Thursday, August 2, 2012

Suffering from Islomania....

Lawrence Durrell with his wonderful wit and insight wrote:

“…I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people…who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication. These born “islomanes”…are direct descendants of the Atlanteans”  (From  his "Reflections of a Marine Venus")

I wondered if the word isolated comes from the word "island". So I looked it up. It comes from French isolé, from Italian isolato, from Latin insulatus (made into an island), from insula meaning island.

That's what I have, I think. Islomania. I like being alone (isolated at times) and I love islands. When I was very young I read many fiction and non-fiction books about islands. There is a small island off the tip of our peninsula where my parents built their summer log cabin. I respect and love that untidy wild island. Our loon nests on it every year, and so we rarely go there for fear of disturbing the loons and other wading birds. But we see it every day. And watch over it.

I found the old spectacles that started me off as a writer on that island - while cleaning up the area which had been used as a dump by early campers - and from those frail worn spectacles my first novel "Who is Frances Rain" evolved.

This is our island taken from my shore one misty morning last week.

Photo by Margaret Buffie

The island in a few of its many moods below - it always reminds me of a galleon that never moves from its moorings, yet, in turn, watches over us every day and night, while we play and sleep.


Photo by Margaret Buffie


Photo by Margaret Buffie

Photo by Margaret Buffie


Photo by Margaret Buffie

Friday, July 20, 2012

Write as if your characters' lives depended on it.

This thought came to me this morning when I realized, that in my new (getting older by the minute) manuscript, I have not been as committed  to my characters and their needs as I usually am. The storyline is developing, but the characters are still not, as yet, fully living and breathing individuals. For a while it has felt a little bit like pushing puppets into position and making them speak and move. I now have to really get to know them, one by one, and find out who they are, what their dreams and hopes are, and what is at stake for them in this world I've created. Then move forward together. I can't let them down.

Monday, June 25, 2012


The word, solitude, means: to be alone, without people.

Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Yet it  takes on different and subtle meanings at different times in one’s life. Not everyone needs the same amount of solitude but most of us crave it at times.

I appear to need solitude more often than most people I know. For me, it means being alone by choice. It does not mean the same as being forced into some form of solitary confinement, or by shunning, or by emotional withdrawal from others.

True solitude is a choice I make – or one I have to make.

I crave solitude when I write.

I can’t work or be open to creativity unless I am alone. To me, writing is like a dream state, which I can only fall into in complete aloneness. Enter another human and I am jolted awake and the dream is shattered. I can’t identify with people who say they wrote a novel in coffee bars or open libraries, on the bus or in their noisy living room. I think perhaps some have not been able to overcome the fears of being alone while creating. I can’t work any other way.

Writing for me, if I'm honest, can also be an escape from the "noisy" world around me, which is curious because most of the time I’m writing  about characters under stress – and they are all talking to each other and to me! I suppose that’s why I have to work in solitude – to listen to a different  form of heartbeat, to work out ideas, past emotions, and many other sentiments through my writing ...

“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It's almost a form of meditation - an investigation of my own life. It has nothing to do with 'I've got to get out another play.'" Neil Simon

"(The writer) must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” Jessamyn West

"Young Woman Writing" Pierre Bonnard


I crave solitude to read...

Children today are much more active in a controlled and organized way than my generation. I wonder sometimes if this generation of parents realize how important it is for their child to have moments of solitude in their day. Pleasurable solitude. “Alone time” to lay on the rug and think. To draw  or write quietly in a corner. To read a book with no sound in the house but the quiet tick of a clock.
“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence.”  Phillip Pullman

"We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence and private: and therefore starved for meditation..." C.S. Lewis


"The New Novel" Winslow Homer

"Woman Reading in a Garden" Henri Labasque

I  crave solitude when I am sad or grieving. I crave solitude when I am tired or in pain.

Solitude can heal. This quote by the great Wordsworth, below, says everything I want to say.

"When from our better selves we have too long been parted by the hurrying world, and droop. Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired, how gracious, how benign in solitude." William Wordsworth.

"Interior With Sunlight on the Floor" Vilhelm Hammershoi

"Bedroom" Vilhelm Hammershoi

I crave solitude in a crowd....

"All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone." Blaise Pascal.
“Get away from the crowd when you can. Keep yourself to yourself, if only for a few hours daily.” Arthur Brisbane
“There is music amongst the tree in the garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it.”  Minnie Aumonier

"Rose Garden" Peder Severin Kroyer

I crave the freedom of solitude....

At my cabin, canoeing as the mist drifts off the lake and the sun rises, I feel the freedom of true solitude. In the city, under the weight of being starved for time alone, I think about those moments that I've experienced, when I was free, and I yearn for them. But I also find comfort in the memory of them.

"Solitude" Thomas Alexander Harrison

"Angel Wing Mist on Long Pine" Margaret Buffie

"The Canoe" Tom Thomson

"I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude." Henry David Thoreau

"Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.”  Alice Koller

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Gardeners are always optimistic....

Sissinghurst White Garden

Vita Sackville-West

"The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied. They always look forward to doing something better than they have ever done before." Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West had a massive and splendid garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, which we visited about 20 years ago - where it is still preserved and cared for.

Although I have only a small garden now, in an area of old Edwardian homes in my city, where the gardens are small,  (and compared to Sissinhurst, miniscule!) this quote is still true for anyone with a few square feet of soil and a passion for gardening.

A small painting I did of my garden.

Copyright Margaret Buffie

This wonderful quote is also very appropriate for writers. For like gardeners, writers are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied. And we are always looking forward to doing something much better than we have ever done before.

So, here's to summer, gardeners and writers!! Some photos of my own garden; a few from this year and a few from last summer. I am looking forward to all the changes I've made the past few weeks as I split perennials and added lots of new loamy earth we mixed ourselves.

Jacob's Ladder copyright Margaret Buffie

Snaps and Sedum and Chives copyright Margaret Buffie

Hatty's Pincushion copyright Margaret Buffie

Sedums copyright Margaret Buffie

Verbena copyright Margaret Buffie

Miniature Irises copyright Margaret Buffie

Butterfly Snapdragon 
copyright Margaret Buffie

JP Connell Rose copyright Margaret Buffie

Morden Blush Rose copyright Margaret Buffie

All photos noted as my garden: Copyright Margaret Buffie

Monday, May 28, 2012

Searching for ancestors?

Christine McGregor has started a new genealogy business online called The Branch Genealogy Services. Christine has a Masters Degree in Canadian History and has been an avid genealogy researcher for many years. She has done private searches for other people and is now ready to "branch" to speak. This year, she has joined the handful of genealogical researchers in Canada. She is taking questions and requests as of now. Her expertise is Canadian, Scottish, English, Irish and German Galician genealogy.

If you are Canadian and your great-grandparents came to Canada from England,  Scotland or German Galicia, but you can't find them on any genealogy sites in records for these areas, Christine can set you on the right road - or search them out for you!

If you are living in Great Britain or any part of the world, and have wondered what happened to family who came to Canada, she can also help you, as she has access to many Canadian services for information; including ships' manifests, war records, vital stats info, census records and many more records right across Canada.

One of the big tasks Chris has accomplished over the past 15 years is her own family's history. She has taken her grandmother's family back to 1297 in Scotland. An incredible accomplishment, as Scotland is very difficult to access.

Christine is a meticulous researcher and very pleasant and open to deal with. Check out her site at

Friday, May 25, 2012

Big Questions. Any answers?

A Girl Writing
by Henriette Browne, 1829-1901

The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well. Horace Walpole.

I really identify with this quote. But I'd have to add two things interest me profoundly. However, the real question for me is: Why am I interested in the things I am interested in?

I have long been interested in writing stories. But why am I interested in writing at all? Why, one day, when my daughter was an adolescent, did I decide to take on writing as a serious venture? And now, twenty-five years and ten books later, I am still writing.

Being an introverted kid, I lived a great deal of time in my imagination, making up places and stories that only I got to live in - creating parallel worlds for myself, really. It relieved anxieties. It took away my fears, made me brave. And it was fun. So, is it perhaps a mix of interest, curiosity, fear, and fantasy that made me interested in expressing myself through writing?

There is a scientific theory that being sad makes us more creative. I'd like to get into that, but I'd be way over my head. It's now being tested in brain studies. They can have my brain when I'm through with it. But where creativity comes from in the first place is something I cannot answer.

I am also an artist. Did I blunder into a fine arts degree because it was the only thing I was consistently praised for in school? Is it that simple? I think, for myself, I was mainly interested in the fact that I could pick up a pencil and actually draw something that was a fair representation of what I was seeing. Pretty simple really. And it became of deep interest to me..

We all, I suspect - have interests that, if nurtured could grow and develop into something creative - might even be eventually called "talent". I taught young people art, and adults writing, for years - and I saw huge "talent" wasted by laziness and a lack of deep interest.

Turning an interest into something truly creative only works if there is drive and enough dogged perseverance to learn, stretch, grow and take risks.  All art involves craft, after all. It's the profound need for some of us to follow our interests that makes the difference: and not being afraid to jump into the deep end, to make mistakes, test ourselves - and trust that, in time, skills and a deeper meaning will come.

It's having the compulsion to develop our interests into something uniquely "us" that is a huge part of changing our passions into creative creatures that take on a living breathing life of their own, whether it is music, art or writing.

So, what drives some of us to continue to practice and generate our more creative interests - no matter what other people think? I think, for some of us, these enthusiasms for the things that absorb us actually feed something deep inside us that we crave; perhaps a growing sense of self during the act of creation; and as we use all of our skills, interests, curiosities and creativity to execute a vision that is ours alone, we also find ourselves coming closer and closer to finding out that, perhaps, we are actually capable of doing things that will amaze even ourselves.

But where did these interests come from that have captivated me for so long? And why am I driven to continue to invest in them? I really have no idea... but maybe I don't need the answer after all.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Weave a canopy above....

I have been reading Christina Rossetti's poems again. There is one called Winter Rain I love, and one passage in it really resonated with me last  night as I read it.

"Where the kind rain sinks
and sinks,
Green of Spring will follow.

Yet a lapse of weeks
 Buds will burst their
Strip their wool coats, glue-
coats, streaks,
In the wood and hedges;

Weave a bower of love
For birds to meet each other,
Weave a canopy above
Nest and egg and mother." 

I've just been checking this week to see if the tiny mother finch would come back to nest again in my hedge and there she was! But I will leave her in peace this year. I looked at the photos I took last spring in the bower of my own tightly canopied cotoneaster hedge. I worried over this spot for days, then missed the chance to see the final "flight" when I had to leave the city. When I came back the nest was empty. The finch was a wary little mother but I was able to take one shot of the four eggs and then, later, two very fast shots of the hatchlings, (three survived) so the little chicks asleep are a bit blurred. One is lying on his back sound alseep, the second crushed up beside him also asleep and the third is tucked there on the right with his wing over his sibling. I feel both tenderness and fear when I look at this photo. The nest itself was less than three inches across, so you can imagine how tiny these hatchlings were. Did they fly away? I hope they did.

"But for the fattening rain
We should have no flowers
Never a bud or leaf again
But for soaking showers.

Never a mated bird
In the rocking treetops..."

Friday, May 4, 2012

"That Which Matters" Review

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Family Stories: fact or fiction?

All of my novels are about family - and all delve into stories from the past. Even my fantasy trilogy deals with a young woman who comes from an ancient tribe, yet is determined to protect and save her much-loved adopted family.

Family stories come in many different forms. In most families it seems, there is one person who somehow ends up as the "official" Family Keeper of the Past and Collector of Stories. In my family, that's me. I have been an obsessive collector of family history and stories for over 25 years.

Some stories come from the mists of distant times, passed down from generation to generation -- often with a definite whiff of fantasy, or at best, a chunk of wishful "tailoring" attached to them.

I have more than a few of these in my own family.

Here is just one example of that:

It has been passed down, that one of my direct Irish ancestors was a sea captain who ran away with an English heiress - Lady Somebody-or-other. Really, who understands the concept of blarney better than the Irish? God's truth, so it is!

I now know for certain that this side of the family were poor Irish farmers, and later miners and one railway driver in England, so I doubt this story very much. But some members of my family have not given up hope, and really, you never know...

What is interesting is that many of these mist-clouded stories sometimes do have a kernel of truth in them, and it is always interesting (pretty exciting actually) to find that a tiny seed of fact does indeed exist inside that gilded blossom.

Here is an example of just such a story in my family:

Out of wedlock births in the 19th and a good part of the 20th C were shameful secrets and were, almost always, thrust into darkened skeleton-crowded closets never to be opened again.
One day, not long before she died,while we were sorting out old photos, my mother told me there was a secret in her father's family about a "child born out of wedlock," but she had no idea who this child was. She had heard it from a great-aunt while visiting in England. Mom was a bit curious and even had a handwritten note about it - which was very vague. But her father, George told her that his half sister was always overly dramatic and loved making up stories, so she'd dismissed it.

I found the truth behind this secret while I was on the trail of her
father's family. I discovered my great-grandfather William (George's father) had married twice. He was a widower with five children (most near their teens) when he remarried. This second marriage was to my great-grandmother Sarah. Sarah and William had one child together - my grandfather, George.

What remained hidden for almost a hundred years was that this tiny, delicate looking English woman had, it turned out, given birth to a child out of wedlock a few years before her marriage to William.

What makes this especially interesting to me, is that it appears that Sarah maintained a definite (physical) connection with her illegitimate child until her death.

This is how I uncovered that part of the story:

I put out a request on many family "same name" websites asking about this child. One day to my surprise, I got an email from a woman who said she thought we might be related. She had little information, but she gave me the name of her grandfather (who had been "adopted") and told me he appeared to have a definite connection to my grandmother and she gave me her maiden name - which did not match the child's surname. She wasn't sure what it all meant. I wasn't sure, either, as Sarah is a common name and so was her surname.

I began a search using his birth name which she gave me, and finally found him in a late 19th C census, living with a couple with another different last name. He was called a "nurse child" - meaning they were taking care of him - for a sum of money. He was exactly the right age and had come from the same area that Sarah had lived. Remember, his last name was not the same as Sarah's maiden name or the  couple who looked after him. Mmm.

This indicated to me, that the child's last name might be the same as her lover's, and she used it because she had a deep affection for him. Was her lover a married man? Was this son really hers? After all, he had a different surname. There was no record of an earlier marriage for Sarah, and the certificate of marriage to William lists her as a spinster. How could I possibly prove the connection between this nurse child and my great-grandmother?

Her son's surname, an unusual one as it happens, matched up with two men living in the same general area where Sarah worked as a housemaid at the time of her pregnancy. In the census records, each man had the same first and last name as her son. One was an old man in a work house (not him!) but the other was a young man - living very close to where Sarah lived as a single woman. He was a farmer's son. If he was her lover, they were in an untenable position, for he was soon to be married. Clearly he didn't have the guts (or the inclination) to do the right thing and marry Sarah, instead.

He married shortly after their "affair" according to my calculations. I found that his and his new bride's bans had been called around the time Sarah was pregnant. He and his wife vanished from their village shortly after their marriage, and I found them living in a small city two counties away. He worked as a town labourer, not a farmer. A few years later, according to the next census, he and his wife and their two children had moved back to the family farm.

Interesting? Yes! But I still had no real proof. However, I do think this fellow is very likely the father of her son -- and I suspect he took off in order to avoid a scandal and came back to the farm when things had cooled down.

From the woman who contacted me, I found out Sarah (with her maiden name confirmed) had probably spent the latter part of her pregnancy in a mental institution as a working "boarder" during her confinement,  and for about two years after her baby was born. I also discovered this "boarding" of unwed mother's in insane asylums was not uncommon. Some are listed simply as "guests" which means they didn't work in the hospital because their family paid their way completely,  while others were working boarders like Sarah. I found out that Sarah's uncle, a tailor of some means, stood up for her at her wedding to my great-grandfather. I suspect he also probably paid her boarding fees.

When he was about two, Sarah gave her child into the care of a childless couple who had once lived very near her own village. They took the child and moved away. Sarah then married William. I had to wonder at the stern looking man (Sarah's husband) -- my great-grandfather -- in the photos we have of him and Sarah. He stands alongside her and his young son. He looks quite formidable. But, clearly, here was a man who allowed his new wife to visit her illegitimate son.

To  confirm that conjecture, one of Sarah's stepsons and my grandfather's half brother, told his daughter that they used to tease Sarah; often telling her she was "going to Coventry" (which had a double meaning for Sarah, I believe). The phrase, "sending one to Coventry" was used to shun or ostracize a person. But, I also discovered in my research that her out-of-wedlock son lived with his caregivers in a village very close to Coventry - hence the double meaning.  No doubt teasing her when she left to see her son was great fun. (Very clever and cruel step-children!!)

The final confirmation that I had the right child came when we were able to find her son's army records, where he lists his mother with my great grandfather's last name. The young man's birth father is listed as "deceased" - another term commonly used for illegitimate children to explain the lack of a father.
EUREKA!! I had him!! He was the right child and he was indeed the birth son of Sarah, now married to William! What is also very important and very telling is that the boy knew Sarah's married name - and used it for his army records. 

So what was the "arrangement" between Sarah and her husband William? Had my great-grandfather agreed to allow her to visit her son because he loved her, or because he pitied her? Or was it because he needed someone to look after the five children by his first wife, and this was part of the marriage agreement? I will never know. Past stories never allow for all the facts. But some of the above facts are certain. And that is exciting. I do know that George was much loved by his parents and half-siblings. He often went back to visit them in England after moving to Canada. And I also have a letter that says that one Willian's sons felt sorry for years afterward, because he and the other children had been so unkind to Sarah. I'm glad I have that information.

Chasing down family stories can become an obsession. In this case, ancestors I didn't know - or only had a vague notion of, suddenly came into focus for me. I found photos of my great-grandparents in my mother's papers after she died. These family members had lived their lives a long time ago, but, even now, I feel I am still taking an active part in their history. 

It took me a few years, and a lot of digging to find that little boy who was my grandfather's "other" half-brother. A half-brother I am pretty sure he never met. But finding the lost child, who later had a good life, a good job, and a happy family, answered the secret my mother had presented to me. I wish George had been willing to share this story before he died. But it was his secret to keep.

By finding this lost family member, I found a new and fascinating story for my whole family. And, as I collected more prime documents and more factual information on both sides of my family; including second marriages, more unwed mothers, wills, religious differences, marriage records, village parish records, censuses as well as street and village names that allowed  me to "travel" on Google maps to the very places where my ancestors lived in England, Ireland and Galicia-- they and their past lives truly did come alive. Many still murky or veiled, certainly, but others so clear.

So much still remains elusive. And that is all part of the beauty of it all. The search for stories never ends.

Stories get lost so easily when people don't listen. Don't ask questions. Don't save valuable family papers - or don't write on the back of photos!! (BIG sin for family keepers of photos!). I know people who know little or nothing of their family before their grandparents - and even then they often don't have any idea where their grandparents came from, or if they had brothers of sister, or who their parents were. Think of the stories they are missing!

I recently found that my German family may originally have been Italian - and  as Italian Protestants, fled Italy during the Reformation to the more protestant Rhineland (Germany).

I also discovered that I have a distant cousin who fought in the civil war in the states (his parents came to the USA in the 17th C!)

And I have one line in my British family, that dates back to a large "tree" of Quaker families starting in 1530 (Henry VIII and later, Shakespeare's times!) -all thanks to a diligent family researcher (now in his nineties) who lives in Australia. Two of our multiple great-grandfathers were imprisoned for over five years each - for practicing their forbidden religion. One died in prison.

More stories to really dig into!

I don't expect to find kings, queens, or runaway lord's daughters in these exciting new searches. But you never know. One Buffie researcher now claims we are descended from Charlemagne. Really? impossible!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cutting words ....

Collins Dictionaries have recently announced they will be cutting certain words from their smaller English dictionaries, because these words are generally seen as obsolete or outdated. But they will remain in their large dictionaries for research purposes etc., until, one assumes, even researchers are not looking for them anymore and they will finally be dropped into the dark waters of oblivion (known as Lethe - from the Greek; a river in Hades that caused forgetfulness in those who drank it.) I'm just showing off something new that I learned.

Recent words cut by Collins are: Succedaneum, supererogate, wittols, aerodromes, and charabanc. I only had a vague notion that a charabanc was a carriage of some kind.

As a writer, I am very aware of words and their meanings. That is ... how I mean to use them and whether or not the reader will understand how I am, in fact, attempting to use them. If a word is put there for effect, but the meaning - and effect - are unclear; and if it sticks out so obviously that it stops a reader's flow, then I have to rethink that word. This is why I get trusted people to read my manuscripts before I send them off.

For instance, take the word facetious. I used it last night in conversation. It fit the bill for me, because the people hearing it understood what I meant.

My daughter said that she used the word facetious recently, too, and her friend seemed puzzled by how she used it. They talked about the word, and her friend thought it simply meant being funny or silly, while my daughter said she thought it referred to someone who was making fun of a serious issue in an inappropriate way.

Quite different if you think about it. Both appear to be right nowadays, as it happens, although most people used it for centuries the way my daughter used it. (Those who actually still use it, I should add!) However, it does beg the question - if you use a word that has two very subtly different meanings (in this case, referring to a form of humour) is it worth using at all? Maybe this is how words die out.

After all, words are communication, so if a number of people do not interpret how you are using a word in conversation the way you intended it to be understood, you may find yourself dropping it as part of your oral vocabulary. Right?  I assume that's how words like freck become obsolete in the English language. (Freck means swiftly or nimbly - and it was cut long ago.) I can't even find freck in my 1927 Oxford Dictionary. Freck doesn't sound very nimble or swift to me, anyway! But I like the sound of it. Maybe we could reuse mean running around like a chicken with its head off. i.e. "I spent the day frecking around trying to find my car keys!" I'm familiar with that, for sure. But I am off topic. Again.

From the bound Cambridge dictionary:

facetious: adjective

/fəˈsiː.ʃəs/ adj - disapproving
Not serious about a serious subject, in an attempt to be funny or to appear clever
e.g. facetious remarks
He's just being facetious.

And yet, according to online dictionaries, it appears to also be defined now as: "given to wit and good humor; merry; sportive; jocular; as, a facetious  friend."

It's even hard to find an example that shows how it can be used either way with clarity.

Here's one I found: Facetiousness is allowable when it is the most proper instrument of exposing things apparently base and vile to due contempt.
-- Isaac Barrow

But that was back in the 17th Century!

So is this a word that's on the way out? I think it might be.


Here's one for the books - at least one book I just read.


Here's a word I'd never seen before and had no idea what it meant when one of my favourite writers, Penelope Lively, used it in her novel, Judgement. Oh, it has a real meaning all right. Does anyone use this word? Can you even pronounce it? I couldn't help but wonder why she used it at all. For effect? To stop the flow of the sentence so we have to look it up? To keep it alive in the language? Because she likes obscure words? Why??



1. A manuscript on which two or more successive texts have been written, each one being erased to make room for the next.
A manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and which can be used again.


(of a text) written on a palimpsest
(of a document) used as a palimpsest

Okay. More or less understood. I will never use it unless I am writing a mystery about ancient scrolls and probably not even then. Sure, this word might be used by people involved with manuscripts, but why on earth did Penelope Lively use it in Judgement?

(The main character, Clare, is observing her children coming through the village street on their way home from school)

"Like swimmers nearing shore, they headed blindly for home, eyes down. Clare watched with detachment peeling vegetables.
     She saw behind the palimpsest faces of her children their own previous selves, their infancy, a fleeting succession of Anna and Thomases slipping through her fingers, gone as soon as they had begun."

Now remember I had never seen this word before, and had no idea what it meant at that point. After stopping, and thinking about the entire section, I did understand what she was trying to say, but only because of the further description of it.

The word itself? Nada. I tried to figure it out, and thought... does she mean their faces are pale? Limp? Limpet- like? What does she MEAN?

It stopped the flow of my reading, broke the spell, and the mood of the story for about ten minutes, while I fumbled through my dictionary trying to find it. I suppose most people would let it go, but as a writer I have to wonder what the purpose of using such an obscure word was.

Right after reading it, I kind of got it. Faces scrubbed, scraped clean. Maybe she should have used it after the kids had their bath. Am I being facetious? Not sure now. But it isn't the word, but what the writer is communicating to me, after all, that matters, and if I don't "get it" in the flow of the language, then the communication stops.

I don't want to cut any words from dictionaries. Let me make that clear. It's the dictionary people who are making these decisions, and replacing cut words with "words/phrases" like LOL and FYI. Mmm. Is this a good thing? Maybe for another post? And really, I did have some fun checking out palimpsest. But I'm really having trouble figuring out how to drop it into casual conversation...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Setting up character....

Lizzie - from the cover of Who is Frances Rain?
In the glasses are a young Frances and Lizzie's Gran

When my main character and I mutually agree to record their story, the first thing they ask is to be written up as a real person, not a caricature of themselves - or of someone else.

"Let me tell you my story as it happens," they say. "Here I am, already in my setting, my world, see? I'll introduce you to the other people involved. So grab your laptop, or some pencils and lots of paper, and follow me! Oh, and by the way (this over the shoulder) we'll talk about mistakes you make later." They are always bossy....

And so, like Alice, I do their bidding - wide-eyed and curious about what's about to happen. But I also keep one canny eye on the situation as it develops. I am after all the boss in all this. I don't tell my character that, of course. They are so touchy.

But what triggers a character to show up at all? Is it something I've read? A photo? An event? What is the "kiss" that awakens a character in my head? Sometimes I know right away, because I've been researching something that interests me, and up they pop -- but other times, it can be a photo, an article, a dream, or finding something in an antique store - and it's only later that I figure out what the trigger was. In Who is Frances Rain? Lizzie showed up shortly after I found a pair of old spectacles on an island near our cottage. 

Two posts from Facebook friends made me think about a couple of things regarding character yesterday. One post was about naming your characters, and one was where a colleague said she was about to have "a meeting of minds with her main protagonist." I've had those. It can get ugly.

If you are like me, before I start a story around a character, I have to find out their name. Naming a character is as important as naming your own child. A baby can't tell you - unborn or too small to talk as they are - and, in some cases, you might even be forced to pick a name that someone else likes better than you.

I have found the characters in my novels generally refuse to tell me their name until I figure it out for myself. If a name doesn't fit, and I go with it anyway, my protagonist finds devious ways of letting me know it's wrong, wrong, wrong. When I finally hit the right one, we're both happy. And the character often gets a little smug about it, too.  

As an aside, I find it hard to attach certain names to characters, especially names that are popular at the time. I won't list them here for fear of hurting feelings. But, to me, there are, to my way of thinking, names that seem to diminish a primary character somehow.

I like names with character. I named my first fictional character after my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, known as Lizzie to all. From what I hear, my granny was a character!

Lizzie agreed, yes, that was indeed her name. I named another main character in the book, Frances, because Frances is an old name, but mainly because it means, "free" and, if you've read the book, you know why I chose it.

I personally think names that are in fashion for awhile, and then vanish (thank goodness) can also "date" a book pretty quickly. Names can say a lot about a character before you even learn what makes them tick. So I avoid names that are connected to fruit, light fixtures, planets, desserts etc; and often those that are not spelled traditionally. I avoid weird spellings of traditional names, like Elizabeth, when they are morphed into atrocities like Elissabith. Seriously. I signed a book for a woman once, "To Elizabeth" only to find out it was Elissabith. She was quite annoyed. As was I...

After saying all this, I do have a lot of odd names in my fantasy trilogy, so really who am I to talk? Names like Cill, Ailla, Leto, Mennow, Jowan, Caul, etc - many of which I made up. But these characters live in fantasy worlds, so anything goes. Besides, I'm the boss, remember....

In the first novel of my fantasy series, The Watcher, Emma's mother has named her two girls Summer and Winter. Winter is my main character. She has pale skin and white hair. She hates her name, because she is constantly teased about it and her looks. So she announces one day that her name - from that day forward - will be Emma. Her mother says, "Are you aware that Emma means "grandmother?"

Emma doesn't care. She just wants to be plain, simple, straightforward Emma. Despite the change, Emma is anything but plain or simple, but she does remain Emma -- and she also remains straightforward throughout the three books. Being Emma gets her through some pretty harrowing adventures trying to beat The Game, once she falls into a number of very strange worlds!

Once the name-game is over, I know other conflicts will come between my characters and me. And the "meetings of minds" meetings grow in number as the pages grow in number.

After a story gets rolling, my characters and I get along pretty well on the whole. But now and again we suddenly take off in different directions, and that's when we go into head to head combat. The character sometimes wins. But it's when they take a seriously wrong turn, like Emma does in her deadly games in The Watcher's Trilogy series, that I know I have to take charge and redirect a story and get my character back on track.

Actually that happens a lot in rewrites. But by then, I am in full control, and I always get the last word. I am the boss after all!

And of course, each of my main characters has a different personality, so I am dealing with a variety of needs and wants - depending on their upbringing and the story. I've been thinking a lot about characters and their development in stories.

After going head to head with a main character recently, I began to wonder about  chickens and eggs (maybe because my character's family has some in their city backyard in 1907) - but there is this strange "which comes first feeling" in a story where characters cause events to happen in their lives, but then, events outside of their control also happen as well - and both of these forms, involving plot, change that character's personality and their needs and wants. Mmm. Something else to muse about ...

As it is, I'm already thinking about some changes in my new mss.