Category: My books (page 1 of 5)

Summer Time and . . .

the livin’ is easy or it’s full steam ahead. 

I’ve just been listening to CBC radio two and both Julie Nesrallah and Tom Allen have remarked on W.A. Mozart’s remarkable productivity during the summer of 1788. In a matter of weeks, Mozart completed three symphonies, two operas, a significant number of chamber works and gave numerous performances in various European capitals.  He accomplished  all this while in desperate financial straits and while his infant daughter took ill and died. Truly an incredible burst of creativity.

For most of us though, summer is a time to relax, read for pleasure only, visit with friends and relatives and smell the roses. When I was a kid, the end of school signalled summer vacation. The days seemed to stretch into forever. Routines and schedules vanished. We showed up at mealtimes, but the rest of the time was for entertaining ourselves.

We crawled through the long grass playing “cowboys and outlaws.” We built hay forts in the barn. We lay on our backs gazing at the sky and finding pictures in the clouds. We bombarded any available adult with requests to take us to the lake for a swim. On the way home, ice cream cones were essential. There was always a dog for companionship. Usually we could find kittens in the barn. As I remember, those summers were a sunny idyll.

One of the first bits of advice given a beginning writer is “write what you know.” There are many who will argue with that maxim. After all, you don’t have to be a murderer to write a thriller. You don’t have to be an astronaut to write a space fantasy. I didn’t experience the gold rush first hand, but I’ve set my Prospect series in that era. Still, “what I know” from those childhood summers has crept into the story. In The Man for Her, Sean, afraid of heights, has to climb to the top of the hay mow. The barn of my childhood helped me write that scene. When Michael brings a box of kittens into the kitchen at Pine Creek Farm, bits of myself play into the scene.

As a grown up, I miss those summers. Mostly, I miss the promise of those summers. At the beginning of July, everything and anything seemed possible. September and a return to school were too far in the future to even contemplate.

Some years ago, I decided to recapture some of that summertime magic. I made a list of ten things that mean summer to me and set out to experience them all before Labour Day rolled around. My list included the scent of new mown hay, evenings on the swing outside, impromptu visits over the back fence and a swim in the lake. The lake trip required a picnic with egg salad sandwiches and chocolate brownies to make it complete. My friend and I often remark that that was a great summer even though we were both working full time.

Now that I’ve given up my day job, a lack of routine is “routine.” Still, the smell of fresh hay, an unexpected visit from a long-lost relative and an evening watching the sun go down, still capture the sense of summer for me.

What about you? Are your summer days “lazy, hazy?” Do you experience an outpouring of creativity? Do you feel the joy of that first day without school? What’s on your list of perfect summertime moments?

 

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Buzzwords and your Book

Buzzwords abound in our language. I sometimes liken them to buzz saws with their annoying noise. Words and phrases that used to be specialized jargon restricted to particular fields of study, like science or medicine, are now showing up in all manner of speech, especially politics and business. Such words grate on my ears. We hear them too often and usually they are meaningless. The Urban Dictionary defines a buzzword as “a seemingly intelligent word dumb people use to sound smart.” Hear! Hear!

One of my pet peeves, beloved by politicians, is “going forward.” Why not just say “in the future?” Are those people “going forward,” by walking, driving, or riding a hobby horse? Anyone who wants my vote won’t assault my ears with “going forward.”

Another irritant is “sit down.” People used to meet, often sitting around a conference table, in order to work out a problem, whether in labour negotiations, or community plans or any number of other events. Now the buzz is “we’ve got to sit down.”  No mention of what they’ll do once they plant themselves in a chair. Maybe they’ll just have a beer.

Yet, despite my objection to the whole genre, I went to a writers workshop where buzzwords were presented as a good thing. In this case, the words didn’t meet the Urban Dictionary’s definition, rather they were a kind of shorthand for writers and readers.

Words like “sweet,” “family saga,” “trust,” “vulnerable,” “danger,” “small town,” “rugged,” “glitzy,” send clues to prospective readers of what to expect in a romance novel. These clues are vital for successful marketing. Whether an author likes to apply them to her own work or not, she needs to understand them and what they mean for reader expectations. Anyone who has tried to sell an edgy, sexy romance under the guise of “sweet” will be skewered by readers. They feel not only disappointed, but misled.

On the flip side, writers can use those code words to their advantage, by working them into the blurb for the book. For some readers “small town” is an automatic buy, as is “ranch” or “cowboy.” An amazon.com search turned up over 50,000 books that used the word cowboy in the title!

Writers can also benefit from studying the buzzwords of the romance genre before they write the story.  By picking a few that apply to her novel, she can ensure she highlights the themes that resonate with readers, as she is writing.

Of course, there are authors whose work doesn’t fall cleanly into any one category . They have to work harder to attract their readers but attributes like beauty, trust, courage and transformation work across all genre boundaries, so even for the outliers, buzzwords can help in the writing and marketing of a book.

In my book The Man for Her, the blurb includes the words beauty, kindness, proud, strength, determination, temptation and love, all code words that readers look for. 

When I’m buying a book I look for time and place words, like WWI France, or North American frontier. Then I look for words to give me the mood and style of story. I like sweet, family, bravery, resolve, choice, and true love.

What about you, dear reader? What words on the blurb make you look inside the book?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

 

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The Real Thing

I grew up with the iconic television series, “Perry Mason.” starring Raymond Burr.  It came on an hour past our bedtime, but if we got into our pyjamas and stayed very quiet and unobtrusive, we could usually stay up and watch.  I really wanted to be Della.

So, when I saw a classic movie channel showing a 1930’s film of Perry Mason, I tuned in to watch.  I thought it would be fun to see another actor in the role.

I was astounded.  the Perry Mason in the movie was nothing like the one portrayed by Raymond Burr.  This Perry moonlighted as a chef in a fancy restaurant.  He spent his off hours attending swanky parties and was a bit of a womanizer.  Long-suffering Della wasn’t invited.

What?!!!

I set out to find the real Perry Mason

I confess, I’d never read one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books, but assumed they’d be easy to come by.  Wrong again.  My library didn’t have one.  My local second hand bookshop said they couldn’t keep them on the shelves and another dealer want $125.00 for a “rare” copy.

Finally, Amazon turned up an electronic copy at a reasonable price and I settled down to discover the character as written by the author. The result? The Raymond Burr version is much truer to the book. In the book version, Perry Mason worked all hours–nary a party or a socialite in view–and he certainly didn’t spend time in a commercial kitchen. He treated Della with great respect and affection, but no romance.  I am relieved.

The entire exercise taught me to not trust Hollywood for my research.

As a writer of historical fiction it is easy to fall into the trap of believing the tropes seen in the movies or on television are accurate portrayals of the era.

In my WIP, I decided it would make a good scene to remove a bullet from a wounded man.  A little research showed that instantly removing a bullet is not only unnecessary but may actually do more harm than good. Hollywood likes the drama of bullet removal from the flesh, usually without anaesthetic, because it makes good theatre. Not because it makes good medicine or is a true account of the practice of medicine at the time.

Lesson learned.  I’m still going to remove the bullet, but I’ll find good medical reasons to do it.

What about you? Have you ever seen favourite book characters mangled in a movie or television series. How did you feel? Shocked? Angry? Disappointed?

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The Secret Sauce

What’s your secret sauce?

That was the question raised by Shannon Mayer at a workshop last weekend, sponsored by VIRA.  She compared writing a story to baking a cupcake.  Each needs the basics in the recipe, but the thing that sets one story (cupcake) apart from another is the author’s secret ingredient.

Some authors tickle the reader’s taste buds with humour, or snappy dialogue, or heroic characters, or memorable secondary characters. Others can trigger deep emotional responses in the reader with the authenticity of the emotion on the page.  The trick, says Ms Mayer, is to determine what your own special ingredient is, and then to include it in all your stories.  Readers will come to look for that favourite flavour in your writing and be loyal to you.  Leave out that secret spice and readers will be disappointed.

So, I’ve been thinking . . . who has that special recipe that draws me back over and over? Do I have a recipe of my own?  When I started writing historical romance, I discovered Maggie Osborne.  It seemed every idea I wrote about, she’d already done it – only better.  In some ways I was encouraged that I shared ideas with a writer of her stature.  In other ways I felt defeated because I could never write like her.

Then again, none of us can or should write like another. If we imitate, we are not authentic.  If we copy, we don’t discover our own tantalizing flavour.

So, what is my secret ingredient? Not sure I’ve nailed it yet, but one reader said my writing “feels happy.” Another said they are “sun-shiny.”  I think I’m getting a hint here.

It seems to me that many writing experts are pushing for grittier, more angsty work, so finding an audience for “happy” is not an easy path. Still, I believe there is enough angst and grit in our everyday world that we need some cheerfulness.

What about you, dear reader? Do you respond to dark and dangerous? Do you enjoy a vacation in a sunny tale? Have you found the secret ingredient from one of your favourite authors?

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