Category: Writing Life

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.

Facebooklinkedin

Good-bye Stuart McLean

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So long for now.  Thanks for everything.

 

Facebooklinkedin

The Archives

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Facebooklinkedin

Gems in the Files

      As part of my January clear-out, I sorted through the drawers of my desk. No matter how often I cull, they always fill up again so now it’s part of my New Year’s ritual.  Anyway, amid the old receipts and cards, I came across my file of workshop notes.  What at treat!  I soon gave up my housekeeping and immersed myself in the file.  I have notes on “emotional intensity,” “blogging,” “revisions,” “plotting – by character, by structure, by GMC . . .”  I have notes on building character based on a flaw, on strengths, on birth sign/order, on secrets.”  There are several workshops around editing, the writer’s journey, the hero’s journey and the romance heroine’s journey.  In short, I have several textbooks worth of notes.

     I always enjoy the workshops I attend.  I love the vibe of sitting with other writers, cheering each other’s accomplishments, weeping with each other’s disappointments.  The teachers I’ve encountered have all been sincere, learned, and enthusiastic.  At the end of the workshop I’m fired up, sure that a tweak here and a tweak there will have my latest ms ready for an editor.  Dreams of “best-selling” labels waft through my mind.  I come home, renewed, restored, and refreshed.  Within a week, I’ve chucked the workshop notes into a drawer and am slogging away at the writing in my usual fashion.

       That pattern used to depress me. Why did I spend the time and money on a workshop if I wasn’t going to use the lessons learned?  Why did I keep on in my old way, when there was this brand new way just begging to be used?  Worse still, why couldn’t I make my ms fit the template given by the wise one leading the workshop?  Through many trials and many tears, I’ve learned something.  My work is my work.

     No matter how brilliant my writer friend is, her process is not mine. No matter how much I envy the author who can produce a book a month, she’s not me.  I have wasted many hours trying to make my story, my process, conform to someone else’s pattern, and it has been a waste of time.  Just as our stories are individual, so is our method of getting to “the end.”  Having finally come to terms with that fact, I now enjoy the workshops for the camaraderie, the insights and the day out.  I no longer obsess over the lessons.

     That’s not to say I disregard the lessons, I just incorporate the bits that work for me into my system. Looking over this pile of notes I find some common themes, themes that play in the back of my mind as I wrestle with the words in my story.  One presenter used “why?” as the basis for plotting.  Why did a character do something? i.e.  Jane went to the store.  “Why?” To get away from her mother-in-law. “Why?” Because her MIL scared her.  “Why?” Because if her MIL prevailed, Jane would have to tell John her secret.  Ah!  Now we’re getting somewhere, all by asking “why?”

     Similarly, another presenter says “so what?” So what if Jane tells John her secret?  She may lose him.  “So what?”  John means everything to Jane.  She can’t live without him.  “So what?”  If Jane can’t cope on her own, she’ll lose her job.  “So what?”  If she loses her job, she’ll lose custody of her daughter.  See how a simple question, why or so what, can drive a story?  We haven’t even talked about character yet.

     Over time I’ve learned that I do better with these types of question/guides than I do with charts. In my workshop file are some beautiful charts for creating characters, creating scenes, developing plot, and organizing structure.  But charts are too hard-edged for me.  I never know which box to put an item in because scenes bleed over into characterization and characterization bleeds into plot, and plot bleeds into goal and . . .

     Still, I keep the workshop notes. When I need a boost, I’ll read over a few.  Somewhere in there, a phrase, a question, a marginal note will start my brain clicking away and I’m happily back into the wip.  So, thanks to all the workshop presenters I’ve enjoyed, and thanks to all my fellow writers for building a community that embraces me and my process.

.

Facebooklinkedin

Piper James Richardson

 

images-4With Remembrance Day just past there have been plenty of stories for a history buff such as myself to read and contemplate. One of those stories involves James Richardson of British Columbia.

Young Jimmy was just 19 when he enlisted in the 72 Seaforth Higlanders of Canada. He went overseas with the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, During the Battle of the Ancre Heights on 8 October 1916 at Regina TrenchSommeFrance, the company was held up by very strong wire and came under intense fire.  Young Jimmy asked permission, then jumped out of his trench and played the pipes in full view of the enemy. Fired by his example, the Battalion forced its way through the wire and made it to their objective. Amazingly, Piper Richardson survived the battle. When the fighting paused, he acted as a stretcher bearer, bringing wounded comrades off the field. At the end of the day, he realized he’d lost his pipes. He returned to the battlefield to recover them and that was the last anyone saw of him. Jimmy download-1Richardson  disappeared into the mists of battle.  He was awarded the Victoria Cross, Canada’s highest military honour, posthumously for “conspicuous bravery.”
It was believed his bagpipes had been lost in the mud but in 2002 they were discovered in Scotland. A British Army chaplain had found them and brought them home where they remained on display in a school where he taught.  The pipes were then returned to the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s).download-2

I first learned this story when our Victoria Symphony presented a Lest We Forget concert at the Bay Street Armoury in Victoria in 1914. “The Piper” composed by Tobin Stokes commemorates Richardson’s exploits and his tragic end. The presentation included film and readings as well as music and stands as one of the most moving Act of Remembrance services I have ever attended.

At this sombre time of year, Canada is once again preparing to send troops into troubled places around the world. They take with them an inspiring history of service and bravery. They also take with them the love and prayers of the citizens of the country they serve.  We wish them God speed, safe passage and the knowledge that they bring light and goodness into places of horror and evil.download-3

Facebooklinkedin

From Blah to Brilliant

imagesOne of my recurring disappointments when it comes to writing is the first read.  When I’ve laboured on a scene, poured out passion on the page, sifted and sorted for just the right word, moved my characters to a new place in their story arc, I shut down the computer with a sigh of content.  I’ve written “good stuff.”

     The next day I read what I wrote and my bubble bursts.  Where’s the passion?  Where’s all that emotion and angst?  It’s in my head all right, but it didn’t make it to the page.  Why not?  One of the reasons, I suspect, is that I’m a slow writer.  Just because it took me several hours to wrestle out that scene, I think it must be huge.  In truth, I discarded more words than I committed to the manuscript, so instead of the earth-shattering scene I thought I’d written, I’ve a couple of paragraphs that don’t do much.

            Once I’ve gotten over my disappointment, it’s time to rework that scene, get the passion on the page.  Here are some of my methods.

  •   Metaphor/simile:  We’re all cautioned against “purple prose” but emotional writing has to call on the reader’s senses, her experiences and her culture.  So, if my heroine is angry, here’s a place where I can up the emotional quotient.  Is her anger white hot rage that bubbles and flows into every nook and crevice of her mind, burning everything and everyone with molten fury?  Or is her anger cold, calculating, vengeful, coiled like a serpent, ready to strike when the time is right?
  • Pace: If this is a reflective scene, where the heroine comes to a new understanding of herself or the hero, it doesn’t hurt to slow the pace of the narrative.  Give her time to process the new information.  She doesn’t need to sit still while she does this.  She can do the dishes, pick apples, talk to a mentor or go running.  Giving the character and the reader a little breathing room will give your next adrenalin-shot scene more impact.  If it’s an action scene, make sure the heroine and the reader are breathless.
  • Humour: Even Shakespeare used comic relief in his tragedies.  No character and no reader can function on high intensity all the time, they burn out.  Your character runs out of ways to heighten the tension and your reader decides to put down the book and watch cartoons for a while.  You can give everyone a break but still keep them involved in your story with a little light-heartedness.
  • Details: If my scene is too short – it usually is – now is a time to layer in details that carry an emotional impact.  The setting, the time of year, the time of day, the pattern of the carpet.  All of these details can stretch out the scene, give it the importance required by the story, without coming off as “fill.”  Maybe the complicated pattern of the carpet represents the complicated feelings of the heroine for the hero.  Maybe the first star of evening offers hope to a character in despair.  No need to get the story bogged down in pointless details, but a few carefully chosen ones, can lift the writing from blah to brilliant.
  • Print it out:   I’m old school.  I read better on paper.  Often what is blindingly obvious in print eludes me on the screen.  I recycle and reuse, but I need to print it to truly see it.
  • Read it out: Once I’m sure I’ve done everything I can with the written word, I read it aloud.  If the prose can pass the read aloud test, I’ve done my job.

 

Now I’m off to practice what I preach.

Facebooklinkedin

Beware the Passive Heroine

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

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

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

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

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

Facebooklinkedin

Brag Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

P1020639     

Facebooklinkedin

Lists

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

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

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

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

Facebooklinkedin

Faster, Higher, Stronger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebooklinkedin

The Rosy Fingers of Dawn

DSCF4778The phrase used as the title of this blog is often cited as an example of how not to write for the modern reader.

First, the language is too flowery, too precious, too self-conscious.  It belongs to another time and has no place in the fast-paced world of the twenty-first century.

Second, the writer is wasting words on a sunrise when she could be filling the page with plot, action, conflict or dialogue.

Usually I agree with that advice, but it’s summertime.  We’re on vacation.  Life has slowed down.  We take time to draw a deep breath and to gaze in wonder at a glorious sunrise.  I was headed out early with the fisherman the other day and the sky really was rosy, the streaks of light across the horizon did resemble fingers.  I didn’t think “uh-oh, pollution.” or “the sky is pink”, or even “do I have sunscreen?”  I thought, “the rosy fingers of dawn.”  A hackneyed phrase, rather like “it was a dark and stormy night,” but watching the sunrise soothed my soul, stilled my restless spirit, and quieted my anxious mind.

Sometimes outdated, clichéd and derided language is perfect for the moment.

I really dislike the “rules” of writing that say I should avoid certain words, that I should never describe sunsets and my characters have to be in constant motion.  Mostly, that is all good advice, but the author is still in charge of her own work.  If a sunrise fits the story, I’m all for wallowing in it — especially in summertime.

Right now, I’ll bend the rules by telling you I’m watching the sunset.  The colours in the western sky have changed from orange to red, to rose, to indigo.  The mountains on the horizon are navy blue and the fir trees point black fingers into the heavens.  The tension of my day has vanished.  My soul is at peace and I don’t care about the writing “rules.”

Facebooklinkedin

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.

Facebooklinkedin

Working Hands

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

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

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

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

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

Facebooklinkedin

Lessons in Storytelling

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

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

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

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

Facebooklinkedin

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.

 

 

 

Facebooklinkedin

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,

Facebooklinkedin

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.

Facebooklinkedin

Why Romance?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Facebooklinkedin

Life is Now

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

For more about Jo go to her group blog wordwenches

Facebooklinkedin

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?

Facebooklinkedin

Pet Reunions

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

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

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

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

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

Facebooklinkedin

Fire!

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

Facebooklinkedin

Whose Values?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebooklinkedin

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.

Facebooklinkedin

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.

Facebooklinkedin

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.

Facebooklinkedin

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.

 

 

 

P1020425 - Copy

magnolia tree

P1020409 - Copy P1020415 - Copy P1020412 P1020418 P1020427

 

 

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.

P1020422 - Copy

 

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.


 

Facebooklinkedin

The Joy of Taxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebooklinkedin

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!

 

 

Facebooklinkedin

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.

 

 

 

 

Facebooklinkedin

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

Facebooklinkedin

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 . . .
Facebooklinkedin

Merry Christmas

DSCF1066

Butchart Gardens at Christmas

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

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

 

Alice

Facebooklinkedin

Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Facebooklinkedin

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]

Facebooklinkedin

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.

Facebooklinkedin

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.

Facebooklinkedin

Voted!

images (1)Monday was election day in Canada and I happily took myself off to the polling station and exercised my right to vote for my member of parliament.  As I did so, I remembered my grandmother, one of the first generation of Canadian women to win the vote.  Imagine, she’d taught school, personally known Sir John A. MacDonald,, helped her husband pioneer on a farm in Northern Ontario, born ten children, sent a son to fight in Flanders Fields and she was deemed unfit to chose her government.  In our modern age such a situation seems incredible.  Roughly 30% of eligible voters didn’t bother to mark a ballot this time around.  My grandmother would shake her finger at them and say, “shame on you.”

My grandmother got the right to vote partially through the efforts of the Famous Five, a group of five women who took their demand to be considered “persons” under the law all the way to the Privy Council in Britain.  They had been denied by the Supreme Court of Canada, but the Privy Council agreed that women were in fact, persons, and as such must be treated equally with men under the law.famousfive

Apart from the right to vote, and the right to run for parliament,  this change in the understanding of the BNA Act had far reaching effects on women’s rights of ownership, finances, family, children, divorce and education.  The famous five didn’t end their activism with suffrage.  After they were declared “persons” they worked on many causes including mother’s allowances,  better education for their children,  free medical and dental care for school children, and equal pay for equal work.

One of the Famous Five was Nellie Mooney McLung.  My grandmother claimed kinship with Nellie because of the shared Mooney name.  I have a cousin who has done extensive work on our family tree and even she has been unable to unearth a connection between our family and Nellie’s but Grandmother claimed there was a spiritual connection even if she couldn’t find one by blood.

So, as I cast my vote I say thanks to Nellie and her compatriots who campaigned so tirelessly for the rights of women and I say thanks to my grandmother who instilled in all her many descendants the privileges and duties of citizenship.  This one’s for you, Gramma.images

 

Facebooklinkedin

Thanksgiving

P1020181Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday.  The preparation time is short — a week at the outside — there is no demand to decorate the entire house, and there are no gifts to buy or costumes to make.   For me Thanksgiving is what a holy-day should be, a time to remember our Maker with gratitude, and a time to draw close to those we love.

This year was my turn to prepare the feast, turkey dinner.  The man of the house doesn’t believe it’s a proper holiday without turkey.  Lamb, ham, prime rib — none of these have the cachet of turkey when it comes to celebration.  So, I got up early on Sunday morning, stuffed the turkey and put it in the oven before heading off to church.  The day before I’d dug potatoes from the garden, baked an apple pie, and made my special cranberry/mandarin jellied salad, another offering that only appears on holidays.  My preparations were simple since my guests had all offered to bring a dish.  Usually, I turn down those offers, but this year I said yes.  Dinner for eight was a breeze.

However, there was one thing missing from the table — children.  When I began married life, our friends were like us, couples.  I could make elaborate table settings, balance acorns on oak leaves and serve adventurous dishes without worrying someone would knock it over or make a face and say “What’s that?”  Then children appeared.  The table had to stretch to twelve or fourteen or even eighteen.  Different tastes had to be accommodated.  The noise level went up.  I created a toy box, just for visiting children.  I needed bigger pots and a bigger turkey.  Festive occasions were loud and energetic and exhausting.DSCF5301

But this year, none of the next generation was present.  Dinner was so easy I feared I’d left something out.   Conversation focused on watching sports instead of playing them.  Retirement plans took the place of getting that first job.  Everyone went home at a reasonable time.

I still love Thanksgiving.  I revel in the bounty of harvest.  I bring out the best china and the silver tea set.  I dress my front door in fall colours.  But I miss the kids.  To my litany of thanks, I now add the privilege of knowing so many young people, (I’ve conducted a junior choir for years).  I’m grateful to all of them for enriching my life, for sharing their activities, their energy, their interests and their growing years with me.  A gift beyond price.

Facebooklinkedin

Mischief of Mice

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

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

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

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

Mischief of Mice

Romp of Otters

Scold of Jays

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

Murder of Lawyers

 

Facebooklinkedin

Longevity

   MI+cormacs+Obituary+fake  I mentioned previously that I’m an inveterate reader of the obituary column in my local newspaper.    This week I came across a real gem, a loving remembrance of a lady who died at 101 years of age.  It was a long column, and I found myself reading every word.  The writer had detailed the life of the deceased like a story.  I learned of the moral precepts that shaped her character.  I learned of the hardship she’d endured — born at the outset of World War One, marrying during the Depression and living through World War Two. 

     She was widowed in middle age and had to reshape her life, returning to work when she might have been looking at retirement, learning the computer at age 70 and carrying on with her career until she reached 80 years of age.  She outlived three of her four children. The story was told with warmth and affection.  By the time I reached the end of the column, had had a fondness both for the deceased and for the son who wrote the obituary.

     As a writer, I try to make my characters come alive to the reader, but details like birthdate, hair colour and profession, don’t create a personality the reader can root for.  Like the man who wrote the obituary, I need to draw a picture of my character that includes motivation (moral precepts), her reaction to events — even if the events themselves are ordinary her reaction will tell us about her.  It is the inner workings of the character’s heart and mind that bring her alive.  I’ve learned all that in various workshops I’ve attended, books I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had with other writers.  But an obituary in the Saturday paper really brings the concept to life.

     So, thanks to the loving son who reminded me of some basic rules of story-telling, and introduced me to a remarkable woman.  May she rest in peace

Facebooklinkedin

A Blue Ribbon

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

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

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

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

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

Facebooklinkedin

A love Story

  As a season’s pass holder to the Butchart Gardens I’ve been enjoying the wonderful concerts held there every evening from July through to Labour Day.  We’ve seen all sorts of entertainment on stage, Celtic bands, folk band, the Victoria Symphony, ballet and bluegrass.  In addition to the acts on stage, it’s a great place for people, and dog, watching.  Mostly, I delight in the children running and dancing on the great expanse of lawn.  Rhythm and dance seems to be build into humans and the children revel in the chance to express that.  The night we went to the ballet, there were any number of little girls wearing tutus and glittery headbands adding their beauty to the acts on stage.

I don’t know if the dogs enjoy their cultural opportunities, but they usually sit quietly, glad to spend time with their owners.  Last night there was a dog with great timing, he barked right on the beat.

But the off stage byplay I witnessed that most warmed my heart was an elderly couple who shuffled into the concert area just as the band started up.  He sat on a bench and she set up a lawn chair beside him.  She took great care to be sure he had a cushion to sit on, a vest to wear and a blanket over his knees.   About twenty minutes into the concert he got up and left.  He wasn’t very spry, but walked with a short step and a shuffling gait.  The concert continued and I forgot about him until half an hour later when he came back, this time carrying a cup of coffee for his wife.  The little aside to the concert brought a smile to my face.  A true love story, I thought.  Not the first blush of passion we look for in a romance novel with all its angst and longing and soaring joy, but a love story in real life.  This couple no longer turned heads with their good looks.  They wouldn’t win a prize for fashion.  Time had diminished their strength, bowed their backs and turned their hair to grey, but their love for each other remained, secure, dependable and forever.  That’s a real life love story.

Facebooklinkedin

© 2017 Alice Valdal

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑