Summer Time and . . .

the livin’ is easy or it’s full steam ahead. 

I’ve just been listening to CBC radio two and both Julie Nesrallah and Tom Allen have remarked on W.A. Mozart’s remarkable productivity during the summer of 1788. In a matter of weeks, Mozart completed three symphonies, two operas, a significant number of chamber works and gave numerous performances in various European capitals.  He accomplished  all this while in desperate financial straits and while his infant daughter took ill and died. Truly an incredible burst of creativity.

For most of us though, summer is a time to relax, read for pleasure only, visit with friends and relatives and smell the roses. When I was a kid, the end of school signalled summer vacation. The days seemed to stretch into forever. Routines and schedules vanished. We showed up at mealtimes, but the rest of the time was for entertaining ourselves.

We crawled through the long grass playing “cowboys and outlaws.” We built hay forts in the barn. We lay on our backs gazing at the sky and finding pictures in the clouds. We bombarded any available adult with requests to take us to the lake for a swim. On the way home, ice cream cones were essential. There was always a dog for companionship. Usually we could find kittens in the barn. As I remember, those summers were a sunny idyll.

One of the first bits of advice given a beginning writer is “write what you know.” There are many who will argue with that maxim. After all, you don’t have to be a murderer to write a thriller. You don’t have to be an astronaut to write a space fantasy. I didn’t experience the gold rush first hand, but I’ve set my Prospect series in that era. Still, “what I know” from those childhood summers has crept into the story. In The Man for Her, Sean, afraid of heights, has to climb to the top of the hay mow. The barn of my childhood helped me write that scene. When Michael brings a box of kittens into the kitchen at Pine Creek Farm, bits of myself play into the scene.

As a grown up, I miss those summers. Mostly, I miss the promise of those summers. At the beginning of July, everything and anything seemed possible. September and a return to school were too far in the future to even contemplate.

Some years ago, I decided to recapture some of that summertime magic. I made a list of ten things that mean summer to me and set out to experience them all before Labour Day rolled around. My list included the scent of new mown hay, evenings on the swing outside, impromptu visits over the back fence and a swim in the lake. The lake trip required a picnic with egg salad sandwiches and chocolate brownies to make it complete. My friend and I often remark that that was a great summer even though we were both working full time.

Now that I’ve given up my day job, a lack of routine is “routine.” Still, the smell of fresh hay, an unexpected visit from a long-lost relative and an evening watching the sun go down, still capture the sense of summer for me.

What about you? Are your summer days “lazy, hazy?” Do you experience an outpouring of creativity? Do you feel the joy of that first day without school? What’s on your list of perfect summertime moments?

 

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Stock Characters–Good or Bad?

One of the joys of being a writer is the excuse to people-watch. Where others might be considered nosy, we writers are doing “research.”

I came upon a piece of serendipity research the other day. Two older ladies were having lunch at a table close to mine. I found myself smiling at the sight of them. Both wore modest blouses and skirts– hemlines on the longish side–and flat shoes. Their grey hair was worn in a bun and their faces had only a little powder as a finishing touch. They looked perfect. They seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place them, until it came to me. They were archetypes of the Miss Marple variety. In fact, either of them could have stepped into the Joan Hickson role without a ripple.

Across the room was another woman or a similar age, but very different appearance. Long blonde hair curled over her shoulders. False lashes, foundation, rouge, highlighter, mascara, heavy eyeliner and bright lipstick accented her features. Her blouse was low-cut and she cast flirtatious glances at her male companion.  She reminded me a bit of “our Rose” on “Keeping Up Appearances.”

Then at an outdoor concert, I encountered yet another prototype–this time of the patrician lady. Again she was older, white hair swept into a French roll, erect carriage, well-cut clothes, even if they were just slacks and a sweater, high cheekbones, small chin. Once more I felt as though I recognized her, even though I hadn’t. She could have played the dowager countess on any number of period plays.

As writers, we want to create unique, memorable characters, but as I considered these women, I wondered about the usefulness of stock characters. Should an author keep a number of these prototypes in her tool box? I don’t call them stereotypes because that implies a flat personality as well as a recognizable appearance. My dowager countess could be kind, or critical, generous or mean. My ‘Miss Marple’ could be nosy and nasty, or she could be knowledgeable and helpful. Just because she sports a certain look, doesn’t mean her character is uninteresting.

The fact that I felt a recognition for these strangers, suggests to me that readers might relate to characters they feel they already know. Or maybe I just watch too much British television. What do you think? Do you enjoy recognizable types of characters in a novel or does their appearance make you toss it aside as too predictable?

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Calico Kitten vs Bathroom Scale

Exploring her new domain, a calico kitten jumped on the bathroom scales. The needle moved. Kitten reared back, raised her front paw and gave that needle a good smack.

I applauded. I’ve often wanted to smack the scales. Being a writer, I started to wonder if I could use the incident in a book. Since I write historicals  and bathroom scales are a modern invention, the answer is probably not, but I’ll store the idea away for future reference.

Then I got to thinking about body shape in romance novels. Harlequin novels of a certain era used to spend a lot of words describing the heroine in minute detail from tiny waist to slim hips to curvy bosom. She had fine eyes and a cupid’s bow mouth, porcelain (or sun-touched) skin. Always slight enough for the hero to carry her in his arms.

Corsetry through the ages pinched and prodded women’s forms into many shapes to suit the taste of the day. Small waist, no waist, round hips, flat hips. It seems the female form always had to be constrained and manipulated.

Clothing too played a role in our view of the ideal feminine shape. From Jane Austen’s heroine with the waist right below the bust and slim body, to Victorian panniers and enormous sleeves, women’s forms have been hidden by clothing. However, a look at nude paintings of various eras will show that in the 16th century, the ideal woman was full figured with rounded hips and thighs and an obvious belly.

By the eighteenth century she was shown with small breasts and a flatter stomach. Raphael’s “Three Graces” is an example.

By the mid-nineteenth century, tiny waists were de rigueur. Scarlett O’Hara boasted of  a seventeen inch waist. Later in the century, Edward VII’s mistress Lillie Langtry’,  measured 18 inches about the waist.

Moving into the 20th Century we see women of the flapper era going for a boyish silhouette, even binding their breasts to appear flat-chested. After the privations of the Great Depression and WWII, Christian Dior brought out his “New Look.” Once again, women were curvy. Liz Taylor’s 36-21-36 figure was the ideal. Skirts swirled wide at the hem, tight bodices showed off full breasts.

But fashion is fickle. By the 1960’s we had Twiggy and ulta-skinny was the shape du jour. By the 1980’s women were on the fitness bandwagon. Remember Jane Fonda’s workout video? Remember when Jane Fonda was a sex kitten?

Today’s woman is any shape she wants to be, although, in general, today’s twenty-something is larger than her grandmother at the same age. Better diet, in childhood is the most likely cause.

All of which brings us to the question of how historical romance writers should treat the depiction of women’s figures. Do we go with the style of the day and describe them as wasp-waisted. Do we dwell on their high, round bosom? Do we denigrate those who don’t fit the mores of the day?

In my own books, I don’t spend too many words of physical descriptions of the heroine. I’m more likely to pick one feature and use that as a touchstone throughout the novel. i.e. red hair is symbolic of temper and impulsiveness, so those character traits will be emphasized in the action of the story and be referenced to the hair colour.

In my latest book, Her One True Love, the heroine is a photographer. Portrait photos are usually meant to flatter the subject, often wearing her best clothes and posed before a pretty backdrop. My heroine, Louisa, says “Maybe I can make my career photographing women as they really are, strong, stubborn and hard-working.”

I think the modern romance reader has outgrown those dainty Harlequin heroines of a bygone era and would rather see their female protagonists as “strong, stubborn and hard-working.”

What about you, dear reader? Do you want a lot of detail about physical appearance? Do you want your heroines to come in many shapes and sizes? Can too much “reality” spoil the romance?

Leave a comment and your name will be entered in a draw for a free copy of “Her One True Love.

 

 

Hits: 32

Podcasts and the Well

Perhaps it’s the time of year or maybe it’s the time of life, but lately my inbox has been filled with blogs about “filling the well.” The phrase refers to Julia Cameron’s iconic, The Artist’s Way, in which she posits that to be creative the artist must have a deep well of experience and detail in order to pour out our creativity on the page. For many writers, this book is required reading, and re-reading.

One of my blog friends took a nature walk. I can definitely identify with that. Nothing like flowers and trees and water and the sound of birds to refresh the soul. Another learned a new skill — and perhaps a discovered a new hobby. Another technique endorsed by Ms Cameron.

A corollary to “filling the well” is the artist’s date. In this case, the writer takes herself on a date. She may go to a museum, take a walk, go window-shopping, take in a concert. The range of activity is limited only by the author’s imagination. The one rule for the date is that the writer must go alone.

While I understand that Ms Cameron’s thesis that the artist needs to be alone to avoid distraction, I don’t always agree. Sure, a walk on the beach with the wind and the waves, alone with your thoughts is a great refresher. But, as writers, we spend many hours alone. Sometimes, when I go on a date, I want company. I want to hear another’s voice, hear another’s thoughts, hear another’s laughter. The number of hours available for solitary well-filling is limited so I’ve hit on a compromise. When I really crave company, but want to open my mind to new things, I listen to podcasts.

In a way I’m still alone. I don’t have to answer any questions or smile politely or hold my tongue when I disagree, but I have the comfort of a human voice. Plus, it’s kind of like a free university. So many topics to chose from. I can get a new perspective on history. The Secret Life of Canada. I can get a music lesson. Ted talks is one of the best known broadcasts for new ideas, old problems and deep thinkers.

I’m a news junkie and a raving Canadian so CBC podcasts appeal to me. There are also many podcasts on creativity. Basically, pick your topic and someone has discussed it on the air somewhere, sometime, and you can listen in as mood and time permits.

I wouldn’t suggest podcasts can take the place of listening to a live concert, or attending a lecture or walking in a forest of tall trees. Those are all essential “fill the well” activities, but sometimes we need to look outside our own interests and try something new. A podcast may be just the spark to set your creative fires burning brightly.

P.S. Anyone care to recommend a favourite podcast? Leave a comment and I’ll send you one of my short stories.

 

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Writing Tips from Calico Cats

Now that the calico cats have taken over my life, I thought I’d pass on a few writerly hints I’ve learned from them.

  1. Anything is a toy —  a crunched up piece of tissue paper, a string, a dust bunny, your human’s fingers… That expensive invention from the pet store  will have a short life.        For writers this brings back the old adage of “write what you know.” It is tempting to think that travel to exotic places or rubbing shoulders with glamorous people would solve all our writing woes, but stories come from our imaginations. Exotic locales are only embellishments. Use the people and places around you to pepper your stories with “real life.” Even if you live in the dullest neighbourhood of the dullest city in the dullest country in the world, you know stuff. How about your busybody uncle? Take certain aspects of his character, exaggerate them and weave them into the mentor character in your story. Do you have a neighbour who obsesses over his lawn? That’s a gift to the story-teller
  2. Be curious. The world is an exciting place, observe, ask questions, reflect, rework, read widely. Spend an afternoon with a master quilter or a farrier or a dog walker.  Recall some of your childhood dreams. Did you want to be a ballerina? Volunteer at your local dance school and learn the behind-the-scenes reality.  You never know when those tidbits of information you pick up can add depth and interest to your stories.
  3. Pace yourself.  Play hard then nap.              For writers this is “Scene and Sequel.” Jack Bickham wrote a whole book on the topic but the essence of the concept is that scenes are full of action — stuff happens. Scenes are exciting, they move the plot they put the characters in dangerous places. Sequels happen after the scene. They are a time to catch your breath, think about what just happened and plan your response.
  4. Purr. Even a naughty cat can melt an owner’s heart with a full-throated purr.                                                                                For writers this equates to playing well with other writers. Be kind. Be generous. Post a review when you can. Send your favourite author a fan letter or comment on her blog. Offer a critique. Sometimes it seems we labour in a vacuum. Offering encouragement makes you a nicer person. Readers want to know nice people.
  5. If you’re cute enough, It is a very cold heart indeed that can resist a cute kitten .              For writers this means packing your work with sparkling prose, memorable characters and unexpected twists. Good grammar alone won’t save a poor story, but if your words are engaging readers will be more willing to suspend disbelief and accept the, perhaps, preposterous scenario you’ve presented. I know I’ve thought, “that can’t ever happen,” yet read to the end of the book because I enjoyed the conversation I was having with the author.
  6. Life’s an adventure — enjoy the ride.

Now, the calico cat just hid my pen. I’m off to discover the world under my desk.

 

Hits: 32

Season of Change

My household has just come through a time of sadness. Our fifteen year old cats both died. We missed them sorely, constantly opening doors to let them in, then remembering they were gone. There were many tears.

For several months we lived in a house with no pets. We didn’t have to organize visits to the vet or clean up litter boxes. We could go away without finding a cat-sitter. Yet our hearts were heavy. We missed the extra heartbeats in the house. We missed the love the furry little creatures doled out on their own schedules. We missed being “staff” to our royal felines.

Last week we brought two calico kittens into our home. Life has changed! they have only two speeds — top gear or sleep. The floor is littered with shredded paper, empty spools, a Ping-Pong ball and a roll of string. Anything and everything is a toy, including my bare toes. I bear little scratch marks everywhere. Yet I am happy.

My friend came to meet them and couldn’t stop laughing as they wrestled and jumped and ran. She asked if I ever got anything done. The answer was “not much.” It took me three days to complete what should have been a two hour task.

But there is joy in our hearts. After a time of mourning, we celebrate new life.

Writers experience seasons of change in their work-life too. A friend of mine recently switched from historical romance to historical mystery. The change renewed her enthusiasm for writing. It brought her a new audience and it refreshed her spirit. A change of season in her writing life.

I know another author who has decided to change her writing schedule from one book a month to one book a year. For her the season of growth has changed to the season of reflection. For now, she has time to fill the well, to enjoy her family and to appreciate the beautiful place we live.

A well-loved vocal teacher in my town passed away recently. At a service for her I saw old programs and photographs. Before she became a teacher, this woman had a successful career as a performer. None of her students every heard her express regret for the change of season in her life. She embraced teaching with enthusiasm and dedication, taking enormous satisfaction in the success of her students.

Life is not static. We don’t stay children, or newly-weds or young parents for more than a season. We do not stay mired in sorrow or exultant on the mountain tops. Life is change.

Barbara O’Neal not only writes great books, she is a font of wisdom on the writing life. She says, And don’t forget to plant some new joy for writing.

So, I may be distracted and unproductive for a time while I enjoy my calico cats. That’s my season of life just now. It’s all part of living and writers need to live fully. Instead of chafing at wasted time, I’ll embrace a slower pace. Who knows, it may improve my writing?

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Buzzwords and your Book

Buzzwords abound in our language. I sometimes liken them to buzz saws with their annoying noise. Words and phrases that used to be specialized jargon restricted to particular fields of study, like science or medicine, are now showing up in all manner of speech, especially politics and business. Such words grate on my ears. We hear them too often and usually they are meaningless. The Urban Dictionary defines a buzzword as “a seemingly intelligent word dumb people use to sound smart.” Hear! Hear!

One of my pet peeves, beloved by politicians, is “going forward.” Why not just say “in the future?” Are those people “going forward,” by walking, driving, or riding a hobby horse? Anyone who wants my vote won’t assault my ears with “going forward.”

Another irritant is “sit down.” People used to meet, often sitting around a conference table, in order to work out a problem, whether in labour negotiations, or community plans or any number of other events. Now the buzz is “we’ve got to sit down.”  No mention of what they’ll do once they plant themselves in a chair. Maybe they’ll just have a beer.

Yet, despite my objection to the whole genre, I went to a writers workshop where buzzwords were presented as a good thing. In this case, the words didn’t meet the Urban Dictionary’s definition, rather they were a kind of shorthand for writers and readers.

Words like “sweet,” “family saga,” “trust,” “vulnerable,” “danger,” “small town,” “rugged,” “glitzy,” send clues to prospective readers of what to expect in a romance novel. These clues are vital for successful marketing. Whether an author likes to apply them to her own work or not, she needs to understand them and what they mean for reader expectations. Anyone who has tried to sell an edgy, sexy romance under the guise of “sweet” will be skewered by readers. They feel not only disappointed, but misled.

On the flip side, writers can use those code words to their advantage, by working them into the blurb for the book. For some readers “small town” is an automatic buy, as is “ranch” or “cowboy.” An amazon.com search turned up over 50,000 books that used the word cowboy in the title!

Writers can also benefit from studying the buzzwords of the romance genre before they write the story.  By picking a few that apply to her novel, she can ensure she highlights the themes that resonate with readers, as she is writing.

Of course, there are authors whose work doesn’t fall cleanly into any one category . They have to work harder to attract their readers but attributes like beauty, trust, courage and transformation work across all genre boundaries, so even for the outliers, buzzwords can help in the writing and marketing of a book.

In my book The Man for Her, the blurb includes the words beauty, kindness, proud, strength, determination, temptation and love, all code words that readers look for. 

When I’m buying a book I look for time and place words, like WWI France, or North American frontier. Then I look for words to give me the mood and style of story. I like sweet, family, bravery, resolve, choice, and true love.

What about you, dear reader? What words on the blurb make you look inside the book?

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Pacing

I recently attended a workshop on pacing. In broad terms, pacing describes the speed at which your story is told. An exciting action scene is fast-paced. The sentences are short, verbs are intense, words are terse. The reader is led through the scene in short bursts of action with few or no descriptors. The reader’s heart should race as she confronts danger.

In more reflective scenes, the sentences are longer, with several clauses. The writer pauses to describe the protagonists surroundings, or her feelings and thoughts. Here the writer wants the reader to slow down, to catch her breath and to identify more deeply with the main character.

The mix of these two types of writing gives the story its pace. Too fast, and the reader is exhausted and may not finish the book. Too slow, and the reader is apt to fall asleep and forget to pick up the book again. In romance, readers demand a story that takes them into the hearts of the characters — slower pace. They also want a book that takes them to new places — perhaps a slower pace. But they want the action of the story to keep them on the edge of their seats, pages turning quickly, eyes moving rapidly across the printed lines — fast pace.

I knew all that before I took the workshop so expected to have my ideas reinforced and maybe pick up a tip or two on how to vary the pace of a story.

I was surprised then, when the speaker talked about time in a whole other context. She talked about story-time, reader-time and writer-time.

Story-time is the timeline of the story. Is it six weeks or six years? Does it cover one weekend or generations? Once the author knows her story-time and the number of words she expects to write, she can break down the scenes by words — sort of.  If I’m writing a story with a 60 day timeline and the finished book will be 60,000 words, it would seem I can spend a thousand words on each day. That would be very poor pacing, but it gives a general outline of the task of the writer.

It is highly unlikely that a romance would document every day of this 60 day period in equal detail. The author will pick the high points for the protagonist. She’ll spend more words on the scene where hero and heroine meet, than on the weather the day after. She’ll write more words in the action scenes because the reader will be reading quickly. If the author wants the action scene to last more than a minute for the reader, she needs to fill several pages with those short, snappy sentences. She needs to dig deep into the characters’ emotions and visceral responses, without getting wordy and slowing the action.

When it comes to the slower scenes, with longer, complex sentences and multi-syllable words, the writer needs few words to fill the reader-time, because the reader is perusing those words more slowly.

This was an entirely new concept for me. I’ll admit to being disappointed in my action scenes on occasion. When I’m writing them, I “think” I’m getting it right. I’m using those intense verbs. I’m avoiding dialogue tags and modifiers. My heart is racing as I get my characters down the rapids or out of the clutches of outlaws. Yet, the next day, when I re-read the scene, it feels too small. I now realize that I’ve confused writer-time with reader-time. Because a scene took me a long time to write, it doesn’t mean it will take the reader a long time to read it.

Modern genre novels tend to be fast-paced. We start with the car crash and go up from there. Right now I’m reading a book written in the 1920’s and the introduction takes three chapters. The book was highly successful and has been made into a movie. At the time of its writing, I expect reader-time was a luxury and fans would enjoy the slow pace, stretching out their enjoyment of the book.

Nowadays, attention spans are short. Readers have many demands on their time and can’t, or won’t, ease into a story with a long introduction of time and place and circumstance. Yet, to make a story interesting, readers need to know the time and place and circumstance. The author must exercise great skill in conveying these necessary facts while still giving the reader a sense of racing ahead — until she’s tired enough to take a breath.

The concept of writer-time vs reader-time I find intriguing. My hope is that it will make the first draft of my action scenes more successful.

I love my writer’s group. No matter how many workshops I attend, there’s always a fresh take that helps me grow as a writer. Thanks to the many authors who share their wisdom and their experience.

What about you? Do you want stories that are mostly action? Do you like the long, gentle introduction? Any thoughts on pacing. I’d love to hear them.

 

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Necessary Beauty

For Christians, Easter morning is about resurrection, new birth, new life, renewal, a fresh start, an amazing gift, a life-changing event. We sing at sunrise services, we shout Hallelujah to the risen Lord. It is a day of jubilation. How heartbreaking then, were the attacks on Christian churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, not to mention the bombing of tourist resorts. Nearly 300 dead, 500 injured. So much hate on a day that celebrates love. It took the glow off for me, that’s for certain.

On Monday, as I feasted on leftovers from a bounteous Easter brunch, I couldn’t shake my heaviness of heart. I felt overwhelmed by world events and powerless to respond. What can one person do against such staggering odds?

I went in search of solace. I found it in a garden. Beauty — a gift from God — reminded me that there is still much to celebrate in this world. Giant tulips, happy-faced pansies and streams of glowing colours lifted the darkness from my soul.

Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

This little blog cannot change the world, but I hope that sharing these pictures will raise the spirits of one or two, that they will bring a smile to a sad heart or trigger a happy memory for a lonely reader.

Enjoy,   and Happy Easter week.

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Notre Dame

courtesy cnn

Along with most of the world, I had a heavy heart on Monday morning. The film showing Notre Dame de Paris burning seems so impossible. This icon of France, monumental architecture of the medieval world, symbol of the Christian church, guardian of the city for over 1000 years is so etched on the public conscience it seems impossible that it can be lost. When I saw the spire topple I couldn’t help but sob.

Today, there are vows to rebuild and pledges of millions of dollars, to help with that effort. There is comfort in know all the world cares about this piece of history. I wonder though, will it ever be the same? Can a reproduction take the place of the original?

A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip through Europe where we visited castle after castle and cathedral upon cathedral. Nearly all had been severely damaged during WWII. They had been rebuilt using materials and techniques true to the original structure. The results were truly amazing.

One structure in particular, the Residenze at Würzburg, had been nearly 87% destroyed, yet many of the treasures had already been removed from the building — much as many of the art works had already been removed from Notre Dame. Between 1945 and 1987 the Residenze was restored at a cost of approximately €20m.

For me, the most spectacular room was the mirror cabinet . The walls were formed of glass and paintings were etched on them from behind! i.e. the artist had to build up the image backward. So in a face, the dot of light at the centre of the eye went on first, then the pupil, then the iris, then the white of the eye, then the lids, etc. The last touch put on the painting was the background. My mind boggled at the skill and knowledge required to achieve such an effect. 

Much as I appreciated seeing the treasures of Medieval Europe I couldn’t help but ask why a war-ravished country was willing to spend so much on old buildings. The population needed food, shelter, transport, schools, hospitals . . .  How did they justify the expenditure of millions and millions of dollars on historic buildings. The citizen I asked replied that their history was what they had to show to the world. In North America, she said, or Australia or New Zealand, we have landscape. In Europe, they have history.

While I love the vistas and open spaces of my country, Canada, I’m not sure we have a good sense of history. I’m glad that Europe does. Today Notre Dame de Paris is a shell, but it holds the heart of a people. I rejoice that it will rise from the ashes.                                                                                                                                                            

 

 

 

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