My decision to become a writer was made on a ski lift.
It was March Break, we were visiting friends in Calgary, and it was a long way up. Passing over the snow-covered runs and dark trees, with the sharp-edged Rockies looming to every side, a story idea struck me. Not just a story idea. A novel idea. It was for Phantom of the Opera fanfic, but still. Right there on that ski lift, I decided that a) I was going to write this story, and b) I was going to be a writer.
I was fourteen-turning-fifteen. It’s March Break next week, so that would’ve been…almost exactly ten years ago.
Like most writers, I’d written through childhood, of course. Hosting Lauren Harris at my mom’s house this week has given me the chance to reread an epic ferret fantasy I wrote when I was about ten. I never finished it, which is unfortunate, because good heavens—that cliff-hanger.
But it wasn’t a consistent thing. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I wanted to be a marine biologist. I wanted to be an astronaut. I really wanted to be a NASA Flight Director.
And now it’s been ten years since I said, “Nope. I’m going to be a writer.”
Reading old writing is like leafing through childhood photos. You look different—oh, that gap-toothed smile, and ouch, those pimples—but you can see the bone structure beneath. You can see the adult who will emerge.
And like childhood photos, old writing has a sense of innocence and play. I had so much fun writing my Phantom story. I remember going to the library and checking out stacks of books about opera and Italy and Paris. Curling up with my hardbound notebook, letting the story spin out under my pen. Everything was so shiny and bright: the early spring mornings of a writing life, when everything is possible and you don’t know about the obstacles yet. You can’t even imagine them, because you’re so wide-eyed and full of wonder.
I hope we keep some of that wonder as we mature into our writing selves. Of course, there’s a naiveté to that “young” writing that makes us cringe when we look back. Experience and maturity—seasoning—they allow for richer, fuller, deeper stories. As you continue writing and reading and thinking, you also start to sort out what sort of writer you are. Almost like you’re deciding what you want to be when you grow up, all over again. Your voice changes, cracks, and eventually breaks. You’ve all seen that here on this blog. Stonecoast was essentially my authorial puberty: when my cute little treble voice finally broke and I decided that when I’m a grown-up writer, I want to make art.
We harden and sharpen in some ways. We lose some of that innocence. Ten years ago, money never crossed my mind; not in a writing context, anyway. It’s an important consideration now. I don’t just think about what would be fun to write. I think about what would be a) fun and b) best for my long-term career. I think about the way I come across on social media, at conventions, over email. The fan-girl instinct is still there, but it’s been heavily trained and reined.
That’s all part of growing up, I think. We lose some of that innocence—I’m not entirely convinced that’s a bad thing. But I really hope we don’t lose the wonder. I really hope that when deadlines are mounting and the rejections are piling up, when the contract needs another round of negotiations and you really need to sell a story soon because it’s been too long and you could use the shot of cash—
When there’s all of that, all the things we don’t even think about when we started out, I really hope we keep the wonder. It’s that excitement when a character springs to life; the sense of astonishment and power as a world knits together; the sheer joy of telling a story. That’s why we got into writing—wherever we started, whenever we started.
That’s why I became a writer, anyway.
It’s been a good ten years.
Here’s to many more, and the wonder they bring.
What I’m Listening to This Week
OMG we pulled this piece out at rehearsal recently, and I’ve been listening to it nonstop ever since. I’ve loved Vivaldi’s Gloria since I joined my first choir. There’s so much I could go on about: the galloping brass and strings, the way it leaps and flashes, the breathless moments of pause (0:30 and 2:02—that is all). You need to do this piece light and quick: not like a brook falling over rocks, like a stream surging ahead.
Of course…because I love this piece, and because it’s so much fun, it does bring out one of my bad chorister habits.
“Keep still,” I’ve been told. “You’re trying to conduct—that’s my job!”
And I laughed aloud, because that’s exactly what it is. On certain pieces—usually ones I know and love—I totally bob and weave all over the choir stalls. I do need to stop it, but it’s hard, because OMG THE MUSIC IS RIGHT THERE.
Recently, I’ve had two characters with accents. Because I’m a geek about language and sound laws, I did sit down and have a good think about this. I’ve seen accents portrayed phonetically; I’m reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman right now, and John Fowles spells words such that you can actually distinguish between a Yorkshire and Cockney accent:
“’Ow about London then? Fancy seein’ London? Expec’ you will. When they’re a-married orf hupstairs. I’ll show yer round.”
“Would ‘ee? All they fashional Lunnon girls, ‘ee woulden want to go walking out with me.”
“If you ‘ad the clothes, you’d do. You’d do very nice.”
“Doan believe ‘ee.”
“Cross my ‘eart.”
-John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
This works very well.
But I didn’t want to do that. Partly, I was nervous that it would turn into something like, “An’ den, ze deah boy wen’ doon t’crick” (I don’t even know what accent what that would be). But also, I had a theory.
Fresh off writing an opera libretto and suggesting music through text, I wondered if it was possible to show cadence and speech rhythms through syntax and word choice.
Two characters, two backgrounds, two different accents:
In my story for the Tales from the Archives podcast, Anouk Tremblay is an agent of the Québec version of the Ministry—le Ministère Officiel d’Occurrences Sans Explication (M.O.O.S.E.). She’s a francophone, uses English sometimes at work, and speaks with a Québecois accent.
For the Victorian Dark Fantasy, Mairi Brae’s got a lovely Skarrish accent—which in my head is pretty much an Irish accent. Skarrish is her first language, though she grew up speaking both Skarrish and Aldoran.
This doesn’t work in every case (like Fowles, above), but it helped me with Anouk. I’d write some of her lines in French and then translate them back into English:
Et ici, mes supérieurs ont dit, c’est nécessaire d’avoir une présence Québécoise.
And here, my superiors have said, it is necessary to have une présence Québécoise.
A few things. First: yeah, I left some French in there. Not much, but enough to flavour it. Second: structurally, the sentence is a little different than one a native English speaker might compose. Still perfectly understandable, just different.
Think of dialogue the way your character would. How does their first language shape their approach to others?
Skarrish has a tense called the “after past” (funnily enough, a variant shows up in Irish English). It’s the immediate past, the past which just happened, and the past to which some emphasis is attached. In Aldoran, it shows up thusly:
I just asked her!
I’m after asking her!
Not a construction you’d find in native Aldoran, because that tense doesn’t exist in that language. Doesn’t stop Mairi from trying to use it.
Other weird things can carry over from language to language—what forms and structures is your character unconsciously clinging to?
At one point, Anouk tells Brandon to “Take care.”
Except, that’s not a phrase that’s found in French. The nearest equivalent is faire attention—“to make/have attention.”
Working with anglophone Ministry agents, Anouk knows enough to replace attention with care. But “take care” still wouldn’t necessarily sound natural to her—she ends up saying, “Have care” instead.
Anouk pretty much only uses English when she’s dealing with English government officials. She’s fluent, but it’s a work language. It’s similar to how students learning French in an academic setting take a long time to relax from “Bien, je m’appelle KT” to “Ben ouai, j’pelle KT.” You don’t break the rules until you know them very well—which is why Anouk doesn’t use contractions.
Mairi, on the other hand, grew up bilingual. Skarrish left an indelible mark on her syntax and grammar, but it’s a subtler effect:
“Ah, she’s a flair for the dramatic.” Mairi chuckled as we turned up the road. “She’s like to do a few wreaths herself, for to get her mind off it, and then I’ll finish the rest when we’re back.”
I could probably do an entire post on Skarrish-Aldoran grammar. But for now, notice the abbreviated possessive (she’s, not she has), she’s like to (not she’s likely to) and the for to + infinitive.
“The Skarrish tale’s a touch of the darkness to it, to be sure, love,” she said. “But never you mind yourself!”
Overuse of the definite article (The Skarrish tale, the darkness), idiom carryover (to be sure), and overuse of the reflexive (never you mind yourself).
Practice and Instinct
After a while, your characters’ speech patterns do settle in your ears:
Even Charlotte says—said he’s spoken naught at home…
Which didn’t seem right to me, so I changed it to:
Even Charlotte says—said he’s naught spoken at home…
Only to realize later that you can place the past participle after the object in Irish English (naught = object, it’s what is being spoken; spoken = our past participle).
Kind of, I guess. If you’re letting different rule sets bounce off each other, it helps to know the rules in the first place. But we can sum it up:
Is your character attempting word-by-word translation?
What grammar/vocabulary exists in one language, but not another?
How does your character’s background affect their speech patterns?
Can you LISTEN to people who have your character’s accent?
One of my required readings for school this term was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Happily, I had already purchased and read this book some years ago. I reread it, and this time, Lamott’s emphasis on short assignments and the one-inch picture frame struck me.
When everything seems too overwhelming and you don’t know what to write about, you write about as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame (metaphorical or otherwise). At work, there’s a mysterious green bench that appeared on the porch of the big red farmhouse. It’s the green of kids’ green poster paint and my boss exclaimed to me, “It looks like a Christmas bench!”
“The Christmas Bench,” I mused. “It sounds like a kids’ story, where people sit on the bench and learn the true meaning of Christmas and all that stuff. One day, I’ll write it.”
And I kept trying to. I kept scribbling about Christmas and what it means to me, and how it’s changed, but I kept hitting walls and giving up.
Until I remembered the one-inch picture frames.
I’d like to write about Christmas now.
For three Saturdays in December, the pioneer village stays open until 9:30 pm. We do Victorian Christmas things. Oil lamps light the entire village with a soft warm glow (hence, Christmas by Lamplight). Food gets handed out, live music plays, I’m usually down in the brewery slinging beer.
But before all of that, there is dinner.
The table in the middle of our staff room serves as its focal point. Really, they are two long, narrow tables stuck together. They have shiny blue tops and shiny black legs, like the lunch tables you’d find in an elementary school. The chairs have the same shiny black legs and blue seats, but that’s some kind of easily-wiped padding, so they’re not too uncomfortable. Our lunches are split into five separate shifts; there are usually only three to four people around this table at any given time.
Lamplight is different. See, on Saturdays, we close at 4:30. We don’t need to be back out until 5:45. Some people go out. Most people seem to stay. And so, instead of only three or four people, it’s nearly everyone, all brown-bagging their dinner. Although it’s only 4:30, people grab their dinners right away, because there’s always a rush for the microwave. Tupperware and frozen dinners line the counter just in front of it, queuing while their owners claim seats around the table.
It’s always kind of anxiety-inducing when your turn at the microwave comes up, because you’re very conscious of the long line behind you, but at the same time there’s nothing worse than only partially warming your stew and biting into an icy chunk of potato. So you balance and ponder and eventually settle on a time that’s somewhere in the middle, and you probably pull it out halfway through to stir it up and check on it. Inevitably, someone hears the microwave door opening and leaps up. You feel kind of bad that it’s a false alarm, but hey, icy potatoes are gross. And by then, you can usually smell someone else’s dinner, something that smells way better than yours—leftover chicken or pizza or someone else’s stew—and your stomach pinches with hunger.
When your dinner is mostly warmed through, you take it back to the seat that you hopefully saved earlier. There are more people than spaces, so some people are sitting on chairs along the walls with their dinner on their knees, and some are standing by the sink. But maybe you left your reticule, or a water glass, or got someone to guard it for you, so you sink onto your chair. And God help you if your seat is near the back wall or the pop machine because it’s hard to maneuver around all those ballooning hoop skirts.
And then we have dinner together.
Sometimes there are baked goods in the middle for people to share: bread that didn’t sell or cookies that can’t be served to the public, but for the most part, everyone is eating their own meals. And yet, it’s still having dinner together. All of us, at the same time, in one place, talking and laughing and shouting greetings as those coming just for Lamplight sweep down the staircase in their street clothes. A half-dozen conversations fly around the room, and people keep getting up to get more water, or passing coins down the table for pop, or running off to fix their hair or change.
People you never see because they’re not on your shift are there. And people you always see are there. And people you love chatting to but never get to have lunch with are there. It’s near the end of the season, so we’re tired, but we know Lamplight. We’re wrapping things up, both at the village and with each other. Soon, we’ll be scattering for the winter, seeing each other less often, but for right now, we are together. Since it happens every year, I can breathe the sigh of relief that comes with knowing the end of the story.
It warms the cockles of my stony heart. Roughly twenty people who probably would never have met otherwise, melded into one of those strange non-biological family units that we craft from our friends. At Christmas, having everyone together becomes even more poignant because we know that soon we’ll be going our separate ways.
And that’s my one-inch picture frame on Christmas.
No matter what you celebrate, my best to you and those you care about. Stay warm and safe, and have a wonderful time with your friends and family.