Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Plot Thickens

I finished Chapter 8 of Shattered last night. It’s leading me to the middle of the story, where all the plot threads start to interweave. Now I have to decide just how that’s going to happen – or rather, being a pantser, I have to sit at the keyboard and see how it all plays out.

One of the reasons being a pantser creates angst for me is that I’m just not a linear thinker. The past, present and future of my characters don’t always come to me in the right order. I come up with an idea, and it sprouts offshoots that lead me in a dozen different directions. I want to follow them all, even though I know most of them will come to dead end. Of course all those extra words can still be useful, but sometimes I wish I didn’t write quite so many of them.

Then there’s those secondary characters. I fell in love with Nathan Munroe, Trey’s nemesis in McShannon’s Chance, and now I’m smitten with Nolan, Liam’s older brother in Shattered. That doesn’t mean I love Liam any less as a hero, but Nolan’s backstory keeps cluttering up my mind. He’s a harbour pilot, once a merchant seaman with the proverbial girl in every port. He makes me think of Stan Rogers’ song, Lockkeeper:

‘She wears bougainvillea blossoms/ You pluck them from her hair and toss them to the tide/ Sweep her in your arms and carry her inside/ Her sighs catch on your shoulder, her moonlit eyes grow warm and wiser through her tears/ And I say ‘how can you stand to leave her for a year?”

But Nolan, unlike the sailor in the song, chose to settle down with his Annie, a down-to-earth farm girl from outside Truro. How did they meet? Was she working or visiting friends in Halifax when Nolan came home from one of his voyages, perhaps with his heart broken by a woman like the ‘tropic maid’ in Lockkeeper? Or did he go to sea in the first place to nurse a broken heart?

Another prequel in the making? Perhaps, but right now Nolan is a distraction. Maybe if I politely ask him to go away...but not too far away...

I refuse to think of my convoluted way of thinking as bad for my writing. After all, I’ve read and loved many novels where several plotlines are interwoven and secondary characters are fully developed. I’m thinking of Melanie Wilkes and Gerald and Ellen O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. It’s arguable that the story would have been tighter if we’d been told a lot less about Scarlett’s parents and Ashley’s wife, but would it have been as rich? No. Judith James’ masterfully plotted historicals – her latest, A Libertine’s Kiss, is amazing – come to mind as well. I love a full-figured plot.

But I’m trying to create a good, believable romantic arc for Liam and Alice and tell their story in under 80000 words, without writing 160000. The middle is always the toughest part of a book for me, so perhaps my distractibility is really avoidance behaviour. Writers of blogland, do any of you do this to yourselves?
And does anyone have any good research material on what it was like to be a merchant seaman at the turn of the last century, in Nolan’s time?

I know, I know. Liam and Alice first.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fall Flavours

Everywhere I look in blogland this week, I see food. As a confirmed glutton, I love this time of year. Roasted veggies, comforting casseroles, hearty stews - yum! Speaking of which, there are some great recipes posted right now on one of my favorite blogs, Petticoats and Pistols.

In the spirit of the season, I'm posting a favorite family recipe for apple pie. For me, its the apples and the touch of brown sugar that makes this one special. Enjoy!

Gravenstein Apple Pie

Gravenstein apples (see photo above)are an old variety that, I discovered today online, came from Denmark. In Canada, they are grown in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley and, as far as I know, almost nowhere else.

Tart and flavorful with mottled red and yellow skin, they are delicious straight off the tree, but unfortunately don't store well. They are a seasonal delight and the best pie apples on the planet. This recipe brings back memories of fall days in windy orchards in "The Valley", as it's known here. When my mother calls herself a valley girl, she isn't talking SoCal.

Pastry: Stir 1 tsp salt into 2 cups of flour. Cut in 1 cup cold vegetable shortening until the texture is coarse and crumbly. Do not overmix. I use my grandmother's old pastry bowl - I think it knows the recipe by heart.

Stir together 1 egg, 5 or 6 tbsp ice cold water and 1 tbsp white vinegar. Add to dry mixture, stir to form dough. When it comes together turn out on a floured surface and knead two or three times, just until workable. Pastry making is a metaphor for life - you get better at it with practice, and you spoil it by trying too hard,
Wrap and chill for 30 - 60 min. Makes enough for two 9-inch double-crust pies or one larger pie and a turnover.

Filling: for one generous ten-inch pie, peel and slice 8 or 9 fresh Gravenstein apples. Sprinkle with 1 tbsp lemon juice. Combine 1/2 cup flour, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/3 cup brown sugar, and about 3/4 cup white sugar (taste apples and adjust as needed.) Pour over apples and mix.

Assemble pie and bake at 425 for 15 min, then reduce temp to 350 and bake for another 45-60 min or until apples are tender. Serve with sharp aged cheddar cheese.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Folk Friday and a lesson in canine grammar

Friday again!

This week has flown by with lightning speed. We have very few students in our ESL program right now, so I’ve been busy doing the prep work I didn’t have time to do before the term started. That includes dusting off the grammar lessons I’ve had packed away since I took my CELTA course in the summer of 2009.

I’m having a wonderful time (not!) with verb tenses. I think of it in dogspeak.

Chance woofs. Present simple
Chance is woofing. Present continuous
Chance has woofed. Present perfect
Chance has been woofing. Present perfect continuous
Chance woofed. Past simple
Chance was woofing. Past continuous
Chance had woofed. Past perfect
Chance had been woofing. Past perfect continuous
Chance will woof. ‘will’ future
Chance is going to woof. ‘going to’ future
Chance will be woofing. Future continuous
Chance will have woofed. Future perfect
Chance will have been woofing. Future perfect continuous

No wonder English is such a hellish language to learn. Good grief, my head is spinning! Generally only one of these applies to Chance at any given time, but two or three are likely to apply to Echo all the time. She woofs a lot. She is woofing most of the time. She will woof when I get home tonight. She woofed this morning at 5:30 to get me up, just because she felt like it. I’m convinced that she will have been woofing most of her life when she crosses the Rainbow Bridge. The rest of her time will have been spent eating my shoes.

I like to believe my grammar is fairly good, but the thing is, I was never actually taught grammar. I absorbed it by reading and listening. Tenses make me tense! But it’s Friday, so enough grammar woes. For today, I found a clip containing a few of Stan Rogers’ best tunes, including his national anthem, Northwest Passage. The man and his music need no introduction, but I haven’t listened to him for a while and I thoroughly enjoyed this. One caveat: it’s eight minutes long. If you’re like me, you’ll consider it time well spent.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Priming the Pump: Writing Exercises

I don’t know a writer who doesn’t experience times when the ideas flow freely, and times when the creative juices dry up. We all need a kitbag full of strategies to prime the pump.

From writing groups, workshops, and other sources, I’ve come across a few good quick writing exercises here and there. I like to use them when I’m feeling stale and uncreative, when I need to solve a problem with a manuscript, or sometimes just for fun. Here are a few of my favourites:

1. Free writing. I think every writer does this once in a while, for good reason. It’s a great way to unblock and release your muse. Simply take a picture or a word as a starting point, set a time limit – one minute, five minutes – and WRITE. That’s the only rule. You cannot stop writing, even if you write the same word ten times. It’s as simplistic as it sounds, but you just might amaze yourself with what you produce.

2. Write a scene using DIALOGUE ONLY. No body language, no description, no narrative. I had a lot of fun with this one writing a dialogue between two partially deaf people who kept misunderstanding each other. It really gets you thinking about how to show instead of telling.

3. Think of a character as different from yourself as you can imagine, and write a scene showing that person getting up in the morning and starting their day.

4. Take a very familiar scene, like your bedroom or backyard, and write about a blind person in that setting. I’ve mentioned this one before, and it’s a great way to get away from dependence on visuals and learn to include all the senses in description.

5. Take a scene you’ve already written, with two characters, and write it in the other character’s point of view. I did this with several scenes in McShannon’s Chance. It helped me figure out if I really had written those scenes in the POV of the character with the most to lose.

6. Tell a story in ten words or less, newspaper headline style. The best one of these I’ve ever seen: ‘Spinster aunt sold wedding dress today.’

Hope you enjoy this, and may your muse be kind! Feel free to add to this list if you have ideas.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Folk Friday #8

I’ve been off track with Folk Friday lately, what with vacation followed by work craziness and family responsibilities, but it’s time to get back into a routine now. I’m looking forward to a busy fall, teaching ESL full time and working on my goal of having the rough draft of Shattered finished by March Break. I’ll also be putting on a set of four workshops at Northwood, a local seniors’ centre. The workshops have a theme of ‘passion in our lives’, and I’ll be using McShannon’s Chance as a springboard to get attendees to tell stories about the places, activities and people they have been passionate about in their lives. Some of these people will be war veterans and war brides, so I’m hoping they’ll be able to relate to my characters. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing their stories.

Dad is home from the hospital now and doing well. I can’t say often enough how grateful I am. For me, Thanksgiving will have more meaning this year than it’s ever had before.
For this week’s Folk Friday I’ve chosen a clip by Ardith and Jennifer, a Nova Scotia harp duo who manage to put me under a spell every time I hear them. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never heard them play in person. To me, there’s something magical about the sound of a harp.

Enjoy this clip. Happy autumn to all.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Counting my Blessings

These two cardinals are my father's work. He loves to carve, mostly birds and other expressions of his love for the outdoors.

I'm counting my blessings tonight. On Tuesday, Dad underwent surgery for a gastrointestinal tumor. I haven't said much about it, mostly because my father is a private person and I respect that, but now that it's over and he's expecting a full recovery, I need to express my gratitude.

Like most girls, I grew up thinking of my father as my hero, always there and always strong. This has been a wake-up call for me, a reminder not to take one precious moment for granted. Dream like you'll live forever, live like you'll die today.