History – Love it or Hate it!

When I was a kid “social studies” was divided into 3 parts – history, geography, and current events.

History was hateful because it focused largely on battles and wars, dates, and politics. It required a great amount of memory work – not one of my better skills.

Geography was limited to colouring maps, mostly of North America. Other than a few stories I read about children in other lands, I knew little about other countries.

Current Events amounted to listening to a classmate read a newspaper item one morning a week.

This boredom continued until my second year of university. A German professor, educated in England, taught a course in American history at the University of Alberta, Canada. This gave him unique insight, of course. But that wasn’t the fascination. His lectures were stories! Who doesn’t love a good story? Not only did every student, including me, stay awake and listen; we absorbed and we remembered.

This was when I realized that history is just millions and millions of fascinating stories linked together to show the trends, the follies, and the creative progress of man. In the days before TV, there was a radio program called “Grand Central Station,” that stated, “millions of people pass through Grand Central Station every year. This is the story of just one of them.”

Hopefully, in my historical stories, as related by a cat, I can interest a few children in the history of man.


How I Make Characters Work

Creating characters for a story is such fun that I can’t imagine why anyone would compare it to giving birth! Obviously a story character is born via imagination and doesn’t incur the responsibilities of infant care such as changing diapers and losing sleep. Well, maybe a few winks are sacrificed!

I would guess that some writers have to put in a lot of labor as they have been taught to make arduous lists of their characters’ traits, including physical appearance. What a bore that exercise must be!

My grandmother always said, “Fancy is as fancy does.” You may have heard a version of this as “Handsome is as handsome does.” (This proverb was twisted in Forrest Gump as “Stupid is as stupid does,” but I’m drifting from the point.) This first proverb first appeared in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale in 1387!

The point is that it doesn’t matter how handsome you are – if you’re mean and nasty, you’re ugly. It follows that we are all judged by our deeds, and so it seems in stories we learn about the characters by what they say and do, and not by boring descriptions. Least of all needed is a physical description. I might picture the old Wizard in my story Verity as looking like Sean Connery, but a meticulous description of the actor would be counterproductive if the reader pictures him as Leonard Nimroy. Unless a physical characteristic is germane to the story, I leave it out.

The Duchess in Verity never needed labeling. She condemned herself with every word and every action. One of Grimm’s tales does this graphically. In the Three Little Men in the Wood, the little men put spells on two girls, so that one kind, generous and beautiful girl becomes more beautiful, and every time she speaks a piece of gold drops from her mouth. The other girl is stingy and haughty, so she becomes uglier every day, and for every word she speaks, a toad springs out of her mouth. As a kid, I loved that!

Now I think of that when at a social occasion a woman – seemingly beautiful and sophisticated – asks another woman, “Does everyone here buy their clothes at the dollar store? Or did they – heaven forbid – make them?” She might as well have toads spring from her mouth.

The villains are easy to write.

For a character to do something “out of character,” it must be for a compelling reason – well depicted. Think of the character who shows up with bombs strapped to his body. He’s shown as a family man, faithful to his wife and satisfied with his job, and yet here he is in a crowded setting ready to blow himself and others to smithereens. It turns out his wife and kids have been kidnapped and the real villain is forcing him to this horrible behaviour. It’s well done on TV shows again, and again, and again, and again.

There are millions and millions of possibilities when one invents characters and their stories. It’s like being in a pastry shop and being allowed to choose six different sweets for free! Purr-sonally, I go more lick-smacking gaga in a stationary store. I wonder why?


How to Plot Fiendishly

I was recently asked about how I come up with the concept for the plot in the stories I write. I thought about that, and realized I have an idea I’d like to portray:

I start with a character. Then I put that character in a place and a reason why he/she is there. What’s happening? The conflict begins. The character is opposed by another character, or by a disturbing situation – natural or otherwise – or by a dilemma within his/her own thinking. That sets the situation as the conflict begins.

The tension builds and alters and builds. Gradually everything worsens the tension until it seems there is no solution at all. The character – hero or heroine – is going to lose everything. The excruciating threat is revealed as the hero/heroine musters all his/her strength to face the inevitable – the climax.

All this struggle changes someone or something never to be the same again, and then all is as it has to be. A conclusion is reached and it must satisfy the reader that it is the only way it could end.

There is no way I could write a tragedy. Having the hero/heroin lose everything even up to his/her life is just not something I’m prepared to read or write. Life is a struggle, but we must carry on somehow and hopefully win at something.

To be sure of continuity, I reread what I wrote during my last work session. It puts me back in the situation and “in the picture.” Then I simply ask myself, “What happens next?”

With or without a segway or omen, the continuity must be consistent and not jump. Always one step at a time.

Thus if an outline has been created it makes it easier to realize that no steps have been omitted.

(1) Setting – orientation

(2) Beginning of conflict

(3) Tension mounts

(4) The worst is realized, there is no hope

(5) Climax of conflicting forces

(6) Something basic changes

(7) Satisfying conclusion