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Peg Herring on Metaphors

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 8, 2011


First, a thank you to Nancy for hosting a day of Peg’s Blog Crawl. Yesterday’s post was at

Metaphors and Other Figurative Language

A metaphor is a beautiful thing.

Well, it can be.             pegherring7B

It also can be inappropriate or stretched to the point of breaking into really ugly pieces. In the quest for beautiful language, authors sometime twist their own words too far. Even Shakespeare has been taken to task for mixing metaphors, as he does in Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To take arms against a sea of troubles…” Fighting water? Pretty tough.

Think song lyrics. There are some beautiful metaphors and similes there, Bruce Springsteen’s line “like a freight train runnin’ through the middle of my head” (“I’m on Fire”)evokes a strong image, and Cheryl Crow’s “Every Day Is a Winging Road” sustains the metaphor throughout.

On the other hand, some songs’ attempt at figures of speech are downright hilarious. Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs cites some good examples, like George Michael’s “guilty feet have got no rhythm” or Neil Diamond’s “And no one heard at all, not even the chair”. A line in “All Shook Up” demonstrates that some metaphors should be taken only to a surface level. “Her lips are like a volcano that’s hot” is okay if one doesn’t think too deeply about spewing volcanoes. Lines in love songs sometimes sound all right if the affection is returned but otherwise sound stalker-ish: “Never gonna let you go” repeats and repeats in love songs. Worse yet, the Beatles’ line, “I’d rather see you dead Little Girl/Than see you with another man.” Hyperbole, maybe, but harsh!

Like songwriters, novel writers should match their figurative language to their genre and the situation. It won’t do for a protagonist to notice the “globe of light that shimmers above” as the serial killer chases her through the alleys. Personality enters into it, especially in first-person narratives. It’s hard to think of Kinsey Millhone waxing enthusiastic about a countryside vista, or Jack Reacher comparing a woman’s eyes to precious jewels. The authors who created these characters have a firm grasp of figurative language, to be sure. They know when it works and when it doesn’t. And that’s the key to excellent writing…to use a tired but useful metaphor.

The Poser: Name three books/series with modern-day “out west” law officers as protagonists.

The Prizes-Weekly prizes (your choice of THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY in e- or print format) drawn from the names of those who comment on the blogs as we go. Comment once/day, but the first commenter each day gets entered twice in Saturday’s drawing!

The Pathway: The next entry, “Names Into Words” and the answers/comments to the Poser will be up on tomorrow at


The Pitch: THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY, First in The  Dead Detective Mysteries, paranormal mystery. Tori Van Camp wakes in a stateroom on a cruise ship with no memory of booking a cruise, but she does have a vivid recollection of being shot in the chest. Determined to find out what happened and why, Tori enlists the help of an odd detective named Seamus. Together they embark on an investigation like nothing she’s ever experienced. Death is all around her, and unless they act quickly, two people she cares about are prime candidates for murder. Read more about this book and the author at or buy the book at

The Perpetrator: Peg Herring writes historical and contemporary mysteries. She loves everything about publishing, even editing (most days). Peg’s historical series, The Simon and Elizabeth Mysteries, debuted in 2010 to wonderful reviews. The second in the series will be available in November from Five Star.


7 Responses to “Peg Herring on Metaphors”

  1. Your book sounds cool. I love stories on cruise ships. As for metaphors and similes, writers should remember to stay in their character’s head. For example, my hairstylist sleuth uses metaphors that relate to her profession, i.e. as limp as a damp strand of hair.

  2. Interesting post. You cite some head-bobbing-oh-yeah-she’s-right examples. They made me pause and think for a minute. Gee, have I been doing that? Much success!

  3. Melissa Bradley said

    Great post. So many times I see examples of bad metaphors in songs and ones that just don’t fit a character. I’ve critiqued work where an author uses something that sounds like a man when writing a female character and vice versa.

  4. M. E. Kemp said

    I’d like to hear a little more about Peg’s historical novels, as that’s what I write. I’m always looking for new series to read. (New to me, that is.) Marilyn aka: M. E. Kemp

  5. Hopefully Peg will get back here soon to asnwer your comments. Have you ever had a metaphor stop you short? I think Peg touched upon this. Sometimes a bad comparison will throw you out of the story. On the other hand, sometimes I find myself in awe of a writer’s originality.

  6. Like several commenters mention, a bad figure of speech takes me out of a story. But as Nancy said, a great one makes me stop and think, “How does he/she do that?” Laura Lippman is a good example.

    M.E.–thanks for asking about the Simon & Elizabeth mysteries. The second one, POISON, YOUR GRACE, is coming out from Five Star in November, and I should be working on #3 instead of playing on the Net!

  7. P.J. Coldren said

    Out West law officers:

    Stephen Havill’s series
    J A Jance’s sheriff series, not the Beaumont
    Joan Hess – Maggody series
    Lee Martin – Deb Ralston series
    The Thurlos – Ellah Clah

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