Coastal Infusion

Life has thrown me a curve ball in the last week and my attention is fragmented, so here’s a blog post that appeared five years ago. The sentiments are as true today as they were back then.

I received an email a few weeks ago about living in B.C. The woman in question is doing her master’s and preparing to give a seminar focusing on BC authors. She wanted to know how living here informs or influences my writing.

I mulled it over for quite a while because it’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. When I responded, I gave her some context, explaining that though I was born on Vancouver Island (Victoria), I grew up in both Victoria and Vancouver, spent a year in Edmonton as a young teen and five years living in Winnipeg when I was in my early twenties. When I finally returned to the island in my late twenties, it really was like coming home.

I think there’s a certain mindset one has, having been born and raised on an island. To a large extent, you’re dependent on ferries (or planes) for mail, food, fuel and the ability to come and go. You can’t just up and leave (or return, for that matter) without checking a schedule or two. There’s also an understanding that land here is finite: there’s only so much room for garbage disposal or new buildings. That’s not so on the mainland where there’s always room out in the valley or up the mountain. Island living is said to be an insular sort of existence. If one defines insular as being set apart, I’d agree. If you toss in the other definition of insular as being ignorant or disinterested in different cultures, I’d argue against it. That kind of insular attitude isn’t limited to island living, and I certainly don’t see it here on Vancouver Island.

With those thoughts rattling around my head, I was no closer to answering the woman’s question. How does living here specifically impact me as a writer? I finally came to this conclusion: living on the west coast impacts me. I bring that sensibility to my life generally, which, by extension, flavours my writing. Some of my books are set in B.C. Others are set on the prairies, which I grew to love too. A few are set in the U.S., though every U.S. setting I’ve used has been on the west coast – Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angles. I think that’s telling.

For me as a writer, setting plays as big a role as character. So, when I place a story in a particular location, I need to have lived there or at least spent time there to absorb its nuances. But while I’ve been to New York, for instance, I haven’t spent as much time there as I have in Seattle, San Francisco or L.A.  

I relate to the coast. I know the flora and fauna, the birds and animals. When someone complains about a heron fishing at their pond, I know precisely what that sharp, two-toned beak looks like as it dips into the water. When a friend mentions that the bark is peeling from their arbutus tree, my mind immediately goes to the intoxicating honey scent of the arbutus flowers that bloom in spring. I know what spring is like here (often rainy), and summer and fall and winter too (most definitely rainy). I’ve lived with the nuances of light and dark; I’ve experienced drought and floods and windstorms. I understand the politics, the environmental issues, and the social nuances that permeate towns and cities up and down the coast.

Does that mean I’m limited to setting my books on the coast? No. I love to travel and spend time in other places, and I’m pretty good at researching too. So that’s not an issue. But when it comes right down to it, I get the west coast mindset. The saltwater tang infused my blood at birth. And I’m more than okay with it.  

Steady On . . .

I’m working on a manuscript I started several years ago, and I’m second-guessing myself with just about every paragraph. The story in question is a departure for me; it’s a contemporary middle-grade novel but with a suspenseful, paranormal element. The only thing I’ve written that comes even close is Exit Point, a short novel for reluctant teen readers, and I use the word close loosely. There are some similarities but not many.

Earlier this week, in need of inspiration, I grabbed my copy of The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore from my shelf. And I opened it to this quote by John Irving:

If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel like you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.’  John Irving

The passage goes on to talk about how the work of the writer is the true work of all artists: to take risks, to lean far out over the edge of the accepted truth. If you are trying to tackle a project that is beyond your existing capacity as a writer or an artist, if you’re just a little bit afraid of the direction in which you are heading, then you are likely heading in the right direction.

Onward. And steady on.

Holiday Reading, Take Two

I have some fiction recommendations for you this week. If you’re looking for a last-minute gift, there’s still time to choose a book, and many local bookstores are happy to arrange curbside pick-up. On this list, you’ll find a picture book, an intermediate novel and a young adult pick, as well as some adult titles to appeal to a variety of tastes.

I Am Scary by Elise Gravel. Picture book, ages 1 – 5. A monster tries to scare a child who refuses to be frightened. The monster wonders, “What will happen to me if I’m not scary?” The child offers him a hug and the monster melts . . . softening into an adorable creature. A sweet and humorous tale from Montrealer Elise Gravel.

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel. Intermediate Fiction, ages 8 – 14. It was just rain. But after the downpour, odd black plants begin to shoot up. They take over fields and twine around houses. They bloom and throw off toxic pollen – and feed. Strangely, three Saltspring Island teens – Anaya, Petra and Seth – seem immune. Are they the key to fighting back the invasion? They’d better figure it out fast, because it’s starting to rain again.

Kid Sterling by Christine Welldon. Young adult fiction, ages 12 – 18. Set in New Orleans in 1906. Sterling shines shoes, helping support his laundress mother. Sterling also plays the trumpet, and what he really wants is to learn from his idol, Buddy Bolden, who is playing music that’s turning New Orleans upside down. A richly textured story of a culture and character surviving against all odds.

What You Wish For by Katherine Center. Women’s fiction, contemporary. Voted a library reads pick for July 2020, Center’s characters come alive in this charming story that also touches on serious issues. School librarian Samantha Casey loves her life and job. But when a man from her past, Duncan Carpenter, shows up at the school to become the new principal, things quickly go downhill. Center writes about resilience and struggle and ultimately finding joy and savoring life’s moments of grace.  

The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O’Neal. Women’s fiction, contemporary. A story of four generations of women grappling with family betrayals, long-buried secrets and a mysterious tragedy that brings them together. Set in Devon, and rich in imagery, characterization and language, this story addresses some difficult issues from multiple points of view. A strong family drama with a touch of romance and mystery woven in.

The Paris Hours by Alex George. Literary, historical. Paris between the wars teems with artists, writers and musicians. But amidst the dazzling creativity of the city’s most famous citizens, four regular people are each searching for something they’ve lost. Told over the course of a single day in 1927, The Paris Hours tells the story of Camille, the maid of Marcel Proust; Souren, an Armenian refugee; artist Guillaume; and journalist Jean-Paul. When the quartet’s paths finally cross, each will learn if they’ll find what they were looking for.

And finally, here are two uplifting and light holiday-themed novels:

In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren. Sweet and laugh-out-loud funny in spots, this holiday romance features terrific characters, one of whom must relive her day multiple times, a la Groundhog Day. When Maelyn Jones asks the universe what happiness looks like for her, the answer she gets is more than she ever dreamed. A quick, easy read that will make you smile.

Christmas at the Island Hotel by Jenny Colgan. Set on a remote island off the coast of Scotland, a family in turmoil prepares to open a hotel in time for Christmas. Though the novel primarily focusses on the love story between a shy island girl and a fellow kitchen worker (a disgraced Norwegian prince exiled by his father) it also delves into other relationships and capers on the island. Quirky characters, tender and moving.

My November Reads

I think of late fall as my pause point before I start baking and preparing for the holidays. Even though the days are shorter and the nights are longer, I seem to have more time to devote to quieter pursuits, like reading. And these days, with the Covid numbers climbing and creating a sense of unease everywhere, books are my favorite way to escape. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

Dance Away with Me by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Silver Bay by JoJo Moyes

Books read to date in 2020: 58

Beginner’s Mind

Like a lot of people these days, I’ve been teaching myself to make sourdough bread. A friend gave me a starter and I’ve had fun feeding it and trying out recipes.  The results have been mixed. Subtext: the results haven’t been what I expected or wanted.

I cook a lot and I enjoy it. I’m no professional but I know my way around a saucepan, I can turn out a decent meal, and I can bake. At thirteen I made my first batch of cream puffs; the choux pastry was so utterly perfect even I was surprised. I’ve made quick breads, flat breads, yeasted breads. Lots of bread, and almost always with delicious results. How hard could sourdough be?

Turns out, it’s harder than I thought.

The cinnamon buns disappeared quite quickly, and after a couple of tries, I eventually ended up with a passable loaf of bread. But it didn’t have the texture or lift I’ve come to expect from the sourdough breads I’ve devoured in the past.

Because of my previous experience with all things flour I figured I’d be able to do it well right out of the gate (those successful cream puffs spoiled me). But in reality, professional bakers can and often do spend years perfecting the perfect tangy, chewy sourdough loaf or crispy croissant. Working with just a few basic ingredients, they combine their scientific knowledge of the chemistry of baking with their life experience and personal philosophies to create an edible piece of art. Those same ingredients, in different hands, produce very different results.

It’s a bit like writing. Working with only 26 letters, authors combine their understanding of the craft of storytelling with their life experiences and personal philosophies to create readable works of art. Those same letters, in different hands, produce very different results.

My disappointing experience with sourdough reminded me of the people I’ve met who believe they can write a bestseller the first time they sit down at the keyboard. I believe they could write a book if they put in the effort. But they aren’t thinking of the learning curve or the effort involved. They believe that because they write articles for their club newsletter or a professional journal – because they are imminently capable of relaying information in written form – the first book they write will be a rousing success. And that’s unrealistic. It happens, just like perfect choux pastry can happen the first time you whip those eggs into the flour, but it’s not a given.  

Zen Buddhists have a concept known as shoshin. It means beginner’s mind. It’s about letting go of preconceptions, being willing to learn, and being open to whatever happens. It’s about focusing on possibilities and not judging outcomes.

Sourdough is a unique beast in the breadmaking world. There’s no question I’m a beginner at it. One Zen master calls beginner’s mind “a mind that is empty and ready for new things.”

I’m definitely ready for new sourdough baking adventures. I’m not sure about an empty mind, but I definitely have an empty stomach.

My October Reads

I’m in the mood to escape reality for a little while, but given the current circumstances we find ourselves living in, I’m not going very far. Instead of hopping on a plane (not wise with the rising Covid numbers) or planning a future vacation (delayed gratification only satisfies me for so long), I’m escaping via books. I’m looking for fiction with appealing settings or nonfiction books by people who have moved to new countries. And if their book provides details about local culture, flora and fauna, and food, so much the better. Here’s what I’m reading right now.

The Peach Keeper by Sara Addison Allen

Plum, Courgette and Green Bean Tart by Lisa Rose Wright

The Beekeeper’s Promise by Fiona Valpy

Books read to date in 2020: 52

The Joy Factor

Last month I was lucky enough to take an all-day online workshop from Laurie Schnebly Campbell. Campbell, an Arizona writer and workshop facilitator, spent a few hours talking about how to put the joy back in writing. Her take is that writers sometimes lose that joy in the pursuit of publication. Being creative for the sake of creating is fun, but being tied to results can undermine joy.

It’s hard not to be tied to results. When I go into the kitchen to bake a loaf of bread, I expect I’ll end up with something close to edible. After I finish writing today, I’m going out to the garden to plant garlic. Come next summer I expect to be harvesting. I know intellectually that something might go sideways. There could be a power outage just when I get the bread into the oven or weather (or wildlife!) that negatively impacts my garlic harvest, but for the most part I anticipate positive results.

For a writer, positive results equate getting published. But they don’t have to.

A few days after the Campbell workshop, I had a phone catch up with a good friend, a fellow writer who recently lost her mother. Very soon after her mother passed away, a story idea took hold and she began to write. The idea excited her, the distraction from ‘real life’ was a bonus and she found herself being carried away by the story itself, and nothing more. The joy in the writing was propelling her forward in a way it hadn’t for a very long time. She wasn’t giving any thought to outcomes. In her words, she had no idea if the story would ever see publication and that didn’t matter. For her, the joy was in the doing. In the same way a violinist or any kind of musician takes joy in creating lovely music.

That was precisely Laurie Schnebly Campbell’s point. So, how do we get to the place where we aren’t caught up in the results, where joy is our fuel?

Here are some take away suggestions from the workshop.

Write something new. Write poetry instead of prose or a mystery instead of mainstream fiction.

Fill the well away from the keyboard/take some time away from writing.

Write to music that moves you.

Keep a selection of starter phrases on hand to kickstart your writing (examples: I wish I knew at the time . . . or If I’d left an hour earlier)

Go and sit somewhere with great sensory input.

Write about something you love that has nothing to do with writing.

Keep a journal.

And my personal favorite from a fellow workshop participant: “I go to the keyboard and say to myself ‘let’s just sit down and see what happens.’” In other words, she gives herself permission to play.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to completely give up my expectations around results. I still like knowing flowers will bloom when I plant seeds, cookies will be ready after I bake them, and books will be read after I write them. But I’ve decided to focus more on playing than striving, and to hold onto hope rather than expectations. Hope is a good thing to have these days. And for more on that, you might like to check out this blog by another writer friend of mine, Alice Valdal. https://www.alicevaldal.com/thanksgiving-2020/

My September Reads

Yesterday marked the autumn equinox, the first day of fall, and today the rains are forecast, reinforcing the fact that the colder season is just around the corner. Thanks to a neighbor who dropped off a generous box of purple grapes, I’m about to make a batch of jelly. When that’s done, I’ll tackle the Asian pears and turn them into chutney. Hopefully, the rain will ease long enough for me to pull the last of the tomatoes from the garden and clean up the basil bed too. In the meantime, I’m curling up with a good book. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

With Malice by Eileen Cook

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake

The Sundown Motel by Simone St. James

Books read to date in 2020: 46

And So It Goes

Last week brought to mind the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining;

Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

Thy fate is the common fate of all,

Into each life some rain must fall . . .

Here on the west coast, the ‘rain’ we experienced was the ash fallout from the horrendous wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington. We’re still living with smoky skies and poor air quality as I write these words, but we’re far luckier than those who are living in the line of fire.  Fires on the west coast, hurricanes out east and a worldwide pandemic. No wonder the world seems on edge.

I was on edge this week too. I lost a full day of writing because of a massive Windows update. Yes, I’d saved, or at least I thought my computer had, but it turns out the computer save function goes to a temporary file. In the past, I’d always been able to recover temporary files but not anymore. Not with Windows 10.  A little rain must fall . . .

As Longfellow said, however, behind the clouds the sun is still shining. And in my case that sun came in the form of an interview by the editor of Second Opinion QB. It was lovely to chat with Lois Sampson. If you’re interested in our conversation, you’ll find it here: https://secondopinionqb.ca/qb-author-taps-into-young-adult-scene/

Since I opened with a somewhat bleak Longfellow quote, here’s something to remember when life seems especially dark:

Crwth Cares

Here’s a spot of happiness in these difficult times. From now until October 15th Crwth Press is donating over 40% of all website sales to non-profits. That’s twelve authors and twelve different titles to choose from. Personally, that means when you order No Right Thing from Crwth, they will donate $6 to my charity of choice. I’ve chosen the Manna Homeless Society, a group dedicated to helping the needy and homeless in the Oceanside area and where No Right Thing is set.

I’m proud to be associated with a publisher that gives back. For more information on Crwth’s initiative, follow this link and check out all twelve titles: https://www.crwth.ca/crwth-cares/?fbclid=IwAR09yIwSgE4iZJ6bjO2xlrUfiKfBOBqtMQ-y47Pq7R_ZACEsqGPUqp2t3BE

You can find information on the Manna homeless society here: https://www.mannahomelesssociety.com/