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.