Category: For Writers (page 1 of 5)

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.

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.

Independence Day


 

Today, May 17, is Independence Day in Norway.  The date commemorates the signing of the Norwegian constitution in 1814 that ended a 100 year coalition with Sweden and, prior to that,  400 years of Danish rule.

Nearly every country in the world has a national day that celebrates their liberation from some other power.  The U.S.A celebrates on July 4, Canada on July 1, Australia on January 1 (that’s summer down under). France has Bastille Day, July 14, to commemorate the abolition of feudalism and the arbitrary rule of the King.  Even England, the country from which many nations of the world today won their freedom, has Magna Carta Day on June 15, to celebrate a cornerstone in the development of a modern, parliamentary democracy.  Just as children grow up and leave home, mature nations are eager to be autonomous — but with favourable trade agreements in place.

The same thing happens in families. As we grow up, we demand independence, but at the same time we strive for connections.  This seems to be an eternal struggle of the human condition, autonomy vs connectedness.  It’s also a rich source of inspiration for writers. How many times have you read about a heroine who is determined to escape the stifling influence of her family/job/school/location, only to then find herself adrift and desperately seeking a deep connection with another.  I’ve just finished writing a short story where the heroine struggles with this problem.  Does she carry on as expected or does she break free?  Does freedom mean loneliness?  The story is part of a collection that celebrates Canada’s 150th birthday.  

Our independence from Britain was a gradual process.  We went to war in 1914 because England declared war on Germany.  In 1929 the Privy Council of Britain was the final court of appeal for a group of Canadian women seeking to have females declared “persons” under the law.  It wasn’t until 1982 that our last legal ties with Britain ended with the patriation of our constitution.  Just like nations, families break apart in various ways, some with anger and violence, like South Sudan, others more peacefully. 

The desire for independence vs the yearning for deep connections seems to be one of those universal truths of the human condition.  For writers, that’s a good thing.  We  need only to look at our own families to find grist for the story mill.

Libel or Slander

Canadian tort law states: The common law protects every person from harm to their reputation by false and derogatory remarks about their person, known as defamation. In addition, all Canadian provinces have libel/ slander legislation (defamation includes slander and libel, where slander is verbal defamation and libel is printed defamation).

 I looked up this information because I’d listened to a sports broadcast where athletes read derogatory messages that had been sent to them, usually on Twitter. The comments were appalling, hurtful attacks based on the players’ physical appearance, name, or gender. They had nothing to do with the skill or sportsmanship of the athletes involved. The broadcaster featured the comments in a “joke” section of the airing. Believe me, puerile, vulgar and slanderous comments are never a joke.

 I’ve no objection to vigorous debate.  A healthy democracy demands it.  But that debate should be about ideas and solutions, about a better future for the world.  The vile, brainless, profanity-ridden bluster of the ignorant that shows up on the internet is not debate.  It is verbal garbage.  It seems anyone with a public profile is grist for the mills of the haters but politicians are especially subject to these brainless tirades. Female politicians fare even worse. Do we really live in a society where a woman with an opposing point of view deserves to be raped? Will vicious, personal attacks prevent war, feed the hungry or even fix the pothole on your street? The answer is no, but they have and will drive dedicated, caring people out of public life, making all of society poorer.

 Words are powerful. They have the ability to demean, frighten and silence. As writers we know that. Why else does an author write, edit, re-write and rework her words in order to give them potency? As readers, we respond to words that touch our hearts, lift our spirits and encourage us to dream. We memorize poetry, not bigotry.

 Recently facebook has announced it will increase its efforts to flag and take down fake news, but the problem goes beyond fake news. What about those who commit violent crimes and post a video of their heinous actions? The material is all too real, but it undermines the very fabric of civilization, tearing moral standards to shreds, and reducing human beings to “objects,” to be used and exploited by evil internet trolls.

I hope platforms like facebook and Twitter can regulate users on their networks, but I long for a world where that isn’t necessary. Mayberry never existed, but I’d rather strive for a world as kind and gentle as that fictional place, then encourage the destruction of all acceptable standards of civility.

That’s why I write about heroic characters, even with their flaws and failings, they try to do the right thing, to help their neighbours and to honour their God. I hope that’s your choice too.

Morning Pages – My Take

 Following on from last week’s thoughts on meditation, this week’s blog features another way of clearing static from the mind, morning pages.

Julia Cameron, in her seminal book for writers, The Artist’s Way, insists that morning pages –three long-hand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing — are essential to the creative process.  Her theory is that we purge ourselves of mind static by writing it all down on the morning pages and are then free to get on with our work of creativity.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, instructs her students to start with childhood memories in their quest to “tell the truth” in stories.

I try to combine these two pieces of advice in my writing exercises.  Yes, I do writing exercises.  Just like a pianist practices scales, every artist/performer must keep her tools in good working order.  In other words, practice.  Many of my writer friends consider morning pages a waste of time.  The thirty minutes spent spewing drivel — their words, not mine — could be better spent on the current work.  That may be true for some, but I find doing some exercises before getting into the real work of the day, makes that real work more enjoyable, more poetic and more “true.”  However, I do choose which exercise to practice.

If my vocabulary seems to have shrunk to the same ten verbs repeated over and over, I do a “beautiful words” exercise.  Some words resonate with me, perhaps not with you, but the morning pages are for the writer not the reader.  So, I’ll fill a page with words like lilacs, lady, lavender, lollygag, lamp, luggage, lily, lollapalooza . . .  It doesn’t really matter what the words are, I’m just opening my mind to the beauty of language and calling some of those buried syllables to the forefront.  When I’ve finished, I go to my WIP and the words, that have been laboured and blocked,  now flow joyfully.

Often I’ll use my morning pages to create emotion.  Here’s where the instruction to start with childhood memories is invaluable.  As adults we’ve learned to be civilized, to bite down on harsh words, to take a balanced approach.  As adults, we’ve learned to flat-line our emotions.  As children, we had no such constraints.  If we were happy, we were ecstatic, if we were angry, we were in a red-hot fury, if we were hurt our very souls wept with the pain.  If the scene in my story demands that my heroine be angry, I’ll do a writing exercise recalling a moment in childhood or the teenage years when I shook my fist in the face of my tormentor and shouted out my righteous rage.

To make these exercises effective for the story teller, they must go into detail.  Remember the room you were in when the event took place.  Describe it in every tiny detail.  Try to recall if there was music or bird song or the hum of a furnace.  What did it smell like?  What were you wearing?  In the morning pages, you want to go deep into your memory.  As well as putting you in the appropriate emotional state, the writing will put you into deep point-of-view as well.  The scene you write after this writing practice will be more “true” than any you made up out of your conscious mind.  Don’t worry about running out of material.  Flannery O’Connor   said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.

Morning pages can take the form of character interviews or a diary entry.  Here is where I explore my character, sound out her childhood memories, let her dream without constraint of money or time or circumstance.  When I put that character into the story, most of what I wrote in the morning pages will never make the published page, but the essence of what I wrote, forms the character and the more “true” that character is, the better the story.

Make up your own writing exercises.  Practice them.  See if it doesn’t make your writing – or painting, or sewing, or teaching or gardening – more satisfying.

If you haven’t read “he Artist’s Way, or Bird by Bird I highly recommend them.

To Meditate or Not

My friend has taken up meditation. Like all new converts, she’s an enthusiastic promoter of her new practice.  She talked to me of  the benefits  of a calm mind – more focus, better time management, clearer thinking, higher productivity.  All attributes I would like to acquire, so I signed up for the ten free on-line sessions and then she gave me another thirty that she’d earned.  I regret to say, I’m a failure at meditation.  As I sit here with my feet flat on the floor, my hands resting on my thighs, my eyes closed and the soothing voice of the leader tells me to focus on my breathing and let my mind empty itself, all I can think of is the million other things I should be doing.

I try opening my eyes and I can see dust. I avert my eyes and see my notebook lying open on the desk, accusing me of wasting time.  I close my eyes and take a deep, cleansing breath.  A car door slams and I remember that I need to run to the grocery store.  The cat walks by and demands that I pick her up and pet her.  Now, a cat’s purr is very soothing but I’m working a knot out of her fur, not meditating. 

After a couple of weeks of failed meditation sessions, I’ve decided the practice is not for me.

I clear my mind by writing it down. If I can’t sleep at night, I get up and write down the matters that are keeping me awake.  Then I go back to bed and drop off immediately, knowing that the problems are noted on a piece of paper and will be waiting for me in the morning.  I don’t need to keep running them through my mind during the hours of darkness.  When I’m stuck with a story problem, I write a list of possible actions and the outcomes of each.  Then I can easily determine where the story should go from here.  When I’m preparing for a big dinner party, I write down all the little things that must be accomplished before the guests arrive.  Once an item is on paper, I can get on with the job and not keep stopping to remember.

There are many studies to show that taking notes by hand rather than by typing improves students’ performance. This is because “Generative note-taking pertains to “summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping,” according to Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles.  Robert Dugoni advises writers in his workshops to put away the keyboard and make their own, hand-written notes, even though he will provide his own notes at the end of the class.

Even if you’re not a student taking notes in class, there are good reasons to “write it down.

It makes you smarter.

That’s because putting pen to paper stimulates a part of the brain called the reticular Activating System, i.e. the act of writing it down tells the brain to give more importance to the stuff you’re focusing on at the moment

It sparks your creativity.

Susan Sontag and Truman Capote and J.K. Rowling, among others, write their first drafts with a pen. Susan Wiggs not only writes her first draft longhand, but with a particular pen, and a particular ink.

It keeps your brain sharp.

The act of writing engages motor-skills, memory and more and is a good cognitive exercise for aging boomers who want to keep their minds sharp.

So, thanks, my friend for sharing your joy in meditation, but I’ll give it a pass. Pen to paper, heart to brain, is my preferred method of finding focus, attacking a problem, or clearing the clutter from my mind.  For anyone who wants to try the course she recommended, here’s the link.  headspace.  For everyone else, visit your favourite stationery store and stock up on pens and pencils, notebooks and writing pads, line them up on your desk and enjoy.

 

 

 

Universal Truth

 

I’m reading “The Valiant Nellie McClung, a Christmas gift.  I’m well acquainted with this Canadian icon, I’ve written about her in this space before.  What I’m struck with in this reading, is the timelessness of her writing.  So timeless, in fact, that some sixty years after her death my local newspaper is re-running some of her columns and they are very popular, not just from an historic point of view but from a current one.

What makes her still relevant? It’s her ability to hit upon universal truths.  Language changes, styles change, manners change, but when Mrs. McClung writes about war, her words ring true for any conflict. “War is not only a waste of things we can see and touch, but makes heavy inroads on the invisible and intangible things of the spirit.” When she speaks of the struggle of good over evil, that struggle is relevant in any age. “The power of evil . . . now stands before us in tanks that belch fire, in planes that drop bombs on hospitals and schools, in grasping bloodstained hands, ready to strangle the innocent and throttle our liberties.” McClung was writing about WWII but her words could apply to Syria, or Sudan, or Somalia today.  Even when she writes of domestic things, she calls to the heart of all of us who long for home. “I began to feel at home as soon as I walked up the gangplank.”

So, apart from my admiration for the woman, why am I telling you about Nellie McClung’s writing today? Because all writers, whatever their time, whatever their genre, strive to tap into that universal truth, that notion that crosses the ages.  The theme of star-crossed lovers has been explored from Shakespeare to Hardy to Bernstein.  Sibling rivalry is a story as old as Cain and Abel.    For romance writers,  we often explore such truths as the need to belong, the desire for family, the longing for justice.   Note this is not the same as genre tropes such as reunion stories, secret babies or runaway brides.  A truth is much deeper and more profound than a genre convention.

Nellie McClung was a woman of strong faith. Her words and actions were shaped by her Christian beliefs and her unwavering belief in Christian democracy.  Her tireless championing of women and children and all those who suffered under the existing power structure stemmed from those convictions.  I believe that is one reason her writings still resonate.  Not only are her themes universally true, they are true to her.

As story-tellers today, we must remember to be true to ourselves in our fiction. No matter the current “hot” topic, if the writer dislikes vampires, she will not be successful as an author of vampire stories.  If she hates small towns, then setting a tale of family and church and community in a small town will ring false to readers.  An old adage for authors is “write what you know.”  I suggest “write what you believe.”

 

 

Point of View

As mentioned last week, my blog has been the victim of a hacker.  The site is now rebuilt and is clean.   Google still flags it as hacked, but it is now safe.  We’re in the process of getting Google to verify and take down their warning.

 

I went for a walk through the Butchart Gardens with a young relative recently.  It was a lesson in point of view.  Things I thought were significant, like the totem poles, received a ho-hum from the four year old, but a very sleepy bee warranted five minutes study.  We met another very short person and engaged in an exchange of teddy-bear touching.  There was a BIG dog, very friendly, and on a leash, but my little charge kept her fingers tightly curled into her palms when invited to meet it.  When the dog is at knee-level it’s beautiful and well-behaved.  When you’re face to face, it’s another perspective altogether.

There was a stroller in our company, so we took paths that avoided steps. Another point of view for me.  I’m apt to take the wide path that includes a long staircase into the sunken garden.  Taking the graduated route brought me to a knot garden I’d never seen before.  There were little pockets of crocus and snowdrops hiding in concealed corners of the road less travelled.  Every trip to the gardens requires that someone sit on the brass pony.  I can pretty much step over it, but the four-year old needed a boost and then her feet didn’t reach the stirrups.  Sitting on the pony became a big deal.  Even mounting a giraffe on the carousel required a lot of lifting and clambering before she was safely in the saddle.  It’s been years since I’ve ridden the carousel and I’d forgotten how fast it turns.  If I had to hang on tight, the little one needed to cling with fingers and toes and knees.  When we got off, I felt dizzy.  She had no problem and declared her intention to race me to the next tree.  I declined but congratulated her on her fleetness of foot.

We looked at maps every now and again and my companion sussed out the ice cream bar on the first perusal. The previous week it had been closed so I cheerfully promised an ice cream cone if the stand was open.  It was!  I paid up and had one for myself as well.

We went through the greenhouse because I thought she’d like the flowers. Wrong.  She did however, enjoy the gold fish.

We talk a lot in writing circles about point-of-view, getting inside your character’s head, writing only what the character can experience. It’s good advice.  My adventure with a chattering four year old was a perfect example.

I’ve just finished a book by a well-known contemporary author that was written entirely in the omniscient view point, surprising, since that style is now considered old-fashioned and remote. The writer is skilled at her craft, so I was engaged with the characters and their story, but all the while I kept thinking I was reading a set-up and that the real story would begin after the characters were introduced.  Didn’t happen.

Another lesson in point-of-view. The technique has the advantage of letting the author tell the reader about things the character’s cannot know but which are important to the story, but it distances the reader from the characters.  Instead of being inside the story, I felt like a hovering presence looking down on a stage. I was an observer rather than a participant in the drama.

I love going to workshops and learning about the craft of writing, but nothing takes the place of real-life experiences. I’ll never again walk in the Butchart Gardens without being aware that my point-of-view is not universal.  I might try getting down on my knees to see what the world looks like from there.

Yay VIRA

Another snow day! Frankly, I’ve had enough.  The first one or two are fun, an unexpected holiday, hunker down by the fire, write, write, write.  But being housebound is getting old!  In this part of the world, we should be out in the garden.  In fact, I pruned fruit trees on the weekend, but Monday saw more snow.

I’m feeling a little cranky just now, but I am grateful that snow was no where in the forecast when VIRA held its annual Valentine’s lunch. February, Valentine’s, romance – seems a perfect combination.

For years this event was mandated by our association with Romance Writers of America® and included lots of awards for writing and volunteering. We had a keynote speaker, usually someone with a first sale – that was in the days when traditional publishing was the only way to go.

Life, and particularly writing life have changed since those early days in my career. Our group is no longer associated with RWA® but we still want to celebrate our craft and each other so, Valentine’s continues to be a highlight of our year.  We’ve cut down considerably on the formality of the occasion although we still celebrate successes and milestones.  This year we had a few more speeches than last.  I enjoyed them.  They reminded me of what it means to be a romance writer, encouraged me to embrace the new business model in  publishing and to set goals for myself for the coming year.  But mostly I enjoyed hanging out with other authors, exchanging war stories, comparing writing routines, hearing the latest from conferences others had attended.

I’d been feeling a bit isolated in my writing. I have an on-line partner whom I treasure, but nothing beats face to face.  As though to underline my feelings, I just read a blog this morning proclaiming just that notion.  “No writer succeeds alone,” and “Everyone needs support” were two of the section headings.  Yes, thought I.  Perhaps it’s because here in North America we’re in the depths of winter that there is a longing for friendly company, perhaps it’s just the fact of being a writer spending long hours alone with my thoughts, but February is definitely a time when I’m glad I have writer friends to share the journey.  We may not write the same kind of books, we may not read the same kind of books, we may be traditionally published or e-published, we may spend hours on social media or we may find social media the greatest time-suck going.  What we share is the struggle and passion of putting words to paper, of creating a story from nothing but our own imaginations, of having that euphoric moment when we write “the end.”

Merci, mes amis.  You make the journey fun.

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