Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Books Feed the Soul

Comfort books are like comfort foods. We crave them when we’re missing…something…not sure what. Like opening the fridge door and staring inside…every ten minutes.

That’s the way I felt last night standing in front of my bookcase. Nothing appealed to me. It felt kind of like the fridge door scenario. Then I spotted it. Hadn’t read the book for years. To be honest, I couldn’t remember the storyline. I did remember that it has remained a favourite in my mind. It’s true. Ask me about my favourite books and I usually mention Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups.

I sighed. Just a little sigh. If you’d been standing beside me you might not have heard it. It was a satisfied sigh. In keeping with the fridge door analogy, it was like spying that last piece of lemon meringue pie. Those little dewy beads on the meringue shimmering under the light of the tiny bulb. It was that let’s sit down and get all cozy and enjoy this kind of feeling.

I reached for the book and slid my hand around a bookmark that was gathering dust on the shelf. I groaned with delight after reading only the first few paragraphs. Almost as satisfying as a piece of pie, but not as fattening. Come to think of it, I was stuffing chewy cubes of old cheddar and crunchy rice crackers into my mouth at a staggering rate. Keep Calm and Go to the Gym…tomorrow.

I read the opening paragraphs again…and then again. Four times in all. Savouring them. When my husband joined me, I shared the beginning with him. The writing is wonderful, isn’t it, I asked. We know so much about this character in those few lines. At least, we think we know. My husband and I both agreed that it was a terrific lead-in to the book.

Sparks fired and mis-fired in my brain as memory of the story flashed through my mind. Not a flash really, not like fireworks. It was more the flickering of a birthday candle. I turned to the last page and read it but still I couldn’t quite remember the bits that happened from the first page to the last.

Once my husband joined me, I put the book aside. We talked, enjoying our time together in the coziness of the family room. Appreciating it even more knowing that it was bitter cold and windy outside. Not that I’d been out recently but I had been on Facebook and that’s as good as watching the weather forecast on TV. Better sometimes. My husband attested to the outdoor temperature and so did Lexus. Normally not one to like the heat, our dog cozied up to the front of the fireplace. Something about seeing her there always makes me want to take a picture. And I have, many times. Most of them have Tiki in them. Our black Persian passed away in April. She loved the sheepskin rug in front of the fire. That’s where she died. Then I took up the rug and put it away. It was too much of a reminder each time I was in the room. Missing her.

Marv and I decided it was time to bring the rug out again. Perhaps Lex would like to use it. She occasionally stretched out on the sheepskin over the years – when Tiki was in a charitable mood and willing to share.

I never did return to my book last night. Sometimes mere nibbles satisfy our cravings.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Solitary Writer Retreat

For an all-consuming writing experience, I pack up and leave home.

Here’s the why of it for all those who have asked aloud and especially for those who wonder without asking.

Yes, I do have an office at home. No, I don’t have small children underfoot. My house is relatively quiet. My husband is (mostly) considerate of my writing space – both figuratively and literally. So why do I have to run away to accomplish great chunks of writing?

Stimulation. New sights and sounds awaken the senses and clear the cobwebs of my mind. Nature is never distracting. People on the other hand are a different story so I prefer a tranquil

No routine. This is the most important for me. By choice, I camp out in the room where I’ll be writing. Usually a large room with a view. Sleeping bag and pillow on the couch. Because I’ve eliminated the bedtime ritual, not to mention the bed, I usually nap anywhere from thirty minutes to never longer than five hours. Then I’m back at the computer. Rhythm and thought process intact.

No distractions. I’m not listening for the washer or dryer to quit, planning meals, running to the grocery store, unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming the dog hair off the furniture, or even watching my favourite evening TV programmes – especially those true crime shows.

No interruptions. I’m thinking of Sorry to bother you but… Or the dog whining to go out. The dog whining for a treat. The dog whining for her supper. Tiki, my kitty, passed away in April. Being without her after eighteen years is terrible but she was the biggest distraction. Hated to see my office door closed. She’d screech until I opened it and even when she was in the office, she insisted that the door be left open. She’d hop on and off my lap or my desk every few minutes. It’s easy to be sidetracked by a cuddle. See my post Cuddles, Coos, and Other Writerly Distractions.

No guilt. That’s a biggie. Turning down a friend’s lunch invitation, or chance to meet for coffee, or visit with relatives. Letting a phone call go to voicemail. It’s tough. I do feel guilty for begging off when I’m working an assignment but it’s screamingly frustrating working in fits and starts – at least for me. It’s a problem for all people who work from a home office. Especially writers. After all, many – too many – don’t consider it work. When I’m on a writing getaway, everyone respects my need for solitude.

My retreats are more than bouncing from the couch to the computer. I wander outside for fresh air, exercise at least an hour each day, drink plenty of water, and always eat at regular intervals – even with my irregular hours.

I pack healthy snacks and meals. Carrots and hummus, hard-boiled eggs, English muffins and cereal, yogurt and granola, pre-mixed green salads and prepared dinners. I spend little time in the kitchen and require only a microwave and a coffee-maker.

My focus is my writing project. The only conversations I have are with my characters. Nothing interrupts my thought process. It consumes me.

So far I’ve enjoyed two or three retreats courtesy of friends who live along the St. Clair River.
It’s amazing what I can achieve in the three or four days that I’m housesitting.

I return home feeling accomplished and refreshed. And energized. Yes, my energy level definitely increases with these mini getaways. It’s the excitement of the several thousand additional words to the manuscript and the exhilaration of creativity.

Love my retreats!

Sunday, September 07, 2014

A Dream or A Past Life Memory?

My dream was so real it was like I was actually there. But of course that was impossible. I wasn’t born yet. According to the experts, this may have been a past life memory emerging. My detailed account of this dream appears in ‘A River Runs by it’, an anthology honouring the 100th birthday of Sarnia.

Twilight Imagery

On the sidewalk next to a wooden crate is a partly eaten hunk of bread − the crust untouched.  I snatch it up.  In one smooth motion, it’s swept into the pocket of my dress. 

Self-preservation is my utmost priority.  Each day my thoughts are of survival – finding food and safe shelter for the night.  Nearly invisible, I slip into hiding places and scavenge for necessities − which are few.  

My shadowed obscurity shields me like a cloak of armour as I dodge the dockworkers at the busy wharf along Front Street.  Instinctively street savvy, I have the ability to blend in and stay out of harm’s way. 

I am eight years old.  I am a street urchin.  This is the only life I know, or rather, the only one I remember.  Though it is a solitary existence without family or friends, loneliness does not affect me. 

Farther north and away from the warehouses, people are picnicking on a grassy expanse of a park-like area next to the Town Hall.  Mostly women and children.  The activity captures my interest.  Knowing I don’t belong here, I keep my distance and study the scene from where I stand on the sidewalk. 

Sensing that someone is watching me, I turn my head slightly to the right.  A girl stands on the grassy section near the sidewalk.  She wears a fussy dress.  A wide, pink satin ribbon rides slightly above her chubby middle.  A plump child with strawberry coloured hair, fat cheeks, and a pouting mouth.  A pink complexion fights for exposure amongst the freckles. 

To her I am not invisible; I am a curiosity.  She stares.  My face is smudged with dirt, my hair tangled, and my dress grimy.  Without a petticoat, it hangs in folds around my skeletal frame.

She remains on the grassy section for the same reason, I think, that I stay on the sidewalk.  We each have a clear awareness of where we belong.

It’s strange how, as though from a distance, I can see myself standing there.  Behind me is Christina Street, though normally I do not venture onto the other street.  If I turn, I will see horses and wagons travelling the roadway.  I can hear them.  But the horses and wagons do not interest me. 

It is windy.  I hold a newspaper in both hands, reluctant to put it down because it will blow all around.  I look for a refuse bin, finally spotting one outside the open door of the Town Hall. 

A man with a large mustache drooping past the corners of his mouth, and wearing a waistcoat and bomburg hat appears in the doorway.  He observes the activities outside for a few minutes.  When he leaves to go back inside the building, I scurry across the lawn to dispose of the paper. 

Not until then do I realize that the bin is not for refuse.  It is a holding bin for the papers and books from the Town Hall.  It flashes through my mind that they are preparing to move or are doing a renovation of some type.  Regardless, they need to move things out of the building.

I secure the newspaper in the corner of the concrete entrance and hurry back to the sidewalk.  The river beyond the lush green open space is now churning fitfully.  I see whitecaps.  The sky is dark with rain clouds. 

I watch as one woman shakes a red plaid blanket and folds it into a neat square.  The picnickers are packing up.  They carry their wicker baskets over their arms as they prepare to leave.  The women wear broad-brimmed picture hats.  Their dresses, a snug fit around minute waists and smooth over rounded hips, stretch beyond their calves, though they do not reach their ankles. 

As one woman bows her head, I can see a dip in the brow of her hat where delicate ivory-coloured lace rests in folds inches thick.  A blue bird is nestled into the lace. 

There’s dampness in the air.  The cool wind chills my bare arms.  The storm is coming quickly.  Turning away from the pretty dresses and unusual hats, I hurry back to the south end of Front Street. 

The dockworkers, some wearing dark coloured sweaters, are shouting as they hand off small crates one to the other.  They appear anxious to finish unloading before the inevitable downpour.  I skitter past them.  Already the sidewalk is spattered with the heavy drops.

The texture of the sidewalk fascinates me – pebbles of varying size encased in concrete.  On summer nights, I sleep with the uneven, cold surface against my cheek.  I trail my fingers over the round smooth tops of the brown and grey stones and then onto the roughness surrounding them.  The familiar touch and smell is comforting.

On this night, I seek shelter from the weather.  Waiting for the right moment, when no one sees, I pull open one of two large faded green wooden doors, badly splintered at top and bottom.  Portions of wood−the size of my arm−missing here and there. 

It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.  The large warehouse is mostly vacant except for a few skids and crates.  Crates that stand higher than me.  I believe them to be empty but imagine them filled with root vegetables. 

The damp smell of the black earth floor fills my airways.  Creeping forward, I notice a small pile of loosely woven gunnysacks along the wall in the outer corner of an empty wooden crate.  I’m excited.  I cannot believe my luck.  These sacks will be my bed.  Perhaps tonight I will keep warm and dry.


The sound of the alarm clock rouses me.  I reach across the bed and shut it off.  Lying beneath the covers, I revisit the vivid details of my dream. 

The indisputable smells, sights, and sounds of an era a half century before my birth refuse to fade upon waking.  The smell of the St. Clair River lingers, as does the feel of the damp cool breeze on my bare arms.  It is so real that a part of me is still there.  The young street urchin − still on the streets of Port Sarnia. 

There is a puzzling sense that I have been inside this dream before.  The moonlight has guided my hurried steps down the deserted street and past the warehouses.  The explicit image and the feeling of danger flash through my mind.  There must have been other dreams like this one over the years.  How many dreams over how many years, I cannot be sure. 

My mind remains centred on the keen recognition of things unknown in my lifetime.  The memories hold fast.  For weeks, the dream intrudes at unexpected moments.  Not solely images, but feelings and thoughts.  Not about my dream, but within my dream.  These visions that refuse to diminish disturb me.

It was an intriguing dream that set off many ‘what if’s’ for an inquisitive writer. 

Is the newspaper I am holding in the dream significant?  Can I even read?  I have no insight of what I was doing with the paper.  Is it possible that I hawked newspapers and needed to dispose of the last one?  As yet, I have not found the answer.

It seemed strange that words not normally in my vocabulary would come out in a dream: petticoats, refuse bins, waistcoats, homburgs, and even gunnysacks.  I had gone back in time.  From the appearance of the clothing, I guess it to be the early 1900’s. 

Finally, I power on the laptop and make a record of the distinct details still embedded in my mind. 

During online research, I delight in seeing the women’s costumes sketched as I remember them in my dream.  I even find a hat with a bird.  Apparently, the well-to-do sometimes wore real stuffed birds on their hats!  In my dream, I am very taken with this image.

My attention turns to the men’s fashions.  Namely, those of the man who appeared in the doorway of the Town Hall.  In my online search, I cannot find the bomburg hat.  However, I do find a homburg hat.  It looks identical to the one from my dream.  Is the name of the fashion headwear a child’s mistake?  I deliberately use the word bomburg in the re-telling of my dream as that name is definitely the way the child thought of it.

My fascination of this phenomenon continues over the weeks and months to follow.  I research historic pictures of the Sarnia waterfront.  None of the pictures is exactly as I remember.  There are a couple of pictures of the waterfront, however, that produce a chilling effect. 

Friends listened to the strange dream, wondering, I’m sure, if it is even possible to dream in such detail.  Interesting, they said − if they said anything at all.  Some suggested it may have been a past life regression. 

It remains a mystery.         

 Twilight Imagery appeared in the anthology A River Runs by it, published by Sydenham Press 2013.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Depression - The Way I See It

It was a short text. Robin Williams died. Like everyone hearing the news for the first time, I was shocked. It wasn’t until hours later that I felt the profound sadness. The ache of losing someone. It was puzzling. I mean, he was an entertainer, an actor. Not someone I knew personally. And yet, I felt as if I knew him. I’m struggling with words, unsure how to describe why I felt this closeness to a television and screen personality.

The eyes are a window to the soul. How clich├ęd can I get? But to me, Robin Williams communicated with his eyes. They were filled with compassion …and pain. Understanding. Empathy. I don’t care what role he played, his eyes were the most discerning feature. They spoke volumes.

I am sad for his family and his fans and the entertainment industry, but my heart wrenching sorrow is for the man himself. It is often said that suicide is a coward’s way out. I don’t believe that. I believe it takes incredible strength and courage to end a life…especially your own. The pain and suffering must be excruciating. To be ill with depression while in the public spotlight must impose tremendous anguish. A never ending struggle.

I’ve also heard that it’s a selfish act. Again, I must disagree. The person who ends his own life is probably thinking they are doing everyone a favour by getting out of the picture. The world would be better off without them.

I don’t pretend to be an expert. I usually research before I write, but today I’m just writing from my heart. I’m spouting my views, the way I imagine it might be.

People – may I say creative people especially – have tremendous highs and lows. An actor immerses himself in so many different roles and if he’s a good actor – and Robin Williams was the best – he becomes the person he portrays. Even if the character is wholesome and good, it’s a brain drain for the actor. It’s all consuming. Combine that with the struggle to cope with the disease Depression and it must be overwhelming. Frightening. Terrifying. Painful.

I know how sadness and hopelessness and helplessness feels. And then there’s clinical depression. I can only imagine how that must feel.

And so perhaps the sadness and grief that grips my heart is for all the people incapacitated by depression.

If you suffer from depression and have not sought help, please do. Your life depends on it.


July 21,1951 – August 11, 2014
Rest In Peace

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Place to Write

Another unproductive day. I’m stymied. Most days I can shut out the outside world and write. Other days – like today – I can’t seem to get into it. My brain is surging with deadlines and that’s always counter-productive for me.

To break out of this – I won’t call it a block, but it’s close – I need to go somewhere unfamiliar. Leave behind the distractions like my wilting pots of flowers choking for a drink, my dishwasher begging to be emptied, the thawing meat waiting to be cooked into a sumptuous dinner.

Yesterday I cleaned the house. Aside from vacuuming, I even damp mopped my floors and dusted. Oh, and I did the laundry and put everything away – the same day. With the house in order, I thought I’d be able to concentrate on my writing. Not quite. Could you give me a hand tomorrow morning, my husband asked? Did he hear my inward groan? Yes, of course, I said. The deadline dates pinged off the inside of my forehead. My stomach cramped with guilt. It didn’t matter if I said yes or no. I’d either feel the guilt for not helping my husband or for not writing.

First thing this morning I had to go to the gym in town. The workout was too important to miss if you know what I mean. When I returned, I had a long and enjoyable phone chat with a friend who is going away for a month. Then it was close to lunchtime. My husband usually grabs a quick snack for himself during the day but I thought I’d make a hot lunch for both of us. I promised myself I would go straight to the office following the kitchen cleanup.

And so now here I am, writing about why I can’t accomplish anything with my writing these days.

A year or two ago, friends gave me permission to use their place while they were away on holiday. It was an amazing experience. I stayed for days at a time. Writing and sleeping and eating. A late afternoon glass of cabernet sauvignon with cheese and crackers and then back at it. No distractions. No obligations. A sleeping bag on the couch (my choice), the use of their kitchen for coffee, bagels, ready-made salads, and frozen pizza. It was amazing the amount of quality work I accomplished.

I’m not the only writer who finds it hard to constantly work from home and maintain a fresh outlook. Others have sought refuge in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and libraries. It’s the change of scene and abandonment of all home responsibilities that open the floodgates of creativity.

I imagine an isolated cabin or a tenth storey apartment – just me and my computer. And my food and coffee, of course. And wine. Renting a cottage is not in my budget. A cheap hotel room? No, I don’t think so.

Think I’ll take a nap and maybe do some proofreading before it’s time to make supper.

Tomorrow is a new day. I’ll be back at the computer first thing in the morning…er, afternoon.

Monday, July 14, 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

Welcome to The Write Break – Musings of a Writer…

It’s a pleasure to be aboard The Writing Process Blog Tour!

A huge thank you to Debbie Okun Hill for the invitation. Debbie, author of Tarnished Trophies, a Black Moss Press publication, is Past President of The Ontario Poetry Society, a Member of The League of Canadian Poets as well as the Writers’ Union of Canada, Stop by her website Kites Without Strings and say hello.

Before you visit Deb, I hope you take a few moments to read some of my postings, check out a few sample First Monday magazine columns, and if you’d like to stay in touch – and I hope you do – click on my Facebook page and LIKE. It would be fun to see you there and your support is appreciated

Okay, let’s get down to business. I have some questions to answer.

1.     How does your writing process work?

I’d like to say that I’m disciplined and methodical – a plotter – able to draw up a complete storyline before I begin my first draft. That’s almost crucial when writing crime fiction, especially a mystery story.

Unfortunately, I’m a pantser. No matter how hard I try to plot, my characters follow their own storyline. Normally I create the main character and a situation. Then run with it. Mostly, once the characters are established, they lead the way. And yes, it’s a nerve-wracking situation when writing a mystery but they’ve never let me down.

Research is a huge part of my writing process. I tend to do more research than I need for the story but it enables me to get inside my characters. Many of my stories are from a different era and I’m a detail person. I want to know everything about their world right down to the shoes in the shop windows.


2.     Why do I write what I do?

I write what I like to read. Stories that are unpredictable. They might have unusual endings or are a little twisted or sometimes spooky. The mind works in mysterious ways and everyone has a dark side. I like to probe the darkness. Mysteries and suspense are my favourite reads. I prefer writing novels but, out of necessity, I have tackled short stories as well. They are a challenge for me to write but I am beginning to enjoy the process of writing shorts. And I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have written some award winners.

3.     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

A publisher asked me whose work was most like my own. I’d never thought of it before. I answered that I didn’t compare my work to others. It’s my own voice. I have my favourite authors and, no doubt, they have influenced my style but I don’t strive to imitate them.

I write a story the way it unfolds inside my mind without worrying how it will be pigeonholed. So often, we’re writing to fit a certain criteria and that can be limiting when our stories or rather our characters, want to drift in another direction. I don’t believe that is being undisciplined, it’s simply following the muse.

4.     What am I working on?

I have several projects in the fire now. I don’t like jumping back and forth between stories but it’s unavoidable.

I have a mystery novel that is wonderfully challenging. It’s a sixty-year-old cold case. I’m attacking the writing very differently than any other story I’ve worked. The story flips back and forth in time. I tend to write chapters out of sequence as the ideas come to me and I (hopefully) will piece the book together like a puzzle when I’m finished. It’s exciting to write, as I am anxious to find out whodunit.

I’m also working on a longish short fiction for a themed publication. More research, of course. It’s not a mystery but I’ll try for suspense. And I have a non-fiction story that’s very close to my heart that I’m submitting this summer to a magazine. Deadlines, deadlines!

Well, that’s a glimpse inside what’s happening with me these days.

Catherine Astolfo, author
It’s time now to introduce the next blogger on the tour. I’ve had the privilege of meeting Catherine Astolfo not once, but twice. We first met two or three years ago at the Sarnia GenreCon. Cathy, a member of Crime Writers of Canada, appeared as a panelist. We had a few moments to chat and I was impressed with her enthusiasm and bubbly personality. Cathy and I met again several weeks ago at The Bloody Words Mystery Conference in Toronto. Yep, she still has that winning personality. J

Catherine Astolfo is the author of The Emily Taylor Mysteries and Sweet Karoline, published by Imajin Books. In 2012, she won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story in Canada.
Whatever you do, don’t miss Catherine Astolfo’s blog next Monday, July 21st. She will provide the answers to her writing process AND she has some exciting news!


Monday, July 07, 2014

Ghost Writers - Sort Of

Guess what? Readers do know the difference. People who are passionate about their pasttime come to know their favourite authors writing quirks and strengths. Writers have their own unique style – a particular turn of phrase – that recognizable voice.

Pumped to read my favourite author’s release, I cracked the book and settled in for a few hours of pleasure. Within a chapter or two, I had one of those waitaminute moments. No way did he write this book. It didn’t sound like him. The pace was off. Everything was off. It just didn’t flow the way his other books do. I checked the front cover. Closely this time. Sure enough, the famous author’s name was in large print with another author’s name below it in much smaller print.

So what gives? I could research this on the internet but I’d like to take a shot at it. There’s a strong possibility that I’m wrong. A rare occurrence but it does happen. The guy in small print (a fledgling author) actually wrote the book based on the plot written by the guy in large print and then the guy in large print (bestselling author) edited the thing. Almost like an apprenticeship. And then it’s like a 60/40 split or maybe even a 70/30 when the bucks roll in from international sales.

What writer wouldn’t love an opportunity to be tutored by a Great One? As a reader, it turns me off. I hate when that happens. I buy, borrow, or steal a particular author’s books because I love his writing
style. It’s disappointing not to get what you expect – no matter how good the guy in little print is.

Oh no, I hate it when I sound like a cynic. Maybe it’s just a bad day thing.

Still, if a famous crime writer contacted me and said, ‘Hey Phyllis, you’re not a bad writer. I have a terrific sure win plot but no time to write. I’m too busy marketing. Do you think you could whip up a story? I’ll check it out before it goes to press. I’ll even put your name on it. In small print, of course.’

Nah, I wouldn’t do it. Seriously, I wouldn’t.

I’m sure of that.

It would be a kick to be asked, of course.

But still, the answer’s no.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Spoken Word

Perhaps it’s my narcissistic nature. I assumed everyone would read and promote one’s own work. I had a lot to learn about Spoken Word and the people who participate.

While chatting over coffee, my friend who had co-hosted Spoken Word for a number of years, asked Bob and me if we’d be interested in co-hosting the event for the coming month. I hesitated. Maybe I was finally maturing – or just getting old. Normally, I would jump in with both feet and then curse my impulsiveness.

I’m not a poet. I remember saying that. She said it was only my impression that it was a poetry event. No, it’s writing of all kinds. Then my thoughts went to the food they served during intermission. The conveners had always provided oodles of food. Though I’d partaken of the yummy fruit, veggies, cakes, cookies, de-alcoholized wine, etc. etc., I wasn’t interested in providing the spread. Thoughts of slugging coolers, bags, and bottles up the stairway to the top floor put me off. Then the time it would take to set up, not to mention the cleanup afterwards. Trudging down the stairs at the end of the night with leftovers and garbage. No, I wouldn’t commit to that.

On the other hand, I wanted to help my friend with Spoken Word. Bob and I decided that we would do it. For the next month or two. But no food. We’d toss in a case or so of water.

I also balked at having a theme. Keep it simple, I said. It’s an open mic event. Participants should share their work without searching for theme material. Sure, the theme was a fun suggestion and optional, but on occasion it had kept me from participating. If the conveners were encouraging guest hosts, then keeping it simple would make the job seem less daunting.

When Bob and I arrived to set up the room, we couldn’t find the podium. Minor glitch. Normally attendance is between 10 and 20ish. We placed a chair in the centre of the room and made a semi circle of chairs around it. Readers could sit while sharing their prose or poetry. (Many preferred to stand.)

I liked the new setup. The circle was more conducive to a gathering of fellow word lovers than the customary podium and rows of seating.

The regulars accepted the new arrangement without comment and the lack of food and refreshments was not an issue – well, one person mentioned it at the end of the evening.

As my friend said, anyone can read anything, but my first impression was right. It’s mostly poetry. A lot of the poetry is dark. Or maybe not. Perhaps the dark poetry resonated more with me.

Some attendees wrote their own material and others read poetry from their favourite collections. Poems they’d stumbled across over a lifetime of reading. Dog-eared books fall open to select passages. Journals that bulge with snips and clippings are held together with elastic bands. Scraps of yellowed paper flutter to the floor. A lifetime of keepsakes.

It is most revealing.

Readings of my fictional mystery, murder, and mayhem take away from the purity of the event. The soul-baring of an intimate group of strangers.     

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

2014 Bony Pete Award Winner Phyllis Humby

If I had it to do over, I’d submit my entry with fingers crossed. Send up a little prayer before sleep. Re-read my submission daily with the burning thought, Is it good enough? Fidget through the banquet, inpatient for the awards presentation to begin. And when my story was announced as a first prize winner, I’d slap the table and grin at the people crowded around. At the sound of my name, I’d leap to my feet, pump the air with my fist, and begin my victory trot to the podium.

That’s not the way it went down.

It began with the audience cheering an Honourable Mention to Maggie Petrushevsky (Maggie Petru) and again when Joan O’Callaghan was named Third Place winner. I stretched my neck to see the Second Prize recipient Rob Brunet leave his table near the front of the hall to accept his award.

The applause subsided for the next announcement. The winning story is Reflections of Miss Sally.

I heard the words. At least I think that’s how the presenter announced it. Actually, the only words I was certain of were Reflections of Miss Sally. My words. The title I gave my story about a fading fan dancer back in the 40s and the hunt for her killer. My eyes bulged a little. For certain. Then Catherine Astolfo, award-winning author and Past President of Crime Writers of Canada, announced me as the winner of the Bony Pete Award for Best Short Story.

One of the two people at my table – her name was Andrea – nudged me. That’s you, she said. (Andrea if you see this, thank you for your cordiality during the conference) With that prompt, I stood. Shocked but thrilled, I weaved my way from the last table at the back of the hall to the dais.

I’m sure I wore a puzzled expression. I felt that way. I gave little thought to winning this contest. What were the chances? As a member of Crime Writers of Canada for less than six months, and this being my first Bloody Words conference, I wanted to take part in every aspect of the event. Of course, that meant sending a submission to the Bony Pete contest.

Cathy commented later that she wished I could have seen the look on my face when she handed me my Bony Pete trophy.

As I turned to leave, she asked if I’d like the box. I hesitated and then accepted. Without thought, I placed the trophy in the box and turned to the flash of a camera. I raised my hand in a thank you to the enthusiastic audience and made my to the back of the hall – all the while thinking of the picture taken of me holding a cardboard box covered in red tissue with white foam skull stickers.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

May - Month of the Short Story

This blog is not about the pros and cons of self-publishing. It’s not about publishing at all. It’s about writing.

A few years back when I’d completed my first novel, I joined a writers’ group, the now defunct WIT (Writers in Transition). The illustrious leader, my mentor Peggy Fletcher, insisted I start writing short stories. I protested. Nooooo, I’m a novelist. She explained that my novel would get more attention if editors and publishers knew my work. Write and submit short stories to build exposure. Fill your bio with accomplishments.

As always, Peggy was right. I persevered with the short stories, even though they are a challenge for me, and realized the gratification of seeing them in print and running online. Receiving honoury mentions and, as if that wasn’t enough, winning contests. It gives accreditation and validation to my work. And, to be honest, it makes me squeal with delight. I also write a monthly magazine column.

In spite of this, I wince when asked if I’m published. I automatically say no. Why? Because I still consider myself as a novelist and my novels are not published. The numerous short stories in journals and anthologies, and the magazine column, don’t come to mind when someone asks about my writing. I’ve zoned in on novels. Everything else is unimportant – or so it seemed.

Initial soul searching exposed my resentment at writing columns, blogs, stories... After all, it’s time consuming and I could be working on my current novel. Or marketing my finished novels. Or reading. Why, then, am I choosing to spend writing-time on short stories?

More soul searching. Over time, I’ve not only accepted, I’ve embraced the challenge of shorter works.

Deeper soul searching. It’s become satisfying. Don’t get me wrong, my novels are still foremost on my mind but short stories satisfy a hunger. There, I’ve admitted it. Writing shorts is like a pleasurable indulgence.

May is Short Story Month. Short stories have re-gained popularity and respectability. Anthologies are becoming more important. Since I don’t have my very own anthology, I wasn’t giving credit to my success in other anthologies. How crazy is that? I need to show a little more respect for my own work if I want recognition for it.

At a recent conference, I didn’t even admit to being a writer in a show of hands. Maybe because I haven’t reached my goal to be a published ‘novelist’. So, for the record, yes, I’m a writer. I’m a published writer. I’m a columnist. I’m a blogger. I have a writer facebook page and each new ‘like’ excites me. I’m a member of Crime Writers of Canada. And finally, yes, I am a novelist. No, I don’t have a published novel. Not yet. I will.

In the meantime, I’ll create short stories. Criminal, shocking, suspenseful short stories. After all, May is the month of the Short Story.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

More Books for my Library

Following my second trip in recent weeks to our local bookstore, The Bookkeeper, I have to clear some space on my shelves to make room for new editions.

Aside from books for my granddaughters, ages three and six, I came home with 1300 Moons, the only fiction of the four or five books written by local historian David D Plain. David’s a well-respected author whom I’ve had the opportunity to chat with at writers’ events in our community. I’m looking forward to reading his work.

It was tough deciding which of Vicki Delany’s books I should purchase from her Klondike Mystery series. Ultimately, Gold Mountain made it to the checkout. Vicki is the Guest of Honour at the upcoming Bloody Words conference I’ll be attending in June.

I’d finally ordered the two books that had been on my ‘to buy list’ forever and was happy to see they had arrived. A librarian introduced me to Elizabeth Berg’s writing several years ago. The first book I read was The Pull of the Moon and I’ve been a fan ever since. Having read that book several times and recommended it to all my friends, I thought it deserved a spot in my library. Elizabeth Berg seems like the kind of person who would make a wonderful friend. I’m so comfortable when I’m with her…well, reading her books. You know what I mean.

The second must-have book that came in on my order is Scattered Light by Jean Rae Baxter. I believe I initially borrowed this book from the library having read an earlier anthology loaned to me by a friend. I love Baxter’s writing. I love her mind. Diabolical! Much like Linwood Barclay’s. If you read my review of Barclay’s The Accident you know how I feel about his writing. You didn’t read my review? Here it is.  I blogged about Jean’s work too. You can check it out here. Jean Rae Baxter had been a longtime member of Crime Writers of Canada but I understand she no longer writes crime. Now, that’s the biggest crime! Short stories are a challenge for me and I suppose that’s one of the reasons I admire her work so very much. I definitely needed this anthology in my library of books-I-love.

I read Janet Bolin’s first book of the Threadville series and purchased the second of the series, Threaded for Trouble. Yep, I blogged about Janet's Cozy Mystery series here. Also waiting for me was the first book in Gail Bowen’s Kilbourn series. I love mysteries! Both Gail and Janet will be panelists at the Sarnia GenreCon on May 10th and I’m looking forward to meeting them. I blogged about a GenreCon I attended a couple of years ago. Here's my tongue-in-cheek opinion. 
Last September I was thrilled to participate in the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival where I met three of my favourite authors. I shared my experience here. I took my copy of Ania Szado’s book, Beginning of Was, to be signed. She was very sweet. Now I have her latest book, Studio Saint-Ex! I think it was the cover that initially caught my attention. Yes, book covers are the singularly most important advertisement.

Ahhh, so many wonderful books to read. Think I’ll get right on that.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Janet Bolin - A Cozy Mystery

If Janet Bolin lived next door to me, I’d skip across the yard with two mugs of coffee and her book Dire Threads clutched under my arm. Tell me how you do it, I’d say. What’s the process for writing a mystery filled with humour and characters and maguffins and clues?

Cozy mysteries are not my usual read – no, I’m into hard crime. Even so, Janet Bolin, through good writing and excellent plotting, managed to hold my attention without the benefit of graphic violence, profanity, or explicit sex. Think Jessica Fletcher and Cabot’s Cove. I love that woman, by the way. Such class, grace, poise….I digress.

As with most Cozy Mysteries (I did my research), the setting of Dire Threads, the first book in the Threadville series, is quaint and homey. Most of the action takes place on the main street of a small village where the downtown theme is stitchery. Cute idea. The author’s knowledge on all things stitchery was most impressive. My guess is that in real life Janet Bolin augments her sewing machine sales income with royalty cheques from Penguin.

Having once been a merchant of a small store in a small town, I can sort of identify with the bonding of the store owners. We didn’t have murders…oh my gosh, YES we did… YES, a man was murdered in the apartment above my store….true, true…that was terrible. Sorry, I digress, again.

Cozy mysteries tend to be fast-paced, with several twists and turns, and an emphasis on plots and character development. Yep, that certainly describes Janet’s book.

I have a bad habit of becoming too anxious to find out whodunit and I read the last chapter half way through the book. I can hear the collective groans – yes, I’m ashamed. I’d hate anyone to jump the gun on one of my stories. Having said that, I resisted the temptation and continued to the end of the book without skipping a page.

 It would be a two-cup chat for Janet to come close to answering all my questions. I’d be curious to know if she wrote Dire Threads with the idea that it would be the first of a series. Or did Penguin Publishers, having accepted her manuscript, insist she continue with a second book. Or, did she have several books written by the time she found a publisher. Did it become a series because she couldn’t say goodbye to her characters?

I have to read the second book, Threaded for Trouble, to see if all the characters return. Well, they can’t all return, can they? After all, how could it be a murder mystery unless someone dies?

Cozy Mysteries are huge business – meaning big money, in my opinion. Sort of like writing erotica (which I understand is the biggest moneymaker) but not.

I liken the Cozy Mystery Series books to that of Harlequin Romance in that they all follow a formula. Or do they? Do the authors sign up for X number of books right from the start?

Whatever the circumstances, Janet Bolin is a good writer, a magnificent plotter, and a successful author AND a member of Crime Writers of Canada. Gotta love that!

I’ll have the opportunity to meet Janet Bolin in my own hometown. She’ll be a panelist at an upcoming literary convention. If you have your own questions for Janet Bolin, plan to attend the Sarnia GenreCon on May 10th. Do so at your own risk. You know what happens at every event Jessica Fletcher attends…….

Visit Janet in Threadville and meet her characters introduced in the most ingenious manner.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Award-Winning Author Pulls Fast One

Have you ever read a book by a #1 New York Times Bestselling Author and suspected it was an earlier work? This morning I finished a book that left me with that impression.

Most established writers, embarrassed by fledgling mistakes, wish early novels would disappear. So why would an award-winning author allow a recycled manuscript to be published? The only likely scenario is that the author’s books were selling like hotcakes and the publisher kept asking for more – Don’t you have a finished manuscript somewhere? Good, let’s publish it. It doesn’t matter if it was written twenty-five years ago in high school. Readers won’t know the difference.

Guess what? We do know the difference. Of course, all of this is guesswork on my part. Hence the reason I’m not naming the source. Call me a coward, a chicken, or a great garrulous gazetteer. You wouldn’t be the first. And you’d be right.

Seriously, I’ve read better books – a lot better. My deduction is the story was written in the late 70s. And then it was updated – here and there. Just enough to make it seem…off. Poor editing resulted in a conglomeration of decades. Television shows are a dead giveaway. The suspect was watching what when he was arrested? That combined with a ‘modern day’ show mentioned elsewhere in the book didn’t jive. That’s only one example of the slapdash updating. It was downhill from there.

This book came out thirteen years and mega books after the author hit it big. I could be sympathetic if this was a newbie breaking into the field after years (and years) of trying to get their first novel published. Then I’d chaulk it up to inexperience – not an attempt to fulfill a contract.

Cell phones and computers were amongst the biggest gaffes, mixing old and new. Give me a break. If ‘they’ didn’t have the time or inclination to do a thorough edit, ‘they’ should have published the manuscript as is.

Of course, there were other problems. The dialogue sounded contrived and overworked. Implausible speech patterns disrupted the flow of the book. It didn’t read like the work of an accomplished author.

The info dumps were the worst. Believe me, I’ve been caught on that one myself. Info dumps stick out like a sore thumb to me now. Experienced authors and editors would never, or at least should never, make such obvious mistakes.  

Writing fiction requires a lot of research. For instance, I like to know everything about the geographical location of my story, and some of the things I trip over in research are fascinating – they have nothing to do with the storyline but they are indeed fascinating – to no one else but the researcher. If these gems don’t add to the story – don’t add them to the story.

In this particular crime novel, there were a million (slight exaggeration) gems that were irritating to read but I tucked them away thinking they contained a clue or two. Nope.

A lot of technical jargon is familiar to crime genre readers. Don’t insult the reader by going into detail – mucho detail – about everything. We know. We’ve heard of that procedure in other books, we’ve seen it in all its gory detail on television crime shows. You wasted thousands of words on this stuff. If you were trying to impress the reader with your knowledge, you didn’t succeed. Quite the opposite, it sounded amateurish.

Last but not least was the annoyingly distended number of characters. Every character in the book, no matter how minor (i.e. a waitress who made only one brief (coffee pouring) appearance) had a name. They all had names and attributes – bus drivers, cabbies, pets, janitors – minor minor characters – not even characters, a mere fleeting presence. A mishmash of people that added zilch to the story. Amateurish with a capital A and confusing with a capital C.

I have another three books by this author on my desk. After I’ve read all of them, I should be able to tell whether this particular one was dusted off to cash in on the author’s success.

Sometimes a writer will thank the agent or editor in the acknowledgements. I checked this book front to back looking for a clue to their identity. Nothing. Maybe there’s a reason for that.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Training a Husband and a Dog

My husband insists that since our dog is a member of the family, we should allow her to sit or sleep wherever she feels comfortable. For eight years, she’s been doing just that. I’m exasperated with vacuuming dog hair off EVERYTHING.

When Lexus was a puppy, I expected my husband’s cooperation in training her to stay off the bed and furniture. My husband didn’t understand why I was making a fuss. A dog needs her very own space, I told him. Hmmm, how about a dog bed. Something that offers a feeling of security. He laughed. After all, a dog sleeping on the bed with her two masters is a pretty secure position. Believe me, if I didn’t love Lex, she would have been banned from the house altogether. She sheds copiously!

Now that we have renovated our living room and ordered new furniture, I’m stressing about the dog coming in the house after rolling around outside and plopping herself down on our new sofa. I started on the subject of a dog bed again. My husband insisted Lex was too old to get used to a dog bed now. Besides, it would upset her to be suddenly banned from the furniture. And we definitely should not upset our dog. What about me, I wanted to know. Besides, Lex is the most easily trained dog I know.

Right or wrong, I did it. I bought a beauty of a dog bed. Gel moulded cushion to form to her own contours. It’s better than our mattress. Petsmart gave me a 60 day approval. Shocking but appreciated. She’ll either use it or I’ll take it back.

She won’t go in it, my husband said. He looked smug. I put the dog bed in the living room near the window. We watched and waited. Lex sniffed and then sniffed some more. She walked away. My husband smiled. Or not. But I think he did.

That evening we were back in the living room and we called to Lex. As usual, she was stretched out on our bed having a snooze. She joined us and once again sniffed at the extra large deluxe dog bed. I held my breath as she put one paw into the bed. Then she stepped back. I immediately crossed the room and patted the luxurious bed. No dice. Not ready to give up, I grabbed the peach-coloured throw off the couch and laid it across the new bed. After all, she slept on this throw all the time. She sniffed the new bed again. She needs time to get used to it, I said, feeling confident.

Involved in conversation, we stopped watching Lex. Then we noticed. She was curled up in the bed. I smiled. My husband stared in disbelief and with what I think was a tinge of disappointment. That’s when I gave him the pep talk. We have to work together on this. She’s not allowed on the furniture. Okay? He again argued about her age and the unfairness of changing the rules now. I kept pointing out how smart and obedient Lex is and that she must be so relieved to have finally earned her own bed. I’m not sure I’ve convinced Marv, but Lex looks pretty content.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Origin of Inspiration

Over the weekend, I came across something that finger-flicked my brain. People wonder where writers get their inspiration for stories. For me it was the checkout counter of a paint and decorating shop.

Marv is renovating our living room. Slowly, we’ve been replacing carpet with hardwood throughout the house and this room needs updating in more ways than flooring. One piece of heavy furniture that I’ve grown to detest needs to go. There’s too much crowded into this space and aside from the dog who likes to sleep on the couch, the room is seldom used. Looking at this room sans carpet and furniture and envisioning the possibilities is exciting but challenging. It’s how I imagine a painter feels sitting before a blank canvas. Within financial reason, the potential for this room is boundless.

Interior design is the least of my talents, should I possess any talents at all.  Though normally giving little thought and even less effort to decorating, I know what I like. Sleek clean lines and open space are my preference. Clutter disturbs me. I’ll be on the lookout for select pieces I can’t live without – not what would probably look okay.

Buoyed with enthusiasm, I put in time waiting for my paint order by wandering the local decorating shop checking out accessories and wall hangings of every size and description – canvas pictures, metal wall sculptures, wood plaques. Though I usually curb my eclectic tastes, niggling thoughts of indulgence spurred me. Being a writer gives license to being different – so I understand. This belief allows freedom to explore the things that appeal to me on a personal level. Returning to the counter area to pick up my order, I noticed a large, tastefully matted print in a chic brushed-metal frame. An architectural shot of a renovated tenement building. The picture spoke volumes. My heart beat a little faster. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

The wrought iron balconies and stairs adorning the stone and brick structure were pleasing to the eye, but it was what I couldn’t see that captivated me. The people behind the curtained windows. The stories unfolding in the close quarters of those apartments. That’s what piqued my interest. The sultry air, the smell of cigarettes and fried food, the sound of traffic, dogs barking, and children playing. That’s what emanated for me from that architectural shot. Not the appreciation of masonry and style.

The clerk told me the price of the framed print. I winced and left the store. Just short of starting my car, I left the key in the ignition and re-entered the shop. The clerk took the measurements for me and then suggested I use my cell phone to take a picture, reminding me before I left that if purchased, the print could be returned within thirty days if I changed my mind. Tempting.

In decorating, furniture is usually chosen before the accessories but as in anything I tackle, I will work backwards towards my goal.

Determined not to be my normally impulsive self, I’ll wait until the room is painted – sounds of the squeaky roller tell me it will be soon – before returning to the store. If the picture has the same effect on me, I’ll test my negotiating skills.

Monday, January 20, 2014

People Watching - Imagine That

I could have checked for wedding rings but it was better to let my thoughts run wild. They were new lovers – attentive and aware. They sat nearly side by side at the small round table, not across from each other, as one might expect. Though I couldn’t see their eyes, I knew they were oblivious to everyone in the room. I imagined boldly approaching their table. I have good news and bad news, I’d tell them. The good news is that I’m a writer and you’ve stirred my creative juices. You would make perfect characters in a story. The bad news is that I write crime fiction and one of you must die. Fortunately, I relinquished them from my thoughts at that point, so as not to further intrude on their romantic dinner, no matter how unaware they were of my interest.

The velvety red against the white linens initially drew my attention to their table as I scanned the lower level of the tiered dining room. The rose looked so perfect that I inhaled, imagining the heavy sweet fragrance. Though the chairs were empty, an aura of expectation shone like a spotlight above the table. Then again, it could have been a spotlight.

The long-stemmed rose and chilled champagne awaiting their arrival revealed initiative, planning, and of course, passion. I remember directing my husband’s attention to the table below and murmuring something about the rose and the champagne but I’m not sure he heard me. I didn’t notice their arrival; my interest had returned to my own dinner. The next time I glanced down, the couple was leaning into a chaste kiss as the sommelier re-filled their glasses. Romance writers would have been salivating, or at least scribbling in a dog-eared notebook, as the lovers communicated intimacy at the table for two.

Though I could only see the top of his thick dark hair and the square shoulders of his white dinner
jacket, I was convinced he was to die for good looking. His date’s open-backed white dress glittered as it caught the light of the chandeliers. I’m a sucker for glamour.

This is in contrast to the facebook update this morning saying I’d returned from holidays without a story line, without inspiration, despite the people-watching and open mind. It was later, after I signed off from facebook, that I remembered this stunningly handsome couple. I must have smiled at the sight of them. They were flawless. They appeared to be in their thirties – old enough, yet young enough.

Slender, but not thin, the woman’s movements were graceful as she lifted the fluted glass to her lips. Dark hair curled at her shoulders. He leaned slightly forward in his chair, as if her voice was soft and he didn’t want to miss a word she spoke. The couple possessed an alluring air, reminding me of old-time movie stars.

I suppose my holiday did have its inspirational moments. Maybe these lovers will end up in a story after all, and who knows, they both might live through it. If they don’t, it will surely be a crime of passion.