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The Secret Sauce

What’s your secret sauce?

That was the question raised by Shannon Mayer at a workshop last weekend, sponsored by VIRA.  She compared writing a story to baking a cupcake.  Each needs the basics in the recipe, but the thing that sets one story (cupcake) apart from another is the author’s secret ingredient.

Some authors tickle the reader’s taste buds with humour, or snappy dialogue, or heroic characters, or memorable secondary characters. Others can trigger deep emotional responses in the reader with the authenticity of the emotion on the page.  The trick, says Ms Mayer, is to determine what your own special ingredient is, and then to include it in all your stories.  Readers will come to look for that favourite flavour in your writing and be loyal to you.  Leave out that secret spice and readers will be disappointed.

So, I’ve been thinking . . . who has that special recipe that draws me back over and over? Do I have a recipe of my own?  When I started writing historical romance, I discovered Maggie Osborne.  It seemed every idea I wrote about, she’d already done it – only better.  In some ways I was encouraged that I shared ideas with a writer of her stature.  In other ways I felt defeated because I could never write like her.

Then again, none of us can or should write like another. If we imitate, we are not authentic.  If we copy, we don’t discover our own tantalizing flavour.

So, what is my secret ingredient? Not sure I’ve nailed it yet, but one reader said my writing “feels happy.” Another said they are “sun-shiny.”  I think I’m getting a hint here.

It seems to me that many writing experts are pushing for grittier, more angsty work, so finding an audience for “happy” is not an easy path. Still, I believe there is enough angst and grit in our everyday world that we need some cheerfulness.

What about you, dear reader? Do you respond to dark and dangerous? Do you enjoy a vacation in a sunny tale? Have you found the secret ingredient from one of your favourite authors?

North of the Border

Not my usual blog day, but I wanted to share the link to my guest spot on North of the Border with Jacqui Nelson.  Come on over and leave a comment for a chance to win an e-copy of The Man for Her.

Life and Roses

This week my blog takes a break from writing mode to real-life mode.  It’s my annual brag-fest. 

The fall fair in my region was held over the Labour Day weekend.  I entered a number of roses and I won a lot of ribbons, including a couple of “best in show.” 

Of course, I only enter the exhibit.  The roses grow and flower and fill the air with sweet scent just because they are roses.  How often we humans try to take credit for something the Creator has done. Still, I get a big kick out of being part of the fair — and the ribbons are nice too.

 

 

If you’d like check in on me wearing my writer’s hat this week, go to  the North of the Border — a segment on the Get Lost in a Story blog, where I am the guest of Jacqui Nelson.  You’ll find lots of information on some of my favourite spots in Canada and one of my favourite Canadian authors.  You can also enter a draw to win a book. The post goes up on Thursday, Sept. 6,

What Socrates Knew

For some bizarre reason I decided to use the end of summer to brush up on my philosophy reading. Don’t ask why!  I haven’t wanted to work outside because the temperature has been uncomfortably high.  Then we had smoke filled skies for a week—forest fires burning out of control in other parts of the province but a weather system that sent the smoke our way and kept it low to the ground.  In this atmosphere I picked up The Consequences of Ideas, Understanding concepts that shaped our world, by R.C. Sproul. The book had been on my TBR list for a while. I guess I thought some difficult reading would prove an antidote to bad air.

I vaguely remember the Locke-Descarte theory from philosophy 101, a required course for general arts students in my university days, but Sproul goes back centuries before those two great thinkers. In the 5th and 6th Centuries B.C., Pythagoras, the mathematician,  Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno of Elea, Anaxagoras, were all creating systems of thought to explain reality, the universe, cosmos, man’s purpose, and God, among other concepts.

I didn’t recognize most of these names, but it was interesting to read of ideas we now take for granted, universe, for example, before they were universally accepted. That, of course is the point of the whole book—to show how one idea, or philosophy, leads to another and how each is built on the ideas of those who came before.

By the time I reached the chapter on Socrates, I felt I was coming into familiar territory. We’ve all heard of the Socratic method of teaching.  However, before I could read about good old Socrates, the author introduced me to Gorgias, a radical skeptic.  If you thought skepticism was a modern concept, remember that Gorgias was born 500 years before Christ.  Gorgias declared that there is no truth. He practiced rhetoric, the art of persuasion in public discourse.  Rhetoric was not to proclaim truth, but to use persuasion to achieve practical ends, regardless of truth.  To some degree, he could be seen as the forerunner to advertising.

Enter Socrates. He abhorred Gorgias theory. Truth could not, should not, would not be denied. The death of truth, said Socrates, would mean the death of virtue, and the death of virtue would spell the death of civilization. Without truth and virtue the only possible outcome is barbarianism.

Aha! This is why I took up a philosophy book decades after it was required reading.

Truth.

We cannot live in a civil society, with all its benefits, if we do not acknowledge truth. As writers, I believe, we must speak truth.  Even if we write fiction, we must acknowledge the underlying truths of the world we build.  In my fiction, the laws of gravity exist, time exists, history exists, two plus two equals four.  For writers of fantasy, those things may be different, but once the fantasy world is set, it too operates by its truth.

Some fiction writers like to joke that they tell lies for a living, but a falsehood is not the same as fiction. When we write creatively, the reader knows the story is an invention. She has agreed to suspend disbelief for the duration of the narrative. There is no attempt to hoodwink the reader into believing what she reads is factual.

A falsehood on the other hand, is a deliberate attempt to mislead, to convince the audience that something that is not true, is true.

For the skeptics and cynics among us, Gorgias may be hailed as a hero. For me, I’ll stick with Socrates.  We dare not deny truth.

 

“Stuff Happens”

Kathleen McCleary at the Writer Unboxed blog posted last week about an American survey that shows the books we read as children remain the best loved books of most adult readers.

I can understand that. In my post on The Book that Matters most, I noted that the people in my book club referenced books of their youth as being the most influential stories they had read. Granted, my book club is a small sample, but it reflects the much larger sample cited in Ms McCleary’s post.

McCleary believes the reason we love our childhood books is because “stuff happens.” Compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Waiting for Godot, and the thesis becomes clear. Alice encounters all kinds of “stuff happening,” as she journeys through the rabbit hole.  Nothing happens at the bus stop while Didi and Gogo wait for Godot to show up.  I remember the first time I saw the play. I was outraged that I’d sat through it all listening to these characters speculate on the state of the absent Godot and a few other non-sequiturs and then have them amble off-stage.  The play was over and nothing happened! Academe considers Waiting for Godot one of the most significant English language plays of the twentieth century, but it doesn’t show up on many “I loved this story” lists.

I like “stuff happens” as a plotting device. An author can outline her story as the inciting incident and then this happens and then this and then this and then this . . . until “they all lived happily every after.”  It not nearly so elegant a device as Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict, or Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey but it keeps the importance of action in the forefront of the writer’s mind.

We don’t all write adventure stories or grand operas, but action is important in any good story. Even books which focus on character development and a journey of self-discovery need action to hold the reader’s attention and give the character a framework to make that journey.

I’ve never used the “and then. . .” method as a writing aid, but whenever I’m stuck, I ask myself, “What will make the reader turn the page?” The answer to that question is usually, “something happens.”  And then, something else happens.

What about you, dear reader? How important is “stuff happens” in your reading choices?  Can you wait for Godot and engage in philosophical discussion or would your rather encounter a March hare? Do books you read when young still resonate?

Mingling Fact and Fiction

While thumbing through the just returned books at the library I stumbled upon The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie, by Cecily Ross. Proof of my theory that the best library books are the ones someone else chose.  I snapped up “The Diaries” and was soon immersed in the world of Britain and Canada of the mid-nineteenth century.

Susanna Moodie is best known to every Canadian school child for her most important work “Roughing it in the Bush,” the biographical tale of a genteel Englishwoman trying to stay alive in the Canadian wilderness. Susanna and her husband, John Moodie, are truly babes in the woods.  Neither has any idea of the physical aspects of clearing land and farming.  John Moodie in particular, a half-pay officer from the British Army, is entirely unsuited to the life they have chosen.  He emigrated with dreams of living on a country estate with others to do the manual, back-breaking work of carving a farm out of the bush.

I remember first reading Roughing it in the Bush, as a child and marvelling at how mis-informed or wilfully ignorant the British upper classes were about homesteading. As a farm-girl, I knew the long hours, hard work, knowledge and skill required to turn forest bottom into fertile hay fields. I knew that livestock had to be tended every day, fed and watered regardless of the weather or the farmer’s personal agenda. John Moodie had none of those attributes. He was a jovial fellow, convinced that wealth in the New World would fall into his hands.  In truth, he and his family would have starved to death in their first winter had not the local First Nations tribe provided them with food.

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie is a work of fiction, as the author makes plain, but it is based on real characters. The facts of their lives are well-known from previous research and from Susanna’s letters and literary writings as well as from accounts in the local newspapers and official documents. 

This is one of those instances when fact and fiction mingle to make an entertaining tale while keeping the historical record intact. From reading her own works, I know that Susanna was a pessimist and John and eternal optimist. I know he was a poor business man.  I know that Susanna made enough money from her writing to keep them going – barely.  What the author has done is write of Susanna’s thoughts and emotions — that turns the historical character into a multi-dimensional woman, thus bringing history alive for a modern reader.  It’s a fine line to tread. One I’m cautious of in my own work. Too much fiction, and the author distorts history.  Not enough fiction, and many readers turn away from an instructive discourse rated as too dull. In my view, Cecily Ross has struck the right balance. And I have a new empathy for Susanna Moodie, daughter, sister, mother, wife and writer, who struggled mightily to maintain her “self” in an age that considered her an appendage of her husband.

Secondary Characters

Could Mrs. Ralston look like this?

“Mrs. Royston, Emma’s busybody `heart of gold’ landlady, snobbish Mrs. Allen, and Grey’s very surprising mother Lady North are only a few of the plethora of engaging secondary characters that were sprinkled throughout as well as noteworthy in adding a great deal of substance to this very entertaining story.” – Marilyn Rondeau, review of Her One and Only, the second of the Prospect Series.

 

I’m glad Ms Rondeau enjoyed the secondary characters in my book. I’ve always enjoyed writing them and find it easy to create these “colourful” personalities.  In fact, I don’t really create them.  They just come on the scene complete in themselves.  I wish I understood the alchemy that produces them.  I wish my main characters would appear as effortlessly! 

The town of Prospect is peopled with all kinds, from oddballs to pillars of the community , but I’ve developed only a few of them.  Just as too many cooks spoil the broth, I believe too many characters spoil the story. My current reading includes such a huge cast their introduction takes up the first sixty pages of the book—yet nothing about the plot is to be found in those pages. I’m confused as to who is who and why I should care.  The book is part of a long series, so I suppose the author thinks she needs to bring new readers up to speed on everyone from the previous books, but it gets tedious. In my case, I’ve used four or five characters to provide a flavour of the time and place and not burdened the reader with a long list of who’s who.

Secondary characters have a specific role in the story, like mentor, busybody, joker, side-kick, but they should never be caricatures. My Mrs. Barclay, for example, is a “butinsky”, but she is also kind. She manages her husband but is quick to obey when he puts his foot down. I use her voluble nature to deliver necessary information to the reader, but in an entertaining way.  Mrs. Barclay is never one to sermonize. She has a stern sense of what is right, yet compassion may overcome her principles. Altogether she is a complex and memorable character – and she grew organically as the stories of Prospect unfolded.

When it comes to my main characters, the process is not so easy. I create character charts, do character interviews, work up a goal-motivation-conflict graph, poke away in their backstory, search for their dreams and fears. and secrets.  The process is hard work and I’m never as satisfied with the final version as I am with the secondary character who just walks on-stage.  Why?  If Mrs. Barclay can come rollicking into the story and make us laugh, why does Emma take so much careful planning?

I think the answer lies in that last sentence. By the time Mrs. Barclay—or any other secondary character—shows up, the story is already unfolding.  These bit roles flesh out the time and place, amplify the main characters and maybe provide a bit of comic relief from the intense emotions of the love story. The hero/heroine have to start the story, have to overcome inertia to get the wheels rolling.  Their goals are what propels the plot.  Their dreams are what makes the reader care. Their conflict, internal and external, details the theme of the book.  If I want to make the reader agree that ‘love conquers all’ I show that through the h/h.  They are the driving force.  The secondary characters are just along for the ride.

That said, I love my bit players. I can let them be outrageous and not worry if the reader will dislike them. I can make them timid without worrying that timidity is not an heroic characteristic. I can make them truly annoying and be happy if the reader dislikes them.  I think I like my secondary characters because they let me play.  H/h, whatever their personalities, require that the author obey the expectations of the genre.

Look for more of Mrs. Barclay in the upcoming novella, A Chance for Love. Oh yes, there’s a new character in Prospect, a mule named Bartholemew.

Over to you.  What are your thoughts on secondary characters?

Ripping Back

It’s summer time and the weather is hot and dry. I decided I wanted a new dress.  I found a cool fabric and a pattern.  Took extra care to fit the paper pattern, cut out the dress and sewed it up.  All was well.  I’d have a new dress for Sunday.  Except, the neck facing didn’t sit down properly.  I unpicked the seam, worked the curve again, pinned it, re-stitched – same problem.  Repeated this process several times with the same, unsatisfactory results. ( I know.  Repeating the same actions over and over and expecting a different outcome is a sign of madness.)  Before I ended up putting a hole in the fabric I put the whole thing away and cleaned my closet instead.

Eventually, I looked at the problem again and realized my error occurred several steps before the facing. No matter how much I tweaked that final seam, it wouldn’t come right until I ripped back to the source of the mistake.  Ugh!  I hate ripping out, but I want this new dress and I want it to look good, so rip I did.

The whole process is a bit like editing. I had gotten stuck in my wip – maybe that’s why I decided to sew instead. When I couldn’t avoid the keyboard any longer, I cogitated on the source of my problem and realized I needed to go back.  Tweaking the last sentence, playing with the last paragraph, substituting words and synonyms was not going to get me unstuck. The error was structural.  I needed to shore up the foundations of the story.  My “cute” idea was not enough to carry a whole book.  Fortunately, re-writes on a computer aren’t as arduous as ripping out a seam.  I can fill in the blanks, add pages of new conflict and flesh out my character motivations without hours of labourious unpicking.

So, there I am, on track with the dress and the story. It’s a good week.

Writers Extraordinaire

Thanks to Marion Ann for the photo

Summer time and these writers are taking it easy.  This is my local authors group, VIRA.  On a hot, sunny Saturday we retired to the front porch to enjoy a picnic pot luck and talk writing.  The food was delicious.  The company was entertaining and the writing was downright terrific.  Part of the day included an anonymous reading for one or two pages of a member’s wip.  The pages were all dropped in a basket. Volunteers selected one submission and read it out to the group.  We then did a little kindly critiquing.  And we weren’t being kind just because we’re nice people.  We were kind because the writing was excellent.  We had to really nit-pick to find something that could be improved.

I’ve always enjoyed and admired the women in my group, but this week I really applaud them for their creative talents, their command of language, and their ability to spin a tale.

I recommend you check them out here.  There’s a new release page on the website.  I’d encourage you to look at both the romance releases and the non-romance.  These writers are funny, clever and daring.  Read one of their books.  You’ll be glad you did.

A Painful Lesson

This week I’ve been given the opportunity to experience what it is like to count the minutes until your next dose of pain medication. Complications from a dental procedure left me with a swollen face and an aching jaw that sent me to emergency over the weekend.  For two days I literally counted the minutes, day and night, until my next set of pills.  Of course, my pain was no where near that experienced by cancer patients or trauma patients, but I now know a little of how it feels when pain rules every moment of your day. Perhaps I can use that in a story some time.

Some writers will tell you that they use writing to get through the bad times. Not me.  I couldn’t put myself into an imaginary world when the real one demanded so much attention.  However, I could read.  I’m so grateful to authors who tell stories that, even for a little while, distracted me from my aching jaw.

And on that note, here’s a link that may interest you.

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