Saturday, July 9, 2016

Part 2: Adventures on the Canal

5 more reasons why we're glad we bought our tiny canal boat:  

1.  The Queen's swans cruise along with us.

2.  We are gongoozled as we navigate the locks.  

3.  We tie up at public moorings at the end of a day of cruising...

4.  And visit another amazing pub.

5.  But the best reason of all is that our tiny home-away-from-home is closer to family!  

I can't wait to see how these adventures will show up in my writing!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Adventures Feed the Muse

Recently I grabbed a wild and crazy opportunity to feed my muse.  Hubby and I bought this canal boat in England:

Outside, it's thirty feet long and six feet wide.  Inside, its 85 square feet of livable space has all the comforts of home. 

We're not boaters, we're not campers, and we live half a world away.  Yet, when the opportunity arose, we thought about it for approximately ten minutes and then jumped.  Here are a few reasons why we're glad we did:

1.  The secret garden at our mooring buffers us from urban London.  

2.  We test our steering skills

3.  On our way to the local store for groceries.  

There's plenty to watch along the way, but I'll save more of that for next week's post!  

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Why Did It Grab Me?

Over the weekend I watched The Ten Commandments.  I hadn’t seen that Charlton Heston movie for many years, and I didn’t mean to watch it this time.  I wanted to paint instead, but I turned on the TV as background noise.  Every once in a while the movie pulled me away from my art.  Before I knew it, I got completely sucked into the story, in spite of how dated that movie is in oh, so many ways.  So, why did it grab me?  

1.  It’s familiar.  The story of Moses is a story I grew up with.  It’s appeared in books, songs, and lessons that I’ve heard and read over and over.  Moses is a role model, and his life has become almost a formula.  It’s part of my cultural heritage.  

2.  Passion.  The three major characters—Moses, Rameses, and Nefretiri—are all driven by an almost over-the-top passion, and of course their goals are in opposition to each other.  This makes a recipe for conflict and disaster.  

3.  Unrequited love.  For various reasons, the major characters desire someone he or she can’t have:  

  • Nefretiri desires Moses but can’t have him
  • Rameses desires Nefretiri but can’t really have her
  • Moses’ wife desires Moses but can’t have him (and doesn’t complain—how do you compete with God?)
  • The slave girl desires Joshua, and Joshua desires the slave girl, but they can’t have each other, thanks to…  
  • The governor, who desires the slave girl but can’t really have her, either. 
Am I missing anyone else?  

4.  Theme of persecution.  This is a personal favorite.  I love stories dealing with persecution in its many forms, maybe for the conflict, maybe to see justice win in the end.  Or at least to root for justice over adversity.  

3 & 4 especially create strong feelings of sympathy for the character.  They increase conflict and the threat of disaster and pull me through the story.  I want to see those sympathetic characters win in spite of the odds against them.  And in spite of knowing how the story ends.  

These are all good lessons I can apply to Good Storytelling!  

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Good Storytelling—1

In my quest for studying good storytelling, I started by soliciting recommendations from a wide range of people.  Then I picked some of the authors from that list, authors who are very different from each other.  I want to see what their stories might have in common, aside from great storytelling.  

Kate Morton writes what I like to call “lush” novels, that is the storyline is complicated, rich and deep.  Her stories often uncover family secrets, and they span generations and multiple characters.  I get sucked into stories like this and don’t want to leave the world the author has created.  

Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, on the other hand, is a disturbing book, with none of the pleasing connotations of the word “lush.”  It’s an excellent book, mostly about one complex character, whose problem is peeled back, layer by layer.  I have a push-pull relationship with books like this and can’t escape this type of fictional world fast enough.  This could be the dark secret behind someone close to me, and I don’t want to delve into the darkness.  At the same time it draws me in.  

Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast is also disturbing.  It’s not only about complex characters but also about the complex political/historical situation that tears them even further apart.  It’s too real, and I react the same to this as to Flynn’s:  push-pull, can’t get out of the story fast enough, can’t turn the pages fast enough.  

Andy Weir’s The Martian is a laugh-out-loud romp.  And oh, yeah, by the way, there’s a super serious problem, too.  It feels very real, but we know it’s not (which is comforting, because the problem is very, very serious).  But the book isn’t really about the problem.  It’s about the character, the Martian, who is so lovable and becomes like the reader’s brother.  We root for him, and it’s sad to leave him when the romp is all over, never mind the setting.  It’s not a place that either the Martian or the reader wants to stay.  

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is another romp with dark moments.  It’s a fascinating, complex world, and the reader is treated to the details of its wonders.  Readers immerse themselves into this world.  It’s so very different from the reality of our world, and yet there are just enough glimpses of reality to fire our imaginations and make us wonder…could it…possibly be…real?

  1. Hmm, the word “escape” keeps popping up.  These great stories either allow me the reader to escape reality or else make me race through their stories, trying to escape their darkness.  And I can’t escape, because…
  2. Great stories suck me into their fictional worlds.  I want to know what’s going to happen, because I’m invested in the characters, their world, and the situation.  The story pulls me through to the end, whether or not I want to go along for the ride.  
  3. “Complex” is another word these great stories have in common.  They all have complex characters and/or complex subplots and situations.  There is not only one story going on, but multiple stories.  
  4. “Real Setting” is another element in common.  These stories have settings that are either very real (sometimes overly real) or else seem very real.  Seeming so, they make this reader wish they were real.  Whether real or not, the setting feels real enough to make me feel as if I’m there, inside the story.  

So…even though these stories are quite different, they still have certain qualities in common.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On a Quest for Good Story

Over the holidays I visited Kassel, Germany, where I learned that two of my favorite storytellers had lived many years—the Grimm Brothers.  In Kassel, there is a wonderful museum dedicated to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.  Their fairy tales have been translated into many languages.   

What has made these fairy tales endure over the years?  I think it’s good story.  

Here are some of the other good stories and storytellers that have been recommended to me so far for study:

Tasha Alexander
M.C. Beaton
Geraldine Brooks
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
John Connolly
Jennifer Donnelly, A Northern Light
Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects
Dick Francis
Diana Gabaldon
John Green
Tim Hallinan
Polly Iyer
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Garrison Keillor
Stephen King
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle Book One
Dean Koontz
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
Kate Morton
Stuart Neville
Patrick Rothfuss
J.K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith
Hank Phillippi Ryan
James Alexander Thom
Mark Twain
Anne Tyler
Andy Weir, The Martian
Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Secret of Roan Inish (film)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What's a Good Story?

I am starting a series of posts to explore the question of good storytelling.  

A couple weeks ago, when I was writing out my goals for the year ahead, I kept hearing a little niggling voice in the back of my head.  It kept reminding me that for the last few years I've said I want to become a better storyteller.  This won't happen without study and practice.  So I'm jumping in.  It's time to work specifically on that task.  

But what does good storytelling really mean?  And who are some good storytellers that I can study as examples?  I solicited advice and was given a wide range of suggestions, all of them very good.  First takeaway lesson:  every answer is correct.  Because there is no single definition of what makes a good story.  There is no one-size-fits-all for a good story.  "Good" is subjective, and what makes good storytelling is different for each reader.  

So I have to decide what makes storytelling good for me.  After all, those are the types of stories I want to write.  

Storytelling consists of two parts:  a good story, and a good way of telling it.  Good stories don't necessarily have to be page-turners or bestsellers or highly acclaimed (although they could be).  A good story has to entertain me above all.  It has to evoke a satisfying emotional response in me, the reader.  That's just the beginning of this study.  It's a work in process.  So far, I've reached a few general conclusions.  

A good story will have:  

  1. an interesting opening.  Interesting is not necessarily compelling nor universal (although it could be).  It speaks uniquely to individual readers.  I can't always predict what will interest me.  It will likely be different from what others find interesting.  Did I mention subjective?   
  2. an interesting setting.  Personally, I love books that take me to places I want to visit.  Not everyone cares about this.  Again, it's hard to predict where I want to go, but I know that I don't want to go to ugly, nasty places, regardless of how unique they may be.  I want to feel as if I'm there in the setting with the characters.  I need to experience the setting.  Dropping names of places that could be anywhere is not good enough.  
  3. an interesting, likable character.  Even if most of the characters are despicable, there has to be at least one of them that I care about and grow to understand.  That character should face interesting problems and deal with them in ways that ordinary, sane people would not.  This makes the story entertaining for me.  
  4. an interesting relationship.  A good story--for me--needs emotional development of some kind, preferably romantic, between at least two characters.  It's even better when there's parallel development between a different pair of characters.  This gives me, the reader, a feeling of resonance and great satisfaction.  
  5. plot twists.  Interesting things have to happen in a good story.  It doesn't have to be page-turning suspense, but the events have to interest me in ways that real life's daily routine does not.  It's even better when those interesting events surprise me.  At the same time, the twists need to make perfect sense.  
  6. no padding.  Good stories don't have boring, unnecessary filler that ends up making a story twice as long as it really needs to be.  Filler invites skimming, and a good story won't allow me to skim.  
  7. pretty words.  Writers of good stories control language.  They manipulate words in a way that evokes images and makes me gasp and say, "Wow!  I never saw that image quite like that before."  There is a fine line between just enough pretty words and too many.  
  8. an ending that ends when the story is over.  

This list is just the beginning.  I'll discover more along the way.  And now, to study…

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


In December I learned about Panto, the British traditional Christmas theatre.  What a fun family treat!  It felt like a circus, with children waving glowsticks, yet the jokes onstage were geared towards adults.  

Here are some of the common elements to Panto:  
  • good and bad fairies
  • an actor in an animal costume
  • the protagonist is a male character played by a woman in tight-fitting clothes
  • there is always a female character played by a man
  • slapstick scenes, such as the rubber ball fight in the Panto we saw
  • audience participation, such as shouting "It's behind you!" Or "Yes it is!" And "No it t'isn't!"
The show we saw was called "Dick Whittington & His Cat," and it was complete with 14th century merchant scenes, dancing rats, a mouse puppet, pirates, a shipwreck, a Beatles song (sung in cat) and lessons in Welsh.  

This Yank's head is still spinning!