Month: September 2017

Playing Dress-up

dress-up box

Browsing through my local dollar store last week I came upon an aisle filled with Hallowe’en costumes. Yes, already.  The paper and tinsel costumes didn’t interest me that much, but a pair of bright-eyed children did.  They cruised up and down the shelves, studying each costume, checking with mom if it was acceptable, then going back to ponder the merits of a pirate versus a princess, a witch versus a vampire.  The costumes were entrancing, but flimsy.   If bought five weeks in advance, I wonder if they’ll last through to Hallowe’en.

The incident reminded me of the old dress up box in my childhood home. It lived at the back of my closet on a broad shelf created by the ceiling of the staircase.  Perfect place, don’t you think?  Dark, set apart, magical.  The truth was the trunk held a few of my mother’s old clothes but for my brothers and I it was treasure chest, yielding endless hours of entertainment and long involved tales of derring do and fair maidens.

In an age of slim fit pants, my mom’s old bell-bottoms seemed hilariously ridiculous, but paired with an oversize shirt knotted at the waist and a paper hat, they made a great sailor, change the hat for an eye-patch and a bandana and you had a pirate.

Carefully wrapped in tissue paper was a beautiful, lady’s blouse.  Made of amber silk with tight cuffs, puffed sleeves, pin-tucks on the bodice, fitted to the waist and flared over the hips it was truly a work of art.  It was also fragile with age.  I learned later that my great aunt had made her living as a seamstress.  The blouse was one of her creations.  Sadly, it turned to dust before I learned to appreciate it.

The biggest prize in the box was a cape—navy twill on the outside, scarlet satin on the inside. It served as Red Riding Hood’s cloak, Zorro’s cape, a bull-fighter’s capote, and a nurse’s outdoor wear, just to name a few.

On rainy days, when we were too much underfoot, my mother would banish us from the kitchen to the dress-up box. We could come back when we had a costume and a story to go with it.  Maybe that was the start of my story-telling career.

When my brothers and I outgrew dressing up, the box was tucked away in its special place, only to be rediscovered by my nieces.  Once again, the dress-up box played a starring role in a child’s imagination.  Little girls in swirls of gauzy scarves clunked down the stairs in too-big high-heeled shoes to regale their grandparents with long, involved and impossible tales.

I have the box, now. It was originally a wooden box for paper.  My great grandfather was a newspaper man and needed a lot of paper.  The large quantities he order, about 200 quires, came in these wooden, leather covered boxes.  As far as I know, this is the only one that has survived in my family, and it is in poor repair.  Anyone know how to reattach the leather covering without ruining it?

I no longer play dress-up, but I like to spin stories. Maybe that’s a technique I could explore.  Before sitting down at the computer I could don a long skirt with petticoats, a tight-sleeved blouse and an over-size hat.  Then I’d be in the proper frame of mind—and body—to tell tales of women on the frontier.

Share your dress-up story in the comments below to be entered in the draw for a free copy of The Man Who Hated Christmas.

Finding a New Favourite Author

 

We’ve all got our favourite authors, right? I love the classics, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Georgette Heyer, for example.

About grade six I discovered Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew.  My grandmother gave me all of Louisa May Alcott’s books.  When I started reading category romance Essie Summers was a treat.  I loved the way she led me through New Zealand, almost as though I were on a mountain road, climbing to the snow cap, then dipping down to a bay of blue-green water.

Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Elizabeth George and Mary Higgins Clark made my list of mystery authors.

But times change. I’ve out-grown Nancy Drew and I’ve read everything Georgette Heyer wrote, so, like all readers, I’m constantly on the look-out for a new-to-me favourite.

I love roaming the aisles of a book store, the old-fashioned kind, with a front door, paperbacks on the shelf and a knowledgeable clerk who seems to have read every volume in the shop. I’m tantalized by the cover, then the back blurb and finally by a few sample paragraphs.  By the way, I’ve heard that as well as page one, a reader should read page 100, to see if the author is able to sustain the momentum of the story.  I’ve used that little trick and saved myself a few dollars and a lot of disappointment.  Still, there’s nothing like the look and feel of a brand, new book to lure me to a new author.

With e-books, it’s a lot harder. I can’t touch the books displayed on the screen.  I can’t leaf through the pages and those tiny icons can’t compare to a full-size cover.  And while my bookstore holds more volumes than I can properly peruse, the internet holds millions.  How can I find my true love in such an avalanche?  Here is where recommendations from trusted friends are helpful.  Or reviews.  Authors crave reviews nearly as much as they crave chocolate.  In the ocean of books clamouring to be read, a review helps narrow the choice.  If you read a book you love, encourage that author (and keep her writing) by posting a review

The recent Booksweeps event I was part of is another way of finding new-to-you authors. I hope everyone who participated found books they can read and enjoy.  I hope one of those books is mine.

I checked out all the authors on the list and found a few I want to know better.  Davalynne Spencer writes rollicking historical westerns with a good dose of bad guys in the mix.  Shana Hatfield writes sweet westerns with lots of humour. If you want something with more spice, try Cynthia Woolf.

I discovered all these authors through the Booksweeps.

What about you? What’s your best tip for find a new author you love?

Leave a comment and your name is entered in the draw for a free copy of my e-book collection of Christmas short stories.  Winner announced Nov. 1, 2017

The Wisdom of Susan Wiggs

 

On a rainy Saturday, I attended a workshop given by Susan Wiggs and sponsored by my local authors group, VIRA. Wonderful way to spend a gloomy day. 

Being in a roomful of writers is a bit like going into the sunshine.  This group is positive, upbeat and cheerful – most of the time.  The workshop was no exception.  The room buzzed with energy and “reunion” conversations between Susan’s lessons.  While she spoke about her writing journey, you could almost hear the wheels turning as each writer present took in the information and considered how or if a similar strategy might be useful in her own path to publication.  I say “her” because it was an all female event, by accident, not be design.  Then again, the “femaleness” of the day may have contributed to the ambiance.  I’ve nothing against men, I’m quite fond of many of them, but a gathering of only women does have a certain vibe not present at mixed events.  I’m sure all-male events could say the same thing, although the vibe would be different.

Anyway, back to the workshop. Our group had send a list of topics we’d like to hear about.  I expected Susan to pick one or two.  Instead, she tried to touch on the entire writing journey from newbie to old pro and from idea to finished product.  A jam-packed day to say the least. 

Although time was limited, she did give us a few minutes to write down our three writing gurus, three essential writing tools and three writing triggers. Sadly, there wasn’t time to share, but even thinking about my own answers helped me to see a pattern in my process.  If I can exploit that pattern, perhaps I can increase my productivity and my craft.

One of my triggers is a clean slate.” That means a clean house, a clean desk, and a mind free of “musts” and “shoulds.”  For someone who procrastinates endlessly about housework, this creates a problem.  I have a cousin who sews and says she can’t work unless her sewing room is spotless and organized.  So long as I can find the sewing machine, I’m good to go.  Unhappily, I can’t apply that technique to writing.  Perhaps that’s why my second trigger is a coffee shop.

I believe the reason I escape to a coffee shop to write is because it provides that “clean slate” for me.  If there’s a streak on the window, it’s not my problem.  If the used cups are piling up in the bin, it’s not my problem.  If the lawn is a muddy mess, it’s not my problem.  At the coffee shop, the only requirement for me, is that I write.  Having coffee and chocolate for fuel doesn’t hurt. 🙂

My third trigger is research. I love to poke around in the library, the internet and newspaper archives for arcane bits of information.  Sometimes the research answers a question in my ms, sometimes it sends me down a whole new path.  I’d add a caveat to the research trigger though.  Be careful that it doesn’t take the place of writing.  Scholars have spent lifetimes on research.  A writer of commercial fiction can’t afford that luxury.  I try to make sure my research is focussed and doesn’t take me into a rabbit warren of facts that detract from the prime task of writing.

I’d love to hear from other artistic types. What triggers your creativity?  Can you work in a hurricane?  Can you balance your laptop on top of a to-do list and still make progress?

Leave a comment and get your name in the draw for a free copy of my Christmas short story anthology, The Man Who Hated Christmas.

My Vintage Fails

This is a photograph of a jar of water.  The only product I managed to seal in a vintage jar with a glass top, a rubber ring and a metal screw top.  I tried three times to put up a jar of preserves “like my grandmother did.”  That’s the language in the catalogue of our annual fall fair.   In honour of Canada’s 150th, the theme of the fair this year was “heritage seeds and breeds” with an emphasis on “vintage” everything.  When I saw the class for “vintage preserves” I thought it would be a snap.  I remembered the jars on the canning shelf at home, filled with strawberries and raspberries and peaches.  The fruit sucked tightly to the top while the bottom quarter of the jar showed only syrup.  That’s how you know the jar has sealed properly.  The vacuum pulls the fruit to the top.

I have a green gage plum tree — heritage breed, thought I.  The green plums in my vintage jar will look nice.  I’ll enter the category.  After a hunt through thrift stores for a vintage jar and a visit to the hardware store for new rubber rings, I set about to make my one jar of preserves.  Thirty minutes to sterilize the equipment, make the syrup and cold pack the jar. Then 20 minutes in the canner.  Don’t know why my mother made such a big deal out of such a simple operation.

Ahem!  The seal leaked.  My canner was full of plum syrup and the fruit, packed against the top of the jar when I took it out of the canner, slowly sank to the middle in a ragged mess.  So . . . not so easy after all.  Oh well, I’ve got more plums.  Try again.  This time I took extra care to be sure the top of the jar was free of any drops of syrup and wiped dry before I added the rubber ring, the glass top and the metal band.  Into the canner it went, but despite having the heat turned to high, it took forever to get the water back up to a rolling boil.  Result?  Leaked juice and floating fruit.  Funnily enough, when I tried to open the jar it was very well sealed and I had to pry a knife into the rubber ring to get it to open.  Sadly, the syrup no longer covered the fruit.  Not a prize winning effort.

Just to prove something to myself, I repeated the canning process with nothing but water in the jar.  It sealed, but I couldn’t put that in the fair.  I resorted to a different vintage jar, filled with marmalade and sealed with paraffin, another vintage method of finishing off preserves.  The judges thought it was “just lovely,” but didn’t warrant a ribbon.  Sigh!

Despite my multiple failures, the experiment was worth every minute.  As an author of Historical Romance, I’m always on the lookout for authentic information on life as it was lived in other times.  It’s one thing to go to a museum and look at an old-fashioned kitchen, to see jars of preserves on the shelf and to admire a hem-stitched pillowcase.  It’s quite another to participate in the creation or use of those items.  So, my failure was a great learning experience.   As Henry Ford said,  “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

Well, I’ve learned quite a lot, including renewed admiration for my foremothers.  If I couldn’t get the water to boil and the seal to hold with all my modern conveniences, including an electric stove, imagine doing it on a wood-fired cook stove during an Ontario summer.  No wonder they got up at dawn, eager to get the work done before the hottest part of the day.  They used the sweltering afternoon hours to do “light” work like mending and knitting and singing to children.  I bow before their skill, toil, and indomitable spirits.  I also apologize for every time I took them and their work for granted.

Oh, one other thing.  I did win a “best in show” rosette for my bowl of roses.  It’s nice to have a few successes to temper the failures.

 

Remember to comment on this blog to have your name entered to win a copy of my e-book, “The Man Who Hated Christmas and other short stories.”  Winner announced Nov. 1, 2017.

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