Category: Uncategorised (page 1 of 12)

The Forgotten Sense

“Use the five senses,” is familiar advice to all writers. Just as news reporters use the 5 W’s — who, what, where, when, and why to check their stories, fiction writers can use sight, sound, smell, taste and touch to enhance the emotional impact of their tales.

 

Nothing triggers memory like a smell. I have two four-month old kittens. They were born in the country and at only eight weeks of age they related to smell. We had transported them 2500 miles, from the prairies to the coast, but when the scent of new-mown hay wafted through an open window, they stopped playing and sat up as tall as they could, their little noses twitching mightily as they inhaled the aroma of home.

Psychiatrists will tell you that smell can trigger forgotten memories, and stir the emotions. The perfume industry is built on that premise. A simple fragrance won’t make people spend hundreds of dollars on an ounce of liquid, but the emotions that fragrance elicits, will pry open the  purse.

Because scent has such a powerful effect on the emotions, good writers use that correlation not only to describe a scene but illuminate characters and draw the reader into an emotional  connection with the protagonist of the story.

Out on my bicycle I gloried in the number of summer smells I encountered on my ride–lavender, roses, ripe blackberries, fecund soil, dusty hay,  a horse barn . . . I inhaled them all with a smile to my face and joy to my heart.  I should be a natural when it comes to using scents in my novels. Sadly, while I enjoy the fragrance of my garden, I’m not good at incorporating the fifth sense into my writing.

In my wip I reference the smell of clean mountain air — a lost opportunity. Clean mountain air is generic. If I said, “clean mountain air filled her lungs, driving out the stench of the immigrant ship, erasing the odor of poverty and desperation” I’d have done a better job of placing the reader in the story and giving her a reason to root for the heroine.

There are many literary works devoted to smell, but I thought I’d investigate the romance genre for tips on how to include the forgotten sense in my writing.

“His face and eyelids were swollen and he was beginning to stink like rotten meat.” The Silver Lining by Maggie Osborne. Maggie Osborne is a favourite of mine, even though she is no longer writing. Notice the words here– “stink” “rotten–deeply evocative. She could have said “smelled bad,” and the impact would have been lost.

“When I pull loose wrap off the top of the bottle and  stick my nose in, it is agreeably, deeply sour.” How to Bake a Perfect Life, by Barbara Samuel. I knew I’d find examples of cooking smells in Barbara Samuel’s work. What I like about this example is the paradox of “agreeable” and “sour.” Most of us consider sour an unpleasant odor, not an agreeable one. However, it you are making sourdough starter, the concept changes.

“The scent of fresh blood on an undercurrent of primeval decay choked Elodie Rousseau, nearly bringing her to her knees.” Choosing Bravery by Jacqui Nelson.  Jacqui writes historical westerns. Aromas can conjure up the old west in a few words. The “scent of fresh blood” is a generic phrase, but “primeval decay” and “choked” lift this sentence from ordinary to memorable.

I’m now off to scour my work-in-progress for missed opportunities to use the power of scent in my story.

How about you? Any favourite “smelly” writing examples you’d like to share?

 

 

 

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The Barn

“Go to the barn. Get the stink off you.”

This contradictory decree was usually issued by a harassed parent when children were underfoot, quarrelsome, cranky and complained of being bored. In other words, when they were stinky. The condition usually occurred when intemperate weather confined said stinky children to the house.

The barn gave mothers respite and the children a magical place to work off their orneriness.  There were calves to brush, hay forts to build, ladders to climb and beams to walk along. Often there was a nest of kittens to find, or a barn owl perched high in the rafters.

The barn was so integral a part of my childhood it wasn’t until later years that I realized the term meant different things to different people.  There are English barns, Dutch barns, round barns, low barns and stone barns, among others.

Bank Barn

When I think of “barn” I picture the bank barn. This is a barn built into a side hill, so that haywagons can drive into the upper or mow section and the livestock is housed on the ground level. In areas with hard winters, these barns have steep roofs to shed snow and provide huge spaces for hay storage.

 

In my book, The Man for Her, I envisioned an English barn at Pine Creek Farm.

This barn is not as large as the barn of my childhood and is all on one floor. The hinged wagon doors allowed Lottie to drive her wagons directly onto the threshing floor. There was no lower level, but livestock was housed on one side of the main aisle while hay and grain were stored on the other. This barn still has a high roof to accommodate the hay mow. That’s why Sean had to climb a ladder up toward the roof, despite his fear of heights.

Round Barn

This is an example of a round or polygonal barn.

These were first built by Shakers in the 1800’s but were not plentiful. They underwent a revival in the 1880’s as farmers sought more efficiencies. The idea was that the circle created more useable space with fewer materials. A central silo was added in later editions to allow gravity to move feed from the top floor to the cattle floor. In theory, the round barn was a great idea, but in practical terms there were drawbacks. It’s biggest shortcoming was the inability to expand. If the barn were built to accommodate twenty milking cows, it could not be expanded to accommodate thirty. As the farmer increased his herd, he had to built another barn.

The barn in this picture has been converted into a craft shop, saving it from the wrecker’s ball.

The interior of a wood frame barn is as beautiful as a cathedral, with soaring timbers, squared off to create sturdy beams. Smaller logs create the rafters and vertical siding allows ventilation between the boards.

 

Sadly, these iconic wooden structures are disappearing from Canada’s rural landscape. Some are merely abandoned as farms cease production. Others are replaced by modern, steel barns as agriculture moves forward with the times.

Modern Barns

Efficient feeding, cleaning and milking parlours make this modern barn state-of-the-art in today’s agribusiness. Via computer the farmer can set a feed schedule for each cow, monitor her milk output and control her milking timetable. Open sides allow light and air to enter the stable, and the use of tractors to clean the barn floor.

Only by embracing such modern inventions can the farmer meet the demand for more food produced at lower cost that twenty-first century consumers expect.

It combines the latest in science and animal husbandry.

I’m not sure it will help kids “get the stink off.”

To read more about the history of the barn in Canada, I suggest this link. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/barns

Do you have a favourite barn memory? Did you ever jump in loose hay? Please share your story.

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Stock Characters–Good or Bad?

One of the joys of being a writer is the excuse to people-watch. Where others might be considered nosy, we writers are doing “research.”

I came upon a piece of serendipity research the other day. Two older ladies were having lunch at a table close to mine. I found myself smiling at the sight of them. Both wore modest blouses and skirts– hemlines on the longish side–and flat shoes. Their grey hair was worn in a bun and their faces had only a little powder as a finishing touch. They looked perfect. They seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place them, until it came to me. They were archetypes of the Miss Marple variety. In fact, either of them could have stepped into the Joan Hickson role without a ripple.

Across the room was another woman or a similar age, but very different appearance. Long blonde hair curled over her shoulders. False lashes, foundation, rouge, highlighter, mascara, heavy eyeliner and bright lipstick accented her features. Her blouse was low-cut and she cast flirtatious glances at her male companion.  She reminded me a bit of “our Rose” on “Keeping Up Appearances.”

Then at an outdoor concert, I encountered yet another prototype–this time of the patrician lady. Again she was older, white hair swept into a French roll, erect carriage, well-cut clothes, even if they were just slacks and a sweater, high cheekbones, small chin. Once more I felt as though I recognized her, even though I hadn’t. She could have played the dowager countess on any number of period plays.

As writers, we want to create unique, memorable characters, but as I considered these women, I wondered about the usefulness of stock characters. Should an author keep a number of these prototypes in her tool box? I don’t call them stereotypes because that implies a flat personality as well as a recognizable appearance. My dowager countess could be kind, or critical, generous or mean. My ‘Miss Marple’ could be nosy and nasty, or she could be knowledgeable and helpful. Just because she sports a certain look, doesn’t mean her character is uninteresting.

The fact that I felt a recognition for these strangers, suggests to me that readers might relate to characters they feel they already know. Or maybe I just watch too much British television. What do you think? Do you enjoy recognizable types of characters in a novel or does their appearance make you toss it aside as too predictable?

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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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Necessary Beauty

For Christians, Easter morning is about resurrection, new birth, new life, renewal, a fresh start, an amazing gift, a life-changing event. We sing at sunrise services, we shout Hallelujah to the risen Lord. It is a day of jubilation. How heartbreaking then, were the attacks on Christian churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, not to mention the bombing of tourist resorts. Nearly 300 dead, 500 injured. So much hate on a day that celebrates love. It took the glow off for me, that’s for certain.

On Monday, as I feasted on leftovers from a bounteous Easter brunch, I couldn’t shake my heaviness of heart. I felt overwhelmed by world events and powerless to respond. What can one person do against such staggering odds?

I went in search of solace. I found it in a garden. Beauty — a gift from God — reminded me that there is still much to celebrate in this world. Giant tulips, happy-faced pansies and streams of glowing colours lifted the darkness from my soul.

Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

This little blog cannot change the world, but I hope that sharing these pictures will raise the spirits of one or two, that they will bring a smile to a sad heart or trigger a happy memory for a lonely reader.

Enjoy,   and Happy Easter week.

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Notre Dame

courtesy cnn

Along with most of the world, I had a heavy heart on Monday morning. The film showing Notre Dame de Paris burning seems so impossible. This icon of France, monumental architecture of the medieval world, symbol of the Christian church, guardian of the city for over 1000 years is so etched on the public conscience it seems impossible that it can be lost. When I saw the spire topple I couldn’t help but sob.

Today, there are vows to rebuild and pledges of millions of dollars, to help with that effort. There is comfort in know all the world cares about this piece of history. I wonder though, will it ever be the same? Can a reproduction take the place of the original?

A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip through Europe where we visited castle after castle and cathedral upon cathedral. Nearly all had been severely damaged during WWII. They had been rebuilt using materials and techniques true to the original structure. The results were truly amazing.

One structure in particular, the Residenze at Würzburg, had been nearly 87% destroyed, yet many of the treasures had already been removed from the building — much as many of the art works had already been removed from Notre Dame. Between 1945 and 1987 the Residenze was restored at a cost of approximately €20m.

For me, the most spectacular room was the mirror cabinet . The walls were formed of glass and paintings were etched on them from behind! i.e. the artist had to build up the image backward. So in a face, the dot of light at the centre of the eye went on first, then the pupil, then the iris, then the white of the eye, then the lids, etc. The last touch put on the painting was the background. My mind boggled at the skill and knowledge required to achieve such an effect. 

Much as I appreciated seeing the treasures of Medieval Europe I couldn’t help but ask why a war-ravished country was willing to spend so much on old buildings. The population needed food, shelter, transport, schools, hospitals . . .  How did they justify the expenditure of millions and millions of dollars on historic buildings. The citizen I asked replied that their history was what they had to show to the world. In North America, she said, or Australia or New Zealand, we have landscape. In Europe, they have history.

While I love the vistas and open spaces of my country, Canada, I’m not sure we have a good sense of history. I’m glad that Europe does. Today Notre Dame de Paris is a shell, but it holds the heart of a people. I rejoice that it will rise from the ashes.                                                                                                                                                            

 

 

 

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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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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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Is Writing Routine?

I used to have a writing routine. After my husband left for work, I wrote, without interruption until he came home for lunch. After lunch I might do editing, but more likely I’d do my chores — shopping, cooking, gardening, sewing. Before bed, I’d read.

Life events have thrown that routine out the window. I’m seeking a new routine that fits with my present lifestyle. I found that coffee shop writing works well, but I don’t like leaving home every afternoon and our recent spell of snow on snow on snow has made that impossible.

I decided to research how other authors maintained their routines, or even if they had one.  The results showed nearly all of 20 famous authors kept to a strict early morning time for writing every day and most employed vigorous activity in the afternoons.  Maya Angelou wrote in a tiny hotel room with no distractions. Jane Austen wrote in the sitting room while her sisters and mother sewed. If visitors came, she hid her papers and joined in the sewing. E.B. White in the busy living room of his house. His family ignored him and he ignored them. (Rather like my coffee shop method – lots of activity but all as white noise.)

Fascinating facts, but none that suggested a routine that did not include early morning writing hours. Of the modern authors, all mentioned the need to turn off social media, etc. during writing hours. That siren call of “you’ve got mail” seems hard to resist.

Philip Roth said  “one skill that every writer needs it the ability to sit still in the deeply uneventful business.“ At least this advice isn’t tied to a time of day. On the surface, sitting still seems a simple requirement. It is not. How often have you sat at your writing desk and decided to just run out to the mailbox, or throw in a load of laundry, or make that one urgent phone call? Sitting still and concentrating on one, difficult, mental task requires a tremendous amount of discipline. That may be why writers desperately seek routines, or rituals.  If we do the same thing, every day, in the same place, perhaps some magic will happen. Our brains will turn on to “writing mode” and the words will pour out on their own.

I wish. Only rarely have the words poured out for me and that is when I’m on a roll. Getting started is a whole other question.

I did find one piece of encouragement. Nora Roberts began her writing career by making notes on stray bits of paper while caring for twin boys with too much energy and a no school day.  No special morning hours there!

This quote from Jennifer Crusie gives hope to the scattered approach .

Do you spend eight hours a day/ 40 hours a week writing or is it less structured?  Honey, I don’t do anything for forty hours a week. It’s “less structured.” I like that. “Less structured.” Instead of “completely random and chaotic.”

None of my research has provided an example of a successful writer who uses the afternoon hours as prime writing time, but I did learn that consistency is a virtue, no matter what the time of day.  And sitting still . . . I’ll work on that.

Over to you, dear readers. Do any of your have a routine that includes filling the empty pages in the afternoon? Please share.

 

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