Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Focussing on Your Characters

I recently shared with the members of the writers' group I belong to an article I'd read in the United Church Observer (September, 2011), an interview with theologian Marcus Borg, author of several books of popular theology. He's just written his first novel, "Putting Away Childish Things," and the interviewer was asking Borg how he found the new experience of writing fiction.

Borg admitted that for a long time writing the novel was a struggle. He found he couldn't get past the first few chapters because he didn't know what the plot was. I can relate to that.

After putting the novel aside for ten years, he decided to try a different approach: he'd start by focussing on the characters. He wrote a page about each one, who they were, where they were, what they liked, etc. Then he put them in a setting to see what would happen. "It was the breaking of an ice jam," Borg said, "and I finished the book in eight months."

He likens writing non-fiction, his usual field, to carpentry work. You know the sequence of the subject matter, and you know what topics you'll cover in each chapter. Then you just fit it all together.

I agree with what he has to say. By focussing on the characters in your fiction you know how each one will react in whatever situation he finds himself. You don't have to think about plot; the characters will help that to unfold. Then you can go back and make sure that it moves along as it should.

Write on!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Interview with Defining Canada

The books have arrived! Soon they will be on the way to a bookstore near you. I hope you'll look for them.

Last week I was interviewed for Dundurn Press's Defining Canada about the writing of the book. Here is the link to that interview:


I hope you will enjoy reading my responses to the interviewer's questions. Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart will be on the shelves in your favourite bookstore very soon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Yours till Niagara Falls"

Can you remember when autograph books were all the rage? Those smallish books filled with the invitation of blank pages? We were in public school, likely grades 5 to 8, when collecting the autographs of all your friends was popular. The little books proliferated near the end of every school year.

You didn't just sign your name, either. You tried to come up with a little poem or bit of nonsense verse to go along with it:

"Yours till the butter flies."

"If by chance this book should roam, just box its ears and send it home."

 At one time, my mother showed me her high school or teachers' college autograph book. Some of the entries there were quite philosophical:

"The road of life lies before you
Like a path of driven snow.
Be careful how you tread it
'Cos every step will show."

What struck me most about the autographs in my mother's book was the beautiful handwriting.

By the time we got to high school, autograph books seem to have disappeared. Maybe the school year books took their place.

What got me thinking about all of this was how often I wish I could come up with something original to sign, besides my name, at a book signing. There often isn't time to ponder what to write, but when there is, why can't I be clever? Or is "best wishes" enough? 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Making History Interesting

Happy Labour Day! Tomorrow all the students will be going back to school. This always seems a better time for New Year's than January 1st. Time for new beginnings and for making resolutions. A few years back I used to resolve to make writing a priority in my day. Then, lo and behold, it happened!

I now write an average of eight hours a day, largely because I'm under contract for two biographies, with only six months to deliver each one. Laura Secord is proving to take many more hours to write than Mary Pickford did. There's so much history to research. Laura was born during the American Revolution, and her feat of heroism took place during the War of 1812. I used to love history back in my student days.

What am I saying! I'm still a student, learning something new every day.

For instance, did you know that in February 1813, during the War of 1812-14, two hundred American soldiers and some volunteers crossed the frozen St. Lawrence River from Ogdensberg, N.Y. and freed a group of American citizens held in the Brockville jail. Before they fled back across the ice, they seized arms, supplies, and forty-five of Brockville's most prominent citizens.

The good news is that those prominent citizens were soon set free, but it conjures up some interesting pictures in my mind. Were those people snug in their beds when the Americans came calling? Or in formal dress attending a fancy event? They definitely were not planning on a stroll in the dark across the frozen St. Lawrence.

That is the kind of tidbit that makes history come alive for me!