Tag: Louise Penny

7 Wonders


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

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

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

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

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

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

But the senses alone aren’t enough for fiction. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visits: 77

Christmas Book Bonanza

pile of books As mentioned on other posts on this blog, I love getting books for Christmas. This year my wishes were answered with a nice pile of literature under the tree. The haul included history, romance, mystery and biography. Since we are having a series of snow days, the additions to my TBR pile are most welcome. snow dayBefore Christmas I discovered a Louise Penny mystery that I hadn’t read before. What an unexpected pleasure. Apparently she modelled her detective hero, Armand Gamache on her late husband. No wonder Armand is drawn with such love and sensitivity and compassion. Ms Penny is an expert at drawing the reader into the world and characters of her books. Her works are excellent examples of the kind of deep POV we all strive to attain.

Last week I started a collection of “writerly kindness” anecdotes. Laura Langston wrote a beautiful story or how a neighbour encouraged her. See it here.

This week I attended a meeting of my local writers group. Here writerly kindness was much in evidence from shared information, freely offered advice and a gentle reminder to set some goals for 2020. Thank you to Cora Seton and all the members of VIRA.

The snow continues to fall, the fire is lit and my TBR pile beckons. What are you reading?

Visits: 90

A Better Writer

titleRead A Better Man, Louise Penny’s latest book over the weekend. I finished it late on Sunday night and have moved on to a new novel. Yet Penny’s story continues to haunt me. Why?

I asked myself that question as a writer, not a reader. What is it about her writing that gets inside my head and refuses to leave? Can I learn from her to make my own work more compelling? I found a number of answers.

First: Compelling Characters.

Everyone who has ever taken a class or a workshop in writing fiction knows compelling characters are key to a successful novel.

Penny’s characters are all well-rounded, complex, interesting and tug at the heart strings. I don’t want to go into a long review here, so I’ll concentrate on the lead character, Armand Gamache, a senior officer in the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is an emminently appealing character, kind, honest, brave, loving, loyal—and deeply wounded. As a police officer he has seen and done things that cut to his soul. He has been betrayed by colleagues, attacked by politicians, shot by criminals. Penny creates scenes of evil and hate and greed and she puts Gamache in the middle of it. She tries his principles, tempts him with an easy way out. She hurts him deeply, yet he remains true to himself and what he stands for. As a reader, I’ve come to trust him, depend on him to get me through the terrible events of the novel and show me that justice will prevail, that good men can, if not win, at least survive.

The wounds, I believe, are what makes Gamache so relatable. I’m too soft when it comes to hurting my characters. I like them and I don’t want to make them suffer, but the suffering is where real character is displayed. It is where readers identify with characters and ache for them and cheer for them and read on until they are safely home again.

Second: Appealing setting

The village of Three Pines plays a large role in the stories. It’s a bit like an English village that you might find in a Miss Marple mystery, but it is deeply Quebecois. The bistro, the village green, the duck pond, the old church, the book store, and B&B – these are all Quebec, with harsh winters, hot summers, mosquitos, and no WiFi.  All the instant communication a modern culture takes for granted, must slow down in Three Pines. This lack of speed in the village is a wonderful plot device, stretching out the suspense. It takes time to get reports, it takes time to run down leads, it takes time to receive orders. If you’re really in a hurry you can drive a few miles out of town to where there is cell phone reception, but that takes time too.  Everything takes time and we settle into Three Pines like a comfortable old armchair. We probably want a latte and a wood-burning fireplace, and good friends and good conversation. We want to luxuriate in the slowed down time of this village.

Third: Beautiful writing

Penny’s prose is almost poetic. She is obviously well-read and educated, referencing art, literature and politics, yet her language is not beyond the understanding of most readers. She doesn’t dazzle with long words and convoluted sentences, but there is a poet living in Three Pines and her phrases creep into the narrative and make it sparkle. There is also a foul-mouthed duck who roots us firmly in the modern culture. In other words, Penny has a recognizable and enthralling voice.

Fourth: Dynamic Plot

Since these are murder mysteries one would expect lots of plot turns, but Penny is a master at throwing in an unexpected twist. Even when you think a character has won, he loses. Even when Gamache seems defeated, he has an ace up his sleeve. I am always in awe of people who can plot out even a simple mystery, With Penny’s serpentine plot twists, I can only marvel.

This is only a brief analysis of what I think makes her books so remarkable and none of it is new. All of these points are developed in how-to-write books, workshops and university courses, but Louise Penny has provided us with a masterful example.

Even if you write lighter stories, where romance and humour are more important than danger and crime, I recommend any of Ms Penny’s books as a great learning tool — and a wonderful way to spend a weekend.

Anyone else a fan? Who’s your favourite writer. Does he/she get inside your head and refuse to leave?

 

Visits: 366

Christmas Book Madness

A funny thing happened on my way to book Nirvana this Christmas.  For anyone who asks, I’ve told them I love books for Christmas. My husband knows this, my neighbour knows this, my best friend knows this, even mere acquaintances know this. Apparently, I’m quite vocal about my favourite authors as well. Louise Penny is a “must” buy for me and she had a new book, Kingdom of the Blind,  out just in time for Christmas. I got three copies!

Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page just won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. She is a British Columbia writer, living on Salt Spring Island. It’s a kind of love story – the history of a very long marriage that begins in World War II. My neighbour and I belong to the same book club and I was sure she’d like it. So I bought it for her as a Christmas gift, knowing I could borrow it later. Well, my darling husband heard me talking and a copy of the book showed up under my tree.

Jack Knox is a local columnist with a wry sense of humour. I bought his latest book to give to my husband. But before he opened his, I opened one from him to me.

Fortunately, all the replica books can be exchanged so I’ll still have lots of new reading. It’s also nice to know that my friends and family actually listen when I talk books. 🙂

I read all of Dear Evelyn on boxing day. Lovely writing and a story to pull at your heartstrings. Evelyn and Harry belong to “the greatest generation,” and their stories are worth hearing over again. I’m glad Ms. Page preserved this one so beautifully.

Kingdom of the Blind was devoured in two days. Louise Penny is a master at making the reader turn just one more page. Fortunately there were enough leftovers in the fridge that we didn’t starve while I followed Armand Gamache and his team from the idyllic village of Three Pines into the darkest streets of Montreal and out again. A very satisfying read, though I felt a little sad at the end. I’m hoping there’s another book to restore the joy in the Chief Inspector’s life.

There are still three new books by my bedside and I’ll filch Rick Mercer’s Final Report when my husband finishes it.

Books, books, and more books. It’s been a great Christmas.

If you got some good books at Christmas — or even double copies — please share in the comments below.

Visits: 126

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