Stories of Story
I spoke at the Roseburg Rotary Club meeting last night. They invited me to talk about my new book The Shifting Winds, and when I began putting together my speech for this I struggled a bit. What could I say in 20 minutes to give the essence of this full-length novel and still entertain an audience? So I asked myself, what is special about this particular book? Well, for one thing, the historical setting stands out. This story steps back in time to places here in the Pacific Northwest–like Fort Vancouver, a historic site you can visit today. And I had stories about that.
The Big House, at left, was the home of the commanding officer at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver, the western headquarters of the British fur trading empire during the nineteenth century. Much of the fort has been reconstructed on the original site in what is now Vancouver, Washington, with meticulous attention to authenticity.
As I mulled over ways to present this information, the thought came to me that people want to hear stories, so my speech told stories about my story. The Shifting Winds is a historical novel of the 1840s Oregon Territory with a lot of real historical drama set in real places. While it’s often hard to find a historic site unaltered by modernization, the reconstructed Fort Vancouver can take you right back into these early times.
You can walk into the chief factor’s house where characters from my story walked and see the furnished rooms as they would have appeared in the 1840s.
You can stroll across the grounds where my characters strolled and see the Indian Trade Store and hear the blacksmith’s hammer striking hot metal on the anvil.
So in my speech I told about visiting the fort for research that inspired the book. Then I told about my dream of holding an event at the fort for this newly published book–and how it happened that this dream will come true in July. My stories.
Another way to tell about a book is to read from it. So I did that too. I’ve heard it said that we’re hardwired for stories. It’s how we communicate and our stories tend to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We expect resolution.
But of course if you want people to read your book, you don’t want to spoil their reading by giving away the end. So you stop short, leaving them guessing. The cliff hanger. This jolts their innate sense of story.
One of the excerpts I shared in the speech showed my characters trekking up the portage trail around the Willamette Falls, shown at left. Modernization may have dimmed the glory of these falls in what is now Oregon City, but the power of the water cannot be denied. The thrum rolls through you when you stand nearby, and you can see why the settlers rushed to claim it.
That except follows the protagonist as she tells her suitor good-bye at the head of the falls, then decides to take a walk alone in the woods above town. There’s a reason she’s been warned against going into the woods by herself, and when she comes face to face with danger I choose to leave the vignette hanging. The audience reacted with a burst of groans and uneasy laughter as I had hoped. The tension strikes because we need the satisfying conclusion as part of our sense of story. Resolution.
So throughout the evening we shared story. Even before the meeting when I met my friend Laura Lusa who’d arranged for me to speak, she and I sat down together and shared our stories. “How are you doing?” I ask. She answers with her story. I respond with mine. Unfinished stories. How will they turn out? Will there be resolution?
During Q & A I found myself answering questions with snippets of story. And after my speech people came up to talk to me. They told me their stories–about their pioneer families, their interests in history–and I came to know them a little bit better.
Stories. It’s how we communicate. And perhaps that’s why we so need the complete stories in books. When our own stories lack completion, we answer part of our need by reading a well-crafted book with a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end. Resolution.