Tag Archives: #amwritingfiction

War & Tulips

Last month I visited the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. The museum portrays the impact of war on Canadians from pre-contact to the present day. Before the Europeans arrived, indigenous settlements had warrior training areas, where youths learned skills with bows and arrows and clubs for the tribes’ battles with their enemies. French explorers heightened these conflicts by introducing guns to the weaponry and forming alliances with tribes to aid France’s quest for control of fur trading territories.  

In 1759 Britain defeated France on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City and took over the land that eventually became Canada. Seventeen years later the American Revolutionary War brought an estimated 45,000 US colonists to Canada, where they could continue to live under the British crown. The United States invaded Canada during the War of 1812 in an attempt to drive the British from the continent, but the loyalists held them back. 

At the turn of the century, Canadians moved to fighting overseas. Over 7,000 volunteers rallied to the British cause in the South African War (Boer War). World War One was the first foreign war that engaged the entire country of Canada and affected every aspect of daily life.   

My journey through the war museum’s WW1 galleries began with panels that displayed images of eager young Canadian men leaving for war. 

        Who knew married men needed a wife’s permission?

When the men arrived on the battlefields, life in the trenches quickly lost its glamour. Mud, rats, and disease prevailed. During long hours of boredom, some creative souls made trench art from discarded materials like shell casings, brass bullet cartridges, and chalk. 

A viewer in the museum provided a visual of a chlorine gas — eerie and strangely alluring. The Germans first released the poison gas cloud during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, taking the Allied soldiers unawares. Troops fled in all directions. Thousands suffered burnt lungs or suffocated. The Allies quickly responded by developing increasingly effective gas masks for future battles and retaliating with their own poison gases.   

A cloud of poison gas in Ypres. Photos from Collier’s New Photographic History of the World War (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1918) 
Most touching was the museum’s display of the dreaded telegram, which could arrive any minute with news of a loved one’s serious injury, missing-in-action report, or death.   

Outside the museum, the tulips were starting to bloom in Ottawa, earlier than usual this year due to the winter’s low snow cover and mild weather in March. Each year, Ottawa hosts a tulip festival that goes back to World War II. Following the Nazi invasion, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands took refuge in Ottawa with her two children. Her third daughter, Princess Margriet, was born at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. A section of the hospital was declared Dutch soil so that the baby would hold Dutch nationality exclusively. Two years later, Canadian troops played a large role in the liberation of the Netherlands. After Princess Juliana and her children returned to their homeland, she sent Ottawa and the Canadian people a thank you gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs. Since then, the Dutch royal family has sent tulip bulbs to Canada’s capital every year and Ottawa celebrates each May with a tulip festival. This year’s event takes place May 10-20th. 
During my Ottawa stay, my high school friend and I walked to a park near Dow’s Lake to enjoy the beds of colourful tulips.   

Hikes & Ice

On January 25th, I fell on an icy Calgary sidewalk and injured the muscles around my hip. During the following week, I thought I was recovering enough to do a hike in the mountains and then a long walk on ice-covered Lake Louise. Two days later I couldn’t hobble across my kitchen without feeling pain. This prompted me to see my doctor and a physiotherapist.  

An X-ray determined no fractures, broken bones, or misalignment. The physiotherapist thought my injuries were relatively minor and said they should resolve in a few weeks with rest, exercise, and physio treatments. The problem was that I was scheduled to leave in two weeks for a hiking holiday in Arizona with 33 members of my Calgary hiking club. The physio and I doubted I’d be able to hike by then and, if I could, the exertion might set my recovery back, as it had done on the earlier hike and Lake Louise walk.

I still planned to go on the trip but prepared to spend some or all of the days resting my hip in the Airbnb house my husband Will and I were renting with some other club members. I downloaded numerous books to read and organized writing work to do on my computer. It wouldn’t be terrible to relax outdoors in warm sunshine and I’d still enjoy evening dinners and entertainment with the group, but the prospect of missing the main purpose of the trip was disappointing. 

My progress through four physio sessions was slow. I faithfully did my exercises and barely stepped outside for two weeks. The weekend before we left, I tried a few neighbourhood walks. After half an hour, my hip was sore and I couldn’t wait to shuffle home. 

Will and I flew to Phoenix on February 20th and spent the next day walking around Scottsdale. My hip was fine but tired by the end. I still decided to try the shorter version of first hike the following day. To my surprise, I felt no discomfort with my hip. Nor did my muscles bother me much the next morning. So I joined my fellow hikers again and then again on day # 3. All of these hikes involved clambering over big rocks. How many rocks could there be in Arizona? 

Day # 4 featured a hike along Saguaro Lake, which I’d done seven years earlier and recalled as being relatively easy. The elevation was less than that of first three hikes and the lakeside trail was mainly dirt with small rocks to step around. A picnic lunch and relaxing boat cruise on the lake followed and then an evening at the Silver Star dinner theatre with 1950s & early 60s that brought back memories. 

The fifth day’s hike was longer the previous ones (about 14 km vs 8 km). I suggested to my housemates that we do something shorter, but they wanted to go with the group and I went along. I’m glad I did and I enjoyed the first half of the hike, but my hip ached with every step of the last section. I decided 8 km was the limit for my hip. The highlight of this hike was a rare crested saguaro cactus. The abnormal growth formation at the top is found in one in roughly 10,000 saguaros. 

On day # 6, we drove to Wilcox, Arizona, our gateway to the Chiricahua National Monument. The first afternoon we did an 8 km hike over comfortable terrain to a view of Natural Bridge. 

For our final hike of the trip, the plan was to do a 14+ km long loop. After six straight days of hiking, nine of us opted for a shorter loop through fabulous scenery at a leisurely pace. It was the one day I wanted to keep on walking at the end. 

The forecast called for rain starting at noon, but the sunshine stayed in the park. Will and I enjoyed a late lunch at a beautiful viewpoint.  

Now I’m home and my hip still feels a little sore, but I can’t say the seven days of hiking set my recovery back. I’m grateful I was able to experience so many wonderful sights and great companionship on the trails. These days, I’m giving my hip its well-deserved rest, doing my exercises faithfully (more or less), and trying to avoid another fall on Calgary’s icy sidewalks.     

Happy Rabbie Burns Day!

Last May my husband Will and I saw the John Steinbeck play, Of Mice and Men, at the Leeds Playhouse in England. This theatre experience was different from our one the previous week in London. Tickets in Leeds were about a quarter of the London price. That Tuesday the Leeds theatre was a quarter full and we were probably the only non-Brits present. In London we packed the theatre with a large number of tourists. 

Of Mice and Men is set in the United States during the Great Depression. It tells the story of two migrant workers who dream of owning their own farm. Being Steinbeck, their dream turns to tragedy at the end. Before seeing the play, I wasn’t familiar with the story, but afterward references to the novel kept popping up. This began later in our holiday, when we visited Alloway, Scotland, the birthplace of Robert Burns, who is widely regarded as Scotland’s National Poet. 

                                                  Burns birthplace cottage, Alloway, Scotland

Viewed as a poet of the working class, Burns wrote in a light Scots dialect. He’s affectionally called Rabbie by his Scottish fans. Of course, we’d sung his song/poem Auld Lang Syne on numerous New Year’s Eves, but on this visit we learned that another Burns’ poem, To a Mouse, was the inspiration for Of Mice and Men. Burns wrote the poem after he accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest with his plough and realized that, with its nest gone, the mouse wouldn’t survive the winter. These lines inspired Steinbeck:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
    Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,  For promis’d joy! 

 When I returned home from my trip, a library book I’d put on hold was waiting for me: Prince Harry’s memoir Spare — I confess I read it. While discussing his teenage lack of interest in literature and academics, Harry says the one book that grabbed him was Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which was assigned in his English class. He liked that the book was short and, unlike Shakespeare, the plain language didn’t need a translator. Most of all he could relate the story’s themes of friendship, brotherhood, and loyalty to him and his brother William. The brothers’ story ebbs and flows through Harry’s memoir and crashes at the end. 

In 2009 Burns was voted the greatest Scot by the Scottish public in a contest hosted by a Scottish TV show. Since then Burns has run into criticism. Some feminists interpret his lusty poems and lifestyle as sexist. He had twelve children by four women. Seven were illegitimate, including the first four by his wife Jean Armour. By Scottish law they became legitimate after the marriage. According to a museum plaque, Jean raised one of the illegitimate children born after she and Rabbie married — it gets complicated.  

Others criticize Burns for accepting a job as bookkeeper for a Jamaica slave plantation. In the end, he didn’t go to Jamaica for personal reasons. 

It might also be that the Scots dialect in Burns’ poems has fallen out of favour with younger readers, like Shakespeare’s language for Prince Harry, and doesn’t resonate with an increasingly diverse public.

But many Scots around the world still adore Burns and celebrate his birthday, January 25, at Burns’ dinners, which traditionally include such iconic Scottish features as a bagpiper greeting guests and a whisky toast to the haggis.  

Bouchercon San Diego & more

Calgary’s first snowfall of the season has got me dreaming about my holiday in California this September. The main purpose for the trip was to attend Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in San Diego. My husband Will (an avid mystery reader) and I spent four interesting days attending panels and events like Speed Dating for Writers and Readers and the New Author Breakfast. Both were more fun than I’d expected and popular enough to fill the large rooms by 7:00 am. When we weren’t occupied with the convention, we enjoyed the views from our hotel in the San Diego Marina. 

After the convention, we stayed an extra day in San Diego to see a little more of the city. We walked along the boardwalk and took the short ferry ride to Coronado Island, an upscale vacation beach community. The highlight was a concert in the park featuring a great cover band. Hundreds of people gathered. Since we didn’t have chairs, we stood at the front and danced to songs like “Witchy Woman” and “One of These Nights” made famous by the Eagles.   

From San Diego, we drove to Julian, a “hippie” town located in the apple-growing hills east of the city. In addition to exploring the quirky, historic former gold mining town, we gorged on apple pie – arguably the best I’ve ever had. A half dozen bakeries produce pies for tourists, many of them day-trippers from San Diego. 

Sunshine, warmth, ocean, books, wine, apple pie — pretty much a perfect trip!  

Hosting a Book Launch

Last month I held my first in-person book launch in 4 1/2 years. Fifty people gathered in The Treehouse at cSpace, which is located in Calgary’s former King Edward Junior High School. I had toured the renovated building when cSpace opened in 2017 as an arts and community hub and fell in love with the Treehouse meeting room. Its top floor setting, three walls of windows, and outside deck offer panoramic views of the city. On September 21st the weather was perfect for an evening event.  

Prior to the launch, I often wondered if the effort was worth it. After I settled on the venue and date, the first step was sending out invitations. I created a Facebook Event page, invited my Facebook friends who live in Calgary, and kept the page active with comments to stimulate interest and discussion. In one comment I talked about cSpace and urged people to come to the launch to see what this unique building is like. In addition to numerous artist studios, cSpace houses community groups for seniors, indigenous peoples, writers, and those interested in speaking French. 

For friends not on Facebook, I created an invitation, which I emailed to each person. I started out wondering if anyone would come. But eventually enough people said “yes” that I realized I’d get a good crowd. Then new worries set in. Would they enjoy themselves and be glad they came?

During the week before the event, I purchased wine, juice, and snack food: cheese, crackers, vegetables and dip, and desserts.  

I developed a PowerPoint presentation, which focused on Calgary locations that inspired my story. I combined these with readings from the novel interspersed through the presentation. My first reading featured my protagonist Paula Savard in her office in Inglewood, Calgary’s oldest suburb. In my mind, Paula works in this four-story brick building on Inglewood’s main street. My added touch: the building is rumoured to be haunted.   

For fun, at the end of my talk, I added a trivia quiz. Since the novel takes place in spring 2020 during the first COVID-19 lockdown, the ten trivia questions all related to COVID-19. I took my questions from the COVID timeline that I’d made for the novel to remind me of what was happening in the world on the story’s dates. To test your memory, here are my first two trivia questions:

  • On what date did WHO (World Health Organization) declare COVID-19 a pandemic? Month, day, year required.
  • Shortly after this declaration, what celebrity couple announced in Australia they’d tested positive for COVID-19?   

The questions turned out to be too hard. The winner only got three right and received her prizes, which were priceless during the lockdown: hand sanitizer and a roll of toilet paper. 
I wrapped up the presentation with random draw prizes: two mystery puzzle books and two sets of playing cards because a character in the novel has a gambling addiction that affects the plot. 

Then everyone gathered for conversation, wine, food and drink. I signed books and talked with as many guests as I could. From the buzz in the room and comments afterward, I think people enjoyed the event. 
Was the work and strain I put into launch preparations worth it? I don’t know. It’s fun to to host a party to celebrate something good in life and now I have these wonderful pictures with friends who made the effort to attend and cheer on my writing.