Category: Uncategorised (Page 2 of 20)

House and Home

As every reader of Victorian and Regency romance knows, the restrictions around women of that time were numerous and unyielding. As those same readers know, the heroine of a romance is expected to challenge those restrictions, to defy her circumstances and thus win the hero’s heart. It is a genre expectation and authors who want to sell their work would do well to meet it.

No one really expects historical fiction to be a true account of women’t lives in that era but in the age of equal rights, it is difficult for many to understand just how dangerous it was for young women, or older women for that matter, to defy the rules. We might think being snubbed in the street is merely rude behaviour. For the Victorian girl, such a snub could affect her well-being for the rest of her life. If she became unmarriageable her financial security, her physical health and her emotional  fitness would  be lost, most likely forever. Such a disgraced female would be entirely dependent upon her family or the parish to feed, house and cloth her. Even if she could work she would have trouble finding respectable employment. 

This precept was brought home to me this week as I was doing some background reading on Victorian mores. I came across several instructions to women from books of the time, both fiction like Charles Dickens works and manuals for household management like Mrs. Beeton’s.  Here is a sampling. 

  • Man is the head of the household. Women are no better than children in their understanding and must bow to the superior knowledge of men.
  • Housekeeping keeps women busy and out of mischief.
  • Women should be “ministering angel to domestic bliss.”
  • it is the biological destiny to of women to be wives and mothers and therefore housekeepers.
  • The most important person in the household is the heard of the family, the father .. Though he may spend less time at home than any other member of the family – though he has scarcely a voice in family affairs – though the whole household machinery seems to go without the assistance of his management – still it does depend entirely on that active brain and those busy hands.
  • “It is quite possible you many have more talent than your husband, with higher attainments, and you may also have been generally more admired; this  has nothing whatever to do with your position as a woman which is, and must be, inferior to his as a man. — Sarah Stickney Ellis.
  • “Women are born to perpetual pupilage. Not that their inclinations were necessarily wanton; they were simply incapable of attaining maturity, remained throughout their life imperfect beings, at the mercy of craft, ever liable to be misled by childish misconceptions.” George Gissing in The Odd Women
  • Coventry Patmore “The Angel in the House”   Housework is ideal for women, as its unending, non-linear nature gave it a more virtuous air than something which was focused, and could be achieved and have a result. Women are very like children, it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief. Therefore the blessedness of household toil, in especial the blessedness of child-bearing and all that followed.

There are more examples but because I’m now ready to spit nails I’ll spare you from reading them. Suffice it to say, the view of women as helpless, hopeless and heedless was so pervasive that all of society, rich and poor, male and female bought into the concept. Anyone, especially a woman, who threatened the established order was outside the pale.

When one considers the cruelties inflicted on suffragettes it becomes clear that women demanding the right to vote were seen as the enemy of the home. Since an “Englishman’s home was his castle” women of an independent mind were threatening the very fibre of the nation. Secure in this belief, imprisonment and force-feeding could be justified. 

I love reading historical romance and am quite willing to suspend disbelief while my high-born lady masquerades as her brother or kicks over the conventions by dining alone with a man. The stories are fun and entertaining and brighten a gloomy day. But it is worth remembering that these tales are “fiction” and in some cases just as far-fetched as fantasy.

My all time favourite historical romance writer is Georgette Heyer. What’s yours?

 

 

 

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Remembrance 2021

Tomorrow, Nov. 11, is Remembrance Day in Canada. For as long as I can remember I have stood at a cenotaph on this day, joined with fellow Canadians in remembrance and sorrow, pride and humility.

This year, like last, because of the pandemic, the Royal Canadian Legion has asked me to stay home and watch on a screen. What guns and bombs and hatred couldn’t do, a virus has accomplished. One of the nation’s most deeply held traditions is “cancelled.”

Whether as a result of the pandemic or the acknowledgement of important war anniversaries, over the past twenty months I have read a lot of war novels. They have focused on “the home front.”

In “The Last Bookshop in London,” I’ve read about a woman’s life during the Blitz in London.  “The Paris Library,” is an account of a woman’s life in occupied Paris. Kirsten Hannah’s “The Nightingale” took me through the terror of occupied France. I’ve read about music giving hope to the population in “La’s Orchestra Saves the World,” and “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.” I’ve read about the Ack-Ack girls in “Light Over London,” and fifth column threats in “The Spies of Shilling Lane.” I re-read “Barometer Rising,” and experienced again the magnitude of the Halifax explosion of 1917.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of these books and recommend them without reserve.

When I look at the above list of novels I note a shortage of  Canadian content. This year, since I cannot stand alongside our veterans, I’ve committed to reading more about Canada’s experience of war. On my to-be-read list is Marjorie, Her War Years,  Tim Cook’s The Fight for History, and his two volume work, The Necessary War.   A search of the internet yielded this title, War on the Home Front, the Farm Diaries of Daniel MacMillan. As my grandparents and great uncles continued to farm during WWI, I look forward to reading about Daniel MacMillan.

This year, my tribute to veterans will include an effort to better understand their lives and their sacrifice. Yet no amount of reading is going to fill me with the kind of fear men and nations and families lived during world conflicts.

You see, I know that our side won. So while I empathize with a shopkeeper losing her store to the Blitz I know that, in the end, everything will be all right. I have that reassurance, our veterans did not.

In our time the world is mobilizing to fight climate change. There is real fear in the streets as people, especially youth, contemplate rising sea levels, the disappearance of island nations, vanishing ice caps, food shortages, and dried up lakes. The battle for the planet lacks the immediacy of fighter squadrons and toiling troops, but the outcome could not be more dire. This time we don’t have the reassurance that “our” side will prevail. Perhaps that fact gives us a taste of life in a time of war.

 

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Who Are We?

Sidney Wharf

There is a debate developing in my town, actually, it’s an old debate but with a new focus. The perennial question of development vs conservation is now centred on our iconic wharf. It has stood at the end of the main street for about one hundred years and is now nearing the end of its life. On one side of the argument are those who want to preserve an iconic landmark, along with the businesses that sit on it. On the other side are those who argue repair is too costly so want to tear it down or replace it with a private enterprise.

line up for ferry at Sidney Wharf circa 1945

Not a new debate but one that plays out differently in different parts of the world. Here, in Canada, preservation is usually left up to individuals. While the provincial government in B.C. has some beautiful historic sites, some years ago their operation was turned over to private contractors. The result is that places like Fort Steele and Barkerville, which used to be living museums are now tourist attractions. The archives that used to be accessible on line through those sites have shut down. Now the websites list hours and fees. I guess I’m showing my bias here, but I really miss the museum approach to these historic places. Of course, the privatization was done in the name of reduced government expense.

When I visited Europe several years ago, our days were filled with tours of restored castles and cathedrals. They were stunningly beautiful. Tourists poured in to these edifices, cameras at the ready, mouths hanging open in wonder. The thing is, much of the “history” we were gawping at wasn’t original. Two world wars had decimated much of the architecture along the Rhine river. Yet, when the war ended, and Germany and its neighbours began rebuilding they poured billions of dollars into restoring their empty castles. If ever a government could say they couldn’t afford such “luxuries” surely Germany in 1945 was that government. Yet, the people of those towns and cities opted to spend scarce money restoring their built history, despite necessary infrastructure and even food supplies being in dire need.

At the other end of the scale are regimes like the Taliban in Afghanistan who deliberately destroy antiquities in the name of ideology. In North America much Indigenous culture was plundered or destroyed as new settlers sought to eradicate some aboriginal customs they considered evil.

“History” is a slippery topic. What is worth preserving and what is just old and worn out? In my country, we are undergoing a great reckoning with our relationship between Indigenous culture and settler culture. Both sides are grappling with a re-interpretation of past events. 

Our First Nations citizens say their identity is tied to the land. Trees and waterways, salmon and shellfish harvesting are not only environmental concerns but they define the people. Judging by my experience in Europe, it would seem the centuries of built history — from Roman roads to Art Nouveau hotels — express the character and dreams of that society.

I don’t know what the decision will be over our wharf, I suspect $$ will speak loudly. Perhaps settler society in Canada is too young to have a deeply ingrained view of itself, unlike the First Nations or 20th century Europeans. We “like” old things and the nostalgia they stir, but we’re not really prepared to put a lot of money into them. In some ways, we are still immigrants, rootless in this land.

Perhaps that is why there are so few entries under “historical fiction, Canada” in Amazon’s Kindle store: 8000 results compared to 50,000 in British historical fiction, 30,000 in French. Australia shows 4000 results under the same category. 

I hope we can keep the wharf at Sidney as a public space. Looking at the First Nations experience it is clear that knowing and preserving our history is vital to our well-being as a people.  In the scheme of human history, 100 years barely registers on the scale, but we won’t get to 1000 if we don’t pay attention to the 100’s.

Sidney Wharf and Fish Market in 2021

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By any Other Name

With apologies to Shakespeare, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet but would it evoke the same emotional response if you called it a thorn bush?

We writers tend to obsess about words, spending hours combing the thesaurus and the internet for the one with just the right nuance and connotation. We chose the verb strode versus trod to denote a manner of movement but also a sense of mood or characterization. Every word choice in our work, especially short works like poetry, has to pack a punch. Queen Elizabeth famously follows the rule of “never explain, never complain.” If a writer finds her/himself “explaining” their story it’s probably time for a good edit. Getting the words right means explanation is unnecessary.

I got a new take on the power of words at a recent writers workshop I attended. Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor, used an entirely different vocabulary to describe protagonist, antagonist, sidekicks, etc. The new labels on those stock story elements had me looking at my work in a whole other way. For example, he called the protagonist the vehicle of the story. Hence vehicle, protagonist, is the car the reader rides in for the journey from page one to the end.

I’ve read countless books and articles about making the protagonist interesting, appealing, sympathetic, flawed, wounded, redeemable . . . the list is endless. In fact, the list is so long its easy to gloss over it. But thinking of your protagonist as the vehicle of the story brings a whole other mindset to the fore. Is my protagonist a Cadillac or a jalopy or a rickshaw? Is it rusted or pristine? Does it smell of dog or baby? How many miles on the odometer? Using  a new word for protagonist rubs off the glaze of familiarity and sharpens my focus when developing the character. 

If you think of the story like a road trip all kinds of other terms crop up, like detour, accident, flat tire, hitchhiker. . . Again, looking at story elements from a different perspective gives them sharper edges, makes them more distinct.

Another standard element of story is conflict. For the longest time I couldn’t make sense of conflict. As my stories don’t involve war or fisticuffs I couldn’t see the “conflict.” Then a wise author used the word “struggle” and the mists lifted. A character struggles to find love. She struggles to be successful in her career. She struggles to become independent. I could relate to a character’s struggle, but not her conflict, even though they mean the same thing in terms of storytelling.

And speaking of character, there’s a word with many connotations. Primarily it means a person in the story, like the hero or the sidekick. But character also defines the type of person portrayed. In the old fashioned sense of the word character meant someone of upstanding reputation and merit, as in “a man of character” — or it can mean an eccentric, as in “he’s a character!”  Now, if you consider your lead character as the “conductor” of the story does it let you see him/her in a new light?

Can your antagonist be a spike belt laid across the roadway of the tale? Is the villain an imp who keeps turning the street signs around? Is your outline a recipe with a cup of love and a pinch of spice?

The mechanics of story telling don’t change regardless of the terms you use, but sometimes a different name on the rose, or the Hummer,  will jump start your creativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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These are a Few of My Favourite Blogs

Readers of this blog will know that I love learning from other writers. I attend workshops, buy craft books and read blogs. Even when the topic seems old hat, there is always the possibility of finding a gem among the gravel. I’ve learned to use “struggle” instead of “conflict” for a whole other understanding of that concept. The sequence of “conflict, choice, consequence” has helped me recognize the role of  individual scenes in a story. Prime motivating factor was a concept I learned from another author very early in my writing journey. Since in person meetings are harder to find during the pandemic, I’ve spent more time reading blogs. Here are a few of my favourites.

 

  • Writer Unboxed.  For craft and business insights, this blog is hard to beat. They host many authors but here are a few of the regular contributors I enjoy.

Donald Maass. Each of his posts is a workshop on its own.

Barbara O’Neal’s blogs always feel like a warm hug.

Ray Rhamey offers a “Flog a Pro” segment where readers can act like editors and decide if they’ll buy a manuscript based on the first half page. Often he cites best-selling novels and describes why he would not read on. Sure makes me look at my own opening paragraphs very closely. If you want some solid advice on the craft and business of writing, I highly recommend taking a look at Writer Unboxed.

  • Writers in the Storm (WITS) is another favourite. The posts are normally shorter than those on WU so it’s a faster read.
    • Laurie Schnebly Campbell is a contributor. I’ve previously  written about what a great teacher she is.
    • I’ve found Jenny Hansen on this site. She shares great writing tips informed by “life” which makes for a fun read. 
  • Jenny Crusie’s Argh Ink is not a writer’s blog in the usual sense. I signed up expecting to get great writing advice. Instead, I found a community of writers who talk about “Working Wednesdays,” “Good Book Thursday,” Happiness Is . . .” If you’re feeling the need for connection, Argh is a good place to go.
  • Laura Langston is a YA author so many of her posts are directed to that audience. However, she does talk about writing life, bringing insights from her gardening hobby to brighten the prose. She also writes as Laura Tobias for women’s fiction.
  • Jacqui Nelson is a western romance author. Her blog contains lots of historical factoids. Great place to immerse yourself in the old west.These are just a few of my favourites. I’m sure you have your own “go to” posts. Please share in the comments below.

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Shallow thinking, Shallow story?

A recent blog post from Writers in the Storm, got me thinking about “deep thoughts.” The writer pointed out that the human brain needs at least 23 minutes to truly concentrate on a subject.

As I read her post I remembered that feeling of deep focus I had as a student squirrelled away in the stacks of my university library. Insulated from other students, the distraction of the world outside, and facing a deadline for an essay, I honed in on one subject and delved deep into research and into my own thoughts. It was hard work, but a great feeling. When I surfaced from a session it was like waking up to a different world. I’d been so immersed in study, everything else had vanished from my conscience.

Very occasionally I get that same deep focus when writing and the words flow like a river in flood. I’m in the zone, so deep in the story the characters speak on their own, I’m “living” the book.

Sadly, that level of focus is rare.  Life in our modern world is full of interruptions — social media, family members, the telephone, a knock on the door . . . Delving deep into a subject, especially our wip, can be tough. But shallow thinking and lack of focus will result in characters that are superficial, a thin plot, and a predictable outcome. Would you pay good money for such a book?

Fortunately, focus is a lot like a  muscle. The more you work on building it up, the stronger it gets. So, how do we reach that level of deep focus?

  • Sleep Not enough sleep due to sleep disorders or persistent insomnia make it difficult to concentrate. If sleep deprivation clouds your brain, fixing that is a good first step in exercising your concentration muscle.
  • Health/age Depression, hearing loss, vision loss can all work against our ability to focus says Dr. Kirk Daffner, of the Center for Brain/Mind Medicine at Harvard affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. We can’t stop ageing, but maintaining a healthy life-style will slow down the inevitable effects of time.
  • Attitude Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Abraham Lincoln                                                                                                                                                                             People with an optimistic outlook are better able to put aside the nagging, negative thoughts in their head and knuckle down to the task at hand. The power of positive thinking is real.
  • One task at a time Many view multi-tasking as an achievement but according to a study out of Sanford University,  multitasking makes us stupid.  Our brains are wired to receive one set of information at a time. multi-taskers are trying to draw from several sources of information at once and they can’t keep it straight. Our brains just don’t work that way. The brain is meant to filter information to what is relevant. Trying to do many things at once slows down the brain. 
  • Editing is not writing  “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” Steve Jobs
    When your brain is confronted with two tasks that are seemingly on the same level of importance, it will choose the easier one.  In my world, editing is easier than getting words onto a blank screen. If you are in the creative phase of your wip, stick to it. Some writers edit as they go but it is very easy to get distracted with research or grammar or the search for the “right” word instead of concentrating on the story.
  • Motivation  Why do your write? For fame? For fortune? To make your mother happy? Because you love it? Love is the best motivation. If your love your job it’s not “work.”
  • Devices  One study showed that when working on a PC, desk phone or cell phone users worked about 2 minutes and 11 seconds before switching to another task. Electronics and the internet cater to our need for instant gratification. Remember you need at least 23 uninterrupted minutes to get into deep concentration. If you want to focus deeply on your writing, turn off the distractions.
  • Choose one  We all expect to accomplish several tasks in a day but it will boost your productivity if you choose the most important one and schedule your best time of day to do it. If you want to get into the zone and write 2500 words, decide whether you’re a morning person or a night-owl, then set yourself up to get those words down in your best time of day. The less important tasks will still get done and they won’t take away from your primary job.

 Writing this blog was my primary task for today. Now that it’s done I feel uplifted, energized and gratified. Making dinner will be a snap.

 

 

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Quirks and Traits

I’m rereading a book where one of the main characters is an editor who mentally parses interesting words in her thoughts. E.g. while struggling with the onerous task of clearing her basement she thinks “Latin: onerosus, meaning ‘burden”.” This mental editing is a character quirk that has nothing do to with moving the plot forward, but it makes the character interesting and unusual, and keeps this reader turning pages.

Many authors use quirks in character building —

  • Colin Dexter’s Morse solves the Times crossword in record quick time.
  • Miss Marple knits and eavesdrops
  • Abby on NCIS covered in tattoos and piercings, looks scary but is kind and loving.

In science, trait refers to a characteristic that is caused by genetics, e.g. blue eyes. A quirk is defined as a peculiarity of behaviour, a mannerism. In the old TV show “Monk” the main character suffered from OCD. I’m sure living with that condition is very hard, but in the show Monk’s obsessive straightening and tidying and germaphobia is entertaining. In the British show, “Professor T,” the main character has a similar quirk. 

Habit, mannerism, trait, quirk, foible, idiosyncrasy . . . all mean more or less the same thing, but the consistent definition for “quirk” in different dictionaries is that the characteristic is strange, weird, peculiar or unexpected.  Whatever you call that odd thing your character does, the weirder you make it, the better when it comes to keeping your readers engaged. 

I think the trick to writing quirky characters is to keep the behaviours off-beat. A quick search of the internet turned up a list of 500 character quirks. Among the things listed are computer nerd, pacing when thinking, chewing fingernails, chewing gum . . . In my opinion, these habits aren’t weird enough to qualify as quirks.  

The quirk must be unique and unexpected. The first time I saw a movie where a daring-do hero was afraid of clowns I was delighted. Since then, I’ve seen that meme overused and it has lost its power. Now, whenever a clown comes on screen, I expect the cop/fireman/soldier to fear it. 

So, what would be some fun quirks to incorporate into a romance? Perhaps the heroine never meets a man without visualizing him as her groom. If he’s “the one,” we go directly to HEA. If he’s not “the one” the way in which the vision dissolves could be fun. e.g. he melts, or he grows a monkey tail and swings through the trees, or he explodes and destroys the wedding chapel.

In the old television show, Remington Steele, the title character solved mysteries by relating them to old movies. I found that quirk memorable and it heightened the dissonance between him and his lady boss, who was a trained detective. In that case, the quirk served to make the character unique and added to the romantic tension of the story.

In my book, The Man for Her, Lottie’s hatred of the search for gold could be described as a quirk, but I’d be more inclined to call it a learned characteristic since it comes from experience and, therefore, not that unexpected. Still, for a story set in the gold rush, having a heroine who hates gold is a bit quirky.

Not every book will have a quirky character. If they did the quirks would quickly become stale and boring. Still, if you can incorporate a little oddity into one of your characters, readers will remember.

Please share your favourite quirky characters in the comments below.

 

 

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Opening Pages

My writers group held a get-together on the weekend, where we celebrated meeting in person, enjoyed lunch and had few laughs. We also read and critiqued two anonymous pages of writing from each person present. It took me several tries but I finally came up with the two opening pages of my WIP. that I felt comfortable sharing. I’ve posted them below and would welcome your comments.  I’ve entered the group’s comments in blue.

 

 

Saskatchewan, Canada, 1917

A mournful train whistle echoed across the empty prairie, just as Kirsten Swendsen stepped onto the stoop of Glenrose County School #5 and locked the door behind her. She narrowed her eyes and watched as the great steel beast clanked and hissed to a halt at the town station. Even from a distance she could discern a woman descend from the passenger car. After the briefest of pauses, the train thundered on its way, leaving the lone figure, erect and still, on the platform.

A shiver of unease snaked down Kirsten’s spine. Women did not travel alone in these parts. Immigrant women always arrived with a husband and often children in tow. A single woman was most likely bound for a brothel but they usually headed for the cities. Glenrose was too small to have a red-light district, but some of the hotels were known to have a “back room” where single men could “relax.”

She pursed her lips. One thing about the war, it had emptied the prairies of virile young men. The woman at the train station would be hard-pressed for customers.

A flock of geese flying low overhead roused Kirsten from her reverie. Today was threshing day at Luke Walden’s farm. She’d promised to help in the kitchen. Poor man, she thought, as she stepped up into her gig. She and her family were relative newcomers to the area, but she’d heard the rumours. Luke Walden’s wife had runaway with an actor ten years ago, leaving him to run his farm and raise his children alone. Her heart clenched. Luke was a good man. He deserved better.

She shook her head, then glanced over her shoulder. The woman still waited on the platform. Kirsten squared her shoulders and dismissed her fanciful thoughts. Luke’s wife had been gone too long to come back now. Everyone assumed she had died. Gathering the reins into her hands, Kirsten clicked her tongue, and set her horse to a brisk trot. A day at the Walden farm would lift her spirits, even if the work was hard.

 

At the sound of wagon wheels, the woman at the train station lifted her head, breathing in the smoky mist of a prairie morning. Kathleen Walden. She tried the name on her tongue and found it strange. For the past ten years she’d called herself Kitty O’Hearne. Kitty had suited her – a coquette with sharp claws, sleek and serpentine, gliding soundlessly through the night, then curling into a warm lap with a throaty purr.

 

 

 

I had been expecting a line-by-line critique re writing style, grammar, tone, etc. Instead the group pounced on the two characters, pronounced Kirsten dull and wanted to see Kathleen as the heroine, despite the fact she’d abandoned her husband and children to run off with an actor. What do you think?

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The Future is Back

All the best writing coaches tell us to start our books at the point of change. This is the time and place where the characters become interesting, where they have to give up old ways and find new ones, — or not. Even if they do not change, they will have examined their values and relationships and made a conscious decision about who they are and who they want at their side for the rest of life’s journey. I’m talking romance genre here. In my books, Her One True Love and Her One and Only, I heeded this advice and began them at the time the main characters set out on a new life. In her One and Only, Emma Douglas has fled from scandal in California to begin again in the frontier town of Prospect, British Columbia. Louisa Graham, in Her One True Love, is newly freed from the control of her rigid father and ready to embark on a new venture of her own. The point of change makes excellent starting points for these stories.

In the real world though, the point of change may not be so clear cut. In my world, we are coming out of the COVID 19 restrictions and trying to get “back to normal.” Yet many of us struggle with what the rest of life will look like. After so many months of restrictions I’ve gotten used to days uninterrupted with appointments and obligations. We’ve stuck close to home and our entertainment has been on screen. Am I ready to make the effort to go out, to mingle with other people–especially the unvaccinated–to put on tight shoes and style my hair?

Last week I met up with an old writer friend and that was terrific. I wore sandals and windswept hair. We hadn’t seen each other face to face for two years so there was no end of stuff to talk about, but we kept circling back to “what now?”

In fiction that is a fun question. It can be answered with adventure, romance, murder, treachery, a new job, a new skill, a career move, a baby . . . the possibilities are endless. In real life, we have a more difficult time. In many ways, neither of us want to go “back” to the way things were, and in the writing industry there is no going back anyway. Reader’s demands have changed since we first went into lockdown. The publishing industry, whether traditional or self publishing, never stopped evolving while we were huddled at our desks in isolation. 

In the past eighteen months friends and acquaintances have changed, some have passed away, some have moved away, some have decided not to rejoin the groups we had before. So when our clubs hold in-person meetings, the people present won’t be the ones who were there before. The places we volunteered are under new management, our work friends aren’t coming back to the office. 

I do believe starting a story at the point of change is an excellent practice but the experience of closing down and now re-opening reminds me that change is not always exciting, not always positive, not always an opportunity. Change may be confusing, it may diminish our world instead of expanding it. Change is noisy and unsettling and uncertain. Great attributes in a story, a bit uncomfortable in real life.

When lunch was over my friend and I travelled in opposite directions, but writing will still hold us together. The writing may change, but we’ll still be putting words on the page. I found that certainty reassuring.

What about you, dear reader? Are you embracing the reopening of society? Are you rushing off to catch up on all your old activities? Are you staring and the calendar and wondering how you used to fill your days? Please share your words of wisdom in the comments below.

 

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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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