The Common and Ordinary

Ordinary, everyday encounters are easy to dismiss. We take them for granted, or consider them too insignificant to matter.


(European Starling Juvenile and Breeding Adult)

European Starlings are the peskiest of birds, noisy and gregarious. They’re also referred to as Common Starlings, Sturnus Vulgaris, and have been around for a very long time.

Wikipedia says,

“The common starling was first described by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758 under its current binomial name. Sturnus and vulgaris are derived from the Latin for “starling” and “common” respectively. The Old English staer, later stare, and the Latin sturnus are both derived from an unknown Indo-European root dating back to the second millennium BC. “Starling” was first recorded in the 11th century, when it referred to the juvenile of the species, but by the 16th century it had already largely supplanted “stare” to refer to birds of all ages. The older name is referenced in William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Stare’s Nest by My Window”. The International Ornithological Congress’ preferred English vernacular name is common starling.”

We see them everywhere around the Lower Mainland — great flocks of them sometimes — but strangely, they rarely appear on our property. This morning, however, a half-dozen caught my attention as they swooped in and settled on the back lawn (probably looking for the Crane Fly larva which are munching down on the roots of algae-ridden grass in a couple areas).

I glanced at them, then away. It took a minute before I looked back with the realization that in nineteen years here, I’ve never noticed them before or taken a picture for my bird photo album.

That’s now remedied, but also has me thinking about what else I take for granted, especially when I’m writing.

My critique group members regularly remind me that I neglect to include the ordinary little details of a setting or of my characters and their activities. In my first drafts I habitually skip over what I already know about them, forgetting that readers aren’t privy to what’s left behind in my head!

The common, ordinary details are what enrich a story’s visibility in the reader’s mind. While description can be overdone, of course, a certain amount is essential. I think I need to learn the tipping point between purple prose and none!

How important is description to you in what you read…and in what you write?


P.S. Have you ever seen a ‘Murmuration’ of starlings?
Check out this brief but fascinating video.

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Just another spring morning…

A bit of blue sky, a glimpse of sunshine…yesterday was the perfect day to paint or play, depending on your priorities. For my hubby, it was his morning to begin applying the white paint I had taken several weeks to choose. Our kitchen mini-reno is almost complete. With all the construction done, it’s now paint and fabric time.

He was carefully applying Benjamin Moore’s ‘Vanilla Milkshake’ to the breakfast nook wall when he discovered two adult bears on the lawn below the window. Both were black bears, Ursus americanus, although one was decidedly brown. (Black bears come in various shades of black, cinnamon, brown, even white. If you’re curious, there’s lots more info here.)


For these guys, it was time to romp through the garden, tromping on shrubs, overturning that pink pot of sedum, and breaking a branch or two. Then they settled in to graze on grass, just as a different visiting bear had done exactly one year ago to the day. (I shared that morning in photos here.)


We noted the yellow tag in the black bear’s ear, a sign that he had been relocated by conservation officers. It was likely this was the same bear who visited our back deck on a couple of earlier nighttime bird feeder raids. That one wore a yellow ear tag, too.


On closer inspection of my photos, it looked like there were actually two tags, each with different numbers. Not a good sign for this bear, who apparently is establishing his reputation as a troublemaker.

DSC05032 - Version 2We’ve duly reported the encounter to the conservation office, but living rurally means we expect to see wildlife here occasionally. Last night it was coyotes, a pair behind the house yipping and howling in competition with the chorus of tree frogs.

I’ll take wildlife any day rather than the smog and congestion of city living. Over the four-or-so decades of my hubby’s studies and pastoral service, we’ve lived in both big and small centres — Vancouver (BC), Toronto (ON), Coleville (SK), Creston (BC), Calgary (AB), Port Alberni (BC), Langley (BC), and Maple Ridge (BC) — almost always having our homes on typical residential streets.

In retrospect, we wish we’d discovered country living a lot sooner. It isn’t a lifestyle that suits everyone but the peacefulness and treed setting is a blissful sanctuary for us.

I realize my love of a quiet rural setting has rubbed off on my fictional characters who are all situated somewhere other than in a major city. They all own dogs, too. I guess it’s true that we write a bit of ourselves into our stories, but why not? In our world-building, we’re in control of every aspect of our characters’ lives, so why wouldn’t we let them live or work in places reminiscent of our personal experiences and preference?

Would you label yourself a city-dweller or a country-lover at heart? Where do you situate your characters? (Tell me I’m not the only one who imposes my choices on them! Come to think of it, I’ve even had a character encounter a bear on his property.) 

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Living the stories (and a winner!)


“I can’t see the forest for the trees.”  I suppose in this case you’d say you can barely see the lake for all the trees. Until last summer, when the men had to cut down a few of them, the view from our summer cabin was only the portion you see to the right of this photo.


{Click photo to enlarge)

It’s nice to be able to glimpse a little more of our lake now. We could remove more trees, of course (and the leaning birch may soon remove itself, although it’s been like that for at least a decade), but we aren’t anxious to leave the cabin too exposed.

BlowdownAtCabinOne year when my parents were still alive, they reported that a small tornado had gone through, uprooting many trees in its path. My mom took this photo from across the creek, showing one leaning on our [then] new cabin. Through the years other trees have fallen on and/or near it, but it has managed to remain unscathed. On each visit, as we climb the hill from our hand-hewn bridge, I hold my breath a bit, wondering what we’ll find — wondering what changes the wilderness has brought to it during our absence, if there will be any damage, or if the cabin is even still standing. Touch wood (and there’s a lot of it we could touch), it has survived the passing seasons.

Our cabin is primitive, but it’s a beloved family getaway. I tell people it’s like camping, but with a roof. The building’s gone through several transitions over the years, but it’s still small and rustic, without any city conveniences, and we still need a 4 x 4 to get there.

So, what’s the appeal? Yes, we think the view is pretty spectacular, but there are lots of wilderness lakes in British Columbia. This particular one, however, is the focal point for four generations of family memories (and a fifth generation is poised to begin making more). There’s something about ‘frontiering’ experiences — hauling water by the bucket from the creek, spending evenings playing card games in the weak glow of kerosene and propane lamps, trekking to the outhouse, and cutting the daily requirement of firewood — that adds a meaningful chapter to our family’s story.

I thought of this yesterday, when DD Shari Green shared her reaction to the death of Johnathan Crombie of Anne of Green Gables fame. In her post, “Gilbert Blythe and the power of stories“, she said,

“Judging by my social media feeds … Gilbert Blythe–and by extension, Jonathan Crombie–is absolutely adored by a great many people. And this has me thinking… How is it that fictional characters can come to be so significant in our lives? Why are their fictional sorrows and joys felt in our own hearts? How do their fictional dramas become entwined with our own real-life ones, causing girls to long for red hair and an expansive vocabulary and a boy just like Gil?”

Stories such as Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935), have caused us to fall in love with characters who have endured through generations of readers. The account of their lives fills us with nostalgia. The power of stories is quite remarkable, but it’s most effective when it draws on emotions and relatable memories.

I’ve never given it much thought, but that rough little cabin is the setting for a portion of our family’s life story. Some of it is on paper, but most is held in our collective memory. Whether written down or not, each passing year and every new generation adds another chapter.


Do you have places or events that play a significant role in your family’s story?


As promised in Friday’s post, to help celebrate my 1,000th post, I’m giving away a $20 gift certificate for either Amazon or Starbuck’s. The name drawn at midnight was … ta-da …


Congratulations, Jenn, and thanks for helping me celebrate. I’ll be in touch by e-mail to find out which certificate you’d prefer.

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#wipMadness Day 19: Memories That Matter

IMG_0979 - Version 2Heritage items intrigue me although I’ve never been one to collect antiques. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, either. I like things with a history that is significant to my family — with some kind of personal connection. That’s why I treasure this glassware. I doubt the pieces have any monetary value, but they belonged to my maternal grandmother. They are older than I am, and I remember her using them on special occasions during my childhood.

IMG_0980 - Version 2Is it the memories or the items themselves that attract me? In this case, definitely it’s the memories. My personal taste doesn’t lean towards ornate anything, but I keep these pieces displayed in our china cabinet and enjoy my regular glimpses even if I don’t normally use them.

Memories are a big part of our existence, and yet when it comes to giving memories to my fictional characters, I forget how important they are.

After spending time creating  plot, conflict, and setting, too often I let my characters’ personalities develop solely through their actions and words. Without a past, characters can be two-dimensional. I’m trying to correct that in this manuscript. One of the reasons my progress has been so slow during March Madness, is because I’m taking time to get to know my characters better … finding out what happened in their past that is bound to influence their present.

Q4U: Do you give your characters a past, complete with memories that play a part in your story?


Denise tells me she’s drawn the name of another prize winner. This time it’s… (insert drumroll here)…


Yay! Congratulations, Tanya!!! You can stop by Denise’s goal-setting post to select your prize from those that haven’t been crossed off the list, and then email Denise your choice at d(at)denisejaden(dot)com  .

We’re almost three-quarters through the month. (Can you believe Spring arrives tomorrow?) Are you satisfied with the progress you’re making towards your March goals? If not, what can you do differently during the next ten days that will leave you with good memories of the month’s achievement when it’s over? There’s still time to make your efforts count, Wipsters! :)

And don’t forget to check in tomorrow with Tonette de la Luna!

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From the Archives: Partying in the Bedroom


Once the bed is made, thoughts or dreams from the night before usually disappear into the fabric of a new day. But not always. The following account comes from my 2008 archives.


By 2:00 a.m. last night (technically, I guess it was this morning) I was ready to evict everyone. Some time prior to midnight characters from my novels had decided to gather at the foot of my bed and challenge my right to go to sleep.

Normally such nightly encounters are welcome. The twilight zone between yawning and oblivion is often my mind’s most productive time. As the day’s memories slip away they are replaced with solutions to story telling dilemmas that eluded me during an earlier writing session. Conversations with my characters are not unusual. It is in those not-quite-asleep-yet moments that just the right words jump into my unfettered brain.

What was distressing about last night’s group was that they weren’t the characters from only my current w.i.p. (work in progress), but also from the previous book. Granted, some of them appear in both, but their stories are not connected and last night’s dialogues won’t fit into either plot. It was a useless waste of my mental energy. I would rather have been sleeping, but the unruly guests wouldn’t go home.

We were out for dinner during the evening. Maybe I drank too much coffee? (Or not enough wine?)

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People Watching and Developing Fictional Characters

I spend more time than I should just staring out windows. It’s not that there’s a lot to see here, but you never know what you’ll miss if you don’t happen to be looking at the right moment.

Watching 3

You can observe a lot by just watching.

[Yogi Berra]

Watching 2

You may get real tired watching me,
but I’m not going to quit.

[Harrison Ford]

Watching 1

Discipline is just doing things
the right way
whether anyone’s watching or not.

[Michael J. Fox]

While I’m watching I try to put into practice what my father once told me when we were out hunting: “Look for what doesn’t belong.” Of course, that had us checking out a lot of stumps on hunting trips, but it’s true — a movement, a shadow or shape that wasn’t there before is often what alerts me to the presence of a visitor in the garden.

I like to people-watch, too. In a stadium or on a bus, train or plane there are wonderful opportunities to study the people around me. (I try not to stare, especially in church!) Some of the characters in my novels bear the traits of people I may have seen during one of those times. A few well chosen quirks or tags can make a character memorable.

My characters are totally fictional, not modelled on anyone specific. Seeing them in my head and developing them into believable people within a story may end up with them being a composite of people I’ve seen or known, but it’s important to me that they behave true to their personalities. I can’t combine a random assortment of personality traits and expect the resulting character to be credible. People may act in peculiar ways, but there’s usually a good reason. The writer’s challenge is to find that reason.

One resource I’ve found valuable for ascribing appropriate traits to my characters is the WRITERS GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS: Profiles of Human Behaviors and Personality Types by Linda N. Edelstein, PhD.
So, I’m curious. How do you develop your characters? How do you select the key personality traits that govern their actions and reactions? Oh, and are you a people watcher? Do you have a method for camouflaging your observations… or do you just go ahead and stare? ;)

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Christmas preparations, secular and sacred

Our family has a dual heritage when it comes to Christmas preparations. There’s a combination of the sacred and the secular because my hubby and I came from those two backgrounds. Christmas was always a special time when we were children, but for different reasons, and celebrated in different ways.


When Advent begins, along with the nativity figures, our decorations come out, lights are strung and a tree goes up. Christian friends might wonder how we can put energy into all the secular preparations and still focus enough on the anticipation of such a holy season, but somehow we do.


Last night, for the umpteenth time, we watched the movie, “Miracle on 34th Street“.  “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” will probably be next, along with “It’s a Wonderful Life“, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and assorted other television specials. Years ago we watched these with our children. Now we’re on our own and we still watch them.

Soon I’ll turn my attention to a bit of baking. Not a lot, since there aren’t many of us to eat it, but we need a few of the annual goodies, like Shortbread, Melting Moments and Peanut Butter Snowballs. We’ll also be caroling to shut-ins, finding delight in the children’s Sunday School Pageant, singing a Cantata with our choir, and of course attending all the special Christmas worship services.

There’s a little magic and a lot of mystery associated with Christmas, and we experience both, in ways that are meaningful to us. I doubt that God minds our strange muddle of traditions. We still meet Him at the manger.

What are some of the meaningful traditions you’ll experience again this Christmas? In your writing, have you allowed your characters to establish traditions?


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