Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Contest Update: There's still time!

The holidays are rushing by, but there's still time to enter my contest to win a free e-copy of McShannon's Heart AND a critique of fifteen manuscript pages by editor of critically acclaimed novels, Patricia Thomas. Just post a favorite holiday recipe as a comment to this post. I'll be drawing for the prizes on New Years Eve. So far I have seven entries, so your chances are good!

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Gift for You

Christmas Eve. We're heading out to spend the evening with my parents in a few minutes, but before I go, here's a gift for you.

A few weeks ago, a writing friend of mine suggested I write a Christmas story about Trey and Beth McShannon and their children. The idea grew on me, and here it is. It takes place thirteen years after McShannon's Chance. I hope you enjoy it, and may all of you have the best of holidays and the brightest of New Years. Enjoy!

“Matthew, for goodness’ sake, close the door.”

Matthew McShannon made a face at his older sister as he stamped the snow from his boots. “Chelle, for goodness’ sake, quit bossing.”

Chelle tossed her dark curls and went back to cutting biscuits to go with the beans Ma had baked for supper. Matt deliberately kicked some snow in her direction on his way to the stove. Chelle might look fourteen and try to act twenty, but she was still only twelve and needed to be reminded of it often.

The scents of salt pork and molasses wafting from the oven made Matt’s stomach rumble. He pinned his gloves and scarf to the line over the stove, where years of stored sunshine poured from the fire, forcing back the chill of the December afternoon. Winter had come early to the Colorado foothills this year.

Steam started to rise from Matthew’s jacket, carrying the unmistakable smell of damp wool. He rubbed his hands to warm them, then fumbled with buttons. The lamp glowing on the table turned the dark window beside him into a mirror, reflecting the cabin’s log walls, the bright Indian rug on the pine floor and the ladder leading to the loft. Pa had added rooms on either side as the family grew, but this room hadn’t changed since he’d settled here in ’65. Somehow, the older Matthew got, the smaller it seemed. Now, at nearly twelve, there were days when it seemed too small. Today was one of those days.

Lamplight struck the glass ornaments Ma and Ethan were hanging on the Christmas tree across the room. Matt had always loved the glittering blue and gold birds with their tails of real feathers, treasures from Ma’s childhood home in Philadelphia, but not this year. He frowned in the glass at Ma and Ethan’s ruddy heads, at little freckled Abby sitting on the floor near them, and at his own blond, blue-eyed reflection. A hop out of kin, Mrs. Baker at the store called him. Knowing he looked like his grandfather McShannon, whom he’d never met, didn’t help.

He dipped water from the stove’s boiler into a basin, diluted it with cold from the pump and washed his hands. Ma looked over her shoulder, smiling. “Will your father be in soon?”

“Yeah, he’s just checking on Diamond. He’ll be done in a minute.” Matt hung his jacket by the door and curled up on the bunk where Dad used to sleep before Ma had come along. Ethan tucked a paper snowflake among the branches of the little pine and brushed his hands together with satisfaction.

“I’m done, Ma. Matt, is Diamond going to have her foal?”

“Pa says any day now.” Matt shrugged, annoyed at himself. What’s wrong with me? Last year I would have been as excited as Ethan about the foal. Why not now?

The lamp flickered in a gust of cold air as Pa came in, banging the door behind him. Now the room felt even more crowded. Matt and Pa seemed to rub each other the wrong way more and more often this winter.

Ma came across the room and slipped her arms around Pa inside his unbuttoned coat. “Trey, you’re freezing.” A little woman not much higher than his shoulder, she stood on tiptoe to kiss him. “Hurry and sit in. Supper’s ready.”

“And I’m ready for it, Beth.” Pa shrugged out of his coat and hurried to wash up. Chelle took her biscuits from the oven and put them on a plate while Ma dished up the beans. Matt took his seat and bowed his head with the others as Pa said grace.

“Thank you, Lord, for this Your bounty and for allowing us to be together on the night of Your Son’s birth. Amen.”

The trace of a Southern drawl in Pa’s voice irked Matt somehow. It made him think of places he’d never seen, and wouldn’t be able to see for years, if ever. Like Ma’s ornaments. He sighed into his plate. Things had come to a fine pass when you couldn’t enjoy a Christmas tree.

Ethan spoke around a mouthful of beans. “It’s my turn to name the new foal, isn’t it Pa? How about Thunder?”

Pa nodded. “Thunder Cloud would be a fine name if it’s a colt.” All the colts born on the place had Cloud in their names after Flying Cloud, Dad’s old stallion. A horseman already at six, in a way Matt knew he would never be, Ethan’s round face beamed with pride.

“If it’s a filly, I’ll call her Glory.”

Matt dropped his fork. It clattered against his plate as words tumbled out like water bursting a dam. “Glory’s a stupid name for a horse. Can’t you think of something that makes some kind of sense?”

Ethan’s quick temper flashed as Matt knew it would. “That’s what you think, mister big-for-your-britches. Speak when you’re spoken to, come when you’re called.”

A warning spark lit Pa’s dark eyes. “That’s enough, boys. Eat your supper.”

Ethan stuck his tongue out. Before Matt could think, he snatched up half of the buttered biscuit on his plate and pitched it at Ethan’s head. It grazed him, leaving a smear of butter on his fore head before hitting the floor with a dull splat. The next thing Matthew knew, Pa’s rough hand grabbed his shirt collar. “Up to the loft. Now.”

With the strength of anger, Matt tried to jerk free and almost managed it. “He – ”


Eyes stinging, Matt scrambled up the ladder and dashed between trunks and boxes. He threw himself on the bed jammed against the back wall. His hands balled into fists as he stared into the shadows that hid the roof’s peak.

Four more years, no more. I’ll scrape the money together somehow, get on the stage and never show my face in Wallace Flats again.

He stayed there, nursing the painful knot in his chest, while the family finished eating. He heard the click of plates as Chelle cleared the table, then Ma’s light step on the ladder. Matt closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. In a moment, he felt her hand on his hair, then heard her soft tread as she retreated.

“He’s asleep. I hope he hasn’t picked up that flu that’s going around the school. He hasn’t been himself today.”

Pa answered, murmuring something about age that Matthew didn’t quite catch. He lay still, listening to the familiar sounds of supper being cleared away.

It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old
With angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.

Chelle’s soprano rose clear and light as a feather above Ma’s lower, richer voice carrying the melody. Pa joined in the next verse, his baritone a touch off key but still somehow pleasing to the ear.

Silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n...

A gift. What gift was there in Christmas when everything worth having was beyond your grasp, like the silly girls’ stuff Chelle oohed and aahed over in the shop windows when they made a trip to Denver?

They sang Once in Royal David’s City next, then O Come All Ye Faithful. The carols went on until the dishes were done and the door of the pantry cupboard clicked shut.

“Ethan, Abby, bed.”

“Aw, Ma, it’s only seven thirty.”

The smile in Ma’s voice carried up to Matt. “Ethan, you know Santa won’t come until you’re asleep. Go on now. Abby, come here.”

The cabin grew quiet. Matt pictured Ethan asleep in the room they shared, curled up in a ball, his mouth open. Abby would be lying on her stomach in her crib, her carroty hair tumbled across the pillow, and Chelle would be on the hearth rug reading, her long legs folded Indian style. The thin rustle of tissue paper and Ma and Pa’s muted voices told Matthew they were wrapping gifts. The knot in his chest grew tighter. Should he even bother pretending he still believed in Santa Claus this year? Last year he’d had his doubts, but now, without anyone saying anything, he knew.

By the time Pa blew out the lamp, Matt’s eyelids were growing heavy. He let them close. The next thing he knew he was staring out the loft window, shivering, his quilts kicked off onto the floor.

A few ragged clouds blew across the remains of an old moon, fading the sharp shadow of the barn roof. His back ached from the lumps in the little-used chaff tick on the loft bed. Why hadn’t someone wakened him to go down to his own bed? Grumbling under his breath, Matt climbed down the ladder.

The dim moonlight showed him the presents under the tree, but he ignored them and padded across the room. He’d acted like a kid and he’d have to say sorry at breakfast, but that wouldn’t cure what was eating at him. Nothing would, until he figured out what the problem was.

It was so still he nearly jumped out of his skin when the front door creaked. He whirled around and saw Pa’s tall shape silhouetted in the moonlight.

“Pa, is it Diamond?”

“Yeah.” Pa’s shadow leapt as he stepped to the table, then vanished when he lit the lamp. He poured a cup of coffee from the enamel pot on the stove and scraped back a chair at the table. “What are you doing up?”

“You left me up in the loft.”

Pa ignored his peeved tone and gave Matt one of his thoughtful looks. “I meant to wake you in a minute. Diamond had a little filly.”

Shame for the way he’d acted at dinner heating his cheeks, Matthew stood rooted in place, torn between going to Pa and turning away. It always seemed to be like that now. “Are they all right?”

“Couldn’t be better. She only laboured for a couple of hours. Come here, son.”
Pa patted the chair next to him. Matt shuffled across the floor, the chill seeping through his socks. Pa still had his coat on; the smell of hay and horses began rising from it in response to the stove’s heat. Pa’s smell. Matt slid onto the chair and parked his elbows on the table, the scent pushing and pulling at him both. He sighed and said what had to be said.

“Sorry about dinner. Ethan just makes me so mad at times.”

“I know.”

Pa sipped his coffee while the silence built between them. Then, with a suddenness that made Matt jump again, he set his empty cup on the table.

“Get your coat on and come out with me.”

It didn’t occur to Matthew to argue. He bundled up and followed Pa out into the star-swept night, into the rich, still, dark air of the barn. Instead of lighting the lantern, Pa just sat on the grain bin, his shape barely visible in the darkness. The soft scraping of hooves in straw was the only sound until he spoke.

“You don’t seem much interested in Christmas this year, Matthew. Last year you were almost as excited as Ethan.”

Matt kept his distance, leaning against the half-door of old Flying Cloud’s stall. “Santa and all that’s for kids. I’m not six anymore.”

He heard Pa’s dry chuckle, could almost see the glint in his dark eyes that would accompany it. “You sure aren’t. You’ve grown like a weed this year. At this rate you’ll be almost as tall as me next Christmas. You’re growing up, and growing up is never easy.”

“Growing up? Hell, I won’t be twenty-one for – ”

Dad didn’t chuckle this time. He roared with laughter, drowning out Matthew’s words, ignoring his ‘hell’ completely. “Twenty-one? For Pete’s sake, Matt.”

“What’s so darned funny?”

Pa shook his head, his laughter dying away into the rafters. “I’m not laughing at you, son. In a year or so you’ll understand.” He drew a deep breath and let it out, the steam showing in a patch of moonlight. “Matt, you’re all McShannon on the outside and all Surette on the inside.”

Matthew said nothing. After a pause, Pa went on. “When I was your age, there were times when I felt like the only thing keeping me from everything I wanted to do was time. Do you ever feel like that?”


“Yeah. I remember. Where I was, was never where I wanted to be. Even at Christmas.”

“Yeah, even at Christmas.” Matt pressed his back tighter to the wood behind him and tried to swallow his anger, but he couldn’t quite manage it. It might have been easier if he’d known why he was angry. “Pa, why do people lie to kids about Santa Claus? Because I know he is a lie.”

“Who told you that?”

The way Pa spoke, Matt could picture one dark brow lifting. Feeling foolish, he scuffed a heel on the frozen floor. “No one. I’m smart enough to put two and two together. The tags on the gifts are always in Ma’s writing, and Chelle never even mentions Santa any more. It’s all just a story, like the one you tell about the animals being able to talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. Only, if you wait up to hear them, they won’t. Because it’s just a story.”

Pa let out another smoking breath, Matt’s stinging tone rolling off him like water. “Are you sure? Have you ever waited up to hear them?”

“Of course not. You and Ma would never let us.”

“Well, it’s just about midnight now. Be quiet and listen.”

Pa sat very still on the grain bin. For the next minute or so Matt strained for every sound, but he heard only the sounds of the horses in their stalls and a coyote down in the river valley, a mile or so off.

Just a story.

Then he thought of the books he liked to read that took him to places all over the world, of the stories in the carols they’d sung after supper. Of the way Ma had touched his hair when she came up to the loft. Of the excitement on Ethan’s face at the thought of Santa coming. Matt listened with his heart, and he understood.

“Pa, light the lantern.”

A match flared. Pa hung the hurricane lantern on its hook in the middle of the aisle. He held Matt’s gaze for a long moment, then smiled.

“What did you hear?”

“Nothing special, with my ears at least.” Matt shrugged. “I guess there’s more than one kind of truth, isn’t there?”

Pa nodded. “Yeah. Matthew, don’t wish your life away. Twenty-one will come before you know it. And don’t let Ethan get to you. He’s only six, after all.”

“Yeah.” Matt crossed the aisle to look into Diamond’s stall. The black mare lay stretched out on her side. The color of dark chocolate, with the same white star on her forehead as her mother, the new foal lay curled up beside her, her spindly legs in tangle. Pa came to lean beside Matt, his warmth reaching through to dissolve the knot in Matt’s chest. They shared a smile that brought them closer than they’d been in a while, then he turned back to the mare and foal.

“Merry Christmas, Glory.”

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

McShannon's Heart is Available!

This morning I checked on Bluewood Publishing’s website to find McShannon’s Heart listed in the bookstore as available. Here’s the link: Bluewood Bookstore Now, I can go around calling myself a multi-published author, at least when no one can hear me. SCROLL DOWN TO ENTER MY CONTEST TO WIN A COPY!

It feels good. I’m fond of Rochelle and even fonder of Martin. He reminds me of some of the musicians I knew in my time as a member of the Halifax Harbour Folk Society, including my DH.

We met through music. After putting my guitar aside for a couple of years while I completed my Masters degree, I decided I wanted to start playing again. Everett had posted a notice at the Dal Student Union, advertising for students. I phoned the number and started taking lessons from him.

I knew he was a gifted musician the first time I heard him play. By the time my first lesson was over, I knew he was also an excellent teacher. That’s a more unusual combination than you might think – many gifted players don’t know how they do what they do, they just do it. My guy is a quiet, reserved type, much like Martin, so I didn’t begin to figure out what kind of a person he was until a few weeks later.

After my second lesson, we agreed to meet at the Folk Society’s weekly coffee house. It was my turn to host that December night. When the song circle ended, we stepped outside to find that it had started to snow. Hard. I insisted I’d be okay driving home, as it was only a few blocks. We said goodnight and got in our separate vehicles.

When I pulled into the yard of my apartment building, lights flashed in my mirror. Everett’s lights. I’d been so focus on the road as I drove that I hadn’t noticed him following me. He bumped his horn, backed out and drove away. He wasn’t looking to be asked in, wasn’t looking for anything, he just wanted to be sure I was all right. We didn’t know each other well at all, but that was when I started to think of him as a possible keeper.

I think of Martin as the same type of man, well worth knowing once you get past his reserve. I hope readers will enjoy him as well.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Folk Friday, and Heart edits have arrived!

I received my edits for Heart the other day, have gone through them (no major changes - phew!) and am ready to ship them back. It looks like I'll have an e-book release by Christmas! If you'd like to enter my CONTEST win a copy, or a critique by freelance editor Patricia Thomas, PLEASE SEE MY LAST POST.

I'm including an excerpt below, of Chelle's first meeting with Martin. And, for this week's Folk Friday, Kathy Mattea's beautiful rendition of "Mary, Did You Know?" Enjoy!


She hurried down the slope and, as she expected, found a young lamb caught by its fleece in the bramble’s thorns, nearly exhausted from struggling.

“You’ve got yourself in a fine mess, haven’t you?” Chelle didn’t relish the thought of getting her hands in among those thorns, but she didn’t see much help for it. After a quick glance around, she wrapped one hand in her cloak and started pulling the branches away from the lamb’s fleece.

In spite of the protection, the thorns reached through to her skin. The lamb didn’t help. Not as exhausted as Chelle had thought, as soon as she freed it from one clinging branch it struggled and got caught by another. By the time she lifted it out of the bush, she’d earned a couple of nasty scratches and mislaid her temper.

As she bent to set the lamb on its feet, a dog’s bark startled her. Still crouching, Chelle spun around and faced a grizzled black and white Border Collie, standing a few feet away with its teeth bared and hackles raised. Luckily, the dog’s owner stood close by. Her heart in her throat, Chelle released the lamb and slowly raised her gaze from a pair of heavy boots to eyes the color of a stormy sea.

“Come, Gyp.” The dog returned to the man’s side at the curt command. Hands in his pockets, he watched Chelle straighten up. She felt herself blushing under his cool stare.

He’d be as tall as Trey, perhaps an inch or two taller, but with his bulk he didn’t look it. He reminded her of Charlie Bascomb at home, broad in the shoulders, thick in the legs and torso, but the resemblance stopped with his build. Charlie was quiet and easy-going, always wearing a smile, but there was nothing approachable about this man with his lowering brows, grim mouth and slightly freckled face. His features, along with his rusty hair, told Chelle who he must be.

“Hello. I’m Chelle McShannon. You must be Martin Rainnie.”

The Collie stood braced beside his master, the fur still standing up on the back of his neck. Mr. Rainnie looked no more welcoming. He spoke as curtly as he had to his dog.

“Aye. What are you doin’ out here?”

It seemed Jean had done the man a favor by saying little about him, or perhaps Dales farmers were usually rude. Chelle lifted her chin and showed him her bleeding hand.

“That’s obvious enough, isn’t it? That lamb’s fleece was caught in this bush. I freed it.”

Mr. Rainnie looked her up and down with those cold gray-green eyes, then softened his tone and made an effort to curb his broad Yorkshire. Perhaps he’d recalled that his daughter was living with her family.

“So you’re Jack’s niece. I didn’t know you’d arrived yet.”

“We arrived yesterday.” Chelle fished a clean handkerchief from her skirt pocket and wrapped it around her scratched hand while she fumbled for something to say. “I’ve been out for a walk to the end of the fell. The view is lovely.”

His tenacious-looking mouth twisted in a sardonic grin as he stepped closer. “Aye, but it’s not very sustainin’. Not much but sheep will grow up here. This is Carswen fell, and the village down below is Carston.”

Chelle took in his well-worn work clothes and large, work-roughened hands. Martin Rainnie’s face showed the effects of wind and weather, but she thought the lines around his mouth and eyes came from bitterness. He looked like he could do with more sleep and less of the whiskey she smelled on him. With the breeze plucking at the sleeves of his faded canvas jacket, he seemed as much a natural part of the landscape as the sheep and the moorland grass, and just as rugged.

“I thought as much. Dad mentioned it, so I came out for a walk to see it for myself. I was on my way back when I decided to follow this trail and heard the lamb.”

He shrugged and stuck his hands back in his pockets. “You could have spared yourself the trouble. This is my flock, and I check on ‘em every day. You’d best get home and look to those scratches.” With that, he strode past her toward the sheep, his dog at his heels.

Chelle watched him go, his shoulders high, his broad back stiff with annoyance. Because she’d rescued one of his silly sheep? She turned on her heel and started back toward the village, muttering under her breath.

“I’m sorry for your daughter, Mr. Rainnie. As for me, the next time I find one of your animals in trouble, I’ll be leaving it alone.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

McShannon's Heart Holiday Contest!

I don't have an exact release date for McShannon's Heart, but I'm expecting it to be available as an e-book before the end of the month, so it's contest time! Here's how this is going to work: post a favorite holiday recipe as a comment, and you'll be entered in a draw for one of three e-copies of Heart, AND a very special prize: A critique of fifteen manuscript pages by freelance editor Patricia Thomas. Pat is an RWA chaptermate of mine, and a good friend. She's worked for several publishing houses and edited critically-acclaimed novels including Drive-by Saviours by Chris Benjamin. The winner of her critique will be a lucky writer indeed. So, bring on those yummy sweet or savory holiday recipes, and good luck in the draw!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Folk Friday: The First Canadian Christmas Carol

I love traditional English Christmas music, but this uniquely Canadian carol has always been a favorite of mine, as much for the story behind it as for the music.

The Huron Carol was written in 1643 by Father Jean Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary priest to the Huron nation in Quebec. Written in the Huron language, the song was Brebeuf's way of conveying the meaning of Christmas to his charges.

By all accounts Brebeuf was a capable, well-intentioned and highly charismatic leader, but the success of his mission among the Huron became a double-edged sword. A split occurred between those who wished to hold on to their own traditions and those who embraced European ways. Weakened by division and by European disease, the Huron were overrun and destroyed by the Iroquois, and Father Brebeuf became one of the first Canadian martyrs.

Blame it on the writer in me, but to my mind the sad story behind the Carol adds to its poignancy. I've heard it performed in French, English and the original Huron. I enjoy playing it myself. The English lyrics are as poetic as the melody is haunting. Enjoy!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Folk Friday: Sugar and spice and something nice

I had my second monthly weigh-in at Curves yesterday, the first since recording my baseline. Five pounds down and five inches lost. Not bad, considering I really haven’t been dieting. Slow and steady wins the race. Now, as long as I don’t undo the progress over Christmas! But I don’t intend to forego the pleasures of the season. I just have to remember that one small piece of Mom’s cranberry pudding – with a little less rich cream sauce (sigh) – is enough.

Fortunately, there are delicious deserts that are actually healthy. Here’s a recipe for one. I find that this custard has all the yum factor of pumpkin pie, without the calories of pastry. Hey, pumpkin is a vegetable! The maple syrup gives it character, and the crystallized ginger on top adds zing.



1 1/2 c milk
4 eggs
¾ c maple syrup
¾ c pumpkin
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp salt

Heat milk until steaming, not boiling. Whip eggs and syrup together until smooth. Whip milk into egg mixture slowly, stirring to avoid cooking eggs. Add pumpkin, spices and salt Mix until smooth, then pour into 6 custard cups. Skim foam if any. Place custards in a pan, put in pre-heated oven, then pour boiling water into the pan until it reaches half-way up the custard cups. Bake at 325 degrees for 45-50 min or until set. Serve warm or cold, with whipped cream and grated crystallized ginger on top.

As for this week’s music selection, the word about this has been going around. It’s far from folk, but I couldn’t resist including it. It epitomizes the spirit of the season. Enjoy!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Folk Friday, and 'Tis Almost the Season

November winding down and December almost upon us. The flood of Christmas advertising has begun. I find that the older I get, the less interest I have in the Christmas rush. There are no children in our family to buy for, and we’ve agreed to forego drawing names for stockings this year. I’m looking forward to a simplified holiday season.

I’ve always loved Christmas rituals – decorating the tree, baking, carols, parties with friends and family. We’ll be celebrating with my parents, and it will have extra meaning this year after my father’s health scare earlier in the fall. He’s fully recovered from his surgery now, and we can’t be thankful enough.

I haven’t yet included a Christmas scene in one of my books, but I’d like to some day. Perhaps I will in Shattered – a Christmas a few years after the Explosion, when Liam and Alice are enjoying their HEA. A couple of years ago, I did write a Christmas carol for Beth and Trey from McShannon’s Chance –I’ll post it a little closer to the day. I find it easy to picture them celebrating in their cabin, with a candle-lit tree, home-made ornaments and gifts for their four children (If you haven’t noticed, my imagination carries me away sometimes.) Chelle, the oldest, is dark like Trey, but with her mother’s blue eyes. She has Beth’s independent streak and wants to study art in Europe. The second, Michael, is tall and rangy like his father, but he’s blond like his grandfather Colin. He’s the dreamer in the family and wants to go to sea. The next, Ethan, has his mother’s red hair and freckles, and so does the youngest, Abby. They’re both children of Trey’s heart, as attached to the ranch and the horses as he is. I have a few chapters of a WIP that takes the family forward fifteen years, when young Chelle is getting headstrong and has a crush on Nate Munroe’s son, who is a chip off the old block. Maybe someday.

We might be getting a dusting of snow tomorrow, the first of the season. I like snow. I’d much prefer a white Christmas to the endless November that sometimes passes as winter in Nova Scotia. Time for comfort food recipes, brisk walks with the Terrible Tollers and lots of writing. And for Folk Friday, here’s an old favourite ‘comfort tune’ – John Denver’s Song of Wyoming. The simplicity and poetry of this one always get to me, and the video is very easy on the eye. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Passionate characters in fiction and life

Model writing postcards, Carl Larsson, 1906

Tomorrow night, I’m scheduled to do a workshop at a local senior’s centre on “passion in our lives”. I’ll be talking about my characters from McShannon’s Chance – about Beth’s passion for painting, Trey’s passion for Thoroughbreds, and their passion for each other. It’s got me thinking about the many meanings of ‘passion’ and how it applies to the characters I write.

In real life, we’re all attracted to people who have passion in their lives, whether for their work, their family, an art or an idea. For me, the same is true in fiction. Characters draw me in and hold me if they come across as passionate people.

Sometimes that passion can be in the form of hate. Think of Moby Dick. Sometimes it’s a passion for justice, as in many classic Westerns. It can be a passion for freedom, as with Cat in Judith James’ Highland Rebel. For my Beth, it’s her art; for Martin Rainnie in McShannon’s Heart and Alice O’Neill in Shattered, it’s music. These are the things I latch on to when I’m getting to know my characters.

In some romance novels, the sexual passion between the hero and heroine is not just the main element, it seems like the only element. And some of these are still great stories, but they have to be extremely well done. So far, I’ve tried to give at least one of my main characters another passion as well. I just find it easier to know them and write them that way.

I’m really looking forward to the session last night. I’m sure the audience will have some great stories to tell about the things and people they’ve been passionate about in their lives. Who knows, I may come up with a few new story ideas. People of blogland, what do you think? Is it important to you that fictional characters live with passion?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dona Nobis Pacem

‘Dona nobis pacem’ means ‘grant us peace’. It’s the slogan of the annual Blog Blast for Peace, which takes place today, November 4.

I found out about this event from RWA chapter mate and blogger extraordinaire Julia Smith. It’s an opportunity for bloggers all over the world to raise their voices for peace. Participants post about peace on their blogs and fly a peace globe for the day.

There’s nothing I can say about peace that hasn’t already been said, so I’ve chosen a series of quotes on the subject. I hope you find them inspiring. I’ll leave you with Vince Gill’s version of ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth”.

War does not determine who is right - only who is left. ~Bertrand Russell

It'll be a great day when education gets all the money it wants and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy bombers. ~Author unknown, quoted in You Said a Mouthful edited by Ronald D. Fuchs

I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, "Mother, what was war?" ~Eve Merriam

The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker. ~Albert Einstein

The direct use of force is such a poor solution to any problem, it is generally employed only by small children and large nations. ~David Friedman

"There are no atheists in foxholes" isn't an argument against atheism, it's an argument against foxholes. ~James Morrow

Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot him. ~M*A*S*H, Colonel Potter

If we do not end war - war will end us. Everybody says that, millions of people believe it, and nobody does anything. ~H.G. Wells, Things to Come (the "film story"), Part III, adapted from his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, spoken by the character John Cabal (Thanks Bill!)

A great war leaves the country with three armies - an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves. ~German Proverb

The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living. ~Omar Bradley

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron. ~Dwight D. Eisenhower, speech, American Society of Newspaper Editors, 16 April 1953

What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world. ~Robert E. Lee, letter to his wife, 1864

Everyone's a pacifist between wars. It's like being a vegetarian between meals. ~Colman McCarthy

Nations have recently been led to borrow billions for war; no nation has ever borrowed largely for education. Probably, no nation is rich enough to pay for both war and civilization. We must make our choice; we cannot have both. ~Abraham Flexner

Draft beer, not people. ~Attributed to Bob Dylan

The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without. ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today. ~John F. Kennedy

Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime. ~Ernest Hemingway

You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake. ~Jeanette Rankin

You are not going to get peace with millions of armed men. The chariot of peace cannot advance over a road littered with cannon. ~David Lloyd George

Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come. ~Carl Sandburg

In war, there are no unwounded soldiers. ~José Narosky

We kind o' thought Christ went agin war an' pillage. ~James Russell Lowell

If we let people see that kind of thing, there would never again be any war. ~Pentagon official explaining why the U.S. military censored graphic footage from the Gulf War

I have no doubt that we will be successful in harnessing the sun's energy.... If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago. ~Sir George Porter, quoted in The Observer, 26 August 1973

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. ~Voltaire, War

Friday, October 29, 2010

Folk Friday and middling

Friday again. This week has gone by with the speed of lightning. I’m waiting for my students to arrive, so I thought I’d better turn my attention to Folk Friday.

I’m smack dab in the middle of Shattered right now. Had a good writing evening last night, got the first scene transition in Chapter 10 worked out. Not a huge number of words, but a roadblock out of the way. I think the next couple of chapters will go quickly.

So far, the middle of a book has been the most difficult part for me. I start quickly, full of the momentum of my new characters, and with an idea of the ending clear in my mind. Then I hit chapter eight or nine and the flow of words slows to a trickle. I know where I’m going, but which of the countless possible routes will I take? Do I need to go back and add plot threads to keep the middle from sagging? Do I need to throw in a twist that will take my characters in a completely different direction?

I know this is a common problem, especially with writers who are pantsers like me. With McShannon’s Chance, I solved it by writing the end and working backwards. Eventually the two halves met in the middle. Once I allowed myself to stop trying to write linearly, ideas started popping into my mind to fill the void.

Authors who can plan their plot in detail – and then follow it! – amaze me. So do authors who write scenes in no particular order. There are as many ways to deal with a book’s sagging middle as there are authors. Some use a collage or storyboard. I’ve tried collaging and enjoyed it, but didn’t find it particularly helpful as a writing tool as I have a strong visual image of my characters and setting from the beginning, and end up simply looking for pictures to fit that image. Perhaps I’ll experiment with a storyboard. Writers of blogland, how do you deal with the middle of a story? Anyone have any innovative ideas to share?

Oh, yes, folk Friday! Last week, an RWAC chapter mate of mine, Carolyn Laurie, posted a wonderful video on Facebook of Raylene Rankin, Cindy Church and Susan Crowe performing together in Alberta. It’s been a while since I heard three such wonderful voices that blend together so well. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dialogue and Layering and Stuff

I’m working on Chapter 10 of Shattered, where Alice and Liam tentatively decide to take a chance on a relationship. The chapter involves a lot of dialogue between them, and with Alice’s family. When this happens, I often handle it by just writing the dialogue, omitting the thoughts and body language that go with it. Afterwards I go back and fill in the narrative.

I find this useful in a couple of ways. If I have trouble adding thoughts or actions, it makes me take a second look at the dialogue. Would Liam really say that, and if so, why? What does Alice really mean by her reply? Leaving the narrative until later also lets me write the dialogue quickly, without stalling on the exact words to describe what someone is thinking or angsting over whether I have too much narrative or not enough. I still do that when I go back to write the next layer, but having the dialogue already in place makes it easier.

Then I often find myself going back to add a third layer – emotion. I usually don’t include a lot in my first draft. I used to think that having a rather flat, unemotional first draft was a weakness, but now I understand that it’s part of my process. First I have to tell the story.

In a recent blog post, my RWAC chapter mate Donna Alward used the term ‘discovery draft’. That’s what this run-through of Shattered is becoming. Writers of blogland, how do you approach a first draft? Do you write a lot of words and scenes and then prune later? Do you layer like I do? Do you sometimes write dialogue only?

P.S. on my fitness program – got my monthly weigh and measure done yesterday, the first one. This is my baseline. Instead of updating each week, I’m going to wait until my next weigh and measure in November. I’m making my workouts and watching what I eat, so at this point I’m pleased. Slow but steady is the plan.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Folk Friday: Wild Women and motivation

I’m really not an analytical person – a bit surprising for a former lab technician I admit. I guess that’s why I’m not in a lab anymore. When I write I just tell that person’s story as it comes to me. Now, after brainstorming at our yearly RWAC retreat last weekend, I want to see my characters from a different angle.

Take Liam, for instance. What does he want? To heal emotionally and physically and get on with his life. What else would an injured war veteran want? But let’s get specific. He needs to work, and he likes physical work, but would he want to work for someone else? Maybe he’d rather have his own company. Maybe he’d like to build houses. Perhaps he was in the process of starting his own construction business when the war intervened.

As for Alice, she wants to teach music to gain some independence, but would she really rather perform? If she didn’t need to support herself, what would she do? I think she’d rather be on stage, where her dyslexia wouldn’t matter.

The joy of a first draft is discovering the characters. The joy of retreating, and brainstorming, is the creative energy it generates – and, of course, the plain old fun.

This week’s Folk Friday is a tribute to my chapter mates - those ‘wild women’ full of creativity. Enjoy!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Folk Friday: Heroes

Looking back at my posts over the last couple of months, I see that I’ve said very little about McShannon’s Heart. I’ve heard from Bluewood and the word is that a Christmas release should be doable, so I’m expecting edits very soon.

I haven’t looked at the story much since submitting it, so I’m looking forward to seeing it with fresh eyes. I love the Yorkshire setting, and of course, Chelle and Martin. Which brings me to a topic dear to my heart: heroes.

So far, I’ve written four heroes: Trey McShannon, Martin Rainnie, Nathan Munroe and Liam Cochrane. I’ll count Liam and Nathan because they are fully formed in my mind, even though their stories aren’t finished. I love them all or I couldn’t write about them, but could I choose a favourite?

Trey is resourceful and tough, a country boy who would look after and protect his woman come hell or high water. He also has a deep-seated romantic streak . He loves for keeps, and would choose an evening at home with Beth over a night out on the town. He’s my ideal cowboy. Nathan, on the other hand, is a born hell-raiser, the type to challenge a woman and keep her on her toes. I find his streak of deviltry irresistible, and the vulnerability underneath it doesn’t hurt.

Martin has the soul of an artist in a rough-hewn body. He expresses himself through his music, and only shows his real self to the people closest to him. He’s very much like my DH. How could I not love him?

Liam is a quick-tempered, Irish-as-they-come lad who would fight a man for fun and then drink with him afterward. I could probably find him in any Halifax pub on a Saturday night. He’s solid and dependable, with a soft spot for anyone down on their luck. He’s the kind of man a woman could trust absolutely, an every-day hero.

One of the joys of writing romance is spending time with the men of my dreams. Another is seeing how others respond to them. I’ve had one reader tell me that she thinks Martin is a very hot hero. Several have told me they prefer Nathan, and for others, Trey is the one. I have to confess that I’m partial to him myself. There’s something about a cowboy.

This afternoon, I’m off to an RWA retreat, where my chapter mates and I will eat, drink and talk of ‘shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings’ – and our fictional heartthrobs. What could be more fun? For me, nothing. People of blogland, what qualities do you look for in a romantic hero?

I’ll leave you with this Friday’s tune, Willie Nelson’s ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys’. So have mine. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Inspiration and Perspiration

Inspiration of the Poet, Nicolas Poussin. Oil on Canvas, The Louvre

I’ve always found this time of year inspiring. I’ve spent a large part of my life as either a student or a teacher, so fall has always been the real start of a new year for me. January? Forget January. Nothing starts in January except diets and Christmas bill payments.

I’m feeling inspired creatively and personally these days. I’m dabbling in writing poetry for the first time in years, I’m getting to the fun stuff in Shattered, and I’ve made a resolution to get myself into better physical shape over the next few months. OK, I’ll put a number on it – I want to lose twenty pounds by March Break.

I know how to do it. I’ve done it before. Being hypothyroid as well as vertically challenged, weight control is a life-long issue for me. It doesn’t help that all the things I love to do most – writing, reading, painting, playing guitar, cooking and eating – are either sedentary or fattening. I’ve accepted the fact that for me, exercise will always be something of a chore. Not an unpleasant chore, but a chore nonetheless.

About four years ago, it started to hit home that the big 50 was edging ever closer, and I didn’t like what I saw ahead for my health or my self-esteem. I looked in the mirror, said ‘enough’ and joined Curves. It worked. I built muscle, cut back drastically on sugar and starches, and watched the weight melt off. Six months took me from a size 14 to a size 6.

For two years I kept working out and kept the pounds at bay. Then my teaching job ended and I spent a year on the road selling insurance. Hours sitting in the car every day, stopping for junk food on top of the lunch I took with me, getting home at eight or nine o’clock at night, eating supper and falling into bed. When I wasn’t working I was writing. That year was plain hell on my body. Relentlessly the weight crept back.

For me, exercise has to be a no-brainer, a part of my routine. No fixed routine, no workouts. Now I’m teaching again, with a regular schedule, and it’s time to get back on track. This will be my third three-workout week, and I’m seeing the results already.

One of the things I appreciate about circuit training is that I don’t have to think. I change machines on cue, my muscles working hard while my mind is elsewhere. Not bad for the creative juices. Neither is having more energy and focus.
I’m taking it slower this time. Instead of dieting, I’m focusing on the exercise and trying to eat sensibly and sustainably. After all, for me, there is no life worth living without chocolate and cheesecake, or even better, chocolate cheesecake. All things in moderation, including moderation itself. I’ve lost five pounds and a size so far, so I’m moving in the right direction. I’ll update my progress here as part of Folk Friday, starting next week.

Inspiration? Right now I’ve got it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Folk Friday and Poetry

'Musikgesselschaft, Petworth', oil on canvas, by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Here it is, Friday again. Today was one of those days when I had to wonder why I’m being paid for what I do. I took our ESL students to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, then we had a scrumptious lunch at Le Mercato. I can’t think of a better way to spend a work day.

It’s been a busy week. Last night I went to an open-mike session with a friend of mine at Local Jo, a cosy coffee house here in Halifax. This session takes place on the last Thursday of each month, and if you’re in town and feel like hearing a widely diverse selection of fiction, poetry and spoken word performance, I’d recommend it. Shauntay Grant, Halifax’s poet laureate, was among the performers and she is amazing. I couldn’t find a sharable video, but here’s the link to her myspace page, where you can hear her perform.

Shauntay Grant

The evening inspired me to write a poem for the first time in years. A little background: My husband, a professional-level musician, inherited his talent from his mother, who taught piano into her eighties. When she passed away two years ago we inherited her piano, and playing it has been great therapy for him. In music, ‘Father Charles goes down, ends battle’ is a memory crutch for learning sharp key signatures and the reverse works for flats.

Chopin falls soft on the ear,

The remembered cadence of childhood

Lessons learned. Father Charles goes down, ends battle.

Battle ends, down goes Charles’ father.

Through worn ivory keys

Mother comes to you

Speaking words of wisdom. Let it be.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Plot Thickens

I finished Chapter 8 of Shattered last night. It’s leading me to the middle of the story, where all the plot threads start to interweave. Now I have to decide just how that’s going to happen – or rather, being a pantser, I have to sit at the keyboard and see how it all plays out.

One of the reasons being a pantser creates angst for me is that I’m just not a linear thinker. The past, present and future of my characters don’t always come to me in the right order. I come up with an idea, and it sprouts offshoots that lead me in a dozen different directions. I want to follow them all, even though I know most of them will come to dead end. Of course all those extra words can still be useful, but sometimes I wish I didn’t write quite so many of them.

Then there’s those secondary characters. I fell in love with Nathan Munroe, Trey’s nemesis in McShannon’s Chance, and now I’m smitten with Nolan, Liam’s older brother in Shattered. That doesn’t mean I love Liam any less as a hero, but Nolan’s backstory keeps cluttering up my mind. He’s a harbour pilot, once a merchant seaman with the proverbial girl in every port. He makes me think of Stan Rogers’ song, Lockkeeper:

‘She wears bougainvillea blossoms/ You pluck them from her hair and toss them to the tide/ Sweep her in your arms and carry her inside/ Her sighs catch on your shoulder, her moonlit eyes grow warm and wiser through her tears/ And I say ‘how can you stand to leave her for a year?”

But Nolan, unlike the sailor in the song, chose to settle down with his Annie, a down-to-earth farm girl from outside Truro. How did they meet? Was she working or visiting friends in Halifax when Nolan came home from one of his voyages, perhaps with his heart broken by a woman like the ‘tropic maid’ in Lockkeeper? Or did he go to sea in the first place to nurse a broken heart?

Another prequel in the making? Perhaps, but right now Nolan is a distraction. Maybe if I politely ask him to go away...but not too far away...

I refuse to think of my convoluted way of thinking as bad for my writing. After all, I’ve read and loved many novels where several plotlines are interwoven and secondary characters are fully developed. I’m thinking of Melanie Wilkes and Gerald and Ellen O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. It’s arguable that the story would have been tighter if we’d been told a lot less about Scarlett’s parents and Ashley’s wife, but would it have been as rich? No. Judith James’ masterfully plotted historicals – her latest, A Libertine’s Kiss, is amazing – come to mind as well. I love a full-figured plot.

But I’m trying to create a good, believable romantic arc for Liam and Alice and tell their story in under 80000 words, without writing 160000. The middle is always the toughest part of a book for me, so perhaps my distractibility is really avoidance behaviour. Writers of blogland, do any of you do this to yourselves?
And does anyone have any good research material on what it was like to be a merchant seaman at the turn of the last century, in Nolan’s time?

I know, I know. Liam and Alice first.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fall Flavours

Everywhere I look in blogland this week, I see food. As a confirmed glutton, I love this time of year. Roasted veggies, comforting casseroles, hearty stews - yum! Speaking of which, there are some great recipes posted right now on one of my favorite blogs, Petticoats and Pistols.

In the spirit of the season, I'm posting a favorite family recipe for apple pie. For me, its the apples and the touch of brown sugar that makes this one special. Enjoy!

Gravenstein Apple Pie

Gravenstein apples (see photo above)are an old variety that, I discovered today online, came from Denmark. In Canada, they are grown in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley and, as far as I know, almost nowhere else.

Tart and flavorful with mottled red and yellow skin, they are delicious straight off the tree, but unfortunately don't store well. They are a seasonal delight and the best pie apples on the planet. This recipe brings back memories of fall days in windy orchards in "The Valley", as it's known here. When my mother calls herself a valley girl, she isn't talking SoCal.

Pastry: Stir 1 tsp salt into 2 cups of flour. Cut in 1 cup cold vegetable shortening until the texture is coarse and crumbly. Do not overmix. I use my grandmother's old pastry bowl - I think it knows the recipe by heart.

Stir together 1 egg, 5 or 6 tbsp ice cold water and 1 tbsp white vinegar. Add to dry mixture, stir to form dough. When it comes together turn out on a floured surface and knead two or three times, just until workable. Pastry making is a metaphor for life - you get better at it with practice, and you spoil it by trying too hard,
Wrap and chill for 30 - 60 min. Makes enough for two 9-inch double-crust pies or one larger pie and a turnover.

Filling: for one generous ten-inch pie, peel and slice 8 or 9 fresh Gravenstein apples. Sprinkle with 1 tbsp lemon juice. Combine 1/2 cup flour, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/3 cup brown sugar, and about 3/4 cup white sugar (taste apples and adjust as needed.) Pour over apples and mix.

Assemble pie and bake at 425 for 15 min, then reduce temp to 350 and bake for another 45-60 min or until apples are tender. Serve with sharp aged cheddar cheese.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Folk Friday and a lesson in canine grammar

Friday again!

This week has flown by with lightning speed. We have very few students in our ESL program right now, so I’ve been busy doing the prep work I didn’t have time to do before the term started. That includes dusting off the grammar lessons I’ve had packed away since I took my CELTA course in the summer of 2009.

I’m having a wonderful time (not!) with verb tenses. I think of it in dogspeak.

Chance woofs. Present simple
Chance is woofing. Present continuous
Chance has woofed. Present perfect
Chance has been woofing. Present perfect continuous
Chance woofed. Past simple
Chance was woofing. Past continuous
Chance had woofed. Past perfect
Chance had been woofing. Past perfect continuous
Chance will woof. ‘will’ future
Chance is going to woof. ‘going to’ future
Chance will be woofing. Future continuous
Chance will have woofed. Future perfect
Chance will have been woofing. Future perfect continuous

No wonder English is such a hellish language to learn. Good grief, my head is spinning! Generally only one of these applies to Chance at any given time, but two or three are likely to apply to Echo all the time. She woofs a lot. She is woofing most of the time. She will woof when I get home tonight. She woofed this morning at 5:30 to get me up, just because she felt like it. I’m convinced that she will have been woofing most of her life when she crosses the Rainbow Bridge. The rest of her time will have been spent eating my shoes.

I like to believe my grammar is fairly good, but the thing is, I was never actually taught grammar. I absorbed it by reading and listening. Tenses make me tense! But it’s Friday, so enough grammar woes. For today, I found a clip containing a few of Stan Rogers’ best tunes, including his national anthem, Northwest Passage. The man and his music need no introduction, but I haven’t listened to him for a while and I thoroughly enjoyed this. One caveat: it’s eight minutes long. If you’re like me, you’ll consider it time well spent.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Priming the Pump: Writing Exercises

I don’t know a writer who doesn’t experience times when the ideas flow freely, and times when the creative juices dry up. We all need a kitbag full of strategies to prime the pump.

From writing groups, workshops, and other sources, I’ve come across a few good quick writing exercises here and there. I like to use them when I’m feeling stale and uncreative, when I need to solve a problem with a manuscript, or sometimes just for fun. Here are a few of my favourites:

1. Free writing. I think every writer does this once in a while, for good reason. It’s a great way to unblock and release your muse. Simply take a picture or a word as a starting point, set a time limit – one minute, five minutes – and WRITE. That’s the only rule. You cannot stop writing, even if you write the same word ten times. It’s as simplistic as it sounds, but you just might amaze yourself with what you produce.

2. Write a scene using DIALOGUE ONLY. No body language, no description, no narrative. I had a lot of fun with this one writing a dialogue between two partially deaf people who kept misunderstanding each other. It really gets you thinking about how to show instead of telling.

3. Think of a character as different from yourself as you can imagine, and write a scene showing that person getting up in the morning and starting their day.

4. Take a very familiar scene, like your bedroom or backyard, and write about a blind person in that setting. I’ve mentioned this one before, and it’s a great way to get away from dependence on visuals and learn to include all the senses in description.

5. Take a scene you’ve already written, with two characters, and write it in the other character’s point of view. I did this with several scenes in McShannon’s Chance. It helped me figure out if I really had written those scenes in the POV of the character with the most to lose.

6. Tell a story in ten words or less, newspaper headline style. The best one of these I’ve ever seen: ‘Spinster aunt sold wedding dress today.’

Hope you enjoy this, and may your muse be kind! Feel free to add to this list if you have ideas.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Folk Friday #8

I’ve been off track with Folk Friday lately, what with vacation followed by work craziness and family responsibilities, but it’s time to get back into a routine now. I’m looking forward to a busy fall, teaching ESL full time and working on my goal of having the rough draft of Shattered finished by March Break. I’ll also be putting on a set of four workshops at Northwood, a local seniors’ centre. The workshops have a theme of ‘passion in our lives’, and I’ll be using McShannon’s Chance as a springboard to get attendees to tell stories about the places, activities and people they have been passionate about in their lives. Some of these people will be war veterans and war brides, so I’m hoping they’ll be able to relate to my characters. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing their stories.

Dad is home from the hospital now and doing well. I can’t say often enough how grateful I am. For me, Thanksgiving will have more meaning this year than it’s ever had before.
For this week’s Folk Friday I’ve chosen a clip by Ardith and Jennifer, a Nova Scotia harp duo who manage to put me under a spell every time I hear them. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never heard them play in person. To me, there’s something magical about the sound of a harp.

Enjoy this clip. Happy autumn to all.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Counting my Blessings

These two cardinals are my father's work. He loves to carve, mostly birds and other expressions of his love for the outdoors.

I'm counting my blessings tonight. On Tuesday, Dad underwent surgery for a gastrointestinal tumor. I haven't said much about it, mostly because my father is a private person and I respect that, but now that it's over and he's expecting a full recovery, I need to express my gratitude.

Like most girls, I grew up thinking of my father as my hero, always there and always strong. This has been a wake-up call for me, a reminder not to take one precious moment for granted. Dream like you'll live forever, live like you'll die today.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Few Days Out of Time

Last week, we got unexpected news that my DH’s sister had bought a cottage on Grand Manan, a jewel of an island in the Bay of Fundy, off the coast of New Brunswick. The house needed work, so we piled Chance and Echo in the car and headed off for what turned out to be a magical few days.

Grand Manan is the kind of place where people don’t wear watches. Things happen in their own time. The closest thing to a spectator sport is watching the Cape Islanders chug out into the bay in the morning and return at sunset, or watching whales and porpoises from a windy cliff top. There are places with names like Whistle, Seal Cove and Dark Harbour. The local take-out makes the best lobster rolls I have ever tasted, and the restaurant by the ferry terminal specializes in succulent fresh scallops and fish. If we hadn’t burned off the calories painting, wallpapering, laying floors and hiking, I would have brought a few extra pounds back with me.

The cottage is a five-minute walk from this beach, which was all but empty the whole time we were there. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world, so at low water the beach stretches out almost to the horizon, and at low tide the water laps at the feet of the cliffs. The dogs were in heaven, and so were we.
The place is tailor-made to be a setting for a romance. I can picture a couple trysting at Southwest Head,where the picture at the top was taken, the best location on the island for sunsets. And the best part of it all is that we’ll be able to go back next year. Life is good.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Art is Art

A writer friend of mine, Janet Corcoran, just posted on her blog Janet’s Journal about a talk she recently attended, given by three women who were artists in residence for the past year in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia . Janet’s post got me thinking about the connections between different art forms, including writing. It’s a topic that fascinates me, so I thought I’d run with it.

My DH writes with sound instead of words, but it’s uncanny how similar our processes are. First, there’s inspiration. For me that can come from an old photograph, a story someone tells me, a historical event, or it can simply come at me out of the blue, like Trey McShannon’s character did. For my DH, it’s much the same. Musical phrases from pieces he already knows, random sounds he stumbles on when ‘noodling ‘ on his guitar (his version of free writing), events or people provide the starting point, the initial spark. He banks melody lines in his memory the way I bank phrases, lines of poetry or story ideas. He’ll write a snatch of music down on paper the way I scrawl ideas in a note book – if I have one (You’ve all heard my paper towel story by now.)

Next, the idea has to be fleshed out. For me, that means I start writing the first draft of my story. For my DH, it means finding a chord progression that expresses his original idea. Both of us have to think about length and mood and pacing. There are conventions in music – chord families and scales – just as there are conventions for the written word. Music has phrases, punctuation, its own grammar if you will. It also has its free-verse poets who ignore the conventions.

Finally there’s revision and polishing. For me that means going back and adding layers of action, emotion and introspection (Yeah, yeah, I know, too much introspection. I’m working on it.) For DH, it means a different kind of layering: adding harmony lines and embellishments, adjusting pace and rhythm. And yes, it can cause as much angst for him as it does for me. In the end, it’s about taking the reader or listener to a place you’ve created for them. The only difference is the medium.

With painting, it seems to me that the process is pared down but essentially the same. It starts with inspiration. The palette chosen is like a writer’s voice, and the intensity of the colors sets the mood. Any given subject can be interpreted in as many different ways as there are artists.

What do you think? Have you experimented with different forms of artistic expression? What’s your take on the idea that ‘art is art’?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Folk Friday #7

Here’s another Mary Chapin Carpenter tune, one I used to play at Harbour folk society coffee house evenings. To my mind, it’s a beautiful little piece of craft, a story told with an old shirt as the focal point. She really had a gift for making the ordinary magical.

I missed FF again last week – company arrived and I’ve been on the go ever since. I can’t believe how fast the summer’s flown. I’m working away on Shattered, and it’s going quickly at this point. Right now, Liam and Carl O’Neill, Alice’s brother, are stuck together in the same hospital room. I’m chuckling evilly over the thought. They’d like nothing better than to pound each other, but Liam’s on crutches and Carl has just been severely walloped in a street fight, so it ain’t gonna happen.

I’ve spent the last few days touring around with DH’s brother and six-year-old niece. She’s experiencing the ocean for the first time, and it’s been priceless watching her. She’s made me see with fresh eyes. I’ve got another week of vacation before school starts again, and then it will be back to reality – sigh!

Enjoy the tune. I hope everyone’s summer has been as great as mine.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Some Thoughts on Dialogue

A few months ago, I got some feedback from an RWA contest that puzzled me. I’d sent in the first twenty pages of McShannon’s Heart, and one judge commented “It’s almost as if two different people wrote this.” I was honestly befuddled, but now, I think I understand what she meant.

When I write dialogue, I try to write it the way I think that character would actually speak, but it seems that isn’t always the best option. Dialogue has to match the writer’s descriptive style. I read the passages the judge had marked and realized that in trying to make my characters authentic as nineteenth-century rural people, I’d pared down their speech so that it was too much of a contrast with my descriptions.

I think readers also have certain expectations when it comes to dialogue, especially with historicals, but the truth is that nineteenth-century speech wasn’t all that different from the way we talk now, if novels and journals written at the time are any indication. Court records show that vulgar expressions are timeless. Letters and diaries use surprisingly modern language, but as readers, we expect the dialogue in a historical story to be different. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel right, even though it might be accurate.

Dialogue also has to take into account the fact that readers don’t have the visual cues so important in real conversation. To avoid using a lot of cumbersome ‘stage directions’ – something I have to guard against – every word has to be carefully chosen to convey the desired meaning. Dialogue tags – ‘he growled’, ‘she simpered’ – are another issue. I don’t like them and I avoid them whenever possible. The only tag I use is ‘he/she said’, when it’s necessary to clarify who’s speaking. Anyone who’s read about writing craft has read about these issues, but the craft books don’t tell us that putting the perfect, strong words in our characters’ mouths can be the difference between a good story and a published story. It’s more than a matter of avoiding tags and stage directions. Something else to strive for. I also know I’m guilty of using too much small talk in my dialogue. Greetings and goodbyes and how-are-yous can be left out because the reader’s brain fills them in.

One of the things I enjoy most about writing dialogue is the fact that I can use bad grammar with impunity. I don’t know anyone who uses perfect grammar when they speak, and if we try to we sound self-conscious and affected. The same is true in fiction.
Dialogue is a wonderful way to make characters unique. In McShannon’s Chance I had fun with the contrast between Trey’s speech patterns and Beth’s. Trey’s a lot less wordy and some of his expressions mark him as a country boy, but he doesn’t talk like a rube. After all, he’s read Walt Whitman and Dickens and R.H. Dana. Beth is an educated young woman from a good family, and her language reflects her background. In McShannon’s Heart, I really enjoyed writing conversations between Martin and Chelle. I could almost hear her Georgia drawl and his broad Yorkshire. Of course, in real life they’d hardly have been able to understand each other.

Dialogue. What do you have to say about it?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Folk Friday #6

This tune, the Dixie Chicks’ cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, is another one that I think suits a soft summer evening on the porch with a beer in hand. I love the harmonies, and the country feel of this version. Another one of those reflective pieces that always seem to tug at my heartstrings. Enjoy!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Folk Friday #5

This week’s tune, ‘The Presence’, is another old one by Archie Fisher, the legendary Scottish folk singer who crafted ‘Dark-eyed Molly’ and ‘Witch of the Westmoreland’, songs that most of us on this side of the pond became familiar with through Stan Rogers’ artful interpretations.

I’ve seen Archie perform once, when a friend and I drove from Halifax to Ottawa to take in a concert. Yes, we wanted to hear this man that badly. When Mr. Fisher heard of us, he took a few minutes at the end of the show to chat with us, mostly to tell us we were crazy.

In my opinion, the lyrics to this song are simply exquisite. They’re based on a story Mr. Fisher heard from an old woman in Scotland. This cover is the only recording I could find, and it isn’t badly done, but I wish you could hear the original. I’m including the lyrics, as they aren’t that easy to make out.


It was out in the long spring grass, she said
And the night was soft on the hill
He touched my ear with his voice, she said
And my blood ran sweet and chill
I laugh in my sleep at their gibes, she said
Though they call me old maid still
I have seen them sprinkled, weaned and loved
The young girls fondled and wed
I've watched their dreams go as grey as the hair
That the limpin' sheepdogs shed
But mine are as green as the tall pines
That lean by Loch Erne head
And he never came back to my father's byre
Yet on an April night
When the moon sits pat on a scudding cloud
And the stars are quick and white
I have known his clutch like a cloak of fire
And his limbs like swords of light
And my eyes wet by the fire, she said
But not with lust or shame
I mourn no shepherd laid low on the hill
I weep in the starry flame
With the joy of what I can never lose
But what I dare not name
It was out in the long spring grass, she said
(as sung by Archie Fisher)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tragedy in Romance

This is a view of Halifax in 1917, looking North toward where the Macdonald Bridge is today. The tall building in the background by the Narrows is the Acadia Sugar Refinery, then the tallest building in the Maritimes.

I’m only on Chapter 3 in Shattered, and I’m already dreading the inevitable: Someone has got to die. But how many, and who?

My characters live in St. Joseph’s Parish in Halifax’s North End, right in the middle of Richmond, the area hardest hit by the Explosion. St. Joseph’s lost 400 parishioners that day, roughly half its membership, not to mention the church itself. It wasn’t rebuilt for forty years. Not only would it be unrealistic to have every one of my characters miraculously survive, I’d feel somehow disrespectful to all the real folks who didn’t.

But who to kill? Not my hero or heroine. That isn’t the kind of book I want to write. Nolan, Liam’s older brother, with his black Irish good looks and deep love for his family? Nolan’s a harbour pilot, so he would have been out on the water that morning, right in the path of danger. His wife, Annie, with her easy smile? Their children, Drew and Emily? There were plenty of children lost, one only six days old. Then there’s Alice’s family, the O’Neills. What about Georgie, with her zest for life, or Carl, her troubled brother? He would be an easy choice, but why go with the easy choice?

You see my dilemma. One of the main reasons I read romance is the HEA, but the background of this story is all tragedy. That can make for some powerful, wrenching scenes, but it has to be balanced with a measure of hope at the end. No Cold Mountain for me! I know I’ll cry when I do the awful deed. I can only hope I do it well enough to make readers cry, too.

How do you feel about tragedy in romance?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Folk Friday #4

I completely missed Folk Friday last week! My brain is in summer mode, and the days just 'flow by like a broken-down dam', as John Prine put it in Angel from Montgomery.

This week’s tune is one by James Keelaghan, in my humble opinion the best Canadian male folk singer/songwriter since Stan Rogers. I fell head-over-heels in love with Mr. Keelaghan and his music at the Lunenburg Folk Festival years ago. I already knew one of his songs, Jenny Bryce, from Garnet Rogers’ recording, so I was prepared to be impressed, but not blown away.

I watched this dark-haired young man with the receding hairline and thick glasses tuning up in the festival tent before the show. Well, says Jennie, he’s nothing to look at. Then, when he came back at showtime, my jaw almost hit the floor. He’d put on contact lenses, and the man has the most amazing electric blue eyes. But when he started to sing, I wouldn’t have cared if he looked like Stephen Harper (Sorry, Stephen.) Mr. Keelaghan has a voice you can feel to your toes and the soul of a poet. He’s also highly intelligent, articulate and a confirmed history buff.

I couldn’t find a clip of my favourite song, Rebecca’s Lament, but this one, Kiri’s Piano, is another beauty. I’ll let you listen to Mr. Keelaghan discuss it himself. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Shattered City

This was the North End of Halifax some time after 9:04 am on December 6, 1917. A day that will never be forgotten in this city. The day when two ships – the Imo, in ballast, and the Mont Blanc, fully loaded with wartime explosives - collided in the narrow channel between the Halifax Harbour and the Bedford Basin, resulting in what is still the most powerful man-made non-atomic explosion in history.

Ninety-three years later, the Explosion is part of the fabric of everyday life in Halifax, especially in the North End. The few remaining survivors were too young in 1917 to remember much of the event, but survivors’ stories have been handed down through the generations and poignant reminders still remain, like the anchor shaft of the Mont Blanc. It was blown over two miles, retrieved and mounted as a memorial. The tree that graces Boston’s Prudential Plaza every Christmas is a gift from the people of Halifax, in memory of the aid Massachusetts provided in our hour of need.

In 1917, motion picture technology was in its infancy. Only about ten minutes of film of the aftermath of the explosion exist. Here’s a chilling clip I found on YouTube.

I worked for ten years in one of the few buildings to survive the devastation, a school a block away from Ground Zero. Needless to say, with such wholesale death and destruction in its past, the neighbourhood has a unique energy. People still unearth remnants of homes and possessions in their gardens. Strange stories abound.

Several years ago, a friend who lives in the area told me one of those stories. Apparently she got home from work one day, glanced at her kitchen window and saw a man dressed in old fashioned clothes sitting at her table. Before she could react, he vanished. With this story as inspiration, last year I began work on Shattered, a ghost/time travel story of the Explosion. Only now, I think I’ll write it as a straight historical. Easier to get the hero and heroine together, and easier to delve into the treasure trove of history in my own back yard. Here’s a brief excerpt from the story:

Morning, December 6, 1917
Halifax, Nova Scotia

There was no sound.

A towering cloud of smoke rose in the clear winter sky. Fireballs floated upward and silently burst, their strange, magnetic beauty a lure to children on their way to school, workmen on their way to the docks, the rail yard and the sugar refinery, soldiers and sailors on the Halifax waterfront. They gathered to watch the spectacle as the French cargo vessel Mont Blanc drifted toward shore, her deck aflame.

At 3121 tonnes, she was bound for war-torn Europe, loaded to the gunnels with picric acid, gun cotton, TNT and airplane fuel. On her way into the Bedford Basin to join her convoy, she’d had an accident in the Narrows, a minor collision with another ship, the Imo. Sparks ignited the fuel that spilled from drums on the Mont Blanc’s deck.

Her explosive cargo was a military secret. Her crew had launched the lifeboats and made for the Dartmouth side of the Harbour when the fire broke out. A floating bomb, she nosed into Pier 6 in the city’s North End. The crowd of onlookers grew.

Mothers sent children out to buy kindling for morning fires. A minister’s family gathered around their piano to practice for an upcoming concert. Three young brothers risked being late for class and hurried toward the waterfront, hoping to see Halifax’s shiny new fire truck arrive on the scene. Full of excitement and fear mingled, a twelve-year-old girl started off to ask a friend to watch the fire with her.

Something awful is going to happen.

At 9:04 a brilliant flash of light blotted out the world. A tidal wave rose from the Harbour, parting it like the Red Sea. The sky rained ash, metal and glass. A mushroom cloud bloomed against serene blue.

But there was no sound.

Chapter 1

K-K-K-Katy, b-beautiful Katy,
You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore,
And when the m-moon shines over the cowshed,
I’ll be waiting by the k-k-k-kitchen door!

Liam Cochrane caught his companion by the waist and pulled her into a darkened doorway as the three singing sailors lurched past, trailing liquor fumes in their wake. One of the men looked over his shoulder, leered good-naturedly and snapped off a salute as limp as his wilted uniform. Giggling, Georgie pressed into Liam’s arms, edging him further back into the shadows.

“If I have any more to drink I’ll be three sheets to the wind, too. Time to go home.”
Liam pulled her closer. When he bent his head to kiss her, she rose on her toes and tangled her fingers in his hair. A brief, fierce moment later, Georgie rested her head on his shoulder. With her breasts tight to his chest, lips grazing his neck, taking her home was last on the list of things Liam wanted to do. He tucked a finger under her chin and tilted her head back.

“You sure you’re ready to call it a night?”

Her smoky green eyes held his, full of invitation. Her fingers kindled a fire in him, running lightly along his spine. “No one will be home. I didn’t say anything about calling it a night.”

She reached for his mouth. She tasted like youth, like life. He plunged deep and savoured her.

“I like the way you think, lady. Let’s go.”

They had a walk ahead of them, all the way from Brunswick Street to the North End, but the rye they’d shared with their picnic in Point Pleasant Park had loosened up Liam’s bad hip. As for Georgie’s inhibitions, after three evenings together he knew they didn’t need much loosening. Girls like her had been scarce in Halifax before the war, but not any longer.

They started north past Citadel Hill, walking hand in hand. The round-domed town clock read nine. A breeze had come up, snapping the flags that flew from the old fort on the hilltop, the grey stone reflecting the pink of the twilight sky. Later, fog might roll in off the harbour, but for now the stored heat of buildings and pavement kept it at bay.

The streets filled. Halifax wore a grim face in the grip of winter, a drab and ghostly one in rain, but a fine summer day transformed the city and its people. Even the brick and stone of the industrial waterfront looked brighter and more welcoming, the bustle of wartime business a little less serious. The long evenings drew people out to stroll, socialize and look for trouble, easily found around the Hill. It always had been since the days when Brunswick was notorious Barrack Street, catering to the two greatest needs of men just in off the sea, one of which was a drink.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Folk Friday #3

What can I say about this one? Loreena McKennit has the most amazing voice, and an unequalled gift for interpretation. Give her material like Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shallot’ and the result is going to be stellar.

I read this poem a long time ago, but the first time I heard it spoken was by Megan Followes as Anne of Green Gables. That was when I realized its charm. On paper, I find it a bit too, well, Victorian, but when spoken it comes alive. Here’s Loreena’s version. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

McShannon's Heart Update

I received a nice little giftie to top off the general celebrations last week – my finalized cover for McShannon’s Heart! This allowed me to finalize the trailer as well. It’s a little longer than I intended, but I just couldn’t resist using the lovely images I found.

In honour of the occasion I’m putting up an excerpt, but first a little background. As I’ve mentioned before, the story’s hero, Martin Rainnie, is a talented fiddler. For years, Martin played at all the local dances in his part of Yorkshire, but after losing his wife in childbirth he no longer has the heart for music. Then, Rochelle McShannon walks into his life. This is an account of Martin’s return to the stage and his first dance with Chelle.

Writing this brought back memories of a dance my DH once played on Pictou Island, a tiny, breathtakingly beautiful smidgen of land off the coast of Nova Scotia. Only 5km long, the island has about 20 full-time residents and another 50 or so who spend their summers there. Unfortunately I have no pictures, but imagine miles of pristine beach, gulls calling, and weathered old seaside homes. If I could have Internet, I’d live there in a minute. We spent an idyllic weekend there.

The dance took place on Saturday night in a two hundred year old, tiny, un-renovated community hall. Bare board walls, original worn plank floor, benches along the sides, a few bare light bulbs that shed no more light than a coal-oil lamp. There was good food and plenty of spirits passed around. It all could have taken place two hundred years ago – the older folks minding the babies, the dancing getting faster as the drinks flowed, couples necking in dark corners and a few boisterous types outside fighting. Since the threat of theft is non-existent, nobody locked their cars. They just left the keys in the ignition. At some point, a prankster gathered all the keys and scattered them in the bushes. They would have been switching people’s horses way back when. I could almost feel the ghosts of the past kicking up their heels in time with the fiddle.

The dance in McShannon’s Heart takes place in a hall built of Yorkshire stone, but the atmosphere is the same. The perfect place for Martin to feel the pull of his music again, and to discover that he’s healing in other ways as well.

They reached the hall to find the yard full of farm carts, wagons and buggies. Inside, the benches lining the stone walls were already filling up. Lanterns hung from the rafters, adding to the heat already building in the room.

The platform at the opposite end of the hall was still empty. The McShannons found space on a bench. Leaning back against the wall, Chelle scanned the room. She didn’t know any of the Carston people.

Three older couples stood chatting near the platform. When they separated, laughing, to return to their seats, Chelle’s heart did a queer little flutter. His broad back turned to her, fiddle in his hand, Martin stood there, deep in conversation with a man about the age of her father. He nodded to his companion, then the two of them stepped onto the platform.

The first sharp, clear notes of the flute caught the crowd’s attention. They fell silent, then burst into cheers when Martin joined Jason in a fast, driving rant. Someone shouted out “Welcome back, lad!” They settled into a reel and in a blink, two sets of dancers formed. Chelle didn’t know the steps to this particular figure, but they looked simple enough to learn. When a third set formed, Brian led Jean out onto the floor.

As she had at the farm, Chelle lost herself in Martin’s music. Tapping her foot in time, she forgot the dancers until the reel ended. As the sets re-formed, someone tapped her shoulder.

“May I have the pleasure?”

Chelle started and looked up at a stocky young man with a shock of blond hair and a pleasant smile.

“Yes, I’d be glad to.”

The music began again. Her partner was a good dancer, and Chelle soon caught on to the steps. The music carried her along until she felt lighter than she had in many months.

She wondered if Martin would dance tonight. If he did, would he ask her? Her pulse quickened at the thought. This must be the first time he’d played in public since losing his wife. How was he feeling? A little ashamed of the glow of warmth that came over her, Chelle turned her thoughts back to her partner and the music.

Martin played the first reel through a storm of conflicting emotions. The welcoming cheers from the crowd touched him. Memories overwhelmed him. It wasn’t until the beginning of the third tune that he dared to look out over the dance floor.

His gaze settled on Chelle as she moved neatly through the figures, flushed and smiling, her bright hair gathered in a soft knot on top of her head, exposing the slim line of her neck. He hadn’t thought about her being here. It would surely make tongues wag, this soon after losing her mother, just as people would talk about him playing. He didn’t give a damn what the village biddies said about him, but Chelle’s reputation was another matter.

Martin had a speaking acquaintance with her partner, who came from one of the farms on the other side of Carston. Lester Barrow was a decent lad, and Chelle seemed to be enjoying herself with him. When the tune ended, another Carston man took Lester’s place. By intermission time, Chelle had danced with eight or nine different partners and Martin’s nerves were as taut as the strings on his fiddle

You’re daft, Martin. What’s the odds who she dances with? You’re not in the market. But his jealousy wouldn’t down. It tangled with all the other feelings raised by being here, and it wouldn’t be rooted out.

He stepped off the platform and joined the line at the refreshment table. He’d just gotten his punch when he caught sight of Drew Markham lounging against the wall across the room, watching someone intently, a predatory light in his eyes. Martin followed Drew’s gaze to where Chelle stood with her cousin and his wife. His fists clenched, eager to make the man’s teeth rattle.

Jealousy. Protectiveness. Martin had no call to be feeling either, but they overwhelmed him. He returned to the platform, picked up his fiddle and held it out to Jason.

“Break time’s over. Play a couple of tunes to start off, will you?”

Jason quirked an eyebrow as he took the fiddle. “Fancy joining a set? Go on, then.”

Martin didn’t answer. He eased his way through the crowd, his pulse drumming in his ears like it had at eighteen when he asked a girl to dance. The color on Chelle’s face deepened and spread to her throat when she saw him. Standing beside her, her cousin held out his hand.

“Good to see you here, Martin. You haven’t lost your touch.”

“I’m not so sure of that, but thanks.” He shook Brian’s hand, then turned to Chelle. “Miss Rochelle, Jason’s going to start off the next set. Might I have the pleasure?”

Chelle smiled and mimicked his broad Yorkshire. “Aye, sir, I’d be flattered.”