Tag: Stuart McLean

Role of the Story Teller

One of the happiest times of my week is Saturday morning, when my husband and I listen to a story on CD. Often that story is told by Stuart McLean. I’ve written about Stuart before on this blog. Follow the link if you want to re-read. He died seven years ago this month, and yet, his stories still bring me to tears and make me laugh out loud. What a legacy. 

Listening to his tales makes me think about the role of the story teller. As writers I’m sure we’d love to think our tales will touch people years after we’ve gone.  If so, what kind of legacy do we want to leave?

If I were a humourist, I’d want to “leave ’em laughing,” as Stuart has done. If I were a crusader, I might like to highlight the plight of the poor, as Charles Dickens did. If I were a classicist, I might hope to retell Greek tales in modern language, like the opera composer Niccolò Zingarelli. or William Walton. 

But I am none of those. I am a spinner of simple tales, told to a small audience, who want to read about love and happily ever after and maybe learn about a short period of history in Canada. What legacy can I leave?

I think Stuart McLean teaches me that tales do not have to be told on a grand scale, but they do have to be told with humanity. The characters we create must be relatable. No one is all good and no one is all bad. The “hero” of McLean’s stories, Dave, is about as awkward, and inept, and well-intentioned as a man can be. I don’t think any of the listeners aspire to mimic Dave’s misadventures. I think we do covet his goodness. Dave’s schemes inevitably go awry, yet, in the end, his kindness, his basic humanity, and his affection for both friend and foe shine through. A character worth emulating. A legacy worth leaving.

Lottie, in The Man for Her, is stubborn and headstrong. She rejects Sean’s love because he won’t bend to her will. Someone who has been disappointed in love could identify with Lottie. My hope, as an author and a caring human, is that, in the end, my story will touch that disappointed lover, show her another way, help her give love another chance.

The Christmas short stories I share with my newsletter subscribers are intended to lift hearts, to remind us of what Christmas is about. When we look for light in the darkest days of winter,  I want to bring hope, peace, joy and love to my readers.

The story I’m writing now is about an older heroine, who has loved and lost. Perhaps it will help someone learning one of life’s hardest lessons. Grief is universal. None of us can escape death. Our culture tries to deny death, or hide it away, but every human heart will suffer that great loss. If I can tell a story that helps one soul in grief, I have done a good thing.

My legacy will not show up in the history books, but I hope it will touch at least one person. I hope the tales I tell will make someone’s world a better place.

What about you, dear reader/writer? Do you wonder about your own legacy? What is your goal?

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7 Wonders


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

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

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

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

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

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

But the senses alone aren’t enough for fiction. 

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

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

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

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

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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.

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“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.

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