Posts tagged: description

May 15 2010

The foundation must be sound.

We watch Mike Holmes from time to time, my fiance and I, and the episode of Holmes on Homes that is on as I write this entry included the spectacular idiocy of a contractor who notched floor joists and ran pipes through the notches, then reinforced said floor joists with plywood on either side of each joist. In case you were wondering, that’s not a good idea. You actually aren’t supposed to notch floor joists because it ruins the integrity of the beam, making it more likely to break. You can drill holes through the middle of the joists, but the top and the bottom have to be sound. They work together¬† to support your weight when you walk on the floor. The top is compressed and the bottom is pulled; the middle doesn’t really do much. If you cut a notch in the wood, the part that is left will break under pressure, because it doesn’t have the other half to hold it together.

The same can be said of our writing. We must have a handle on the foundations of writing before we can expect what we write to be worthwhile. My monthly newsletters try to shed some light on these foundations. I’m going to briefly outline some of the necessities now.

  1. Spelling. Yeah, sure, there’s spell check, but it doesn’t catch everything, and the English language is full of oddities. In addition to which, you need different spelling if you are writing for a US audience vs a Canadian or British audience. (I’m sure there are other countries that use British spelling besides Canada and Britain.)
  2. Grammar. If spelling makes it so people know what the words are, grammar makes it so people know what the meaning is. How we order our words is incredibly important when it comes to meaning.
  3. Punctuation. So few people know how to use the semicolon and the colon properly. It seems that even fewer understand periods and commas. An incorrectly placed comma can do more to destroy the integrity of a sentence than mis-ordered words.
  4. Facts. You need to get your facts straight. You might make up a lot of things (e.g., We’ll Write You an Opera You Can’t Refuse is about the Italian musicians’ mob and is set in the Italian district of Halifax – I have no idea if there’s an Italian district of Halifax, and I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a musicians’ mob), but you need to get some facts straight in order to preserve realism (e.g., the same story talks about real historical people and events and mentions pieces of music that would actually be performed by an orchestra or an opera company).
  5. Plot. Okay, if you aren’t writing fiction you have a theme, but the concept still applies: you need to have a reason to write the piece, a flow to what you’re writing, and something to hold it all together. I wrote an essay in university about the use of the name John in Jane Eyre. That sentence just told you what held the paper together.

These five elements constitute your foundation, your floor joists. If you neglect any one of these, your work will be less. It will be weaker, and it won’t hold up under pressure.

This is where outside editors come in. I like to have other people read my work and let me know where I fell down, where things could be stronger. It’s similar to having Mike and his crew come in to fix up a house that an idiot contractor screwed up, but when it comes to my writing, I’m the one who has to do the work to “make it right.”

Sep 03 2009

An exercise in description (written August 5, 2009)

Monday was a holiday, so Juniper and I decided to go on a bit of a day trip.

We had a leisurely morning and packed our swim suits and towels and a change of clothes, and headed off to Manitou Beach.

We went the back way, which means that we didn’t turn off the 16 onto the 2, instead continuing until we got to the 365. The sky was cloudy, and we began to fear that we would be hit with rain as we traveled, but luckily the weather held.

The back way turned out to be a dirt road. We saw a couple of abandoned farm houses, both old and run-down. One of them was part of an abandoned farm, and was right next to a field that had nothing growing in it.

We drove past fields upon fields of canola – that unmistakable yellow that is nearly green – and wheat and oats.

Eventually we came to Little Manitou Lake, which we drove across(!!) on a berm. It was disconcerting since it was like a bridge only different. (I am petrified of bridges.)

Little Manitou Lake, for those who don’t know, is a saltwater lake in the middle of Saskatchewan. It is full of minerals and salt, and apparently is denser than the Dead Sea – which is saying something! Our goal was to go swimming in the lake.

Once across the lake, we continued on into the village of Manitou Beach and drove along the road nearest the water to see what was there. It was still cloudy and somewhat cool, so we elected to swim indoors at the Manitou Springs Hotel.

The hotel is an older building. I can’t speak to the rooms or other amenities, just the pool. The water in the pool is piped in from the lake. There are actually two pools, one of which is heated. There are signs up saying not to stay in the hot pool for more than 20 minutes at a time, but since the temperature isn’t really much more than a hot bath, we didn’t concern ourselves with that warning.

It cost $19 apiece for a day pass, but that would allow us to leave and come back, and a single entry was $14.95 apiece, so it wasn’t that big a deal. Apparently guests of the hotel get free passes to the pool for the duration. There is also a full-service spa there, with massages and pedicures and even cranial sacral therapy, but we didn’t avail ourselves of any of that.

The pool water is brown. That’s the only word for it. Signs proclaim it to be deep gold in colour, but the signs lie. If you can get past the colour of the water, however, you are in for quite a treat, because you cannot sink in this pool. Juniper had to jump in feet-first in the deep end so he could actually touch the bottom: diving from the surface of the water didn’t work.

We floated around the cool pool for a while, then moved to the warm pool. It was wonderful. My right arm, in which I have been dealing with a tendonitis flare, actually stopped hurting!

After a while, we got out of the pool and dressed in our warmer clothes, then headed down the street to The Diner, a small restaurant that is run by a lovely older couple. The husband sat at one of the tables and rose to greet everyone who walked in the door, seating them graciously. His wife took orders and served the food. The menus are one laminated 8.5×11 sheet of paper, and there are paper placemats that include a small map of the area – which is how I learned that Camp Easter Seals is just outside the village.

The menu offered typical diner fare, with a twist: there was a small section at the bottom of the food page that listed traditional Mennonite meals, including perogies and sausage. Juniper and I were only looking for lunch, however, so he had the deluxe burger and I ordered a chicken cordon bleu burger. Mine had Swiss cheese and a real chicken breast on it, and I had crinkle-cut fries to go with it. Excellent food!

After we ate, we went down to the main beach, since it wasn’t very far away (nothing is, really, when you’re in a village). The minerals and salt in the water collect along the edge of the lake, forming white piles of what looks like foam. There is a playground right on the beach, only a couple of feet from the water.

The air is like the air near the ocean, only heavier, if that’s possible. It tastes like saltwater, smells like seaweed, and feels like heaven.

We went back to the pool then, and this time Juniper brought his book into the hot pool with him, electing to float on his back while he read his book. He didn’t sink. I decided to try submerging my ears, though I was somewhat apprehensive since my right ear has been acting up lately (I am not sure what it is, just that it’s definitely not an overgrowth of ear wax). It was lovely to float on my back for as long as I wanted, unable to hear anything but the sound of the water coming into the pool.

When we finally came out (after I explained that the reason we didn’t have pruny fingers and toes had to do with osmosis and how it affects us in regular water compared to salty water), we headed over to the Village Perk Cafe, a small coffee shop situated across the street from the hotel. Juniper had tea and a piece of Saskatoon berry cheesecake, and I had a mocha and a piece of chocolate cheesecake. Everything was very good.

The Village Perk is the main floor of a small house. The back room holds about six fifties-style tables with matching chairs. Each table is different, and all but two are the type with the plastic top and metal edging (the other two are wooden). The small kitchenette is barely large enough to make the coffee in, but the espresso maker is new and very shiny. The front room holds a variety of items to look at and, I suspect, purchase, though we didn’t take time to look them over.

When we were finished at the coffee shop, we headed home – this time taking the main route. We took the 365 to Watrous, then got onto the 2 going north, where we turned onto the 16 and continued home. Next time we go, we’ll try the Burger Buoy, a walk-up burger place that looks rather interesting.

The beast of it all? The weather turned nice while we were in the pool for the second time, but it was still too windy (and I wasn’t interested in swimming anymore) to go into the lake.

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