A Sense of Scale

I wish that there were more stories about the rich interior lives of garden-dwelling snails and carabid beetles.

I mean this very seriously.

Often when I read I am looking for a sense of wonder, of discovery, of venturing into worlds I could never have imagined if left to my own devices. Whether I look for poetry, mystery, biography or fantasy, I want to feel that prickle at the back of my neck as I see things in a way I have never considered.

The thing is, too often we associate this discovery with grand, world-shaking adventures.

While I enjoy large-scale epics of all kinds, I think that there are equally valuable stories to told about small things, things that fit between the cracks of our lived experiences.

A beetle trying to conceptualize the sky is something that pulls my mind in ways I would normally never think.

It’s not just the size of the inhabitants though.

Too often, grand stories lose the perspective that allows us to relate to and understand the scale of the events.

After the third or the fourth time the universe has blown up and been reversed once again by the hero, it becomes hard to care enough to conceptualize what the universe actually blowing up would look like.

Smaller stories have their own set of pitfalls of becoming so entwined in minutia that it becomes impossible to work out what is or isn’t important.

It’s not that one type of story-telling is better than the other.

It’s that I want a wider range of stories, full of events and insights that make my eyes open in wonder.

I want a grand, world-shaking hero striding across the land.

I want a garden-bound insect trying to eat enough cabbage to reproduce.

I want them both to look up at the sky-

-and be awed.

IMG_1412The sky is always so much larger than the scale we live in

I really am fascinated by carabid beetles and wish there was a much larger branch of story-telling that incorporated them.


For my own take on small versus large stories, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.

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Meltwater

You can hear rotten ice.

Smell it even, if the wind isn’t too thick above the water.

There’s a shifting, moaning noise where the ice is wearing thin and breaking loose. There’s a taste of running water and dead things, being pushed up from under the sterile frost.

If you’re looking for rotten ice, you’re already in over your neck.

People keep looking.

The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions, hoping for a different result.

But it’s hard to break out of patterns, break out of the familiar way of approaching the world. It’s hard to break out even if it can, and will, prove deadly to our purpose.

We trust our eyes, even when we know our eyes deceive us.

I see it too much in what I read, that blind acceptance of what is visible.

If writers challenged that perception more often, it would be a useful shortcut, but too many lakes sit solidly icebound, no treachery visible or apparent.

I went through once as a child.

Not deep, not enough to damage, but I’ve never forgotten that sickened swoop of betrayal as my solid, icy footing vanished beneath me, crumbling like so much rotten wood.

Maybe that’s what it takes to use the other senses.

A cold lake, a deceptive surface, and, as the water meets your flesh, the realization that you have never been the one in control.

IMG_1359So which step here will take you under?

The consequences of where we place our feet are a vital part of telling our stories.


Watching where we walk is something I enjoy incorporating into my writing. Feel free to try my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor here.

Survival of the Fittest

Once, when I was very ill, I went hiking and was nearly eaten by eagles.

I was undergoing the slow, torturous process of re-building my muscles from a long illness. When I reached the limits of my endurance, I let my group go on ahead while I curled up by a pile of driftwood and fell asleep.

Animals recognize weakness.

My hiking partners called me the animal whisperer that year because we have never, before or since, seen that many predators at that close of range.

I knew better.

I woke, leaning against the burl of a large piece of driftwood, to find two eagles less than five feet above my head.

As I moved, trying to look larger and healthier than I was, I could see them debate whether I was worth the effort.

They left.

I have never been able to hear eagles since without remembering that moment, where I could so easily have crossed the line from threat to prey.

I love the wilderness, but I have no illusions as to how quickly roles shift, how easy it is to transition from control to chaos.

Threat is a difficult concept to provide in writing.

It is easy enough to create characters who have no real challenges, who face no real losses at any point in their path.

It is easy enough to forget that even the strongest can be laid low by single misstep and that those missteps are a vital part of any journey.

We are not always predator, not always prey.

Sometimes the survival of the fittest is the survival of an ill woman pretending to be larger than the predators above her.

IMGP0298It is easy to move from traveler to flotsam

I find it interesting to think about how quickly our fortunes can change.


For my own take on threats, fantastical and otherwise, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor is available here.

 

Their Day in the Sun

I am  fascinated by background characters in stories. Often I use the treatment of these characters as a measure of how much I am going to enjoy the story itself.

There is a fine balance in writing stories and characters that sit to the side of the main action.

It is easy enough to make a story feel as though it is set in a diorama. It is easy enough to create the feeling that if you push hard enough on the surrounding scenery, the entire world will collapse into a pile of two-dimensional cardboard.

It is also easy to become distracted, to create side stories that become more engaging than the main story, that suck all the oxygen out of the plot and the conflict.

Like most spectra in writing, I prefer a balance between the two extremes.

But I also have a secret, guilty, contradict-myself pleasure.

I love seeing a secondary character get a moment to be fully, completely human.

While there is a real pleasure in being fully absorbed in the main character’s life and troubles, it can start to feel as if the world around them exists only to lead to their ultimate goal. Characters appear and disappear, acting as sounding boards or villains. After awhile, it becomes difficult to connect to anything outside of the main character.

This is why moments that connect me to the characters who aren’t telling their story can often be the most powerful points in a book.

In real life, it is easy to become entirely self-focused, allowing the world to spin around us without registering its other occupants.

Moments where we are forced to connect to others, to be reminded of a thousand other stories intersecting with ours, are vital.

When I am reading a story, I look, not just for a main character worth following, but for those in the background who will remind us that the sun shines on others as well.

IMG_1220Even a humble stalk of chard deserves its day in the sun

I am the kind of person who is always looking at the backgrounds of pictures.


If you are interested in my treatment of the background, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor is available here.

The Long Dark

As we pass through the Winter Solstice, I think of pivots.

I wake in the dark, work in the dark, go to bed in the dark. This day is the darkest of the dark days of winter.

We’re not meant to spend too much time without light. Energy drains the longer the night stretches, the more we hear of that queer electrical hum that hits when the dark is thickest.

It’s easy, in tales and in light, to dwell endlessly in darkness. There’s beauty and mystery there as well as frustration and exhaustion. For those who wish to sit there endlessly, it is easy to point to the anemic half-light that hits for a few minutes somewhere between dawn and dusk.

“See,” they say. “There’s some light here. But what really matters is the darkness.”

I love the dark.

I also love the way it turns to day.

Eternal darkness does an injustice to the balance of the world.

It is an incomplete snapshot, a story half-told and less truthful than a full lie.

Because the darkness does turn.

Because today marks the waning of its strength.

Because slowly we move towards the first pale fingers of warmth breaking through the mountains.

The darkness is beautiful.

So is the slow, inexorable movement towards spring.

IMG_0549Darkness is a movement, not a static state

As always, I am interested in transition points and movement. Darkness is a significant part of the movement in my own life.


For my own take on darkness and not-darkness, feel free to check out my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor. It  is available here.

A Moment of Quiet

I get the best sense of whether or not I will enjoy a writer, not by how much I enjoy their moments of tension, but by how much I enjoy their moments of quiet.

While I enjoy (and write!) stories that tumble from one action point to the next, I get a much better sense of how a story comes together when it comes time to take a breath.

In poetry, there are a number of concepts about the place for breath and the speech of the white space. While genre writing tends to use less of a visual layout to illustrate the plot, that concept of breath and pause is equally important.

Sometimes when I read, I feel a bone-deep panic coming from the story when I hit the moment of slowdown. The pause feels less like a deliberate and conscious thought and more like an escaping breath of air as a buoyant idea slowly deflates.

It doesn’t need to be that way.

There is a magic in breathing.

When we look up from the path we’re walking, our eyes made new by the steps we have taken, the things we see and the way we see them can hit as hard as any act of violence or panic.

When I read the stories that pull me under, they take a breath with me, align their pulse with mine.

“Look,” they say. “When the world is silent, what do you hear?”

IMG_9248A silent world does not mean a world without something to say

As someone who enjoys both noise and silence, I am most happy at their intersection.


For my own more frenetic take on tense pauses, you can check out my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, that is available here.

A Means of Measure

I’m going to tell you a secret.

We do not count our lives in days or years.

Oh, we mark days in calendars and agendas, plot pathways to tomorrow and next week.

But in our memories…

Our lives are measured from the moments that have meaning, that shape us into the people we become.

Our memories are more honest than our day-to-day planning. They strip away the dull and measured, leaving only punctuations of pain or joy that the rest of our lives circle, circumpolar.

It has been this many years since the death of a loved one, this many days since leaving a home or falling in love or birthing a child.

We move, not from day to week to year, but from bright interruption to bright interruption, the rest of the gray falling by the wayside.

Our lives are good stories, our minds keenly excising all but what is most necessary to strip us to our cores.

Tell me this story: of a series of stars, separated not by space or time, but the breath between the telling.

IMG_1001A story exists to find the colours and draw them together

Our minds are great story-tellers. It is our fingers and voices that need some extra help.


I chase my own version of colours within my writing. If you would like to see my stories, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.

The Value of “Nice”

I love reading about small kindnesses. Grand gestures can have a profound impact on a reader, but I hold a deep soft spot for the little touches, the small moments of shared humanity.

Even in dark plots and darker events, moments where I can see characters do well by one another pull me more fully and happily into the story.

In my own life, it is not always the grand gestures that I remember, but the small moments where someone gave me a meal or helped me with a heavy load or explained something that confused me.

I treasure these moments in my own memories and whenever I see something like this in the story, it creates a moment of empathetic remembrance in my head.

I love writers who recognize the importance of small kindnesses and the profound or not-profound impact they can have on characters.

There is no need to dwell on these moments, and indeed they are often more powerful as a passing event.

Surely if we can fantasize about dragons and time travel and worlds without shrimp we can imagine more worlds where there are people who can gift a moment of unthinking kindness?

I enjoy stories where characters treat one another with respect, even if one of the characters comes across as foolish or silly.

While I enjoy sarcasm and witty comebacks, there is something profoundly refreshing about seeing people talk to one another as if they care about one another’s thoughts and feelings.

I do not think that fiction always needs to be a perfect model of the world we live in, although I think that fiction is tremendously valuable as a sideways mirror to our own lives and values.

However, when I escape into a world of mystery or fantasy or far-flung planets, sometimes I like to hope that the good has followed as well as the bad.

IMG_1113The strength of writing is in the blending of the imperfect and the sublime

I have a great weakness for fundamental decency. I am always looking for more stories that involve fundamentally decent characters.


I play around with kindness and its expectations and problems in my own writing. If you’d like to see those ideas, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

In the Absence of Light

It does funny things to the head to spend too long in the dark.

While Robert Service is perhaps best known internationally for his poems “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee“, he also wrote a number of very dark, very grim pieces of poetry about life in both the Yukon and Paris. Even in his better known, more humourous pieces, there is an underlying tone that most people who live far enough North are always walking the knife’s edge of keeping themselves together.

Being without people can be dealt with.

Being cold can be dealt with.

Being without light for months on end…

It changes how you see things.

It was strange to me when I moved south as a student just how many people didn’t understand those undertones in Service’s poetry.

The effect of light and darkness is such a given where I grew up, such a fundamental undertone to how you think and plan, that it was strange to meet people who had no idea what it was like to leave school at 3:00 p.m. and be met by total darkness.

I think of this sometimes when I read.

I think that it is hard, even at the best of times, to write and understand someone who is living in a perpetually hostile world.

As much as I love the North, I suffer under no illusions that the landscape around me isn’t perpetually dangerous to the unprepared and the unobservant. This sinks into how I think, how I act, the fact that I always have survival gear in my car – something that seems ridiculous to someone used to fast access to emergency help.

It’s hard sometimes to survive in the dark.

There’s nothing wrong with writing this kind of mindset – many thrillers, fantasies and science fiction stories exist in worlds that are equally hostile.

The problem is that it is really hard to get inside the kind of mind that is necessary to survive in these kinds of environments if you haven’t experienced the situation yourself.

I come back to this time and time again, but it is hard to know what you don’t know.

Research helps.

Unfortunately, often I am thrown out of these stories because I can’t feel that ever-present tension lurking beneath the surface, the threat of imminent night forming the characters’ actions.

I would love more stories in science fiction and fantasy about hostile environments written from the perspective of people who have experienced them.

I would love more stories from people who look at these lines from “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”-

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear
-and nod.
IMG_9987The moment between dark and light is hard to describe and impossible to capture
The odd pieces that make up Northern survival are some of my major interests. Please write more about them!

My own story is survival of a different kind, but light and dark still play their roles. If you would like to see for yourself, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

A Certain Passage

I’ve been watching the bracken ferns slowly turn from green to yellow to brown. They vanish entirely during the winter, only rising once the snow and frost have entirely passed.

I enjoy transitions.

There is something about watching the changes around me, even if the ending is entirely fixed and known, that captures my thoughts and imagination.

Maybe especially if the ending is fixed and known.

I have an attraction, both in real and life and in stories, for passages where the ending is a clear, known point.

Some of my favourite events and writing are those that have a known destination, but which manage to make the journey towards that destination unexpected and engaging.

There is rich material in the changing of the ferns’ colour, even if it ends in their fading disintegration.

There is rich material in telling stories about the pieces in and around events whose ending is an ever-present knowledge.

Much of our lives and world hold inevitabilities.

I am drawn to celebrate the stories that live vibrantly and fully in the face of their known outcomes.

The truth is, the ending is the least interesting part of our lives and stories.

Our celebration of the roads we walk is the true magic that pulls us into the world around us.

When I look at the fading bracken ferns, I don’t see the ultimate end of the dying fronds.

Instead, I close my eyes and see another spring, another vibrant rise of green making its way into an unknown world.

IMG_1199The beauty is in the passage, not the ending

My fascination with how the journey reaches the destination is longstanding, in both life and reading.


If you’d like to see my own wedding of journey and destination, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.