Weather, Or Not

I can always tell which writers have spent their lives in moderate climates.

If they stick to writing about sun and clouds and soft, warm breezes, they can keep their identities hidden. But as soon as they write about Weather…

Now, there are all different types and locations of weather. I do not claim to a particular understanding of tropical typhoons, but I can tell when someone has not spent much time in a place where the weather is far below the point of freezing.

Or even a place where rain is a continuous and constant companion.

Weather is part of the background radiation of our lives.

We do not think much of it except where it enhances or destroys our plans, but we build small actions, life routines around its presence or absence.

I read a story recently that was written about the Far North in winter. The author wrote of the main character getting into his truck, turning on the engine and peeling out of his driveway.

I knew instantly that the writer had not spent much time in a northern winter.

Little things.

Little things are what make our worlds real or not real.

Little things like the fact that the main character either just destroyed the block heater that was making sure his engine could start or he had somehow found the much-maligned secret of cold fusion.

I speak about weather, but really this is about not knowing what we don’t know. So many of our small precautions, our day-to-day concerns with weather are things that are not found in research documents.

How would you know about block-heaters on car engines unless you had stood there, heart-in-throat, in a time where the air itself froze and your truck froze with it?

There was another story set in a place that spends most of its year under a constant stream of rain and damp. It was strange to read about it  empty of the constant wetness that shaped my daily life and routines.

It is not that weather needs to be a constant reminder in the actions of a character, but a small acknowledgement of the world that shapes us helps me to connect with the world that is being created.

It is not all ugliness and inconvenience.

There is a tremendous beauty that is taken away by not showing the weather around us.

The crisp, clean lines of a cold morning, so bright that it hurts.

The soft coat of rain that rests on everything around us, a connection between the sky and the ground.

IMG_0836The background of our life can support both colour and rain

There are so many small things that breathe life into stories. Weather is one of my favourites.


For my own take on weather and story-telling, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

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Slipping Into Our Skin

I re-read a favourite story recently.

My life is often a perfect wave of chaos, but as soon as I turned to the first chapter, I could feel my heart rate slow and my breathing even.

There are a few of these stories that I read time and again. As I think about them, I realize that they don’t have a lot of commonalities in terms of genre or tempo. Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” is on that re-read list but so is Roger Zelazny’s “A Night in the Lonesome October” and the collected works of James Herriot and Basho (Separately. Not together. Although that would be very amusing.).

I know that it’s a lot less complicated for other people when it comes to what is or is not a favourite. Often it is a specific genre that feels like coming home when we open the book and it is what we consider the best books in that genre that become our favourite re-reads.

Because this is not how my brain works, I’ve been forced to think a lot harder about what it is that draws me back to a story.

I read a lot.

Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, visual-audio experiments – I read them all.

But there are definite books that I return to, that feel like I am slipping into my own skin when I move through those pages.

I have things that I know draw me into a story. Specific types of characterization, plot, and style will engage and hold my interest. But even stories that deliver perfectly on the things that I know I want won’t necessarily draw me back to re-read the book.

I’ve thought about this and tried to articulate what brings that sense of familiarity and joy when I re-read old favourites.

The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that it is an underlying generosity of spirit within both the characters and the writing.

Other works of Austen’s irritate me with some of their characterizations, but “Persuasion” is remarkably empathetic in how it handles its heroes and its villains. There is an understanding of people and the world that shapes them that I think was a lot less overtly written in her earlier stories.

I won’t turn this into a literary critique, but as I look through my list of re-readables, the underlying spirit of respect for the characters and the world they inhabit leaps out at me. It is easy enough to mock or to villainize, but I feel most comfortable in stories where there is a level of understanding extended, even to the least and worst of their inhabitants.

I know that there are different things that draw people back to stories, time and again.

For me, it has been an interesting discovery that I am most comfortable in a borrowed skin if it is one that is shared with generosity and respect.

IMG_0706Vets, dogs, and naval intrigue – my favourite stories are all about being comfortable in one’s own skin

I’m always interested to track what catches my own attention and brings me comfort. It’s interesting to see how that matches up with other people’s experiences.


I’m always interested in writing with respect and empathy. If you’d like to see whether or not I succeed, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

The Moment of Truth

I love plots.

In my day-to-day life, give me a straightforward existence. In my stories I want meaty, complex, intertwining puzzle pieces that build towards a breath-taking reveal.

The problem is that there are very few reveals that can support the strength of the plotting that came before them.

When I reach the part of the story that promises to explain all that has come before, my nervousness starts to ratchet upwards. I so badly want to be dazed and awed, but often I’m just left dazed and feeling vaguely cheated.

I’ve thought about this, as someone who finds joy in fully immersing myself in the worlds I am privileged to visit.

Surely a lackluster solution can’t take away the hours of enjoyment I’ve spent tracing the threads that lead to this climax?

And yet…

“The moment of truth” is seen as a groan-worthy cliche, but I think it captures the heart of the problem arising from poor plot solutions.

As readers, we work hard to build on the skeleton provided by a writer. With our own lives, our own thoughts, our own dreams and nightmares, we flesh out the words on the page into a living universe that we absorb as we read.

No writer, no matter how great or talented, is going to be able to cover all of those little universes contained in the minds of thousands of readers. Just like great horror suggests rather than shows outright, allowing you to build your own nightmares, great puzzles use your own assumptions against you. Great plots expect you to build your own worlds and your own interpretations of the actions and both incorporate and play against those visions in your head.

Here’s the problem.

The solution ends those games.

The solution is where we are finally able to see the writer’s truth of the heart of the story.

There are few writers whose truths can stand against a thousand fleshed and coloured worlds.

The stories whose solutions I have loved understand this and their truths are built into the marrow of the worlds they create. The great solutions are those that respect the visions of the readers because their core is at the base of the worlds they have built.

No matter how many disappointing endings I read, I am still excited to see stories brave enough to attempt difficult and intricate complications.

I only hope as I turn the page that they have given me the bones I need to build a compatible world.

IMG_1856What we build with should be able to withstand the storm of interpretation

I love plot and how much of its interpretation is a complicated dance between the reader and the writer.


 

My Grand Reveal still has four books to go. If you’d like to see my own building bones, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

Can You See What I See?

When I read fairy tales, I wanted to be the dragon.

Even in the watered-down versions I read before I found the real stories, the knights and princesses seemed to be made of very thin cardboard and so remote that it was hard to care about their lives or dreams.

The dragons, at least, were understandable.

Plus, they could fly.

I’ve heard more than one interview with an author or the creator of a successful television or movie franchise where they remark in bewilderment that they have no idea why their consumers are so much more drawn to their villains than their heroes.

There are many reasons for this, starting and ending with what we like to write not necessarily being what people like to read.

I want to talk about dragons.

See, the thing is that most of those knights and princes and princesses were saying the lines that the story thought they should say rather than what a living, breathing person would actually say in the situations they faced.

Now dragons, dragons seldom spoke in those stories.

When they did speak, it was for important things: death, valuables, flying about terrorizing the countryside.

I didn’t have to agree with what the dragon wanted, but I could understand it. Their desires were clear and obvious, backed by their words and actions.

Now the rest of those characters…

While being a hypocritical muddle or a walking morality play is true to many real-life people and situations, it is a lot less fun to follow as a perspective.

Creating an ‘evil’ character allows room for charisma, for showy depth of characterization.

Creating a ‘good’ character seems to strait-jacket the ability of the character to find their own feet and voice beyond what the story needs them to say.

The thing is, many good characters are blind to the destruction they leave in their wake. The story needs them to get from Point A to Point B but very little time is spent on the price of that movement. We do not always consciously acknowledge this hypocrisy, but it often becomes hard for us to empathize with those who show little empathy themselves.

The evil characters at least have actions consistent with their perspectives.

When I read about princes bravely charging towards the dragon, their lances upraised, it was hard to forget the villages they had destroyed on their way to their destiny.

When I read about dragons, I thought about what the world looked like when you could fly so high that the petty concerns of everyone else faded into tiny pictures on the ground.

(Really, most problems could be solved by giving heroes more flying sequences.)

(Get on that.)

IMG_9248We like to look up. Be willing to help us look down.

I have many thoughts about the higher connection with villains than heroes. Here are a few of them.


I have a few ways I’ve tried to handle the normal hero/villain dichotomy. If you’d like to see my attempts, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

 

The Breaking Point

The action was intense, the characterization engrossing, and the plot engaging.

Then an herbalist held up a mushroom and said, “We will use this plant-”

I’ve never opened the book again.

We all have our own large or small points where the suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. Fantasyland basidiomycetous fruiting bodies might actually be plants, but in my world, painstakingly bad Botany or Mycology is a guaranteed book-closer.

I could talk about some of the larger things that pull us out of our fantasylands- political viewpoints, shoe-horned narration, massive plot inconsistencies, and terrible handling of serious issues.

Honestly though, I am far more interested in the little things, our own personal fields of knowledge, that prevent us from continuing stories we are otherwise enjoying.

A friend told me once about how she couldn’t read any modern writing about time periods from before 1900. The dialogue was the worst, she said. We can recognize physical anachronisms, but language is so tightly tied to how we think and act that it creeps into even the best-intentioned writing. We have to pull ourselves out at the root to sink into the thoughts and words of someone whose life is so removed from our own.

That has always stuck with me.

I don’t think that it applies only to language.

We model our interactions with the world on our own head and our own thoughts. If we want to change that when we read or write, we need to show tremendous empathy or tremendous research. The hard part of either of these things is that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Most people would know that something was wrong with the herbalist’s comment. Most people wouldn’t have the deep frustration that rises in someone like me who has spent a lot of time trying to work through that particular misunderstanding in their own work. There are few people for whom it would be an absolute dealbreaker.

I’m willing to bet though that if I went back through the story there would be other places of not-quite-right, nagging spots of irritation for those who care.

It is possible to overdo this.

It is possible to argue over the realistic power per inch of a fictional magical system when facing an equally fictional vampiric hedgehog.

But even here, the core of these complaints is that we want the writers to care. We want writers to care enough to do some, even if not all homework, if they reference real world objects or situations. We want writers to care enough to be consistent in the fictional forces they create.

It doesn’t matter how much power per inch a fictional fireball musters, as long as it sits consistently and realistically within the created world.

Suspension of disbelief is not about drearily sticking only to the absolute path the day has taken.

Suspension of disbelief is about building a day that feels like we could follow its path.

The herbalist can call the mushroom a plant, but give me a world where it makes sense that plants and fungi are the same.

We do not all have the same points of breaking, but we want our stories to care enough that we can see where the world has bent and how we can follow our own path down its changing corridors.

IMG_8650Trees = plants; Fungi = not-plants

Pedantic is a big word. I wear it with pride.


I try as much as possible to run a consistent, if chaotic, universe. If you’d like to see my version of controlled chaos, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

The Wild Things

When I rounded the corner, I was less than an armsbreadth from the young bear cub.

Unfortunately, I was also less than two armsbreadths from its mother.

On the other side of my body.

I’ve never forgotten that moment, somewhere back in the middle of nowhere, where I stood between a mother bear and her cub.

The way the world slowed to a fine, sharpened point as I carefully moved is an experience I’ve seldom repeated.

The truth is, neither the bear nor I wanted a confrontation that day.

Just like me, the bear’s eyes almost immediately focused somewhere, anywhere other than the body of the intruder.

Much of the survival of the wild things is about that kind of pretending.

Instincts are sharp, but they can be circumvented and redirected in less exhausting and dangerous directions.

That mother bear is not the first wild thing I have seen to work around its sharper instincts.

It is strange to read stories where the actions of wild things are so wholly tied to only the most basic of their drives.

I have seen curious otters, lazy squirrels, embarrassed falcons, playful foxes, and mourning crows.

It seems sad that even in fantastical adventures, the range of actions are so focused on aggression or flight.

When our fantasies are less varied than our realities, we truly miss a degree of richness in our idea of what puts the “wild” in “wild things”.

Perhaps it would have been a better story if I had rounded the corner and been attacked by a startled mother bear.

I think that the wildness was far richer in the brief moment she met my eye-

And turned her head back towards the forest.

 IMG_0413Too often our view of the wild is only in fight…. or flight

I’ve been thinking about the way we write the world around us. These are some of my thoughts on the natural world.


I enjoy trying to work the natural world into my writing in various ways. If you’d like to see my own take on animal instincts, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

The Taste of Ink and Honey

We were thoughtful children, mainly.

When we staggered off under the weight of our thirty handpicked books-

the first time, we heard the librarians decide on the spot what the book limit was for children

-we washed our hands before we touched the pages.

(Although not until after my brother made his butter/peanut butter/honey/butter/peanut butter/honey sandwiches)

(And touched everything that wasn’t a book)

(We were careful with books)

We’d find some empty space somewhere and sprawl out, our books laid carefully around us.

We’d lick our fingers sometimes to make stubborn pages turn.

No matter how much we’d washed ahead of time, our fingers would always taste slightly of honey.

Of ink and honey.

There is a great mourning of the slow passage of paper books as we start to read more and more on our screens.

I disagree with this sadness.

As much as I can close my eyes and taste the stories of my childhood, I am eager, excited to see children and adults embrace reading in a way I could only have dreamed of as a small child with a limit of thirty books.

The package that carries the story is only a small part of that gateway to our imagination.

I dream of a day when those who could never have had the access that I did as a child are able to read all of the stories that opened the gateway to my imagination.

I dream of opportunities to share, to re-mix, to be parts of vital story-telling communities that grow with combined strength and enthusiasm.

I dream of ink and honey.

I dream of a thousand other pathways to the stories that I hear when I close my eyes.

IMG_9159There is still so much to explore and share, an unending vista in front of us

Although I am not American, I’d like to wish you a Happy National Book Lovers Day. May your pages be filled with the dreams of your choosing.


I look forward to my own stories being shared in ways I could never have imagined. If you’d like to see the beginning of my series, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

Catch Me If You Can

I don’t like thinking of myself as a fish.

I have to admit though that my relationship with stories bears a startling resemblance to those wide-eyed salmon that my grandfather used to reel in beside me.

I never have enough time and I have reached the stage in my life that I refuse to let entertainment that I’m not enjoying guilt me into continuing to spend time with it.

Bluntly, if you want to keep me reading, you’ve got to hook me.

I have a clear list of things that will throw me out of a story, but I found it much more difficult -and interesting- to consider what it is that pulls me in.

Oh, there are structural and technical things that will keep me reading and general topics that will somewhat hold my interest, but actual hooks are a lot harder to define.

As I started writing and re-writing my ideas for what it was that made me take the bait, I found it all coalesced around a single point.

Make me care.

Adrenaline-jumping action, toothsome description, and puzzle-box plots are all excellent at smoothing my path to reading.

But…

The stories that I can’t put down, that wreck my schedule and my personal relationships, are the ones that make me care.

Whether I care about the characters, the setting, or the results of the plot laid out in front of me doesn’t matter as much as making me invest myself in the first place.

My life is too short to throw myself away on just any hook.

Give me the bait that speaks to me and I will gladly throw myself out of the water and into your world.

IMG_9218To make me swim upstream you’ve got to give me some motivation.

Reading is one of the more personal and involved forms of entertainment. I like to think about what motivates me to make the story choices that I do.


To see my own ideas for hooks, you can read my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor. It is available here.

Tied in a Perfect Bow

I suffer from wrapping envy.

Despite years of forcing myself to be-paper and be-ribbon bundles of presents, certificates, and small animals, most of my wrapping jobs look like abstract art.

If I’m being generous.

While I can grudgingly admit that perfectly cornered and neatly bowed presents look better than the gifts that I give, I don’t enjoy those tidy edges nearly as much when it comes to stories.

Now, I am not a fan of stories that leave a thousand loose ends and frantically throw themselves across the finish line.

However, I equally don’t enjoy stories that try to solve every single thing that was even briefly touched on in the story.

Part of the wonder of reading a book is our ability to build our own worlds around the words on the page.

There is nothing more frustrating than getting to the end of a story or a series and finding the spaces we have to create worlds in our own heads shrink away to nothing.

While part of it is the frustration of someone who enjoys fleshing out part of the story in her own head, the other part of it is a frustration at the misunderstanding of what story the writer is trying to tell.

We do not tell the story of the universe from conception to destruction.

We tell the story of small pieces that meet other small pieces and pass onwards.

Good stories know the story that they are planning to tell and they tell it.

Better stories show that there are other stories in the world and let them pass into the distant reader’s imagination.

IMG_0539I like that the road continues, even if our part of the path is finished.

I am a Goldilocks reader who enjoys stories that sit on a fine point of balance when it comes to the tales that they tell.


My own attempt at this balance can be seen in my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor. It is available here.

The Unwritten Story

There are few things sadder than recommending a well-loved book to a friend and discovering that they do not love it as well.

Even putting aside the friendship-ending fights (“If you do not love ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ as much as I do, you obviously don’t share my life values!”), it is an uncomfortable reminder of how much of the story is written not on the page, but in the life we bring to the reading.

I was made starkly aware of this when I did a public performance of a poem about dementia. The poem followed the slow, creeping disintegration of mind and personality over the course of the disease.

I was lucky enough that the audience was articulate, intelligent, and open to discussion.

After the reading, the portion of the audience that had dealt with the dementia of loved ones talked at length about how closely the poem rang true to their own experiences. The portion of the audience that hadn’t seen the effects of dementia were confused and grew increasingly uncomfortable as the others told them that yes, it actually was that fragmented and disorienting.

Who do you think would remember that poem and recommend it to others?

This is the writer’s burden.

The ability to find shared commonalities that readers can flesh out with their own experiences is one of the most important parts of making a story live.

Many of us sink into books to escape, but we need a rope or even a thin thread to connect us to some shared ground, some shared experience.

We grasp to these thin connections with both hands, filling in rich text and subtext that never makes it to the page.

A good writer paints a picture so vivid it comes to life in our heads.

A great writer opens a door to the pictures we already hold and invites us to connect them together.

IMG_0120A lasting picture is made beautiful, not just by the scenery, but by the connections we forge to it.

I am always fascinated  by what we bring to the table as readers and how that affects our enjoyment of writing.


To see my own ideas of shared commonality you can read my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor. It is available here.