Category: My books (page 1 of 2)

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.”

 

 

Writing from Inside

When I first joined a writer’s group, a common theme in the advice part of the meeting was keeping point of view pure.  By that I mean that stories were to be told by only one point of view character and everything that landed on the page had to be observable by that character.  We were to eschew omniscient author — therefore nothing like “it was the best of times it was the worst of times.”  “Head-hopping,” that is moving between one point of view character and another, was forbidden.  One analogy that was used to emphasize the purity of POV was to imagine the story unfolding before the author’s eyes like a movie.  If the author couldn’t see the event on the screen of her mind, neither could the POV character.

It was a useful analogy and one I’ve used myself, but like all “rules” in writing, it can be taken too far.  The biggest drawback, in my opinion, is that it turns the author and therefore the reader, into an observer rather than a participant.  The screen in my mind may allow me to see a brawl in the street, but I am distanced from it.  My character should be in there swinging.  He should feel the anger that provoked the fight, smell the sweat and fear on his opponent and struggle for breath when a blow hits him in the solar plexus.  He should also be involved emotionally.  Robots may engage in battle in modern movies, but for a story to grab me I want a real person, with real feelings.  I want to ache with him, dream with him and hope with him.  Watching him on a screen won’t do that.

Instead, I suggest the writer try to get inside her character.  You still only write what he can see and hear and touch and smell, but you also know how he feels.  I heard a female author of romance once talk about taking on a man’s pose as she sat in her chair.  She rubbed her chin as though she had whiskers, stuck her legs straight out in front of her, put her hands behind her head and leaned back — all actions she associated with men.  Then, when she felt herself inside a man’s skin, she’d write the scene from the hero’s point of view.  It’s an intriguing thought.  I’ve been watching a lot of baseball lately, so I see men scratching and spitting.  Don’t know if I’ll go that deep!

I’m writing western historical romance, so sometimes I’ll put on a long skirt and a buttoned up blouse and try walking about in it.  I don’t have a corset, but I can still experience the restricted movement such garments require, not to mention the stiff back.

Of course, some writers can get inside their characters without props, but if you’re having a hard time imagining the heart and soul of a medieval lady, try donning a wimple and see if that helps.

Romance or Drudgery

I’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.

Life is Now

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.

Whatever 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

Pet Reunions

One 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.

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