Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Exploring Place in Scotland

As I finish working on revisions for Rivers of Stone, set in the 1840s across Canada, I appreciate anew that wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in a place and time far from the present. While our winter has been rather long with seemingly endless snow and cold, it doesn't quite measure to the snow my characters encounter in a winter crossing of the Rockies!

When I began research for the first book of the McDonnell family, Standing Stones, we went to Scotland. Here are some highlights of happy travels there -- just to share.  

St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, The Orkney Islands
We started our two months in Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands. This was our favorite 1,000-year-old church, St. Magnus Cathedral, just two blocks from Mrs. Muir's Bed & Breakfast.

Urquhart Castle along the River Ness

We traveled up the River Ness to Urquhart Castle, once held by Robert the Bruce (13th Century), and later blown up to prevent it falling into the hands of the Jacobites in 1692. We climbed everywhere -- from dungeons to castle kitchens to the castle keep. We didn't see the Loch Ness monster.
Below, I'm almost dressed in a kilt. A proper kilt has about 4 yards of material (I think I got it on wrong). We had a great time trying to follow the instructions though.


This next photo shows the inside of a crofter's cottage, made of stone with a roof of grass. Here the day's catch would be smoked over a central hearth. People slept in a sort of box-bed with a lovely quilt, and in the winter, the animals were brought inside.  

Interior, Crofter's cottage at Kirbister

Stirling Castle
We also stopped at Stirling Castle, where I found a mermaid sculpture, worn by centuries, tucked near a staircase. Here also, a workshop of weavers worked on tapestries, following the tradition of ages past.

Detail of Unicorn Tapestry, Stirling Castle
When I'm researching a story, the writing seems to come more easily when I have that sense of place and history, when I've studied artifacts in local museums, eaten herring and scones, and walked along foggy, crooked streets past stone buildings. 

Yes I read many books, academic papers, journals from long ago, view videos, and study photos online as part of my research for each story about the McDonnell's. When possible, though, traveling to those places where my characters once 'lived' helps me to bring my stories to life. 

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of our trip to Scotland. Maybe later this week, I'll post a few more pics taken in Edinburgh, an unforgettable city. Our apartment there was on the 5th floor -- no elevator!




Sunday, March 19, 2017

Finding the right place in 1846 . . .

It's 1846, and my characters in Rivers of Stone are slogging through mosquito-infested river country, somewhere south of modern day Winnipeg, which is some 1,000 miles east of where I sit by my keyboard on this cold spring morning, with a cup of hot tea nearby.

I'd rather be writing the story, filling in missing scenes, but this morning, I'm looking over my maps and double checking the names and locations used for Fort Garry. 

Finally, thanks to the Official Blog of Heritage Winnipeg, I've sorted most of my questions out.

Back in the fur trading era, folks met at the Forks (currently Winnipeg, formerly the Red River Settlement), where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers met. They traded furs, partied, and exchanged stories. Voyageurs and former employees of Hudson's Bay retired here, married, and raised families. Here, Fort Gibraltar was built in 1809. 

1821: Fort Gibraltar was renamed Fort Garry after Nicholas Garry facilitated that famous merger of the Hudson's Bay Company with the North West Company. After serious flooding, by 1830, the fort was in deplorable condition.

1831: Governor George Simpson, dubbed the "little Emperor" because of his strong leadership style (and short height), decided to build a new 'Fort Garry,' about a day-long journey north of the Forks. No one was happy about this. But he lived here with his English wife, Frances, between 1830-1833, until she lost a child and returned to England. Simpson then moved to Lachine.

1835: Chief Factor Alexander Christie approved the building of a new Fort Garry -- right back at the Forks. Dubbed "Upper Fort Garry," the new fort featured a 15-foot stone wall and stone towers (or bastions) at the corners. A provincial park in the center of Winnipeg honors this location. 

The northern, older, and downriver location was now called "Lower Fort Garry."

As my characters have traveled to both Lower and Upper Fort Garry, I can now refer to them properly in my story. 

But which Fort Garry was nicknamed 'Fort Stone'? I'm guessing Upper Fort Garry, but I could be wrong. 

And I was! Stone Fort is the nickname of Lower Fort Garry. I discovered this as Treaty 1 between Queen Victoria and First Nation governments was signed at Lower Fort Garry in 1871. The treaty is named after Stone Fort. Yippee!  

But given the amount of stone used at Upper Fort Garry, the nickname could have been used here as well, yes?



Upper Fort Garry 1871 from Souvenir Postcard

Now to move on to my next two questions: Where were Richard Lane and Mary (Marie) McDermott (McDermot) married?  And, were HBC's annual council meetings held at York Factory or Moose Factory? Or did they use both locations? Aargh! Revision!  I'm going to write a scene or two instead.

Much more lovely information on the tangled history of Red River and the Hudson's Bay Company is available on Jean Hall's encyclopedic resource: Provisional Government of Assiniboia. Time to warm up my tea and write.


Wednesday, March 01, 2017

IWSG: Old Stories, New Stories


Have you ever pulled out a really old story and reworked it? What happened?

That's the question being asked this month by Insecure Writer's Support Group, an online writer's support group that encourages us to share our writing experiences with a monthly blog post. So jump right in, if you're so inclined.

Right now I'm editing Section 04 of five sections for my current work in progress, Rivers of Stone, a historical novel set in 1840s Canada. Each day right now, the words are humming right along. My heroine goes from one pickle to the next. I still have to resolve the ending: a) very sad, b) happy for now, or c) happy ever after. The reality is that not all stories end well. I've written two endings, with a third on its way! By about May, I hope to send the edited draft off to beta readers.

What's next? I'm already thinking about what's next. Should I pull out an old story? I have a few sort of cooking on the back burner. I'd love to know which one YOU might want to read. 

1) GRANNY VAMPIRE AND THE KISS OF . . . Here, Granny is dumped in a retirement home to find herself surrounded by a bevy of supernormal characters -- on staff. How does she protect herself and her new friends? (on deck: about 15 pages)

2) SPACE STATION DARK . . . Rowena's mother, hungry for drugs, sold her to a space station at age 9. Not sure how she can survive, Rowena, now 16, tries to hide her special skill: She changes color with extreme emotion and wonders what other skills she might have. At least until she meets and is attracted to Daglynd, a rough space hunter who collects people like her. (already have about a paragraph)

3) IN SEARCH OF UNICORNS . . . Dawn, a curator at a medieval museum in New York, tracks a set of unicorn tapestries to France to unravel the mystery behind their origin. Along the way, she travels to Stirling Castle in Scotland and falls in love with the man who holds the original cartoons for the unicorn tapestries now housed at the Museum of Middle Ages in Paris. (currently about 20 pages)

4) MOTHERS DON'T DIE . . . This really is an old story, left in a drawer for the last decade. A family goes camping in the wilds of eastern Washington to discover a dead body while out on a walk. Hubby leaves wife and daughter at the campground to go for the police. When he returns with the police, their tent is empty, and the body is gone. What happened? Can this family be reunited? (about 60K words)

This was fun. I was surprised to see how many choices are possible, some old, some new.

One issue that remains: As an OTA (older than average) writer, I'm not so sure how many projects I can work on and successfully complete. . . and I didn't list any of the spinoff novels for my historical fiction series involving various members of the McDonnell clan (including one set during the suffragette era in England). Does anyone else worry about running out of stamina?

Meanwhile, may all your writing goals for the coming month be met. I think spring just might be on its way!

Flowering Cherry, Manito Park, Spokane 

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

IWSG: Do writers read?

How has being a writer changed your experience as a reader?

That's the question being asked this month by Insecure Writer's Support Group, an online writer's support group that encourages us to share our writing experiences with a monthly blog post.

So, what I notice most when I'm reading is what strategies the writer uses -- and how effective they are. For me, it doesn't matter what genre I'm reading. Does the story (its characters, plot, setting, conflict, style, and, yes, even theme) pull me into an authentic experience?

Do I care about grammar and punctuation? Only if any errors distract me from the story. Who really cares about a missing comma or two? But 5-10 errors a page (even in an e-book), kills my interest in reading a particular story, for it makes me wonder what else the writer has overlooked.

To report on my own progress for this last month is a bit of a challenge. We've been on the road. That means long hours of driving, and laptop and sewing machine in the car as we head south, scooting away from winter's snow. We've had a leisurely trip down the coast of Oregon (once we were past that foot of snow dumped in Portland overnight earlier in the month), and on past the rainy redwoods along the California coast. 

I did finish the draft of Section 03 for my wip, Rivers of Stone, a top goal for this month, but once we reached Phoenix (think a beautiful sunny day and 61 F), we got news that my husband's 96-year-old mother was very ill. So we've flown north, arriving here in Philadelphia, just in time to spend a few precious days with her before her passing. Death can be transformative for those who remain, changing irrevocably relationships and our sense of the past, as we relive and cherish memories.

I hope the coming month is a good one for you -- may each day be sunny and may you find many good words to read and to write.

Manito Park, early spring 



Wednesday, January 04, 2017

IWSG: Writing is like quilting is like . . .

After working on goals for the coming year, I've come to the conclusion that writing is a bit like quilting.  You gather the foundation materials, reflect on an appropriate pattern, and then begin to build the quilt/story, changing/revising as the pieces come together. Heaven help us all, if we have to start ripping.

My goals for 2017 are simple: Finish Rivers of Stone.

I'm about 50% through revisions before sending out to beta readers. This story stretches over five years, so I hope I've learned how to manage some gaps between years without filling in every single detail. 

Here's a snippet from Rivers of Stone as Catriona, still disguised as a boy and some 3,000 miles from her husband, Dougal, winters over at Red River in 1840's Upper Manitoba during the fur trade era:

Cat glanced at the three men huddled by the fireplace and nodded. "I'll work in the kitchen." She slid the letter from Dougal into her belt and pushed the front door open, stepping out into the swirling snow. The cold bit her nose, but the air smelled so good after the closeness of the trading post. She hurried along the side of the log cabin to the back and froze to a stop.

A skinny wolf swayed in front of her. He lifted his head and stared at her. He sniffed at his right front paw caught in a small steel trap and looked at her again.

Cat backed up until she could feel the logs of the store behind her.

The wolf flopped on the ground, put his head down, and inched toward her, dragging the trap with him.

He can’t hunt with that thing on his foot, thought Cat. She took a tentative step towards him, putting her hand out slowly. "Hush, now."

The wolf nosed the ground and tilted his head away from her.

Cat crouched down and pried the trap apart. The wolf's foot slithered out. For a moment they looked at each other. The wolf leaped up and bolted into the woods.


Finished quillow top (January 2017)
Meanwhile, real life intercedes. We leave this Sunday for a three-month road trip south. Yes, I have my laptop, backup, and some research files. I'm taking one of those mini-desks that fit on my lap (in case there's no workable desk). 

No, we don't have an itinerary. We will drive south out of the Inland Northwest, until the snow vanishes. 

Yes, I'm taking my sewing machine. And, yes, I did finish the quillow top (a quilt that folds up into a pillow) for Allen before we leave (You can click the image to see a larger size).

For writers participating in IWSG (Insecure Writers' Support Group), how are you doing? Are your 2017 goals and resolutions mapped out? 

Are you ready like me to believe that any large goal can be achieved if we just identify the needed steps and work on them steadily?




Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Surprising Bounty of Books . . .

Part of my to-be-read books

Interested in the fur trading era in Canada and the Great Pacific Nor'West?

This week's mail brought a surprising bounty of books to mull over.

The first pairing of books takes me sideways to Manitoba's historic Red River, which flows through the middle of Winnipeg today. Carol Matas wrote Footsteps in the Snow, The Red River Diary of Isobel Scott, Rupert's Land, 1815, for the Dear Canada series. Technically, this is a little before the 1840s, but captures beautifully those impressions of a young girl who's just arrived from England with her family to start life anew.

Anthony Dalton's River Rough, River Smooth: Adventures on Manitoba's Historic Hayes River, presents travel notes of his modern recreation of traveling by York boat from Norway House to Hudson's Bay on the Hayes River. The River runs north, which means Dalton had a wild ride downstream over and/or around some 45 rapids for about 375 miles. While well over 100 years has passed between Dalton's journey and my novel, his book helps me visualize more completely what it might have been like to live on the river.

But my characters traveled upstream, from York Factory to Norway House, making portage as needed. Folks in my writer's group said this feat was impossible. But those oarsmen really did pole through shallow marsh, bugged by clouds of mosquitoes, and paddle like crazy against the current, that is in the late summer, after the annual ship from England had landed, and before the Hayes shut down, frozen solid.

The second pair of books are a bit more academic: Daniel Francis and Toby Morantz wrote Partners in Furs: A History of the Fur Trade in Eastern James Bay 1600-1870 (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1983). And Richard I. Ruggles wrote A Country So Interesting: The Hudson's Bay Company and Two Centuries of Mapping, 1670-1870 (also McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991). Both books present fascinating stories, collections of maps, photos, and drawings of the fur trade era. Both are drool-worthy.

A final surprise this week: Earlier this year, I joined an informal book exchange. We were to send our favorite, most treasured books to the next name on the list. I did send my book off, a collection of poetry by Mary Olliver, but heard nothing and received nothing -- until this week. Mailed from England in May, these two books are both ones I've never read: G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown (tiny, tiny print), and Alexander McCall Smith's The Cleverness of Ladies (part of the series, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, (much larger print),set in Botswana.

My to-be-read stack of books is close to toppling over with these new additions, but luckily I have time and energy enough to read, and hubby's a bookworm too. I still remember the time we took my aunt to a bookstore with us. She vowed she would never, ever again go to a bookstore with us for "we spent far too long."

May you be blessed in the coming year with books that enrich your reading.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Writing with the kindness of strangers . . .

A cold snap is coming. Temperatures down to the 20's starting later this week. Naturally, then, I'm writing about a rugged trek south from York Factory in the summer of 1843. 

Due to the kindness of a writer I've met online, I've got maps spread over my writing desk. And I'm reading journal notes of a survey team of roughly that era to figure out which river the Fur Brigade Express took from York Factory to the infamous Red River Settlement (now Winnipeg), and exactly what my feisty heroine experienced.

The conditions were deplorable for a typical working day. Sails only worked for a little while on the narrow, shallow Hayes River, its route south from York Factory bending through the marsh in a convoluted, twisted S-shape. The oarsmen used long poles to move the York boats forward, stopping frequently to use ropes to brutally haul the boats further south when the water was too shallow. Four men traded off every one-and-a-half hour shifts, grateful to be back in the boat for a breather from hauling those 30-foot long, fully loaded York boats along slippery, muddy banks, where footing was precarious. 

Where did those maps come from? Nancy Marguerite Anderson kindly shared her research with me. She's working on a sequel to The Pathfinder: A. C. Anderson's Journeys in the West, a well-written and fascinating account of her ancestor, a fur trader and map-maker who also worked for the Hudson's Bay Company and traveled widely in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. If you are drawn to history of roughly 1831-1884, her book is well-peppered with insights, anecdotes, maps, and photographs as we follow the exploits and life of this young fur trader. Nancy's blog, An Accidental Historian, is also a fabulous resource as she comments on her ongoing research.

Fort Garry, 1884 (Wikipedia)
Translating research into story is challenging and fun. I'm constantly asking how does this new information support and drive my story forward. Should the new 'stuff' be pulled into dialogue or backstory? What nasty twist can I add so my heroine and various characters 'suffer'? What does she learn? How does this change or affect her quest? And what is the structure of this section, how does it support the overall story goal?

My original optimistic hope was to finish Rivers of Stone by year-end. I can report the overall progress is good. Major sections of the book are taking shape, and the draft is now about 95K. But I do see much revision in the section I'm working on, with at least one more round of revising the full manuscript before I can leap up from my writing desk and say, "It's done!"  Next step? Ready for beta readers.

May your winter be a mild one, and if you are writing, may your writing go well.