Month: May 2016

Brain Space

downloadThis past week household problems have interfered with my writing. Not my time so much, — it is possible to put fingers to keyboard while waiting for the repairman — but with my mental space. While I could physically write and wait at the same time, mentally, I just wasn’t there.  I sat in front of the keyboard and thought about what I’d tell the repairman when he finally showed up. I rehearsed different scenarios. Would they give me a bill? This item should still be under warranty. Would I argue if he did? How would I know if he’d fixed it properly? I only wish my characters could have as many and varied conversations as I had with my absent repairman.

Since writers live in the real world I thought it would be useful to develop some coping mechanisms for time when “real world” overwhelms “writer world.”

  • Set a time for the repairman to come.   Usually the window is a wide one, like all afternoon, but even if you narrow down to a specific day, that’s progress.  Having a time when the crisis will be resolved is freeing for the mind.  My repairman just called to cancel that appointment, so the wait continues, but the theory is still good.
  • Write somewhere else.  Go to the coffee shop, the library, the park, even a different room in the house.  If the balky appliance is invisible, it is easier to ignore.
  • Turn off the internet.  So long as I can Google my problem, I’ll be thinking of how to fix it myself.  Tighten that screw.  Find a reset button.  Check that wire.   “How to” videos are wonderful tools, but they make us all responsible for all our own tasks!  Remember when we had travel agents and plumbers and mechanics to make life easier?  Now we’re all supposed to take on those jobs because “you can do it on-line.”
  • Do a short writing project — like this blog.  Even an overcrowded brain can concentrate for a short while.  Who knows, just tapping the keys might  trick the brain into entering writing mode.
  • Do a mechanical kind of writing task.  I do a lot of my writing longhand.  When the mind is busy elsewhere, I can transcribe those handwritten pages to the computer and still make progress on the writing front.
  • Do some of those pesky social media chores.  Short, interrupt-able, and necessary.
  • Throw up your hands and do something else.  All that adrenaline coursing through your system gives you extra strength for yanking up weeds, or scrubbing a mossy deck or tackling the basement shelves, while continuing the mental conversation with the absent repairman.

So, there’s my list.  What do you do?

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Pet Reunions

DSCF1052One of the more heart-warming stories arising from the Fort McMurray fire is the reunion of pets and owners.  Many people fleeing the fire had to leave behind beloved animals.  Either there was no room — it’s hard to put a horse in the back of your car — or there was no time.  Some fled with only the clothes on their backs.   If you’ve ever loved an animal, you’ll know how heart-rending it must have been to leave one behind.

The good news is that first responders, fire-fighters and police have been doing their best to care for abandoned pets, and now 600 have been rescued and sent to a reclamation centre in Edmonton.   For families who’ve lost their homes, their belongings and their livelihoods, the joy of reclaiming a lost pet has to be enormous.

Given that our society is so attached to our furry and feathered friends, it’s hardly surprising that animals show up in romance novels.  Goodreads even has a list of recommended romances featuring dogs.   Just like your own four-legged friend, pets in stories allow characters to show empathy, to share secrets, to reveal their soft side when the world think they’re nothing but tough.   Renowned screenwriter/teacher Blake Snyder even wrote a manual for writers called Save the Cat.  His point being that even the most unlikable character can be redeemed by one good deed — saving a lost cat.

I’ve had pets all my life, yet, until recently, I didn’t use animals as major elements in my stories.  Hard to explain, since I write with a cat on my knee, sleep with one on the bed, and plan my holidays around cat-sitters.  However, a recent wip features a heroine  who works in a dog rescue centre.  Dogs feature big-time in this story.  And yes, they do reveal character, they do allow a crusty hero to fall in love, they do provide moments of humour.  Can’t think why I haven’t written them into my stories before.

As I cuddle my own furry friends I say thank you to the heroes of Fort McMurray who rescued, fed, transported and snuggled frightened, lost animals.  My heart aches for those still wondering what became of an abandoned pet and I can’t get enough of the reunion stories.  Talk about a “feel good” moment.

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Fire!

imagesThe images and stories coming out of Fort McMurray, Canada this past week have been heart-rending. Nearly 90,000 people evacuated. A modern city emptied of all but firefighters, police and paramedics. The hospital evacuated. Long lines of cars inching along the highway while the fire rages on both sides. Dogs, cats, horses, children, parents — all running for their lives, all trying to keep each other safe and unafraid. Small communities opening their doors to strangers, offering food, a bed, a sweater, a shoulder to lean on.
I’ve never been to Fort McMurray. Never been in a forest fire, yet when I heard one couple saying, if they couldn’t get through,  they planned to ditch their car under a bridge and hope they could escape the fire in the river, I understood. You see, I read it once, in a book. Mrs. Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman was one of the first love stories I read, and re-read, and re-read, and . . .
The book was published in 1947. There are no extra pages, no biography of the authors, no notes on the text. There was still a wartime shortage of paper when this book hit the shelves in it’s plain green cover and uncoated pages. Yet the writing is so vivid, I knew exactly what that couple looking at the bridge were thinking. There is a scene in the book were the heroine is standing in an icy river, holding a baby while fire rages all around. “The flames shot up along the river like a ragged fringe. . . . Hot ashes were falling and burning me. The air blistered my face. My eyebrows and lashes were singed. My face and throat burned; my body was numb with cold.”
When I saw the couple who considered taking refuge in the river, this passage sprang to mind. Written nearly seventy years ago, it still resonates.
Fortunately for the people of Northern Alberta, we have planes and helicopters and convoys to get them out. For Mrs. Mike and her Mountie husband, they had only themselves, horses and canoes. But the fear, the suffocating smoke and the sense of awe in the face of forest fire are the same.   It speaks to the power of good story telling that Mrs. Mike,  a romance, remains in the top 20 of Amazon’s Literature and Fiction>  Classics category.

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Whose Values?

I planted my garden last week. Sowing seeds took me back to my rural roots and memories of doing the same thing with my Mom. She let me plant the beats, beans and peas, but didn’t trust my small fingers with the fine seeds of lettuce, carrots and radishes.  Mom was part of “The Greatest Generation,” born during WWI, grew up through the Depression and came of age in WWII. I’m sure it was that background that made her treat each seed as precious.  That tiny black dot in my hand was food for the family, a necessity of life.  No wonder she guarded it so carefully.

I’ve lived in a more affluent world.  I plant a garden because I enjoy it, not because I rely on it to feed my family.  If I drop a few seeds outside the row, I don’t worry.  If I sow too thickly in one area and too thinly in another, it’s no big deal.  My approach to the vegetable garden is much more lackadaisical than my Mom’s but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand her point of view and value the lessons she taught me.

And that brings me to my point.  When I write historical fiction, whose values do I present?  Contemporary Canadian society or the nineteenth century world of the story?  What words do I use?  What makes a character heroic?

Flower children of the sixties tended to deride the mores of the fifties, heaping scorn on their parents’ “unhip” beliefs.  But I think it is unfair to judge one generation by the values of a later one.  If you haven’t lived through the Dust Bowl, what right have you to judge the attitudes of those who did?

We’ve made drinking and driving a social as well as a legal crime. Does that mean that everyone of the “Mad Men” era was a social pariah? Of course not. It was a different time.  Society was different. Cigarettes and alcohol were just part of the landscape.

I enjoy watching old television shows like “I Love Lucy” but, even when it’s part of the humour, the male chauvinism makes me cringe.  But “I Love Lucy” is still funny and the world it presents is representative of its time.

I write books set in the late nineteenth century, when language was more blunt (cruel?) than now.  A character in that time would use the word “cripple” as a simple descriptive, no insult intended.  No one had ever heard the term “mobility challenged.”  If I put a phrase like that in my character’s dialogue it would sound ridiculous.   In the nineteenth century, the term “First Nations” hadn’t been invented?  Do I use the term “Indian” as would have been the standard at the time, or do I perform convoluted hoops to describe the previous inhabitants of the territory in some other way?

The political landscape of the 1890’s was vastly different from ours.  What present day Canada considers racist, was simply the natural order of things to the people of that society.  Do I try to bury the issues of the time because they might offend someone today?

I’ve found many forums on this subject, but no consensus.  There seem to be as many opinions as there are readers and writers.  Here’s a sampling. https://writinghistoricalnovels.com/2013/09/28/on-the-use-of-politically-correct-terms-in-historical-fiction-by-jane-Kirkpatrick/

http://www.penkhullpress.co.uk/blogDetail?article=&bid=128

http://www.writersdigest.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=19571&start=10

So, dear reader, what is your opinion?  If a well-bred lady of the nineteenth century  refers to her Asian servants as “Orientals” (the polite term at the time), will you be offended?  If a no-account lout refers to those same people as “Chinks” (the impolite term at the time) will you be offended?  Use the comment box below to share your views.

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