Category: Uncategorised (page 1 of 2)

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.

 

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Yay VIRA

 

Another snow day! Frankly, I’ve had enough.  The first one or two are fun, an unexpected holiday, hunker down by the fire, write, write, write.  But being housebound is getting old!  In this part of the world, we should be out in the garden.  In fact, I pruned fruit trees on the weekend, but Monday saw more snow. 

I’m feeling a little cranky just now, but I am grateful that snow was no where in the forecast when VIRA held its annual Valentine’s lunch. February, Valentine’s, romance – seems a perfect combination.

For years this event was mandated by our association with Romance Writers of America® and included lots of awards for writing and volunteering. We had a keynote speaker, usually someone with a first sale – that was in the days when traditional publishing was the only way to go.

Life, and particularly writing life have changed since those early days in my career. Our group is no longer associated with RWA® but we still want to celebrate our craft and each other so, Valentine’s continues to be a highlight of our year.  We’ve cut down considerably on the formality of the occasion although we still celebrate successes and milestones.  This year we had a few more speeches than last.  I enjoyed them.  They reminded me of what it means to be a romance writer, encouraged me to embrace the new business model in  publishing and to set goals for myself for the coming year.  But mostly I enjoyed hanging out with other authors, exchanging war stories, comparing writing routines, hearing the latest from conferences others had attended.

I’d been feeling a bit isolated in my writing. I have an on-line partner whom I treasure, but nothing beats face to face.  As though to underline my feelings, I just read a blog this morning proclaiming just that notion.  “No writer succeeds alone,” and “Everyone needs support” were two of the section headings.  Yes, thought I.  Perhaps it’s because here in North America we’re in the depths of winter that there is a longing for friendly company, perhaps it’s just the fact of being a writer spending long hours alone with my thoughts, but February is definitely a time when I’m glad I have writer friends to share the journey.  We may not write the same kind of books, we may not read the same kind of books, we may be traditionally published or e-published, we may spend hours on social media or we may find social media the greatest time-suck going.  What we share is the struggle and passion of putting words to paper, of creating a story from nothing but our own imaginations, of having that euphoric moment when we write “the end.”

Merci, mes amis.  You make the journey fun.

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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.

 

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How to Begin?

 

One of my Christmas holiday pleasures is new books. Whenever I’m asked what I want for Christmas I answer, “books.”  I never specify a particular book or even a genre.  It’s lovely to be surprised by what others choose.  I’ve read away out of my comfort zone as a result and have discovered some authors who are now favourites.  This year I received book one in a family saga (in translation), a biography, a pastoral series and a book of short stories.  The weather has been foul, windy and wet and cold, so I happy snuggled down with my books by the fire.  I’ve finished the translation, hopped about in the book of short stories, read three chapters of the biography and two of the series book.  I usually read only one book at a time, but one of the privileges of holidays is permission to do as the mood strikes and not to do in an orderly, organized fashion.

My books are all very different, but one thing that has surprised me, in all but the short stories, is the first line. As writers we’re told over and over again that we must “hook” the reader in the first line, present her with a story question, introduce the hero/heroine, and establish the conflict – all in the first sentence!  A daunting task, but necessary since it has recently been established that the average adult has an attention span of eight seconds.  By contrast, a goldfish can concentrate for nine seconds.  Yet, despite that evidence, all of my books took a very leisurely approach to introducing the story.

Another holiday indulgence was to watch old movies. I love old movies, but it seems I can’t turn off my internal critic, ever.  Changes in culture and arts come gradually over time, so when a viewer jumps back thirty or fifty years, the contrast between then and now is magnified.  We’re used to starting movies with a car chase, or a gun fight.  Award-winning movies from a bygone era often start slowly, pulling the viewer into a setting or a household with long camera shots, mood-setting music and an invitation to relax and let real time slip away.  “West Side Story,” the movie, (1961) begins with a lengthy overture.  There is nothing on screen but a few black lines on an orange background.  As the music moves from jazz to ballad, the background turns pink.  That’s it.  For several minutes, theatre-goers stared at a brightly coloured screen and listened to music.  Not even the credits rolled during that opening.  Then the orange fades and a long, aerial view of New York City takes its place.  Again, long minutes pass as the camera zooms over uptown, downtown and the east side before coming to rest on the West Side.  The movie has been playing for nearly ten minutes before the first characters appear on screen.  Can you imagine making a move like that today?  The audience would all be on their cell-phones.  A lovely, heart-wrenching tale would be mere background noise to the incessant checking of e-mails, posts on facebook and texts to friends.

No one can argue that the technological revolution heralded by smart-phones hasn’t changed our world. We live at a faster pace.  We demand fast food, instant communication, a world-wide market and immediate gratification.  I saw a sign in a coffee shop the other day saying “fresh food, not fast food.  Please be patient.”  No doubt about it, the world’s in a hurry.  It makes sense to expect author’s to tell their stories at breakneck pace, to grab the reader in the first line or risk losing her altogether.  But, my unexpected delights under the Christmas tree confirm that there is an audience for a slower tempo.  The trick for writers who want to colour outside the lines of conventional wisdom, is to find that audience.  Once writer and readers have come together in mutual enjoyment, the story unfolds as it should.

So, if you’re a writer who needs time to set up the story, space to entice the reader to enter your world and mood-setting paragraphs to build the tension in your story, take heart.  There is more than one way to fill a blank page.

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New Year

What is it about a new year that makes us celebrate?  Between December 31 and January 1, war, disease and poverty remain unchanged.  Exams still loom for the student.  A hangover of extra pounds from the Christmas season can plunge the body-conscious into gloom and remorse.  The next credit card statement, rife with holiday impulses lurks in the mail.  Yet, we celebrate.  We set off fireworks, we greet strangers with a “Happy New Year,” and we hug old friends with heartfelt joy.  All because the calendar declares January 1, and the year is “new.”

            We like new.  I played a drawing game with friends on New Year’s Eve and the hostess bought new pencils and new paper pads.  We were as excited a school kids to hold a full-length pencil with a sharp new point and an eraser unsullied by errors.

            It is axiomatic that writers dread a blank page, but I love a new notebook, all the pages clean and inviting.  Much as an artist thrills to a fresh pad of drawing paper, or the reader inhales the scent of a new book, the pages uncreased, the story promising adventure, romance, knowledge.  Could this be the one book she has longed for all her life?  It’s possible.

            We like “new.”  Did you know you can actually buy “new car smell,” in a spray?  Even if your car is second hand, you can make it smell new.  Is it pure avarice that makes us crave the new?  Are we so brainwashed by advertisers that “new and improved” is our watchword?

   I don’t think so.  I believe “new” fills us with hope, and it is hope that drives our celebration. We yearn for a thing that is fresh, unblemished, full of promise.  Perhaps we hope that “new” will wipe away the mistakes of the past.  “Clean slate” is more than a metaphor for old writing tools.  We long to start anew, with all the errors of the past wiped away.  As Anne Shirley famously remarked, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a day with no mistakes in it yet.”                           

     The writer with a new notebook hopes against all evidence that the words he writes on the page will transcend any he has written before.  That, this time, he’ll  find the words that truly portray the magic and glory of the tale that burns in his mind.  This time, thinks the artist, the picture will capture all the truth of the universe in a curving line.   The driver dreams that the  new-to-him car will get better mileage, travel smoother roads and take him on incredible adventures that transform his life.

            We greet the “new” with unbridled hope.  We even make resolutions based on nothing more than a box on the calendar.

            Inevitably, the new notebook is filled with blots and cross-outs, erasures rub a hole in the artist’s paper and the new car gets a ding in the parking lot.  We’ve seen it happen again and again, and yet we hope.  This time will be different. 

            The cynics scoff at the optimists, declaring them deluded fools for continuing to hope in the face of crushing reality.  But cynics don’t sponsor refugees.  Cynics don’t find a cure for cancer and cynics don’t work for peace.  Queen Elizabeth II in her Christmas message urged us all to do “small things with great love.”  That’s a message for optimists.

            So, as 2017 opens, I say “a pox on the cynics.”  Let us hope,  and work for a better world.

            As for resolutions, I resolve to love more, worry less, and greet each day as a gift from God.

            Happy New Year!

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Merry Christmas

I’m taking a break from this blog over Christmas.  I’ll be back in January.  I wish all my readers a very merry Christmas.   Here’s a picture of one of my favourite parts of the season, the children’s pageant presentation at church.  The actors change year after the year, but the story is eternal, the joy undimmed and the love unfailing.  Enjoy.

 

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Christmas Short Story

p1020754I’m getting into the Christmas mood with some of my favourite things.  I’ve put up my nativity set and my Christmas village.  Last night we visited the Butchart Gardens to view the Christmas lights.  They do a wonderful job.  It’s like walking through fairyland.  Pictures can’t do it justice, but here’s one as a sample.

One of my other favourite things is Christmas stories.  I love to read them and I love to write them.  I was delighted to note that my collection of stories The Man Who Loved Christmas reached #3 on Amazon US, best seller list for Kindle short reads, Literature and Fiction.  How exciting is that?  The book is available in many formats.  To download your copy go to my book page and chose the one that’s best for you.

And speaking of Christmas stories, I have TMWLC WEB mediuma new one.  Below is a sample.  To read the full story, please subscribe to my newsletter here

 

 

 

Joy Comes in the Morning

By

Alice Valdal

 

Go away, go away, go away.

Children’s voices, piping Christmas carols grew louder as the parade of choristers came nearer. Peggy O’Dell flattened herself against the wall of the darkened parlour not trusting the lace curtain to conceal her presence. Lace! What was wrong with good, sturdy cotton, like the ones she’d had in her own prairie home? Red and yellow roses, they were, against a creamy background. Real cotton too, that she’d ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue. No rough flour sacks for the O’Dell family.

Joy to the World!

She flinched. Her heart cramped at the sound of children’s voices any day. On Christmas Eve the pain was unbearable.

And Heaven and nature sing.

She left the window to huddle behind the sofa, alone in the dark, sick with sorrow.

Finally, after what seemed like hours but was more likely minutes, she heard the carollers scamper down the snow packed board walk. Their music and laughter faded into the night. She crept to the window and chanced a peek outside. Falling snow capped the horse trough and hitching posts with pointed hats of white, and turned everyday objects into mysterious, soft shapes. Peggy pressed her hands to her heart. Bessie and Tommy had loved the fresh snow, dashing outside to make snow angels then coming in to drip snow puddles from their boots and woollen scarves. She’d scolded them for marring her fresh-waxed floors. 

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Kindness

 

images-1There has been a lot of hate and ugliness spewed into the mainstream media and into social media in recent months. As an antidote, I present these tales of kindness.

 

A woman I know lives next door to an elderly gentleman. The man has no family and is becoming increasingly frail.  My friend is a banker, so she began helping her neighbour with his financial affairs – trips to the bank, bill payments, taxes.  Then, as time when on, she did his grocery shopping, arranged for a lawn service, cooked him some meals.  Every day she calls on him to see if he needs anything, and if he does, she provides it.

This woman has no obligation to the old man, other than the kindness required of one human to another. She is not paid for her service nor does she expect a reward.  She simply follows the golden rule and is kind.50125194-the-girl-under-an-umbrella-with-a-small-homeless-puppy-protect-pet-from-autumn-rain-funny-cartoon-ch

 

Another woman I know goes every day to a seniors facility and reads the newspaper to those whose eyesight makes such a pleasure impossible. She chooses articles she thinks will be of most interest to the residents – mostly veterans from WWII and Korea.  She had done the same for her father and when he passed away, thought there might be others like him who would enjoy keeping up with the news and engaging in discussion about the affairs of the day.  There was no formal program for this woman to plug into, no core of volunteers to spell her off.  She simply saw a need and responded.  Another person who acts out of the kindness of her heart.

 

Our local newspaper runs a weekly column on acts of kindness. Amid the headlines of war and strife and disaster, these little tales are a welcome counterbalance.  We read of lost wallets returned intact, stolen bicycles replaced, ambulances called, tea and sympathy offered to someone who fell in the street.  Last week was a story of a woman who got into her car and drove to the rescue of a stranger being harassed by a deer.  Yes, we have a problem with urban deer and they can get quite aggressive, especially toward small dogs.  The woman walking her dog was trapped by a doe with a fawn.  When her rescuer appeared she was only too happy to climb into the car and be driven to safety.

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In troubled times small acts of kindness can have a monumental impact. They can change the tenor of the debate.  They can remind us that we are all in this together.  They can change a child’s fear to hope.

 

But what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with you God. Micah 6:8 ESV

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Lists Revisited

p1010439It has been two months since I began my experiment with lists to order my writing life and some of my “real” life, so today I’m going to review and assess the method.

If you missed my original post on the method, you can find it here.

So, I give you my take on the experiment.

    

  Pros:

  • Making a list for a week, then dividing it up over the days of the week is a useful exercise in time management.
  • The list helps me realize how many demands there are on my time so I don’t beat myself up over not getting to everything.
  • Making a list helps to prioritize tasks.
  • Writing down my tasks relaxes me.  I don’t have to keep remembering what I meant to do.
  • Making a list reminds me to make time for exercise and other healthy activities. 
  • There is great satisfaction in putting a tick mark beside every accomplished item.
  • The list gives me permission to play when I’ve finished every item.  As writers know, there is always more to do.  Homemakers know there is always more to do.  Setting a specific goal gives us a finish line for the day.  We can chose to work more, or we can play.  Play is vital to the creative life.

 

   Cons:

  • Life is busy and it is not possible to itemize every activity of every day.  Sometimes, when life has taken me off-list and into something wonderful, I add it to my list after the fact.  When life takes me off-list into a time-waster, I gloss over it and scramble to catch up the next day. 
  • In the beginning I often bit off more than I could chew, especially if the list seemed too short. It’s important to break tasks down to their component parts in order to create a realistic list.

 

     Conclusion:   I plan to continue to make a weekly list and break it into daily tasks.  As a tool for time management, the list works for me.  It helps me focus.  It makes me happy.  It forces me to set realistic goals, then pushes me to accomplish them.  Since the first week, I’ve had some great days and some disasters.  I continue to refine my list-making so there are fewer disasters.  I’d recommend this method to other writers but with one caveat:  the list is only a guide.  Family, friends, colleagues, even pets, have emergencies.  At those times, forget the list and follow your heart.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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!

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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!”
 

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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

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  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.”

 

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That Vexing Bustle

Part of “writing from inside” concerns the question of dress, particularly for historicals.  The problem is how to get accurate information on the styles of the day.  What the ladies of Downton Abbey wore to dinner is not the same as what a shopkeeper’s wife on the prairies would wear.  Cowgirls might wear a divided skirt but a milliner in Victoria would be scandalized at such a garment.  There are even differences between American West and Canadian West in the issue of dress and manners.  Canada, as part of the British Empire, was very tied to the notions expressed by Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century, i.e. prim and proper, whereas the new settlers in the American West were a product of revolution and war and had scant time for what they considered hidebound rules or etiquette.  A gentleman was polite and considerate of a lady, but no one cared which fork was used for fish.

My latest dilemma in writing a novel set in 1890 in the Canadian gold mining town of Prospect British Columbia concerns the bustle.  The time is at the cusp of a change in fashion.  In the 1870’s the bustle was worn low, spreading the skirts into a graceful sweep behind the wearer, often ending in a train. By the early 1880’s it had become smaller but then in the mid 1880’s bustles changed to huge, wire cages worn just below the waist.  Skirts still contained yards and yards and yards of fabric, and it was pulled back and up, fastened at the waist then cascaded down in ruffles and ribbons over a large, high bustle.  The less charitable critics at the time said the fashion gave women the profile of the back end of a horse! images By the 1890’s this fashion extreme was receding and bustles were small, padded affairs worn low on the back.

By rights, my heroine in the wilds of British Columbia would be behind the times in regard to fashion, but she is also a hard-working woman who needs clothes that accommodate her lifestyle.  No servants to lace her corset from the back, no char woman to scrub her steps and black her stove and, no dairymaid to milk the cow. 

The Eaton’s catalogue of the time advertised bustles “rolled and padded.”  Since most of Western Canada depended upon the Eaton’s catalogue for everything from handkerchiefs to houses, I’ve decided to let my heroine wear one of their smaller bustles for special events.  She can look elegant fashion-1890s-free-stock-image-graphicsfairyand feminine when she goes to a concert, but she’ll wear sturdy skirts and blouses, covered by an apron for the hard work.  When she’s feeling particularly daring, she’ll wear a divided  skirt and ride her horse astride!

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Writing from Inside

dscf1619When 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.

 

 

 

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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     

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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.”

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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. 

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Our Story

!cid_ii_irevbpxm0_156505ef051235ceI’ve just come back from a family reunion — the descendants of those pioneers I’ve mentioned over the past few weeks.  We’re all older now.  The cousins I knew as kids chasing through the hay fields are all grown up.  Some are grandparents themselves.  The old farmhouse has been renovated with a modern kitchen and new wiring, the barns expanded and modernized.  Tractors and harvesters have taken the place of draft horses and hired men.  What remains is the land and our story.

The fields, cleared by my grandfather yield corn and grains and hay, just as before.  Cattle and babies live off its bounty.  The valley traps the heat, the hills on either side offer a cool respite.  I sit under a tent on Sunday morning and listen to a preacher talk about God and gardening while my eyes rest on the old homestead.  It’s a wonderful moment of connection.  I feel the pioneers smiling.

But it’s more than the place that draws us together, it is the stories.  Cousins I hadn’t seen for decades gathered on the verandah and we talked about playing hide and seek in the big house.  (It’s the only house I’ve ever known with both a front staircase and a back staircase, plus a couple of interconnecting rooms. Perfect for restless children!)  Members of the succeeding generations added their stories, weaving their memories into the fabric of the family.  That pioneer lady, with her eyes and heart set firmly on family, faith and farm, lives on in all of us.  We  each add another chapter, or maybe only a paragraph, but together we build the story of who we are, where we came from and what we stand for.

I’m sometimes annoyed at businesses or sports organizations that run advertisements that tell a story to align themselves with the nation or with a particular value.  I keep thinking, “it’s only a game,” or “it’s only fast-food” but those ads remind us all of the importance of story and the importance of roots.

Some people dismiss fiction as fluff, preferring documentaries or hard news.  Yet, story is who we are.  It roots us in place and time, it encompasses us as a family or a nation or a world.  A genealogy chart may show our blood lines, but it’s story that makes us human.

Here’s to my pioneer ancestors, here’s to family, and here’s to the storytellers among us, wherever you are.

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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.

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Hurry! Hurry!

imagesIn the May and June issues of Romance Writer’s Report Allie Pleiter discusses the “chunky method of time management.”  In summary, she suggests that we each have a natural rhythm when it comes to writing.  We tend to “write ourselves out” at approximately the same number of words, regardless of circumstances.  I found this notion intriguing since I remember, when I had a day job and had to interrupt my writing to meet a client, longing for the expanse of time to write until I had finished.

When I retired, I expected to write for hours, peacefully, productively and perfectly.  Wrong!  The truth is I run out of steam at just about the same word count whether I have more or less time available.   I used to have a writing goal of 1000 words a day.  The first 800 spattered onto the page like spring rain.  The last 200 fell like drops of sweat in an ice storm.  According to Ms Pleiter’s premise, my natural word count is 800 at a sitting.   So, if it want to write a 70,000 word ms I need 70000 ÷ 800 = 87.5 chunks of writing.

 

I was intrigued by her math and decided to apply it to some famous novels.  Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House over 20 months.  Depending on how you count, the book has 353,000 to 356,000 words.  For arguments sake, and simple math, lets say 355,000.  355,000 ÷ 20 months =17759 ÷4 weeks=4437.5 ÷5 days =889.3.  So,  assuming Dickens wrote five days a week, he and I have roughly the same natural writing chunk  Wow!  Of course, those were polished, publishable words in Mr. Dickens’ case.  Mine need more work,

Margaret Mitchell wrote the 418,053 words of  Gone With the Wind over a ten year period.  Using the formula above, that means she wrote only 17 words a day.  Of course, she may have written large chunks at a time, then ignored the ms for long periods.  She wrote it for her own entertainment, never intending to publish it.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, 120,697 words was completed in draft form in one year, 453 a day, using a five day/week writing schedule.  Of course, Jane didn’t have the benefit of a computer so we can forgive her tardiness.

In today’s writing world, there is a demand for “more.”  More words, more books, more interviews, more social media time.   Stephen King writes 2000 words a day.  James Patterson, who published 15 books in 2014 has a team of writers working for him, in order to meet the demand.  Readers seem to be insatiable (yay!) and publishers and writers are eager to sell into that need.  Writers’ forums are filled with ideas to increase productivity.  Recently I prolific author discussed using music to up her word count at a single sitting.  Others chimed in with more of the same.

All of this emphasis on more and faster gives me palpitations.  I like words.  I like to savour them, them, finding the one that conveys just the right nuance, the right rhythm.  I like to rewrite sentences, make them flow, make them poetic.  I can’t do that in a hurry.  Kudos to those who can but it’s not me.

So, I turned to another book on my desk, one thousand gifts, by Ann Voskamp.  I read a passage about filling vessels with beauty.  In short, she used to take a vase off the shelf whenever she had flowers to put in it.  Her logic was “have beauty, must get vessel.”  One day she turned it around and made the vases part of her everyday furniture.  Now her logic reads, “have vessel, must find beauty.”  My heart rate slowed down.  I could draw a long breath.  I remembered that writing is an art as well as a craft.  My vessel is the empty page, I must fill it with beautiful words — at my own speed.

 

 

 

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Lessons in Stereotyping

Lately I have felt deluged with bad news stories about men and women. It seems every time I open a newspaper or turn on the television or even look at facebook, there is a story of men behaving badly toward women. It’s depressing and frightening.
So, the other day when I had to walk past several tables full of construction workers on my way to the coffee shop, I braced myself for an unpleasant time. I hate to admit it, but I was surprised when there were no cat calls or wolf whistles. I didn’t even overhear bad language. As I entered the shop, a man in steel-toed boots held the door for me. I said “thank you,” and he smiled and wished me a nice day.
That was all perfectly reasonable behaviour, behaviour I should expect from my fellowmen, so why was I surprised? Why did I feel it remarkable?
Because I’d fallen into the trap of stereotyping. It’s something we all do without thinking.  A small boy in my area disappeared years ago. Reports said he might have been seen in a white van with rust spots. Even now, twenty years later, I notice white vans with rust spots and wonder if that could be the one.
As writers stereotyping can serve us well. We can use it as a kind of shorthand to convey character to the reader, especially if it’s a minor character. We’ll put a character in a hard-hat if we want the reader to know he’s strong, works outdoors, may be a little rough around the edges, is dependable. We’ll call someone a prom queen if we want to convey a character that’s self-absorbed, pretty, and shallow.
Stereotypes aren’t fair.   The prom queen may have earned a full scholarship to university and the construction worker may teach ballroom dancing at night. But the stereotype is useful for the writer to convey a lot of information quickly.
A writer can also use stereotypes to surprise the reader and add depth to the story as well. In the two examples given above, we have the seeds for a rich, well-developed protagonist who will keep us reading just to find out what happens to him/her.

Note that stereotypes and archetypes are not the same thing. Archetypes, like the warrior, the nurturer, the adventurer, are what Carl Jung describes as “ancient patterns of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race.”
Stereotype is an oversimplified image of a person i.e. prom queen equals fluff. The story may begin with the stereotype but as we add layers we may discover our prom queen is a perfectionist. Never satisfied with her achievements, she chooses the hardest subjects to study, develops an eating disorder because her body is never perfect in her own eyes, has foresworn love because no one can live up to her version of perfect. This isn’t a fluffy airhead, this woman is tragic. But by standing the stereotype on its head, we’ve created a memorable character.
In real life, stereotyping people is unfair and may be dangerous.  At its worst it leads to bigotry, xenophobia and racism.

In the writing life, it’s a useful tool,

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Rain Day

P1020491It is high summer where I live. We’ve had a minor heat wave. The weeds in the garden are thriving. I have a rule for myself — one hour a day in the yard, thirty minutes a day riding my bicycle.
But . . .
Today it’s raining. I’ve excused myself from the garden chores and the exercise. I’ve cozied into a sweatshirt and have a pot of flavoured coffee at hand. I’m parked in front of my computer and loving it!
Lately I’ve been suffering, not from writer’s block exactly, but from a lack of “flow,” that magical element that lets the story run from my brain (heart) through my fingertips and onto the keyboard. Some days it feels as though every word is wrenched from my mind, wrestled onto the page and lies there like a slug. No flow.
But today, on my mini-holiday rain day, all the pieces seem to fit, I’m writing, I’m creating.  Life is wonderful.
And the garden is getting watered besides.

All of which goes to show what contrary creatures we writers are.  Sometimes I crave routine.  Same place, same time, every day, butt in chair, that gets the story on the page.  Other times, like today, I’m delighted to change it up, finding inspiration in the unexpected.

Many writers demand solitude, they write in the middle of the night, squirreled away in a cubby hole, barricaded against distraction.  Others long for company.  I have a friend who goes on a weekend retreat with other writers a few times a year.  She finds those times precious and particularly inspiring for brainstorming new work.  Jacqui Nelson has a weekly writing session with another writer at a coffee shop.  She says “Those 2 hours every week are inspirational, fun, productive, easy to get to (a 15 minute walk from my home) and they help keep me connected to the outside world and to another writer.”

I like to meet up with another writer, or two, to discuss writing techniques, the writing life, plot problems and the state of the industry, but I could never write with another person — I’m too prone to chat!

All of which proves there is no one “right” way to write.  There is likely not even one “right” way for any individual author.  We need variety to keep us motivated and fresh.  But whatever method we use, the important thing is the story.  With story top of mind, the method will sort itself out.  Today, that method is lots of coffee and a rainy day change of pace.

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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.

 

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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

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Brain Space

downloadThis past week household problems have interfered with my writing. Not my time so much, — it is possible to put fingers to keyboard while waiting for the repairman — but with my mental space. While I could physically write and wait at the same time, mentally, I just wasn’t there.  I sat in front of the keyboard and thought about what I’d tell the repairman when he finally showed up. I rehearsed different scenarios. Would they give me a bill? This item should still be under warranty. Would I argue if he did? How would I know if he’d fixed it properly? I only wish my characters could have as many and varied conversations as I had with my absent repairman.

Since writers live in the real world I thought it would be useful to develop some coping mechanisms for time when “real world” overwhelms “writer world.”

  • Set a time for the repairman to come.   Usually the window is a wide one, like all afternoon, but even if you narrow down to a specific day, that’s progress.  Having a time when the crisis will be resolved is freeing for the mind.  My repairman just called to cancel that appointment, so the wait continues, but the theory is still good.
  • Write somewhere else.  Go to the coffee shop, the library, the park, even a different room in the house.  If the balky appliance is invisible, it is easier to ignore.
  • Turn off the internet.  So long as I can Google my problem, I’ll be thinking of how to fix it myself.  Tighten that screw.  Find a reset button.  Check that wire.   “How to” videos are wonderful tools, but they make us all responsible for all our own tasks!  Remember when we had travel agents and plumbers and mechanics to make life easier?  Now we’re all supposed to take on those jobs because “you can do it on-line.”
  • Do a short writing project — like this blog.  Even an overcrowded brain can concentrate for a short while.  Who knows, just tapping the keys might  trick the brain into entering writing mode.
  • Do a mechanical kind of writing task.  I do a lot of my writing longhand.  When the mind is busy elsewhere, I can transcribe those handwritten pages to the computer and still make progress on the writing front.
  • Do some of those pesky social media chores.  Short, interrupt-able, and necessary.
  • Throw up your hands and do something else.  All that adrenaline coursing through your system gives you extra strength for yanking up weeds, or scrubbing a mossy deck or tackling the basement shelves, while continuing the mental conversation with the absent repairman.

So, there’s my list.  What do you do?

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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.

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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.

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Lilacs and Apple Blossoms

P1020460Scent is the most emotionally evocative of our senses.   Why else would the house stagers recommend baking bread before showing your home?  The fragrance of fresh bread conjures whole pages of positive feelings.  One whiff and we’re transported to grandma’s house and all the love and comfort and security offered there.  Who wouldn’t want to buy a house that offered that?

Right now, it is lilac season in my part of the world. and lilacs are like fresh baked bread to my olfactory senses.  I walk downstairs and the bouquet in the front hall lifts my mood even more than coffee.  The smell of lilacs takes me home, where we had a whole hedge of them and I was allowed to pick as many as I liked.  In fact, I was encouraged to fill the house with blooms.   I’d even sneak a few apple blossoms into the bouquet, their scent lighter but every bit as wonderful.

Lilacs and apple blossoms signalled spring.  After schlepping about in heavy coats and winter boots for six months, spring meant freedom.  We could run outside in our shoes.  Our feet were light, our bodies buoyant.  We’d run for the sheer joy of it, raise our arms and twirl in a circle, faces to the sun.  Lilacs were part of that moment.

When I married in May, I carried lilacs in my bouquet — a bridge between my old and new life.  For me, lilacs mean love and joy.

As a writer, I’m inclined to insert lilacs into a story when I want to show happiness.  In fact, my first book is called Love and Lilacs.   Sadly, there are people in this world who hate the sweet smell of my delightful lilacs.  While I think love and springtime, they think hay fever and itchy eyes!  They’ll never buy a book with “lilacs” in the title.

So what’s an author to do?  Our stories would lose all power if we only referred to generic flowers, or pets or people.  Who wants to read about a thirty-something woman who had a nice job and lived in a pleasant house?  Readers want specific details if they are to identify with this heroine.  If she were in my book, she’d have a garden around her pleasant house and it would bloom with lilacs in the spring and roses in the summer.  She’d have fresh cut blooms on her desk at work and she’d take deep breaths to enjoy the scent.   But, what if she met a man who hated flowers, associated them with funerals, the funerals of his wife and daughter?  Hmm.

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Flying . . .

Flying-blind“Pantsers and plotters” is a shorthand phrase used by writers to describe their process in creating a story.  Plotters are the ones who prepare an extensive outline, chapter by chapter, sometimes scene by scene, before beginning to write the story.  They have already worked out the plot, the twists, the climax and the conclusion before writing that first sentence.  Plotters are organized, efficient and highly productive people.

I’m not a plotter.

Pantsers, or those who fly by the seat of their pants, or, more elegantly, “fly into the mists” have an idea about a story, they sort of know who the characters are and they’re pretty sure what the ending is.  After that, they’re flying blind.  Pantsers like to think they are free-spirits, creative, inspired and original.  In my case, what that means is, hair-tearing re-writes, dozens of cut scenes, tortuous back-tracking to create plausible motivations, and a lot of staring out the window wondering what should happen next.

For my latest work, I tried to be more like a plotter.  I wrote a whole notebook full of scenes I confidently believed would appear in the final story, once I got down to organizing them into a reasonable time-line.  With the notebook full, I turned to a fresh page and wrote the first sentence, and the second.  This was going really well, I was on page two when the story took a twist I’d never envisioned in my preparations.  I was excited.  This twist really added to the story, it gave another layer to three of the characters.  Wow!  I was rolling.

Only trouble is, all those scenes I wrote before, don’t really fit the new direction.  My attempt to be efficient, was a waste.

Or was it?  The truth is, whether any of those pre-writing scenes make it into the final version, doesn’t matter.  The notebook full of imagined dialogue and action, gave me the characters.  I know about them.  I know their backstories.  I can predict how they will act in a crisis.  I know the story-setting.  I know the secondary characters.  I know the time of year and the time of history.  I’m excited to tell their story.  The fact that I’m not certain how that story unfolds, makes me even more excited.  Like a reader, I want to know what happens next.

Writing should be fun.  If you’re a plotter, more power to you.  If, like me, you’re a pantser, enjoy the journey.  It’s going to be a wild ride.

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In the Company of Adventurers

HBCThe Hudson’s Bay Company, long a staple of Canadian shopping centres and a significant part of our history, was officially termed, “The Company of Gentlemen Adventurers.”  Formed in 1668 by edict of Charles II of England, the company received exclusive trading rights to all of the waters in North America that drained into Hudson’s Bay. It became the longest, continually operating commercial venture in Western history.

Saturday, I spent time with another company of adventurers, VIRA, the Vancouver Island Romance Authors. We have no relation to the Hudson’s Bay Company, there’s not a gentleman among us. Men are not prohibited from membership, but at the moment we’re a company of Lady Adventurers.
Why adventurers? For starters we’re all exploring the dangerous waters around writing and publishing romance novels. Some through traditional methods, others, bravely launching their work into the self-publishing stream.
We write about adventurous women. Some involved in derring-do, like steam punk heroines or secret agents, others in the shark-infested waters of families and small towns.  Some of our heroines look the part, with super-powers and enough gadgets to make James Bond envious.  Others, appear demure, conforming and obedient, but beneath the crinolines and behind the fans they are every bit as adventurous as their fantasy counterparts.

We “ladies of the company” trade in information.  We share data and strategies for finding an editor or an agent.  We discuss the tools of self-publishing where fellow-travellers are more important than ever.   We need to know how to utilize facebook, twitter, algorithms, blogs, websites, cover artists, formatting tools . . .  the list goes on and on.  Alone, in front of the computer, the task is daunting.

On a Saturday afternoon with other lady-adventurers it’s fun.  We laugh, we commiserate, we encourage, we read and edit each other’s work.   We go home energized and filled with hope.  Thanks VIRA.  I enjoyed your company.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Common Senses

It is spring in my part of the world.  What better time to fill the well with a visit to Butchart Gardens?

P1020405The stars of the garden, tulips, blossoming trees, daffodils, are so brilliant it would be easy to just stand and stare at them and then go home.

 

 

 

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magnolia tree

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I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I was on a mission.  I wanted to note details, I wanted to find the hidden gem.  Like this camellia leaning over a stream, or the white mayflower at right or this pink dog tooth violet hiding under a rhododendron.

I wanted to use all my senses.  Sight is a no brainer and the scent of hyacinth was  heavy as honey in the air.      P1020401

 

 

Other perfumes were more subtle.  This heather, for example, has a faint peppery smell, P1020417and the star magnolia was reminiscent of vanilla.P1020414

 

 

 

I used my sense of hearing too.  This natural waterfall,  mostly hidden, played sweet music over the whole of the sunken garden.P1020421

 

 

P1020402 In this secret pond a bullfrog croaked loud and long and in the Japanese garden a cultivated stream provided a soft sh..sh..sh to the shady bowersP1020426

I heard a bird chirp and found this little fellow preening himself.

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Children’s  delighted squeals punctuated the silence.  They were hunting Easter rabbits.  P1020406

I used touch, too.  Not on the flowers, thousands of fingers would soon crush the blossoms, but I stroked the soft, fibrous bark of this giant cedar P1020424 - Copyand rubbed the smooth, polished snout of the garden boar.  Rubbing his nose is said to bring good luck.P1020432

I couldn’t taste the flowers “Please don’t eat the daisies” and all that, but taste and smell are so closely linked, you’ll note I described the scents in terms of taste — pepper, vanilla, honey.

My senses sated, my well filled to overflowing, I finished off my afternoon with one of my favourite tastes, café mocha in the coffee shop.  There I overheard this lovely snippet of conversation.

P1020436 She:  When do the roses bloom?

He:  When love is in the air.


 

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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.

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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.

 

 

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Photograph

Alice Valdal Headshots-0005I had a new portrait taken this week.  I like the photos I’ve been using, but they are ten years old and I felt like a liar when I looked at them.  So, now you can see the truth.

The whole experience got me thinking about cameras and photographs.   With photo apps on cell phones our age is awash in pictures.  What we eat, where we travel, who we meet, our pets, our children, our messy kitchens — all show up in a photo and posted to social media for all the world to see.

It was not always so.  Many indigenous people, including those in Canada, believed that if someone took your picture, he stole your soul.   I use that bit of lore In my book Her One and Only

 I’ve been studying photography and cameras for my work-in-progress since the heroine is a photographer in the late nineteenth century.  I grew up with the notion that “the camera never lies.”  Nowadays we know the camera lies all the time.  Photoshop has put editing tools in the hands of everyone who owns a computer, but I’ve learned that from the beginning, the camera “lied.”  Hannah Maynard, a famous photographer in Victoria, B.C. created many odd effects by cutting up her photos, rearranging them and then photographing the results.  Thus she was able to create a picture of herself having tea with herself in the guise of five guests.  She also created what she called “gems.”  These were faces of children cut out and rearranged so that they formed fantastical shapes, like a fountain or a house plant .

While Hannah Maynard was experimenting with photographic effects in Victoria, George Eastman was experimenting with the technology of cameras in New York.  By 1885 he had developed a box camera loaded with enough film for 100 photos.  Previously, images were captured on glass plates making photography cumbersome and awkward.  Eastman’s “Kodak” camera used thin celluloid film and a fast shutter speed  allowing the user to hold the camera in her hand rather than setting it on a tripod.  Photography as a hobby burgeoned.  Women especially were caught up in the new vogue.

Once the one hundred photos were taken the whole camera was shipped back to New York where the Kodak company unpacked the film, developed it, reloaded the camera for 100 more pictures and returned the whole lot to the customer.  In our day of instant everything, it’s  hard to believe such a cumbersome process was considered the height of convenience!

 

 

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We’re All Immigrants

SPRIGI spent Sunday afternoon attending a fund-raising concert for Syrian immigrants.  Lovely concert, but the cause was most important.  The plight of refugees from the Middle East, especially Syria, has been well-documented in the media and Canada has opened its heart and its homes to those fleeing war.

This is not new in my country.  From 1979 to 1980, Canada accepted 50,000 Boat People, so desperate to escape Viet Nam they took to flimsy boats, paying outrageous fees to exploiters who promised them passage to the West.   Then, as now, refugees were sponsored by church groups, community groups, clubs, office groups and government.  As a nation, we were proud of our compassion.

It was not always so.  There are black marks in our history, like when we turned away German Jews in 1939.  They were forced to return to Europe, where most ended in  concentration camps.

But, by and large, Canada, and all of North America for that matter, is the story of immigration.  My own Irish ancestors arrived here in the wake of the potato famine of the 1840’s.   On my German side, there is a tale of a wicked stepmother.  The story is that she managed to disinherit the oldest son of her husband by his first wife so that their land would go to her son.  The disinherited man, my forebear, emigrated rather than be a tenant on what he considered his own land.  They came to Canada and the promise of free land.

Each wave of immigrants has been met with a mixed welcome.  Irish, Polish, Hungarians, Chinese have all experienced discrimination.  Remember the pictures of “Irish Need Not Apply” in our history books?  At the same time, prairie women set up welcoming centres to help the flood of European immigrants pouring into Canada’s west in the late nineteenth century.

I tend to think of North America as the destination for immigrants, but history shows that people have migrated all over the world since earliest times.  Our own First Nations probably came to this part of the world from Asia at the time when it was possible to walk across the Bering Sea from Asia to present-day Alaska.  Pre-historic migration out of Africa populated continental Europe and the British Isles.

While it is common for an established population to fear immigrants, “the other,” those others bring huge benefits.  Migrants to Ireland and Cornwall brought their knowledge of tin and copper, signalling the beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain. Modern migrants in Canada  settled the Prairies, joined the army, contributed to our universities, ran for parliament, raised families, paid taxes, trained as doctors and nurses and teachers and cooks.  Those Boat People?  They are in the forefront of sponsorship drives for Syrian refugees.

There will be clashes as Canadian society tries to absorb 25,000 refugees in a short time, refugees from a  different culture, a different religion and a different clime.  But the goodwill exemplified by S.P.R.I.G. and thousands of similar groups across the country is reason for hope.

My immigrant ancestors helped make this country.  Today’s immigrants will do likewise.

 

 

 

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The “Write” Purpose

forsythia bushWhen Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister of Canada in Oct. 2015, his acceptance speech included the phrase “sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways.”  Now, Mr. Trudeau appears to have a sunny disposition and he campaigned on a platform of hope and positivity, so one would expect him to extol sunny ways, but it turns out he was quoting another prime minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, who held that office from 1896 to 1911.  During that time he devoted himself to national unity in Canada using the politics of compromise.  When disputes arose he appealed to Canadians’ better nature to reach a workable solution.  Mr. Trudeau seems set to follow that example.

When Barak Obama was first elected in the United States, he too campaigned on a message of hope, and the positive slogan “Yes, we can.”  History will judge the success of his administration, but there is no denying that he won with “sunny ways.” There is no denying that hope, affirmation, positivity are great motivators.

I love a sunny day.  I don’t suffer the worst effects of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)but here on the west coast where it rains and rains and rains during the winter season, I can get a bit grumpy.  When it’s not raining, the clouds are hanging so low it feels like we’re living in a grotto.  So, when the sun breaks through it’s cause for celebration.  My energy picks up.  My imagination goes to work.  And I smile — a lot!

One of the ways I cope with those dark days is to review the notes in my “sunshine bowl.”  That is a pretty yellow bowl painted with spring flowers that sits on my desk.  Whenever I receive a compliment, I write it on a piece of pretty paper and pop it into the jar.  Re-reading those notes is a great pick-me-up.  One of my favourites reads, “I like your writing.  I like your descriptions.  It feels happy.”

Every author hopes her books will make a difference in someone’s life.  Some will inspire readers to climb a mountain, or adopt an orphan, or start a school.  Others will encourage kindness, generosity and empathy.   If my stories can make a reader feel happy, I am content.

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Legacy

P1020331Do you ever play that game, what will the world look like fifty years from now?  one hundred years from now?  Will we still read books on paper?  Will we listen to the Beatles?  Will anyone remember me?

In the world of literature there are some authors whose work is so significant, it forms the basis of our culture.  The surviving Greek classics are over 2500 years old.   The King James Version of the Bible was completed, in the age of Shakespeare.  The works of Jane Austin depict life in England two hundred years later,  while Wordsworth, Keats, Dickens and a host of other authors shared a golden age of letters at the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.  These works will be read and studied so long as our civilization remains.

For writers of popular fiction today, the situation is quite different.  For most of us, six weeks in a publisher’s rack, maybe a reissue a few years later, and a digital copy buried somewhere in cyberspace is the norm.  There are exceptions.  The works of Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer, have become classics of their type and remain in print for another generation to enjoy.  Every writer dreams of that kind of success, but few realize it.

There’s also the question of the medium.  Electronic files are at particular risk as technology changes.  Floppy discs anyone?  How many of you have lost files when you upgraded your software or operating system?  I threw out a  box full of those 3½ inch squares when my new computer didn’t have a slot for them.  At my alma mater, there is a whole department devoted to maintaining old records and new donations.  The head of that department, Jeremy Heil,  has had to become a tech wizard in order to do his job.

He is faced with a wide variety of file formats, operating systems and hardware, including floppy disks, 8-tracks, vinyls and any number of computer file types, many of which are now obsolete.  “Every day,” he says, “I have to evaluate old formats that can no longer be read.”

Predicting the future is risky business, but I can now state with confidence that at least three of my books will be around fifty years from now.  My municipality has created a time capsule and books from local authors, including me, are in it .   Turns out there are a lot of authors in my region, including M. Wylie Blanchet, author of The Curve of Time.  Mrs. Blanchet died in 1961 but her book about exploring the waters around Vancouver Island with her five young children is considered a Canadian classic.  I’m honoured that my books share a time capsule with hers.

P1020328Town hall has created a wall of author pics and bios to publicize the event — it’s part of the fiftieth anniversary for the municipality.  As you can see from the picture at the top, I got a wall all to myself while others had to share window space.   What you can’t see is that my page is behind a card rack!  I realized I’m in good company when I discovered Myfanwy Pavelic’s page  behind a potted plant.

Ah well, it’s all publicity and it’s exciting to think my books will be around fifty years from now.

 

 

 

 

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The Kitchen Stove

In a previous version of my website, I wrote an article about wood-burning stoves.  That text has long disappeared from here, but search engines continue to direct seekers to my website in response to the word “stove.”  So, here once again, is my tribute to the heart of the home.

 

The Humble Kitchen Stove
     When woman first began cooking inside the cave, she used an open fire and a stick to sizzle the venison.  Man liked the results and over the centuries applied his ingenuity to improving the techniques used to render the result of his hunt into palatable victuals.
In medieval castles and hovels the size and decoration of the cooking fire  varied, but the science was the same.  Build a big fire to produce heat, build a chimney to vent the smoke, hang pots over the fire for cooking.  Western civilization continued with this basic concept right up until the eighteenth century when, in 1735 a French architect by the name of Franççois Cuvilliéés, designed a completely enclosed fire with fireholes covered by perforated iron plates.  This Castrol stove was much more fuel-efficient and allowed the cook to simmer her soups and stews in relative safety without fear of embers from the fireplace shooting out and burning her.  Toward the end of the century the Castrol stove was refined by hanging the pots through the fireholes, allowing for heating on three sides instead of just one.
One of the biggest leaps in the technology of home heating came with the invention of the Franklin stove, named after its inventor, Benjamin Franklin.   Intended primarily for home heat the Franklin stove used a labyrinth system of baffles and plates to circulate the air through the stove giving us both radiant and convection heat.  The front of the stove was still open, like the conventional fireplace, but the top of the heater was flat and allowed for cooking with flat-bottomed pots and pans.  Another step in the evolution of the kitchen.  Previous to this, cooking was done in round bottomed cauldrons.

As an aside, did you know that Benjamin Franklin put all of his inventions into the public domain, refusing to file patents or to collect royalties?

    In North America, where winters were long and severe, foundries everywhere turned out variations on Franklin’s stove.  Pot-bellied stoves, Quebec heaters, box stoves and dumb stoves proliferated in every home, taking the place of the inefficient fireplace.  Although a round-bellied stove glowing red with heat wasn’t as romantic as a blazing open fire it was essential for warding off freezing temperatures inside as well as out. Martha Louise Black, a veteran of many Yukon winters vowed she’d never been so cold as when trying to keep warm over a grate fire in England during World War One.  The fire barely took the chill off the room and “was a criminal waste of fuel, too, as most of the heat went up the chimney.  Our little Klondyke stoves could have warmed the rooms with half the fuel. ” Below is pictured a Quebec heater such as Mrs. Black might have used in her own home.

Quebec Stove

Quebec Stove



Nineteenth century ingenuity resulted in some odd  forms of heating. In 1888 the US Patent Office issued a patent for a corn-cob burning stove.  Since it was considered inappropriate to place stoves in meeting houses during the early 1800’s, preachers carried a little foot stove with them as they travelled from service to service.  The box, about 12″ x 12″ by 8″ high was filled with burning embers, fitted with a handle and used to keep the preacher’s feet warm both in the pulpit and in the sleigh as he travelled on to the next service.  Portable tin ovens were used by the military in the field and by prospectors rushing to the latest gold strike.
But, back to the harried homemaker bending over the hot stove.  At the turn of the nineteenth century, Benjamin Thompson produced one of the first metal kitchen stoves, called the Rumford.  Pots were still hung inside the firebox through the fireholes and the heat on each pot could be regulated..  Sadly for the humble housewife, the Rumford stove was designed for castle kitchens only.  It wasn’t until 1834 that Steward Oberlin patented a compact iron stove and revolutionized the North American kitchen.  Refinements on Oberlin’s basic design added cooking ovens, water heaters and warming ovens, bringing us to the beauties that sat in our grandmother’s kitchen and for which I pine on long days when the electricity goes off.

Antique stoves for sale

Klondyke Stove

             Note the ornate chrome work.  The stove was a work of art as well as an essential element to comfort.

Modern refinements on the wood stove have added catalytic converters to reduce emissions and improve the efficiency of combustion.  Construction materials include soapstone, ceramics and glass as well as iron and steel and those of us who’ve endured a loss of power on a cold winter’s day are leading the charge to resurrect the humble kitchen stove – even if it lives in a forgotten corner of the basement most of the time.

Sources:  Black, Martha Louise  My Ninety Years  Alaska Northwest Publishing Co. Anchorage, Alaska, 1976
Curtis, Will and Jane, Antique Woodstoves, Artistry in Iron, Star Press, Kenebeck Maine, 1975
http://collectionscanada.ca

http://www.canadian-antique-stoves.com/Z-kootenay1910.htm

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Declutter

Every January, after I’ve put away the Christmas decorations, I’m seized by a strong desire to clean house, and I don’t just mean scrubbing the floors and vacuuming under the beds.  I mean turning out closets, emptying shelves and tossing the old, broken, worn and useless stuff I’ve collected over the years.  At one time of my life I moved every year.  In those days, I had no clutter!  But, I’ve lived in my current house for more than thirty years and “stuff” accumulates.   This urge to clean house is rare and must be acted upon immediately or it crawls off into a corner for another twelve months and hides under the piles of old magazines.  However, when I do complete a proper clean out I feel great, full of energy and purpose, ready to tackle something new.

As a writer, it strikes me that decluttering has a place in my process as well.  The first (really ugly) draft is full of verb phrases, redundant adjectives and meandering plot lines.   All of which seemed essential at the time.  Just like that broken clock I thought could be fixed rather than thrown out.  But now that I’m at full-on declutter, I’ll take a sharp blue pencil to my verbiage too.

Here’s an example from my WIP:

“Come on, Bonaparte!”  Marie Dubois rubbed her gloved hands together while she waited for the short-legged mutt to do his business.  She glanced at her watch and felt Her heart thudded against her ribs.  She had exactly seven minutes to get to work.  If the dog didn’t perform soon, delayed her, she’d be late for work — again!  Not that she blamed   She didn’t blame Bonaparte.  The poor thing had been   After being stuck inside for hours, he needed exercise.  But not now! “Come on, Bonaparte!”  she tugged on his leash.  “I can’t be late today, of all days.  The new boss is expected.  would still be there if she hadn’t used the key stored under a stone owl on Mme Ethier’s front step to pen the door and rescue him.”

Well, it’s a start and I feel better already. What about you?  Care to put on your editor’s cap and have a go at my prose?  Don’t be shy.  I won’t be insulted — but I reserve the right to ignore your suggestions. 🙂

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You’re a Writer When . . .

January 2010-010You know you’re a writer when . . .

  • you spend three times longer than necessary wrapping up a few bits of stained glass from the Nativity set and start to contemplate the power or ritual and how it might be used in a story.  Ritual takes time.  So, if you have a scene that you want the reader to pause over, to savour, to spend time with, try adding some ritual.  It will slow the pace while deepening the emotion.
  • you put away the stacking Russian dolls and begin to think of layers of story, how each fits inside the other, how they must lock together seamlessly.  The magic number with dolls is five.  Are there at least five layers of meaning in your story?
  • you re-read the notes attached to Christmas gifts from years ago and think of how our treasures reveal character.  In this case, the character of the note writer and the character of the one who kept it in a special box.   What do your heroine’s treasures reveal about her character?
  • you are gripped by melancholy as the tree is dragged out the door, denuded of its finery, the needles leaving a trail on the carpet.  You feel sorry for the tree.  You imagine a Christmas story where the tree is forgotten and stays in the corner of the living room all summer.  Why is it forgotten?  What does it see?  Is the tree happy to live past its time?  Does the tree have a name?
  • a new journal with lots of empty pages so fires your imagination you walk away from that stack of new books and start filling the pages with what if . . .
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Merry Christmas

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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

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Power of Symbols

boxTwo things happened yesterday that got me thinking  about the power of symbols.  The first was a package from home.  For years, after I moved away from home and ended up half-way across the country, I felt Christmas didn’t really begin in my own house until the parcel from my mother arrived.  It was filled with little presents and silly rhymes, a piece of fruit cake and all the love my mom could pack into a box.  My parents have been gone now for years, but my dear sister-in-law continues the tradition.  When I get a box with the farm on the return address, my spirits rise and I feel like Christmas is really here.

The second thing  happened when I looked out my window at an inky blue sky — probably another storm on the way — and a pair of white swans flew by, their wings shining white in a trace of sunshine.  A pair of birds flying in close formation is a powerful symbol for me.  Once again, my heart lifted and I knew all was right in my personal world.

As writers we need to draw on the power of symbolism to strengthen our stories, or to feed the muse.  Think of the enduring stories of the ages.  Tara is a powerful symbol in Gone With the Wind.  For Scarlet, her home is worth any sacrifice, any lie, any relationship.  She draws her strength, her will and her courage from that house.  Can you see a raven without thinking of Edgar Allan Poe and death?  “Scarlet Letter” has entered our language as a symbol of shame and repression because of Hawthorne’s book.  The Titanic may have been a great ship, but now it is a symbol of looming disaster. Or how about the yellow brick road?  Don’t we all want to follow it to Emerald City?

In his Writing the Breakout Novel Donald Maass says, “Symbols — which generally are physical objects but may also be phrases, gestures, animals or just about anything — pack a powerful lot of meaning into a small package.”  He goes on to suggest that the writer often has included symbols in the story without realizing it.  He urges writers to find those hidden symbols and make them shine.  Use them to add polish to your story, to plant an idea in your reader’s mind, to create a lasting image that will give your story enduring power.

In my book The Man for Her, Lottie’s yellow silk dress is a symbol, an outward expression of an internal change.  “The feel of the yellow silk beneath her rough fingers had stirred such an ache of desire, a yearning for gentleness and softness and pretty things.”   I refer to yellow silk only three  times in the book, but it means so much more than the colour of a fine fabric.  When she wears that dress she is no longer “Crazy Lottie” but a young woman ready to give her heart to a man.

Christmas time is rife with symbols, some universal, like a star or shepherds or a stable, others more personal, like a package from home or a pair of swans.   Look for those symbols in your writing and make them work harder.  Your readers will thank you.

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All About Humphrey

I’ve mentioned on my website that I write occasional Christmas plays for my junior choir at church.  Last year, I did not.  The choir had become very small, the kids involved in a plethora of after-school events and the adults exhausted by all the demands of the season.  Last year, I kept my hands off the computer keyboard and let others take the lead.   That included a beautiful cello solo by our gifted church organist — and cellist.  I thought how lovely the music sounded and my imagination took over. I could not keep from writing yet another Christmas play.  And so, “Humphrey the Lonely Cello” was born.  Humphrey

 

 

 

But this year, I vowed to be smarter. I wrote a story for narration only with members of the choir acting the parts but not speaking lines.  Fewer rehearsals, fewer bodies needed, fewer demands on all of our time.

Despite being “smart” the lead up to this year’s concert overtook all my other resolutions.  I made last minute costume accessories, baked last minute goodies for the tea, organized others to bake cookies, recruited a kitchen team, marked a script for the lighting guy, coached a teenager on her solo, moved pews, ransacked my house for desk lamps and gave my husband permission to lock me in a closet if I ever again got an idea about a Christmas play!

Show night came, all was in readiness, and the sound system at the church went on the fitz.

What’s a Christmas concert without a panic?  The minister and his son hauled out our portable sound system, the audience sang some carols and, finally, we began.

Our little play came off brilliantly.   When I first began writing for our church stage, the star of this show was two years old.  We’ve put on eight productions since then and the children — er– youth — are all pros.  They appear on stage with ease and aplomb.  They have great ideas about how to perform a scene.  They take responsibility for making the show succeed.  I am very blessed to have them in my life at all times, but especially at Christmas they add the “merry and bright” part.

My husband, lovely man that he is, painted the sets, built the “cello”, lifted the heavy stuff, narrated the story, held my hand, missed his dinner, and didn’t complain once.

Christmas has changed since I was young.  Public celebrations now focus on “The Holidays.”  To proclaim the birth of Christ in the marketplace or the workplace is to invite censure.  Towns put up lights, Santa visits and there’s a tree on every corner but the wonder, the beauty and the holiness of the season are lost beneath the wrapping paper.   Maybe that’s why I can’t help writing a Christmas play.  My Christmas is much more than too much food, too many presents and too numerous parties.   My Christmas includes Bethlehem and shepherds and wise men. Together, with my little band of actors/singers, we declare the message of Christ in the manger, the coming of peace, good will toward men.  We sing out the faith in our hearts and the hope in our souls.  We celebrate Christmas.      Gloria in excelsis Deo

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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.

 

 

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Flower Power

DSCF4797This video has received hundreds of thousands of views. You’ve probably seen it yourself on your computer or on television.  It is touching and hopeful during a dark time in our world.  It also reminds me of the 1960’s when “flower power” was used as a weapon by protesters against the Viet Nam War.   Baby boomers, members of the most privileged generation in history, dropped out of mainstream society to live in communes, celebrate free love and wear flowers in their hair.  They wanted to stop the West’s involvement in Viet Nam.    They wanted to follow the Beatles to the Maharishi and “love, love, love.” They wanted to “give peace a chance.”P1000080

The war in Viet Nam did end, eventually.  Most of the communes disappeared as the reality of living off the land struck home and the Beatles have disbanded.  The world desperately wants to “give peace a chance” yet some extremists are determined to plunge us into anarchy instead.

Listening to this little boy and his father harkens back to those innocent days of the ’60’s, before 9/11, before Madrid, before London , before the attack on Parliament in Canada. . . and before ParisDSCF4789.    In the face of such evil, flowers and candles seem a poor defence, and yet . . .

When free citizens refuse to live in fear, when we reject xenophobia, when we hang onto our compassion, when we place a flower, when we light a candle, we bring light to a dark world.  Hate loves darkness, it lives in the shadows, it thrives behind walls.  Let us light candles.  Let us wear flowers in our hair.  Let us unite against hate.  Let us love.6834094-candle-wallpaper[1]

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Guest Blogging

This week I’m a guest at Cynthia Woolf’s blog.  Why not hop over there and say hi?  As part of that blog I’m giving away a new Christmas short story to anyone who signs up for my newsletter.  Anyone who is already a subscriber, or subscribes from this page will also receive the story.

If you’re a fan of short stories, you can always download my book, The Man Who Loved Christmas.  It’s free and has gained some nice reader reviews.TMWLC WEB medium

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Remembrance

IMGP1945Today is Remembrance Day and I will spend it in the same way I have for many years.  In the morning, my husband and I attend the service at the cenotaph.  In the afternoon, I make Christmas cake.  

That may seem like a strange juxtaposition, remembrance and celebration, but it is fitting.  In a religious sense, Advent is a season of reflection, a quiet time, a time to prepare for the birth of Jesus and the miracle of salvation embodied in His life.

Remembrance Day is also a time for reflection, for quiet, sombre ceremony and a time to remember that “man hath no  greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  War brings out the worst and the best of mankind.  The annals of wartime team with examples of soldiers sacrificing themselves for their comrades.  They also record the thousands of stories of ordinary men and women who went to war because they believed in peace and freedom.  Mixing Christmas cake in the comfort  of my kitchen, the air redolent with spices and fruit,  my heart free of fear, I live out the life my soldier ancestors fought for. 

On November 11 I remember with gratitude my countrymen who risked all that my generation might live in peace.  On November 11 I prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace.

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Hallowe’en

Sunday I began eating the Hallowe’en candy — not because I’d been out trick or treating on Saturday night, but because I always buy treats and no one comes knocking on my door.  It has been this way for several years now.  The neighbourhood children have grown and gone and newcomers tend to gather at the community centre or a school for a party.  I see more costumes on adults in stores and restaurants than I do on children on the street.

When I was in school, Hallowe’en was a very different event.  We had a party at school during the last hour of the school day.  The teacher hid caramels wrapped in Hallowe’en paper all around the school yard and then we went hunting.  Those were awful candies.  They’d pull your fillings right out of your teeth if you weren’t careful, but we took pride in finding them.  There were also some hard humbugs.  Took a long time to suck one of those down to manageable size.

The really good candy came after dark.  My younger brothers and I, dressed in costumes cobbled together out of the rag bag and the dress up box,  would go into the village (we lived on a farm) and make the rounds of the ten or so houses there.  We refused to speak, believing we could hide our identities that way, but, in such a small community, everyone knew where one girl and two small boys lived, so we weren’t as incognito as we believed.  We’d have to go inside, usually into the kitchen, turn around to show off our costumes and shake our heads yes or no as our hosts asked questions.  Then they’d put homemade fudge, or brown sugar candy into our small bags.  We only had a small paper bag.  My mother thought it disgraceful that kids in town would canvass with a pillow case!     My Dad had a particular fondness for Aunt Georgina’s fudge.  Luckily, she knew that so always tucked a few extra pieces into our hands “to share with your Dad.”

Once I became a teenager, the annual trek to the neighbours for candy became a thing of the past.  The only time I got to wear a costume was for the Sadie Hawkins Dance at high school.  Once again, the rag bag was a treasure trove, since we all wanted to look like the Yokums from Li’l Abner.

Brunhilda I did crash my three year old godson’s Hallowe’en party once.  I dressed as Brunhilda.  That’s the nose cone from an airplane on my head with tin foil horns attached.  My godson was scared. His mother laughed and laughed.  She still teases me about that day.  My godson is now over 21.

Hope you all had a sweet Hallowe’en, however you acquired your candy.

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