Where Do Ideas Come From?

At some point in her career, every writer is asked “where do you get your ideas?” There are many answers, but I found a source for new story ideas at a concert at the Butchart Gardens last week.  One of the blessings of living in my part of the world is the live music hosted at the Gardens every night in the summer, or as one entertainer put it, “the best smelling concert venue in all of Canada.”  On this particular night, I heard Tiller’s Folly.  They are a B.C trio that now bills itself as “acoustic roots music.”

I went to hear them because I like Celtic music and that is part of their repertoire, but I heard much more than that. I got a lesson on Canadian and, more specifically, British Columbian history.  Tales of rum runners, and ghosts and explorers, and whales and miners and lumberjacks.

This group has done its research and brought history alive through story and song. I’m pleased to report they visit schools in our province so children are learning the history behind the names on streets, and mountain tops and waterways.

As a writer of historical romance, I was inspired. They told no tales of women on the pirate ships, but what if there were?  What if a woman joined a river exploration?  What if a woman tended a lighthouse?

If you are a writer, stuck for an idea, I’d suggest you listen to, or read the lyrics, of folk singers, or country and western singers, or opera singers. The music is full of tales of derring-do, of battles won and lost, of mighty men and inspiring women.  Sometimes they tell of small things, of a man and a woman and how they find love, of a family that loses its way, of a dream lost and found.

So, next time I’m stuck for a story idea, I’ll look up some songs by Tiller’s Folly. I’m sure I’ll be inspired.

What Makes a Good Cover?

 

I’m at a stage in my writing where I’m looking at cover designs for a new release of Christmas short stories. Wanting to do it “right,” I Googled best selling e-books, holidays  on amazon.com.    A glance at all those naked torsos made me laugh and decide I’d better try another category.  There is not a naked male in any of my stories where the tone is light, whimsical, and just a bit magical.

This time I tried “clean and wholesome.”  The tone is more suited to my stories but a lot of the covers seemed dark, to my eye.  Maybe it’s my age, but reading a title against a black or navy or even dark red background is hard work.  I know, I can magnify the image, but if I were a reader hunting through a long list of Christmas anthologies, I doubt I’d have the patience to enlarge each image.  I’m more apt to pause at the one that catches my eye without any effort on my part.

A quick search of “anthologies,” presented even more black-toned covers.  I know many best selling authors  tend toward this style and readers must like them or the authors wouldn’t be “best selling.”  Still, if I’m looking for a cover for my book, I want it to be pleasing to my eye.

The first page under “historicals,” provided a little more colour, but most had too much heat for my, as yet unpublished, anthology.

Finally I had a look at some of my favourite authors’ covers. Debbie MacComber covers have the right tone for my stories.  There is a softness about them and a sense of “home” that appeals to me, and reflects the mood of the stories I tell. Lisa Wingate has some beautiful covers, at least I think they are. Robyn Carr uses flowers and beaches and porches.  Light, cheerful colours make me want to open those books.

I found sponsored ads on the amazon pages of these writers that caught me up short. The covers were nothing like the ones the marquee authors used and I wonder if the stories were similar.  These are sponsored ads, so Debbie MacComber, etc. are not endorsing either the covers or the stories.  It behoves readers to check out those sponsored ads carefully and not assume the books are similar to the top-name writers.

It’s important to know one’s limitations, so in the end, I turned to the fabulous Dawn Charles at Book Graphics to create a cover for my stories. I know she’ll do a good job and she’s lots of fun to work with, but I’m still interested in what readers look for in a cover.

Do you like black? Do you like lots of muscled torsos?  Do flowers make you yawn?

Leave a comment and I’ll put you in a draw for the new book. Winner announced  Nov. 1, 2017.

Today’s blog is a promo for a friend of mine.  Jacquie Biggar and I are in the same critique group, so I get to read her books as they are being written.  I’m always hooked on the first page, so I’m happy to recommend her latest.  Hope you enjoy it too.

 

HOLD ‘EM:
A GAMBLING HEARTS NOVEL

by Jacquie Biggar

Continue reading

Transition

My personal life is in transition right now, and it’s making me a bit grumpy. Of course, life is always evolving, always changing, but some changes , like marriage, or a new baby, or a disaster, or a lottery win, are more immediate and more disruptive than others.

As an author, I find change, especially big, unexpected change, fodder for the imagination. Many books on writing recommend “begin at the moment of change.”  And when I think about it, I believe I’ve read a number of books that begin with a marriage, or a new baby, or a disaster, or a windfall of fortune.  They’re great stories, that yank the reader into the lives of the characters with the first sentence.  The rest of the book explores the ramifications of that big change at the beginning, and follows the protagonist through the adjustments she makes until she emerges at the end of the story with a new normal.  If it’s a romance, that new normal results in happily-ever-after.

The book I’m reading right now concerns an orphan in the mid-twentieth century. Talk about transitions!  Each family she lives with wants to change her.  They don’t like her hair, they don’t like her speech, the don’t like her name.  During the course of her life her name is changed several times, merely to satisfy the sensibilities of others.

Classics, like Pride and Prejudice, begin with change – a newcomer to the district. Mysteries often start with a murder, a major transition if ever there was one.  Regencies frequently begin with a young woman becoming an orphan, cast on the good graces (or not) of her relatives.  A friend of mine is writing a story that begins with a jilting.  Runaway Bride, starring Julia Roberts used that premise as well.  In my book, The Man for Her, the story opens with the appearance of a man the heroine thought was dead.

Some transitions are less traumatic – a holiday, beginning university, starting a first job – but even such “tame” changes can generate a spellbinding story. Alice Munro, in her short story, “Runaway” begins with a neighbour returning from a holiday.  Such a small change, yet it triggers a whole chain of events that change the heroine’s life..

The change in my life is not earth-shattering or traumatic, it’s merely unsettling. But, as an author, I have the opportunity to experience first-hand the emotional effect of a life changing event.  This is why writers keep journals.  Not only does a journal give me place to store ideas, impressions and insights, it gives me a safe place to write out my grumpiness so I can get on with enjoying my life, and all the changes that mark our days.

So, here’s to change — may it keep us involved and growing and learning.

Fantasy Anyone?

Recently I joined an eclectic group of writers.  We call ourselves a critique group but there’s not that much critiquing going on.  There is a lot of chat about the industry, marketing, punctuation, especially commas, grammar, and grandchildren.   This is the same group that put together “Dreams and Promises,” to celebrate Canada 150.  We write historical romance, contemporary romance, suspense, fantasy and “whimsy.”  One of our group, LizAnn Carson, has just released a fantasy trilogy called Aura Weavers.  The three books are, The Healer, The Bard, and The Scribe.

As someone who relies on historical fact to provide the framework for my stories, I’m in awe of fantasy writers and their imagination.  The task of creating a whole world with its own rules — is there gravity?  are there cars and roads?  are there schools as we know them? what is the social order? government? history?– is daunting.  Authors are often accused of living in a world of their own, but LizAnn has managed to put borders and rules in her fictional world and has sent it out into the world for others to enjoy.

If you want to give gentle fantasy a try, you can find her stories here.

Now, I’m going back to my own world where cars run on roads, the law of gravity is in effect and history still serves up the best stories.  Right now, I’m celebrating Christmas in the Rockies in the late nineteenth century.  Can I conjure up snow and freezing fingers while the sun shines outside my window, the thermometer reads 23 degrees Celsius and a golden eagle soars over the hayfield next door?

Ah, the power of imagination!

 

 

Voice

I had an object lesson in “voice” over the weekend. For nearly ten years I’ve been friends with a writer from Australia.  We began as partners in an on-line writing course.  When the course ended, we decided to keep in touch, so every Monday we exchange our news, mainly writing, but also family, pets, church, and current events.  This weekend we had a chance to meet in person.  Imagine my surprise when she spoke with an Australian accent.

You see, when I read her words on my computer screen, she sounds just like me.

After the initial shock, I laughed at myself for not “hearing” that accent in her written words. And that got me thinking about “voice.”

Donald Maass defines voice as “a unique way of putting words together, . . . a distinctive way of looking at the world…” Certainly, my friend has a unique way of looking at the world and of putting her thoughts into words, but in our interconnected, on-line world, what used to be regional differences are disappearing.  “Brilliant,” that I first heard as an English or Australian exclamation, in now nearly universal in English speaking countries.  One word she uses that does sound strange to my ear is “uni.”  In Canada we go to university.  In Australia, the kids are off to uni. But one word is hardly enough to convey an accent.

Of course, this discussion of voice is about the author’s voice. Each character in a story should also have a distinctive voice.  Now, if I tried to mimic my friend’s speech in writing, I’d be softening consonants, elongating vowels and moving the accents around on words like Melbourne and dropping whole syllables on others, e.g. barbie for barbeque.

Yet trying to write an accent on paper is fraught with hazards. Jack Bickham, in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them) has a whole chapter titled, “Don’t Mangle Characters’ Speech.”  Trying to convey a Scottish burr or a Cockney inflection results in unreadable misspellings that are more apt to annoy the reader than draw her into the story.  More importantly, they may insult some minorities and date your book to yesteryear.

So how do you convey that a character has an accent not shared by other characters in your story?

Let them tell us.  A POV character might comment on someone else’s southern drawl, or tony Oxbridge vowels. 

Use word order and word choice.  A rancher from Texas will use different idioms than a banker in Edinburgh.  And, for the record, not all Canadians end their sentences with “eh,” but it’s fun to through it in when we’re on a patriotic rant.

So, why was I startled by my friend’s accent? Perhaps because we’ve been exchanging letters for so long I’d forgotten how far away she lived.  Perhaps because both our countries are part of the British Commonwealth and we share a common cultural background, or maybe I tend to see (and hear) the world through my own experience.  In any case, I had a lovely time and I’m truly thankful to modern technology for letting me develop a friendship on the opposite side of the world. 

Homecoming

I’m just home from a trip to Newfoundland.  I’ve long wanted to visit Canada’s most easterly province.  At one time I naively thought I could “do” the Maritimes all in one sweep.  Once I got my geography straight, I realized that our oldest settlement (St. John’s,  1583) and newest province warranted a trip all by itself.  For the purists among you, Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, as Canada’s tenth province.  Nunavut, created in 1999 is a territory.

The island is nicknamed “The Rock,” and I certainly learned why during our 3000 km journey. Rocks and trees and lakes, for miles and miles and miles, although in NL they use the word pond.  Only a couple of very large inland bodies of water got the lake designation.  Oddly, once I’d adjusted my West Coast expectations, the landscape began to feel familiar.  I grew up on the Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario, so  Precambrian rock and glaciations are home turf for me.  I felt at ease in this wilderness.

We journeyed to L’Anse aux Meadows, away at the northern most tip of the island, to see the remains of the Viking village that was established there five hundred years before Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.”  Here we learned that some vegetation like Lingonberries (Partridge berries in Newfoundland vernacular) were also found in Norway.  The area also contains bog iron, a necessary ingredient for forging, and a staple in the Norse culture.  Those adventurous seafarers chose to build a village in a place that reminded them of home.

 

One of the most striking features of Newfoundland culture, is the people’s attachment to their homeland.  Economic hard times have meant droves of Newfoundlanders have had to leave home in search of work, but no matter where they find themselves in the world, their deep desire is to return to “the Rock.”

For myself, I enjoyed my explorations, but I felt a lift of the heart when I started for home. I craved the comfort and ease and familiarity of my own place and my own things and my own people.

 

As writers, we can use that longing for home to give our readers an uplifting journey that, takes them to new places, excites them, frightens them, teaches them, and eventually brings them home with a smile. We can instil that sense of familiarity and safety with the author’s voice, the type of story, and the core truth of our tales. 

When a reader picks up a book by Alice Valdal, she has certain expectations.  It’s my job to make sure those expectations are met.  When the same reader delves into a novel by Cora Seton, the expectations are different, and Ms Seton must work hard to satisfy her reader, too.

  Readers love to venture into new places, new situations, different times, but, I believe, they want to come home safely at the end.  That desire is a powerful tool for the writer.  Use it wisely, make your readers happy, and watch your sales grow.

Short Story

I’ve been talking about Dreams and Promises, a collection of Canadian short stories, on this blog, and about my own story, When the Boys Came Home.

Since KDP rules preclude my sharing the story here, I’ve written a prequel for my readers.  Enjoy.

 

 

 

When the Boys Came Home – Prequel

 

 June 1920

 Pte. George Weston stood on the deck of RMS Olympia, watching the coastline of Great Britain fade to a distant smudge on the grey sea. He knew he’d watched this scene in reverse five years ago, but not a moment of it remained in his memory.

He turned to the woman at his side. “Regrets?” he asked.

Mabel Featherley shook her head. “Of course I’ll miss home and family, and friends.  But this is the right thing to do.”

He drew a deep breath and expelled it in a long sigh. As usual, his nurse made him feel safe.  Had he always been this uncertain, he wondered.  Had he always been afraid?  It was a damnable thing when a man couldn’t remember himself.  For the past couple of years, convalescing in hospital, he’d believed himself a wounded English soldier.  Then Harry showed up and George learned he was a Canadian, Pte George Weston of the Second Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  His mother had been notified he was missing in action in 1917, after Passchendaele.  Now he was headed home to Glencove, Ontario.  He didn’t know if he was more excited or scared at the prospect of going home to a place he could not recollect and a family who were strangers to him.

“Only another week.” Pte. Harry Peters, leaning on the rail on George’s other side rolled a cigarette and stuck it in his mouth.  “ One week and we’ll be home.”  He struck a match and held it to the cigarette, then drew on the smoke and exhaled a long, tobacco fuelled breath.  “Whatever that means.”

“Peace? Safety? A loving welcome?” George asked the questions that plagued his own mind.

“Maybe,” Harry smoked thoughtfully, “maybe not. The army despised POW’s.  Who’s to say the country won’t too?”

The rest of the story is available free in my newsletter.  You can subscribe using the button on the right hand column of this page.

POW’s and World War I

  The set up to my  short story, “When the Boys Came Home,” relies on a Canadian Prisoner of War turning up in England.   Here’s a little background on that often forgotten contingent of men.  The story is found in the anthology Dreams and Promises.

Mistreatment, malnutrition, forced labour, and disease were standard among the POW camps in Germany.   Food scarcity, bad food, and inedible food were the greatest complaint of the prisoners. Most sources agree that without care packages from home, either from relatives, or the Red Cross, or other organizations, many allied POW’s would not have survived their incarceration.

Canadians were known as tough fighters but 1400 were taken prisoner in a single day in 1915 when they were gassed by the enemy during the Second Battle of Ypres.

Once taken prisoner, soldiers were expected to resist aiding the enemy and do their best to escape.  Such action often resulted in even harsher punishment, including beatings, being forced to stand at attention for hours, being tied to a post and food deprivation.

Unlike WWII, where liberating armies marched into the camps at the end of hostilities, and freed the prisoners, in 1918 there was no such liberating force.  Once the armistice was signed, German guards at the prison camps went home, leaving the POW’s to fend for themselves. Already physically weakened, these men had to make their own way, with no co-ordinated transportation.  They mostly headed for France aboard trucks, trains or anything else they could board.  Some walked.  Many died from exhaustion along the route.

When British or Commonwealth soldiers were picked up they were sent to reception centres in France where they were fed and clothed.  From there they were sent to channel ports and from thence to Britain. Captured officers were expected to write a report on the circumstances of their capture and why they’d been unable to avoid it.  .  A true soldier, it was  believed, would fight to the death rather than surrender. There was a popular suspicion that prisoners had an easy war, sitting about in a camp, away from the danger and that those captured were cowards

Once POW’s returned home and were able to tell their own stories the truth became clear.  Being a prisoner of war, far from being safe, was one of the most dangerous conditions a soldier could find himself in.

When soldiers finally made it back to their hometowns in Canada many were afflicted with “barbed wire disease,”, a disorder brought on by complete lack of privacy, an ignorance of the duration of captivity, irregular communication with friends and family and restrictions on all aspects of human activity.  Symptoms include irritability, inability to concentrate, restlessness, memory loss, violent mood swings, insomnia, nightmares and impotence.  See A.L. Vischer.

Once the prisoner made it safely home, some of their families wanted a brass band welcome, but most soldiers just wanted to quietly reintegrate into their old lives with as little fuss as possible.

While “When the Boys Came Home” doesn’t feature a POW, an understanding of this group of soldiers will help the reader more closely relate to the characters involved.

 

Sources:

http://histclo.com/essay/war/ww1/cas/w1c-pow.html

https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/prisoners-of-war

Hero or Villain – You Decide

 

Matthew Begbie was the first Chief Justice of B.C. following Confederation in 1871.  He has been characterized as a  resolute and fair upholder of British law and order, a true Victorian who did his duty, and as a cruel and arbitrary jurist.

His Career

  • Nov. 16 1858 Begbie arrived in Victoria on. The following day he left with Gov. Douglas for Fort Langley on the Fraser River,
  • Nov. 19, 1858 new colony of British Columbia was proclaimed. Douglas and Begbie swore each other into office.
  • 1859 Begbie, though a member of the judiciary, was appointed to the Executive Council of British Columbia. This unusual blending of the judicial and executive functions was necessary because Begbie was the only man in the colony with legal training
  • 1859 Aliens Act, written by Begbie, passed into law.  Allowed for naturalization of aliens after three years residence in B.C.
  • 1859 Gold Fields Act also drafted by Begbie set out the rules and regulations for the mining of gold in British Columbia.
  • January 1859 he accompanied Colonel  Moody and a party of Royal Engineers up the Fraser River to quell an insurrection that had broken out among the miners at Yale and Hills Bar. Begbie convened court and tried ringleader, Ned McGowan.  Begbie imposed a fine for assault.
  • February 1859. Begbie walked from New Westminster to what is now Lillooet and back (a journey of approximately 350 miles) to familiarize himself with the mining population of the Fraser River.
  • 1860 Pre-emption Act, the main feature of the Colony’s land-settlement policy, also drafted by Begbie.
  • 1860 He  walked from New Westminster to Kamloops and back to explain the Gold Fields Act to miners and gold commissioners.
  • Along with Sir James Douglas he worked to counter the move to American annexation.
  • 1865 alone he rode about 3,500 miles to hold assizes in mining camps and small towns all over the colony.
  • He espoused the rights of Chinese  opposing a head tax on Chinese immigrants.
  • In 1860 he told Gov. Douglas that Indians (First Nations) held land rights that must be recognized.
  • Fought efforts to displace Indians from their homes.
  • Became fluent in Shuswap and Chilcotin language in order to understand they cases without an interpreter.
  • Persuaded Ottawa to preserve native fishing rights on the Fraser River.
  • Wrote provincial legislation giving Indian common-law wives of white men a share of his estate if he died intestate.
  • 1864 “Chilcotin War” breaks out. Fifteen whites are killed.
  • Aug. 15, 1864: Eight Chilcotin warriors including chiefs Klatsassin, Telloot and Tapitt come into meet Gov. Seymour. They are arrested.
  • Sep 28-29, 1864: Judge Begbie presides at the trial of Klatsassin and the eight others. Five are found guilty of murder.
  • October 26, 1864: Klatsassin and four others are hanged.

“We have all heard of the sacredness of the pipe of peace … among the Indians,” Judge Matthew Begbie wrote to the governor of B.C. on Sept. 30, 1864. “It seems horrible to hang five men at once, especially under the circumstances of the capitulation.”

  • July 1865 another Chilcotin chief is tried and executed in New Westminster
  • 1872 Begbie commites four Indians convicted of attempted murder to the custody of a missionary rather an impose the death penalty.
  • 1875 He is knighted by Queen Victoria in a private ceremony at Balmoral Castle.
  • 1890 Begbie refuses to imprison a group of strikers at the Nanaimo coal-mines despite their repeated violations of court orders.
  • Throughout his career he championed the underdog. Under his judgements, 22 Indians were hanged  He obtained a reprieve for 11 others.
  • He tried 52 murder cases but hanged only 27 convicted murders, despite rigid sentencing rules of the time.
  • Oct. 26, 2014: B.C. Premier Christy Clark and members of the Tsilhqot’in Nation  (Chilcotin) participate in a redress ceremony, the 150th anniversary of the hanging of five of the six chiefs. The province issues an apology.
  • April 13, 2017 Law Society of B.C. announces it will remove statue of Judge Begbie from its lobby.

You be the judge. Is Sir Matthew Begbie a hero or a villain?  Leave your vote in the comments.

Note:  I have used the word “Indian” rather than “First Nation” as that was the term used during Begbie’s time.  I have also used the spelling Chilcotin, rather than Tsilhqot’in, for the same reason.

SOURCES: Canadian Heritage and University of Victoria

Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/begbie_matthew_baillie_12E.html

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chilcotin-tsilhqotin/

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