On the back of all my many well-thumbed books by PG Wodehouse is a quote from Evelyn Waugh. “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.” I have escaped into the worlds of PG Wodehouse for as long as I can remember, and each time I’ve gone back to re- read a book, I’ve noted that the world is indeed more irksome even than the last time I read it.
I imagine we all have our escape books. Besides PG, I escape regularly into Austen. Escaping into either of their worlds is a vacation into a kind of blissful silence. Away from the noise of incessant and increasingly alarming and discouraging news, away from a world that steals contentment with the demands for one's attention and even presence on social media. Away from the idea, fully entrenched, it seems to me, that there is nothing you can afford to ignore because everything is dire.
Take Sense and Sensibility. The lives of the Dashwoods have been busily unfolding somehow on my bookshelf the whole time. They’ve been born and brought up, and their beloved papa has died, and when I arrive and open my book, they’ve just reached an awful moment when Mrs. Dashwood and the two Miss Dashwoods are about to be turned out of their comfortable house and sent to live in in a poorly heated cottage in a faraway county. I am immediately absorbed, scandalized. How could this have happened? I pray that Mrs. Dashwood's brother will be guided by kindness and good sense, and I am alarmed every time that he is so easily persuaded by his mean wife to put the Dashwoods out of sight forever.
I have read all the Austen books more times than I can count, and each and every time I am terrified that this time it will turn out badly; that Lizzie Bennet will retire to gentile spinsterhood to care for her tiresome mother, (for who could countenance the idea that she would marry the smarmy, and I’m sure, original model for Uriah Heap, Mr. Collins?) Or what if Miss Anne Elliot accepts the blandishments of the ingratiating confidence trickster, Mr. Elliot, her cousin, because Mr. Wentworth has done the expected thing and married Louisa Musgrove?
Why am I worried every single time, after so many reads, that this time there will be no happy ending? I think it is because in my mind these people are alive, their world exists, and that means that any outcome is still possible. When I open the book, the story, the world created by the author, explodes off the pages and I am completely immersed, genuinely wondering what’s gone on since I last was here.
This is on my mind at the moment because the other day I was enormously touched by a letter from a reader who had quite recently lost her elderly father. Her mother, she told me, had taken refuge in my books, and was finding them a comforting distraction in the wake of the loss of her husband of fifty years.
It put me in mind of my reason for writing them in the first place. Of course, I love the intrigue of a mystery series; but more than that, I love the places I’m writing about, and I love to contemplate the lives of decent people in 1947 when faced with the stresses of the recent war, and the dilemmas and trials of what to do, and how to behave when bad things happen. I wanted to frame the place they live, King’s Cove, as an idyllic and beautiful refuge to which everyone can return every time, and find it still much the same. The Armstrongs will always be practical and kind, Harris will always be cranky, Angela will always be enthusiastic and attentive to her adventuresome children, the Hughes's gardens will spread like an eden across the top of the hill where they live (and fresh eggs will always be available) and there is always a danger that Alice Mather will have a spell, and set off with her rifle to keep the community safe from cougars. I am just grateful to have provided an interlude at King’s Cove where my readers can go when they need a little peace and quiet, with just enough mayhem to keep people reading a little past their bedtime.
When I first began to write I saw it as a ‘solitary’ activity. Just me, my word processor and my fluffy pink bathrobe. Oh, and my tea, obviously. But what I’ve learned is that readers are an enormous part of the equation. I am so thankful to readers who reach across the void to send me notes through my website contact (keep those coming!) whether critical or appreciative, and to those who post comments on my social media and especially to those who come out to the events I’ve been involved with. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to tour Alberta, Quebec and Ontario and have spoken to great full house audiences here in Vancouver, and I have been thrilled with the reception Lane Winslow is receiving. Meeting readers personally has meant being able to interact with people who have questions and thoughts about the books, that in turn, have made me think about the whole business of writing.
I have discovered recently how these interactions have helped me to understand both my own process and my characters. I get amazingly challenging questions after my readings. Recently a girl of 10 or 11 asked me the most common question of all, "how do you think of your ideas?" and it struck me forcefully, that I'm not awfully sure about the answer to that. I've also had ‘how do you balance putting in historical detail with telling a story?’ (Or a recent favourite: 'do you have anyone you're dying to kill off in the books?')
It is fair to say that the process of writing has an instinctive quality. I typically do not second-guess myself as I’m going along. I just write. The questions readers ask about the process make me think on my feet, which is inherently exciting, (in that invigorating dangling-off-the-edge-off-a-precipice way), but I often end up thinking about these questions long afterwards, and I’ve realized how they have helped me to understand and clarify what that instinctive process is when I write.
Take the question about including historical detail. I majored in history in college, so it is tempting to want to include a lot of detail with the idea that it is important for the reader to get a strong sense of the times. But too much detail can alienate readers from the story. My solution, I realized, is to write a scene ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. (The central advice of all writing instructors everywhere!) A critical feature of A Sorrowful Sanctuary is the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis, and instead of ‘telling’ the reader about it, I wrote in a scene where one of my characters wakes up on the morning of the invasion and must flee. Until I had that question, I had never really thought about how I integrate history, and thanks to feedback I get, I can think more deeply about how I might continue to improve the inclusion of historical detail in a seamless and convincing way.
I often taught my students that reading a book is the building of a relationship between the story and each reader’s knowledge and point of view, and thus a book is new every time a new reader picks it up. I see now that that the interchange between reader and writer is just as critical a relationship. (and I'm hoping that I'll find the proper answer to that little girl's question before she's in her twenties!)
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