Author: Alice Valdal (Page 1 of 26)

Rag and Bone Man

I’ve been reading this memoir about a boy’s life on the Canadian prairies circa 1920 – 1939. Many of his tales of overturning outhouses on Hallowe’en, cleaning coal oil lamps, learning in a one-room schoolhouse, and the frequency and severity of corporal punishment resonate as they are part of the collective memory of my family too.

Our “enlightened” culture preaches the gospel of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” but, as the author of this memoir reminds us, our forebears “made do” which is the same thing. Our world  is faced with too much stuff so we need to find ways to dispose of it. Previous generations didn’t have enough so they found ways to make every thread and every morsel count. 

Women made quilts from scraps of worn out fabric. Clothes, toys and shoes were handed down within a family and even circulated to cousins and neighbours. A trip to the store was difficult so the Watkins man and the Fuller Brush man came to call. Worn out woollens could be gathered up and sent off to a mill and returned to the homemaker as wool blankets. 

One aspect of early twentieth century life that this book references is the “rag and bone man.” He was actually an early recycler, collecting worn out scraps of material, bare bones, old pots and pans, and bits of scrap metal. The rags were often sold to paper mills for rag paper. Bones could be used to make buttons and knife handles, or ground up for glue and fertilizer. Any left over grease was used in making soap.  The rag and bone man was the epitome of the old adage “waste not want not.” 

The term “rag and bone man” is familiar from English literature, but until I read this memoir I was unaware of the practice in Canada, perhaps because of the term “rag and bone.” In my world we were more apt to speak of the junk-man. As automobiles became more commonplace, scrap metal and used car parts soon displaced rags and bones as the most valuable discard from households.  I once spent a few enjoyable hours prowling around an auto junk yard looking for a side window to a VW Beetle. It felt a bit like a treasure hunt and I was gleeful when I found the prize.

Our blue boxes and recycle depots seemed like a new thing when they were introduced. At that time it was the Yuppies who jumped on the environmental bandwagon hoping to save the world by finding a use for waste. Turns out it wasn’t such a new idea at all. Donating worn out clothing to a thrift shop, organizing a bottle drive for a charity, keeping garbage out of the garbage dump are all part of life in the twenty-first century, but they aren’t new and they lack the thrill of hunting through the junk-man’s cart.

The author’s “good old days,” have the golden tinge of time and nostalgia. Life was hard and precarious but for many who lived it, it was fun and exciting and “normal.” Anyone here ever turned a blue box into a bobsled?

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Captain James Cook

July 1, 2021 was a strange kind of Canada Day. With many COVID restrictions just beginning to ease, there was a wariness about big gatherings. Added to that were the recent announcements of graveyards at Residential Schools, and many felt this was not a time to celebrate our country. The First Nations leadership asked Canadians to spend the day in reflection about the past and future of Canada. But crowds bent on destruction ignored that call. They set fire to churches, defaced public property and toppled statues. One of the targets was the statue of Capt. James Cook on the inner harbour in Victoria, B.C.

Mobs seldom do a thorough investigation of the facts. They are fired by emotion–anger, fear, vengeance–and are determined to carry out their own form of justice. History is littered with tales of innocent men lynched by a mob. In this case, Cook was targeted as revenge for the horrors of residential schools in Canada. Since the man lived and died before Canada was a nation, the link is tenuous.

Born in England in 1728, James Cook joined the Royal Navy in 1755 after serving an apprenticeship on board a number of trading vessels. With the navy he served in the Seven Years War along the east coast of what is now Canada.  He was a remarkable map-maker and undertook the first scientific large scale hydro graphic survey of present-day Newfoundland. So accurate were his maps that they were used for over 200 years, well into the twentieth century. 

His scientific accomplishments brought him to the attention of the Royal Society, founded in the 1660’s with the mandate to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

With the backing of the Admiralty and the Royal Society, Cook made three voyages of discovery to the Pacific. The first two voyages resulted in extensive mapping around New Zealand and Australia along with many South Sea islands, including Hawaii.

On his third voyage, Cook reached Nootka Sound in British Columbia. In an excerpt from his journals he writes: 

We no sooner drew near the inlet than we found the coast to be inhabited; and at the place where we were first becalmed, three canoes came off to the ship. . . a person in one of the two last stood up, and made a long harangue, inviting us to land, as guessed, by his gestures. At the same time he kept throwing handfuls of feathers toward us; and some of his companions threw handfuls of red dust or powder in the same manner. . . one sung a very agreeable air with a degree of softness and melody which we could not have expected; the word haela being often repeated as the burden of the song.. . .  A great many canoes, filled with the natives, were about the ships all days; and a trade commenced betwixt us and them which was carried on with strictest honesty on both sides. . .

One of Cook’s notable accomplishments was the good health of his crew. No one died of scurvy, the illness that decimated crews on long voyages during the 18th Century. Cook maintained cleanliness and ventilation in the crew’s quarters, and insisted on a diet that included cress, sauerkraut, and a kind of orange extract.  (vitamin C) For work against scurvy, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the gold Copley Medal, one of its highest honours.

 Cook explored and mapped more territory than any navigator of his era. His achievements have been honoured by scientists and statesmen  for the past 240 years. Even NASA paid tribute. Cook’s HMS Discovery was one of several historical vessels that inspired the name of the third space shuttle, and NASA later named their final shuttle “Endeavour” after the ship he commanded on his first circumnavigation of the globe. When the shuttle Discovery made its final space flight in 2011, its crew carried a special medallion made by the Royal Society in honour of Cook.

Captain Cook died in 1779 in Hawaii during a dispute over wood and a cutter with the King of Hawaii. His statue was ripped down by a mob and thrown into the sea in Victoria, British Columbia in 2021.

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The Not Wild West

I have always subscribed to the theory that the American west was the stuff of gunslingers and range wars, while the Canadian west was orderly, hard-working and a bit dull. 

My latest reading has shaken that idea into the gumbo of Saskatchewan mud. Red Lights on the Prairies by James Grey is a study of the “social evil,” in Canada’s prairie provinces from the late 1880’s until the end of WWII.

James Grey, a son of the prairies, had a successful career as a newspaper man before retiring and turning his hand to writing books. His work is littered with references to various newspapers of the period, along with police reports and first hand accounts from old timers. The result is an entertaining and readable history of Canada’s west that never appeared in my social studies classes in school.

He begins his account in Winnipeg, the first of the prairies cities to achieve city status. The development of this city was mimicked in large part by other centres like Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon. The railway arrived first and the town grew around the station. The town-sites had virtually no infrastructure so hotels, shops, livery stables and houses were thrown up willy-nilly in close proximity to the station. Travellers getting off the trains were met with an abundance of bars and con men, and a dearth of lodgings. 

Since the vast majority of new arrivals were single men, prostitution was not only tolerated but regarded as necessary. The prevailing attitude was that with 200,000 men without female partners, brothels were just another business. Politicians and police tended to turn a blind eye to the madams and their girls provided they kept the noise and brawling to a respectable level. They were more inclined to take action against the houses-of-ill-repute on liquor offences than on moral grounds.

In all the cities of the prairie provinces, the argument around brothels centred on the question of segregation. Some notable police chiefs left the prostitutes alone so long as they stayed in their own area of town, Annabella Street in Winnipeg, River Street in Regina and Nose Creek in Calgary. When the “ladies” paraded around town in their finery, insulting the sensibilities of decent women and reforming clergy, the police were wont to “run them out of town.” The latter was a fruitless exercise as the women simply re-established their houses beyond the city borders but near enough for the cowhands, miners, railway workers, and farmers sons to find them on payday. 

When the reformers and Temperance workers were able to persuade a city to close down a red light district*, the police would reluctantly comply, knowing full well the prostitutes might set up shop in the downtown district or in a back room of a hotel and the “social evil” would continue unabated. Some time later, the protests over public morals would come full circle and the women would be moved into a segregated area where they were less apt to come into contact with respectable women.

In some cities the brothels were treated like community centres. They were usually larger and more luxurious than the hotels. Town council might meet in the living room of a friendly madam. Fraternal organizations would enjoy a good dinner and music in a bordello during their monthly meeting. 

It wasn’t unusual for one of the girls to grow tired of life in the brothel and marry one of her customers. The stigma attached to prostitution in our day was remarkably absent in the early 20th century. Mind you, the wife of a miner or other labourer could be a misery–a tiny shack, limited means, and hard physical labour. If the husband drank his wages the new wife might drift back to her former profession just to keep herself fed.

Back to my original perceptions — it is true that the Canadian west was less lawless than its American counterpart. The Mounties preceded the settlers in Canada. In the US settlement often came first and law and order came later. But the notion that the vast expanse of the Canadian prairie was peopled by, as Grey puts it “monks, eunuchs, and vestal virgins” has been completely overturned. Booze, broads and brawls were as much a part of settlement in Canada’s west as sod shanties and one room schoolhouses.

*There were no actual red lights in the brothels on the Canadian prairies. The term is an Americanism, no doubt imported along with the thousands of American settlers who flowed north to Canada.

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5 Pitfalls in Research

As a writer of historical fiction I am beset with questions of historical accuracy and attitudes of the times vs the ultra-sensitive world of today. As I child, I read “The Plains of Abraham” and “The Loon Feather” with an open heart and an uncritical eye. Even though the books were fiction it never occurred to me that they were not “true.” But in the 21st century, history is fraught with cultural traps. Can we use the word “Indian?” That’s how Indigenous people were referenced in the nineteenth century. If my story is set in 1890 and I use the term First Nation, it is anachronistic. I think I need to be true to the facts of history, but it is difficult to discern what is fact and what is opinion.

Here are a few warnings I’ve picked up along the way. 

  1. Don’t trust Hollywood. I watched a classic movie the other day and, even without being a scholar of Indigenous culture, I could tell that the movie-makers had picked bits and pieces from various First Nations and thrown them all together into a pastiche of what would seem authentic to their audience. I’m not slamming the movies. They were producing a visual extravaganza to be projected on big screens in cinema-scope and Technicolor. Mountains and totem poles and natives in war paint served that purpose well. But, if we want historical accuracy, we need to look further.
  2. Eye witnesses are unreliable. That is a fact every police officer and every courtroom lawyer can verify. Ask five people to describe a car crash and you’ll get five very different versions, some even contradictory. Not the fault of the witnesses. They are describing what they saw, but they saw the event only from one physical perspective and through the lens of their own belief system. I’m reading a book about brothels on the Canadian prairies in the first third of the 20th century. It is well researched and written by a respected historian. He relies heavily on newspaper accounts of the day. Yet, in those newspaper accounts the prevailing attitude of the times –live and let live–colours even the simplest facts, like the number of houses of ill repute on a given street.
  3. Fine Arts of the day are more likely to depict the artist’s impressions and the saleability of a piece than actual fact. Galleries throughout North America are hung with paintings depicting Indigenous peoples capering naked through the snow. There is no historical evidence of this style of “undress” in the Indigenous peoples of this land. Apparently artists and their customers couldn’t differentiate between native populations of warm south seas islands and those of snow covered northern climes.
  4. Photographs likely are more accurate than art works, although, Hannah Maynard (1834-1918) was able to create all kinds of effects in her pictures, like the one showing her at a tea party, pouring tea over her own head! She had no need of Photoshop. 
  5. Original Sources, the gold standard for historical research, still need to be tested. Francis Dickens of the North-West Mounted Police is an example. By his own account he was an heroic stalwart of a storied police force. His father, the author Charles Dickens, considered him bumbling and incompetent. In histories of the Mounted Police, charges against Officer Dickens include drunkenness, laziness and recklessness. Later histories conclude he was just an ordinary man, no better and no worse than his contemporaries.

So, where do we look for truth? I think historical research requires the same kind of diligence we use in analysing the news of today. What’s the source? Is it reliable? Do various reports reinforce the facts? Are we reading in our own echo chamber or are we truly exploring other points of view. 

Finally, remember that historical “fiction” is not a scholarly treatise. Tell a good story and use the time and setting to add colour and authenticity. Be true to indisputable facts, like dates and laws of the land. Visit museums and troll the archives to support your understanding of the age, then tell your story in the best way possible.

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Killing My Darlings

This has not been a happy week for me.

I started the rework on an old ms with high hopes. I had a new heroine and planned to turn the old one into the antagonist. In the original story she was a villain and I had hoped to reform her in this novel. Turns out, I couldn’t. Even as the author I could not make her likeable — she is sexy as hell and dangerous–but just too selfish and self-centred and manipulative to have my lovely hero love her again.

The new heroine doesn’t show up in such bright colours but she is loyal and steady and smart and becoming and generous and has a heart for the misused hero. Still, when I write her description beside that of the original, she comes off as bland. I’m afraid readers will think the hero has settled for second best when he chooses her. 

Hence, “killing my darlings.” All the flair and power I put into the description of the now villain has to be tempered and the bland heroine spiced up. The latter is fun, the former is painful. Stephen King wrote: Stephen King wrote, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Well, my egocentric little scribbler’s heart is breaking. Maybe I can just save those words to an outtake file somewhere. 😉

What about you, fellow authors? What do you do when your favourite passage has to go?

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What Makes a Heroine?

 

 

   A lone woman alit from the caboose of an early morning freight train.  She stood, silhouetted against the pale dawn, a tumble of black curls cascading down her back, a shabby valise crumpled at her feet.  She was the kind of woman who drew men to her like foxes to a vixen.  Yet, when they looked into her eyes, they averted their gaze and slunk away.  She saw too much, this ripe, fecund female; saw the hunger in their bellies, the lust in their loins and the evil in their souls.  In her charms were both rapture and damnation.  Few men would risk their souls to claim the promise of her full hips and overflowing breasts.

   Exiting the school house Kirsten Swendsen narrowed her eyes to study the stranger who looked so at home in Glenrose, Saskatchewan. As the truth dawned, animosity shattered her schoolmarm serenity. Runaway, adulteress, unfit mother, indecent, wanton . . . the list of Kathleen Walden’s sins filled many a gossip’s chatter. Kirsten had no doubt the woman at the train station was Kathleen, come back to damage the lives of her children and husband again. Rage jolted along her veins. Without weighing the consequences, she stepped into her gig and turned the horse for Walden farm.  

 

   Here is the question. Which woman should be the heroine of this book? Kathleen has lots of baggage from a previous novel. Can a woman who has abandoned her children and disgraced her husband be convincingly rehabilitated so that the reader believes her wronged husband can love her again? 

  Kirsten is a schoolmarm in every sense of the word. Can an opinionated, rule-ridden, super-achiever be a romantic heroine? Can a man who has loved Kathleen love her antithesis?

  As a reader, which woman would you root for?

  All comments gratefully received.

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Playtime

I start my day with the morning newspaper, then watch a little news commentary on television. Mostly, I enjoy this routine, but sometimes the bad news is overwhelming. Sometimes, a body just needs some playtime. So, today’s blog is dedicated to my cats. I hope readers will enjoy a little downtime with my furry critters.

cat as toddlerPlayful cats make as much mess as a playful toddler!

Not sure about this white stuff!

 

 

 

 

Oh, boy, Christmas!

 

Time for a little music.

                                                                                                                              Aren’t we sweet?

 

I read an article the other day where a woman whose family had contracted COVID remarked that they were lucky they had a yard where they could go outdoors.  As a farm girl I can’t imagine not having a yard, but looking at the high rise buildings in our cities it is clear that many, many people do not have that luxury. It reminded me to be grateful for even the smallest things–like pets. 

I hope all my readers see blessings, find something to smile about and look forward with hope today.

 

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7 Thoughts on Plots

Coming off of six weeks of courses on plotting, I’ve reached a few conclusions for myself. Some may be helpful to other writers.

  1. I truly am a pantser. I always thought I just didn’t know how to plot. Now, following the steps of these courses, I have created a complete plot. The problem is, when I tried to write a few scenes I found I’d lost interest.
  2. We pantsers find joy in uncovering the story as it goes along. I know a mystery writer who is half way through the book before she figures out “whodunnit.” If we know the ending and all the turning points in advance, there is no more excitement.
  3. All is not lost. As a pantser I’m often staring at the screen wondering what happens next. I’ve learned a better question is, what do they “do” next. My characters spend too much time drinking tea and thinking.
  4. “Why” is an excellent question at all stages of story-writing. Even when I get my characters into fist-fights or prairie fires, the action may seem random. “Why” they do something is always good to know and will keep the story from wandering.
  5. Time is my friend. I am useless at brainstorming sessions where people fire off ideas like a shotgun. I may take a day to give my character a name, let alone a story. These courses have been deliberately step-by-step. I can use that, even as a pantser.
  6. Romance stories are not formulaic. Any teacher who gives me a formula like — Name —must ———–because ———–, but————–gets in the way, so he———– but then————  Writing to a formula like this freezes my creativity. Fortunately, the courses I just took don’t use that approach.
  7. Even though I’m a committed pantser there are elements of plotting that I can use to improve my process and maybe save myself the frustration of deleting thousands of words.

All in all, I’ve found these six weeks of learning from Laurie Schnebly Campbell most enjoyable and useful. Even putting to bed the notion that if I could only plot in advance I’d be a better writer is worthwhile. Instead of doubting my process, I can use what I’ve learned to refine it. 

I’m constantly uplifted by the generosity of romance writers — their willingness to teach, to share business knowledge, and to encourage and support each other is truly remarkable. In a world that more often turns to cynicism and anger and hate, the example of romance writers offering hope and friendship and a helping hand is something to celebrate.  

Please use the comments section of this post to add your own thoughts on plot.

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The World Needs Romance Authors

holding up the worldI think the world, particularly journalists and politicians, needs to take a lesson from romance writers on how to critique.

Now that the COVID-19 crisis is moving into a new, and hopefully, end stage, all the pundits are out assessing who did what when, and complaining it wasn’t enough, was too much, was too late, missed the mark, etc. etc. Maclean’s, which bills itself as Canada’s magazine, published its latest issue with a black cover and the headline, “report on Canada’s mishandling of the crisis of the century.” In a time when we’re all struggling to maintain our mental health, this cover felt like a slap in the face.

As romance writers we’re taught that the critique is meant to be helpful to the author. It is not meant to destroy her writing dream. It is not a place for the critiquer to promote herself or her ideas. We learn to sandwich our criticism between layers of praise. The end result is to encourage the newbie writer to keep trying, to keep learning and to get better. If a critique results in the would-be-author giving up, the person writing the critique has failed.

To be fair,  Maclean’s did highlight bright spots in Canada’s response to COVID-19, most notably the response of individuals who found ways of helping out whether it was turning distilleries into makers of hand sanitizer, car manufacturers retooling to make PPE, or the compassion and dedication of health workers. Still, the overall tone of the magazine was negative.

Governments and their actions need to be scrutinized, I’m not denying that. But if the scrutiny is based on 20/20 hindsight without any recognition of the moment when decisions were made, it is unfair. If the analysis is intended to push a political agenda, that serves only one party, it is suspect. As with any great event in history, our response to COVID-19 should be examined. We should look for ways to do better. We should recognize that another pandemic can occur. We need critical thinking. But we also need people willing to take on the enormity of government. Given the level of personal attack and smear campaigns that are becoming standard practice, I wonder anyone even wants to run for office.

Politicians, agencies and public administrators will make mistakes. Pundits make mistakes too, but they are never headline news. If a journalist predicts a disaster and the disaster does not happen, that “expert” is not vilified in the press. There will be barely a mention of the miscalculation. Yet public figures are excoriated on everything from their policy statements to their hairstyles.  

I remember a conversation with an optimist once who complained that even the weather report listed 40% chance of showers. “That’s 60% chance of sunshine,” he grumbled. “Why not say it that way?”

As an optimist, I’m on his side. As a citizen I expect my leaders to put every ounce of effort into keeping me safe. I expect them to use science, technology, tradition and research to develop plans to make my country a place where every citizen is cared for and valued. As Maclean’s points out, there are many areas where we could have done better. But to imply that it was all a disaster is incorrect and serves only to fuel cynicism and distrust at a time when we need confidence and team spirit. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and all that.

Magazine’s like Maclean’s give no space to romance writers but they could certainly learn something about collegiality and encouragement from us.

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On Being a Student – Again

doing homeworkMoving along in Laurie Schnebly’s “Plotting via Motivation” course. . .I’ve learned that taking a workshop on-line instead of in person has some surprising benefits. The most important one for me is thinking time. I’m no good at those brainstorming sessions where everyone in the room calls out possibilities and questions. My ideas need time to brew. They grow from a glimmer to a beacon when they can swirl around in my brain for a while, so when I complete my homework assignment, I’m satisfied that I’ve answered the right questions. 

Another surprise is my pleasure in doing homework. I shouldn’t be. I liked school and homework was part of the package.  The best part of homework is getting it back with the teacher’s comments. An in-person class doesn’t allow the presenter enough time to do that. With the on-line course I get a personal response from Laurie on each assignment. That is so helpful because it deals with the particulars of my story, not just the generalities of plotting.

There is one aspect of the course that is no surprise. I’m terrible at plotting! The beginning comes together fairly well and I know how it should end, but that dratted middle sags in an exercise as much as it does in a full-length novel. Hence, one of the reasons I took this class.  

And that brings me to another reason I’m taking this class. Laurie Schnebly is a terrific teacher. She infuses her lectures with clear examples from various genres so whether  students write horror or romance, adventure or shape-shifters, they can feel at home in the class. 

Finally, I’m becoming intrigued with this character I made up just for practice. Who knows I may find a full-fledged novel here, or at least a short story. 

As the garden work picks up I find myself doing a lot of math. I need to know how much fertilizer to apply per square foot. So I need to determine the square footage. I need to convert tablespoons to cups. How many cubic meters in my wheelbarrow? How many litres in a gallon? When I left school I had hoped to be done with arithmetic forever but it is essential to modern life. Similarly with this writing homework. I hope the lessons learned here will prove useful for the rest of my writing career.

Over the years I’ve taken many workshops from some of the best in the business. I like the personal contact. I enjoy meeting other writers. It’s fun to get a day away from home with lunch laid on. I have a whole file drawer full of the notes and handouts from those workshops. When I read the notes I’m convinced I should be able to write a novel just by following the pattern set out for me. Yet, somewhere along the way, I just can’t get my thoughts to fit into the pattern presented. Having Laurie’s personal feedback makes this workshop special. I highly recommend it. You can see her upcoming classes offered through writeruniv.

This sounds like a total fan-girl article because it is. Feel free to add the names of your own favourite teachers in the comments below.

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