10 Things About My Writing

I was recently tagged and challenged by fellow writer, Elizabeth Hein to write 7 things about my writing on Facebook. It was fun to read her list and I like the idea of sharing such tidbits. In that list alone, I felt as though I got to know a personal side of her. When I had written my seven, I realized that I could probably write another seven, and another seven after that. Instead, I’ve decided to list ten things about my writing here (no special order):

1. My best and most creative writing time is between 5:00-8:00 a.m.

2. I have written the beginning of two new novels since the autumn and cannot decide which I want to drive forward most. At the same time, my second novel is begging for a re-write.

3. I never know how a story will end until I get there.

4. Lately, all the social media focus on my part has affected my writing time and concentration – the excitement of a debut coming out and all. Sometimes I want to toss away all the technology and live like the old days. Wouldn’t you love to jump back in time for a day or two, or a week if you’re up to it? I’d go back to the early 20th century.

5. I am a note girl. I write notes to myself with new words and expressions and leave them EVERYWHERE. They are in every nook and cranny in this house I think, yet I am baffled when I can’t find the ones I’m looking for.

6. The sun is one of my greatest motivators. It makes me feel good to the bone, and when I feel good to the bone, the creative juices flow more easily.

7. I edit as I write. I can spend far too long on trying to perfect that one sentence instead of moving on. But I get irritated if it isn’t just right.  I rather enjoyed the editing process with my editor on Gillian Pugsley – no really! She was great and I think we were very much on the same wavelength.

8. I need tea when I write, lots and lots of tea.

9. My family, my brother-in-law, my sister, all those who know me well, laugh when I get praise in reviews for my quirky expressions in my writing, because they know that’s how I really talk in real life, and it drives them bananas.

10. I adore a beautifully crafted sentence, especially those simple ones that stand out from the crowd, e.g. “As the days leaned into August…” in Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner. That’s only part of her sentence, but it swept me away with that one word leaned. – Whether mine or someone else’s creation, “It makes my heels click”.

What are 10 things you’d like to share about your writing?

The Romance of a Letter – Has it disappeared from our world entirely?

As I sit here in the early morning watching a blanket of cloud in washed-out yellow rush past, I wonder why it’s in such a hurry. Probably running from an encroaching storm. It makes me think of all the letters I used to write and send to far away places, the sky being their steward. As a teen, I used to write reams while waiting anxiously for the post to arrive. It would then be my turn to soak in the words of my first love. Back and forth the letters went and new letters arrived for years.

I don’t think I quite realized at the time, that all the letter writing I did would serve as training ground for my novels. It’s not a wonder why I am drawn to epistolary works, like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or Letters from Skye. There is a romantic quality about them. The idea alone of pouring your heart into words on paper is romantic. Heartache and joy seize the body in a more tangible way when it’s delivered in the handwriting of your suitor—the colour of ink chosen, the melody of the sentences and the beauty of the signature. Emails don’t quite capture it in the same way. Even the word electronic sounds mechanical, as though coming less from the heart and more from an assembly line.

It’s hard to argue that typewritten stories and letters can’t still be affecting. After all, I have gushed tears when reading Times New Roman. If the words are powerful enough, perhaps it wouldn’t matter how they were delivered. But ask yourself this. Do you remember the feeling of excitement waiting for that special letter to arrive in the post then tearing open the envelope, unfolding the paper, curling up in a cushy chair and being taken away? It’s true, you may well “curl up with a good book” as the expression goes, but I can honestly say, that I have never “curled up” with my laptop. Sounds almost comical.

It is becoming a rare phenomenon to receive a letter in the post these days. Bills and ads do not count. For a while I was writing, or rather typing a yearly Christmas letter, as the trend seemed to dictate, and sending them by post. I received a few myself and enjoyed the fact that someone else took the time to write about their year and put a stamp on it. That trend seems to be fading and now I receive maybe one or two a year by email. I do the same—by email now. Nice, but not quite as affecting.

After I had met my husband, who lived across the big pond from me, the handwritten letters flowed again. Now all bound together by a ribbon, each letter holds special memories. Can you imagine how incredible it would be to inherit or discover in a hidden box a collection of letters written by your ancestors? What a treasure it would be. Reading such letters would breathe new life into them, drawing out the richness of history. Would it feel the same discovering a collection of emails? Perhaps, but I would anticipate not.

For me, a handwritten letter begs the question, what can we tell about a person based on their handwriting? Right or wrong, we often connect personality to handwriting. Is it hurried writing in scribbles, suggesting little care for whom the letter is intended? Or is it pristine, suggesting care, education, authority or even snobbery? That is surely unsubstantiated and left to the imagination of the beholder. Though I have to admit, there was one person whose handwriting struck a chord every year when she would write a personal note at the end of her Christmas letter. It was the most elegant handwriting I’d ever seen like “a moving sonata for the eyes”, to quote my novel, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley. To me, her handwriting was an extension of her personality, because she was and still is just that, elegant.

Dailymail.co.uk suggests that based on the science of graphology or handwriting analysis, more than 5,000 personality traits are linked to how we write.

  • Closely written letters suggests a person is intrusive and crowds others
  • Illegible signatures mean a person is private and difficult to understand
  • Slant to the left and you generally like to work alone
  • Slant to the right and you are open to the world around you
  • Large letters means you have a big personality
  • Small and you are focused, meticulous and can concentrate easily

Based on this assertion and the handwriting alone, could the writer’s story be told or even hinted at if you discovered that collection of letters from your ancestor? It is something to consider no doubt and further romanticizes the idea. On the other hand, maybe it’s easier not to read between the lines, but rather consider the tone and style of writing and the feeling that permeates. As Anne Trubek writes in Pacific Standard Magazine, “When a new writing technology develops, we tend to romanticize the older one.” Perhaps that is exactly what I am doing here with keyboards having replaced much of today’s handwriting.

In any case, on this cold morning with its yellow-tinted clouds now replaced with a heavy, brooding sky, I choose not to believe that the romance of a letter has disappeared entirely. It’s a lovely thought to conjure up ideas of holding back the almighty keyboard and writing letters the old-fashioned way again—perhaps sending a friend a thoughtful handwritten letter once a in while. But the reality dictates something else. Our hurried lives and the ease with which we use a keyboard now, makes it much easier and faster. My romantic vision is that this will make us put more meat into our words, into our thoughts. It can drive us to produce more thoughtful letters (I hesitate to use the word emails as it still sounds impersonal). Though I will treasure the beautiful handwritten letters tucked away in my past, the ones wrapped up in ribbon, I’d like to think that I will strive to infuse a bit of romance in any writing that I produce. After all, isn’t that at the heart of all writers?

Writing Historical Fiction

I have been curious recently about those writers who churn out book after book as though on an episode of “How It’s Made”. I watch in awe of the assembly line stamping the book’s spine with a different title on each, and a giant robotic arm packing them into boxes marked and destined for, “World’s Largest Chain Bookstore”.

In a meeting with my editor last spring when this subject came up, she told me that there is a simple formula these authors use—a formula that enables them to write books very quickly. This baffled me somewhat. Yes, I could understand having a basic storyline that changes primarily with the introduction of new characters. Someone falls in love, they go through a hardship, someone dies… the end. But it hadn’t occurred to me until this past weekend, when I read an article about writing historical fiction, that a similar formula cannot be applied to this genre.

Writing historical fiction is anything but “simple”. It is so far on the opposite end of the spectrum to writing contemporary fiction that the article made me revisit my process with The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley. I have written contemporary fiction before, but hadn’t realized at the time how I took many things for granted. If a character needed to go to another country, they’d hop on a plane and go. Hold on, as I skid my heels into the dirt! When writing Gillian Pugsley, I didn’t know if she could just hop on a plane and go. It was the 1930’s. I needed to research how international travel was possible. Was it for the wealthy only? Was there only one airline in Britain? Which one? (Imperial Airways, so it seems). Did they only fly out of London? How often? Was it more common to travel by sea? Which liners existed then? What did they look like? How did the average person purchase a ticket? How often did they leave port and at which port did they arrive?

The list of questions was endless. I often felt as though I’d only written a sentence or two before the next question arose. It was constant research, whether it was in the details of how a stove was lit during that time period, or whether or not they even called it a stove, or the clothing my characters wore. Did women wear trousers at that time in Canada, or was it only in the United States? Was it seen as garish to wear them in England or trendy? Again, on and on… Often was the case that I’d research an area, coming up with a slew of new information only later to delete it from the story entirely.

Somewhere along the way, I relished all the niggling and fussy bits. It swallowed up my time, but it has proven a feast to remember. How could any historical fiction be churned out like a weightless product? After reading Elizabeth Crook’s “Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction“, I understood why my writing goes through the nitty-gritty and dissecting process that it does. I understood that rich historical fiction takes time to marinate—all the gaps need to be filled with the flavour and spices of that time period, and the characters need to bring that flavour to life. Having an idea then plotting a storyline out is one massive undertaking, something we readers take for granted. On the other hand, in my experience as a writer, the heart comes in the details—those well-researched, time-consuming, delicious details that instantly transport a reader to another time.

The Clues to a Great Story – TEDtalks

The power of a well-told story is boundless, snagging me time and time again, whether through film or words on a page. I adore being taken away into an imaginary world that becomes so real, there are moments it holds me and I see nothing else. As a writer, I am constantly questioning what will hold an audience. This morning, I came across a TEDtalks that addresses this very question. What stood out most was what the audience wants from a story—what we want from a story:

Make me care.

Andrew Stanton expresses some fundamentals no matter what kind of storyteller you are:

  • Make a promise that the story will lead somewhere.
  • The audience wants to “work for their meal” –they just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s our job as a storyteller, to hide the fact that we are making the audience work for it.  In other words, we don’t need to fill in all the bits, trust the audience and their own imagination to do that job, but we need to make them “feel” in order to accomplish that.
  • Change is fundamental in a story.
  • 2+2. Don’t give your audience the answer.
  • Have you made the audience want to know what will happen next?
  • Like your main character.
  • Who are you? A strong theme is always running through a well-told story. Maybe everything a character does in a story is an attempt to find his/her place in the world.
  • Can you infuse wonder? Can you hold your audience still for just a moment? 

Please watch Andrew Stanton’s TEDtalks: The Clues to a Great Story

Whether you are a writer or the audience, you won’t regret it.