When is it me and when is it I ?

I know that schools seem to think it’s an infringement of a student’s civil rights to make them learn grammar now, but I can’t stand it any longer. The grammar lady deep within me is screaming to be heard.

When is it me and when is it I? Let’s take two simple sentences:

Mary and I went to the movies.

Mother gave Mary and I money for the movies.

Now let’s do away with Mary. (You never really liked her, anyway.)

I went to the movies.  Okay, that sounds good.

Mother gave I money for the movies.   Ouch. Not so good.

When in doubt, leave the other one out.

Simple, isn’t it?

(Don’t get me started on the misuse of “lay” and “lie”. Just thinking about it makes me want to lie down and give up.)

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Lachine Rapids Then and Now


I took advantage of a trip my husband and I took two weeks ago to visit friends to do just a bit more research for my book, The Confederation Diary of Rosie Dunn, in Ottawa and Montreal. In Ottawa I spent a day at the Rideau Canal Locks, watching boats lock through–and getting the rise and fall of the water in them right. I also spent a couple of hours in the Bytown Museum down beside the end of the locks. I had spent several days in Ottawa last summer doing the main part of my research before starting the book, but had not had time to investigate that little museum. Housed in Ottawa’s oldest stone building, the museum is a treasure trove of information about the history of the city and the locks.

Then we went on to Montreal. I had written an exciting account of Rosie’s trip through the Lachine Rapids on the family’s way from Ottawa to Cacouna for a few weeks’ respite from the summer heat, and wanted to make certain that I had got the facts right, so Jim and I booked an afternoon on a jet boat tour of the rapids. I had most of it right, but I hadn’t realized just how big and scary the rapids really are. For an hour we jetted and played around in the waves and in and out of the rocks.

“Bring a change of clothes,” we had been advised. They should have added, “including underwear.” We were battered and drenched, but we had a marvellous time and I was left with a healthy respect for the little steamers that took those rapids on in the 1800s.

Back home to tweak the (first) final revision and I got it off to my editor on July 1st. Very appropriate.  The book is due out with Scholastic Canada in September 2013, and my editor and I will spend the next year working on it.

Who says research is boring?


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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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