Author: Alice Valdal (Page 1 of 32)

Role of the Story Teller

One of the happiest times of my week is Saturday morning, when my husband and I listen to a story on CD. Often that story is told by Stuart McLean. I’ve written about Stuart before on this blog. Follow the link if you want to re-read. He died seven years ago this month, and yet, his stories still bring me to tears and make me laugh out loud. What a legacy. 

Listening to his tales makes me think about the role of the story teller. As writers I’m sure we’d love to think our tales will touch people years after we’ve gone.  If so, what kind of legacy do we want to leave?

If I were a humourist, I’d want to “leave ’em laughing,” as Stuart has done. If I were a crusader, I might like to highlight the plight of the poor, as Charles Dickens did. If I were a classicist, I might hope to retell Greek tales in modern language, like the opera composer Niccolò Zingarelli. or William Walton. 

But I am none of those. I am a spinner of simple tales, told to a small audience, who want to read about love and happily ever after and maybe learn about a short period of history in Canada. What legacy can I leave?

I think Stuart McLean teaches me that tales do not have to be told on a grand scale, but they do have to be told with humanity. The characters we create must be relatable. No one is all good and no one is all bad. The “hero” of McLean’s stories, Dave, is about as awkward, and inept, and well-intentioned as a man can be. I don’t think any of the listeners aspire to mimic Dave’s misadventures. I think we do covet his goodness. Dave’s schemes inevitably go awry, yet, in the end, his kindness, his basic humanity, and his affection for both friend and foe shine through. A character worth emulating. A legacy worth leaving.

Lottie, in The Man for Her, is stubborn and headstrong. She rejects Sean’s love because he won’t bend to her will. Someone who has been disappointed in love could identify with Lottie. My hope, as an author and a caring human, is that, in the end, my story will touch that disappointed lover, show her another way, help her give love another chance.

The Christmas short stories I share with my newsletter subscribers are intended to lift hearts, to remind us of what Christmas is about. When we look for light in the darkest days of winter,  I want to bring hope, peace, joy and love to my readers.

The story I’m writing now is about an older heroine, who has loved and lost. Perhaps it will help someone learning one of life’s hardest lessons. Grief is universal. None of us can escape death. Our culture tries to deny death, or hide it away, but every human heart will suffer that great loss. If I can tell a story that helps one soul in grief, I have done a good thing.

My legacy will not show up in the history books, but I hope it will touch at least one person. I hope the tales I tell will make someone’s world a better place.

What about you, dear reader/writer? Do you wonder about your own legacy? What is your goal?

Visits: 7

Happy New Year

Yes, I know it is February, but I got sick shortly after New Year’s Eve and have spent the first month of 2024 with the covers over my head and cough drops at the ready. Not COVID 19. Rather, I got the cold-that-never-ends! For weeks I’d go to bed at night thinking I would be better in the morning, only to wake up worse off than the day before.  Apparently, many others have experienced this virus so I can’t even claim to be medically unique.

Some authors would have used time like this to power through their manscript. Sadly, my brain was functioning only at a basic level, i.e. eat, sleep, sneeze. Even my reading was only accomplished in short bursts. I couldn’t even get through my Christmas haul of new books.

In one of those short bursts, I got confirmation of something I have long suspected to be true for myself. I read better on paper. On screen, I tend to skim. For that reason, I pay the big bucks to order my favourite authors in paperback as opposed to e-books. 

I learned a few new words.

  • Trichobezoar is another word for “hairball.” So the next time my cat embarrasses me by barfing in front of company, I can just use the big word and feel better. Kind of like Mary Poppins’ Supercalifragalisticexpialidotious.  I half-watched the movie from my sickbed and marvelled at what a spirit lifter it is.
  • The collective noun for hummingbirds is charm. What a beautiful sentiment. Outside my window is a charm of hummingbirds. In reality, hummingbirds are fierce little beasts who won’t share the feeder. They leave the flowers to fight off invaders. In other words, they’d rather starve than share. Not so charming!
  • Clutter is one of the words used to describe a bunch of cats. If you’ve ever had a couple of cats twisting about your ankles you’ll appreciate the sentiment. A  clutter of cats is digging up my garden.

I also learned that readers enjoy seeing pet pictures on blogs. With that in mind, here are a couple from my “clutter.” 

Now, my weary brain has to rest. I am recovering, but the journey is slow. I hope all my readers are enjoying robust health and gobbling up thier favourite books, whether on screen or on paper.

 

 

Visits: 43

Merry Christmas

Only 12 days left until Christmas. I guess that is a bit backwards from the song. Anyway, I have sent a gift to all my newsletter subscribers — a short story. This one is called, A Pink Christmas.

If you have not joined my newsletter list and would like to read the story, just hit the subscribe button in the right hand column.

Wishing everyone a wonderful Christmas season.

 

Alice

Visits: 95

5 Takeaways from Craft Workshop

My writer’s group held a hybrid in-person/on-line workshop this month. Since I’ve missed the company of other writers since COVID changed the way we do business, I went to the in-person part. There weren’t a lot of us in the room, but man, was it good to reconnect. I know on-line offerings use the word “connect” but electronic connections are not at all like human connections. So, before the workshop ever began, I was in a positive frame of mind. Here are some of my takeaways from the afternoon.

  1. When the presenters from DarlingAxe.com started their talk, I was totally engaged. The title of the workshop was “Killing Your Darlings,” which is a common concept among writers and a play on the company name so it is not surprising that the afternoon was filled with wisdom and laughter and some basic writing advice dressed in new clothes. ( Kill your Darlings is writer shorthand for cutting out flowery, unnecessary words that please your creative side but do nothing for the story.) 
  2. One often hears experienced writers complaining that craft workshops have nothing to teach them but I disagree. There is always something new to learn. For years I’ve been hearing about “stimulus and response,” “scene and sequel” and it didn’t help me a bit when it came to the actual writing of my story. Sometimes intellectual concepts provide knowledge without striking the emotional chord a writer — and a reader — needs.Michelle Barker and David Griffin Brown talked about “causality.” i.e. every scene requires a character to make a decision. That decision propels the story into the next scene.  This is not a new concept, but, for me, the language was new and effective. While they talked I pondered the short story I’m writing for my newsletter readers. I knew it had problems because what my main character wanted was a negative. i.e. she didn’t want Christmas.
  3. One of the creative concepts presented was the “thread test.” This is a way to test if your idea can translate into a story. It goes like this: when A happens, B must do C before D. A is the inciting incident, B is the protagonist, C is the conflict and D equals consequences.  Eventually those consequences should lead the protagonist — and the reader — to the goal of the story. In the case of romance that goal is happily ever after. 
  4. As the afternoon progressed, aspects of story-telling were presented, examined, and remade. By the time we got to quitting time, I’d managed to rethink my Christmas story into action instead of static emotion.  I’d given the heroine an achievable goal and I’d created scenarios which would prevent her from getting it. In other words, I’d made a rudimentary outline. For a pantser that was an amazing accomplishment.
  5. When I celebrated my last birthday, I considered dropping out of my writing group. It had become a chore. I volunteered on the administrative team, but I wasn’t feeling the joy. I missed the people. In the end, I gave it another year. I’m so glad I did.If you’re struggling with your writing, I highly recommend finding a supportive writing group, taking courses, meeting up with a critique group — anything to give you real, live, human contacts. Artificial Intelligence is getting better at doing our work but it isn’t a friend. It isn’t a hug on a bad day. It isn’t a cheerleader when you finally finish that manuscript.

 

Visits: 116

Terror in Topaz

Just finished reading Terror in Topaz, the fourth in the Harriet Gordon series by A.M. Stuart.  I’ve written about her other books, here, here and here.  All three books were set in Singapore in the early twentieth century.

For this adventure, the author takes us away from Singapore and into Kuala Lumpur. Harriet, one of the main characters, does not like KL and neither did I. 🙂 Which just proves the author did a really good job of portraying this less than salubrious place.

As we’ve come to expect from Ms Stuart, the story is rich with local colour and a conviction that comes from the author’s own experience living in this part of the world. Harriet’s story takes place in 1910, during the period when the British Empire was at its height.  So, not only do we have the heat and humidity and mosquitoes of the Far East, we have them while wearing Edwardian clothing and trying to maintain a proper English attitude. Kuala Lumpur, smaller and more insular than Singapore, is particularly hot and sticky.

The mystery plot of this story concerns an infamous brothel named The Topaz Club, but there is plenty of intrigue surrounding the “upper class” English establishment as well. Curran’s mission, to investigate the club, is not as straightforward as it might seem. He learns early in the book that there is no one he can trust — except Harriet, of course. The story leads both characters into dangerous situations and, finally, a fight for their lives.

There are quite a number of sub-plots as well —  another love story, family betrayal, an unrelated murder, more murders . . .  Oops, don’t want to give away too much. 

Anyone who has followed the series knows that Harriet and Curran have had a long and complicated relationship. In this, book four, they finally declare their feelings. So, HEA? Maybe. I know the author is at work on a fifth instalment of the series and I doubt she’ll let our lovers have an easy road. At least, for now, the romance looks rosy. 

If you love a little mystery in your romance, or a little romance in your mystery, I recommend Terror in Topaz.

Visits: 35

Feeding the Pioneer Spirit

I’ve been feeding my inner pioneer spirit this week. The long range forecast is for a cold winter. Since I live in a normally mild climate, suggestions of a real Canadian winter have me scrambling. I’ve worked diligently putting the rose garden to bed, pruning and picking up every bit of fungus infected leaf. What a job!

Apple Sauce

We harvested the last of the apple crop.

I’ve given away several bushels and am now making apple sauce from the ones with spots. I’ve got my mother’s old colander and pestle.

 

 

When I first set up my own household I bought a new one but it was useless. The shape was wrong. The peelings (which give such lovely colour to the sauce) clogged up the holes and I ended by throwing out more sauce than keeping it. When Mom broke up her household, I got the applesauce maker and I’ve been happy ever since.

 

I’ve seen social media posts making fun of old homemaking skills but I don’t laugh. For me, those skills are a tie to my foremothers. They speak of thrift and inventiveness. They remind me of the hardships overcome by those who came before me. I love quilts that are made from scraps of old clothes or leftover sewing yardages. Modern quilts, with fabrics purchased specifically for this work of art, are stunning and creative. But, I like to think of the frugal homemaker who salvaged usable bits from worn out clothes to make something lovely that would keep her family warm. The news has been filled lately with the amount of wasted textiles in landfills. The women who made quilts new all about recycling long before it became a “thing.”

I feel the same about my applesauce. It’s a great way to use the fruit that has bruises or worm holes. Just cut out the bad parts and use what is good. Maybe that would be a good motto for life — discard the bad parts and use what is good. Part of the “good” has been the gratitude from recipients of my surplus crop. Those who live in apartments, or long-term care no longer have an apple tree at the door, but they have memories.  A fresh, hand-picked apple (even and imperfect one) brings smiles to their faces.

Practising these old arts also helps my writing. I can read about peeling apples, but that’s not as immediate as holding the peeler in my hand. I know the pleasure of a long curl of apple peel. I know the pain of a cramped hand. I know the feel of juice running over my fingers. I experience the crunch of a Northern Spy between my teeth. One of the current buzz words for writers is “authentic.” Sowing, nurturing, reaping and preserving the garden add authenticity to my tales of women in an earlier time.

Anyway, I’ve been happy channelling my ancestors this week as frost touched the ground and I held a crisp, red apple, fresh from the tree, in my hand.

What pioneer skill makes you happy?

Visits: 52

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.

Visits: 91

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.

Visits: 256

5 Ways to “Garden” a Story

Most fiction writers are familiar with the concept of plotter/pantser for getting a story onto the page. The term is shorthand for describing those who write extensive outlines (plotter) organizing each plot point, character development, and twist, before beginning the actual writing of the story. Proponents of this method point to its efficiency. Knowing all the important points ahead of time speeds up the writing and lets the author keep a tight schedule.

The pantser (flying by the seat of your pants) has an idea about a story and plunges into the writing, trusting that the plot, character and surprise twists will appear as she tells the story. Proponents of this method say it keeps the writing fresh and keeps the author engaged as she discovers the story along with the reader. Jo Beverley described this method as “flying into the mists.”

Now I’ve heard a new term for someone setting out to write a novel – gardener. The term is  attributed to George R.R. Martin.

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. . . . The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. . . .― George R. R. Martin

Many writers who consider themselves “gardeners” object to the “drop in a seed and water it” analogy. As we all know, writing is much harder than that. Still, the notion of gardening or growing a story inch by inch is a definite contrast to the plotter who lays out every twist and turn before putting pen to paper. 

So, here are five principles I’ve learned as a writer who grows her story and keeps a garden.

1.The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. 

Visiting a garden centre last week, the clerk behind the counter said “I love this job. I’ve been here five years and I’m still learning more.

For writers, the learning never stops. Read — books, articles, blogs — about writing. Listen to podcasts. Attend workshops. Read widely. There is always more to learn about the art of storytelling. 

2. Know the soil.

In gardening, knowing the acidity of your soil, the amount of sunshine it receives in a day, and the drainage it receives  helps you to choose plants that thrive in such conditions.

In fiction, the expectations of the genre are key to a successful career. If you write romance, readers expect a happily-ever-after. If you write mystery, you’d better reveal “who dunnit” by the last page.  If you write thrillers, we expect justice to prevail. If you disappoint readers in these basic expectations, they won’t buy your next book and they will discourage others from exploring your list. Know your genre. Understand your readers.

3. Thin — kill your darlings.

I hate thinning my plants.  I sew thickly because that’s the way to ensure good germination . Yet when all those tiny seeds sprout, I have to thin to make room for the remaining plants to mature. Did I mention I really hate doing this? It seems so unfair to take a happy little carrot and throw it on the compost so its brother can have more room. But thinning is necessary to produce healthy plants. Hint: sometimes I’ll transplant the extras to my neighbour’s garden so the chore isn’t so painful.

The same applies to writing.

In the first draft, throw down all your ideas, worry about sorting them later, just get it all on the page. Once you’ve written “the end” it is time to start thinning. Some of your best prose may not advance the story one little bit, so it has to come out. If you can’t bring yourself to throw it on the compost, save it in an “outtakes” file. Saving it will soothe your feelings, but,  warn you, my outtakes file is full to bursting and none of that beautiful writing has proven useful in another manuscript. However you do it, you must “thin” your seedlings.

 

4. Trust your process 

George Martin to the contrary, there is more to gardening than dropping a seed in a hole and adding water. Gardeners plant, water, weed, support, fend off predators, till . . . the list is endless. But gardeners also know that the nature of plants is to grow. Even when we are not in the garden, nature is nudging our little seed to produce a perfect, red, ripe tomato.

Sometimes a writer needs to get out of the way and let the story take shape as it wants to. She needs to trust her muse and her instincts. She needs to let her subconscious drive the story, even when she is on her knees digging out crab grass, or staring aimlessly at the clouds. Those random thoughts and sudden inspirations are gold in the writer’s creativity bank.

5. Do it for joy.

Gardeners grow flowers for their beauty. They spend money on heirloom tomato plants that don’t produce enough fruit to repay the purchase price. If a gardener were in it just for the money, she’d put down paving stones and buy her produce at the farmers market. 

Writers can’t focus on the money alone. Of course we’d all like to have fat royalty cheques rolling in every month. But if dollars is the only motivation, there are easier and more lucrative ways to earn it. Seek the joy in your writing. Can money match the satisfaction of writing “the end” to a story you’ve created from your own imagination? Hours at the keyboard will make your back ache, your shoulders tighten and your bottom spread. Who would risk that for mere dollars? But many thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world suffer the pain, and discouragement, and loneliness of a writing life because nothing else can match the joy they feel at spinning a tale and sharing it with others.

prize ribbons bring joy to the gardener

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visits: 64

What I Did on Summer Vacation

new school scribbler

Here we are in the first week of school already. How did that happen? Where did summer go? When I decided to take a little holiday from blogging I did not expect the break to be so long. So, since school is in, it’s appropriate to write an assignment on what did on my summer vacation?

A trip “home” to see my brothers and their families shaped summer for me. I have not travelled since before COVID and I haven’t seen my family for at least five years. As my generation is ageing, I knew it was time for an in-person visit. The travelling part of our trip did not go well. Planes were late. Our rental car was a wreck. Medications were lost along the way. We arrived at an unknown house in the middle of the night and the house number was invisible. By that time we were so tired we opened the unlocked door and climbed into the empty bed we could see from the hall. We hoped we were in the right house, but if we weren’t we had a “Goldilocks” story to tell in the morning. 

After that, things got better. I saw all of my brothers and many of my nieces, nephews and “greats” — two of whom I had never met. Then there was the thirteen year old I’d last seen as a toddler. What a surprise. Intellectually, I know the children have been growing older. I send them notes on every birthday and have their years of birth recorded so I can keep track. But memory plays tricks. Even though the calendar says ten-year-old, my mental image is of a little one taking her first steps.

At the other end of the scale are my siblings. I’m taken aback when I see the aches and pains of old age in my younger siblings. Even though they have changed, I’m certain I’m the same as ever — until I look in the mirror that is.  Then I’m convinced it is one of those trick mirrors from the circus and the image I see is not really what I look like. Delusion, denial and disbelief!

 Despite the outward changes, our affection for each other remains undiminished. Our family jokes still resonate. I see my father in my brothers’ faces and they see Mom in mine. It is reassuring to know that our essential selves are still there. Since I’m working on a story with an older heroine, I’ve made notes of my family reunion and called it research.

The rest of my summer was spent gardening, harvesting, and preserving. I made stuff to take to the Fall Fair. I won some ribbons and got shut out in zinnias. I hear the phrase “next year . . .” echoing in my mind and wonder when I’ll get too old for all this. OTOH, so long as I keep gardening, I’ll always look forward with hope. That’s not a bad ambition. 

 

Visits: 67

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