Category: For Readers (Page 1 of 18)

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: 5

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: 51

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: 254

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: 66

20 Books that Mattered

My book club is preparing for our last meeting before the summer break. As well as discussing this month’s book, we’ll be generating a list for next season’s reading. We have been doing this since 2000, with mostly the same members. Five of us could be considered charter members. We hover around nine members most years so over half of us have been there from the beginning and are still going strong. 

Just for fun, I looked back at our previous reading lists. The very first book we read was the best seller of the time, Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone.  I can’t say it was my favourite of all time, but I’m glad I read it just to know what all the fuss was about.

My favourites from over twenty years of book club include

  • The Celibate Season by Carol Shields and Blanche Howard
  • And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer
  • Parallel Lives  by Phyllis Rose
  • Coventry by Helen Humphreys
  • The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  • The Amazing Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
  • The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
  • Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright
  • Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers
  • Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
  • God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicolson
  • Old Square Toes and His Lady by John Adams
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
  • The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  • The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan
  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
  • The Company we Keep by Frances Itani
  • The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
  • Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page

So, a list of 20 from over 200 books read. Ten percent.  It is not that I didn’t enjoy the other books we read. Maybe 10% of them didn’t suit my taste. Usually these were books from the best seller lists. 😕

My personal biases are showing here as many of the books on my list are historicals, or women’s fiction, or Canadian authors. The books listed above are not necessarily the “best” books from our reading list, or the most popular, or the ones destined to become classics. What these books did was make an impression on me. I admit, that when I read over the titles on  our old lists, some of the books I’d forgotten entirely, even though I enjoyed reading them at the time.

My list of twenty are books that became touchstones for me. Whenever I hear the word “Coventry” the story of its bombing during WWII instantly springs to mind. “Old Square Toes. . .” is about Sir James Douglas. I can’t drive down Douglas Street in Victoria, without remembering the book.  I cannot read Charles Dickens in the same way since I read Parallel Lives. That is how I created the list. If the story, or the writing, or the idea has stuck with me, then the book made my personal list.

My friend, Laura Langston, often blogs about the books she is reading, but she doesn’t say if they have become an integral part of her memory bank.

As my readers group considers our next set of books, I’d love to hear of any book you think should be on our list. A book that left a mark on your heart or your mind.  Please list it in the comments to this blog. 

Visits: 113

If You Could Do It Over

In its simplest terms, the premise of Matt Haig’s  The Midnight Library is the do-over. In the moment between death and eternity, our protagonist, and some others, have a chance to relive their lives, making different choices. They can undo their mistakes, to atone for harm they caused, see the world as a different person, be a different person. 

It’s an intriguing idea but I’m not inclined to spend much time applying it to my own life. Robert Frost wrote of “the road less travelled by” and the notion has teased the human imagination for years. But, in real life, we don’t get to back up and make another choice. In real life, we move forward, mistakes and all. Regret is a natural emotion, but wallowing in  past sorrows is a recipe for discontent in the present and despair for the future. 

But, while I reject the idea as a real person, as an author it fires my imagination. Every time I put pen to paper, (or fingers to keyboard) in my story, I’m making a choice for the characters–and for everything else, for that matter. 

If I set my story in a small town, I’ve given up the possibility of writing glitz and glamour.  If I set it on a ranch, I’d better be prepared to write about horses and cows and maybe sheep. If the heroine comes from a large family, the hero will have to win their approval. If she is an only child, or an orphan, she’ll be carrying that baggage and the love story will have to reflect that background.

But the real choices for an author come in the actions of my character. If she accepts a job in a foreign country, she will have a different story than if she takes one in the next town. When I decide which action she takes, I’m locking her into that life, even if it is fictional. There is no do-over for the book unless I toss what I’ve written and take a different course.

Authors like to play “what if.” For example, what if Scarlett O’Hara had loved Rhett Butler more than Tara? If she had had a chance for a do-over would she have acted differently? What would that have done to the story? Would you read it? 

In my own book, Her One True Love, the heroine has a choice between two men. That choice will determine the rest of her life. Does she choose to marry the Mountie?  She’ll have a life of adventure. She’ll have to follow him to postings all over the country. She’ll live with the knowledge that he is often in danger. She may become a bit of a sleuth herself helping him with his unsolved cases. Is that the life she wants?

Or, she can marry the preacher. She’ll have a settled life, near her sister. She’ll be the cynosure of the gossips for the rest of her life. She’ll play a major role in her husband’s ministry. She’ll be expected to teach Sunday School, and pour tea, and keep an immaculate house. Is that the life she wants?

As the main character of The Midnight Library discovers, no life is perfect.

But as readers or authors, we get to try out as many as our imaginations can conceive.

What about you, dear reader? Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you’d taken a different road?

Visits: 86

Filling the Well

Julia Cameron lists the “artist’s date” as a building block to nurturing the creative side of oneself. The idea is to “fill the well” or your artist’s soul by going on an excursion by yourself and taking in all the details of the moment. What do you see? What do your hear? What do you smell? What do you remember? All these minutia “fill the well,” supplying a rich source of inspiration for the writer. 

As an introverted-extrovert, or maybe an extroverted-introvert, I relate to the concept of the artist’s date. I thrive on company. I love chatting and learning from others. I also crave quiet and solitude to repair my mind and heart from information overload. 

Ms Cameron says these dates should be taken alone, but on this date, my husband went with me. I needed a driver!  I’d been given a book on “Pioneer Churches” in my area and decided Sunday was a good time to go and explore some of them. As usual, I was more drawn to the graveyards than the church buildings.   

One of the places we visited was a military chapel and graveyard. Some of the gravestones at this site pre-date Canada as a nation. We walked silently among these stones, hushed and reverend as we trod on “holy ground.” There were other visitors, equally respectful. A few had laid flowers–it was Mother’s Day. 

We visited three sites. I soaked up the balm and beauty of these places. The babble and strife of the day-to-day world receded.  I felt the well filling, imagination stirring. I came home with my mind at peace.

On Monday I read an article at Writer Unboxed that filled me with dismay. The writer, David Corbett, explored good intentions and The Road to Hell, a serious discussion of the culture wars happening in society in general and in publishing in particular. The topic is huge and amorphous and thorny and slippery. Thankfully, the comments were mostly thoughtful, with a minimum of snark — a rare event on social media. Still, I felt my peace slipping away. 

Then I read the next article on the same website, a report on the memorial service for Hilary Mantel at Sourthwark Cathedral. The author, Porter Anderson, spoke of how the architecture and the music eased him away from the hurly-burly of the London Book Fair. His words brought to mind my sojourn among the tombstones on a Sunday afternoon. My mind filled with images of bluebells growing wild, a rabbit nibbling on some grass, a family’s love for a departed parent. My anxiety eased.

The David Corbett article is important. The topic is life-changing for authors and readers. I don’t recommend avoiding the hard topics or hiding away from the issues of our day. There are forest fires raging in my country, there are bombs exploding in Europe and Africa. There are millions of hungry people around the globe. There are families in my home town resorting to food banks. These things are real, and writers need to write about them. It is our job to reflect the world we live in, to try to make sense of it and to point to hope.

The young seaman who died after falling from the rigging of a sailing ship in the 1850’s lived in a completely different world than mine, yet his shipmates erected a stone in his memory. The cared about him. They missed him. They honoured him. 

Love, compassion, connections–these are the stuff of humanity, regardless of the ages. They are also the seeds of story. 

As a writer, I’m glad I took time out to fill the well. That makes me a better writer, and a better contributor to my community. I am grateful to Julia Cameron for giving me “permission” to nurture my own self without feeling guilty or selfish.  I encourage others to do the same.

I admit to an affinity for graveyards, but I doubt many share that quirk. Where do you go to fill your well? What inspires your imagination? What brings peace to your soul?

 

Visits: 67

Before and After

 

The beauty industry is rife with before and after pictures. Their aim is to show potential customers the benefit of some product or treatment, hence the “after” picture is far more appealing than the “before” picture.

Lately, I’ve noticed conversations containing the before/after phrase,  not in regards to a beauty treatment, but in relation to COVID-19. The pandemic created a great slash through the normal progression of our lives. We have “before,” when families and friends gathered for celebration and sorrow. When the only consideration in creating a guest list was the size of the table. Babies were born and grandparents, aunts and uncles flocked to the nursery to greet the new arrival. In times of loss, the bereaved drew strength from the mourners who assembled to comfort them. We didn’t think twice about being present in a group.

COVID changed all that. Some grandparents didn’t cuddle a newborn until the babe had become a toddler. Families grieved in isolation, unable to hold the hand of a loved one as they passed from this life. Our new guest lists may exclude the unvaccinated. Remember when banks had signs outside requiring customers to remove sunglasses and caps before entering the building? Now we see a masked man in a bank and shrug.

Most pandemic related restrictions have been removed now, but our behaviour has not returned to the “before” times. I doubt it ever will. 

From a personal and social point of view the effects of the pandemic are significant, leaving us more cautious, suspicious of our fellowmen. We must navigate a new “normal” and the journey  is uncomfortable and awkward.

From a writer’s point of view, the experience of the pandemic gives us a whole range of new responses for character-building. If a good story starts at a turning point, we have loads of examples from our daily lives to show what happens when a character hits a crossroads. Does she defy the risks and go out and party with strangers? Does she withdraw into her cocoon and miss out on the rest of life? Does she feel her way back into the life she had before, or does she close the door on those times and start over?

In my wip, the heroine is a widow. She behaves like a new widow, even though she lost her husband five years before the story began. That is because she has decided to withdraw — from friends and neighbours, from community, from organizations — from everything that gave her life meaning before her sudden change in circumstances.

Since the pandemic, I can look around me and see that response in real life. I know people who have stopped coming to church, have stopped going to the grocery story, have given up on movies or concerts, have cut themselves off from personal contact with anyone outside their household. I can use my observation of these people to give more depth to my protagonist

In my story the heroine is jolted out of her half-life by events — it would be a boring story if she wasn’t — and I can witness the same thing around me as people venture into society once more.  Some are cautious, wearing masks in every indoor setting. Some are being social, but only with a few close friends. Some are racing full-throttle into crowds of strangers.  More grist for the story-teller’s mill.

Regardless of how people respond to the post-COVID world (actually, the virus is still around, it’s just the restrictions that have changed) no one has been untouched by it. We all have this wide chasm, an empty place in our lives, from when the pandemic was at it’s worst. We date our memories as pre-pandemic or after. It’s as though we have had two lives.

One ended in March of 2020. 

As writers, this is familiar ground. Our stories are about change.  Page one is “before,” and the end is “after.” We can give our characters successes and defeats. We can make them victims of circumstances, or we can make them masters of their own lives. In fiction, we can make it up as we go along. That’s the joy of writing, The question is, how will we manage in real life?

In March of 2023 we begin the second part of our own story.

Visits: 73

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