Author: Alice Valdal (page 1 of 16)

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.

Writers Extraordinaire

Thanks to Marion Ann for the photo

Summer time and these writers are taking it easy.  This is my local authors group, VIRA.  On a hot, sunny Saturday we retired to the front porch to enjoy a picnic pot luck and talk writing.  The food was delicious.  The company was entertaining and the writing was downright terrific.  Part of the day included an anonymous reading for one or two pages of a member’s wip.  The pages were all dropped in a basket. Volunteers selected one submission and read it out to the group.  We then did a little kindly critiquing.  And we weren’t being kind just because we’re nice people.  We were kind because the writing was excellent.  We had to really nit-pick to find something that could be improved.

I’ve always enjoyed and admired the women in my group, but this week I really applaud them for their creative talents, their command of language, and their ability to spin a tale.

I recommend you check them out here.  There’s a new release page on the website.  I’d encourage you to look at both the romance releases and the non-romance.  These writers are funny, clever and daring.  Read one of their books.  You’ll be glad you did.

A Painful Lesson

This week I’ve been given the opportunity to experience what it is like to count the minutes until your next dose of pain medication. Complications from a dental procedure left me with a swollen face and an aching jaw that sent me to emergency over the weekend.  For two days I literally counted the minutes, day and night, until my next set of pills.  Of course, my pain was no where near that experienced by cancer patients or trauma patients, but I now know a little of how it feels when pain rules every moment of your day. Perhaps I can use that in a story some time.

Some writers will tell you that they use writing to get through the bad times. Not me.  I couldn’t put myself into an imaginary world when the real one demanded so much attention.  However, I could read.  I’m so grateful to authors who tell stories that, even for a little while, distracted me from my aching jaw.

And on that note, here’s a link that may interest you.

Summer Day

Ah, the thrill of the open road — on my bicycle. It’s summer time and tooling down a country lane on two wheels makes me feel like a kid out of school.  I wish I could enjoy the wind in my hair too, but I’m a grown-up and wear a helmet, as all sensible cyclists do.  But even with the helmet, there’s a sense of freedom in gliding down a hill, then pedalling furiously to keep the momentum and get up the other side without stopping.

On my journey I passed a field of new-mown hay.  Nothing says summer like the smell of fresh-cut hay.  That wonderful combination of green and dust and sweetness and a touch of engine oil fill the air with music and memory.

If this were the perfect summer day of my school days, my ride would end at a clear blue lake with a sandy bottom.  I’d dive into the water, gasp at the sudden cold, then settle in for a gentle swim, before turning on my back and floating while looking at the sky above.

We just celebrated Canada Day in my land.  It’s a day we commemorate the confederation of our country.  There’s a big party on parliament hill, but most of the population marks the day with a BBQ in the backyard, or a picnic at the lake.  Sometimes there are fireworks, but mostly it’s a day to enjoy summer and the freedom to bicycle down a country lane without fear.  A time to enjoy family and neighbours, maybe get a little sun-burned and collect a few mosquito bites.  That may sound dull, but to me it’s a lot like my bike ride — an exercise in freedom and the pleasure of summer.

Happy Canada Day to my fellow countrymen, and Happy Independence Day to my American neighbours.  

It’s a Book!

Getting the notice, “your book is live” from Amazon is a thrill.  Holding the paperback book in your hand makes it real.  Today I got my author copies.  Picked them up at the mailbox, walked home with the box in my hand then ripped into it to reveal —  A Book!

Do You Pre-Order?

The countdown is on for release of my latest book, Her One True Love, book three in the Prospect Series.  The e-book  is now available as a pre-order at amazon, here,  The print book is still in review.  At least it was when I wrote this post.

The only reason I set the book to pre-order was because I wanted time to iron out all the hitches that might occur in setting up the print book.  It was a good decision.  There have been many hitches with the print book.  I think they are all sorted now, but I won’t know for sure until Amazon sends me a “your book is live” notice.

However, since I did use the pre-order option, I’m curious about reader’s preferences.  Do you like to know that the book is available on pre-order or would you rather not hear from me until you can purchase the book immediately?

State you preference in the comments.  First three posts get a free copy of the e-book.

Cover Reveal

At last I’m able to show you the cover for my latest book in the Prospect Series. You may remember that it was delayed due to the unexpected passing of my cover artist, Dawn Charles.

Fortunately I was able to find someone who would pick up on the previous books and create a design that maintained the series brand. Thank you to Lori Corsentino/Harmony Creative Design.  She worked very hard to make the cover reflect my story. Notice the signs on the stores in the background? Those are all names of businesses I use in the story. The Prospect Photography Parlour is the name of the heroine’s business.

 

The picture on the right is one of the covers Dawn  did.  You can see how well the new cover artist picked up on the “look” of the series.

We played around with colours quite a bit and I’m delighted with the colour of the title and the ribbon behind the author’s name. We called it cranberry. I love names like plum, cranberry, mulberry, etc. for colours. They give the artist a wide scope in finding just the right shade. I guess you can do the same with “red” and “blue” but the “food” colours stimulate the imagination . . . and the appetite.

The book is not yet for sale as the formatting isn’t complete, but I’m giving you all a preview of the cover. Watch this space for release details in the next few weeks. Meantime, leave a comment telling me if you think “cranberry” is the right name for the colour.

Gold Fever

Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, B.C.

Her One True Love, the third book in my Prospect Series, has encountered many obstacles on the way to publication not the least being the sudden demise of my cover artist. However, the end is in sight, so it’s time to get in the mood.

As the series name says, this is a set of books set in the fictional gold rush town of Prospect, B.C, where fortunes are made and lost and lost and lost.  Many more falling into the latter category than the first.  As an object lesson in gold fever I bring you the real life story of Billy Barker.

 

An Englishman who had already tried his luck in the California gold-fields and on the Fraser River, Billy Barker (1817-1894) staked the most famous claim of the Cariboo near William’s Creek in 1861. Many legends have grown up around the man so it is hard to distinguish truth from fiction, but legends usually have a grain of truth in them.

One such is the story of Billy’s recurring dream that included the number 52. Although he had been partners in a company that eventually struck it rich, Billy had sold his shares in it and gone on to stake a claim in an unlikely spot on Williams Creek. He was convinced that an ancient river had run deep underground at that spot. While others scoffed, he kept drilling. They came up dry at 10 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet and even 50 feet. Any reasonable man, so the theory went, would have abandoned the project, but Barker kept drilling and at 52 feet, just like in his dream, he struck pay dirt, taking out $600,000 in gold dust and nuggets. Calculations of current value vary but in today’s terms that would amount to anywhere from $17 million to $2.5 billion. Whichever figure you use, he had acquired an enormous amount of wealth.

By this time Billy Barker was a widower, his first wife died in the poor house in England. He left the gold fields and came to Victoria where he met and married Elizabeth Collyer, a widow who had recently arrived from England on the Rosedale. The following summer they returned to the gold creeks where a free miner’s licence was issued in her name. Come winter, they again returned to Victoria, ready to spend the winter enjoying their wealth. He enjoyed a party and is reputed to have sung this ditty while dancing a jig whenever he entered a saloon.

“I’m English Bill,

Never worked and never will.

Get away girls,

Or I’ll tousle your curls.”

 

Another legend holds that Elizabeth was extravagant and helped her husband spend or give away his fortune. Whether she did or not, the fact remains that by the time of her death in 1865 Billy Barker was broke, He returned once again to the gold fields to try to recoup his fortune.

This time, luck did not smile.  He embarked on several ventures, but barely eked out a living as a prospector, resorting to working as a cook for other miners. By 1894 he was suffering from cancer and living in The Old Men’s home in Victoria. He died in July of that year and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Even though he lost his wealth, Billy Barker left a legacy in British Columbia. The town of Barkerville in the Cariboo is named in his honour. Billy Barker Days in nearby Quesnel is a major tourist attraction. And, it seems, Billy was rich in friends. Although he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Victoria’s historic Ross Bay cemetery, his final resting place is marked by a stone erected by his friends to honour his memory and his place in the history of the province.

This monument reads, in part, “”Like many miners, he was soon broke, but Barker continued to mine and prospect throughout the Cariboo for the rest of his life.  The fabulous wealth of the Cariboo mines laid the foundation for British Columbia.  With this monument, Billy Barker is honoured as a builder of the province.  He died poor in wealth, but forever rich in friends.”

 

 

 

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