Saturday, 10 December 2011

Christmas Away From Home

There is no lonelier time of the year than Christmas for someone away from home and alone. It seems that the rest of the world is composed of couples or family groups. Restaurants are filled with party revelers, shoppers in happy clutches hurry from store to store chatting and laughing, their arms filled with bags and boxes. Recorded carols spill out onto the sidewalk adding to the joyous cacophony.  You weave your way through all this.  Isolated.  Unseen.  You think this is what it must be like to be invisible. This is what it is to be alone and far from home at Christmas.

The reasons for your aloneness could be one of many. You may have chosen to take a job in a distant city. Perhaps there has been a recent divorce, or even a death in your family that has left you alone. You survive. That’s all anyone can do. The rest of the year, being alone is bearable.  At times even pleasant.  But at Christmas time survival somehow is much harder. At Christmas, aloneness is almost intolerable. No one to laugh with. No one to trim a tree or share an eggnog with. One feels a bit like the proverbial boy with his face pressed against the window of the candy shop.

What to do? Go back to the lonely apartment and eat a dinner of scrambled eggs? Stop in a restaurant and sit at a table for one, watching other tables of twos, fours and sixes eating and laughing together?

I remember one Christmas like that in my life. In my case it wasn’t because friends didn’t invite me to join them. It was because in the depth of despair over my husband’s death I didn’t want to be around happy people celebrating new beginnings. I didn’t want anything to intrude on my misery.

Looking back, I realize that wasn’t a very healthy or productive way to handle things. 

Last Christmas, when I had long ago shaken off the shackles of grief and rejoined the human race, I started thinking about how a young woman might cope with being alone on Christmas Eve in a city far from friends and family. What would she do instead of isolating herself from the human race as I had?  I started writing. The result was the short story, Abigail’s Christmas. Abigail was much smarter than I was. She knew that it was important in life to keep going. And to accept the unexpected as a gift.



 Abigail's Christmas was awarded Four Hearts by Sizzling Book Reviews!
"Abigail’s Christmas is a sweet and special story that honors both love and the holidays." 
Read the full review...... 

Buy Blair's books at The Memory of Roses Web Page, and Abigail's Christmas Web Page.


Watch for Blair’s newest book, Delighting in Your Company and Sonata, to be released by Rebel Ink Press in 2012.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Sirmione, Lake Garda, Italy

The sun is an orange ball suspended low in the sky, its color reflected across the ripples of the water as I sit on my balcony overhanging Italy’s Lake Garda. It is warm now, with just the hint of a breeze stirring the trees, but there is cooler weather on the way. Church bells are ringing, first close, then more distant, then from across the lake. Five o’clock mass.  On the flagstone terrace below me there are palm trees and lemon trees, bright geraniums in pots and masses of bougainvillea climbing old stone walls.

We arrived here around two this afternoon. After flying from Canada to Frankfurt, we had a few hours of sleep and a quick breakfast of rolls and coffee before continuing on by plane and train to Sirmione, this fourteenth century walled town on a finger of land jutting out into a lake that extends north all the way to the Italian Alps.

At our favorite small inn, the Marconi, Mama Visani tells us lunch is finished but she’ll make us something to tide us over until dinner. We sit on the terrace in the sun and enjoy a luscious thin crust pizza accompanied by light fruity white wine, while Carlo takes our bags up to our room.

Then, before even unpacking, we pull on our bathing suits and go down for a swim in the lake, surrounded by ducks and sea gulls.  The water is surprisingly warm for October. As we tread water a huge white swan glides majestically by us, not three feet away, totally unconcerned by our presence.

We sit on the dock in the warm sun long enough for our bathing suits to dry before we give into the sleepiness that is a sure sign of jet lag.

We awake at sunset. From our balcony we watch the ferry that plies the lake from one end to the other, chugging past on its way to the town dock. A mist is creeping across the lake. The other side is invisible now. Silver lake meets silver sky. One lone swimmer is in the water, catching what is probably the last swimming day of the year. The now dull sun, a pale reflection streaked with purple, is setting into a cloud bank behind the hills.  The promise of cooler, wetter weather tomorrow.

The birds have retreated to their night time places.

The French call this time of day l’heure bleu, the blue hour. Here it seems an appropriate term.

There are few places in the world where one can feel utterly at peace. For me this is one of them. I haven’t yet set a book here, but one is brewing in my mind.

Blair McDowell
Sirmione, Lake Garda, Italy
Written on 5 October 2011

Abigail's Christmas was awarded Four Hearts by Sizzling Book Reviews!
"Abigail’s Christmas is a sweet and special story that honors both love and the holidays." 

Watch for Blair’s newest book, Delighting in Your Company, to be released by Rebel Ink Press in March 2012.

Show Don't Tell

Who among us has not seen those dreaded words in the margin of a manuscript?   It sounds so easy.  “Show, don’t tell. ”
Those of us who are, shall we say, of more mature years, are programmed to tell.  Our parents and grandparents told us stories.  Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and Dostoyevsky all told their stories.  And they were very good stories indeed.

Blair McDowellBut the times have changed.  The shift in reader expectations from passive to active involvement in stories began, I believe, with motion pictures in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Movies pulled people into their stories in a way print never had.  For the first time stories were made visual.  Of course, plays existed before.  But only a minute proportion of the population ever went to the theater.  With the advent of movies, suddenly drama was available to everyone.

Blair McDowellThen came television.  Living other people’s stories was no longer a once-a-week movie experience, it became a nightly event.  Drama came into people’s living rooms and captured an audience far beyond that of most books. Plots moved fast.  They had to. There was only a half hour or hour time slot in which to drawthe audience into the story. The story was visual.  The actions observable.  Emotions were shown, not described.  No imagination was necessary on the part of the viewer.  It was all there to see and to hear and to identify with.

Video games came next.  Action at the speed of light with the players in charge of the story.

A result of all this recent history is that we as writers must adapt to a very different set of reader expectations than our predecessors.  Today’s readers expect to see the story.  And a natural corollary of this is that they want their stories to move faster, to be shorter. Where the 90,000 to 110,000 word novel used to be the norm, now shorter works are more in demand.

Stories must pull readers quickly into the experiences of the characters.  From the first page they must feel what our characters feel, see what they see.  Hear, smell, taste, touch, vicariously what our characters see, hear, smell, taste, touch.  The use of all five senses is vital to helping readers live our stories.

I rely heavily on the five senses in my stories.  In The Memory of Roses, the scent of that flower is a connecting link between the two love stories and forms a continuous thread from the beginning to the end of the novel.  In Delighting In Your Company, the ghost hero sings and whistles the tune, Greensleeves from the first pages to the last.  Abigail’s Christmas is replete with the sights, sounds and scents of Christmas.  Using the five senses is one of the easier ways of showing.

Delighting in Your Company by Blair McDowell
Abigail's Christmas by Blair McDowell
We cannot simply say that a character is sad, happy, nervous, tense, anxious.  We must show what the character is doing that physically expresses the emotion he/she is feeling. This is not always easy.  But this is what “Show, don’t tell” means.

Here are two ways to tell whether we’ve slipped into telling where we should be showing.
The first and most obvious is the use of the words “feel” “feeling” and “felt”.  If any of these words is present in a sentence, we’re probably not showing, we’re telling.  A computer search of the manuscript for these words will let us know immediately where we need to revise.
Amy felt deeply saddened as she looked around her father’s empty study.

Clearly, this is telling.  What actions could we have Amy do that would show the reader she is sad?  If she were an actress with no lines to speak in this scene, what could she do to let us know how she feels?
She could sigh.  She could brush her hand across his desk and shake her head.  If she is deeply distressed she could cry.  She put her head in her hands.  Her body might slump. We need to tap into the physical actions, the behaviors that indicate sorrow.

Another area where it is easy to fall into “telling” rather than “showing” is the point in the story at which we describe what our hero or heroine looks like.

Telling: Amy had short auburn hair that never looked quite combed.
Showing: Amy ran a brush through her short auburn hair and shrugged.  She knew it never looked combed but she really didn’t care.  

 Telling: Andy had well-muscled shoulders and a broad chest.
Showing: Amy leaned against Andy, taking comfort from his strong arms and the solidity of his chest.  
Telling: Amy set about cooking breakfast for the kids.
Showing:  The bacon began to sizzle.  Amy turned to the stove, cracked four farm-fresh eggs into the hot bacon fat and watched as the edges began to brown.  Three pajama clad boys tumbled into the kitchen.  Amy smiled.  Nothing like the smell of bacon and eggs to rouse the troops .

Hearing, seeing and smelling were all a part of the above example.  When we draw on the five senses in a scene we always come closer to showing.

Any time we name an emotion we are telling rather than showing.  Almost any time we use a word with an “ly” ending (gladly, sadly, grudgingly, happily, etc.  etc) we are telling, not showing.  I regularly do a computer search for ly.  Sometimes I leave the word.  But usually I try to find an observable action that will express the behavior indicated by the “ly”.

Show, don’t tell means that we must live inside our character’s minds and have them behave in ways that demonstrate their feelings and thoughts, their reactions to the situations in which we place them.  Above all we must make it possible for our readers to become involved in what’s happening in our stories, to be a part of our hero’s journey.

Buy Blair McDowell’s books today at The Memory of Roses Page and Abigail’s Christmas Page.

Abigail's Christmas was awarded Four Hearts by Sizzling Book Reviews!
"Abigail’s Christmas is a sweet and special story that honors both love and the holidays." 
Read the full review......


Watch for Blair’s newest book, Delighting in Your Company, to be released by Rebel Ink Press in March 2012.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

And So to Bed...


Last night I fell out of bed. Being of mature years and  -- shall we say --generous proportions, nothing much was hurt except my pride, but the experience got me to thinking about Italian beds. They are 30 inches wide. An American single bed is 39 inches. An Italian single bed is 30. You can't turn over in an Italian single bed without falling out of it.
To make a double or what they call "matrimonial" bed, the Italians push two thirty inch beds together and stretch double sheets across them. It must work for them because I see lots of Italian babies around.  But my ever inquisitive author's mind can't help but wonder how they manage. If they use the two beds pushed together, someone is going to be uncomfortably over the crack in the bed. If they opt to use only one bed -- one 30 inch bed -- there are only three positions I can think of that would not involve one or the other of them falling out of bed. And those three are all rather dull positions. I can't imagine the passionate, immaginative Italians being satisfied with them.
Of course we all know a bed is not absolutely essential to love making. There are planes, trains and automobiles. There are coat closets and shower stalls, sofas, desk tops and even elevators if you know how to stop them between floors. And there are beaches. In The Memory of Roses I had Brit and Andreas make love for the first time on a beach on Corfu in the moonlight. Romantic? Yes and no. To be highly romantic it had to be spontaneous--but comfortable, I hope Andreas brought along a blanket. You do NOT want sand in some of those places.
But back to Italian beds. I can't say for sure how Italians manage, but in the interest of scientific and literary research I feel I should do some investigating. I'll let you know what I find out.
Written in Sirmione, LakeGarda, Italy
10 October 2011

The "O" Word and Character Portrayal

Two recent experiences have made me consider yet again the subject of character development and portrayal. I've been reading a series of books by the late Michael Dibdin in which the central character is a detective named Aureleo Zen. In the seven Zen books I have read thus far, Zen is pictured in one as the only honest detective in Rome, in the next as bumbling and rather dull, in a third as intelligent and insightful, always searching out the truth, and in another as on the take, willing to accept money from a murderer in return for looking the other way. Will the real Zen please stand up!

Dibdin clearly never decided who his character was. The central character in each book is named as Aureleo Zen, but there the similarity begins and ends from book to book. I like and admire some of Dibdin's Zens, and detest others.

Why do I keep reading these uneven novels? Because Dibdin is a past master at setting a scene. His descriptive passages are unparalleled. His prose is simply gorgeous. There is much to learn by reading Dibdin. But at creating and maintaining character, he is hopeless.

My second experience with poorly realized characters was an opera. Now don't stop reading just because I used the "O" word. The stories of operas are the epitome of romance and romantic illusion. Their plots could have come from a book by Nora Roberts.

The opera in question is The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. The libretto, the dialogue, was written by Lorenza Da Ponte back in the 1700's. Now Da Ponte was a man who knew how to draw characters. There are two interwoven stories in Figaro. The heroine, a Countess, is saddened by her husband's repeated infidelities. She suffers with great dignity and at the end of the opera, when the Count comes to her, repentant and contrite, she forgives him. The subplot involves the upcoming wedding of the Count's servant, Figaro, to Suzanna, the Countess' maid. There is brilliant interplay between the lightness of Figaro and Suzanna's love and the darkness and disillusionment of the marriage between the Count and Countess. Sound like a plot from a Women's Fiction novel? Da Ponte drew his characters with merciless precision and Mozart's music underlines these portrayals precisely and beautifully.

But the Director of the production I had the misfortune to see recently in Venice's La Fenice Opera House did not even comprehend, let alone reflect, the Da Ponte characterizations. The "updated" version I saw had all the sex and violence of a bad TV show, everyone attacking everyone else with guns and knives and poison when they weren't engaged in extraneous sex with varied partners. There was no differentiation at all among the characters. They were all dark and amoral. They were all violent and venal.

Only the valiant effort of a cast of first rate singers and Mozart's glorious music made the evening endurable. The audience at La Fenice had the good sense to "Boo" the director loudly when he came onstage at the end of the performance.

How can anyone so misread characters? There is no interest in any work where all the characters are cut from the same cloth, whether that cloth is light and bright or dark and dismal. Characters in a book, or in an opera, must be, as they are in life, diverse.

As writers, I believe we must know our characters well before we start weaving them into stories. Who are they? Where did they come from? What is their background, education, social position, religious persuasion? What are their emotional hang-ups and how do they cope with them?

In The Memory of Roses, my heroine, Brit McQuaid, is flawed. She distrusts men, and with good reason. Much of the book is about her recognizing and coming to terms with this. The Memory of Roses is on a certain level the story of a young woman's journey toward self-understanding.

Characters, to be real, must have flaws. On the other hand even the most villainous of characters must have some redeeming qualities if they are to appear to be more than comic book caricatures. If our characters aren't real to us as writers, they won't take on life for our readers.

To return to Michael Dibdin, his Aurelio Zen lacks the consistency of behavior we expect from well drawn characters. And as for last night's performance of The Marriage of Figaro, when the Countess threw herself out of a window in the last scene — something never envisioned by either Da Ponte or Mozart — I could only wish it had been the director making that long fall rather than the soprano.

It is to be expected that characters undergo change in the course of their stories. They should grow as they resolve their external problems and their inner conflicts. But at some central core they must remain true to themselves. This, I believe, is at the heart of good writing.

Written in Venice
15 October 2011

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Memory of Roses - Book Trailer

Watch this video to learn more about Blair McDowell’s latest novel, The Memory of Roses, now available for sale on Amazon.com, AllRomance.com and EbookStrand.com.



Excerpt from The Memory of Roses:

From the distance there was an ominous rumbling. Andreas went to the door. Great thunder clouds were blotting out the horizon, moving rapidly toward them. The sky was almost black. A streak of lightening illu

minated the sky, followed closely by a loud clap of thunder. Then the rain came in great sheets.
 He turned back to Brit to discover that she had turned quite white.

 “I’ve never liked thunder storms,” she confessed. “When I was little, my father told me that Zeus was angry, and was throwing thunderbolts. He always assured me they were not being thrown at me, but, to this day,” she gave a small mirthless laugh, “to this day, I always want to run and hide when I hear thunder close by.”

Andreas pulled her close. “I’ve done nothing that could anger Zeus. Just stay here safe in my arms until the storm passes.” He kissed the top of her head. “Brit, I love you so. Why do you keep resisting me?”

 Brit nestled her head against Andreas’ chest. “After what happened last night between us, how can you possibly say I resist you. You are without a doubt the most irresistible man I’ve ever known.”

He shook his head in frustration. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it. I’m not looking for a short affair, however sexually satisfying. I want marriage. I want a home, a wife, children.”

Brit pushed him away with a short, sarcastic laugh. “That’s the woman’s line, Andreas. That’s what the woman always says, isn’t it? I want a home, a husband, children. But I’m not saying that to you. You have never heard me say those words to you.”

Her voice took on a harsh, angry edge. “You’re too young to even know what you want. You think you’re in love with me? What will you think when I’m forty and you’re only thirty-four? When I’m sixty and you’re still a man in his prime?”

Andreas looked at her, shock written on his face.

With a sob, Brit turned and ran outside into the storm. Swearing, Andreas ran after her. By the time he reached her they were both soaking wet. He scooped her up effortlessly into his arms and walked swiftly with her the rest of the way back to the villa. There he stripped off her wet clothes, dried her body and her hair roughly with towels as her teeth chattered, and dumped her unceremoniously onto their bed, covering her shivering body with a thick down duvet. Then he stripped off his own wet clothing and joined her. Wordlessly he made love to her, bringing her body quickly to the heat only passion can create.

When they lay, exhausted and still, he murmured, “I will want you when I am eighty-five and you are ninety-one. I will go to my grave wanting you.”

Bacon and Eggs and Venice

I have just served my last portion of bacon and eggs for the season; my partner has just baked her last scones. We run a B&B on the West Coast of Canada six months of the year, March through September. This year we’ve served more than 700 breakfasts. That’s a lot of eggs, as well as a lot of bed making and loads of laundry. But it was all worth it. Now we reap the benefits. We get to throw clothes into our carry-on suitcases and head for the airport.

This year we’re again starting in Venice, the scene of the denouement of The Memory of Roses. I will get to walk and traverse the canals in vaporetti and gondolas, the path my heroine, Brit, took after her shocking discoveries about her father’s past as she rushes back to the arms of her lover, Andreas.
It is no accident that I chose Venice for this important scene in my book. It is a city so breathtakingly beautiful, so dramatic in each and every vista that it calls out for mystery and romance. It is a setting just waiting for a story, as countless famous authors in the past have realized.
The Memory of Roses is set on the Greek island of Corfu, but in the following scene, Andreas and Brit have just arrived in Venice.



“I think you’ll like this place,” Andreas explained. “I always stay here when I come to Venice.”
They climbed a long flight of stairs to the pensione and were shown to a small, comfortably furnished room on the front.
Brit went to the tall windows, looked out and drew in her breath sharply.
Andreas came up behind her and encircled her with his arms. “I think this is the most beautiful view in Venice,” he said.
She leaned against him. Together they gazed across the Grand Canal, to the magnificent colonnaded marble church and monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore on its own small island in the Lagoon. Below them the waters teamed with vaporetti, private motor launches and boats filled with produce heading for the market, water taxis, and, slipping silently among them, beautiful black gondolas decorated in gold and red, some hundreds of years old, navigated by striped shirted gondoliers wearing the same traditional straw hats they had worn for generations.
Andreas said, “This is the reason I prefer this little guest house to any of the larger hotels in Venice. I know of none of them with such a view of Venice.  Just wait until you see it at sunset.”
“Can we go for a walk?” Brit asked. “I want to see the Piazza San Marco. I’ve wanted to see it all my life, but somehow, I never wanted to come here alone. If any city was meant for lovers, I think Venice is.”

When her father dies, Brit McQuaid inherits a villa on the beautiful island of Corfu, a villa she knew nothing about.  He also left a cryptic note asking that she deliver a package to a woman on Corfu with whom he was once in love, while married to Brit’s mother.

This launches a journey for Brit, taking her from San Francisco to Greece and Italy.  Along the way she meets a sizzling Greek archaeologist who not only helps her unravel a powerful secret from the past, but shows her the path to her own future.  After this adventure, Brit’s life will be changed forever.



Buy the Memory of Roses at Amazon.com, AllRomance.com and EbookStrand.com

Website:  http://www.blairmcdowell.com

Thursday, 25 August 2011

On Voice - Creating Unique Voices for Your Fictional Characters

When I wrote the first draft of my first novel a few years ago, I submitted it immediately to Kensington Books. Talk about hutzpah! John Scognamiglio, the Editor-in Chief, was far kinder than I had any right to expect in his letter of rejection. He said I needed to find my voice. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I’ve learned a lot since then. I stopped trying to decipher what my voice should be and started looking for voice in the authors whose works I love to read. What makes Donna Leon’s writing so distinctive? Why do I read every Nora Roberts that comes out no matter how inane the story? Why is The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett so compelling?

Voice, voice, and voice.

The best story one can imagine is nowhere without that magic ingredient of the storyteller’s voice.

Voice is the most intangible and elusive ingredient of memorable writing. I recognize it easily in my favourite authors, but if it’s missing in an author new to me, I don’t immediately know what’s wrong. I just know that there is a lack of conviction in the writing.

I think my own writing has improved considerably since that first experience in rejection. In the ensuing years I believe I found my voice. Comments from contest judges and even in rejection letters, of which I’ve had my share, have referred positively to my voice.

So what is this thing called voice, and how do we achieve it?

My favourite book on the art and craft of writing is Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing (1995). It has saved my life, or at least my story, more than once. Stein tells us to “examine each word for its necessity” and to write with “precision and clarity.

I sometimes think I should have those words fashioned into a flashing sign and mounted over my desk, where I cannot avoid them. It’s so much easier just to blather on.

The bottom line about voice, I believe, is that our written voices as authors must be as easily identifiable to our readers as our speaking voices are to our friends and family.

And as if that weren’t a tall enough order, the voices of our characters should also be easily distinguishable, one from another. It should be possible to tell who is speaking by the way they speak, by the words they use and by the way they express themselves.

Is there any doubt in your mind as you read the following excerpt from The Memory of Roses whether it is the hero or the heroine speaking? The scene is a beach on the Greek island of Corfu.

“Stop! We mustn’t do this,”
Andreas looked at her, dazed.
“You’re too young for me,” Brit blurted out before she could stop herself.  “Just how old are you?
“Twenty-six. And you are thirty-two. Daphne told me. A difference of six years. Would it matter to you if I were six years older than you?”
“Of course not.”
“Well then?”
“You’re just twisting things around. You know it’s not the same.”
“I believe that it is exactly the same, and I assure you that I’m not in the least too young for what I have in mind.”
Andreas brought his mouth down again to hers and Brit’s last conscious thought was, what the hell! Why not? Why shouldn’t I have this brief interlude?

In this small sample, there are five consecutive lines of dialog with no dialog tags. “He said, she said” are unnecessary and would have the negative effect of interrupting the flow of the scene. The voices are clearly identifiable as male and female, hero and heroine.

I ascribe particular voices and patterns of speech to my characters when I construct character sketches and this happens well before I write the first words of my stories. My characters’ voices always sound in my mind as I write their dialogue.

I frequently hear the voices of actors and actresses in my characters. One of my favorites is the voice of a well-known film star of mature years, who shall remain nameless, but who was often identified in his films by the number  '007' rather than a name. But I’m just as likely to use the speech mannerisms of my next door neighbour or the local French Canadian farmer from whom I buy eggs. I shamelessly listen to strangers speaking and jot down notes in my ever handy pocket notepad. When I travel, I steal speech patterns and mannerisms from shopkeepers, hotel clerks, waiters, and just about anyone else I can engage in conversation.

As for my own voice, it is always in my head as I write. I don’t think dialog or even setting. I hear and speak dialog, I see setting.

Do I have the problem of voice resolved? Of course not. But at least I know now what the term means. I think it’s something all writers strive continuously for – developing that unique and individual voice that we hope will make our readers keep coming back to us as authors.


The Memory of Roses by Blair McDowell, Rebel Ink Press, will be available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com on October 3rd, 2011.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

I Don't Follow Umbrellas

I travel abroad every year. My favourite destinations are Greece and Italy, the settings I used for my novel, The Memory of Roses, to be released on October 3rd by Rebel Ink Press.

Whenever I’m in some popular tourist destination, such as Venice or Florence or Athens, I see large groups of people mindlessly following tour guides who have umbrellas raised high in the air to keep the group together. I suppose it must be easier in a way to let someone else figure out what’s worth seeing and what’s not. Whether Michelangelo’s David is worth ten minutes or only five because it is necessary to get the paying customers into some shop where the guide gets a cut-back.

My point is, people who follow umbrellas miss a lot. Whether it’s in traveling or in life. I’ve had many years of experience as a writer. I’m a published author of six professional books as well as numerous articles and speeches. However none of this prepared me in any way for writing fiction. I’d always wanted to write stories, but never had the time. Then suddenly I had all the time in the world.

So I wrote my first novel and submitted it to a publisher.  People started throwing terms at me I’d never heard before.  I had no idea what they meant.  POV?  What’s that? Voice? Doesn’t everyone have a voice? Formatting? Show don’t tell?

Just to show how dumb I was I thought people told stories. Not too surprisingly my first book ended up in the recycle bin.

I survived the criticism, but the book didn’t. I decided to start all over again with something completely different.  This time I asked people to read and critique as I worked. One was a Hollywood film editor whose notions about scene were extraordinarily helpful.  I took courses—not the on-line kind. The kind where you have to sit and listen to fellow authors tear your work apart.  I took three, all offered by published novelists. The shortest but most useful of these was the one given by Dean Wesley Smith in Oregon. If you aren’t familiar with his work, do yourself a favour and look up his website www.deanwesleysmith.com . It’s a gold mine.

I’ve never worked as hard in my life as I did in that workshop with Dean Wesley Smith. And I never learned as much in so short a time. It was brutal, but wonderful.  And at the end of it I knew what I had to do to make my book work. I came back home and rewrote the whole thing. That was the third draft.  And it worked. Part of my problem had been that I was trying to follow umbrellas. I had read books and taken courses on how to write romance and I was trying to squeeze my story into their format. But it wasn’t a formula romance. It was women’s fiction – a book with four central characters, not two. A story encompassing two generations and two love stories, one of which didn’t end happily ever after. No wonder publishers of genre romance didn’t want it.

Then I found Rebel Ink. It’s funny. That week two publishers accepted my manuscript but the first one wanted me to change it into a traditional romance.   I’ve never been sorry I went with Rebel Ink, a publisher that doesn’t follow umbrellas.

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Influence of Place on Plot

If you enjoyed Under the Tuscan Sun, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, you will probably agree with me that the locale was vital to both of these stories. The first could only have been successfully placed in Italy, and the second was totally dependent on both the historic period, the Second World War, and the place, the Greek Island of Cephalonia. The stories grew out of their settings.

My novel, The Memory of Roses, is a tale that I believe could only have happened on Corfu. In it, I have tried to capture the innate beauty of that particular Greek Island, its hills and mountains, its forests of olive trees punctuated with tall cypress, its sandy beaches and small fishing villages, and its wild profusion of flowers, and I have also tried to reflect the indomitable spirit of the Corfiots who are fortunate enough to call this small piece of paradise home. I cannot imagine this story set in a different time or place.

However, for an American woman in her thirties, coming head to head with the immovability of an irresistible Greek male six years younger than she, is an unsettling experience. Brit thinks she is looking for a short fling. Andreas wants more. Much more.

In the following scene, Brit and Andreas are in the ruins of an old Corfiot cottage on her property.
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From the distance there was an ominous rumbling. Andreas went to the door. Great thunder clouds were blotting out the horizon, moving rapidly toward them. The sky was almost black. A streak of lightening illuminated the sky, followed closely by a loud clap of thunder. Then the rain came in great sheets.

He turned back to Brit to discover that she had turned quite white.
“I’ve never liked thunder storms,” she confessed. “When I was little, my father told me that Zeus was angry, and was throwing thunderbolts. He always assured me they were not being thrown at me, but, to this day,” she gave a small mirthless laugh, “to this day, I always want to run and hide when I hear thunder close by.”

Andreas pulled her close. “I’ve done nothing that could anger Zeus. Just stay here safe in my arms until the storm passes.” He kissed the top of her head. “Brit, I love you so. Why do you keep resisting me?”

Brit nestled her head against Andreas’ chest. “After what happened last night between us, how can you possibly say I resist you. You are without a doubt the most irresistible man I’ve ever known.”

He shook his head in frustration. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it. I’m not looking for a short affair, however sexually satisfying. I want marriage. I want a home, a wife, children.”

Brit pushed him away with a short, sarcastic laugh. “That’s the woman’s line, Andreas. That’s what the woman always says, isn’t it? I want a home, a husband, children. But I’m not saying that to you. You have never heard me say those words to you.”

Her voice took on a harsh, angry edge. “You’re too young to even know what you want. You think you’re in love with me? What will you think when I’m forty and you’re only thirty-four? When I’m sixty and you’re still a man in his prime?”

Andreas looked at her, shock written on his face.

With a sob, Brit turned and ran outside into the storm. Swearing, Andreas ran after her. By the time he reached her they were both soaking wet. He scooped her up effortlessly into his arms and walked swiftly with her the rest of the way back to the villa. There he stripped off her wet clothes, dried her body and her hair roughly with towels as her teeth chattered, and dumped her unceremoniously onto their bed, covering her shivering body with a thick down duvet. Then he stripped off his own wet clothing and joined her. Wordlessly he made love to her, bringing her body quickly to the heat only passion can create.

When they lay, exhausted and still, he murmured, “I will want you when I am eighty-five and you are ninety-one. I will go to my grave wanting you.”……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Watch for the release of Blair McDowell’s newest novel, The Memory of Roses in October.

My Love Affair with Venice

I have been carrying on a secret love affair with Italy for years. When I wrote The Memory of Roses (to be released in October by Rebel Ink press), I set it on one of my favourite Greek islands, Corfu. But I could not resist putting my characters at least briefly in Italy. The denouement of The Memory of Roses takes place in Venice, to my mind the most beautiful city in the world. A city made for lovers.

The last time I was in Venice it was late October. October can be a very chancy month in northern Italy. It can be mild and sunny, or it can be dismal, windy and rainy. The Bora, a cold wind from the north, comes all the way down from Russia. We watched from our balcony one day as it swept in suddenly, bringing hail in its path. One minute people were strolling along the wide walkway beside the Grand Canal, the next, everyone was scurrying for shelter from the icy bombardment.

The wind from the south, the Scirocco, is a warm wind. It brings even more problems. This is the wind that brings the aqua alta, the flood waters, to Venice.  There are only three openings to the sea in Venice. The southern wind pushes the waters of the high tide inside the lagoon, into all of Venice’s waterways, and doesn’t allow it to flow out. When the next high tide comes, it is piled on top of the already high water levels.

We were there once for an aqua alta. The night before, we wandered in the Piazza San Marco and saw what looked like platforms piled all around the arcade. We wondered if a performance of some kind was scheduled for the next day. We were correct. The performer was Mother Nature at her worst.
The next day, in the Piazza San Marco, we were walking on those platforms, above two feet of water, while water shot into the air from all the drains as if from fountains.  Vaporetti, the water buses everyone uses to get around, were not running on most routes, because they could not get under the many bridges that connect the islands that make up this city. The water levels were too high.

Aqua Alta routes were posted at every vaporetto stop.  These were pedestrian routes, and in Venice, everyone is a pedestrian. The only modes of transportation are boats and feet.

Our innkeeper told us that two massive installations are now being constructed that will help prevent these frequent and damaging floods. Gates that will close off two of Venice`s three waterways to the sea, preventing high tide from piling upon high tide. We hope they will work. Venice is a work of art. It`s loss would be immeasurable.

Four million people a year visit Venice. This is a city with only sixty-five hundred inhabitants. According a hotelier we spoke with, most tourists spend only one night in Venice. This man, who used to be a concierge at the Danielli, one of the most prestigious hotels in Venice, told us that ``tour groups would check in at six pm, take a gondola ride, have dinner, and check out the next day, having seen Venice.`` He said that Venice was sinking as much under the weight of tourists as under the aqua alta.
Be that as it may, if Venice isn`t on your Bucket List, it should be. It is the most magical of cities. If you can only give it a day, so be it, but if you can spend a week or more there, do so. If you do, I guarantee you will return. It gets into your blood.

Which comes first, setting, characters or plot?

Without question, for me it is setting. When I find myself in an intriguing or particularly beautiful or historic place, somehow characters suggest themselves. And once they have, the story unfolds, often very completely, in my mind. In a sense, the setting and the characters tell me the story. 

In The Memory of Roses, (scheduled for late fall release by Rebel Ink Press) it was the view from my balcony at a little inn perched high on a hill on the Greek island of Corfu. I looked out over masses of olive trees with their clusters of ripe fruit, a sea of dark green, and thought “What if…”