Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway is the best book on fiction writing I have read to date. Burroway presents detailed, in-depth discussions on the key aspects of this challenging craft. She begins with a discussion on the writing process. She then addresses the major aspects of the story form (whether short story or novel) and assigns at least one chapter each to plot, characterization, setting, point of view, theme, dialogue, and showing versus telling. Every chapter is accompanied by several short stories and relevant questions on these stories that highlight the subject of the lesson Burroway teaches in the chapter. She also addresses the topic of the revision process, again with great examples and targeted questions. I often refer back to Burroway when engaged in my own fiction writing and highly recommend this book.

For more discussion on the writing process, please check out: www.editorseast.com

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Where the Family Comes In

DSCN0226 Elderly relatives are a great source of information. The trick is to catch them before they pass away. Be sure to save the contents of their interviews in computer files, back them up in a cloud or an external hard drive, and print off a hard copy.

My father, uncles and aunts provided most of the information I needed to write my novel Somewhere I Belong. The tall fellow in the back was the oldest child, Larry. He was twelve when my grandfather died and became a father figure to his younger siblings and a support to my grandmother. Larry studied history and classics at St. Dunstan’s University, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and then attended St. Augustine’s Seminary, in Scarborough, Ontario. He became a priest and a university professor, but, unfortunately, died of cancer in 1968. Nevertheless, I remember that he read voraciously (usually the Bible), he loved music, had a deep, wonderful baritone voice, and sang Gregorian chant and his favourite Irish tune, “Danny Boy,” always on key. Larry was the most serious and studious of the five children in my father’s family. He is represented in Somewhere I Belong by the character of the same name.

The tall girl standing in front of Larry is Eleanor. She lived to the ripe old age of 91 with all of her marbles intact. Eleanor was eleven when my grandfather died, so her memory of that time was vivid. She recalled walking home from school on a Friday afternoon, of hearing an explosion and seeing a plume of black smoke rise up from the vicinity of the Beacon Oil Refinery where my grandfather worked as a foreman on the day shift. She recounted that their kitchen window got blown in and her mother raced down Hancock Street, to the plant, and then to downtown Boston in a fruitless search for her husband. It ended at Massachusetts General Hospital where she received the news of his death and fainted in the foyer. Uncle George found her lying there, picked her up and brought her home. Eleanor also told me that her mother packed up the house within two weeks of my grandfather’s death, gave away her furniture and moved her young family back to her parents’ home on Prince Edward Island. My aunt was forced to leave her dollhouse behind, but my grandmother promised that Uncle Jim would build her a new one. Eleanor also told me about Island life, which included Halloween superstitions, walking to school in bare feet, and wearing Depression era winter boots, which were hand knit socks pulled on over shoes. Eleanor also remembers that my grandmother gave advice to the love lorn, and made hand-hooked rugs, and that Aunt Gert babysat ‘the scamps’ when my grandmother visited her best friend in Gaspereau. When I asked Eleanor what it was like to grow up poor, she replied, “We didn’t think we were poor; everyone was in the same boat.” The character, Helen, is based on Eleanor.

My father, Paul, is the little guy standing in front of Eleanor. Dad talked incessantly about what a saint his poor mother was. There were also a few dirty stories about the antics he and his older brother Joe got into, ones that make my own five brothers seem like angels. He told me about the $25 cheque an uncle in Baltimore sent his mother every Easter and about him winning the Bell Scholarship to attend high school in Charlottetown. In those days, county schools only went to grade 9, at which point the girls completed their education as did the boys whose parents were too poor to send them to the city to finish high school. So, unless they could win a scholarship, like the Bell, which covered room and board during the school months (for boys only), they stayed back on the farm, went fishing or joined the army and were shipped overseas to fight in WW II.

My father also told me that when he went to enlist in the army, he flunked the medical test and got 4-F’d. He had contracted TB from his roommate at St. Dunstan’s University, spent a year in the Prince Edward Island Sanatorium, and another year between the homes of Uncle Jim and Aunt Gen, on Cambridge Road, and Uncle James R. and Aunt Ellen (El), in New Zealand (PEI), which is close to Souris. The most essential piece of information he gave me was that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played in a charity ball game to raise money for the widows of the Beacon Oil Refinery explosion.

The taller fellow standing next to Paul is Joe. You can tell he was a scamp just by looking at him. Joe recounted being bullying at the hands of his schoolteacher, who strapped him for being left-handed. He also quit school at 15, headed back to Boston, lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Joe fought in the North African and Italian campaigns, the latter during which he lost his best friend, Jimmy Johnson, in a skirmish against the Germans. Paul and Joe form the character ‘Pius James,’ otherwise known as P.J.

The youngest child, standing in the front, is Phyllis. She was just ‘a bun in the oven’ when my grandfather died and has no memory of him. But, she did remember a lot about her mother and home life on Cambridge Road, and she shared everything she could remember with me.

Some of the information I gathered from these people, such as the Beacon Oil Refinery explosion and the Babe Ruth baseball game, forms the main elements of the storyline; other aspects, such as the woollen socks over shoes for boots and Eleanor losing her dollhouse, flesh out the everyday lives of the characters and make the story real.

Larry, Eleanor and Joe have passed away. Phyllis is 86 and lives in Saugus, Massachusetts. My father, Paul, is 88 and lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Doing the Research

Martha Jane
My grandmother’s story was intriguing. On the surface, I knew she had raised five children alone during the Great Depression, two of whom became very successful—Father Larry (a university professor, priest, and Gregorian Chant scholar) and my Dad (a medical researcher, university professor, specialist, lecturer, examiner, and President of a number of medical associations including the Canadian Thoracic Society). Her other three children also did well.

I was curious about my grandmother’s success as a mother and sole provider in the face of the huge challenges widowhood and the Great Depression posed. I had heard bits and pieces of her story, but I wanted to know more. I was clear on the idea that I wanted to write a novel. But, I wasn’t really sure where to start. And by the time I became interested in researching her, she and many of the people who had played a pivotal role in her life were dead. Fortunately, her youngest sister, Gert, was still alive, as were a number of other elderly aunts, uncles, and cousins. So, I decided to interview them.

Some of the questions I asked seem mundane now. But they included questions on why my grandmother moved to Massachusetts; how she met my grandfather; how he died; how my grandmother managed to raise her family alone; and what she did for money. I also asked about her attitudes toward education, the community and the Church; who helped her; and what it was like growing up during the Depression. I wanted to know what her family did for entertainment; whether they felt poor; and what it was like to live on a farm. Then I asked about some of the superstitions I had heard about because, the community being Catholic, there were many.

Among the many good aspects of interviewing the elderly is that their long-term memories are sharp and if you ask one or two questions, they will ramble on for hours. The trick is to capture every tangent they go on—these people are a treasure trove of information. From my interviews, I learned that my grandmother operated a small farm; worked as a mid-wife; hooked rugs; bought wild Mustangs off the train from the Prairies, fattened them up and sold them for a profit; that she never allowed her children to miss school, even during planting season (school was out during harvest); and supported them in their endeavour of choice. She gave advice to the lovelorn; loved company and was a terrific hostess; she was exceptionally good with money (she had to be); and she returned to Boston to die in her son, Joe’s home. I learned that Joe quit school at 15, lied about his age, enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in the North African and Italian Campaigns; that Larry studied Gregorian Chant at St. Patrick’s Basilica in New York City; and that my father, Paul, was stricken with TB (he caught it from his roommate at St. Dunstan’s University), spent three months in the San and three more years recovering, before he completed his undergraduate education and went on to study medicine and specialize in chest disease. I also learned that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig helped my grandmother buy her farm.

I did a lot of reading too. I read histories on Prince Edward Island, the Great Depression, and World War Two; I read about Prince Edward Island folklore; self-published memoirs; books on fox farming and how to train a wild horse; and I read annual reports on the Prince Edward Island Sanatorium. I spent hours in the Prince Edward Island Archives reading back issues of the Charlottetown Guardian newspaper on microfiche, and any diaries, pamphlets or transcripts I could get my hands on. I wanted to know the news of the time and the personal accounts of the people who lived through it.

Finally, I had a lot of really good information. Then I sat down to write an outline.

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Where do Stories Come From?

My family had a cottage on Prince Edward Island. It was an A-frame with an open concept kitchen/dining room, a bathroom and two bedrooms downstairs, and a loft upstairs where we kids slept. Every evening, my father would put on the bar-b-q and, invariably, a relative or two would drop by—Uncle Joe and Aunt Ella, or cousin Neil and his wife Rita, or Minnie and Doug Graham, also cousins and all on my father’s side of the family (Mom was from Cape Breton). They’d have a beer or two and swap stories; after dessert, they’d get out the rum and tell some more. At bedtime, Mom would shoo us kids up to the loft. We’d lie there and listen as the stories continued late into the evening.

When I was old enough to stay up with the adults, I’d sit and listen to those stories all over again. But, instead of hearing the bits and pieces that drifted up to the loft, I got every detail. The events they recounted went so far back, these people couldn’t possibly have witnessed them. But by their thoughtful expressions, as they tried to visualize the scenes they recounted, you would think they had actually been there.

Some of the stories dated back to the early 1800s: the Irish potato famine of the 1840s; the emigration of the Lanigan family from Tipperary County and the Landrigans from County Wexford. Others were of more events that occurred at the turn of the 20th century: John Lanigan’s death from diphtheria while training with the Cape Breton Highlanders during WWI; the Spanish influenza of 1918 that killed beautiful Aunt Kate. But, the one I remember best was the story of how my grandfather died in a terrible industrial explosion that took place at an oil refining plant, owned by the Rockefeller family, in 1928, how my widowed grandmother returned with her five children to Prince Edward Island raised them alone, and how Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig helped her keep her young family together. This is the story my upcoming novel Somewhere I Belong is based on.

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