Cherry blossoms!

Sharon Ashwood
April 27, 2012  •  No Comments

Outside my window


Mr. Darcy investigates – or not.

Sharon Ashwood
April 26, 2012  •  No Comments


I love Jane Austen and I love British mysteries, so P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley sounded like a sure winner. James opens the story some years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth and Darcy have two small sons. All the period detail (at least as far as I know) is caught with careful accuracy, and Austen’s characters and their histories are faithfully rendered.

Perhaps this is part of the difficulty I had with the book. There is no larger than life detective, derring-do, or scrapes with death. Everyone (especially Darcy) acts exactly as individuals in that time and place ought to. True, there is a death, a coroner’s inquest, and a trial, but they are delivered at arm’s length. For the most part, the main characters do not take an active part in the investigation, nor is anything other than their good name on the line. Darcy is by turns painfully correct, worried about failing the Pemberley legacy, and glum, but he does not roll up his sleeves and start interrogating.

I personally would have liked something a bit more down and dirty, with the characters in the crosshairs of more than potential gossip. But that’s my problem. Austen wrote with most of her action off stage, never bringing scandalous activities directly on scene but only reporting them after the event. As little as I like it, the author is being faithful to the model.

However, I missed Austen’s caustic wit. For the most part, Lizzie is reduced to a cipher, as is her chemistry with Darcy. There is no irrepressible female viewpoint to lampoon the pretentions of society. The lightness, spirit, and incisive eye for character—that which made Austen memorable—fail to materialize. Most of all, even if the characters won’t be impacted by more than scandal, I need to care about the outcome. Because the Pemberley folks are so far removed from any real consequences, this was difficult.

I think this is the problem when one anticipates a book with great relish. If it does not deliver the expected treat exactly right, it’s hard not to judge it harshly. All I can say is that this wasn’t what I was hoping for.


World building for junior planetary engineers

Sharon Ashwood
April 25, 2012  •  No Comments

I’ve seen lots of information on world building that helps an author lay out the rules of their universe. There are tons of things to consider: climate, currency, social castes, political systems, and on and on. One can draw maps and list all kinds of flora and fauna and cuisine. It’s all good.

What I rarely see is information on how any of that contributes to the story beyond setting, such as why or how, let alone how much.

I had a lively discussion recently about just this thing. I’d given some chapters of a fantasy to a beta reader (poor thing) who came back with a recommendation for more world building details. Piqued that my genius would be questioned—after all I had tons of just such info in mind—I reread to see what I had (or had not) done. She was right. I’d fallen to the low end of the world building spectrum because I hadn’t used my ideas effectively.

· Low end of spectrum: the Stingy Approach. Don’t introduce anything unless you absolutely need to.
· Gone crazy end: the Victorian Bordello Approach. Don’t bother with the plot, the fun is in the gizmos and webbed feet.

Needless to say, there is a happy medium. However, the underlying problem in my story was that I had not thoroughly examined what role the world building elements in my book played.

Example: let’s say our fantasy society has an economy based on solar power. That could translate into: their jobs, where their family money came from, do they live above ground or under it, are there medical consequences, what crops do they have, can anybody access the power, has it affected population migration or birth rate, do they sell the power somehow? Why did they go to solar power and how did they learn the technology? Does it have spiritual or religious implications? What about the rest of the ecology?

Once the author has deeply pondered this squirmy mass of connecting ideas, the trick is then to drop in just the right details, as if in passing, to imply all of the above. Reference it as a fait accompli the way we talk about catching the city bus. After all, one’s point of view character probably lives in that world.

Example: They wouldn’t ponder the caste system of their planet. They’d simply kick the scum into the gutter and move on. Show, don’t tell.

It’s a casual slight-of-hand that makes the difference between the plodding obviousness of bad sci-fi and the opportunity to draw a reader deep, deep into the playground of your imagination.

To take this one step further, one has to ask why a certain element is pertinent. How do the two-headed dog packs on planet x affect the choices available to the protagonist? Where does it impact the central story conflict? Does it say something important about the state of society?

Example: planet x is a mining planet digging up a dangerous mineral. The resource conglomerates are telling the inhabitants the two-headed dogs with five tails are a naturally occurring species, but really their ancestors were cute little boxer pups and these are a mutation caused by the mining operation. Our hero discovers this secret just after his wife conceives. Cue plot motivation.

So, that is the worldbuilding lesson I learned. If I had done my homework, I would have known when and where to use my fantasy elements with the precision of a master chef seasoning a dish. Scrap that. They would have been essential ingredients to the meal, driving my characters and their actions.

Now let’s see if I can take my own advice 😳


When they said to hang the Canucks …

Sharon Ashwood
April 19, 2012  •  No Comments

Okay, so I’m not a big sports fan, but I thought these skaters were cute. Saw them dangling from the ceiling of a tiny but lovely Vancouver bistro called Aphrodite’s just down from Banyen Books. They’re actually quite large, and had pirates and mermaids to keep them company.

hockey mobile


Feeding oneself: the major challenge of adulthood

Sharon Ashwood
April 18, 2012  •  No Comments

I long for the days when all I had to do about meals was show up. Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking and I’m good at it. I have shelves of recipe books. But organizing myself when I’m super-busy is at times more than I can manage. Then comes the, shall we say, less responsible food choices.
So call this a product review if you like. For me, it’s a sigh of relief.

I signed up for Groupon a while ago and got an online subscription deal to The Fresh 20. This company, run by a dietician, sends weekly menus, shopping lists, and recipes to your inbox. The menus are for five nightly meals (Mon-Fri) that use no more than twenty ingredients all told. There’s an hour of prep work for the week, but the nightly cooking takes about a half hour. For me, that means dishes are done by 7:30 so I can get writing.

The menus are designed to use up leftovers so you don’t have suspicious entities lurking in the crisper two weeks later. The ingredients are those in common use, so most grocery stores should have what is needed (and most of the listed staples I had anyway). Best of all, customers can choose plans for a traditional, vegetarian, or gluten-free diet.

My menus came on Friday, in time for weekend shopping, and so I trotted off to Thrifty’s to get my stuff. Week One, I seriously overbought. Helpful hint: these recipes are geared for a family of four, not one person. I ended up making about half the meals and eating a lot of leftovers that week. Good thing they were tasty.

The next run went much better, when I cut the amounts in half. Shopping went very quickly because the lists are grouped by department. Overall, my grocery bill was much lower, and I was able to squeeze lunches out of the leftovers. With take-out prices, that is a major savings all on its own. I’m pretty sure I’ve made back the cost of Fresh 20’s subscription already.

The end review? Definitely worth a try, so check out their web site for sample menus. There’s a three-month trial for $5/month.

I appreciate someone else doing the organization. It’s cheaper, faster, tasty and healthy. It’s not a weight-loss plan per se, but if you’re trying to cut crap out of your diet, this goes a long way. However, it’s flexible. I’ve swapped ingredients here and there and with five meals, not seven, there’s room for a night out or just some other dish you want to make.

Overall, the meal plans are helpful without being invasive. Now if only they’d do the dishes!


Step away from the keyboard …

Sharon Ashwood
  •  2 Comments

Once upon a time they used to torture people into confession by tying them down, putting a plank of wood over them, and then piling rocks on top until the victim was squished. I know, not a really attractive image, but a useful metaphor #1 for this discussion.

Metaphor #2: I had a really excellent story idea last night. It was still with me this morning, fluttering around like a colourful butterfly, bonking against my nose once in a while just to make sure I’m paying attention. Like most really good ideas, it is slowly coming into focus, showing more and more of its pretty patterns as I, all unwilling, try my best to ignore it.

Ignore it?? Why ever would I do that? Well, gentle reader, because I have absolutely no time to deal with it right now. Back to the guy under the rocks—or rather, me under my rocks. If I make it through to the end of June, I’m golden, but right now I have three impressive deadlines a few weeks apart. Completely doable, as long as I don’t drop any balls. What less convenient time for my muse to send a butterfly?

But that’s just the thing. The more pressure I’m under, the more I’m suffocating from workload, the more effectively my brain pops out excellent ideas. When I’m kicking back and watching the grass grow, I get nothing.

I’m not sure why it works this way. My theory is that new ideas are very delicate things and, like butterflies, not meant to be handled. If we try to pin them down too soon, they become specimens rather than living creatures. Therefore, the most logical thing for the muse to do is to send them along when I can’t mess with them.

Right now, all I can do is look and appreciate and wait till they grow up. Then, during the slow moments when I’m rock-free, they’ll be robust enough for me to coax to my hand without doing damage.


Thursday photo

Sharon Ashwood
April 12, 2012  •  No Comments

Duck love in a romantic setting. Took this photo last Thursday at VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver. The ducks are a little hard to see, but they were having a great time at the bottom of the waterfall. (you can see them if you click on the photo)


Spreading my writerly charm

Sharon Ashwood
April 11, 2012  •  1 Comment

One of the odd parts of being an author is that sooner or later one has to do public speaking. Yes, take those engaged in the most introverted, ivory-tower occupation possible and shove them in front of a mic. Counter-intuitive? Oh, just a bit—but it turns out I had a great time!

Last week saw me visiting two libraries in the Fraser Valley Regional Library system : the Ladner Pioneer and White Rock branches. Both were lovely facilities with lovely librarians and well-appointed rooms for holding readings and lectures.

My assignment was to read a bit from one of my books (I picked Frostbound) and then give a short writing workshop. The total time allowed was just over an hour. I’ve done a handful of writing workshops over time, but this one was the best organized so far. I think the fact that I had to be very focused and brief helped me.

Things I learned:
• Think about how you’re going to read the dialogue in your story to differentiate the voices
• When computers go into sleep mode, they totally mess up your PowerPoint and need to be rebooted
• If you plan to sell books, bring a float
• Always bring an extension cord

Things I loved:
• People taking notes.
• People asking real questions about writing.
• Getting so excited by talking writing that I forget I’m talking in front of strangers
• The excuse to visit with friends.


Sproing!

Sharon Ashwood
April 5, 2012  •  No Comments

In anticipation of the Easter weekend, it looks like spring arrived in the front yard!


Alphas are in, but can we pick them out of a line-up?

Sharon Ashwood
April 4, 2012  •  No Comments

Just about every protagonist in romance these days is supposed to be an alpha—and this often means a dominating male who prefers action to words and is never so happy as when there is a damsel to save. At his best, he’s a true knight in shining armor. At his worst, he’s a big swaggering guy who drinks the milk without replacing it, drags the girl off to his cave, and never lets anyone else use the remote.

But how do we draw an accurate portrait of an alpha in our books? We’ve all seen people trying to fill that role, with varying degrees of success. Which ones are the real deal?

There are leaders who are all about hoarding information and power like dragons, not trusting anyone to do anything themselves. That might be mistaken for alpha, but I think that’s not leading staff so much as keeping it like slightly dimwitted pets.

There are leaders who cheer loudly, have a lot of rah-rah sessions, and talk teamwork all the time. I’m okay with this as long as there is substance underneath the hype. However, I’m not sure real alphas need to work that hard to inspire loyalty.

Then are leaders who invite the opinions of their team, give them what they need, and then get out of the way so their trusted workers can do their thing. They understand the details of the work almost as well as the workers. They’ll step in if needed, but the measure of their success is if everyone gets to go home on time with the work done and minimal drama. They’re not necessarily flamboyant leaders, but they tend to attract the best talent.

In my opinion, the last example is the closest to a real alpha. They’re thoughtful about their decisions and confident once those are made. They put the team’s needs first and will defend them tooth and nail. They’ll often pick ambitious, almost impossible, projects because they know how to get excellence from their staff. They inspire trust, but largely because they give it.

It’s something to remember when creating an alpha character—they’re first and foremost hard workers and good decision-makers. They may or may not be the ones with the power suits and expensive cars, but they will have a lot of people looking up to them. Responsibility is their watchword, and they never delegate a task they wouldn’t do themselves. Rather than being a party animal, it’s tough to get them to stop pushing themselves and cut loose.

Boring? No, not when it’s time to make them fall in love. They may be all about trusting their hand-picked lieutenants to patrol a boundary or design a bridge, but the one type of control they never share (remote control notwithstanding) is self-control. Strip them of that, and their identity goes to pieces. And what tests self-control like a steamy romance?


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