Tag Archives: writing fiction



This is actually Sable Island off Nova Scotia, not my island.

The old adage goes, “Curiosity killed the cat,” and while that may be true for hapless felines, it is not true for anyone who writes fiction.  Curiosity is like oxygen.  It breathes new life into old, tired storytellers.  Like me.

Yesterday, for reasons I cannot now recall, I was perusing Google maps.  I was off the East coast of the U.S. when I discovered an unfamiliar landmass off the coast of ______.  I’m being deliberately vague here because if I disclosed what state, I might get into trouble.

Curiosity led to further digging; the landmass is a privately owned island.  Not that this is a particularly remarkable discovery – there are loads of them up and down the east coast.  Further curiosity revealed that this particular island has been owned by the same family, uninterrupted by wars, deaths, and lawsuits for hundreds of years.

Hmmmmm…private island, ancestral lineage, old money, persistent eccentricities…I smell a story.

Enter practicality, if just for a moment.  I’m not a historical fiction writer; I cannot fathom tackling the saga of such a family through the centuries.  I’m more interested (curious, if you will) about the culture clash between the generations of such a dynasty.  Immediately, I thought of all the eccentric characters I knew growing up on the coast.  Salt air breeds not only rust but decidedly colourful people.

My mind is swimming from the mainland out to this island. A mere speck on the map, its sandy shores are barely holding their own above the rising tides. A slightly crazy patriarch.  His daughter and son – both of whom left the island wanting to discover the “real” world on the mainland.  A cast of eccentric relatives.  A family at the mercy of the tides and time.  Run-ins with storms and the Coast Guard.  A history of piracy (rumoured).  A scandal from a hundred years ago.  Bagpipes.  Shoals.  Learning to accept (and love) the family you’ve got no matter how crazy they are.

Yeah.  I’m turning off the phone.  I’m going to be busy this afternoon…I’ll be on my own private island.

Writing the Hurt


My favourite scene from a Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie whose title I’ve forgotten is when she sits at her computer, sobbing buckets.  She is a writer and as such, she can do nothing else but write about her most unfortunate liaison with Jack, a gut-wrenching episode in her life.  She cries so much her computer is in danger of short-circuiting from salt water damage, she sits in a sea of Kleenex.  It is hilarious.  It struck a chord with every writer who saw it.

That which is written from the heart or the deepest part of your gut is likely to be the most authentic work.  Truth in writing resonates with readers.

Such writing is painful.  Probably on a par with having your fingernails and toenails systematically plucked out while simultaneously being prodded with a hot poker.  Or, perhaps if you were possessed by a demon and had to undergo an exorcism by a particularly sadistic priest.  Or, being burned alive.

That’s the kind of pain I’m talking about.

Writing produced in such a way is the writing you will have to hide from family members or publish under a nom de plume because invariably its about them – unless you’re very, very brave.  But that’s ok.  Nom de plumes are fun – I’ve already got three myself.

Writing the hurt is worth the pain.  The process is difficult.  I’ve paced countless footsteps in front of my desk, pushed myself away from the keyboard because it felt as though the keystrokes burned my fingers – the words hurt so much.  I’ve agonized – is it too much?  How can I say that?  Why does my mind go there?

What is this weird desperate need for attention that prompts writers to reveal, through the vehicle of fiction, their deepest fears and sufferings to total strangers? I sometimes think therapy would be healthier…

Mining For Gold


Our recent road trip – the “Going Home Tour 2012,” (among its more polite nicknames) – stirred up a whole barrel full of memories.  As I wandered up K Street one steamy evening (only slightly lost), I wondered why I hadn’t used more of my past in my writing.  Oprah has her “Ah-hah moments.”  Mine was more of a “Duh!” moment.

I was born at George Washington University Hospital in 1961; the city – and my nation – saw huge upheavals of change in the Sixties.  Of course I don’t remember all things clearly but so many events were a backdrop to my childhood – JFK’s assassination, the civil rights marches on Washington, MLK’s speech, RFK’s death, the Vietnam protests, Watergate – Washington played a central role in all of that history and I was there, more or less.

There was a period in my  late 20’s to early 30’s where things got a little blurry.  My mother had just passed away and I was left with equal parts grief, guilt, and money.  These ingredients combined rather neatly into a period of binge partying and shopping (often at the same time).

I remember (vaguely) nights drinking in Georgetown and Adams Morgan, bad decisions regarding men, not being able to find my car the next day and walking out of a rest room in one of Washington’s best restaurants with my gauzy black skirt firmly tucked into my stockings.  If Mayor Barry hadn’t been…um…otherwise distracted back then, he might have invited me to live elsewhere.  I was Snookie with light hair and freckles.

I get a knot in my stomach at those memories but I shouldn’t shy away from them.  I should dive right in and create something.

Childhood summers were spent on the Outer Banks. Those sandy barrier islands are where most of my childhood’s happy memories come from.  In the works is a trilogy of short stories set in different villages there:  Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Nag’s Head.  Seriously, who can resist those names?  Beaches are great settings for those mini-soap operas that often unfold during summer vacations.

Last week, as we drove across the Wright Memorial Bridge, memories came blasting back.  My husband commented later that it was obvious I was re-living some of my youth.  I ran up and down giant sand dunes, I played in the surf, I smiled a lot.  Not all memories were happy but that’s ok.  Material is material; all of it should be embraced.

New York: what can I say?  Though I consider NYC an old friend, not all memories from there are Hallmark moments.  As I walked by the McGraw-Hill Building, I cringed visibly at the memory of a rather disastrous job interview.  When I was 12, my mother put me on the Metroliner from DC with cab fare pinned into the hem of my dress.  She schooled me on how to hail a taxi and told me to be rude and fake an accent.  I did ok.  But would I put my 12-year-old on a train for New York City nowadays?  I shake my head then ponder a story…

There was a guy (isn’t there always?) from the New York area. There are less-than-stellar memories surrounding his family.  They were well-to-do Upper East Side types; they had money and connections.  I was a hick girl from DC.  I was Nobody.  For a very brief moment in time, I was connected to the Somebodys.  And then, suddenly, it was midnight and I was left with some mice and a pumpkin…I grin mischievously at the thought of a scathing little story about them but I must be careful there.  Upper East Side types are notoriously litigious.

Despite my exhaustion from driving, visiting, and sightseeing, I realize this trip was a mining expedition.  Before, I was all worked up about “going home again.”  Going home again as an outsider is fine – especially if you’re a writer.  Such a position offers the perfect blend of perspective and recollection.

In the dark, damp caves of memory are thick veins of pure, pure gold – just waiting to be extracted.  Now, where’s that pickaxe?

Fun with Mythical Creatures


Think of modern-day mythical creatures and a few might top the list:

  • Loch Ness Monster
  • Bigfoot
  • Yeti
  • Ogo-Pogo (Lake Okanagan’s version of Nessie)
  • Beast of Burnham Thorpe

These are just the ones I’ve heard of.  When I Googled “Modern-Day Mythical Creatures” there is a website (of course) and a list of over 120 such beasts.  Some are known; some are just plainly ridiculous.  Others  have logical explanations.

I have always been intrigued by stories of mysterious big cats.  Watery lizards, even though first accounts date back to the 6th Century, just aren’t my thing.  Nothing personal, Nessie.

Cats, even our domesticated pets, are elusive by nature.  Certain breeds like the snow leopard in the Himalayas, are notoriously difficult to catch sight of. Thus the idea of a mythical, mysterious cat is not difficult for one’s imagination to grasp.


I dunno…

Easier, perhaps, than the idea of a giant ape-man like Bigfoot.  At least for me.

About 20 years ago, I had a very strange dream about a mythical cat that lived in a far northern land.  The dream had a blurry, other-worldly air to it.  When I woke up, I knew the dream had to be written though it has taken me two decades to make it happen.

I am a superstitious Banshee; I do what the writing gods tell me to.  This tale has stuck with me for a reason and nothing happens by accident

I’m of two minds about these modern-day mythical creatures like the Yeti and Nessie.  My childlike self wants to believe in faeries – my very Celtic childhood was full of stories about water horses, banshees, and assorted other little folk.  I still walk around faerie mounds and I taught my children to as well.  However, I just read that a man in Scotland has spent 60 hours a week for the last 26 years gazing into the dark waters of Loch Ness…waiting.  Hmmm…I don’t think I could do that.

Every culture has their myths, faerie tales, and folklore – we should embrace and protect such stories.  They don’t have to be taken as truths but as threads that connect us to our past.  After reading up on sightings of “mysterious” cats in northern England and Scotland, my creature now has a home – maybe in the remote wild country around Glencoe – a locale steeped in myth all on its own.  Just traveling through that valley I get goosebumps, no big cat required.

I will conjure a raw, icy wind and bring down a curtain of snow…there…did you see it?  Was it?  A shadow, a deeper shade of white, off in the distance…

Insert mysterious creature here…

Wandering With a Purpose


Writers, as a breed, are keen observers. Mostly this skill comes naturally but it doesn’t hurt to hone it.  I try to practice daily by taking a walk.

My walks are not slow meanders; they are purposeful, mindful efforts to get exercise and to clear my head of clutter and noise. I walk at a good clip but I take in everything around me – mostly because I’m worried about falling into a hole or getting mugged.

A sampling of today’s observations:

  • Pale woman, tangled dark hair thrown haphazardly into a pile on top of her head.  She has a stony, determined look on her face as she walks.  She is pushing a double stroller laden with two squirming youngsters.  Her smile is more like a grimace.
  • An angry woman.  How do I know she’s angry?  From a block away, I can hear her slamming the front door of her house, as I get closer I see her ripping open the outer screen door with such force I fully expect it to go flying into the yard.  She is pushing, pulling what look like moving boxes onto the front stoop.  There is no one helping her.  A VW bus is parked at the curb.  The germ of a story begins to form…either she or her soon-to-be-ex-husband are sleeping in that van tonight.
  • A man, Mediterranean descent, walks a good ten yards ahead of his very young daughters, one dressed in a sparkly tutu.  I know part of his story instantly – he is on “kid duty” this morning, charged with getting the girls to their day camp at the local school.  His wife is on the cool sand of the beach, partaking in an early morning yoga class…or maybe…she is farther away.  Much.

On these walks I empty my mind of all the mundane bullshit that usually resides there. What I see pours in.  Sure, I keep a wary eye out for uneven sidewalks, muggers, and suspicious dogs but mostly I look around and wonder.  I wonder about the houses, the people, their pets, their garden plantings and so forth.

A thin ribbon of roadway separates my neighbourhood from the wealthier section closer to the lake.  The houses double in size and double in price the closer to the water I get.  Cars in the driveways go from minivans to Range Rovers.  Front yard plantings get more manicured.  The stories set here can be infinitely complicated and interesting.  I love inserting scandal – it’s like icing on a warm cinnamon bun.

I make it a point to walk by one house every morning.  I call it my house in a quasi-delusional way.  It is a grand house with a superb location.  One of the original beach “cottages,” this structure is way more mansion than cottage.  Constructed of clapboard, it is a stately Victorian complete with wraparound porches and a turret.  I’ve furnished it in my head and of course, my writing retreat is on the top floor of the turret in a canopy of trees. In winter I would have an unobstructed view of the lake.

There’s something curious about this house.  I’ve walked by it for nearly three years, in all seasons.  I have never, ever seen anyone in the yard.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s not abandoned.  Quite the opposite; it is immaculately maintained.  But there is no evidence of humanity – no garden tools left leaning on the porch, no children’s toys or bikes, not even a car left outside the little detached garage.  Its generous porches are devoid of comfortable chairs, hammocks or even a stool for sitting on.

If that house were mine…oh boy, it would look loved, lived in and probably a lot worse for wear.  But damn, the gin and tonics I would serve on those porches would be killer.

Today I encountered a woman walking a black dog. On another day I encountered at least half a dozen people – all walking black dogs.  One woman struck me in particular.  She was walking ever so slowly. The dog ambled ahead with no leash.  There was something about her body language that projected deep sadness.  I wondered and wondered about her as I walked home.

“The Black Dog” is now being sent out to various places, hopefully to be published soon.

Every day brings the potential for another idea, a spark, a story born of a wander and a bit of wonder.



The Reunion of Truth


Today, I have little to report from yet another extraordinary day at the Humber College Summer Writer’s Workshop not because it wasn’t extraordinary (you have no idea how long it took me to type that word correctly).  All the days have been so.  Today, though was notable for at least three reasons – but all for me personally.

  1. Our class, led by Alistair MacLeod, did not shred, eviscerate, mangle, or otherwise destroy my submission as I feared they would.  In fact, they all rather liked it or they said they did and that’s good enough for me.
  2. MacLeod actually used the words “love” with regard to the piece.  No, he didn’t say “I love this story!” but he did say things like, “I love the way you placed the character here,” or “I love the way you illustrated the scene there.”  Stuff like that – just enough to send me over the moon and back.
  3. The venerable MacLeod gave a reading of his short story “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” to the entire assembly.  His rich baritone made the words come alive, prose became poetry and roughly eighty souls were lifted in unison for twenty minutes.

The workshop ends tomorrow.  I am ready and I am not.  My brain is full to bursting; I truly believe I cannot take much more and yet I am loath to see it end.  One of the literary agents and I got to chatting this afternoon; she asked what I was working on.  I described it (badly) and she still said that I should give her a call.

Now, to The Reunion of Truth:  because I was in a state of very high anxiety on the drive to Humber this morning, I devised a little game to distract myself.  The game involves writing a story in my head.  By the time I got from the east end of Toronto to the far western Hinterlands where Humber is located, I had invented a big story about an extended family who are called together for a rather bizarre reunion.  It might not amount to much but we’ll see.  Every spare minute found me scribbling in my notebook.

A good day, all in all.

A Complicated Confession


Day 4?  I’m not sure anymore.  After a long apres-lunch walk by the lake, I was anxious to hear the afternoon speakers – David Bezmozgis, Miriam Toews, and a senior editor from Knopf Random House.

Bezmozgis, writer of both short stories and novel, talked about the different processes he uses to write in both worlds.  It was interesting to hear now that he’s written a novel he has a hard time writing short stories. One would think that after running the marathon, a sprint would be a piece of cake.  Not so for him.  I wonder if this is true for others?

Miriam Toews…Funny thing about Ms Toews.  Only yesterday, I spoke rather strongly about her book, A Complicated Kindness to one of my classmates. Not in a particularly good way.

Note: I am a Banshee of very little brain sometimes and in my defense, I have evolved as a reader since I was given that particular book.  Before, I was a reader of habit.  In literary terms, I was stuck in a rut for…hmmm…let’s see…decades.  I read historical fiction, chick lit, the occasional mystery…are you snoring yet?  Yeah, it was bad. I read books that were the literary equivalent of mac and cheese – pure comfort food.

When I began to get serious about writing, I joined a book club. I didn’t like the people in my club or the books they read so that didn’t last. I was there for the wine, the nibblies, and the evening away from my kids.

However, it was there that I was exposed to a little book called Blindness, which ironically, was a real eye-opener for me.  It was horrible, violent, disturbing, and somehow irresistible.  Having gotten through that book, I of course said yes when a young woman in my office recommended A Complicated Kindness.

Maybe it was too soon.  Maybe I hadn’t dug myself far enough out of my literary rut to appreciate the story,its dark humour and its offbeat voice.  As I read it, gritting my teeth, I wondered:  am I just too old to get this story, this protagonist?  I finished it, tossed it on the floor beside my bed, and thought grim, unflattering things about the whole matter.

There are painful issues brought up and confronted in this novel – a mother who disappears, a father who cannot cope and becomes intractably sad, a teenage girl left to basically fend for herself.  My former stuck-in-a-rut self loathed reading about sad things, complicated things (especially if they dealt with children).  It wasn’t the book, it was me.

Today the Writer’s Workshop was lucky enough to have Miriam Toews give a talk on “Mining the Family in Literature.” After listening to her speech, I found the woman I had not recommended the book to and said, “Get thee to a bookstore and buy that book.  Now.”  In the 45 minutes that the author spoke about her background, the importance of an authentic voice, her family, the Mennonite community she was raised in, I got it.  I got the whole book in a flash of delayed insight.  Damn, I’m slow.

Not everyone has the opportunity hear an author talk about their work in person; however, if you do, leap at the chance (don’t leap on authors – they are a skittish species.  Dust will fly and your book will remain unsigned).  Ms. Toews was refreshing (she did a mock interview with herself instead of giving a boring speech), funny, and all-round lovely.  Hearing her speak about her work changed my view of it or, at least made me willing to give it another chance.

The senior editor at Knopf Random House had many insightful things to say, not the least of which was:  great writing breaks rules.  Light bulbs could be heard popping on in brains all around me.


Self-Protective Homicidal Tendencies


Day 2, Humber Summer Workshop and two things occurred to me on the long drive home.  First, I may have to accost Alistair MacLeod and this makes me sad because already I like him very much.  Two, this course is so all-encompassing that I barely know how to drive when class is dismissed.  I hardly recognize my family when I walk through the door.

I guess I should explain about why I might have to not only accost Dr. MacLeod but rob him as well – after only just meeting him.

He is a literary icon here in Canada.  Things occur to him that don’t occur in my mere mortal brain.  Important storytelling things.  In the hour that he spoke to us, his students for the week, I realized (in blinding Technicolor) how inadequate my writing is.  I could give you details but they are just too horrible to divulge.

He spoke softly but devastatingly about theme, scene, and characters.  It was then I began to wonder how to get my story away from him.  As the class ended he placed my papers (along with the six others) in his charmingly scuffed book bag.  I fought back a very strong urge to knock the dear old man down, grab his bag and run for the lake. Knocking down a literary icon seemed, for a split second, a rational act for this fifty year old writer, wife, mother of two teens, and normally law-abiding citizen. Ok, except for those speeding tickets in Alberta.

Knocking the old guy down was the best I could come up with – see how unimaginative I am?

The next 3 days might be agony (we’re going alphabetically – I’m somewhere in the middle of the pack). I cannot bear to look at the fifteen pages I submitted for fear of discovering more inadequacies.  Sweet Jesus, give me strength.

The piece I submitted was not one  in which I’d lost any blood, sweat or tears over. Big fat lie.  I wrote it, therefore I am naturally, organically invested in it.  Like, on a cellular level.  I don’t care if any of my classmates eviscerate me; I worry about Alistair.

I worry that he will take me aside – after class, because he is polite – pat my hand in a paternal way, give his head a slight shake and say gently, “Oh…my dear.  What shall we do about…this?”

On a brighter note, the morning lectures were very interesting for me but perhaps excruciating for twenty others.  Two editors from “big houses” went through twenty anonymous submissions at the speed of light (as editors must), passing a yes or no judgment on each.

I learned something about editors today:  the story – the hint, the shadow, the possibility of a good story sometimes can save sloppy writing.  Editors are like very busy cats. Cats cannot ignore their most primal instinct:  curiosity.  The more you intrigue an editor – genuinely, honestly and not with any clichés or tricks – the more pages you might get him/her to turn.  The more pages they turn, the better chance your manuscript will live another minute out of the slush pile.

In ten years, one of the editor has only pulled ONE manuscript from the slush pile.

Editors, I learned, hate clichés.  They also hate adjectives.  They hate stories that start with the weather.  “The  hot sun beat down on the crowd mercilessly.”  They like simple, direct writing that is fresh, that describes something mundane in a new way.  They don’t mind being shocked but you’d better be able to live up to your own hype.

They’re busy people.  Don’t make them work too hard to figure out what the hell you’re talking about.  Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, spoke in the afternoon about how story truth is sometimes more true than real truth.  Story truth is emotional truth.  He made me cry.  He cried.  It was great.  Real truth can be pretty boring; fiction better not be.

To Be or Not To Be…A Mystery


Being a surgeon is a lonely business requiring the stamina of a marathoner.  This is true especially if the surgeon is operating alone with no nurses or assistant surgeons. The operating theatre is cold and necessarily sterile (although I admit to spilling coffee on the patient this morning). I feel like I’ve been at the operating table a long time and I’m not through yet.  The Novel’s internal organs are spread out all over the place.  It’s kind of messy but I feel that good progress on the inner workings of the story is being made.


Something strange is happening.

The timbre of the story is changing albeit in a very subtle way.  There’s an air of anticipation, of…dare I say it…suspense.  The arc of the story is more complex. I’m excited to see where it goes.  I’m enjoying dropping hints, toying with my (imaginary at this point) readers as to what will happen next.  It opens up the question of what is this story turning into?  Is it just a drama with an air of suspense or is it a mystery involving two families?  I have no idea…yet.

There are layers – layers that have formed after countless hours of daydreaming.  You don’t often hear of daydreaming surgeons (thankfully) but writer-surgeons are different.  The daydreams are making the difference.  I always knew my teachers were wrong for criticizing my penchant for getting lost in thought.

Focused contemplation is something I often don’t relax enough to do. My mind wanders a lot but this is different.  It’s concentration that requires relaxation – an odd dichotomy.  Oh, wait.  Sounds like meditation (which, historically, I suck at).  It’s different from dithering – which I’m quite expert at.  Call it disciplined dithering if you like.

The whole exercise is like walking on eggshells.

During the concentrated, relaxed focusing, I try not to worry the story too much (meaning interfere, nag, drag down with my own paranoia).  In other words, I can’t mother it too much.  Every time I find myself nagging it, I get up from the table and walk away.  I do my worrying away from the keyboard.  To the casual observer, I am an aimless wandering daydreamer.  Not true.

There is nothing aimless about this strangest of processes,but how to explain to those who aren’t in the operating room with me? It seems I spend equal time justifying my characters actions to myself and justifying my own actions to others.  No wonder my brain gets tired; by the end of a day I can’t speak or write.

In spite of the balancing act, the story is strong; the prognosis is good.  I only wish I had a nurse or assistant to fetch cappuccino for me while I operate…

Scalpel, Please!


Have you ever noticed that most surgeries happen very early in the morning?  I’ve always wondered/worried about that.  Is the surgeon really awake?  Has he had his coffee?  A good, nutritious breakfast?  Did he have an argument with his teenage daughter right before he backed the Mercedes out of the garage?

I should talk.  Here I am, in the wee hours of the morning (well, not really but it sounds so much more dramatic) with no caffeine in my system, contemplating surgery.  My victim patient is already well under anesthesia which isn’t really necessary as it’s just a bunch of words.

Ah, yes.  Time for a little cosmetic surgery on The Novel.  Cosmetic surgery like…you know…some celebrities have had.  In other words, a lot.

I’ve been walking around the patient for a couple of days now.  In truth, I have been walking up to it then scurrying away, frightened to death about what to do, what I must do.  I truly hope real-life surgeons don’t behave this way.  I’m sure they’ve got everything all mapped out before they pull on those snappy latex gloves.  Well, pretty sure.

I’ve been keeping some distance between me and the patient for other reasons besides naked fear.  I’ve been contemplating the best place to begin.  I’ve been contemplating whether it needs just a nip and tuck or an amputation.  I’ve wondered if perhaps a transplant would work – after all, there are at least six versions of this same story on my computer.  I’m quite fond of some of them; not so fond of the whole thing.

Yes!  That’s it! (Cue really horrendous German/Transylvanian accent)  I have come up with an ingenious plan (cue crazy laughter).  I will build a literary Frankenstein!  It will be a masterpiece!!! (cue more crazy laughter)

Ok, you know what this is going to look like, don’t you?  Like the result of a failed quilting class.

Maybe the Frankenstein idea isn’t so good.  More thought might be required.  It’s just that I’m impatient.  I want to get this thing fixed, sewn up, and back in action.  I don’t want to spend all summer in the operating room listening to the incessant beep of the heart/lung machine as it struggles to keep the patient alive.

Kids, this is what happens to a novel written without a plan.  A clear case of trying to run before walking (see word “impatient” above).  Because this story has been in my head for so long, I thought all I had to do was wave my hands over the keyboard and it would materialize magically. Some of it did.  Some of it didn’t.  It now has three eyes, fifteen legs, and it can no longer breathe on its own.  Hence the need for surgery.

I’m wondering if it needs more sophisticated care than I can give it?  I wonder if Dr. Sanjay Gupta is available…he’s a neurosurgeon and adorable to boot.  I’ll just make some coffee and call CNN…