Monthly Archives: February 2015


Black Cat by PDPics on Pixabay

It’s Friday the thirteenth, the first of three such Fridays we’ll be treated to this year, and people the world over are walking backwards under ladders, smashing mirrors, and running circles around black cats. Or, well, probably not. But seriously - if you happen across a black cat today, give it a pet and a treat, the poor things have had it rough.

What a society regards as lucky, or unlucky, can say a lot about what they value. Crafting superstitions that tie into our made-up cultures’ history, geography, and folklore can add a lived-in sense that enhances immersion and deepens not only our faux worlds, but the characters that inhabit them.

Don’t just rely on superstitions that are familiar to you. Examine the culture you’ve created and look for opportunities to exploit magical thinking - causal relationships that cannot be justified logically.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

What are the notable geological features near your culture’s place of origin? What’s the soil like? If your people live in an area with, say, red clay - and they use that to make bricks to build their homes with - then red could be a lucky color, a symbol of home. If they live alongside a great mountain, one which directs freshwater streams their way, then height could be a symbol of prosperity, purity, or even enlightenment. If they live on a karst landscape, where sinkholes are common, going down into the earth could be considered bad luck - and basements taboo.

Flora & Fauna
Are there any notable plants near your people? How about animals? A dark and mysterious wood is rich ground for superstition, and apex predators are always carrying off young children. Maybe there’s a flower in the area that only blooms on a special night, and to see it blossom is to receive a generation of good luck - or bad. Anything that preys on the local foodstuff, be it predators harassing sheep or insect swarms destroying crops, is fair game for superstition building.

There’s a thin line between superstition and religion, but it’s safe to say that any religious practice that is not fully accepted by your culture’s primary religious doctrine can fall on the side of superstition. You could easily build conflict and tension into your world by having one culture dismiss another’s genuinely believed religion as mere superstition.

Martyrs & Heroes
The victorious dead are rife ground for superstition building. Perhaps a martyr of your culture lay on a bed of coals all night to suffer for their cause, and as such it is bad luck to let your fire go out at night. Or perhaps a glorious hero took thirty-seven arrows to the chest, and still lead a victorious charge against your culture’s old enemy, making the number thirty-seven sacred. Maybe another hero had their left hand cut off as an unfair punishment, and as such left-handed people are considered blessed with whatever that hero’s shining quality was.

We humans take what we call things quite seriously. Is it lucky in your culture to name a child for positive qualities - or is it considered hubris, and therefore potentially disastrous? Is a named sword more likely to to serve its master well? Is it unlucky to call the Queen by her name? Why? How about pets, would only a weirdo name their hunting hound? Are estates given names that aren’t that of their owners? How about ships - and if so, why? What’s the methodology behind naming these things?

Behavioral Reinforcement
This subject is a bit stickier, but still worth considering. The psychologist BF Skinner once observed pigeons performing rituals to gain food. If, for example, they tilted their head to left just before the food chute opened, then they’d do it again and again, hoping the antecedent action would cause the same reaction as last time. This is a highly simplified version of the study (which has been challenged) but the point is that, if at one point in your culture’s past/folklore a man waved a stick to the north winds in a certain pattern just before the rains came, then your people might keep on doing the same thing to summon the rains when they need them.

Your culture, whether you know it or not, has superstitions. Have fun finding them and bringing them to life.


Like many creative types, I am a compulsive project starter. This used to also mean that I was a compulsive project abandoner - leaving a trail of half-starts around my office and hard drive.  While letting some projects fall by the wayside is reasonable - no one, and I mean no one, wants to see me attempt to knit - others are a little closer to our hearts (or pocketbooks) and must be completed, no matter how many cute pictures of kitties are waiting to be discovered on the internet.

This is where to-do lists come in handy. Having a list of all the things that you really want or have to do lays out in clear terms your task load, and keeps you from forgetting. Because hey, let’s be honest, we’ve all discovered half-idealized projects that we totally forgot we had even started. Or is that just me?

The inherent problem with to-do lists is that they are often anemic, lacking in any clear direction. Say your two primary goals for the year are to finish that novel you’ve always dreamed of writing, and get the house in clean order once and for all. For many people, this list is going to look disconcertingly similar to a New Year’s Resolution:

  • Write that novel
  • Clean up the house

This is usually written on a notepad that meanders its way into the junk drawer to languish amongst the dried-up pens and random bits of hardware you’ve hung onto because some day you just might need those three tiny dowels leftover from your Ikea dresser. Maybe you got fancy and put it in an app like Evernote, or you scrawled it on the “notes” page that kicks off most pen-and-paper day planners. You know, that page that gets skipped when you flip to whatever week you’re actually working on. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done with it, that list is doing nothing for you.

You know you want to clean the house. You know you want to write a book. What you need is a place to begin, a bedrock from which to build your house-cleaning and story-spinning aspirations upon. Ask yourself: what comes first?


Break It Up

Using our two worthy examples, let’s spin this out. Maybe you’re super new to writing fiction. You read a lot, and have a lot of ideas, but the idea of pulling up a blank page and plunking down “Chapter 1” is daunting. So your first step might be to research writing. Pick up a book or two about plotting, or world building, or whatever you feel your weak point is, and give yourself some time to get comfortable with the concept. Then consider your topic, and how you might need to be more informed on said topic. If you’re writing a fictional narrative about a woman in the Crusades, you might want to do some historical research to give it that sweet, sweet sense of verisimilitude.

To clean the house, maybe you decide the first thing you need to do is declutter, but the idea of doing the whole house at once is daunting.

The golden rule of actionable tasks is this: If a single task ever feels overwhelming, break it up.

  • Write that novel
    • Research
      • Book about plot
      • Article about the Crusades
      • etc
  • Clean up the house
    • Declutter
      • Bedroom
      • Living room
      • etc

What you’ve got there is the first hint of actionable tasks - things you can do in one chunk and cross off. Crossing things off is oh-so-satisfying.

As you’re breaking up your tasks, watch out for places where swapping the order might be more beneficial. Say, for example, that in the process of cleaning your house you want to install some new shelves and have a garage sale. Why not have the garage sale first, to help fund the purchase of those shelves? Do you want to have the carpets cleaned before or after you replace some furniture? That kinda’ thing.


Deadlines Are Friends

Now that you’ve got your projects broken down into bite-sized, actionable tasks, it’s time to get real. Just how long is it going to take you to do all of this, anyway? This metric is a personal one, depending on your schedule and what you reasonably think you can accomplish in the amount of time you have to set aside. When you’re first starting out, you’re probably going to find your estimates were wrong. This is okay - adjust as you go, and understand that you expected your estimates to change from the very beginning. Be generous with yourself. Give yourself more time than you think you need. Getting ahead can be invigorating - falling behind can make you stall all progress and quit.

And yes, you have to set deadlines. Without a schedule in place, your nicely formatted list has become just as forgettable as the resolution rehash you might have started with. Or worse, you’ll never advance past step one. Don’t fall into the trap of doing the same task over and over again and pretending that you’re making progress. Unless you’re eventually checking off subtask headers, you’re stuck.

If you’re unsure where to begin with setting deadlines, I recommend:

The Block of Time Method

This works best when you know you’ll have a set chunk of time, usually every day, that you can dedicate to one task. For example, if you have an hour before bed to read every night, then you know that a book that takes you approximately four hours to read is going to take you four days. This can also work for larger chunks on fewer days. Make sure to give yourself a little buffer when you’re starting out, and watch out for holidays or other dates that might trip you up. So now you’re subtasks look like this:

  • Write that novel
    • Research
      • Book about plot [Start Monday the 1st, finish by Friday the 5th]
      • Article about the Crusades [Start Saturday the 6th, finish by Sunday the 7th]
      • etc.

When planning your goals, be careful not to overwhelm yourself, but also make sure you’re building momentum. Do not let a week pass by wherein you do nothing to progress on your list. Put the list somewhere you will see it - preferably every day. Google calendar is a good place to start, or even just a notebook next to your workstation that is always opened to the appropriate page. I recommend the app Todoist if you’re looking for dedicated software.


Treat Yo’ Self

If you’re having trouble with motivation, the ole’ carrot on the end of the stick method is still a winner. Except, you know, you actually get to eat the carrot eventually. Or the hot chocolate, or the fancy tea, or take a long bath. Whatever tempts you forward, and doesn’t distract from your overall plan, is a good treat.

A good treat is an ice cream cone, a bad treat is taking a break from your research for a week. Momentum is golden. And remember: you’re doing this for you.