Into the World of Audible

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Me – not my books. Not yet, at any rate.

Bruce and I have recently discovered audio books and we are thrilled.

I can only rave! Prepare yourself. We’ve always loved radio and we’ve often listened to podcasts in the evenings. Mostly news or political commentary. Hearing great books read aloud is a change of genre rather than medium. At the same time, what a change! Bruce and I have often read the same book and then discussed it. We’ve never experienced the same book at the same time. Wow!

Audible cover of LIncoln in the Bardo

We first ventured out on audio with the free one-month subscription to Audible and downloaded Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. The write-up hooked me! Plus the 166 member cast that it took to bring this novel to the audio world. Listen to what Amazon says about Saunders’ work:

Winner, 2018 APA Audie Awards – Audiobook of the Year

Winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize

The long-awaited first novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented.

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved 11-year-old son, Willie, is gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state (called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo) a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

Bruce joined me for the first hour, then said I should go on without him. He found it strange. Good way to describe the experience. But the novel isn’t just strange for the way it draws heavily on historical accounts of Abraham Lincoln at the time of his son’s death, or for its bizarre long-dead characters, or the ghostly and often bawdy graveyard antics that made me laugh and shudder in turn. It’s also a challenging first-ever audio book experience. The medium is a world away from reading.

Let me explain. If I’m confused at the start of a novel, I reread the first few paragraphs. Reading allows such review. With audio, you are right in the thick of it from the first moment and the narration just goes on. You must accept the ambiguity until it all starts to gel. Either that or spend endless amounts of time rewinding.

I persevered with Lincoln in the Bardo, and what a fantastical, amazing journey.

Audible cover of Conclave

Next came Conclave by Robert Harris. I’m a huge fan of Robert Harris’ work and have read all his novels. I wanted to share Conclave with Bruce, but I only had it as an e-book. Bruce prefers a ‘real’ book experience.

Check out the Amazon write-up to see if you’d be interested:

What happens behind the closed doors of the Roman Catholic Conclave? The mysterious rituals surrounding the congregation of cardinal electors responsible for electing a new pope is brilliantly researched by Robert Harris, bringing an age-old tradition to life. Set against the swirling of religious theory comes an explosive political drama that will have you on the edge of your seat. The Pope is dead. Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, 118 cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world’s most secretive election. They are holy men. But they have ambition. And they have rivals. Over the next 72 hours, one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.

We listened to this one together and loved the experience. The narration, which should really be called a performance, was superb. How one narrator could bring a unique voice to each character is an amazing feat.

Audible cover for Officer and a Spy

I stayed in Audible for another month so I could download another Robert Harris book. An Officer and a Spy. Historical fiction at its best and I know because I’ve read the e-book.

Amazon description:

They lied to protect their country. He told the truth to save it. A gripping historical thriller from the best-selling author of Fatherland.

January 1895: On a freezing morning in the heart of Paris, an army officer, Georges Picquart, witnesses a convicted spy, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, being publicly humiliated in front of 20,000 spectators baying ‘Death to the Jew!’ The officer is rewarded with promotion: Picquart is made the French army’s youngest colonel and put in command of ‘the Statistical Section’ – the shadowy intelligence unit that tracked down Dreyfus.

The spy, meanwhile, is given a punishment of medieval cruelty: Dreyfus is shipped off to a lifetime of solitary confinement on Devil’s Island – unable to speak to anyone, not even his guards, his case seems closed forever. But gradually Picquart comes to believe there is something rotten at the heart of the Statistical Section. When he discovers another German spy operating on French soil, his superiors are oddly reluctant to pursue it. Despite official warnings, Picquart persists, and soon the officer and the spy are in the same predicament….

Narrated by Picquart, An Officer and a Spy is a compelling recreation of a scandal that became the most famous miscarriage of justice in history. Compelling, too, are the echoes for our modern world: an intelligence agency gone rogue, justice corrupted in the name of national security, a newspaper witch hunt of a persecuted minority, and the age-old instinct of those in power to cover-up their crimes.

This one is in our line-up for later.

Reflecting on the cost of an Audible monthly subscription (14.95) and how that would only give us access to one free book per month and a 30% discount on any we would purchase (which, in Canada, are upwards of 28.00 each) we decided the whole endeavour, though enjoyable, was somewhat pricey.

I checked out what our local library had to offer. I downloaded the Libby app (which is amazing) and checked out our first audio book. Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs.

Audible cover of Fifteen Dogs

Amazon write-up:

WINNER OF THE 2015 GILLER PRIZE

WINNER OF THE 2015 ROGERS WRITERS’ TRUST FICTION PRIZE

FINALIST FOR THE 2015 TORONTO BOOK AWARDS

“I wonder,” said Hermes, “what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.”

“I’ll wager a year’s servitude,” answered Apollo, “that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are if they were given human intelligence.”

And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old dog ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.

André Alexis’ contemporary take on the apologue offers an utterly compelling and affecting look at the beauty and perils of human consciousness. By turns meditative and devastating, charming and strange, Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks.

This book is narrated by Alexis himself and after listening, I’m not sure anyone else but the author could have pulled it off. We spent a wildly hilarious and moving 6.5 hours over four nights loving this novel. I will never look or speak to a dog the same way again. While we listen, I usually knit on my various sock projects and one night, Bruce put together plumbing parts for a next day job. Listening lends itself to certain pursuits that television viewing doesn’t allow.

I am now listening to an Isabele Allende’s novel – Ripper.

Ripper cover

Amazon description:

Indiana Jackson is thirty-three years old and works in San Francisco at an alternative medicine clinic that attracts all sorts of characters, some of them skeptics, who fall for her candour and humility. Her teenage daughter, Amanda, likes noir literature and hopes to attend MIT, where she will be with Bradley, an old friend that she plans to marry, with or without his consent. In her free time, she plays Ripper, an online role-playing game that involves solving real-life mysteries and crimes using information collected by Amanda’s father, the Chief Inspector of the San Francisco police. Amanda plays the game via Skype with adolescents from all over the world and with her best friend, her grandfather Blake.

Each player in the game has a virtual personality: Amanda is the game master, and Blake is her henchman; the others are Sherlock Holmes, Colonel Paddington, Esmeralda and the psychic Abatha.

When Ripper’s latest murder mystery-the case of the misplaced bat-begins to touch their real-world lives, Amanda and her friends know they must find the murderer before he can strike again.

Ripper is a true thriller, with twists, surprises, well-placed clues and revelations leading to a climactic finale.

Bruce is passing on this one because he doesn’t like too much bloodshed. I think he would love Allende’s characters, though, and I may convince him to give it a try. He is waiting for the new Barbara Kingsolver novel, Unsheltered, to show up. We have a library order in for it and must wait our turn. Estimated time is 14 weeks!

Rest assured, now that we have discovered this new medium, we’ll be filling our waiting time with more easily available treats.

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Action is Plot and Plot is Action

Fraser River - Bruce Witzel photo

A great story is life with the dull parts taken out – Alfred Hitchcock.

Morning grey on the Fraser River – day two of our fall trip. Nothing dull about that pic. In novel writing, we want no dull characters, no dull situations, no dull settings. But, let’s be clear on what constitutes dull. The definition, in terms of writing, is unique. Any action that doesn’t move the story forward is dull. If teeth brushing is integral to the movement of your story, then teeth brushing is not dull. Maybe your character is brushing her teeth and as she spits blood into the sink, she decides once and for all to leave the brute who smashed her in the face that morning. Definitely not dull.

On the other hand, the photo below, is vibrant with fall colours. It is no dull grey expose but what does it have to do with the story? The colours may pop but if they aren’t moving the story forward, dull, dull, dull.

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Action is plot and plot is action. I’ve read that genre novels are action driven. Lots of things happen to the character. Literary novels are more about the interior life of the characters. It could be said that the character happens to the plot. In each case, the story must find a way to move. It seems to me that most good novels are a combination of the two.

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A plot without good character development is all action and no bonding. The reader can’t get invested. On the other hand, character development without a plot is like being all dressed up and having no where to go. And by the way – have you ever heard of a Turban squash. I hadn’t until we stopped at the Marisposa Organic Fruit Stand outside Keremeos.

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At its most basic, plot is how a character deals with challenge. And it’s all about movement. Want something, go somewhere, learn something, come out the other end changed. There you have it. Bare bones, but if you can’t see down to the skeleton, you can’t write a decent novel.

The photo below is Sunset in Osoyoos, the end of day two of our fall trip. The bulrush chimes near the art gallery. I hadn’t been back to Osoyoos since selling my dad’s house in 2010. He’d died late the previous year. I wasn’t expecting the return to bring back such powerful, overwhelming memories. Death changes everything.

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Tipping Over …

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Today marks an important transition: the day I tipped over from note taking to writing book five in the Crater Lake series. Word count – 1500. A modest start, you say. True … but I am thrilled. My dormer desk is working like an early spring tonic. The chance to focus and let my thoughts roam free is invigorating and productive. Even just a couple of hours at the keyboard in this new setting, when combined with my daily walk on the lake trails, has the creative pump gushing ideas all day long.

Not all is easy breezy, though. There is the early stage of idea overwhelm to deal with. I have been here before but that doesn’t seem to help. It goes something like this – I get one scene roughed out. I’m comfy in the heads of a couple of characters. Then, before I can stop myself, I’m thinking of all the other characters who are literally clamouring for attention and I start to panic. Can one brain hold so many storylines?

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When it starts, I tell myself – that’s what paper is for. Get it down, one section at a time and move on.

Prior to getting my cherished 1500 words today, I had combined all my notes into one Word doc. I set up the handy-dandy navigation tool in order to quickly move between sections.

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I recall blogging about this feature when working on my last book. First, choose a heading under styles for your chapter and section titles. Generate a table of contents and then with a simple click, turn on the navigation pane (under view) and quickly move to any section. At this stage of writing, I make my chapter and section titles super descriptive.

The Word doc I’m describing is now my prelim, prelim, prelim first draft. And that is one exciting statement! Next, I begin roughing in each section of the first four chapters. These I’ve already outlined in some detail. Once that is done, all my characters will be on the playing board ready to rock and roll. If experience is any guide, I won’t need to do much outlining after that – the characters will take over the story. I will simply be the scribe.

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I wonder what the cover number five will look like? Too soon to even guess.

Searching for the Perfect Writing Spot

Emma at the desk

There is no such thing as the perfect writing spot. We all know that. Though, I must say, granddaughter Emma looks almost perfect right where she sits at my desk. And my son, Doug, looks pretty productive, too.

Doug at my desk

There are simply writers who sit down and write. Wait around for the perfect spot and you won’t be writing much. And yet … periodically, I disrupt our whole house as I attempt to fulfill this most illusory need.

Our cabin is somewhat unconventional. Right angles and doors are rare. Open concept is taken to the limit. Finding my perfect writing space has been a challenge that is as much about my personality as it is about the house. I like a change now and then. Over the years, I have had my desks in at least eight areas of this small cabin. I’m sorry to tell you that the first few set-ups predated our time with digital cameras, so words must suffice.

Rake window - uppermost loft

I started with a small desk in the uppermost loft. We had to hoist the desk over the railing from one loft to the other since it wouldn’t go up the narrow stairs. It was years before we had installed a rake window looking out over the garden in that area. Maybe I would have stayed put if I had waited for that window. Who knows?

 

Railing that overlooks the main floor

Next, I got a larger desk and moved to the big loft, against the railing that looks down into the living room. This railing  just got a major facelift so I decided to include a photo, though my desk in that location is long gone. I was near that railing for a while. I loved the vantage point but hated how the whole mess of computer cords and the piles of books on my desk looked from below.

Soon enough, I was on the move again. We converted the dining room section of our open concept main floor into a full-fledged office with built-in bookshelves that surrounded my desk. I do wish I had a photo of that set-up for you. It was really neat. I wrote many academic papers in that space. I was productive and for me and Bruce, the loss of the dining room was no big deal. We still had our kitchen eating space. But the repurposing brought multiple complaints from all visitors who had fond memories of the large table that previously occupied the dining room and could seat a dozen in a pinch.

We reclaimed the dining room as dining room, though in the photo below, we had long since lost that huge table.

Table in dining area

Upstairs, we had knocked a door through the middle loft, so all three lofts were connected. The area on the main floor that contained a closet and the narrow staircase to the highest loft became redundant. We created a library/office space for Bruce and removed all the desks and built-in shelving from the dining room to that area. Below, you can see this is a wonderful cosy spot.

Library office

Meanwhile, I moved down to Victoria for several years to attend university. In my apartment, I had the entire dining room converted to an office. I think we ate at a small table in the living room. A lot can be deduced about an individual from the amount of space they are willing to allocate to desks.

desks in victoria

I had satellite desks at the cabin for holidays and the summer months.

desk upstairs near big window     Desk in entry

When I returned full-time to the cabin, Bruce designed a built-in desk for me in the sloping corner of the big loft. I was upstairs again! I distinctly remember writing my methodology paper for my unfinished dissertation there. But after a while, looking into a dark corner made me feel stifled. Okay for research methodology but it wouldn’t work for novel writing. Time to move again.

upstairs corner desk     Upstairs desk

I couldn’t exactly haul the built-in desk around, so I simply moved my laptop to the kitchen. The table proved to be the most fruitful writing space I have ever had. I was so productive that more and more stuff followed me down to the table and before long we barely had a spot to eat. Well, over time, that became untenable.

working at the kitchen table

I moved to the dining room again … completely central to the rest of the cabin.

2 desks sticking into the living room

A space begging for interruption. I pined for the wide-open view of the lake from the kitchen table. Thus, the era of trying to have it all began. I moved one desk up to the kitchen.

Table and 1 desk

Again, much work occurred in front of that view of lake but there were downsides. I had become a two-desk person and one of them had to stay in the dining room. I felt fractured.

Fractured - 1 desk in living room

One day, Bruce said, “Why not take over the whole kitchen eating area for your office. We’ll move the table to the dining room.” I was in heaven. I had both my desks, huge windows, an easy chair. Perfection at last. And close to the coffee pot. What more could a writer ask?

Kitchen office

The howls from visitors began anew and my guilt at commandeering such a big slice of our square footage grew. When we had guests, we had to haul all the food for every meal down to the dining room and people missed eating up in the kitchen with those wonderful views. Compromise was called for. Back to only one desk in the kitchen plus table.

Fractured again, I tried both desks plus the table. Unbelievably crowded and even I was howling.

Table and 2 desks    Crowded kitchen

Through all our back and forth with desks from dining room to kitchen, we had kept our china cabinet in the dining area. The next move saw us drag that cabinet up to the kitchen and that meant both my desks could tuck into the dining room space much more effectively and the whole open concept main floor looked cozy and sleek. We loved having the spacious kitchen back and having the china cabinet where it should have been all along. Hopefully, we told ourselves, this was the end of moving desks.

Kitchen with table & china cabinet

But not so fast. The dining room is still central – it feels like grand central to me.

Latest office

I bemoaned the fact that I had neither walls nor door and considered the solution of Les Nessman from that old sit com, WKRP in Cincinnati. Maybe I could draw where the walls should go on the floor and chalk in the door. But in my heart I knew, that would not stop distraction. Then it came to me – like a bolt of lightning – we have an underutilized space with a door. Our dormer room upstairs – the middle loft. One of the few places in this cabin I have never attempted to work. The kids use it as a playroom when they visit. There are big windows and an interesting view.

I was resolved that this would be a different sort of move for me. I had no intention of converting the dormer to an office. I love my office space right where it is. What I envisioned was a work area only big enough for my laptop. Whenever I felt the need for isolation, I could cart my laptop to the dormer, shut the door and stay put in front of the keyboard. No interruptions and no distractions.

Sitting up in the dormer, Bruce and I threw some ideas around. We have a set of built-in shelves under the window, and we decided that something designed to fit on the shelf and jut into the room slightly would suffice. Bruce rounded up a package of leftover hardwood pine flooring that had been given to us by friends after they redid their bedroom floor. He constructed this lovely little work surface with a back that holds it tightly in place under the upper shelf.

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So now, here I sit. I am writing undisturbed, enjoying the sound of the rain on the dormer roof outside the window and loving the view of the trees, multiple shades of green all around me. It’s a bit like sitting in a tree fort.

New work surface in the dormer

Hopefully, all is well that ends well. I can never say this will be my last move, but I sure enjoy the way things are now. In closing, I dedicate this post to the one who has cheerfully, (for the most part) hauled my many desks from place to place. Thank you, Bruce. As always, your support is greatly appreciated. Here’s a great photo of what Bruce was up to the other day – time to clean out that composting toilet. I bet hauling around my desks is way more fun.

Compost Toilet Haul

Going Silent and Coming Back

Jar Room Wonder

Well, WordPress followers … if you’re still out there … I’ve gone silent since September 18th, 2018 with my Lady Ashburn Mustard Pickles post. What a post to go out on. By the way, those pickles are so delicious! Okay, all kidding aside, months can fly by when one is filling non-writing time with food preservation, road trips, holidays and sock knitting.

Happy feet

There are about a hundred good posts in the above activities, but this blog is supposed to be all about writing. If I come to a dry spell again, I might start an all about non-writing blog. Then again, not writing really meant not writing. I have been hard pressed to put something as short and simple as an email together.

Let’s talk writing blocks. Every author has them. Getting my last book (No Compass to Right) out in 2017 was a huge effort – faster than usual writing timeline for all stages, a rush to publication to meet certain promotion opportunities then blissful nothingness. Stepping back from the whirlwind was much needed.

Kayak & kid magic

My well-earned rest flowed right into summer at the lake, visitors and a bountiful garden to enjoy. Along comes fall and there is the imperative of fresh produce begging for preservation. Then immersion as a sideline cheerleader on our jar and freezer room project (check it out in the first pic on this post). More than satisfying to see that space completed! And suddenly it is time for a road trip. We get home, catch our breath and we are in the Christmas rush. Busy, busy, busy.

Brit, Fran and Emma at Crowsnest Pass in Alberta Nov3-2018 - bruce witzel photo

I’m not fooling any of the writers out there with my busyness excuses. When we need to write, nothing gets in the way and everything else still gets done – for the most part. Writers are efficient with their time.

Coming back is hard. I can’t deny it. The longer I stayed away from daily writing, the more of a brick wall went up. Deconstructing the wall takes time. My endurance for sustained writing is low. In the first fifteen minutes I fight down a constant stream of demanding thoughts. I need to get up for a snack, perhaps another cup of coffee, maybe I should check my email and on it goes. Then, without any fanfare, I fall into the zone and the next forty-five minutes whiz by.

In a rush of energy at the end of writing No Compass to Right, I created extensive notes for the next book. Last week, I started back to those notes and simply hanging out with the characters. Asking questions. What is on their minds, where do they want to go, what do they want to be doing in book five? And do those characters ever clamour for attention. They speak, oh man do they speak – some go so far as to yell and scream. The ideas come in front of the keyboard as I write and while I do my daily walk. I snapped this photo through the glass of our greenhouse the other day. Datura in full bloom with evergreen reflection.

January Greenhouse Datura

Once I am back to writing, the desire to send my thoughts out into the blogosphere returns. This has been my longest WordPress silence since I started blogging in 2012. Here’s to going silent and here’s to coming back. If anyone is still listening … here’s a couple of pics of me and Bruce at Emerald Lake in YoHo National Park.

Me and Bruce at Emerald Lake         Emerald Lake - Yo Ho National Park

Zucchini Soup Magic

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This is going to be a banner year for zucchini around here! You see the latest culprit creeping out from under one of the many plants scattered around our garden. Every possible use for this magical summer squash is going to be required.

I tried a zucchini soup recipe the other day that was superb and too good not to share far and wide. My daughter-in-law, Maggie, shared the recipe with me from Skinnytaste. At only sixty calories a cup, the skinny part is right on. If you find yourself in possession of a few medium zucchini, I suggest you make this soup.

Here goes:

1 small onion

2 cloves garlic

3 medium zucchini cut into chunks

1 carton chicken broth

2 tbsp. of plain yogurt.

Combine onion, garlic, zucchini and broth in a large pot and bring to a boil. Simmer until tender – approx. 20 minutes. Remove from heat and puree with one of those nifty hand-held blender things. I don’t have one of those, so used my food processor. Add yogurt and puree some more. Salt and pepper to taste. Presto – delicious. Serve with a smattering of fresh parmesan cheese.

Naturally, I strayed from the recipe slightly by adding ½ a small jalapeno pepper at the cooking stage and a handful of fresh basil leaves at the puree stage.

Zuchinni soup

The picture – taken on my phone so I could share with jealous friends immediately – does not do the soup justice. It was so tasty and so delightfully green.

Oh man, do you see that zucchini in the far planter on the right? Looks like we’ll be making more soup really soon.

Zucchini Magic