Resolution – Meh!

 

It’s the new year and media abound with lists of resolutions

  • 8 ways to a happier marriage,
  • 10 tips to lose those holiday pounds,
  • 6 foods for better health,
  • 101 reasons to exercise.

This blog will not give you any suggestions for resolutions.  If you’re like me, you are a work in progress, always seeking to enhance your lifestyle, to improve your mind, to work smarter, and to cultivate relationships.  Those are not one-off resolutions to be written down in January and checked off in February. They are part of daily life.

What I am doing to mark the  new year, is clearing my closets. Over the years, I have accumulated “stuff,” and lots of it.  There are rods full of old clothes, that I kept because they might be good for costuming, or I could wear  again if I lost that ten pounds. (See 10 tips to lose those holiday pounds.)  Those closet hogs are going to the thrift store.  If  those extra pounds ever disappear I want new clothes, not old ones.

Dated or broken electronics.  We are never going to need that old VCR and the idea of repairing a broken tv is just a pipe dream.  Off to the recycling depot they go.

Harder, are the old Christmas decorations.  They have sentimental value, even if they no longer go on the tree.  Apparently, they have monetary value as well.  I saw a set of my old tree balls in an antique store, priced at $30.00 for a box of nine. I’ve still got mine in the original box and I paid $3.99 on sale, according to the price sticker.  Anyway, I’m keeping the pretty cut ball ornaments, but those fabric ones the cat scratched up?  They can go.

Clearing book shelves is harder still.  Some books were gifts, with the donor’s name on the inside page.  If I get rid of the book, am I telling the donor she no longer matters to me?  However, I got new books for Christmas, just like I requested, so space must be freed up.  I’ll take some old treasures to the used book store so someone else can enjoy them.

The basement and attic, I’ll leave to the man of the house.  It’s mostly his stuff in there anyway and I don’t have to look at it, except for my canning shelves.  They seem to be full of jars, yet when the season hits, I’m always running out of jam jars.  Another run to the recycle depot in my future.  Just because a jar is shaped like a bear, does not mean I must keep it.  I never put jam in an old bear jar.

Fabric, odd balls of yarn, worn out linens, these are the hardest tasks for me.  The last time I gave away my stash of yarn, I needed it a week later.  Even tiny scraps of pretty fabric can go into a quilt.  I dread clearing out my sewing supplies.  But it must be done.  The drawers are full and I’m still buying new stuff. However,  I’ve instituted a rule about not adding more storage space. Everything I have must fit in the space already allocated.

 

All this clearing and tidying and sorting gives me fresh energy. I feel as though I’ve cleared the decks for new adventures. The energy carries over into my writing life as well.  I’m better at seeing “stuff” in a stodgy sentence and throwing out the unnecessary words.  A ms that has languished for years is bound for the recycle.  It occupies space on my computer and in my mind but does nothing to promote my career.  Time to let it go.

There is nothing magical about turning a page on the calendar, but our culture seems to think January 1 is the start of new things. So, I take the first weeks of January as an invitation (command?) to clear out the dead weight of the previous months.  Then I feel refreshed and ready to go.

What about you? How do you mark the beginning of the year?

Christmas 2017

Five more sleeps and then…Christmas!  Do you still get excited?  Do you remember Christmases past as better or sadder?  Do you pull the covers over your head and wish the holiday were over?

I confess, I’m a lover of Christmas.  As a child I could barely contain myself as the house filled with scent of cinnamon and nutmeg, pine and spruce.  We shopped from the catalogue in those days and my brothers and I wore the pages to shreds as we debated and decided and debated again on which gift to give each member of our family.  Christmas morning was the most joyful time of the year.

I’m older now.  The family has spread far and wide.  Christmas dinner is a small affair, but I still love the season.  I love to put up the tree, to sing carols, to bake goodies that only appear in my cookie tins in December.  I love having friends come in to share a piece of Christmas cake.

And I love to read Christmas stories.  I hope you do too, because I have a new on for you. It’s titled “The Neighbour.”  Here’s a sample.  To read the complete story, sign up for my newsletter and receive your free copy.

Who Is My Neighbour?

Isobel Jordan drew a pan of shortbread out of the oven and set it on a rack to cool. With the edge of a spatula she lifted one cookie to peer at the bottom. Not black. An improvement on her last effort, but still not the perfectly golden rounds that Bella Barclay turned out.

She sighed and sat down at the kitchen table. She wished for a cup of tea but felt too defeated to fill the kettle from the pump, let alone add more wood to the stove. Instead, she nibbled on an over-done shortbread and stared out the window. Under a brilliant blue sky, the flat prairie lay smothered beneath a layer of deep snow, the surface marred only by the occasional rabbit track or bird scratch. Closer to the house, the sharply pitched roof of the barn drew a straight line against the sky. Johnny was out there now, coddling his team of big Clydesdales and mending their harnesses. At the edge of her vision, stretched the long rope running from house to barn. Johnny put it up every fall, even before the first snowstorm.

“A man can get lost in a blizzard three steps from his own door,” he’d said when she questioned him.

Her spirits lifted a little as she remembered last Christmas, her first as Mrs. Johnny Jordan. What a flurry it had all been. A mail-order bride. She shook her head in wonder. She’d been so desperate to escape the gold rush town of Prospect and her job as its school teacher, she’d answered a letter from Johnny Jordan in the Western Home Monthly. A husband, even one with a scarred face, seemed preferable to another minute of trying to keep order among the restless pupils in Prospect’s one room schoolhouse.

She bit into another cookie and made a face as the taste of charred sugar filled her mouth. Gloom descended once more. Before she left town, Prospect’s best cook, Bella Barclay, had given her a sheaf of recipes. Yet Isobel’s efforts never produced the desired results. Had Bella deliberately sabotaged the recipes?

She jumped to her feet and set about washing the mixing bowls. Bella would never do anything so underhanded. It was just her own bad mood that had produced such thoughts. And why was she in a bad mood? She scrubbed hard at a bit of stuck-on dough. Because she was a foolish, ungrateful woman, that’s why.

She set the bowl on the draining board with a sharp thump. She’d chosen to marry Johnny because she wanted peace and quiet and a kind husband. Which was exactly what she’d got – and a little more besides. She felt her cheeks warm and knew she blushed.

She looked out at the silent, white world and banged a pot hard against the stove, just to hear the clang. She wouldn’t have believed a body could get too much peace and quiet, but . . .

The kitchen door opened and Johnny surged in, bringing with him a shower of snow, and the smell of out-of-doors and horses. Her mood lifted. The sight of her broad-shouldered, handsome husband never failed to move her. Despite the disfiguring scar on one side of his face where a snapped chain had struck him as a child, he was handsome. The other side of his face was perfect. And his heart was large and kind, and to her amazement and delight, full of love for her. Just because he didn’t relish the sound of his own voice didn’t mean he was indifferent or neglectful. He was just Johnny, a man who preferred action to words.

To read more of this story, fill in your e-mail address and click on the sign-up form at the right side of this page.  You will need to confirm your e-address from your e-mail.

Have a Merry Christmas.  I’ll be back at this site in the new year.

Finishing Touches

One of the Christmas traditions on my list is a handmade tree ornament for each of the children in my clan who are under eighteen. I started the practice when I moved far away from my birth family.  Although I kept tabs on everyone, I was not up-to-date on the interests, needs and desires of the youngest generation.  Some said I should just forget about presents, but I like Christmas.  I like the excitement of wrapping a gift, of hiding it under the tree, of watching the smiles on Christmas morning when someone receives exactly what he wanted.  Besides, I worried I’d become nothing but a name in my extended family if I didn’t do something to maintain a presence with young relatives I rarely saw face-to-face.  So, as a compromise, I agreed not to spend much money and my siblings agreed I could send little remembrances. 

All went well for the first generation. There were eight of them.  A manageable number.  When each of them reached the age of eighteen, they had a collection of eighteen ornaments for their own tree.  (I assumed the kids would move out of the family home and set up on their own.)  At first, I didn’t know whether my idea was well received or not, but in later years I’ve heard from nieces and nephews that my gift to them had a special ceremony all of its own.  In one family, it was the only gift to be opened on Christmas Eve and then hung on the tree.  Another wrote to me years later, when she was a mother herself, about unpacking her collection of hand-made ornaments and explaining them to her children, and feeling loved. 

So, now I’m full of warm fuzzies, and could have said “my work is done,” but instead, I started in on the children of the children. Now there are thirteen ornaments to be made every year, often in a mad, last-minute scramble.

This year, I tried to get ahead of the game by completing the ornaments in October. I set them aside, feeling smug, with a note that they needed a few finishing touches, but I had lots of time.  NOT! 

When I went to package up the gifts, I realized there were many finishing touches still needed. Names to add, loops to attach, ribbons to affix.  I was, once again, behind the eight ball.

As a writer, there is a lesson for me here. That first draft, or even second draft, that I confidently put away saying it only needs a tweak here and there, is not ready for other eyes.  In this age of instant communication, it is wise to pause before hitting the publish button.  Novels, short stories, social media posts, even e-mails, can all benefit from fine tuning.  Where my ornaments needed ribbons and tags, my prose might need tightening, the plot might need clarification, the characters could do with some polish.

I’m happy to report, that my Christmas gifts, with loops and ribbons attached, are all in the mail, carrying love from me to little folk I may not have met but who hold a place in my heart.

What about you? Any Christmas traditions in your family you’d like to share? A favourite book? Movie you have to watch?

Artificial Intelligence

My brain seems to have gone onto Christmas mode and I have no idea whatever for today’s blog. So, I thought I’d try one of those “blog idea” generators. 

I got a bunch of titles like 5 Ways to —–, 10 Things You Should —–, and a bunch of verbs and nouns.  I also got some weird stick figures with various parts of speech attached to them.  None of this produced anything for a blog but it did make me think of the current discussion on artificial intelligence.  You know, that thing where machines are smarter than humans and make decisions for us.  e.g. Facebook’s algorithms decides which ads you should see.  Amazon’s brain decides which books you should buy.

So long as artificial intelligence is confined to advertising blurbs, I guess it won’t hurt me, but if AI starts running political parties, or setting government policy, or determining patient treatment in medical situations, we’re in trouble. Some would argue that that is already happening.  Since I just spent a fruitless hour trying to place an order on-line, I can attest to the fact that computer programs don’t always work.  I would be afraid of a situation where there was no human to over-ride the machine’s decisions.

Have a look at this report aired on the CBC Monday night.

Robert McCheseney is a leading author on the subject of economic, democracy and technology. He suggests that deep artificial intelligence can pose a serious risk to society and even the future of humankind. e.g. AI, which is built and programmed by humans, can become autonomous and put their “prime directive” above all other considerations.  Thus humans could lose control of  autonomous weapons, programmed to kill.  The weapon then kills indiscriminately because there is no check on its operation.

Self-driving cars already exhibit a form of artificial intelligence, but if the self-driving car is told to drive on the left hand side of the road in North America, mayhem will ensue. I’d want the human driver of that automobile to have an over-ride button.

And that brings me back to the question at the top of this blog, “what will I write about today?”

Mr. McChesney tells us that a robot, or deep artificial intelligence is unlikely to adopt human emotions like love or hate or jealousy or forgiveness. So, I’ll keep writing stories about humans who suffer the joy and despair of love. Characters who struggle to find meaning in hardship, and sacrifice for the good of others;  people who’s souls respond to beautiful music or poetry; children who delight in the first snowfall and the wonder of Christmas.

Maybe, one day, a computer will write better plays than Shakespeare, or greater symphonies than Beethoven, or paint masterpieces that surpass Rembrandt. Until that time, I plan to revel in my humanity.  I’ll celebrate other humans and I’ll give thanks for the Child born in Bethlehem, come to save us all.

Filling the Well

 

Lately my life has been beset by small frustrations, unwelcome tasks, and a nagging malaise. My usual rosy outlook has darkened with the gloomy skies.  Cynicism has planted negative thoughts in my mind. Content has become a stranger.  Until . . .

I attended the symphony.

Music is a constant companion to my days. I turn on the radio first thing in the morning and I fall asleep to favourite recordings at night, but seldom to I really listen.  I’ve too many things to do.  So, taking three hours from my busyness  to just listen is a rare treat.  Not only that, but a night at the symphony afforded me the opportunity to hear a live performance. 

Even the most wonderful recording of the most wonderful orchestra in the world cannot take the place of  live music. To participate, as hearers, in the music-making,  to watch the conductor as he coaxes his vision from the players, to breath with the instrumentalists as they bring the composer’s work to life – that is something to experience first hand.

On this night Elgar’s Enigma Variations was on the program, an old warhorse in the symphonic repertoire.  I’ve heard it before, in recording and live, yet I fell under the spell of the music all over again.  By turns playful, bombastic and tender, the first eight movements brought a smile to my face. Then, lush and romantic, the melting melody of the ninth variation (Nimrod). A tidal wave of sound, crashing over the audience, carrying us into the deep waters,  beyond  understanding into a realm of pure emotion.  I float, as though on a great ocean,  rocked in the billows.  My heart expands to embrace the whole world. I breathe purity into my lungs. Cares and duties fade to nothing, there is only the music, achingly beautiful. At last the melody ebbs, brings me to the shore, and lays me gently on the warm sand. I am renewed, my soul refreshed, and my spirit peaceful within me.

I have “filled the well,” as Julia Cameron suggests.

As writers and humans, we all need to fill the well from time to time. As we head into the busy Christmas season, I urge you to be kind to yourself.  Attend a concert and listen with your heart.  Sit in a field of lavender and breath deeply.  Ski through a snow covered forest and hear the silence. 

Whatever brings you solace, seek it out, explore it with passion, embrace it with your whole being.  Then, refreshed and filled, you are equipped to bring joy and exuberance and ardour to your normal days.  You will be blessed and you will be a blessing to those about you.

How do you replenish the creative spring within? Please share in the comments section.  You just might bring inspiration to another.

 

Book Bites

There’s a new kid on the block when it comes to connecting readers and writers, Book+ Main Bites. With the proliferation of self-publishing and e-books, there are now more than a million books published every year. The challenge for authors and readers is to discover each other in that tidal wave.

Amazon and other e-publishers use a limited number of categories to help readers find the books that appeal to them, but “romance” is a very broad category, even if you break it down to contemporary and historical. Is your historical a Victorian era novel set in London, UK, or a Victorian era novel set in India, or Africa or Canada? Is your “western” contemporary or historical? Is it about wagon trains or gold prospectors? Is it Little House on the Prairie or a cattle drive?

Personally, I know I’m overwhelmed when I search e-book sites. There is so much to choose from and so much that does not appeal to me. As a recourse, I generally stick to authors I already know—and that means I miss out on some great new writers and they miss out on a new reader.

Book Bites + Main attempts to address this problem by having a very long “tag” list. It is the only place where I’ve seen “Canadian” as a search word.

Most book sellers allow browsers to read a sample of the book before purchase. On the Book Bites site, samples from inside the book are posted by authors so readers see that first.

Each “bite” an author publishes must have a photo attached, but not the book cover. That seems like an odd rule to me, but it does give me an opportunity to find other images that reflect the tone and time of my book.  There are no “teasers” allowed, so I must find a portion of text that I think will intrigue the reader and make her want to read more.  I’ve decided not to use the first page of my books, since that is available at retailers.  Instead, I’ve chosen some “bites” from well inside the book.

I’ve signed up for a trial period to see how it goes.  It’s all an experiment for now.  I’ll try posting other kinds of “bites” and use other tags.  Hope I get some “likes” and a few comments.  Then I’ll know if I’m connecting to readers.

The site is free for readers, so go check it out.  You never know — you may find a new favourite, or connect with other readers and form an on-line book club.  May page is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Call of the Pipes

 

There’s something about bagpipes that stirs the soul. Why else account for their use in battle?  Soldiers, tired, defeated, and frightened, will rise from their cover and follow the piper one more time into the fray.  Over and over in history, that scenario has played out.  One notable example is Canada’s VC winner, James Richardson. I’ve written about him here.

Recently, at a Remembrance Day service at our local cenotaph, I watched the pipe band marching past and felt the excitement race through my veins, but when I watched closely, I did a double-take. I had always believed those blowing the bagpipes were male members of Scottish clans. Not this time.  The band I saw had an Asian man, a black man, and a few women, wearing kilts, and proudly piping out “Scotland the Brave.” Welcome to Canada in 2017.

“That would never happen.” These dismissive words have blighted more than one budding writer’s career.  Even when the event in question is a true-life example, the editor or beta reader insists it is too far-fetched to be used in fiction.  Book guidelines say the editor is looking for something “new and different.”  The invisible subtext likely reads but not too different.

Publishing is a risky business, so publishing houses like to hedge their bets. If book A about a shape-shifter sold lots of copies, then they want more shape-shifters.  If book B about a werewolf tanked, they don’t want to see werewolves anywhere in your submission.

If you are writing something “different” don’t be discouraged. Remember someone had to be the first to write vampires, or steam-punk, or aliens, or a small-town knitting story.  And “real life” does give us some wacky examples of the non-probable. Like my pipe band, “different” but great!

Today, when “diversity” is all the rage, maybe a female of Chinese descent with a passion for bagpipes could be a captivating heroine. Or a male soldier returned from deployment in a war zone who finds solace in crochet – there are real life examples of that, too.

Finding the balance between the old and the new for readers and editors is never easy. What appeals to one reader as quirky and interesting, may elicit the “never happen” response from others.  In The Man for Her, my editor questioned the heroine’s long mourning period for her lost lover.  Yet, in real life, Queen Victoria mourned the loss of Prince Albert the rest of her life.

For writers, the best advice is still to write the best story you can, be true to your own vision, and keep trying.  Fads may come and go, but good writing will endure.  Combine good writing with some off-beat characters and you could be the next “big thing.”

Now, I’m off to listen to some bagpipe music, it will lift my spirits and send me forth with determination and courage.

An “Other” Vimy Memorial

With Remembrance Day approaching, my thoughts turn to the soldiers of my own country and others who went to war “to end all wars.”  That was the slogan attached to the WWI, or “The Great War” as it was called in the years between 1918 and 1939.

I wrote my fictional story, “When the Boys Came Home,” about a soldier returned from  WWI and the effects war had on him and on those he left behind.

Today, I have a real-life story to share.  The photograph at the top of the page is of one of the four original memorials raised at Vimy Ridge by Canadians.  They were replaced in 1936 by the iconic statuary that stands on the ridge today.

The father of a friend of mine, helped to build and install the cross at the peak of Vimy Ridge, three weeks after the ridge was captured.  Carpenter Andy Wallace of Victoria, along with Sapper McIver, both of the 44th Regiment out of Winnipeg, were ordered to fashion a cross to commemorate the thousands who died there.

Using the rudimentary tools they carried with them, the carpenter and the sapper worked on the eight-by-eight inch oak logs within range of the enemy’s guns. Concrete for the base was mixed and poured by other members of the regiment.

In a letter from A.C. King of Toronto to Andy Wallace after the war, Mr. King wrote:  “Here is a picture of the cross.  It doesn’t look so big but, boy, oh boy, that concrete took some mixing.”

The cross was about 12 to 14 feet high and about six feet wide.  It was held together by wooden dowels and had no inscriptions or carving on the cross itself.  There is a brass plate on the base that dedicates the memorial to “the memory of the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the 44th Canadian Infantry who fell in the attacks on Vimy Ridge, the Triangle, and La Coulotte in April, May and June of 1917.”

The monument was originally erected on Vimy Ridge, France by the 44th Battalion in 1917. In 1924, the monument was moved to its present location in Vimy Ridge Memorial Park on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg by members of the 44th Battalion Association and next of kin. Plaques on the sides of the monument listed those in the 44th Battalion who had lost their lives during the Vimy Ridge battle. Dedicated in June 1926, it was restored by the Department of Veterans Affairs in June 1967 and by the City of Winnipeg in October 1992.

Andy Wallace

Thanks to my friend for sharing her story, and thanks to Andy Wallace for his service to Canada.

And the Winner Is . . .

Welcome to the month of November.  Now that Hallowe’en is out of the way, I’m ready to think about Christmas.  Actually, I bought one present in July so I’m feeling smug. 🙂  Now I have another Christmas gift to send.  The winner of The Man Who Hated Christmas and other short stories is . . . (drum roll) Laura Langston.   Laura is a frequent commenter on my blog, so I’m not surprised she won the prize.

If you didn’t win a copy of the e-book, it’s available on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.  It’s also in KU so if you have a membership to Amazon’s library platform, you can read for free.    You can also read The Man Who Loved Christmas free on any device.

So, have you started your Christmas shopping?  Are books high on your list?  I confess that books are about the only item on my list.  I don’t need another scarf, or any kitchen utensils or more candles.  I love table linens but I can’t use all the ones I have now.

When it comes to books, my dh is great at surprising me with authors I haven’t read before.  I discovered Alexander MacCall Smith, and Ami MacKay that way.

If I get to choose, I’d ask for books by Kristin Higgans, Louise Penny,Susan Wiggs, Robyn Carr, Sheryl WoodsLiane Moriarty,  and Kate Bridges, to name a few.

I can also recommend the authors in my local circle of writer.  You’ll find them all here on the VIRA page.

Anyone else?  I’d love to hear about the books on your Christmas wish list.

 

Oxymoron

Grammar books are full of obscure words that writers love. Words like metonymy, onomatopoeia, homonym, hyperbole, litotes and oxymoron to name a few.

For some strange reason, I love the term, oxymoron. It means a figure of speech in which an two adjectives, or more likely, an adjective and a noun are seemingly contradictory.  Some refer to this as a “contradiction in terms.”  Examples include “poor little rich girl,” “cruel kindness,” “jumbo shrimp,” or “deafening silence.”

My newspaper last week gave me a new one—“working cat.”

Cats work?

Not mine. They loll, they sleep, they demand, they whine, but under no circumstances do they work!

The story was a heart-warmer about cats who refused to be socialized and were bound for euthanasia. An enterprising soul developed a program to place these creatures in non-social environments like warehouses or barns or stables.  Cats who hiss, scratch, swat or refuse to use the litter box are unwanted as house pets but are a real boon in working locations.  A distributer who lost several bags of chips per night to mice, adopted one of these anti-social cats, and the mouse problem disappeared.  Another adopter had a problem with rats in a dumpster. Enter a “working cat” – problem solved.  Apparently the non-pet version of a cat is well suited to being a hunter.  Of course, cats were originally domesticated for that very reason, to exterminate vermin.  Humans, of course, couldn’t leave a good thing alone, and turned those sleek, efficient exterminators, into family pets.  The kind that expect their owners to serve them, not the other way around.

And on the subject of grammar words, here’s another story. Levi Budd, a six year old in my area, wants add a new word to the lectionary—levidrome.  The term would describe a word, which when spelled backward makes a new word, e.g. tips-split, stressed-dessert, part-trap.  Apparently, no term presently exists for this grammatical twist.  We have palindrome for words that read the same backward or forward, e.g. “bob,” or “madam I’m Adam,” but no term for the dog-god occurrence.

Levi wanted to put his word in the dictionary but was told it could only be added if enough people used it. So, Levi and his family have made a youtube  to get the word into common usage.  If you want to help, click on the link.

Ain’t grammar fun?

 

 

 

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