What do you see?

Melbourne. This is where the love affair began almost thirty years ago. Not my love affair with my husband which was already burning bright when I arrived. I’m talking about my love affair with Australia.

My early weeks were spent looking for work, hopping off and on the noisy trams. I puzzled over train routes and adapted to the volatile climate. The squat brick houses with their terracotta roofs and fenced front yards soon became part of my psyche. So did the deliciously ornate buildings constructed during the gold rush years that started in 1851. By the 1880’s Melbourne was the richest city in the world which is reflected in the fabulous architecture from that period.

Knowing how way leads on to way, (thank you, Robert Frost) I realize I may not see these sites again. So this week, when my husband and I walked the neighbourhood where we bought our first home together, I absorbed as many details as I could. Sniffing the faint scent of eucalyptus on the air, I listened to the call of the wattlebirds and touched the rough case of the gum nuts from the tree on the nature strip outside our old fence. I hope I caught enough of the texture of this city to last a lifetime.

Soon we will set off into the desert to explore new places and retrace old steps. My novel, Outback Promise which will be released in November, is set on that sprawling landscape. I will walk in Rosalyn Balfour’s shoes again and refresh my memories of her troubled journey.

My love affair with Australia may have started in Melbourne but it soon spread to every corner of the continent. Even in the harshest part of the Outback there is great beauty and renewal, which is one of the themes of my novel.

Is there one place you’ve said good-bye to that you’d like to see again? Where is it and what would you hope to take away as your final impression?


Photo of Flinders Street Station, Melbourne by Alan Bolitho, LM (leading man)>

Am I repeating myself?

When we lived in Australia, megabats used to fly over our house just after sunset. The grey-headed flying foxes had wingspans of up to a metre. In winter they sometimes flew 150 kilometres in a single night to forage for food. We often sat on our deck and watched the aerial parade.

Word count: 450                  Reading time 1-2 mins.

So when I saw dictionary.com’s Word Of The Day on Tuesday, battology, it was love at first syllable. Its meaning (the wearisome repetition of words in speaking or writing) was even more endearing and I’ve claimed it as a personal pet.

My rough drafts are littered with battologies. As I revise, I have to keep my eyes peeled for oft-repeated verbs, adjectives, and sometimes even entire phrases. I’m not saying these sins don’t exist in my final drafts, just that I try to minimize them.

I’ve certainly seen the same problem in other people’s work. I read a novel recently where several of the main characters used the idiom anyways. If only one used that expression, it might have been what Sol Stein calls a character marker. (Stein on Writing, Chapter Five, Markers: the Key to Swift Characterization). That is, it might have revealed that character’s social background and maybe even education level. However, when three characters from different parts of the country and different social backgrounds used it, it became a battology.

Once I read a mystery novel by a well-known English writer who used the word portent and portentous three times in the first fifty pages or so. That’s not an everyday kind of word, at least not in the world of the people being portrayed. It was the author’s vocabulary decorating the story, repetitively.

In the five months I have read two bestselling novels by the same author almost back-to-back. Both of her protagonists used Tom of Maine’s toothpaste. This detail leapt out at me in the first book because I had been looking at that very product in a health store the week before. When the second protagonist used the same brand, it slipped from being a character marker to being author repetition.

These three examples all had the same effect: they made me aware that I was reading someone’s writing. They stopped the story, at least for a minute or so. In the first case, I started speed-reading to get to the end of the book. I no longer believed.

The nightly fly-by of megabats past our Sydney home was comforting in its predictability but that’s not good fiction. Predictability kills a good story. If writers repeat themselves, they can ruin the magic they are spinning.

How do you avoid repetition? Have you ever encountered a battology that threw you out of a story?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Livingston’s Fruit Bat by Ben Charles

Feeling Resource-Full

 

Word count: 268                 Reading time: 1-2 mins.

One spring when I was a teenager, a dream came true with the gift of riding lessons. What I learned about horses in ten short hours stayed with me through my own horse ownership and beyond.

Still, when I started to write fiction, I thought I could do it without the help of good instruction. For one thing, I thought the creative process was meant to be inherently obvious. The other dilemma was the worry that someone would call my bluff; they would say I had no business trying to write.

So I wrote in isolation until I stumbled on a course with Kathy Page on Salt Spring Island. The island setting was magical. Kathy was warm and helpful.  At the end of that workshop, she offered a further online course that was enormously productive. After that I joined a cyber-class with Pearl Luke. Pearl’s weekly lessons were rich in writing technique and involved a group of five critiquing each other’s work. I met my writing partner in that critique group and that was an unexpected bonus.

Currently I’m taking Sarah Selecky’s course, Story is a State of Mind and it’s the best online classroom I’ve found so far. It is also the most reasonably priced and allows a person to work at his or her own pace. Margaret Atwood called this course “smart, encouraging, practical.” How much more of an endorsement does anyone need?

If you’re not in a writing class now, how do you hone your craft? Did you just jump on that horse and ride? Or are you home-schooling yourself with reference books and courses?

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Photo by: Melinda Fawver

Do you think it's sexy?

Word count: 326                               Reading time: 1-2 mins

In her blog Discover Your Inner Geisha Leslie Downer advises that the kimono should be worn low at the back, to reveal the nape of the neck. Because almost every other part of a woman’s body was concealed, the nape of the neck was held in high regard in the Japanese culture. In this portrait, Powdering the Neck, by Utamaro the poem in the upper left corner compares the graceful line of the courtesan’s neck, her hairpin and her white powdered face to snowy, moonlit landscape[1].  It’s an erotic work from a pre-eminent artist of the Ukiyo-e movement.

Years ago I scuba dived with a guy who always walked behind me as I clambered up the beach with my tonnage of gear. We dived together in spring and summer and I invariably wore clunky European sandals because they were like 4WD at the end of my legs. On our last dive together my buddy confided he had a foot fetish and I had a particularly good pair. Shortly after that we went our separate ways but the foot fetish comment stayed with me for a long time. For one thing it made me realize how varied sexual preferences can be.

Then along came E L James and her admitted mid-life crisis which she turned into the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. It’s billed as erotic romance. I’ve also heard it called bad writing with lots of excellent pornography. Maybe this fetish-based literature is just the 21st century equivalent of the nape of the neck, one of the last few taboos that remained, and has now been revealed to mainstream readers.

If your work involves characters over the age of thirteen, you probably need to know something about their sexuality. How do you know if your character has a nape-of-the- neck tastes or salivates at the sight of certain body piercings? Does he or she have a chest in their bedroom full of ropes and riding crops?

 

Print: Utamaro

 


[1] Wendy Shore, Ukiyo-E, (Shorewood Fine Art Books 1980)

What do you know?

Word count: 240           Reading time: 1 minute 

Write What You Know. A one-second Google search attributes that quote to Mark Twain. WWYK is such an absolute Writing Truth that if you haven’t heard it from a teacher or read it somewhere, you probably can’t call yourself a true writer.

A couple of weeks ago the LM* and I went to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in Washington State. Photos don’t do it justice. Walking the acres of vibrant flowers is a sensual experience. The colours infuse the air with an energy that cannot be captured in a flat medium. I’ve seen it, felt it, smelled it, and touched it, so now I can entertain the reading public with a story about it, right? Maybe – if that story involves vampires, quirky S&M relationships or other forms of high fantasy.

WWYK would be a limiting truth if it meant writers should reduce themselves to simple, physical experiences. I interpret it to mean: write honestly, write from the heart. Physical details can be researched and discovered but an open soul is what makes writing resonate. If you’re writing about life in a parallel universe and you bring strong emotions to the page, it won’t really matter whether you’ve visited Planet Xenos or not; readers will be too captivated to notice.  

Do you limit yourself to the things you’ve seen and done or do you leap into new worlds and go where they lead you?

* Leading Man

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Photo: Alan Bolitho, LM

I Walk the Line

Word count: 227                                                                                                      Reading time: 1 min.

Research is the backbone of writing. Its presence instils a story with authenticity and its absence breaks the magic spell.

When I need to work with even the smallest of details I go in search of Knowledge. It’s easy, isn’t it? Type a question into the search engine and no matter how rudimentary the wording, an answer appears. It’s as though a mind-reader sits waiting to satisfy my curiosity.

Then I’m off – down the rabbit hole as Lynn Crymble puts it. There are so many interesting things to learn! Who knew that Norway won the most medals (15) in the 1936 Olympic Games, or that Canada, France, and Hungary took the least (1 each)?

Is my life richer for knowing this? Or have I just been sidetracked to the land of Too Much Information? On a bad day I emerge from a research expedition to find that my small spark of inspiration lies palpitating on the floor and I am 500 words behind my daily goal. On a good day I find a nugget that lights the way of the narrative.

I always struggle with the balance between being an information aggregator and a content creator. Unrealistic characterizations of time, place or protagonists create lifeless fiction. On the other hand, anyone can google the 1936 Olympics.

What rabbit holes have you been down lately?