Gail Anderson-Dargatz  

Resources for Writers

On Developing Conflict and Structure


Magnets and Monsters

When my parents moved into their nineties, my mother started clearing out the house and giving things away. She gave my father’s letters, written to her during the Second World War, to my oldest sister, but we all read them. My father’s eyesight was fading, and many of the letters had been written in pencil, so his youthful handwriting was hard to decipher. I typed them up and printed him a copy in a big font. When he read what he had written seventy years ago, he said, “I feel as if another man wrote all this. But I like him.”  I felt rather similar when my publisher suggested publishing a North American edition of my novel Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, which first appeared in the UK almost twenty years ago.  I read it, and knew that another person had written it – but still, I liked both it and her. I agreed to the proposal, and I’m very glad I did so, since the book is making great connections with readers over here.

One thing I very much like about Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is the way that it brings together the two poles, or elements, that I see in my writing: the mythic, and the realistic.  As a child, I loved both magnets and monsters, science and stories.  Burning magnesium in the lab and reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses under a  willow tree in the garden were equally exciting. Now, as a reader and a writer, I’m drawn to both the meticulously researched and grittily “real”, as in my novel Alphabet, about a life-serving prisoner, and to the mythical and fabulous, as in my story collection Paradise & Elsewhere.   Of course, the distinction between the mythical and the realistic is not as absolute as it may initially seem: although the voice and surface texture of Alphabet is realistic, the underlying story, one of a so-called monster’s transformation into a human being, has mythical dimensions.  Likewise, the stories in Paradise & Elsewhere are clearly mythical and folkloric, but they are told with lashings of realistic detail, as if they were “real.”

Frankie Styne and the Silver Man manages to combine the two elements right from the start.  It tells a gritty story about a young mother coming to terms with raising a special needs baby and her need for others, but because  she has a habit (shared with another character in the book)  of  escaping from reality  via a very well-developed imagination,  the story also slips fantastic territory.  The fantastic is most of the time just about contained within the real, though at key   moments it threatens to burst through it, and at the end, when a nightmare becomes a fairy tale, the two are working hand in hand.   

The important thing about the mythical is that it connects us to the inner workings of our psyches and of our cultures. It taps into the alchemy of transformation and possibility: the essential hopefulness that is at the root of all the best stories, and is one of the main things readers and movie-goers look for when they embark on a novel, poem or movie.  The fantastic and mythic are immensely popular in genre fiction, and arise very naturally in the stories and literature of indigenous peoples. There are cultures where folklore and realism have an easy relationship and “magical realism” is widely practiced and understood, but until recently  realism has been the dominant mode for literary writing Canada and the  USA. I’m delighted to see that this is changing now, and to be posting on the topic here, on the website of a one of Canada’s best-known magical realists.

Kathy Page

Kathy Page is the author of seven novels, including Alphabet (nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 2005, and reprinted in 2014), The Story of My Face (long-listed for the 2002 Orange Prize), and The Find,  a ReLit finalist in 2010. Her most recent collection of stories, Paradise & Elsewhere, was nominated for the 2014 Giller Prize and also  a finalist for the Ethel Wilson  Prize and the ReLIt award. Her latest publication, Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, received a Kirkus starred review.

“Kathy Page,” wrote Amy Bloom, “embraces the creepy, the odd, the other and the rest of us. Her unforgettable prose is moody, shape-shifting and always compelling, as a strong light at the end of a road you hesitate to walk down, but will...”

Resource Categories

Blogs on Craft

On the Building Blocks of Fiction

Tips on how to craft vivid scene that allows the reader to experience events right along with the characters.

On Finding Your Big Idea

Insights into the writing process and what a writer's day really looks like, as well as perspectives on research and writing from real life.

On Getting to Know Your Characters

Advice on the many ways you can make your characters come alive on the page for both you and your reader.

On Deciding on Point of View

What is the best perspective from which to tell your story? Writers discuss how they made choices on point of view and voice.

On Choosing Your Situation and Setting

Writers talk about how they use situation and setting to build story and convey emotion.

On Developing Conflict and Structure

From how to work in different genres to finding the real story, writers offer good advice on building conflict and structure.

On Revising

Tips on how to gain distance from your work and to how to re-imagine your next draft.

On Publishing

Writers offer practical advice on the business of writing and promotion, and on the importance of finding a writing community.

On Making a Living as a Writer

Writers offer words of wisdom on living on less.

On The Writer's Life

Writers talk about their life as a writer.

About Gail

Gail's novels have been national and international bestsellers and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize, among other awards. She works with writers from around the world on her online teaching forums.