Category: My books (page 1 of 2)

Universal Truth

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Writing from Inside

When 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.

Romance or Drudgery

I’m currently working on the third book in my Prospect series. Like The Man for Her and Her One and Only, it is set in the mythical gold rush town of Prospect in the Rocky Mountains. The time is 1890. The railway has come through the town so travel is easier, the population is growing and the town is taking on some of the trappings of a city of the time. Still, there is a sense of the wilderness on the doorstep. Rogues masquerade as upstanding citizens, upstanding citizens will risk all for a chance to strike it rich on the gold creeks. It is a wonderful setting for a romance, bold men and daring women, a rugged landscape, and a sense of wildness and freedom.
I’m having fun writing the story and researching the times. Of course, I’ve explored this setting before, but there is always more to learn, some little nugget of information that fires the imagination.
But the life of the pioneer was not all romance. There was work, hard, unremitting, necessary work. If a man didn’t work his fields and grow a successful crop, his family went hungry. If a woman could not preserve the bounty of harvest, the winter months were lean. Storm, drought, fire, were a constant threat.
I’ve found a little of that in my own family history. This is an excerpt from a toast written by one of my relatives to celebrate our pioneer ancestors.
“Thou cruel days, those lonely nights,
How can I the picture paint
Of endless toil and lonesome frights
In that land of the Northern Lights?

With Pioneer John to the lumber camps gone
Where the tote-road became his highway
His steadfast wife sustained all life
At home, in Temperance Valley.
. . .
The father came home, when the camps closed down
His sleigh-bells rang a jubilant message
They were heard from afar, the door was ajar
his winter of labour was over.
. . .
The dog chased his tail, he was only a pup
The cats and their kittens gamboled in glee,
In Temperance Valley happy days had begun
Pioneer John was his own man again.”

It’s that line “his own man again,” that resonates with me. There may have been easier paths than that of the pioneer, but those paths depended on the good will of some other man. For men like my grandfather, and the men I write about in my books, to “be his own man,” is worth all the sacrifice, all the toil, all the hardship.
I hope, in some way, that my stories pay homage to those brave men and women who trekked into the unknown, faced the fury of nature, and came through to peace and plenty at the end of the day.

Life is Now

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.

Whatever 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

Pet Reunions

One 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.

Lilacs and Apple Blossoms

Scent 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.

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.

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Dogs and Writers

Writing 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.

The “Write” Purpose

When Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister of Canada in Oct. 2015, his acceptance speech included the phrase “sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways.”  Now, Mr. Trudeau appears to have a sunny disposition and he campaigned on a platform of hope and positivity, so one would expect him to extol sunny ways, but it turns out he was quoting another prime minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, who held that office from 1896 to 1911.  During that time he devoted himself to national unity in Canada using the politics of compromise.  When disputes arose he appealed to Canadians’ better nature to reach a workable solution.  Mr. Trudeau seems set to follow that example.

When Barak Obama was first elected in the United States, he too campaigned on a message of hope, and the positive slogan “Yes, we can.”  History will judge the success of his administration, but there is no denying that he won with “sunny ways.” There is no denying that hope, affirmation, positivity are great motivators.

I love a sunny day.  I don’t suffer the worst effects of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)but here on the west coast where it rains and rains and rains during the winter season, I can get a bit grumpy.  When it’s not raining, the clouds are hanging so low it feels like we’re living in a grotto.  So, when the sun breaks through it’s cause for celebration.  My energy picks up.  My imagination goes to work.  And I smile — a lot!

One of the ways I cope with those dark days is to review the notes in my “sunshine bowl.”  That is a pretty yellow bowl painted with spring flowers that sits on my desk.  Whenever I receive a compliment, I write it on a piece of pretty paper and pop it into the jar.  Re-reading those notes is a great pick-me-up.  One of my favourites reads, “I like your writing.  I like your descriptions.  It feels happy.”

Every author hopes her books will make a difference in someone’s life.  Some will inspire readers to climb a mountain, or adopt an orphan, or start a school.  Others will encourage kindness, generosity and empathy.   If my stories can make a reader feel happy, I am content.

Power of Symbols

Two 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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