Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving Thanks to Historical Fiction: Where does history end and ‘historical’ begin?

An interview with author Elaine Cougler
As a writer and a lover of history, I admire novels that blend the compelling elements of a good story with historical realism.  Readers want stories that engage our interest and emotion, but little is more disappointing than to find out after you’ve read a book you loved that the historical details on which it was based were too far off the facts. It is therefore gratifying to meet an author who shares this love of historical accuracy, while embracing the elements of good story-telling.

Elaine Cougler
Photo by Paula Tizzard

In Canada, it is interesting to note that our Thanksgiving might have been in November, as it is for our American neighbours, if it weren’t for the events depicted in Elaine Cougler’s novels.

ElaineCougler is a fellow WCDR (Writers’ Community of Durham Region) and HNS (Historical Novel Society) member and historical fiction writer, and her series of books in The Loyalist Trilogy span the years around the War of 1812. 

I asked Elaine to tell me more about her historical research and story elements for her most recent novel, The Loyalist Legacy:

When the War of 1812 is finally over, William and Catherine Garner flee the desolation of Niagara and find, in the wild heart of Upper Canada, their two hundred acres straddling the Thames River. Dense forests, wild beasts, disgruntled Natives, and pesky neighbors daily challenge them on this wild but valuable land, and the political atmosphere, laced with greed and corruption, threatens to undermine all of the new settlers’ hopes and plans. William, who longs for word from his parents after two years of silence, hurries back to Niagara, leaving Catherine and the children to work their land and fend for themselves. 

Sally: What challenges do women face today that echo the struggles of Catherine and women of her era in Canada?

Elaine: Women in the early 1800’s struggled along with their men as pioneers and innovators here in North America and especially as they began to build farms and communities and lives in what is modern-day Ontario. No modern appliances to drop the washing into and walk away. These women had lots of physical work to do and, though our lives are very different, we still take on huge jobs every day. I am of that generation who in large numbers were encouraged to work outside the home, but Catherine did that in the beginning of The Loyalist Legacy when her husband disappeared for months and she hitched up the horse to plough and plant their land.

Sally: With your characters facing the elements and nature, aggressive human forces, war and famine, do you think love conquers all, and what is the importance of love in this story in relation to the struggles of the characters in your story?

Elaine: While love is a part of this story, as it is with all human stories, my take on it is more implied than stated. With all the dangers and struggles the Garner family faces—loss of children, fear of authority and their own government, famine, wild animals and countless such dangers—the need for love and support is absolutely crucial; in fact, I don’t know how anyone could survive without it. There is one scene where William and Catherine are getting ready for bed and she realizes he has done something unconscionable. She loses her temper. But as soon as she sees his utter despair she pulls him back into bed.

Sally: What is the one flaw or failure of Catherine in the story and how does she overcome it? 

Elaine: Catherine has a temper and I used that in the opening scene of this novel. I could just see her working out her frustrations with that bread dough!

Catherine stood against the raw wood table and pounded the greyish dough into a glutinous sticky mass. With each stroke her anger rose. She picked the bits of batter from her fingers and pushed them into the dough with perhaps a little more force than usual. And heeled her hands into the ball once more. Slapping it into the meagre flour bits on the table, she saw the loaves begin to take shape and, in spite of herself, breathed a little easier.”

Sally: William is loyal to his parents, rushing back to Niagara to ensure they are well.  What is Catherine’s reaction to his departure? 

Elaine: This plot detail gave me the chance to let Catherine shine and, I suppose, to show how strong women are, a theme I’ve written about over and over. So often neither men nor women have choices but must take an impossible road. Catherine certainly understood her husband’s need to find out what had happened to his parents and, yes, I would have done what William did.

Sally: What has been your family and friends’ reaction to your success as an author?

I expected my immediate family to be absolutely on my side and they were and are. I named the main male character in my first book John Garner, and have a brother of the same name. (We’re descended from Loyalists.) Quite a while after the first book came out my brother John, who doesn’t usually read historical fiction, told me he had to read the book because his friends and neighbours kept talking to him about it. Well, he loved it! It’s fun to see people who have known me all my life as a teacher, a singer, a mother, a wife, and lots of other things, now make the adjustment to me as a writer. I am so lucky to have their support. And I am forever grateful to one of my brothers-in-law who always greets me with “How is the world-famous author?” Gotta love that!

Sally: The Historical Novel Society showcases authors of HF, including North American stories.  Since you are also a member of HNS, where do you fit in to the roster of writers who appear there, and how is your story different?

Elaine: I love the Historical Novel Society and look forward to every issue of their magazine. Last year I submitted the first two books in the trilogy, The Loyalist’s Wife and The Loyalist’s Luck, for review and received a complimentary joint online review of both. I will be submitting The Loyalist Legacy very soon, especially as it completes the trilogy. I hope to attend the 2017 HNS Conference in Portland. I love meeting as many people as I can. So much fun to meet others who love what I love!  As to where my books fit in: They are 18th and 19th century from the American Revolution, through the War of 1812, to the end of the Rebellion of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada (mostly Upper Canada). There are lots of stories about the American side of the Revolution and its aftermath but not so many about the Canadian side. This makes my historical series new material for many readers.

Sally: You’ve attended re-enactments about the era in your books, and even written about re-enactors in the area.  Can you tell us about your experiences with these events and the people who run them?  With your extensive historical research, how accurate would you say the re-enactors in this area are?

Elaine: The thing about historical fiction that I’ve found is that I don’t have to know everything about the era. This surprises me still as good historical fiction makes a reader think the author knows every little detail. Of course you have to know everything that affects your story and you better know enough to make that happen or readers will spot flaws. For example, the Butler’s Ranger uniforms. I learned that at first those who joined Butler did not have uniforms although they did later on and you will see the re-enactors wearing exact replicas of those uniforms. I knew enough to describe in great detail the uniforms of those who met up with Lucy on the road to Fort Niagara, in the first book, but when I go to re-enactments I learn about many of the other uniforms not used in The Loyalist’s Wife. Re-enactors do a marvelous job of bringing history alive for us. Would that we had those when I was a kid in school!

Thank-you, Elaine, for this insight into your writing and historical perspective on a turbulent time in North American History.  We look forward to the next installment in the series and can't wait to hear all about the launch of The Loyalist Legacy.

 #historicalfiction #Warof1812 @WCDR @histnovsoc @histnovel


Elaine Cougler can be found on Twitter, Facebook Author Page, LinkedIn and on her blog

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Plotter or Pantser: Ins and Outs of First Draft

A Writer’s Guide to the Nefarious Methods of Great Story

Plotting once meant to me the nefarious rubbing together of hands and a long thin mustache.  Pantsing sounded equally horrible, like something the neighbourhood toughs did to the gifted kids on the playground.  In more enlightened times, I discovered that writers divide themselves into these two categories. 

Plotting still sounds rather evil to me, an implication of over-planning and pre-destiny that amounts to controlling the characters in your book until they are nothing more than a puppet at the mercy of plot.  An evil plot.  Pantsing, once I knew what it was, sounded much more like what I do as a writer, so I confidently put myself in that category: a crazy dreamer who has no idea where her stories come from.

Except, it’s not that black and white, and what I do, I discovered, is not pure pantsism.  There are some writers who don’t know anything before they write.  They just write and eventually a character presents herself, someone challenges her, and maybe a bad storm and earthquake wreck havoc on all their plans—or not.  We’ll see.  They have no idea how it will end until it does.  Oh, the humanity!

I know several things before I write.  I know the ending.  Yes, that’s right, I am absolutely, 100 percent sure of the last few pages of the story.  I even write the last scene and rarely change a word.  So there is some element of plotting going on, plotting to bring my characters to the conclusion I intended when I decided to write this story.  I know the main character and the main antagonist and then I write the first scene, and just keep on and on until the character arrives at the conclusion.  And boy, have they been through hell in the process. 

For me, the reason I write this way is because I have a reason for what I write, a point I want to make, a moral of the story.  I know that these two characters will end up making a huge sacrifice to be together, or that they will suffer the consequences of putting money before people, for instance.  I want to present an aspect of human nature or the world we live in and shed some light on what happens to people in these circumstances.  I have an opinion, and I want my readers to think about that. 
Plotters like charts. They like to take the elements of their story and see it on a graph or a bulletin. or on pink and blue cards spread out over their office.  It’s a good way of organizing a story and documenting what each plot point does and how it serves the story. There are plenty of templates in books such as Robert McKee’s Story, and even software to help you do this from Dramatica to Scrivener. For the plotter, this is nirvana. 

Robert McKee, author Story
 I appreciate, even admire this process.  Power to you, if you can do it well.  It will save you a ton of rewrites, especially if you are writing for genre or a more commercial audience, because readers and certainly editors of these books look for those markers, and you had better have them if you hope to find a publisher and then an audience.  Trying to fit them in later is possible, but much more difficult.

For a pantser, these charts and programs are frustrating, fascinating, helpful and infuriating.  How can you daydream from a chart?  How can a new character walk onto the page and take your story by the throat, running in a whole new and exciting direction, taking your protagonist with it?  Plotters will tell you that this is exactly what they are trying to avoid.  That if you’ve planned the story you want to tell, these nefarious characters will not be able to hijack your story and tie your protagonist to the railroad tracks, rendering him a victim and not a hero. 

But wait a minute—who is writing this story anyway?  If your protagonist is strong enough, he will find a way to take the story back from this nefarious character, and what a ride that will be.  The element of surprise is a big part of what makes a story unique, and rivets readers to your page.  So it comes down to a key element of the true storyteller, plotter and pantser alike: however you arrive at your story, controlling or dreaming as you go along, the story structure has to be strong and equally unpredictable. 

Your main character is the love of your life and she is the centre of this story.  Her actions drive the story and the rest is background.  If he starts out as a victim and does nothing about it, just takes the hits over and over, that’s not a story but a list of events.  So if you plan out your story with a great flood, and your intention is that your main protagonist is going to change her life and those around her, then it’s what she does when the flood arrives that makes the story. 
If you can plot that out, you can start to see what you are trying to say, and build the story elements around that.  If your point is that meek people can overcome incredible odds because they care about others when things go horribly wrong, then planning out a setting that restricts your character at the beginning and showing how they chafe at that will set up the central conflict when the waters rise.  (For a riveting historical fiction against the backdrop of a flood, read Ann Weisgarber’s The Promise.)

For instance, let’s say our hero has been shifted from place to place, a spinster with no home, who is eventually put in a teaching position she does not want, but is given no choice.  So she makes the best of it and bonds with the children, endearing herself to the reader.  And then, little Bobby is beaten up in the school yard, and Miss Teach goes to see the bully’s father.  Only Mr. Bragg is proud of his son for defeating the weak and ensuring his place in his world. 

Does Miss Teach go hide in a cupboard?  No.  She shows some backbone and ingenuity.  She may not be able to do anything about Mr. Bragg’s hold on the community, but she isn’t taking this lying down.  She risks her reputation and her position to stand up for little Bobby. It might be a small action, like finding someone to teach him to fight back, or giving him a chance at a scholarship so he can get out of this backward town, but she’s going to assert herself.  So when the flood comes, and her charges are in danger, we know she will rise above her natural timidity and sacrifice herself to save the children.  Where it goes from there is up to you and Miss Teach.

 As a plotter, you might look at the first page, third page and thirtieth or fiftieth page, and determine the hook, the introduction of Miss Teach and what’s at stake for her (ie overcoming her timidity and the social circumstances that repress her), the inciting incident that brings her to the school, and the crack in the world that changes her new normal to crisis. 
K.M. Weiland in her blog post “Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is” contends that there are actually three inciting incidents that take place in the first act, and five steps to achieving them.  Her First Act Timeline is outlined in the blog and in her book, Structuring Your Novel. 

Driving plot through character is so crucial to a good story, because readers know how they might react to a crisis but they want a window into the soul of someone they care about, so they can empathize on how this person reacts and where that leads them—to heroism or tragedy.  If a writer relies too heavily on plot to drive the story, it will seem predictable and uninteresting, a series of events that don’t change the character.  If however, a writer relies only on what the character is feeling, and this does not change the character’s actions or the world around them, then the reader will lose empathy and want to get out of the character’s head.

Plotting and pantsing are both important writing techniques: one ensures pacing and the other surprise.  There is no recipe to ensure a writer will get this right, and each author will have to choose for themselves what works best for them.  In my sphere of creative writers, many of them WCDR (Writers’ Community of Durham Region) members or partners, about half are plotters and half pantsers, demonstrating that both methods can be effective. 
But within those two groups, most use some combination of plotting and pantsing, however much they fall to one side. 
Notorious pantser Stephen King stated in his book On Writing, “I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible.”

The main thing is that writing should feel good, whatever method you use to get it down.  I love first draft work because I can’t wait to see what happens next as my characters take over the world I created for them.  For plotters, I suspect the thrill of seeing their blueprint come to life is a driving factor.  Some writers, mostly plotters, hate first draft, but love the subsequent edits. 

So is there a right or wrong way to tell a story?  Snidely Whiplash may try to harass and lasso the dreamers, but in the end, the hero always wins.  And so we know that whatever begins the tussle, the main character will come to the rescue.  And that’s what really makes a story work and a reader want more.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Writing with Writers

The Collective Inspiration To Share

This autumn is a misty memory of changing seasons, accessible only through the filters of my camera lens and various building windows. 

Whitby Library, room with a view

That's what it is to be a writer on a deadline.  I factored in a few days to venture outside the house, either to go to the library or a coffee shop to write, or to go to Kingston to visit family.  I took a few pictures to remind myself that I exist outside this fantasy land of my stories. 

After delivering my epic adventure to my agent and an editor for pending comment, I accepted an invitation to visit with the members of one of my writing groups for a much needed sanctuary.  The leaves had mostly fallen, and recent rains and bracing winds necessitated increased layers of outwear and sturdy footwear.

After a long walk upon The Land, we settled in to talk about what we had written that morning.  We used various photographs and early morning discussions to start off, and then went to freefall.

There is no shortage of inspiration in Coboconk, where emerging literary writer, Sharon Overend, now lives with her hubby Paul, and the irrepressible Charlie, shown below, inspiring us with her ability to listen to Mom for a few joy-filled moments of play.  This trend of moving from the 'burbs of Ajax, Pickering, Whitby, is a common one amongst my friends now.  Lured by the pristine settings and affordable real estate, many boomers are now opting to move east or north for a life that promotes beauty and leisure over asphalt and traffic.

Charlie shows Mom how it's done
For me, this opens possibilities for inspiration.  So far, the list of moves/secondary locations where I now have friends includes, Coboconk, Prince Edward, Bahamas, Kingston, Ste. Marthe, Bowmanville, and yes, even Ottawa, Toronto and London.  All of these places offer wonderful opportunities to live and be a writer.  The question is, where do I want to be?  My home in Whitby has lots to offer, and I'm right in the middle of most of my friends' locations, so I can get to them easily. But moving, as they have, and enjoying a lifestyle of early morning unimpeded sunrises and views of land and water...hmmmmm. 

A view from Point de Vue, Quebec, window to early morning
Another view from the window....pretty white stuff from here

So many paths.  All I can say is, I love being with my friends, I love being with writers.  And sometimes I enjoy the noise and pace of the city.  I hate least if I have to go out in it.  The talk about snow shoes and skiis during our writing retreat was not my favourite part of the day.  For those who know me well, you know why my friends in Ottawa call me 'an indoor pet'.

But back to writing in a group.  The Bellas, as this writing group is called, are a collection of top notch, inspiring writers whom I have come to love.  The positive energy, the support, the inspiration, is reason enough to make the journey from Whitby to Port Hope, Coboconk, Bowmanville, or down the street in Whitby.  During our freefall hours, I wrote four poems and a short story. First draft of course, but the subjects are as diverse as the settings in this post that make up my experience as a writer.  The output from the others was similar to my own. 

I recently completed a WCDR sponsored Writing Circle Facilitation Accreditation, and among the many, many skills and insights from the wonderful Dorothea Helms, aka The Writing Fairy, and Ruth Walker of Writescape was the gem that writing in circles with other dedicated writers should be a collective experience.  In other words, writing together in a room is an experience unto itself; it creates an uncanny spirit that seem to grow with the number of writers in the circle and lay itself out on the page in richness and wonder.  But the real magic is in the sharing.  To write, share, provide feedback enhances the writing experience and increases the richness of story, which can then, once again, be shared. 

So, as writers decide where to write, and how to write, and what view to stare out as they write, they come to that crossroads, that rich, lovely place of options, and steep hills, and lush valleys and sun over snowfalls.  And they put that pen to paper, those fingers to keyboards, and live the words that come out.  Words that are to reflect what brought us here, where we are now, and where we are likely to go next.  That's what makes them so magical to share.

Books written by fellow writers and speakers at WCDR,
a rich experience

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Evolution of a Garden

My Mom's lot is a wooded space that tells a 50 year story of family and growth.  When my parents bought the lot on Meadowood Road in Kingston in 1956, it was an empty space with a creek at the back, and a small house in progress.  Today, this space is burgeoning with gardens, mature trees, wild flowers, and workshops and sheds. 

As we were growing up, my mom did much to bring this space to life.  Raising four kids, she had little time for gardening, but somehow she managed to make the wooded spaces and the tended gardens work together. 

Over the years, the space took on the character of our family.  It reflects the hard times and the happy times and everything in between with a gentleness and laughter, as well as a hardy striving, and a talent for survival. 

My brothers and sister and I spent many hours in the woods around our property, or at the mill pond fishing or playing or gathering chestnuts and strawberries.  Our childhoods were filled with these endless hours surrounded by natural beauty.  Much of that is now covered by housing, but through the years, I transplanted trilliums, and jack-in-the-pulpits and ferns from the woods and marshlands around Collins Bay into my mom's gardens.

Today, these reminders of our childhood thrive year to year alongside my mom's lilac trees, tulips and daffodils, dogwood, blood root, rose bushes and the many ash and maple trees that shade the lot.

Mom's garden became a hybrid of who we are and the natural surroundings of where we had made our home.  As they blended into the unique character of what we now call, simply, 'Meadowood' to refer to our childhood home, this space has become an integral part of our identity as a family.

When my dad died four years ago and my mom was diagnosed with leukemia that same year, our lot suffered.  Neglected for chemo treatments and funerals and estate settling, the plants became overgrown, branches died, the ash trees were at risk by beetles, and the grass became tangled with weeds. 

My mother was unable to tend to her flowers, and the usual baskets of annuals did not make it to her lot. But underneath it all, the plants she had so carefully tended year after year, the roses my sister had planted, the trilliums and wild flowers I had transplanted struggled to claim their patch of soil and waited for our family to take notice again.

This year, my mom is healthy and happy again.  With renewed energy, she and my sister have returned to the gardening they love, and with the help of a gardener, they are restoring our lot on Meadowood. 

As the flowers bloom, the trees spring to life and the beds become free of weeds, the stunning legacy of Mom's garden is being returned to us. Its beauty and stunning refusal to relinquish its claim to this particular bit of turf reminds me of the resilience of home and family. 

Now, as we make a concerted effort to restore balance and growth, order and beauty, the lesson of Mom's garden is a simple one.

However many weeds sprout and threaten to choke us out of our life, the true nature of who we are, the roots we put down, the potential to return and bloom better than before will always be waiting for us underneath.      

Monday, March 30, 2015

Paths of Success

Tomorrow, I am co-leading a Meet and Greet in North Durham for The Writers' Community of Durham Region with The Writing Fairy, Dorothea Helms at Blue Heron Books.  The purpose is to introduce local writers to each other, to the WCDR, and discuss proven methods of critiquing each others' writing.  We are hoping to meet fellow writers, new, emerging and seasoned, in the various stages of their writing path.


For any goal there is a path, but how to know what path to take?  As a Historical Fiction writer, I picture a wooded track, lush vegetation on all sides, bunnies frolicking and deer grazing on one side, with the dark figures and gleaming eyes of the unknown peering out the other.  The woods can be a bountiful sanctuary or a frightful, mysterious place.

The path has all kinds of off-shoots, and as you peer down them, deciding which fork in the road is right for you, it's good to take a look at the path you came down before veering off.

Think of the main path as the 'spine,' the road that gets you to the other side of the woods.  Now, why did you start on this path in the first place?  What's on the other side of the woods that made you begin this path? 

Map out the beginning, middle and end, just as you would a novel.  First, there is the step that takes you on this journey.  You attended your first writing circle and became hooked.  You must be a writer!

Now what?  Look at the end.  The one, true, spectacular goal you hope to achieve.  There's your spine.  The journey in between doesn't have to be a maze, but it will have a lot of off-shoots that will eventually take you to the right place. 

Go back to the beginning and list all the things you have to do to get to the other side of the woods.  Alternate between the beginning and the end, working forwards, working backwards, until all possibilities you can see are visible.  You will soon start to see a pattern. 

For instance, one of the things you may want to do from the time you go to your first meeting with other writers to the end goal of publishing a novel is get an agent.  Work back from there and list all the things you have to do to sign with an agent.  How do you find one?  What will you need prepared for that fateful day when you do meet one?  How can you learn how to prepare those materials most effectively? 

Sally, 1981...first draft

As you map out the things you need, and the things you need to get the things you need, you will find a very distinct pattern of learning, listening, connecting that will take you where you want to go.  And as you travel the planned path, you will add things as you go along, enhancing the journey.  You may find yourself stumbling from time to time, but you will soon get back on track, or simply take time to pause and appreciate the progress you've made.

Yes, even in 1978, all I wanted was to be a writer!

But by all means, take the first step!  Life is an adventure, and if you reach out and strive for that wonderful world you have envisioned, it gets easier and easier to see the bunnies and deer, and handle the dark figures with panache along the way.

The glorious horizon, where all things are possible- and worth writing about!