Month: September 2019

A Better Writer

titleRead A Better Man, Louise Penny’s latest book over the weekend. I finished it late on Sunday night and have moved on to a new novel. Yet Penny’s story continues to haunt me. Why?

I asked myself that question as a writer, not a reader. What is it about her writing that gets inside my head and refuses to leave? Can I learn from her to make my own work more compelling? I found a number of answers.

First: Compelling Characters.

Everyone who has ever taken a class or a workshop in writing fiction knows compelling characters are key to a successful novel.

Penny’s characters are all well-rounded, complex, interesting and tug at the heart strings. I don’t want to go into a long review here, so I’ll concentrate on the lead character, Armand Gamache, a senior officer in the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is an emminently appealing character, kind, honest, brave, loving, loyal—and deeply wounded. As a police officer he has seen and done things that cut to his soul. He has been betrayed by colleagues, attacked by politicians, shot by criminals. Penny creates scenes of evil and hate and greed and she puts Gamache in the middle of it. She tries his principles, tempts him with an easy way out. She hurts him deeply, yet he remains true to himself and what he stands for. As a reader, I’ve come to trust him, depend on him to get me through the terrible events of the novel and show me that justice will prevail, that good men can, if not win, at least survive.

The wounds, I believe, are what makes Gamache so relatable. I’m too soft when it comes to hurting my characters. I like them and I don’t want to make them suffer, but the suffering is where real character is displayed. It is where readers identify with characters and ache for them and cheer for them and read on until they are safely home again.

Second: Appealing setting

The village of Three Pines plays a large role in the stories. It’s a bit like an English village that you might find in a Miss Marple mystery, but it is deeply Quebecois. The bistro, the village green, the duck pond, the old church, the book store, and B&B – these are all Quebec, with harsh winters, hot summers, mosquitos, and no WiFi.  All the instant communication a modern culture takes for granted, must slow down in Three Pines. This lack of speed in the village is a wonderful plot device, stretching out the suspense. It takes time to get reports, it takes time to run down leads, it takes time to receive orders. If you’re really in a hurry you can drive a few miles out of town to where there is cell phone reception, but that takes time too.  Everything takes time and we settle into Three Pines like a comfortable old armchair. We probably want a latte and a wood-burning fireplace, and good friends and good conversation. We want to luxuriate in the slowed down time of this village.

Third: Beautiful writing

Penny’s prose is almost poetic. She is obviously well-read and educated, referencing art, literature and politics, yet her language is not beyond the understanding of most readers. She doesn’t dazzle with long words and convoluted sentences, but there is a poet living in Three Pines and her phrases creep into the narrative and make it sparkle. There is also a foul-mouthed duck who roots us firmly in the modern culture. In other words, Penny has a recognizable and enthralling voice.

Fourth: Dynamic Plot

Since these are murder mysteries one would expect lots of plot turns, but Penny is a master at throwing in an unexpected twist. Even when you think a character has won, he loses. Even when Gamache seems defeated, he has an ace up his sleeve. I am always in awe of people who can plot out even a simple mystery, With Penny’s serpentine plot twists, I can only marvel.

This is only a brief analysis of what I think makes her books so remarkable and none of it is new. All of these points are developed in how-to-write books, workshops and university courses, but Louise Penny has provided us with a masterful example.

Even if you write lighter stories, where romance and humour are more important than danger and crime, I recommend any of Ms Penny’s books as a great learning tool — and a wonderful way to spend a weekend.

Anyone else a fan? Who’s your favourite writer. Does he/she get inside your head and refuse to leave?

 

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Winner!

We interrupt this blog post to bring you the author’s annual brag fest. The fall fair was on the long weekend and I won some prizes. Not as many as some years, but still enough to encourage me to try again next year.

By the Friday before the fair, I’m worn out with fretting and primping and second guessing myself and I wonder why I bother. Then I win some ribbons and by Tuesday, I’m looking at the catalogue to see what else I might enter next year. 

I encouraged a friend to enter this year for the first time. She did and then spent two weeks telling herself not to get too worked up about it all. “It’s only a country fair.” “It doesn’t matter if the judges like my rose. I like it,” and other depressing sentiments of that sort. When she won a first prize she jumped up and down like a school girl, squealing, “I won, I won, I won.” 🙂  

I think writers are like that too. Give them a little encouragement and they jump into the next story convinced it will be the best ever, maybe even earn a movie contract.  So, hope, is a universal trait. That’s something writer’s can use in crafting their tales. Since I’m a naturally hopeful person, my stories are full of hope and it is usually fulfilled. Others take a more pessimistic view and they create characters without hope. This too can serve the story well. Someone with no hope of winning, of finding a better path, of being loved . . . sounds like a perfect villain.

Another universal trait is the desire to win. Whether it’s a blue ribbon at the fair, or a mega-lottery prize or a foot race or an election. We all want to win something. “How to” books on writing ask the author to define her character’s goals. If the word “goal” doesn’t spark your imagination, try asking what your character wants to win.  It means the same thing, but sometimes we respond to a different word more effectively. For myself, I wrestled with “conflict.” Then I heard someone use the word “struggle,” and I understood what story-conflict means.

And if you’re looking for a plot for your next romance, try the country fair. Lots of intrigue in the judging tent, conflict among the exhibitors, skullduggery in the garden. The possibilities are endless. And at the end, your heroine can come home with a fistful of blue ribbons.

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