Month: May 2018

Gold Fever

Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, B.C.

Her One True Love, the third book in my Prospect Series, has encountered many obstacles on the way to publication not the least being the sudden demise of my cover artist. However, the end is in sight, so it’s time to get in the mood.

As the series name says, this is a set of books set in the fictional gold rush town of Prospect, B.C, where fortunes are made and lost and lost and lost.  Many more falling into the latter category than the first.  As an object lesson in gold fever I bring you the real life story of Billy Barker.

 

An Englishman who had already tried his luck in the California gold-fields and on the Fraser River, Billy Barker (1817-1894) staked the most famous claim of the Cariboo near William’s Creek in 1861. Many legends have grown up around the man so it is hard to distinguish truth from fiction, but legends usually have a grain of truth in them.

One such is the story of Billy’s recurring dream that included the number 52. Although he had been partners in a company that eventually struck it rich, Billy had sold his shares in it and gone on to stake a claim in an unlikely spot on Williams Creek. He was convinced that an ancient river had run deep underground at that spot. While others scoffed, he kept drilling. They came up dry at 10 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet and even 50 feet. Any reasonable man, so the theory went, would have abandoned the project, but Barker kept drilling and at 52 feet, just like in his dream, he struck pay dirt, taking out $600,000 in gold dust and nuggets. Calculations of current value vary but in today’s terms that would amount to anywhere from $17 million to $2.5 billion. Whichever figure you use, he had acquired an enormous amount of wealth.

By this time Billy Barker was a widower, his first wife died in the poor house in England. He left the gold fields and came to Victoria where he met and married Elizabeth Collyer, a widow who had recently arrived from England on the Rosedale. The following summer they returned to the gold creeks where a free miner’s licence was issued in her name. Come winter, they again returned to Victoria, ready to spend the winter enjoying their wealth. He enjoyed a party and is reputed to have sung this ditty while dancing a jig whenever he entered a saloon.

“I’m English Bill,

Never worked and never will.

Get away girls,

Or I’ll tousle your curls.”

 

Another legend holds that Elizabeth was extravagant and helped her husband spend or give away his fortune. Whether she did or not, the fact remains that by the time of her death in 1865 Billy Barker was broke, He returned once again to the gold fields to try to recoup his fortune.

This time, luck did not smile.  He embarked on several ventures, but barely eked out a living as a prospector, resorting to working as a cook for other miners. By 1894 he was suffering from cancer and living in The Old Men’s home in Victoria. He died in July of that year and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Even though he lost his wealth, Billy Barker left a legacy in British Columbia. The town of Barkerville in the Cariboo is named in his honour. Billy Barker Days in nearby Quesnel is a major tourist attraction. And, it seems, Billy was rich in friends. Although he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Victoria’s historic Ross Bay cemetery, his final resting place is marked by a stone erected by his friends to honour his memory and his place in the history of the province.

This monument reads, in part, “”Like many miners, he was soon broke, but Barker continued to mine and prospect throughout the Cariboo for the rest of his life.  The fabulous wealth of the Cariboo mines laid the foundation for British Columbia.  With this monument, Billy Barker is honoured as a builder of the province.  He died poor in wealth, but forever rich in friends.”

 

 

 

World Building

We celebrated Victoria Day in my part of the world, which meant a long weekend. I took that as permission to forget about chores for three days.  We went off to our favourite holiday spot and walked the beach, ate food that someone else had prepared, and read books until late into the night.  What a treat.

The first one I read was a real page turner. It combined elements of mystery, history and romance to take me into a world of glitz and glamour far beyond my own experience. In retrospect, the plot was improbable and there was a fair bit of friendly coincidence in the action.  But those weaknesses didn’t matter because the story and the characters hooked me in from the first line – a break-in where something spectacular is discovered. 

The author doesn’t tell me what so, I turn the page to find out.  Only now I’m in a different place, a different time and a very different mood, a family reunion, full of memories and nostalgia – and a dreadful foreshadowing.  It isn’t until the third chapter that the main action of the story gets going.

If I were to apply many of the “how-to” criteria for how to write a book, this one would fail. And yet, it was a great book.  How could the author break so many “rules” and still come up with a best seller?

I think her use of language to build a story world deserves a large part of the credit.  The book is thick with descriptive passages –a no-no in writing classes – yet the descriptions impart so much emotion, they aren’t the bits one wants to skip.  The settings convey fear, or anger, or sorrow or longing with such intensity they draw the reader deeper into the story.  Even when I closed the book to go for a walk, the mood of the thing stayed with me.  The author succeeded brilliantly at drawing me into her imaginary world and making me care about it. That’s the other key element.  I cared about what happened in this world.

The other book, was short, a straightforward “who dunnit.”  It was a classic goal/motivation/conflict story, yet it failed to capture me. Why? Because the story-world didn’t draw me in.  I know the action took place on a university campus because the author said so, but I couldn’t imagine myself walking the tree-lined paths of that campus.  In fact, I don’t know if it had tree-line paths, or dirt tracks or grassy boulevards.  Those details of setting were not on the page.  I didn’t encounter hoards of students rushing to class.  There were no bikes overflowing the bike stand and shackled to trees.  There was a library, but I’ve no idea if it was a nineteenth century cathedral to learning or a modern stone and glass monolith with banks of computers instead of bookshelves.

The characters had names and personality quirks, yet still felt interchangeable. i.e. pick one quirk: apply to a character: add a name.  These people didn’t come alive to me, they did not haunt my imagination and they certainly didn’t stay with me as I packed my suitcase.  The most serious character failing, in my mind, was the protagonist.  He is a male, yet his actions and thoughts all felt feminine to me.  Also, contrary to every writer’s advice book, each chapter ended with him going to sleep. A great excuse for the reader to do the same.

Both books were published by one of the big five publishing houses.

World building is a much studied aspect of fantasy/paranormal novels but those who write contemporary works are often chided about wasting words on description. Jack Bickham even has a whole chapter titled “Don’t Describe Sunsets” in his classic The Thirty-Eight Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them.)

In the first book I read the author described sunsets over the Mediterranean, inky black nights in Paris and a perfect summer day in rural England.  She made me want to go there.  Made me want to experience an impossibly beautiful sunset, always just out of reach, always pulling me on one more step, one more page, one more hour.

I didn’t do any work on my own writing over the holiday weekend, but, as a writer, I never really stop thinking about writing. What makes it good? Why does it fall flat?  Learning those lessons in story is more fun than reading about them on the “help for writers” shelf.

What about you? Have you read a good book lately? One that grabs your imagination, pulls you into its fearful and complicated story-world and won’t let you go until you get to ‘the end?”  How did the author do that?  Did she use description and setting? Unforgettable characters? Non-stop action? In other words, what do you look for in a good book?

Tools for Writers

    This week I discovered a new-to-me writing resource. It is called The Emotional Wound Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

The author’s discuss the character’s development from the point of view of an emotional wound that occurred before the character ever appeared in your story.

The fact that people are shaped by their life experiences is not news but I like the approach taken in this book.  There are a few chapters discussing what an emotional wound is and how we all carry them with us for life.  The authors even warn aspiring writers to be aware of how delving into another’s wound may trigger a reaction in themselves. There is a chapter discussing how to brainstorm a character’s wound and another suggesting how various wounds may result in specific behaviours.

For anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology 101, there isn’t anything earth-shattering here, but the authors have geared their book toward helping writers and for me, that makes it particularly useful.  I already had a sense of my character, — name, age, physical attributes, goals – but I didn’t feel I knew her as well as I needed to.  Using the suggestions in The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, I began to dig deeper.  Why was my character a stickler for the rules?  Why had she emigrated to Canada?  What did she want besides the obvious, a home and a job?

While I pondered those questions, I read through the list of suggestions in the thesaurus and found several that sparked a plot idea.  So, without even applying the techniques described, the book had already helped me.

The “wounds” are arranged in categories, e.g. Crime and Victimization, or Failures and Mistakes.  Within each of these larger categories are individual possibilities.  For failures and mistakes, the list includes accidentally killing someone, or failing at school, or caving to peer pressure, to name a few.  My heroine had none of those burdens to bear but I could see her “failing to do the right thing” and/or “using poor judgement leading to unintended consequences.”

If you like charts and graphs, the book includes appendices with “a wound flowchart,” “a character arc progression tool,” and a “backstory wound profile tool.”  I generally panic when confronted with flow charts and the like, so I may not use these tools, but I’ll have a look around, just in case there’s a surprise.

This book is one of a series of  “Thesauruses” for writers.  Or is that “Thesauri?”  There is also a website Writers Helping Writers with loads of information and links to all kinds of other tools.  I’m really glad I found this resource.  Hope it’s helpful to you, too.

Other Authors

Rodeos and romance, Old West adventure, and even a few ghostly tales. Deadwood’s wild past and exciting present come alive in seventeen original short stories all related to the town of Deadwood. Wild Deadwood Tales, is an anthology of short stories published in conjunction with a conference to be held in the town of Deadwood, on June 7-9. All proceeds from sale of the book go to the Western Sports Foundation, a charity that helps injured rodeo riders.

I just got my copy of this anthology of the old west. I normally read full-length books, so reading short stories can be a bit like a vacation. The mind doesn’t have to concentrate as long.  You get to find out how it all turned out in less than an hour.  You don’t have to feel guilty about neglecting your other responsibilities for too long.

The story I read first is “Rescuing Raven” by Jacqui Nelson.  Jacqui loves the history of the Wild West and her story is sprinkled with references to real-life characters like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. The background to this story includes the Battle of Little Big Horn, and its aftermath.

From the author:

Tagline: In a gold rush storm, can an unlikely pair rescue each other?

Raven wants to save one person. Charlie wants to save the world. Their warring nations thrust them together but duty pulled them apart—until their paths crossed again in Deadwood for a fight for love.

I haven’t read everything yet, but I see the stories include historical, contemporary, and even a bit of paranormal. A great way to try out a genre you don’t normally read, without too big an investment of time.

You can purchase the book here.

Happy reading — or should I say, Happy Trails to you.

The Practice of Gratitude

A writer’s life can be lonely and disheartening. We work away in our little cubby-holes.  We wonder if our stories are worth telling.  We worry that no one will buy them.  We worry we’ll get bad reviews.  We worry that we’re wasting time and space in our lives.

Of course, if you get “the call” from a publisher or agent, you get validation, and life isn’t so worrisome. If you get tons of sales on your self-published novel, your time and effort is validated.  But between those moments, there are many days, weeks, even years, when a writer can feel cut off from readers.  It’s easy to feel discouraged.  It’s easy to give up.

I have found a solution.

Some years ago I read Ann Voskamp’s 1000 Gifts. I found the book inspiring.  I followed her formula for finding grace in every day things.  I made a list, and over the course of a year, I reached 1000 gratitudes.  The first few were easy; friends, family, flowers, trees, rivers, pets, food on the table . . .  But one thousand?  I learned to break down the gratitudes into individual items.  Food on the table, one item of gratitude, became roasted chicken, glistening with perfectly browned juices; fluffy, white mashed potatoes piled in a blue bowl; apple pie made with fruit from my own orchard, spiced with cinnamon and baked in a flaky crust.  You see how it works.  One thanksgiving became three when each element was considered individually. The practice also improved my powers of observation which translated into better detail in my writing. Just writing out a gratitude became a mini exercise in writing emotion into description. 

After I’d reached the 1000 mark in my original quest, I stopped. I’m a goal-oriented type and I’d achieved the goal.  I noticed, though, that my days felt a bit flat.  Then I got busy and forgot about it.  But lately, that “flat” feeling has been creeping into more and more of my minutes.  I looked around, and, there on my desk, was Ann’s devotional journal, inviting me to live in gratitude. Beside it was a beautiful, leather-bound journal, a gift from a niece. All that was lacking was me. So, I’ve started again.  This time, my goal is to list at least five gifts every day, and no repeats until I’ve reached one thousand.  This is day three, and I’m feeling more hopeful already.

Whether you’re a writer, a reader, a homemaker, a doctor or a candlestick maker, I recommend a gratitude journal. We cannot control the world around us, we cannot control how others treat us, but we can control our own attitude.  A grateful heart and a mind full of thanksgiving will transform your life – even if no one buys the book.

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