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Just the Facts, Ma'am
The smelter town of Trail, B.C., Canada, was a good place to grow up – a wild hillside to explore just across the back alley, the toe-freezing Columbia River to cool off in during the hot summer, Red Mountain to ski on, and excellent teachers to learn from in the schools. After getting a BSc degree from the University of Victoria, I became a computer programmer and systems analyst. Many years later, being laid off my ‘real’ job gave me the opportunity to spend the winters in Mexico and the time to indulge my desire to write fiction. My home is now Victoria, B.C.
email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bio of a Writer: how my urge to write developed
If you want to know about art, ask an artist: a writing experience that is also a tip for introverted writers
Bio of a Writer
The first book I remember reading for myself was The Wizard of Oz. Fantasies, love stories, and adventures filled my spare time as a teenager – Andre Norton, Georgette Heyer, and Alistair MacLean are favorite authors from those years.
When I was about age sixteen, I was sitting at my bedroom window on a hot summer night. The start of a story came to me, a story about a girl who was sitting at her bedroom window on a hot summer night and saw strange lights across the valley. That story sank after a page, foundering on the reefs of my undeveloped imagination and limited life experience. Swift rejections of fantasy short stories written in my early twenties convinced me that writing computer programs was a far more realistic way of making a living. I did become a published writer in 1979 (or was it 1980?) when the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper paid me twenty-five dollars for a brief travel article – but that only taught me I didn’t want to write magazine articles. Computer programming and system design became my ‘real’ job.
Writing simmered on the back burner of my life for the next twenty-five years, only occasionally burping up a poem or an idea or a few pages of a story that went nowhere. Daydreaming (or telling myself stories, as an aspiring-writer friend described it) filled a lot of time, especially as I was going to sleep. I liked to rework those stories in my head so that they held together in a believable way, even though the underlying premise was usually far-fetched.
A fragment of a night dream from sometime in those years stayed in my memory for no reason I understand. I dreamed I was standing at the side of a country road, and a man, whose authority was clear to me, rode up on horseback and stopped near me.
Some years later I saw the third movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien’s books were worth re-reading many times. In my opinion, while the movie had dazzling visuals, it trivialized the characters and their relationships. I didn’t have a copy of The Lord of the Rings handy to re-read, to take the bad taste out of my mouth. In a reaction of frustration, I was gripped by the urge to write a story that gave me the satisfaction I missed from the movie. Who knows how our creative minds piece ideas together? The characters who inhabited that story were a woman and a man meeting at the side of the road, as in my dream. They grew into Sakela and Francisco, the lead characters of the Iktalan stories.
By then I was semi-retired and able to spend more time writing. To my delight, the writing impulse did not fizzle after a few pages this time. The first of the Iktalan stories (The New Fire) was written, and then a sequel (The New Sword). Thinking romance would be easier to sell, I dusted off an old ‘daydream’ and wrote The First Crocus. I wanted a second romance to make the first less lonely on the bookshelf and I wanted one with less stereotypical characters. The result was Firebird. All of these stories went through many revisions as I learned more about the craft of writing. My sisters, reading friends, writing friends, and Ajijic Writers’ Conference presenters all contributed to my on-going lessons.
These days I read more than I write. Light fiction – Terry Pratchett and Lois McMaster Bujold in fantasy and Reginald Hill in mystery spring to mind. Non-fiction – science for the layperson, biography, history. Much of my reading is simply whatever serendipity brings across my path.
But the urge to create stories still bubbles up; characters and situations still grip my imagination. Who knows what may yet emerge from my pen?
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If You Want to Know about Art, Ask an Artist
One of the characters in the story Firebird is an artist, a portrait painter named Daniel. For the main character, Katy, the pictures he paints are windows onto his feelings, and imagining those paintings was an entertaining part of writing the story. But in the back of my mind nagged the knowledge that I was being presumptuous, since I know almost nothing about art. Sometimes I convinced myself authenticity didn’t matter – it was just a fluffy romance, after all – but sometimes I knew the story should be critiqued by a real artist.
At about the time I finished the first draft of the story, I attended a writers’ conference. One of the presenters encouraged us to talk to people who worked in the professions relevant to our stories. If you need to know about policing, he said, ask a police officer. His experience was that everyone likes to talk about their work and he has never been refused when he asked for information.
So I got up my courage and asked an artist to read the story. This was Nancy, my late husband’s cousin, who paints landscapes, abstract work, and collages I admire. She dug into the project with gusto and I was blown away by the value of her comments.
To all you introverted writers reading this – be brave! Ask an expert!
In chapter one, I had Katy seeing a boxed set of watercolor paints on Daniel’s table. Nancy: “Professional artists would use small tubes of w/c paint rather than sets (which are for amateurs).” I had never heard of tubes of watercolor. Nancy described them, and told me what he might use for a palette, brushes, and paper, as well.
Regarding dress: “No self-respecting artist would wear a golf shirt! And no sports jacket!”
Regarding the art gallery owner in chapter five: “Art gallery owners can be very intimidating. Give her a European accent, an extreme hairdo and dress her expensively in black. She would have an attractive flunky handing out brochures or catalogues and would remain discreetly in the background surveying the action, or chatting up potential buyers.”
Nancy suggested describing in more detail the two paintings that figure prominently in the closing chapter. “…maybe mention some colours, cool colours in the Fisherwoman painting…and in the Firebird painting, hot colours. And whether the colours were strong and bright or soft and pale. … I can suggest some arty language! … pigment colours for instance – sepia for a light goldy brown or burnt umber for a dark brown. Cobalt for a warm purplish blue, thalo for a cool greenish blue.” This raised a red flag in my mind. Describing the paintings in more detail was a good idea that I accepted, but not with words like ‘sepia’ and ‘thalo’. The story is written from Katy’s point of view and Katy doesn’t know any more about art than I do.
The most important of Nancy’s comments was about one of the paintings described in the chapter five art gallery scene. Katy is worried about being painted in the nude, so I wanted a painting of a nude that would make her feel less threatened. In the first draft, I had a painting called Life Class, where a bored model was the focus of attention of a collection of caricatured students. Nancy: “Something about your descriptions of the exhibition paintings didn’t quite work for me. I’m being a bit picky but there should be a cohesiveness about the art work, … and the ‘life class’ painting didn’t seem to fit. I liked your idea that on closer inspection of [Daniel’s other paintings] there was something else going on, almost like there was a painting within a painting.”
Then she mentioned the painting Las Meninas, in which the artist Velasquez painted himself painting the Infanta and the courtiers, and the king and queen are reflected in a mirror. “Could there be a painting of a nude figure,” suggested Nancy, “but in the background Daniel has painted himself reflected in a mirror? That the naked female is not oozing eroticism could be reassuring to Katy, and Daniel’s face in the mirror, looking serious, focused, or whatever, could help her understand that the relationship between artist and model can be platonic.”
Put this thoughtful comment into a pot, stir in the unrelated fact that I wanted to slip more about Daniel’s family background into the story, let simmer on the back burner of the mind for a week, and – hey, presto – up bubbles the idea for Morning Star, Daniel’s painting of his sister. The thrill of cooking up an idea that works so well, that serves more than one purpose, is one of the best feelings to come out of the writing process.
Writing is a solitary activity for the most part, but my work has been enriched and improved by opening it up for other people to contribute from their experience. Don’t be shy! Talk to experts!
See some of Nancy’s work on her website.
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