Category: Writing life (page 1 of 6)

Where Do Ideas Come From?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transition

My personal life is in transition right now, and it’s making me a bit grumpy. Of course, life is always evolving, always changing, but some changes , like marriage, or a new baby, or a disaster, or a lottery win, are more immediate and more disruptive than others.

As an author, I find change, especially big, unexpected change, fodder for the imagination. Many books on writing recommend “begin at the moment of change.”  And when I think about it, I believe I’ve read a number of books that begin with a marriage, or a new baby, or a disaster, or a windfall of fortune.  They’re great stories, that yank the reader into the lives of the characters with the first sentence.  The rest of the book explores the ramifications of that big change at the beginning, and follows the protagonist through the adjustments she makes until she emerges at the end of the story with a new normal.  If it’s a romance, that new normal results in happily-ever-after.

The book I’m reading right now concerns an orphan in the mid-twentieth century. Talk about transitions!  Each family she lives with wants to change her.  They don’t like her hair, they don’t like her speech, the don’t like her name.  During the course of her life her name is changed several times, merely to satisfy the sensibilities of others.

Classics, like Pride and Prejudice, begin with change – a newcomer to the district. Mysteries often start with a murder, a major transition if ever there was one.  Regencies frequently begin with a young woman becoming an orphan, cast on the good graces (or not) of her relatives.  A friend of mine is writing a story that begins with a jilting.  Runaway Bride, starring Julia Roberts used that premise as well.  In my book, The Man for Her, the story opens with the appearance of a man the heroine thought was dead.

Some transitions are less traumatic – a holiday, beginning university, starting a first job – but even such “tame” changes can generate a spellbinding story. Alice Munro, in her short story, “Runaway” begins with a neighbour returning from a holiday.  Such a small change, yet it triggers a whole chain of events that change the heroine’s life..

The change in my life is not earth-shattering or traumatic, it’s merely unsettling. But, as an author, I have the opportunity to experience first-hand the emotional effect of a life changing event.  This is why writers keep journals.  Not only does a journal give me place to store ideas, impressions and insights, it gives me a safe place to write out my grumpiness so I can get on with enjoying my life, and all the changes that mark our days.

So, here’s to change — may it keep us involved and growing and learning.

Fantasy Anyone?

Recently I joined an eclectic group of writers.  We call ourselves a critique group but there’s not that much critiquing going on.  There is a lot of chat about the industry, marketing, punctuation, especially commas, grammar, and grandchildren.   This is the same group that put together “Dreams and Promises,” to celebrate Canada 150.  We write historical romance, contemporary romance, suspense, fantasy and “whimsy.”  One of our group, LizAnn Carson, has just released a fantasy trilogy called Aura Weavers.  The three books are, The Healer, The Bard, and The Scribe.

As someone who relies on historical fact to provide the framework for my stories, I’m in awe of fantasy writers and their imagination.  The task of creating a whole world with its own rules — is there gravity?  are there cars and roads?  are there schools as we know them? what is the social order? government? history?– is daunting.  Authors are often accused of living in a world of their own, but LizAnn has managed to put borders and rules in her fictional world and has sent it out into the world for others to enjoy.

If you want to give gentle fantasy a try, you can find her stories here.

Now, I’m going back to my own world where cars run on roads, the law of gravity is in effect and history still serves up the best stories.  Right now, I’m celebrating Christmas in the Rockies in the late nineteenth century.  Can I conjure up snow and freezing fingers while the sun shines outside my window, the thermometer reads 23 degrees Celsius and a golden eagle soars over the hayfield next door?

Ah, the power of imagination!

 

 

Voice

I had an object lesson in “voice” over the weekend. For nearly ten years I’ve been friends with a writer from Australia.  We began as partners in an on-line writing course.  When the course ended, we decided to keep in touch, so every Monday we exchange our news, mainly writing, but also family, pets, church, and current events.  This weekend we had a chance to meet in person.  Imagine my surprise when she spoke with an Australian accent.

You see, when I read her words on my computer screen, she sounds just like me.

After the initial shock, I laughed at myself for not “hearing” that accent in her written words. And that got me thinking about “voice.”

Donald Maass defines voice as “a unique way of putting words together, . . . a distinctive way of looking at the world…” Certainly, my friend has a unique way of looking at the world and of putting her thoughts into words, but in our interconnected, on-line world, what used to be regional differences are disappearing.  “Brilliant,” that I first heard as an English or Australian exclamation, in now nearly universal in English speaking countries.  One word she uses that does sound strange to my ear is “uni.”  In Canada we go to university.  In Australia, the kids are off to uni. But one word is hardly enough to convey an accent.

Of course, this discussion of voice is about the author’s voice. Each character in a story should also have a distinctive voice.  Now, if I tried to mimic my friend’s speech in writing, I’d be softening consonants, elongating vowels and moving the accents around on words like Melbourne and dropping whole syllables on others, e.g. barbie for barbeque.

Yet trying to write an accent on paper is fraught with hazards. Jack Bickham, in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them) has a whole chapter titled, “Don’t Mangle Characters’ Speech.”  Trying to convey a Scottish burr or a Cockney inflection results in unreadable misspellings that are more apt to annoy the reader than draw her into the story.  More importantly, they may insult some minorities and date your book to yesteryear.

So how do you convey that a character has an accent not shared by other characters in your story?

Let them tell us.  A POV character might comment on someone else’s southern drawl, or tony Oxbridge vowels. 

Use word order and word choice.  A rancher from Texas will use different idioms than a banker in Edinburgh.  And, for the record, not all Canadians end their sentences with “eh,” but it’s fun to through it in when we’re on a patriotic rant.

So, why was I startled by my friend’s accent? Perhaps because we’ve been exchanging letters for so long I’d forgotten how far away she lived.  Perhaps because both our countries are part of the British Commonwealth and we share a common cultural background, or maybe I tend to see (and hear) the world through my own experience.  In any case, I had a lovely time and I’m truly thankful to modern technology for letting me develop a friendship on the opposite side of the world. 

Homecoming

I’m just home from a trip to Newfoundland.  I’ve long wanted to visit Canada’s most easterly province.  At one time I naively thought I could “do” the Maritimes all in one sweep.  Once I got my geography straight, I realized that our oldest settlement (St. John’s,  1583) and newest province warranted a trip all by itself.  For the purists among you, Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, as Canada’s tenth province.  Nunavut, created in 1999 is a territory.

The island is nicknamed “The Rock,” and I certainly learned why during our 3000 km journey. Rocks and trees and lakes, for miles and miles and miles, although in NL they use the word pond.  Only a couple of very large inland bodies of water got the lake designation.  Oddly, once I’d adjusted my West Coast expectations, the landscape began to feel familiar.  I grew up on the Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario, so  Precambrian rock and glaciations are home turf for me.  I felt at ease in this wilderness.

We journeyed to L’Anse aux Meadows, away at the northern most tip of the island, to see the remains of the Viking village that was established there five hundred years before Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.”  Here we learned that some vegetation like Lingonberries (Partridge berries in Newfoundland vernacular) were also found in Norway.  The area also contains bog iron, a necessary ingredient for forging, and a staple in the Norse culture.  Those adventurous seafarers chose to build a village in a place that reminded them of home.

 

One of the most striking features of Newfoundland culture, is the people’s attachment to their homeland.  Economic hard times have meant droves of Newfoundlanders have had to leave home in search of work, but no matter where they find themselves in the world, their deep desire is to return to “the Rock.”

For myself, I enjoyed my explorations, but I felt a lift of the heart when I started for home. I craved the comfort and ease and familiarity of my own place and my own things and my own people.

 

As writers, we can use that longing for home to give our readers an uplifting journey that, takes them to new places, excites them, frightens them, teaches them, and eventually brings them home with a smile. We can instil that sense of familiarity and safety with the author’s voice, the type of story, and the core truth of our tales. 

When a reader picks up a book by Alice Valdal, she has certain expectations.  It’s my job to make sure those expectations are met.  When the same reader delves into a novel by Cora Seton, the expectations are different, and Ms Seton must work hard to satisfy her reader, too.

  Readers love to venture into new places, new situations, different times, but, I believe, they want to come home safely at the end.  That desire is a powerful tool for the writer.  Use it wisely, make your readers happy, and watch your sales grow.

Down Time

 

We’ve had a long weekend where I live so I took some time for rest and recreation. These photos will show just how restful the days were.

 

 

Then it was time to plant the garden. Not so restful but full of re-creation.

Not exactly an artist’s date as defined by Julia Cameron but still a weekend of filling the well.

To all who celebrated Victoria Day this weekend, I hope you came back to work renewed.  To those who will mark Memorial Day next weekend, I wish the same for you.

Civic Privilege

I’m writing this blog while on duty for the provincial election. Our church is a polling station and a member of the congregation must be present at all times.  It’s a small duty.  I need to show people where the washrooms are and where we keep the coffee cups.  In an extreme case, I can shut off the water and electricity.  I’m playing a very small role in public life and I’m glad to do it.  High school social studies courses talk about “civic duty,” but I’m inclined to call it “civic privilege.”  I’m blessed to live in a land with a free vote, a free press and freedom of assembly, among other things.  I’m honoured to contribute to that society.

Another example of civic privilege occurred in our city this weekend with the Times-Colonist book sale.  For the past twenty years our local newspaper has organized a gigantic used book sale.  Members of the public are encouraged to clear out their unwanted books and donate them to the sale.  An army of volunteers unpacks them, sorts them, lays them out on tables and returns forgotten photos or stashes of money found between the covers.  The proceeds of the sale go to literacy programs in area schools.

It all began as a one-off idea by a concerned citizen, worried about cuts in the education budget.  The newspaper editor agreed.  Expecting only a few boxes, he offered to store them in his office until sale day.  It wasn’t long until he realized his mistake.  When the paper published a request for used books they were overwhelmed by the response.  Tens of thousands of volumes appeared on their doorstep.  That first sale raised $20,500.00.  Over it’s life-time the sale has raised $5,000,000.00 for local schools and reading programs. 

Not only do schools receive a generous cheque, the day after the sale teachers are invited to come in and scoop up the leftovers for free.  (Books sell for $1.00, $2.00 and $3.00)  After the teachers, local charity stores stock up their shelves.  This year the city police department came in and made off with a few bundles of free reading for prisoners in the cells.  What can’t be sold is sent to an international charity that donates books around the world.  My old coffee table book may end up in a mission school in Africa.

The one-off idea failed.  The book sale is now a feature of our community life.  The local curling club has become the sorting/selling hub of the enterprise.  An army of volunteers plans their vacations around the book sale.  New friendships are forged, old acquaintances renewed, and books get into the hands of readers.  It’s a win/win/win for everyone.  It couldn’t happen without good citizens, people who step up to fill a need, people who get behind a great idea, people who make a difference.

So, as I donate a little time to ensure my civic privileges, I’m proud to be part of such a caring, sharing, and responsible community.  Happy voting, everyone.

Libel or Slander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Pages – My Take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Meditate or Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

It makes you smarter.

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

It sparks your creativity.

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

It keeps your brain sharp.

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

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

 

 

 

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