Month: July 2017

Transition

My personal life is in transition right now, and it’s making me a bit grumpy. Of course, life is always evolving, always changing, but some changes , like marriage, or a new baby, or a disaster, or a lottery win, are more immediate and more disruptive than others.

As an author, I find change, especially big, unexpected change, fodder for the imagination. Many books on writing recommend “begin at the moment of change.”  And when I think about it, I believe I’ve read a number of books that begin with a marriage, or a new baby, or a disaster, or a windfall of fortune.  They’re great stories, that yank the reader into the lives of the characters with the first sentence.  The rest of the book explores the ramifications of that big change at the beginning, and follows the protagonist through the adjustments she makes until she emerges at the end of the story with a new normal.  If it’s a romance, that new normal results in happily-ever-after.

The book I’m reading right now concerns an orphan in the mid-twentieth century. Talk about transitions!  Each family she lives with wants to change her.  They don’t like her hair, they don’t like her speech, the don’t like her name.  During the course of her life her name is changed several times, merely to satisfy the sensibilities of others.

Classics, like Pride and Prejudice, begin with change – a newcomer to the district. Mysteries often start with a murder, a major transition if ever there was one.  Regencies frequently begin with a young woman becoming an orphan, cast on the good graces (or not) of her relatives.  A friend of mine is writing a story that begins with a jilting.  Runaway Bride, starring Julia Roberts used that premise as well.  In my book, The Man for Her, the story opens with the appearance of a man the heroine thought was dead.

Some transitions are less traumatic – a holiday, beginning university, starting a first job – but even such “tame” changes can generate a spellbinding story. Alice Munro, in her short story, “Runaway” begins with a neighbour returning from a holiday.  Such a small change, yet it triggers a whole chain of events that change the heroine’s life..

The change in my life is not earth-shattering or traumatic, it’s merely unsettling. But, as an author, I have the opportunity to experience first-hand the emotional effect of a life changing event.  This is why writers keep journals.  Not only does a journal give me place to store ideas, impressions and insights, it gives me a safe place to write out my grumpiness so I can get on with enjoying my life, and all the changes that mark our days.

So, here’s to change — may it keep us involved and growing and learning.

Fantasy Anyone?

Recently I joined an eclectic group of writers.  We call ourselves a critique group but there’s not that much critiquing going on.  There is a lot of chat about the industry, marketing, punctuation, especially commas, grammar, and grandchildren.   This is the same group that put together “Dreams and Promises,” to celebrate Canada 150.  We write historical romance, contemporary romance, suspense, fantasy and “whimsy.”  One of our group, LizAnn Carson, has just released a fantasy trilogy called Aura Weavers.  The three books are, The Healer, The Bard, and The Scribe.

As someone who relies on historical fact to provide the framework for my stories, I’m in awe of fantasy writers and their imagination.  The task of creating a whole world with its own rules — is there gravity?  are there cars and roads?  are there schools as we know them? what is the social order? government? history?– is daunting.  Authors are often accused of living in a world of their own, but LizAnn has managed to put borders and rules in her fictional world and has sent it out into the world for others to enjoy.

If you want to give gentle fantasy a try, you can find her stories here.

Now, I’m going back to my own world where cars run on roads, the law of gravity is in effect and history still serves up the best stories.  Right now, I’m celebrating Christmas in the Rockies in the late nineteenth century.  Can I conjure up snow and freezing fingers while the sun shines outside my window, the thermometer reads 23 degrees Celsius and a golden eagle soars over the hayfield next door?

Ah, the power of imagination!

 

 

Voice

I had an object lesson in “voice” over the weekend. For nearly ten years I’ve been friends with a writer from Australia.  We began as partners in an on-line writing course.  When the course ended, we decided to keep in touch, so every Monday we exchange our news, mainly writing, but also family, pets, church, and current events.  This weekend we had a chance to meet in person.  Imagine my surprise when she spoke with an Australian accent.

You see, when I read her words on my computer screen, she sounds just like me.

After the initial shock, I laughed at myself for not “hearing” that accent in her written words. And that got me thinking about “voice.”

Donald Maass defines voice as “a unique way of putting words together, . . . a distinctive way of looking at the world…” Certainly, my friend has a unique way of looking at the world and of putting her thoughts into words, but in our interconnected, on-line world, what used to be regional differences are disappearing.  “Brilliant,” that I first heard as an English or Australian exclamation, in now nearly universal in English speaking countries.  One word she uses that does sound strange to my ear is “uni.”  In Canada we go to university.  In Australia, the kids are off to uni. But one word is hardly enough to convey an accent.

Of course, this discussion of voice is about the author’s voice. Each character in a story should also have a distinctive voice.  Now, if I tried to mimic my friend’s speech in writing, I’d be softening consonants, elongating vowels and moving the accents around on words like Melbourne and dropping whole syllables on others, e.g. barbie for barbeque.

Yet trying to write an accent on paper is fraught with hazards. Jack Bickham, in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them) has a whole chapter titled, “Don’t Mangle Characters’ Speech.”  Trying to convey a Scottish burr or a Cockney inflection results in unreadable misspellings that are more apt to annoy the reader than draw her into the story.  More importantly, they may insult some minorities and date your book to yesteryear.

So how do you convey that a character has an accent not shared by other characters in your story?

Let them tell us.  A POV character might comment on someone else’s southern drawl, or tony Oxbridge vowels. 

Use word order and word choice.  A rancher from Texas will use different idioms than a banker in Edinburgh.  And, for the record, not all Canadians end their sentences with “eh,” but it’s fun to through it in when we’re on a patriotic rant.

So, why was I startled by my friend’s accent? Perhaps because we’ve been exchanging letters for so long I’d forgotten how far away she lived.  Perhaps because both our countries are part of the British Commonwealth and we share a common cultural background, or maybe I tend to see (and hear) the world through my own experience.  In any case, I had a lovely time and I’m truly thankful to modern technology for letting me develop a friendship on the opposite side of the world. 

Homecoming

I’m just home from a trip to Newfoundland.  I’ve long wanted to visit Canada’s most easterly province.  At one time I naively thought I could “do” the Maritimes all in one sweep.  Once I got my geography straight, I realized that our oldest settlement (St. John’s,  1583) and newest province warranted a trip all by itself.  For the purists among you, Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, as Canada’s tenth province.  Nunavut, created in 1999 is a territory.

The island is nicknamed “The Rock,” and I certainly learned why during our 3000 km journey. Rocks and trees and lakes, for miles and miles and miles, although in NL they use the word pond.  Only a couple of very large inland bodies of water got the lake designation.  Oddly, once I’d adjusted my West Coast expectations, the landscape began to feel familiar.  I grew up on the Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario, so  Precambrian rock and glaciations are home turf for me.  I felt at ease in this wilderness.

We journeyed to L’Anse aux Meadows, away at the northern most tip of the island, to see the remains of the Viking village that was established there five hundred years before Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.”  Here we learned that some vegetation like Lingonberries (Partridge berries in Newfoundland vernacular) were also found in Norway.  The area also contains bog iron, a necessary ingredient for forging, and a staple in the Norse culture.  Those adventurous seafarers chose to build a village in a place that reminded them of home.

 

One of the most striking features of Newfoundland culture, is the people’s attachment to their homeland.  Economic hard times have meant droves of Newfoundlanders have had to leave home in search of work, but no matter where they find themselves in the world, their deep desire is to return to “the Rock.”

For myself, I enjoyed my explorations, but I felt a lift of the heart when I started for home. I craved the comfort and ease and familiarity of my own place and my own things and my own people.

 

As writers, we can use that longing for home to give our readers an uplifting journey that, takes them to new places, excites them, frightens them, teaches them, and eventually brings them home with a smile. We can instil that sense of familiarity and safety with the author’s voice, the type of story, and the core truth of our tales. 

When a reader picks up a book by Alice Valdal, she has certain expectations.  It’s my job to make sure those expectations are met.  When the same reader delves into a novel by Cora Seton, the expectations are different, and Ms Seton must work hard to satisfy her reader, too.

  Readers love to venture into new places, new situations, different times, but, I believe, they want to come home safely at the end.  That desire is a powerful tool for the writer.  Use it wisely, make your readers happy, and watch your sales grow.

© 2017 Alice Valdal

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