WINTER SURVIVAL

We didn’t host Thanksgiving this year.  Instead, we went to our granddaughter’s house because it’s big enough to hold the most relatives and is centrally located.  The reason I mention this is because what happened illustrates a fact of life in the north.  Don’t count on getting where you are going… or on returning… until your trip is finished.

The weather was warm and lovely when we drove to Jo’s house.  Thanksgiving dinner was wonderful.  While we ate, we watched the weather outside change.  Snow fell.  Wind blew.  By the time the sun set, some time after four in the evening, stepping outside was walking into a white-out with all sense of proportion lost in the darkness beyond.

We started home.  We got about two miles, then turned around and spent the night at our daughter’s house.  We had a lovely visit, a nice breakfast, and drove home without incident. 

You could say we were lucky.  I remember one Thanksgiving when our youngest son didn’t make it to our house.  He turned around a mile from home and went shopping for turkey in the one store that was open near there.  In the store,  he met a neighbor who invited him and his family to share Thanksgiving.  So he had turkey after all.

Another time, our daughter and her family were traveling to our house for Christmas.  They got half-way and ended up in a motel and were glad to be there.  They celebrated Christmas in a motel with others who were also stranded.

When I finish this post, I’m going to put our winter survival gear in the SUV.  The four-wheel-drive SUV that’s the only vehicle we drive in the winter.  An old sleeping bag.  A large coffee can packed with candy, candles, and garbage bags that can be pulled over coats for added warmth and protection from the wind. Not much, but it can make the difference between comfort and losing toes and fingers to frostbite

When our kids were teenagers we insisted they throw snowmobile suits in the back of whatever car they were going to be in, whether it was ours or someone elses.  And we also insisted they tell us the route they would use coming and going.  So if they were late and we couldn’t locate them by phone, we’d know where to begin the search.  They hated it.  We insisted.  Usually we won though more than once I found a discarded snowmobile suit in the bushes where they’d tossed it because it was humiliating to actually admit to a friend the kind of rules we had.  But we lived miles from anywhere.  If there was trouble, there’d be no place for them to walk to for help … if the cold and the wind would allow walking anywhere at all. 

I’ve never had to use our winter survival kit and don’t know anyone who has and I doubt anyone I know will ever actually use theirs.  But here in the north country, it’s not a joke.  It’s a necessity.  And is part of the reason I became a writer.  Because my commute to work involves nothing more than walking from one room to another, and I don’t have to go outside at all if the weather is really, really bad.  Which is sometimes is.

ARCHETYPE OR STEREOTYPE?

Earlier today a writer mentioned a problem coming up with good characters.  His main concern was to not create characters that are stereotypes.  I can understand his concern.  As a writer, I’ve been warned over and over again of the terrible things that will befall my manuscript if I should breathe life into a character that… horror of horrors!… is a stereotype.  Archetypes, on the other hand, are wonderful and to be admired because they illuminate characteristics common to Everyman.  Archetypes, not stereotypes.  That’s the rule.

I have a problem with that rule.  Maybe it’s me.  I generally don’t like rules and maybe I’m not like other writers.  But I suspect I’m pretty much like almost everyone else.

I am, however, honest enough to question whether there is a difference between a stereotype and an archetype.  I’m fairly certain they are one and the same thing.

Think about it.  Both stereotypes and archetypes personify stock characters… people we know in real life and recognize in a story after just a brief description.  The only difference is in the words used and that’s a personal choice for every writer.  Some readers like some words better than others and when they don’t like the words used, they may decide the character being described is a stereotype and, therefore, a negative.

Want to know what I think?  I think you shouldn’t worry about it.  Just tell the story.  If your characters turn out to be familiar, recognizable people, good for you.  And if someone tells you that a particular character is a stereotype, reply that, no indeed, that character is an archetype.  You will be telling the truth.  Because, in the end, they are the same.

THRUST

I read somewhere, can’t remember where, that the way to tell a story is to hit the ground running and don’t stop until you reach the end.  That’s a pretty good definition of thrust.

Even though my stories aren’t fast-paced thrill rides, I always try to do precisely that… hit the ground running and not stop until I reach the end… because it prevents my characters from becoming boring and my readers from skipping parts of my story because they aren’t relevant.

As you might guess, my stories do tend to go straight from beginning to end with no side trips and they have fewer characters than many stories have because extraneous characters take away from the story. Nor do I often include a lot of icing or window dressing.  I know many readers love the extras that come with fiction and, yes, sometimes I give in and provide a lot of background.  (Hint:  Wanted Sharpshooter is one such story.)  But generally, I try not to stray.

Think about it.  If you are chasing the end as hard as you can, you pass up all those tempting side trails without even seeing them.  And you end up telling the story you set out to tell.   All without boring the reader.

This isn’t for everyone.  Some of us do our best writing by using a meandering method that takes us to unexpected places… places that are both wonderful and glorious and that we didn’t know existed until we took that side trip.  For the rest of us… we writers who don’t stumble into Nirvana… hitting the ground running and not stopping until you reach the end is a good way to give your readers the story you want them to have.

TONE

There’s been a discussion lately among some writers I know about ‘tone.’  Specifically, the tone required by confession stories.  The discussion didn’t progress very far before I felt completely overwhelmed.  Because when I write, I just write.  I think about how to best tell the story and how best to convey that to the reader.  And that’s about it.  Maybe I’ve been lucky that I hit it enough of the time that people read what I wrote.

But tone is important, I know that.  Furthermore, I also know that it differs from one genre to another.  Read a couple high fantasy stories and you’ll know what I’m talking about.  If you didn’t understand the tone of high fantasy, you might think you were reading something by one of Chaucer’s contemporaries.  Which is completely different from the tone of a hard-boiled private eye novel.  Or a Regency romance.  Or a confession story.

So what is tone?

After the discussion, I did some thinking and realized that I’ve always known subconsciously what it was.  It’s what’s between the words of every well-written story.  It’s not actual description but it lets the reader know what the setting and characters are like.  It’s not dialogue but it can and often does dictate how the characters speak.  It doesn’t tell the story, but it’s in every scene, often unnoticed, complementing and explaining and interpreting but not interfering. with the actual story-telling

Its importance cannot be overstated.  Without it, readers will turn away in droves because, as much as the story… sometimes even more… tone is what readers want.  Why they really read.  What they are looking for.  Because it’s the feeling they will take with them after the story is finished.

Let me give an example.  Is a ghost story best told during a Sunday picnic in the middle of the day in the midst of a few hundred laughing guests… or around a campfire in a remote forest with no moon and dark clouds scudding across the sky tossing treetops awry?  If you choose that night-time setting and put it together with the creepy, softly scary voice in which campfire tales are best told, you have tone.  It’s the thing listeners will remember long after they’ve forgotten the story itself.

So that’s what tone really is.  Not the story.  Not the characters.  Not the description.  Not the dialogue.  It’s the way the writer puts all of those things together in way that makes the reader feel the story.  And isn’t that what we as writers hope will happen every time we write?