Category: For Readers (Page 1 of 16)

Shallow thinking, Shallow story?

A recent blog post from Writers in the Storm, got me thinking about “deep thoughts.” The writer pointed out that the human brain needs at least 23 minutes to truly concentrate on a subject.

As I read her post I remembered that feeling of deep focus I had as a student squirrelled away in the stacks of my university library. Insulated from other students, the distraction of the world outside, and facing a deadline for an essay, I honed in on one subject and delved deep into research and into my own thoughts. It was hard work, but a great feeling. When I surfaced from a session it was like waking up to a different world. I’d been so immersed in study, everything else had vanished from my conscience.

Very occasionally I get that same deep focus when writing and the words flow like a river in flood. I’m in the zone, so deep in the story the characters speak on their own, I’m “living” the book.

Sadly, that level of focus is rare.  Life in our modern world is full of interruptions — social media, family members, the telephone, a knock on the door . . . Delving deep into a subject, especially our wip, can be tough. But shallow thinking and lack of focus will result in characters that are superficial, a thin plot, and a predictable outcome. Would you pay good money for such a book?

Fortunately, focus is a lot like a  muscle. The more you work on building it up, the stronger it gets. So, how do we reach that level of deep focus?

  • Sleep Not enough sleep due to sleep disorders or persistent insomnia make it difficult to concentrate. If sleep deprivation clouds your brain, fixing that is a good first step in exercising your concentration muscle.
  • Health/age Depression, hearing loss, vision loss can all work against our ability to focus says Dr. Kirk Daffner, of the Center for Brain/Mind Medicine at Harvard affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. We can’t stop ageing, but maintaining a healthy life-style will slow down the inevitable effects of time.
  • Attitude Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Abraham Lincoln                                                                                                                                                                             People with an optimistic outlook are better able to put aside the nagging, negative thoughts in their head and knuckle down to the task at hand. The power of positive thinking is real.
  • One task at a time Many view multi-tasking as an achievement but according to a study out of Sanford University,  multitasking makes us stupid.  Our brains are wired to receive one set of information at a time. multi-taskers are trying to draw from several sources of information at once and they can’t keep it straight. Our brains just don’t work that way. The brain is meant to filter information to what is relevant. Trying to do many things at once slows down the brain. 
  • Editing is not writing  “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” Steve Jobs
    When your brain is confronted with two tasks that are seemingly on the same level of importance, it will choose the easier one.  In my world, editing is easier than getting words onto a blank screen. If you are in the creative phase of your wip, stick to it. Some writers edit as they go but it is very easy to get distracted with research or grammar or the search for the “right” word instead of concentrating on the story.
  • Motivation  Why do your write? For fame? For fortune? To make your mother happy? Because you love it? Love is the best motivation. If your love your job it’s not “work.”
  • Devices  One study showed that when working on a PC, desk phone or cell phone users worked about 2 minutes and 11 seconds before switching to another task. Electronics and the internet cater to our need for instant gratification. Remember you need at least 23 uninterrupted minutes to get into deep concentration. If you want to focus deeply on your writing, turn off the distractions.
  • Choose one  We all expect to accomplish several tasks in a day but it will boost your productivity if you choose the most important one and schedule your best time of day to do it. If you want to get into the zone and write 2500 words, decide whether you’re a morning person or a night-owl, then set yourself up to get those words down in your best time of day. The less important tasks will still get done and they won’t take away from your primary job.

 Writing this blog was my primary task for today. Now that it’s done I feel uplifted, energized and gratified. Making dinner will be a snap.

 

 

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Opening Pages

My writers group held a get-together on the weekend, where we celebrated meeting in person, enjoyed lunch and had few laughs. We also read and critiqued two anonymous pages of writing from each person present. It took me several tries but I finally came up with the two opening pages of my WIP. that I felt comfortable sharing. I’ve posted them below and would welcome your comments.  I’ve entered the group’s comments in blue.

 

 

Saskatchewan, Canada, 1917

A mournful train whistle echoed across the empty prairie, just as Kirsten Swendsen stepped onto the stoop of Glenrose County School #5 and locked the door behind her. She narrowed her eyes and watched as the great steel beast clanked and hissed to a halt at the town station. Even from a distance she could discern a woman descend from the passenger car. After the briefest of pauses, the train thundered on its way, leaving the lone figure, erect and still, on the platform.

A shiver of unease snaked down Kirsten’s spine. Women did not travel alone in these parts. Immigrant women always arrived with a husband and often children in tow. A single woman was most likely bound for a brothel but they usually headed for the cities. Glenrose was too small to have a red-light district, but some of the hotels were known to have a “back room” where single men could “relax.”

She pursed her lips. One thing about the war, it had emptied the prairies of virile young men. The woman at the train station would be hard-pressed for customers.

A flock of geese flying low overhead roused Kirsten from her reverie. Today was threshing day at Luke Walden’s farm. She’d promised to help in the kitchen. Poor man, she thought, as she stepped up into her gig. She and her family were relative newcomers to the area, but she’d heard the rumours. Luke Walden’s wife had runaway with an actor ten years ago, leaving him to run his farm and raise his children alone. Her heart clenched. Luke was a good man. He deserved better.

She shook her head, then glanced over her shoulder. The woman still waited on the platform. Kirsten squared her shoulders and dismissed her fanciful thoughts. Luke’s wife had been gone too long to come back now. Everyone assumed she had died. Gathering the reins into her hands, Kirsten clicked her tongue, and set her horse to a brisk trot. A day at the Walden farm would lift her spirits, even if the work was hard.

 

At the sound of wagon wheels, the woman at the train station lifted her head, breathing in the smoky mist of a prairie morning. Kathleen Walden. She tried the name on her tongue and found it strange. For the past ten years she’d called herself Kitty O’Hearne. Kitty had suited her – a coquette with sharp claws, sleek and serpentine, gliding soundlessly through the night, then curling into a warm lap with a throaty purr.

 

 

 

I had been expecting a line-by-line critique re writing style, grammar, tone, etc. Instead the group pounced on the two characters, pronounced Kirsten dull and wanted to see Kathleen as the heroine, despite the fact she’d abandoned her husband and children to run off with an actor. What do you think?

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Captain James Cook

July 1, 2021 was a strange kind of Canada Day. With many COVID restrictions just beginning to ease, there was a wariness about big gatherings. Added to that were the recent announcements of graveyards at Residential Schools, and many felt this was not a time to celebrate our country. The First Nations leadership asked Canadians to spend the day in reflection about the past and future of Canada. But crowds bent on destruction ignored that call. They set fire to churches, defaced public property and toppled statues. One of the targets was the statue of Capt. James Cook on the inner harbour in Victoria, B.C.

Mobs seldom do a thorough investigation of the facts. They are fired by emotion–anger, fear, vengeance–and are determined to carry out their own form of justice. History is littered with tales of innocent men lynched by a mob. In this case, Cook was targeted as revenge for the horrors of residential schools in Canada. Since the man lived and died before Canada was a nation, the link is tenuous.

Born in England in 1728, James Cook joined the Royal Navy in 1755 after serving an apprenticeship on board a number of trading vessels. With the navy he served in the Seven Years War along the east coast of what is now Canada.  He was a remarkable map-maker and undertook the first scientific large scale hydro graphic survey of present-day Newfoundland. So accurate were his maps that they were used for over 200 years, well into the twentieth century. 

His scientific accomplishments brought him to the attention of the Royal Society, founded in the 1660’s with the mandate to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

With the backing of the Admiralty and the Royal Society, Cook made three voyages of discovery to the Pacific. The first two voyages resulted in extensive mapping around New Zealand and Australia along with many South Sea islands, including Hawaii.

On his third voyage, Cook reached Nootka Sound in British Columbia. In an excerpt from his journals he writes: 

We no sooner drew near the inlet than we found the coast to be inhabited; and at the place where we were first becalmed, three canoes came off to the ship. . . a person in one of the two last stood up, and made a long harangue, inviting us to land, as guessed, by his gestures. At the same time he kept throwing handfuls of feathers toward us; and some of his companions threw handfuls of red dust or powder in the same manner. . . one sung a very agreeable air with a degree of softness and melody which we could not have expected; the word haela being often repeated as the burden of the song.. . .  A great many canoes, filled with the natives, were about the ships all days; and a trade commenced betwixt us and them which was carried on with strictest honesty on both sides. . .

One of Cook’s notable accomplishments was the good health of his crew. No one died of scurvy, the illness that decimated crews on long voyages during the 18th Century. Cook maintained cleanliness and ventilation in the crew’s quarters, and insisted on a diet that included cress, sauerkraut, and a kind of orange extract.  (vitamin C) For work against scurvy, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the gold Copley Medal, one of its highest honours.

 Cook explored and mapped more territory than any navigator of his era. His achievements have been honoured by scientists and statesmen  for the past 240 years. Even NASA paid tribute. Cook’s HMS Discovery was one of several historical vessels that inspired the name of the third space shuttle, and NASA later named their final shuttle “Endeavour” after the ship he commanded on his first circumnavigation of the globe. When the shuttle Discovery made its final space flight in 2011, its crew carried a special medallion made by the Royal Society in honour of Cook.

Captain Cook died in 1779 in Hawaii during a dispute over wood and a cutter with the King of Hawaii. His statue was ripped down by a mob and thrown into the sea in Victoria, British Columbia in 2021.

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The Not Wild West

I have always subscribed to the theory that the American west was the stuff of gunslingers and range wars, while the Canadian west was orderly, hard-working and a bit dull. 

My latest reading has shaken that idea into the gumbo of Saskatchewan mud. Red Lights on the Prairies by James Grey is a study of the “social evil,” in Canada’s prairie provinces from the late 1880’s until the end of WWII.

James Grey, a son of the prairies, had a successful career as a newspaper man before retiring and turning his hand to writing books. His work is littered with references to various newspapers of the period, along with police reports and first hand accounts from old timers. The result is an entertaining and readable history of Canada’s west that never appeared in my social studies classes in school.

He begins his account in Winnipeg, the first of the prairies cities to achieve city status. The development of this city was mimicked in large part by other centres like Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon. The railway arrived first and the town grew around the station. The town-sites had virtually no infrastructure so hotels, shops, livery stables and houses were thrown up willy-nilly in close proximity to the station. Travellers getting off the trains were met with an abundance of bars and con men, and a dearth of lodgings. 

Since the vast majority of new arrivals were single men, prostitution was not only tolerated but regarded as necessary. The prevailing attitude was that with 200,000 men without female partners, brothels were just another business. Politicians and police tended to turn a blind eye to the madams and their girls provided they kept the noise and brawling to a respectable level. They were more inclined to take action against the houses-of-ill-repute on liquor offences than on moral grounds.

In all the cities of the prairie provinces, the argument around brothels centred on the question of segregation. Some notable police chiefs left the prostitutes alone so long as they stayed in their own area of town, Annabella Street in Winnipeg, River Street in Regina and Nose Creek in Calgary. When the “ladies” paraded around town in their finery, insulting the sensibilities of decent women and reforming clergy, the police were wont to “run them out of town.” The latter was a fruitless exercise as the women simply re-established their houses beyond the city borders but near enough for the cowhands, miners, railway workers, and farmers sons to find them on payday. 

When the reformers and Temperance workers were able to persuade a city to close down a red light district*, the police would reluctantly comply, knowing full well the prostitutes might set up shop in the downtown district or in a back room of a hotel and the “social evil” would continue unabated. Some time later, the protests over public morals would come full circle and the women would be moved into a segregated area where they were less apt to come into contact with respectable women.

In some cities the brothels were treated like community centres. They were usually larger and more luxurious than the hotels. Town council might meet in the living room of a friendly madam. Fraternal organizations would enjoy a good dinner and music in a bordello during their monthly meeting. 

It wasn’t unusual for one of the girls to grow tired of life in the brothel and marry one of her customers. The stigma attached to prostitution in our day was remarkably absent in the early 20th century. Mind you, the wife of a miner or other labourer could be a misery–a tiny shack, limited means, and hard physical labour. If the husband drank his wages the new wife might drift back to her former profession just to keep herself fed.

Back to my original perceptions — it is true that the Canadian west was less lawless than its American counterpart. The Mounties preceded the settlers in Canada. In the US settlement often came first and law and order came later. But the notion that the vast expanse of the Canadian prairie was peopled by, as Grey puts it “monks, eunuchs, and vestal virgins” has been completely overturned. Booze, broads and brawls were as much a part of settlement in Canada’s west as sod shanties and one room schoolhouses.

*There were no actual red lights in the brothels on the Canadian prairies. The term is an Americanism, no doubt imported along with the thousands of American settlers who flowed north to Canada.

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What Makes a Heroine?

 

 

   A lone woman alit from the caboose of an early morning freight train.  She stood, silhouetted against the pale dawn, a tumble of black curls cascading down her back, a shabby valise crumpled at her feet.  She was the kind of woman who drew men to her like foxes to a vixen.  Yet, when they looked into her eyes, they averted their gaze and slunk away.  She saw too much, this ripe, fecund female; saw the hunger in their bellies, the lust in their loins and the evil in their souls.  In her charms were both rapture and damnation.  Few men would risk their souls to claim the promise of her full hips and overflowing breasts.

   Exiting the school house Kirsten Swendsen narrowed her eyes to study the stranger who looked so at home in Glenrose, Saskatchewan. As the truth dawned, animosity shattered her schoolmarm serenity. Runaway, adulteress, unfit mother, indecent, wanton . . . the list of Kathleen Walden’s sins filled many a gossip’s chatter. Kirsten had no doubt the woman at the train station was Kathleen, come back to damage the lives of her children and husband again. Rage jolted along her veins. Without weighing the consequences, she stepped into her gig and turned the horse for Walden farm.  

 

   Here is the question. Which woman should be the heroine of this book? Kathleen has lots of baggage from a previous novel. Can a woman who has abandoned her children and disgraced her husband be convincingly rehabilitated so that the reader believes her wronged husband can love her again? 

  Kirsten is a schoolmarm in every sense of the word. Can an opinionated, rule-ridden, super-achiever be a romantic heroine? Can a man who has loved Kathleen love her antithesis?

  As a reader, which woman would you root for?

  All comments gratefully received.

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The World Needs Romance Authors

holding up the worldI think the world, particularly journalists and politicians, needs to take a lesson from romance writers on how to critique.

Now that the COVID-19 crisis is moving into a new, and hopefully, end stage, all the pundits are out assessing who did what when, and complaining it wasn’t enough, was too much, was too late, missed the mark, etc. etc. Maclean’s, which bills itself as Canada’s magazine, published its latest issue with a black cover and the headline, “report on Canada’s mishandling of the crisis of the century.” In a time when we’re all struggling to maintain our mental health, this cover felt like a slap in the face.

As romance writers we’re taught that the critique is meant to be helpful to the author. It is not meant to destroy her writing dream. It is not a place for the critiquer to promote herself or her ideas. We learn to sandwich our criticism between layers of praise. The end result is to encourage the newbie writer to keep trying, to keep learning and to get better. If a critique results in the would-be-author giving up, the person writing the critique has failed.

To be fair,  Maclean’s did highlight bright spots in Canada’s response to COVID-19, most notably the response of individuals who found ways of helping out whether it was turning distilleries into makers of hand sanitizer, car manufacturers retooling to make PPE, or the compassion and dedication of health workers. Still, the overall tone of the magazine was negative.

Governments and their actions need to be scrutinized, I’m not denying that. But if the scrutiny is based on 20/20 hindsight without any recognition of the moment when decisions were made, it is unfair. If the analysis is intended to push a political agenda, that serves only one party, it is suspect. As with any great event in history, our response to COVID-19 should be examined. We should look for ways to do better. We should recognize that another pandemic can occur. We need critical thinking. But we also need people willing to take on the enormity of government. Given the level of personal attack and smear campaigns that are becoming standard practice, I wonder anyone even wants to run for office.

Politicians, agencies and public administrators will make mistakes. Pundits make mistakes too, but they are never headline news. If a journalist predicts a disaster and the disaster does not happen, that “expert” is not vilified in the press. There will be barely a mention of the miscalculation. Yet public figures are excoriated on everything from their policy statements to their hairstyles.  

I remember a conversation with an optimist once who complained that even the weather report listed 40% chance of showers. “That’s 60% chance of sunshine,” he grumbled. “Why not say it that way?”

As an optimist, I’m on his side. As a citizen I expect my leaders to put every ounce of effort into keeping me safe. I expect them to use science, technology, tradition and research to develop plans to make my country a place where every citizen is cared for and valued. As Maclean’s points out, there are many areas where we could have done better. But to imply that it was all a disaster is incorrect and serves only to fuel cynicism and distrust at a time when we need confidence and team spirit. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and all that.

Magazine’s like Maclean’s give no space to romance writers but they could certainly learn something about collegiality and encouragement from us.

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How I Chose a Timely Book

One of my Christmas gift books was a repeat so I had the pleasure of returning it to the bookstore and browsing the shelves for a replacement. I settled on The Company We Keep, by Frances Itani.

Of course, the cover was the first thing I noticed, uncluttered with a picture of a small table and a single chair with a parrot on the back. I picked it up and read the back blurb. The story is set in Canada. I find a book extra enjoyable when the references are one’s I am familiar with. A book set in the UK may refer to the High Street. One taking place in the US may refer to Applebee’s. I know the High Street is the main shopping avenue of a town or village. I know Applebee’s is a restaurant chain , but I haven’t experienced those places the way I have Tim Horton’s or Loblaw’s.

The subject of the story also intrigued me. A group of strangers meet in response to a notice on a bulletin board (the physical kind not on facebook) to talk about grief. Since I’m missing casual connections just now, I thought a story about strangers getting to know one another would be entertaining. The topic of grief seems apropos as well since our whole world is grieving. Perhaps we haven’t lost a loved one, but we’ve all lost the life we used to know.

Finally, Ms Itani has won several literary awards, that sealed the deal for me. I carried the book to the cashier.

I was not disappointed.  Each of these strangers has a unique story of loss, a spouse (good or bad), a parent, a friend . . . Yet grief doesn’t figure much in their discussions. Having lost the person closest to them, they mostly, want to talk and they want someone to listen. The stories aren’t so much about grieving as they are about living. There are also secrets. The lost relationships had a public face and a private face. It’s that private aspect of the lost relative that colours the way the bereaved live the rest of their lives. As a bonus, the woman who placed the notice is a word aficionado. Her thoughts are sprinkled with the etymology of the words she uses. A quirk that enlivens her character and amuses me as the reader.

As the group gathers, they begin to think of themselves as a company. A place where judgement is withheld and trust is formed. Shameful secrets are exposed and forgiven. Hurtful relationships are explored without censure. Sympathy is free and abundant. Help with practical things like moving furniture is readily offered.

A book with grief at its core  sounds sad, but it is not. It is hopeful. The characters clear out the troubles from their old lives then prepare to live again. They turn to a clean page for the last chapters of their lives.

I wonder if we can look a 2020 that way. The year that was mostly a void in our lives can be viewed as a resetting point. When society opens up, when we’re ready to hold hands with our friends and high-five a stranger can we take the lessons of isolation into a hopeful future? Having cast off so many activities, can we re-engage in a thoughtful way? Do all those clubs nurture us or are some a waste of time? Are all our previous relationships healthy or were some toxic?

We’re not out of the woods yet. Billions of people still need to be vaccinated. We may need to get a booster shot every year. We may need to keep our groups small for a while longer. But light glimmers on the horizon. As we prepare to pick up the dropped threads of life we might like to consider “the company we keep.”

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Unmuddled! 10 Lessons

Hurray! The transformation of my writing room from dull to vibrant is accomplished.  As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s a family trait to undertake major renovations during the Christmas season.

I  thank  the health authorities for the COVID restrictions that meant no company for Christmas. Since I wasn’t cooking for a crowd, I had time to paint and wallpaper. Even the pandemic has a silver lining if you look for it.

Today our weather is grey, wet, windy and nasty, but I’m tucked up in my cheerful room and happily writing this blog before I go back to editing the wip. I feel cozy and content and productive. 

What have I learned from this adventure?

  • A sense of humour is vital to the health of a marriage during home renovations.
  • If you want to change your environment, don’t wait thirty years to do it.
  • Wait until you have the new wallpaper in hand before stripping off the old. (I lived in writing chaos for four weeks while awaiting delivery of my order.)
  • Cats cannot resist licking the glue on wet paper or the gooey water in the trough.

    two cats are here

  • A pleasing writing space really does improve productivity.  I don’t keep finding excuses to go somewhere else.
  • While I do not suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) brightness and light do put me in a better mood.
  • Don’t forget about writing rituals. Some people can dive straight into the work, but little steps to set the scene for work help me a lot.
  • Clutter impedes creativity — for me, maybe not for you.
  • Show up at writers’ events even if they are virtual. It was Laurie Schnebly’s workshop that spurred me into making this transformation — finally!
  • In all things, give thanks. We’ve lived through 10 months of limitations and there are more to go. When we cannot celebrate the big events in our lives, rejoice in the small ones. We drank champagne when the last picture was rehung.

    mirror reflects opposite wall

2021 will still offer challenges, but we know we can get there. When the case numbers go up, the lockdown hardens and the case numbers go down. Each of us is powerful in this worldwide campaign to defeat the virus. All great heroes sacrifice for the common good. I applaud all the heroes.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2021.

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Cancelled

hand made ornaments for my family

In my part of the world, we are under severe restrictions due to COVID-19. That means no gatherings in the home or elsewhere at Christmas. No live church services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. No office parties. No family home for Christmas. It’s a rather dismal outlook.

As my gift to readers looking for some joy in the season, I’ve written my annual Christmas short story. It does involve the pandemic, but it ends on a hopeful note. 

To read “Christmas in the Time of COVID-19” click here to subscribe to my newsletter. The story is part of the welcome package.

However you spend Christmas, I hope it is filled with joy and deep meaning for you.

 

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Escape or Reflect the Times

I had been hoping to post pictures of my newly renovated office this week. Sadly, I can only report “out of stock” messages for the wallpaper I wanted. After much more searching, I’ve found another that uses the colours I want and I’ve just ordered it — promised by Dec. 14. Fingers crossed I don’t get another oops message.

Meanwhile, we’ve cleared the drop cloths from my desk and I’m working on my Christmas short story. I spent a lot of time pondering the place of COVID 19 in my fiction. As an historical writer, I would have every excuse to set my story in another age and ignore the pandemic altogether. Yet, the virus has had such a huge impact on my day-to-day life, I find it hard to put it out of my mind.

My book club met last week and I asked if they would read pandemic stories or if they’d stay clear of the topic. They all said they didn’t want to read about the virus, yet one pointed out that no one wants a war yet our appetite for war stories seems limitless. This year every second book I pick up seems to relate to either the first or second world war. Is there anything more to say on the topic? Yet I read these books and enjoy them enough to recommend to friends. 

Maybe we’re happy to read war novels because we know how it ended. We know the good guys won and evil in the form of Hitler’s Nazi’s was defeated.

 

I’m a terrible sports fan. I’d rather watch the game after it has been played and I know who won. If my team was victorious, I’ll enjoy every minute of the recorded events. If my team lost, I don’t bother. I’m sure “real” sports fans cringe when they read that. Maybe our fascination with war stories is like that. We don’t want to live it, but we’ll read about it after it’s over.

A couple of my favourite television shows aired new episodes last week. One stayed in 2019 and avoided the pandemic. The other embraced it head on, expressing fears for the characters’ health, their financial well-being, their emotional stress levels and the state of the world. I actually liked their approach better than the “bury your head in the sand” angle.

Now, a survey of two is hardly definitive, but I’m leaning toward writing about the world I inhabit, i.e. using my fiction to reflect the time I live in. What about you, dear readers? Can Christmas and Covid live in the same story? Can we have a happy ending while isolating at home? Or would you rather escape the current crisis and read about a different world.

Please leave a comment so I can be sure the story I write is the story you want to read.

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