Beginnings

This weekend I attended a meeting of my local romance authors group, where the workshop topic was “Brilliant Beginnings,” as presented by Vanessa Grant. We talked about hooks, and power words, and story questions, and tone, and sensory input and dialogue.  Everyone could agree on the importance to those qualities.  We also suggested a hint of the conflict should be present and something of the main character’s personality or background.  Quite a lot to pack into a few opening sentences, but we blithely agreed it could all be done.

Then we broke into groups to analyse the openings of several well-known authors and couldn’t agree on anything! In my group, I found the opening lines of Kristan Higgins’ novel, A Perfect Match, made me laugh.  I definitely wanted to read more.  Others in my same small group complained about a lack of conflict, not enough sensory detail and lack of story question.  When other groups reported in, there was a similar difference of opinion.

I was delighted to find disagreement.

I have maintained for some time that the axiom, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” applies to writing too. Readers have individual tastes, as do writers.  I may find a book that includes a character hooked on x-stitch intriguing while someone else may dismiss it as too old fashioned.  Some readers like lots of explicit sex, others, like me, prefer to close the bedroom door.  There is no one-size fits all.

This is not to say that studying writing, learning the techniques of successful authors, and  practicing the craft is pointless.  Those exercises are extremely valuable.  For by studying, learning and practicing an author can find her own style, her own set of “rules” and the readers who respond.  But as one who finds rules or templates hard to follow, I’m always seeking vindication.  Those who lecture on “this is how it’s done,” scare me.  I’ve tried to force myself into someone else’s shoes and my muse dried up completely.

So, I say “amen” to a difference of opinion.

What about you, dear readers? Want to play the opening lines game?  Here’s a few examples of my favourites.  Feel free to disagree.

“A fox got in amongst the hens last night, and ravished our best layer,” remarked Miss Lanyon. “A great-grandmother, too!  You’d think he would be ashamed!”  Venetia by Georgette Heyer

1801—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

As Clara Morrow approached,  she wondered  if he’d  repeat the  same small gesture  he’d done every morning. 

It was so tiny, so insignificant. So easy to ignore.  The first time. The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window.  Nothing great.  The furniture keeps disappearing, though.  That keeps things interesting.  A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

My house stands at the edge of the earth. the birth house by Ami McKay

 Maggie Ann Keaton swung shut the wrought-iron gates of her new home and secured the chain and padlock, giving them a hard tug to make sure they held, and hung a “No Admittance,” sign just for good measure. Love and Lilacs by Mary Alice Valdal

“I can’t believe we’re arguing about a waterbuffalo.” Annie Rush reached for her husband’s shirt collar, turning it neatly down. Family Tree by Susan Wiggs

Fear churned in Allie Tillman’s nervous stomach, like a butter paddle in a jar of thick cream. Bobbins and Boots by Shanna Hatfield.

Share your thoughts in the comments section and be entered to win a free e-copy of The Man Who Hated Christmas.  Winner announced Nov. 1, 2017.

If you enjoy dissecting the openings to books, the blog Writer Unboxed runs a regular feature called Flog a Pro.  Enjoy!

Thanksgiving

Practicing gratitude is always a good idea, but here, in Canada, we set aside the second weekend in October to give thanks particularly for the harvest.  This is a wonderful season of the year, warm days, cold nights, the leaves turning to scarlet and gold, and the bounty of field and garden coming to fruition.  Thanksgiving is one of my favourite holidays, not only because I love the harvest, but because it’s an excuse to feast with friends and family, to have a day off work and be done.  No weeks of shopping, baking, wrapping, decorating, concert-going and entertaining. Décor can be as simple as a pumpkin on the doorstep or coloured leaves scattered across the dining room table.  And when it’s over, it’s over.  Cook the pumpkin and make pie.  Throw the leaves in the compost, and life goes back to normal.

I might sound a bit like a curmudgeon and I do love Christmas, but I feel the “festivities” have replaced the “festival.” Thanksgiving, so far, has escaped that fate, although I have friends who love to ramp up the decorations.

While Thanksgiving in Canada celebrates the harvest of food crops, it doesn’t hurt to remember the other harvests in our lives.  For a writer, a finished manuscript it a lot like harvest – a project that has been seeded and tended and weeded and cultivated and finally comes to fruition.  For a knitter it could be a year’s worth of handknit socks, or afghans or dishcloths.  For a potter it could be store full of thrown, fired, painted, glazed and fired again pottery.

In our lives we have relationships to nurture and be thankful for. Memories of loved ones who have passed but who still bless our spirits. Family who may frustrate and delight us in the space of a few minutes but who are “ours” bound together for life in the rich soup that is parents and children, cousins and aunts, in-laws and steps, siblings by birth or adoption.  I’m never-endingly grateful for the messy, swirling mass of humanity that is my family.

I count Canada among my blessings, a beautiful land where we promote peace with our enemies and foster friendship with our neighbours.

My church– where I worship without fear– nurtures my soul and surrounds me with fellowship.

Newscasts of the day are filled with horrors, disasters, and evil deeds. It is easy to believe that the world is a dark and terrible place.  As an antidote to that litany of grief, go count the pumpkins, and practice gratitude for the deeds that are loving, the people who race to help when disaster strikes, and for the everyday moments of compassion, heroism, and generosity that never make it to the nightly newscast. Those moments give us hope, they deserve our attention, and must be on our gratitude lists.

Hope your Thanksgiving was filled with warmth and laughter, good food and good friends – and maybe a good book.

High Fashion in Hats

 

Continuing my search for historical authenticity, I’ve been looking at women’s hats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Hollywood has given us all an idea of headgear from previous ages but not all movie depictions are accurate.  I once saw a version of a Jane Austin novel where the women wore Victorian dress – billowing sleeves, tight waists and voluminous skirts – not the slender silhouette of a Regency lady.

One way to determine what people wore, is to look at photographs of the time and place. The B.C. Archives contains a wealth of such information.  The archives can be searched on-line anywhere, or in person at 675 Belleville Street,Victoria, BC.

 

Hannah Maynard multi-exposure

Hannah Maynard, Victoria’s own lady photographer, took hundreds of pictures of our province and its people between 1862 and 1912, many are self-portraits as she studied the science and art of photography.  There are no hats in this one, where she shows herself pouring tea on herself in a multiple exposure print of herself at a tea party, made up of herself, herself and herself, but it illustrates her sense of humour.

 

For the purposes of this blog, I’m focussing on hats. I’ll save sleeves, necklines and corsets for another day.

 

Indian Annie

Here we have a picture of “Indian Annie” from 1879 taken at Yale, B.C. Annie is an Indigenous woman, but she wears European garb in this photo.  Her hat is straw, broad-brimmed to protect her from the sun and low crowned.  A very practical accoutrement.

 

Hannah Maynard again, in the 1880’s wearing a typical hat for a woman of her standing in the city of Victoria.  A modest affair, with a rolled brim, and feather ornament on a low crown.

 

 

 

By 1890, headgear was more elaborate. This photo is of Evelyn Berens, an Englishwoman who went adventuring with her husband in the Rocky Mountains.  Note the high crown and the elaborate ornamentation.  Of course, just like our celebrities, she wore the latest and most extravagant of the current fashion.

 

Violet 1900

If Ms Berens was in the forefront of fashion, this young woman, Violet wasn’t far behind. The photograph was taken in 1900 and shows a higher crown than previously.  The brim is wider and tilted forward while the piled ribbons speak to a more elaborate direction for ladies hats.

 

And just to show that fashion is cyclical, this towering concoction is offered to any woman with a mailing address. It comes from the 1877 Eaton’s catalogue.

I’ve listed some reference sites below if you want to explore more, but I warn you, gentle readers, you may feel you’ve gone down the rabbit hole when you delve into the lives of our foremothers.

References:

B.C. Archives> Portraits> Women

Mail Order Catalogues in Canada

Hannah Maynard

B.C. Historical Newspapers Collection

Playing Dress-up

dress-up box

Browsing through my local dollar store last week I came upon an aisle filled with Hallowe’en costumes. Yes, already.  The paper and tinsel costumes didn’t interest me that much, but a pair of bright-eyed children did.  They cruised up and down the shelves, studying each costume, checking with mom if it was acceptable, then going back to ponder the merits of a pirate versus a princess, a witch versus a vampire.  The costumes were entrancing, but flimsy.   If bought five weeks in advance, I wonder if they’ll last through to Hallowe’en.

The incident reminded me of the old dress up box in my childhood home. It lived at the back of my closet on a broad shelf created by the ceiling of the staircase.  Perfect place, don’t you think?  Dark, set apart, magical.  The truth was the trunk held a few of my mother’s old clothes but for my brothers and I it was treasure chest, yielding endless hours of entertainment and long involved tales of derring do and fair maidens.

In an age of slim fit pants, my mom’s old bell-bottoms seemed hilariously ridiculous, but paired with an oversize shirt knotted at the waist and a paper hat, they made a great sailor, change the hat for an eye-patch and a bandana and you had a pirate.

Carefully wrapped in tissue paper was a beautiful, lady’s blouse.  Made of amber silk with tight cuffs, puffed sleeves, pin-tucks on the bodice, fitted to the waist and flared over the hips it was truly a work of art.  It was also fragile with age.  I learned later that my great aunt had made her living as a seamstress.  The blouse was one of her creations.  Sadly, it turned to dust before I learned to appreciate it.

The biggest prize in the box was a cape—navy twill on the outside, scarlet satin on the inside. It served as Red Riding Hood’s cloak, Zorro’s cape, a bull-fighter’s capote, and a nurse’s outdoor wear, just to name a few.

On rainy days, when we were too much underfoot, my mother would banish us from the kitchen to the dress-up box. We could come back when we had a costume and a story to go with it.  Maybe that was the start of my story-telling career.

When my brothers and I outgrew dressing up, the box was tucked away in its special place, only to be rediscovered by my nieces.  Once again, the dress-up box played a starring role in a child’s imagination.  Little girls in swirls of gauzy scarves clunked down the stairs in too-big high-heeled shoes to regale their grandparents with long, involved and impossible tales.

I have the box, now. It was originally a wooden box for paper.  My great grandfather was a newspaper man and needed a lot of paper.  The large quantities he order, about 200 quires, came in these wooden, leather covered boxes.  As far as I know, this is the only one that has survived in my family, and it is in poor repair.  Anyone know how to reattach the leather covering without ruining it?

I no longer play dress-up, but I like to spin stories. Maybe that’s a technique I could explore.  Before sitting down at the computer I could don a long skirt with petticoats, a tight-sleeved blouse and an over-size hat.  Then I’d be in the proper frame of mind—and body—to tell tales of women on the frontier.

Share your dress-up story in the comments below to be entered in the draw for a free copy of The Man Who Hated Christmas.

Finding a New Favourite Author

 

We’ve all got our favourite authors, right? I love the classics, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Georgette Heyer, for example.

About grade six I discovered Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew.  My grandmother gave me all of Louisa May Alcott’s books.  When I started reading category romance Essie Summers was a treat.  I loved the way she led me through New Zealand, almost as though I were on a mountain road, climbing to the snow cap, then dipping down to a bay of blue-green water.

Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Elizabeth George and Mary Higgins Clark made my list of mystery authors.

But times change. I’ve out-grown Nancy Drew and I’ve read everything Georgette Heyer wrote, so, like all readers, I’m constantly on the look-out for a new-to-me favourite.

I love roaming the aisles of a book store, the old-fashioned kind, with a front door, paperbacks on the shelf and a knowledgeable clerk who seems to have read every volume in the shop. I’m tantalized by the cover, then the back blurb and finally by a few sample paragraphs.  By the way, I’ve heard that as well as page one, a reader should read page 100, to see if the author is able to sustain the momentum of the story.  I’ve used that little trick and saved myself a few dollars and a lot of disappointment.  Still, there’s nothing like the look and feel of a brand, new book to lure me to a new author.

With e-books, it’s a lot harder. I can’t touch the books displayed on the screen.  I can’t leaf through the pages and those tiny icons can’t compare to a full-size cover.  And while my bookstore holds more volumes than I can properly peruse, the internet holds millions.  How can I find my true love in such an avalanche?  Here is where recommendations from trusted friends are helpful.  Or reviews.  Authors crave reviews nearly as much as they crave chocolate.  In the ocean of books clamouring to be read, a review helps narrow the choice.  If you read a book you love, encourage that author (and keep her writing) by posting a review

The recent Booksweeps event I was part of is another way of finding new-to-you authors. I hope everyone who participated found books they can read and enjoy.  I hope one of those books is mine.

I checked out all the authors on the list and found a few I want to know better.  Davalynne Spencer writes rollicking historical westerns with a good dose of bad guys in the mix.  Shana Hatfield writes sweet westerns with lots of humour. If you want something with more spice, try Cynthia Woolf.

I discovered all these authors through the Booksweeps.

What about you? What’s your best tip for find a new author you love?

Leave a comment and your name is entered in the draw for a free copy of my e-book collection of Christmas short stories.  Winner announced Nov. 1, 2017

The Wisdom of Susan Wiggs

 

On a rainy Saturday, I attended a workshop given by Susan Wiggs and sponsored by my local authors group, VIRA. Wonderful way to spend a gloomy day. 

Being in a roomful of writers is a bit like going into the sunshine.  This group is positive, upbeat and cheerful – most of the time.  The workshop was no exception.  The room buzzed with energy and “reunion” conversations between Susan’s lessons.  While she spoke about her writing journey, you could almost hear the wheels turning as each writer present took in the information and considered how or if a similar strategy might be useful in her own path to publication.  I say “her” because it was an all female event, by accident, not be design.  Then again, the “femaleness” of the day may have contributed to the ambiance.  I’ve nothing against men, I’m quite fond of many of them, but a gathering of only women does have a certain vibe not present at mixed events.  I’m sure all-male events could say the same thing, although the vibe would be different.

Anyway, back to the workshop. Our group had send a list of topics we’d like to hear about.  I expected Susan to pick one or two.  Instead, she tried to touch on the entire writing journey from newbie to old pro and from idea to finished product.  A jam-packed day to say the least. 

Although time was limited, she did give us a few minutes to write down our three writing gurus, three essential writing tools and three writing triggers. Sadly, there wasn’t time to share, but even thinking about my own answers helped me to see a pattern in my process.  If I can exploit that pattern, perhaps I can increase my productivity and my craft.

One of my triggers is a clean slate.” That means a clean house, a clean desk, and a mind free of “musts” and “shoulds.”  For someone who procrastinates endlessly about housework, this creates a problem.  I have a cousin who sews and says she can’t work unless her sewing room is spotless and organized.  So long as I can find the sewing machine, I’m good to go.  Unhappily, I can’t apply that technique to writing.  Perhaps that’s why my second trigger is a coffee shop.

I believe the reason I escape to a coffee shop to write is because it provides that “clean slate” for me.  If there’s a streak on the window, it’s not my problem.  If the used cups are piling up in the bin, it’s not my problem.  If the lawn is a muddy mess, it’s not my problem.  At the coffee shop, the only requirement for me, is that I write.  Having coffee and chocolate for fuel doesn’t hurt. 🙂

My third trigger is research. I love to poke around in the library, the internet and newspaper archives for arcane bits of information.  Sometimes the research answers a question in my ms, sometimes it sends me down a whole new path.  I’d add a caveat to the research trigger though.  Be careful that it doesn’t take the place of writing.  Scholars have spent lifetimes on research.  A writer of commercial fiction can’t afford that luxury.  I try to make sure my research is focussed and doesn’t take me into a rabbit warren of facts that detract from the prime task of writing.

I’d love to hear from other artistic types. What triggers your creativity?  Can you work in a hurricane?  Can you balance your laptop on top of a to-do list and still make progress?

Leave a comment and get your name in the draw for a free copy of my Christmas short story anthology, The Man Who Hated Christmas.

My Vintage Fails

This is a photograph of a jar of water.  The only product I managed to seal in a vintage jar with a glass top, a rubber ring and a metal screw top.  I tried three times to put up a jar of preserves “like my grandmother did.”  That’s the language in the catalogue of our annual fall fair.   In honour of Canada’s 150th, the theme of the fair this year was “heritage seeds and breeds” with an emphasis on “vintage” everything.  When I saw the class for “vintage preserves” I thought it would be a snap.  I remembered the jars on the canning shelf at home, filled with strawberries and raspberries and peaches.  The fruit sucked tightly to the top while the bottom quarter of the jar showed only syrup.  That’s how you know the jar has sealed properly.  The vacuum pulls the fruit to the top.

I have a green gage plum tree — heritage breed, thought I.  The green plums in my vintage jar will look nice.  I’ll enter the category.  After a hunt through thrift stores for a vintage jar and a visit to the hardware store for new rubber rings, I set about to make my one jar of preserves.  Thirty minutes to sterilize the equipment, make the syrup and cold pack the jar. Then 20 minutes in the canner.  Don’t know why my mother made such a big deal out of such a simple operation.

Ahem!  The seal leaked.  My canner was full of plum syrup and the fruit, packed against the top of the jar when I took it out of the canner, slowly sank to the middle in a ragged mess.  So . . . not so easy after all.  Oh well, I’ve got more plums.  Try again.  This time I took extra care to be sure the top of the jar was free of any drops of syrup and wiped dry before I added the rubber ring, the glass top and the metal band.  Into the canner it went, but despite having the heat turned to high, it took forever to get the water back up to a rolling boil.  Result?  Leaked juice and floating fruit.  Funnily enough, when I tried to open the jar it was very well sealed and I had to pry a knife into the rubber ring to get it to open.  Sadly, the syrup no longer covered the fruit.  Not a prize winning effort.

Just to prove something to myself, I repeated the canning process with nothing but water in the jar.  It sealed, but I couldn’t put that in the fair.  I resorted to a different vintage jar, filled with marmalade and sealed with paraffin, another vintage method of finishing off preserves.  The judges thought it was “just lovely,” but didn’t warrant a ribbon.  Sigh!

Despite my multiple failures, the experiment was worth every minute.  As an author of Historical Romance, I’m always on the lookout for authentic information on life as it was lived in other times.  It’s one thing to go to a museum and look at an old-fashioned kitchen, to see jars of preserves on the shelf and to admire a hem-stitched pillowcase.  It’s quite another to participate in the creation or use of those items.  So, my failure was a great learning experience.   As Henry Ford said,  “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

Well, I’ve learned quite a lot, including renewed admiration for my foremothers.  If I couldn’t get the water to boil and the seal to hold with all my modern conveniences, including an electric stove, imagine doing it on a wood-fired cook stove during an Ontario summer.  No wonder they got up at dawn, eager to get the work done before the hottest part of the day.  They used the sweltering afternoon hours to do “light” work like mending and knitting and singing to children.  I bow before their skill, toil, and indomitable spirits.  I also apologize for every time I took them and their work for granted.

Oh, one other thing.  I did win a “best in show” rosette for my bowl of roses.  It’s nice to have a few successes to temper the failures.

 

Remember to comment on this blog to have your name entered to win a copy of my e-book, “The Man Who Hated Christmas and other short stories.”  Winner announced Nov. 1, 2017.

Win a Book, Win a Kindle

Something different for this week’s blog.  Regular readers know that I rarely do promotions of my own books, but I’ve decided to make an exception.  I’ve joined with 15 other writers of Western romance to offer readers a chance to win a huge collection of novels to 2 lucky winners, PLUS a Kindle Fire to the Grand Prize winner.

You can win the second novel in my Prospect series,  Her One and Only, plus books from authors like  Shana Hatfield and Davalynn Spencer 

Enter the giveaway by clicking here     bit.ly/2xp7Ok8
Good luck and enjoy reading.
Alice

New Term

Orange cones blocked various lanes of the road today. There was fresh paint on the school crossing lines.

The newspaper contained a thick wad of “back to school,” flyers.

Turned on the radio and heard that B.C. is hiring hundreds of teachers. Apparently the province is advertising coast to coast for all grades and subjects.  French immersion teachers are in especially high demand.

All in all, there’s a buzz in the air. Summer is drawing to a close.  School starts in less than two weeks – a new term, a new year, new challenges, new friends to meet, new skills to master.  I always loved the return to school.  I know, I’m weird, but by the time the air turned crisp in September, I was bored with summer and ready to get back to the routine of books and classes.

I haven’t gone to school for many years now, but I still feel energized by cooler air and shorter days. I’ve been re-reading, re-writing and tweaking my collection of Christmas stories.  Many of these tales have been sent to my newsletter subscribers, so the edits have been done before, but there’s always room for improvement.  I’ve fixed a typo here and there, re-arranged a sentence to have more impact, and written new material.

I’ve worked with a red pen on a paper ms.  Very old school of me, but that is my comfort zone.  No one rings a bell at 9:00 am or demands that I present clean finger-nails for inspection, but, in my own way, I’m going back to school.  The student in me enjoys the crisp, clean paper and the sharpened pencils.  The teacher in me is quick to spot misspellings, poor grammar or awkward writing.

The new collection is titled, “The Man Who Hated Christmas – and other short stories.”  I’ve got the cover image – see photo at the top of this blog – and a deadline for formatting.  I’m happy.  I feel like I’m going back to school.

How about you?  Do you love or loathe going back to classes?  Do you prefer a new pencil box or a new ipad?  Leave a comment and I’ll enter your name to win an electronic copy of The Man Who Hated Christmas.  Winner to be announced Nov. 1, 2017.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

At some point in her career, every writer is asked “where do you get your ideas?” There are many answers, but I found a source for new story ideas at a concert at the Butchart Gardens last week.  One of the blessings of living in my part of the world is the live music hosted at the Gardens every night in the summer, or as one entertainer put it, “the best smelling concert venue in all of Canada.”  On this particular night, I heard Tiller’s Folly.  They are a B.C trio that now bills itself as “acoustic roots music.”

I went to hear them because I like Celtic music and that is part of their repertoire, but I heard much more than that. I got a lesson on Canadian and, more specifically, British Columbian history.  Tales of rum runners, and ghosts and explorers, and whales and miners and lumberjacks.

This group has done its research and brought history alive through story and song. I’m pleased to report they visit schools in our province so children are learning the history behind the names on streets, and mountain tops and waterways.

As a writer of historical romance, I was inspired. They told no tales of women on the pirate ships, but what if there were?  What if a woman joined a river exploration?  What if a woman tended a lighthouse?

If you are a writer, stuck for an idea, I’d suggest you listen to, or read the lyrics, of folk singers, or country and western singers, or opera singers. The music is full of tales of derring-do, of battles won and lost, of mighty men and inspiring women.  Sometimes they tell of small things, of a man and a woman and how they find love, of a family that loses its way, of a dream lost and found.

So, next time I’m stuck for a story idea, I’ll look up some songs by Tiller’s Folly. I’m sure I’ll be inspired.

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