Author: Alice Valdal (page 1 of 18)

Another Female First

This post was inspired by a blog from Jacqui Nelson on the first woman poet laureate of California, Ina Coolbrith.  Kudos to Jacqui for discovering this exceptional woman and a tip of the hat to Ina for creating her mark in the world.

A Canadian woman, Agnes Deans Cameron, has a similar story. Born in 1863 in Victoria, B.C. she became a trailblazer for women. At the tender age of 16 she earned her teaching certificate. Because she was so young, her certificate only allowed her to teach in a school where other teachers were employed. Her first posting was at Angela College, a girls school in Victoria. Later, she became the first female to teach at the Boy’s School  and then Victoria High School. It was here she ran into her first conflict with the mores of the age.

A male student, who’d already failed his course four times, refused the assignment she gave him.  The strap was the accepted punishment for such insolence, but this boy left school rather than submit to corporal punishment. He was suspended but his father complained. Eventually, Agnes was fired. The whole affair was written about in the newspapers, talked of on the street, and preached from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Agnes was a cause celebre.

Later she became the first female principal in British Columbia, with her appointment to that post at South Park School.

Deans Cameron was breaking new ground on other fronts as well. She attended the Chicago Worlds Fair, travelling by herself in an era when respectable women travelled with a companion.

She protested a pay raise for male teachers while female teachers were denied such an increase. As a principal the differing pay scales did not affect her but she felt “as citizens we have a duty to participate, a duty that we cannot relegate to others.” Her outspokenness led her into a conflict with the school trustees and, eventually, the department of education of the province. It was a long and twisting trail, but in the end, Cameron was fired, and her teaching certificate revoked. At the same time, the government was in the process of expropriating her home. As the sole support for her mother and sister, the loss of her living had huge consequences.

on Arctic trek with Jessie Brown

But Deans Cameron was not easily dismissed. She had already been writing columns for various newspapers. Now she embarked on a journey to the Arctic, riding on Hudson’s Bay trading barges and canoes, with her niece, Jessie Brown. As a result of this experience she became a popular speaker and writer. As well as the newspaper columns, she now penned a book, The New North: An Account of a Woman’s 1908 journey through Canada to the Arctic. The book was a huge success and Agnes was much in demand as a speaker, in Canada and the United States.

One would think she’d had adventures enough but Agnes was always curious. She raced bicycles in her youth. Later she joined the Canadian Highway Association for a drive from Nanaimo to Port Alberni. Sadly, this was her last adventure. A few days after the rally she died of appendicitis.

Ironically, Victoria, which had vilified her during the education debates, now welcomed her home as a favoured daughter. She was buried from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, one of the largest funerals the city had seen. The pallbearers, included the superintendent of schools.

If you’d like to read the full account of Agnes Deans Cameron’s life, her biography is called Against the Current and is available here.

 

 

“Princesses”

As a writer of historical fiction, I’m keen on research. Even though my works are fiction, I believe it is important that they be “true” where non-fictional characters or events are concerned. Sometimes my research is a little dry — a task that must be completed, but not my favourite part of writing.

Sometimes the research turns into a page-turning read. Such is the case with Flora Fraser’s Princesses – the Six Daughters of George III.  The book is meticulously researched using letters and diaries written by the princesses and by their governesses and friends. Ms Fraser received permission from Queen Elizabeth II to delve into the royal archives for material. It’s a bit of a tome, 400 pages of close print, plus another 100 of footnotes, but each sentence is packed with detail.

In some ways, this is a sad story. Six lively, intelligent, educated women of the highest rank, whose lives were constrained, cabined and controlled. When they should have been enjoying parties and courtships, they were sitting attendance on their parents. The highlight of their days would be a walk outside. To go riding was considered a high thrill and slightly risque.

The book makes clear that the king’s daughters could have no degree of independence without marriage. Their father promised to find suitable matches,  but rejected every suitor offered, and, in the end, decided he couldn’t bear to part with his daughters so made no move to see them in their own establishments. Don’t forget, this is also the king who went mad.

Perhaps George III could be forgiven for his mistreatment of his daughters because of his mental illness, but Queen Charlotte had no such excuse. With her husband’s illness, she changed from a happy, social woman to a miserable and demanding shrew. She insisted that her daughters dance attendance on her and forbade them having any life that wasn’t under her thumb. Even when Elizabeth, at the ripe age of 46 talked of marriage, her mother spoke against it. A two year engagement was considered “rushed.”

Despite their circumstances, the princesses had distinct personalities–Princess Royal is managing and clever, Elizabeth is plump and pretty, Augusta is artistic and shy.   Sophia is passionate, Mary is good-humoured and Amelia is charming. Ms Fraser has drawn a comprehensive picture of their lives and their times.

For anyone writing of the Georgian or Regency era in Britain, I heartily recommend this book. Research that is fun to read, and one that expounds on the small details of a woman’s life. A common complaint amongst historical writers is that the history books contain world events like war and power struggles and shifting empires, but leave out the domestic details we need to make our female characters come alive in an accurate way. “Princesses” addresses that problem.

Anyone have a great research source for pioneer life in North America? I’d love to hear about it.

Is Writing Routine?

I used to have a writing routine. After my husband left for work, I wrote, without interruption until he came home for lunch. After lunch I might do editing, but more likely I’d do my chores — shopping, cooking, gardening, sewing. Before bed, I’d read.

Life events have thrown that routine out the window. I’m seeking a new routine that fits with my present lifestyle. I found that coffee shop writing works well, but I don’t like leaving home every afternoon and our recent spell of snow on snow on snow has made that impossible.

I decided to research how other authors maintained their routines, or even if they had one.  The results showed nearly all of 20 famous authors kept to a strict early morning time for writing every day and most employed vigorous activity in the afternoons.  Maya Angelou wrote in a tiny hotel room with no distractions. Jane Austen wrote in the sitting room while her sisters and mother sewed. If visitors came, she hid her papers and joined in the sewing. E.B. White in the busy living room of his house. His family ignored him and he ignored them. (Rather like my coffee shop method – lots of activity but all as white noise.)

Fascinating facts, but none that suggested a routine that did not include early morning writing hours. Of the modern authors, all mentioned the need to turn off social media, etc. during writing hours. That siren call of “you’ve got mail” seems hard to resist.

Philip Roth said  “one skill that every writer needs it the ability to sit still in the deeply uneventful business.“ At least this advice isn’t tied to a time of day. On the surface, sitting still seems a simple requirement. It is not. How often have you sat at your writing desk and decided to just run out to the mailbox, or throw in a load of laundry, or make that one urgent phone call? Sitting still and concentrating on one, difficult, mental task requires a tremendous amount of discipline. That may be why writers desperately seek routines, or rituals.  If we do the same thing, every day, in the same place, perhaps some magic will happen. Our brains will turn on to “writing mode” and the words will pour out on their own.

I wish. Only rarely have the words poured out for me and that is when I’m on a roll. Getting started is a whole other question.

I did find one piece of encouragement. Nora Roberts began her writing career by making notes on stray bits of paper while caring for twin boys with too much energy and a no school day.  No special morning hours there!

This quote from Jennifer Crusie gives hope to the scattered approach .

Do you spend eight hours a day/ 40 hours a week writing or is it less structured?  Honey, I don’t do anything for forty hours a week. It’s “less structured.” I like that. “Less structured.” Instead of “completely random and chaotic.”

None of my research has provided an example of a successful writer who uses the afternoon hours as prime writing time, but I did learn that consistency is a virtue, no matter what the time of day.  And sitting still . . . I’ll work on that.

Over to you, dear readers. Do any of your have a routine that includes filling the empty pages in the afternoon? Please share.

 

Snowbound

I’ve been snowbound for a week — well maybe only two days — actually about four hours — but it seems like weeks. The first day felt like a holiday. After all “snow day” means we can read books all day.  I “had” to skip exercise class because the roads were dangerous. Another reason to like a snow day.

But, now I’m restless.  We haven’t been stuck in the house for days on end, but many of my activities have been cancelled. Saturday, my writers group had to give up its Valentine party because high winds and blowing snow made driving unnecessarily a foolish move. Made it to the pet store today for cat food — what’s my safety compared to the cat’s happiness? — but now we’re in white out conditions again.

I have television, radio, telephone and internet plus neighbours who can walk through the snow to visit. If I get cabin fever after a few days of semi-isolation, what was it like in the 1890’s on the frontier, the era of my Prospect series?

Frontier women in the north tell of parties that went on for days–isolated settlers were so glad of company from outside they would go without sleep just to hear music and see another face.

Some pioneers dealt with the loneliness through hard work — chopping wood, carrying water, feeding livestock– and artistic pursuits. Sailors carved scrimshaw to wile away hours of inactivity.  Some, usually men, took to whittling elaborate figures. Women could never afford to be idle. They turned their creativity to making quilts.

 

Some went mad.

In his short story, “One’s a Heifer,” Sinclair Ross writes

“You don’t know how bad it is sometimes. Weeks on end and no one to talk to. You’re not yourself–you’re not sure what you’re going to say or do.”

I remembered hearing my uncle talk about a man who had gone crazy living alone. And this fellow Vickers had queer eyes all right.

The heroines in my books always turn to hard work as a way to get through tough times. Perhaps that’s a nod to my farming background. There is always work to do — and productive work will keep you sane.

Anyone else with snow day tales to tell? Leave a comment and receive a free copy of my short story “Faith” about a woman whose plans are overset by a snowstorm.

Nineteenth Century Internet?

Driving in the last spike

 

In 1886, the time period for my first book in the Prospect series, there were no railways through the rocky mountains in Canada.

Lottie Graham, the heroine of the first book, The Man for Her, had to travel by stage and boat and horseback to reach her destination in the mountains. The journey took months. By the time her sister, Louisa arrived in the latest book, Her One True Love, the railroad had been pushed through at incredible cost, but what a feat of engineering it was. Tunneling through solid rock, skirting along river banks and crossing fantastic trestles, the Canadian Pacific Railroad helped to bring B.C. into Confederation, brought down the government of Sir John A. MacDonald and made the trip from Toronto to Vancouver in four days.

Banff Springs Hotel

To put it into modern terms, the railroad was like the internet of its day. Newspapers could be delivered in under a week. Where Grey North, the hero of Her One and Only,  read of his father’s death weeks after the event, railroads meant telegraphs and communication across the world in mere hours. Goods could be shipped year round, not just during the summer months when waterways were open. Tourism boomed. The railroad brought thousands of wealthy visitors to the spectacular lodges in Banff and Lake Louise. New industry flourished and railway towns such as Field B.C. sprang into existence.

In my current work-in-progress, Prospect is still on the edge of the wilderness, but it is accessible to anyone with the price of a railroad ticket. Hopeful Adams, and his donkey have come from Louisiana to join the hoards of gold seekers. Scarlett, a saloon girl, comes from the deep south of America. The heroine, Verity Chance, has come from Ireland, and the hero, Dr. Nordale hales from Montreal. All have come together in Prospect to seek their fortunes—some on the creeks, others in the town. It is an exciting time to be in Prospect.

Gord Lightfoot is a well-known Canadian folk singer. One of his iconic songs concerns the building of the railroad. The opening line is”there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run.” He goes on from there to describe in music and poetry the building of “an iron road running from the sea to the sea” It is one of my favourite history lessons. You can listen to it here.

Some years ago my husband and I took a rail journey from the Pacific Ocean, across the mountains, the prairies, Ontario and Quebec, the Maritimes and arrived on the Atlantic coast. We had to change trains twice. There was no steam engine but the excitement of boarding the train is something I’ll never forget. The tedium of airport security, the cramped, airless conditions on board a jet plane has made air travel lose its appeal for me, but the thundering of steel wheels on a steel track makes my heart beat high.

It saddens me to see tracks abandoned, or even torn up in our modern age. Roads and transport trucks have replaced the freight cars but they are not nearly as efficient or as clean energy as a locomotive. Not to mention that the railroad cemented our disparate colonies into one nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and up to the Arctic.  In later years thousands of immigrants peopled the prairies, arriving by train.  There’s romance  in riding the rails, falling asleep to the clacking of steel wheels and eating breakfast in a luxurious dining car.  If one has time, it’s the best way to travel.

What about you, dear readers? Do any of you have a railway story to share?

Reading for Love

One of the side effects of my Christmas indulgence in books has been recovering my joy in reading. As a writer, I read — a lot. But I read about the business. I read books on craft. I read books written by my writing colleagues. I read in my genre. I read to learn the trends in fiction. But all that reading can sometimes feel like a chore. Taking a “reading break” over the holidays reminded me of how much I love a good story. From my earliest memories of bedtime stories to the latest novel, a good book has transported me to other worlds and other times. It has introduced me to characters who have stayed in my memory forever.

  •  Rumpelstiltskin.  What a name! But whenever I look at a pile of  straw, I remember the little man who could weave it into gold.
  • Green hair, quite fashionable now, takes me to Prince Edward Island and a red-headed Anne who hated her hair.
  • Inspector Gamache is firmly embedded in my heart, rather like a grandfather I’ve heard about but never met.
  • Hester Prynne. Just the mere mention of her name puts me in a rage.
  • I still ache for Rhett and Scarlet. How could they hurt each other so?

I’ve just turned the last page of The Piano Maker.  Part mystery, part romance, this book included some fascinating details on how pianos are made. I don’t need to know those details to enjoy my piano, but the information is another reminder that reading for pleasure is not a waste of time, as some of our more Puritan ancestors might insist. Reading for pleasure broadens the mind, enhances the spirit and lifts the heart. It’s also a great way to make new friends. “What are you reading?” is a great conversation starter.

If you’ve finished this blog, go read something. I hope you’ll read one of my books, but that’s not necessary. If you are blessed to live in a part of the world where books are plentiful and the ability to read is ordinary, take advantage, and count your blessings.

Book to Movie

Christmas is over, the weather is nasty, and I’m feeling lazy. As a result I’ve watched a lot of television lately. My primary impression from my binge is that network television has nothing to offer. I’ve even taken to watching sports!

 My programs of choice are CBC news, Knowledge network and PBS. Makes me wonder why I’m paying for cable. My secondary choices are movies, and that leads me to today’s topic.

I like romance. Romantic movies that make me laugh or cry feel like time well-spent. The old ones with Hepburn and Tracy, Rock Hudson and Doris Day, or Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant are guaranteed to lift my mood. I don’t care that the war-between-the-sexes is old hat, or that modern women aren’t nearly so concerned about their virtue as their counterparts in the movies of the fifties and sixties. The films are entertaining. I can suspend disbelief for an hour or two and just enjoy.

The newer movies,( they don’t seem to have a romantic pairing like Hudson and Day) are more problematic. (I’m speaking here of the made for TV versions, not the block-busters playing at a theatre near you.)

In these films, the characters seem plastic. Their teeth are too white. They are too good to be true and they are so politically correct they come across as insipid. Sometimes I’ve recognized the story from a book I read and enjoyed, yet when I see it on the screen, I’m embarrassed for the “romance” community. So what happened between the page and the screen?

Part of it might be the casting. The actors chosen are very photogenic, but seem to have no personality. The fictional towns that are so appealing in the written word, feel like Hollywood sets in the movies. The storylines are the same ones used in the books, but on paper, the conflict feels significant. On the screen, it feels contrived.

So, sorry Hallmark, I’m going to look out the old classics when I want to watch a romance and skip your bland offerings.

Have I offended anyone? I’d love to hear a spirited defence of a made-for-TV romance movie. Tell me your favourite. I’m open to changing my mind if the evidence is there.

If You Could Visit. . .

As mentioned before, I follow the blog Writers Unboxed. Some time ago, in response to a post about discouragement, Donald Maas wrote what amounts to a love letter for writers.  I printed out parts of it for future inspiration. You can read the whole post here.

After the Christmas break, I’m getting back into my writing routine, but finding it hard to pick up the pieces of the story. I’ve re-read Mr. Maas’ post and found one of his suggestions really touched a chord in me. He asked about my story world. If I could visit, where would I go, who would I speak to, what would I eat, where would I lay a flower? Just reading those lines seemed to give me permission to turn “work” into “play.”

I know exactly where I’d go in Prospect. I’d visit the Rockingham Hotel and have tea with Emma North. I’d wander the boardwalks and drop in at The Mercantile. No doubt Bella Barclay will give me an earful about the latest goings on. I’d wander by Rev. Stanton’s church and spend a little time by the duck pond. Nothing like squabbling ducks to raise the spirits.

At the end of the day, I’d hire a horse and take the road through the woods to Pine Creek Farm. When I reached the house, I’d leave my horse and walk up the hill to the orchard. There I’d sit on Sean’s bench beneath the Sweetheart Tree and watch the sunset. I might feel a little melancholy remembering Lottie’s early life, but from my perch, I can see Bridget and her little brother playing tag on the verandah. Present joy replaces past sorrow. I’ll linger until I see Sean and Michael come in from the fields and know the family is sitting around the kitchen table, secure, happy and full of love.

Now that I’ve had my imaginary visit to Prospect, I’m eager to pick up my pen and continue the story. Thank you, Donald Maas for your insight and your compassionate words for writers.

How about you? Any story places you’d love to visit in person? Would you go back in time to Green Gables, perhaps, or are you a seeker who longs to float among the stars with Mary Robinette Kowal? What makes you want to visit a fictional place– the people? the landscape? the time period? Would you visit Prospect if you could? If you don’t know the gold rush town of Prospect, B.C. visit my books page and meet some of the characters.

 

Christmas Book Madness

A funny thing happened on my way to book Nirvana this Christmas.  For anyone who asks, I’ve told them I love books for Christmas. My husband knows this, my neighbour knows this, my best friend knows this, even mere acquaintances know this. Apparently, I’m quite vocal about my favourite authors as well. Louise Penny is a “must” buy for me and she had a new book, Kingdom of the Blind,  out just in time for Christmas. I got three copies!

Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page just won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. She is a British Columbia writer, living on Salt Spring Island. It’s a kind of love story – the history of a very long marriage that begins in World War II. My neighbour and I belong to the same book club and I was sure she’d like it. So I bought it for her as a Christmas gift, knowing I could borrow it later. Well, my darling husband heard me talking and a copy of the book showed up under my tree.

Jack Knox is a local columnist with a wry sense of humour. I bought his latest book to give to my husband. But before he opened his, I opened one from him to me.

Fortunately, all the replica books can be exchanged so I’ll still have lots of new reading. It’s also nice to know that my friends and family actually listen when I talk books. 🙂

I read all of Dear Evelyn on boxing day. Lovely writing and a story to pull at your heartstrings. Evelyn and Harry belong to “the greatest generation,” and their stories are worth hearing over again. I’m glad Ms. Page preserved this one so beautifully.

Kingdom of the Blind was devoured in two days. Louise Penny is a master at making the reader turn just one more page. Fortunately there were enough leftovers in the fridge that we didn’t starve while I followed Armand Gamache and his team from the idyllic village of Three Pines into the darkest streets of Montreal and out again. A very satisfying read, though I felt a little sad at the end. I’m hoping there’s another book to restore the joy in the Chief Inspector’s life.

There are still three new books by my bedside and I’ll filch Rick Mercer’s Final Report when my husband finishes it.

Books, books, and more books. It’s been a great Christmas.

If you got some good books at Christmas — or even double copies — please share in the comments below.

Good Will – Take Three

Christmas is almost here. Have you done your baking, shopping, wrapping, cleaning? All those Christmas chores threaten to rob the holiday of its true meaning. I hope this little collection of “good will” stories helps you to remember “the reason for the season.” 

Story One:  While hustling out of the rain the other day I went to enter a narrow doorway, with a triangular step. Not the easiest of entries but no a problem for me. I’m quite able. However, an elderly gentleman stood in the rain to hold the door for me. Feeling a bit embarrassed to have put him to the trouble, I mumbled thank you. “My pleasure,” he said, with such genuine warmth that I believed he enjoyed performing that small service. I went on my way with a Christmas glow in my heart.

Story Two:  While standing in the check-out line of my local grocery the clerk and I were exchanging stories of political correctness run amok. Every year it seems, Christmas is the victim of some outrageous slander — like declaring “White Christmas” racist.  The white is about snow, people.   Anyway, I shifted the conversation by explaining about this blog and my collection of good will stories. Three people cheered and one asked for the URL of my blog. So, lady in Fairway checkout, if you’re here, Merry Christmas, and thanks for making my day.

Story Three:  this incident was perhaps more an accident than an act of good will, but it made me happy, so I’ll include it anyway. My husband and I were touring the Butchart Gardens to look at the lights. They are absolutely stunning! In one window was an installation of a toy train, with mountains and tunnels and a curling rink and a carousel. I was trying to take a picture when a young lad, so overcome with excitement jumped in front of my camera. Another little girl was fascinated by the toy merry-go-round so I asked if she’d ridden the real one in another part of the Gardens. Her eyes grew round as saucers. “Can I?” She vibrated with excitement. We all shared a moment of Christmas cheer. Thank you, generous parents, who allowed strangers to share in their children’s wonder.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of good will stories. I’ve been delighted to read the ones you contributed in the comments section. Please keep them coming.

This will be my last post until after Christmas. I wish you all a joyful and blessed Christmas. May you know peace and good will throughout the season and in the new year.

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