Category Archives: Blog

Every Cover Tells a Story

I like BWL’s process for designing book covers. It begins about six months before a book’s release, when we authors fill out a Cover Art Form. This includes factual information, such as the book title and author name to appear on the cover, a back cover book blurb, details about story, keywords for online searches and — my favourite part — ideas for cover images. After we submit the CAF, Art Director, Michelle Lee, designs our covers from purchased stock images. She combines and manipulates the images and adds background and other elements to create covers that hint at the story inside.  

I published my first BWL novel, Ten Days in Summer, in 2017.  At that time, the CAF stated that most of the covers would feature at least one person. When I searched for people images on the stock images website, I discovered a few problems. My main character, Paula Savard, is an insurance adjuster. A keyword search for her gender and job popped up images of women meeting with clients or examining construction sites and damaged cars. In this story, Paula investigates a building fire with a suspicious death. I searched ‘female detective’ and got pictures of young women holding guns and magnifying glasses. Paula was fifty-two. My search for professional women in their fifties unearthed a few possibilities, although none looked like my image of Paula.  

A basic problem with people images on novel covers is that writers and readers form their own images of fictional characters. I realized a full picture of Paula would interfere with reader engagement, although partial images still maintained enough mystery. This explained why rear-view images of women had become popular in novel cover art, but so common they were now considered cliché.  

For the CAF, I chose the best of the images I could find for Paula, plus female images shrouded in mystery — a woman’s legs in cowboy boots, eyes peering through a hole, and a silhouetted woman in a cowboy hat. Since the story backdrop is the Calgary Stampede and the second most prominent character is a self-styled cowboy, I added images of cowboys in silhouette, the Calgary skyline, and fire, for the incident that sets the story in motion. 

I sent the CAF to Michelle, who found images for the cowboy, fire and skyline that were different from the ones I’d suggested. She meshed them together to produce a cover better than any I could have dreamed up myself. 

Two years later, BWL reissued the first book in my Paula Savard mystery series. During this time, the trend in cover design moved away from people to symbolic images. Now the CAF stated that most BWL covers would not feature people unless we insisted. I searched for people images anyway, since I found this fun, but was glad to focus on images related to the story setting and mood. For the new cover of A Deadly Fall, I sent Michelle images of the Calgary skyline, falling leaves, fall trees, and pathways through fall woods. The murder takes place on a Calgary walking path. Michelle scored another hit with a cover design of leaves framing the Calgary skyline in glorious fall colours of gold, orange and yellow, along with the red of Calgary’s Peace Bridge. 

In February I completed my CAF for Winter’s Rage, book # 3 of the Paula Savard mystery series. This time, Paula investigates a hit-and-run collision that resulted in a woman’s death. Images of a tire on a snow-covered road, broken windshields, and car headlights in the dark would suit the story, but I wanted this cover to continue the series style. One problem. A Deadly Fall’s autumn time frame and Ten Days in Summer’s building fire resulted in covers with similar colours. Yellow, orange and red don’t evoke winter in Alberta. On the CAF, I suggested we bend the brand and go with white, blue or black winter shades. Michelle agreed. She created a scene of snow falling on a Calgary skyline draped in snow, the Bow River shining ice. Yellow letters echo the two earlier novels.  

The front cover of Winter’s Rage gives the first hint of the story. The back cover blurb reveals a little more You can read what it’s all about this August.

Monet’s Cataracts – and mine

Last summer I noticed a cloudiness in my left eye. I thought it might be due to cataracts, which run on both sides of my family. My husband had them a few years ago, with similar symptoms. When my eye doctor confirmed the problem in both eyes, she said that she likes referring severely near-sighted people for cataract surgery. In most cases, the treatment significantly improves their vision and they’ll need thinner eyeglasses, and sometimes, none at all.

Cataracts are one thing that make me glad I don’t live in the past. My relatives who had the surgery in the 1970s were hospitalized for a week, and afterward they had to wear Coke-bottle-bottom eyeglasses. My grandmother was an early recipient of lens implants in the 1980s. They worked well for her after her month of bed rest. Today, recovery is quick–minor restrictions like no swimming for a week.           

After cataract surgery, I hope to snorkel without prescription googles. I used to think cataract surgery was a 20th century invention and people who lived earlier simply went blind. But it goes back to the fifth century BC. The treatment then involved striking the eye with a blunt object, dislodging the eye fluid and restoring limited vision. Centuries later the surgery evolved to inserting a needle into the eye and extracting the cataract. According to my cataract information sheet, today’s treatment involves inserting a fine probe into the eye, removing the cataract and then injecting a lens implant. 

The year after my husband’s cataract surgery, we took a holiday in northern France. On the way to Paris, we stopped at Giverny, the former home of impressionist painter, Claude Monet. We were intrigued to learn that Monet had cataracts for almost twenty years before they were treated with surgery. Knowing this added to our appreciation of Monet’s works painted during that time. His failing vision led him to use larger brushstrokes. He saw some colours differently with cataracts. Fog increasingly shrouded his view of everything. Post-surgery he destroyed or redid some of the paintings he created when he saw his world through cataracts. 

Water Lilies by Claude Monet, painted in 1920, three years before his cataract surgery, hangs in The National Gallery, London  Due to my high astigmatism, my eye surgeon recommended I upgrade to a lens that corrects this problem. I further upgraded to a multifocal lens that handles distance, intermediate (computer) and reading vision.  The standard lens sets vision to only one level, making glasses necessary. 
It’s now two weeks after surgery on my second eye and my vision isn’t perfect. My right eye is 20/20 for distance, but the left works much better for reading. The left also sees halos and glare when I watch TV. They say this should diminish in time and my eyes will take 4-6 weeks to settle. I see well for most activities, which is a huge change after wearing glasses since I was ten years old. I’m still getting used to my naked face and find myself trying to remove or put on imaginary glasses. I wear sunglasses on windy days so grit doesn’t blow into my eyes. But it feels great, if a little strange, to wake up every morning and see the world clearly. 

     Monet’s garden, Giverny, France

Spring Break

During this past winter of staying home, I looked forward to a spring getaway with my husband Will and our son Matt. With travel outside of Canada and our province of Alberta restricted this month, we booked a four-night stay in Canmore, an hour a half drive from our Calgary home and just outside the entrance to Banff National Park. 

Easter Monday, we drove directly to Banff and ate our turkey sandwiches on a bench by the Bow River. Despite the sunshine, a breeze made the 3 degrees Celsius (37.4 F) temperature cool for sitting out. We soon warmed up on our hike up Tunnel Mountain. Sections of mud and ice typical of early spring made us glad we’d brought our cleats. At the top, we rested on Muskoka chairs half buried in snow and enjoyed the panoramic views of Banff. 

Day two of our trip was sunny and warmer. Will and Matt went skiing at Lake Louise, while I spent a summer-like day in Canmore. In the morning, I checked out the local stores and bought a salad and bread for our lasagna dinner. My afternoon walk followed part of the town’s extensive trail network. The rest of the day I read on our balcony, looking out at the Three Sisters and HaLing mountain peaks. Will and Matt had a perfect ski day — sunny, warm, uncrowded, fresh snow from a weekend snowfall. I didn’t envy them, since I’d preferred my lazy time.   

                                              Balcony view from our AirBnb apartment

Lake Louise ski hill

The weather turned cooler on our third day and cloud mingled with sun. We stayed close to Canmore and hiked up to Grassi Lakes, an icy trail we couldn’t have managed without cleats. At the top, we were surprised and pleased to find the ice on the lakes had melted to reveal their clear, green colour. After lunch, we walked the riverside portion of the trail I’d done the previous day and continued farther. We talked about returning later this spring with our bikes to explore the whole Canmore pathway network.  

                                                                        Grassi Lake

              Former railway bridge on Canmore path – Will didn’t hold the camera straight

Rain blew in that evening and we woke up to a snow-draped town. Matt’s weather app forecast a relatively nice day at Lake Louise with only 17 percent chance of snow. We drove west. As we approached the village of Lake Louise, we hit steady snow and low cloud that made the mountains almost invisible. Hoping the sky would clear later, we opted for a morning hike through a wooded area. The snow continued, but we drove up to the famous lake anyway. Everything was so white, we could hardly tell where the lake ended and the mountains began. We gave up on a viewpoint hike and walked along the lakeshore. When we returned, blue sky started to appear and we left the lake in sunshine. 

Winter conditions at Lake Louise, summer on our Canmore balcony, in-between temperatures the rest of the time. That’s spring in Alberta.

                                                             Lake Louise village trail

Will and Matt on our Canmore balcony

Meghan, Harry & The Crown

Like millions of people in North America and Britain, I watched the recent Oprah Winfrey interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. When the couple married almost three years ago, my husband and I happened to be in the UK on vacation. We visited the church at Windsor Castle, where the wedding would take place and watched the preparations underway. On May 19, 2018, the day of the event, we took a train from the Lake District to Edinburgh. At the train station, we watched a woman set up a festive table with afternoon tea for sale.

Train station in the Lake District, UK, May 19, 2018

Meghan and Harry’s honeymoon with the press and public deteriorated quickly after that, as did their relationships with people in the royal family. A year ago they gave up their duties as senior royals and moved to Canada, a Commonwealth nation where Meghan had lived and worked as an actress. When the UK and Canada refused to pay for their long-term security, they settled in California with plans to pursue non-regal ventures. In their interview with Oprah, they said that unfair and hurtful treatment by members of the royal family, the palace establishment and the British media forced them to take these steps.

Harry, Meghan and Oprah

Everyone I know, including me, has watched the Netflix series The Crown, which chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth II from girlhood to recent times. A theme I take from the series is that the personal lives of royal family members come second to protecting and preserving the institution of The Crown. In the Oprah interview, Harry said that all of his relatives are trapped in their royal roles. The Netflix show suggested the Queen might have been happier living a simple life in the countryside with her horses and dogs. But then she wouldn’t have fame, fortune and a place in history. Many would choose the trap.

The Queen at one of her country estates

The media loves drama. It sells newspapers and gets people to watch shows like the “bombshell” and “explosive” Oprah interview. The UK tabloids exploited and maybe created the Meghan vs Kate conflict. This narrative serves The Crown if  Kate generally comes across better, since she’s a future queen. Harry told Oprah that the royal family needs positive coverage by the press. The monarchy isn’t secure forever and the country has many anti-royalists. While the Queen is beloved, her successor Prince Charles isn’t. But Will and Kate look on track to replacing the Queen in people’s hearts. They also have three children ahead of Harry in the line of succession. Harry’s drop to the # 6 spot makes him less important to The Crown. That’s why their son wasn’t made a prince and the palace made little effort to protect Meghan from media criticism and lies, as she said in the Oprah interview.

Sisters-in-law apparently getting along

Both Harry and Meghan made a point of telling Oprah they still get along well with the Queen. Harry followed up the interview by making it clear that the Queen and Prince Philip weren’t the unnamed royals who made racist remarks that were arguably the interview’s biggest bombshell revelation. This shows that the young couple’s intentions haven’t strayed completely away from their prime roles as members of the royal family—to protect and preserve the person who embodies The Crown.

Me with Harry and Meghan at a store in Windsor, UK, May 2018

How will writers handle this pandemic?

When I attend Zoom meetings with other writers, someone always asks if we’ll write about the current pandemic in our fiction. Invariably a couple of people reply they’re so so tired of COVID-19 that when it’s over they won’t want to write or read anything about it. They hope to move on and write stories that imagine the pandemic hadn’t happened.

Given publishing timelines, most novels published the past year were written before the authors knew about COVID-19 or anticipated its enormous impact. This winter I’ve read a few novels set in our contemporary time and have had no trouble reading about people meeting in restaurants, attending parties and generally living like it’s 2019. The only novel that jarred me was one that specified the year was 2020 and mentioned COVID-19 as a past event. I assume the author added this topical reference on the assumption we’d be done with the pandemic by the book’s fall release. My conclusion is you can write a contemporary novel that ignores the coronavirus, but it’s best to either keep the year vague or indicate that it’s set before March 2020, when only someone living a cave would have missed the great changes to our society.

Timeline of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada, January – April, 2020

Other writers in my Zoom meetings expect they will explore the pandemic in their fiction, as they would do with anything that affects them profoundly. Some have already written short stories and poems about it. COVID-19 can be central to a story or simply part of the landscape. Your protagonist might be working from home, instead of going to her office. She might engage with friends and family on Zoom, in addition to the usual phone calls, letters, emails and text messages. When she does meet someone in person, his mask–or lack of mask–becomes a descriptive detail like his hairstyle or baseball cap. She might suddenly realize she’s standing too close to him and leap backwards. The pandemic could provide our stories with fresh descriptions, until they become overdone because everyone is writing about COVID-19. There’s a risk of saturating the market with too many coronavirus stories for readers who will have largely put the pandemic behind them.

Writers can avoid dealing with all this by setting their stories after COVID-19, which, hopefully, won’t be far in the future. But, in the post-pandemic world people won’t necessarily be partying like it’s 2019. How soon will it be before we’re comfortable shaking hands with strangers and hugging acquaintances we meet? Will we stop doing these things for good to avoid catching all kinds of viruses? The common cold can drag someone down for weeks. The regular flu can kill. Is a handshake worth the risk? For these same reasons, will stores maintain some of their protective measures–plexiglass at the checkout counters, socially distanced lineups, one way aisles and hand sanitizer stations? Will buffet dinners be a thing of the past? Will airlines require passengers to keep wearing masks on planes or will most passengers choose to to wear them to avoid sharing diseases? Writers will need to know these details if they send their character to an exotic location or to the grocery store.

This makes me think that writers of realistic contemporary fiction will have to deal with the pandemic, whether they want to or not. I suspect that when we’re over COVID-fatigue most writers will find themselves processing the experience in their memories and work. Already, I feel a bit of nostalgia for the early days of COVID when few people wore masks in public and grocery store shelves were often picked clean of canned goods, frozen vegetables, milk, eggs and, of course toilet paper. One store I went into had a clerk guarding a stack of toilet paper to make sure no hoarders grabbed an extra package. That’s a detail future readers of COVID-19 stories will find bizarre and informative about our pandemic.

When will we feel comfortable in crowds like this?

Where do I get my ideas?

“Where do you get your ideas?” This might be the number one question readers ask authors.
My quick answer is that ideas pop into my head all the time and they come from everywhere. My personal experience, conversations with other people, places I’ve lived in and visited, the news, books I’ve read, TV, movies, perhaps a painting or line of music.
This winter, I’m editing a novel-in-progress, book # 3 of my Paula Savard mystery series, while mulling ideas for book # 4. With a series, many of the basic ideas are already there. I start with my sleuth, Paula, a fifty-five year old insurance adjuster, and her cast of supporting characters, who impact her personal life and, in some cases, her sleuthing. Paula and most of her family, colleagues and friends live in my home city, Calgary Alberta. I could send Paula to another location for all or part of the next book, but I see her as grounded in Calgary. Unlike me, Paula isn’t drawn to travel, although book # 3 presents her with a future travel opportunity. For now, I think her adventures in book # 4 will continue in Calgary.
An often deserted pathway behind Calgary’s Saddledome arena inspired my idea for the murder in the first Paula Savard novel, A Deadly Fall.
My current novel-in-progress, Winter’s Rage, ends in January 2020, with Paula at a crossroads in her life. Book # 4 will begin with her dealing with that situation. I’ve decided it will take place in spring, since Paula’s first three mysteries happened in fall, summer and winter. But which spring will this be? January 2020 was right before COVID-19 changed the world. Will we next meet Paula in spring 2020, as she grapples with the start of the pandemic both personally and at work? Or will it be spring 2021, when the the pandemic is (we hope) nearing its end? I could jump over the virus and set the novel in spring 2022. This would make the time frame more contemporary to my publication date, although I find it hard to envision the post COVID-19 world. What things will return to the old normal and what will be the long term changes? The year I choose for this fourth novel will affect my ideas for it. Thoughts to mull during the winter.

Calgary’s annual Stampede parade prompted ideas for a major character and an inciting incident in my second novel, Ten Days in Summer.
While Paula got into solving mysteries as an amateur sleuth, I decided her subsequent ventures would come from her insurance adjusting work. Ten Days in Summer starts with a suspicious death resulting from a building fire. Paula naturally becomes involved in the course of investigating the property fire insurance claim. In Winter’s Rage, she adjusts a hit and run collision and gradually suspects the fatality was no accident.
This quiet, suburban Calgary street plays a large role in Winter’s Rage.

For book # 4, I’m thinking that burglary could make a good cover up for murder. Last spring, my husband and I bought e-bikes at a local bicycle shop. I was intrigued by the store’s booming business. With most of their usual activities shut down for the pandemic, Calgarians sought outdoor activities and many of us updated our old bicycles. That store and the two guys operating it are giving me ideas for the crime that will launch Paula’s next mystery.
I also want to include a ghost in book # 4, because ghosts both interest and frighten me. At the end of Ten Days in Summer, Paula’s office moved to Inglewood, Calgary’s oldest neighbourhood. Many ghosts lurk in Inglewood, a location for Calgary’s haunted walking tours. The ghost rumoured to haunt her historic office building will challenge rational Paula, who doesn’t believe in other worldly happenings.
A ghost walking tour of Inglewood inspired my choice of  this “haunted” building for Paula’s office.
All of these bits and pieces, swirling in my mind, will converge into the start of a story, when I eventually sit down and write the novel. As the story moves along, it will pluck more ideas from my usual sources. That’s the plan, anyway, and it’s how I get my ideas.

E-biking last spring triggered ideas for my next novel

Clearing Clutter

One of my projects for this winter of COVID-19 is to clear clutter from my house. I’m starting with boxes of writing stuff I’ve accumulated during the past 30 years. So far, I’ve filled several recycling bins with papers, although I’m still holding onto more than I should.

Easy to dump are old query letters to publishers and their form rejection letters. I’ve never understood writers who talk of papering their den walls with rejection letters for inspiration. My instinct is to shove the depressing messages out of sight, although rejection has prompted me to write better, and still does. I am keeping the occasional rejections that complimented my writing and place them in a binder with other encouragements I received on my journey to publication.

I’m also throwing out critiques of chapters from novels that I subsequently revised and published, since there’s no point in rereading the comments now. In the pre-digital days of writing classes, we had to print copies of our submissions for each of our classmates to scrawl comments on. That’s a lot of paper for my recycling bin. Now and then a page of positive remarks by an instructor or writer-in-residence jumps out at me. I add these to my encouragement binder. It turns out this de-cluttering project is partly about jettisoning negative and irrelevant memories, while preserving ones that boost my spirit.

Stuff I can’t bring myself to toss out includes notes and newspaper clippings that might have value for future writing projects. I file these in boxes and folders with labels so I can find them easily when I want. If I ever move to a smaller place, I’ll instantly get rid of my folder for the mythology workshop I didn’t understand at the time, and still find baffling from my perusal of the notes. For now, these folders and boxes don’t take up much space on my shelf, where they’ll stay until I’m ready to dive into them or downsize.

The best finds are bits of clutter that might have an immediate use. I created folders for my current novel-in-progress, my next three story ideas, editing, and book promotion and tuck relevant notes and clippings into the folders. For instance, my germ of an idea for next mystery novel includes a ghost in ways I haven’t figured out yet. This prompted me to hold onto a comment by a creative writing instructor about Shakespeare’s Hamlet. ‘The ghost is a catalyst, and is the ghost telling the truth?’ When I sit down to write this novel, this question about Hamlet’s ghost might or might not trigger thoughts about the ghost in my story. If it doesn’t, I’ll send the instructor’s observation to the recycling bin or to another folder, where it might apply.

Also useful in the near future is advice for presenting my work in public. I’m collecting my scattered notes and handouts on this topic into one labelled box, along with printouts of past readings I’ve done. One tidbit of advice that I’ve taken to heart is to not read from the book itself. A printout of the scene enables me to enlarge the font for easier reading, revise the scene for audience interest and engage better with listeners than I can with my nose in the book. The next time I’m called on to do a literary reading I can leaf through printouts for a scene that suits the occasion and refresh myself on the advice, conveniently located in one place.

Nowadays, advice for public presentation tends to focus on Zoom and similar platforms. A couple of months ago, I attended an excellent webinar on this subject and made handwritten notes. The ‘Readings’ box will be the logical place for the notes, if I can find them in my recent piles of writing clutter.

Happy Holidays, however you celebrate this year!

Do Short Stories Sell?

Some years ago, I participated in a reading event at a local bookstore. The theme was short stories. During the question and answer period, an audience member asked the bookstore owner if people bought short story collections. He answered, “No, even when the author wins a major award.” His example was the recent winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s glitziest literary award for fiction. A Giller win typically results in a huge boost in book sales, but his customers weren’t interested in buying the winner’s short story collection.

Giller Prize glitz

Short stories used to be popular. In the 1950s and 60s, writers could make a living by publishing them in magazines. When I started writing around 1990, big mainstream magazines like Redbook and Seventeen included a short story per issue. Neither magazine now publishes in print. A friend who writes short stories says that today online magazines provide many opportunities for short stories, but they often don’t attract readers.

My writing has focused on novels, but I got into short stories in my first creative writing class. Short works suit a class or workshop structure better than novels do. I suspect the proliferation of classes is one reason the short story genre has survived. A student can write a story in a week, the class critiques the whole work in an evening, and then the student revises and submits the story to journals that exist to publish the work of emerging writers.

I’ve enjoyed writing short stories for reasons other than the relative speed from start to completion. They’ve been a chance to experiment with styles, characters and locations I couldn’t sustain in a novel. I’ve written short stories with magic realism, a sociopathic narrator, and settings I’ve visited but don’t know intimately. Other stories have led to novels. My series mystery sleuth, Paula Savard, had her origins in my short story, Adjusting the Ashes, about an adjuster dealing with a wacky insurance claim.

The best explanation I’ve heard for the decline in short story readership is that television killed it. People in the mood for a short fictional experience have the option to relax with an evening drama or comedy. I’m guilty of choosing these over reading. I wonder if short story writing has responded to the drop in readership by shifting away from popular fiction toward poetry, which tends to be less satisfying to general readers.

Short story exceptions that prove the rule include Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam. Sales of the book took off after it won the 2006 Giller Prize. A literary pundit noted that this collection of linked stories about medical students reaped the Giller benefits because the writing is accessible, the characters relatable and the stories have plot. Another exception is E. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, a long short story that had enough going on for it to be adapted into a hit movie, although I don’t know how many people read the excellent short story.

My home province of Alberta, Canada, played the role of Wyoming in the movie, Brokeback Mountain

Enterprising authors say the practical value of short stories today is to use them to draw readers to your novels. You can produce and sell a short story e-book online for 99 cents or offer it for free. If readers enjoy the story, hopefully, it will lead them to buy your novels. I’d like to try this one day with a couple of my longer works. Perhaps foolishly, I would also like to gather the stories I’ve written and published over the years into a short story collection, even if nobody reads the book.

Canadian-American actor Eric McCormack hosted the online Giller Prize show on                  November 6, 2020. The Will and Grace star explained that he grew his moustache for a movie.

Souvankham Thammavongsa was surprised in her apartment when she won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her short story collection, How To Pronounce Knife

Can an online writers’ conference work?

In August I attended the inaugural online When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. Before COVID-19, the in-person WWC had been going strong for nine years in my home city of Calgary. I’d attended each year, but had doubts the online version would provide the same energy, networking, and learning opportunities. As a result, I didn’t give the weekend my best effort, but it made me see the potential for such online experiences.

My first inkling an online festival/conference might work came during the Zoom test for presenters. I had volunteered to sit on two panels. Like most of the festival, they took place on the Zoom platform. At the test, I recognized familiar faces in the screen boxes, many of them people I only see yearly at WWC. One of them sent me a private ‘hello’ through the chat feature. She added that she was excited about the weekend. I replied with a less enthusiastic, ‘It will be different.’

Different it was when I checked into my first panel on the festival weekend, 10 minutes ahead of time, as advised in the presenter guidelines. The virtual Zoom meeting room was already full of people discussing brain chemistry as related to writers’ block. This wasn’t my topic. Had I received the wrong meeting invitation? Then an attendee in one of the squares started rambling incoherently. The Zoom host said the person was a troll and deleted him from the meeting.

Trolls, I learned, are people who join pubic Zoom meetings solely to be disruptive. Anticipating this, the WWC organizers posted meeting links only one day ahead, but trolls still found them. This year WWC made the festival free and available to everyone, largely because they were new to the online game and didn’t know if the whole event would tank. If there’s an online event next year, they’ll be more confident of the quality and will charge a fee, to discourage attendees who aren’t serious.

My computer isn’t able to give me a virtual background on Zoom – this one would be fun!
Once my panel began, I found it comfortable to answer questions, which were channeled through a  moderator. Her face filled the screen, making me feel like we were having a conversation, although I missed looking out at an audience of people to get their responses. It’s hard to read faces in small boxes, plus most attendees turned off their video, so only their names appeared, and some Zoom hosts preferred to show only the panelists.

A Zoom panel might look like this

A benefit of online festival/conferences is attendees and presenters can come from anywhere in the world. One of WWC’s most popular presenters zoomed in from Greece. If you’ve always longed to attend a conference held far away, you can go without the cost of airfare, hotel and meals, which can add up to far more than the fee for a conference weekend.

Another benefit of the online WWC is that most of the sessions were recorded. The organizers are gradually reviewing them and posting them on Youtube and other formats.

At the festival, WWC held several Zoom socials and parties, which I stayed away from. This was a mistake. People who went said they were fun and sometimes broke into into smaller groups, so everyone would have a chance to get to know a few people well. As with most things, you get back what you put in. If you sign up for an online conference or festival, I’d advise treating it as though you were there in person. Get involved with as much as possible, including evening parties, which you can now attend dressed in pajamas from the waist down.

The WWC online festival was a huge effort and accomplishment to pull off. Feedback was positive. Some attendees said it was the best online writers’ conference they’d been to since COVID-19 began. Others said they liked it as much as the previous years’ in-person festivals. WWC is committed to hosting a festival next August and and are hoping to return to an in-person event, but with online components. Based on this year’s experience, a hybrid event would combine the best of both festival worlds. But if COVID-19 is still fully with us, WWC will be ready with an improved online version, hopefully without trolls. I’ll be there with enthusiasm, because I know now, if I give it my best, an online writers’ conference or festival can match the in-person experience.

Lougheed House Summer Haiku Contest

Last month, a friend coaxed me to enter the 2020 Lougheed House Haiku Contest. A seventeen syllable poem struck me as an amount of writing I could manage during a busy summer.

I checked the contest guidelines. No entry fee. They allowed three haiku submissions per person. Themes suggested were gardens, nature, Calgary community, and life during the pandemic.

Gardens made me instantly think of my next-door neighbour, who spends four hours a day tending her beautiful outdoor plants. One of her flower beds borders my front lawn. I started to think of this burst of colour as a connector between her and me during our pandemic isolation.

I knew haiku had lines, but needed the internet to remind me the traditional pattern is 5,7,5 syllables per line. My high school English teacher taught that haiku should refer to a season, although I gather that’s no longer necessary.

My thinking and research led to this haiku:

my neighbour’s garden

bursts colour beside my yard

links us through summer

The contest required entrants to include a video of us reading or reciting our poems. I nabbed my husband Will for a cell phone recording. I stood behind the front yard flower bed and had to speak loudly to be heard, while resisting the urge to check that no one was passing by and watching me strangely.

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After I drafted this first haiku, Will and I set off on a bike ride to downtown Calgary. While pedaling by the Bow River, I mentally composed a haiku about how the pandemic closure of cafes, bars and gyms inspired people to go for walks along the river; a healthy, easy and free activity. We made a recording at our lunch spot beside the Bow River. Then we biked through a park and passed a group of women sitting in a circle of lawn chairs placed two metres (6.5 feet) apart, Canada’s social distancing recommendation.

I realized the phrase ‘two metres apart’ is five syllables – the ideal haiku first line length!

To suit the contest themes, I placed the ladies in a garden. I liked the slightly archaic word ‘ladies’ for a contest sponsored by Calgary’s historic Lougheed home. Drinking tea also evokes the past to me and what do ladies discuss at a garden tea? Their gardens. Present and past blended into my next haiku:

two metres apart

ladies sit in the garden

drink tea, talk flowers

Will and I recorded this haiku in my neighbour’s back yard. Since the video was too large to save to my computer, we uploaded it to dropbox. I sent my three haiku to the contest.

A week later, I got the word that my poem ‘two metres apart’ placed first in the Lougheed House Haiku Contest and ‘my neighbour’s garden’ received an honorable mention. The contest judges commented that they appreciated the garden imagery, since the Lougheed home is known for its splendid Beaulieu Gardens.

The Lougheed House is posting the winning haiku recordings on its social media. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter.

Writing the haikus was fun and an opportunity to reflect on the links between gardens, people and the pandemic.

I thank my good friend

& historic Lougheed House

for inspiration