Category: Uncategorised (Page 1 of 19)

Words and Power

Recently Canada Post honoured author, Margaret Atwood, with a  stamp.

In her speech acknowledging the honour, she made many jokes about being “not dead yet,” as most honourees in this category are deceased. She explained that her eyes are closed because she’s thinking, and generally thanked the post office while maintaining a modest (very Canadian) demeanour. Her audience was delighted.

The imprint shows a photograph of Ms Atwood, superimposed on the text, “A word after a word after a word after a word is power.” How appropriate that the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” pays homage to the power of words.

For any who doubt the power of words, history is littered with examples of the grand and the eloquent.

Churchill’s oratory is considered a major weapon in the war against Nazi Germany. His stirring speech promising “blood, sweat and tears” to a citizenry suffering through the Blitz, lifted morale and persuaded a tired, bombed-out citizenry to “carry on.” After Dunkirk, he vowed ” we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,”  and a beaten and demoralized army put itself  together and prepared for D-Day and eventual victory.

Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” inspired the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

J. F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your nation can do for you” speech fired a generation to enrol in the Peace Corps.

From the Psalms to Justin Beiber, humanity has revealed its soul and its greatest longings through words and music

There is a flip side to the power of words too. Hitler used his mezmerizing oratory to stir up hatred and cause the death of millions and millions of people.

Shakespeare could not have imagined modern communications when he gave these words to Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar.

 The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”

This destructive power of words is manifestly evident in  the age of social media, where on-line trolls use the power of words to destroy lives and drive children to suicide.

Theodore Roosevelt said:

In Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck Rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor. 

Although Bunyan and later Teddy Roosevelt were condemning the Man with the Muck Rake, it speaks to the power of words that in the 21st century, over 325 years after Pilgrim’s Progress was published, the term muckraker is still in common usage.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying congratulations to Margaret Atwood, and to Canada Post for recognizing her genius. It is also a reminder to writers and readers alike that words matter. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” may offer comfort to a crying child, but it is not true. Sticks and stones and tanks and bombs can break bones and bodies, but words change minds. They break hearts or bring joy. They are the manifestation of ideas, the essence of thought. Words are powerful and dangerous and beautiful. Be careful how you use them.

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Merry Christmas in 2021

 

 

Here we are, heading into another COVID Christmas, and with the Omicron variant just to heighten the worry. Not how most of us expected or wanted to spend Christmas 2021. Still, if one considers the first Christmas, the holy family were away from home, with no room at the inn, under at foreign ruler, paying onerous taxes, and with a birth imminent. Cutting down on big gatherings may not be such a hardship.

To cheer my readers, I’ve written a Christmas short story — something to do while you are not visiting. It is available through my newsletter. You’ll have to sign up for my newsletter to get the whole thing. I use a two-step verification method so you’ll receive an e-mail asking you to confirm your sign-up. Then you get the rest of the story. 

 

Miracle on My Street

             “How big is that turkey?” Her husband, Brad, looked doubtfully at the monstrous bird resting on the counter.

            “Twenty-five pounds.” Gillian pursed her lips and walked around the counter, considering the bird from all directions.

            “What?” Brad’s voice rose in a kind of shriek. “How many are we feeding?”

            “I’m not sure.” She ran her fingers through her hair scrunching the curls between her fingers.

            “You do remember that we still have to keep gatherings small? COVID isn’t finished with us yet.”

            “I know. Only Melanie and her family are coming for Christmas dinner.”

            “So why the giant bird?”

            “Not really sure.” She shrugged. “I was standing in the grocery store looking for a small one when this man told me to buy the big one.”

            “You let a stranger decide our Christmas dinner?”

            “Not entirely,” she defended herself. “I could have said no, but there was just something about his certainty.” She shrugged and pulled a wry face. “I had the strangest feeling we’d need lots of food.” She poked a finger into the frozen breast. “We can always use left-overs.”

            “Until Easter,” Brad growled.

            “I can make care packages for the boys.” She scooped the giant turkey into her arms and wrestled it into the refrigerator. “Tim and Josh live close enough for a quick outdoor visit.”

            “Not sure your daughters-in-law will thank you. They’ll have made their own preparations.”

            “I’ve already bought the turkey, Brad.” She glowered at her husband, piling her general crankiness onto his shoulders. Christmas was supposed to be a season of good will, but their house thrummed with tension. The argument over the turkey was just a symptom of the general malaise in their household. She missed her friends and her daughter. Brad missed the office and his sons. Even with restrictions easing, they both missed the life they’d had before the pandemic.

            “What about Aunt Ethel?”

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Wishing everyone a happy and safe Christmas season.

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Still Good Will

In 2018 I published a series of “good will” posts on this blog. I thought they made good reading for the Christmas season. The stories resonated with readers.

Now, as we enter our second COVID Christmas, I wonder if good will is hiding out in the attic or buried at the bottom of the garden. It sure doesn’t seem very evident.  We are worn down with restrictions, disappointments, cancelled plans. We are fearful of our fellow human beings — they might give us a deadly virus. We all know more about supply chains than we ever thought possible. Empty store shelves bring home the reality of economies in tatters world wide. There are no choristers singing on street corners, no shop clerks wearing Santa hats and wide smiles. Even if there is a smile, we can’t see it under the mask. 

Here, in B.C. we’ve had the added devastation of three “atmospheric rivers” dumping a month’s worth of rain in only a few hours. Rivers have flooded, dykes have been breached. All of the roads leading into Vancouver from the rest of Canada have been closed with mudslides, washed out bridges, and small lakes forming in the driving lanes. This year, it seems we’re in a season of disaster rather than good will.

And yet . . . in the midst of our terrible storms with bridges washing away and landslides sweeping vehicles off the road, comes this story of good will. 

A family travelling home on Sunday night was suddenly caught in a massive mudslide that shoved their van off the highway, rolled it twice down an embankment, shattered the windows, covered them in mud and even tore the shoes from their feet. The van came to rest against two trees above a raging river. 

Even though one of the passengers, a teenager, was grievously injured the family knew they had to get back up to the roadway before the storm swept away the trees and their tenuous support. 

Unbeknownst to the family, they were caught between two mudslides. Outside help could not reach them. Instead, strangers of good will came to the rescue.

Desperate, the father in the car sloshed the mud out of his eyes and mouth, then stumbled up the embankment, crossing a downed power line on the way. He knocked on the window of the first car. Inside was an off-duty ER nurse. She gave him a headlamp, then, while he went back to his family, she organized help.

Marooned on the highway,  were not only the ER nurse, but a paediatric nurse, a member of military reserve, a couple with a warm truck who offered shelter to the first child able to get out of the van and up to the highway, and an industrial painter with a van that allowed the most seriously injured teenager to lie down while the nurses assessed him.

The reservist was quick to help but realized an injured boy would not be able to scramble up the embankment on his own. Fortunately, the soldier had a rope in his truck and was able to tie it to a utility pole at the top of the embankment and use it to help the injured to safety. The 6 foot 2 lad with the head injury had to be literally pushed up the bank with his dad and the soldier supporting him from behind and the nurse pulling him from the front and lighting the way with a borrowed headlamp.

Once everyone was back on the road and sheltering in vehicles with kind strangers, a search and rescue team arrived from the closest town. They had to haul their stretchers through the debris field, 75 metres wide, caused by the slide and then, with the stricken boy loaded up, scramble back through the same obstacles to get to the ambulance waiting on the other side.

One by one, the SAR team got the family of five through the slide field and on to safety and medical aid.  Father and sons were taken to a small hospital where gashes were stitched up, a broken arm set, and eyes filled with mud and glass fragments washed out. However, the head injury was serious and needed quick attention. 

Going above and beyond, a medical team from a hospital on the other side of the blocked road organized to bring their ICU team to the injured teen. Two doctors, a nurse and a respiratory therapist got a police escort over flooded roads and a gravel pit to the train tracks. A railway vehicle then drove them to the small hospital, where they treated the teen, who had a skull fracture and a jaw broken in two places. Once the lad was stabilized and the immediate danger to his life passed, they got through to the air ambulance who air-lifted him to B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver.

The rest of the family was fed and clothed and sheltered by strangers in the small town.

Today, the family swept up in the landslide is safely at home, recovering from their injuries and looking forward to Christmas. They are forever grateful to the heroes who put aside their own comfort and safety to rescue them on that awful night.

 

Peace, good will toward men, the angels sang on that first Christmas night. As the carol puts it, “Still through the cloven skies they come/ with peaceful wings unfurled/ and still their heavenly music floats/ o’er all the weary world. . . “

Surely the angels hovered over those folk of good will on a storm-swept night when a life was saved.

 

 

 

 

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House and Home

As every reader of Victorian and Regency romance knows, the restrictions around women of that time were numerous and unyielding. As those same readers know, the heroine of a romance is expected to challenge those restrictions, to defy her circumstances and thus win the hero’s heart. It is a genre expectation and authors who want to sell their work would do well to meet it.

No one really expects historical fiction to be a true account of women’t lives in that era but in the age of equal rights, it is difficult for many to understand just how dangerous it was for young women, or older women for that matter, to defy the rules. We might think being snubbed in the street is merely rude behaviour. For the Victorian girl, such a snub could affect her well-being for the rest of her life. If she became unmarriageable her financial security, her physical health and her emotional  fitness would  be lost, most likely forever. Such a disgraced female would be entirely dependent upon her family or the parish to feed, house and cloth her. Even if she could work she would have trouble finding respectable employment. 

This precept was brought home to me this week as I was doing some background reading on Victorian mores. I came across several instructions to women from books of the time, both fiction like Charles Dickens works and manuals for household management like Mrs. Beeton’s.  Here is a sampling. 

  • Man is the head of the household. Women are no better than children in their understanding and must bow to the superior knowledge of men.
  • Housekeeping keeps women busy and out of mischief.
  • Women should be “ministering angel to domestic bliss.”
  • it is the biological destiny to of women to be wives and mothers and therefore housekeepers.
  • The most important person in the household is the heard of the family, the father .. Though he may spend less time at home than any other member of the family – though he has scarcely a voice in family affairs – though the whole household machinery seems to go without the assistance of his management – still it does depend entirely on that active brain and those busy hands.
  • “It is quite possible you many have more talent than your husband, with higher attainments, and you may also have been generally more admired; this  has nothing whatever to do with your position as a woman which is, and must be, inferior to his as a man. — Sarah Stickney Ellis.
  • “Women are born to perpetual pupilage. Not that their inclinations were necessarily wanton; they were simply incapable of attaining maturity, remained throughout their life imperfect beings, at the mercy of craft, ever liable to be misled by childish misconceptions.” George Gissing in The Odd Women
  • Coventry Patmore “The Angel in the House”   Housework is ideal for women, as its unending, non-linear nature gave it a more virtuous air than something which was focused, and could be achieved and have a result. Women are very like children, it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief. Therefore the blessedness of household toil, in especial the blessedness of child-bearing and all that followed.

There are more examples but because I’m now ready to spit nails I’ll spare you from reading them. Suffice it to say, the view of women as helpless, hopeless and heedless was so pervasive that all of society, rich and poor, male and female bought into the concept. Anyone, especially a woman, who threatened the established order was outside the pale.

When one considers the cruelties inflicted on suffragettes it becomes clear that women demanding the right to vote were seen as the enemy of the home. Since an “Englishman’s home was his castle” women of an independent mind were threatening the very fibre of the nation. Secure in this belief, imprisonment and force-feeding could be justified. 

I love reading historical romance and am quite willing to suspend disbelief while my high-born lady masquerades as her brother or kicks over the conventions by dining alone with a man. The stories are fun and entertaining and brighten a gloomy day. But it is worth remembering that these tales are “fiction” and in some cases just as far-fetched as fantasy.

My all time favourite historical romance writer is Georgette Heyer. What’s yours?

 

 

 

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Remembrance 2021

Tomorrow, Nov. 11, is Remembrance Day in Canada. For as long as I can remember I have stood at a cenotaph on this day, joined with fellow Canadians in remembrance and sorrow, pride and humility.

This year, like last, because of the pandemic, the Royal Canadian Legion has asked me to stay home and watch on a screen. What guns and bombs and hatred couldn’t do, a virus has accomplished. One of the nation’s most deeply held traditions is “cancelled.”

Whether as a result of the pandemic or the acknowledgement of important war anniversaries, over the past twenty months I have read a lot of war novels. They have focused on “the home front.”

In “The Last Bookshop in London,” I’ve read about a woman’s life during the Blitz in London.  “The Paris Library,” is an account of a woman’s life in occupied Paris. Kirsten Hannah’s “The Nightingale” took me through the terror of occupied France. I’ve read about music giving hope to the population in “La’s Orchestra Saves the World,” and “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.” I’ve read about the Ack-Ack girls in “Light Over London,” and fifth column threats in “The Spies of Shilling Lane.” I re-read “Barometer Rising,” and experienced again the magnitude of the Halifax explosion of 1917.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of these books and recommend them without reserve.

When I look at the above list of novels I note a shortage of  Canadian content. This year, since I cannot stand alongside our veterans, I’ve committed to reading more about Canada’s experience of war. On my to-be-read list is Marjorie, Her War Years,  Tim Cook’s The Fight for History, and his two volume work, The Necessary War.   A search of the internet yielded this title, War on the Home Front, the Farm Diaries of Daniel MacMillan. As my grandparents and great uncles continued to farm during WWI, I look forward to reading about Daniel MacMillan.

This year, my tribute to veterans will include an effort to better understand their lives and their sacrifice. Yet no amount of reading is going to fill me with the kind of fear men and nations and families lived during world conflicts.

You see, I know that our side won. So while I empathize with a shopkeeper losing her store to the Blitz I know that, in the end, everything will be all right. I have that reassurance, our veterans did not.

In our time the world is mobilizing to fight climate change. There is real fear in the streets as people, especially youth, contemplate rising sea levels, the disappearance of island nations, vanishing ice caps, food shortages, and dried up lakes. The battle for the planet lacks the immediacy of fighter squadrons and toiling troops, but the outcome could not be more dire. This time we don’t have the reassurance that “our” side will prevail. Perhaps that fact gives us a taste of life in a time of war.

 

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Who Are We?

Sidney Wharf

There is a debate developing in my town, actually, it’s an old debate but with a new focus. The perennial question of development vs conservation is now centred on our iconic wharf. It has stood at the end of the main street for about one hundred years and is now nearing the end of its life. On one side of the argument are those who want to preserve an iconic landmark, along with the businesses that sit on it. On the other side are those who argue repair is too costly so want to tear it down or replace it with a private enterprise.

line up for ferry at Sidney Wharf circa 1945

Not a new debate but one that plays out differently in different parts of the world. Here, in Canada, preservation is usually left up to individuals. While the provincial government in B.C. has some beautiful historic sites, some years ago their operation was turned over to private contractors. The result is that places like Fort Steele and Barkerville, which used to be living museums are now tourist attractions. The archives that used to be accessible on line through those sites have shut down. Now the websites list hours and fees. I guess I’m showing my bias here, but I really miss the museum approach to these historic places. Of course, the privatization was done in the name of reduced government expense.

When I visited Europe several years ago, our days were filled with tours of restored castles and cathedrals. They were stunningly beautiful. Tourists poured in to these edifices, cameras at the ready, mouths hanging open in wonder. The thing is, much of the “history” we were gawping at wasn’t original. Two world wars had decimated much of the architecture along the Rhine river. Yet, when the war ended, and Germany and its neighbours began rebuilding they poured billions of dollars into restoring their empty castles. If ever a government could say they couldn’t afford such “luxuries” surely Germany in 1945 was that government. Yet, the people of those towns and cities opted to spend scarce money restoring their built history, despite necessary infrastructure and even food supplies being in dire need.

At the other end of the scale are regimes like the Taliban in Afghanistan who deliberately destroy antiquities in the name of ideology. In North America much Indigenous culture was plundered or destroyed as new settlers sought to eradicate some aboriginal customs they considered evil.

“History” is a slippery topic. What is worth preserving and what is just old and worn out? In my country, we are undergoing a great reckoning with our relationship between Indigenous culture and settler culture. Both sides are grappling with a re-interpretation of past events. 

Our First Nations citizens say their identity is tied to the land. Trees and waterways, salmon and shellfish harvesting are not only environmental concerns but they define the people. Judging by my experience in Europe, it would seem the centuries of built history — from Roman roads to Art Nouveau hotels — express the character and dreams of that society.

I don’t know what the decision will be over our wharf, I suspect $$ will speak loudly. Perhaps settler society in Canada is too young to have a deeply ingrained view of itself, unlike the First Nations or 20th century Europeans. We “like” old things and the nostalgia they stir, but we’re not really prepared to put a lot of money into them. In some ways, we are still immigrants, rootless in this land.

Perhaps that is why there are so few entries under “historical fiction, Canada” in Amazon’s Kindle store: 8000 results compared to 50,000 in British historical fiction, 30,000 in French. Australia shows 4000 results under the same category. 

I hope we can keep the wharf at Sidney as a public space. Looking at the First Nations experience it is clear that knowing and preserving our history is vital to our well-being as a people.  In the scheme of human history, 100 years barely registers on the scale, but we won’t get to 1000 if we don’t pay attention to the 100’s.

Sidney Wharf and Fish Market in 2021

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By any Other Name

With apologies to Shakespeare, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet but would it evoke the same emotional response if you called it a thorn bush?

We writers tend to obsess about words, spending hours combing the thesaurus and the internet for the one with just the right nuance and connotation. We chose the verb strode versus trod to denote a manner of movement but also a sense of mood or characterization. Every word choice in our work, especially short works like poetry, has to pack a punch. Queen Elizabeth famously follows the rule of “never explain, never complain.” If a writer finds her/himself “explaining” their story it’s probably time for a good edit. Getting the words right means explanation is unnecessary.

I got a new take on the power of words at a recent writers workshop I attended. Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor, used an entirely different vocabulary to describe protagonist, antagonist, sidekicks, etc. The new labels on those stock story elements had me looking at my work in a whole other way. For example, he called the protagonist the vehicle of the story. Hence vehicle, protagonist, is the car the reader rides in for the journey from page one to the end.

I’ve read countless books and articles about making the protagonist interesting, appealing, sympathetic, flawed, wounded, redeemable . . . the list is endless. In fact, the list is so long its easy to gloss over it. But thinking of your protagonist as the vehicle of the story brings a whole other mindset to the fore. Is my protagonist a Cadillac or a jalopy or a rickshaw? Is it rusted or pristine? Does it smell of dog or baby? How many miles on the odometer? Using  a new word for protagonist rubs off the glaze of familiarity and sharpens my focus when developing the character. 

If you think of the story like a road trip all kinds of other terms crop up, like detour, accident, flat tire, hitchhiker. . . Again, looking at story elements from a different perspective gives them sharper edges, makes them more distinct.

Another standard element of story is conflict. For the longest time I couldn’t make sense of conflict. As my stories don’t involve war or fisticuffs I couldn’t see the “conflict.” Then a wise author used the word “struggle” and the mists lifted. A character struggles to find love. She struggles to be successful in her career. She struggles to become independent. I could relate to a character’s struggle, but not her conflict, even though they mean the same thing in terms of storytelling.

And speaking of character, there’s a word with many connotations. Primarily it means a person in the story, like the hero or the sidekick. But character also defines the type of person portrayed. In the old fashioned sense of the word character meant someone of upstanding reputation and merit, as in “a man of character” — or it can mean an eccentric, as in “he’s a character!”  Now, if you consider your lead character as the “conductor” of the story does it let you see him/her in a new light?

Can your antagonist be a spike belt laid across the roadway of the tale? Is the villain an imp who keeps turning the street signs around? Is your outline a recipe with a cup of love and a pinch of spice?

The mechanics of story telling don’t change regardless of the terms you use, but sometimes a different name on the rose, or the Hummer,  will jump start your creativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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These are a Few of My Favourite Blogs

Readers of this blog will know that I love learning from other writers. I attend workshops, buy craft books and read blogs. Even when the topic seems old hat, there is always the possibility of finding a gem among the gravel. I’ve learned to use “struggle” instead of “conflict” for a whole other understanding of that concept. The sequence of “conflict, choice, consequence” has helped me recognize the role of  individual scenes in a story. Prime motivating factor was a concept I learned from another author very early in my writing journey. Since in person meetings are harder to find during the pandemic, I’ve spent more time reading blogs. Here are a few of my favourites.

 

  • Writer Unboxed.  For craft and business insights, this blog is hard to beat. They host many authors but here are a few of the regular contributors I enjoy.

Donald Maass. Each of his posts is a workshop on its own.

Barbara O’Neal’s blogs always feel like a warm hug.

Ray Rhamey offers a “Flog a Pro” segment where readers can act like editors and decide if they’ll buy a manuscript based on the first half page. Often he cites best-selling novels and describes why he would not read on. Sure makes me look at my own opening paragraphs very closely. If you want some solid advice on the craft and business of writing, I highly recommend taking a look at Writer Unboxed.

  • Writers in the Storm (WITS) is another favourite. The posts are normally shorter than those on WU so it’s a faster read.
    • Laurie Schnebly Campbell is a contributor. I’ve previously  written about what a great teacher she is.
    • I’ve found Jenny Hansen on this site. She shares great writing tips informed by “life” which makes for a fun read. 
  • Jenny Crusie’s Argh Ink is not a writer’s blog in the usual sense. I signed up expecting to get great writing advice. Instead, I found a community of writers who talk about “Working Wednesdays,” “Good Book Thursday,” Happiness Is . . .” If you’re feeling the need for connection, Argh is a good place to go.
  • Laura Langston is a YA author so many of her posts are directed to that audience. However, she does talk about writing life, bringing insights from her gardening hobby to brighten the prose. She also writes as Laura Tobias for women’s fiction.
  • Jacqui Nelson is a western romance author. Her blog contains lots of historical factoids. Great place to immerse yourself in the old west.These are just a few of my favourites. I’m sure you have your own “go to” posts. Please share in the comments below.

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Shallow thinking, Shallow story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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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