Category: Writing life (Page 2 of 16)

How I Chose a Timely Book

One of my Christmas gift books was a repeat so I had the pleasure of returning it to the bookstore and browsing the shelves for a replacement. I settled on The Company We Keep, by Frances Itani.

Of course, the cover was the first thing I noticed, uncluttered with a picture of a small table and a single chair with a parrot on the back. I picked it up and read the back blurb. The story is set in Canada. I find a book extra enjoyable when the references are one’s I am familiar with. A book set in the UK may refer to the High Street. One taking place in the US may refer to Applebee’s. I know the High Street is the main shopping avenue of a town or village. I know Applebee’s is a restaurant chain , but I haven’t experienced those places the way I have Tim Horton’s or Loblaw’s.

The subject of the story also intrigued me. A group of strangers meet in response to a notice on a bulletin board (the physical kind not on facebook) to talk about grief. Since I’m missing casual connections just now, I thought a story about strangers getting to know one another would be entertaining. The topic of grief seems apropos as well since our whole world is grieving. Perhaps we haven’t lost a loved one, but we’ve all lost the life we used to know.

Finally, Ms Itani has won several literary awards, that sealed the deal for me. I carried the book to the cashier.

I was not disappointed.  Each of these strangers has a unique story of loss, a spouse (good or bad), a parent, a friend . . . Yet grief doesn’t figure much in their discussions. Having lost the person closest to them, they mostly, want to talk and they want someone to listen. The stories aren’t so much about grieving as they are about living. There are also secrets. The lost relationships had a public face and a private face. It’s that private aspect of the lost relative that colours the way the bereaved live the rest of their lives. As a bonus, the woman who placed the notice is a word aficionado. Her thoughts are sprinkled with the etymology of the words she uses. A quirk that enlivens her character and amuses me as the reader.

As the group gathers, they begin to think of themselves as a company. A place where judgement is withheld and trust is formed. Shameful secrets are exposed and forgiven. Hurtful relationships are explored without censure. Sympathy is free and abundant. Help with practical things like moving furniture is readily offered.

A book with grief at its core  sounds sad, but it is not. It is hopeful. The characters clear out the troubles from their old lives then prepare to live again. They turn to a clean page for the last chapters of their lives.

I wonder if we can look a 2020 that way. The year that was mostly a void in our lives can be viewed as a resetting point. When society opens up, when we’re ready to hold hands with our friends and high-five a stranger can we take the lessons of isolation into a hopeful future? Having cast off so many activities, can we re-engage in a thoughtful way? Do all those clubs nurture us or are some a waste of time? Are all our previous relationships healthy or were some toxic?

We’re not out of the woods yet. Billions of people still need to be vaccinated. We may need to get a booster shot every year. We may need to keep our groups small for a while longer. But light glimmers on the horizon. As we prepare to pick up the dropped threads of life we might like to consider “the company we keep.”

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What I miss the most

waiting for the rain to end.

The weather where I live has been grey and gloomy for weeks. The Covid-19 restrictions from Public Health get tighter and tighter and our case numbers hover in the dangerously high numbers. The vaccine supply is shorted.  I’m at home nearly all of the time. I have my husband and my cats for company. They have already heard all of my opinions and complaints and tend to wander off when I start preaching.

While staring out the window and pining for the day when life returns to “normal” I recalled something I posted here, some time ago about a book called The Book that Matters Most. It was a fun read and sparked great discussion among my book reading friends. Thinking of that book, I started a list of What I Miss Most. Sounds dreary, I know, but sometimes it helps to “define the problem.” So here’s my list.

  1. Casual friendships. Seems like an odd item to put in the number one position but there it is. I keep in touch with my close friends via e-mail or telephone or zoom. But the lady who sits beside me at Bible Study, or the woman with the hair appointment just before mine, or the vet, or the letter carrier–these are people I know only in one specific instance but I miss them. I like to hear their views on events of the day because they are outside my close circle of friends. They connect me with the world in different ways. They make me part of something bigger. I need these casual acquaintances to give perspectives that may not align with my own.
  2. The library. At present my library is available for pick-up and very limited browsing. I miss the freedom to peruse the shelves in my own time. To pick up a volume and read a few pages before deciding whether to check it out. I miss seeing the community notice board in the lobby. I really miss inspecting the “returns” trolley. I am convinced that all the best books have been checked out by someone else and I’m eager to scan those favourites. It’s a way to connect with other library patrons.
  3. Line-ups. What?  I can hear you all shouting that we line-up all the time. Yes we do. Outside stores to get in and inside stores to get out, we’re all in line six feet apart. Not many casual conversations at that distance. No playing peek-a-boo with a baby when parents are terrified of exposing their children to disease. No tips from a smart shopper on a bargain I overlooked. No connection!
  4. Exercise class. I know, there are endless exercise videos on the internet and I’ve got enough room to work out with one of them by myself. But that’s the point. Exercise by myself is a drag. Exercise with a bunch of other reluctant trainees keeps me at it and usually provides a laugh or two. We connect over a mutual dislike of exercise.
  5. Choirs –– both as a singer and a listener. There is something soul refreshing about making music in a group. Again, I can participate in on-line versions of rehearsals and concerts but they lack that vital element — connection. And with music, the connection is heart to heart without any interference from the mind.

I could make a longer list, but it seems I have defined the problem — lack of connection. On Sunday our minister preached a virtual sermon warning of the consequences of an  “us vs them” mentality. Without the kind of connections I mentioned, that us/them attitude flourishes. Such a mindset makes for an unhealthy society. 

As a writer, how can I use this insight to my advantage? 

In a dystopian novel, us-and-them makes a perfect excuse for war.  In a tragedy us/them is the driver behind the Romeo and Juliet story. In a comedy personal quirks, e.g. neatnik vs slob, can lead to funny situations. I write historical romance so feuds, immigrant vs native, rancher vs farmer provide plenty of scope for conflict. What’s needed is ways and means for connections if I want to lead my characters to a happily ever after ending. How to make those connections?

  1. Proximity. That’s probably the easiest one. Make the feuding families share a fence line, or a water source. No matter how much the clans dislike each other, they cannot avoid meeting.
  2. Common goals. In my present wip the two lead characters work in a frontier hospital. Despite their differences, they work together to cure disease and ease pain.
  3. Children. In a frontier town children all attend the same school. The grandfathers may hate each other, but the children play together. As time goes by they may fall in love with the “enemy.”
  4. Outside agency. Again, sticking with historical, feuding families may have to pull together against fire or drought or flood. Who is to say the patriarch’s won’t see the good in one another then?
  5. Mutual friend. Make them both friends with a third party. If A spends time with the librarian and B is a book lover, chances are A and B will run into each other frequently. This device even lets the librarian act as cupid when she sees two people who would be perfect together, feuding.

Most philosophies hold that hardship is opportunity. It is up to the individual to find that opportunity and make something of it. The disconnect between all of us during this pandemic is not fun. I don’t like it. I wish it would go away. But, if I look for opportunity, perhaps this time of physical distance can lead me to better insights into my characters and their journey to HEA.

What about you? What do you miss most? Will you use it in your writing?

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Unmuddled! 10 Lessons

Hurray! The transformation of my writing room from dull to vibrant is accomplished.  As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s a family trait to undertake major renovations during the Christmas season.

I  thank  the health authorities for the COVID restrictions that meant no company for Christmas. Since I wasn’t cooking for a crowd, I had time to paint and wallpaper. Even the pandemic has a silver lining if you look for it.

Today our weather is grey, wet, windy and nasty, but I’m tucked up in my cheerful room and happily writing this blog before I go back to editing the wip. I feel cozy and content and productive. 

What have I learned from this adventure?

  • A sense of humour is vital to the health of a marriage during home renovations.
  • If you want to change your environment, don’t wait thirty years to do it.
  • Wait until you have the new wallpaper in hand before stripping off the old. (I lived in writing chaos for four weeks while awaiting delivery of my order.)
  • Cats cannot resist licking the glue on wet paper or the gooey water in the trough.

    two cats are here

  • A pleasing writing space really does improve productivity.  I don’t keep finding excuses to go somewhere else.
  • While I do not suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) brightness and light do put me in a better mood.
  • Don’t forget about writing rituals. Some people can dive straight into the work, but little steps to set the scene for work help me a lot.
  • Clutter impedes creativity — for me, maybe not for you.
  • Show up at writers’ events even if they are virtual. It was Laurie Schnebly’s workshop that spurred me into making this transformation — finally!
  • In all things, give thanks. We’ve lived through 10 months of limitations and there are more to go. When we cannot celebrate the big events in our lives, rejoice in the small ones. We drank champagne when the last picture was rehung.

    mirror reflects opposite wall

2021 will still offer challenges, but we know we can get there. When the case numbers go up, the lockdown hardens and the case numbers go down. Each of us is powerful in this worldwide campaign to defeat the virus. All great heroes sacrifice for the common good. I applaud all the heroes.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2021.

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Cancelled

hand made ornaments for my family

In my part of the world, we are under severe restrictions due to COVID-19. That means no gatherings in the home or elsewhere at Christmas. No live church services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. No office parties. No family home for Christmas. It’s a rather dismal outlook.

As my gift to readers looking for some joy in the season, I’ve written my annual Christmas short story. It does involve the pandemic, but it ends on a hopeful note. 

To read “Christmas in the Time of COVID-19” click here to subscribe to my newsletter. The story is part of the welcome package.

However you spend Christmas, I hope it is filled with joy and deep meaning for you.

 

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Escape or Reflect the Times

I had been hoping to post pictures of my newly renovated office this week. Sadly, I can only report “out of stock” messages for the wallpaper I wanted. After much more searching, I’ve found another that uses the colours I want and I’ve just ordered it — promised by Dec. 14. Fingers crossed I don’t get another oops message.

Meanwhile, we’ve cleared the drop cloths from my desk and I’m working on my Christmas short story. I spent a lot of time pondering the place of COVID 19 in my fiction. As an historical writer, I would have every excuse to set my story in another age and ignore the pandemic altogether. Yet, the virus has had such a huge impact on my day-to-day life, I find it hard to put it out of my mind.

My book club met last week and I asked if they would read pandemic stories or if they’d stay clear of the topic. They all said they didn’t want to read about the virus, yet one pointed out that no one wants a war yet our appetite for war stories seems limitless. This year every second book I pick up seems to relate to either the first or second world war. Is there anything more to say on the topic? Yet I read these books and enjoy them enough to recommend to friends. 

Maybe we’re happy to read war novels because we know how it ended. We know the good guys won and evil in the form of Hitler’s Nazi’s was defeated.

 

I’m a terrible sports fan. I’d rather watch the game after it has been played and I know who won. If my team was victorious, I’ll enjoy every minute of the recorded events. If my team lost, I don’t bother. I’m sure “real” sports fans cringe when they read that. Maybe our fascination with war stories is like that. We don’t want to live it, but we’ll read about it after it’s over.

A couple of my favourite television shows aired new episodes last week. One stayed in 2019 and avoided the pandemic. The other embraced it head on, expressing fears for the characters’ health, their financial well-being, their emotional stress levels and the state of the world. I actually liked their approach better than the “bury your head in the sand” angle.

Now, a survey of two is hardly definitive, but I’m leaning toward writing about the world I inhabit, i.e. using my fiction to reflect the time I live in. What about you, dear readers? Can Christmas and Covid live in the same story? Can we have a happy ending while isolating at home? Or would you rather escape the current crisis and read about a different world.

Please leave a comment so I can be sure the story I write is the story you want to read.

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A Muddle of My Own

Blame it on the season. Blame it on Covid-19.  Blame it on Laurie Schnebly. I am redecorating my office!

  • The season.  We are approaching Christmas and throughout my childhood, my parents made major renovations to the house at Christmas time. Usually, on Christmas Eve, just before the crowd of relatives arrived, my Dad would be nailing down the last strip of flooring or finishing a bit of painting behind the tree. I grew up on a farm so all seasons were busy, but winter was the least busy. Maybe that’s why renovations happened in December. Or maybe that was Dad’s idea of a Christmas present for Mom. In any case, Christmas the decorating chaos go together in my mind.

 

  • Covid-19. Like everyone else, I’m spending a lot more time in my house these days. Nothing to do but look at the walls and think how much better they’d look with fresh paint, or new wallpaper. Now that gardening season in my part of the world is ended, the interior of my house becomes even more important. And, I’m really tired of this old wallpaper in my office. For years, when I wanted a change of scene, I’d go and write in a coffee shop. With the virus on the loose, I’m reducing the number of times I go out in public.

    piles of books headed for the thrift store

 

  • Laurie Schnebly.  When we had our virtual workshop with Laurie she talked about putting the joy back into writing. She mentioned things like writing rituals. At least, I’m pretty sure it was Laurie who said that. I’d love to check my notes but as you can see, in this mess I can’t even open a desk drawer, let alone go through my files.  So, here I am staring at the grey days of November and an old wallpaper that was never as cheerful as I’d hoped. I thought pink would be bright and bubbly, but dusty rose has turned out to be cold and uninspiring. There is a room in my house that is filled with sunshine most of the day, but it is a space shared with my husband. So, I want to bring the sunshine into my writing space. Sunny yellow is my goal, but I don’t want to change all the accessories in the room. So, I’ve found a sunny yellow paper with hints of pink and blue in the background. But first, the old paper has to go.

Like everything else these days, I looked up how to remove the old stuff on the  internet. The answer was “easy-peasy.” Rip off the coloured layer, spritz the remaining  glued layer with warm water and peel off.

Well, the coloured layer came off easily  enough. I thought I’d be done in a couple of days. The glued layer, however came off in some places and in others, clung like a whiny child. We used so much steam that the  paper on the drywall lifted, but the glue remained stuck. Now I’m looking at weeks of  turmoil. Lesson to self: don’t believe everything you see on youtube!

On the bright side, the glued layer of wallpaper is kind of a buttery yellow, so I’m getting the idea of what my redecorated office might look like. Since everything had to be moved I’ve cleared out a lot of clutter.  I’ve also finished the Christmas ornaments I make for my great nieces and nephews every year. So, there is progress. And once my room is finished, I’ll enjoy the writing ritual of walking in here and congratulating myself on making a change — even though the process was painful. Kind of like writing. I love have the finished product in my hand, but getting there can be a struggle.

The gurus say redecorating can kill a marriage. I’m happy to report dh and I are still speaking to each other and laughing together.

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Thanksgiving in a Pandemic

Monday was Thanksgiving Day in Canada, one of my favourite holidays. An excuse to eat too much rich food, enjoy the company of a host of friends and bask in the autumn sunshine.

Not in 2020. 

In general, this year, the population is more inclined to grumble than to give thanks. We have a long litany of complaints, not least of which is no traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Our health authorities told us to have dinner in groups of no more than six. In some jurisdictions they said only dine with the people who live under your own roof all the time. I guess some families tried to pretend that a visiting relative was “living under our roof.” Perhaps they met the letter of the law, but certainly not the spirit. We worry about lost income, uncertain jobs, school openings, theatre closures and restricted travel. There is no end to our list of concerns. But that is looking on the dark side.

On the bright side, our Thanksgiving is mostly about the harvest and my garden was bountiful this year. I got about 50 pounds of zucchini from two little seeds. When I went to harvest a pumpkin for my Thanksgiving pie I found yet more zucchini’s forming on the remains of a plant and new blossoms!

The public health restrictions where I live are not so onerous. I can visit with my neighbour and even worship in person — with a spaced out congregation of not more than 50 people. I am warm and dry, entertained by old movies and favourite books, loved by my husband and tolerated by my cats.

We all live in different circumstances, yet we can look to the bright side. We can have hope. We must have hope. Without it despair overwhelms and life looses its sweetness. Prince George was so saddened by a documentary on the extinction of species he asked not to watch his favourite presenter, David Attenborough. However dire the situation, we cannot have a world of frightened, despairing children.

Hope is a gift authors can bring to the world. Writers, particularly romance writers, are keenly aware of the need for hope in the world. It’s why we espouse Happily Ever After. The mystery writer encourages her reader to see a world where justice prevails and hope is restored. Even in dystopian stories, the protagonist fights for a better world. He has hope.

I’ve read of some authors finding it hard to write while trying to cope with home-schooling, working remotely, and hearing an endless litany of bad news. But even those who are not writing now, have not despaired. They hope their muse will return. They hope the world will come around right again. They hope their children and grandparents will be safe. They look to their faith, or to science, or to history and find reason to hope.

In past years, I would wish you all abundance.

In 2020 I wish you hope.   Happy Thanksgiving.

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19 Things I learned from Laurie Schnebly and Zoom

My writer’s group, VIRA, held an all day workshop on Sept. 19, 2020 with Laurie Schnebly. The day was planned a long time ago — before Covid-19.  Since then our border closed, so Laurie could not come in person. Instead, we did a virtual workshop using zoom.  Here’s what I learned about zoom workshops.

  1. Commuting from one room in my house to another room in my house is really quick and easy.
  2. Showing up for a workshop in jeans is really comfortable.
  3. Seeing people only on screen is lonely — especially when many of them turn off their video.
  4. There is virtually no conversation between participants.
  5. The “chat” feature is really useful for catching up on missed information.
  6. A full-day workshop, even at home, is tiring. My brain was reeling by the time we signed off.

So, that’s what I learned on the technical side. On the creative side, the workshop confirmed what I already knew. Laurie is a terrific teacher. Here are some highlights from the day.

  1. From “Putting the Joy Back in Writing” I learned I’m not alone in finding publication can steal the joy I felt when I first put pen to paper (literally, I’m that old.)
  2. Determining why I write, either for myself or for others can put me back on the “joy” track and away from the “have to” track.
  3. Letting go of the results of writing and focusing on the process of writing frees up creativity.
  4. I should re-read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It is on my bookshelf.

 

From Braiding Your Book I picked up pointers on

  1. Genre Expectations and the need to fulfil those expectations for readers.
  2. Plot – it’s all about goals and conflict, with the love story added in for my genre.
  3. Plot has a shape — the writer must build hope, then dash those hopes and build them again.
  4. Character is the third strand in the braid. 
  5. A character’s origin (backstory) is an invaluable aid in figuring out who your character is and why (s)he acts as (s)he does.
  6. A character’s belief system is key.

 

From Blurbs & Promotion to Suit Your Personality I learned

  1. I’m not the only one who is really poor at promotion because I dislike it.
  2. Laurie’s background is in advertising so it’s not surprising she suggests a blurb is an ad.
  3. Seeing promotion as an advertisement for a product makes it less intimidating than seeing it as a judgement on my worth as a human being!

 

As you can tell, we had a very full day. I was exhausted from listening, I can’t imagine how Laurie kept up her enthusiasm and humour all the way to the end and then took questions.

As a bonus, she held a draw and I won free admission to one of her courses. With so many wonderful choices I had to wait over the weekend until my brain had returned to full function before I made my pick. In March I’ll be taking Plotting Via Motivation.  It’s one of the earliest courses on offer, so I can still take some of the later ones too. 

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Revenge In Rubies

REVENGE IN RUBIES

by A.M. Stuart

 

Thank you so much for the invitation to your blog, Alice.

For those who don’t know, Alice and I have been the writerly equivalent of pen pals (she lives in Canada and I live in Australia) for a long time and Alice, more than anyone, has been there chivvying me along through disappointments, frustrations and inertia and was the first to cheer when I finally ‘broke through’ and published my first Historical Mystery, SINGAPORE SAPPHIRE, through Penguin USA in 2019.

REVENGE IN RUBIES is the second in the Harriet Gordon Mysteries and is released on 15 September. For those new to the world of Harriet Gordon, the stories are set in Singapore in 1910 and feature two protagonists, Harriet Gordon and Inspector Robert Curran of the Straits Settlement Police.

I was fortunate to spend three years living in Singapore and it was during that time that I first met Harriet Gordon in the microfiche room of the Singapore National Library.

Of course, she wasn’t known as Harriet Gordon, her name was Mrs Howell and in March 1905 she placed an advertisement in the Straits Times, offering her services as a Stenographer and Typist. She guaranteed “RAPID & CAREFUL work together with ABSOLUTE SECRECY” (the capitals are hers). The now long forgotten Mrs. Howell’s advertisement jumped off the microfiche at me. I loved her commitment to ABSOLUTE SECRECY, and slowly the character of Harriet Gordon, widow, typist, stenographer and failed suffragette began to form.

 

Over the next few years, I started to rebuild her world – a colonial Singapore you can barely glimpse in the modern, go ahead city of Singapore but there are maps, images, contemporary travel guides and those all important newspapers from the period to guide me.

Of course, Harriet does not exist in isolation. She has friends and family and most importantly (for Harriet) her partner in crime, the enigmatic Inspector Robert Curran, head of the Detective Branch of the Straits Settlements Police Force.

There are so many stories brewing in the tropical heat of the Malay Peninsula- where truth and corpses tend to decompose quickly- and I am delighted that Penguin has agreed to publish a 3rd book in the series (my current work in progress) so I am hoping Harriet will be around for a little while yet!

If you like puzzles, here’s a link to a jigsaw of the cover for Revenge in Rubies.

https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=05c50e12a3d0  I

 

Instead of a head shot, Alison sent this photo of the two of us having coffee in Vancouver a few years ago. She’s the one on the right. How often do two friends from the opposite corners of the world get to have a coffee date?

Thanks Alison, for sharing Harriet Gordon with my readers. I hope she as successful at solving mysteries in Revenge in Rubies as she was in Singapore Sapphire.

The book is available for sale here :https://books2read.com/RevRub

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Passages

Ever notice how, when you get interested in a subject, it crops up in all sorts of places? That’s been the case with me these last few weeks. Blame it on COVID-19, but I’ve been introspective to the point of obsession. What is success? How should we live? Does pandemic lockdown help or hinder our emotional evolution? Does age empower or diminish a person? Big questions!

Perhaps that’s why I noticed the obituary notice for Gail Sheehy, the author of the book Passages.  I read the book once in my early thirties and again in my fifties. Apparently I like to look at the stages of life after they’ve come and gone.  I found her observations interesting, but not life-altering. Interestingly, Ms Sheehy admitted there wasn’t much to say about life after 50. Kind of a downer for those of us on the other side of the big five-o.

Then I noted an article on Writer Unboxed about being a debut author at 60.   Liza Nash Taylor is looking forward to the publication of her new book at a time of life when she did not expect to do new things. Yet, writing a book has changed lifelong habits of avoiding the spotlight and the public stage. Life is exhilarating and fun — and a little scary. The comments on her post reveal many authors who broke into publishing at 60 or 70 or later in life.  So, there are still adventures and possibilities for the past-middle-age crowd.

I also read another book by Jennifer Ryan, The Spies of Shilling Lane. I’ve posted about her previous book, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir here.  In this story we leave the village of Ashcombe behind and plunge into the world of London during the Blitz. The main character, Mrs. Braithwaite, formerly the doyen of the village has had her life turned upside down and is now wondering who she is, really. In the end, she believes that the measure of success in life is “the amount that you love and are loved.”

So, Ms Sheehy has entered her final passage. Writers all over the world are working and questioning their purpose in this topsy-turvey world. Old and young are trying to navigate their way through life tough times.  Our culture seems to be experiencing the birth pains of something new. Where do each of us fit?

Perhaps Ms Ryan is right. It isn’t the number of books you’ve published, the money you’ve made, the toys you’ve owned or the skills you’ve acquired, that measure the success of a life. It’s how much you have loved — and COVID can’t stop that.

 

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