Sunday, November 15, 2015

Tripping the Light Fantastic into Young Adult Fiction

(Billings, Montana Book Fest Panel – October 2, 2015)

You may be familiar with the expression “to trip the light fantastic.” It originates from John Milton’s poem L’Allegro. Here are a few lines:
Haste thee Nymph and bring with thee
Jest and youthful jollity,
Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks and wreathèd smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastic toe,

I like to stay up late, so I often write in the evening, or lie in bed in the dark, thinking about writing. The idea for the title of this session popped into my head one night. All three of the books originally short listed for the Young Adult Book Award contain fantastical elements and, of course, all writers dance with words, images, ideas and symbolism. (The three books were Camp Outlook by Brenda Baker – winner; Harry Potter and the Art of Spying by Lynn Boughey and Peter Earnest; Queen of Fire by me.)

In her book, The Hills of Faraway, A Guide to Fantasy (published in 1978) Diana Waggoner says a great deal about theories of fantasy fiction, and trends in fantasy, including mythopoetic, heroic and adventure, ironic, comic, nostalgic and sentimental, and horrific fantasy. I’m not going into these theories here, but I want to mention the book because it’s fascinating, whether you are a reader, writer, or teacher of fantasy. It includes lists of authors and books as well as containing a variety of captivating black and white illustrations.

One of the quotes I like in the book is from G.K. Chesterton, apparently in reference to fantasy, “the soul is sane, but the universe is wild and full of marvels.” Now, Waggoner doesn’t footnote this particular quote, though she does footnote others, so I wondered how reliable the quote was. After some additional research I discovered that Chesterton had written a delightful essay entitled “The Dragon’s Grandmother,” and I found the complete essay on line (love the Internet!). The actual quote is, “Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming.”

Now you may or may not agree with that thought, but at any rate, in my novel I wanted to mix fantasy and reality to some extent. To build a world that had its physical and some of its cultural basis in the places that I know, dancing in a sense with those two aspects of fiction.
I decided that rather than setting the story in medieval or Arthurian England or Ireland for example, or making it a contemporary urban fantasy, I’d use the forests, plains, mountains and bad lands of Western Canada and parts of the United States. I’ve lived and travelled in these areas, and I’m very familiar with them and I love them.

So I used some real places and symbols, but I also changed them. Let me give you a couple of examples from the book regarding how I mixed reality and fantasy. In Chapter II, the character Samel, is talking about where he lives and says,As for the Lord, he’s the ruler of the city of Aquila and the lands around, the lands of Ameer.” A little later in the same chapter, we read that, “There’s an eagle soaring overhead. The great birds are guardians of the city of Aquila.” I took the word “Ameer” from America. The bald eagle was chosen as an emblem of the United States of America in 1782. Many Native American or as we say in Canada, First Nations people, have long viewed the eagle as a sacred bird. As well, the Romans used eagle standards for their legions, and those who know any of the ancient Latin language you will note that “Aquila” means eagle.

Similarly to parts of Montana, the city and province where I live is home to people from many different places. There are the First Nations people, of course, as well as inhabitants with ancestors from parts of Europe, Asia, and all around the world. I specifically decided to incorporate some of these cultures in Queen of Fire. For example, Samel has French neighbours who are artists: “Mère and Père have named each of their three daughters after a colour. Magenta is seventeen and soon to be married. Ivoire, the youngest, is ten. Ali (which is short for Alizarine) is thirteen and a half.”

I invite you to find other examples in the book of how I mixed real places and real cultures within my fantasy world.

One of the key dances of my novel is a pas de deux between the main character, Rowan, and her brother Samel. A performance for two dancers, a duet. Queen of Fire is told from their two points of view in alternating chapters.

I don’t remember where or when the central idea for the book came to me. I often get ideas while driving, or while walking along the river in Saskatoon, sometimes from dreams. At any rate, the first images that surfaced were about a young woman who discovered that she had a brother she didn’t know about. Of course, she wanted to find him. And so she set out on a journey, a typical event for a hero or heroine in a fantasy, the call to adventure of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

It took a few years to write this book, research, and many drafts to clarify the story and have it flow and dance the way I wanted.

Of course, if you’re dancing, you need music. Early on it emerged that Samel and his father are both musicians. That’s one of my favourite things about writing: along the way you learn things about your characters and your setting that you didn’t know initially. It’s a dance of discovery.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Deciding Who to Vote for in the Canadian Election

I’ve seen a number of people on social media comment: I don’t like this or that leader; I don’t know who to vote for. It seems to me that choosing which party to vote for by deciding which leader you like does not take into consideration what a party stands for and what they may or may not do once they are elected. In Canada, after all, we do not have a separate election to vote for our prime minister contrary to the United States where they do have a separate election to vote for their president. Although we may think that Stephen Harper has shown that a leader can have a lot of power even in Canada, it seems to me that if a party does not go along with its leader, he won’t have that power.

I spend little time listening to election speeches and I usually don’t watch leadership debates. My decision-making process in regards to who to vote for starts with where the parties sit in terms of their policies – right, left or centre. Then I prefer to look at their record, the history of what they have done.

For example, the Conservative Party governed first after Confederation. There have been 16 Conservative prime ministers and 12 Liberal prime ministers. If my math is correct, Conservatives have governed Canada for a total of 65 years and Liberals for a total of 84 years. The NDP has never governed federally, though the party (CCF/NDP) has governed 19 times in the provinces. The Green Party is a recent addition to the mix.

Both a Conservative (Macdonald) and a Liberal (Laurier) prime minister championed national railways. Also under Laurier, immigration to settle western Canada was endorsed. The Royal Canadian Navy was created during Laurier’s tenure. A reciprocity treaty (trade) with the United States was Laurier’s undoing. Conscription was introduced during the First World War under the Conservatives. During the Depression, the Conservatives at first championed industry and imperial trade; when this did not work, they called for social programs to assist the poor, but this came too late to save their government. It wasn’t until 1957 that a Conservative leader (John Diefenbaker) was able to excite the country again, though he formed a minority government. The following year, however, his party won 208 out of 265 seats in Parliament, including 50 in Quebec. In the 1960’s Pearson’s Liberal governments established Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, and the Canadian flag. (Side note: My parents were in Germany during the flag debate and this was so intense that it received coverage even in Germany). Under Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal governments the Canadian Constitution was repatriated, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was established, and the Official Languages Act (making Canada officially bilingual) was passed. Prior to his term as prime minister, Trudeau had been justice minister in Pearson’s Liberal government and presided over divorce law reform, and Criminal Code amendments on homosexuality, abortion, and public lotteries. In 1984 the Conservatives under Brian Mulroney won the largest landslide majority in Canadian history. However, by the time he left office, his personal popularity had fallen lower than any other Canadian prime minister. During his tenure we got the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, the Goods and Services Tax, and the Environmental Protection Act. In 2004 the Conservatives, led by Harper took 99 seats in Parliament.

As for the CCF/NDP, you can read their history on line in many places. Some of the legislation the party has enacted in various provinces and issues they have championed include universal public health insurance, government planning, old age pensions, workers’ compensation and employment insurance. The party has called for national dental care and child care programs, favoured higher taxation on corporations and the rich. From its founding in 2008 the NDP has obtained an average of 15.6% of the vote in national elections. Because of our electoral system they have consistently received a smaller percentage of seats than the percentage of votes. In 2011, for the first time, the party formed the official opposition in parliament.

Green Parties have been global movements developing from grassroots environmental and ecological movements. There are currently over 100 Green Parties around the world. Belgium had the first Green members elected to parliament in Europe in the 1970s. In Canada there are currently 2 Green members of parliament.

So given all this, how do I choose who to vote for? I vote for parties not individuals. There are parties I will never vote for. I am not a one party person, and have changed who I vote for from time to time. I do take into consideration if a party has any chance of forming a government - under our current electoral system percentage of vote doesn’t count. If a particular party has alienated me with recent policies, scandals or deeds I will not vote for them at that election. However, I also don’t let polls dictate my vote – the polls have been wrong in the past. I usually make up my mind fairly early in the election campaign.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Queen of Fire" Excerpt 2

My novel “Queen of Fire” is volume one of ‘The Leather Book Tales,’ a fantasy series that takes place in the geographical landscape of western Canada and the western United States. A previous excerpt from Chapter I of the book can be found on this blog in July 2014.

The book is available from Amazon and on Kindle, as well as for sale in McNally Robinson and Indigo Books in Saskatoon.

“Queen of Fire” is currently on the short list of the High Plains Book Awards in the young adult category. Winners will be announced the first weekend of October.

I am now working on the second book in the series, “Child of Dragons.”

Chapter II


IT’S STILL dark when I wake to a groan and a shout from the next room. “Papa?” I call. “Anything wrong?”
I hold my breath, lie perfectly still so as not to rustle the sheets, but I don’t hear anything more. Quietly I get up, tiptoe across the chilly hall floor, lean against the doorway. Can barely make out the humped shape of Papa on the bed.
“Zarm mumble mumble sorry,” I hear. Then, “No! Zarmine!”
I kneel by his bed, grab his shoulder. He pulls away, rolls, tangles in the sheet, slips out the other side of the bed, thumps on the floor. A muffled curse.
“Samel?” His head and shoulders rise. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“Heard you call out. What’s wrong?”
He shakes himself like a dog stepping out of water. “Nightmare.”
“Who’s Zarmine?” I ask, standing up.
I know he’s heard me, is just stalling for time. After thirteen years I know his ways. He’s keeping secrets, which isn’t surprising, because I don’t tell him everything either, though he probably guesses most things about me.
“Zarmine,” I repeat. “Sounds like a woman’s name.”
 “Go back to bed,” Papa says. “It’s the middle of the night.”
“I wouldn’t be up if it wasn’t for your shouts.”
“Samel!” Louder and snarly.
Oh, yes I know that voice and it means I’d better do what he says. Even though I’ve grown in the last year he’s still bigger than me, could squash me like a bug if he wanted, though he never does, hasn’t hit me since I was about four – a slap on the rump for lying to him. He can make me do all the dirtiest chores around the house, or keep me inside when I’d rather be out. So I go back to my room and lie awake listening to his bed creak as he tosses and turns.
Sun blazes into my eyes. I fell asleep again and forgot to close the shutters all the way last night. The house is quiet, which probably means that Papa has gone out. Sure enough his room is empty and very tidy, bed made as an example to me. Papa isn’t the kind to pester me about keeping my room clean, and he doesn’t snoop if I close my door, so I usually don’t root around in his stuff either, but this is different. I’m worried about him; he’s not the kind to have nightmares.
His bed is smooth and tight as the skin of the drums that the Lord’s militia uses to beat out the marching rhythm. There’s nothing under the pillow. On the chest beside the bed only the stub of a candle. I lift that and raise the lid. Underwear, robes, a belt. I try to be careful, because what if Papa finds out I’ve been looking through his things? He could walk into the room right now. I duck under the bed even though I haven’t heard a thing. It’s dusty down there; even Papa misses spots, so a few times a year he gets in a woman who gives everything a good going over. She washes windows, floors and walls, sweeps under beds and cupboards. Her name is Anna.
There’s a shiny thing underneath the head of the bed, by the wall. I stretch out an arm, stirring up bits of fluff. I always wonder where this stuff comes from because you never see it anywhere but under things. When I was small I thought there was some kind of creature that lived under beds and cupboards. Its fur was made of fluff and would fall out. I’d try to sneak up on it, but never managed to see it. I get a fingertip on the shiny object. It slides away, toward the other side and out from under the bed so I follow, cleaning the floor with my shirt front.
 I sit on the far side of Papa’s bed holding a silver bracelet in my hand. It’s warm, which is odd because even though Papa’s shutters are open, no sunlight reaches under the bed. I wonder who the bracelet belongs to. The woman whose name he mumbled last night perhaps or a present he’s going to give her. Most of the women I’ve seen with Papa are other musicians or neighbours, and none of them is called Zarmine. He’s never talked about any woman that he might give gifts to. Unless the bracelet is meant to be for the Lady Domitilla, which doesn’t make sense because, although Papa works for the Lord, that doesn’t mean he walks in the Lady’s circles. I just hope that if he’s going to present me with a new mother, he’ll give me some warning.
I stand and brush dust off my clothes, blow as much of it as possible back under the bed. Look over the room, move to the other side and shift the candle on the trunk just a finger’s width. Good, everything looks the way it did when I first walked in. At the head of the stairs I listen for a moment, but hear no sounds of movement downstairs.
Back in my own room I shut the door, then open the shutters all the way. Sit on my still unmade bed and examine the bracelet, a circlet fashioned of leaves linked together. I don’t know much about metal work, though I’m interested in this sort of thing, how objects are made. Why one drum sounds different from another, and why wheels sometimes fall off chariots.
I shift to get the bracelet into the light coming from the window so I can see better. A blaze of reflected brightness spears my eyes making them water. The room is blurry, and my head spins as if I’ve been turning in circles. A woman’s pale face framed by hair as red as mine floats there in the air. I blink, fumble, drop the circlet, hear it clink on the floor. I rub my eyes to get them clear. The room looks ordinary again, but chills are moving up and down my back. Nothing like this has ever happened before. The circlet lies by my right foot. I nudge it gingerly. Nothing happens except that it slides. I get up, walk carefully around the bracelet and close the shutters almost all the way. When I swivel, I see a faint glow. I return and squat, cautiously slide one finger toward the glow. There’s no flash of light, no visions. I take a deep breath, and move my finger to actually touch the silver. It feels slightly warm. Taking a deep breath, I pick up the bracelet, ready to throw it back down immediately. Nothing happens. Did I just have a vision or is it lack of sleep making me imagine things? I don’t want to ask Papa because he’d not only be angry that I poked around in his room, but also furious that I was talking about visions.
I ought to take the bracelet back to Papa’s room and put it away, under the bed or on it, as if it fell there accidentally. Probably a trunk would be better. If I don’t put it back Papa might miss it and ask me about it.
I don’t want to give it up.
There’s a bunch of long leather lacing in the trunk at the foot of my bed. I’ve been planning to make a braided belt for a small drum, but haven’t started yet. I take the longest piece and completely wrap the bracelet, leaving two ends that I can knot together. It takes a while, and when I’ve finished it looks like a sort of braided leather amulet. I tighten the knots, then slip it over my head and tuck it under my shirt.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Listen Carefully

I live only a few blocks from a church which is on the way to the shopping area of my neighbourhood. This particular church has a large outdoor message board with moveable letters. They change the message once a week or so. It’s generally what I think is intended to be an aphorism, a terse saying that expresses a general truth or astute observation. A pithy saying perhaps.

A recent posting: “Listen carefully, your ears will never get you in trouble.” This is actually a slight misquote from Frank Tyger, who was an editorial cartoonist, columnist and humorist for the Trenton Times, New Jersey. The actual words he is recorded as saying: “Be a good listener, your ears will never get you in trouble.”

My first problem with these postings is that they are never attributed. In other words, they never note who said the words originally. In this particular case, the originator is also slightly misquoted. But my main problem is that the sayings are usually over simplifications.

Many of us probably remember playing a game called “Gossip” as children. In it, we stood in a line while someone whispered to the person at the end. This person then whispered to the next in line and so on. By the time the words got to the other end, they were usually mangled because everyone heard slightly differently.

As we grow older some of us become increasingly hard of hearing, particularly in crowd situations. As my father got deafer, even with a hearing aid, he would often respond to what he thought someone said to him. In many cases, this was not at all what had been said.

When I turned sixty I developed a case of vertigo. I got so dizzy doing yoga one morning that I phoned my son to drive me to the doctor. As we sat in the waiting room, the vertigo and dizziness returned with such force that I had to rush down the hall to the washroom and throw up. It turned out that I probably had Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). Quite a mouthful to say, and disturbing, but it eventually went away, though it does reoccur now and then. The condition (more common in people over 50, and in women) is caused by certain crystals in the inner ear moving out of the otolith organs of the ear and getting into the semi circular canals. Check out the Mayo Clinic website for more information. (There are other causes of dizziness, too.) Obviously, my ears did and do get me into trouble in this case.

I imagine that the people posting the saying at the church wanted to remind us to pay attention to what others have to say. There are techniques of active listening – restating in your own words what you think someone has said, for example, to check that you’ve understood. Even this, though useful, can be problematical on occasion.

We sometimes complicate our lives needlessly, but we can also oversimplify. So let’s think about the meanings of what we read and hear, what we say. The aphorisms or quotes that I like best are the ones that don’t appear too easy, and make us take a few steps back to take time to contemplate the words.

Here’s one to mull over, from Alexander Pope, English poet (1688-1744):
“All nature is but art unknown to thee,
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good;”

Sunday, July 26, 2015


I recently finished a novel in which elephants played a major part. It made me want to know more about these huge mammals.

In a way, I could say that elephants have always been a part of my life. I saw them in childhood at zoos and circuses. Was fascinated by what little I learned of them. Believed, like others, that there was such a thing as an elephant graveyard where elephants went to die. This, by the way, is not true. Still, reading the novel and the list of books at the back that the author had used for her research, I realized that I really knew very little about elephants.

I’ve been fascinated for years and read books about “Leaky’s Angels” who studied the great apes. Now I realize elephants are equally interesting.

The world ‘ele-phant’ means ‘great arch.’ Ancestors to modern elephants show up in the fossil records 45 to 55 million years ago. These early elephants had no trunk. (Remember Kipling’s story “The Elephant’s Child”?) Hairy mammoths and mastodons were only two of the later versions of elephants.

The three modern species of elephant are African savannah, African forest, and Asian.

Similarly to humans, elephant mothers keep their young with them for a long time. An elephant is considered to be in the ‘baby’ stage for about fourteen years. The herd helps to take care of all the young. In adolescence (between age ten to nineteen) the males begin to leave the herd, at first just for short periods of time, but eventually to join a group of other young males or to live alone. The females stay in their birth herd. Females start to breed around age fifteen to sixteen and can have up to twelve young in their lifetimes.  Herds are generally led by the eldest female, the matriarch. Males come into mating age between thirty to thirty-five years. Elephants can live for up to seventy years. Mature males can weigh up to seven tonnes, while females can reach 3.5 tonnes.

Elephants have very complex methods of communication. Up to seventy different calls have been identified by researchers. These can range from loud trumpets to quiet rumbles. Elephants can also communicate by infrasound or low frequency sound that humans can’t discern. These sounds can be heard by other elephants up to fourteen kilometers away. If you’d like to experience some elephant sounds that humans can hear, go to “The Elephant Listening Project” on line.

Although elephants once lived across all of Africa, now they inhabit only 37 African and 13 Asian countries.

There are many elephant researchers working among wild elephants and in elephant sanctuaries. You can easily find these on line.  I’ll be looking there as well as checking bookstores for more information about the world’s largest land mammals, complex and endlessly fascinating, as well as in need of help to continue to survive.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Writers’ Gardens

The small house where I’ve lived for 22 years has a compact yard, front and back, in which I’ve created a garden that I love. I have very little lawn, but lots of perennials. 

I’ve been thinking recently that I might write a blog about my garden and then I found a book at the Saskatoon Public Library (love libraries) called, The Writer’s Garden (How gardens inspired our best-loved authors).

The book has wonderful photographs of the English gardens of such writers as Rudyard Kipling, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Beatrix Potter, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and others.  Most of these writers were personally involved in designing and/or working at least parts of their gardens. Many of them fell in love with the houses they bought, some lived there as children. Many of the writers had special huts or rooms in or looking out over their gardens where they did their writing.  Most of the locations are now taken care of by foundations or trusts and available for public tours.

My own garden provides pleasure for much of the year. In early spring I wait for the first shoots and blooms.

Various birds show up at different times, though I no longer put out as much bird seed as I used to because, particularly in the fall and spring, it seems to encourage mice that want to make their homes in my house! 

 I do love to watch birds.

My Siberian irises have finished blooming now, and it’s the turn of peonies – pink, white, red. I love to cut and bring a few of these into the house for their flamboyance and subtle scent. My roses are blooming as well, hardy bush roses developed in Canada. I generally avoid the more delicate tea roses, which have to be pampered to survive.

Every garden should have a few places to relax, and I have those, too – a place to read and write, to have a cup of tea or even a meal, and share with friends.

Each year I make some changes – add a few new plants (I mostly prefer hardy perennials, but I always pot a few annuals), thin and move other perennials.

There’s a lot of work to a garden, but I love it. Some people plan very carefully, designing beds and colours and determining when things bloom, mixing textures. I have done a little of that sort of thing, but mostly I try things and see how they work. The next year I may change it. Basically, though, my garden has retained its current form for some time.

I do take some time every spring to look through my books about prarie gardens - perennials and annuals - to choose what seeds I may try this year or what new plants I may buy. Then it's off to the various garden centres in the area to see what may inspire me there.

I also like to have food from my garden, so there are the berry bushes as well as a small vegetable area, which mostly has greens for salads, tomatoes, carrots, and herbs. I`ve even  tried corn, potatoes, and egg plant. Though the latter required starting the plants indoors in January and then I only got one tiny egg plant to eat.

Still it’s wonderful to go out in the morning and pick a few strawberries or raspberries to put in my cereal (that will come later this summer).

And there are the cacti that I keep indoors all winter and put on the deck when danger of frost is past. A couple of these my mother gave to me and they are more than 30 years old. If it gets hot enough the fish hook cactus will bloom spectacularly.

Today is a rainy day, so I am mostly enjoying my garden from indoors, but that’s OK, too. So much to look at, so much to wait and look forward to.

There are asters blooming, and moonflower vines have come up. A few sweet peas are survived the attacks of birds and I hope they`ll bloom eventually.

Later on there will be lilies of all kinds.

Working in my yard and garden is a wonderful way to think about writing, be inspired, and just relax.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Why I’m not a Poet

I have written a few poems in my life, and I love reading poetry that moves me. The latter gives me an emotional kick or a prickling at the back of my neck, or rarely a feeling as if the top of my head is going to come off. I also write fiction and non fiction and feel that I have a certain grasp and talent with both of those, and do call myself a writer. But a poet? No.
When I read lines like the following, I know myself in the presence of someone who has talent, is a master (or mistress) of the art.

“All of a sudden came the pelicans:
crazy old men in baseball caps who flew
like jackknives and collapsed like fans.” (John Malcom Brinnin)

This fragment is by a poet now dead, who was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but moved to the States with his parents as a child. What appealed to me in the poem was the image – we in Saskatoon know pelicans, after all, and I’ve often stood and watched them, thought about what they make me think of – punk rockers with their tuft of upstanding feathers at the back of their heads.

“All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the merry deer ran before.” (e.e. cummings)

E.E. Cummings has long been a favourite of mine, particularly this poem. It feels like magic, the images piling one on top of another, beautiful language, hints of mystery creating the story.

“I may feel guilty after a poem
for what is revealed, for what
stands bare when the speaking stops,
for what utters itself with full wings spread
of angel or bat
but I am healed to the saying.
I think it must be.” (Marge Piercy)

Piercy is an American writer, of both poetry and prose (fiction and non fiction). I loved her novel Vida, though don’t like everything she’s written. Still, I am bowled over by her talent, and glad to know she’s still alive.

“Wind turns back the sheets of the field.
What needs to sleep, sleeps there.
What needs to rest.

The door has fallen from the moon.
It floats in the slough, all knob and hinges.” (Lorna Crozier)

Years ago, I took a writing class from Lorna Crozier, and I have always admired her talent, both in writing and teaching. She captures the land and emotions of the prairie like few others.

I don’t know how these poets do it, find the images, put them together in ways that open and illuminate the world. I have difficulty with that. Maybe it’s a matter of practice? If I wrote as much poetry as I do prose, would I get better at it?