There are collections, and then there are Collections

Pottery Mug

Mug brought back from Israel by my hubby in 1980

I’m not a hoarder, but I do like to collect things. Certain things. Like pottery. I had to sort through an outrageous number of pottery mugs recently, deciding which ones could be culled (to make room for more, of course).

In addition to mugs, I have pottery serving bowls, plates, casseroles, sauce dishes, jugs, vases and more. Not a huge number of items (except for the mugs), but enough to fill a few shelves and decorate the space atop our kitchen cabinets.

There are specific features that draw me to a piece. In mugs it’s the feel of the cup as I cradle it in my hands. Filled with coffee, it needs to feel right in my grip. ‘Right’ is a relative thing, I know, and now that I have arthritis in my hands, one criterion is that the handle be large enough to accommodate at least three of my fingers.

I also collect rocks.

Rock Collection

The criteria for them are similar to what I use to choose my mugs — stones need to hold meaning for me and feel ‘right’ in my hand. I have agates from the shore of Haida Gwaii, a stone from a roadside in Mexico, a piece of volcanic lava from northern BC, and  several more picked up as mementos of other places of significance. Many stones in my collection are ordinary-looking ones collected during walks along ocean, lake and river shorelines.

Rocky Beach

That’s about the extent of my collections. Well, it is if you don’t count all the Loons that appear around here, or all the snowflakes among our Christmas ornaments… but that’s different. No, really. It is. Everyone has a collection of special Christmas ornaments, don’t they?

One kind of collection has never appealled much to me, and that’s a collection of short stories. I’m not a big fan of reading short stories to start with, because once I get hooked by a plot and its characters, I want a long term relationship — hundreds of pages, please. I admit to having written a few shorts, but it was more as an exercise than as a chosen genre.

I believe writing good short stories is more difficult than writing good novels, simply because the writer must accomplish all the same things as in a novel, but with many less words. Nobel prize winner Alice Munro is said to have perfected the art of writing short stories. She always intended to write novels, but never found large enough chunks of time to do so. When she attempted them, they always ended up fragmenting into something shorter. I admit to not reading many of them. I intend to remedy that, not because I want to read short stories but because I think I ought to read hers. I’m curious about her writing. There are a number of her stories published online and I may start with them.

Last Christmas I read A Log Cabin Christmas because among its stories there was one written by Jane Kirkpatrick and I’m particularly fond of her writing. Others of my cyberfriends have joined up to produce two collections of Christmas novellas this year —  Hope for the Holidays Historical Collection  and Hope for the Holidays Contemporary Collectionand I’ll be reading those, too. Hey, don’t be calling me inconsistent. Like snowflake ornaments, Christmas collections are different!

Do you have a preference when it comes to the length of your fiction? What do you see as the pros and cons of collections?

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Poetry or Not (preferably not!)

 

“Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.”

[Joseph Roux]

Yeats 14-A Coat

During April I’ve been participating in National Poetry Month. Participating how, you may wonder; it’s a far stretch from novel writing. Well, I admit I didn’t write a single poem during the month. The initial challenge at Tweetspeak Poetry was to pick a poet and study his or her work, reading a poem each day.

I’m not sure why I chose William Butler Yeats‘ poetry. Much of it is gloomy, focused on aging, lost love and politics, and yet Yeats (1865-1939) is “widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.” He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923. The Poetry Foundation says he “was interested in occultism and spiritualism. He had been a theosophist, but in 1890 he turned from its sweeping mystical insights and joined the Golden Dawn, a secret society that practiced ritual magic… he became convinced that the mind was capable of perceiving past the limits of materialistic rationalism.

For all of that — or perhaps because of that — Yeats’ poetry is fascinating to me, not so much for what he says, but for how he says it. He is very strict in his adherence to the traditional verse forms of his time and the words bring a kind of verbal magic to the page.

Dennis Gabor (1900-1979) once said, “Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them.” (Gabor was also a recipient of the Nobel Prize, but in physics.)

At the end of each day this month (with the exception of a few missed ones at Easter), I chose a Yeats’ excerpt that spoke to me, despite often being out of context. I added it to one of my original photographs, and posted it on Facebook and Flickr, just to prove to my fellow poetic sojourners that I’d done my daily reading.

The earlier graphic is from April 14th. This is yesterday’s…

Yeats 27 - Innisfree Peace

If you’d like to see the entire month’s collection, you’ll find it here.

So, when April has ended what will have been the point of this exercise? I want — no, I yearn — to prove the truth of L.Willingham Lindquist‘s observation at Tweetspeak Poetry:

We’ve noticed something about people who read poetry every day: they write better, whether it’s poetry or prose. Maybe it comes from exposure to well-crafted lines. A little like osmosis, so to speak. Or maybe a corollary to what your mother always told you about the kind of friends you keep. I like to think it also comes from what the words do once they get inside you. Those well-crafted lines have a way of opening passages into our souls. They gently (and sometimes not so gently) push us to look at things differently.”

There is something to be gleaned from reading in genres other than one’s favourite. I don’t consider myself a poet. Except for rare occasions, I don’t write poetry and seldom read it. Oh, years ago I introduced my Grade One and Two students to it with fun verses by Ogden Nash, but who takes that kind of poetry seriously? (May the ghosts of his ancestors not descend upon me in wrath!) No, I prefer good ol’ fiction… a traditional mystery, perhaps historical fiction or something inspirational. But if reading poetry can make me a better writer, who am I to pass up an opportunity for improvement?

This month has also been about enrichment and self-discipline, and can’t we always use a good dose of both?

How do you feel about poetry? Have you marked National Poetry Month in any special way?

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poem-a-day-dare-tweetspeak

Seasons of life in transition

I wasn’t expecting it… not yet. The subtle sweetness that whispers the approach of fall caught me off guard yesterday. We’ve been away for the past four weeks, enjoying summer’s sunshine and heat. But as we travelled homeward I sensed a gentle shift. Verdant trees and bushes were tinged with copper and gold. Flowers still bloomed abundantly in the landscape, but against a changing backdrop.

The transition between summer and fall is subtle. Days are still summery while nights are edged in shivers and mornings arrive wet with dew.  The air smells different. Peeks of colour-stained foliage are hidden among blowzy late-season blossoms. Our focus is elsewhere until suddenly the new season can’t be denied.

I’m inclined to think transitions in life happen the same way. They tiptoe in between our everyday activities unnoticed until everything else strips away and bares them to our view.

Three years ago I had retired as a choir director; this fall I’m back at the task. Two years ago I found myself writing in a new genre; this year I seem to be writing in two different ones at the same time. When did the changes happen and what prompted them? I don’t recall. They just seem to have slipped in while I wasn’t paying attention.

I’m not normally a big fan of change, but I love autumn so will welcome its associated transformations. Some of the other changes may be a challenge, but I’m sure I’ll adapt. I always do.

Have there been changes in your life and/or writing, or are you currently in a transition period? How do you feel about change?

Ordinary or Extraordinary — what’s the difference?

As a weed, the common dandelion – Taraxacum officinale – is the bane of most gardeners’ existence. We yank it out, dig it up, spray it, and grumble. But still it persists. The cheery yellow flower is pretty, but its puffball of flyaway fruit allows seed to be transported on the wind, and it multiplies in places where it isn’t wanted, because, after all, it’s an ordinary weed.

The regal and fragrant lily, on the other hand – Lilium longiflorum – with its creamy white trumpet-shaped flowers, has become a symbol of Easter and graces many churches at this special season. As flowers go, it’s decidedly extraordinary.

 

But the thing is… both flowers are beautiful, aren’t they? Just in different ways and for different reasons.

That’s also true of fiction. I read in different genres, but I wouldn’t normally choose to read science fiction or paranormal novels, for instance, even if they’re acclaimed as best sellers. I know from their reputations many of them are as well written as any of my usual choices, but what I pick up from libraries and bookstores is determined by my personal preferences.

As a young girl I started reading The Bobbsey Twins series, and later it was Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories. Through passing years I’ve gone on kicks of reading a favourite author or a favourite theme, reading everything available before moving on to another. I’m still a little like that today. I’m passionate about some authors and topics, and will read those books to the exclusion of all else.

I realize I miss a lot of good books that way, but there’s a limit to the amount of time I have for pleasure reading. My TBR* pile keeps getting taller and when I have to make choices, I reach for what I know from experience will be a guaranteed good read. I choose what for me will be an extraordinary reading experience, rather than risk an ordinary one.

Excluding books on the craft of writing or what you read for research, what genres do you read for pleasure? Do you read in multiple genres? What governs your reading choices?  Do you think by limiting the choice of genres a reader is being deprived of a valuable reading experience? I’d love to hear your opinion.

(* to be read)

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What’s right and wrong with Christian fiction?

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Does anyone really know what constitutes good Christian fiction? Four years ago I was invited to do several book reviews for our national church magazine, The Presbyterian Record. The books ranged from historical fiction to children’s fiction, and I chose to consolidate the reviews in one article, incorporating the reactions of fictitious readers.

Those reactions reflected conversations I’d had with people whose experiences with Christian fiction were frequently negative. They told me plots were too often superficial, with stilted characters, unrealistic conflicts and predictable conclusions.  Any romance reminded them of a television commercial where the closest lovers got to each other was running through a field of wildflowers, arms outstretched for an embrace. I have to admit their opinions mirrored my own, based on what I’d read twenty years ago.

But things are changing. After reading the designated books for the review, I realized many written in the twenty-first century were more satisfying than I expected. There were still shortcomings, but that’s just as true in books written for the secular market.

Although the guidelines of CBA publishers have relaxed a little, allowing for more true-to-life plots, and authors are writing grittier Christian fiction in ever-expanding genres, criticism of it still exists. In their blog posts yesterday authors Katie Ganshert and Jennifer Hale both discussed the question of why.

Jennifer suggested it may be in how we deal with the conversion scene. She said, I really don’t enjoy books where the character “gets saved” and everyone lives happily ever after.  That’s not realistic. And nine times out of ten, I skip reading the “conversion scene” in a novel.  Why?  Several reasons.  But mostly because there is no cheesier part of the book than the conversion scene. It’s a very difficult scene to get right.”

Katie asked, when dissatisfaction with Christian fiction is expressed, “[is it] Christianity in general that bothers these readers, or the way the Christian themes are handled?”

I’m not sure the answer can be reduced to a generalization, but I’m interested in your opinion. If you don’t read Christian fiction, why not? And if you do read it, what genre do you prefer? What do you especially like or dislike about many of the stories?

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I hope you’ll join me here on Monday for an interview with
YA author Dave Ebright.

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That’s Not a Real Book!

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“But that’s not a real book. It’s just a cookbook.”

Excuse me? Have you looked closely at the cookbooks that spill from shelves and display tables in your favourite bookstore? Not long ago I went hunting for one with recipes for my bread-making machine and was stunned at the selection.  The one I chose has just under 500 pages, three hundred recipes, each adapted for up to three different sized loaves, plus glossy pictures, and on every page, extensive adaptations and tips.

Cookbooks are part of our heritage. The first ones I remember were compilations of family-tested recipes. One in my mother’s drawer was a black three-ring binder with recipes handwritten for her by my aunt, on lined paper, containing additional blank pages on which my mother taped in newspaper clippings. When she ran out of pages she stuffed the clippings inside the covers and between the pages. It was well used!

Another was a more formal volume edited by my aunt, and bearing illustrations by my uncle.  The cost was subsidized by advertising, meticulously hand drawn. Each recipe was carefully typed on a stencil, and pages duplicated on a Gestetner machine. Remember those?

In 1975 the women of the church I attended concluded a year-long project to mark the 100th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada – a cookbook of recipes from three generations, appropriately titled, “Grandmother, Mother and Me: Recipes and Remedies.” I had the pleasure of providing the simple artwork.

It contained recipes bequeathed by mothers, grandmothers and their friends, old remedies and anecdotes that were like family heirlooms. It is visible proof that good recipes are like hand-me-downs… never discarded, but lovingly shared between generations.

Three generations of our family also treasure another three-ring black binder… a cookbook created by our youngest daughter who collected all her favourite recipes to give to me and her siblings, and to take with her when she left home. At the time she had no idea that they would want copies to pass on to their children years later. Each recipe was keyed into the computer with added graphics and an index, and saved, so it has been easy to add to it and reprint new copies when needed.

So no, cookbooks aren’t novels, but they can take just as much research and writing to produce, and extensive editing. In every way they are definitely real books.

Do you have a favourite recipe passed down from earlier generations? Please share it in the comment section. Here’s mine:

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Crystallized Orange and Grapefruit Peel Candy

Cut fruit peeling into strips and soak in salt water overnight. Wash thoroughly in fresh water, and boil in fresh water for five minutes. Change water and boil twice more for five minutes each. Drain off water, and to each cup of peel add a scant cup of white sugar. Cook over a slow fire until it crystallizes, stirring all the while. Separate pieces on a plate to cool. This is most successful when only two or three cups of peel are done at one time. (Makes a tasty Yuletide confection.)

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Variations on the Romance Genre

Monday’s post was my contribution to a blogfest… a circle of blogs related to a single theme with links to facilitate movement between them. Its theme was “Romance… or not so much” and after reading all the different posts I couldn’t help marvel at how many different relationships have a romantic flavour.

A year ago I would have denied my novels were romances and, while they were written from my Christian worldview they certainly weren’t Christian fiction. For years I said I wrote light suspense or cosy-style mysteries although they weren’t really cosies. Trying to identify a sub-genre in mysteries was impossible. I’m still not sure they are genuine romances either, and yet I’ve mellowed.  There’s romance hiding amidst suspense. Sometimes, as in our blogfest, it’s the “not so much” kind, but there’s enough caring and personal connection to qualify.

The Romance Writers of America’s website says, “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” That gives writers a lot of latitude, but at the same time it was here that I found the inkling of an explanation as to where my stories best fit.

Among their Sub-genre descriptions I discovered:

  • Romantic Suspense — Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.
  • Inspirational Romance — Romance novels in which religious or spiritual beliefs (in the context of any religion or spiritual belief system) are a major part of the romantic relationship.

Suddenly my last two novels fell into place as “Inspirational Romantic Suspense”… not one sub-genre, but a combination of two.  An earlier one is “Contemporary Women’s Fiction” but there are seeds of romance and suspense in it, too. Who’d a thunk it? The self-professed critic of romances and Christian fiction is now writing a version of both.

What genres were your earliest writings and what genre are you writing in now? If there has been a change, what influenced the evolution?

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