Friday, November 4, 2011


There are so many ways to develop and come to know our characters. Sometimes, oblique, odd questions can bring flashes of insight so the character comes into focus, clear and fully formed with  shades of intangibles that somehow bring them to life.

Here are some random and tangential questions to ask – in no order of importance. You’ll probably think of others.

– What colour of clothing does your character best like to wear? What colour suits her/him best?

– What colour does your character normally wear? Why?

– What colour are the walls of your character’s bedroom? The bedclothes? The main rooms of the house?

– If your character were a colour, what would it be? (We’re not talking skin colour here.)

– What’s the colour of your character’s mood at the start of the story? At several points along the arc as the tension develops? (There’d better be some tension, and if there isn’t, back to the drawing board!) And at the end?

– What colour food does your character best like to eat?

– What colour explodes in the mouth of your character when she/he eats her/his favourite foods?

Friday, October 21, 2011


What is the difference?

The persona is what your protagonist projects, what image she cultivates and how she wants to be perceived. The character is what drives her inside; it’s what she lives with, or faces in the dark of the night.

An analogy might be this: the outside of a car is the protagonist’s persona. What’s inside – the engine – is the character. It’s the engine that moves a car forward.

Does your protagonist have a flashy sports care exterior, and a wimpy two cylinder engine? Is it a rough and patched car body, with a steady and reliable engine? Is it a shiny car, with strong, wild force inside? The permutations and combinations are endless.
So what’s inside your protagonist? What’s her true character like? Once you know that you’ll know what she’s likely to feel, think and do. You’ll know how her actions will move the story forward. But it’s also what’s inside – the character – that determines in part the kind of persona he/she feels the need to cultivate and project. Sometimes personas are cultivated to compensate for inner character vulnerabilities and weaknesses. So many possibilities...

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Finding the right name for your character can  be elusive and sometimes it seems you'll never find the one that fits best. Here are some tricks to try:

If you're absolutely stuck and can't unearth your character's name, the chances are you don't know your character well enough for him/her to reveal his/her name to you. Find out more about him/her, and then try again.

Another useful trick is to acquaint yourself with your character's parents. Why? Because it is the parents who usually name their children. If you know the parents, who they are, their personal values and habits, their conceits and preenings, their failings and fears, who they admire and who they abhor, their will know what they're likely to name their kids.

Sometimes names just appear when you need them and you simply need to be awake to the possibility. Serendipity opens doors when you're searching. I recently found a name written on the sand on a beach in P.E.I. for a character whose name had eluded me. I tried it out, tentatively at first, and to my delight, it fit.

Here's another way of finding your characters' names: soak your subconsious with the thought of locating that name before you go to sleep. Maybe you'll dream up a name that is right. Maybe you'll wake just knowing it.

If you're not certain of your character's name, or even if you are, be sure to say the name out loud. Is it a name that fits your character? Sounds like your character? Is it easy to say or difficult to utter, awkward to roll off the tongue? The musicality of it needs to be pleasing to your ear -- or perhaps not pleasing if that is what you're aiming for. 

Saying all your characters' names out loud will help you to spot inadvertent mistakes such as all of them sounding alike, or starting with the same letter, or ending with the same sound, or having the same number of syllables. Subsidiary characters names can be changed more easily, I find. Although at times I've found those difficult to change as well, if the character is adamant about it.

Saying your characters' names out loud is a great way, too, of finding a nickname. Nicknames often arise because the character, when a baby, couldn't pronounce her/his own name. That's how I came up with Nobby, for my character Zenobia in A Friend Like Zilla. Saying Zenobia out loud, and trying to figure out how baby might say it, helped me come up with Nobby, which fit my character just right. So right that she thinks of herself as Nobby and hates Zenobia. She is a Nobby, but not a Zenobia!

Another way to find nicknames is to unearth the traits and oddities your character displayed as a baby or a toddler. A nickname such as Speedy, for instance, might arise if a baby is particularly fast at crawling. Red, in my novel That Boy Red, got his nickname when he was a baby because his hair was red back then, although it no longer is. I'm not entirely sure how I came up with Gooley for Red's friend in That Boy Red -- it just came and it seemed right. But since his name is Graham, I suspect that he came by it because either he, or a sibling in his family, distorted Graham.

A last reflection: your characters do, of course, represent some aspects of you and your tastes. I like my characters' names to be spiced, to be unusual. Perhaps it's because my name is not the easiest to pronounce or to remember. It's an unusual name. It was an unusual name even in India, where I lived as a kid; I was plagued with mispronunciations even though at times I relished not having a common name.

Apparently it was an aunt who came up with my name -- I wonder if she had the sight? Rachna means creation, or literature.

Monday, September 26, 2011


A question I am frequently asked is: "How do you name your characters?" A better, perhaps more accurate, way of putting it though, is: "How do you find your characters' names?"

There is a difference: naming your characters has a subtle overtone of author as god/parent, naming his/her creations. Imposing it on them. Finding your characters' names, though, implies author as explorer, uncovering, discovering his/her characters' names. Which is part of discovering, uncovering the character.

Sometimes it's easy. Your character arrives with a name that somehow cannot be changed. You may also have a clear sense of who your character is, the ins and outs, the earthy, fleshy, obvious and subtle details that make her/him unique. But sometimes you have a name that is absolutely right and yet only a shadowy sense of that character -- in which case the name can be a gateway through which you come to discover your character.

Scully, in my picture book, A Screaming Kind of Day, arrived full-blown with that name. As I re-worked the story I questioned that name, thinking it wasn't really much of a girl's name. I tried to change it, but I couldn't because Scully was her name. That kind of clarity is a gift -- no, no, I don't mean a gift I have, but rather a gift that is visited upon writers at times.

When I'm not lucky enough to have a character's name arrive with such clarity and immediacy, I hunt for it in other ways. A great way is to have at hand a good baby name book. I have an old one from when my kids were born. It has a host of names from a number of cultural backgrounds along with their meanings.

That's how I found the name Calantha, for the main character in my fantasy novel, The Sower of Tales. I compiled a list of possible names, tried them out aloud, pondered their meanings, and this one fit best. Although Calantha means "beautiful blossom" and my Calantha is not beautiful -- oh no, she is dusty, bumbling and plain -- the name fit her. Maybe because the novel is about a world where story pods exist, and so the flower-like connection fits. There's a lovely synergy that happens when you've located your main character's name. Although I hadn't consciously selected this name for its Greek roots, I found myself selecting other names that fit this world, and they all seemed to be of Greek origin too. Even the names I completely invented -- my favourite being Xenyss, the inept Seer in Calantha's village, and one of my favourite characters -- sound Greek.

I found Dilly by searching through the internet for Punjabi names. I had a good sense of who she was, my main character in The Trouble With Dilly  -- wildly imaginative, scatty, impulsive and erratic -- but I didn't know her name. I knew though, that her name would be a diminutive of a longer one, and so I wrote down a list of ones that I thought might fit. Dilbaagh seemed right, as it would clearly be shortened to Dilly. And Dilly was perfect for my character. At a school reading, when I asked what kind of person Dilly might be from the sound of her name, a boy replied, "Tangy." Dilly is just that -- tangy!

Finding Red's name in That Boy Red, was more of a challenge. The book is a middle-grade novel inspired by my father-in law, John's, anecdotes of growing up on a P.E.I. farm during the Depression. I knew I needed to write this as a work of fiction (see previous blogs for the whys and wherefores) so I had to find a name that fit my invented character. It was a slow, circuitous process, discovering my character; he needed to be fictional and not John, so I could be free to weave stories in and around him -- or perhaps let him show me his stories? I made a list of Scottish names and tried several. It wasn't until well after I decided on Red because it fit my imagined character (his real name is Roderick) that someone pointed out how apt it was for a fictional character inspired by my father-in-law -- because John had had red hair in his younger days. Red, now, his hair is brown --durrty bruhn, as Cat-less Granny, Red's grandmother, would say -- but still, that name fits him.

More tips on how to unearth your characters' names in my next blogpost on October 8th.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Character Development Tip -- The Body Repeats the Landscape

"The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and create each other." Meridel Le Sueur

Lately I've been thinking much about landscape, having recognized anew how forcefully and viscerally my landscape is the north shore of P.E.I. There is something at an energy level that ties me to that landscape; it's where I feel most at home, most grounded.

When I discussed this with a dear friend of mine, the fine writer, Deirdre Kessler, she told me of a conference she'd attended in Tasmania, "Sounding the Earth." Australian Aboriginal people have long known this concept -- it has been discussed and celebrated in Bruce Chatwin's book The Songlines. The essential concept is that the people and the land are one: we sing the land into being. What I hadn't understood until Deirdre followed through on this idea, is that the land sings you back.

The land sings you back.

The concept is so heart-stopping, so powerful, I lay awake the night after I heard this, expanded and lost in the beauty of the idea, overcome and humbled by the generosity of the land.

And I came to understand better my connection with my landscape. It's so visceral, it's so powerful, because the land has sung me back. There. In my landscape.

For years now I've collected rocks from the north shore of P.E.I. each time we visited. Small stones. It's been my way of linking solidly to my landscape. Of having a tangible presence of my landscape in my life.

So, how does this apply to writing and character development? Well, developing character is often a subtle process that leaps and darts beyond the obvious biographical data and information -- the facts -- that we accumulate about our characters. To know our characters, really know and understand their inner beings, their souls, we sometimes need oblique, tangential ways to slide in. Sideways glances.

So: what is your character's landscape? Where do they feel most at home? Where do they sing the land, and most importantly, which landscape sings them back, affirming their connection to that place?

When I thought about this, I knew that Red, my character in That Boy Red  lived in his landscape. It was the south-eastern part of P.E.I., where he was born and grew up. It isn't as connected to the ocean; no, his landscape is the gently curved farm land where he lives.

Dilly, now, my character in The Trouble With Dilly her landscape is in part the urban world in which she lives, a bustling, concrete city. But it's also -- and I don't know how or why I know this, I just do -- a desert. A desert with beautiful sculpted dunes, curving and shifting with the wind, and wide open skies. Dilly has never been there. Not yet. But that is her landscape too. I don't know for sure where this landscape is, just that it is her landscape.

For Calantha, in The Sower of Tales, her landscape is the one imagined in the book. It is the world I envisioned, which strangely enough, is much like the hilly landscape of Greece. When I wrote the book, I had never been to Greece. It was a librarian who loved the book who told me that the landscape I'd described was eerily like Greece. When I did go to Greece, I saw it immediately -- it was completely and utterly familiar as Calantha's landscape. But for Calantha, her landscape isn't just the plains in which she lives -- no, it's the top of the Eastern mountain, where the Sower of Tales lives.

So, who is your character? Where is her/his landscape? Is it where she/he lives, or is it somewhere else? Where does your character sing the land? Where does the land sing her back?

Where is the landscape that tugs and pulls through a fine, pulsing, unbreakable link so she must and will find it, and so she must go back?

Friday, August 19, 2011


I love how the seemingly random events in your life can tie in so readily with what you're working on.

I love the coincidences that feed the characters we work on, the way we spot traits in people around us, just when we need to. 
Last month, while in P.E.I., walking the beaches, I found myself thinking intently about a character I needed to develop. Sometimes a character comes full-blown, and at other times, it's a slow uncovering, a slow discovering, to find the heart of that character. In this instance, I had a viscerally exciting sense of the plot -- one that made me tingle with delight -- but only a vague sense of  the character.

I've learned that it's best not to start to write a novel or story until I have a clearer sense of the character, because the character is what drives that story forward. If your character isn't true, the story will twist and distort in strange directions. If your character is true, pretty much all you have to do is follow her/him and write down what she/he does.

So as I walked the beach, I tried to give my character life, depth, warts -- tried to know my character.

And a name is so important. A name has to fit, to feel right on the tongue, to feel right in the gut.

On this day, I found some writing on the beach -- and oh, a name written there, that was just perfect for my character. I won't reveal what that name was -- if I talk too much about a novel when it's nascent, still so tenuous in my head, I tend to lose interest.

But I'm grateful for the serendipity that led me to the right name.

It's a wonderful reminder to be mindful, to be attentive to life, as it feeds the creation of art.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Writer's Wise Words

Here's a website worth checking -- JANE YOLEN'S -- in particular her words for writers.  Wonderful words on the muse, on writing for joy, serendipity and much more.

Friday, July 22, 2011


"The shallow murmur, but the deep are dumb." Sir Walter Raleigh

I've been thinking lately about how we're getting faster and faster as a society. We do more, we write more, we talk more, we multi-task. If we don't multi-task we're considered slouches.

I sometimes wonder if this is just more sound and fury than substance. Is this noise and busy-ness, dizziness, really necessary?

I've noticed that people are doing things faster. But I don't think that necessarily means they're doing things better.

Take writing. Is there a real pay off to writing faster? If we skim the surface of a lot of things we can produce more, but is it better?

Sometimes you need to slow down to plumb the depths. You need stillness to allow the deeper parts of yourself, the deeper and more profound aspects of life to surface.

Perhaps I need to slow down. Do less. Think more. Be silent more. Write less, but write deeply.

Yes, write deeply.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Some Sage Advice ... Including on Promotion

Check out this blog, about the best and worst advice a writer, Michelle Gagnon, received. It provides a down-to-earth take on so many lunatic ideas about promotion, and also offers advice on what does work to sell books.

What I loved best was the second comment below the post: "The only thing you have control over is your writing."

In other words write your best. That is in your hands. Don’t waste excessive energy trying to promote to the point of insanity/vanity – that’s what self-published writers do because they prefer to put their energies into promotion than towards perfecting their craft. Maybe because they’re better at it? So don’t squander valuable thinking space and time with activities peripheral to what does matter – the writing.

For what it’s worth, here is what Michelle Gagnon cites from a report as being the most significant factors in book purchase:

-Recommendation from someone I know
-The cover
-Saw on a bestseller list
-Reviews you've read in blogs/online forums
-Reviews you read in magazines/newspapers
-Prominent display in bookstore

Most of those are out of your control. What you can control is writing your darndest.

Friday, June 24, 2011


More tips on writing historical fiction -- with the same caveats as in previous post:

8) Research into background can take time, so be patient. Sometimes, it can take ages to dig out one tiny piece of background detail – such as the appearance of a particular car during a particular year. It’s a detail that adds to the texture and truthfulness of the story without being essential to the plot, so you need to know it even though it’s entirely peripheral to your story.

9) Interviewing elders again, as well as experts, in round two or three of your research is helpful to pin down those pesky details because you can simply ask your tangential and arcane questions rather than spend hours digging them out. Call me lazy, but it’s easier and it’s much better, because you get specific answers to specific questions without wading through pages and pages of irrelevant information in order to find that one sliver of information you really need.

10) Visit museums that specialize in the era of your story. It’s a great way to flesh out your understanding of that era. It also helps you imbibe the right atmosphere. I went to the Cumberland Museum in Cumberland Ontario, which is about rural life in the 1930s. I found it helpful with many a detail but also to soak up the atmosphere of the time.

11) Look for books published by local Historical societies in the community you want to depict. I found self-published books by people living in Eastern P.E.I. and they were invaluable for the glimpses they gave me into everyday life in the 1930s. They weren’t necessarily brilliantly organized; often they were anecdotal, but there was enough there to help develop my understanding of the era, and help me see more clearly the “givens”.

12) Check old atlases and maps to help you find fictional names and place names. For example: I knew that the early settlers to P.E.I. – and John’s family in particular – came from the mainland in Scotland across from Skye. Many villages and towns in P.E.I. reflect this. In selecting my fictional names, I found it fascinating to search maps of Scotland for place names that would sound convincing in my novel.

13) If you are writing about a place that is well known, you might want to consider changing the names of the people and the places to fictional names. I set my story more or less in the area in which my father-in-law grew up, but as I changed the geography to suit my fiction, I decided I’d better use fictional names. Otherwise I knew there’d be Islanders coming up to me and saying, “That railway line was never there; you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” or some such thing.

14) I found it helpful to draw out a map of my character’s fictional home and farm so I could reliably and consistently remember how he’d get from A to B. I also made a map of the area in which my character lived – again, so I’d be consistent.

15) I chose deliberately not to include a map in my book, because P.E.I. is a small place and inevitably people would try and figure out where I’d really set it, and then point out inconsistencies.

16) The elements of good writing apply to historical fiction as much as to any other work of fiction. It’s essential, I think, for the character to be true and real so he/she takes centre stage and moves the story forward, rather than serve as a minuscule or peripheral adornment for your historical facts.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Here are some tips about writing historical fiction, the usual caveat being that there are no golden rules – these are just things (great catch all word that – things, although thingie is even better and a personal favourite!) that worked for me.

Bear in mind, though, that these tips are based on my experiences while writing my novel, THAT BOY RED which, although set in a particular era, is not woven around concrete historical events per se. This is a character-driven episodic novel following the exploits of eleven-year-old Roderick “Red” MacRae, with historical details pertaining to the era – P.E.I. in the early 1930s – woven into the story.

1) Keep one notebook for historical research, another for your fictional notes. Meticulously record your research along with sources because you’ll forget from one draft to the next whether some detail you’ve inserted has been checked and verified.

2) You don’t need to do all your research before you start to write. At least I don’t – I can’t. It would bore me to tears to do nothing but research at the start. I find that instinctive leap and connection with character far more valuable and essential to writing fiction than getting slogged in a mire of research. For me it’s essential that the connection to character be paramount so the story sings and flows with inner truth.

3) The background and research must serve the story and not the other way around. One of the biggest flaws in historical fiction is when the reader’s attention trips over a chunk of explanatory information that the author has stuck in to inform. It always distracts from the story. When you write a story, you’re spinning a thread for the reader to follow – if there are nubs and knots that the reader notices, you stall the smooth flow of the story, break the dream that you want the reader to fall into when reading your book. A work of historical fiction should never serve to showcase historical facts. Nor should you be so vested in your research that you feel compelled to stick it in just because you’ve spent so much time digging it up.

4) One way to avoid chunks of information is to include information only when your character is thinking of it – but don’t have your character gratuitously think about something that’s a given, just to inform your readers. Don’t over-explain; trust your readers to infer what they need to.

5) Despite my caveats about not needing to do all my research up front, I found I did need to do some initial research in order to start writing THAT BOY RED with a certain degree of authority and ease. I needed to know what daily life was like for a young lad in the 1930s. If I were to write about a child getting up in the morning in the present day, I’d easily be able to create the sights, sounds, smells, textures and nuances surrounding that child. With THAT BOY RED I needed some of that basic knowledge so that when I started to write I wouldn’t stumble during the heat and flow of writing the story because of gaping holes in my understanding of the era.

6) Interviewing elders and experts was a great place for me to start my research. I grilled my father-in-law, John, and his older brother Martin, and all the other elders I could pester, with questions about the five senses from their childhood. I asked them what they’d hear first thing in the morning. Smell, touch, see, taste. I asked about the most striking images/memories in their lives pertaining to the five senses. I had to be specific – for example, I’d ask about the first sounds in the morning to fit what I needed for my story. This was a huge help in colouring and texturizing my knowledge of the era. I asked questions about daily routines and made copious notes to build my own instinctive understanding of the patterns of the daily life of my characters.

7) For me, the research tends to work parallel to the spiral of successive drafts until I reach the centre, the heart of that last draft. Sometimes you don’t know what you need to know until you write the next draft.

Tips on Writing Historical Fiction -- Part II will be posted on June 24th.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THERE’S GOLD IN THEM THAR TALES: Spinning Family Stories into Fiction

I am delighted to announce that my novel THAT BOY RED published by HarperCollins Canada, has now been released. Set in P.E.I. during the 1930s, it follows the adventures and misadventures of eleven-year-old Roderick “Red” MacRae and his large and lively family as they struggle through bad weather, plunging crop prices and more during a particularly turbulent year.

This episodic novel is my first foray into historical fiction and it was inspired by my father-in-law’s anecdotes about growing up on a P.E.I. farm during the Depression.

Family stories are like gold, but we don’t always recognize their value because they’re familiar. We often fail to appreciate the weight and charm of this rough ore, and the potential for refining and burnishing it into fiction.

Here’s how this novel started for me and one of the biggest challenges I encountered...

My father-in-law, John Gilmore, who is now deceased, lived in P.E.I. and my husband and I travelled there annually, treasuring our time on the Island and with John. Our mornings together were particularly special. In his small, brown kitchen, John would put on a pot of porridge, then he’d pull up the sides of the wooden table which he had built, so we could all sit comfortably around it. After we’d eaten, we’d linger at the table with our tea and coffee and just talk, talk and talk.

Often, this was when John would talk about his childhood – incidents both trivial and dramatic, some funny, some heart-breaking, and the general way of life back then. Being curious and sometimes frankly nosy – which I guess all writers have to be if we are to spin stories – I’d pepper him with questions. Perhaps I’d think to ask questions, as opposed to my husband, because the background wasn’t my given. In any case, pepper him I did, because I was fascinated by his anecdotes.

In part, maybe this was because my favourite books when I was growing up were the ANNE books by L.M. Montgomery, so anything about a bygone P.E.I. era carried charm.

But it wasn’t just that. John was a wonderful man, steady, deep, funny, and his anecdotes and his way of telling them reflected that. He also knew how to spin stories and jokes without getting bogged in irrelevant details; he knew how to pace it, and boy, did he know how to deliver a punch line. I wonder if people of that generation, who grew up without TV learned, almost by osmosis, the fine art of telling stories and jokes.

In any case, I loved his reminiscences about life on the farm, the bad turnip crop, the lost twenty dollar bill, the plane that landed in a neighbour’s field, and more.

One day, as I listened to him, I felt that familiar tingle inside me, the fire of story, and my mind began to trip overtime spinning fictional stories around John’s anecdotes. I felt that charge inside me that told me here was a book I wanted to write.

I thought it over carefully before discussing it with John, to be sure I did want to write this book. I never for a moment considered writing this as a biography; it's just not my forte, and anyway, sticking to bald facts can restrict the creation of a satisfying story arc. Incidents from people’s lives don’t necessarily make for good fiction or drama. I needed to feel free to make things up, to add humour and drama as needed in order to create story and meaning through fiction, because that’s what I do best. I firmly believe that I can tell a better truth through fiction than through bald facts.

It’s telling the truth through lies.

I had another reason for wanting to write this as fiction. For a story to resonate and sing, it needs characters with flaws. That’s easier to do in fiction than in biography. It’s unsettling, disrespectful even – or so I felt – digging for and then dishing the dirt on people you love. No, it had to be fiction.

So I asked John if I could use his anecdotes to craft into fiction, making things up as I needed, using fictional characters. He immediately agreed; he was pleased and even flattered that I was interested enough in his life to want to do that.

One of the biggest challenges when writing fiction inspired by stories, family or otherwise, is to create characters that are your own so you’re not harnessed to, or restrained by, the real people who may have inspired them.

I knew I had to create a main character that was inspired by, but was not, John. I had to find, unearth, chip out a character of my creation – someone I’d know inside out – so I’d feel free to weave stories through and in and around him without ever wondering at the back of my mind if John might do that. I had to be completely free to give my character flaws – all kinds of rashes, warts and tics – without being hampered by how that might reflect on John. I had to do this for all my characters, for the members of my main character’s family.

It was more of a challenge at first than I thought it would be. My ideas developed and evolved, and my research progressed so that my sense of that time period began to be coloured in with more precise detail and vision (more on that later). But as I tried to unearth, dig out and know my main character, I still found myself, at times, referring back to John’s persona, wondering what he might feel or do in a fictional incident, trying to understand him as a young lad.

I knew I hadn’t yet nailed that elusive main character, but that I had to find him in order to write this book – a character who could be himself.

So I chipped away at it. Finding the right name was crucial. I tried several before I settled on Roderick “Red” MacRae. I was aware that people might make the connection with that other red-headed P.E.I. character Anne Shirley, but my Red was not based on her. When I tried to change his name I couldn’t, because that name fit him – and by the way, no, his hair is not red!

Slowly, Red came into clearer and clearer focus. When I was finally able to name his flaws and his scratchy warts with certainty and conviction – and with the affection one feels for one’s characters – I knew that Red was real.

I’m not sure when that exact moment occurred – it was gradual and organic rather than one blinding aha! moment – it was a spiral of ongoing discovery to the heart of the character. But I knew I was there when I found myself wondering if some trivial incident I had in my head was something Red had told me about, or if I’d heard it from John.

That’s when Red became fully fleshed. That’s when he took the helm of his story.

And that is when the writing began to flow. I just love, love, love the stage when I know a character so well that all I have to do is follow him/her and write down what he/she does. This happened many times with Red; somehow he had a tendency to veer off in unexpected directions, to do things I hadn’t thought about consciously but which, after I’d written about them, were absolutely true and right, sometimes making me laugh out loud.

My next blog post will explore some of the other challenges of writing historical fiction.

Friday, April 29, 2011


I love this list -- it covers many basics!

~ Do not put statements in the negative form.
~ And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
~ If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
~ Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
~ Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
~ De-accession euphemisms.
~ If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
~ Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
~ Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.

William Safire, "Great Rules of Writing"

Friday, April 15, 2011


In my previous post I wrote about the long circuitous road to my newest novel THAT BOY RED, and how it started with my love of a book, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, by L.M. Montgomery.

This is how I first met Anne...

It was a hot day in late Spring, in Bombay (now called Mumbai) India. I was a student in Standard Four – Grade Four. I went to a private school, one of the best in Bombay – Cathedral and John Connon School. There was a girls school and a boys school back then, although later the schools merged and became co-ed. The girls’ uniform consisted of light cotton dresses with faint grey and white pin stripes, and a sash denoting the house (red, yellow, green or blue) to which the student belonged. I belonged to Red House, so I had a red sash.

My class was large and particularly lively and high spirited – read undisciplined – and as we grew older, we became the bane of all the teachers in school. I suspect that the unfortunate teacher who drew the short straw and was assigned our class threw herself down on the floor drumming her heels in despair and then went on to develop unexpected tics and twitches as the year progressed.

But back in Standard Four, we hadn’t yet reached the pinnacle of our potential for mischief. My teacher that year was a western woman, Mrs. Chaubal, and she had a great knack of handling us. I haven’t the faintest idea if she was British, Irish, American or Canadian. To us kids, all westerners were simply from abroad, and they all had funny accents because, of course, we spoke impeccable and unaccented English. What I do remember about Mrs. Chaubal is that she was pale skinned and freckled, had reddish hair tidily arranged in a French bun – a source of fascination to me – and she was smiling, enthusiastic, and had stocky legs and thick ankles.

One morning, Mrs. Chaubal, gathered us together in front of her desk to read to us. Perhaps she thought a morning read would calm our high spirits, or perhaps she simply wanted to share with us a book she loved.

It was that morning – squirming against the other girls on the hard vinyl floor, the overhead fan whirring our hair, with the faint school smells of disinfectant, chalk dust and sneakers wafting around us – that I first met Anne.

I was hooked from the start. Mrs. Chaubal read with great expression and energy, and she was adroit enough to skip the long descriptive passages that she thought might make us restless. Each morning, she read a part of the book, and each morning our eagerness to hear the story escalated. We were completely still and rapt as she read to us.

When the school year ended and the book didn’t, I had to find a copy of the book to finish the story. I had to find out whether Anne ever forgave Gilbert and what happened next.

I hunted the second hand book stores I frequented, and where I spent most of my pocket money, to no avail. I couldn’t find the book in the library across the road, either. Finally, I discovered it in a new book store and I unhesitatingly spent my precious pocket money on a brand new copy. I devoured the book. I was delighted to discover that there were sequels and I bought all the sequels I could lay my hot little hands on, and read them again and again.

I was an avid reader, and I used to trade books that weren’t keepers for other books to keep myself supplied with reading material. But I never dreamed of trading my Anne books. They were friends to re-visit over and over again. In one of my infrequent fits of organization, I arranged and numbered my books in order of their importance to me. ANNE OF GREEN GABLES was number one. Inside it I wrote:

The grass is green
The rose is red
This book is mine
'Til I am dead
P.S.Even after I’m dead.

I didn’t at first realize, not even after I’d read the books many times, that the world in which the books were set was a real place. I assumed that Anne’s world was entirely fictional.

I can’t remember exactly when I discovered that P.E.I., the place in which the books were set, was real. Perhaps it was when I studied Canada in a Geography class and the name Prince Edward Island leapt out at me and settled with a satisfying click against the name I’d read in the books.

But I do remember that the moment when I realized P.E.I. was real was a light bulb moment.

I decided in an exuberant burst of joyful adventure that one day I would go there. And so I did, after I graduated from university...and met my husband...and was inspired by my father-in-law’s anecdotes to write THAT BOY RED.

I don’t imagine that Mrs. Chaubal could have envisioned the far-reaching and life-changing impact she had on one small girl sitting in front of her, drinking in the words to the story she loved and shared with her students.

Perhaps you teachers who read aloud to your students don’t always get thanked. Perhaps you don’t hear about the lives you change – but be assured that you do change lives. If nothing else, you bring delight – yes, delight, the light – to your students.

Thank you, Mrs. Chaubal, where ever you are.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


My latest book, a middle-grade novel THAT BOY RED (HarperCollins Canada) will be out in bookstores in mid-April. Set in Prince Edward Island during the Depression the book follows the escapades – sometimes hilarious, sometimes hair-raising – of eleven-year-old Roderick “Red” MacRae, and his coming of age through a particularly tumultuous year.

Seeing this book in print feels in a strange and satisfying way like coming full circle. Like most authors, I am repeatedly asked where I get my ideas and about the stories behind the story. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember, so organic and convoluted is the process.

But the story behind RED is a long road that winds back to my childhood.

When I was a girl growing up in India and then England, one of my favourite books was ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L.M. Montgomery. I loved that book. I read and re-read it umpteen times, as well as its sequels, until the world in which it was set, Prince Edward Island, became as familiar to me as mine. Or perhaps more familiar in the magical way in which imagined and internal worlds can be more real than external ones.

I'm not quite sure what it was about this book that so gripped me, so worked into my inner being. Perhaps it's because Anne's world was so different from mine.

My world when I first met Anne (how I met her is another story, for my next blog post), when I first walked through the magic portal of that book, was Mumbai, a sprawling city teeming with people, hot, dusty, vibrant, a cacophony of colour and sounds.

Anne’s world was almost the polar opposite – rural, contained, peaceful, with familiar nooks and crannies, beloved fields, wild flowers, woods. I crossed roads with blaring traffic and a maidan – a field – to get to school, a field filled with people, the grass trampled by many feet. Anne walked through the woods, through Violet Vale to school. What were violets? What were mayflowers? I had hibiscus, boring, familiar old hibiscus.

I was fascinated by Anne’s cosy family life with Matthew and Marilla, the meals eaten together, the predictability and stability of chores. The satisfaction of contributing to the household. My parents, as upper middle class Indians, had an active social life and servants to do all the work. We children rarely ate dinner with our parents. (And dinner was always the evening meal; the mid-day meal always lunch.) I was wistfully envious of Anne’s chores – washing dishes seemed delightfully cosy and homey. So...pioneerish!

And I was fascinated by Anne’s climate. Oh, the magic of snow.

I’d never seen snow. My seasons consisted of hot, hotter and wet – the wet part being the monsoon, when you could count on rain every single day, and after which you could count on no rain every single day. The summers were dusty and dry, and only mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the noon day sun. And of course, children. If I went out anywhere in the summer, I’d collapse in a sweaty puddle – that’s right, sweat, no lady-like glow, never mind manly perspiration – under the fan when I got home. Anne snuggled into sweaters. I only ever wore a light cardigan on those odd winter days when the temperature dipped below hot.

The Anne books became beloved friends. They were a constant thread through my life when I moved with my family to England. And like all good friends, the books eased the longing and be-longing that such a seismic shift creates.

When I decided after graduating from University to come to Canada, the Anne books were my impetus for choosing Prince Edward Island.

It was there that I met and married my husband. It was there – during my fourteen years on the Island – that I jerked past my inertia and my fear of failure to finally embark on my dream of writing. It was there that I delighted in my first publication success – a book published by an Island press, and one that became a best-seller.

And this book, THAT BOY RED, my latest work of fiction – this book was inspired by my father-in-law’s anecdotes about growing up as a young lad in rural P.E.I. during the Depression.

I don’t think I ever dreamed or imagined when I was a girl in India – and my youthful dreams were wildly extravagant; I was not a parsimonious dreamer – that one day I’d live on the Island, marry an Islander and, inspired by my father-in-law’s anecdotes, write a book about a boy growing up on the Island, set in the era following Anne’s time.

Full circle.

Sometimes life is stranger – oh, so much neater, so much sweeter – than fiction.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing. ~Enrique Jardiel Poncela

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
~Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Criticism"

These quotes resonate deeply as I’m still obsessed with the fine-tuning of stories while I twitch and fiddle with my picture book manuscript, THE FLUTE, due out this Spring with Tradewind Books.

It seems to me that a good story is like a beautifully decorated and harmonious room.

What you don’t notice is the work that went into it.

Imagine it – an empty room. Imagine the wall colours, the furniture. The floor. Will you pick carpet or wood? Or marble? Imagine the swatches you bring home and try out in every light, the arguments with your spouse and kids, the vacillating mind about which colours and floors to pick. Imagine acquiring the right pieces of furniture, the hours and days or weeks of shopping, getting it delivered, moving the pieces around until they look just right, arranging and re-arranging, then hunting for those accessories that please your eye. Why are they so hard to find? How can it take days to hunt down the perfect candlesticks? At last you've found them. You place them here. No, perhaps there. Imagine the mess as there's stuff everywhere and nothing looks right and you wonder why you bothered to start in the first place.

Oh, but then you find the perfect rug, only now the furniture isn't quite right, so you'll have to change that and find pieces that work in the new plan. Aaaaargh. But you love the rug and it's perfect so...deep breath. Here we go. Again.

Gradually, there is a sense of order. The furniture in place. The pictures on the walls. Which ones will you hang, and where, and how high? Now you look at the whole and perhaps there are a few too many knickknacks? Perhaps you need to take a few things away?

You’ll probably leave it for a while, so you can see it with fresh eyes, perhaps even consult others whose tastes you trust – maybe an interior decorator – if you haven’t already done so.

When you’re finally done, you fill in and repaint the holes in the wall where you nailed the pictures before moving them, wipe the smudges off the walls – those damn fingerprints and pencil marks – put away the ladders and tools, vacuum up the mess, straighten the pictures, twitch the ornaments just so and curse that this fiddling process takes so long. So damn long. Finally you decide that's it, or perhaps you must stop because you had a deadline...those guests to dinner...but you must find the right coloured candles, dust, shine, polish.

Oh, if only you could stop fiddling. Just that shift of an ornament here. A teeny bit there. No, it was better before. LEAVE IT, ALREADY. It's time to say DONE.

You're exhausted. But the room looks great. Everyone says so. When the guests walk in they exclaim and admire. So harmonious, so clean. The flow of energy is just right, do you know Feng-shui? They're charmed by it all. Oh, and they just love glow of the candles.

They don't know what you put into it. The time, the energy and angst. The fights, the fatigue. The agonizing over minutiae.

No, they don't know see the work that went into it.

Sound familiar?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Pains and Perils of Reviewing Proofs – Part V

It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Lady Sings

How do I know when I’ve finished reviewing the proofs?

When the fat lady sings.

That’s me screaming when the publisher tells me it's all over, that I can't make any more changes. When they pry my hot little hands off the manuscript.

Which is all very traumatizing.

And a huge relief.

And did I say traumatizing?

And a relief?

Upon which I go and sink my face into chocolate–lots of it.

And wine–lots of it, too.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Pains and Perils of Reviewing Proofs – Part IV

No Sentence is an Island

Ah, this is one to remember when you review your proofs. NO sentence is an Island (my apologies to John Donne.) I have, at times, fiddled endlessly with one sentence, to get it just right.

But there are several pitfalls to watch out for:

A sentence can be well-crafted, but not fit in your particular piece because it doesn’t flow from and into the sentences before or after. This can be because the sentence length is too similar to the ones around it, or because the cadence or music of the words just don't sound right. No sentence is an Island.

A sentence can be well-crafted, but that particular perfect phrasing may not be true to your character’s voice. It must reflect the character, or be consistent with the narrator's voice. No sentence is an Island.

A sentence may be well-crafted but does it inadvertently repeat words in the sentences around it? No sentence is an Island.

When reviewing proofs, or for that matter, during any stage of editing, it's important to resist the temptation to over-fix a sentence. To remember the context.

Or to employ another metaphor, remember to look at the forest, not just the trees.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Pains and Perils of Reviewing Proofs–Part III

Over Fixing – A Common Pit-fall

One of the biggest problems I seem to have when I go through my proofs is over-correcting things.

Fiddling too much.

Often, as I read it through the proofs, I’ll change something. Something slight.

Later, when I read it over again, I'll change it back.

Then change it again.

Only to go back to the original.

If you know you’ve put in concentrated effort during all the previous stages of the work, then trust yourself, and don’t succumb to the temptation to make too many changes. Sometimes you can spoil a work by messing too much. Making the changes as elegant and slight as possible is a way of honouring your original vision.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Pains and Perils of Reviewing Proofs – Part II

In my previous post I talked about how crucial it is to read your proofs out loud.

One of the most important reasons for this is to make sure that your dialogue rings true.

Ah, dialogue.

When you read out loud, the pace of the dialogue, the pauses, become apparent. As does the phrasing.

More than likely, you'll find some places where your dialogue doesn’t sound quite right. It’s ineffable how you know, but you just do.

Here’s a way to try and discover where the problem lies: Try reading out the dialogue simply as dialogue, as you would in a play. No “he or she saids”. No descriptions of action in-between. Just dialogue.

If you can’t tell who is saying what, you need to fix your dialogue.

If the voice sounds stilted, if it doesn’t sound natural, the way someone might actually say it--if the flow isn't right--your dialogue needs fixing.

Also, try acting out the piece to see if you can get the dialogue to reflect the thoughts and feelings of your character--to show what he/she wants to convey, as well as what she/he wants to hide. In other words, the text and the subtext.