive through stunning landscape, and maybe take a few of those bluebonnet pictures yourself. Best of all, you can plant some natives in your garden for the birds and the bees. Enjoy the easy care of plants that evolved for your climate, annual rainfall, and critters. And thank Lady Bird Johnson for raising our awareness of the importance of cultivating native plants in our gardens and in our lives.

Pictures of two-lane roads that run past wildflowers that grow in a colorful carpet all the way up to the roads’ edge.
Bluebonnet trails carry cars full of people through flowery vistas. (See credits below).


Weirdness Manager/Art Director Jan S. Gephardt (who assembled and designed all of the montages)  didn’t think one photo would be enough for any of these illustrations, so we have lots of people to thank this week!

Wonderful Wildflowers

The gorgeous bluebonnet vistas come from Dallas Culture Map (the one where the sun shows) and American Legend Homes (cloudier sunset). Many thanks to both! The wildflower “porn” continues near the end of the post. In the montage of two, multi-species, multicolored meadows, one came from Pixels and Ellie Teramoto (bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush). Thanks for the the multi-species close-up to Southern Botanical.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center provided their logo. They’re also the ultimate source of the photo of their stone entry building. Jan found that via Tour Texas. She found the picture of the predominantly yellow plantings (also from the Center) via CBS Austin. Texas Highways provided the photo of the Center’s “Garden of Yes.” It’s designed for full-bodied fun by families with small children.

Finally, the bluebonnet trails photos come from Southlake Style (upper left) and 101 Highland Lakes and photographer Mark Stracke (lower right). The Comanche Chief News provided the photo in the background. Many thanks to all!

History in the Making

The photos for the “Lady Bird Politics” collection came from a variety of sources. The full-table photo of the signing of the Highway Beautification Act came from Scenic America. LBJ handing one of the signing pens to Lady Bird came from Texas Highways.

Jan was delighted to find the photo of Lady Bird addressing the White House Conference on Natural Beauty May 25, 1965, via FreightWaves. In the Oval Office photo by Yoichi Okamoto comes from the LBJ Library via Vanity Fair. It shows L-R: Juanita Roberts, Lady Bird, Lyndon, Charles Maguire, and Larry Temple. A New York Times review of Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight provided the White House photo of Lady Bird on the phone.

For the “Before the Highway Beautification Act” photos, we thank Scenic America for the photo of a sign-cluttered commercial strip in Texas. Thanks also to the Colorado Virtual Library for a scene from Missouri. That one looks hauntingly familiar to the Weird Sisters. The somewhat idealized “After the Highway Beautification Act” photos came from two other sources. Stokely Outdoor provided the photo with mountains in the background. New Jersey Conservation gave us the rest stop with wildflowers.

“I raise up my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. . . . We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” – Malala Yousafzai

The First!

By Jan S. Gephardt

I’ve lived long enough to realize that, in this century, “the first” is always bittersweet.

Certainly, “The First Ever!” is exciting. There’s a sense of breakthrough, a sense of entering a new frontier, a new future in which the possibilities expanded. I remember The First American Woman in Space (Sally Ride). The First Woman Supreme Court Justice (Sandra Day O’Connor). The First Black President of the United States (Barack Obama).

I was one of the three million more people who cast our votes for The First Woman President of the United States. (Instead of the authoritarian loser con-man the Electoral College gave us). But these are all “firsts” that I, personally, in my lifetime remember. What went wrong with all the hundreds and thousands of years before that?

The Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies at an earlier confirmation hearing.
Ketanji Brown Jackson, nominee to be U.S. Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Senate Office Building on April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. The committee is holding the hearing on pending judicial nominations. (Photo by Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

How Many Lost Opportunities?

In the flush of triumph over a brand-new “The First!” there are always a few inconvenient people. These folks fail to bask in the joy of the moment or celebrate an exhilarating milestone. Instead, they scowl and ask irritably, “What the hell took us so long?”

I have become one of those people.

I am delighted to greet President Biden’s nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court with applause. From what I’ve been able to learn about her, she’s perfect for the job. Especially when compared with certain recent previous nominees (currently serving), she’s vastly overqualified.

But nobody’s going to convince me she’s The-First-Ever-In-All-Of-History Black woman with the wisdom, discernment, and gravitas to be a Supreme Court Justice. How many others have there been in history, who – if given the chance, the education, and the opportunity – could have served as well or better than the ones we’ve had?

"So now the perception is, yes, women are here to stay. And when I'm sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]? And I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that." - Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Nine female justices definitely would be an interesting reversal. (AZ Quotes).

232 Years. 120 Justices, 115 of Them Male and 117 White

A person would have to suffer from a titanic case of bigotry and misogyny to look at that header and not see prejudice. How, in all those 232 years, could mostly only white men be suitable – if not for a society weighted down and drowning in racial and gender bias?

I remember being exhilarated by Hillary Clinton’s so-called “cookie gaffe” in 1992, when she was on the campaign trail with Bill. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life,” she said. Perhaps she did offend some stay-at-home moms (defensive, much?). As for me, I wanted to stand up and cheer.

Not because I have anything in particular against teas, cookies, or stay-at-home moms. In 1985 I became a stay-at-home mom, and I was one when she said that in ‘92. No, it was because back then there were a lot of people who made no bones about wanting women to “stay in their proper place” (read that: at home, with no public role, ever). Most of the folks who exerted that pressure were white men. Quite possibly, that’s because most of the people who got to have a say about things in those days (has it really changed that much?) were white men. But it’s certain that they preferred it that way.

“The Constitution they wrote was designed to protect the rights of white, male citizens. As there were no Black Founding Fathers, there were no founding mothers – a great pity, on both counts. It is not too late to complete the work they left undone. Today, here, we should start to do so.” – Shirley Chisholm
The work she wanted to start “today” was creating the Equal Rights Amendment. It still hasn’t been ratified today. (IZ Quotes).

Lots of Oppression to Spread Around

During Women’s History Month, we often get a double-dose of “remember The First!” stories. They’re often couched as a courageous fight for equal rights, and they certainly were. If you doubt that, contemplate the life and struggles of Alice Paul, for just one example.

The stories of Women’s History Month, like the stories of just-ended Black History Month, are stories about struggles in the face of powerful oppression. This oppression has come from established societal norms and from laws. It has often been enforced with great brutality, against persons made helpless and defenseless by all the combined powers in the world around them.

But, especially in the case of women, the oppression often hasn’t been exerted by strangers or conquering foreigners. No, this pervasive oppression all too frequently has come from our own family members and our own intimate partners. The people with whom we’ve lived most closely and love dearly. They (and we, embedded in cultural norms) often haven’t even recognized it as oppression.

Perhaps our oppressors saw it as “protection.” Maybe they saw it as “sheltering.” They may even have seen it as “nurturing.” But “It’s for your own good” is the deepest cut of all, when you’re being held back, held down, and kept from achieving your full potential.

Some screen-captured results from Google searches for “the first woman . . .” and “the first Black . . .”
Here’s what “the Google test” turned up for these searches. (See credits below).

Try the Google Test

While I was preparing this post, I tried “the Google test.” That’s where I type in the beginning of a phrase and see what the algorithm fills in. It offers a glimpse of some commonly-searched-for topics, including things trending lately. Which is probably why, when I typed in “The first Latinx . . .” so many answers came back about the Oscars. I’ll admit I was kind of astonished to find that my search for “The first Black . . .” turned up zero references to female Supreme Court nominees, although we did get Thurgood Marshall in there.

My beloved United States has come up with a lot of forms of oppression in its history. I shouldn’t be shocked. But I always am a bit more saddened, when I remember yet another category-label variation of “human” that my fellow countrypersons have found it agreeable to oppress.

Some screen-captured results from Google searches for first Latinx, Native American, Asian-American, and LGBTQIA+ people.
More “Google tests” and more results. (See credits below).

The First of Any Distinguished Category

I hope that by now I’ve clarified what I mean when I say that, in this century, “the first” is always bittersweet. Whenever there’s a “The First!” of any distinguished category, that means there has been a whole world of hurt, degradation, and missed opportunities in the past. Oppression of some kind has deprived us of untold brilliant individuals until this first one now.

They could have improved our lives, expanded our minds, and brought their own unique power and possibility into the larger world. But oppression strangled their voices. It smothered their options, and murdered their visions. Oppression, like war, is a destroyer. But while war is flashier and louder, oppression is more pervasive. Like a miasma, it spreads everywhere and relentlessly kills the light.

When we live to see a “The First!” we do see a moment of hope, but it perhaps shines brighter because it shines out against a deep history of darkness, evil, and oppression. Every triumphant “The First!” is a marker that says, “oppression lingers here.” It’s bittersweet because it took so long and cost so much. And because we know that it’s not a “streak” yet. It might prove to be a solitary exception that the powers of oppression could turn into a token and use against further progress.

But we’ll take it, all the same. Because every “The First!” story is far, far better than the all-too-great multitude of “Never Yet in This World” laments.

“I raise up my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. . . . We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” – Malala Yousafzai
Misogyny is very far from only being isolated to the United States. Here, at least educating girls isn’t controversial! (See credits below).


Many thanks to Ohio Capital Journal, photographer Tom Williams-Pool and Getty Images, for the photo of the Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson at a previous confirmation hearing. We’re grateful to AZ Quotes for the quote-image from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and to IZ Quotes, for the quote from Shirley Chisholm.

We also must appreciate Google’s search engine for all the screen-captured search results. Jan S. Gephardt assembled and designed the montages. Finally, the quote from Malala Yousafzai comes courtesy of MIC Network, via Artdog Adventures. It was the “Artdog Quote of the Week” on March 5, 2018. Many thanks to all!

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