Month: September 2016

Beware the Passive Heroine

I read two books recently on the theme of war, refugees and women.  One book had me nodding off after every page, the other kept me awake and frightened the whole time.  What was the difference?  Both dealt with women caught up in violence they couldn’t control, both faced starvation, brutality, and terror. Why was the effect of the stories so different for me?

The answer lies in the inner life of the heroines. One was full of passion and determination. The other was passive, bowing her head in submission as one calamity after another befell her. Instead of inspiring me with sympathy, this character pushed me away with her constant cry of “woe is me.”

Alice Orr in her book, No more Rejections, calls this the lacklustre character. She says “a protagonist [must] stand out among the very large pack of . . . submissions.” The late Jack Bickham in his book The 38 most common Fiction Writing Mistakes has a whole chapter called “Don’t Write about Wimps.” Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, counsels writers to create “larger-than-life” protagonists.

Obviously, avoiding passive heroines is a foundational pillar in writing fiction, but I’ve never seen it so clearly demonstrated as I did in the two books I mentioned above. It’s a good lesson. Both books were critically successful, but, as a reader I much preferred one over the other.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the heroine in my current story spends too much time thinking and not enough time doing. So, while one book bored me and the other scared me, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about story-telling.  Off to edit!

That Vexing Bustle

Part of “writing from inside” concerns the question of dress, particularly for historicals.  The problem is how to get accurate information on the styles of the day.  What the ladies of Downton Abbey wore to dinner is not the same as what a shopkeeper’s wife on the prairies would wear.  Cowgirls might wear a divided skirt but a milliner in Victoria would be scandalized at such a garment.  There are even differences between American West and Canadian West in the issue of dress and manners.  Canada, as part of the British Empire, was very tied to the notions expressed by Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century, i.e. prim and proper, whereas the new settlers in the American West were a product of revolution and war and had scant time for what they considered hidebound rules or etiquette.  A gentleman was polite and considerate of a lady, but no one cared which fork was used for fish.

My latest dilemma in writing a novel set in 1890 in the Canadian gold mining town of Prospect British Columbia concerns the bustle.  The time is at the cusp of a change in fashion.  In the 1870’s the bustle was worn low, spreading the skirts into a graceful sweep behind the wearer, often ending in a train. By the early 1880’s it had become smaller but then in the mid 1880’s bustles changed to huge, wire cages worn just below the waist.  Skirts still contained yards and yards and yards of fabric, and it was pulled back and up, fastened at the waist then cascaded down in ruffles and ribbons over a large, high bustle.  The less charitable critics at the time said the fashion gave women the profile of the back end of a horse!  By the 1890’s this fashion extreme was receding and bustles were small, padded affairs worn low on the back.

By rights, my heroine in the wilds of British Columbia would be behind the times in regard to fashion, but she is also a hard-working woman who needs clothes that accommodate her lifestyle.  No servants to lace her corset from the back, no char woman to scrub her steps and black her stove and, no dairymaid to milk the cow.

The Eaton’s catalogue of the time advertised bustles “rolled and padded.”  Since most of Western Canada depended upon the Eaton’s catalogue for everything from handkerchiefs to houses, I’ve decided to let my heroine wear one of their smaller bustles for special events.  She can look elegant and feminine when she goes to a concert, but she’ll wear sturdy skirts and blouses, covered by an apron for the hard work.  When she’s feeling particularly daring, she’ll wear a divided  skirt and ride her horse astride!

Writing from Inside

When I first joined a writer’s group, a common theme in the advice part of the meeting was keeping point of view pure.  By that I mean that stories were to be told by only one point of view character and everything that landed on the page had to be observable by that character.  We were to eschew omniscient author — therefore nothing like “it was the best of times it was the worst of times.”  “Head-hopping,” that is moving between one point of view character and another, was forbidden.  One analogy that was used to emphasize the purity of POV was to imagine the story unfolding before the author’s eyes like a movie.  If the author couldn’t see the event on the screen of her mind, neither could the POV character.

It was a useful analogy and one I’ve used myself, but like all “rules” in writing, it can be taken too far.  The biggest drawback, in my opinion, is that it turns the author and therefore the reader, into an observer rather than a participant.  The screen in my mind may allow me to see a brawl in the street, but I am distanced from it.  My character should be in there swinging.  He should feel the anger that provoked the fight, smell the sweat and fear on his opponent and struggle for breath when a blow hits him in the solar plexus.  He should also be involved emotionally.  Robots may engage in battle in modern movies, but for a story to grab me I want a real person, with real feelings.  I want to ache with him, dream with him and hope with him.  Watching him on a screen won’t do that.

Instead, I suggest the writer try to get inside her character.  You still only write what he can see and hear and touch and smell, but you also know how he feels.  I heard a female author of romance once talk about taking on a man’s pose as she sat in her chair.  She rubbed her chin as though she had whiskers, stuck her legs straight out in front of her, put her hands behind her head and leaned back — all actions she associated with men.  Then, when she felt herself inside a man’s skin, she’d write the scene from the hero’s point of view.  It’s an intriguing thought.  I’ve been watching a lot of baseball lately, so I see men scratching and spitting.  Don’t know if I’ll go that deep!

I’m writing western historical romance, so sometimes I’ll put on a long skirt and a buttoned up blouse and try walking about in it.  I don’t have a corset, but I can still experience the restricted movement such garments require, not to mention the stiff back.

Of course, some writers can get inside their characters without props, but if you’re having a hard time imagining the heart and soul of a medieval lady, try donning a wimple and see if that helps.

Brag Day

The blog on this page is about me as a writer, insights I may glean about the process, observations on the writing life and news of my books.  Today, I’m going off message and I’ll talk about my “real” life.

One of my annual endeavours is to exhibit at the Saanich Fall Fair.  I love this fair.  It takes me back to my farm roots.  I hang out in the cattle area and test my judging skills against the professionals.  I walk around the horse barns, patting those enormous beauties until I smell like a horse.  I giggle at the exotic assortment of hens and roosters.  Do you know there is a hen that lays blue eggs?  And I marvel at the magnificent display of dahlias and giant mums and the heaviest apple and the longest bean and the weirdest carrot.

I also enter.  It began small.  Just a sweater or a scarf.  Then I noticed the rose display was no better than the ones blooming outside my window.  So I entered a rose or two.  I won.  I was lost.  I now spend weeks fretting about the rose bushes, pruning, coaxing, watering, breathing on them — all in attempt to have the blooms at perfection on the day of the fair.  Alas, the weather rarely cooperates.  For two years running, we’ve had a heat spell in mid-August that brought all the blooms into full flower — ahead of the fair.  The buds that were left, the ones I counted on to open to exhibit standards, remained closed up tight and stubborn, when the heat gave way to cold and rain, seven days before the Fair opened.  More fretting.  More anxious blowing on a rose bush.  All to no avail.  Mother Nature will ripen a rose in her own time and nothing I can do will change that.   Yet, despite having fewer roses to exhibit than I had planned, I took what was passable to the Fair, — and I won a best in show!

I’m thrilled — which it really silly, because what did I do, really?  I fretted.  I turned on the water.  I cut and trimmed the blooms and washed the mildew from the leaves.  The rose bush, God, the sun, the earth — they did the real work in growing a prize-winning blossom.  Yet, I get the ribbon and the praise.   Duh!

I met some friends who exhibited jams and jellies and sweaters and cross-stitch and marigolds and tomatoes.  In true farmer style we looked at the results of this year and immediately laid plans for next.  A sign of hope or a symptom of insanity?  On the other hand, isn’t that what writers do too?  We work hard on a project, we send it out, we watch the results, and we make plans for the next one.  Are we hopeful or insane?

My answer changes from day to day, but for now, I’m going to admire my ribbons and bask in the glow of success.

© 2017 Alice Valdal

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑