Very superstitious, writing's on the wall

You know not to walk under ladders, pass the path of a black cat, or go around breaking mirrors.

I went under this tree house ladder yesterday to get a soccer ball. Cross your fingers that I'll be ok! But did you know not to put a loaf of bread upside down? Bad luck! (Or so I’ve heard all my life from my mother. I haven’t had the courage to find out if it’s true.)

We all have superstitions or myths that we honor, regardless of logic or true belief. (Did you just sneeze? God bless you.) As writer’s, we even perpetuate them. Gloria Naylor (“Mama Day”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“The Corn Maiden”) use superstition beyond just fleshing out a character to establishing a culture.

In the middle-grade ms I just sent to my agent, I tried to make a character identifiable by showcasing her belief in superstitions.

Here’s an excerpt:

Grandma, I should let you know, isn’t like other grandmas. She doesn’t bake cookies; she rips open Oreos and only eats the fluff. Most of the time when I’m at her dark city apartment, she’s on her little metal balcony (which Mom calls a fire escape) smoking long skinny cigarettes. She doesn’t wear little pantsuits and aprons like most grandmas. Nope, my grandma wears long, shapeless tied-died dresses that skim the top of her thick leathery feet. She only wears flip-flops, even in the middle of winter. Her kinky curly hair is about thirty different shades of red, orange, gray and black. Her eyebrows are thicker than wooly caterpillars and her small green eyes are smudges behind her thick plastic glasses. My grandma doesn’t give me hugs; she reads my palm and tells me not to walk under ladders.

The only time Grandma ever yelled at me was when I put a loaf of bread away upside down (“Bad luck! Bad luck!”). And I had the best day of my life at Grandma’s when we spent all day throwing mugs, vases and cups against her brick fireplace so she could make a mosaic later.


This, I hope, shows that Grandma isn’t going to act the way the typical grandparent would be expected to during upcoming scenes.

The truth is, regardless of whether you hold stock in them, superstitions  and myth are great tools for writers. Read early on in a book that a character is scared of the dark and be sure that guy’s heading down a pitch black hallway soon.

I just finished reading “Where the Red Fern Grows” to my daughter. (We’re a sucker for sad stories.) When Billy hears a screech owl the night before the big hunting competition, he braces himself for a second hoot. Hearing two owls hoot in the same night is bad luck, he tells us readers. Sure enough, when I read that second hoot, my girl shuddered beside me. Something bad was going to happen.

After finishing the last chapter *spoiler alert,*my girl asked me if the legend was true. Are red ferns planted by angels?

I shrugged. “Maybe. Some people probably believe in it.” From the way she nodded, I have a feeling she’s among the believers.

Have you noticed an author use superstition or myth as a tool in her writing?

Which superstitions do you honor?