Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Genesis of Her Poison Voice

Ever wonder how long it takes to write a 72-hour novel? Longer than you think.

1991 - first time listening to a radio play: The Shadow - two episodes on an LP. Love at first sound! The back of the album cover tells a brief story of how the audience truly believed the Shadow was real. Gets me thinking: if you were famous enough, if people really believed in you as a crime fighter, could you fight crime with nothing but the sound of your own voice?

1993 - Grade Eleven Creative Writing class: first appearance of Ruby Hawkeshaw, hypnotist, in eponymous one-act radio play. First dramatic reading of the story in class spawns gales of laughter. Not what was I aiming for.

1996 - Final year of high school. First attempt at writing Hawkeshaw as a novel, set in modern times. Several weak attempts at revision ensue. First appearance of a cop as a sidekick. No idea what was in the plot.

1998 - Second attempt at novelization, set in modern times. First appearance of Tom Tooler, and of "Silas" - the bad guy. Many attempts at revision ensue.

1998-2001 - Re-appearance of Hawkeshaw in radio plays. Revisions? What revisions?

2003? - Interview with Richard Cole, hypnotist, for research. Great guy - real hoot - very clean act! Great inspiration for Ruby as stage performer. First time I ever watched a hypnosis act. (And I can still recall every details! I still giggle at the word "Arugula".) I was in the back, taking notes, when Richard hypnotized his subjects into believing they were famous people. He set his subjects loose on the audience to mingle; one girl came over to me, and seeing me with pen and paper, her eyes lit up. "Do you want my autograph?" she asked. I said sure! She signed it Alicia Silverstone. I still have that notebook.

2003-2004 - Third attempt at a full length novel. First appearance of an actual plot. Silas as bad guy, Ruby as actual stage performer, Tom as a sound tech. First attempt at threading actual science, technology and actual hypnosis techniques into the story. First appearance of miniaturized subliminal post-hypnotic suggestion broadcast technology. Revisions ensue. Revisions fizzle and stop.

2007 - Fourth attempt at a full length novel. First appearance of the real "twist" in the plot, which makes the story viable. Still not working for me, though - too contrived, maybe. More research, more disappointment. (Word to the wise: an EMP generator doesn't do what you think it does, despite what The Matrix may have led you to believe.) First appearance of the post-hypnotic suggestion "Negate." Feeble attempts at revision.

2010 - Fifth attempt at a full length novel, this time at the Muskoka Novel Marathon. 72-hours to write the first 2/3rds of the book's word count; three months to finish it. First time all the key elements from previous versions merge together, and first time it's set in 1930s. Ironically, it's also the first time she's not actively fighting crime - though she is mighty involved in it. Retitled: Her Poison Voice. Oh - and special thanks to Christoph Fornwalt, one of my Facebook friends, who "won" an impromptu "Name the Bad Guy" contest on my profile! Out of the 20-some suggestions, his was the best, and will now go down in infamy. Thanks, Christoph!

And that's how it takes 72-hours, 3 months and 19 years to write a book. And yes...revisions have ensued.

Ever wonder where the name "Hawkeshaw" came from? For me, it came from a snippet of conversation between Margo Lane and Lamont Cranston in an episode of the Shadow; Margo used it as a sarcastic synonym for "gumshoe" or "private eye."

The term was probably derived from a character created by Gus Mager:
Hawkshaw the Detective, a comic strip character first seen in 1913. The first appearance of the character was in 1910, going by the name of Sherlocko. Apparently some guy named Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took exception to the reference, and Sherlocko was renamed Hawkshaw (but he kept the deer stalker cap and the sidekick Watso, thank you very much).

And Mager himself actually borrowed the name from playwright Tom Taylor; in his 1866 stage production Ticket-of-Leave Man, Taylor featured a detective named Hawkshaw. What a great pedigree!

In a final tidbit of trivia: the Hawkshaw family motto is "My lure is true".

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Swoop and Strike - the Inspiration is Back!

I woke up, and four months had gone by. I barely recall writing my last blog post in August! In fact, it wasn't until I saw my name in this most recent edition of Crime Time, a CWC publication, that I remembered I had a blog at all!

I haven't been away from the writer's arena (though I haven't actually been as close as I would like to have been). I've been to a couple of writer's events, I've been emailing and chatting with other authors, I've been reading (kinda), and November's Fusion Fiction event has never been far from my mind.

But last week, it occurred to me: I used to be a writer. Somewhere in the haze of the last four months, I forgot how much I actually like writing. Not the waiting, the sighing and the wondering about that Big Break, of course - but the actual process of writing.

Think of it. Creative chemicals burble and mingle in the back of your mind, synthesizing and reacting just below the surface of consciousness. The process could take months. It could take mere seconds (as in the case of the Mummer series). It could take seventeen years - as in the case of my latest, Her Poison Voice - which I first wrote as a two-act radio play in 1993. But the process never shuts off. It's palpable, it's frustrating, and it's invigorating.

Suddenly, two ideas fuse together in the atom smasher of the writer's mind - sometimes with a click, sometimes with a crackle, sometimes with a billowing shockwave and a lot of dust.

Then comes the artistic urge. Sometimes it swoops and strikes, assailing its unsuspecting victim with a flurry of scenes and snippets of dialogue and mischievous plot twists. Sometimes, dog-like, it walks alongside, or dashes on ahead at the end of its leash, leaving the writer to run and stumble behind - and often comes to an abrupt and inexplicable stop to sniff some other interest. And sometimes, like a sulking cat, it hides on the top of a bookshelf, out of reach and glaring, aloof and untouchable. But it's always there, watching, teasing, whispering.

And then there are those golden moments when all synapses are alight at once, and the writer's expanding mind encapsulates a complete and animated world. Vivid characters interact with objects tangible only in the imagination; sights, sounds, smells, textures, physical actions and reactions - all become fact in the writer's mind, yet remain just malleable enough to bend to the plotting will.

But imagination is one thing. The true thrill of writing is the ability to take what is in my mind and accurately replicate it in yours, with no other resource at my disposal but the words I chose.

To see the quirk of a smile in the reader's lips as they read that perfect comeback, or to have the reader criticize the characters' decision - as if the character had made the decision himself! - or to have the reader feel a certain sense of homesickness when the book is read and laid back on the shelf - that is the thrill of writing. (Assuming, of course, you're lucky enough to watch someone reading your work.)

The ability to transmit accurately an idea or an emotion and somehow touch another person on a personal level, using nothing more than words...that is what I aspire to achieve. And that's what I've been missing these last few months.

Boy, am I glad to be a writer again!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dear Walter B. Gibson, Hypergraphic Icon...

Dear Mr. Walter B. Gibson (aka Maxwell Grant, esq.);

I understand you were, like, the most prolific guy on the planet, in your day.

On top of that, you were a reporter and magician and you hung out with some awesome people: y'know, like Blackstone, Dunninger, Kreskin, and Houdini, all of whom were the inspiration behind The Shadow.

You, Mr. Gibson, were the principal pulp inkmonger behind that dark and snarky figure who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, that denizen of pulp fiction, radio plays, movies old and new, that icon of comic books, comic strips and graphic novels, and inspiration of umpteen gazillion toys, trinkets and doodads.

Heck, the Shadow even inspired other huge blockbusters, not the least of which are the Green Hornet and Batman.

Okay, so granted, the Shadow wasn't your original idea, but you sure ran far with it. And I've got a strong suspicion you didn't get to see a lot of cash from merchandising or the film rights, and maybe most people have all but forgotten your name...

But dang it, you're the only person I know of who wrote more than 300 novels in his lifetime. A sustained cruising speed of 10,000 words a day! Almost 1,700,000 words in a single year! That's a rate that would break the average human being! Look up "hypergraphia" in the dictionary, and there's a picture of Walter B. Gibson.

I've got a couple of posthumous questions for you. The first one that jumps to mind is "were you insane", but there's no point asking that, because the answer is self-evident.

But there are a whole bunch of other questions that have been plaguing me since the Muskoka Novel Marathon. I was thinking of you the whole time (when I probably should have been plotting and writing, instead...). After all, I managed to write 56,000 words in 72-hours (and then my eyes fell out), so to me, 10,000 words a day suddenly doesn't seem so unattainable.


Were you any good? I mean come on - 10,000 words a day? On a typewriter? Did you even have time to edit? Did you actually check your spelling, or did you drive your copy editors to drinking?

Did you have a life? A day job? Wikipedia tells me you had been married. So did you ever have to do bachelor-y things, like, your laundry? Wash the dishes? Fix the car? And did your wife ever get tired of your constant clackety-clack on the old Corona?

And did you ever get sick of it? All the writing, the deadlines, the pressures, the constant need to come up with a distinct plot and unique characters...?

As for me, this is the first creative thing I've written since the marathon two weeks ago, so how you could keep coming up with new stories every two weeks...! You once said in an interview that before you were finished one project, you had ideas for the next - but didn't you ever wonder if some day the well would run dry?

Did you ever wish you could throw off the shackles and actually write something of critical acclaim? Have your work recognized for its merit, and less so for its accumulation?

But the question that's been plaguing me all this time: how the heck is a hack like me supposed to compete against a legacy like yours, Mr. Gibson? In this age of Facebook games and blogging and addictive podcasts, can anyone ever leave as lasting and as robust an impact on pop lit as you?

Is it even remotely possible that someone like me could follow in your footsteps? Someone who gets giddy designing databases? Someone who's taken up drumming, dancing and winter camping for "research"? Someone who stands in front of the washing machine scratching her head and wondering why she came into the laundry room in the first place?
Walter B. Gibson, September 12, 1897 – December 6, 1985, Inkmonger and Ideasmith

Someone who can write 56,000 words in 72 hours...?

Who knows? But it'll sure be fun to try.

Mwaa ha ha ha!

For more information about Walter B. Gibson (aka Maxwell Grant) and about the origins of the Shadow - here's a great story by Robby Reed, and an article by William V. Rauscher.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Muskoka Novel Marathon - 1/3rd of the way there!

Wow...even now that I type this, I can feel how much my typing speed has dropped.

At the moment that I type this, I'm "taking a break" from writing at about quarter to two, Saturday afternoon, about 18 hours into the 72-hour marathon. And best of all, I'm a third of the way toward my goal, and ahead of schedule.

I had asked my Aunt Shirley if she wanted to help "sponsor me" this year by making a small donation to the Muskoka Literacy Council. She committed a certain amount (a very generous amount at that). Then, as I was thanking her, I mentioned that I was half-hoping to beat last year's record of 300 pages. She said, "If you do, I'll double my donation." I took her up on it. Then, when it came time to head to points northwest, my aunt asked when the funds were due for collection. I told her I had to bring them with me. So she gave me a cheque for double what she had originally committed and said that it was given "in good faith."

And wouldn't it figure...Last night, I was sidelined by a migraine. Paragraph by paragraph blundered from brain to page. I had to give up past midnight, four and a bit hours into the marathon with only about thirty pages. Things were not looking good.

This morning, feeling groggy and gruesome, I checked the "Boon Board." Mr. Kevin Craig was at page 70 when I walked in this morning just shy of 7:00 o'clock!

But it had exactly the effect I needed. He had a forty page lead, and I had fire in my guts. I would not be dethroned without a fight.

Last night, I was averaging about 1250 words per hour. Now, I'm averaging close to 2000. And best of all, during the lunch break, I caught Mr. Craig looking at my current page count of 100 even, and he uttered something funny as heck and very badly timed ("Uh, she's right behind you").

There's only twenty pages between us now, and I'm finally, fully awake.

And so, rolling over shortly to 2:00 p.m., I jump back into it again, with a goal of at least 150 pages tonight before bed. I've had my pizza, I've had my first pickle, and the first can of Monster Energy Drink is open at last.

Look out Mr. Craig. Mwaa ha.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

'Twas the Night before Marathon

'Twas the night before Marathon, and all through my head
Were worries and memories, full of joy mixed with dread.
The Rockstar was packed in the Kia with care
In hopes that yours truly lives up to the dare.

All the year long and all through the whole night,
I thought about this, our weekend to write.
"Who's coming this year," is the first of the set.
"How's Erin and family?" "Quite warm, I would bet."

"Will Martin still nap there?" "Will Paula compete?"
"Can we all go racing? 'Cause that would be sweet!"
"How do we get there? And will it be hot?
"Can we go to Crabby's? I like them a lot."

"And what shall I write? Can I write well enough?
"And how many pages?! Oh man, is this tough.
"Which story to write? This one? Maybe not...
"Oh heavens have mercy - I need a good plot!"

And then I remember what this is about:
It's the volunteer efforts of which I should tout.
The Council Muskokan of Literacy,
Writers assemble to champion thee!

So pick up your pencil and play your first tune,
And say a warm thank you to Ms. Paula Boon.
I thank all of you who help drive this success.
And hope all of our efforts, new readers shall bless.

For more information about the Muskoka Literacy Council, check out their website at

And even if you haven't supported this particular volunteer literacy organization, support one in your local area. This is a rapidly evolving, technologically driven economy, and sometimes, people get lost in the shuffle. Deficiencies in basic literacy, numeracy or computer skills can be insurmountable obstacles when entering or re-entering the workforce.

We help those who want to work. Help us to help themselves to a better future.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The 72-Hour Wonder! Coming soon!

It's getting close to that time of year again, and I'm already in a giddy state of panic-laced joy.

I'm annoying all my friends with reminders that I'm going to the Muskoka Novel Marathon on Friday, July 16th. My mother bought me a jar of pickles to take with me "In case of emergency, like writer's block or Page 301." I've been fasting from all sorts of creativity in the last two weeks, to build up a ravenous appetite for writing. I've been listening to '20s and '30s music the last few days to get me into the spirit of the book's era (and I've been subjecting friends, family and unsuspecting neighbours to the likes of "Lullaby on Broadway," "Happy Days are Here Again," and "Yes, We Have No Bananas" at all hours). And in the trunk of my car: 4 cans of Monster Energy Drink, 4 cans of Full Throttle, and 1 obligatory can of Rockstar.

The portents so far are good. When I arrived at my Grampa's place (jumping off point before heading up to Huntsville), I spotted a photo clipped from the July 7th newspaper: my great-aunt Ruby dressed up like a flapper. Coincidentally: my principal character's name is also Ruby.

But am I ready? Yes and no? Yes, I have everything I need (computer, keyboard, obscene amounts of caffeine), and no, I don't have everything I need (I still haven't actually written down the plot for the book I intend to write).

72-hour marathon implies 72 hours of sleep-deprived typing, interrupted by inconvenient and ill-timed trips to the bathroom, but it doesn't mention anything about the 72 days of hair-pulling and lip-chewing leading up to it!

The questions are making me toss and turn - and I haven't even gone to bed yet. How's the story going to end? Can I make this book better than last year's? Is it going to have enough action? What about the research? Shouldn't I have done more of it beforehand? Are we going to have office chair races again? Who's going to be there this year? Is my roomie going to put up with me and my weird sleeping behaviours? And speaking of whom: is Jacqui going to make good on last year's promise to take a magnet to my computer while other MNM'ers distract me with burgers and fries?

And the two biggest questions of all: 1) can I actually write 301 pages this weekend? 2) HOW did I write 300 last year?

I mean, who in their right mind writes 300 pages (approximately 55k words) in 72 hours? Was I mad? Did I really drink that much caffeine? How fast was I typing, for crying out loud? How many spelling errors per second is that, anyhow?

But what's been keeping me grinning is this: By this time next week, I'll have a new book written. It's a book that doesn't exist right now, but by Monday night next week, I'll have a hard copy in hand. Now how freaking cool is that?

Time (very limited time at that) will tell if I can beat my own record. Stay tuned - I'll post updates as bonus material during the marathon.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bruised, bitten, and slugged

I know, it's been a while. But I have this thing about writing during the summer. It's the one thing I want to do, and it's the one thing I have the most trouble doing.

My problem: "research."

I want to set scenes in nature? I must get out into nature. I want to write about people? I must go out to patio and people-watch. So, even though I had four days of relatively uninterrupted writing time...I didn't do a whole lot.

And the second most difficult thing to write during the summer is a blog! Well, for that matter, I haven't blogged lately, because I haven't done anything goofy in a while. I was so busy I didn't do anything silly! How boring!

I had four days off, three of them rainy, so, today, this one day of sunshine, I evacuated my island home and went into the mountains of the Eastern Townships. For a while, I managed to stick to the paved bike path, but darn it...I can't resist a good photo, even if it means sticking my neck out. (Ask my mother how far out I'll stick my neck. Once, she held me by the back of my belt as I leaned out from the Johnville bog boardwalk to photograph a mushroom.)

As I am often wont to do, I decided to get in a bit closer for a better shot of the river at the bottom of the ravine. There was a convenient little path leading down to a culvert, which in turn led to a pebbly riverbank. I signs, no poison ivy, the bank looks sturdy and dry, so let's go for it!


So, first, I squatted down on the righthand culvert bank and stretched out my left leg to the other side. No problem. Eased my weight onto my left foot. No problem. Stood up. Problem.

The edge of my left foot slid down mud the consistency of chocolate ice cream, which made me lean hard to port. My right foot - so excited about the sudden change of events - kicked high and goofy. With my arms flinging around, I slid down the rest of the bank until I was shin deep in squish.

My cowardly right foot, in the meantime, didn't want anything to do with water or mud, no matter how photogenic it was, so it stubbornly shook like a cat's paw and didn't know where to go from there. So, while my arms swung like a speed skater, and with my right leg hoisted and bent like a dog beside a tree, I did the only rational thing I could think of.

I jumped.

Futility at its best.

There were some flatulent noises, a grunt and the co-ordinated flap of two elbows, but I was firmly ensconced in slime and mud.

And then I started falling forward. Insert unladylike shouts of surprise and horror here.

Did I mention the blackflies?

I'm not sure what it must have seemed like to the casual observer, but I suspect it looked like an interpretive dance combining The Twist and the Hokey Pokey. And while I managed to get myself turned around, my dumb right foot still didn't know which way to go.

With no where to go but forward, I planted my right foot where the left foot shouldn't have gone in the first place. When I began to slide again, both feet tried to move at the same time - one afraid to go into the water, one desperate to get out, and with arms pinwheeling, my feet went their separate ways. With all balance lost, the right foot took one for the team and joined its brother in the velvety goo of the river bottom.

Once secure on a drier bank, my right foot dug in, and with two heaves and a lost shoe later, the left came free with more momentum than I had expected, and in a headlong rush to higher ground, I scrambled up the bank with both hands, with my camera swinging from its strap and thumping against my chest.

And then I felt something squirt out from under my hand.

It was fox dung. I kid you not. It was wet, warm, suspiciously carnivorous in nature, and well positioned for calamity.

Not to be outdone by Ma Nature, I washed my hands, stripped off my bucket-shoes and peeled off my socks (laying them far away from the dung), then I rolled up the old jean cuffs to my knees, and I sallied forth into the river like Huckleberry Finn.

Except Huck made it look easy. I looked like the world's worst tight rope walker, and every time a rock dug into my pampered sole, I'd stoop forward and reach for something to catch me - which is a really dumb thing to do when you're in the middle of a river and there's nothing but water under you.

But it was worth it.

Breathing in bird song and clover-sweetened air, I hung out in the middle of the stream for a while. It was a strange sensation: the water was so warm, I didn't feel wet. Work was a bad dream half-remembered from years ago. Writing could wait. For a moment, I had the world to myself, and time had stopped.

Reinvigorated in the spirit of adventure, I carried on downstream (leaning this way, leaning way too far that way, splashing down and stumbling on another sharp rock, doing a one and a half pirhouette, then breaking the law of gravity as I hovered over the water like a sculpture of Cupid - one leg way out, both arms spread, chin stuck out and camera devilishly close to an expensive dunking...). And there, I climbed a tree.

Me. I climbed a tree.

I leaned against the strong boughs and breathed, listening to the red-wing blackbirds, the lap of the water and the pip of frogs.

To capture the moment of peace, I took the most awkward self-portrait ever. Imagine this, if you would:

1. Climb tree in bare feet.
2. Hang onto tree for dear life. Ignore self-preservation instincts and lean.
3. Stick out right arm as far as it can go.
4. Hold camera in overhand grasp, trying not to let the strap, the lens cap or your fingers get in the way.
5. Stick out your right finger two inches further than humanly possible.
6. Press the button and wait for it to figure out what it's trying to focus on.
7. Look introspective and like you're having fun and not like you're scared of doing a face plant.
9. Realize...once you're done, you're going to have to walk back through the creek again.
10. Take picture.

Reluctantly, I quit my post in the willow tree and repeated my Gene Kelly spoof upstream (while wondering if there were any crayfish underfoot), and I returned to where I'd left my drowned socks and shoes.

Ma Nature was waiting for me.

Apparently she was feeling sluggish.

Alas, all good things come to an end, so I shook out my slug-slimed socks, emptied my shoes and struck off across the bike path.

Of course, this being the one day of sunshine in the month of June, the bike path was skillet-like, and I danced on it like a drop of water, shouting things like, "Ooh hot! Ooh very hot! Ooh, nice picture!"

Would I give up another day of writing for re-visit?

The better question is: when do you want to come with me?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Top 10 signs you haven't been writing

10. Your windows are clean.

9. At least 50% of your friends on Facebook you met through playing games.

8. You're thrilled to help someone search for appliances on Kijiji.

7. You keep hitting the send/receive button on multiple email accounts.

6. Your CDs are in alphabetical order.

5. Going to the gym actually sounds like fun!

4. You're up to draft 5 or higher on your latest project.

3. You've recently searched for somebody in Facebook, or

2. The History Channel, Discovery and TLC count as "research."

1. You're reading my blog.

You have time for what?!

Says the Employed-Me:

"Writing? You have time for writing? How can you possibly have time for writing? You must have forgotten to do something today. Did you remember to send that email? Look, you've got a lot on the go - you're too busy and you're too tired. And besides that, aren't you supposed to be worrying about something? (Check your Blackberry - Ian might have replied to that email by now). If you're not busy, Miss Slacker-butt, I can name at least five urgent things you're supposed to be worrying about - there are the databases, the big announcements you've got to make, there are all the financials you've got to remember - and then - and then - don't forget, you have to work in the office tomorrow with the rest of the team, so you wanna make a good impression! I mean, what're you gonna wear? Have you thought about that? Hm? No, I didn't think so! (Did you check your blackberry yet? Well, check it again! He might have replied by now!) Writing? Psssht. Do it on the weekend! You're too busy panicking!"

Says the Church-Me:

"Writing? You can't write that junk! I mean, what are the people from church going to think about words like that? You go to church and you write about people dying in horrible and near-impossible ways? You kiss your friends with that mouth? Yikes! If only they knew! And anyways, aren't you supposed to be writing a play or something? Or prepping for the prayer meeting? Or singing? I mean - c'mon! You've got the Easter concert coming up, you have like twelve songs to memorize, one of them is a solo - you're supposed to be helping the rest of the choir with their new song...And then on Sunday, you're supposed to get there early to help set up the sound equipment, and with the vocal warm-ups, and don't get me started about missing Bible study - again. Writing? Psssht. Do it after Easter. Summer, maybe. You've done enough procrastinating as it is!"

Says the Crimewriters-of-Canada-Me:

"Writing? Writing? You're helping to host an event in April with some of the biggest flipping authors in Canadian fiction - and you want to take the evening off writing? What the - but you - WRITING? Are you nuts? I mean, there's the poster you've gotta create, there are biographies you've got to confirm, there are book cover jpegs you have to collect, press agents to contact, libraries and book stores and universities you've got to find - NAT Grant is gonna shoot you when she finds out you took the night off writing."

Says the I-Like-Clean-Clothes-Me:

"Writing. Hm. Yes, it's definitely a preferable option to everything else I have to do. I mean, I could write, or...I could wash the dishes, fold the laundry, clean the living room, call the plumber, finish painting the kitchen, start painting the living room, rent a storage unit, re-organize the apartment, clean the office, take the car in to get fixed (repair the cracked front bumper, fill the chips in the windshield, replace the headlights, the highbeams, the turn signals, the muffler, the suspension - again - and get all season tires, replace the serpentine belt, get a much needed paint job, eliminate that weird dead-rat smell from the floor mats, and replace every fluid in the vehicle - except for the oil of course, that can stay, that's all new)...And if I'm bored, there's always balancing the budget, shopping around for a new Apple Mac Pro, calling Mady, chatting with Mike and/or Tobin, putting the screen door back on its frame, clearing the clog in the kitchen sink, calling Sarah, calling my mother, and, of course, sleeping. Writing? I wish!"

Says the This-would-be-so-much-easier-if-I-was-Writing-Full-Time-Me:

"Writing? What, you mean, like, fresh material? Uh...Well first of all, Verna would probably throttle you, for one thing...I mean, whatever happened to Mummer? And Allua? And fixing up Helix: Plague of Ghouls? I mean, yeah, those were some stinkin' awesome ideas for the final volume of Helix, but...what about that proposal for the radio plays? Don't you owe something to both Verna and Moose Enterprise? And sure, you know I want to write something, but...I mean, after all, with all that other stuff going on...Aw ENOUGH ALREADY! Work's done for the day and I can worry for eight solid hours tomorrow. I did extra church stuff Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and I'm all sung out. CWC I can work on tomorrow. Take the night off, wash the dishes, put away the clothes, forget the painting, call the plumber in the morning, stop your whining, create a blog post and go write something, ya big baby! Yeesh!"

Says Me:

Boy, am I glad I don't have kids.

This post proudly dedicated to working writer-moms guys are a true inspiration!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Winter Ex

Tomorrow morning, I'm leaving for Algonquin Park for my annual winter camping trip. This being my eleventh time, people have stopped asking me why and just skip to the "You're crazy" part. But I feel somehow compelled to say a little about why and how I first got started in winter camping.

They were crazy days, let's start by saying that. In the winter of 1999/2000, I was working at the Whitby Mental Health Centre on the 1:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. shift, I was going to school in Mississauga to complete my Bachelor of Science in Psychology, I spent alternating weekends wondering why I had ever joined up with the Canadian Armed Forces, Reserves, Infantry, and...I'm a writer.

That about sums it up the "why" it got started, don't you think?

All joking aside, I still don't know why. All I can say is, "Don't knock it 'til you try it." But every year, I'm reminded of my first experience in winter camping.

There was one winter exercise I went to on a fine, frosty weekend in January. We, the 48th Highlanders of Canada, were outfitted with Michelin Tire Man undergarments, pine green overcoats expertly disguised as tents with sleeves, a kind of dog sled (I was one of two "dogs," most of the weekend), and toques to wear under our helmets.

Our first mission: set up a conical tent and go to sleep. Easier said than done, on both counts. Now, granted, I was really tired - after all, I'd been already up for about 36 hours, and already the dehydration had kicked in...But from what I recall, the operation begins with six or seven armed and angry young men doing the highland fling in knee deep snow. One sad sack is then tasked with the ignoble mission of delicately balancing upright a forty-pound, 12-ft high pole, blind-folded by his or her own oversized toque and helmet, while the highland flingers curse and man-handle frozen and inflexible canvass into a roughly circular shape around said sad sack.

Did I mention it was two in the morning?

Did I mention it was -28?

Rule number 1: don't stick out your tongue when holding up a 12-ft high forty-pound steel pole.

Rule number 2: never laugh or point when the sergeant major roars and does a face plant into the freshly packed snow.

Now, add yours truly, the third shortest member of the company, Geek-Girl, the untrained soldier with the strangely square gap in her front teeth, where earlier that year she'd chipped her teeth on the barrel of her rifle. (Long story, don't ask.)

After playing the role of sad sack in the middle and trying really hard not to laugh at the boys stumbling around the Maypole, I inquired aloud, "So uh, where's the floor?" To which, the still-annoyed sergeant major replied, "What @#$@# floor?" Whereupon, as any rational person might, I asked, "You mean you want me to sleep on the snow?" The ever-increasingly irritated sergeant major's response is not fit for print.

Strictly speaking, we weren't sleeping on the snow. We were in our sleeping bags, on air mattress, on the snow. ("Eat a lot of beans in the morning, Flu! That way at night, you can heat up your sleeping bag!")

To keep the whole tent warm, we set up a Coleman lantern, then jammed in four broad shouldered men and little old me, plus all our kit. On shifts, each of the five of us sat up in our sleeping bags, staring at the stove to ensure that it didn't go out. Me, I'd been up for 36 hours, and now I was lying on my back with my arms clamped by my sides, with the sergeant major breathing in my one ear and a master corporal snoring in the other, watching a private sit on the snow, sleeping with his eyes open and drool freezing on the corner of his mouth.

I didn't sleep. I fantasized about hot chocolate, mouth wash and ear plugs. When I got bored of that, I sat up and glared at the stove, daring it to go out.

This was quickly becoming the longest weekend of my life.

Day two: pull pin and move deeper into no man's land, using nothing but people power.

And I'm sorry, despite those awesome recruitment ads on TV, it's hard to look sexy and tough when you're wearing bibbed snowpants, a toque and a helmet that keeps falling forward, while shuffling through knee-deep, harnessed to a dog sled.

So, the day went on, and I discovered first-hand the intoxicating effects of winter dehydration. That happens when you accidentally let the water freeze in your canteen and you spend an hour or two snow shoeing in the harness of a dog sled. They pulled me out of the exercise for a while and plied me with chicken soup and admonishing looks.

Funny thing about dehydration. It makes forget about the bathroom.

Funny thing about getting rehydrated. It makes you have to go to the bathroom.

Night fall. Same tent, same snores, different snow. After being up for more than 48 hours, I discovered that yes, you really can sleep through simulated artillery fire. Two hours later, I was tapped. It was my turn to keep the Coleman lantern lit - an incredibly devilish feat to perform in Arctic temperatures, when the dang tank keeps losing pressure and running out of fuel.

Ever try to light a lighter with artificial paws?

I came back into the tent after refuelling, repressurizing and relighting. (Ever try to back into a tent on your knees while carrying a lit Coleman stove?) I took off my boots and my coat, and I glanced over my shoulder at the emergency candle we had burning throughout both nights. It was a sturdy little candle, fixed to the centre pole by a clamp. The wax had been steadily dripping down on the sleeping bag of the man stuck in the middle of our sardine act. None of us minded. We couldn't even keep the Coleman stove lit - nothing could catch fire in this cold.

At the end of my watch, I tapped the next guy to watch the stove, while I stretched out for another few hours of staring at the roof. (Did I mention there's a great big gaping hole at the top of the tent? For ventilation, they said. Heck of a lot of good it did! Ever get trapped in a tent with four unwashed men, a dozen eggs and a whole mess of baked beans?)

I watched the little candle burn down until the wax was in-line with the clamp. The guy on watch was also fascinated by our little light. Somewhere in the wee hours, the tiny candle slipped free of its holster and fell, still burning, perfectly upright on the crotch of the man who slept under it. I shared a most appalled glance at the other witness. And still, that little candle burned! We didn't know if we should gasp or laugh. But we had to do something. After a quick game of paper-rock-scissors-middle finger (I won!) the other guy reached over to pluck the candle from its make-shift sconce - just as the affronted soldier snorted awake and shouted a few choice profanities known only to the 48th Highlanders.

Day three. In the morning, I overheard a couple of the guys bragging about their names. One was proud of the fact that he'd managed to spell out all seven letters. Another was glad that his was only three letters long.

P-A-T, I thought, shouldn't be that difficult to write in the snow.

Then I discovered how they'd written their names.

My aim's not that good.

So, I took my folding shovel and my trusty roll of t-p and headed off to the woods. No problem, I thought. If they can take care of business out of doors, then so can I.

See, the trouble with winter is...most vegetation is deciduous. I kept on walking deeper and deeper into the forest, and no matter how far I went, you could still see me! All the scrawny saplings seemed to line up, corridor-like, without a leaf between them. At some point in my desperation, I stopped caring about being watched.

Dropping drawers in -35 weather, surrounded by a hundred strapping young men, is undoubtedly the most counterintuitive thing I have ever had to do. For another thing, when you're wearing a tent-sized parka, a rebellious forward-falling helmet, floppy boots, bibbed snowpants, two pairs of combat pants, general-issue leiderhosen and one's frilliest underpinnings, the call of nature quickly becomes a logistical nightmare. And when the wind swoops up from underneath you, it becomes a physical impossibility!

Thus begins the torment.

Breakfast was next, and we were exhorted not to follow the example of young Flewwelling by becoming dehydrated, and therefore, every internal tank was topped up with two litres of bad coffee and a litre of plastic-flavoured water. This rule also applied to yours truly, who had not gone to the bathroom since mid-morning the day before.

Fortunately - and unfortunately - it was Sunday morning, and all us weekend warriors were looking forward to the long bus-ride home. Great, I thought. We'll trek back to something like a road, where we'll find a johnny-on-the-spot. Barring the appearance of that great green relief machine, there was always the bus. After all, we'd all been chauffeured from Toronto to this frozen purgatory by Greyhound, with upholstered seats, heating, and a VCR! I was already relishing the thought of the back-of-the-bus potty. Thus relieved, I could finally sleep!

Imagine my horror when I discovered that, not only were no porta-potties, but our coach back to civilization had turned yellow and ugly. For the next three hours, I was relegated to the back of a school bus that predated suspension.

Someone smiled and offered me an empty bottle. My response, while creative even by military standards, is still not fit for print. It was twenty-six hours since the last time I had gone to the bathroom.

And let me tell you, I have never moved so fast, so painfully or so awkwardly as in the exact moment the big yellow schoolbus arrived at Moss Park Armouries. I left a streak of shed clothing from one end of the armoury to the other, and, after breaking my belt in my enthusiasm, I swear, I peed for an hour and a half.

I went for my first solo winter camping trip a couple of weeks later. But that's another story.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Be Found

I've been avoiding this post.

Even as I sit and trying to write this, I spend more time hitting the backspace key than any letter. It would have been even worse, trying to think of something to say at the open mike.

On the night of December 21st, 2009, Jesse Lee Buzzell - my 22-year old cousin - was driving with his girlfriend and their baby girl, after a holiday celebration with his girlfriend's family. It doesn't matter what happened in the car on the drive back; to ask the question is to lay the blame. Either way, having had a few too many drinks, Jesse stepped out of the vehicle to walk the last two kilometers home.

That was the last time he was seen.

Police were dispatched when he wasn't seen the next day - or the next. Volunteers, police dogs, helicopters and divers were all deployed in the search; but after a few days, they stopped looking. The dogs had led the volunteers to the side of a river, where his trail simply ended.

Saturday, January 22nd, 2010, we held his memorial.

With funerals, you can at least say goodbye, and be done with it. But with this memorial, you can only say au revoir, and trust that you will indeed see him again some day, be it in the flesh or otherwise.

I learned more about Jesse in those scant few hours than I had in his short lifetime. That, primarily, is why I had nothing to say at the open mike, and therein lies my grief. I didn't even know he was a Christian - I mean, how could he be, since he was so often in trouble with the law, and so quick with his anger, and so often subdued by his bad choices? But he was a Christian, and again, this is why I can say: come what may, I will see him again. (And I hope the angels turn a blind eye, because I'll have some choice and unsaintly words for him when I find him!) As troubled as he was, when advised of a friend's untimely death, he asked: "Did he know Christ?"

Most of what I know of him came from his later years - his trouble with the law on both sides of the Quebec/Ontario border, the dodgy friend or two he'd had, his little daughter...And yet, during the memorial, I learned how complex and frustrating and beautiful this young man really was.

As a child, he was so painfully shy, he had his best friend ask to go to the bathroom on his behalf. ("Teacher, can I go to the bathroom - for Jesse?") He loved to hear how he came to the family (born of an Inuit mother, who knew she couldn't give him the home he needed), and how, only days old, he had spent a night in an Edmonton hotel room, sleeping in a dresser drawer. As a child, I personally remember him as an absolute rascal, who loved to get yours truly in trouble! The whole family - every member, young and old - had rented a campground and held a reunion. One morning over breakfast, immediately after someone said grace, Jesse piped up and said, "She had her eyes open the whole time!" To which someone else replied, "And how could you have known that if your eyes were closed?"

He loved to learn. As his counsellor said, he simply had an allergy to certain elements in the educational system! He learned with his hands. He learned by exploration and by experimentation. As a child, in his father's workshop, I remember he could deconstruct lawnmowers and power tools and bicycles and put them back together again, without ever cracking the spine of any handyman's manuals. He loved to hard work, work that left him glowing and aching from exertion. And yet, as shy and soft-spoken as he was, he was headstrong, determined - and as one person called him, a warrior in his own self-defense.

How could I have missed so much?

With help from his father Steve and mother Nancy, my cousin Jodi, Jesse's elfin elder sister, built a slide show. Jesse's life was replayed in pictures, from his first days with his new family, to giddy school pictures full of mischievous and brave laughter - and a cloud of curly black hair that I'd always loved and giggled at; through later days when his smile had faded, and his eyes had aged with a profound familiarity with injustice, as the shrapnel of some unknown torment finally worked its way into his heart.

But the picture that was captured on the front of the memorial pamphlet was one of bliss, and contentment: Jesse, with his eyes half-closed, a soft smile playing on the corners of his lips, with his workman's hand gently curled under his newborn daughter's chin while she lay sleeping. It was a picture of quiet intimacy, a portrait of peace and hope for a new start. For her, the picture seemed to say, he could lay all else behind him, and he could walk tall, with her safely in his arms.

That picture had been taken at the beginning of December. No one could have guessed what was in store for the young father.

How could I have missed so much?

Being the eldest cousin on this side of the family by 7 years, I'd always felt a strong responsibility to set a good example for those who followed. I had to be good in school. I had to be a strong worker, and get a job as soon as I could - and later, to get a good career. I had to be someone they could look up to, and be proud of. All my time and attention was set on it. Perhaps I got so wrapped up in being the example that I'd forgotten why I wanted to be an example in the first place. I'd never stopped to look behind and see who was following my example, if anyone at all. And by the time I'd realized it, two cousins had married, three cousins had had children, and most weren't even my friends on my Facebook account!

At least on my mother's side of the family, I can name all my cousins and their wives. If I sat down with a calculator, I could probably even tell you how old they were! But on my father's side, I am a ghost. The details of that may never be written. There are some stories that don't need to be told.

On the morning of the memorial, I woke from a vivid dream: an uncle of mine, on my father's side, whom I hadn't seen in more than 25 years, approached me and handed me a slip of paper with his phone number on it. He wanted me to call. He'd been searching for me all this time. I woke out of breath, clenching my fist against my chest. Someone was searching for me! It was me who was lost! What was my quarrel with this uncle? What was my quarrel with any member of that family?

I am ghost to them. As I woke, trembling, trying to get myself dressed and ready for Jesse's memorial, I wondered, if it was me who had fallen through the ice, would they even know? Or had they already had their memorial service for me? Was I already dead to them? And by my own steady drift, how close had I come to disappearing from my mother's family as well? Had my friends become more important to me than a perfectly good family? Jesse has become a lesson learned nearly too late: my past, my heritage and my continuity is my family.

As long as there is life yet in me, I will reclaim what I had let go, so that the next time I go to a funeral, I will only sit and nod, thinking, "Ah yes, I remember that story," and never be surprised again.

Had I stood up before that open mike, I doubt I could have said much about Jesse (beyond that story about how that rascal got me in trouble).

But I would have said this to the young people in the crowd, and to the parents who had left them to their own devices: See the anguish in my Uncle Steve's eyes, hear the fury, the grief and the regret in his voice, and for his sake and yours, forgive and be found.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Re-New Year

So, as usually happens around this time of year, I've been saddled: Resolutions for the new year. And let met tell you, I have never been so happy to be done with one year and launched into the new.

Some of these goals are the standard fare, and all of them have been about restoring something lost in 2009. Give more to charity. Pay off all my debts. Lose 10 pounds before summer. Be inside to the gym at least once this year, just to say that I did so. Accessorize with jewelry and/or make-up at least once a week. Y'know, the usual stuff.

And some resolutions were "suggested" - resolutions that started off with, "Oh hey, y'know what you could do...?", or with, "We should..." or, "If you do X, then I will do Y."

And all the resolutions seemed to come together on Saturday, January 2nd.

Resolution #1: Relax. Result: I slept for 12 hours! I haven't done that since the flu! Best of all, it was one of the first nights in weeks when I didn't have snort-awake dreams! (Ask my mother: I sleep like on my stomach, mummy-like, unmoving and silent, and then, without warning, I'll snort awake and arch my back, look around, grunt some unintelligible comment, then roll over and snore myself back to sleep again.) I was relaxed and full of energy.

Resolution #2: Redecorate. Result: expenditures! Bargains! Door crashers! Mady and I had planned on going out shopping for sweaters and we bought everything but sweaters. Not only did we sniff every candle in one plaza, but I bought a Victorian-age bicycle-shaped clock for half-price, and $100-worth of vintage advertisement posters for $42 - and best of all, I bought a 16-piece dish set for about the price of a large gingerbread latte.

We walked in to Benix, cooing and pointing and oohing and ah'ing at everything we didn't need and probably shouldn't buy. High-energy Mady kept me in-line, reminding me what I didn't need and what would look like crap (hence, why I didn't buy the dishware that looked like blue Pyrex camping gear). For three hours, we were girls, squeeling about this, Ooh-ooh-oohing about that. That afternoon, I was shopping. We were having a ball. Then we spotted the dish set. It was $18.99, down from $50 or higher. It suited the all-new colour scheme (yet to be painted), it was inexpensive, and, because there's only four of everything, it would strongly encourage me to wash them more often. So, five minutes before closing, I set the dishes down on the counter to be rung up. "That'll be $5.64, please," said the lady behind the counter, deadpan. I must have looked like I'd been whacked with a pillow. (In my head, an Ikea commercial was playing: "Start the car! Start the car!") My honest-to-a-fault, big fat mouth opened and asked, "I'm sorry?" The lady at the counter pointed at the stack of boxes, from which I'd drawn my prize. "Door crasher special. That really is the price." If I had a tail, it would have been wagging my whole body. Mady grinned and disappeared, saying, "Well, in that case!" and she bought a set too! It wasn't about the purchases at all: it was about getting outside with exuberant friends, absorbing their good-humour and energy, and doing something that involved neither work nor writing. It was about giving life a bright, fresh coat of paint.

Resolution #3: Restore fun. Result: The movies! Leading up to the trailers, I kept saying, "I'm going to watch a movie! In a theatre!" I couldn't believe how excited I was, just because I could watch a movie! I had to stop and really think about it: when was the last time I watched a movie in theatre? Then it occurred to me: it was Wall-E, in the summer of 2008! A year and a half! And the other question that occurred to me: when was the last time I had fun for the sake of having fun?

Resolution #4: Remember the excitement of a good story. Result: James Cameron's Avatar, in 3D. For two hours and forty-five minutes, I gaped, grinning, open-mouthed at the screen as floating glow-bugs drifted just out of hand's reach. Sure, we were brow-beaten by a time-worn plot of Grey Owl and Dances with Wolves, and of the noble savage against money-grubbing capitalist gunslingers - but who cares? The imagined world was believable, the technology (brought to you by Apple, makers of the 2009 Starship Enterprise) was very credible, and the attention to detail was impeccable - an astonishing eye for detail. Best of all, the action made the heart race, and the 3D made the audience dive left and right out of the way of arrows and rockets. I was a kid in a candy store, and I blinked twice during the whole movie (both times during kissy-scenes). When I came out of the theatre, my face was sore from smiling and cheering and gawking, and my eyes were watering, they'd been open for so long. Sure, it's an old plot, but any movie that makes the audience walk out saying "YAY!" is a good movie - and a good story. And that's the kind of story I want to write. I walked out of the theatre inspired.

Resolution #5: Write. Result: you're reading it, for a start. But I have big plans for the year (along with painting the apartment, accessorizing and going out on one date): finish Helix (the "four-book trilogy" - Wyrd Dreams was a "last minute" addition to the set of three), work on the radio plays, edit more Mummer stories - and best of all, get right back to my roots and working on the fantasy series Allua. Now that my imagination is reset to 3D, Allua is going to be awesome.