Month: August 2018

Mingling Fact and Fiction

While thumbing through the just returned books at the library I stumbled upon The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie, by Cecily Ross. Proof of my theory that the best library books are the ones someone else chose.  I snapped up “The Diaries” and was soon immersed in the world of Britain and Canada of the mid-nineteenth century.

Susanna Moodie is best known to every Canadian school child for her most important work “Roughing it in the Bush,” the biographical tale of a genteel Englishwoman trying to stay alive in the Canadian wilderness. Susanna and her husband, John Moodie, are truly babes in the woods.  Neither has any idea of the physical aspects of clearing land and farming.  John Moodie in particular, a half-pay officer from the British Army, is entirely unsuited to the life they have chosen.  He emigrated with dreams of living on a country estate with others to do the manual, back-breaking work of carving a farm out of the bush.

I remember first reading Roughing it in the Bush, as a child and marvelling at how mis-informed or wilfully ignorant the British upper classes were about homesteading. As a farm-girl, I knew the long hours, hard work, knowledge and skill required to turn forest bottom into fertile hay fields. I knew that livestock had to be tended every day, fed and watered regardless of the weather or the farmer’s personal agenda. John Moodie had none of those attributes. He was a jovial fellow, convinced that wealth in the New World would fall into his hands.  In truth, he and his family would have starved to death in their first winter had not the local First Nations tribe provided them with food.

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie is a work of fiction, as the author makes plain, but it is based on real characters. The facts of their lives are well-known from previous research and from Susanna’s letters and literary writings as well as from accounts in the local newspapers and official documents. 

This is one of those instances when fact and fiction mingle to make an entertaining tale while keeping the historical record intact. From reading her own works, I know that Susanna was a pessimist and John and eternal optimist. I know he was a poor business man.  I know that Susanna made enough money from her writing to keep them going – barely.  What the author has done is write of Susanna’s thoughts and emotions — that turns the historical character into a multi-dimensional woman, thus bringing history alive for a modern reader.  It’s a fine line to tread. One I’m cautious of in my own work. Too much fiction, and the author distorts history.  Not enough fiction, and many readers turn away from an instructive discourse rated as too dull. In my view, Cecily Ross has struck the right balance. And I have a new empathy for Susanna Moodie, daughter, sister, mother, wife and writer, who struggled mightily to maintain her “self” in an age that considered her an appendage of her husband.

Secondary Characters

Could Mrs. Ralston look like this?

“Mrs. Royston, Emma’s busybody `heart of gold’ landlady, snobbish Mrs. Allen, and Grey’s very surprising mother Lady North are only a few of the plethora of engaging secondary characters that were sprinkled throughout as well as noteworthy in adding a great deal of substance to this very entertaining story.” – Marilyn Rondeau, review of Her One and Only, the second of the Prospect Series.

 

I’m glad Ms Rondeau enjoyed the secondary characters in my book. I’ve always enjoyed writing them and find it easy to create these “colourful” personalities.  In fact, I don’t really create them.  They just come on the scene complete in themselves.  I wish I understood the alchemy that produces them.  I wish my main characters would appear as effortlessly! 

The town of Prospect is peopled with all kinds, from oddballs to pillars of the community , but I’ve developed only a few of them.  Just as too many cooks spoil the broth, I believe too many characters spoil the story. My current reading includes such a huge cast their introduction takes up the first sixty pages of the book—yet nothing about the plot is to be found in those pages. I’m confused as to who is who and why I should care.  The book is part of a long series, so I suppose the author thinks she needs to bring new readers up to speed on everyone from the previous books, but it gets tedious. In my case, I’ve used four or five characters to provide a flavour of the time and place and not burdened the reader with a long list of who’s who.

Secondary characters have a specific role in the story, like mentor, busybody, joker, side-kick, but they should never be caricatures. My Mrs. Barclay, for example, is a “butinsky”, but she is also kind. She manages her husband but is quick to obey when he puts his foot down. I use her voluble nature to deliver necessary information to the reader, but in an entertaining way.  Mrs. Barclay is never one to sermonize. She has a stern sense of what is right, yet compassion may overcome her principles. Altogether she is a complex and memorable character – and she grew organically as the stories of Prospect unfolded.

When it comes to my main characters, the process is not so easy. I create character charts, do character interviews, work up a goal-motivation-conflict graph, poke away in their backstory, search for their dreams and fears. and secrets.  The process is hard work and I’m never as satisfied with the final version as I am with the secondary character who just walks on-stage.  Why?  If Mrs. Barclay can come rollicking into the story and make us laugh, why does Emma take so much careful planning?

I think the answer lies in that last sentence. By the time Mrs. Barclay—or any other secondary character—shows up, the story is already unfolding.  These bit roles flesh out the time and place, amplify the main characters and maybe provide a bit of comic relief from the intense emotions of the love story. The hero/heroine have to start the story, have to overcome inertia to get the wheels rolling.  Their goals are what propels the plot.  Their dreams are what makes the reader care. Their conflict, internal and external, details the theme of the book.  If I want to make the reader agree that ‘love conquers all’ I show that through the h/h.  They are the driving force.  The secondary characters are just along for the ride.

That said, I love my bit players. I can let them be outrageous and not worry if the reader will dislike them. I can make them timid without worrying that timidity is not an heroic characteristic. I can make them truly annoying and be happy if the reader dislikes them.  I think I like my secondary characters because they let me play.  H/h, whatever their personalities, require that the author obey the expectations of the genre.

Look for more of Mrs. Barclay in the upcoming novella, A Chance for Love. Oh yes, there’s a new character in Prospect, a mule named Bartholemew.

Over to you.  What are your thoughts on secondary characters?

Ripping Back

It’s summer time and the weather is hot and dry. I decided I wanted a new dress.  I found a cool fabric and a pattern.  Took extra care to fit the paper pattern, cut out the dress and sewed it up.  All was well.  I’d have a new dress for Sunday.  Except, the neck facing didn’t sit down properly.  I unpicked the seam, worked the curve again, pinned it, re-stitched – same problem.  Repeated this process several times with the same, unsatisfactory results. ( I know.  Repeating the same actions over and over and expecting a different outcome is a sign of madness.)  Before I ended up putting a hole in the fabric I put the whole thing away and cleaned my closet instead.

Eventually, I looked at the problem again and realized my error occurred several steps before the facing. No matter how much I tweaked that final seam, it wouldn’t come right until I ripped back to the source of the mistake.  Ugh!  I hate ripping out, but I want this new dress and I want it to look good, so rip I did.

The whole process is a bit like editing. I had gotten stuck in my wip – maybe that’s why I decided to sew instead. When I couldn’t avoid the keyboard any longer, I cogitated on the source of my problem and realized I needed to go back.  Tweaking the last sentence, playing with the last paragraph, substituting words and synonyms was not going to get me unstuck. The error was structural.  I needed to shore up the foundations of the story.  My “cute” idea was not enough to carry a whole book.  Fortunately, re-writes on a computer aren’t as arduous as ripping out a seam.  I can fill in the blanks, add pages of new conflict and flesh out my character motivations without hours of labourious unpicking.

So, there I am, on track with the dress and the story. It’s a good week.

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