Notre Dame

courtesy cnn

Along with most of the world, I had a heavy heart on Monday morning. The film showing Notre Dame de Paris burning seems so impossible. This icon of France, monumental architecture of the medieval world, symbol of the Christian church, guardian of the city for over 1000 years is so etched on the public conscience it seems impossible that it can be lost. When I saw the spire topple I couldn’t help but sob.

Today, there are vows to rebuild and pledges of millions of dollars, to help with that effort. There is comfort in know all the world cares about this piece of history. I wonder though, will it ever be the same? Can a reproduction take the place of the original?

A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip through Europe where we visited castle after castle and cathedral upon cathedral. Nearly all had been severely damaged during WWII. They had been rebuilt using materials and techniques true to the original structure. The results were truly amazing.

One structure in particular, the Residenze at Würzburg, had been nearly 87% destroyed, yet many of the treasures had already been removed from the building — much as many of the art works had already been removed from Notre Dame. Between 1945 and 1987 the Residenze was restored at a cost of approximately €20m.

For me, the most spectacular room was the mirror cabinet . The walls were formed of glass and paintings were etched on them from behind! i.e. the artist had to build up the image backward. So in a face, the dot of light at the centre of the eye went on first, then the pupil, then the iris, then the white of the eye, then the lids, etc. The last touch put on the painting was the background. My mind boggled at the skill and knowledge required to achieve such an effect. 

Much as I appreciated seeing the treasures of Medieval Europe I couldn’t help but ask why a war-ravished country was willing to spend so much on old buildings. The population needed food, shelter, transport, schools, hospitals . . .  How did they justify the expenditure of millions and millions of dollars on historic buildings. The citizen I asked replied that their history was what they had to show to the world. In North America, she said, or Australia or New Zealand, we have landscape. In Europe, they have history.

While I love the vistas and open spaces of my country, Canada, I’m not sure we have a good sense of history. I’m glad that Europe does. Today Notre Dame de Paris is a shell, but it holds the heart of a people. I rejoice that it will rise from the ashes.                                                                                                                                                            

 

 

 

Hits: 8

Second Thoughts

I’m often troubled with insomnia.  Experts warn against lying awake for hours on end. They suggest insomniacs get up and “do” something useful. What the experts forget though, is that bed is cozy and comfortable. Getting up requires leaving those warm blankets and stumbling around in the dark and cold. I’d rather lie in bed, even if I’m not asleep. My compromise is to “think” something useful, while enjoying the comfort of my pillow. Sometimes I write letters in my head, or draw up a plan of action for the next day. Often, I think about my work in progress. That’s what prompted today’s blog.

While lying in the dark as the minutes ticked over I mulled the writing so far and came to the conclusion that my heroine was too bland. I’d tried to make her shy and nervous, but I’d given her a profession that required assertiveness and skill. The two aspects of her character were not working together. I came up with a solution. In her working life she is capable and cheerful. Only around one family member do her insecurities come to the fore. This solution pleases me no end, even though it means I must go back through the pages already written and incorporate the character changes. I’m sure I’ll like my heroine better.

One of the ways I’ll show the two opposing facets of her character is through letters to her sister. Here’s a sample.

You’ll have to laugh, Chastity when you read about my first day. I arrived travel-stained and smeared with mud. I found two mad men in the hospital entrance, one hopping about and shrieking like a banshee, the other brandishing a pistol. I didn’t know whether to interfere or run for my life. I chose to act. If Florence Nightingale can nurse soldiers in a war zone, I can dress wounds in a mining town.  As it turns out, the man with the pistol is the doctor.. . .

She paused in her writing to chuckle as she imagined Chastity’s shock upon reading this tale. Then she sobered. Chastity was a kindred spirit, sharing Verity’s sense of the ridiculous and view of the world. She could happily live with that sister. But Moira . . . Levity vanished as she considered her youngest sister, scarred, dour, and difficult and all Verity’s fault.

Does that excerpt give you a hint of Verity’s character and her conflict? I’d love to see you comments.

How do you spend sleepless nights?

Hits: 36

Genre as Training Ground

My book club’s choice for this month was a  book by an author I knew first as a romance writer. I looked forward to a gentle read. Wrong! The author had written what Donald Maass might call a “breakout” novel, the story that is deeper, more complex, bigger, and usually a better seller than the genre novel that preceded it. The book I just read achieved all of that.

Yet, I could still see the “genre” fingerprints in the work. There was The Writer’s Journey technique of a call to adventure, the refusal of the call and finally crossing the threshold that launched the protagonist into the story. Since there were two parallel stories, the author used this technique with both of them.

I could also detect Goal, Motivation, & Conflict on nearly every page. Each of the main characters was focussed on a goal of protecting family, motivated by love of family. Then the writer threw obstacle after obstacle in their way. Sometimes small goals were achieved and the story moved forward. Sometimes those goals were thwarted, leading to further complications. In one memorable scene the main goal appeared to be accomplished, only to turn to ashes. You can’t go home again, no matter how desperately you try.

True to her roots, the author included a romance, but it was a side bar, not the core of the novel. The book was not what I’d expected, but it was a good read and I’m sure our book club discussion will be lively.

Coming from my perspective as a romance writer, I found affirmation in this author’s journey from genre to mainstream. Nearly every writer dreams of writing the breakout novel, both for the financial reward and for the literary satisfaction. Based on this book, writing genre fiction is excellent training.

I’m always on the lookout for a breakout novel. Any suggestions?

Hits: 11

In Praise of Book Club

Twenty years ago, when book clubs were all the rage, my friend and I decided to start one. We had few rules. One was that members had to live in the neighbourhood.  Our winter nights are very black and often pouring rain. No one wanted to travel a long dark highway in November. The second rule was about the reading list. We wanted to push ourselves to read outside our usual book choices so we agreed that the reading list had to have books from a variety of genres. So, our choices included one each from romance, mystery, historical, biography, travel, hobbies, best seller, classic, children’s . . . you get the idea.

Over the life of the book club, our membership has changed a little, but four of the original members are still there and two others are eighteen year members. When we started, we were all working women. Now we’re all retired. We’ve seen each other through children’s graduation, the arrival of grandchildren, health challenges and the rough spots of life. And we keep reading across a broad range of topics.

Last week we did a trip down memory lane recalling the books we’d enjoyed the most and those we’d disliked but that sparked great conversations. I had done a sort through my files and come upon bits of paper with scribbled titles that never made it to the actual reading list, usually because it would repeat a genre. At our next book choosing session, I’ll put those old titles up for consideration and see if they make it to the final reading list this time.

I haven’t used a book club in any of my novels but in the latest book of the Prospect Series, Her One True Love, my hero and heroine get to know each other while discussing books. Of course, in the 1890’s their “best sellers” were very different from ours. Here’s a sample:

“We should hear back in a couple of weeks. Now, give me your opinion of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mrs. North has it in the library now.”

“Such a strange book.” She refilled their coffee cups. “I suppose it can be read as a treatise on the human personality. We all have good and evil contained within ourselves. Mr. Stevenson has presented the two sides of a man’s nature in an exaggerated form.”

They talked until the coffee pot was empty. Books, music, current events, Louisa found they had much in common. If it weren’t for the clerical collar, she could like Daniel Stanton very much. As it was she resolved to keep him at a distance. The minute they disagreed on anything, he’d go all stony-faced and quote scripture at her and remind her that she was a daughter of Eve and therefore responsible for the fall of mankind.

Hits: 12

Spring Suddenly

After all my whining about our cold, long winter (for Victoria) suddenly, it’s spring. The photo at the top shows the last remaining patch of snow in a shady spot in our yard.

Today marks the equinox and our temperatures have soared to record highs. Soon I’ll be complaining about drought and heat. 🙂 The crocus have burst into bloom. The heather is showing a happy, purple face and the forsythia buds are near to bursting. Those little red nubs in the ground are rhubarb shoots. That lovely red fruit is usually the first harvest from the garden and equates with spring in my mind. It’s also a tender reminder of my mother. She practically danced in the kitchen when she made pie from that first fresh food.

Maybe it’s the farmer’s daughter in me, but I’m very aware of weather. Is the ground warm enough for seeding? Does the sky hold thunder clouds? Are there enough bees around for pollination?

The Man for Her, the first book in my Prospect series begins with the weather. Now, if you go to how-to-write classes, they’ll tell you to not discuss the weather. But I think the weather is a great place to set mood and tone.  Here’s a sample.

1886

A glaring sun bore down on the small mining town of Prospect, bleaching the colour from the landscape and sapping the strength of its citizens. The streets were nearly deserted as people huddled indoors or in patches of shade, seeking respite from the unrelenting heat.

Only Lottie Graham was out and about, hurrying across the unnaturally quiet main street, her worn books kicking up small eddies of fine white dust. The heat and the dust filled her nostrils and choked her throat. It was late August and Prospect was desperate for rain. But not just yet, Lottie prayed, even as she wished for a breath of wind.

That book was published years ago and I still like it. Lottie is a farmer, or course weather is always on her mind.

What’s your opinion, dear reader? Are weather reports boring or a means to draw you into the story?

Hits: 1

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.

 

 

Hits: 3

“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.

Hits: 1

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.

 

Hits: 1

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.

Hits: 19

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?

Hits: 17

« Older posts

© 2019 Alice Valdal

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑