Category Archives: making the story work

The Persistence Prism

Years ago, sometime in the 1990s, I went to Stephen Leacock’s house in Orillia with friends. We went for a writing workshop and it is there that day I wrote the first piece that included the main characters of what became Left Unsaid. The grounds were lovely. Green space. Lots of green space. But it was the house itself that inspired me. Specifically the kitchen. There were bells there so the servants could answer a call from any room in the house. Something about those bells, maybe about the whole estate itself, created a ruffle of class-consciousness in me. Immediately three people jumped into my mind: a man, a writer (no surprise, I was in Stephen Leacock’s house), and his two daughters, one of whom is missing, the other who holds deep resentment against him for some reason. I had no idea what the reason was.

At this early stage I even had the name of the missing sister, Fran. The other sister held a number of names over the years before she settled in as Jude. She was Jody for a long time, but that was in a different story. Somewhere during that writing a housekeeper appeared, and the housekeeper was mysterious to me. I wasn’t sure why she was in the story in the first place, and in the second I knew she had a secret of some kind.

I began to write that different story. Wrote quite a lot of it, in fact, before it occurred to me that I didn’t have a real story there to tell. This fact annoyed a friend of mine who read part of that story. For years she nagged me to get back to it, she wanted to find out what happened to Fran and to hear her story. I told her it was never going to be Fran’s story, I was sure about that, but she persisted in asking for it.

Fast forward quite a number of years, years during which these four characters popped into my head on a regular basis, and I wondered about the sense of class I’d felt in the Leacock house. Where did that fit?

I started a number of other writing projects. I wrote and published a book for young adults, and all during that time my friend nudged me about Fran. The characters too appeared on a regular basis demanding that I write about them. In a fit of idleness at a café one day I devoted a couple of hours to thinking about these people. Who were they anyway? What story did they have? Slowly I began to understand that I had the relationships right in emotional tone but wrong in every other possible way. Over the next month or so I made notes on Fran (the missing sister), Jude (resentful daughter), Daniel (was he a good or a bad man?) and Ellen (Daniel’s wife). The housekeeper kept popping up, so I had to ask why? The final piece of the puzzle fell into place: she once had an affair with Daniel. All that writing I’d done before didn’t go to waste in the end because in it was the background detail I needed to understand the characters and make them real.

I took the whole month of August that year to write the first complete draft of the story Left Unsaid. This draft too was all wrong. The story itself was right and was told in part by Jude, in part by Iris and in part by Delia, the housekeeper, (who turned out to be a nurse, not a housekeeper, another mistake of mine). Even I could see it didn’t work. I asked myself who is the most interesting character here and quickly identified Delia and decided she should tell the story alone. At that point her part was the smallest in terms of writing. Go figure.

At this point my mentor from The Writer’s Studio at SFU, Wayde Compton, was running a workshop for grads of the Studio who wanted to work on a long work. I quickly signed up and over the next six moths rewrote the story again from Delia’s point of view. Which was much more fun and absorbing to write, and this time I do believe I got it right. Left Unsaid will be published by Signature Editions in October 2017.