Category: For Readers

E. Pauline Johnson

Something new is happening with Canadian bank notes. For the whole of our history the notes have featured the image of the reigning monarch and former prime ministers. Now, the ten dollar bill will feature a famous Canadian woman, other than Queen Elizabeth II.

As part of the process for choosing whose picture would grace the bank note, Canadians were asked to submit suggestions. These were narrowed down to a list of fifteen: artists Emily Carr and Pitseolak Ashoona; authors L.M. Montgomery, E. Pauline Johnson and Gabrielle Roy; pioneering feminists Nellie McClung, Idola Saint-Jean and Therese Casgrain; humanitarian Lotta Hitschmanova; aircraft designer Elsie MacGill; Olympian Bobbie Rosenfeld; and businesswoman Viola Desmond.

My book club decided we’d each choose one of the candidates and read up about her and present our report at our March meeting. I chose E. Pauline Johnson.

Now, I knew she was part First Nations and I knew she was a poet, but that barely touched the surface of this amazing woman.

Born in 1861 on a reserve near Brantford, Ontario,  she took the name of Tekahionwake, and billed herself as a Mohawk Princess.  She was only about one quarter Mohawk, she was not a princess and the Indian name she assigned to herself was made up. Still, she identified strongly with her Mohawk heritage and drew on their legends and history for her own writings.

Her mother, Emily, was a Quaker, without a drop of Native blood in her veins, and some very odd views on marriage.  Emily’s own mother-in-law had objected to the marriage on the grounds that Emily was not Indian.  Her minister refused to perform the ceremony because the groom was not White.  Against this heritage, Emily enforced a social isolation on her children preventing them from being fully native or fully white. They were not to participate in kissing games, popular in Upper Canada at the time, nor to let anyone, male or female touch them, even on the hand. The result was that white neighbours considered them stuck-up and the children on the reserve called them “proudy.”

Against such a background, Pauline wrote poetry and developed a taste for dramatic acting.   She sent her poems to various magazines and a few were published. She made very little money from her writing but she gained some important friends in the literary world. Socially, she was more lonely than ever.  Pauline was popular, witty, charming and full of life. Society matrons welcomed her into their homes as an entertainer but they stood firmly against welcoming her as a prospective daughter-in-law. 

In 1892 Pauline recited at a concert put on by the young Men’s Liberal Club of Toronto.   She was an “instant” success. Her stage career was launched. From there she went on to perform all across Canada, mostly one-night stands in little whistle-stop towns, but also in the cities of Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Halifax. Her goal in the beginning had been to raise enough money to travel to London, England in search of a publisher for her book of poetry. Two years later she had saved enough and struck out for England armed with letters of introduction to the Canadian High Commissioner, the Marquis of Lorne and the Marquis of Dufferin, who, with his wife, became her patron. She was soon entertaining audiences in the drawing rooms of Hanover Square, and reciting for the King and Queen.

But her main purpose in visiting London was to find a publisher for her book of poetry. Within a few months she had the necessary introductions and met John Lane, the publisher of Oscar Wilde, John Davidson, Kenneth Grahame, and others. Into this august company, came E. Pauline Johnson with her little book of poetry, The White Wampum. Quite an accomplishment for a “colonial” let alone a woman of mixed blood, and scanty education.

Although her objective of finding a publisher had been accomplished, Pauline soon learned that she needed to continue with her stage career in order to promote the sales of her poetry. For the next sixteen years she undertook a gruelling schedule criss-crossing Canada, with some forays into the United States and another trip to England. She acted as interpreter for a delegation of chiefs from the Vancouver area who sought an audience with King Edward VII to outline their grievances against white settlement that encroached on their reserves.

Wherever she went Pauline inspired admiration and loyalty, but romance eluded her. She was betrothed to Charles Drayton but his socially conscious family objected to the match and he eventually cried off. She fell in love with a swindler, Charles Wurz, who stole her money and then abandoned her. It is a testament to her personality that when she was dying, penniless in Vancouver and too ill to work, her friends took it upon themselves to publish a collection of her poems, and thus provide her with an income. Society matrons, her first manager, stage partners, prominent businessmen, high-ranking politicians, all rallied to help Pauline Johnson.  Flint and Feather was published in 1912 and her champions went on a marketing campaign that secured sufficient funds to care for Pauline until she died. When she passed away of breast cancer at the age of 52 in 1913, mourners lined the street as her cortege made the three-block journey to Christ Church Cathedral. Every flag in the city flew at half-mast. In accordance with her wishes, her ashes are buried in Stanley Park. She did not wish for a memorial but in 1922 the Women’s Canadian Club raised the money and erected a stone to mark her grave.

Pauline Johnson was not the woman chosen to be on Canada’s newest $10.00 bill, but she was a remarkable woman who made her own way and lived her own dreams in an age when “ladies” were expected to bow to male authority and confine themselves to the home. She proclaimed her Indian blood proudly at a time when First Nations people were excluded from many parts of Canadian life. Her most famous poem, The Song My Paddle Sings, was memorized by generations of Canadian school children, including me.

I’m so glad my book club pushed me to read the biography of this remarkable author.

 

Facebooklinkedin

Good-bye Stuart McLean

 

 

An iconic voice for Canada fell silent last week.  Stuart McLean, storyteller and host of CBC’s Vinyl Café lost his battle with cancer on Wednesday, Feb. 15.  He was 68.

I’ve never met Stuart McLean in person, but he has been a welcome guest in my home most Saturday’s for the past many years. His stories of Dave and Morley, their family and friends made me laugh, brought a tear to my eye, and connected me to hundreds of thousands of other Canadians, all tuned to the same radio show. 

Mr. McLean told not only tales of his own creation, but those of others.  His “Vinyl Café Story Exchange” invited listeners to share their own stories.  “They had to be short, they had to be true, after that they could be anything at all.”  And share we did.  Stories of practical jokes, stories of reunions, days at the lake, small town happenings, poignant good-byes and a meeting with Queen Elizabeth when she was still Princess Elizabeth, and in uniform. 

The stories were read on air, Stuart’s voice infusing the short paragraphs with a warmth and sincerity that gave significant to the commonplace. We heard stories from fellow citizens living thousands of miles away and they became our neighbour, just down the road.  Part of Stuart’s enduring legacy is that drawing together of Canadians from all parts of this vast country and connecting them with each other.  While provinces quarrel over tariffs and health funding and pipelines, Phil in Ontario and Kurt in Vancouver are having a chat about lost love and being a father.  Clare in Vancouver and Glen in Atikokan wrote of canoe trips.  Marlene in Sechelt and William in Brandon wrote of small miracles during a Christmas snowstorm,  quintessential Canadiana, as told by our friends and neighbours.  Listening to the Vinyl Café was like sitting around the kitchen table at home —  with thousands of your best buddies.

Stuart had a raspy voice that wrapped about his listeners like a comfy old sweater, a little tatty, a little worn, but still the favourite garment in your closet, and a rambling style that happily drifted off on tangents. A style that would drive an editor to distraction, Stick to the plot, Stuart, but which appealed to his listeners so much that they wrote their own stories in the same way. 

In an age when entertainers want to be edgy, Stuart was kind. He made us laugh until our sides ached, but it was humane laughter, laughter that recognized the failings and foibles of human existence, that held up a mirror to ourselves, but the laughter was never cruel. His Arthur awards, named after a fictional dog, celebrated small acts of kindness or generosity or citizenship.  On “Arthur Day” he would telephone the recipients, on air, and explain to them about their prize.  One time he got a wrong number.  Instead of hanging up and getting back onto the on-air schedule, he started a conversation!  Turns out the recipient of that wrong number was having a hard time of it.  His father had been laid off, home life was bleak and the lad was sitting alone on Saturday morning.  He’d never heard of the Vinyl Café.  “Don’t worry,” said Stuart, “you’re in the majority.”  By the end of the call, our lonely teenager had perked up  and was looking forward to attending one of Stuart’s shows, with complimentary tickets, of course.  All this was on radio, we couldn’t see facial expressions, but that young lad’s voice went from bleak and dreary to excited and enthusiastic, full of anticipation.  That’s the kind of thing Stuart did.  I thought he should have received an Arthur award himself, for that phone call.

Now, Stuart is gone and with him the cast of characters, Dave, Morley, Mary Tarlington, Polly Anderson, Eugene and a host of others who peopled our imaginations and enriched our lives. We’ll miss them all.  When he announced his illness, Stuart said he didn’t want us to worry about him, he’d be back.  He also told a story where Sam, Dave’s son, was assured by a Tarot reader that if things didn’t work out in the end, then, it wasn’t the end yet.  So Stuart, cancer won and you lost, so this can’t be the end yet. 

So long for now.  Thanks for everything.

 

Facebooklinkedin

The Archives

 

It’s time to clear out my writing office. For someone with a scant “published” list, I have an enormous number of words committed to paper.  I have several drafts of all my traditionally published books, plus the proofs, both marked and corrected versions.  I’ve filled the file cabinet, the closet, an old trunk and now have piles on the floor of new and old writing.  My personal archive.  Why am I keeping all these miles of words? 

Perhaps it’s because putting words on paper is hard work. Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid I’ll never find those words again.  My friend, when home computers were new, hit a button somewhere and turned her term paper into an alphabetical list of words.  Imagine her panic.  The paper represented weeks of work, it was due in a matter of hours and now all her work was a mere list of words.  Perhaps it is that distrust of technology that makes me print out draft versions of my work and keep them. Perhaps it’s just the packrat in me. 

Along with the piles of manuscripts, I have boxes and boxes of old birthday cards.  Every time I pull them out, determined to glean only the special ones and recycle the rest, I get stuck in reminiscence and put nearly all of the cards back in the box.  Such is the power of words on paper.

My brother has been researching our family history but has been miserly with sharing his findings with the rest of us. The reason, he says, is because most of his work is guesses but once a guess is put down in writing, it isn’t long until that guess becomes a “fact.”  Imagine having a brother so wise!

Given that the written word is so powerful, it behoves all of us, especially writers, to chose those words carefully, to consider their impact not only in the moment, but in days or years to come. Are our words kind, do they inspire, are they true, are they of benefit to the reader?  In troubled times it is easy to dismiss fiction, especially romantic fiction, as fluff, a waste of time and money, an escape from reality.  In part, those pejoratives may be true, but romantic fiction at its best reminds the world that love is powerful, that relationships give meaning to life, that justice will out.  And there is really nothing wrong with a little escapism.  Why else did Bob Hope visit war zones?  People in conflict and danger, stress and fear, need relief.  They need laughter.  They need a world where the good guys win, where the guy gets and girl and they all live happily ever after.

Words on paper can free or they can imprison.  Today I will reduce the amount of paper in my office, but I’ll continue to hoard beautiful words.

 

Facebooklinkedin

Lesson from a Master

Dancer Fred Astaire was one of Hollywood’s best box office draws during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Some say he was the most popular music dancer of all time.  Although his style appeared effortless, those one take sequences on film were the result of hours and hours of rehearsal.  Previous to Astaire’s success, Hollywood musicals concentrated on large chorus lines, filmed from different angles, resulting in a kaleidoscope effect.  Astaire changed all that, presenting a solo dancer or couple in full-figure with minimum edits and camera angles.  When you watch Fred Astaire, you see the real thing, no cameral magic to cover a misstep.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were before my time but I’ve always enjoyed watching them in old movies. I never thought of him as much of a romantic hero – too thin, too small, slightly balding – but I admired his dancing.  Recently I saw an old movie clip of Astaire that segued into a modern dancer performing the same routine.  I was astonished.  The difference was so stark even a layman like me could see the difference.  The modern dancer was competent, never missed a step.  But Astaire was grace and elegance and fluidity and style with a capital S.  Despite having watched his movies, I never really appreciated his talent until I saw a poor comparison.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfyXPONE7Ws

As writers we’re encouraged to study our heros. Find an author we admire and enjoy.  Study her methods.  Read and re-read her work.  Dig out what makes her words special and then incorporate what we’ve learned into our own writing.  I admit that lesson doesn’t produce good results for me.  I’m so overwhelmed with admiration for the authors who write with energy, and style and grace and elegance and verve and . . . that I forget I’m supposed to be pulling the story apart and doing a critique.  I also find it hard to put my finger on just what it is that makes a particular author’s work so compelling for me.

Now, using my experience of watching Fred Astaire and an also-ran, I’m studying a “bad” book. This is an assigned reading for my book club.  Otherwise, I’d have tossed the novel after the first five, boring pages.  There are no “rules” for writing but there are certain conventions and expectations.  For readers of fiction, I believe the first expectation is to be entertained, from the very start.  One of the blogs I follow, Writers Unboxed, has a regular feature called “Flog a Pro.”  Here the writer community is asked to comment on the first page of a best-selling novel and determine if they, as an editor, would turn the page.  I’m sure the first page of this book would receive a “fail” in his test.  It does not engage this reader, nothing happens, there is no story question, there is no pithy dialogue, there is no appealing character.  In short, the beginning is boring.

Note to self: Reread first page of manuscript and be sure there is action, a question or a character who is so engaging the reader can’t help wanting to know more.

Most teachers of creative writing suggest limiting the story to one or two point-of-view characters. This book has four at least plus a couple of secondary POV segments.  Not only does the story bounce around from one POV character to another, it bounces around in time from pre-war, to present day, to London Blitz, to post-war England and other points in between.  When the author finally caught my attention, she jumped to a different character in a different time.  When I got involved there, she jerked me to yet another time and character.  By this time, I’d forgotten the initial question and I no longer cared.

Note to self: Teasing the reader with tidbits of information to draw her along in the story is a useful technique.  Driving the reader nuts with endless, unresolved cliff-hangers will see your book make a splat on the wall.

The “heroine” of this book, is an unlikeable character. She is deceitful, conniving and self-absorbed.  Tragedy in her personal history does not excuse her outrageous and damaging behaviour.

Note to self: Make your heroine likable.  Flaws make a character more believable, but if the character is your hero/heroine, there must be some redeeming features. (S)he must grow, change and present the reader with an admirable personality by the end of the book.

Thank you Mr. Astaire, and the also-ran dancer who showed me the true genius of the master. I still wish I hadn’t had to read the last book, but you’ve shown me how to learn from a bad example.

Facebooklinkedin

Fiction and History

 

        With the success of dramas such as Downton Abbey, movie makers have turned to history for inspiration. Yay!  I’m all for teaching the modern generation about our past, our triumphs and our tragedies, our successes and our mistakes.  What concerns me is the willingness of film-makers and screen writers to present fiction as historical fact.  Even with the disclaimer at the end or the beginning of the film that the work comes from the writer’s imagination, the viewing public will believe that Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth I or Henry VIII really said and thought what the film portrayed.  Historical researchers will spend months or years, poring over personal correspondence, diaries, contemporary writings, newspaper articles and pictures of the day to ensure the accuracy of what they publish to the world about historical characters.  Modern film-makers seem  cavalier about truth.  If the real life of an historical character is dull, they just make up stuff to give it more sex-appeal, attributing thoughts and words to an historical figure that may even contradict what is known about that person’s beliefs.  As a writer and a lover of history, I find this approach disturbing.

 “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill.  I believe this is true.  How often throughout history have we seen the same forces at work – greed, intolerance, hatred, fear, racism, — leading mankind into war and famine and suffering.  Yet, how can we learn from the past if the past is distorted?  I’m all in favour of a good story, in an historical setting, with real-life characters playing a role, but I think the made-up stuff should only apply to the made-up people.

To that end, I present this brief biography of one of the first women of the Klondike.  It’s as accurate as I can make it.  The tale needs no embellishment to touch the heart.

 

 Kate Carmack          

Sometime around 1886, Shaaw Tlaa, the daughter of a Tagish woman and a Tlingit man married, “in the custom of the country”, George Carmack, an American prospector and had a daughter with him.  Upon her marriage, Shaaw Tlaa became known as Kate Carmack.      Kate was skilled in the art of survival in the harsh climate of the Yukon.  She kept house for her husband, raised their daughter, Graphie Grace, sewed moccasins and warm winter clothing to sell to other miners, picked berries and snared game for food and even took in laundry to keep the family going until the mining claims began to pay.  Then on Aug, 16, 1896, George, along with Kate’s brothers, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, discovered gold on Rabbit Creek   The three men hurried to Forty Mile on the Yukon River to register their claim and the Klondike Gold Rush was underway.  By default, Kate became the first woman on the Klondike.     For the first year after their strike, Kate’s life didn’t change much, but in 1898 George decided to take a trip “outside” to enjoy his new wealth.  Taking Kate and Graphie Grace with him, George headed south to visit his sister Rose Watson, in California..  In Seattle, George  signed Kate into hotels as Mrs. Carmack and showed off his wealth by draping her with gold-nugget necklaces.   He even told the newspaper reporters that he had a mind to take his family to the Paris Exposition in 1900 and he would be glad to have Jim and Charlie along.     Sadly for Kate, the city proved her undoing.  She was unhappy and bewildered in these strange surroundings.  She and her brothers drank too much.  Once she was arrested and spent a night in jail.  The newspapers of the time delighted in portraying Kate and her brothers as wild savages.  George doesn’t appear to have done anything to ease her way into southern society.     After a few weeks in Seattle, the Carmacks moved on to California to stay with George’s sister, Rose.  Rose was delighted to see her brother, but had scant regard for Kate.  She must have felt enormous relief in the spring of 1899 when George took her home to the Klondike.  The only fly in her ointment was that Graphie Grace stayed behind with her Aunt Rose to be “civilized”.     On a second trip South in the summer of 1899, Kate was again sport for the newspapers and George complained bitterly to his sister about her, saying he’d like to send her home to Dyea right away.  Instead of acting on that reasonable impulse,  George returned to the Yukon alone, leaving Kate with his sister in California.  In the winter of 1899-1900, George met Marguerite Laimee in Dawson and proposed at once.  Marguerite accepted on the spot.     Hurt and confused, Kate charged George with adultery, but although they had lived together as man and wife for thirteen years, she could not produce any legal documentation to support her claims.  George married Marguerite in Seattle.  Kate returned to the Klondike where.  Skookum Jim build her a cabin in Carcross.   She earned a small income from selling her needlework to tourists and occasionally posing for photographs.  George sent not a single dollar to support her or their daughter.     Instead, when Graphie Grace was sixteen, George arranged for her to leave the mission school in Whitehorse and join him in Seattle.  It was the greatest betrayal Kate could have endured.  In the  Tagish traditions children belonged with their mother’s clan.  A year later Graphie married her step-mother’s brother and severed all ties with her mother.   Kate died of influenza on March 29, 1920.

 

 

 

Facebooklinkedin

Confession Time

            A few months ago I wrote a blog on my new “chunky list” method of time management. I proudly proclaimed my affection for lists and recorded my successes.   I haven’t talked about lists much lately.  There’s a reason.  I’ve fallen off the page.  My lists are short and general rather than long and specific.  Some very measurable things, like laundry, get done in their regular time slot (Monday) but others like “write” aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.  My productivity has fallen in recent weeks along with my drive to finish the story.

            Enter my friend/critiquer/encourager/fellow-traveller from the other side of the world. We met several years ago on an on-line course.  The presenter said “pick a partner.”  I decided to find someone as far away from my usual world as I could.  My partner, AB, had the same thought, so now a Canadian and an Australian are travelling the road of life and writing together.  We e-mail each other every Monday with an account of our week.  Sometimes the e-mails are full of glowing achievements, thinking aloud about plot/character problems, or the sharing of a highlight in our personal lives.  Other times our exchanges consist of a tirade about the unfairness of the world/family/work/fate, take your pick, or the clueless comment made by a husband.  As our friendship grows, there are more of the personal notes in our correspondence but always something about the writing.

            Last week I was moaning about being stuck and she was complaining about lack of inspiration. We both have January birthdays and the horoscope for our year was not encouraging! AB proposed that we set a word count goal and tell each other what it was, then report back.  I’m always up for a challenge.  I set my goal, the same as AB’s as it turns out, and then my week went haywire. Unexpected errands, a power outage, freezing weather and a weekend away, made the goal hard to attain, but I wasn’t going to report failure on Monday morning.  I wrote while I waited for the car to be serviced, I wrote before breakfast and after supper, I sandwiched in some coffee shop writing between trips to the grocery store and the pharmacy.  By Friday night I’d reached my word count and went off on a wee holiday with a clear conscience.  On Monday morning I wrote to my friend trumpeting my success.

           I’m not giving up on my lists, they are an excellent tool for me, giving me an overview of my week, illuminating a timetable to accomplish all my tasks, highlighting where and when the writing can happen, providing a roadmap to the end of the book. I’m very fond of my lists.  However, I forgive myself easily for not reaching my goals, especially when it’s Christmas and I have a new book or three and a really hard jigsaw puzzle.  That word count is just a number I made up.  It doesn’t matter to anyone else.  But having declared my intention to AB, I had renewed motivation to get there.  We’re both Capricorns and hate to fail!

            So, if you’re feeling stuck, whether it’s with writing or sticking to a diet or managing your budget, or any other life goal, I recommend finding a partner to hold you accountable.  I met AB more or less by accident but we hit it off – a lovely piece of serendipity — but there are other ways of networking.  Some of my writer’s crowd have set up small critique groups, our chapter has a goal-setting exercise every February, a couple have a relatives who serve as  sounding boards and task masters.  There are on-line sites to help writers set goals and achieve them.  Here are three suggested ones.  Some charge, others are free.

The Writer’s Circle

Absolute Write

There’s even an app for that at Novelicious

           It’s important to find the type of group/partner that works for you. I’m not a chart-type of person so if I have to fill in boxes, the system won’t work for me.  If you love tables and graphs and fill-in-the-blanks type accounting, then you should look for like-minded people.  If you want to keep it strictly professional, maybe one of the paid circles is your choice.  If you like to mix in some personal stuff, then a friend with similar goals may be more your style.

         Of course, just like in real life, no one writing partner will fulfil all your needs. I have writing friends whom I meet in person, we brainstorm, commiserate, encourage, share information and sometimes exchange recipes.  I love our gab sessions.  Fortunately, friends in person and friends on-line is not an either/or situation.  I can have both, eat my cake and have it too.  How often does that happen?

It has been said before but I’ll say it again, writing is a lonely business. It’s easier with company.

Facebooklinkedin

Collage

p1020740At a recent meeting of VIRA (Vancouver Island romance authors) we were invited to tap into our creativity by creating a collage.  So, with scissors, glue stick and magazines in hand I took my place at the table.  Now, I’m not a visual artist in any way.  In public (elementary) school I got A’s in reading and grammar, B’s in arithmetic and a pity C in art.  The only project I ever felt good about was one where we covered our fists with paint and made swirly patterns on a sheet of Bristol board, folded it in half, punched holes on two sides and sewed it up to make a portfolio for our art that year.  I can make swirls with my fists so for once I thought I’d do well in art.  Wrong!  The teacher didn’t like my choice of colours, purple and green.  Whenever I see a purple flower with lovely green leaves I want to shake my fist in the air and say “See!  God put them together.” 

But, I digress.

Back to collage making. We were to cut out any images that appealed to us, including words, then stick them onto our backing holus-bolus.  The idea was to be a wild mind, not plotted and planned and edited. 

I’m currently working on a project set in nineteenth century British Columbia, so when I looked at my finished work I sought expressions of that time and place.  I had an antique looking map of Vancouver Island and coastal B.C., a woman with a horse, sheep, a feathery hat, china teacups and iced sugar cookies.  I also had “for Queen and Country,” a definite sentiment of patriotism for that era.  The picture at the top left is my “wild mind” collage.

 

p1020742We were then instructed to build a collage with more specific intent. So, I looked for images of prospectors, pioneers, and fledgling towns.  I found horses pasturing beside a river, a picture of lots and lots of purple flowers with green foliage (ha!), some stylized Mounties, a polar bear and blueberries in whipped cream.  The latter two have nothing to do with my story, but I love the polar bear and the whipped cream balanced the picture, in my opinion.  Remember, I’m not a visual artist.  But the prize image came from a colleague at the same table, Peabody’s Photo Parlour.  The heroine in my wip is a lady photographer.  If you look closely, you’ll see a lady photographer in bustled skirt and big had operating a box camera on a tripod as an inset to the larger image of the frontier traveller.  I doubt my “plotted” collage is any better than my wild mind one, but looking at it does help keep me in the story place.

 

The best thing about the afternoon was sitting with other writers, talking story lines and plot problems and pesky grammar points. When I look at my collages, I see not only pretty pictures, but I remember my friends and am grateful

Facebooklinkedin

Lesson from Live Theatre

imagesLast week I attended a performance of  Hilda’s Yard by Norm Foster.  The hour and a half drive to get there was horrible — traffic, rain, dark, fog — but the play was a delight. I love live performance, whether it’s a play, a symphony or a ball game. Since I can turn on a device and watch or listen to the best in the world in the comfort of my own home while enjoying a snack, I’m puzzled by why I prefer live performance.

I think it has to do with the immediacy of the event. When I sit in a small theatre and the actor speaks from the stage, he’s speaking directly to me. When something bad happens, my response, along with that of the whole audience, is part of the experience. There is no barrier between me and the story.  When I watch television, I know I’m watching a screen. The story may amuse, horrify or annoy me, but it’s just a story and I’m watching from a safe distance. When the story is on stage and I’m in the audience, I’m part of the story.

So, can I use what I’ve learned from going to theatre to add immediacy to my books? Is it possible to engage the reader in the same way the actor engages me?

The answer is no, not exactly. For one thing, a reader has to work a lot harder than an audience member and the words on paper or screen form a barrier. The reader can’t hear or see in the same way. But, the writer can enhance the immediacy of the story by using active voice, strong pacing and deft language. In our age of tweets and images it’s easy to forget the importance of language, but in the play I attended I noticed how the playwright used apt words and phrasing. He wasn’t obvious or “preachy” but the language made the story sing.

Another thing the staged play has going for it is the stage with its scenery and props. No need to labour over “showing” the reader the setting, it’s right there in front of them.

Still, an author of books can convey a scene so vividly the reader “sees” it in her mind’s eye and she can hear and smell and taste and touch too if the author wants her to. Sometimes I’ve read stories that are somehow disembodied and it’s because they’re set on the page and not in a place.  Writers can get so caught up on character and plot that we ignore setting.  Not a good idea. The setting grounds the reader and allows him/her to identify more completely with the protagonist. In a fantasy, the fantasy world must be so smoothly woven into the text that the reader can “feel” herself there.  In a cozy mystery the reader should long for a cup of tea in a dainty china cup.

In an historical we have to “create” the world of the place and time, but we’re also bound by fact.  We can’t have a character sign the Treaty of Versailles in London.  Writers of historical fiction spend their time immersed in the period trying to get all the little details right.  Harder than it seems.  History books are full of battles and acts of Parliament, but not much mention of domestic arrangements.  When our heroine or our hero gets up the in morning what does she do?  How does she dress?  How does she wash?  What’s involved in cooking in a medieval kitchen? How do you store milk without refrigeration?

I’m writing about late nineteenth century Canada. Even narrowing my time period down to twenty years, leaves lots of room for error. A woman living in a city had amenities someone living on a farm did not. If the railroad had reached the heroine’s town, she had access to books and fashions and tools that someone in a more remote community waited months and months to acquire, if ever. As mentioned in earlier posts on this page, fashion didn’t stand still either. Puffed sleeves went in and out of style. Bustles bounced high and low on a woman’s hips. Although dresses were long, hemlines did change, sometimes skirts brushed the floor, other times they rested at the top of the foot. Not an obvious difference to our eye, but a huge difference to how the wearer moved and worked.

Subtle things can give a story that elusive quality of  immediacy. The weather, the layout of a room, the style of dress, manners, patterns of speech. If you’re wondering how to give your story more life, make it more immediate to the reader, try going to live theatre. You may pick up some hints.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facebooklinkedin

Fashion Authenticity

In my continuing quest for authenticity, I’ve been looking at photos from the late nineteenth century in British Columbia.    Here is a sampling.

mrs-friend-atlin-bca

This is a photo of Mrs. Friend of Atlin. B.C. taken near the turn of the twentieth century. High necked blouses and flared skirts were the order of the day.  Note the detail in the lace of the blouse shown on the right, and the decoration on the skirt on the left.  There is an almost “mannish” appearance to these two women, but the feminine touches are there if you look.

 

This photo of the Esquimalt Ladies Cricket team is in the B.C. Archives and dated 1890. Can you imagine playing cricket laced up that tight?ladies-cricket-team-1890

 

 

 

 

 

This one of women gold seekers in the Yukon in 1898 shows more work-a-day clothes than the cricketers, but those long skirts would be caked with mud and heavy.gold-rush-1965-2

 

Cecelia Spofford had her picture taken in 1890. Notice the puffs at the shoulders.  Of course, these professional photographs would show women in their best attire, not what they wore in the kitchen or the field.  Also, only persons of wealth and standing were likely to have a formal portrait taken.cecilia-spofford-hastings

 

This one of Windimere Pioneers is dated 1890. I find it useful because Windimere is off the beaten track – not a leader in ladies fashions.  Still, the women are well-dressed and out numbered.  When writing of this era in the interior of British Columbia it is well to remember that men grossly out-numbered women.  If a girl had a yen to marry, she’windimere-pioneersd not be short of proposals if she headed for the hinterland.

 

Finally, here is a page from the Eaton’s catalogue of 1897. Since women in even remote situations could order from a catalogue and expect the goods to be delivered, even if it took weeks to reach them, those with enough money could dress like this.  Note that Eaton’s is now selling attire for more active young women like those who rode a bicycle. 

imagesStill laced tightly at the waist, but those puffed sleeves would allow for a little more movement than the narrow ones of a few years previously.

Ginger Rogers is famously believed to have said, “I do everything a man does only backwards and in high heels.” Well, in the Canadian west, women did everything men did, only they did it in corsets and long skirts!

Facebooklinkedin

The Not-So-Wild West

       wilds-to-riches-22   Writing historical fiction requires lots and lots of research. Since I love history, research is actually a treat and not a chore. However, writing about the Canadian West in the nineteenth century presents some unique challenges. If I do research under “Victorian,” I’ll get lots of references to Victorian England. If I try “Western” I’ll get reams of information on the American West. Thanks to Hollywood, most people perceive “Western” from the American perspective, i.e. lawlessness, range wars, famous outlaws, dangerous Indians. Those qualities make great fiction, but they do not hold true for the Canadian west. Oh, we had our share of criminals, but the westward expansion of white settlement in this country followed a different pattern that our southern neighbours. In Canada, the law and government, preceded the settlers.
           The fur trade that brought the first whites into the hinterland of British North America was governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. These “gentlemen adventurers” were obsessive record keepers. They established forts, wages, trade routes, and their own form of law and order. Factors and clerks and agents brought with them the same standards of conduct that held sway in London, England. There were no glittering salons or evening parties, but respect for order and allegiance to the Queen were part of their make-up.
      Early attempts at settlement, such as the Red River Colony  were organized and controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company and interested parties in England.  Although the Selkirk experiment failed, the method or organization was ingrained in the Canadian landscape.
      When the gold rush brought the next wave of immigrants to what is now British Columbia, there was already a functioning government in place. Sir James Douglas, chief factor for the HBC and Governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, took steps to prevent an American takeover of British territory there. He lobbied the British crown and used a garrison of soldiers and engineers to establish British sovereignty and the rule of law throughout the territory. Miners expecting a repeat of the California experience, found instead a court system staffed by itinerant judges, a police corps and a tax man waiting for them.download
      Barkerville, popularly viewed as a rough and tumble mining camp filled with saloons and brothels, quickly became a civilized town with all of the amenities. Gold was discovered in 1862, by 1863 the miners had built a hospital and raised the money to run it. Within a few years there were seven doctors practicing there. The Roman Catholic church was already established a few miles down stream in Richfield. By 1863 the Anglicans and Methodists had built churches, joined by the Presbyterians in 1864.
      Also in 1864, a Library was established with 70 books brought to the town by its first librarian, Miss Florence Wilson. In the next few years Governor Seymour donated 100’s more books. There were evening classes for the miners to study Greek and Latin and History and English and band and chess among other subjects. Music was highly prized. Miners formed choirs within the community and sponsored visiting troupes from Victoria, the U.S. and Europe. There was a Debating Club, Glee Club, Masonic Lodge, Cariboo Benevolent Society and a Literary Society, as well as a Miners Association that acted like a municipal government.
      This is not the popular image of a gold rush town, but it is an historically accurate one. As an author I see it as my responsibility to present historical truth in an entertaining, yet accurate manner.  Writing about the Canadian West means I have to overcome certain stereotypes in the reader’s mind, but that means I get to talk about a place and time that fascinates me.  As a commenter on this page once said, “what fun!”
 

Facebooklinkedin

Rules for Teachers

p1020586On my recent reunion trip, one of the stops of interest was the local museum.  Tacked to the wall, I found these following rules for teacher.  I’ve seen variations of these before and some dismiss them as urban myth, probably because they are not written into the contract.  The teacher didn’t have to agree to them, he/she simply had to follow them!

1872  Rules for Teachers

  1. Teachers each day will fill lamps and clean chimneys. (I think that means lamp chimneys, not the stove.)
  2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the days session.
  3. Make your pens carefully.  You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of each student.
  4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes or two evenings each week if they go to church regularly.
  5. After 10 hours in school, teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
  6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed. (Marriage is unseemly???)
  7. Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
  8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, gets shaved in a barbershop will give reason to inspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.

  I understand about the pool hall — well known as a den of iniquity — but I’m curious about the barbershop.  Surely a male teacher was expected to be well-groomed.  Was a shave in the barbershop unthrifty and therefore might contravene rule number 7?  Did men gossip at the barbershop?  Maybe it was the fear of barbershop singing!

1915 Rules for Teachers

p1020587

  1. 1. You will NOT marry during the term of your contract.
  2. 2. You are NOT to keep company with men.
  3. 3.  You MUSt be home between the hours of 8pm and 6am unless attending a school function.
  4.  4. You MAY NOT loiter downtown in ice cream stores.
  5.  You MAY NOT travel beyond the city limits without the permission of the Chairman of the Board.
  6.  You MAY NOT ride in a carriage or an automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.
  7. You MAY NOT smoke cigarettes.
  8. You MAY NOT dress in bright colours.
  9. You may, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, dye your hair.
  10. You MUST wear at least two petticoats.
  11. Your dress MSUT NOT be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankle
  12. To keep the schoolroom clean you MUST                                                                                                                   
  • sweep the floor at least twice day.        
  • scrub the floor with hot soapy water at least once a week 
  • clean the blackboard at least once a day 
  • start the fire at 7am so that the room will be warm at 8am

 So now the ice cream store is as unsavoury as the barbershop.

I find these two lists interesting in that the first seems aimed primarily at men, while the second clearly has women in its sights.  No doubt the lists reflect the increasing number of women employed as school teachers, but  I wonder if it is also is a result of the presence of women on the school board.  What all male school board would mention women’s petticoats, let alone dictate the number of them?  In the 1890’s Manitoba became the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow women to vote in municipal elections and to hold office on the school board.  In 1895 Helen Mary “Marie” Grant was appointed the first female school trustee in Canada.

I confess to a certain romantic attachment to the 1890’s but I’d hate to wear two petticoats in the summer, I’d hate to have a male trustee dictate if I could visit outside the city and I’d certainly hate not going to the ice cream store.  Something to remember with we sigh for “the good old days.”

 

Facebooklinkedin

Beware the Passive Heroine

      I read two books recently on the theme of war, refugees and women.  One book had me nodding off after every page, the other kept me awake and frightened the whole time.  What was the difference?  Both dealt with women caught up in violence they couldn’t control, both faced starvation, brutality, and terror. Why was the effect of the stories so different for me?

      The answer lies in the inner life of the heroines. One was full of passion and determination. The other was passive, bowing her head in submission as one calamity after another befell her. Instead of inspiring me with sympathy, this character pushed me away with her constant cry of “woe is me.”

      Alice Orr in her book, No more Rejections, calls this the lacklustre character. She says “a protagonist [must] stand out among the very large pack of . . . submissions.” The late Jack Bickham in his book The 38 most common Fiction Writing Mistakes has a whole chapter called “Don’t Write about Wimps.” Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, counsels writers to create “larger-than-life” protagonists.

      Obviously, avoiding passive heroines is a foundational pillar in writing fiction, but I’ve never seen it so clearly demonstrated as I did in the two books I mentioned above. It’s a good lesson. Both books were critically successful, but, as a reader I much preferred one over the other.

    I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the heroine in my current story spends too much time thinking and not enough time doing. So, while one book bored me and the other scared me, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about story-telling.  Off to edit!

Facebooklinkedin

Brag Day

DSCF5652-001The blog on this page is about me as a writer, insights I may glean about the process, observations on the writing life and news of my books.  Today, I’m going off message and I’ll talk about my “real” life.

One of my annual endeavours is to exhibit at the Saanich Fall Fair.  I love this fair.  It takes me back to my farm roots.  I hang out in the cattle area and test my judging skills against the professionals.  I walk around the horse barns, patting those enormous beauties until I smell like a horse.  DSCF5691-001I giggle at the exotic assortment of hens and roosters.  Do you know there is a hen that lays blue eggs? P1020629 And I marvel at the magnificent display of dahlias and giant mums and the heaviest P1020625apple and the longest bean and the weirdest carrot.

I also enter.  It began small.  Just a sweater or a scarf.  Then I noticed the rose display was no better than the ones blooming outside my window.  So I entered a rose or two.  I won.  I was lost.  I now spend weeks fretting about the rose bushes, pruning, coaxing, watering, breathing on them — all in attempt to have the blooms at perfection on the day of the fair.  Alas, the weather rarely cooperates.  For two years running, we’ve had a heat spell in mid-August that brought all the blooms into full flower — ahead of the fair.  The buds that were left, the ones I counted on to open to exhibit standards, remained closed up tight and stubborn, when the heat gave way to cold and rain, seven days before the Fair opened.  More fretting.  More anxious blowing on a rose bush.  All to no avail.  Mother Nature will ripen a rose in her own time and nothing I can do will change that.   Yet, despite having fewer roses to exhibit than I had planned, I took what was passable to the Fair, — and I won a best in show!  P1020628

I’m thrilled — which it really silly, because what did I do, really?  I fretted.  I turned on the water.  I cut and trimmed the blooms and washed the mildew from the leaves.  The rose bush, God, the sun, the earth — they did the real work in growing a prize-winning blossom.  Yet, I get the ribbon and the praise.   Duh!

I met some friends who exhibited jams and jellies and sweaters and cross-stitch and marigolds and tomatoes.  In true farmer style we looked at the results of this year and immediately laid plans for next.  A sign of hope or a symptom of insanity?  On the other hand, isn’t that what writers do too?  We work hard on a project, we send it out, we watch the results, and we make plans for the next one.  Are we hopeful or insane? 

P1020627My answer changes from day to day, but for now, I’m going to admire my ribbons and bask in the glow of success.   

P1020639     

Facebooklinkedin

Lists

P1020610.JPGA recent issue of the RWR (Romance Writers Report) Allie Pleiter discussed the chunky method of time management, including making lists. Now, I’m a list-maker from way back, especially for things like Christmas dinner, so I thought I already knew all about lists. But I had just got home from holiday and felt overwhelmed by the amount of work waiting for me on all fronts of my life. So, I used Allie Pleiter’s tools, combined with my own usual list-making methods in an attempt to put my life in order.
To my surprise, it worked! I used to make one very long list. It was exhaustive. I even put “make list” on the list of “to do.” I’d manage to get through some of that list, then I’d need to make a new one, and that didn’t get finished and then I got too busy to make lists so any organizational benefit vanished. This time around, I’ve made lists of only the top priorities of the day, and limited the length of the list to what I might actually accomplish.  I also included time for lunch and coffee breaks!
Monday’s list was long. I dashed through the day and got all but one thing on the list finished. Mondays are like that for me. I begin the week full of energy and good intentions. By Friday,both have dwindled to near zero so it’s good to have a productive Monday.  However, I persisted in making manageable lists for the rest of the week and I’m happy to report that I have accomplished most tasks I set myself, and I’ve increased my writing output, and I have so many red check marks on the page I feel like a winner!

That last bit is important.  Being a writer is lonely.  The time between writing “chapter one” and ‘the end” is long.  If the only measurement of success is a publishing contract or significant sales on self-published books, there can be a long time between “wins.”  The list of tasks accomplished in a day provides instant reward, and motivation to keep going.

So, if you are a member of the RWA®, Romance Writers of America, I heartily recommend the July 2016 issue of RWR.  If you’re not a member, you can check out Pleiter here.

Now, I’ll put a nice red tick beside “write blog” on my list and move on to ” bicycle for half an hour.”

Facebooklinkedin

Faster, Higher, Stronger

women_100_2Faster, Higher, Stronger”   The motto of the Olympics is top of mind these days, following the excitement in Rio, where the athletes were faster, higher and stronger.  World records, Olympic records, national records and personal best records all fell before the onslaught of the latest crop of Olympians.  In 1912 the men’s 100m race was run in  a record time of 10.6 seconds.  Each succeeding contest saw fractions of a second shaved off.  in 1996 Donovan Bailey of Canada set a blistering speed of 9.84 seconds.  By 2008 Usain Bolt could run the race in 9.69 seconds, in 2012 he bettered his own record to 9.63 seconds at last week in Rio, he did it in 9.58 seconds.   

That is just one example of the increasing speed of athletes and the increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for measuring time.  Even with atomic clocks, laser beams and photos, the women’s 100 freestyle in the pool resulted in a tie for gold between Canada’s Penny Oleksiak, and  Simone Manuel of the United States. 

This need for speed seems to have overtaken us in other areas as well.  We have fast food, instant communication, tables, conversions and calculations immediately on-line, information at our fingertips.  With the advent of ipads and smartphones, we don’t even need to find a desktop computer.  All these resources are as close as our back pocket. 

Sadly, the need for speed has entered the world of books as well.  I just saw a critique of one of my favourite authors and she was panned for not having enough action — on the first page, not having enough sexual tension — on the first page, and not having high enough stakes — on the first page! For me, this need to open a novel with a car chase, a shoot-out or a kidnapping, erodes the pleasure of reading.  The author the critics panned is a master at drawing the reader into the story slowly, but relentlessly.  She starts in the ordinary world, where the reader thinks she’s going for a walk in the garden, then subtly, inexorably she weaves a web that traps the characters in their own lies and half-truths, exposes their fears, their cowardice, their secrets and their strengths.  This writer is highly skilled at the twist that takes the story in an entirely different direction and catches the reader off-guard.  I find her work compelling and enjoyable.  The slow pace is part of her charm.  Jo Beverley wrote of my book, “The Man for Her,” a “book to savour.”  That’s the kind of story I like — one where the reader savours the writing, savours the twists and turns and closes the cover with a sigh.  If I find myself skimming pages just to get to the end, I’m not savouring the book.  I’m just rushing.

Fortunately, there is a recoil against all this speed.  For those of us not entering the Olympics, experts now agree a walk is good exercise.  There is a slow food movement to balance fast-food alley.  The author cited above has a healthy readership who relish the quiet openings of her books, and, to my delight, there is “The Long Now Foundation” that is building a clock to measure time one tick per year.

After all the speed and excitement of the Olympics, I’m off to enjoy some slow food and savour a quiet read. 

Facebooklinkedin

Working Hands

13307406_10153789463354296_3231375144010294449_n Continuing my theme of the hard-working pioneer, the lady pictured here is baking bread — at the age of 90.  Once the habit of hard work is established it cannot be broken.
Family lore holds that in the early years, she’d lay her baby in the shade of a tree with an older child standing guard while she picked blueberries.  Then she’d carry  the baby and the berries a half-mile to the house and set about making pies.  As the years passed and the family grew, she routinely put up ninety quarts of wild strawberries every summer.  Note, those are wild strawberries, tiny little things no bigger than the tip of your baby finger.  Picking ninety quarts is a mind-boggling task, never mind preserving them in jars sterilized and processed on a wood-burning stove in summer.
Of course, picking and preserving fruit were extra chores.  Her regular days consisted of baking bread, churning butter, washing clothes on a scrub-board, scrubbing pine floors with lye soap.  Then, when the children were in bed, getting out her sewing machine and making the children’s clothes.  She also spun the wool from her own sheep and knitted mitts and socks for her brood.
So many of the tasks we look on now as hobbies or crafts, were necessities of life to the pioneer woman and she did it all without electricity or running water, or store-bought aids, like soap.

There is another story of her husband being annoyed because she’d been put to extra labour to entertain some visiting men while she herself was still recovering from a bout of pleurisy.  In her words “I was recovering because I was in active service.  There was no one to take my place.”
While her offspring like me are aghast at the mountains of work she accomplished, she didn’t complain or sigh.  In fact her memoirs are filled with descriptions of happy times, like the annual Fall Fair, and her pride and excitement when a horse or cow from their farm came home with a blue ribbon.

Her life revolved around her family, her faith and the farm.  She nursed her children through whooping cough and scarlet fever and ‘flu.  She sent one boy to the Great War in 1914 and another to WWII in 1939, then welcomed them home when the conflicts ended.  She lived a very long life, saw the world go from horse and buggy to a man on the moon.  Through all these momentous changes, she kept her focus — family, faith, farm.

Not a bad recipe for a good life.
Here is her recipe for hand soap.

Have grease rendered.
Take 9 cups of grease and put in crock. Heat to lukewarm.
Put 1 can Gillette’s lye in 6 cups soft cold water.  Stir until thoroughly mixed.  Lye will heat the water.  Put 1/2 cup borax, two table spoons ammonia and stir, leave it to cool until lukewarm.  Pour lye in with grease and beat (by hand!)for 10 minutes or until it looks like honey.  Bake in layers.

Facebooklinkedin

Romance or Drudgery

P1020575I’m currently working on the third book in my Prospect series. Like The Man for Her and Her One and Only, it is set in the mythical gold rush town of Prospect in the Rocky Mountains. The time is 1890. The railway has come through the town so travel is easier, the population is growing and the town is taking on some of the trappings of a city of the time. Still, there is a sense of the wilderness on the doorstep. Rogues masquerade as upstanding citizens, upstanding citizens will risk all for a chance to strike it rich on the gold creeks. It is a wonderful setting for a romance, bold men and daring women, a rugged landscape, and a sense of wildness and freedom.
I’m having fun writing the story and researching the times. Of course, I’ve explored this setting before, but there is always more to learn, some little nugget of information that fires the imagination.
But the life of the pioneer was not all romance. There was work, hard, unremitting, necessary work. If a man didn’t work his fields and grow a successful crop, his family went hungry. If a woman could not preserve the bounty of harvest, the winter months were lean. Storm, drought, fire, were a constant threat.
I’ve found a little of that in my own family history. This is an excerpt from a toast written by one of my relatives to celebrate our pioneer ancestors.
“Thou cruel days, those lonely nights,
How can I the picture paint
Of endless toil and lonesome frights
In that land of the Northern Lights?

With Pioneer John to the lumber camps gone
Where the tote-road became his highway
His steadfast wife sustained all life
At home, in Temperance Valley.
. . .
The father came home, when the camps closed down
His sleigh-bells rang a jubilant message
They were heard from afar, the door was ajar
his winter of labour was over.
. . .
The dog chased his tail, he was only a pup
The cats and their kittens gamboled in glee,
In Temperance Valley happy days had begun
Pioneer John was his own man again.”

It’s that line “his own man again,” that resonates with me. There may have been easier paths than that of the pioneer, but those paths depended on the good will of some other man. For men like my grandfather, and the men I write about in my books, to “be his own man,” is worth all the sacrifice, all the toil, all the hardship.
I hope, in some way, that my stories pay homage to those brave men and women who trekked into the unknown, faced the fury of nature, and came through to peace and plenty at the end of the day.

Facebooklinkedin

Lessons in Storytelling

P1020062Last week I had a visit with my not-quite 4-year-old great niece. Part of our conversation consisted of her laying out all her toys – figures, books, squares, coloured cloth, rocks — and telling me a story. I heard bits of Cinderella, echoes of Goldilocks, and lessons from a farmer. There were fish, which, for some reason required mud. As items got moved about, I was reminded over and over “don’t touch,” because the story required that all the bits and pieces be in their proper place, as determined by the author.  Good advice for any storyteller during the first flush of creativity.  While the story is new and fragile and only just revealing itself, it’s best to tell your inner editor, (or well-meaning friends) “don’t touch.”  The words need to pour out, redundancies, repetitions and irrelevancies untouched as they flow onto the page.

The story meandered on and on, the various pieces seemingly unrelated, the plot line indiscernible and the characters rather wooden.  Yet words spilled out, props were shifted, a doll’s arms adjusted, a book on Rudolph ( in high summer?) acted as a foundation for the entire ensemble.  Clearly story-boarding is built-in to children.  We re-learn that technique as adult writers.

For me, the listener, the story didn’t make a lot of sense but  the joy of the storyteller was unmistakeable, and she knew where she was going with all of this. Eventually bedtime put an end to the tale, but I’m sure it will be continued with endless adventures for the fish and the farmer and the elephant.

There was no editor for this story, no “market,” just a little girl stringing words together and having a whale of a time. I felt privileged to listen in.

Facebooklinkedin

Why Romance?

I belong to a book club whose purpose is to expand our reading experience. We make a point of choosing books from various genres including historical, mystery, Canadiana, classic, and many, many more. As a result I’ve met some authors I never would have picked up on my own, learned some obscure facts, discovered some not-so-famous people, and generally had a good time between the covers of a book.  I’ve also come across some authors I’ll never read again. The latest book was such a one.

In their statement of mission, many public broadcasters include variations on the theme, “to inform, enlighten, entertain, inspire and illumine.” Libraries have a version of the same, and I like to read with those goals in mind. Sadly, the latest book, which won many awards, failed me in all respects but maybe the last.

  • Inform:  I did not learn anything new from the book — no tidbit of information, to squirrel away in the trivia compartment of my brain.
  • Enlighten: It did not add a deeper level to my understanding of a situation or condition.
  • Entertain:  Not me. I could not find one single, sympathetic character to identify with. There was a protagonist, but I found nothing heroic about her journey. Although the language and writing were powerful, the dysfunctional relationships were more tedious than entertaining.
  • Inspire:  I was not moved to emulate any of the characters in the story, or to work for a cause or change my opinion on politics, religion or culture.  I could find no moral to the story. In fact, when I closed the book my first thought was a sour, “So what?”
  • Illumine:   Perhaps the book reflected a segment of modern society, a sad segment, with not even the hint of an optimistic future.

And that brings me to the point of why I chose to write romantic fiction.  Everyone wants to fall in love, it’s a universal theme.   The books are populated by heroic characters, (and a few villains but it is clear they are villains).  The stories celebrate positive values like kindness, generosity, forgiveness and healing.  Romances are  are encouraging: despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the love relationship triumphs.  And that, I think, is the most important point.  A modern romance novel has an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.  We close the book with a sigh, a little sorry we’ve come to the end, but content that the characters we’ve invested in, will succeed.  They will live happily-ever-after.

Literary critics slam the romance genre for its rose-coloured glasses.  Happily-ever-after is only for fairy tales, they say.  Maybe so, but we have the news to keep us grounded in the real world.  Our screens show a steady stream of mayhem, pain, disaster, sorrow — the “real” world.  We could all drown in despair.  I think we all need some optimism, hope for a better future, confirmation that lasting love exists.  For the sake of my sanity and my spirit,  I choose romance.

 

Facebooklinkedin

Life is Now

P1010742 Last week the world of romance writers was devastated by the news that Jo Beverley had passed away. I found the announcement particularly jarring as I had no idea she was ill. The suddenness of the event made it harder to accept.
At one time, Jo and I were chapter mates. Thus, I had the benefit of her wisdom on life and her knowledge of the publishing world. In fact, she wrote a cover quote for my first historical novel, The Man for Her.
As proof of her integrity both as a person and a writer, she warned me that she would not endorse the book if she didn’t believe in it, then asked for the complete ms. She read every word before offering the following quote.
A wonderful story of courage, dreams, and everlasting love. a book to savor.”
I’ve always treasured that quote, now more than ever.
Her passing is particularly sorrowful for those of us in this part of the world, because Jo had been planning to move back here. We were all looking forward to having her in our writing midst again.
As it happens, that was the third piece of bad news I received on the weekend — a reminder that life is fragile and precious. We can’t always count on tomorrow. It’s fashionable now to create a “bucket list” of things to do before you die. I don’t have such a list for the future, but I have a wonderful list of places visited, people befriended and dreams pursued. In other words, I’ve tried not to wait until some magical combination of circumstances before living life to the fullest.
For some, “life to the fullest,” means visiting far off places, undertaking a thrilling piece of daring-do, or opening the heart to love. For others, “life to the fullest,” is raising a child, planting a garden, playing a musical instrument, all within a few miles of home.
P1000077Whatever path makes your heart soar, I hope you follow it this week. Do it in honour of someone you love.

For more about Jo go to her group blog wordwenches

Facebooklinkedin

Pet Reunions

DSCF1052One of the more heart-warming stories arising from the Fort McMurray fire is the reunion of pets and owners.  Many people fleeing the fire had to leave behind beloved animals.  Either there was no room — it’s hard to put a horse in the back of your car — or there was no time.  Some fled with only the clothes on their backs.   If you’ve ever loved an animal, you’ll know how heart-rending it must have been to leave one behind.

The good news is that first responders, fire-fighters and police have been doing their best to care for abandoned pets, and now 600 have been rescued and sent to a reclamation centre in Edmonton.   For families who’ve lost their homes, their belongings and their livelihoods, the joy of reclaiming a lost pet has to be enormous.

Given that our society is so attached to our furry and feathered friends, it’s hardly surprising that animals show up in romance novels.  Goodreads even has a list of recommended romances featuring dogs.   Just like your own four-legged friend, pets in stories allow characters to show empathy, to share secrets, to reveal their soft side when the world think they’re nothing but tough.   Renowned screenwriter/teacher Blake Snyder even wrote a manual for writers called Save the Cat.  His point being that even the most unlikable character can be redeemed by one good deed — saving a lost cat.

I’ve had pets all my life, yet, until recently, I didn’t use animals as major elements in my stories.  Hard to explain, since I write with a cat on my knee, sleep with one on the bed, and plan my holidays around cat-sitters.  However, a recent wip features a heroine  who works in a dog rescue centre.  Dogs feature big-time in this story.  And yes, they do reveal character, they do allow a crusty hero to fall in love, they do provide moments of humour.  Can’t think why I haven’t written them into my stories before.

As I cuddle my own furry friends I say thank you to the heroes of Fort McMurray who rescued, fed, transported and snuggled frightened, lost animals.  My heart aches for those still wondering what became of an abandoned pet and I can’t get enough of the reunion stories.  Talk about a “feel good” moment.

Facebooklinkedin

Fire!

imagesThe images and stories coming out of Fort McMurray, Canada this past week have been heart-rending. Nearly 90,000 people evacuated. A modern city emptied of all but firefighters, police and paramedics. The hospital evacuated. Long lines of cars inching along the highway while the fire rages on both sides. Dogs, cats, horses, children, parents — all running for their lives, all trying to keep each other safe and unafraid. Small communities opening their doors to strangers, offering food, a bed, a sweater, a shoulder to lean on.
I’ve never been to Fort McMurray. Never been in a forest fire, yet when I heard one couple saying, if they couldn’t get through,  they planned to ditch their car under a bridge and hope they could escape the fire in the river, I understood. You see, I read it once, in a book. Mrs. Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman was one of the first love stories I read, and re-read, and re-read, and . . .
The book was published in 1947. There are no extra pages, no biography of the authors, no notes on the text. There was still a wartime shortage of paper when this book hit the shelves in it’s plain green cover and uncoated pages. Yet the writing is so vivid, I knew exactly what that couple looking at the bridge were thinking. There is a scene in the book were the heroine is standing in an icy river, holding a baby while fire rages all around. “The flames shot up along the river like a ragged fringe. . . . Hot ashes were falling and burning me. The air blistered my face. My eyebrows and lashes were singed. My face and throat burned; my body was numb with cold.”
When I saw the couple who considered taking refuge in the river, this passage sprang to mind. Written nearly seventy years ago, it still resonates.
Fortunately for the people of Northern Alberta, we have planes and helicopters and convoys to get them out. For Mrs. Mike and her Mountie husband, they had only themselves, horses and canoes. But the fear, the suffocating smoke and the sense of awe in the face of forest fire are the same.   It speaks to the power of good story telling that Mrs. Mike,  a romance, remains in the top 20 of Amazon’s Literature and Fiction>  Classics category.

Facebooklinkedin

Whose Values?

I planted my garden last week. Sowing seeds took me back to my rural roots and memories of doing the same thing with my Mom. She let me plant the beats, beans and peas, but didn’t trust my small fingers with the fine seeds of lettuce, carrots and radishes.  Mom was part of “The Greatest Generation,” born during WWI, grew up through the Depression and came of age in WWII. I’m sure it was that background that made her treat each seed as precious.  That tiny black dot in my hand was food for the family, a necessity of life.  No wonder she guarded it so carefully.

I’ve lived in a more affluent world.  I plant a garden because I enjoy it, not because I rely on it to feed my family.  If I drop a few seeds outside the row, I don’t worry.  If I sow too thickly in one area and too thinly in another, it’s no big deal.  My approach to the vegetable garden is much more lackadaisical than my Mom’s but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand her point of view and value the lessons she taught me.

And that brings me to my point.  When I write historical fiction, whose values do I present?  Contemporary Canadian society or the nineteenth century world of the story?  What words do I use?  What makes a character heroic?

Flower children of the sixties tended to deride the mores of the fifties, heaping scorn on their parents’ “unhip” beliefs.  But I think it is unfair to judge one generation by the values of a later one.  If you haven’t lived through the Dust Bowl, what right have you to judge the attitudes of those who did?

We’ve made drinking and driving a social as well as a legal crime. Does that mean that everyone of the “Mad Men” era was a social pariah? Of course not. It was a different time.  Society was different. Cigarettes and alcohol were just part of the landscape.

I enjoy watching old television shows like “I Love Lucy” but, even when it’s part of the humour, the male chauvinism makes me cringe.  But “I Love Lucy” is still funny and the world it presents is representative of its time.

I write books set in the late nineteenth century, when language was more blunt (cruel?) than now.  A character in that time would use the word “cripple” as a simple descriptive, no insult intended.  No one had ever heard the term “mobility challenged.”  If I put a phrase like that in my character’s dialogue it would sound ridiculous.   In the nineteenth century, the term “First Nations” hadn’t been invented?  Do I use the term “Indian” as would have been the standard at the time, or do I perform convoluted hoops to describe the previous inhabitants of the territory in some other way?

The political landscape of the 1890’s was vastly different from ours.  What present day Canada considers racist, was simply the natural order of things to the people of that society.  Do I try to bury the issues of the time because they might offend someone today?

I’ve found many forums on this subject, but no consensus.  There seem to be as many opinions as there are readers and writers.  Here’s a sampling. https://writinghistoricalnovels.com/2013/09/28/on-the-use-of-politically-correct-terms-in-historical-fiction-by-jane-Kirkpatrick/

http://www.penkhullpress.co.uk/blogDetail?article=&bid=128

http://www.writersdigest.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=19571&start=10

So, dear reader, what is your opinion?  If a well-bred lady of the nineteenth century  refers to her Asian servants as “Orientals” (the polite term at the time), will you be offended?  If a no-account lout refers to those same people as “Chinks” (the impolite term at the time) will you be offended?  Use the comment box below to share your views.

Facebooklinkedin

The Women’s Institute

WII’ve been talking on this blog about the fight for women’s rights in Canada.  One of the agents of that struggle is the Women’s Institute.  Founded in 1897 in Stoney Creek, Ontario, the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada has championed women, particularly rural women from its very beginnings up to the present time.

 

The inception of the Federated Women’s Institute of Canada (FWIC ) grew from a personal tragedy.  Adelaide Hoodless, a young wife and mother, lost her fourth son to “summer milk fever,” an infection carried in unpasteurized milk.  The bereft mother turned her attention to educating women, particularly rural women, on proper hygiene and the safe handling of food.

“A nation cannot rise above the level of its homes, we women must work and study together to raise our homes to the highest level possible.”  Adelaide Hoodless.

After that first meeting in Stoney Creek, the WI flourished.  By 1913 there were institutes in every province. In 1919 at a meeting in Winnipeg the FWIC was formed to co-ordinate and support local chapters.  In 1958 a national office was established in Ottawa.

Rural women banded together to educate and support each other as a parallel organization to the Farmer’s Union, but they weren’t content with just putting healthy food on the table. The phrase “think globally, act locally,” was  a watchword for the Institute.  They were instrumental in the establishment of Macdonald Institute at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Ontario and in the creation of Macdonald College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, P.Q.

They aided the cause of women in the political field, rallying around Emily Murphy in the “person’s case.”  They lobbied for counselling for farm families during hard times.  They worked for facilities to benefit their communities.  The WI Hall is a common sight in rural Canada.  They manned food tents at the Fall Fair and Ploughing Match. They offered courses in safe canning methods, first aid, farm ownership succession and estate planning.

During WWI and WWII they knit socks, rolled bandages, fund-raised and worked to increase food production and decrease waste.

They volunteered and fund-raised for rural clinics to improve infant health.  They operated book-mobiles to bring information and education to rural homes.  In the 1940’s the brought hot meals and school milk days to the local school.  They lobbied for the establishment of Brock University in Ontario.  They wrote “Tweedsmuir Histories,” a valuable documentation of community life throughout the country.

The motto “For Home and Country” reflects FWIC aims: to promote an appreciation of rural living, to develop informed citizens  and to initiate national programs to achieve common goals. Today, true to its roots, The WI is focussed on rural child care, farm safety, legal rights, fair pay, literacy, health, stress on farm families and financial planning.

Internationally, the WI assists craft programs in developing countries, helping rural women to increase their family income and to educate their daughters.  They also contribute to efforts for clean water, literacy and women’s rights.

My mother was a proud member of the Women’s Institute.  Despite the complaints of her family about a cold supper, she attended a meeting one afternoon a month where she and her cohorts worked for the common goal of healthy families, informed citizens and the recognition of the farm family as the foundation stone of our community.  I miss my Mom.  Kudos to her and all the other Institute Women.  They persevered in the face of hardship, criticism and selfish children, and created a better home and community.

 

 

 

 

 

Facebooklinkedin

The Joy of Taxes

5000-s1-15e[1]-page-001It’s income tax season.  My usual approach to the task is to delay as long as legally possible, then scowl, fret and sweat my way through the incomprehensible labyrinth of Canada Revenue’s T1 form.

This year, I’m subscribing to the spoonful-of-sugar doctrine and tackling the job early and with a positive mind set.   So, here goes.

  • We have income — that’s good.
  • We have taxable income — even better.
  • We have enough to share — those charitable donations not only reduce tax, but apparently make you feel just as good as eating chocolate.
  • I bought a programme that does all the arithmetic so I don’t get hung up with wrong numbers.
  • Having the year summed up in tidy columns of plus and minus is rather satisfying in a control freak kind of way.

But doing my taxes reminds me there is so much more to life than the getting and spending of money.  In 2015 I wrote a contemporary romance (it’s in the rewrite stages now).  I outlined an historical romance.  I wrote 89 blog posts, some here, others at my church blog and still others for International Christian Fiction Writers.  I wrote a Christmas short story and a Christmas play.

I planted a garden, tended it, harvested it and filled my freezer with homegrown goodness.  I won ribbons at the Fall Fair. I read books, sang in choirs, nurtured my friendships and enjoyed my cats.  I went fishing with my husband.  I had a birthday.  I made Christmas ornaments for my great nieces and nephews.  We celebrated 27 years of marriage.  I set up this website . . .   2015 was filled with beautiful days, amazing adventures, quiet moments and a few rain storms.

If I use the Canada Revenue model, my 2015 came in high on the benefits side and low on the pains side.    I have to pay taxes.  Thank goodness!    So, there you are, my new approach to the joy of taxes.

Facebooklinkedin

Why Not Love?

At a recent writer’s workshop, we spent a lot of time discussing the topic of what drives a story?  What makes the reader turn the page?  Answer: the character’s goal.  Cinderella wants to go to the ball.   Scarlet O’Hara wants to save Tara.  Lady Mary wants to secure the inheritance of Downton Abbey.  And so the story begins.  Will Cinderella get to the ball?  Can Scarlet save her home?  Will Lady Mary secure the family inheritance, even if it means marrying a solicitor?

Catch the crook, send the murderer to jail, win the war, build the skyscraper.  These are all big, concrete goals on which to build a story.  A  character may fall in love along the way, but the story does not start with that goal.  Even Mrs. Bennet who makes no bones about her desire to find husbands for her daughters, preferably husbands of standing and wealth, never suggests her daughters might fall in love.

In Western Historicals, like I write, the heroine is usually too busy building a home, making a living and keeping herself safe to have much time for looking for love.  Since these are romance novels, the reader knows the heroine will fall in love, but it’s not the driver of the story.  Our heroine might want to win a spelling bee, or sew a quilt or build a house.  Small, concrete, measurable goals.  There may be layers to these goals.  She may want to win the spelling bee in order to get a scholarship, so that she can attend law school, so that she can prosecute slum landlords, because her mother died when a railing  went unrepaired.  In this case, a small personal goal carries  a large, public benefit.  Great story premise.  It could be written as women’s fiction, literary fiction or mystery.  If it is written as a romance,  our heroine better find true love along the way, but we don’t start the story by saying the heroine wants to find love, so she’ll go to law school and, by the way, she has to win the spelling bee first.

The closest I’ve seen is  Maggie Osborne’s Silver Lining.  The heroine is asked what she wants and she answers, “a baby.”  Not a husband, not to fall in love, but a baby.

So, why is the greatest of human emotions,  considered too frivolous to be the driver of a story? Perhaps because that’s the way it is in real life too.  We teach our children to be achievers, to build careers, to be good people, but does a mother ever say to her daughter,  “Never mind all that stuff.  You can fail at school.  You can never have a job.  I don’t care.  Just find your true love.”  No, we train for, practice for and strive for career, money, power, and a nice car.  Love, the most important factor in life, is supposed to be a by-product.

For all that romances are denigrated as formulaic, I believe they are harder to write than other genres.  The writer of a mystery novel can fulfil the premise of the genre by solving the crime.  She may choose to develop sub-plots around a love interest, or a family feud, or saving the environment, but these are subplots, not necessary to the genre expectation.

In a romance, we must find true love for the hero and heroine, but we have to do it as an aside.   The writer of romance needs at least two plots in every book, the external goal and the love story.  The writer of inspirational romance needs three — the initial goal, the love story, and the God story.  Not an easy assignment.

So, what do you think, dear readers?  Have you ever read a book where the heroine’s stated goal is to find true love?  Would you be interested in a heroine who devoted her life to finding a soul-mate?

Please share your thoughts in  the comments below.

Sign up for my newsletter for a chance to win a free copy of  Her One and Only.  Contest closes March 31,2016.

 

 

Facebooklinkedin

Leap Year

81532_womannet_lgMonday was leap day, that special time that comes around every four years when the usual rules for marriage proposals — men do the asking — don’t apply.

No one knows for sure where the idea came from but it is sometimes attributed to St. Bridget, who lived in C5th Ireland. The story is that she complained to St. Patrick that women had to wait and wait and wait for their suitors to propose.  In response, St. Patrick designated leap day as the day women could seize the initiative.

Another story holds that Queen Margaret of Scotland imposed fines on recalcitrant beaux.  There are various versions of the penalties.    One said the unresponsive suitor had to buy his lady twelve pairs of gloves, one for each month of the year.  The gloves would cover her shame of having no wedding ring.  Other penalties included a silk dress, enough fabric to make a skirt, or a red rose.

The tradition may have arisen from the fact that February 29 was not recognised by English law. Since the day had no legal status, it was acceptable to break with convention.   Also, February 29 corrected the discrepancy between the calendar year and the actual time taken for the Earth to orbit the sun.  What better time for women to correct a tradition of marriage proposals that was one-sided and unjust?    

The problem of foot-dragging suitors did not exist in early Canada.  Women were in short supply and much sought after for marriage.  During the 1650’s, New France desperately needed settlers to increase the population of the colony.  Most particularly they needed women.  Enter Les Filles du Roi, an early version of government sponsored immigration.  Females were selected from the poor and orphaned women of Paris and the provinces of France.  They received training in the household arts from the nuns  of the Hôpital-Général, in Paris.  In the countryside, peasant daughters who were  of “robust health and accustomed to farmwork,” were selected by the parish priest for inclusion among the nearly 800 women who were shipped off to the colony.  Women of noble rank, destined to be wives for military officers, also travelled under the king’s protection.   Each woman received 30 livres worth of clothes  before leaving France.  When she signed the marriage contract, in Canada (New France)she was given the remainder of her dowry, including money and provisions.  Life in the New World was hard, but compared to life on the streets of Paris, many chose it as the better option.

When these women and girls arrived in New France, they were cared for by the nuns or by officials in the towns.  There were plenty of men to choose from and it was the females who did the choosing.  If a woman changed her mind before the marriage, she could opt out and choose another groom, or, in some cases, avoid marriage altogether and go out as a servant.  Most of the women married, however and raised large families.  After all, the main purpose of the program was to increase the European settlement in New France.

The government encouraged large families by offering a pension of 300 livres a year to those with ten living childrenIf the number of children rose to twelve, the pension rose to 400 livres.  That was the carrot.  The other part of the equation was the stick.  If a young Canadien had not married by the age of twenty the family was fined 150 livres.  The penalty applied to daughters who didn’t marry by their 16th birthday.  Even more onerous was the revocation of hunting and fishing licences for single men! Much more punitive than a dozen pairs of gloves.

As romance writers, our stories are about the heart.  Couples fall in love, they overcome obstacles, they marry and live happily ever after.  In real life, for centuries, marriage was  more about the head, society’s needs rather than the individual’s wishes.  Yet, I hope that among those girls of New France, there were some who found a compatible husband, that they fell in love and grew to a ripe old age together, and were happy.

Facebooklinkedin

Merry Christmas

DSCF1066

Butchart Gardens at Christmas

From my house to yours, I wish all my readers the very best of the Christmas season.  May your homes be filled with love and laughter, may peace fill your hearts and may you have enough.

I’ll be taking a break from this blog over the next week.  See you in the new year.

 

Alice

Facebooklinkedin

Nostalgia

theyleftuseverything-220  What is it about a walk down memory lane that is so appealing and so sad?  Why do we keep taking that well-worn path?   Christmas time seems to pull us relentlessly into the world of memories, whether they be happy  or not.  A Christmas tree conjures other Christmases, the ones when we received our heart’s delight and the ones when we were disappointed.   Like it or not, we travel down that road to the past, lit with the smiles of loved ones no longer with us.  A road defined by school days, old friends, our first boss, our first kiss, our first love, our first loss.  Even when we know what trap lies around the next corner, we travel on.  Nostalgia has us in its grip.

I just finished a book, They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson, that does nostalgia in spades.  It is a memoir of her family and the house they grew up in.  When her mother dies, the property is to be sold.

Plum’s parents bought the place when they came home from WWII.  Her father had been in Hong Kong.  Her mother served with the Red Cross.  When they moved to a house on the shores of Lake Ontario, they came with nothing.  In the over fifty years they lived there, they disposed of nothing.  Plum must sort and catalogue and dispose of twenty three rooms stuffed with family history.   The task is overwhelming and takes the author down many rabbit holes of memory and mystery.  She discovers books and letters she’d never seen before.  She discovers bags and bags and bags of garbage — all those broken bits of china, old Christmas ornaments, forgotten school essays, grade two report cards, old hats, old shoes, old jewellery — things that hold memories, things dear to her heart, but things that have no place in her grown up life.    A whiff of perfume and the author is a child again, kneeling at the top of the stairs to watch her glamourous parents heading out for an evening of dancing.   The slam of the garden gate recalls the endless flow of waifs and strays that sheltered in the big, rambling family home.   A book on sailing conjures Saturday mornings when she and her brothers and father took out their little sailboat.  Joy, anger, guilt, love, grief, all crowd in with each opened drawer.

The task of emptying the house and selling it, was supposed to take six weeks.  It took sixteen months.

I enjoyed the book.  Many of the author’s experiences mirrored my own family life.  But, like the author, those memories dragged me into sunny meadows and rainy afternoons that filled my heart with love for the home and family that was mine — and made me ache with loss. In the end, They Left us Everything, is really a book about grief.  Read  at your own risk.

 

 

Facebooklinkedin

The Gold Trail

Miners_climb_Chilkoot

Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush. From the Canadian National Archives.

We are so used to fast, scheduled, reliable means of transport that it is easy to forget that only a generation or so has passed since travellers relied on horses and boats, were subject to the vagaries of weather, rough trails — or no trails at all — and a guide.  We look at the maps of the gold rush towns and forget that those towns didn’t exist when hopeful prospectors left home and comfort to brave the unknown in the hope of a lucky strike.

In my research into the various gold rushes in Canada, I came across this list of helpful hints for the trail.

  1. Don’t waste a single ounce of anything, even if you don’t like it.  Put it away and it will come in handy when you do like it.
  2. Don’t eat ice or snow.  Go thirsty until you can melt it.
  3. No man can continuously drag more than his own weight.  Remember that this is a fact.
  4. Keep your sleeping bag clean.  If it becomes inhabited, freeze the inhabitants out.
  5. A little dry grass or hay in the inside of your mitts, next to your hands, will promote great heat.
  6. When your nose is bitterly cold, stuff both nostrils with fur, cotton, or wool.
  7. Don’t catch hold of your gun barrel when 30 F. degrees below zero is registered.  Watch out or getting snow in the barrel.  If you do, don’t shoot it out.

Some of these hints are obvious.  Touch metal at minus 30 F degrees and it will freeze your skin to the metal.

Freezing the lice or fleas or bed bugs that might have taken up residence in your sleeping bag makes sense.  It also indicates that fleas and lice and bed bugs were to be expected in trail conditions.  Yuck!

The prohibition against drinking snow is because the extreme cold would lower body temperature and could lead to hypothermia.

I wouldn’t want to try to drag more than my own weight for one hour, let alone 12 hours on a rough trail but gold seekers were often mad with gold fever and needed reminding of common sense rules.  As to the weight of the packs, prospectors were required to carry one ton of goods before they could pass the NWMP post that marked the entrance into Canada.  The requirement was put in place to protect the miners who would have faced starvation in the harsh winter months if they were inadequately supplied.  The Chilkoot Pass, one of the most popular trails into the Klondike was too steep for pack animals, so the men had to carry their supplies themselves, necessitating several trips up the 1500 steps carved into the ice of the pass.

Considering the hardship prospectors faced in their quest for gold, the “trail hints” seem far too gentle.

Facebooklinkedin

Harvest

P1020170  It is harvest time where I live.  Although I’m not on a farm I have a garden and small orchard, so I am reaping the rewards of my summer’s labour.   Our storage bins are full,  I’ve given away boxes of apples, and still the trees are loaded with fruit.  My shelves of preserves look like sunshine in a jar.  On a cold, wet, dark night in January, we’ll eat strawberry jam and it will taste like summer.  An apple pie at Christmas time will come straight from our own trees.  Truly, we live in a bountiful land.DSCF2681

In my book, The Man for Her, I talk about that feeling of harvest and plenty, and the satisfaction of laying in stores against a season of want.  Lottie Graham lives more than a century before me, her harvest is essential to life, whereas mine is a hobby, but the sense of well-being, the urgency to pick and preserve, the permission to rest when it is all done — those things are common to my life and to the life of my character.

As I enjoy this beautiful Indian Summer in British Columbia, I think often of Lottie and her Pine Creek Farm.  I imagine her safe and warm with children at her knee and Sean, in from the fields,  washing up for dinner.  I do love a happy ending.

Facebooklinkedin

Mischief of Mice

Browsing in a gift store the other day, I came across a shelf devoted to mice.  There were mice figurines, plates with mouse pictures, tea towels covered with images of mice and mice earrings, to name a few.  Over it all was a sign that read “Mischief of Mice.”  The term was so apt I chuckled, then went home and looked it up.  In fact, the collective noun for a group of mice is “mischief” so the shop owner had it right.

The English language is blessed with over a million words, yet most of us have a vocabulary of about 20,000 to 35,000 words. Even then we tend to use only about 50% of that vocabulary on a regular basis.  According to a study done by The Economist in 2013, native speakers learn one new word a day until middle age, then no new words are added.  A curious fact, given that our technical world is adding new words at a rocketing rate.  When did Google become a verb?

Another finding in that same study cheers the heart of a romance writer.  People who read lots of fiction have a larger vocabulary than those who read lots of non-fiction.  When you think about it, that makes sense.  We fiction writers need to use language imaginatively to make our stories clear and entertaining.   We want to touch the heart, stir the soul and challenge the mind.  That takes a lot of nuance, stretching our vocabulary.  Did our hero walk, stride, stroll, amble, stomp, race . . .?  The word used makes a difference!  Someone writing a technical paper needs far fewer words to describe his experiment.

I confess to being middle-aged, but I resolve not to stop learning new words.  For a start, here are some collectives that tickle my funny bone.  Look for them in my writing.

Mischief of Mice

Romp of Otters

Scold of Jays

Storytelling of Ravens  (Does that mean of group of writers is a Raven of storytellers?)

Murder of Lawyers

 

Facebooklinkedin

Free Book

TMFH WEB PROMO small  When my book, The Man for Her, was sold to Kensington, a shock wave went around the romance writer’s circle.   You see, my book was purchased in public at a writer’s conference, “Royal Rendezvous,” in Victoria, B.C.  No one goes to a conference expecting to sell a manuscript.  We go to conference and hope to meet an editor or agent who will request a partial of the manuscript and then we wait and hope and wait some more that she will request a complete manuscript.

When Hilary Sares from Kensington Books announced that she wanted to buy the top three entries in the historical category of the conference contest, the room went wild.  I, on the other hand, sat there in a stupor.  My friends had to tell me that, yes, she had said “buy” and yes, my book was sold and yes, I would get money.   There was still more waiting and writing and re-writing and editing to come, but I had a contract.

The story of that sale spread through the romance community because it was so unusual.  I’ve never heard of a similar contest result since.  So, that book actually has two stories — the one inside the cover and the one about its publication.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of its publication, I’m offering it free on Kindle  on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, Sept. 16 and 17.  Hope you take advantage of the offer, and tell your friends.

Facebooklinkedin

A Blue Ribbon

This past weekend was the annual Fall Fair where I live.  I entered some roses, even though the poor things had taken a beating from wind and rain the previous week.  I kept telling myself I was supporting the Fair by entering and not to expect any prizes.  Imagine my delight when I found this ribbon attached to one of my entries.  P1020115  We all thrive on encouragement.  At the Fair, a blue ribbon encourages.  For writers a contract is the best encouragement of all,  but a kind word from an editor, a spike in sales for self-pubbed authors, a nice review — all give a writer a jolt of confidence and the courage to keep working, keep trying, keep getting better.   Even for those as yet unpublished, a comment from a fellow writer can make the difference between giving up and trying again.

On my desk I have a pretty jar filled with bits of pretty paper.  On those bits of paper I’ve written down kind words I’ve received over the years.  I read them when I feel discouraged.  Here’s a sample.  “I like your writing.  I like your descriptions.  It feels happy.”  That came from a chapter-mate in my local writers group.  Since I write romance and HEA is paramount, I’m thrilled that my writing “feels happy.”

“If you come to a path in your life and you look back and wonder whom did you touch, think of [name deleted].  I know that when [she} and I look back and think who touched us, we think of you.”  That came from the mother of a child I taught.

As well as exhibiting at the Fair, I volunteer.   The woman in charge of volunteers is a master at making us all feel useful and vital to the organization.  She sends a thank you card to each one and includes a personal note on the work we did.  With over a hundred volunteers, that’s no mean feat.

We could all do with more blue ribbons in our lives.  If you have the opportunity to hand one out, why not take it.  You just might make a difference in someone’s life.

Facebooklinkedin

Little Library

      Out for my daily bicycle ride I came across this little delight in my neighbourhood. P1020086

Yep, we’ve got a Li’l Library chockful of books.  Of course I had to stop and browse.  I’m one of those people who always checks the return cart first when I visit the library.  I’m convinced that other borrowers have already sussed out the best books and I can save myself some time and frustration by borrowing from the already-borrowed shelf.

This character trait manifests itself in my dislike of big box stores, as well.  I find them overwhelming.  When I enter those shopping extravaganzas my brain goes numb.  I can’t remember what I came for, I feel dizzy trying to read all the signs and end up leaving with green apples when I really came for purple plums.  I like boutiques and markets where I can see all the wares in a few minutes, then spend my time dithering over whether I want lavender scented soap or lemon scented.

So, the little library tucked under the tree branches is perfect for me.  I picked up a handful of Golden Books — you remember those charming little stories for children — because I have a friend with a fondness for them.  I found a couple by Sophie Kinsella that I’d never read and, on a whim, I brought home The House I Loved,  by Tatiana de Rosnay.   I chose it because I liked the title and I liked the cover but I read it because I was fascinated by the story.  Between 1852 and 1870 Paris was rebuilt. A little piece of history I’d never known. Little streets and neighbourhoods were razed to make way for the long, wide, straight boulevards of modern Paris.  The House I Loved is about a woman who lived in one of those condemned streets, in a house she loved.

  I’m thrilled to have found this little treasure in my neighbourhood.  I look forward to discovering more gems like The House I Loved, while I take a breather from my bike ride!

 

Facebooklinkedin

Book Club

    Anyone here belong to a book club?   Fifteen years ago, my friend and I decided we needed to read more broadly, so we started a book club.  the idea was to create a book list from various genres.  My default reading is romance and hers was mystery, so we included those categories, but we added children’s literature, Canadiana, historical fiction, biography, classics and many others.  The result was a very eclectic reading experience.

     We’ve read some wonderful and less well-known books Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose, for example documented the private lives of five Victorian men of letters.  Fascinating stuff.  I’ll never look at the work of Dickens in the same light again.  Old Square Toes and His Lady, by John Adams is a biography of Sir James Douglas, the first Governor of British Columbia.  Since the author is local, we invited him to our meeting.  That evening was a highlight for our club.  God’s Secretaries, by Adam Nicolson is an account of the creation of the King James Version of the Bible.  Another fascinating read.  Being Canadian, we have a large dollop of Canadiana in our reading including More than a Rose by Heather Robertson

    None of the books I’ve mentioned here are best sellers or new, yet we’ve found we have the best discussions around these lesser known works.  Perhaps Best Sellers hone in on a popular theme of the day but become irrelevant soon after.  Whatever the reason, the books we still remember over fifteen years of reading are the ones that took us by surprise with their charm, information and strength of writing.

    If you have a book to recommend to my club, please leave a comment.

Facebooklinkedin

© 2017 Alice Valdal

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑