Category: For Writers (page 1 of 9)

Calico Kitten vs Bathroom Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Podcasts and the Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Writing Tips from Calico Cats

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

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

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

 

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Season of Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buzzwords and your Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pacing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Genre as Training Ground

My book club’s choice for this month was a  book by an author I knew first as a romance writer. I looked forward to a gentle read. Wrong! The author had written what Donald Maass might call a “breakout” novel, the story that is deeper, more complex, bigger, and usually a better seller than the genre novel that preceded it. The book I just read achieved all of that.

Yet, I could still see the “genre” fingerprints in the work. There was The Writer’s Journey technique of a call to adventure, the refusal of the call and finally crossing the threshold that launched the protagonist into the story. Since there were two parallel stories, the author used this technique with both of them.

I could also detect Goal, Motivation, & Conflict on nearly every page. Each of the main characters was focussed on a goal of protecting family, motivated by love of family. Then the writer threw obstacle after obstacle in their way. Sometimes small goals were achieved and the story moved forward. Sometimes those goals were thwarted, leading to further complications. In one memorable scene the main goal appeared to be accomplished, only to turn to ashes. You can’t go home again, no matter how desperately you try.

True to her roots, the author included a romance, but it was a side bar, not the core of the novel. The book was not what I’d expected, but it was a good read and I’m sure our book club discussion will be lively.

Coming from my perspective as a romance writer, I found affirmation in this author’s journey from genre to mainstream. Nearly every writer dreams of writing the breakout novel, both for the financial reward and for the literary satisfaction. Based on this book, writing genre fiction is excellent training.

I’m always on the lookout for a breakout novel. Any suggestions?

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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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