Tuesday, August 28, 2012


collapsed farmhouse
      Ever notice how we're all fascinated by trouble?  Who doesn't slow down to look at an accident?  There's a reason newspapers lead with stories about disaster, scandal, heartbreak and war.  As a species, we humans are captivated by trouble.  No one wants to read a book where two nice people, meet, fall in love and live happily ever after. B-o-r-i-n-g!

       As a writer of fiction, i.e. a storyteller, I need to paste this reminder on my monitor. The story is in the trouble.  No one wants to invite trouble into her own life or those of our friends, yet that is where our interest is piqued.  It seems we want to like our heroine and hero, we want them to be good people, but we want them to go through the fire before allowing them to reach HEA.  
        I had a graphic illustration of this fact at a recent family reunion.  As part of the weekend, we went on a heritage tour, seeking out gravestones, baptismal certificates and a fallen in log cabin -- all in search of our roots.  It turns out, my ancestors, like most immigrants, were hard up.  They received a land grant on acreage that grew nothing but stones.  In the end, after two years of struggle, they were declared destitute and given a second piece of land.  Not much better as it turned out, but at least they didn't starve.
     One of my great great grandmother's had thirteen children and outlived nearly all of them.  Now, there's a tale of trouble that had us all shaking our heads and booking appointments with a cardiologist.  Seems heart trouble is endemic in that branch of the family. 
      This same ancestor, in her old age, was offered a comfortable home in town.  A place with hot water and central heating.  After a year or so, she went back to her homestead, a hard place, without running water, uninsulated against a Canadian winter.   She was afraid of fire, so wouldn't light the stove after 6:00 pm.  Icicles formed on the walls by bedtime.  Yet, this was the place she chose to live out her last days.
        That story sets my mind churning.  Why choose hardship?  Why do we admire her?  Did she demonstrate mulish folly or a determination to live life on her own terms?  Was she clairvoyant?  The house eventually did burn down, fortunately with no loss of life.  Apart from the important dates in her life and the location of her tombstone, I know nothing about this ancestor, yet her story excites my imagination.  Why?
          I think what appeals to us in these stories is the fortitude shown in the face of trouble.  None of us wants to sleep on a hard floor, or worry about growing enough food to feed our families through the winter, but we are drawn to the steadfastness of those who did.  It's true in every family.  Some may like to boast of finding an exalted member on their family tree, but the stories that get told over and over are of the black sheep, the awful aunt, and the great disaster.

       And let us not forget that Jesus told stories of trouble for their impact, The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Talents, . . .  trouble figures large in all these stories, and they are so powerful that even those who do not know the scriptures, recognize them as part of our culture.
        The great hymn "How Firm a Foundation" contains these lines:
When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace all sufficient, shall be they supply;  
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design,
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
Memorable characters survive trial and hardship with integrity.  Their gold shines through the dross of trouble.                                                                                                                   In practicing the art of story telling, remember to look for trouble.  That's where the interest lies, that's where character is built and that's what lingers in the memory long after the book is closed.            
Alice Valdal is Canadian through and through but she may be spending some time on ancestry.ca checking out her European roots and finding story ideas from her intrepid forebears.   www.alicevaldal.com


  1. You sure have a wonderful heritage, Alice! What marvelous women they were. I can't imagine that dear lady living in such a tough environment. Have we all grown too soft? I relish my home comforts and like to stay in the zone where possible. And I don't believe I'm going to toughen up as I get older. How about you?

  2. Not a chance, Rita. I'm a hothouse plant. Would never have made it as a pioneer -- hence my awe of those who did!

  3. Alice, it sounds like your great great grandmother would make a fabulous heroine and I hope you will have the opportunity to write a fictionalized story inspired by her life :)