Category Archives: Stories

Sleep with Me Podcast: The Best Free App for Insomnia Relief

We’ve all experienced insomnia at some time in our lives. Whether caused by excitement over good life events or by anxiety over bad ones, this sleep disorder can hit children, teens, adults, and the elderly. Our racing thoughts about an impending wedding (or divorce), vacation, cross-country move, new job (or the loss of one), or approaching exams can keep us awake long after we’ve gone to bed or keep us from falling back asleep after we wake in the night. Many life events can trigger short-term or “acute” insomnia, as can common illnesses or other disorders and diseases. Colds and sinus infections can cause insomnia; migraine, asthma, arthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and Parkinson’s are all known to cause short bouts or extended periods of sleeplessness. Both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications can bring on this sleep disorder, though not necessarily for everyone: antihistamines, decongestants, anti-smoking aids, SSRIs for depression, and drugs to treat or control ADHD have all been known to trigger insomnia. Herbal remedies such as St. John’s Wort or ginseng can, for some users, interrupt or prevent sleep.

In both men and women, trauma, whether physical or emotional, can have lifetime negative health effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and insomnia, while childhood trauma, including divorce or sexual abuse, contribute to insomnia in childhood and adulthood. Even the blue light in our computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and flat-screen televisions has been found to cause insomnia when the devices are used too close to bedtime (or in the middle of the night upon awakening) because, though any light can suppress the hormone melatonin, involved in circadian rhythms of waking and sleeping, blue light suppresses melatonin more powerfully.

Apparently, the brain has its own, mutually exclusive, wake and sleep cycles: when one cycle is “on,” the other is “off.” Researchers are trying to determine whether insomnia may be due to the brain itself not being able to “stop being awake.” Since both the quantity and quality of sleep affects our health, and since insomnia can lead to “decreased quality of life, increased rates of depression, and even increased risk of heart disease,” insomnia, especially when it becomes chronic, should not be dismissed. Chronic insomnia, medically defined as an inability to fall or stay asleep for at least three nights a week for three months or longer, is not just extremely unpleasant: it’s dangerous to our mental and physical well-being.

As a survivor of childhood trauma, including sexual abuse and rape, I’ve suffered from insomnia from the time I was three years old. The insomnia worsened a few years ago, however, when I was taken off a class of drugs I’d been taking for complex PTSD and panic disorder: benzodiazepines, which had been deemed potentially dangerous for anyone over age 50. While withdrawing from the medication, I was literally not sleeping at all, day or night. In the past, prescription sleeping pills had worsened my insomnia, and my usual herbal sleep aid, valerian, wasn’t helping, even when I doubled and then tripled the dose. Desperate and fearing for my mental and physical health, I turned to the Internet, where, to my absolute astonishment, I found relief for my insomnia, the strangest relief I ever could have imagined: Drew Ackerman’s Sleep with Me Podcast.

Drew Ackerman, a life-time insomniac, has dedicated himself to helping fellow insomniacs fall asleep by telling “ingeniously boring bedtime stories,” causing plenty of adults, kids, and pets to fall asleep. Of course, that means you may not ever hear an entire story, but because Drew is a writer, and a good one, he makes each episode, as disjointed and haywire as it might seem, feel complete. That way, if you really can’t fall asleep some night, as happens to me during a migraine, for instance, Drew is there “to keep you company in the deep, dark night,” as he often assures you in the episode introductions.

Drew Ackerman, creator of Sleep with Me Podcast. Photo © Natalie Jennings.

Each Sleep with Me Podcast episode begins with an introduction, where Drew explains that you don’t really have to listen to him and that it’s perfectly all right if you fall asleep while he’s talking, and then he usually wanders off onto some tangent or other topic, just so you begin to wonder what he’s talking about… if you’re still awake. After 7-15 minutes of an introduction that is often as entertaining as the story which follows, Drew, performing as “Scooter,” tells a bedtime story, which lasts about 45 minutes, making each podcast episode approximately an hour long. “Your goal is not to get your listeners to stay with you to the finish,” Drew told The New York Times: “[Your goal] is to lose them [to sleep] along the way.” It’s this combination of slow, lulling delivery, seemingly pointless introductions, and rambling stories that make Sleep with Me Podcast such a success with its listeners, who download episodes about 3 million times each month.

Drew Ackerman. Photo © Chris Duffey

Most of the Sleep with Me Podcast episodes feature original stories written or improvised by Drew. To stay creatively motivated, Drew writes and tells various types of stories, some of which are developed into multi-episode series, like After the Glass Slipper, about Cinderella’s stepmother Agatha after Cinderella’s marriage to Prince Charming; Big Farm in the Sky PI, about a private investigator, Simon, working to solve mysteries in the afterlife; and SuperDull, about a group of superheroes sitting around waiting for their chance to save the earth whenever its greatest hour of need arrives.* (Links to the episodes mentioned here appear at the end of the article, for your reading ease.) Though some of the original series are comprised of multiple episodes, each episode of any series is independent: you don’t have to know any of the previous sections of a story to understand — and be put to sleep — by any current episode. And really, since the point of this wildly popular podcast is to make you fall asleep, it probably helps if you don’t know what happened to any of the characters in previous episodes.

Some episodes of “the podcast that puts you to sleep” are stand-alone stories, improvised stories based the social media trends, or re-caps of movies or television shows. During an episode of Sleep with Me Podcast, Drew has been known to open games and try to figure out how to play them without reading the instructions,* give you the entire chronicle of seltzer / sparkling water,* and tell you all about the history, the rides, and the food of the New York State Fair.*

In his Real Time Recipes,* which are among my favorites, Drew metaphorically walks you through grocery-shopping for all the items necessary to make the meal, and then talks you through preparing the meal. In his on-location* episodes, Drew talks while he’s actually walking around some public place (he has permission to record there). Initially, when I listened to these, the ambient sounds, though faint, prevented me from sleeping. Then I noticed I was waking up after having been asleep for a few hours despite any faint ambient noise. Now I love the on-location episodes, if only because Drew doesn’t perform these as Scooter: he simply tells us what’s going on as he roams around. Guided Meditations* are some of the most sleep-inducing episodes, if only because Drew slows his sleepy delivery even more than usual, and these are among the most popular episodes.

Photo © Drew Ackerman

Drew sometimes reveals some personal details about his life that were painful or especially exciting for him, and these episodes are some of the most endearing. You might think that listening to someone talk about his personal life and some of its painful events would keep you awake, but, because Drew’s delivery makes you fall asleep, I’ve often had to listen to these episodes several times to hear the personal information (and Drew sometimes hides these tidbits in stories that don’t seem to be autobiographical.)* And in case the changing seasons or the holidays give you insomnia, Drew has plenty of Halloween* and Christmas* episodes, too.

Some of the Drew’s bedtime stories are suitable-for-all-ages recaps of television dramas*. Though the shows themselves might deal with adult topics or include violent scenes, Drew soothes them all into all-age-appropriate bedtime tales. Of all the television series that have been recapped on Sleep with Me, I have only seen Game of Thrones, though I’ve happily been “bored” to sweet dreams by all of Drew’s recap-podcasts, including any episode of Game of Thrones / Game of Drones,* Breaking Bad, Star Trek: The Next Generation,* and Dr. Who.*

Drew has many stellar stand-alone episodes* that make me sleep better than any prescription or natural sleep aid ever did. I wish I could tell you what happened to the residents of the Lost Village when they discovered that the geography around their village had changed overnight,* or how to assemble a wall-bed,* but I’ve never managed to stay awake through either episode. And Sleep with Me Podcast retrospectives* cover the content of hundreds of previous episodes, if Drew can remember what they were about.

The DreamQuilt, from SWM listeners, which inspired Drew’s story, “The Bear with a Comet on His Belly.” Photo © Drew Ackerman

One of my absolute favorite stories is the three-part The Bear with the Comet on His Belly* which was inspired by Drew’s listeners thanking him for “curing” their chronic insomnia by making him a quilt featuring images from his original stories: the DreamQuilt, Drew calls it.

Even when a Sleep with Me story is fascinating, I can’t stay awake long enough to hear it all, and that’s one of Drew’s gifts: writing engaging stories and delivering them with a “droning” — in the best sense of the word — delivery by “Scooter” so you drift off into dreams. The first time I ever listened to a Sleep with Me Podcast episode, I didn’t even know there was a story at the end. While listening to the introduction, I found myself thinking, “How on earth am I supposed to fall asleep to something that is so interesting?” When I awoke, hours later, and realized that I had, in fact, fallen asleep, I played the episode again. I fell asleep even more quickly the second time. The next night, I put the episode on and also queued it to play a second time — and I slept longer before awaking in the night. I began queueing up 7-10 episodes at a time, so they’d play all night long. Since I live in an isolated area where the Wi-Fi connection is unreliable at best, the podcast shuts off each time my Internet connection goes down, waking me up. Now, I’ve downloaded many of my favorite episodes, rather than streaming them, so that I can queue them up to play all night long without interruption.

Sleep with Me Podcast currently has over 755 episodes, all free, partly because of advertising (only in the first minutes of each episode) but mostly because of the financial support of the show’s patrons, whom Drew calls “rebels with a cause” because we pay for a free show so that others won’t have to. I’ve been one of those “rebel” patrons for five years now, ever since I realized that, listening to SWM all night long, I was sleeping better than I ever had in my life. Patrons get ad-free versions of the shows.

You can listen to any of the Sleep with Me Podcast episodes on the SWM website or subscribe for your device: Apple Podcasts, GooglePodcasts, RadioPublic (listen on site or send to iOS or Android devices), and Spotify. You can also listen to all the Sleep with Me Podcast episodes on its YouTube Channel. (Note: Because of the limitations of podcast apps, you may not be able to scroll back far enough to find some of the earlier episodes on your phone or tablet.

You can reach Drew — aka Scooter — on Twitter, where he is very responsive, and you can reach his equally responsive account managers, all volunteers, on Facebook.

Sweet dreams, my Lovelies.

Episodes mentioned in this article
(please note that this is not an exhaustive list of all 750+ episodes)

*Multi-episode series
• After the Glass Slipper: A Lesson in Opportunity to be like Cinderella s2e4
• Big Farm in the Sky PI: The Dog That Chased the Moon 553
• SuperDull: The Siren and the Professor 508

*Unboxing
• Fairytale Gloom Game Unboxing655
• Tokaido Unboxing 747

*Seltzer / Sparkling Water History
• Mars, Moranis, Curry Seltzer: Pitching Roman 689

*New York State Fair
• As Fair as a State Fair 692
• Fun Food and Fun Houses at the Great New York State Fair 695

*Real Time Recipes
• Under Pressure [Corned Beef] 652
• Salad 537
• Stuffing and Mashed Potatoes 474

*On-Location
• Kayak Cruze 588
• Lake Ontario: Can I Call You Teri 570
• Dusk featuring Slurp and DJ Echo Bass 540
• Faux Cousteau Visits Sea Life Orlando 522
Quasi-On-Location
(recorded shortly after visits, not during them)
• On Summer’s Horseback 594
• La Brea Tar Pits (534

*Guided Meditations
• Comforting Chair 576
• Sand’s Day at the Beach 564
• Bird Bath 395

*Autobiographical
• Things I Might Have Wrote as a Kid 591
• My Life with HBO 567
• Spruce Museum (introduction) 525
• Video Games and Me 501

*Christmas
• Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers 473
• The Christmas Tree that Took a Walk 468

*Halloween
• Costume Nostalgia 609
• Lulling Analysis of The Great Pumpkin 456

*Recaps

*Game of Thrones
• The Wolf and the Dragon” 584
• 7-Hour All Night Game of Thrones Season 7

*Star Trek: The Next Generation
• Elementary, Dear Data 557
• 10-Hour All Night All Night Star Trek: TNG Volumes 3 & 4

*Dr. Who
• Dickens and Dr. Who 625

*Stand-Alones
*Lost Village 442
*• Realtime Wall-Bed Assembly 433
*• Lulling Retrospective of the First 500 Shows 502

*The Bear with the Comet on His Belly
• Bear with a Comet on his Belly, Inspired by the Dreamquilt [Part 1] 414
• Sleeping Rude Gods [Part 2] 417
• The Local Borefriend [Finale] 418

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Filed under #CSA, chronic pain, health, Insomnia, Memoir, migraine, migraine self-care, migraines, Podcasts, Stories, Storytelling

Even More Free Scary Stories

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(15-21 October 2018)

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Filed under #31DaysOfHalloween, Books, Classics, E-books, Free Books, Free Scary Classics, Free Scary Stories Ebooks, Free Scary Stories in the Public Domain, Free Scary Stories on Kindle, Free Scary Stories Online, Free Stories for Halloween, Halloween, Stories

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Filed under Creative Writing, Stories, Storytelling, Writing, Writing & Revising

Watch a Movie to Become a Better Writer

Children watching Charlie Chaplin film, 1951 (from teara.govt.nz photograph:21963)

In case you’ve never visited my blog before, you may not realize what a big fan I am of movies. I love films almost as much as I do books. When I was young, the concept of premium movie channels didn’t even exist, and there were only three networks, with commercials, and with heavy editing of any films they did air. Sometimes, when my newly divorced mother was first dating, my siblings and I got dropped off at a local movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, where the theatre showed many different films all day long, not just the same one all day, so we got to see at least two or three movies without leaving our seats.

We didn’t even have color television for the first decade of my life, so books became more important to me than films if only because I had easier access to books. There was a library in the school, and the Bookmobile came around to our neighborhood once a week, enabling me to get as many books as I could read. Still, I watched as many films as I could.

When I first became a writer, I wrote poetry. I’d fallen in love with TS Eliot’s poems when I was 6, although I certainly didn’t understand them. I loved the music of his language, and I wanted to write words like that myself. Gradually, over the years of writing and publishing poems, my poems began to get longer and more complex. More of my poems became narratives, with distinct storylines. Some had multiple protagonists and different perspectives. Editors at journals where I submitted my work began to write notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” I thought the editors were just being obtuse. Eventually, though, I began to wonder if I should write fiction instead of poetry, if only because my poems were getting too long and complex for most poetry journals.

But how to write a novel? I got as many books as I could on novel writing technique, but they said things so simplistic that I wondered what pre-school class they’d been written for. Have a plot, have characters, make something happen. I knew all that from years of reading books, getting degrees in literature, and from teaching literature. But I was at a loss about how to move from writing poetry to writing fiction. Then, one of my favorite movies aired on Turner Classic Movies, without commercials — Gone with the Wind — and I wondered if I could learn to write fiction by watching a classic film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

I hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book at that point, but I was a huge fan of the film based on her book. I watched Gone with the Wind once again, but that time I tried to pay attention to what made the film a good story. In particular, I wondered how the film managed to tell its story – with the American Civil War and its Reconstruction period as its setting – without ever confusing its viewers. I first saw Gone with the Wind when I was 5 or 6, and though I’m certain I didn’t understand it all, I understood enough of the story to fall in love with the film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

As an adult, and as a writer who wanted to move from poetry to fiction, I watched Gone with the Wind over and over, paying special attention to the storytelling techniques, and I learned enough to feel confident enough afterward to write my first novel. All writers can learn good storytelling from great films, and camera angles and acting techniques can also teach something about writing fiction, but you have to know how to watch a film in order to become a better writer.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Holiday ©

The Plot
To learn good writing and storytelling techniques from a movie, re-watch a movie that you’ve seen several times. If you’ve never seen the movie or if you’ve only seen it once or twice, you’ll probably be paying attention to the plot only, which includes all the story’s conflict. Obviously, it’s imperative to have a strong plot in your story, whether you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, but there’s more to fiction than plot. All good writing has Urgency, which keeps the reader turning pages, but plot Urgency has solely to do with what happens in the story, and that means conflict.

Traditionally, conflict has been divided into four major categories, and you should be familiar with these if you’re writing fiction. For details, you should see my post on Urgency, especially conflict in plot. An author can have as many categories of conflict in fiction as he wishes, but the first time most of us read a book or watch a film, we are most interested in what happens so we are only reading or watching for plot. To learn fiction-writing technique from any book or a film, you should already know what happens in the plot, i.e., you should be intimately familiar with all the conflicts, so that you can concentrate on storytelling technique.

James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, 1955 ©

The Protagonist
Once you know the plot of the film, pay attention to the character who is the focus of film. Who is most often on camera? Who has the most lines? Who do all other characters in the story congregate around? That is the protagonist. Now imitate that technique in your own story & writing by making sure that you view the protagonist as if you were the camera. Make sure you focus on your protagonist consistently.

If the film has more than one protagonist, notice which is the major protagonist around whom the minor protagonists rotate. The minor protagonists are satellites or moons to the planet that is the major protagonist. Notice how the camera and all the other actors concentrate on the major protagonist all the time. That is how you want to tell your story: around the major protagonist. Use that technique when writing your own fiction. Keep your own camera focused on your protagonist so your readers should find it easy to follow your protagonist through the book.

Watch the film at least once without sound while paying attention to the protagonist and his relationship with the camera. Notice how the camera is directed toward and focused on the protagonist. Note camera focus on the protagonist in every scene: you want that kind of focus in your own story. No matter what’s happening in the film, notice where the camera is in relation to the protagonist. Even in action sequences, the camera often returns to the protagonist to show his reaction, however brief, to the events around him. Learn from that. Use that technique to improve your own writing.

Joan Fontaine and Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, 1940 ©

The Antagonist
All characters in fiction need to be fully developed, not just your protagonist. Watch the film once more, concentrating on every person or thing that causes conflict for the protagonist. This could include the protagonist’s own behavior, doubt, hesitation, etc. Anything that causes conflict with the protagonist becomes an antagonist in the story, and, obviously, there can be lots of antagonists. Watch the film at least once listing every single conflict that happens. Identify antagonist(s) that are the cause of each conflict. Group all the conflicts that go with each antagonist together. This helps you become hyper-conscious of conflict, which is important in good storytelling.

Just as there can be more than one protagonist in any story, there can be multiple antagonists, though one is usually dominant. After you have listed all the conflicts and all the various antagonists, determine which is the major antagonist. In Moby-Dick and Jaws, for example, the whale and the shark are the major antagonists respectively in each book, but the sea is also an important antagonist in both stories, as are fellow sailors. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the major antagonist, whom Harry encounters even before he is conscious of doing so, but Harry also has conflicts with family members, teachers, supernatural creatures, and himself throughout.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

The Dialogue
There’s more to writing effective dialogue than just the words characters say, and film can teach you what else to put in talking scenes. Take a few weeks or months off from watching the film because you need it to be fresh the next time you play it. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen while the film is playing. Instead, listen to it closely, and try to recall what the actors are doing when they say their lines. Don’t worry if you can’t actually remember what each and every character is doing while you’re listening to the film: instead, try to imagine what each actor is doing if you can’t recall his actions. When you are writing your own story, you will have to imagine what your characters are doing without having any actors to provide the action that accompanies the dialogue, so this is good practice.

Next, watch the film against without looking at the screen. This time, pay attention to the inflections (stress or accent on words or their syllables) and intonations (rise and fall of the voice in speech) of everything the actors say. You will not be able to imitate this in a written story because they are attributes of spoken language, but you should still become aware of the role that inflection and intonation play in speech. Listen also to the pauses and to the silences. Think about these things in reference to your own writing. You may have to re-arrange sentences or choose your words more carefully to imitate inflection or intonation. You may have to insert dialogue tags to mimic pauses, like this: “Are you trying to tell me,” she said when her husband remained silent, “that you’re seeing someone else?”

But whatever you do in writing dialogue,

Do. Not. Do. Something. Like. This. In. An. Attempt. To. Imitate. What. Actors. Are. Doing. In. A. Film.

DON’T DO THIS.

Don’t do this either.

AND DEFINITELY. DO. NOT. DO THIS.

Those are just examples of really bad writing.

Find more imaginative ways to imitate in writing how a character is speaking. Use silence and action as well as direct speech. You are not writing a screenplay. Even if you were, actors do not have every single movement and facial expression written out for them. They interpret. They ACT. But if you’re writing fiction, you need to supply this information to your readers. Don’t overdo it with bad writing or grotesquely incorrect punctuation.

You are not trying to slavishly imitate film by trying to write down every single thing the actors are doing with their voices: that would be impossible. You are trying to learn from the film’s storytelling and from the actors’ acting. You are learning what a visual art form does to tell a good story. You will have to learn how to translate those techniques into a different art form: a written art.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy, 1931 (Cagney added the grapefruit in the face) ©

The NonVerbals
After you’ve identified the major protagonist, any minor protagonists, all the antagonists, and all the conflicts, and you know the story well, it’s time to watch the film again, without sound, paying very close attention to the actors’ facial expressions and body language. You may have to do this several times, concentrating on different characters each time. This is where you get ideas for description and behavior in your story. Notice what the actors do with their hands, eyes, lips, mouths, eyebrows, feet, etc. whether they’re talking or not. (In the photo above, James Cagney improvised the grapefruit-in-the-face action during an argument with Mae Clarke’s character, so her intense frown and raised hands were honest surprise and outraged shock at his actions: they were not in the script.)

Note the actors’ bodies when they’re walking, sitting, standing. Become aware of how you determine what the actor is feeling without hearing what he’s saying. Use that knowledge to describe your own characters and reveal what they are feeling by showing what they are doing instead of always having them tell the readers (or other characters) how they feel.

Joan Crawford (in fur) in Mildred Pierce, 1945 ©

The Setting
After you’ve watched the film about a trillion times and think you’ve got absolutely everything you can get out of it, you have more to learn if you want to become a better writer. Watch the film again, without sound, and notice all the costumes, hairstyles, makeup, furniture, buildings, night, day, weather…

Setting is more than just a place: it is the time period of the story, the society, the government, the religious background, the environment, the weather, etc. Notice all of that in the film.

Look at the characters’ fingernails (something often overlooked, as when a poor sharecropper has finely manicured nails), the soles of their shoes, how their clothes move when the actors walk, fall, run, embrace. This may all affect what characters do, and you can learn character behavior and description from closely observing how the actors move in their costumes.

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Joseph (Buster) Keaton in The Bellboy, 1918 ©

Watch carefully and note every single time an actor interacts with something in his environment, whether he’s sitting on the edge of a desk, clutching a handkerchief, picking up a coffee cup, turning away from another actor, holding onto someone’s arm, or petting a cat. Look at how they move across carpet, bare floor, a sandy beach, around bodies lying on the ground, up a steep hill. Learn from every single thing in the film’s setting with which the actors interact. Learn from the setting and how it affects the actors’ behavior. Use it in your own story.

Gary Cooper (in white shirt) and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, 1942 ©

Keep in mind that you can’t learn to write a book from only watching movies. You also need to read, all the time, in your genre and outside of it, and you should read short stories and novellas, stand-alone novels and series. After all, writing is a job, not a holiday jaunt, and all sorts of fiction can help you learn to write better.

When you watch films to become a better writer, you’re not copying everything the film does: you’re learning from the actors, who inhabit the characters; from the director, who determines scene and camera focus; from the setting, especially if setting is an antagonist; from the conflicts, which are plot. Most good films can teach you how to become a better writer, but you have to become conscious of film techniques, and then learn how to translate those visiual cues into written languae.

You don’t have to worry that this exercise will make you hate your favorite movie. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for all the artistry involved in making a good film. You can learn from that to make art in your own way, by telling a good story. Learn how to become a better storyteller and writer by noticing all the fine details of your favorite movie(s). Learn to translate actors’ actions and camera angles into written language. Then go out and tell a good story, and tell your story better than anyone else could do it.

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Filed under Actors, Authors, Books, Classics, Creative Writing, Films, Films/Movies, Movies/Films, Movies/Television, Research, Stories, Storytelling, Writing