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.”

Friday, July 2, 2010

Folk Friday #2

Just got back from an early walk in the woods with Chance and Echo...lovely, absolutely lovely. Summer mornings are priceless.

This week’s Folk Friday tune has a lot of memories for me. The Moon and Saint Christopher by Mary Chapin Carpenter is one of the first songs Everett and I learned to play together. I think of it as every woman’s anthem.

My favourite Mary Chapin Carpenter songs have never been the popular ones, though I like them too. The lyrics of her more reflective tunes are poignant and beautiful, and so true.

When I was young I spoke like a child, I saw with a child’s eyes
An open door was to a girl like the stars are to the skies
It’s funny how the world lives up to all your expectations
With adventures for the stout of heart, the lure of open spaces

And later:

But now I’m grown and I speak like a woman and see with a woman’s eyes
An open door is to me now like the saddest of goodbyes
When it’s too late for turning back I pray for the heart and the nerve
And I rely upon the moon and Saint Christopher

There are some performers best seen live. Their energy, stage presence and charisma are a big part of their appeal, but to me, this is the kind of song - and artist - best enjoyed while relaxing at home with bare feet and a beer in hand. It isn’t sad, it’s about the strength we gain through experience.