Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Few Days Out of Time

Last week, we got unexpected news that my DH’s sister had bought a cottage on Grand Manan, a jewel of an island in the Bay of Fundy, off the coast of New Brunswick. The house needed work, so we piled Chance and Echo in the car and headed off for what turned out to be a magical few days.

Grand Manan is the kind of place where people don’t wear watches. Things happen in their own time. The closest thing to a spectator sport is watching the Cape Islanders chug out into the bay in the morning and return at sunset, or watching whales and porpoises from a windy cliff top. There are places with names like Whistle, Seal Cove and Dark Harbour. The local take-out makes the best lobster rolls I have ever tasted, and the restaurant by the ferry terminal specializes in succulent fresh scallops and fish. If we hadn’t burned off the calories painting, wallpapering, laying floors and hiking, I would have brought a few extra pounds back with me.

The cottage is a five-minute walk from this beach, which was all but empty the whole time we were there. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world, so at low water the beach stretches out almost to the horizon, and at low tide the water laps at the feet of the cliffs. The dogs were in heaven, and so were we.
The place is tailor-made to be a setting for a romance. I can picture a couple trysting at Southwest Head,where the picture at the top was taken, the best location on the island for sunsets. And the best part of it all is that we’ll be able to go back next year. Life is good.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Art is Art

A writer friend of mine, Janet Corcoran, just posted on her blog Janet’s Journal about a talk she recently attended, given by three women who were artists in residence for the past year in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia . Janet’s post got me thinking about the connections between different art forms, including writing. It’s a topic that fascinates me, so I thought I’d run with it.

My DH writes with sound instead of words, but it’s uncanny how similar our processes are. First, there’s inspiration. For me that can come from an old photograph, a story someone tells me, a historical event, or it can simply come at me out of the blue, like Trey McShannon’s character did. For my DH, it’s much the same. Musical phrases from pieces he already knows, random sounds he stumbles on when ‘noodling ‘ on his guitar (his version of free writing), events or people provide the starting point, the initial spark. He banks melody lines in his memory the way I bank phrases, lines of poetry or story ideas. He’ll write a snatch of music down on paper the way I scrawl ideas in a note book – if I have one (You’ve all heard my paper towel story by now.)

Next, the idea has to be fleshed out. For me, that means I start writing the first draft of my story. For my DH, it means finding a chord progression that expresses his original idea. Both of us have to think about length and mood and pacing. There are conventions in music – chord families and scales – just as there are conventions for the written word. Music has phrases, punctuation, its own grammar if you will. It also has its free-verse poets who ignore the conventions.

Finally there’s revision and polishing. For me that means going back and adding layers of action, emotion and introspection (Yeah, yeah, I know, too much introspection. I’m working on it.) For DH, it means a different kind of layering: adding harmony lines and embellishments, adjusting pace and rhythm. And yes, it can cause as much angst for him as it does for me. In the end, it’s about taking the reader or listener to a place you’ve created for them. The only difference is the medium.

With painting, it seems to me that the process is pared down but essentially the same. It starts with inspiration. The palette chosen is like a writer’s voice, and the intensity of the colors sets the mood. Any given subject can be interpreted in as many different ways as there are artists.

What do you think? Have you experimented with different forms of artistic expression? What’s your take on the idea that ‘art is art’?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Folk Friday #7

Here’s another Mary Chapin Carpenter tune, one I used to play at Harbour folk society coffee house evenings. To my mind, it’s a beautiful little piece of craft, a story told with an old shirt as the focal point. She really had a gift for making the ordinary magical.

I missed FF again last week – company arrived and I’ve been on the go ever since. I can’t believe how fast the summer’s flown. I’m working away on Shattered, and it’s going quickly at this point. Right now, Liam and Carl O’Neill, Alice’s brother, are stuck together in the same hospital room. I’m chuckling evilly over the thought. They’d like nothing better than to pound each other, but Liam’s on crutches and Carl has just been severely walloped in a street fight, so it ain’t gonna happen.

I’ve spent the last few days touring around with DH’s brother and six-year-old niece. She’s experiencing the ocean for the first time, and it’s been priceless watching her. She’s made me see with fresh eyes. I’ve got another week of vacation before school starts again, and then it will be back to reality – sigh!

Enjoy the tune. I hope everyone’s summer has been as great as mine.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Some Thoughts on Dialogue

A few months ago, I got some feedback from an RWA contest that puzzled me. I’d sent in the first twenty pages of McShannon’s Heart, and one judge commented “It’s almost as if two different people wrote this.” I was honestly befuddled, but now, I think I understand what she meant.

When I write dialogue, I try to write it the way I think that character would actually speak, but it seems that isn’t always the best option. Dialogue has to match the writer’s descriptive style. I read the passages the judge had marked and realized that in trying to make my characters authentic as nineteenth-century rural people, I’d pared down their speech so that it was too much of a contrast with my descriptions.

I think readers also have certain expectations when it comes to dialogue, especially with historicals, but the truth is that nineteenth-century speech wasn’t all that different from the way we talk now, if novels and journals written at the time are any indication. Court records show that vulgar expressions are timeless. Letters and diaries use surprisingly modern language, but as readers, we expect the dialogue in a historical story to be different. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel right, even though it might be accurate.

Dialogue also has to take into account the fact that readers don’t have the visual cues so important in real conversation. To avoid using a lot of cumbersome ‘stage directions’ – something I have to guard against – every word has to be carefully chosen to convey the desired meaning. Dialogue tags – ‘he growled’, ‘she simpered’ – are another issue. I don’t like them and I avoid them whenever possible. The only tag I use is ‘he/she said’, when it’s necessary to clarify who’s speaking. Anyone who’s read about writing craft has read about these issues, but the craft books don’t tell us that putting the perfect, strong words in our characters’ mouths can be the difference between a good story and a published story. It’s more than a matter of avoiding tags and stage directions. Something else to strive for. I also know I’m guilty of using too much small talk in my dialogue. Greetings and goodbyes and how-are-yous can be left out because the reader’s brain fills them in.

One of the things I enjoy most about writing dialogue is the fact that I can use bad grammar with impunity. I don’t know anyone who uses perfect grammar when they speak, and if we try to we sound self-conscious and affected. The same is true in fiction.
Dialogue is a wonderful way to make characters unique. In McShannon’s Chance I had fun with the contrast between Trey’s speech patterns and Beth’s. Trey’s a lot less wordy and some of his expressions mark him as a country boy, but he doesn’t talk like a rube. After all, he’s read Walt Whitman and Dickens and R.H. Dana. Beth is an educated young woman from a good family, and her language reflects her background. In McShannon’s Heart, I really enjoyed writing conversations between Martin and Chelle. I could almost hear her Georgia drawl and his broad Yorkshire. Of course, in real life they’d hardly have been able to understand each other.

Dialogue. What do you have to say about it?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Folk Friday #6

This tune, the Dixie Chicks’ cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, is another one that I think suits a soft summer evening on the porch with a beer in hand. I love the harmonies, and the country feel of this version. Another one of those reflective pieces that always seem to tug at my heartstrings. Enjoy!