Category: For Readers (page 1 of 11)

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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Second Thoughts

I’m often troubled with insomnia.  Experts warn against lying awake for hours on end. They suggest insomniacs get up and “do” something useful. What the experts forget though, is that bed is cozy and comfortable. Getting up requires leaving those warm blankets and stumbling around in the dark and cold. I’d rather lie in bed, even if I’m not asleep. My compromise is to “think” something useful, while enjoying the comfort of my pillow. Sometimes I write letters in my head, or draw up a plan of action for the next day. Often, I think about my work in progress. That’s what prompted today’s blog.

While lying in the dark as the minutes ticked over I mulled the writing so far and came to the conclusion that my heroine was too bland. I’d tried to make her shy and nervous, but I’d given her a profession that required assertiveness and skill. The two aspects of her character were not working together. I came up with a solution. In her working life she is capable and cheerful. Only around one family member do her insecurities come to the fore. This solution pleases me no end, even though it means I must go back through the pages already written and incorporate the character changes. I’m sure I’ll like my heroine better.

One of the ways I’ll show the two opposing facets of her character is through letters to her sister. Here’s a sample.

You’ll have to laugh, Chastity when you read about my first day. I arrived travel-stained and smeared with mud. I found two mad men in the hospital entrance, one hopping about and shrieking like a banshee, the other brandishing a pistol. I didn’t know whether to interfere or run for my life. I chose to act. If Florence Nightingale can nurse soldiers in a war zone, I can dress wounds in a mining town.  As it turns out, the man with the pistol is the doctor.. . .

She paused in her writing to chuckle as she imagined Chastity’s shock upon reading this tale. Then she sobered. Chastity was a kindred spirit, sharing Verity’s sense of the ridiculous and view of the world. She could happily live with that sister. But Moira . . . Levity vanished as she considered her youngest sister, scarred, dour, and difficult and all Verity’s fault.

Does that excerpt give you a hint of Verity’s character and her conflict? I’d love to see you comments.

How do you spend sleepless nights?

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In Praise of Book Club

Twenty years ago, when book clubs were all the rage, my friend and I decided to start one. We had few rules. One was that members had to live in the neighbourhood.  Our winter nights are very black and often pouring rain. No one wanted to travel a long dark highway in November. The second rule was about the reading list. We wanted to push ourselves to read outside our usual book choices so we agreed that the reading list had to have books from a variety of genres. So, our choices included one each from romance, mystery, historical, biography, travel, hobbies, best seller, classic, children’s . . . you get the idea.

Over the life of the book club, our membership has changed a little, but four of the original members are still there and two others are eighteen year members. When we started, we were all working women. Now we’re all retired. We’ve seen each other through children’s graduation, the arrival of grandchildren, health challenges and the rough spots of life. And we keep reading across a broad range of topics.

Last week we did a trip down memory lane recalling the books we’d enjoyed the most and those we’d disliked but that sparked great conversations. I had done a sort through my files and come upon bits of paper with scribbled titles that never made it to the actual reading list, usually because it would repeat a genre. At our next book choosing session, I’ll put those old titles up for consideration and see if they make it to the final reading list this time.

I haven’t used a book club in any of my novels but in the latest book of the Prospect Series, Her One True Love, my hero and heroine get to know each other while discussing books. Of course, in the 1890’s their “best sellers” were very different from ours. Here’s a sample:

“We should hear back in a couple of weeks. Now, give me your opinion of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mrs. North has it in the library now.”

“Such a strange book.” She refilled their coffee cups. “I suppose it can be read as a treatise on the human personality. We all have good and evil contained within ourselves. Mr. Stevenson has presented the two sides of a man’s nature in an exaggerated form.”

They talked until the coffee pot was empty. Books, music, current events, Louisa found they had much in common. If it weren’t for the clerical collar, she could like Daniel Stanton very much. As it was she resolved to keep him at a distance. The minute they disagreed on anything, he’d go all stony-faced and quote scripture at her and remind her that she was a daughter of Eve and therefore responsible for the fall of mankind.

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Spring Suddenly

After all my whining about our cold, long winter (for Victoria) suddenly, it’s spring. The photo at the top shows the last remaining patch of snow in a shady spot in our yard.

Today marks the equinox and our temperatures have soared to record highs. Soon I’ll be complaining about drought and heat. 🙂 The crocus have burst into bloom. The heather is showing a happy, purple face and the forsythia buds are near to bursting. Those little red nubs in the ground are rhubarb shoots. That lovely red fruit is usually the first harvest from the garden and equates with spring in my mind. It’s also a tender reminder of my mother. She practically danced in the kitchen when she made pie from that first fresh food.

Maybe it’s the farmer’s daughter in me, but I’m very aware of weather. Is the ground warm enough for seeding? Does the sky hold thunder clouds? Are there enough bees around for pollination?

The Man for Her, the first book in my Prospect series begins with the weather. Now, if you go to how-to-write classes, they’ll tell you to not discuss the weather. But I think the weather is a great place to set mood and tone.  Here’s a sample.

1886

A glaring sun bore down on the small mining town of Prospect, bleaching the colour from the landscape and sapping the strength of its citizens. The streets were nearly deserted as people huddled indoors or in patches of shade, seeking respite from the unrelenting heat.

Only Lottie Graham was out and about, hurrying across the unnaturally quiet main street, her worn books kicking up small eddies of fine white dust. The heat and the dust filled her nostrils and choked her throat. It was late August and Prospect was desperate for rain. But not just yet, Lottie prayed, even as she wished for a breath of wind.

That book was published years ago and I still like it. Lottie is a farmer, or course weather is always on her mind.

What’s your opinion, dear reader? Are weather reports boring or a means to draw you into the story?

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Another Female First

This post was inspired by a blog from Jacqui Nelson on the first woman poet laureate of California, Ina Coolbrith.  Kudos to Jacqui for discovering this exceptional woman and a tip of the hat to Ina for creating her mark in the world.

A Canadian woman, Agnes Deans Cameron, has a similar story. Born in 1863 in Victoria, B.C. she became a trailblazer for women. At the tender age of 16 she earned her teaching certificate. Because she was so young, her certificate only allowed her to teach in a school where other teachers were employed. Her first posting was at Angela College, a girls school in Victoria. Later, she became the first female to teach at the Boy’s School  and then Victoria High School. It was here she ran into her first conflict with the mores of the age.

A male student, who’d already failed his course four times, refused the assignment she gave him.  The strap was the accepted punishment for such insolence, but this boy left school rather than submit to corporal punishment. He was suspended but his father complained. Eventually, Agnes was fired. The whole affair was written about in the newspapers, talked of on the street, and preached from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Agnes was a cause celebre.

Later she became the first female principal in British Columbia, with her appointment to that post at South Park School.

Deans Cameron was breaking new ground on other fronts as well. She attended the Chicago Worlds Fair, travelling by herself in an era when respectable women travelled with a companion.

She protested a pay raise for male teachers while female teachers were denied such an increase. As a principal the differing pay scales did not affect her but she felt “as citizens we have a duty to participate, a duty that we cannot relegate to others.” Her outspokenness led her into a conflict with the school trustees and, eventually, the department of education of the province. It was a long and twisting trail, but in the end, Cameron was fired, and her teaching certificate revoked. At the same time, the government was in the process of expropriating her home. As the sole support for her mother and sister, the loss of her living had huge consequences.

on Arctic trek with Jessie Brown

But Deans Cameron was not easily dismissed. She had already been writing columns for various newspapers. Now she embarked on a journey to the Arctic, riding on Hudson’s Bay trading barges and canoes, with her niece, Jessie Brown. As a result of this experience she became a popular speaker and writer. As well as the newspaper columns, she now penned a book, The New North: An Account of a Woman’s 1908 journey through Canada to the Arctic. The book was a huge success and Agnes was much in demand as a speaker, in Canada and the United States.

One would think she’d had adventures enough but Agnes was always curious. She raced bicycles in her youth. Later she joined the Canadian Highway Association for a drive from Nanaimo to Port Alberni. Sadly, this was her last adventure. A few days after the rally she died of appendicitis.

Ironically, Victoria, which had vilified her during the education debates, now welcomed her home as a favoured daughter. She was buried from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, one of the largest funerals the city had seen. The pallbearers, included the superintendent of schools.

If you’d like to read the full account of Agnes Deans Cameron’s life, her biography is called Against the Current and is available here.

 

 

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“Princesses”

As a writer of historical fiction, I’m keen on research. Even though my works are fiction, I believe it is important that they be “true” where non-fictional characters or events are concerned. Sometimes my research is a little dry — a task that must be completed, but not my favourite part of writing.

Sometimes the research turns into a page-turning read. Such is the case with Flora Fraser’s Princesses – the Six Daughters of George III.  The book is meticulously researched using letters and diaries written by the princesses and by their governesses and friends. Ms Fraser received permission from Queen Elizabeth II to delve into the royal archives for material. It’s a bit of a tome, 400 pages of close print, plus another 100 of footnotes, but each sentence is packed with detail.

In some ways, this is a sad story. Six lively, intelligent, educated women of the highest rank, whose lives were constrained, cabined and controlled. When they should have been enjoying parties and courtships, they were sitting attendance on their parents. The highlight of their days would be a walk outside. To go riding was considered a high thrill and slightly risque.

The book makes clear that the king’s daughters could have no degree of independence without marriage. Their father promised to find suitable matches,  but rejected every suitor offered, and, in the end, decided he couldn’t bear to part with his daughters so made no move to see them in their own establishments. Don’t forget, this is also the king who went mad.

Perhaps George III could be forgiven for his mistreatment of his daughters because of his mental illness, but Queen Charlotte had no such excuse. With her husband’s illness, she changed from a happy, social woman to a miserable and demanding shrew. She insisted that her daughters dance attendance on her and forbade them having any life that wasn’t under her thumb. Even when Elizabeth, at the ripe age of 46 talked of marriage, her mother spoke against it. A two year engagement was considered “rushed.”

Despite their circumstances, the princesses had distinct personalities–Princess Royal is managing and clever, Elizabeth is plump and pretty, Augusta is artistic and shy.   Sophia is passionate, Mary is good-humoured and Amelia is charming. Ms Fraser has drawn a comprehensive picture of their lives and their times.

For anyone writing of the Georgian or Regency era in Britain, I heartily recommend this book. Research that is fun to read, and one that expounds on the small details of a woman’s life. A common complaint amongst historical writers is that the history books contain world events like war and power struggles and shifting empires, but leave out the domestic details we need to make our female characters come alive in an accurate way. “Princesses” addresses that problem.

Anyone have a great research source for pioneer life in North America? I’d love to hear about it.

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Snowbound

I’ve been snowbound for a week — well maybe only two days — actually about four hours — but it seems like weeks. The first day felt like a holiday. After all “snow day” means we can read books all day.  I “had” to skip exercise class because the roads were dangerous. Another reason to like a snow day.

But, now I’m restless.  We haven’t been stuck in the house for days on end, but many of my activities have been cancelled. Saturday, my writers group had to give up its Valentine party because high winds and blowing snow made driving unnecessarily a foolish move. Made it to the pet store today for cat food — what’s my safety compared to the cat’s happiness? — but now we’re in white out conditions again.

I have television, radio, telephone and internet plus neighbours who can walk through the snow to visit. If I get cabin fever after a few days of semi-isolation, what was it like in the 1890’s on the frontier, the era of my Prospect series?

Frontier women in the north tell of parties that went on for days–isolated settlers were so glad of company from outside they would go without sleep just to hear music and see another face.

Some pioneers dealt with the loneliness through hard work — chopping wood, carrying water, feeding livestock– and artistic pursuits. Sailors carved scrimshaw to wile away hours of inactivity.  Some, usually men, took to whittling elaborate figures. Women could never afford to be idle. They turned their creativity to making quilts.

 

Some went mad.

In his short story, “One’s a Heifer,” Sinclair Ross writes

“You don’t know how bad it is sometimes. Weeks on end and no one to talk to. You’re not yourself–you’re not sure what you’re going to say or do.”

I remembered hearing my uncle talk about a man who had gone crazy living alone. And this fellow Vickers had queer eyes all right.

The heroines in my books always turn to hard work as a way to get through tough times. Perhaps that’s a nod to my farming background. There is always work to do — and productive work will keep you sane.

Anyone else with snow day tales to tell? Leave a comment and receive a free copy of my short story “Faith” about a woman whose plans are overset by a snowstorm.

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Nineteenth Century Internet?

Driving in the last spike

 

In 1886, the time period for my first book in the Prospect series, there were no railways through the rocky mountains in Canada.

Lottie Graham, the heroine of the first book, The Man for Her, had to travel by stage and boat and horseback to reach her destination in the mountains. The journey took months. By the time her sister, Louisa arrived in the latest book, Her One True Love, the railroad had been pushed through at incredible cost, but what a feat of engineering it was. Tunneling through solid rock, skirting along river banks and crossing fantastic trestles, the Canadian Pacific Railroad helped to bring B.C. into Confederation, brought down the government of Sir John A. MacDonald and made the trip from Toronto to Vancouver in four days.

Banff Springs Hotel

To put it into modern terms, the railroad was like the internet of its day. Newspapers could be delivered in under a week. Where Grey North, the hero of Her One and Only,  read of his father’s death weeks after the event, railroads meant telegraphs and communication across the world in mere hours. Goods could be shipped year round, not just during the summer months when waterways were open. Tourism boomed. The railroad brought thousands of wealthy visitors to the spectacular lodges in Banff and Lake Louise. New industry flourished and railway towns such as Field B.C. sprang into existence.

In my current work-in-progress, Prospect is still on the edge of the wilderness, but it is accessible to anyone with the price of a railroad ticket. Hopeful Adams, and his donkey have come from Louisiana to join the hoards of gold seekers. Scarlett, a saloon girl, comes from the deep south of America. The heroine, Verity Chance, has come from Ireland, and the hero, Dr. Nordale hales from Montreal. All have come together in Prospect to seek their fortunes—some on the creeks, others in the town. It is an exciting time to be in Prospect.

Gord Lightfoot is a well-known Canadian folk singer. One of his iconic songs concerns the building of the railroad. The opening line is”there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run.” He goes on from there to describe in music and poetry the building of “an iron road running from the sea to the sea” It is one of my favourite history lessons. You can listen to it here.

Some years ago my husband and I took a rail journey from the Pacific Ocean, across the mountains, the prairies, Ontario and Quebec, the Maritimes and arrived on the Atlantic coast. We had to change trains twice. There was no steam engine but the excitement of boarding the train is something I’ll never forget. The tedium of airport security, the cramped, airless conditions on board a jet plane has made air travel lose its appeal for me, but the thundering of steel wheels on a steel track makes my heart beat high.

It saddens me to see tracks abandoned, or even torn up in our modern age. Roads and transport trucks have replaced the freight cars but they are not nearly as efficient or as clean energy as a locomotive. Not to mention that the railroad cemented our disparate colonies into one nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and up to the Arctic.  In later years thousands of immigrants peopled the prairies, arriving by train.  There’s romance  in riding the rails, falling asleep to the clacking of steel wheels and eating breakfast in a luxurious dining car.  If one has time, it’s the best way to travel.

What about you, dear readers? Do any of you have a railway story to share?

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Reading for Love

One of the side effects of my Christmas indulgence in books has been recovering my joy in reading. As a writer, I read — a lot. But I read about the business. I read books on craft. I read books written by my writing colleagues. I read in my genre. I read to learn the trends in fiction. But all that reading can sometimes feel like a chore. Taking a “reading break” over the holidays reminded me of how much I love a good story. From my earliest memories of bedtime stories to the latest novel, a good book has transported me to other worlds and other times. It has introduced me to characters who have stayed in my memory forever.

  •  Rumpelstiltskin.  What a name! But whenever I look at a pile of  straw, I remember the little man who could weave it into gold.
  • Green hair, quite fashionable now, takes me to Prince Edward Island and a red-headed Anne who hated her hair.
  • Inspector Gamache is firmly embedded in my heart, rather like a grandfather I’ve heard about but never met.
  • Hester Prynne. Just the mere mention of her name puts me in a rage.
  • I still ache for Rhett and Scarlet. How could they hurt each other so?

I’ve just turned the last page of The Piano Maker.  Part mystery, part romance, this book included some fascinating details on how pianos are made. I don’t need to know those details to enjoy my piano, but the information is another reminder that reading for pleasure is not a waste of time, as some of our more Puritan ancestors might insist. Reading for pleasure broadens the mind, enhances the spirit and lifts the heart. It’s also a great way to make new friends. “What are you reading?” is a great conversation starter.

If you’ve finished this blog, go read something. I hope you’ll read one of my books, but that’s not necessary. If you are blessed to live in a part of the world where books are plentiful and the ability to read is ordinary, take advantage, and count your blessings.

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