Power Foods for Writers

Power Foods for Writers

Ruth E. Walker

In a perfect world, we writers would have a service that takes care of meals while we’re busy crafting another genius piece of writing. Someone who preps, cooks and delivers our meals. Someone who understands we’re “in the zone” and not to be disturbed.

As if.

Who among us could hire our own personal chef? Keep dreaming. A relative of mine is a personal chef. He’s provided with a private onsite apartment, prepares all the meals in a fully equipped gourmet kitchen and occasionally travels with his employers when they, ahem, go abroad.

We can only imagine. (Well, yes. We can imagine because we are writers.)

But what to do when our bodies (or our families) call for fuel but we just want to stay in the zone, creating beautiful words on the page? We have to eat, folks. Our brains demand we keep them functioning well as we write. So here are some options to keep fuel stops to a minimum of effort for a maximum of writing time.

Create a basic pantry

If you must cook (and pretty much you have to) make it is as easy on you as possible. Stock your pantry with tinned beans and legumes, a can or two of tuna and/or salmon, pasta, rice, canned tomatoes, boxed stock (beef, chicken or vegetable), onions, garlic, oil and a variety of spices.

Salmon Salad

There are plenty of pantry recipes online. From ifoodreal, I really like this salmon salad recipe. Simple. Quick. And adaptable to change up as you like. Jessica In the Kitchen offers an easy 15-minute Mediterranean chickpea salad that’s likewise quick and easy to change up ingredients.

I prefer to work from print cookbooks to avoid having to scroll through copious advertisements but online is a fast option to get you started.

Plan ahead

Try batch cooking. Pretend you have 10 people to feed and make a massive stew or lasagna or hearty soup. Portion it into containers and freeze it. Defrost when you need it. Toss a side salad and cut a slice of bread, and voila! Dinner is served.

I can recall a time when TV dinners were all the rage. Oh my. Sliced turkey brushed with thick gravy, mashed potatoes, peas and sometimes even dessert (!) in a divided tin foil pan. Simply heat in the oven and serve. They were terrible. And we all marveled at “modern living.”

Frozen meals have come a long way since rubber turkey and instant potatoes. So if you don’t have the time or inclination to batch cook, stock your freezer with a few prepared selections to give you more time to write.

You can always order in

If your budget will allow it, there are plenty of food options out there and not all of them are standard fast foods. Remember to give a nod in the direction of healthy by including salad and/or a side of veggies. And yes, cold pizza for breakfast is not out of the question when the Great Novel awaits.

A different option for ordering in: your weekly grocery shopping. Remember to put items on your list that can nourish without a lot of work: fresh fruit, simple veggies (broccoli, celery, carrots), salad fixings (or even a couple of bagged salads), and basic protein.

Several big chain grocery stores will deliver anything you can find inside their walls–from food to electronics to lawn chairs. Keep it simple with specialized delivery services that can drop off your weekly fruit and vegetable needs such as Mama Earth Organics and Durham Organics.

If you have that basic pantry set up and some basic condiments, along with eggs, cheese or protein alternatives in the fridge, you’ll have no reason to resent mealtime.

Last word

The Harvard Medical School published a summary of what foods we need to include in our diets to keep our brain function at a high level, especially as we get older. As writers, our cognition is vital so start chewing those leafy greens if you don’t already. And hooray! Tea and coffee are included in that summary.

A recent visit to the CBC website inspired me to explore this topic. In their Life section, they have 9 Wonderful Pantry Recipes — meant for anyone who thinks they have nothing to eat for dinner. For the most part, they looked pretty quick and simple. And that, for this writer, was all I needed.

Waiting Room

Waiting Room

Ruth E. Walker

As I write this, I’m at a local hospital playing the Waiting Game. My husband is undergoing surgery, a relatively routine repair of a long-standing issue. And I’m going to sit in this less-than-comfortable chair in a busy waiting room until he’s out of the OR, through recovery and on his way to a bed upstairs or, better yet, home.

So what’s a writer to do when the minute hand ticks by with the speed of a dripping faucet. A very slow dripping faucet.

I could write

There’s lots of ambient noise and I read recently that white noise was an important factor for many writers. My friend Rabindranath Maharaj worked on several of his novels in coffee shops. A Globe & Mail article cites a 2012 paper by researchers at the University of British Columbia describing the creative benefits of working in certain noisy settings. They found that in the buzz of low-level noises, our brains can easily shift into broader thinking, a useful tool for developing concepts or brainstorming.

So, I should be writing. Let all this hubbub and Paging Nurse White and Code Blue 3rd Floor murmur in the background as I map out the Next Great Novel. I should be writing. But I can’t because I worked in a hospital years ago and I know what those announcements mean. Too distracting despite being a useful tool and all that.

I could read

The second-best thing for a writer to do–if you can’t write, well then, you should read. I have a book with me, Louise Penny‘s Still Life. Even though last night I reluctantly put it down to turn out the light, here, in this waiting room, I’ve read the same page three times. Even great writing can’t hold me.

There’s a few well-worn magazines over in the corner. I could put my gloves back on (germs, don’t you know) and pick up a gossip publication and distract myself with movie news about who’s getting divorced, married, a film deal, and so on. But as I said. I’ve worked in a hospital. I know what those announcements mean. I’d just get to the interesting part about how some little-known actor finally gets the part she’s been waiting for and…Code Blue.

I also know what the look on that surgical nurse’s face means, too. She’s delivering difficult news to the couple across from me. It’s not the worst news–they don’t do that in the waiting room, that’s done behind closed doors. But somebody’s surgery is not as routine as they thought. So it puts my dripping faucet timeline into perspective.

I could go for a coffee

The cafeteria is just down the hall and around the corner. But if I leave, I’d miss watching the screen of the Family Tracking monitor showing where patients are in the process. For privacy, each patient is given a number and a rolling scroll of those numbers is colour-coded depending on their progress. I’m watching for the number that is my husband to move from In OR green into the next colour, purple PostOp.

So clearly, I can’t go for a coffee because I’d miss the change. And change is good when the clock ticks like a…well, you know.

Open my eyes

So this writer is going to do the only thing she can: watch. At an Andrew Pyper workshop some years ago, I recall his referring to a useful kind of watching for writers are “reportage” observations. Without emotion, observe. Focus on details but don’t attach those details to motivation. Be specific but don’t speculate.

It’s surprising how tough that actually is for me. I’m naturally a “speculator”, wondering about the possible reasons for any given behaviour that catches my focus. Thinking about second thoughts, hesitations, determinations. It’s what drives a lot of my writing. The ever-nagging why.

But with Pyper’s reportage, it is this…an older woman in a red puffy jacket pushes a large navy blue stroller down the hall toward the cafeteria. The little girl in the stroller is asleep, her round face, closed eyes and wisp of black hair just visible above the side of the stroller. They pass an orderly in pale blue scrubs pushing a stainless steel cart, the wheels squealing as he saunters by in the opposite direction. The little girl wakes and begins to scream.

These descriptions are to be tucked away and pulled out later. Perhaps to add some verisimilitude to a scene, drop in a touch of “the real” to ground a narrative.

Old habits…

Of course, I can’t do that very well either. And it has nothing to do with the colour coding on the Family Tracking monitor. It has everything to do with that little girl’s scream. What horror did that squealing wheel awaken in her? Could she be possessed? Is she reliving a trauma? Did the orderly secretly kick the stroller to waken the baby and distract us all from some nefarious scheme unfolding a few doors away?

It appears perhaps I do need a certain amount of noise to trigger some broad thinking. Especially when my attention is so keenly focussed elsewhere. If nothing else, the clock’s slow progress is forgotten for a few seconds.

And look. There it is. The patient number that means the world to me has moved into a new colour: Recovery Room orange. And the doc says he can come home today, after all.

Be a writer, after all

So, the takeaway for me in all of this? Earlier, I said the only thing I could do is “watch” a la Andrew Pyper’s reportage approach. Well, clearly, I also can write in a distracting environment and the evidence of that is this blog post.

Though truthfully, I’d not want to be sitting here again anytime soon. Instead, I’ll head to a coffee shop or hotel lobby or shopping mall to get my distraction fix.

How about you? Can you write anywhere? Or, like some writers, do you need absolute silence in a pristine setting?

The Spirit of Sharing

The Spirit of Sharing

Ruth E. Walker

As noted in last week’s Top Drawer, Gwynn and I attended the Spirit of the Hills (SOH) Festival of the Arts in Cobourg, and filled our creative wells with workshops on the craft of writing. But there was more energy and inspiration to be found in the community rooms at St. Peter’s Anglican Church.

Ruth at Writescape’s table

Drawing together the arts of all kinds, the festival celebrated visual arts, music, theatre, dance and literature. And in each of those disciplines, there was a myriad of creative expressions. From Flamenco dancing to fabric art to photography to performance poetry, SOH festival attendees were treated to a rich immersion in the arts.

Not only were there feasts for the eyes and ears, there were several opportunities for collaboration and communication between artists.

Gwynn moderated an intriguing panel discussion between four poets, who proved that poetry is not just an economy of words on the page. Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate emeritis was joined on the panel by American/Canadian poet Katie Hoogendam, subversive poet Wally Keeler and performance poet Dane Swan. The audience was challenged to consider how each poet approached their craft

A Royal reception

Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell

The arts tend to be taken for granted, so when the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, entered the exhibition hall on Friday afternoon, the excitement meter rose significantly.

She is the Queen’s representative in Ontario, and in her own words, is “Storyteller in Chief.” Her Honour knows the power of words to engage others, and holds close the stories she hears from her travels throughout the province. Gwynn and I were delighted when she stopped by our table for a brief chat.

Reva Nelson & Piers Walker

On Friday evening, we were treated to an evening of music, dance and theatre. As much as I enjoyed all the offerings, one short play held a special joy.

“Mouse”, by Marie-Lynn Hammond, explores how two different commuters — an introverted older woman and an over-active young man — have far more in common than they first realize. Of course, the fact that I had a connection with the young male actor might have influenced my strong preference. Cannot lie: I’m always a proud mother when I watch any of my children do something they love.

Mixing up the arts

The arts were thrown into a different mix of voices when Saturday’s lunchtime panel, moderated by Alan Bland, brought together poet Dane Swan, multi-talented singer-songwriter David Newland, award-winning author K.D. Miller and opera singer turned author and editor, Christopher Cameron. The audience engaged in a free-ranging discussion on the challenges and benefits of sharing across the arts.

Our consensus? There’s a definite richness of thought when artists of various disciplines take the time to talk with and learn about each other.

Marie-Lynn Hammond
& San Murata
Gwynn reading poetry

But the best example of sharing across the arts, for me, was the very cool Words on the Wire, multi-media event on Saturday afternoon. Video poems engaged our eyes and minds, exquisite music and singing rose to the rafters in the chapel setting, pioneer Susanna Moodie addressed the audience, and poetry and prose was shared by diverse voices. Musician and songwriter Marie-Lynn Hammond was joined by acclaimed violinist San Murata. And a personal favourite of mine, Gwynn Scheltema, read two gorgeous poems from her poetry manuscript.

By bringing together a diverse gathering of arts and artists, the Festival attracted the attention of the Queen’s representative, someone who regularly consults with the provincial government and who articulated her belief in the power of grassroots art and volunteer activity to bring people together and enrich their lives. The Festival showcased the work of creative people in a public, accessible place. But more than that, Spirit of the Hills festival organizers created a space in which artists could share ideas, inspiration and art forms with each other.

The Festival of the Arts is held every two years in Northumberland County. I’ll be marking fall 2021 on my calendar to be ready for another immersion in the many creative experiences that will be on offer. In the interim, I’ll be looking at ways I might collaborate with various artists to see what synergy can develop.

Collaboration + creative people = ??? Share in the comments what you think can come out of collaboration across art forms.

Collaboration Opportunity

Applications have just opened for Halls Island Artist Residency in Haliburton County. For summer 2020, organizers are dedicating one 12-day residency for up to four artists who want to collaborate on a project(s).

main cabin

Halls Island is an off-grid, eco-sensitive island on Koshlong Lake. Residencies are available to artists of all disciplines. Other than a $10 non-refundable application fee, residencies are free to successful applicants.

“As an environmental artist and geo-poet, the Island itself was a way to rejuvenate, and become re-inspired in my practice.”


Sophie Edwards, artist residency at Halls Island, 2019

Applications and additional details are available online.

Sum Up The Story

Sum Up The Story

Ruth E. Walker

The manuscript is finished. You’ve edited until you can’t look at the words for one more minute. Your beta readers are all giving you the Thumbs Up. It’s ready to go out.

Then you see it. On the submissions page of the publisher you hope will publish your book. They want a synopsis. (Cue Jaws music.)

Good grief. You’ve perfected your manuscript. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Get over it. They want a synopsis and you have to produce one. So let’s cover the main points to help you pull it together.

Just the important bits

A synopsis is a kind of point-by-point outline of the story, summarizing what happens and who is changed by the end.

A synopsis is not a marketing tool but the first paragraph should offer a touch of a hook or any of the unique elements of the story. It’s not written like your novel yet it should hold a sense of your writing voice…your style…and the genre/style of the book. And just as important, it’s not a jacket blurb so be prepared to reveal the ending.

If a synopsis is interesting enough, agents and publishers will want to read the manuscript despite knowing the ending.

Short is sweet

For a novel, a synopsis can be as short as one page or as long as five pages. I recommend going shorter. Ideally, no more than two pages.  Unlike the manuscript, text is single spaced so you have a fair amount of room in those two pages.

To take full advantage of two pages, keep to the main story and the primary characters. You’re outlining the events but this is not a point-form summary. So your creative self needs to come through in how the synopsis is crafted. You can, for example, lift a slice of description or a touch of dialogue right out of the manuscript to use in your synopsis.

For example:  Mary is distraught by her husband’s perceived betrayal. “I’ve wasted years of trusting you!” Little does she realize that she is the one who betrayed them both.

Motivation + action = story

A synopsis needs to introduce the main characters, a touch of character(s) motivation and reveal conflict right from the beginning.

Don’t be coy—set the stage for the rest of the story:  Mary and Omar are the ideal couple, leaders in their rural community and a successful left-leaning political team. Newly re-elected mayor, Mary is confused when Omar opts to resign his council seat without telling her first. But when she discovers he’s involved with a far-right insurgency, she’s horrified and throws him out of their home. Then terrorists take a bus full of school children hostage and Omar is the only person they’ll negotiate with.

Subplots are not part of a synopsis but you can offer a single line or two if it matters to the main story.

For example: The themes of betrayal and loss are mirrored in a subplot involving school friends. In the same way, background or walk-on characters don’t need to be mentioned unless they are integral to the plot. As with subplots, keep it to one line: When the terrorist spokeswoman hesitates, she’s executed by the leader who then gives police 5 minutes before one of the children will be killed.

Zip up the ending

When you get to the ending, don’t short change your synopsis. Demonstrate how your ending has punch or significance: As Mary holds a dying Omar in her arms, she realizes her refusal to listen to the only man she’s ever loved cost him his life. Whispering into his ear, she promises to raise their unborn child with a true understanding of its father and his beliefs.

Check for basics

 There are several ways to tackle a synopsis. A simple approach builds it from listing the major turning points for your main character, then fleshing out a brief summary of the action at each point. Don’t forget to keep the whole narrative arc in mind as you work:

Inciting incident or the crack in the world of your main character that sets them off.

Rising action or the events that add tension and propel the story forward.

Climax or the point of excitement, ultimate change or Oh My God moment.

Resolution or the place that brings the story to a close.

There’s no perfect way to write your synopsis. But if you keep to these four elements, add in a dash of your writerly style and remember to focus on the main story, you should be well on your way to a compelling two-pager.

The Last Word: more synopsis resources

https://blog.reedsy.com/how-to-write-a-synopsis/ — examples and ideas on building a great synopsis.

https://theeditorsblog.net/2012/07/15/clear-the-dread-from-the-dreaded-synopsis/— a detailed analysis of the how and why of synopsis. A long read but packed with things to consider once you’ve got the basics put together.

Hike to Write

Hike to Write

Ruth E. Walker

For the past two years, I’ve participated in the Hike Haliburton Festival, leading one of the more than 100 hikes held over 4 days each fall. But not just any trek through the woods or up a hillside, my hike is called a Hike and Write: Inspiration Trail.

It all started three or four years ago when Barrie Martin, a curator of outdoors experiences in Haliburton County, invited me to sponsor a hike in the festival. Our back and forth correspondence led to him inviting me to instead lead a hike in 2018.

Me? Lead a hike? At first, I had this picture of some of the challenging trails I’d portaged and hiked over the years. Frankly, I’m past all that.

But Barrie persisted. Told me I could design whatever kind of hike I might like that would include writing.

And that’s the so cool factor that elevates the Hike Haliburton Festival from a series of treks in the bush to hikes that integrate the arts, culture, heritage and foodie experiences.

For example, Hike for Art’s Sake was a wander along quiet roads with a local artist to sketch abandoned buildings from bygone days. And for the mushroom lover, they could take the Fungophile Foray, an easy walk in search of edible fungi. All 115 of the 2019 hikes were free.

After hosting two back-to-back hikes last year, I opted to extend the pen with a single walk in the morning and an afternoon writing at my cottage. Five hikers joined me at Dahl Forest for a hike along the Big Bend Trail Loop. They were ready to walk along, using the senses to make observations to apply to writing opportunities.

Special guest magic

Just before we started, a sixth hiker arrived. A celebrity guest, in fact. The 2019 Writer in Residence for Haliburton, Susanna Kearsley, joined us. The bestselling author of 13 books was generous with her time and attention to the other hikers. Notebook in hand, she explained how paying attention to small details is a vital part of recreating reality in her novels. How the light hits the lichen and moss on a rock, or the power of the damp scent of a pine forest — these are the kinds of things she looks for and records.

Dahl Forest

The weather was perfect. A stunning blue September sky, a light breeze riffling the tall pines and fir trees, and a carpet of moss and pine needles underfoot.

Susanna Kearsley captures a scene

Stopping at a riverside picnic bench, I led the hikers in a freefall writing exercise. The pen starts and doesn’t stop. Writers are encouraged to “follow the energy” and “write what comes up.” There’s more to it but that’s for another time.

It was magical. I was wondering how well the afternoon could go given how perfect the hike and morning had unfolded. Would an afternoon of tea and light refreshments lead to more brilliant writing?

I needed not to worry. The afternoon was just as perfect as the morning had been. Was it spent writing in hushed stillness, against the backdrop of the cottage birdsong and rustling leaves in the breeze?

Not exactly.

Inspiration comes in all forms

It was, instead, a delightful afternoon of discovery. Over tea, coffee, cheeses, fruits and ginger ale, Susanna shared some of her experiences as a writer. She spoke of her research and pleasure in writing. And soon enough, the conversation turned to the importance of story.

I sat to one side, judging just when I’d suggest clearing the table to start to write. I waited for the inevitable lull in the conversation.

But then — oh then — the real magic happened when the topic of films that tell a good story came up. And chief among them, the Marvel movies. It turned out that Susanna and one of our hikers (and a colleague writer of mine), Stephanie, were both big fans of the comic book film series. Drawn to the cinema for the strength of story and characters that carry that story, the two fans exchanged favourite movie titles.

The other hikers were intrigued and soon enough, Susanna and Stephanie were curating the ultimate list of Marvel movies to watch. Titles were broached, discussed, discarded and reordered into a “must see” list, and in what order they should be seen.

I’ll admit relief that Guardians of the Galaxy was included on that list — I’m an old-school Marvel fan but that revised rag-tag band of misfits resonated with me. At this point, I stopped to consider what we were all talking about. Frankly, I was perplexed by how a writing afternoon morphed into an analysis of superhero characters, their origins and challenges.

And then I got it. It’s the story, stupid.

What drove Stephanie and Susanna to get into such animated chatter about the film series was to talk about the power of story to transport us. Story in cinema led to the Marvel movies and the rest, as they say, was our afternoon.

2019 Hike & Write: Inspiration Trail

As the afternoon wound down, the hikers went home elated with their day spent hiking and writing in the morning and exploring ideas of story at my cottage. The curated list of “must see” movies went with them and they were already planning a series of binge movie nights.

Was this a silly thing to end our hike with? Absolutely not. We all crave story in our lives.

From the once-upon-a-times of our childhoods to the complexity of a well-crafted novel, it’s story that nudges our imagination and offers us new ways of seeing our world. It’s why we write. And thankfully, story can be found just about anywhere: on a morning walk through a stunning forest or over tea and biscuits in a rustic cottage.

Lucky us. We get to find those stories and make them our own.

Fall for Workshops

Fall for Workshops

Ruth E. Walker

The autumn season is always a busy time: harvesting the last of the crops and taking in the warmth of daytime sun. We’re all aware winter is waiting in the wings.

For writers, this often means hunkering down into our writing space and getting serious about our projects. Maybe we start a new story or poem, review our plot and character arcs, or ready our works in progress for submission.

Getting serious can also include taking workshops, attending events or signing up for long-term courses. At the very least, getting serious means being open to learning something new about the business or craft of writing. In short, adding to your writer’s toolkit.

The British novelist Matt Haig (How to Stop Time, The Radleys and Reasons to Stay Alive) offers this about courses in creative writing:

To say that creative writing courses are all useless is almost as silly as saying all editors are useless. Writers of all levels can benefit from other instructive voices.

Matt Haig

Of course, you can find quotes from bestselling writers that will say the opposite–that you either have it or your don’t. Workshops won’t make any difference, etc.

But I side with Matt. We all have the ability to write, to shape ideas into words, to blend those words into sentences and put those sentences into a kind of order to say what we want to say. But even natural ability, dogged determination or unique vision will benefit when a writer focuses on the why and how of the craft.

Of course, I have an interest professionally in writers taking courses because I occasionally offer workshops. And I’ve seen first hand the discoveries and breakthroughs many of those participants have made in my workshops. But I also take workshops and attend writers events because I always learn something new. Every. Single. Time.

Ready, set…learn

For the next few weeks, I’ll be involved in several learning opportunities, either as a participant, organizer or instructor. This doesn’t include my biweekly meetings of Critical MS, an intense critique group where we all learn from offering and receiving feedback on our works in progress.

On September 28, I’ll be attending From Inspiration to Publication, a professionals panel of folks with publishing know how. The world of publishing has never been more interesting so I’ll want to understand more about self-publishing, audio books and co-operative approaches. Compare and contrast, as they say.

From Inspiration to Publication Saturday September 28

Located in Minden, Ontario, the morning panel discussion will be instructive with Scott Fraser from Dundurn Press, Shane Joseph from Blue Denim Press, Frances Peck from West Coast Editorial Associates and freelance writer and children’s author, Heather M. O’Connor. Author and journalist Jim Poling Sr. will moderate the panel.

In the afternoon, I take off my participant hat and put on my workshop facilitator hat to offer a hands-on workshop From Inspiration to Publication, running concurrently with the one-on-one sessions participants have booked with the panellists.

I know this will be a fantastic event because I’m also one of the volunteer organizers for the Arts Council Haliburton Highlands, Literary Arts Roundtable. Three hats. One event.

Travelling words

I’ll be back in Durham Region on October 17, meeting with the Sunderland Writers Group at the local library. I’m an invited guest, sharing some exercises along with writing tips and resources to support the launch of this new group.

On October 22, I’ll be offering a creative writing workshop for the Peterborough Library for their Try It Tuesdays program. Try it Tuesdays is meant to be a taster for anyone curious about creative writing. Experienced writers can challenge themselves in this workshop by going deeper with each of the exercises.

Laura Rock Gaughan

On October 23, I’ve organized an evening writing workshop at the Haliburton Library with author Laura Rock Gaughan. Laura was a resident artist at the Halls Island Artist Residency in Haliburton County (another of my volunteer organizations) and this workshop is part of her community project for the residency. As a side note, Laura is also the recently appointed executive director of the Literary Press Group, representing 60 independent publishers in Canada.

October 24 to 26, Gwynn and I will be in Cobourg at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts. The Festival is a celebration of sharing across the arts, and naturally Writescape will be there as participants and to showcase what we do.

Gwynn has worn several hats for this event too. She was an editor for the anthology Hill Spirits IV that will launch on the Saturday evening; as a co-host of Word on the Hills on Northumberland 89.7FM she has interviewed several of the participants in the festival line-up, and she was the judge for the poetry contest run by the festival. Even my son Piers will be performing in a play that was a winner in the playwrights contest.

Shelley Macbeth

On November 2, I’ll be at the Book Drunkard Festival in Uxbridge, Ontario, offering my half-day workshop, A Recipe for Great Characters. From October 17 to November 3, the Festival — a brainchild of the great Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books — celebrates all things bookish. As the website says: The festival captures the wonderment of the written word and its ability to intoxicate, transport and transform.

When winter comes, spring can’t be far behind…

Once you’re finished with all that hunkering down in winter, you’ll want to dig out and be inspired as nature comes back to colourful life.

Spring Thaw 2019

Join Gwynn and Ruth at Writescape’s Spring Thaw writers’ retreat April 17, 2020. Choose from 3 days, 5 days or 7 days to focus on your writing. The all-inclusive escape includes lakeside accommodation at Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake and all meals, as well as all taxes and gratuities.

One-on-one feedback sessions, daily workshops and group gatherings over the weekend combine with plenty of private time for writing and reflection. $250 deposit secures your spot at Spring Thaw 2020.

A Writer’s Voice

A Writer’s Voice

Ruth E. Walker

In my workshops, I often remind writers that their voice is unlike anyone else’s. No one has their life experience, no one thinks with the same brain or writes with the same heart. Writers may share the same topic or scenario or even characters, but none will produce the same story in the same voice.

The voice with which we write is unique to each of us. It’s found in the types of words we prefer to use, the kinds of sentence structure that fits our imagination, the things we choose to include or exclude, the punctuation, verbs and metaphors. Our writing is full of signposts for readers: This is a story by…Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro…

At the same time, a writer’s voice is not exactly a static quality. As we experience life, our deepening well of compost combines with new material and alters our perspective and thus, affects our writing. But essentially, the core of our voice—the beating heart of our motivation and the words that flow from that core—that doesn’t change.

So what does that change in perspective bring us if it doesn’t affect our voice?

Tone.

Tone is the mood of our writing

It’s in the email we fire off to a company to complain about a faulty product. My preferred tone in those emails is more like I’m disappointed but giving you a chance to fix it versus You people suck and I’m never buying a thing from you again. We may be using our writer’s voice with word choice and punctuation but a complaint email is not the same tone one uses to invite friends and family to a party, right?

A recent trip to the Stratford Festival in Ontario got me thinking about the difference between a writer’s voice and tone.

Our playbill included a matinee performance of William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (a history play that should appear on the stage more often, especially if Martha Henry directs it) and an evening spent chortling away during The Merry Wives of Windsor (a comedy both hilarious and uncannily fit for our times.)

Same author (I thought) on the playbill. Same iambic pentameter. Only…I thought Henry VIII‘s prologue sounded off to me. It all seemed a bit “loud” and “instructive” in tone. Same with the epilogue.

Will didn’t write it all!

A bit of research revealed that a collaborator, playwright John Fletcher, worked with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and likely contributed the prologue and epilogue, as well as nearly half of the play. Admittedly, I didn’t notice the change in voice elsewhere, but I think my reaction to the prologue and epilogue relates to how non-Shakespeare they felt.

Is that because I like Shakespeare’s work so much that I noticed when the featured lines didn’t quite deliver The Bard to my ear? I’m not sure. This is not the only play on which he had a collaborator. But it was a revelation to discover that someone else contributed both prologue and epilogue to Henry VIII, along with full scenes including the last four scenes of the final act.

Nonetheless, the production at the Stratford Festival is outstanding: high moments of drama, tender pathos and a healthy dollop of pageantry is expertly delivered.  Of course, Shakespeare’s trademark irony brings occasional smiles, but the tone of the play is serious and reflective, with a shift into pomp and ceremony at the end at the baptism of the infant Princess Elizabeth.

The Merry Wives of Windsor could not be more opposite with “pomp” placed squarely in over-amorous Falstaff’s pompous conceit and “ceremony” delivered through weddings—only one of which was real. Farcical and staged with plenty of visual hilarity, the tone of this play is decidedly different from the serious historical Henry VIII.

And yet. There is an undercurrent that suggests the mistaken conclusions of a jealous husband  could have unhappy consequences. And how very modern to have two women as central characters, devising a plot to shame a lecher. Thrice. (Falstaff is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.)  And to have a daughter choose her husband, instead of the choices of her parents, is likewise a modern twist in a time when marriages were driven by economics and social standing.

Tone can’t hide voice

Despite the collaboration in Henry VIII, both plays held the trademarks of Shakespeare’s voice: iambic pentameter in free verse, rhyming couplets to emphasize dramatic moments, themes of love, betrayal, confused identities. His metaphors and similes enrich meaning in a language that is almost foreign to contemporary audiences. And his invented words—nouns and verbs—remain in current use.

Critic.

Bandit.

Swagger.

For more on his wordsmithing, See Grammarly’s 15 words invented by Shakespeare.  But more than inventing words, the worlds Shakespeare invented were stories that hold lessons for our world today.

Not born a genius; he worked for it

As he honed his craft, the sometimes stilted structure of Shakespeare’s earlier plays gave way to more natural breaks and punctuation. His characters moved from near-stereotypes to more nuanced humans with flaws that made them shine. Like all of us, he learned to make language work for what he wanted to achieve on the page…and, on the stage. And his voice remained, naturally, his.

Shakespeare’s plays hold different tones: from sombre and heartbreaking tragedies to hilarious near-slapstick antics and imaginings. But they carry the same voice, one that keeps us coming back to productions since the 1590s. And that is a track record any of us would long to have.

Rebuilding Your (Porch) Novel

Rebuilding Your (Porch) Novel

Ruth E. Walker

Sometimes what happens in our lives has a weird way of being reflected in our writing journeys. It’s a bit like the universe has a sense of humour. And sometimes, we get to laugh. Or at least smile.

At the end of winter at the cottage, it was lovely to see the deep snowdrifts finally melt. Of course, there were also lots of cold snaps, so that the melt was often stopped in its tracks. That included on the roof of our screened porch. Melt freeze. Melt freeze. Melt freeze. We were unable to get up to the cottage for a couple of weeks to check for ice. The ice dam formed. And then the April rain came.

Soon enough, it was raining inside the screened porch. A dozen buckets could barely keep up.

So my husband and I got on top of the roof, for hours scraping off the ice build up. Finally, all the ice was cleared off.

Sifting through a mess

But the damage was done. Not only did we have to replace the roof but some walls, insulation and flooring had to be ripped out. Then, time to shore up the foundation. Add new load-bearing beams.  

Given some moments to rest between ripping out and building back up, I had some time to reflect. It is, I thought, a lot like editing.

Which is what I am doing with my novel in progress. The story explores some turning points in my character’s childhood, teen years and his life as a young man. As the novel is based on an old Breton fairy tale, I wrote earlier drafts all in chronological fashion. Once upon a time…to…They lived happily (ahem) ever after.

But I’ve come to realize the novel isn’t quite working in that structure.

Renovate buildings…or books

So I’m ripping out walls (chapters.) Re-positioning the roof (plot.) Shoring up the foundation (thematic elements.)  And adding load-bearing beams (character development.)

But, like the repairs to our screened porch, I’m making discoveries as I go.

If you have to re-position the screened room roof, you need to consider the roof line of the main (original) building. So, as I’m playing with the plot, I wonder how far I can deviate from the original fairy tale.

Pretty far as it turns out. Just like the screened porch’s roof revision.

Advantages to major repairs

The porch’s new roof line meant walls needed to be built higher. So why not add regular windows instead of the nailed-in screens if we’re doing that? And how about a patio door to bring in more light? And let’s insulate under the floor instead of just the walls. A 3-season room takes on new life for all four seasons.

So as I work with my novel’s plot, I’m bringing in new characters, new scenes, new possibilities to raise the stakes for my character. I’m picking the pockets of other old fairy tales, travelling the world of fable and fabrication to discover ways to enrich the story. Taking a page from the braided essay format, I’m tossing aside chronological structure and weaving together childhood, teen years and adult life.

Will it work? Well, I hope so. But even if I end up back with the chronological beginning-to-end structure, I have far more to work with than when I finished the original draft.

It’s a whole new look.  And I think I’m moving in.

Workshop News

If you want to see Ruth’s Haliburton cottage porch reno in progress, come to her all-day workshop Saturday June 15. Create Compelling Characters will offer writers a series of hands-on exercises and inspiring explorations of character in fiction, memoir and nonfiction. Nestled among the pines, overlooking the lazy river, it’s a location that holds inspiration and the echoes of writers who’ve written their novels in The Rustic.

Serendipity. Curiosity. Chutzpah.

Serendipity. Curiosity. Chutzpah.

Ruth E. Walker

For writers, serendipity, curiosity and a dash of chutzpah will uncover treasures: a great story or fascinating characters. Recognizing that moment and then acting on it can make all the difference.

A recent trip to meet colleagues for lunch gave Gwynn and me a chance for a leisurely stroll up Bay Street in Toronto. Spring was everywhere. Warm air and gentle sunshine. Pedestrians wore the slightly bemused smiles of people waking after a long and lingering winter.

And all along the sidewalk, cement planters outside of massive glass-walled corporate towers were a riot of spring blooms.

Gwynn was in photo op heaven, snapping pictures of especially vibrant flowers.

Purple pansies. Heady-scented hyacinths. Daffodils dancing in the breeze. And tulips.

Oh my, the tulips. Cupped heads reaching up, announcing the season, green spikes of leaves catching the sunlight. Red. Pink. White. Yellow.

And at one especially beautiful set of flower-rich planters, white tulips with the red streaks. “Canada 150 tulips,” I called to Gwynn. I so wanted to have those tulips in 2016 to plant for 2017 and celebrate our country’s sesquicentennial. But they sold out so quickly, I missed the chance.

I noticed a woman working on one of the planters, a large plastic garbage bin next to her and her hands busy yanking out any tulips that were drooping or beginning to widen their blooms. I couldn’t believe that they were replacing the tulips already. We had a long way to go before spring would give way to summer-stocked planters.

Gwynn and I walked over to her and, after a short conversation, learned that any spring flowers close to the end of their bloom (yes, tulips have a fairly short bloom time) would be removed. And if they drooped, they were doomed.

“What happens to the bulbs?” I asked, eyeing the garbage bin nearly full of bulbs, leaves and flower heads.

For this office tower, garden companies are contracted to fill the planters. Building staff — like this woman — maintain the planters, removing any tulips and bulbs. The bulbs? “Compost,” she said. “Garbage.”

Gwynn and I left there, continuing our walk to lunch.

And our pockets and purses? Full of bulbs.

The woman thought were nuts but happily let us pick up half-a-dozen bulbs each and squirrel them away in our purses. And I nabbed a solitary Canada 150 tulip to decorate our lunch table.

From bulbs to books

If we had just walked away, empty-handed, regrets would have followed me home. Regrets are a part of life but they should be the exception. How many times have you regretted something you should have captured in your writing?

Waking from a dream, full of a story that vanishes like wisps of clouds by the time you brush your teeth, grab a quick yogurt, pour your coffee and sit at your computer.

Listening in on a fascinating conversation at a bus stop, box office line-up or café and promising yourself to write it down as soon as you get home but life was busy as you walked through the door and by the time you sit at your computer hours later, those words are now jumbled snatches that lost their energy.

Visiting a new place — a different city, a trip to the country, a historic building — any opportunity to tickle your muse and fire up your creative juices, can be gold to a writer. And that gold can crumble like pyrite if ignored–or turn into platinum if the writer mixes serendipity with curiosity and a dash of chutzpah. (I’m still toying with a story idea about the Roman gladiator who left behind graffiti on the Colosseum.)

Essential ingredients

Serendipity: The timing of the lights at the corner of Bay and Front Streets crossed us over to the east side of Bay. It’s the shady side before noon and Gwynn prefers the sunny side. But the lights ignored her preference.

Curiosity: Gwynn and I could have simply walked past that woman, assuming the tulip bulbs were destined to be stored dry and cool and replanted in the fall. But I wanted to know why she was taking still blooming tulips from the planter.

Chutzpah: I asked if the bulbs were garbage, could we take a few? (note: for me, this is chutzpah. For others, this might have been a no-brainer. But I’m shy by nature and pushed myself to open my mouth and ask.)

Result

Gwynn and I both love gardening. Gwynn’s lakeside property is a gorgeous mix of flowers, forest and winding walkways. And I’m slowly rehabilitating a former urban backyard dumping ground into a perennial pleasure. We share plants and both our gardens will boast Canada 150 tulips next year (as long as the squirrels can be convinced to leave them alone.)

Bonus result for this writer: I have a character and story cooking in my mind. She’s a maintenance worker, spending her days in the shadows of a 75-story office tower, picking up trash from thoughtless passersby and trimming plants that almost no one notices. She pays her rent on her two-room west-end basement apartment by working weekends and midnights cleaning inside those tower offices. She’s tired all the time. But if she works hard and saves enough money, she can hire an immigration lawyer to help her bring her three children to Canada.

And then the lawyer disappears with all her money…

Serendipity.

Curiosity.

Chutzpah.

I highly recommend it.

Logic Glitches & Inspiration

Logic Glitches & Inspiration

Ruth E. Walker

Inspiration for a writer can arrive at the most inconvenient times. Nonetheless, it’s good to answer the call of the muse. Even if that call comes via another call that is less than charming.

A recent 7 a.m. long distance phone call woke me with that moment of panic. Was someone ill? Did I forget that I was supposed to be somewhere? And why in heaven’s name does the phone have to play Ride of the Valkyries? [note to self: consider changing the ring tone.]

I managed an almost-awake hello and received the bad news. My credit card had been compromised. It had been used on two large online purchases, and did I authorize them?

Just three days earlier at a party, a good friend told me about her credit card being used for $1300 US-worth of Marriott hotel stays and fine dining. Which, of course, she hadn’t been at either hotel or restaurant…or in the US for that matter. Fortunately, she didn’t have to pay for the theft, just the inconvenience of waiting for a replacement card.

So it took me a few seconds to realize what I was dealing with.

Scammers.

Thinking is good

My logical side kicked in and I ticked off the boxes of How Stupid Do They Think I Am:

Box Number One: The call was a recording. A woman’s serious tones, in an vaguely English-accented voice, advised me “Your credit card has been used recently in two large purchases online. Two-hundred-and-fifty-dollars on Amazon and a one-thousand-two-hundred-dollars on eBay.” A recorded call. Seriously?

Box Number Two: The call didn’t identify the credit card company.

Box Number Three: Nor was my name used (um…it was a recording. Duh.)

Box Number Four: The detail provided on the amounts and places of purchase was in stark contrast to the lack of identifying info (see Box Two and Three.) This is the genius method of sounding legit whilst scamming.

Box Number Five: I was to “press 1 now” if I hadn’t made those purchases. By now, the caller’s tone was downright threatening. Customer Service 101 was clearly not in her background.

Bonus Box Number Six: I took the call at the cottage. My bank and credit card contact info is not my cottage number.

Thank goodness I have a logical side. I hung up. But as a writer, now my brain is working overtime.

Inspiration is really good

Who is this woman? Did she know she was making a recording that would bilk lots of ordinary folks out of money? Is she a victim or a willing participant? Does she know credit card companies will cover these sorts of losses so she thinks she is only scamming the corporations?

Is her vaguely plummy accent real or does she have a range of accents she pulls out for various countries or regions? That accent might not do as well in other English-speaking countries. Does she have a lovely southern drawl for US calls south of the Mason-Dixon Line?

Where was she when she made that recording? In a sound studio between music recording sessions? Or a dingy backroom in some illegal call centre in southeast Asia or downtown Toronto?

And what about the rest of her life? Was this a harmless one-off that somehow ends up costing her in the future? Was she tricked into this recording, told it was an audition for computer voice in an upcoming film? And then later on, in an audition for a real film, the casting director recognizes her voice as the one that scammed him a few years ago and he vows revenge…

See? One inconvenient and potentially disruptive phone call, and my imagination is off to the races.

Before you think this is one crazy idea, take a look at Will Ferguson‘s unsettling but terrific novel 419, a deep dive into the world of the insidious Nigerian Internet scams, and the people who, worlds apart, are drawn into the trap of a better future. You remember those emails…”Sir or Madam, I am the son of an exiled Saudi prince. I need your help in getting my late father’s treasure and promise you 20% of the millions hidden in Swiss bank accounts…”

Combining thinking & inspiration is best

My 7 a.m. cottage phone call proves that my muse is alive and well, even if not conveniently timed. It confirms I possess a vital skill that I employ as a writer and an editor: Logic. And logic drives all narrative arcs. From science fiction or fantasy to police procedural mysteries, logic forms the base of all the story elements: plot, conflict(s), character motivation and behaviour, setting, and resolution.

That last one, resolution, is the place that many writers lose the thread of logic. Have you ever read a good book only to arrive at the end and be confused or disappointed by how things are wrapped up? The ending just isn’t logical. Maybe there was nothing in the preceding pages that set up that ending. Or maybe the author thought “Surprise!” was a neat way to end.

Logic works in real life. So it has to work in your writing. If it’s logical that your character would give up their life’s work as an astrophysicist to become a hermit on the mountain top, you better give us something in the story that supports that change.

If it’s snowing heavily in the beginning of the chapter, the characters better have their coats, hats and boots on as they squint into the flakes. And for heaven’s sake, don’t have the cop showing up on his motorcycle at the end of the chapter. Are there even snow tires for a motorcycle. [note: research is an important step to ensuring logical writing.]

Logic in writing. Use it. Because if you don’t, we will notice.

Last Word

Writescape workshops help writers focus on the important elements of story, including logical plots and characters with motivation and behaviour that makes sense.

June 15, 2019: Create Compelling Characters. Join Ruth E. Walker at her Haliburton cottage for a one-day focus on the people in your story.

Fall 2019: Watch for Gwynn Scheltema’s Tax Tips for Writers at the November 10 meeting of The Writers’ Community of York Region, and for Gwynn and Ruth’s Master Class at The Writers’ Community of Durham Region.