Category: My books (Page 1 of 6)

Christmas Short Story

Christmas seemed a long way off in November, now it is rushing forward at breakneck speed. So, I’ve been working on my annual short story. After numerous re-writes, I thought I had the text ready to publish. My friend had told me about using the reading tool on microsoft so I thought I’d do one last check using that. I found one typo and one repeat word but listening to my words read by a computer voice was . . . an experience.

For some reason, the computer voice did not recognize the name of my heroine — even though a google search showed it does exist. The word the computer used was totally mangled. For those who may have received the story, the heroine’s name is Riona, pronounced ree-owe-na. 🙂

I live in Canada and have always referred to my mother’s mother as grandma. Pronounced grand-ma. The computer must have been programmed in the southern States because it pronounced my grandparent as grand-maw. I had a hard time picturing the woman I’d written about sipping tea from a china cup with “maw” at the end of her name.

Usually, I do a final proof by reading the work aloud, myself, but that can put a strain on the voice and I’ve got a cough, so the computer option seemed like a good idea. It certainly speeded up the process, and reminded me that readers will come from different regions and different backgrounds. 

I’ve had a trying day arguing with various templates on the computer, but my story is now written, edited, and published in my newsletter. If you want to read it, please join my newsletter   here.  

If you are frantically working on Christmas projects, take time to savour the moment. You’ve still got seventeen days. Put some carols on your sound system, bite into a piece of shortbread, and remember the reason for Christmas.

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5 Reasons Your Book Should Sing

Over the summer I reread  Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester.  I have all her romances on my keeper shelf, but I’d forgotten this one, so it was like reading it for the first time. What a treat! When I finished it,  I picked up New Girl in Little Cove by Damhnait Monaghan. This book is set in modern day Newfoundland. I felt as though I’d switched the soundtrack from Mozart to Great Big Sea.

That got me to thinking about the music I might associate with my own books. For the Prospect Series, Gord Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy was an obvious choice. It combines the excitement of opening up a new land with the hardships that come with the adventure. The fact the song has three parts plays well into my storylines as well.

I’m currently working on a short read with an older couple. I don’t have a particular song in mind, but I’m thinking of a community dance. I went to many of those in my younger years. The music ranged from waltzes to square dances to The Twist — the music wasn’t the most important thing–it was who chose you for a partner! And yes, in those days the boys did the choosing and the girls did the hoping. With that image of the town Odd Fellows Hall and the homegrown band in my ears, I can stay in the story world more easily.

I tried out my idea on my author friend in Australia and learned that she had specific songs in mind when writing her books too. “Yes my books do have theme songs… although not always logical. Evil in Emerald was ‘Cat Like Tread’ from Pirates of Penzance, The Postmistress was ‘Peter Hollens Shenandoah’ and The Gold Miner’s Sister was ‘Shallow’ from the latest Star is Born movie. The oddest was probably ‘Arms’ by Christina Perri which was the theme for Gather the Bones.

So, why have a soundtrack for your story?

  1. Tone  The soundtrack playing in your mind will keep the tone of your writing consistent. The English language is rich and varied. Authors have many choices for the “right” word. A song can help make those choices better. Is your book a stately gavotte or a rollicking sea shanty?
  2. Mood  Even though stories move through light and dark times, a book can be strengthened if there is a consistent mood. War stories carry that hint of danger even when we aren’t on the battlefield. Children’s books are full of wonder, regardless of the actual scene. When the reader puts down the book, what do you want her mood to be?
  3. Setting  I am an author who views setting as a “character” in a story.  The mountains in my Prospect books, for example, played a role in the heroines’ reflective scenes. Those towering peaks gave strength and courage to Lottie and Emma and Louisa.
  4. Inspiration  “What happens next?” is a constant question before a writer.  The lyrics or the music of your soundtrack can provide some ideas. Country and western songs are legendary for telling a complete story from joy to heartbreak in only a few lines.  Tammy Wynette’s   Stand by your man, give him two arms to cling to
    And something warm to come to/When nights are cold and lonely.–might provide the nudge to take your story down a different path.
  5. Fun  Sitting at a keyboard or holding a pen over a lined notepad, can get lonely and dreary.  We all start this journey because we want to tell a story, we love words, we want to send our ideas into the world. That’s the part that makes us want to write. But the process from idea to finished work can be a slog. The soundtrack playing in our heads can remind us to have fun. Maybe we could all “Whistle While You Work.”

What about you? As a reader do you hear music in a book? As a writer do you consciously choose a soundtrack to accompany your story?

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How Old is Too Old?

Since my last post here, I have been the soloist at a wedding. What a treat! So many happy smiles. So many good wishes. So much love in the room. So many grandchildren in the wedding party.

Yes, I said grandchildren. The bride and groom at this wedding were both over 75.

In the romance world the shorthand for couples over thirty is “seasoned,” although I’m not sure a 30 year old has enough life experience to be considered “seasoned.”  I think the couples in these stories should be at least 50+ to qualify for the term. Then again, the older I get, the cut-off age for elderly gets younger!

I did a little research with authors who write older couples and found that editors used to get squirmy when the characters, especially the romantic heroine, was over 30. So all those, “second chance” books would be hard sells. Come to think of it, a major publisher used to put out a romance line called “second chance.” It folded. Perhaps the protagonists were considered too old by readers?

In my “Prospect” series, all of the heroines have had major life events before the story begins. Lottie, in The Man for Her, has loved and lost, and borne a child out of wedlock. Emma, in Her One and Only, has suffered a broken engagement, a scandal and her father’s death, before coming to Prospect, looking for a second chance. Louisa, in Her One True Love, has spent years caring for a tyrannical father before escaping to Prospect and a chance for a new life.  

So all of my heroines are mature women even though I did not consider that I was writing “seasoned” romance. Still,  I consider the events before the books begin essential to the love stories that follow. Having been “seasoned” by life, these women have a deep appreciation of the gift of true love — perhaps a better appreciation than their more naive counterparts.

Many romance readers yearn for that first passionate love of a girl on the precipice of womanhood. That is a magical moment, and one worth celebrating. No wonder readers devour those stories. But, could love be “sweeter, the second time around?”

Years ago I sang at another wedding and couldn’t hold back the tears as I looked at the  youthful faces of the bride and groom. I knew the years ahead would have some hard days, and I feared their love would be tested.

But as I looked at the love beaming from the grandmother’s face at last month’s wedding, I couldn’t keep the smile off my own face.

Love, at any age, priceless.

What do you think, dear reader? Do you want romances about first love or are you willing to read about the second time around? What is the ideal age for your romantic heroine?

Voice your preference in the comment section below.

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7 Wonders


doing homeworkA schoolgirl, when asked to name the seven wonders of the world, skipped the pyramids and the Taj Mahal and came up with this list.  The seven wonders of the world are:
1. to see
2. to hear
3. to touch
4. to taste
5. to feel
                                                                  6. to laugh
                                                                   7. and to love.

The child may have failed her social studies exam but she nailed it for fiction writers. 

These days much of the author world is is focused on marketing,  Do ads work? Do we know an influencer? Can we find a niche? What’s the ROI on a publicity campaign? Should I buy space on a highway billboard?

With all these business questions hovering about our writing, we sometimes forget about craft. But craft is paramount. Without it, marketing is selling an empty promise.  

So, let’s take a little time today to think about the art of writing as opposed to the science of selling. 

One of the first “rules” a newbie author encounters is “use the five senses” — the first five wonders in our schoolgirl’s list. I notice she left off smell and that’s a really important one. Scent conjures up emotions and memories faster than any of the other senses.

But the senses alone aren’t enough for fiction. 

I’m reading a travel book just now . Here’s a description of town of St. Ives. “From the station we walk a jagged route along beach and cobble streets into town. A maypole dance is taking place just off the foreshore,  . . . Children skip and weave ribbons in a twisting rainbow.”

This passage uses the sense of sight but it misses out on feeling, laughing and loving. While colourful exposition is fine for a travel book, it is too shallow for good fiction.

By contrast, consider “The peaceful sea sighed as it lapped gently onto the white sand. . .” A.M. Stuart, Evil in Emerald. 

In the St. Ives example, we are observers only. We see the children skip, we see the jagged route, but we are indifferent. The second example adds feeling to the senses. Sighed and lapped are evocative words that draw the reader into the mood of the story. We expect romance — or mayhem, but we are no longer mere observers. We are participants.

**

“The Marsh stretched before them, smiling and lush in the September sunshine, yet with a suggestion of eery loneliness, about it. . .  ” Georgette Heyer, The Unknown Ajax. Even though Heyer is known for her light touch and sense of the ridiculous, this example shows her skill at conjuring a dark mood, in the midst of sunshine. 

**

“Intense wind picks up – fifty miles-per-hour gusting to sixty. Tide’s out, fishing boats and dories askew in the bay.” Here the travel book tells me the author is experiencing rough weather. But, although he may feel the wind, the reader doesn’t. We merely observe.

“My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones.”  Ami McKay, the birthhouse. Ms McKay gives only a minimal description, “churning tides,” but the reader is drawn into the battle to survive on the edge of a heaving ocean. 

**

“A man sitting in a chair in the sun, reading a paper, and three children kicking a ball about. A dog jumping around the children and barking. The scene before her was so ordinary after what she had just  been though that she almost laughed in disbelief. ” Tracy Chevalier, A Single Thread

Can you identify with the terror of the heroine in this example? We see and hear a pleasant scene, yet the last line draws us into the emotion of the moment. This is more than a travelogue.

**

“She watched as [they] strolled across the village green. At first she thought they were going to the bistro for a nightcap, but then they veered to the right. To the light of Clara’s cottage.

And Reine -Marie heard them knock on her door. A soft, soft, insistent knocking. . .” Louise Penny, The Long Way Home.

Note how the word choice entices the reader into the drama. “veered” instead of “turned”, knocking that is “soft” yet “insistent.” There should be a great distance between the reader and the story at this point. We are watchers observing a watcher, and yet we sense the danger/intrigue/menace/heartache of the unfolding events.

**

“A glaring sun bore down on the small mining town . . . bleaching the colour from the landscape and sapping the strength of its citizens.” Alice Valdal, The Man for Her.  In this opening sentence I’ve set an ominous mood with oppressive heat and listless citizens. The reader not only observes the street, she feels sweat under her collar.

**

“[The dog’s] head would rise like a periscope and he would slide over the edge of his basket and work his way into the bedroom, keeping low to the ground, as if he were hunting. He would stop a foot short of the bed and cock an ear and listen . . . his nose only six inches away.” Stuart McLean, “Arthur”

Laughter, the sixth wonder. No reader can be disengaged from a story that makes her laugh. Shakespeare knew this. Even in his most heart-rending tragedies, he included scenes of comic relief. An audience, or a reader, needs release from tension. Put a little laughter in your story. Your readers will thank you for it.

**

“In her dreams Evelyn would always return to a pristine white beach where the sand felt soft between her toes and Henry’s hand was warm in her.” Joanna Nell, The Last Voyage of Mrs. Henry Parker.  Here we have the seventh and greatest wonder of them all, love.

**

In science class we are taught that the five senses are sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. As writer’s we should include the school girl’s wonders, feeling, laughter and love.

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Quirks and Traits

I’m rereading a book where one of the main characters is an editor who mentally parses interesting words in her thoughts. E.g. while struggling with the onerous task of clearing her basement she thinks “Latin: onerosus, meaning ‘burden”.” This mental editing is a character quirk that has nothing do to with moving the plot forward, but it makes the character interesting and unusual, and keeps this reader turning pages.

Many authors use quirks in character building —

  • Colin Dexter’s Morse solves the Times crossword in record quick time.
  • Miss Marple knits and eavesdrops
  • Abby on NCIS covered in tattoos and piercings, looks scary but is kind and loving.

In science, trait refers to a characteristic that is caused by genetics, e.g. blue eyes. A quirk is defined as a peculiarity of behaviour, a mannerism. In the old TV show “Monk” the main character suffered from OCD. I’m sure living with that condition is very hard, but in the show Monk’s obsessive straightening and tidying and germaphobia is entertaining. In the British show, “Professor T,” the main character has a similar quirk. 

Habit, mannerism, trait, quirk, foible, idiosyncrasy . . . all mean more or less the same thing, but the consistent definition for “quirk” in different dictionaries is that the characteristic is strange, weird, peculiar or unexpected.  Whatever you call that odd thing your character does, the weirder you make it, the better when it comes to keeping your readers engaged. 

I think the trick to writing quirky characters is to keep the behaviours off-beat. A quick search of the internet turned up a list of 500 character quirks. Among the things listed are computer nerd, pacing when thinking, chewing fingernails, chewing gum . . . In my opinion, these habits aren’t weird enough to qualify as quirks.  

The quirk must be unique and unexpected. The first time I saw a movie where a daring-do hero was afraid of clowns I was delighted. Since then, I’ve seen that meme overused and it has lost its power. Now, whenever a clown comes on screen, I expect the cop/fireman/soldier to fear it. 

So, what would be some fun quirks to incorporate into a romance? Perhaps the heroine never meets a man without visualizing him as her groom. If he’s “the one,” we go directly to HEA. If he’s not “the one” the way in which the vision dissolves could be fun. e.g. he melts, or he grows a monkey tail and swings through the trees, or he explodes and destroys the wedding chapel.

In the old television show, Remington Steele, the title character solved mysteries by relating them to old movies. I found that quirk memorable and it heightened the dissonance between him and his lady boss, who was a trained detective. In that case, the quirk served to make the character unique and added to the romantic tension of the story.

In my book, The Man for Her, Lottie’s hatred of the search for gold could be described as a quirk, but I’d be more inclined to call it a learned characteristic since it comes from experience and, therefore, not that unexpected. Still, for a story set in the gold rush, having a heroine who hates gold is a bit quirky.

Not every book will have a quirky character. If they did the quirks would quickly become stale and boring. Still, if you can incorporate a little oddity into one of your characters, readers will remember.

Please share your favourite quirky characters in the comments below.

 

 

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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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The Future is Back

All the best writing coaches tell us to start our books at the point of change. This is the time and place where the characters become interesting, where they have to give up old ways and find new ones, — or not. Even if they do not change, they will have examined their values and relationships and made a conscious decision about who they are and who they want at their side for the rest of life’s journey. I’m talking romance genre here. In my books, Her One True Love and Her One and Only, I heeded this advice and began them at the time the main characters set out on a new life. In her One and Only, Emma Douglas has fled from scandal in California to begin again in the frontier town of Prospect, British Columbia. Louisa Graham, in Her One True Love, is newly freed from the control of her rigid father and ready to embark on a new venture of her own. The point of change makes excellent starting points for these stories.

In the real world though, the point of change may not be so clear cut. In my world, we are coming out of the COVID 19 restrictions and trying to get “back to normal.” Yet many of us struggle with what the rest of life will look like. After so many months of restrictions I’ve gotten used to days uninterrupted with appointments and obligations. We’ve stuck close to home and our entertainment has been on screen. Am I ready to make the effort to go out, to mingle with other people–especially the unvaccinated–to put on tight shoes and style my hair?

Last week I met up with an old writer friend and that was terrific. I wore sandals and windswept hair. We hadn’t seen each other face to face for two years so there was no end of stuff to talk about, but we kept circling back to “what now?”

In fiction that is a fun question. It can be answered with adventure, romance, murder, treachery, a new job, a new skill, a career move, a baby . . . the possibilities are endless. In real life, we have a more difficult time. In many ways, neither of us want to go “back” to the way things were, and in the writing industry there is no going back anyway. Reader’s demands have changed since we first went into lockdown. The publishing industry, whether traditional or self publishing, never stopped evolving while we were huddled at our desks in isolation. 

In the past eighteen months friends and acquaintances have changed, some have passed away, some have moved away, some have decided not to rejoin the groups we had before. So when our clubs hold in-person meetings, the people present won’t be the ones who were there before. The places we volunteered are under new management, our work friends aren’t coming back to the office. 

I do believe starting a story at the point of change is an excellent practice but the experience of closing down and now re-opening reminds me that change is not always exciting, not always positive, not always an opportunity. Change may be confusing, it may diminish our world instead of expanding it. Change is noisy and unsettling and uncertain. Great attributes in a story, a bit uncomfortable in real life.

When lunch was over my friend and I travelled in opposite directions, but writing will still hold us together. The writing may change, but we’ll still be putting words on the page. I found that certainty reassuring.

What about you, dear reader? Are you embracing the reopening of society? Are you rushing off to catch up on all your old activities? Are you staring and the calendar and wondering how you used to fill your days? Please share your words of wisdom in the comments below.

 

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Killing My Darlings

This has not been a happy week for me.

I started the rework on an old ms with high hopes. I had a new heroine and planned to turn the old one into the antagonist. In the original story she was a villain and I had hoped to reform her in this novel. Turns out, I couldn’t. Even as the author I could not make her likeable — she is sexy as hell and dangerous–but just too selfish and self-centred and manipulative to have my lovely hero love her again.

The new heroine doesn’t show up in such bright colours but she is loyal and steady and smart and becoming and generous and has a heart for the misused hero. Still, when I write her description beside that of the original, she comes off as bland. I’m afraid readers will think the hero has settled for second best when he chooses her. 

Hence, “killing my darlings.” All the flair and power I put into the description of the now villain has to be tempered and the bland heroine spiced up. The latter is fun, the former is painful. Stephen King wrote: Stephen King wrote, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Well, my egocentric little scribbler’s heart is breaking. Maybe I can just save those words to an outtake file somewhere. 😉

What about you, fellow authors? What do you do when your favourite passage has to go?

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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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On Being a Student – Again

doing homeworkMoving along in Laurie Schnebly’s “Plotting via Motivation” course. . .I’ve learned that taking a workshop on-line instead of in person has some surprising benefits. The most important one for me is thinking time. I’m no good at those brainstorming sessions where everyone in the room calls out possibilities and questions. My ideas need time to brew. They grow from a glimmer to a beacon when they can swirl around in my brain for a while, so when I complete my homework assignment, I’m satisfied that I’ve answered the right questions. 

Another surprise is my pleasure in doing homework. I shouldn’t be. I liked school and homework was part of the package.  The best part of homework is getting it back with the teacher’s comments. An in-person class doesn’t allow the presenter enough time to do that. With the on-line course I get a personal response from Laurie on each assignment. That is so helpful because it deals with the particulars of my story, not just the generalities of plotting.

There is one aspect of the course that is no surprise. I’m terrible at plotting! The beginning comes together fairly well and I know how it should end, but that dratted middle sags in an exercise as much as it does in a full-length novel. Hence, one of the reasons I took this class.  

And that brings me to another reason I’m taking this class. Laurie Schnebly is a terrific teacher. She infuses her lectures with clear examples from various genres so whether  students write horror or romance, adventure or shape-shifters, they can feel at home in the class. 

Finally, I’m becoming intrigued with this character I made up just for practice. Who knows I may find a full-fledged novel here, or at least a short story. 

As the garden work picks up I find myself doing a lot of math. I need to know how much fertilizer to apply per square foot. So I need to determine the square footage. I need to convert tablespoons to cups. How many cubic meters in my wheelbarrow? How many litres in a gallon? When I left school I had hoped to be done with arithmetic forever but it is essential to modern life. Similarly with this writing homework. I hope the lessons learned here will prove useful for the rest of my writing career.

Over the years I’ve taken many workshops from some of the best in the business. I like the personal contact. I enjoy meeting other writers. It’s fun to get a day away from home with lunch laid on. I have a whole file drawer full of the notes and handouts from those workshops. When I read the notes I’m convinced I should be able to write a novel just by following the pattern set out for me. Yet, somewhere along the way, I just can’t get my thoughts to fit into the pattern presented. Having Laurie’s personal feedback makes this workshop special. I highly recommend it. You can see her upcoming classes offered through writeruniv.

This sounds like a total fan-girl article because it is. Feel free to add the names of your own favourite teachers in the comments below.

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