Month: October 2023

Where is This?

In my writing, especially the historicals, setting is important. I spend many hours drawing maps of my fictional towns, showing the placement of a school, a church, a saloon, and the layout of the streets. I find this exercise grounds me in the place and gives me a stage where the characters can act out their stories.  Even Lottie, of The Man for Her, who lives on a farm is anchored in place by the town of Prospect.

The setting of my work in progress is not cooperating. This is a contemporary story with a mature hero/heroine love affair. They are both farmers, so the nearby town is less relevant to the story, but it is relevant to me, the author. Until I can nail down the setting to my satisfaction, I have trouble getting the characters to play their roles. Frequently, I have to backtrack to set them in physical spaces, and figure out how they got there from where they were in the previous scene. The result can be disjointed and awkward. I need to find “home” for these characters.

One of the constraints for my setting is the action of the story. My heroine has to live in an area with a big enough population to support a farm-gate market. However, the characters need to interact on a village scale.  That is, lots of local gossip, everyone knowing everyone else’s business, the Women’s Institute, church bazaars, stockyard . . . In truth, my setting problems are the same problems that beset market farmers in real life. Live close enough to a city to sell your produce directly and the price of land is beyond your reach. Live in a more remote area and there aren’t enough local customers to make your business thrive. On-line marketing works for book sales and handcrafts, but you can’t sell fresh carrots through the mail.

I always make my settings fictional but usually based on an actual place. I have a regional place in mind, but, for the purposes of the novel, I need to narrow the scope to a single, farming community with a small town at its heart. And, I need a place name. What about Valleyfield? Valleyview? Both of those names show up in my Canadian atlas. Do they resonate? Many real towns use the founder’s name, like Campbellton, or Chesterville, but those names don’t contribute to the story unless the story concerns Campbells or Chesters. I need something more evocative. Meadows? Leeside? Cedar Creek?  Plenty? Sweetland?

What do you think, dear readers? I really need to anchor this story on the land. Drop your suggestions into the comments section. If I use one of yours I’ll credit you on the title page of the book.

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Five Reasons Authors Love Orphans

One of the fundamental aspects of writing a novel is developing a cast of characters to act out the story you want to tell. These characters will come from work/play relationships, hobby groups, proximity . . . and family. 

Since family is the first and most significant set of characters we encounter in real life, we would expect family to be paramount in the development of a story. Cinderella’s step-mother starts the ball rolling in that fairy tale. A foolish mother, a gaggle of sisters, and a negligent father create the impetus for Pride and Prejudice, while Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights is a terrible dad in all respects.

Yet, despite the seminal role of family in real life, in fiction, especially romantic fiction, the family is often absent. Why? I have a few suggestions.

  1.  A young woman without a family, is extra vulnerable.  This vulnerability opens up many avenues for story. She may be victim, heroine, fighter, or survivor. 
  2. The absent family may be the seed for a quest story. Our orphan sets out to discover her roots and perhaps some long-lost relatives. 
  3. An orphan is a perfect foil for a misfit story. She may be adopted into a family that exploits her, or tries to shape her in their own image. Modern history is full of tales of Indigenous children taken into non-indigenous families. No matter how well treated, the orphan knows she is “different.” Of course, if she is treated badly, that is a whole other story.
  4. The orphan’s tale may be a story of self-discovery. Who am I? Did my mother abandon me? Where is my self-worth?
  5. A character without a family becomes a story of survival. How does she earn her bread? Where can she live? What obstacles must she overcome to achieve happiness and security?

 

My list is not exhaustive nor immutable. Clever writers take those tropes and turn them upside down all the time. I’m reading a Jennifer Crusie book where the heroine not only has a family and a best friend, she goes home to mother when her love-life falls apart. The results are hilarious.

“Barbie” has no progenitors yet the movie maker gave her a great life, a journey or self-discovery and a good ending. 

Still, I’d bet most of us want to have a happy family, live in a comfortable home, and know where we came from. We want big family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and birthdays, and summers at the lake. We’d like “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Waltons” as the backdrop of our daily lives. That’s why “fiction” is fiction. Given a choice, most of us don’t want to go hungry, or fall prey to criminals, or be homeless, or . . .  But fiction thrives on a host of calamities afflicting the main characters. At heart, readers are voyeurs. We peer in at the lives of others and thrill to their adventures, ache for their mistakes, long for them to find true love — all from the comfort of our armchairs. 

To all my friends in Canada, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving with wonderful family gatherings.

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