Sunday, August 28, 2016

Too Many Characters?


    I picked up a 'Grab Bag' labelled Historical Mysteries at the small local library in the Island town I now reside in.   I like historical mysteries and   I settled down to read one of the books with quiet anticipation.   Set in the early 1800's England, I was hoping for something along the line of the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters.  I won't name the book in hand but unfortunately consternation soon ensued.

     I've come across, and read, books that have a List of Characters in the first pages (sometimes as many as three or four pages) but at least there is a place to refer to.   As I began to read, I soon became dismayed as one character after another was introduced and then abandoned.   It became apparent that there were also several storylines.   A brief Chapter one of three and a half pages made three characters known  but, making up for lost time, Chapter two, in a different setting in England brought to life seven more characters, with descriptions of their appearance and attire.   My fingers twitched for a pencil and notepad as I admitted to myself that I was losing track.   Which characters were merely passing through the chapter and which persons, their quirks and alliances, should I attempt to imprint on my memory.

    Before I started Chapter three, it was starting to feel like a University exercise and since I have engaged in that activity sufficiently, I closed the book.  It was only Page 9.

     I've heard that people who attempt to read War and Peace,  have similar difficulties.   Wikipedia indicates some three dozen characters with Russian names that may be difficult to assimilate.   I definitely feel wimpy about my fragile effort but console myself that there are so many books and so little time.   

Friday, August 19, 2016


From a Prompt from my writing group:

     There needs to be difficulty so we have something to strive for . . . or against.

     Difficulty can't mean impossibility or we would be too discouraged.   Yet the difficulty must be real or we fool no one, least of all ourselves.

     The depth of the feeling of accomplishment is commensurate with the difficulty we have overcome in attaining our goal.  This cannot be determined objectively;  what is simple for one is challenging for another.  But then there's the risk of running into someone who has appropriated the motto:   You don't have to lift a finger if you can prove you're all thumbs!  

    Overcoming formidable tasks is reserved for one of a kind labours of love, not routine housework or yard word.  No, it must be something for posterity;  something to hang on the wall of a public building, or entered in the record books for all eternity.    But that leads to the query; is it useful, does it help humankind?    With artistic endeavours, who is the judge?   Some inventions, like the ubiquitous combustion engine have been both praised and cursed, perhaps particularly as they have lingered on past the date when some more environmentally friendly substitute should have been found.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

As a or Like a . . .

Many students remember learning about similes and metaphors.   Here's a definition in case you've forgotten:

    A simile, is a comparison using "like" or "as." for example:  My love is like a red, red rose  (Robert Burns)

    A metaphor is a comparison that speaks of one thing as if it were another:   The fluffy clouds were marshmallows wafting across the sky.

    Many similes and metaphors seem banal and over-used.

    I started a recent book, described on the cover as 'One of the great creations of modern thriller writing.'  (Daily Mail)   The author, Philip Kerr, has won prizes and awards and has his own page in Wikipedia.  Unfortunately, his book,  March Violets wasn't for me.   I found all the characters in 1930's Berlin to be some combination of violent, cruel, ignorant or immoral.  

    What came to my notice, and began to pull me out of the story-line on a regular basis, were the metaphors and similes in number and description of a degree I hadn't read before in one book.    Here are some examples:

    "Fatso pulled the huge brown-and-black moustache that clung  to  his curling lip like a bat on a crypt wall."  (Page 66)

    "Me, comfortable?  Like a Bauhaus chair, I am."  (Page 71)

    "It was meant to get me to climb aboard her bones like a creeper onto a trellis."  (Page 73)

    "I drove home feeling like a ventriloquist's mouth ulcer."  (Page 77)

    "Tesmer pointed a face at me in which belligerence was moulded like cornice-work on a Gothic folly."(Page 83)

    You'll notice that the preceding four examples are spread over a little more than a dozen pages.   I suppose the frequency with which they occur was what made me notice.

    And again, over the course of a few pages:

    ". . . but I hoped I had said enough to put a few ripples on his pond."  (Page 87)

    ". . . was possessed of a stomach that stuck out like a cash register."  (Page 90)   "He shook me by the hand . . . It was like holding a cucumber.  (Page 90)  "It was time to stick the nettle down his trousers."  (Page 90)

    "It made me feel about as comfortable as a trout on a marble slab,"  (Page 91)

    ". . . a nine storey building . . . looked like something a long-term prisoner might have made, given an endless supply of  matches . . ."  (Page 91)

    I found these metaphors and similes so fascinating that my writer's mind overcame my reader's and I was lost to the story.   I felt the urge to look up cornice-work on a Gothic folly and try to make the connection to someone's facial expression.   Was it a gargoyle that was being described?    The comparisons were all so fascinating and unique.   Had the writer left a '*' for himself on his working manuscript to come back and insert a simile or metaphor or had each one sprung into his mind in the course of writing?

    * My references are to the book contained in the trilogy Berlin Noir 2012.

    Sunday, August 7, 2016

    How much description is too much?

    Ernest Hemmingway was a writer who got to the point.   Cliff Notes, that longstanding resource of harassed college students, described his style thus:

     Basically, his style is simple, direct, and unadorned, probably as a result of his early newspaper training. He avoids the adjective whenever possible, but because he is a master at transmitting emotion without the flowery prose of his Victorian novelist predecessors, the effect is far more telling.

    He used short sentences and a terse style to get to the point in his stories and avoided adjectives.  

    When I read a book with a lot of adjectives and adverbs it can feel like I am walking on sand or worse, deep mud.   The story seems weighed down and it seems like the author is determined that I can visualize the scene or person just in the way he or she does.   I paused at Chapter 2 of a particular, to be unnamed mystery novel, after some ceramic floor tiles were described as celadon, unfortunately a new word to me  and this fact nagged at me sufficiently that I had to put down the book and look for my laptop and   (The colour is pale green or green-gray, by the way)  I thought I had mastered the colour wheel when I familiarized myself with puce, chartreuse  and cerulean.  

    The heroine had copper coloured hair and wore an aqua camisole and nude pumps, the second character  silky golden hair, navy slacks and  a gray linen blazer,  a third, mink brown hair and green eyes.   Then there was the aquaintance with doe-like brown eyes . . .

    What is your preference?   Lots of details and adjectives or do you create the character's appearance in your own mind?

    Sunday, July 31, 2016

    Smile and the world smiles with you

    There was a time when societal dictates favoured keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of fear or danger.   Or in another venue,  Don't wear your heart on your sleeve.   In the era of Pride and Prejudice, women especially  were expected to control their countenance and demonstrate neither glee nor misery.   A bland expression was preferred and outbursts of any kind were frowned upon. Privacy was greatly valued and many indiscretions and tragedies were played out behind the lace curtains.

    There is no such expectation today.   Anything and everything is shared whether in a loud cell phone conversation on public transit or on Facebook or Instagram.   We find out more than we want to know.    Insults and barbs are traded whether the object is a previous employer or a straying lover.    The internet never forgets as politicians and others have discovered to their dismay and regret.

    Blandness is boring and unrealistic today.   We are encouraged to share our feelings, to let it all hang out, not to bottle up anger and anxiety lest it fester and cause irreparable damage.   But if you have ever consoled a friend going through a divorce or coping with a seriously ill child, you might acknowledge that the strain of unrelieved  grief, even as a supportive friend, can be exhausting.

    We don't wish to return to the repressive past but a middle ground can be easier to live with, especially in the company of acquaintances, co-workers and strangers.    People who go through life with a positive attitude; those who smile regularly as opposed to finding fault with the world and all in it, lighten the load for all of us.

    Sunday, July 24, 2016


    I'm not referring to dinner and a movie or whatever presently constitutes a 'date'.   I'm thinking of how best to avoid references to old technology or ideas if a writer is attempting to be current.   Or the converse:   how to capture the flavour and authenticity or a time that is still in recent memory of potential readers.

    If a writer has set his tale in the Regency period of 17th Century England it is perfectly acceptable, correct even, to make statements like "A single man in possession or a large fortune must be in want of a wife."   (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice).   At the present time, no one would admit to being in want of a wife or husband or even a cold drink.

    One of the challenges of writing a period piece, even as relatively recent as World War II, is getting the jargon correct, not to mention the behaviours and clothing.   No mentions of the heroine wearing a racy push-up bra, when those dubious items weren't invented until 1947.   That's where the internet is so handy for fact checking.     It's like writing about a place you haven't lived in or even visited.   Even with Google Street view and long conversations with those who have been inhabitants, inevitably a small detail will trip you up . . . and haunt you long after the book is published.

    Attitudes change too, of course, but when was the tipping point?   Sexual diversity, smoking, or even bringing reusable bags for grocery shopping have varied from unacceptable to acceptable to downright desirable or undesirable in public opinion.

    I was recently reading a novel in which the protagonist couldn't get through on the telephone to another character, obviously because she was on the internet.   I had to stop for a moment to consider how that made a difference.   Down memory's path to the point where I recalled the screeching sound emitted if some unfortunate person picked up the telephone when the internet was being used.   Ah, dial-up internet.   Those difficult days were almost forgotten.   By then my train of thought required me to check the date of publication.   

    Period costumes, manners and mores are far enough removed to be fascinating but portable telephones that look like shoeboxes are only laughable and in a dramatic crime series not the effect the director was going for.

    Sunday, July 17, 2016


    From a Prompt from my writing group:


    (fortunately not my basement!)

               Any conversation that commences with I (or we) have a simple request, is bound to be complicated beyond belief, not to mention definitely not to my benefit.  Some people have a gift for getting others to do the job.  Some might call it 'passing the buck'

         Yes, it would simplify matters for the requestor if I would lead the committee, clean out the entire basement and paint the walls.   My father had a saying that the easiest money was that which you could talk yourself to.   I could add that the easiest job is the one you get someone else to take on.

         I've come to realize that enunciating the request is the simple part.   The execution is complicated, if not impossible.