Category: For writers

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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The Archives

 

It’s time to clear out my writing office. For someone with a scant “published” list, I have an enormous number of words committed to paper.  I have several drafts of all my traditionally published books, plus the proofs, both marked and corrected versions.  I’ve filled the file cabinet, the closet, an old trunk and now have piles on the floor of new and old writing.  My personal archive.  Why am I keeping all these miles of words? 

Perhaps it’s because putting words on paper is hard work. Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid I’ll never find those words again.  My friend, when home computers were new, hit a button somewhere and turned her term paper into an alphabetical list of words.  Imagine her panic.  The paper represented weeks of work, it was due in a matter of hours and now all her work was a mere list of words.  Perhaps it is that distrust of technology that makes me print out draft versions of my work and keep them. Perhaps it’s just the packrat in me. 

Along with the piles of manuscripts, I have boxes and boxes of old birthday cards.  Every time I pull them out, determined to glean only the special ones and recycle the rest, I get stuck in reminiscence and put nearly all of the cards back in the box.  Such is the power of words on paper.

My brother has been researching our family history but has been miserly with sharing his findings with the rest of us. The reason, he says, is because most of his work is guesses but once a guess is put down in writing, it isn’t long until that guess becomes a “fact.”  Imagine having a brother so wise!

Given that the written word is so powerful, it behoves all of us, especially writers, to chose those words carefully, to consider their impact not only in the moment, but in days or years to come. Are our words kind, do they inspire, are they true, are they of benefit to the reader?  In troubled times it is easy to dismiss fiction, especially romantic fiction, as fluff, a waste of time and money, an escape from reality.  In part, those pejoratives may be true, but romantic fiction at its best reminds the world that love is powerful, that relationships give meaning to life, that justice will out.  And there is really nothing wrong with a little escapism.  Why else did Bob Hope visit war zones?  People in conflict and danger, stress and fear, need relief.  They need laughter.  They need a world where the good guys win, where the guy gets and girl and they all live happily ever after.

Words on paper can free or they can imprison.  Today I will reduce the amount of paper in my office, but I’ll continue to hoard beautiful words.

 

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Lesson from a Master

Dancer Fred Astaire was one of Hollywood’s best box office draws during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Some say he was the most popular music dancer of all time.  Although his style appeared effortless, those one take sequences on film were the result of hours and hours of rehearsal.  Previous to Astaire’s success, Hollywood musicals concentrated on large chorus lines, filmed from different angles, resulting in a kaleidoscope effect.  Astaire changed all that, presenting a solo dancer or couple in full-figure with minimum edits and camera angles.  When you watch Fred Astaire, you see the real thing, no cameral magic to cover a misstep.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were before my time but I’ve always enjoyed watching them in old movies. I never thought of him as much of a romantic hero – too thin, too small, slightly balding – but I admired his dancing.  Recently I saw an old movie clip of Astaire that segued into a modern dancer performing the same routine.  I was astonished.  The difference was so stark even a layman like me could see the difference.  The modern dancer was competent, never missed a step.  But Astaire was grace and elegance and fluidity and style with a capital S.  Despite having watched his movies, I never really appreciated his talent until I saw a poor comparison.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfyXPONE7Ws

As writers we’re encouraged to study our heros. Find an author we admire and enjoy.  Study her methods.  Read and re-read her work.  Dig out what makes her words special and then incorporate what we’ve learned into our own writing.  I admit that lesson doesn’t produce good results for me.  I’m so overwhelmed with admiration for the authors who write with energy, and style and grace and elegance and verve and . . . that I forget I’m supposed to be pulling the story apart and doing a critique.  I also find it hard to put my finger on just what it is that makes a particular author’s work so compelling for me.

Now, using my experience of watching Fred Astaire and an also-ran, I’m studying a “bad” book. This is an assigned reading for my book club.  Otherwise, I’d have tossed the novel after the first five, boring pages.  There are no “rules” for writing but there are certain conventions and expectations.  For readers of fiction, I believe the first expectation is to be entertained, from the very start.  One of the blogs I follow, Writers Unboxed, has a regular feature called “Flog a Pro.”  Here the writer community is asked to comment on the first page of a best-selling novel and determine if they, as an editor, would turn the page.  I’m sure the first page of this book would receive a “fail” in his test.  It does not engage this reader, nothing happens, there is no story question, there is no pithy dialogue, there is no appealing character.  In short, the beginning is boring.

Note to self: Reread first page of manuscript and be sure there is action, a question or a character who is so engaging the reader can’t help wanting to know more.

Most teachers of creative writing suggest limiting the story to one or two point-of-view characters. This book has four at least plus a couple of secondary POV segments.  Not only does the story bounce around from one POV character to another, it bounces around in time from pre-war, to present day, to London Blitz, to post-war England and other points in between.  When the author finally caught my attention, she jumped to a different character in a different time.  When I got involved there, she jerked me to yet another time and character.  By this time, I’d forgotten the initial question and I no longer cared.

Note to self: Teasing the reader with tidbits of information to draw her along in the story is a useful technique.  Driving the reader nuts with endless, unresolved cliff-hangers will see your book make a splat on the wall.

The “heroine” of this book, is an unlikeable character. She is deceitful, conniving and self-absorbed.  Tragedy in her personal history does not excuse her outrageous and damaging behaviour.

Note to self: Make your heroine likable.  Flaws make a character more believable, but if the character is your hero/heroine, there must be some redeeming features. (S)he must grow, change and present the reader with an admirable personality by the end of the book.

Thank you Mr. Astaire, and the also-ran dancer who showed me the true genius of the master. I still wish I hadn’t had to read the last book, but you’ve shown me how to learn from a bad example.

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Fiction and History

 

        With the success of dramas such as Downton Abbey, movie makers have turned to history for inspiration. Yay!  I’m all for teaching the modern generation about our past, our triumphs and our tragedies, our successes and our mistakes.  What concerns me is the willingness of film-makers and screen writers to present fiction as historical fact.  Even with the disclaimer at the end or the beginning of the film that the work comes from the writer’s imagination, the viewing public will believe that Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth I or Henry VIII really said and thought what the film portrayed.  Historical researchers will spend months or years, poring over personal correspondence, diaries, contemporary writings, newspaper articles and pictures of the day to ensure the accuracy of what they publish to the world about historical characters.  Modern film-makers seem  cavalier about truth.  If the real life of an historical character is dull, they just make up stuff to give it more sex-appeal, attributing thoughts and words to an historical figure that may even contradict what is known about that person’s beliefs.  As a writer and a lover of history, I find this approach disturbing.

 “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill.  I believe this is true.  How often throughout history have we seen the same forces at work – greed, intolerance, hatred, fear, racism, — leading mankind into war and famine and suffering.  Yet, how can we learn from the past if the past is distorted?  I’m all in favour of a good story, in an historical setting, with real-life characters playing a role, but I think the made-up stuff should only apply to the made-up people.

To that end, I present this brief biography of one of the first women of the Klondike.  It’s as accurate as I can make it.  The tale needs no embellishment to touch the heart.

 

 Kate Carmack          

Sometime around 1886, Shaaw Tlaa, the daughter of a Tagish woman and a Tlingit man married, “in the custom of the country”, George Carmack, an American prospector and had a daughter with him.  Upon her marriage, Shaaw Tlaa became known as Kate Carmack.      Kate was skilled in the art of survival in the harsh climate of the Yukon.  She kept house for her husband, raised their daughter, Graphie Grace, sewed moccasins and warm winter clothing to sell to other miners, picked berries and snared game for food and even took in laundry to keep the family going until the mining claims began to pay.  Then on Aug, 16, 1896, George, along with Kate’s brothers, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, discovered gold on Rabbit Creek   The three men hurried to Forty Mile on the Yukon River to register their claim and the Klondike Gold Rush was underway.  By default, Kate became the first woman on the Klondike.     For the first year after their strike, Kate’s life didn’t change much, but in 1898 George decided to take a trip “outside” to enjoy his new wealth.  Taking Kate and Graphie Grace with him, George headed south to visit his sister Rose Watson, in California..  In Seattle, George  signed Kate into hotels as Mrs. Carmack and showed off his wealth by draping her with gold-nugget necklaces.   He even told the newspaper reporters that he had a mind to take his family to the Paris Exposition in 1900 and he would be glad to have Jim and Charlie along.     Sadly for Kate, the city proved her undoing.  She was unhappy and bewildered in these strange surroundings.  She and her brothers drank too much.  Once she was arrested and spent a night in jail.  The newspapers of the time delighted in portraying Kate and her brothers as wild savages.  George doesn’t appear to have done anything to ease her way into southern society.     After a few weeks in Seattle, the Carmacks moved on to California to stay with George’s sister, Rose.  Rose was delighted to see her brother, but had scant regard for Kate.  She must have felt enormous relief in the spring of 1899 when George took her home to the Klondike.  The only fly in her ointment was that Graphie Grace stayed behind with her Aunt Rose to be “civilized”.     On a second trip South in the summer of 1899, Kate was again sport for the newspapers and George complained bitterly to his sister about her, saying he’d like to send her home to Dyea right away.  Instead of acting on that reasonable impulse,  George returned to the Yukon alone, leaving Kate with his sister in California.  In the winter of 1899-1900, George met Marguerite Laimee in Dawson and proposed at once.  Marguerite accepted on the spot.     Hurt and confused, Kate charged George with adultery, but although they had lived together as man and wife for thirteen years, she could not produce any legal documentation to support her claims.  George married Marguerite in Seattle.  Kate returned to the Klondike where.  Skookum Jim build her a cabin in Carcross.   She earned a small income from selling her needlework to tourists and occasionally posing for photographs.  George sent not a single dollar to support her or their daughter.     Instead, when Graphie Grace was sixteen, George arranged for her to leave the mission school in Whitehorse and join him in Seattle.  It was the greatest betrayal Kate could have endured.  In the  Tagish traditions children belonged with their mother’s clan.  A year later Graphie married her step-mother’s brother and severed all ties with her mother.   Kate died of influenza on March 29, 1920.

 

 

 

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Confession Time

            A few months ago I wrote a blog on my new “chunky list” method of time management. I proudly proclaimed my affection for lists and recorded my successes.   I haven’t talked about lists much lately.  There’s a reason.  I’ve fallen off the page.  My lists are short and general rather than long and specific.  Some very measurable things, like laundry, get done in their regular time slot (Monday) but others like “write” aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.  My productivity has fallen in recent weeks along with my drive to finish the story.

            Enter my friend/critiquer/encourager/fellow-traveller from the other side of the world. We met several years ago on an on-line course.  The presenter said “pick a partner.”  I decided to find someone as far away from my usual world as I could.  My partner, AB, had the same thought, so now a Canadian and an Australian are travelling the road of life and writing together.  We e-mail each other every Monday with an account of our week.  Sometimes the e-mails are full of glowing achievements, thinking aloud about plot/character problems, or the sharing of a highlight in our personal lives.  Other times our exchanges consist of a tirade about the unfairness of the world/family/work/fate, take your pick, or the clueless comment made by a husband.  As our friendship grows, there are more of the personal notes in our correspondence but always something about the writing.

            Last week I was moaning about being stuck and she was complaining about lack of inspiration. We both have January birthdays and the horoscope for our year was not encouraging! AB proposed that we set a word count goal and tell each other what it was, then report back.  I’m always up for a challenge.  I set my goal, the same as AB’s as it turns out, and then my week went haywire. Unexpected errands, a power outage, freezing weather and a weekend away, made the goal hard to attain, but I wasn’t going to report failure on Monday morning.  I wrote while I waited for the car to be serviced, I wrote before breakfast and after supper, I sandwiched in some coffee shop writing between trips to the grocery store and the pharmacy.  By Friday night I’d reached my word count and went off on a wee holiday with a clear conscience.  On Monday morning I wrote to my friend trumpeting my success.

           I’m not giving up on my lists, they are an excellent tool for me, giving me an overview of my week, illuminating a timetable to accomplish all my tasks, highlighting where and when the writing can happen, providing a roadmap to the end of the book. I’m very fond of my lists.  However, I forgive myself easily for not reaching my goals, especially when it’s Christmas and I have a new book or three and a really hard jigsaw puzzle.  That word count is just a number I made up.  It doesn’t matter to anyone else.  But having declared my intention to AB, I had renewed motivation to get there.  We’re both Capricorns and hate to fail!

            So, if you’re feeling stuck, whether it’s with writing or sticking to a diet or managing your budget, or any other life goal, I recommend finding a partner to hold you accountable.  I met AB more or less by accident but we hit it off – a lovely piece of serendipity — but there are other ways of networking.  Some of my writer’s crowd have set up small critique groups, our chapter has a goal-setting exercise every February, a couple have a relatives who serve as  sounding boards and task masters.  There are on-line sites to help writers set goals and achieve them.  Here are three suggested ones.  Some charge, others are free.

The Writer’s Circle

Absolute Write

There’s even an app for that at Novelicious

           It’s important to find the type of group/partner that works for you. I’m not a chart-type of person so if I have to fill in boxes, the system won’t work for me.  If you love tables and graphs and fill-in-the-blanks type accounting, then you should look for like-minded people.  If you want to keep it strictly professional, maybe one of the paid circles is your choice.  If you like to mix in some personal stuff, then a friend with similar goals may be more your style.

         Of course, just like in real life, no one writing partner will fulfil all your needs. I have writing friends whom I meet in person, we brainstorm, commiserate, encourage, share information and sometimes exchange recipes.  I love our gab sessions.  Fortunately, friends in person and friends on-line is not an either/or situation.  I can have both, eat my cake and have it too.  How often does that happen?

It has been said before but I’ll say it again, writing is a lonely business. It’s easier with company.

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Gems in the Files

      As part of my January clear-out, I sorted through the drawers of my desk. No matter how often I cull, they always fill up again so now it’s part of my New Year’s ritual.  Anyway, amid the old receipts and cards, I came across my file of workshop notes.  What at treat!  I soon gave up my housekeeping and immersed myself in the file.  I have notes on “emotional intensity,” “blogging,” “revisions,” “plotting – by character, by structure, by GMC . . .”  I have notes on building character based on a flaw, on strengths, on birth sign/order, on secrets.”  There are several workshops around editing, the writer’s journey, the hero’s journey and the romance heroine’s journey.  In short, I have several textbooks worth of notes.

     I always enjoy the workshops I attend.  I love the vibe of sitting with other writers, cheering each other’s accomplishments, weeping with each other’s disappointments.  The teachers I’ve encountered have all been sincere, learned, and enthusiastic.  At the end of the workshop I’m fired up, sure that a tweak here and a tweak there will have my latest ms ready for an editor.  Dreams of “best-selling” labels waft through my mind.  I come home, renewed, restored, and refreshed.  Within a week, I’ve chucked the workshop notes into a drawer and am slogging away at the writing in my usual fashion.

       That pattern used to depress me. Why did I spend the time and money on a workshop if I wasn’t going to use the lessons learned?  Why did I keep on in my old way, when there was this brand new way just begging to be used?  Worse still, why couldn’t I make my ms fit the template given by the wise one leading the workshop?  Through many trials and many tears, I’ve learned something.  My work is my work.

     No matter how brilliant my writer friend is, her process is not mine. No matter how much I envy the author who can produce a book a month, she’s not me.  I have wasted many hours trying to make my story, my process, conform to someone else’s pattern, and it has been a waste of time.  Just as our stories are individual, so is our method of getting to “the end.”  Having finally come to terms with that fact, I now enjoy the workshops for the camaraderie, the insights and the day out.  I no longer obsess over the lessons.

     That’s not to say I disregard the lessons, I just incorporate the bits that work for me into my system. Looking over this pile of notes I find some common themes, themes that play in the back of my mind as I wrestle with the words in my story.  One presenter used “why?” as the basis for plotting.  Why did a character do something? i.e.  Jane went to the store.  “Why?” To get away from her mother-in-law. “Why?” Because her MIL scared her.  “Why?” Because if her MIL prevailed, Jane would have to tell John her secret.  Ah!  Now we’re getting somewhere, all by asking “why?”

     Similarly, another presenter says “so what?” So what if Jane tells John her secret?  She may lose him.  “So what?”  John means everything to Jane.  She can’t live without him.  “So what?”  If Jane can’t cope on her own, she’ll lose her job.  “So what?”  If she loses her job, she’ll lose custody of her daughter.  See how a simple question, why or so what, can drive a story?  We haven’t even talked about character yet.

     Over time I’ve learned that I do better with these types of question/guides than I do with charts. In my workshop file are some beautiful charts for creating characters, creating scenes, developing plot, and organizing structure.  But charts are too hard-edged for me.  I never know which box to put an item in because scenes bleed over into characterization and characterization bleeds into plot, and plot bleeds into goal and . . .

     Still, I keep the workshop notes. When I need a boost, I’ll read over a few.  Somewhere in there, a phrase, a question, a marginal note will start my brain clicking away and I’m happily back into the wip.  So, thanks to all the workshop presenters I’ve enjoyed, and thanks to all my fellow writers for building a community that embraces me and my process.

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Collage

p1020740At a recent meeting of VIRA (Vancouver Island romance authors) we were invited to tap into our creativity by creating a collage.  So, with scissors, glue stick and magazines in hand I took my place at the table.  Now, I’m not a visual artist in any way.  In public (elementary) school I got A’s in reading and grammar, B’s in arithmetic and a pity C in art.  The only project I ever felt good about was one where we covered our fists with paint and made swirly patterns on a sheet of Bristol board, folded it in half, punched holes on two sides and sewed it up to make a portfolio for our art that year.  I can make swirls with my fists so for once I thought I’d do well in art.  Wrong!  The teacher didn’t like my choice of colours, purple and green.  Whenever I see a purple flower with lovely green leaves I want to shake my fist in the air and say “See!  God put them together.” 

But, I digress.

Back to collage making. We were to cut out any images that appealed to us, including words, then stick them onto our backing holus-bolus.  The idea was to be a wild mind, not plotted and planned and edited. 

I’m currently working on a project set in nineteenth century British Columbia, so when I looked at my finished work I sought expressions of that time and place.  I had an antique looking map of Vancouver Island and coastal B.C., a woman with a horse, sheep, a feathery hat, china teacups and iced sugar cookies.  I also had “for Queen and Country,” a definite sentiment of patriotism for that era.  The picture at the top left is my “wild mind” collage.

 

p1020742We were then instructed to build a collage with more specific intent. So, I looked for images of prospectors, pioneers, and fledgling towns.  I found horses pasturing beside a river, a picture of lots and lots of purple flowers with green foliage (ha!), some stylized Mounties, a polar bear and blueberries in whipped cream.  The latter two have nothing to do with my story, but I love the polar bear and the whipped cream balanced the picture, in my opinion.  Remember, I’m not a visual artist.  But the prize image came from a colleague at the same table, Peabody’s Photo Parlour.  The heroine in my wip is a lady photographer.  If you look closely, you’ll see a lady photographer in bustled skirt and big had operating a box camera on a tripod as an inset to the larger image of the frontier traveller.  I doubt my “plotted” collage is any better than my wild mind one, but looking at it does help keep me in the story place.

 

The best thing about the afternoon was sitting with other writers, talking story lines and plot problems and pesky grammar points. When I look at my collages, I see not only pretty pictures, but I remember my friends and am grateful

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From Blah to Brilliant

imagesOne of my recurring disappointments when it comes to writing is the first read.  When I’ve laboured on a scene, poured out passion on the page, sifted and sorted for just the right word, moved my characters to a new place in their story arc, I shut down the computer with a sigh of content.  I’ve written “good stuff.”

     The next day I read what I wrote and my bubble bursts.  Where’s the passion?  Where’s all that emotion and angst?  It’s in my head all right, but it didn’t make it to the page.  Why not?  One of the reasons, I suspect, is that I’m a slow writer.  Just because it took me several hours to wrestle out that scene, I think it must be huge.  In truth, I discarded more words than I committed to the manuscript, so instead of the earth-shattering scene I thought I’d written, I’ve a couple of paragraphs that don’t do much.

            Once I’ve gotten over my disappointment, it’s time to rework that scene, get the passion on the page.  Here are some of my methods.

  •   Metaphor/simile:  We’re all cautioned against “purple prose” but emotional writing has to call on the reader’s senses, her experiences and her culture.  So, if my heroine is angry, here’s a place where I can up the emotional quotient.  Is her anger white hot rage that bubbles and flows into every nook and crevice of her mind, burning everything and everyone with molten fury?  Or is her anger cold, calculating, vengeful, coiled like a serpent, ready to strike when the time is right?
  • Pace: If this is a reflective scene, where the heroine comes to a new understanding of herself or the hero, it doesn’t hurt to slow the pace of the narrative.  Give her time to process the new information.  She doesn’t need to sit still while she does this.  She can do the dishes, pick apples, talk to a mentor or go running.  Giving the character and the reader a little breathing room will give your next adrenalin-shot scene more impact.  If it’s an action scene, make sure the heroine and the reader are breathless.
  • Humour: Even Shakespeare used comic relief in his tragedies.  No character and no reader can function on high intensity all the time, they burn out.  Your character runs out of ways to heighten the tension and your reader decides to put down the book and watch cartoons for a while.  You can give everyone a break but still keep them involved in your story with a little light-heartedness.
  • Details: If my scene is too short – it usually is – now is a time to layer in details that carry an emotional impact.  The setting, the time of year, the time of day, the pattern of the carpet.  All of these details can stretch out the scene, give it the importance required by the story, without coming off as “fill.”  Maybe the complicated pattern of the carpet represents the complicated feelings of the heroine for the hero.  Maybe the first star of evening offers hope to a character in despair.  No need to get the story bogged down in pointless details, but a few carefully chosen ones, can lift the writing from blah to brilliant.
  • Print it out:   I’m old school.  I read better on paper.  Often what is blindingly obvious in print eludes me on the screen.  I recycle and reuse, but I need to print it to truly see it.
  • Read it out: Once I’m sure I’ve done everything I can with the written word, I read it aloud.  If the prose can pass the read aloud test, I’ve done my job.

 

Now I’m off to practice what I preach.

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Lesson from Live Theatre

imagesLast week I attended a performance of  Hilda’s Yard by Norm Foster.  The hour and a half drive to get there was horrible — traffic, rain, dark, fog — but the play was a delight. I love live performance, whether it’s a play, a symphony or a ball game. Since I can turn on a device and watch or listen to the best in the world in the comfort of my own home while enjoying a snack, I’m puzzled by why I prefer live performance.

I think it has to do with the immediacy of the event. When I sit in a small theatre and the actor speaks from the stage, he’s speaking directly to me. When something bad happens, my response, along with that of the whole audience, is part of the experience. There is no barrier between me and the story.  When I watch television, I know I’m watching a screen. The story may amuse, horrify or annoy me, but it’s just a story and I’m watching from a safe distance. When the story is on stage and I’m in the audience, I’m part of the story.

So, can I use what I’ve learned from going to theatre to add immediacy to my books? Is it possible to engage the reader in the same way the actor engages me?

The answer is no, not exactly. For one thing, a reader has to work a lot harder than an audience member and the words on paper or screen form a barrier. The reader can’t hear or see in the same way. But, the writer can enhance the immediacy of the story by using active voice, strong pacing and deft language. In our age of tweets and images it’s easy to forget the importance of language, but in the play I attended I noticed how the playwright used apt words and phrasing. He wasn’t obvious or “preachy” but the language made the story sing.

Another thing the staged play has going for it is the stage with its scenery and props. No need to labour over “showing” the reader the setting, it’s right there in front of them.

Still, an author of books can convey a scene so vividly the reader “sees” it in her mind’s eye and she can hear and smell and taste and touch too if the author wants her to. Sometimes I’ve read stories that are somehow disembodied and it’s because they’re set on the page and not in a place.  Writers can get so caught up on character and plot that we ignore setting.  Not a good idea. The setting grounds the reader and allows him/her to identify more completely with the protagonist. In a fantasy, the fantasy world must be so smoothly woven into the text that the reader can “feel” herself there.  In a cozy mystery the reader should long for a cup of tea in a dainty china cup.

In an historical we have to “create” the world of the place and time, but we’re also bound by fact.  We can’t have a character sign the Treaty of Versailles in London.  Writers of historical fiction spend their time immersed in the period trying to get all the little details right.  Harder than it seems.  History books are full of battles and acts of Parliament, but not much mention of domestic arrangements.  When our heroine or our hero gets up the in morning what does she do?  How does she dress?  How does she wash?  What’s involved in cooking in a medieval kitchen? How do you store milk without refrigeration?

I’m writing about late nineteenth century Canada. Even narrowing my time period down to twenty years, leaves lots of room for error. A woman living in a city had amenities someone living on a farm did not. If the railroad had reached the heroine’s town, she had access to books and fashions and tools that someone in a more remote community waited months and months to acquire, if ever. As mentioned in earlier posts on this page, fashion didn’t stand still either. Puffed sleeves went in and out of style. Bustles bounced high and low on a woman’s hips. Although dresses were long, hemlines did change, sometimes skirts brushed the floor, other times they rested at the top of the foot. Not an obvious difference to our eye, but a huge difference to how the wearer moved and worked.

Subtle things can give a story that elusive quality of  immediacy. The weather, the layout of a room, the style of dress, manners, patterns of speech. If you’re wondering how to give your story more life, make it more immediate to the reader, try going to live theatre. You may pick up some hints.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Not-So-Wild West

       wilds-to-riches-22   Writing historical fiction requires lots and lots of research. Since I love history, research is actually a treat and not a chore. However, writing about the Canadian West in the nineteenth century presents some unique challenges. If I do research under “Victorian,” I’ll get lots of references to Victorian England. If I try “Western” I’ll get reams of information on the American West. Thanks to Hollywood, most people perceive “Western” from the American perspective, i.e. lawlessness, range wars, famous outlaws, dangerous Indians. Those qualities make great fiction, but they do not hold true for the Canadian west. Oh, we had our share of criminals, but the westward expansion of white settlement in this country followed a different pattern that our southern neighbours. In Canada, the law and government, preceded the settlers.
           The fur trade that brought the first whites into the hinterland of British North America was governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. These “gentlemen adventurers” were obsessive record keepers. They established forts, wages, trade routes, and their own form of law and order. Factors and clerks and agents brought with them the same standards of conduct that held sway in London, England. There were no glittering salons or evening parties, but respect for order and allegiance to the Queen were part of their make-up.
      Early attempts at settlement, such as the Red River Colony  were organized and controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company and interested parties in England.  Although the Selkirk experiment failed, the method or organization was ingrained in the Canadian landscape.
      When the gold rush brought the next wave of immigrants to what is now British Columbia, there was already a functioning government in place. Sir James Douglas, chief factor for the HBC and Governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, took steps to prevent an American takeover of British territory there. He lobbied the British crown and used a garrison of soldiers and engineers to establish British sovereignty and the rule of law throughout the territory. Miners expecting a repeat of the California experience, found instead a court system staffed by itinerant judges, a police corps and a tax man waiting for them.download
      Barkerville, popularly viewed as a rough and tumble mining camp filled with saloons and brothels, quickly became a civilized town with all of the amenities. Gold was discovered in 1862, by 1863 the miners had built a hospital and raised the money to run it. Within a few years there were seven doctors practicing there. The Roman Catholic church was already established a few miles down stream in Richfield. By 1863 the Anglicans and Methodists had built churches, joined by the Presbyterians in 1864.
      Also in 1864, a Library was established with 70 books brought to the town by its first librarian, Miss Florence Wilson. In the next few years Governor Seymour donated 100’s more books. There were evening classes for the miners to study Greek and Latin and History and English and band and chess among other subjects. Music was highly prized. Miners formed choirs within the community and sponsored visiting troupes from Victoria, the U.S. and Europe. There was a Debating Club, Glee Club, Masonic Lodge, Cariboo Benevolent Society and a Literary Society, as well as a Miners Association that acted like a municipal government.
      This is not the popular image of a gold rush town, but it is an historically accurate one. As an author I see it as my responsibility to present historical truth in an entertaining, yet accurate manner.  Writing about the Canadian West means I have to overcome certain stereotypes in the reader’s mind, but that means I get to talk about a place and time that fascinates me.  As a commenter on this page once said, “what fun!”
 

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Beware the Passive Heroine

      I read two books recently on the theme of war, refugees and women.  One book had me nodding off after every page, the other kept me awake and frightened the whole time.  What was the difference?  Both dealt with women caught up in violence they couldn’t control, both faced starvation, brutality, and terror. Why was the effect of the stories so different for me?

      The answer lies in the inner life of the heroines. One was full of passion and determination. The other was passive, bowing her head in submission as one calamity after another befell her. Instead of inspiring me with sympathy, this character pushed me away with her constant cry of “woe is me.”

      Alice Orr in her book, No more Rejections, calls this the lacklustre character. She says “a protagonist [must] stand out among the very large pack of . . . submissions.” The late Jack Bickham in his book The 38 most common Fiction Writing Mistakes has a whole chapter called “Don’t Write about Wimps.” Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, counsels writers to create “larger-than-life” protagonists.

      Obviously, avoiding passive heroines is a foundational pillar in writing fiction, but I’ve never seen it so clearly demonstrated as I did in the two books I mentioned above. It’s a good lesson. Both books were critically successful, but, as a reader I much preferred one over the other.

    I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the heroine in my current story spends too much time thinking and not enough time doing. So, while one book bored me and the other scared me, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about story-telling.  Off to edit!

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Writing from Inside

dscf1619When I first joined a writer’s group, a common theme in the advice part of the meeting was keeping point of view pure.  By that I mean that stories were to be told by only one point of view character and everything that landed on the page had to be observable by that character.  We were to eschew omniscient author — therefore nothing like “it was the best of times it was the worst of times.”  “Head-hopping,” that is moving between one point of view character and another, was forbidden.  One analogy that was used to emphasize the purity of POV was to imagine the story unfolding before the author’s eyes like a movie.  If the author couldn’t see the event on the screen of her mind, neither could the POV character. 

It was a useful analogy and one I’ve used myself, but like all “rules” in writing, it can be taken too far.  The biggest drawback, in my opinion, is that it turns the author and therefore the reader, into an observer rather than a participant.  The screen in my mind may allow me to see a brawl in the street, but I am distanced from it.  My character should be in there swinging.  He should feel the anger that provoked the fight, smell the sweat and fear on his opponent and struggle for breath when a blow hits him in the solar plexus.  He should also be involved emotionally.  Robots may engage in battle in modern movies, but for a story to grab me I want a real person, with real feelings.  I want to ache with him, dream with him and hope with him.  Watching him on a screen won’t do that.

   Instead, I suggest the writer try to get inside her character.  You still only write what he can see and hear and touch and smell, but you also know how he feels.  I heard a female author of romance once talk about taking on a man’s pose as she sat in her chair.  She rubbed her chin as though she had whiskers, stuck her legs straight out in front of her, put her hands behind her head and leaned back — all actions she associated with men.  Then, when she felt herself inside a man’s skin, she’d write the scene from the hero’s point of view.  It’s an intriguing thought.  I’ve been watching a lot of baseball lately, so I see men scratching and spitting.  Don’t know if I’ll go that deep!

I’m writing western historical romance, so sometimes I’ll put on a long skirt and a buttoned up blouse and try walking about in it.  I don’t have a corset, but I can still experience the restricted movement such garments require, not to mention the stiff back. 

Of course, some writers can get inside their characters without props, but if you’re having a hard time imagining the heart and soul of a medieval lady, try donning a wimple and see if that helps.

 

 

 

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Lists

P1020610.JPGA recent issue of the RWR (Romance Writers Report) Allie Pleiter discussed the chunky method of time management, including making lists. Now, I’m a list-maker from way back, especially for things like Christmas dinner, so I thought I already knew all about lists. But I had just got home from holiday and felt overwhelmed by the amount of work waiting for me on all fronts of my life. So, I used Allie Pleiter’s tools, combined with my own usual list-making methods in an attempt to put my life in order.
To my surprise, it worked! I used to make one very long list. It was exhaustive. I even put “make list” on the list of “to do.” I’d manage to get through some of that list, then I’d need to make a new one, and that didn’t get finished and then I got too busy to make lists so any organizational benefit vanished. This time around, I’ve made lists of only the top priorities of the day, and limited the length of the list to what I might actually accomplish.  I also included time for lunch and coffee breaks!
Monday’s list was long. I dashed through the day and got all but one thing on the list finished. Mondays are like that for me. I begin the week full of energy and good intentions. By Friday,both have dwindled to near zero so it’s good to have a productive Monday.  However, I persisted in making manageable lists for the rest of the week and I’m happy to report that I have accomplished most tasks I set myself, and I’ve increased my writing output, and I have so many red check marks on the page I feel like a winner!

That last bit is important.  Being a writer is lonely.  The time between writing “chapter one” and ‘the end” is long.  If the only measurement of success is a publishing contract or significant sales on self-published books, there can be a long time between “wins.”  The list of tasks accomplished in a day provides instant reward, and motivation to keep going.

So, if you are a member of the RWA®, Romance Writers of America, I heartily recommend the July 2016 issue of RWR.  If you’re not a member, you can check out Pleiter here.

Now, I’ll put a nice red tick beside “write blog” on my list and move on to ” bicycle for half an hour.”

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Faster, Higher, Stronger

women_100_2Faster, Higher, Stronger”   The motto of the Olympics is top of mind these days, following the excitement in Rio, where the athletes were faster, higher and stronger.  World records, Olympic records, national records and personal best records all fell before the onslaught of the latest crop of Olympians.  In 1912 the men’s 100m race was run in  a record time of 10.6 seconds.  Each succeeding contest saw fractions of a second shaved off.  in 1996 Donovan Bailey of Canada set a blistering speed of 9.84 seconds.  By 2008 Usain Bolt could run the race in 9.69 seconds, in 2012 he bettered his own record to 9.63 seconds at last week in Rio, he did it in 9.58 seconds.   

That is just one example of the increasing speed of athletes and the increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for measuring time.  Even with atomic clocks, laser beams and photos, the women’s 100 freestyle in the pool resulted in a tie for gold between Canada’s Penny Oleksiak, and  Simone Manuel of the United States. 

This need for speed seems to have overtaken us in other areas as well.  We have fast food, instant communication, tables, conversions and calculations immediately on-line, information at our fingertips.  With the advent of ipads and smartphones, we don’t even need to find a desktop computer.  All these resources are as close as our back pocket. 

Sadly, the need for speed has entered the world of books as well.  I just saw a critique of one of my favourite authors and she was panned for not having enough action — on the first page, not having enough sexual tension — on the first page, and not having high enough stakes — on the first page! For me, this need to open a novel with a car chase, a shoot-out or a kidnapping, erodes the pleasure of reading.  The author the critics panned is a master at drawing the reader into the story slowly, but relentlessly.  She starts in the ordinary world, where the reader thinks she’s going for a walk in the garden, then subtly, inexorably she weaves a web that traps the characters in their own lies and half-truths, exposes their fears, their cowardice, their secrets and their strengths.  This writer is highly skilled at the twist that takes the story in an entirely different direction and catches the reader off-guard.  I find her work compelling and enjoyable.  The slow pace is part of her charm.  Jo Beverley wrote of my book, “The Man for Her,” a “book to savour.”  That’s the kind of story I like — one where the reader savours the writing, savours the twists and turns and closes the cover with a sigh.  If I find myself skimming pages just to get to the end, I’m not savouring the book.  I’m just rushing.

Fortunately, there is a recoil against all this speed.  For those of us not entering the Olympics, experts now agree a walk is good exercise.  There is a slow food movement to balance fast-food alley.  The author cited above has a healthy readership who relish the quiet openings of her books, and, to my delight, there is “The Long Now Foundation” that is building a clock to measure time one tick per year.

After all the speed and excitement of the Olympics, I’m off to enjoy some slow food and savour a quiet read. 

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Author Intrusion

images (2)I recently read a book that contained such egregious examples of what not to do with research that I had to laugh. Anyone who has taken even the most basic writing course knows that author intrusion into the story is something to be avoided. When that intrusion takes place as a mini-lecture on facts the author learned while writing the story, it is particularly disastrous.
In this case, the story was a murder set in the South Pacific. Immediately after the discovery of the body, the writer stuck in two pages of text explaining the geology, topography and meteorology or the area – without a single reference to the plot. Needless to say, I was thrown out of the story in an instant.  I closed the book and haven’t opened it since.

More importantly, from the author’s point of view, I’ve  marked her as a rank novice who should have hired an editor.  She is now on my “do not buy” list.  That’s the downside of self-publishing.  Fresh new authors, eager to release their creations into the world don’t have to pass any gatekeepers to see their work in print.  But authors need editors.  Just ask any successful writer today about their first novels and you’ll find nearly all are grateful that an editor or agent somewhere had the good sense to reject their first efforts.

Writing fiction is a learned skill.  It takes practice.  It takes hard work.  It takes teachers and coaches (not your mom or your sister) to read your work with a critical eye, before it ever leaves your desk.  Just because Amazon has a “publish” button, doesn’t mean you should click it before your work is ready.  Jack Bickham wrote a great book for aspiring authors,  The 38 most common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them.)  He has a chapter titled “Don’t Lecture Your Reader.”  He suggests that a writer who lectures is including information because she wants it in the story, not because the viewpoint character is thinking about it.  If the characters in your story don’t care about the geology of an island, neither does the reader.

Because I write historical fiction, I’m often tempted to dump in a paragraph or two of research that is relevant to the time period but irrelevant to the story I’m telling.   Recently, I’ve come across a character named Wellington D. Moses.  I’m going to tell you about him here, so I won’t be tempted to put my research into an unrelated story.

Wellington D. Moses was a Black barber in Barkerville in the 1860’s.   One day, Moses was cutting the hair of a gambler, James Barry,  from Texas, when he noticed the gambler had a gold nugget stick pin that looked familiar.  Sleepless in his cot on that hot evening, held awake by the raucous dance hall next door, Moses finally remembered where he’d seen the pin.  It had been owned by one Charles Blessing.  In the spring of 1866, after spending the winter in Victoria, Moses had met up with Blessing on his way back to Barkerville.  The two men decided to travel together.   A few days later, James Barry joined them and they three men enjoyed an evening together.  The next morning, Moses stayed behind on personal business while Barry and Moses set out ahead.

When Moses arrived in Barkerville, he looked for his friend Blessing, but no one had seen him.  Weeks later, when Barry came into Moses’ shop, the barber inquired of him what had happened to Charles Blessing, but Barry claimed ignorance.  After investigating on his own, Moses took his story to the police.  On the same day a body was discovered.  It was Charles Blessing.

Barry was hunted by the police and eventually brought to trial.  The final piece of evidence against the gambler was the identification of the nugget pin by Wellington D. Moses.  When Barry claimed there were many such pins in the country, the barber was able to point to the unique quality of this one.  Looked at from a certain angle, the nugget showed the profile of a man’s face.  When judge and jury inspected the pin, they saw the telltale face.  Barry was found guilty and hanged.

Later Wellington Moses spearheaded a subscription to give his friend, Charles Blessing a decent burial.  Over a hundred dollars was raised.  Enough to place a headboard at the grave and a fence around it.  If you travel to Barkerville, you can still see it. download

 

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Lessons in Storytelling

P1020062Last week I had a visit with my not-quite 4-year-old great niece. Part of our conversation consisted of her laying out all her toys – figures, books, squares, coloured cloth, rocks — and telling me a story. I heard bits of Cinderella, echoes of Goldilocks, and lessons from a farmer. There were fish, which, for some reason required mud. As items got moved about, I was reminded over and over “don’t touch,” because the story required that all the bits and pieces be in their proper place, as determined by the author.  Good advice for any storyteller during the first flush of creativity.  While the story is new and fragile and only just revealing itself, it’s best to tell your inner editor, (or well-meaning friends) “don’t touch.”  The words need to pour out, redundancies, repetitions and irrelevancies untouched as they flow onto the page.

The story meandered on and on, the various pieces seemingly unrelated, the plot line indiscernible and the characters rather wooden.  Yet words spilled out, props were shifted, a doll’s arms adjusted, a book on Rudolph ( in high summer?) acted as a foundation for the entire ensemble.  Clearly story-boarding is built-in to children.  We re-learn that technique as adult writers.

For me, the listener, the story didn’t make a lot of sense but  the joy of the storyteller was unmistakeable, and she knew where she was going with all of this. Eventually bedtime put an end to the tale, but I’m sure it will be continued with endless adventures for the fish and the farmer and the elephant.

There was no editor for this story, no “market,” just a little girl stringing words together and having a whale of a time. I felt privileged to listen in.

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Hurry! Hurry!

imagesIn the May and June issues of Romance Writer’s Report Allie Pleiter discusses the “chunky method of time management.”  In summary, she suggests that we each have a natural rhythm when it comes to writing.  We tend to “write ourselves out” at approximately the same number of words, regardless of circumstances.  I found this notion intriguing since I remember, when I had a day job and had to interrupt my writing to meet a client, longing for the expanse of time to write until I had finished.

When I retired, I expected to write for hours, peacefully, productively and perfectly.  Wrong!  The truth is I run out of steam at just about the same word count whether I have more or less time available.   I used to have a writing goal of 1000 words a day.  The first 800 spattered onto the page like spring rain.  The last 200 fell like drops of sweat in an ice storm.  According to Ms Pleiter’s premise, my natural word count is 800 at a sitting.   So, if it want to write a 70,000 word ms I need 70000 ÷ 800 = 87.5 chunks of writing.

 

I was intrigued by her math and decided to apply it to some famous novels.  Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House over 20 months.  Depending on how you count, the book has 353,000 to 356,000 words.  For arguments sake, and simple math, lets say 355,000.  355,000 ÷ 20 months =17759 ÷4 weeks=4437.5 ÷5 days =889.3.  So,  assuming Dickens wrote five days a week, he and I have roughly the same natural writing chunk  Wow!  Of course, those were polished, publishable words in Mr. Dickens’ case.  Mine need more work,

Margaret Mitchell wrote the 418,053 words of  Gone With the Wind over a ten year period.  Using the formula above, that means she wrote only 17 words a day.  Of course, she may have written large chunks at a time, then ignored the ms for long periods.  She wrote it for her own entertainment, never intending to publish it.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, 120,697 words was completed in draft form in one year, 453 a day, using a five day/week writing schedule.  Of course, Jane didn’t have the benefit of a computer so we can forgive her tardiness.

In today’s writing world, there is a demand for “more.”  More words, more books, more interviews, more social media time.   Stephen King writes 2000 words a day.  James Patterson, who published 15 books in 2014 has a team of writers working for him, in order to meet the demand.  Readers seem to be insatiable (yay!) and publishers and writers are eager to sell into that need.  Writers’ forums are filled with ideas to increase productivity.  Recently I prolific author discussed using music to up her word count at a single sitting.  Others chimed in with more of the same.

All of this emphasis on more and faster gives me palpitations.  I like words.  I like to savour them, them, finding the one that conveys just the right nuance, the right rhythm.  I like to rewrite sentences, make them flow, make them poetic.  I can’t do that in a hurry.  Kudos to those who can but it’s not me.

So, I turned to another book on my desk, one thousand gifts, by Ann Voskamp.  I read a passage about filling vessels with beauty.  In short, she used to take a vase off the shelf whenever she had flowers to put in it.  Her logic was “have beauty, must get vessel.”  One day she turned it around and made the vases part of her everyday furniture.  Now her logic reads, “have vessel, must find beauty.”  My heart rate slowed down.  I could draw a long breath.  I remembered that writing is an art as well as a craft.  My vessel is the empty page, I must fill it with beautiful words — at my own speed.

 

 

 

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Lessons in Stereotyping

Lately I have felt deluged with bad news stories about men and women. It seems every time I open a newspaper or turn on the television or even look at facebook, there is a story of men behaving badly toward women. It’s depressing and frightening.
So, the other day when I had to walk past several tables full of construction workers on my way to the coffee shop, I braced myself for an unpleasant time. I hate to admit it, but I was surprised when there were no cat calls or wolf whistles. I didn’t even overhear bad language. As I entered the shop, a man in steel-toed boots held the door for me. I said “thank you,” and he smiled and wished me a nice day.
That was all perfectly reasonable behaviour, behaviour I should expect from my fellowmen, so why was I surprised? Why did I feel it remarkable?
Because I’d fallen into the trap of stereotyping. It’s something we all do without thinking.  A small boy in my area disappeared years ago. Reports said he might have been seen in a white van with rust spots. Even now, twenty years later, I notice white vans with rust spots and wonder if that could be the one.
As writers stereotyping can serve us well. We can use it as a kind of shorthand to convey character to the reader, especially if it’s a minor character. We’ll put a character in a hard-hat if we want the reader to know he’s strong, works outdoors, may be a little rough around the edges, is dependable. We’ll call someone a prom queen if we want to convey a character that’s self-absorbed, pretty, and shallow.
Stereotypes aren’t fair.   The prom queen may have earned a full scholarship to university and the construction worker may teach ballroom dancing at night. But the stereotype is useful for the writer to convey a lot of information quickly.
A writer can also use stereotypes to surprise the reader and add depth to the story as well. In the two examples given above, we have the seeds for a rich, well-developed protagonist who will keep us reading just to find out what happens to him/her.

Note that stereotypes and archetypes are not the same thing. Archetypes, like the warrior, the nurturer, the adventurer, are what Carl Jung describes as “ancient patterns of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race.”
Stereotype is an oversimplified image of a person i.e. prom queen equals fluff. The story may begin with the stereotype but as we add layers we may discover our prom queen is a perfectionist. Never satisfied with her achievements, she chooses the hardest subjects to study, develops an eating disorder because her body is never perfect in her own eyes, has foresworn love because no one can live up to her version of perfect. This isn’t a fluffy airhead, this woman is tragic. But by standing the stereotype on its head, we’ve created a memorable character.
In real life, stereotyping people is unfair and may be dangerous.  At its worst it leads to bigotry, xenophobia and racism.

In the writing life, it’s a useful tool,

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Rain Day

P1020491It is high summer where I live. We’ve had a minor heat wave. The weeds in the garden are thriving. I have a rule for myself — one hour a day in the yard, thirty minutes a day riding my bicycle.
But . . .
Today it’s raining. I’ve excused myself from the garden chores and the exercise. I’ve cozied into a sweatshirt and have a pot of flavoured coffee at hand. I’m parked in front of my computer and loving it!
Lately I’ve been suffering, not from writer’s block exactly, but from a lack of “flow,” that magical element that lets the story run from my brain (heart) through my fingertips and onto the keyboard. Some days it feels as though every word is wrenched from my mind, wrestled onto the page and lies there like a slug. No flow.
But today, on my mini-holiday rain day, all the pieces seem to fit, I’m writing, I’m creating.  Life is wonderful.
And the garden is getting watered besides.

All of which goes to show what contrary creatures we writers are.  Sometimes I crave routine.  Same place, same time, every day, butt in chair, that gets the story on the page.  Other times, like today, I’m delighted to change it up, finding inspiration in the unexpected.

Many writers demand solitude, they write in the middle of the night, squirreled away in a cubby hole, barricaded against distraction.  Others long for company.  I have a friend who goes on a weekend retreat with other writers a few times a year.  She finds those times precious and particularly inspiring for brainstorming new work.  Jacqui Nelson has a weekly writing session with another writer at a coffee shop.  She says “Those 2 hours every week are inspirational, fun, productive, easy to get to (a 15 minute walk from my home) and they help keep me connected to the outside world and to another writer.”

I like to meet up with another writer, or two, to discuss writing techniques, the writing life, plot problems and the state of the industry, but I could never write with another person — I’m too prone to chat!

All of which proves there is no one “right” way to write.  There is likely not even one “right” way for any individual author.  We need variety to keep us motivated and fresh.  But whatever method we use, the important thing is the story.  With story top of mind, the method will sort itself out.  Today, that method is lots of coffee and a rainy day change of pace.

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Life is Now

P1010742 Last week the world of romance writers was devastated by the news that Jo Beverley had passed away. I found the announcement particularly jarring as I had no idea she was ill. The suddenness of the event made it harder to accept.
At one time, Jo and I were chapter mates. Thus, I had the benefit of her wisdom on life and her knowledge of the publishing world. In fact, she wrote a cover quote for my first historical novel, The Man for Her.
As proof of her integrity both as a person and a writer, she warned me that she would not endorse the book if she didn’t believe in it, then asked for the complete ms. She read every word before offering the following quote.
A wonderful story of courage, dreams, and everlasting love. a book to savor.”
I’ve always treasured that quote, now more than ever.
Her passing is particularly sorrowful for those of us in this part of the world, because Jo had been planning to move back here. We were all looking forward to having her in our writing midst again.
As it happens, that was the third piece of bad news I received on the weekend — a reminder that life is fragile and precious. We can’t always count on tomorrow. It’s fashionable now to create a “bucket list” of things to do before you die. I don’t have such a list for the future, but I have a wonderful list of places visited, people befriended and dreams pursued. In other words, I’ve tried not to wait until some magical combination of circumstances before living life to the fullest.
For some, “life to the fullest,” means visiting far off places, undertaking a thrilling piece of daring-do, or opening the heart to love. For others, “life to the fullest,” is raising a child, planting a garden, playing a musical instrument, all within a few miles of home.
P1000077Whatever path makes your heart soar, I hope you follow it this week. Do it in honour of someone you love.

For more about Jo go to her group blog wordwenches

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Brain Space

downloadThis past week household problems have interfered with my writing. Not my time so much, — it is possible to put fingers to keyboard while waiting for the repairman — but with my mental space. While I could physically write and wait at the same time, mentally, I just wasn’t there.  I sat in front of the keyboard and thought about what I’d tell the repairman when he finally showed up. I rehearsed different scenarios. Would they give me a bill? This item should still be under warranty. Would I argue if he did? How would I know if he’d fixed it properly? I only wish my characters could have as many and varied conversations as I had with my absent repairman.

Since writers live in the real world I thought it would be useful to develop some coping mechanisms for time when “real world” overwhelms “writer world.”

  • Set a time for the repairman to come.   Usually the window is a wide one, like all afternoon, but even if you narrow down to a specific day, that’s progress.  Having a time when the crisis will be resolved is freeing for the mind.  My repairman just called to cancel that appointment, so the wait continues, but the theory is still good.
  • Write somewhere else.  Go to the coffee shop, the library, the park, even a different room in the house.  If the balky appliance is invisible, it is easier to ignore.
  • Turn off the internet.  So long as I can Google my problem, I’ll be thinking of how to fix it myself.  Tighten that screw.  Find a reset button.  Check that wire.   “How to” videos are wonderful tools, but they make us all responsible for all our own tasks!  Remember when we had travel agents and plumbers and mechanics to make life easier?  Now we’re all supposed to take on those jobs because “you can do it on-line.”
  • Do a short writing project — like this blog.  Even an overcrowded brain can concentrate for a short while.  Who knows, just tapping the keys might  trick the brain into entering writing mode.
  • Do a mechanical kind of writing task.  I do a lot of my writing longhand.  When the mind is busy elsewhere, I can transcribe those handwritten pages to the computer and still make progress on the writing front.
  • Do some of those pesky social media chores.  Short, interrupt-able, and necessary.
  • Throw up your hands and do something else.  All that adrenaline coursing through your system gives you extra strength for yanking up weeds, or scrubbing a mossy deck or tackling the basement shelves, while continuing the mental conversation with the absent repairman.

So, there’s my list.  What do you do?

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Pet Reunions

DSCF1052One of the more heart-warming stories arising from the Fort McMurray fire is the reunion of pets and owners.  Many people fleeing the fire had to leave behind beloved animals.  Either there was no room — it’s hard to put a horse in the back of your car — or there was no time.  Some fled with only the clothes on their backs.   If you’ve ever loved an animal, you’ll know how heart-rending it must have been to leave one behind.

The good news is that first responders, fire-fighters and police have been doing their best to care for abandoned pets, and now 600 have been rescued and sent to a reclamation centre in Edmonton.   For families who’ve lost their homes, their belongings and their livelihoods, the joy of reclaiming a lost pet has to be enormous.

Given that our society is so attached to our furry and feathered friends, it’s hardly surprising that animals show up in romance novels.  Goodreads even has a list of recommended romances featuring dogs.   Just like your own four-legged friend, pets in stories allow characters to show empathy, to share secrets, to reveal their soft side when the world think they’re nothing but tough.   Renowned screenwriter/teacher Blake Snyder even wrote a manual for writers called Save the Cat.  His point being that even the most unlikable character can be redeemed by one good deed — saving a lost cat.

I’ve had pets all my life, yet, until recently, I didn’t use animals as major elements in my stories.  Hard to explain, since I write with a cat on my knee, sleep with one on the bed, and plan my holidays around cat-sitters.  However, a recent wip features a heroine  who works in a dog rescue centre.  Dogs feature big-time in this story.  And yes, they do reveal character, they do allow a crusty hero to fall in love, they do provide moments of humour.  Can’t think why I haven’t written them into my stories before.

As I cuddle my own furry friends I say thank you to the heroes of Fort McMurray who rescued, fed, transported and snuggled frightened, lost animals.  My heart aches for those still wondering what became of an abandoned pet and I can’t get enough of the reunion stories.  Talk about a “feel good” moment.

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Fire!

imagesThe images and stories coming out of Fort McMurray, Canada this past week have been heart-rending. Nearly 90,000 people evacuated. A modern city emptied of all but firefighters, police and paramedics. The hospital evacuated. Long lines of cars inching along the highway while the fire rages on both sides. Dogs, cats, horses, children, parents — all running for their lives, all trying to keep each other safe and unafraid. Small communities opening their doors to strangers, offering food, a bed, a sweater, a shoulder to lean on.
I’ve never been to Fort McMurray. Never been in a forest fire, yet when I heard one couple saying, if they couldn’t get through,  they planned to ditch their car under a bridge and hope they could escape the fire in the river, I understood. You see, I read it once, in a book. Mrs. Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman was one of the first love stories I read, and re-read, and re-read, and . . .
The book was published in 1947. There are no extra pages, no biography of the authors, no notes on the text. There was still a wartime shortage of paper when this book hit the shelves in it’s plain green cover and uncoated pages. Yet the writing is so vivid, I knew exactly what that couple looking at the bridge were thinking. There is a scene in the book were the heroine is standing in an icy river, holding a baby while fire rages all around. “The flames shot up along the river like a ragged fringe. . . . Hot ashes were falling and burning me. The air blistered my face. My eyebrows and lashes were singed. My face and throat burned; my body was numb with cold.”
When I saw the couple who considered taking refuge in the river, this passage sprang to mind. Written nearly seventy years ago, it still resonates.
Fortunately for the people of Northern Alberta, we have planes and helicopters and convoys to get them out. For Mrs. Mike and her Mountie husband, they had only themselves, horses and canoes. But the fear, the suffocating smoke and the sense of awe in the face of forest fire are the same.   It speaks to the power of good story telling that Mrs. Mike,  a romance, remains in the top 20 of Amazon’s Literature and Fiction>  Classics category.

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Whose Values?

I planted my garden last week. Sowing seeds took me back to my rural roots and memories of doing the same thing with my Mom. She let me plant the beats, beans and peas, but didn’t trust my small fingers with the fine seeds of lettuce, carrots and radishes.  Mom was part of “The Greatest Generation,” born during WWI, grew up through the Depression and came of age in WWII. I’m sure it was that background that made her treat each seed as precious.  That tiny black dot in my hand was food for the family, a necessity of life.  No wonder she guarded it so carefully.

I’ve lived in a more affluent world.  I plant a garden because I enjoy it, not because I rely on it to feed my family.  If I drop a few seeds outside the row, I don’t worry.  If I sow too thickly in one area and too thinly in another, it’s no big deal.  My approach to the vegetable garden is much more lackadaisical than my Mom’s but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand her point of view and value the lessons she taught me.

And that brings me to my point.  When I write historical fiction, whose values do I present?  Contemporary Canadian society or the nineteenth century world of the story?  What words do I use?  What makes a character heroic?

Flower children of the sixties tended to deride the mores of the fifties, heaping scorn on their parents’ “unhip” beliefs.  But I think it is unfair to judge one generation by the values of a later one.  If you haven’t lived through the Dust Bowl, what right have you to judge the attitudes of those who did?

We’ve made drinking and driving a social as well as a legal crime. Does that mean that everyone of the “Mad Men” era was a social pariah? Of course not. It was a different time.  Society was different. Cigarettes and alcohol were just part of the landscape.

I enjoy watching old television shows like “I Love Lucy” but, even when it’s part of the humour, the male chauvinism makes me cringe.  But “I Love Lucy” is still funny and the world it presents is representative of its time.

I write books set in the late nineteenth century, when language was more blunt (cruel?) than now.  A character in that time would use the word “cripple” as a simple descriptive, no insult intended.  No one had ever heard the term “mobility challenged.”  If I put a phrase like that in my character’s dialogue it would sound ridiculous.   In the nineteenth century, the term “First Nations” hadn’t been invented?  Do I use the term “Indian” as would have been the standard at the time, or do I perform convoluted hoops to describe the previous inhabitants of the territory in some other way?

The political landscape of the 1890’s was vastly different from ours.  What present day Canada considers racist, was simply the natural order of things to the people of that society.  Do I try to bury the issues of the time because they might offend someone today?

I’ve found many forums on this subject, but no consensus.  There seem to be as many opinions as there are readers and writers.  Here’s a sampling. https://writinghistoricalnovels.com/2013/09/28/on-the-use-of-politically-correct-terms-in-historical-fiction-by-jane-Kirkpatrick/

http://www.penkhullpress.co.uk/blogDetail?article=&bid=128

http://www.writersdigest.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=19571&start=10

So, dear reader, what is your opinion?  If a well-bred lady of the nineteenth century  refers to her Asian servants as “Orientals” (the polite term at the time), will you be offended?  If a no-account lout refers to those same people as “Chinks” (the impolite term at the time) will you be offended?  Use the comment box below to share your views.

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Lilacs and Apple Blossoms

P1020460Scent is the most emotionally evocative of our senses.   Why else would the house stagers recommend baking bread before showing your home?  The fragrance of fresh bread conjures whole pages of positive feelings.  One whiff and we’re transported to grandma’s house and all the love and comfort and security offered there.  Who wouldn’t want to buy a house that offered that?

Right now, it is lilac season in my part of the world. and lilacs are like fresh baked bread to my olfactory senses.  I walk downstairs and the bouquet in the front hall lifts my mood even more than coffee.  The smell of lilacs takes me home, where we had a whole hedge of them and I was allowed to pick as many as I liked.  In fact, I was encouraged to fill the house with blooms.   I’d even sneak a few apple blossoms into the bouquet, their scent lighter but every bit as wonderful.

Lilacs and apple blossoms signalled spring.  After schlepping about in heavy coats and winter boots for six months, spring meant freedom.  We could run outside in our shoes.  Our feet were light, our bodies buoyant.  We’d run for the sheer joy of it, raise our arms and twirl in a circle, faces to the sun.  Lilacs were part of that moment.

When I married in May, I carried lilacs in my bouquet — a bridge between my old and new life.  For me, lilacs mean love and joy.

As a writer, I’m inclined to insert lilacs into a story when I want to show happiness.  In fact, my first book is called Love and Lilacs.   Sadly, there are people in this world who hate the sweet smell of my delightful lilacs.  While I think love and springtime, they think hay fever and itchy eyes!  They’ll never buy a book with “lilacs” in the title.

So what’s an author to do?  Our stories would lose all power if we only referred to generic flowers, or pets or people.  Who wants to read about a thirty-something woman who had a nice job and lived in a pleasant house?  Readers want specific details if they are to identify with this heroine.  If she were in my book, she’d have a garden around her pleasant house and it would bloom with lilacs in the spring and roses in the summer.  She’d have fresh cut blooms on her desk at work and she’d take deep breaths to enjoy the scent.   But, what if she met a man who hated flowers, associated them with funerals, the funerals of his wife and daughter?  Hmm.

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Flying . . .

Flying-blind“Pantsers and plotters” is a shorthand phrase used by writers to describe their process in creating a story.  Plotters are the ones who prepare an extensive outline, chapter by chapter, sometimes scene by scene, before beginning to write the story.  They have already worked out the plot, the twists, the climax and the conclusion before writing that first sentence.  Plotters are organized, efficient and highly productive people.

I’m not a plotter.

Pantsers, or those who fly by the seat of their pants, or, more elegantly, “fly into the mists” have an idea about a story, they sort of know who the characters are and they’re pretty sure what the ending is.  After that, they’re flying blind.  Pantsers like to think they are free-spirits, creative, inspired and original.  In my case, what that means is, hair-tearing re-writes, dozens of cut scenes, tortuous back-tracking to create plausible motivations, and a lot of staring out the window wondering what should happen next.

For my latest work, I tried to be more like a plotter.  I wrote a whole notebook full of scenes I confidently believed would appear in the final story, once I got down to organizing them into a reasonable time-line.  With the notebook full, I turned to a fresh page and wrote the first sentence, and the second.  This was going really well, I was on page two when the story took a twist I’d never envisioned in my preparations.  I was excited.  This twist really added to the story, it gave another layer to three of the characters.  Wow!  I was rolling.

Only trouble is, all those scenes I wrote before, don’t really fit the new direction.  My attempt to be efficient, was a waste.

Or was it?  The truth is, whether any of those pre-writing scenes make it into the final version, doesn’t matter.  The notebook full of imagined dialogue and action, gave me the characters.  I know about them.  I know their backstories.  I can predict how they will act in a crisis.  I know the story-setting.  I know the secondary characters.  I know the time of year and the time of history.  I’m excited to tell their story.  The fact that I’m not certain how that story unfolds, makes me even more excited.  Like a reader, I want to know what happens next.

Writing should be fun.  If you’re a plotter, more power to you.  If, like me, you’re a pantser, enjoy the journey.  It’s going to be a wild ride.

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In the Company of Adventurers

HBCThe Hudson’s Bay Company, long a staple of Canadian shopping centres and a significant part of our history, was officially termed, “The Company of Gentlemen Adventurers.”  Formed in 1668 by edict of Charles II of England, the company received exclusive trading rights to all of the waters in North America that drained into Hudson’s Bay. It became the longest, continually operating commercial venture in Western history.

Saturday, I spent time with another company of adventurers, VIRA, the Vancouver Island Romance Authors. We have no relation to the Hudson’s Bay Company, there’s not a gentleman among us. Men are not prohibited from membership, but at the moment we’re a company of Lady Adventurers.
Why adventurers? For starters we’re all exploring the dangerous waters around writing and publishing romance novels. Some through traditional methods, others, bravely launching their work into the self-publishing stream.
We write about adventurous women. Some involved in derring-do, like steam punk heroines or secret agents, others in the shark-infested waters of families and small towns.  Some of our heroines look the part, with super-powers and enough gadgets to make James Bond envious.  Others, appear demure, conforming and obedient, but beneath the crinolines and behind the fans they are every bit as adventurous as their fantasy counterparts.

We “ladies of the company” trade in information.  We share data and strategies for finding an editor or an agent.  We discuss the tools of self-publishing where fellow-travellers are more important than ever.   We need to know how to utilize facebook, twitter, algorithms, blogs, websites, cover artists, formatting tools . . .  the list goes on and on.  Alone, in front of the computer, the task is daunting.

On a Saturday afternoon with other lady-adventurers it’s fun.  We laugh, we commiserate, we encourage, we read and edit each other’s work.   We go home energized and filled with hope.  Thanks VIRA.  I enjoyed your company.

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Why Not Love?

At a recent writer’s workshop, we spent a lot of time discussing the topic of what drives a story?  What makes the reader turn the page?  Answer: the character’s goal.  Cinderella wants to go to the ball.   Scarlet O’Hara wants to save Tara.  Lady Mary wants to secure the inheritance of Downton Abbey.  And so the story begins.  Will Cinderella get to the ball?  Can Scarlet save her home?  Will Lady Mary secure the family inheritance, even if it means marrying a solicitor?

Catch the crook, send the murderer to jail, win the war, build the skyscraper.  These are all big, concrete goals on which to build a story.  A  character may fall in love along the way, but the story does not start with that goal.  Even Mrs. Bennet who makes no bones about her desire to find husbands for her daughters, preferably husbands of standing and wealth, never suggests her daughters might fall in love.

In Western Historicals, like I write, the heroine is usually too busy building a home, making a living and keeping herself safe to have much time for looking for love.  Since these are romance novels, the reader knows the heroine will fall in love, but it’s not the driver of the story.  Our heroine might want to win a spelling bee, or sew a quilt or build a house.  Small, concrete, measurable goals.  There may be layers to these goals.  She may want to win the spelling bee in order to get a scholarship, so that she can attend law school, so that she can prosecute slum landlords, because her mother died when a railing  went unrepaired.  In this case, a small personal goal carries  a large, public benefit.  Great story premise.  It could be written as women’s fiction, literary fiction or mystery.  If it is written as a romance,  our heroine better find true love along the way, but we don’t start the story by saying the heroine wants to find love, so she’ll go to law school and, by the way, she has to win the spelling bee first.

The closest I’ve seen is  Maggie Osborne’s Silver Lining.  The heroine is asked what she wants and she answers, “a baby.”  Not a husband, not to fall in love, but a baby.

So, why is the greatest of human emotions,  considered too frivolous to be the driver of a story? Perhaps because that’s the way it is in real life too.  We teach our children to be achievers, to build careers, to be good people, but does a mother ever say to her daughter,  “Never mind all that stuff.  You can fail at school.  You can never have a job.  I don’t care.  Just find your true love.”  No, we train for, practice for and strive for career, money, power, and a nice car.  Love, the most important factor in life, is supposed to be a by-product.

For all that romances are denigrated as formulaic, I believe they are harder to write than other genres.  The writer of a mystery novel can fulfil the premise of the genre by solving the crime.  She may choose to develop sub-plots around a love interest, or a family feud, or saving the environment, but these are subplots, not necessary to the genre expectation.

In a romance, we must find true love for the hero and heroine, but we have to do it as an aside.   The writer of romance needs at least two plots in every book, the external goal and the love story.  The writer of inspirational romance needs three — the initial goal, the love story, and the God story.  Not an easy assignment.

So, what do you think, dear readers?  Have you ever read a book where the heroine’s stated goal is to find true love?  Would you be interested in a heroine who devoted her life to finding a soul-mate?

Please share your thoughts in  the comments below.

Sign up for my newsletter for a chance to win a free copy of  Her One and Only.  Contest closes March 31,2016.

 

 

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Dogs and Writers

P1020049Writing at a coffee shop the other day — one of my favourite activities — I glanced out the window at the collection of dogs tied up outside while their owners were inside.  Without exception, the dogs were worried. How could I tell?  Dogs don’t have the same facial expressions as humans.  They can’t frown or smile as we do, yet I had no trouble reading their emotions.  Right in front of my eyes, was an object lesson on body language.

To indicate their distress, the dogs strained to the end of the leash, eyes fixed on the door through which their particular human had disappeared.  Sometimes they ran in a little circle before resuming the tense pull toward the door.  They shifted their feet.  They glanced over a shoulder, then back to the door.  When a well-meaning passer-by stopped to pat them, they’d give a half-hearted lick to the friendly hand or a single tail-wag, but their concentration never wavered from the door.

When the longed for human finally returned some dogs stood on their hind legs, some shook their heads so vigourously their ears flew out like wings.  Tongues administered doggie kisses everywhere.   Canines ran a happy circle about the owner’s legs.  Tails wagged fast and furious.    Shoulders relaxed, heads up, eyes glued to the human, the dog’s body language told the story of a long (maybe three minutes) wait, a presage of disaster and a final resolution of intense joy.

When I returned to my editing, I kept a sharp eye out for overuse of common body language in my prose.  My characters smile, frown and sometimes run their hands through their hair.  Pretty unimaginative!  As I worked, I considered the lesson from the dogs.  Perhaps my anxious heroine should shift her weight frequently, look toward the object of desire, then away, then back again.  Perhaps my happy hero should sprawl in a chair, relaxed and content while he gazes at the heroine.  Perhaps a child could lean against his mother’s knees in utter joy.

In The Man for Her, I used a dog as a foil for one of the characters and to propel the story at a critical point.  In an early draft of the book, I had the dog get old and sick.  Lottie shot him to end his pain.  I used that scene to show her strength of character.  When a beta reader read it she was horrified.  How could I kill the dog?!!  She loved the dog.  She didn’t care that I wrote fiction.  Save the dog was her vehement advice. In the end, I didn’t kill the dog.  I couldn’t bring myself to inflict that sorrow on my readers.

But sometimes life is cruel.  In that same book I make reference to the Remittance Men, young, well-born, well-educated English gentlemen, who emigrated by the boatload to the colonies of the British Empire.  Between 1875 and 1900, 45,000 of these ‘gentlemen’ came to Canada.  The emigrants were generally younger sons who, for various economic and social causes, suddenly found themselves superfluous  at home.  They eagerly flocked to the Canadian west, convinced they could continue to live the life of an English squire, owning hundreds of acres, a stable full of fine horses, and a pack of dogs.  As a group, these men were ill-suited and ill-prepared for the rigours of earning a living in Canada’s west, where they were expected to do the work themselves and not rely on servants and tenants.  Most of them failed.  Instead of an income from their labour, they relied on an allowance from home.

With some exceptions, the majority  were misfits in a land of hard-working farmers, miners and loggers.  The remittance man, so named for his oft repeated promise to pay his tab “when the remittance comes in,” gained a reputation for running up debts, drinking to excess, and looking down his nose at his “colonial” neighbours.  In short, the term “remittance man” was a label of scorn.

For all the disappointment of their new lives, most of these gentlemen remained true to their ideals of sportsmanship, fair play, public duty and patriotism.  When the call for volunteers came at the start of WWI, remittance men flocked to the recruiting offices, ready to defend the mother country.  In a sad post script to a sad interlude, they had to dispose of their animals before marching off to war.   There is a story of one group of men who arranged with their fellows to lessen the pain.  The last act of a man going off to war, was to ride to his neighbour’s home and, in friendship, shoot the dogs.

Looking at the eager faces of the dogs outside my coffee shop, I can well believe the story.  Even in kindness it would be impossible to draw a gun on your own dog.  Even more unthinkable to abandon it.  For all their faults, I feel a pang of sympathy for the unloved remittance man.

 

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You’re a Writer When . . .

January 2010-010You know you’re a writer when . . .

  • you spend three times longer than necessary wrapping up a few bits of stained glass from the Nativity set and start to contemplate the power or ritual and how it might be used in a story.  Ritual takes time.  So, if you have a scene that you want the reader to pause over, to savour, to spend time with, try adding some ritual.  It will slow the pace while deepening the emotion.
  • you put away the stacking Russian dolls and begin to think of layers of story, how each fits inside the other, how they must lock together seamlessly.  The magic number with dolls is five.  Are there at least five layers of meaning in your story?
  • you re-read the notes attached to Christmas gifts from years ago and think of how our treasures reveal character.  In this case, the character of the note writer and the character of the one who kept it in a special box.   What do your heroine’s treasures reveal about her character?
  • you are gripped by melancholy as the tree is dragged out the door, denuded of its finery, the needles leaving a trail on the carpet.  You feel sorry for the tree.  You imagine a Christmas story where the tree is forgotten and stays in the corner of the living room all summer.  Why is it forgotten?  What does it see?  Is the tree happy to live past its time?  Does the tree have a name?
  • a new journal with lots of empty pages so fires your imagination you walk away from that stack of new books and start filling the pages with what if . . .
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Power of Symbols

boxTwo things happened yesterday that got me thinking  about the power of symbols.  The first was a package from home.  For years, after I moved away from home and ended up half-way across the country, I felt Christmas didn’t really begin in my own house until the parcel from my mother arrived.  It was filled with little presents and silly rhymes, a piece of fruit cake and all the love my mom could pack into a box.  My parents have been gone now for years, but my dear sister-in-law continues the tradition.  When I get a box with the farm on the return address, my spirits rise and I feel like Christmas is really here.

The second thing  happened when I looked out my window at an inky blue sky — probably another storm on the way — and a pair of white swans flew by, their wings shining white in a trace of sunshine.  A pair of birds flying in close formation is a powerful symbol for me.  Once again, my heart lifted and I knew all was right in my personal world.

As writers we need to draw on the power of symbolism to strengthen our stories, or to feed the muse.  Think of the enduring stories of the ages.  Tara is a powerful symbol in Gone With the Wind.  For Scarlet, her home is worth any sacrifice, any lie, any relationship.  She draws her strength, her will and her courage from that house.  Can you see a raven without thinking of Edgar Allan Poe and death?  “Scarlet Letter” has entered our language as a symbol of shame and repression because of Hawthorne’s book.  The Titanic may have been a great ship, but now it is a symbol of looming disaster. Or how about the yellow brick road?  Don’t we all want to follow it to Emerald City?

In his Writing the Breakout Novel Donald Maass says, “Symbols — which generally are physical objects but may also be phrases, gestures, animals or just about anything — pack a powerful lot of meaning into a small package.”  He goes on to suggest that the writer often has included symbols in the story without realizing it.  He urges writers to find those hidden symbols and make them shine.  Use them to add polish to your story, to plant an idea in your reader’s mind, to create a lasting image that will give your story enduring power.

In my book The Man for Her, Lottie’s yellow silk dress is a symbol, an outward expression of an internal change.  “The feel of the yellow silk beneath her rough fingers had stirred such an ache of desire, a yearning for gentleness and softness and pretty things.”   I refer to yellow silk only three  times in the book, but it means so much more than the colour of a fine fabric.  When she wears that dress she is no longer “Crazy Lottie” but a young woman ready to give her heart to a man.

Christmas time is rife with symbols, some universal, like a star or shepherds or a stable, others more personal, like a package from home or a pair of swans.   Look for those symbols in your writing and make them work harder.  Your readers will thank you.

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Nostalgia

theyleftuseverything-220  What is it about a walk down memory lane that is so appealing and so sad?  Why do we keep taking that well-worn path?   Christmas time seems to pull us relentlessly into the world of memories, whether they be happy  or not.  A Christmas tree conjures other Christmases, the ones when we received our heart’s delight and the ones when we were disappointed.   Like it or not, we travel down that road to the past, lit with the smiles of loved ones no longer with us.  A road defined by school days, old friends, our first boss, our first kiss, our first love, our first loss.  Even when we know what trap lies around the next corner, we travel on.  Nostalgia has us in its grip.

I just finished a book, They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson, that does nostalgia in spades.  It is a memoir of her family and the house they grew up in.  When her mother dies, the property is to be sold.

Plum’s parents bought the place when they came home from WWII.  Her father had been in Hong Kong.  Her mother served with the Red Cross.  When they moved to a house on the shores of Lake Ontario, they came with nothing.  In the over fifty years they lived there, they disposed of nothing.  Plum must sort and catalogue and dispose of twenty three rooms stuffed with family history.   The task is overwhelming and takes the author down many rabbit holes of memory and mystery.  She discovers books and letters she’d never seen before.  She discovers bags and bags and bags of garbage — all those broken bits of china, old Christmas ornaments, forgotten school essays, grade two report cards, old hats, old shoes, old jewellery — things that hold memories, things dear to her heart, but things that have no place in her grown up life.    A whiff of perfume and the author is a child again, kneeling at the top of the stairs to watch her glamourous parents heading out for an evening of dancing.   The slam of the garden gate recalls the endless flow of waifs and strays that sheltered in the big, rambling family home.   A book on sailing conjures Saturday mornings when she and her brothers and father took out their little sailboat.  Joy, anger, guilt, love, grief, all crowd in with each opened drawer.

The task of emptying the house and selling it, was supposed to take six weeks.  It took sixteen months.

I enjoyed the book.  Many of the author’s experiences mirrored my own family life.  But, like the author, those memories dragged me into sunny meadows and rainy afternoons that filled my heart with love for the home and family that was mine — and made me ache with loss. In the end, They Left us Everything, is really a book about grief.  Read  at your own risk.

 

 

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Mischief of Mice

Browsing in a gift store the other day, I came across a shelf devoted to mice.  There were mice figurines, plates with mouse pictures, tea towels covered with images of mice and mice earrings, to name a few.  Over it all was a sign that read “Mischief of Mice.”  The term was so apt I chuckled, then went home and looked it up.  In fact, the collective noun for a group of mice is “mischief” so the shop owner had it right.

The English language is blessed with over a million words, yet most of us have a vocabulary of about 20,000 to 35,000 words. Even then we tend to use only about 50% of that vocabulary on a regular basis.  According to a study done by The Economist in 2013, native speakers learn one new word a day until middle age, then no new words are added.  A curious fact, given that our technical world is adding new words at a rocketing rate.  When did Google become a verb?

Another finding in that same study cheers the heart of a romance writer.  People who read lots of fiction have a larger vocabulary than those who read lots of non-fiction.  When you think about it, that makes sense.  We fiction writers need to use language imaginatively to make our stories clear and entertaining.   We want to touch the heart, stir the soul and challenge the mind.  That takes a lot of nuance, stretching our vocabulary.  Did our hero walk, stride, stroll, amble, stomp, race . . .?  The word used makes a difference!  Someone writing a technical paper needs far fewer words to describe his experiment.

I confess to being middle-aged, but I resolve not to stop learning new words.  For a start, here are some collectives that tickle my funny bone.  Look for them in my writing.

Mischief of Mice

Romp of Otters

Scold of Jays

Storytelling of Ravens  (Does that mean of group of writers is a Raven of storytellers?)

Murder of Lawyers

 

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Longevity

   MI+cormacs+Obituary+fake  I mentioned previously that I’m an inveterate reader of the obituary column in my local newspaper.    This week I came across a real gem, a loving remembrance of a lady who died at 101 years of age.  It was a long column, and I found myself reading every word.  The writer had detailed the life of the deceased like a story.  I learned of the moral precepts that shaped her character.  I learned of the hardship she’d endured — born at the outset of World War One, marrying during the Depression and living through World War Two. 

     She was widowed in middle age and had to reshape her life, returning to work when she might have been looking at retirement, learning the computer at age 70 and carrying on with her career until she reached 80 years of age.  She outlived three of her four children. The story was told with warmth and affection.  By the time I reached the end of the column, had had a fondness both for the deceased and for the son who wrote the obituary.

     As a writer, I try to make my characters come alive to the reader, but details like birthdate, hair colour and profession, don’t create a personality the reader can root for.  Like the man who wrote the obituary, I need to draw a picture of my character that includes motivation (moral precepts), her reaction to events — even if the events themselves are ordinary her reaction will tell us about her.  It is the inner workings of the character’s heart and mind that bring her alive.  I’ve learned all that in various workshops I’ve attended, books I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had with other writers.  But an obituary in the Saturday paper really brings the concept to life.

     So, thanks to the loving son who reminded me of some basic rules of story-telling, and introduced me to a remarkable woman.  May she rest in peace

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A Blue Ribbon

This past weekend was the annual Fall Fair where I live.  I entered some roses, even though the poor things had taken a beating from wind and rain the previous week.  I kept telling myself I was supporting the Fair by entering and not to expect any prizes.  Imagine my delight when I found this ribbon attached to one of my entries.  P1020115  We all thrive on encouragement.  At the Fair, a blue ribbon encourages.  For writers a contract is the best encouragement of all,  but a kind word from an editor, a spike in sales for self-pubbed authors, a nice review — all give a writer a jolt of confidence and the courage to keep working, keep trying, keep getting better.   Even for those as yet unpublished, a comment from a fellow writer can make the difference between giving up and trying again.

On my desk I have a pretty jar filled with bits of pretty paper.  On those bits of paper I’ve written down kind words I’ve received over the years.  I read them when I feel discouraged.  Here’s a sample.  “I like your writing.  I like your descriptions.  It feels happy.”  That came from a chapter-mate in my local writers group.  Since I write romance and HEA is paramount, I’m thrilled that my writing “feels happy.”

“If you come to a path in your life and you look back and wonder whom did you touch, think of [name deleted].  I know that when [she} and I look back and think who touched us, we think of you.”  That came from the mother of a child I taught.

As well as exhibiting at the Fair, I volunteer.   The woman in charge of volunteers is a master at making us all feel useful and vital to the organization.  She sends a thank you card to each one and includes a personal note on the work we did.  With over a hundred volunteers, that’s no mean feat.

We could all do with more blue ribbons in our lives.  If you have the opportunity to hand one out, why not take it.  You just might make a difference in someone’s life.

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