On This Day in History . . .


. . . a monster was born. Actually, that’s a bit of a stretch. The truth is, on this day in 1797, the woman who unleashed a fictitious monster into the world was born. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein, entered the world in London, England. Why talk about someone born so long ago? Because Mary Shelley was responsible for singlehandedly changing the trajectory of storytelling as we know it.

Frankenstein is considered the world’s first science fiction novel. Published when Shelley was only twenty-one, Frankenstein raises questions about the origins of good and evil, the existence of God, the impact of solitude, and human nature’s tendency to judge others by appearance. More than 200 years after it first appeared, the story of Frankenstein is still considered universal and timeless. In fact, Frankenstein is one of the most adapted novels of all time.

Stories abound as to Shelley’s inspiration for the tale. Some say she created it after having a nightmare. Others suggest it was inspired by terrible global events. 1816 was famously known as the ‘Year Without a Summer.’  The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia triggered massive and sudden climate change, sending temperatures in Europe lower than they’d ever been (and the record for those low temperatures held from 1766 to 2000!). Those low temperatures, coupled with ongoing heavy rain, resulted in crop failures and the largest famine of the 19th century. It was during this gloomy time that Mary and her husband, Percy Shelley, vacationed in Switzerland with Lord Byron and a number of other friends. Forced to spend most of their time inside, Lord Byron suggested they all write ghost stories to share with one another. And that, as they say, is history.

True or not, it makes for an interesting piece of trivia about a story that has become a classic.

Phantom of the Opera

Thirty-four years ago today, Phantom of the Opera debuted on Broadway. It has been performed over 13,000 times, making it the longest-running show in Broadway history. As we know, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the musical, giving it an iconic place in our culture. But I knew nothing about the story’s origins, so I decided to do a little digging.  

French author Gaston Leroux wrote Phantom of the Opera in 1909. Originally published as a serialized story in a Parisian newspaper, it came out in book form in 1910 and was translated into English in 1911.

The idea for the story was sparked by actual events. Leroux was a journalist-turned-novelist who spent the early part of his career as a theatre critic. He also covered a story about the Paris Opera house, Palais Garnier. Leroux was aware that once, during a live performance, a fire in the roof of the opera house had melted through a wire and caused a chandelier to crash, killing one person and injuring several more. It was that accident, combined with rumours of a ghost in that same opera house, that kindled the idea for Leroux’s story. The underground lake that he wrote about actually exists beneath the opera house, and it’s still used for training firefighters to swim in the dark. The impetus to write the story down came from Leroux’s curiosity and belief that the Phantom was indeed real. He did considerable research to prove the truth of the ghost, and even on his death bed, he maintained the rumours were true.

Phantom of the Opera sold poorly initially and was even out of print several times during the twentieth century. Today, the story is considered a classic of French literature, and Leroux’s contribution to French detective fiction is comparable to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the UK and Edgar Allan Poe in the United States.

Taking Chances

 Lately I’ve been thinking about risk tolerance. The phrase came up in a news conference this week when our province announced its staged reopening plan based on our rate of immunization and our Covid numbers. Because even though the government is establishing guidelines, we’ll have to make personal decisions about how interactive we want to be.  As Dr. Bonnie Henry put it, we will have to decide our own level of risk tolerance.

People take chances all the time. In fiction, we need our characters to do exactly that. I’ve started reading a suspense novel, Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter. It’s fast-paced and gritty and so far, the main character is taking a lot of chances. I’m okay with it because she’s well-motivated and the action is plausible. There are times in books or movies, however, when a character goes too far and deliberately walks into danger when there’s absolutely no reason for it. In the writing community, we refer to that character as being TSTL – too stupid to live.  But if risk tolerance is well-motivated that’s a different thing. In the Slaughter novel the character is young and under pressure; she’s terrified for her mother and acting in the heat of the moment. It all goes to plausibility and it works for me even though I’m naturally risk-averse.

Take the black bears, for instance. They’re back in our neighborhood. Not just one, but five. At least. There’s a mama and two cubs. A solitary male that’s been described as ‘a very large boy’ and two juveniles who travel together and like to knock over compost bins. Clearly the bear equivalent of teenagers. And if my neighbor to the east is to be believed there’s another one roaming around too, for a count of six.

Just last week we had to turn back on the trail while walking Team Sheltie because the lone big boy was up ahead. Yesterday morning, we narrowly missed the two juveniles having a go at the compost bins one street over. A few hours ago, we saw signs of a recent bear visit on the other side of our back fence. I’m watchful and uneasy. Bears pose a risk I’m not inclined to tangle with.

Yet some people feel quite differently. One neighbor finds it thrilling to know they’re so close. Her back yard isn’t fenced and she enjoys it when they wander through. Mind you, she enjoys them from the safety of her house. Another neighbor, Richard, was so intrigued when he spotted the large loner bear on the trail the other day that he followed him. Yes, you read that right. He followed the black bear for ten minutes at least, giving the animal enough space so he didn’t feel threatened but close enough to allow Richard a decent view.

Richard was born and raised on acreage in South Africa where wildlife was common. Respect and common sense are key, he said. To him, following a black bear on a paved trail with houses nearby felt quite tame. He indulged his curiosity, stepping into what he considered a minimally risky situation.

No wonder I’ve been thinking about risk tolerance. I can’t bear the thought of taking those kinds of chances.  

And So the Story Grows

plottingimageI have no shortage of ideas for novels. In fact, I have files of story ideas going back two decades. They’re filled with random scraps of paper, detailed notes, newspaper clippings and magazine articles, even transcriptions of interviews I did as a journalist for the CBC.

Ideas are cheap, easy, and beautifully compelling, like that picture of an impressive 9-layer chocolate ganache cake you might see on Pinterest. Make me! the cake says. I’m impressive and delicious and everyone will love me. Book ideas may not come cloaked in ganache (a serious flaw, in my opinion) but they have the same shiny draw as a gorgeous cake.

Only you can knock off a cake, even a complicated one, in a day or two. It’s impossible (for me at least) to do that with a novel.

I looked through my files the other day. Mostly what I have are plot points – ideas for situations and events – and stories are so much more. I thought about that after coming home from the Red Door last month where the five of us brainstormed a new Laura Tobias book (thanks, ladies!). I came away with the skeleton of a situation and the sparks of two characters.

Those sparks are key because most of my stories are character driven. Before I even start to write I need to know how my character will change over the course of the book. How will he or she be different when the story ends than they are when the story opens? The plot matters of course – it determines what will happen along the way – but the character is the one making the journey. The character is who I care about and who I want my readers to care about too. So I’m spending some time getting to know my new characters. I’m not so much plotting as I am gestating. It takes time, space, silence. And the occasional slice of a decadent chocolate cake doesn’t hurt either.




This Little Pinkie Went to Market

finger in bandageGrocery shopping is an extreme sport. Who knew? I had too much on my mind last week (too many story ideas colliding in my brain; more about that in another blog) and I was in a hurry to get everything out of the cart and onto the counter at the checkout. Unfortunately, my baby finger took the brunt of my impatience because I tried to leave it between the spokes of the cart when I walked over to talk to the cashier.

I didn’t know such a little appendage could twist quite that way. Or hurt quite that much. Mr. Petrol Head wasn’t impressed with my whimpering, possibly because the finger looked pretty much normal there for a while. And how much damage can you do to a baby finger anyway, he asked? If the swelling and stormy colors are any indication apparently quite a bit. I’ll spare you the ugly. Just take my word for it. So today, after three days of splinting it to the neighboring finger (at the doctor’s suggestion), I took myself off for an X-Ray (also at the doctor’s suggestion). I don’t think it’s broken (from a grocery cart? Hardly possible) but that little baby is not happy.

Meantime, I have some pretty new office supplies waiting for when it feels better. It may not be back to school time in my house anymore but September is always a good time for a fresh start.

School supplies bottom border on a chalkboard background

It’s All About the Tingle, Baby

Woman with Goose Bumps on ArmAuthor Monique Polak visited Vancouver Island not long ago and I was lucky enough to hear her speak. Polak, who is also a college teacher, is the talented author of 17 books for teens, an active freelance journalist, and she’s a dynamic presenter too. The night she spoke to the Victoria Literature Roundtable, she focused on writing for teens. She shared with us how she began her journey, some of the challenges she faced, and what it takes to get to the final draft. Much of what she said resonated deeply. I wasn’t the only author in the audience and most of us nodded our heads more than once.

And when she mentioned the tingle, there was a collective nod from every writer there.

She was talking about the tingle that comes after hearing or seeing something and then asking: ‘what if?’ Like the time Monique heard a local mayor angrily stating that they’d find the person responsible for the acts of arson plaguing their community no matter what it took and ‘that person would pay dearly.’ Hearing that, Monique immediately thought ‘what if the arsonist is his son?’ That’s when she felt the tingle. And the goosebumps rising on her arms or the shiver going down her spine is Monique’s signal that there’s a story to be told. A story she has to tell. It may not be what the publishers are looking for or a topic that’s particularly in vogue, but it’s the starting gate that she’s meant to walk through on her next writing adventure. That incident, by the way, led Monique to write Pyro.

When it comes to the tingle, I’m exactly the same. Whether it’s a conversation I overhear while I’m at the dentist, a piece of trivia I read on a sign outside a provincial park, a few lines in a newspaper story, or even the sight of an owl perching in my pear tree at dusk when I let the dogs out after dinner, the creative wheel starts to turn. If I feel the tingle, I know I have a story idea.

That tingle is more than a clue. It’s an ignition switch, if you will. Kindling to kick start the process. Properly fed and fanned and stoked, that tingle will, with luck, build to a flame that will burn as long as it takes to get the story down, and revise, and revise again.

It takes enthusiasm and optimism to start a novel. It takes a great deal of sustained energy to finish one. And when you start with the tingle, you have much better odds of making it to the end.

Simple Strawberry Pie

fullstrawberrypie.jgpFor our family, strawberry pie signals the start of summer. My mother-in-law began the tradition years ago with a simple strawberry pie my daughter fell in love with. It’s an easy, throw together dessert that’s way too high in sugar and relies on Jell-O as a key ingredient. If my daughter hadn’t asked me to take over when my mother-in-law stopped making it, it probably wouldn’t have crossed my radar.

But she did so I do and it’s become something of a tradition to have in our house around Canada Day. That time of year when fresh strawberries are at their best.  Served with vanilla ice cream or whipping cream, it mimics the red and white of the Canadian flag, which is another reason I usually make it on or around July 1st.

It’s funny how fiction and life intertwine. My current WIP features a teenage heroine who wants to be a chef. In the process of planning a special meal with fussy little tartlets for dessert, she’s forced to ditch that plan and make this strawberry pie instead.

Child’s play it is. But child’s play never tasted so good.


strawberrypieslice                                Mary’s Strawberry Pie

Butter a deep dish pie plate or tart tin and set aside (I use a Pyrex pie plate that’s 9 ½ inches/24 cm across and 2 inches/5cm deep).





1 cup/240 mL Graham cracker crumbs

1 cup/240 mL ground almonds

1/3 cup/80 mL butter

¼ cup/60 mL white sugar

In a large bowl, mix together graham cracker crumbs, ground almonds and white sugar. Melt butter. Blend into crumb mix until it appears pebbly. Press mixture into buttered pie plate or tart tin. Freeze. The crust can be made a day or two ahead of time.


5 cups (1.18 litres) fresh strawberries

3 oz/85 grams strawberry Jell-O

1 cup/240 mL white sugar

1 cup/240 mL water

In a medium saucepan, combine Jell-O powder, sugar and water. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil vigorously for 1 minute. Remove from heat and pour into a large bowl. Cool to room temperature (I put it in the fridge for a few minutes while I prepare the strawberries). Clean strawberries and remove green tops. Make sure they are dry. Remove cold crust from the freezer. Place strawberries inside the crust, pointed tips up. When the Jell-O mixture is room temperature, carefully pour over the strawberries. Refrigerate for an hour or two until set.


Story Planting


Picture 005I’m working by the pond whenever I can these days. In between watching the dragonflies flit from lily pad to lily pad I’m finishing copy edits and revisions for Flavor of the Week. I’m also spitting out the first few chapters of a new YA, tentatively titled One Good Deed.

It’s busy, both in the garden and in the office (even the outside one), but that’s typical for this time of year.

As I plant seeds and seedlings in the vegetable bed and story seeds on paper, there’s a sense of anticipation in the air. Harvest may be many months away, but it’s coming. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the work.  Picture 009


Weekly Eavesdropping Turns up a Winner

140474989My favorite overheard piece of conversation this week: The problem was I couldn’t get past his nostrils.

I’m not making this up. That’s what person one said to person two. The two people in question probably didn’t know I was eavesdropping. If they did, I doubt they would have cared. What kind of nostrils did he have, you ask?

The better question is who said this anyway?

What if it was a doctor trying to explain to a parent why he couldn’t get past the nostril to get at the piece of Lego jammed into their son’s nasal passage? Or a zoo maintenance guy explaining to his boss why he hadn’t treated the giraffe’s ear infection yet? Or a casting director telling the producer why he passed on the guy who nailed the reading but chose the guy having a bad hair day instead?

But no. It wasn’t anything quite so dramatic. It was – you guessed it – two women rehashing the details of last night’s date over a cup of coffee. She couldn’t get past his nostrils. She wasn’t going out with him again, end of story.

I guess they were . . . you know . . . seriously bad nostrils. Or else she’s seriously picky. But as her friend told her, “you can’t judge all guys by their noses.” And then she suggested, “You need to get out there and try harder.”

She might want to get on that. Good men can be hard to find. Especially when you’re eighty-five. 6174881770_1745778aac

The Steps We Take

step by stepI just finished reading Step by Step, A Pedestrian Memoir, by Lawrence Block. It’s a combination memoir, travel piece and journal of his years as a race walker. I’ve read Block forever (I loved his column in Writer’s Digest). He’s funny and insightful. I expected a great read and I got one. I especially enjoyed his recollection of his unlikely pilgrimage along the Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

As I read the book I was reminded again of that link between creativity and movement, especially walking. Author Brenda Ueland regularly walked up to 9 miles a day (she was a prolific writer and she lived to be a healthy 93). Thoreau would ramble for miles through the forest every day too. Author Barbara Samuel titled her blog after her love of walking (A Writer Afoot:http://www.barbarasamuel.com/barbarasblog  and she has spoken often of how important a regular walking habit is to her writing practice.

I walk several times a day with Team Sheltie, often with my partner or my son. It’s never a race walk. Depending on the friskiness of the dogs, it’s sometimes more of an amble. But it becomes a time for sharing confidences, or working through a story problem or hatching plans for the future. Or maybe simply a time to enjoy the changing seasons: the smell of lilacs in spring, wood smoke infused air in fall.

Author Julia Cameron calls walking a potent form of prayer. She says it leads us, a step at a time, and gives us a gentle path. Walking leads me, a step at a time, into my own creativity. Not every day perhaps, but often enough to keep me going back for more.
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