Research Redux

Research Redux

Ruth E. Walker

History holds so much richness for writers. It’s a deep well many of us dip into, finding inspiration, surprises and mysteries. And it’s why we call it a rabbit hole–wander in and you might find it tough to resurface.

As I work on the second book of my speculative fiction, I research ancient (and not-so-ancient) history to strengthen plot developments and character actions and reactions. I look for the sparks that ignited revolutions, for the leaders and strategies behind uprisings, and for the willful blindness of those in power.

Good grief, we humans are ridiculous when it comes to willful blindness. From aristocrats to bureaucrats to potentates, the “safe” bubble that power, influence and wealth creates is the reason so many of them are in shock when the masses are at the gates.

Similarly, we humans are one hot mess when we are that angry mob. Just wander through social media of all stripes to find postings of extreme outrage, disgust and threats. And algorithms make sure that like feeds like, so travelling down that rabbit hole is risky business.

Frankly, it’s why I barely dip my toe into that form of fury. Give me instead human interest stories or pics of your grandkids any day.

The online anger is nothing new. The difference is the speed and volume that social media platforms provide. And while they can offer insights into discontent, there is no lack of page-by-page context available in physical text. That’s why I like to research through books and magazines. Just one phrase or footnote can launch a whole new idea.

When you write with history in your back pocket, your characters, plots and themes carry a truth. Truth grounding any fiction creates reality for the reader – and most importantly, confidence for the author.  And that, dear writer, is pure creative gold.

Revisit Research

Research is a topic we’ve covered in previous Top Drawer posts. So I’ve gathered a collection of some of our more popular posts on that topic because, after all, they’re still useful and timely. You’ll notice that most of them are written by Gwynn. She is known for bringing her analytical mind to the creative table, and for that I am grateful, as are her readers.

Let’s start with the treasures found in archives. In a well-received two-part series, Gwynn explores where and how to dig in:

Digging up Archives – Part I — an overview of where to find archives in Canada and beyond.

Always thorough, Gwynn followed that post with the answer to “Now what?” in Digging up Archives – Part 2 Top Drawer readers told us they had a much better understanding of where and how to use archives for research after reading Gwynn’s posts.

I chronicled my own experience with Canada’s National Library and Archives, researching my great-great-great-grandfather’s book about the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1700s. Holding History in My Hands shares what that moment was like.

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And more recently, Gwynn posted a number of computer hacks that make writing — and researching — easier and faster.

In Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers, she offers up a taste of ways writers can make the work less onerous.

Access is key

A final note – many of the featured sources are online. Given that we are still treading a careful line between in-person and virtual activities, what was convenient less than 18 months ago is now pretty much a lifeline.

We writers know that library and archive staff are incredibly helpful when doing our research. Express your appreciation when they go that extra mile and be kind when health and safety regulations limit their efforts.

Writing in the time of the pandemic…that has an interesting ring to it, don’t you think? I wonder what the textbooks, novels, poetry, lyrics and archives of 2020 will reveal to writers in the year 2220 and beyond?


Re-emerging, our all-inclusive writing retreat in October is now fully booked except for one single cottage available at a premium rate. OR if you’re a cottager/resident nearby, we have a couple of spaces for day-rate participants.

Email us at for details.

Wait List:

We are launching a Wait List for anyone who’d like to join us at Elmhirst’s Resort this fall. Email us at with the subject line: Wait List Fall Retreat and if we have any cancellations, we’ll let you know in the order your email was received.  

What’s in a Word?

What’s in a Word?

Ruth E. Walker 

A restaurant’s Help Wanted ad caught my attention the other day. It wasn’t the requirement “Must be 18 years of age or older” that piqued my interest. Under Ontario’s labour laws employers can’t schedule anyone ages 14 to 17 during school hours unless they’ve been excused from school. So, it’s okay to require an age minimum of 18 for daytime work.

But the restaurant was looking something else in their applicants. The job was for a waitress. A waitress? I haven’t seen that in a very long time.

What do you imagine with that word? Not a male applicant. Not a binary or transgender person. Nope, you conjure up a female.

Maybe your mindsight has that woman in an apron, hair tied back in a bun or net, order pad and pencil poised to take your order. Maybe she’s wearing sensible shoes as she balances a loaded tray in a crowded diner somewhere. No matter what you imagine, when you read waitress, you think female.

In Ontario it’s illegal under the Human Rights Code to reference and/or require directly or indirectly anything that is listed under the code as discriminatory, and that includes “sex” unless it’s a bona fide exception. A specific driver’s license, for example, to be a cab driver or transport truck operator.

So how come this clearly defined by gender job title sits there, bold as brass in the newspaper? Because words don’t matter to everyone — but they should. And most especially to writers (and newspaper editors, too.)

The times have already been a-changin’

Years ago – and I do mean years ago: over 40 to be precise – I worked in Human Resources in the health care field. It was a time when you had nurses aides and orderlies. Nurses aides were female and orderlies were male. It was just hospital staff titles. Our world back then had waiters and waitresses. We had firemen and policemen and chairmen and postmen.

There’s a long history of separation by gender. Our elementary school still had the boys entrance and the girls entrance carved over the doors, where, before my time, students lined up by gender. My gym classes were all female. Girls took Home Ec. Boys took Industrial Arts.

No wonder language and, specifically words and especially job titles, were framed within gender. The wake-up call arrived while I was working in HR during the 1980s. It was a revolutionary time when women (and some men) demanded gender-neutral job titles. Women didn’t want to be constrained by their gender. They wanted to be persons first. And there were males who wanted careers in “traditionally female” jobs.

Oh the outcry and resistance was massive. But eventually, common sense prevailed. Union contracts had to be revised. Policies and procedures updated and, in some cases, deleted. Nurses aides and orderlies became nursing assistants and, eventually, personal support workers. Firemen, policemen and postmen became firefighters, police officers and postal workers. The chairman of the board awkwardly tried on “chairman/chairwoman” for a while but eventually morphed into the much better Chair. No gender necessary.

Language reflects society

As language and its uses changed, opportunities developed for women in “non-traditional” jobs. Now, when a woman drops envelopes in my mailbox, it’s not unusual or remarkable or noteworthy. It’s my mail being delivered. And when a tragic fire happened in my city some months ago, the firefighter quoted in the paper was a woman. We mourned the losses. We didn’t stop to question why a female was working as a firefighter. As it should be.

Of course, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing into this transition. There are still pockets of “waitress” out there. But the fact that it stands out as I skimmed the classified (often the source of story inspiration, by the way) – it’s a sign that my brain has accepted “server”, a non-gender job title, as normal.

Language is dynamic. It is always changing just as members of society change. Successful writers pay attention to the way language changes because it is more than just a word used to describe something. Language — the words we use and how we use them — reflects changes in social values, in institutional structures and how something that was remarkable or strange becomes ordinary.

And paying attention to those changes (and those diehard stubborn holdouts who think it’s all just being “politically correct”) can lead writers to stories, characters and diverging plot lines they’d hadn’t considered before.

Well worth looking more carefully, don’t you think?

Re-emerging: Pen in Hand

Re-emerging: Pen in Hand

Ruth E. Walker

I don’t know about you, but I suspect most people want to see the back end of COVID as desperately as I do.

My writing has suffered these past few months and I’ve been grateful to this blog for forcing me to engage BIC (bum in chair) and regularly pen some creative words.

But now it seems there is light on the horizon. Cases are way down. Second vaccinations are happening with greater frequency. Restaurants, retail and rec centres are easing back to life. And yeah, the warmth of early summer and longer spans of daylight are tickling our imaginations. My creative self is getting excited – and not just about COVID taking a walk into the sunset.

Just the other day Gwynn and I confirmed that Writescape’s long-delayed 2020 spring retreat was going ahead. Of course, we can’t keep calling our annual retreat Spring Thaw because it’s happening in October. So, we’ve just stuck with Writescape’s Fall Retreat: Re-emerging.

We’re thrilled that almost all the retreat participants who signed up as far back as December 2019 are able to join us this fall.

Reasons to get excited

Fully equipped cottage kitchen at Elmhirts’s Resort

Elmhirst’s Resort confirmed our cottages will be ready, and that all cleaning and safety protocols are constantly updated to meet the local health unit standards and provincial regulations. Elmhirst’s has always gone above and beyond to make our retreats an amazing experience and we’re confident that tradition will continue. Frankly, we expect that by October 15, our annual retreat won’t look too different than our retreats have for more than 10 years previous.

Writing on the deck

We will both still read and review 10 ms pages submitted to us in advance. And we’ll sit down for a one-on-one feedback session with those writers. And we’ll be available for individual consults that can be deep discussions or just bouncing ideas around. We’ll ensure each cottage is stocked with breakfast items so writing in pajamas remains an option. Gwynn and I will deliver group creativity sessions and there’ll be plenty of time for private writing. And lunch and dinner are always prepared so no need to stop to cook when you’re on a roll.

Of course, how some of this happens may be a bit different to ensure a safe space but the vibe we create: escape to focus on your own writing – that won’t change.

Heather M. O’Connor with Betting Game through Orca Books

Our philosophy has always been to curate a space in which writers can escape daily life and immerse in their projects. Over the years, we’ve watched stories, novels, memoirs and non-fiction books take shape and several secured a publishing home.

Writers on retreat find space in which to imagine, start, revise and/or finish their stories. Connections with other writers are made. Characters and plots discovered. Ideas for marketing and publishing tips are shared.

Maighread MacKay’s mystery series

All of that is what excites Gwynn and me. To see it unfold and know that we’ve had an important part in a writer’s journey.

Are you ready to retreat?

We still have room for a few more writers to join us. A $250 deposit guarantees your space. Our brochure outlines our agenda and registration details are on our website.

Aerial view of Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake

Nestled on the shores of Rice Lake, Elmhirst’s Resort’s amenities offer guests many ways to reflect and rejuvenate. Given the past year, I can’t think of a better way to recharge my writing.

We’ve blogged in the past about the joys of writing retreats. One way or another, find a way to treat yourself and escape to write.

10 Signs You Need a Writing Retreat in case you didn’t know you actually needed a retreat. 😊

How to Pack for a Writing Retreat covers some of the things you might not think about bringing along. It’s more than stuff in your suitcase.

10 Peeks into a Writing Retreat shares prompts and tips gleaned from our decade-plus of companion workbooks provided at our retreats.

Of course, once you have gone on retreat Coming Home from Retreat: Reality offers practical and self-care tips when the heady joys of writing on retreat land back to face the daily grind of life.

And finally, Your Anytime Writing Retreat offers ideas and solutions for writers who can’t join us this fall for our Re-emerging retreat. There are ways to curate your own escape.

Last Word

Just a quick reminder that our Summer 21 Poetry Contest deadline draws nigh. Enter your 21-line poem — any form or style — for a chance to win full bragging rights and honours, publication on our blog and a copy of Gwynn’s newest chapbook, Ten of Diamonds.

Rules, regulations and details on our website.

What a Touching Story

What a Touching Story

Ruth E. Walker

I imagine you’ve heard this kind of phrase more than once:

I’m touched by your generosity.

I swear he’s been touched by an angel.

I can’t wait to get my hands on that ring.

As soon as this bloody plane touches down, I’m out of here.

And so on. It is interesting that the sense of “touch” should be used in such emotionally charged moments. I believe it speaks to the power this sense has to connect our hearts and minds.

In any kind of writing, the power that all five senses can bring to your material is enormous. In previous posts, we’ve written about smell, taste, hearing and sight. Then just to keep you thinking, we followed each post on the sense with a companion post focusing on poetry using that sense.

Today, we bring it all home with a focus on the sense of touch and ways in which it can power up the emotions in your writing and immerse your reader in the story.

A trio of touches

We touch through our skin. As our bodies are 99.9% wrapped in the stuff, this massive organ is constantly sending messages to our brains. Once there, our brains choose what signals to notice and what signals to put aside.

There are three types of touches.

  1. A light touch, also known as a “protective touch” includes tickling. A light touch engages our brain immediately so, if an insect starts crawling along your arm, your body responds right away. Depending on your history with bugs, you might swat or brush away the insect immediately or, if you’re less bug-averse, take a closer look to decide if it’s a threat or benign.
  2. A fine touch, also known as a “discriminative touch” is responsible to give your brain specific information about what is touching your body. So, the fine touch alerts the brain that the insect left a slimy trail on your arm as your fingers touch the yucky stuff. Ewww. Get. Slime. Off.
  3. Touch pressure and deep touch pressure is the last of the trio. Shoes that are too tight or that dear old auntie who gives everyone a hug are examples of touch pressure. Covered with a soft feather duvet or a double-layer woolen blanket, it’s your touch pressure sense that tells your brain how heavy each one is. If you’ve ever caught your fingers in a car door, you’ll know what deep touch pressure is like.

Be aware of the degree of touch in your writing. I’ll have more to say on that in a moment.

Touch in writing

It’s easy to use ordinary actions. He touched her face. She picked up the stone. They hugged each other. But it’s useful to consider the variety of ways in which humans give and receive a touch and apply those to your writing.

Touch is more than hands. All of our body is touching something all the time. Even naked, our skin is touching the air.

  • Do your characters touch only with their hands?
  • If the hands are the logical body part to use, can you get more specific? Fingertips, nails, palm, heel, knuckles – all can be used to “feel” something/someone
  • What degree of touching? He felt for a pulse versus he pressed two fingertips against her cold neck, seeking a pulse.
  • What other body parts can you use for touch? Our bodies bump into things all the time and we don’t notice – are there places where a hip brushing against a doorway or when a thorn lodging inside a thigh could give a bit more of setting for your reader? Lean back in your chair and what parts of you are connecting with it? Now write a paragraph or two with one of your characters sitting in a chair, describing the physical connection with that chair.

Go beyond the physical

And touch is not simply physically connecting with something. There are degrees of types of touch that relate to more than the object itself. Touch as an action either being delivered or received is affected by a person’s emotional state and by their own history (stove=hot!) and sensory input levels. Someone with acute sensitivity to physical touch will back away from a hug or even a handshake. And that same person may avoid wools, corduroy or nylon materials. A person with low levels of sensitivity may not notice the texture of rough wool and, in extreme cases, not have any sensory input for types of pain.

With the emotional in mind, remember that the act of touch includes many qualities, and as infants, we learned about our world through the senses. Touch taught us so much through physical explorations. If you want to bring your reader deep into the story, you’ll be wise to keep those qualities in mind:

  • Texture – every physical thing has an exterior that has a texture. Sharp, smooth, ridged, pocked, spongy, liquid, etc.
  • Size – from tiny seeds to cardboard boxes to solid walls, touch informs us of size
  • Shape – similar to texture and size, our 3D world holds all of geometry. Round, flat, oval, rectangular, bulgy, pyramidic, etc.
  • Temperature – cool to the touch, barely warm, flaming hot, ice cold. Our skin is our constant thermometer
  • Pressure – a squeeze of an arm or a chokehold on our throat, we feel the touch and can decide if it’s good or bad
  • Vibration – Place a hand on the washing machine in the spin cycle and the movement and noise reaches us but it’s our skin that is the “first responder” to that vibration
  • Pain – So many kinds of pain that come from our skin being touched by something or someone and yet, so many kinds of pain that can be relieved with a soothing or loving touch

This is just an overview of this last of the five senses. When you finish your first draft, remember to give at least one edit pass that focuses on your use of the senses. If they’re missing or just given a superficial treatment, then you are probably missing the opportunity to immerse your reader in the physical and emotional heart of your story.

Writing with Taste

Writing with Taste

Ruth E. Walker

In today’s dive into one of the five senses, this one is more complicated than I’d given thought to. I’ll try to be tasteful, but truly our mouths hold both the good, the bad and, well, the ugly. Understanding how the sense of taste works can help you with developing your stories and your characters. But first, let’s take a quick trip over the tongue.

Number five is magical

Just as there are five basic senses (sight, sound, touch, smell and taste) there are five basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. That last one, umami, was new to me and science had only identified it during the 1980s. It’s a Japanese word meaning “a pleasant savory taste.” Most often associated with meats, umami helps us recognize amino acids. Elements of umami are found in broths and gravies, cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes and soya sauce.

Most of us know our bodies have taste receptors on our tongue. There are plenty of places to research about those receptors if you want a deeper dive. For example, did you know that those receptors, or taste buds, are also located on our palate, our cheeks, the upper part of our esophagus? As food travels from the tip of the tongue and to the back of our throats, we are tasting. So even if the tongue is damaged, we are still able to taste.

That looks yummy!

Unlike sight, taste is based on chemical reactions in our body. But is it just the flavour of things that make up taste? My dear friend and colleague, Gwynn, says “We eat with our eyes” and I agree. A gorgeous plate arranged with brilliant colours and diverse textures (leafy salads, ripe berries, tomatoes, rainbow peppers) is far more appetizing than a bowl of gluey grey mash (think 9-days-old porridge here.) But you just have to take a big bite out of a slender red chili pepper to understand your eyes aren’t the only factor (even as they water from the extreme heat of that bite.)

Imagine a world without flavours. Where bland is the norm and spices are heresy. Or where nourishment is delivered through injection, directly into the stomach or handed out in pill form, ingested ten times a day. Where liquid arrives through osmosis, taken in only when the body is immersed in water.

Some of this is the stuff of science fiction and some of it, like tube feeding, is a reality of some people. And others have lost the ability to taste through a brain disfunction or injury. Remember that as you develop your plots and your characters: the world is not simply as you know it.

Add more spice

We also eat with our nose. How about when you have a stuffed-up nose from a cold? We seem to lose some of our sense of taste. But we don’t really; we lose the ability to smell and that sense works in partnership with our tastebuds. Inhale the aroma first and then we taste the deliciousness. Without smell, taste loses a lot of its punch.

If everything in your stories is mint chewing gum, apple pie and roast beef, you might want to switch things up a bit. Or completely upend the ordinary with some extraordinary.

Remember Harry Potter and those Every Flavour Jelly Beans? From cotton candy to spinach to soap to vomit. OMG – that caught our attention. And the attention of marketing geniuses – you can order that delicious (?) every-flavour candy through Amazon. Of course.

Challenge the recipe of ordinary

Let’s not forget that taste is a matter of, well, taste. Individual taste from culture and experience. And, of course, environmental and physical effects. I didn’t like the pervasive smell of curry in our old apartment building as a teenager. But oh boy, do I love it now. Some of my family and friends cannot tolerate dairy. And some are pescatarian, some are vegetarian and some are vegan. Diets – and therefore, taste – can be a matter of choice or a matter of health, or both.

So what about your characters? Can a meat lover learn to leave it all behind and delight in soy burgers? Does a vegetarian “cheat” in secret? Tastes in food can create complex situations and complicated people.

Taste can form an important part of character arc. Stereotypes and bigotry can melt away when the power of new flavours and foods is unstoppable. The novels Chocolat and The Hundred Foot Journey are delightful explorations of how the gulf between cultures and beliefs can be filled in with a range of life-changing tastes.

And, of course, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we learn that only the child who is “honest and kind and brave and true” is able to win the ultimate prize.

Writerly taste test

Our world is full of explosive and amazing flavours. If you want to make sure your readers are experiencing a diverse palate of taste, considering expanding your own horizons. And, in these days of limited indoor dining options, you can help support local restaurants through takeout.

If your Chinese food go-to is standard fare: chicken balls and chow mein, check out the specialty items. What about trying Korean, Moroccan, Indonesian, Thai? Have you tasted shawarma? Greek dolmades? Scared to try sushi? C’mon writer, step outside the flavour box and dip your tongue into tastes you’ve never tried.

The internet is awash in recipes you can engage your taste buds with. Notice how your body reacts to the different tastes. And notice what other senses kick in. As we’ve often pointed out — our senses work together to give us a full body experience. Reflect that in your writing.

Try fun experiments: put a pinch of salt on one side of your tongue and a pinch of sugar on the opposite side. Pay attention to your response. Then rinse your mouth with water and put a pinch of salt and sugar together and see how your taste buds react. Is sugar dominant or is salt?

If you stay aware of the importance of the power of taste, you can apply that knowledge to stories and the characters within them. And that is a big plus for your readers.

Scent to Engage

Scent to Engage

Ruth E. Walker

The other day, I was in the spare room, organizing some bedding when I brushed up against the jewellery armoire that belonged to my mother-in-law. It’s a treasure trove of costume jewellery – some high-end, some vintage and some just-fun pieces. Since her death in 2005, we’ve been slowly working through a lot of her belongings. Some were easy to move along. Some, like this cherry wood oversized chest still has a hold on me.

As I brushed past it, the front door popped open. Immediately, I was swept into a maelstrom of memories. It wasn’t the jangle of chains and beads that hung on the inside of the door. Nor was it the turquoises and greens and brilliant blues of those assorted beads. None of that.

It was the smell, the scent of her favourite perfume still clinging like flowering vines to each and every piece in there. After more than 15 years, I could hear her voice, her laugh, the whoosh of breath as she would collapse into a chair. It reminded me of the incredible of power that the senses, and in particular, the sense of smell, has for us human beings.

A writer’s power tool

Anyone who has taken a Writescape workshop, attended a Writescape retreat or received a substantive Writescape edit will have heard or seen how we emphasize the five senses in all forms of writing. We call it a power tool in all writers’ kits of technique and craft. Beyond sight – writers need to engage readers’ senses: taste, touch, sound…and the most powerful one? Yeah. You know it, don’t you. Smell.

Smell is the most evocative sense for triggering memories and connections. I suspect it has something to do with our hardwiring from when we first stepped down from the trees and stood upright in the savannah, raising our nostrils to the air, seeking food and water, avoiding things that smell “off” and staying alert for the whiff of sabre-toothed tigers, cave bears, and massive, roaming bison.

It smells like science

Scientific research affirms that our sense of smell is different from the rest of the senses. All the others – taste, touch, sound and sight – they get processed in the brain through our thalamus – the info relay station. In turn, the thalamus sends those sensations to the hippocampus (our memory manager) and the amygdala (our emotion processor.) But smell, it’s a bit of snob. It bypasses that trusty old thalamus and takes a direct path to the olfactory bulb which, in turn, has its own direct link to the hippocampus and amygdala.

Did you know that human beings have at least 1,000 different types of smell receptors but only four types of light sensors for sight and about four types of receptors for touch?

(Thanks for helping me make sense of the human brain.)

Apply often

So that, dear writers, is why this sense is supercharged and ready to ignite your stories. If you want to read more about how the olfactory bulb stores our long-term memories that influence our behaviours, the above-noted link to will take you there. On the other hand, if you want a complete tour of the olfactory system, Wikipedia offers a dump truck load of scientific illustrations, terms and definitions.

Applying any sense in your writing works best when it:

  • Is in the logical place (but sometimes the illogical place works best)
  • Fits with your character (or maybe surprises your character)
  • Fits with your setting (whoa! Where did that stink in my flower shop come from?)
  • Fits with your story (a bakery should always smell like…rotting meat?)

The writer has several choices when incorporating a physical sense into a scene. As noted in the above “absolutes”, turning things around can be an effective tool for raising intensity in a scene.

Subvert the normal world

For example, your calm, cool and buttoned-down accountant might surround herself with comfort scents – a faint whiff of sandalwood in her study, an understated sniff of cedar in her walk-in closet, the dry musk of leatherbound account ledgers on her desk.

How can you shake up the predictable safety of her world?

What if she finds a street person perched on her desk, a decidedly unwashed individual with a preference for beans and cheap beer? Upside down goes her ordered world – and not just because of the surprise of the desk squatter, but the lovely scents you’ve surrounded her with up to this point fade from this nasal onslaught.

How can adding the street person to the story be logical? What if the accountant unknowingly holds the key to how the intruder lost everything: his job, reputation, wife and kids, home. Falsely accused and convicted, he’s finally out of prison. Our squatter is determined to restore his original life. The “stink” he brings into the room is a metaphor for all the terrible things that still cling to him.

Will she wash them away?

Apply with subtlety

On the other hand, when you want to be subtle with an emotional scene, tug at heartstrings or allude to themes in your story, you can use smell to underscore the moment. It’s easy to use the overpowering odour of flowers to evoke the floral perfumes so prevalent at funerals. But can we be more understated?

For example, a scene about dying could include something that doesn’t smell but hints at it. A painting of lilies or of mixed blooms. Silk or plastic flowers. A carpet with a chrysanthemum motif. A scented candle still wrapped in plastic. A bottle of hand sanitizer, so antiseptic…so embalming fluid-like.

Or a wooden jewellery armoire, tucked in the corner of your spare room.

Over to you. What are the scents that send your memories and emotions on a trip far away and long ago? Share them in the comments. Meanwhile, happy and slightly scented writing to you all.

Fire Up the Intensity

Fire Up the Intensity

Ruth E. Walker

For the past few weeks, I’ve been hunkering down at our Haliburton County cottage. It’s beautiful up here; deep mounds of white snow contrasted against our mixed forest. Despite the snapping cold temperatures, we’ve been pretty snug with our woodstove and propane heater.

The view outside our cottage

Sitting next to that woodstove fire got me thinking about the way that fire and flame can pull out all sorts of emotions in me. Given that those emotions often fuel (no pun intended) my creativity, it nudged my thoughts to fire’s central role for human beings long before our written words.

After all, it would have been sitting around fires that long-ago storytellers captured imaginations and sowed the seeds for our ingrained need for story.

A prehistoric essential

Of course, fire was a huge part of our early ancestors’ ability to survive and thrive. From keeping their bodies warm, to drying and preserving fish and fauna, to cooking fresh foods, building and maintaining a fire was the difference between life and death. But it was far more than a survival tool. It was key to deepening our creative expressions.

A bull painting, made with ochre, discovered in Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave, East Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, dated 40 ka (more than 40,000 years ago).

Some of the most stunning art from tens of thousands of years ago has been found inside caves in Europe, South America and Indonesia. Most of those caves run so deep that if you just travel a few steps inside, natural light vanishes.

So how did they manage to create paintings in the dark? Perhaps some art was created in the dark. But the artists left behind evidence of light sources: carved stone lamps that still hold the residue of oil and soot. So it was fire – or, at least, a flickering flame – that lit the stone canvas. It’s hard not to imagine prehistoric artists travelling deep within, carrying carving stones or pots of red ochre in one hand and a precious lamp in the other, making their way to fresh walls on which to record their stories.

An artistic depiction of a group of rhinoceros, was completed in the Chauvet Cave 30,000 to 32,000 years ago.

I travel in time

Skeletal cast of “Lucy.” (H. Lorren Au Jr/ZUMA Press/Corbis)

In another life, I might have followed my love of all things ancient and unexplained into the field of archeology. As part of my English and Cultural Studies degree – eked out over two decades of part-time studies – I had the opportunity to hold an australopithecine finger bone cast from none other than the famous Lucy. The poem “Lucy’s Bones from Afar” arrived almost fully formed that same evening and was soon after published in The Science Creative Quarterly in 2006. One of my first poetry credits.

Anyone who knows me, understands my math-challenged brain would never have let me follow my Indiana Jones dreams. But I’ve found other ways to keep the passion going with books and magazine articles and the endless rabbit holes found online.

On Twitter, I follow @Jamie_Woodward_, a geography prof at the University of Manchester, UK. He offers the most amazing Ice Age tweets that so often tickle my muse. For example, a rare clay sculpture of two bison found in a French cave led to yet another poem: Here, there be Bison.

Musée d’Archéologie nationale in France

The prehistoric cave art in Tuc d’Audoubert in France, plasters the walls in carvings and etched stone. There’s even ancient footprints hardened in the clay deposits, from which the bison were formed. I’m certain the bison artist was female and I wrote the poem from her perspective. For me, it is a solid connection to a creative soul who existed in 13,000 BC.

Burning questions

But if flame is the source of survival of our species and for first allowing creativity to deepen, flourish and, in the case of the cave art, to be preserved, it’s also been a source of terror and destruction. Beyond natural disaster, humanity has managed to harness flame as a weapon. From igniting gunpowder and cannon shot, we’ve managed to evolve the level of burn to horrific weapons of mass destruction.

Maybe that’s why much of my creative focus has lately looked forward, to the future of this world or others, as imagined in science fiction.

And yes, dystopian tales hold a strong interest because they move me to ask questions. Questions like: why, when capable of so much beauty in art and creativity in science (didn’t they just land the latest rover on the surface of Mars?) why is the urge to burn it all down still out there?

Well writer? Maybe that illogical human predilection is of interest to you as well. Maybe it drives your muse and “fires up” your pen. I hope it’s good to know you are not alone.

A poem

Lucy’s Bones from Afar

Gracile Australopithecus: November 1974
Offered in atonement
these few small bones
meant nothing
but salvation: a kind
of anthropological grace
held in a trembling hand.
Mired in a bed of river dust
pillowed between rocks
and sheets of clay
ancestral arthropods led us on.
Before the fire
we danced and drank
and repeated the music
each rote word a triumph
in our mind
each note ingrained.
Under the brilliant carpet of heaven
deep in the musk of canvas
sweat and kerosene
we leaped with the flame
our shadows racing home
our footprints close behind.
Rearranging The Bookshelf

Rearranging The Bookshelf

Ruth E. Walker

A recent exchange of ideas on Facebook in a writers’ group page caught my interest. In short, a post from a writer was asking other writers if they felt “pressured” into including “LGBTQ” and “mixed race” characters into their stories.

The writer went on to suggest that the immensely popular (and rather sexy) Bridgerton series on Netflix was an example of political correctness because, despite being set in 1815 England, it included persons of colour among the aristocracy and upper classes. Oh my.

For me, it was a bit of head-scratcher. Casting on Bridgerton is, among other things, meant to challenge viewers to rethink history and imagine what might have been. It was a delightful binge watch and, frankly, it didn’t take too long for me to absorb the fiction of the tale and just sit back and enjoy the story.

No pressure here

I don’t feel pressured to include characters of colour or of indigenous heritage or those who are LGTBQIA2S+ any more than I feel pressured to write in a particular genre or narrative tense. I write the stories I’m meant to write with the characters who show up.

And isn’t that the role of fiction? To entertain, yes. But also to hold up the mirror and see us as we are? And what better way to remind us what we have lost over the years of separation and “difference” versus inclusion and shared visions? Bridgerton was refreshing.

I do know that books by marginalized authors are sorely underrepresented on mainstream bookshelves. So it makes sense to me that, as an understanding of an underserved market dawns on agents, publishers and booksellers, the demand for those books will increase. Rightly so.

But they are not books being written for any underrepresented groups. They are for everyone. Remember that those books will show us who we are. Those writers will hold up the mirror for us to see ourselves — ALL of us who make up our country. High-quality books will arrive on the bookshelves, some will be made into films or inspire television programs or win prestigious literary prizes. But more importantly, they will be read by a diverse, engaged audience.

It’s Black History Month in Canada

Black History Month in Canada was proclaimed nationally in December 1995, when the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month. There’s more than a proclamation needed to create understanding. But it was part of a journey we’re all still on and there’s lots to learn.

For example, this week I learned that the church that Harriet Tubman attended in St. Catharines, Ontario, while tirelessly rescuing others through the Underground Railroad, still stands. The Salem Chapel counted Harriet “Moses” Tubman as a congregant from 1851 to 1862, at which point she returned to the United States.

According to the the church’s website: the majority of her clandestine Underground Railroad rescue missions started and ended in this British Canadian town. In 1868, when asked where and why she guided the freedom seekers, Harriet Tubman said, “I would’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer; I brought them all clear off to Canada.”

Want to learn more about Harriet Tubman? Cornell University features a selection of several biographies. She may soon appear on the US $20 bill, but this courageous woman left a lasting influence on Canada and our history. And I, for one, didn’t even know that much. Clearly, I need to expand my reading choices.

Back to writing

So what does diversity in publication mean for non-marginalized writers? You must still craft the stories you are inspired to write. But it’s time for the majority of us to make room for those who have had fewer opportunities to have their words heard.

And if you want to expand your reading library, check out 49th Shelf online, a curated resource of Canadian books with a wide range of categories to choose from. From diversity and inclusion in Young Adult to African-American fiction, 49th Shelf is open for readers to discover a treasure trove of homegrown writers.

Postcard Storytime

Postcard Storytime

Ruth E. Walker

Earlier this month, Gwynn explored the idea of story length and short story forms in a blog about story size, Does Size Matter? In it, she lists several forms of short fiction.

I have a soft spot for the power of a postcard story. I’ve taught a couple of workshops that take a close look at that form, a kind of snapshot story of few words.

Like all super-short forms, it is extremely hard to write a compelling tale that engages readers and challenges them to consider another world, another life lived. But it is a brilliant exercise for any writer to attempt. Why? Because it helps you learn the value of a few words that can say so much. And that, my friends, is a vital editing skill for any writer.

What is a postcard story:

Originally, a postcard story was supposed to be short enough to fit on a postcard. A beginning, middle and end boiled down to only the absolutely necessary words to set a scene and deliver an emotional impact.

For a long time, it seemed that 250 words was the magic number as a word-count maximum. But it is in the eye of the beholder and some contests have set higher and lower word counts.

For our purposes, let’s just focus on 250 words maximum. How can anyone write something that short that is also powerful to read?

Start 30 seconds before the end

Unlike a longer work, your opening in a postcard story is almost your ending. There’s no room to set up characters or setting. Backstory is implied without explanation and with the barest of detail.

We’re told to start a story in the middle of things happening – in medias res. But for successful postcard stories, that needs to become in quae tandem – at the end of things. So think in terms of moments, like the smoke rising from the barrel of a shotgun, the click of a closing motel door, a cold breeze through a broken window.

Great postcard stories capture the moment just after something significant has happened and because of it, everything changes.

Be suggestive

You are not setting up complex themes; rather this is a single scene with one main idea at work. But if you want a postcard story to work as well as a longer work, you need that scene to contain richness and depth—even if it is only ‘implied’.

  • characters must appear to have a life
    • Use Action:
      • brushed dirt from his pants
      • slips off her ballet shoes
      • takes a sip from the broken cup
  • setting may be a mere blink but with that blink we ‘see’ specifics
    • Describe with energy
      • hairline cracks in the paint
      • fireball sun sets behind the mountains
      • whisper of dust on the bookshelf
  • your plot must be larger than its 250 words
    • Go Big thematically (but keep it small)
      • death/birth
      • conflict/peace-making
      • letting go/taking charge

End with a bang

The last line is the killer in all short fiction and never more so than in a postcard story. It makes the final “sense” of the snippet, the ah-ha. It suggests what is to come without stating it. The very best last lines in a postcard story will make you suck in your breath and then hold it for a moment before releasing it.

I can’t help you to know how to write this last line. But I can tell you that you’ll recognize when you have it right because you will suck in your breath and then hold it for a moment. And then, release it.

Job done, you’ll say.

Curious about postcard stories?

Visit award-winning Irish writer Jan Carson’s site to view some of her postcard stories, published by Emma Press. Cheeky. Clever. Disturbing.

Job done and done well.

Curious about short fiction in general?

More on writing short fiction in Gwynn’s post Thoughts on Short Fiction. And you can read our winning entry in last year’s under-500 words story contest: Woman with Cigarette by Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

Writing The End

Writing The End

Ruth E. Walker

These days, we’re seeing a lot of endings. Some endings are permanent as favourite retailers and restaurants close and jobs disappear. Some endings are temporary; personally, I can hardly wait for hugs and kisses with my family to come back. And many of us have experienced terrible endings in our lives: separations, divorces or heartbreaking deaths.

With such massive change in the world and so much coming to a close, how is a writer to stay focused on getting words onto the page? Is the opening scene of a story sitting untouched in your laptop? Have you got three great chapters finished but is your mind a complete blank about the rest of the story? Are you in a state of despair?

Here’s something to try:

Create Your Story’s End

Wait a minute, you might say. How can I write the end of the story if I don’t know what happens in the middle? In fact, I don’t think I even care what happens in the middle. I can’t wrap my brain around all that second act stuff, the character arc, the rising tension and bigger and bigger challenges. It’s too much.

Right. That’s the point. Give yourself a Writing the Middle Break, send your imagination off on a kind of vacation or, better yet, a writing retreat with just one goal in mind: The End.

When you write the end of your story, you have a signpost just waiting for you and your pen. Crafting an ending will give you a place to aim the middle of your story toward.

And yes, I hear you: What if I choose the wrong ending? How can I know how it ends if I don’t know all the middle stuff?

Please, just listen to yourself. The ending is always found in the beginning. You’ve already written the beginning and if the sacred heart of your story is missing then your problem is not the middle, it’s the start. Your main character needs something – not wants but needs something that is part of their growth.

Essential End Ingredients

Main Character: a solid ending features your MC as a changed person. Maybe they accomplish something they didn’t believe/know they could. Or they learn something startling or perceive something they didn’t see before. It’s a revelation or a gentle coming-to-terms moment. No matter what you write, it has to be about, and directly involve, your MC.

Time: This is not a rushed project with a deadline so take it slow as you sketch it out. Allow the pieces to come to you bit by bit. And for heaven’s sake, use the senses.

Think for a moment about the lighting in this scene. As you imagine it, what shadows are cast? Does anything catch and reflect the light? What’s the temperature and how does your MC’s body react to it? Is there a scent and is it pleasant or stinging? What sounds are present – thundering cacophony or whispering winds? What is now silent? Is your MC’s mouth dry or do tears run down their cheeks?

Are they alone? Is your MC touching something or someone? Who, or what, is absent?

Using the senses will immerse the reader in the scene. Bonus for you, writer: engaging the senses will draw you into the scene like nothing else. And double bonus: when you get back to writing the middle, keep using the senses and your story will sing.

Back to Main Character: Consider the MC’s wants and needs that you, of course, have laid out in the opening scenes (if you’re uncertain, stop right here and go back to the beginning to make sure you have.) Bring closure to those wants and needs. Maybe the MC figured out long ago (in that middle you haven’t written yet) that their want was wrong all along. Give your MC a moment to acknowledge that one last time. And then wrap your arms around that essential need your MC didn’t even know they had and give us one last reflection.

Be Open to Change: Remember this is just your first draft and by the time you finish the whole story, you may know that the ending you wrote isn’t quite right. Maybe you’ll need an entirely different ending. But this is not a wasted exercise. Far from it.

I warrant writing the imagined ending scene will, at the very least, give you a greater connection with your MC and inspire a return to writing the rest. Or maybe it will help you realize your beginning isn’t working and you’ll need some serious editing to craft the right opening.

But what if writing this exercise IS the ending of your story? Our subconscious is constantly steering us. If you allow it to work its magic, it just might move you from Why the heck did I even start this book? to Why the heck did it take me so long to get back to this book?

And with that, I can only offer you this: The End.