Category: My books (page 1 of 3)

Christmas 2017

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

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

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

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

Who Is My Neighbour?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Call of the Pipes

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An “Other” Vimy Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Wallace

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

Homecoming

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

POW’s and World War I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

Dreams and Promises

 

This is the cover for an anthology of six Canadian short stories/novellas written to celebrate Canada 150.  In case you hadn’t heard, my country is celebrating a big birthday.  The British North America Act was signed into law on July 1, 1867.  Under its terms, the land we now know as Canada ceased to be a colony of Great Britain and became, instead, an independent nation – with certain caveats.  We were still part of the British Empire and Britain controlled our foreign policy.  Thus, in 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, Canada was automatically at war too.

The story I’ve contributed to this anthology is set in the aftermath of the Great War and is titled, “When the Boys Came home.” The title references a famous song of that era

Keep the Home Fires Burning, 

While your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
‘Til the boys come home.

 

There are no WWI veterans still alive in Canada, our last known veteran, John Babcock died in 2010 at the age of 109. Still there are many families, including mine, who have old photographs of relatives who went to war. When they came home, most of them refused to speak of the unspeakable hell they had endured.

Perhaps they hoped that keeping silent would help them forget.

Perhaps they wanted to protect their loved ones from the terrible knowledge of trench warfare.

Perhaps they suffered from shell-shock and were ashamed.

Yes, I said ashamed. In our time, media, movies and books ensure the public knows about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as a consequence of witnessing horrible suffering. Military personnel, first responders, firefighters, police officers, even jury members at a horrific murder trial may suffer from PTSD. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, a model of compassion and courage, is one of the most well-known victims of the disorder. It is a condition that never goes away, never sets the sufferer free, and demands empathy and understanding from all of society.

After the Great War, 1914 – 1918, what we call PTSD was known as shell-shock. It was spoken of only in hushed tones. Sufferers were considered somehow culpable and inferior. “Men” were expected to take whatever evil came upon them and get over it. Society in general had little understanding of their nightmare.

I believe it is unfair for one generation to judge another based on our modern sensibilities. Corporal punishment was deemed normal for centuries. In 2008 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld section 43 of the criminal code which states Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.

And don’t forget that a parent who resorted to spanking as a last resort may also have read bedtime stories to his children, rocked them in her lap and scrimped on his own needs in order to buy his child a Christmas gift. Our notion of “abuse” has changed drastically over the last fifty years.

So, while I am loathe to foist our modern political correctness on previous generations, I admit the treatment of some WWI veterans, especially POW’s, broke my heart. Subjected to mud, filth, enemy fire, rats, lice, bad food, the screams of dying men and wounded horses, pounding of artillery and the often incomprehensible order to take 50 yards of ground at the cost of a thousand lives, it is a wonder any came home sane.

1867 was the year my country became independent but much of our national pride and our belief in ourselves as Canadians was forged in the battlefields of Europe. Ypres ,Vimy Ridge, The Somme, Passchendaele, Hill 70. . . those names resonate in our national conscience.

Sir John A. MacDonald had the vision and the will to create a new country.

“Our Boys” earned it a place in the world.

I hope my story warms your heart and reminds you of the terrible cost of war.

Dreams and Promises is available here

Cover Design

I’m learning something new this week, cover design. I’m part of a group who has written an anthology of short stories to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.  When the project began, I was assured someone else would handle all the formatting, uploading, etc.  Then, last week, authors began creating covers for their individual stories.  So, I had to learn something new in a hurry. 

 

My story is about a WWI soldier who returns to Canada with amnesia.  He has forgotten he is engaged to the heroine and brings an English fiancée with him.  Will he get his memory back?  Which woman will he choose?

 

What do you think? Which of these covers do you prefer?  Please use the comment section to record your choice.  I’d love to hear your reasons, too.

Independence Day


 

Today, May 17, is Independence Day in Norway.  The date commemorates the signing of the Norwegian constitution in 1814 that ended a 100 year coalition with Sweden and, prior to that,  400 years of Danish rule.

Nearly every country in the world has a national day that celebrates their liberation from some other power.  The U.S.A celebrates on July 4, Canada on July 1, Australia on January 1 (that’s summer down under). France has Bastille Day, July 14, to commemorate the abolition of feudalism and the arbitrary rule of the King.  Even England, the country from which many nations of the world today won their freedom, has Magna Carta Day on June 15, to celebrate a cornerstone in the development of a modern, parliamentary democracy.  Just as children grow up and leave home, mature nations are eager to be autonomous — but with favourable trade agreements in place.

The same thing happens in families. As we grow up, we demand independence, but at the same time we strive for connections.  This seems to be an eternal struggle of the human condition, autonomy vs connectedness.  It’s also a rich source of inspiration for writers. How many times have you read about a heroine who is determined to escape the stifling influence of her family/job/school/location, only to then find herself adrift and desperately seeking a deep connection with another.  I’ve just finished writing a short story where the heroine struggles with this problem.  Does she carry on as expected or does she break free?  Does freedom mean loneliness?  The story is part of a collection that celebrates Canada’s 150th birthday.  

Our independence from Britain was a gradual process.  We went to war in 1914 because England declared war on Germany.  In 1929 the Privy Council of Britain was the final court of appeal for a group of Canadian women seeking to have females declared “persons” under the law.  It wasn’t until 1982 that our last legal ties with Britain ended with the patriation of our constitution.  Just like nations, families break apart in various ways, some with anger and violence, like South Sudan, others more peacefully. 

The desire for independence vs the yearning for deep connections seems to be one of those universal truths of the human condition.  For writers, that’s a good thing.  We  need only to look at our own families to find grist for the story mill.

Libel or Slander

Canadian tort law states: The common law protects every person from harm to their reputation by false and derogatory remarks about their person, known as defamation. In addition, all Canadian provinces have libel/ slander legislation (defamation includes slander and libel, where slander is verbal defamation and libel is printed defamation).

 I looked up this information because I’d listened to a sports broadcast where athletes read derogatory messages that had been sent to them, usually on Twitter. The comments were appalling, hurtful attacks based on the players’ physical appearance, name, or gender. They had nothing to do with the skill or sportsmanship of the athletes involved. The broadcaster featured the comments in a “joke” section of the airing. Believe me, puerile, vulgar and slanderous comments are never a joke.

 I’ve no objection to vigorous debate.  A healthy democracy demands it.  But that debate should be about ideas and solutions, about a better future for the world.  The vile, brainless, profanity-ridden bluster of the ignorant that shows up on the internet is not debate.  It is verbal garbage.  It seems anyone with a public profile is grist for the mills of the haters but politicians are especially subject to these brainless tirades. Female politicians fare even worse. Do we really live in a society where a woman with an opposing point of view deserves to be raped? Will vicious, personal attacks prevent war, feed the hungry or even fix the pothole on your street? The answer is no, but they have and will drive dedicated, caring people out of public life, making all of society poorer.

 Words are powerful. They have the ability to demean, frighten and silence. As writers we know that. Why else does an author write, edit, re-write and rework her words in order to give them potency? As readers, we respond to words that touch our hearts, lift our spirits and encourage us to dream. We memorize poetry, not bigotry.

 Recently facebook has announced it will increase its efforts to flag and take down fake news, but the problem goes beyond fake news. What about those who commit violent crimes and post a video of their heinous actions? The material is all too real, but it undermines the very fabric of civilization, tearing moral standards to shreds, and reducing human beings to “objects,” to be used and exploited by evil internet trolls.

I hope platforms like facebook and Twitter can regulate users on their networks, but I long for a world where that isn’t necessary. Mayberry never existed, but I’d rather strive for a world as kind and gentle as that fictional place, then encourage the destruction of all acceptable standards of civility.

That’s why I write about heroic characters, even with their flaws and failings, they try to do the right thing, to help their neighbours and to honour their God. I hope that’s your choice too.

Universal Truth

 

I’m reading “The Valiant Nellie McClung, a Christmas gift.  I’m well acquainted with this Canadian icon, I’ve written about her in this space before.  What I’m struck with in this reading, is the timelessness of her writing.  So timeless, in fact, that some sixty years after her death my local newspaper is re-running some of her columns and they are very popular, not just from an historic point of view but from a current one.

What makes her still relevant? It’s her ability to hit upon universal truths.  Language changes, styles change, manners change, but when Mrs. McClung writes about war, her words ring true for any conflict. “War is not only a waste of things we can see and touch, but makes heavy inroads on the invisible and intangible things of the spirit.” When she speaks of the struggle of good over evil, that struggle is relevant in any age. “The power of evil . . . now stands before us in tanks that belch fire, in planes that drop bombs on hospitals and schools, in grasping bloodstained hands, ready to strangle the innocent and throttle our liberties.” McClung was writing about WWII but her words could apply to Syria, or Sudan, or Somalia today.  Even when she writes of domestic things, she calls to the heart of all of us who long for home. “I began to feel at home as soon as I walked up the gangplank.”

So, apart from my admiration for the woman, why am I telling you about Nellie McClung’s writing today? Because all writers, whatever their time, whatever their genre, strive to tap into that universal truth, that notion that crosses the ages.  The theme of star-crossed lovers has been explored from Shakespeare to Hardy to Bernstein.  Sibling rivalry is a story as old as Cain and Abel.    For romance writers,  we often explore such truths as the need to belong, the desire for family, the longing for justice.   Note this is not the same as genre tropes such as reunion stories, secret babies or runaway brides.  A truth is much deeper and more profound than a genre convention.

Nellie McClung was a woman of strong faith. Her words and actions were shaped by her Christian beliefs and her unwavering belief in Christian democracy.  Her tireless championing of women and children and all those who suffered under the existing power structure stemmed from those convictions.  I believe that is one reason her writings still resonate.  Not only are her themes universally true, they are true to her.

As story-tellers today, we must remember to be true to ourselves in our fiction. No matter the current “hot” topic, if the writer dislikes vampires, she will not be successful as an author of vampire stories.  If she hates small towns, then setting a tale of family and church and community in a small town will ring false to readers.  An old adage for authors is “write what you know.”  I suggest “write what you believe.”

 

 

Older posts

© 2018 Alice Valdal

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑