Victoria Day Weekend 2015: Comedy of Errors, Classic Cars, and Campfires

Many of my fellow Canucks will have retreated to cottages this weekend, opening up and airing out for the summer season. And they’ll be enjoying 2-4s (six-packs of brew), fireworks, evening campfires responsibly extinguished — having a generally good time ushering in the start of summer.

Because that’s really what May 2-4 is about — it began as a celebration of the good Queen’s birthday, in gratitude for being granted status as a nation rather than a colony, but now it represents the end of spring and welcomes in the heat of the growing season in its fullest. Even if we are still susceptible to frost around here…

Now, I’m not a beer drinker, nor do I have a cottage, but I am enjoying my weekend with both planned events and spontaneous happenings:

I attended the first rehearsal for LaSalle Production’s Shakespeare in the Park performance, “The Comedy of Errors”, in which I will be portraying Aemelia, the Abbess. 

I discovered that the local classic car collectors had gathered at the local mall — a sure sign of summer, when the collectible vehicles come out to play!           

I got the lawn mower out and accomplished a half hour’s worth of attack on the grass before engaging my son in the effort. He did well, but he accidentally locked the mowers — both of them — in the shed afterward, and we don’t know where the key is…

My hubby bought the makings of s’mores and we had a lovely long campfire. Our neighbour joined us for a chat, the boy scared me TWICE, sneaking up on me in the dark, Bridget used a star gazing app on my iphone to find and identify constellations, and we picked out Jupiter as well as three satellites. I also saw an actual shooting star, a first for me!     

While I didn’t get my cleaning done (yet), or start my gardens, I had barbecued jumbo hot dogs for the second time this week. And ice cream.

Tomorrow (crap, that’s technically later TODAY), we are taking the kids to FINALLY see Avengers: Age of Ultron. 

It’s a good long weekend.

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The value of research and feedback while writing: don’t be afraid to ask!

I’m at 8,158 words in my Camp NaNoWriMo project, the Snowmobiling Story for young adults / reluctant readers. A bit shy of the count I want to have for today, so I’ll try to keep this post short in order to attempt to squeeze a few more paragraphs in before midnight. (I had to take an Outlander break, Sassenach!)

I found myself stymied a few times this weekend, in this project, because I’m so out of my depth. I’m not into mechanics or engines or anything technical, so I’m dependent on research and interviews to give me the details I need. The problem is that half the time what I’m reading is still completely over my head, thanks to the jargon and colloquialisms in use by the people in the know.

So last night I started bugging individuals in my circle (and in their circles) for answers. I proposed situations and sought their opinions on what would happen next, with fantastic results. And then, when I sent my work (so far) to one of my usual beta readers to get her take on a scene that didn’t have anything to do with mechanical stuff, I ended up getting more feedback on the technicalities — really helpful stuff that I’m going to fix right away.

See, the thing is, when you’re working on a first draft, it’s important to just keep ploughing ahead and never mind the edits, or else the damned thing will never get done. Go back and fix the little things later. But with this — I don’t mind jumping back here and there to make sure my descriptions and plot points are accurate, because that means I’ll be more likely to get them right when I refer to that stuff again later on.

Some writers also don’t like showing their unfinished drafts to others because — well, hey, we’re a sensitive lot, sometimes, and we don’t want to be told that what we’re writing sucks. It’s a leap of faith in all respects to get the words on the page and then to ask someone what he/she thinks. I find it depends on what I’m doing, and how secure I’m feeling with it, and my own emotional connection to the piece. With this one, I know I’m bound to make errors because I’m writing about something pretty foreign to my experience. The more feedback I can get on it, the better I’ll be.

One problem that I can foresee, though, is the subjectivity of the experience. Some snowmobilers up here call the handlebars “risers”, while others call them simply “handlebars”. If I write something that is closely related to this region, I risk others not enjoying it as much because they’re not in the vernacular loop that people up here are. Then again, it’s edifying to read about experiences in other places, so maybe it won’t really matter.

I think, too, that for this one I’ll be seeking a Canadian publisher, just to really drive it home to my students that they’re awesome. Maybe that’s counting my chickens before they’re hatched, though.

Keep writing!

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Spring? What spring? Sproing, maybe. Oh, those novel-edits blues . . .

Some things are just going to keep passing me by. That beautiful display of the aurora borealis? Yeah, that was too far north to see from here, by a matter of hours. The eclipse of the moon? Wrong hemisphere. First day of spring? We still have two feet of snow on the ground, it’s cold enough that any meltwater from the most recent warm day is currently sheer ice, and a thick cloud cover kept the sunshine away. This is very grumpy-making, as is month number six of having cold feet. Not even slippers are helping with the feet.

In my next house, I’m having heated floors installed.

Edits are proceeding apace. I’ve encountered some challenges — it’s been suggested that some parts could be trimmed down, and it’s always painful to kill my darlings, to use Stephen King’s term for cutting. I’m going to finish the little bits of clarification and accepting / rejecting changes through the rest of the manuscript before I tackle the trimming. Gives me time to contemplate what to keep and what to jettison. See, it’s tricky, because I see everything as important but I get that too much of a good thing can interfere with flow. On the other hand, some parts are meant to become significant later, as part of character development. If I trim the wrong thing, will a character’s momentum or revelation have less meaning or depth?

In the end, I get to make the choice. And no matter what I decide, there will be those who dislike it. I mean, a lot of people complained about the big section in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione wander about the woods for weeks, trying to suss out their next move. But it didn’t bother me, because it was true to form for the characters, and necessary to build to the next big discovery. I liked her choice in doing that. I’ve also seen it done in the Clan of the Cave Bear series, with long sections on setting or travel, and I will admit to sometimes skimming them — and then going back to reread when it became evident that important facts or descriptions were in the information dump.

Maybe — and I’m just throwing it out here — I write my environment. Like this spring, for example. In some places, the transition from winter to spring is quick and has already happened. Crocuses are pushing up through the last layers of snow. Brown stretches of grass showing baby green shoots. But here, where I’ve lived for sixteen years of my life (counting childhood), there’s a long middling period of waiting and contemplation. The excitement of winter activities has died off, worn down by day after day of bitter skies and colourless landscapes. You get used to being in a holding pattern, observing the signs and being able to say, when the warm weather does arrive and the next round of activities is rising, that we knew it was coming. Or that the long winter had us so fooled, spring really took us by surprise.

Do we write our environments? Are writers influenced by the physical world in which they’re living? In a way, it makes sense, if we’re writing what we know. I wonder if anyone’s ever made a study of literature written in different places and compared the flow and pace of each book. There are places in the world where I picture events and activity moving at a breakneck pace, with little relief — New York City, maybe, or Los Angeles, or London. And then there are places that move a little slower, where characters have the luxury of time and setting in which to mull their next move, and events coming up out of nowhere have that much more impact. Like in Salem’s Lot, for example, or Anne of Green Gables, or The Sentimentalists.

Or is there a difference between the flow and pace of Canadian and American novels? Is one (perceived as) more ________ than the other? Is there a socio-economic voice that writers come from or into that affects the style and tone of their work?

I do hope, by the way, that you’re not seeing this as me getting defensive. I’m just trying to work out what the right thing is to do for my work, and where the decision is going to come from, and the elements affecting it. Even the most slap-dash manuscripts are composed of words chosen with care and purpose. Thank heaven for the editor who is kind and wise enough to point out where something may not be working! It’s good to know these things. Better is knowing exactly what to do about them.

I’m as wishy-washy as this so-called “spring” weather. As back and forth as the temperature outside. I have chilly, pebbly slush in my metaphorical writing boots. My head is wrapped in layers of thick sleety cloud. I’m on page 152 of 260 and I have to stop for the night.

Any other writers out there feeling my pain?

January Survival Guide: Or, how I kick Winter’s butt without letting it kick me!

Our little house is holding its ground against the Arctic cold, its outdated and thin insulation keeping the worst of the freezing temperatures at bay. And when I say outdated, I’m talking layers of foil and shingles applied to the walls under siding that is likely at least seventy years old. At times like these, I’m envious of those with wood stoves and fireplaces. It would be lovely to have a source of direct heat in addition to the forced air, something to really take the chill out and toast the tootsies. I know they can be fire hazards as well, very aware of that, but I also see them as a backup plan for power outages. Eventually, it would be wonderful to have something for heat in our house that doesn’t rely on electricity or gas. I remember an incident in Hamilton, Ontario, years ago, when our children were very small and we were staying at a hotel for a visit. There was a terrible cold snap and the hotel room was so chilly that all of us had piled into the one bed. We heard in the morning that one guest had gotten so cold that he’d taken the hair dryer into bed with him and it had shorted out some of the wiring, explaining why the electrical radiators weren’t doing their job! A hair dryer is an illusion of heat, and you only feel colder once it’s turned off. Hot showers, on the other hand, are almost as good as hot baths for sinking heat into your muscles and bones.

We’re only in the beginning of the deep cold, too. The long freeze and coldest days are still coming, usually around the first week of February. It’s so biting that the car needs a good forty minutes to warm up properly, and the dog refuses to pee or poop outside until she’s absolutely desperate. My glasses feel uncomfortable against my face after five minutes in -35 C, less if there’s a wind that makes it feel colder, the snow squeaks like styrofoam under boots and tires, and my nose crinkles up immediately. So I have a few rules I like to follow to make the cold less uncomfortable, easing my transition from hibernation to activity in the depths of Northeastern Ontario winter.

1) Layers. Many layers of clothing, up to and including the head and hands. My typical comfort zone in clothing includes:

-a tunic-length tank (nothing worse than when your coat rides up in a windstorm or getting into a vehicle and a freezing cold breeze hits your lower back! Or, if your pants are falling down because they got stretched by your muffin top or the elastic needs replacing and the top of your crack gets exposed for a moment — yikes! That long tank top is your friend in winter. Trust me.)

a long-sleeve jersey top or turtleneck. I used to wear a lot of turtlenecks but sometimes I feel like they’re choking me, so I’ve been switching to cowl-necks and throwing on scarves. On my longer torso, the jersey top or turtleneck or what-have-you will ride up on the waist, therefore I like that tunic-length tank as a back-up plan.

a warm sweater — cowl-neck, hooded, whatever. This is your main layer, your bulwark against the cold, your second skin. Well, okay, maybe your long-sleeve is your second skin and this is more like your outer coating. Or maybe the long-sleeve is like your layer of blubber and your sweater is like your thick skin. You have to act like a polar bear or a seal, people, bundling those layers to hold in your body heat. Fleece works, and wool if you aren’t allergic or annoyed by the itchiness. (Again, that long-sleeve . . .) The only thing I dislike about fleece is that if it’s too soft in texture it picks up dog and cat hair like a magnet. Hey — extra insulation!

a scarf — long, short, thick, thin, cowl, infinity, eternity (was informed by a student today that the longest, thickest infinity scarves are now called eternity scarves, so that’s good to know), or what-have-you. Guys, you should wear them too. They’re incredibly versatile, dashing and sexy, and they keep the cold off your neck and away from your ears. Heck, I’ve even pulled mine up and under (or over) my winter hat in times of need.

leggings or sweatpants — the layer under your jeans so that when you go outside and the cold makes the denim freeze up, you don’t get that burning feeling on your thighs. With dressier pants, though, you may have to swipe a bit of lotion down the fabric of the inner layer so static cling doesn’t get you. Nobody needs The Cling.

a thick fleecy bathrobe — as soon as I get home, I’m throwing my bathrobe on over my clothes until the house warms up. I am also prepared in case I need to hitchhike across the galaxy!

warm fuzzy slippers — see above.

a thick fleecy / woolen blanket — when that cold air starts creeping up your legs, it’s time to curl into the corner of the couch under the blanket. Eventually, all that is peeking out under the layers will be your eyes and hands. That brings me to the final accessory:

wristlets — you know, those funky fingerless gloves that leave your digits free for texting, dialling, eating, using the remote control, etc. I have a pair that I can plug into my computer for an extra dose of heat, though I find the material a bit scratchy. The good news is that with my mad knitting skillz, I can eventually create my own wristlets from the softest yarn I can find and transfer the heating system over. Ahh, sweet, sweet heat . . .

2) Comfort FoodsThere is a reason that animals fatten themselves up for winter. I know that overindulging in doughnuts, pastries, creamy coffees and hot chocolates is less than desirable, but caloric intake is necessary for survival! Plus, they’re good for the soul on those bone-cracking mornings. Hot soups and tea are also effective tools for enduring the winter.

3) Hot Movies. No, not porn. I’m talking tropical-island, sandy-beach, burning-sunshine, piratey movies. My winter favourites include Captain Ron, each of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Sahara (the one with Matthew McConahotty), Fool’s GoldForgetting Sarah Marshall50 First Dates — anything that will offer just a hint of escape from the white, frozen wasteland outside my windows. CAUTION: Watching a winter-themed movie in the middle of the winter is NOT recommended. Have you ever sat through a showing of The Day After Tomorrow during temperatures of -20 or below and started critiquing the warming techniques of the survivors in the library? Use psychology on yourself. Watch a HOT movie, particularly if you’re like me and you can’t afford a real get-away to the sunny south. Oh, Florida . . .

4) Winter SportsI’d like to say that these are helpful during the Deep Freeze, but really, when exposed skin gets frostbitten in ten minutes or less, just stay inside. I know some snowmobilers live for it, and some ice hut enthusiasts crave those ultra-cold days, but no. Just no.

5) Furry-friend Cuddles. My dog Skittles is such a comfort on these bitter nights. Her fur is warming, her body heats up the couch (and the bed), and yet when she runs outside with me while I warm up the car or put the garbage out, she hits the snow with such joie de vivre, it almost makes me forget that my body is rebelling against my climate.

6) Light. As much as it pains me to pull back the curtains (one extra layer against the cold air), I need to let the light in, as do most of us. Sometimes I like to light some tea candles, too, for the illusion of heat and a warmer light than that cast by the weak January sunlight.

7) SleepIt’s so tempting to hibernate; I tend to stay up very late and sleep a lot in the day when I can get away with it (read: on vacation / weekend) because then I don’t have to see the ice and snow outside. I can cocoon myself and ignore the bitter cold beyond my walls. But then it gets addictive. So get enough sleep but balance it with the light. I have a small SAD light that helps me to wake up on time, feeding me the essential light I need to make sure I wake up after dreaming.

8) Do Projects. Some people like to tinker away at engines. Many of my friends do their best writing in the dead of winter. Others bake their stress away, or sew, or build models. Pick your favourite and go to it! When it’s too cold to enjoy outdoor activities, make the most of the indoor time by mastering a skill. Be crazy like me and commit to a massive project, or sample a few things you’ve never tried before.

9) Clean. Sorry, no, I can’t bring myself to include that as a survival tool for the dead of winter. Cleaning (shudder) is a necessary evil, something that we have to do anyway, but I can’t feel like the house is properly clean if I can’t open the windows and air it out or use my clothesline.

So that’s it — those are my main go-tos for handling the deep winter freeze. What works for you?

September Walking . . . with Skittles! Or, Forest Creatures Unbound

Sometimes, you just have to get out of the house. Too often, I know I ought to get out and go for a walk, and end up ignoring that thought — and regretting it later. After all, the dishes aren’t going to do themselves! Nor is the laundry. But walking is good for inspiration, as well as health. Plus, at this time of year, there are fewer mosquitoes and blackflies to make the stroll less pleasant (although leave it to me to attract the last of the sluggish and most stubborn skeeters in the woods . . .) And as much as I’d like to think I’ll get all the chores done that I want to get done, that’s not likely, either. Ever. So today, I got out of the house with my pooch and enjoyed an hour’s jaunt along one of the ski trails behind our community centre.

I hope you enjoy my pics, all taken with my iPhone (with the chance of drizzle, I didn’t want to take my camera) — scroll over each or click to see the captions. 😀

My Mortal Enemy

The ritual begins at bedtime, in the early summer. 

As soon as the sun approaches the western horizon, the unscreened windows are shut tight, and suspected cracks, stuffed with cloth, are inspected for the tiniest of openings.

Food is served, but we eat while alert, bodies tensed and eyes shifting toward shadowed corners. Small flickers of movement are suspect. Wisps of breeze stirring the light hairs on the arms and backs of necks induce rapid twisting of the torso and swiping at the air.

Nerves are already tingling, raised swellings and pin-sized gouges itching incessantly at the thought of another imminent attack.

Is the whine in my ear imaginary? Or is the tell-tale song of the enemy already inflicting itself upon my senses?

The remains of previous battles still dot our walls in various places — corners too high for the mop to reach, out-of-the-way places where our eyes rarely rove — carcasses forever glued to the drywall with their own innards, petrified trophies of the victory of human over insect.

They dance on the air currents, taunting. Swatters are useless against their fairy-like grace. Our vision struggles to focus on tiny bodies silhouetted against the light, depth perception flawed by poor illumination, or tension, or frustration. 

If I move fast enough, I can catch my tormentor in my hand. I can snatch it from its uneven flight, burying it in my clenched flesh, and hope that with enough grinding friction, it will be torn or squashed enough to end its existence. But the sneaky bastard tends to be flexible and soft, nestling into the folds of my curving fingers, ready to wisp free as soon as I extend my fingers again. My reflexes are rarely quick enough to catch the thing on its escape, and I am forced to start over, hunting even as I am hunted. 

How many will have entered the house tonight? Every time I think we have killed all of the interlopers, I am called back to my child’s bedroom to seek and destroy the next. Every time I start to relax, my hackles rise before I’m quite aware of the presence of the mosquito in my space. 

I welcome spiders in my home. I invite moths to my garden, and bats are my comfort. I am grateful that blackflies don’t bite indoors, and that deer flies and horseflies are rare for those of us who live in town. But mosquitoes have always been the bane of my summer. I’m not one of the lucky ones to whom mosquitoes are not attracted, nor am I one of those who can take a bite without much reaction. I itch, and I swell. My children, too. It seems that my allergy has abated somewhat since I was small, because the swelling is much less than I recall, but the relentless irritation of the skin continues for days after the original bite. Calamine, Polysporin, Benadryl — nothing helps, or for very long. It is something I’ve learned to live with. 

I am grateful I don’t have to worry about my mosquitoes carrying dangerous fevers or malarial infections. I am hopeful that West Nile will never show up in this part of the world. I am thankful that our mosquito season is relatively short. But the frustration and tension remain, night after night. 

Here’s hoping for a pleasant sleep…

Journey with me in Placing Literature!

Journey with me in Placing Literature!

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PlacingLiterature.com enables readers to map the locations of books set in real towns, cities, parks, etc. This month, my work has been included in their spotlight! 

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The setting of the Talbot Trilogy is based on the real town of Cobalt, Ontario. Clicking on the bookmarks in the map will take you to the locations that inspired key events, characters, and places in the series. I write about places I love, so it’s a real privilege to make these places visible to you as well. 

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Throughout the month, I’ll be adding to my virtual tour of the places used in Wind and Shadow, its prequel novella Mist and Midnight, and the locations coming up in Book Two: Blood and Fire (coming February 12) and the final instalment, Book Three: Crystal and Wand (coming summer 2014). I’m looking forward to your comments along the way!

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