First draft finished – Champagne cooling

First draft of The Confederation Diary of Rosie Dunn is done! I don’t know about the rest of you, but first drafts are really really hard for me. I start off with great enthusiasm and energy, but inevitably run into a brick wall. There will be a day when I stagger into the living room and announce that this is the book I can’t finish. At this point my husband comments, often without even looking up from his newspaper, “Oh, third chapter already?”

This time, while I was moaning about it, a friend gave me the useful advice that when stuck, having the roof fall in usually gets you going again. I didn’t do that, but I did set fire to the cowshed. It worked. By the time I got the cow out and the fire extinguished I was off and running again.

Once the first draft is done, however, I can relax and have fun. I love rewriting and revising. To me, it’s playing. I can’t wait to get at it and see what I’ve written and where it’s going to go. My first drafts are usually short and sketchy, with lots of room to expand and layer. And I want to dig in and get to know Rosie Dunn better. She is a lively girl.

This book is set in Ottawa in 1866/67. I did an enormous amount of research, a lot of it at the Public Archives in Ottawa. Ottawa was a pretty horrible place to live in, in 1866. Nothing much there when Queen Victoria declared that it was to be the capital of Canada except sawmills and mud. And the Parliament Buildings, of course. Not quite finished when the Government moved in, but still big and beautiful. A lot of people wondered why the Queen had chosen Ottawa.  At the time, after the War of 1812, people were worried about another American invasion, however, and one witty civil servant remarked that at least if the Americans did invade, they would never be able to find the town, it was so remote from civilization.

How about all of you writers out there?  How do you feel about first drafts? Do you write long or short? When do you hit your wall? Or do you? Maybe you’re one of the fortunate ones who never gets blocked?

I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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An Osprey with Attitude

My fashionista Osprey is back. I wrote about her in my very first blog last May. Despite the destruction of her nest the winter before, she had rebuilt it–with panache. No ordinary sticks and twigs for her. Her nest was decorated with bits and pieces of anything colourful or interesting that she could find.

Last year her nest was amazing, but this year she has outdone herself. And very proud of it she is.

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The Other Elizabeth and the War of 1812

We’re celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812 this year and to that end I’m showcasing my book, The Other Elizabeth, here in my blog. It’s the story of a girl who goes to Upper Canada Village with her Grade Seven class for a Canadian History field trip and suddenly finds herself back in time to a point just before the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, one of the decisive battles of the War of 1812.

I have often been asked how I got the idea for this book. Writers are always asked that question, aren’t they? Well, one hot and sunny day I took my children to Upper Canada Village on the St. Lawrence River. After a while they tired of visiting the old buildings and decided they had to find food. I was left on my own. I found myself in the old school building, all by myself. At that time there were no guides to the buildings, people were left to roam around and discover their secrets all by themselves.

It was a small, one-room schoolhouse. I looked around me at the black slate boards on one wall, the old, battered wooden desks and stools, the pot-bellied black iron woodstove, the bucket for wood and another bucket for water and then, most particularly, at the slab of wood that served as a threshold to the room. It was a thick, rough-cut piece of timber, and had been worn down smoothly at the center to a depth of a couple of inches at least. I started to wonder: how many feet had crossed that threshold, to wear it down so? How many children had sat at these desks, learning to read, write and master arithmetic?

And then the writer’s magic words: “What if?”

What if a modern day girl, on a field trip with her school, perhaps, walked into this room and suddenly found herself back in time?

In a flash, Elizabeth was born. But in another flash, following hard on the first, came the questions. To what period of time would she go back ? More importantly, why? There always has to be a good reason for a traveller to go back in time.

I  poked around a bit and found out that in 1813 the Battle of Crysler’s Farm had taken place right here. That would be interesting, I thought. That would be a good time to take her back to. Then another thought stopped me dead. I had not been brought up in Canada. I knew nothing of Canadian history, nothing of how pioneers lived. I couldn’t write about that time!

But Elizabeth had established herself firmly in my head and she would not let me off the hook, so I gritted my teeth and decided that I would have to do–ugh!–research. At that time I had only written one book and several short stories, but nothing that had required–ugh!–research.

I rounded up my kids, took them home, then came back another day on my own. I found a small research centre tucked away in the Village, not open to the public, but open to people doing serious research. In there I found lists of the names of the people who had settled the area–mostly Loyalists who had fled up to that area after the American Revolution. I found maps of where each family had settled, where orchards were planted, where mills were built, schools erected. I found old newspapers with records of sales of cattle and other goods. I found out that the only building in the Village that stood on the very spot where it had stood in 1813 was Cook’s Tavern, so I decided to make the time transition occur there. All the other buildings were authentic for that time period, but had been brought in from other areas. By the time I left the Village that day my story was bubbling and building up in my head, overflowing with details and ideas.

I carried on researching in libraries, museums, wherever I could find information. I travelled down to the United States to find out more about where the Loyalists had come from, what the situation had been like for them. The more I discovered, the more intrigued I became.

Since that book, I have written many more historical novels. With each one I have learned so much. Research is no longer something to be dreaded, but a fascinating journey of discovery. Like a detective unravelling clues in a mystery. Like putting together the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. The research gives me details for my stories that I would never otherwise discover. You don’t know what you don’t know until you find out about it, do you? My main problem now is making myself stop researching and start writing.


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How to Approach the Writing of a Book

You’ve got a great idea for a book

First you celebrate

Sketch out an outline

Sounds good-dive in!

Going great. Ride the wave.

Going’s getting heavy. Paddle doggedly.

Think about it for a while

Eye it suspiciously.

Sidestep around it a bit.

If you’re really stuck, sleep on it.

But eventually

You’re going to have to make like a kangaroo.

Kangaroos can only go forward. They can’t go backwards.


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Memories of Germany III

The year we left, my best friend, Dianne Hentschel, and I decided that before our two oldest teens went back to Canada to University they must see Berlin. This was before the wall came down, before it was even conceivable to think that the wall would ever come down. Accordingly, we found ourselves at midnight one night in the Cologne railway station with Christopher and Kate, Kate’s young sister Sarah, and her best friend, Pam. We crowded ourselves into a sleeping compartment on a train with six minuscule bunks and waved goodbye to two very dubious-looking husbands on the platform.

Late though it was, nobody in that room had any thought of sleeping. The kids distributed themselves on the upper bunks and broke out pop and junk food. Dianne and I sat rather more decorously on the bottom bunks and shared a bottle of wine. This was an adventure and we were all delirious with the delight of it.

When we finally decided that we had to get some sleep, I carefully set my alarm clock for 5:00 a.m. The train got into Berlin at 6:00a.m., stopped there for exactly three minutes, (and when German train timetables say exactly three minutes that is exactly what they mean), and then went on to Moscow. I am a worrier by nature and I didn’t even want to think of what would happen if we didn’t get ourselves all off in Berlin.

I needn’t have bothered. When we crossed the border into East Germany the entire crew of the train changed. Our door was slammed open with a crash, the light unceremoniously blazed on, and a voice demanded “Pässe” in no uncertain terms. I’m not certain which of the six of us leaped the highest, but the two in the top bunks must have hit the ceiling. Literally.

I shall always be thankful that my son was able to see Berlin before the wall came down. On the day that unbelievable news reached the world, I knew he would understand the enormity of what had happened better than anyone who had not been there ever could. We had walked along the western side of the wall. We had added our names and drawings to all the rest of the garish graffiti there, had climbed up on wooden platforms and looked over it to the no-man’s land beyond, and stared into the eyes of heavily armed East German guards who had stared impassively back. We visited Checkpoint Charlie and spent hours looking at the pictures and memorabilia of all those who had escaped–and read the tragic stories of those who hadn’t. Finally, we took the S-Bahn–the streetcar–over to East Berlin and passed through into that other world.

Most of the truly beautiful buildings of Berlin were on that side and they were painstakingly and expensively restored after the war. We toured the museums, marvelled over the architecture of the opera house, watched the Russian soldiers goosestep in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then we walked down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate.

We had been on the other side of that gate the day before. We had taken pictures of ourselves in front of the gate, close enough to the wall to touch it and add yet more exuberant graffiti to it–six tourists amongst a throng of noisy, happy people and raucous traffic jams. On this side: Unter den Linden, a broad, once-proud avenue, lined with the linden trees that gave it its name, was barren and sterile. A few shops with deceiving, pathetic displays in their windows, nothing on the shelves within, no one with money to buy anything in there anyway. There were almost no cars. A few people, quiet, some pushing strollers with babies in them. When you got to the gate you were stopped by a barrier about 30 metres away from it, and barbed wire. From this side the wall was grey and featureless. Forbidding. Armed guards patrolled between it and us. There were benches there, fixed so that you could sit and look through the gate to the loud, colourful turmoil on the western side of it. Strange that they would do that. We sat and watched a young couple with their baby stand near us without speaking, just staring towards the obelisk on the other side with its shining, golden peak gleaming in the sun.

I wonder where that couple is now? I wonder what kind of a life that baby has had? A very different one than what her parents had envisioned for her, I’m sure.

The old, courtly doctor finally moved to the kindlier climate of the south, to Bavaria, for the sake of his health. We worried, Frau Piccu and I, as to how the other doctor would make out without him, but he fell and died of complications within three days, before we even knew it had happened. Herr Engleskirchen gave me a picture before I left that he had painted of Königswinter and the Drachensfel high above it, as it had looked when he was young. Frau Piccu, Doris, we finally got onto first names, still writes to me.

I see, smell, and hear an early morning on the banks of the Rhine. The fog is thick, but as I approach the Mehlem ferry, the curtain begins to rise. The barges chug along. The Königswinter church steeple emerges in a stray ray of sunlight just as its bells begin to peal. This is a scene from a dream. This is a scene from my memories.

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Memories of Germany II

My husband travelled a lot, but there was always something to do. I remember one slushy, grubby day in particular. It was raining in Bonn, but snow on the hilltops across the river beckoned. The Siebengebirge, the Seven Mountains. Siegfried slew his dragon there; the vast golden treasure of the Nibelungen was lost into the Rhine there; Snow White fell asleep in those forested hills and the seven dwarves toiled in their mines. For tin.

I armed myself with mitts, hat and scarf, and Tiff and I set out. We took the Mehlem ferry across to Königswinter, all closed up and quiet on this winter Sunday, but you should see it in summer, better still during Octoberfest. A livelier town then you could never imagine. With stalls selling beer, stalls selling sausages and buns, and at least six or seven oompah-pah bands competing all at once, every group, composed of barely toddling infants to barely tottering grandparents, rivalling every other as to which of them was dressed in the most gorgeous and most be-sequined uniforms.

Through the town and up the mountain we climbed, finally getting into the snow, nevertheless I was shedding hat, mitts and scarf–this was not a gradual ascent. Tiff got more and more excited. Golden retrievers love snow. The way began to get icy and, after Tiff exuberantly rolled herself several metres down the cliff-side, I decided she’d better go back on the lead. For the sake of my nerves if nothing else. I had retrieved this retriever out of an icy lake not too long before, with nearly fatal results, and I was not going to imperil my own life again by scrambling down a frozen cliff after her.

The early-medieval ruins of the Burg Drachenfels, (Dragon’s Cliff Castle), are at the very top of this mountain. Siegfried threw his bothersome dragon off here, according to one of the many legends. There was a road on the other side that I was pretty sure led to a nice little winehouse nestled into the hills–most roads in these mountains do. Sure enough, there was a sign that led to it. A 15-minute walk, it said. Maybe in summer; in winter it took considerably longer. No matter. We were in snow here. Away from the cliffside, I threw snowballs, Tiff chased them. By the time we finally found the winehouse I was healthily hungry.

When we first went to Germany I dutifully left my dog either tied up or in the car outside restaurants. I soon became aware of noses under tables, however, and realized that dogs are just as welcome as two-legged people here, so Tiff went in with me. Never mind that she was wet up to the ears and a tad smelly.

The small, fachwerk winehouse was crowded to the scuppers, but the owner found a corner of a table for me. Tiff lay down obediently. Unfortunately, only her head was able to fit under the table, the other three-quarters of her stuck uncompromisingly out into the aisle. No problem. The owner not only cheerfully stepped over her as he bustled back and forth between the tables, he even brought her a dog biscuit.

I ordered a plate of the house-made sausage and brown bread, with a glass of white Rhine wine. It was a good thing I was hungry. Two slices of thick bread–I lie, they weren’t slices, they were slabs–one thickly covered in a coarse-ground homemade liverwurst, the other with spicy homemade sausage, sliced fresh onions over all, pickles, tomato, lettuce and mustard-to-bring-tears-to-your-eyes on the side.

I found myself sharing the table with two other couples, and a lively conversation ensued. Lively on their part, at least. My German was not quite lively yet, even after a glass of Rhine wine.

The little winehouse was not a quiet place. Tables along one wall were filled with three groups of happy wanderers, fully outfitted with knee breeches, muddy hiking boots and feathered alpine caps. Within half an hour a gentleman from one group had courteously presented a lady from one of the other groups with the bouquet of dried flowers from his table. Within another half an hour the three groups were fast friends, and singing.

Another hiking group walked in, complete with their dackel. A German short-haired pointer under one of the tables chose to raise an objection, but dackels are known to hold their own and not back down under any circumstances, in spite of their small size, and it rose to the challenge. The next few moments were even noisier, but dogs in German restaurants know they have to obey the rules, so order was quickly established, with dog biscuits all around.

Tiff got her fair share of my leftovers, and we made it back down the mountain only one village farther north than I should have been. We walked back to the ferry, across, and home to a good roaring fire and a cup of hot tea. With, bearing in mind Frau Piccu’s good advice, a smidgeon of brandy in it to ward off the damp.

(To be continued)

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Memories of Germany I

I began to learn about Germany by walking my dog along the Rhine on damp, misty mornings, when the fresh, earth smell of fields by the path mingled with the tang of woods and fallen leaves. Barges rumbled up and down the river, sometimes in fog so thick you could only hear them and just catch ghostly glimpses of them now and then, and you wondered, radar notwithstanding, how they managed to avoid each other. Sometimes they didn’t, and when the fog lifted there would be a lumbering, stranded carcass anchored to one side of the channel.

Herr Kräckel was my first acquaintance. He walked his big, black, almost labrador, Rex, there every day. At first we merely exchanged polite “Guten Morgans”, with a courteous tip of the hat on his part, but Rex and my retriever, Tiffany, soon put a stop to that. They discovered an instantaneous mutual delight in swimming in the often dangerously fast current and racing after small animals in the woods, and soon Herr Kräckel and I were walking companions. He spoke no English, and at that point I spoke no German, but he didn’t let that bother him. He kept up a constant conversation. I felt my first glimmerings of triumph over that fiendishly difficult language when I finally began understanding bits and pieces of what he said–but that didn’t come until much later.

“Kaninchen,” he pointed out to me one day when the dogs put up a rabbit and went in wild pursuit.

“Kaninchen,” I repeated to myself. And repeated it over and over during the morning to make certain I would not forget it.

I must have done a thorough job of it. That afternoon I took my teenaged son out to buy a jacket. In German. After much stress and strain, mission accomplished, and thoroughly soaked by a steady, cold rain, we took refuge in a coffee shop. According to the menu, a pot of coffee seemed to be a “Kännchen.” Dangerously simily to “Kanninchen.” To the vast amusement of the waitress and the customers at nearby tables, and the humiliation of my son, I proceeded to order a rabbit of coffee.

My next acquaintance was Frau Piccu. A Bavarian, with all the grace, humour and generosity of those delightful people, she was to become a good and steadfast friend over the years to come. Her dog was an English setter and a thorough rogue. She paid many a fine to owners of the sheep and chickens penned near the river walk. Pippo was unrepentant and incorrigible, but irresistable.

There were others, all destined to become important to me. Herr Engelskirchen. (Herr Angels’church). Plump and as angelic-looking as his name, he painted, committing to his easel our marvellous views of river and hills, cliffs, tiny villages, and the looming remains of castles that stand lonely and silhouetted against the sky. His dackel, a kind of dachshund peculiar to Germany, was always with him. Wiry, rough-coated, square-muzzled and feisty, dackels are intelligent, curious about everything and everybody, and fiercely determined in their own small way to get every possible ounce of enjoyment out of life.

Then there were the two doctors. Lifelong friends, they had worked and walked side by side since childhood. One, tall and courtly, the other a little smaller, a little more frail, but with an impish twinkle in his eye. No matter how cold the morning, gloves were always stripped off the right hands with a flourish for the ritual handshakes as we met, and he always held on just a fraction of a second longer, squeezed just a fraction more. But with that expression in his eyes, as if to say, “I’m an old devil, aren’t I?” After the third year he took to hugging me and walking with his arm around me as if I were his daughter. I think I was, in a way, since I found out she had died many years earlier.

Finally, Frau Klaus. How to describe her? Seventy-two, the first year I met her.  Tiny, but wiry. She had been a wealthy girl and an even wealthier woman, but the war had finished that. She lived now in a home for the elderly, on the banks of the Rhine by the Mehlem ferry. Every morning, no matter what the weather, she stepped out of that home and with the aid of her cane tapped her way down to the Dreesen, a grand old Rhine hotel which was the scene of one of the meetings between Chamberlain and Hitler. Frau Piccu, who was friend to us all and “mommy” with pockets full of biscuits for the dogs, took Frau Klaus under her wing most especially.

“This is a terrible morning,” she remarked to her once on a particularly foul day in December. “You should really have a nip of brandy for your heart before starting out in this.”

“I’ve had two,” Frau Klaus answered with a chuckle, then proceeded to do a small dance and sing an old soldier’s song that Frau Piccu assured me was “most naughty.”

One morning two police officers rode towards us on the path on their huge, magnificent horses. They drew respectfully aside to let Frau Klaus past, but she stopped, fixed them with a determined look, then tapped the nearest one on the leg with her cane.

“I’d like to ride that horse of yours,” she said.

“I’m so terribly sorry,” the officer replied, somewhat taken aback, “but it would be against regulations.”

“I could do it, you know,” Frau Klaus went on. “We had horses when I was young. I was a marvellous rider.”

“I’m certain that you were, meine Dame, but unfortunately I cannot let you ride this horse.”

“Pity,” Frau Klaus muttered. “It would have been nice.” She tapped the horse’s haunch this time with her cane. “On with you, then.”

Shortly after this my mother came from Canada to live with us as she was very ill. Eventually, she had to be hospitalized and we found her a room in a hospital high up in the hills, at the edge of a woods. She had a little balcony off her room and I kept it filled with potted plants and flowers. A pigeon used to visit each day. He would strut around the balcony, then inspect the room officiously. Germans have a very understanding attitude about animals, the nurses used to save bread crumbs to feed him. Sometimes he even made it into the hall, but nobody worried overmuch. My mother, however, was not so tolerant. The pigeon she accepted, but not so the cuckoo that lived in the woods outside her room and started up, with true German efficiency, at daybreak every morning. And kept up for most of the day. I brought binoculars so that we might see him. My mother said I should have brought a gun.

When my mother died, my neighbours, perhaps a little reticent up until then, brought flowers. My friends along the Rhine walked with me in the morning mists and comforted me.

(To be continued)

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Old Books Reborn II

Last summer I posted about rewriting and bringing three of my out of print books up to date, and publishing them as ebooks and print on demand books. They’re finally out.  They’re available now as paperbacks in bookstores and online, and as ebooks on Kindle and Kobo.

The Other Elizabeth is especially timely now, as Canada is planning a host of activities next year for the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, and that is the setting for this story. Elizabeth is a seventh grade student on a field trip to Upper Canada Village, a pioneer village in Loyalist country along the St. Lawrence River. She is drawn to the local Cook’s Tavern and when she enters, she finds herself back in the year 1813, just before the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, a decisive battle in the war.

“Why it’s young Elizabeth Frobisher,” says one of the men sitting around a table by the hearth.”

“But I’m not…” Elizabeth tries to say, “I’m not Elizabeth Frobisher! I’m Elizabeth Duncan!”   View Trailer

The Other Elizabeth was my first foray into historical fiction. I was hooked. I lived in England for a few years and during that time I became fascinated with the menhirs, the standing stones such as the ones at Stonehenge, that dotted the fields and countryside.

The idea for The Stone in the Meadow was born.

Jenifer is equally intrigued with a large, black stone in a meadow in Cornwall, where she and her family are visiting her uncle, in a home that has been in their family for over a hundred years. Drawn to it, she steps into its shadow and finds herself back a hundred years, with a young boy staring incredulously at her. Together, she and Perran travel back to the period of the Druids–a dangerous time for Jenifer who is the image of Fedelm, a Druid priestess.

While we lived in England we travelled in Wales as well as Cornwall. One March break, with three children and the dog stuffed into our tiny car with us, we explored the wild coast of Wales. On a gloomy, rainy day we drove past an old dark house, slate roof gleaming in the rain. Below the cliff on which it sat, seals played in the waves and rocks. As soon as I saw the house, I knew I had to write a ghost story set there.

View Trailer

In The Haunting of Cliff House, when Alison’s great aunt dies in Wales, Alison and her father go over for a summer to settle up the estate. Alison’s father is delighted with the old house they find there, set high on a cliff above the sea, and settles in for the summer to write the book he’s never had time for. Alison is not as enthusiastic. Then she discovers an ancient diary belonging to a girl, just her own age, who had lived in the same house centuries before. The girl’s life bears an uncanny resemblance to Alison’s, including a growing jealousy of a woman who is intruding into their lives. Alison’s unease turns to fear as Bronwen appears to her, calling to her and appealing for her help. Help she doesn’t know how to give. View trailer

It has been a very rewarding journey, revisiting and rewriting these books. Since they went out of print I have had many requests for them, so I am wishing them well in their new life.

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Reading with children

I built up an extensive library of children’s books while my own children were young. Because of my husband’s job, we moved every three or four years to different postings in different countries. With each move my library grew larger…and heavier. Finally my children were all grown up, but I still insisted on carrying those books with us. My husband could not understand why I did it and felt, with some justification, that it was a large expense added to our moving costs.

More years passed, during which our grown-up children married and had children of their own. Then one day when my eldest son was visiting, I heard his voice in the room that was our library at the time. I peeked in and there was my six foot six, thirty-something-year-old-son sitting folded up on the floor with his four-year-old daughter on his lap, reading an old, battered and taped-together copy of Fly High, Fly Low, by Don Freeman, that had been his favourite book at that age. His daughter was as enthralled with it as he had been.

“That’s why I saved those books,” I said.

Now more grandchildren have arrived and they still hear the old favourites as well as exciting new discoveries. On a recent camping trip with my daughter and her two young children I took along The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. (Can’t put up the cover because it was on my Kindle). Emily and Nicholas were delighted with the small people’s adventures, and so was my daughter, all over again.

Books, and reading to our children, have been a tie that has united three generations of our family and I’m sure will continue to do so for generations to come.

I often hear people say, “Oh, she/he isn’t old enough yet to understand books.” Understanding doesn’t have that much to do with it. What is important is the nurturing of the love of books from the very beginning. Even with a baby so young that they literally “devour” books, chewing on their edges as you read, there is something special about the act of reading. Cuddled in your lap, tucked in beside you in bed, stretching out in front of the fire or bundled up in a sleeping bag in a tent–what more delicious and secure way to be introduced to the world of books, at any age.

One of my favourite books to read to my grandchildren, from way before they were old enough to understand it, was The Cataract of Lodore, by Robert Southey, an English poet and man of letters, appointed Poet Laureate in 1813, and illustrated by David Catrow. What a joy to read and what does it matter if the child doesn’t understand a word? Just the sound of it makes a waterfall.

The Cataract strong
Then plunges along,
Striking and raging
As if a war waging
It’s caverns and rocks among:
Rising and leaping,
Sinking and creeping,
Swelling and sweeping,
Showering and springing,
Flying and flinging,
Writhing and ringing,
Eddying and whisking,
Spouting and frisking,
Turning and twisting,
Around and around,
With endless rebound!”

Just feel the delight of those words in your mouth and drink in the wild and frolicking pictures that illustrate it.  There is more–pages and pages more–and not once were any of my kids bored with it before the end, even when they were far too young to understand the half of it.

Another favourite: Zoom at Sea, by Tim-Wynne-Jones, illustrated by Ken Nutt.

The brave little cat who desperately desired to go to sea, and was beyond himself with delight when the mysterious Maria grants his wish.

“I’m at sea!” Zoom exults. And then:

“He danced around on his driftwood deck and occasionally cupped his paws and shouted very loudly back to shore.

“More waves,” or “More Sun,” or “More fish.”

I defy anyone , young or old, to read those words and look at that picture without laughing out loud and feeling as exhuberant as Zoom himself.

“There were monkeys
In my kitchen
They were climbing up the walls
They were dancing
On the ceiling
They were bouncing basketballs”

Sheree Fitch’s book, There Were Monkeys in my Kitchen,  illustrated by Marc Mongeau, is as much fun to read as it is to look at and listen to. No matter if you’re reading it to a one-year old baby, the rhythm of it is irresistible. Don’t be surprised if your baby starts bouncing in time to the words.

Reading with your children is as much fun for you as it is for them.  There are so many wonderful books out there. Go for it.

More waves! More sun! More fish!

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The Joy of a “Given”


Short stories take a lot of time and work. They come slowly. Sometimes the idea that seemed so bright and shiny-new turns dull and the story dies. Another idea comes along and we start again. Same process, same amount of time and work.

But sometimes…Sometimes we get a “given”. A story that comes to you complete and writes itself in your head and your fingers have to scrabble to keep up with it. It’s a rare occurrence, but when it happens–what a joy!

I’ve only had two of these in my writing life, but both of them turned into stories that sold and one of them went on to become a novel.

Coffee, Snacks, Worms had its birth one day when I was driving along a dusty Ontario highway, on my way to a school visit. It was a hot, sunny day. I was daydreaming along the road when I suddenly saw a billboard propped up in front of a grubby service station. Tired tires were stacked in piles to one side of the dilapidated building. Heat shimmered up off the tarmac.

COFFEE, SNACKS, WORMS, the billboard proclaimed.

I grinned at the vision the sign conjured up, seeing myself walking in and ordering a coffee, a chocolate bar, and a juicy bowl of worms. Then I forgot it. I thought.

The school was one that brought in students from long distances away. Some of the students faced an hour-long bus ride each way every day.

“What do you do on the bus all that time?” I asked during our workshop.  “Homework?”

Snorts of derision. Then one girl, who had been quiet up until then, said “I plot stories.”

And in that instant Kate was born. A girl who lived in a grubby service station just like the one I had passed. Her father was an alcoholic, her mother a passive victim. Her life was grim. So grim that she had found a way out. She made up stories. At home, at school, on the bus–she lived most of her life in her head in stories about the incredible Stephanie, who was as unlike her as possible. Beautiful, prone to dangerous and exciting situations, but always, with a toss of her wild, untameable mane of hair, triumphant. Kate’s friends sometime had to give her a push off the bus at her stop, so deep in her fantasizing she was. Reality had no place in Kate’s world.

Until Mike turned up.

I’ve got a knife. Give me all the money in the register.”

Kate’s character Stephanie had never been threatened with a knife. Kate didn’t know anything about knives. Still half in her fantasy world, she didn’t react the way she was supposed to.

“What kind of a knife?” she asked. She felt it was something she should know.

Perplexed, the would-be thief stuttered out, “A sharp knife. You don’t want to find out how sharp…”

My short story, Coffee, Snacks, Worms wrote itself. But Kate had taken hold of me and some years later, with a lot more work and planning, I turned the story into a novel, THIRTEENTH CHILD , so that I could find out what happened to her.

My other “given” happened to me one day when my 5-year old granddaughter was visiting. We had inherited a crabby old cat, who deeply distrusted children. I was working in my office and heard Jessica and my husband, Jim, in the bedroom. There seemed to be something interesting going on, so I left my desk and poked my head in. My husband was on his hands and knees, entreating the cat, who had holed up under the bed.

“Come on, kitty kat, come on out. Jessica loves cats. She won’t hurt you,” he was cajoling, with no success.

Jessica was standing beside him, arms folded. With the wisdom of a child, she said, “You can’t rush a cat, Granddaddy.”

I rushed back to my room and wrote, all in one fell swoop, my one and only picture book: YOU CAN’T RUSH A CAT  .

I am still waiting for another “given” to fall out of the sky. In the meantime I’m writing the usual way.

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