Victory lap

Another November has wrapped up, and I’m very pleased to once again have achieved the 50,000-word milestone with Book 2 in my urban fantasy/sci-fi trilogy.

This contest felt different than last year’s. I started Book 2 armed with the knowledge that I already have one completed book under my belt, so I knew i could finish before I even began. That’s one of the benefits of experience: you already know what you’re capable of. Next it’s time to find out how much you can grow.

I’d debated whether I wanted to start working on the second book before I heard back from all the beta readers for my first book. Maybe no one would even like Book 1. By the time I’d completed three edits, I was too close to the book to do anything other than email it to my test readers to see what their feedback was.

But Book 2 had lit its candle inside my head and refused to wait. This year, I found the first few chapters challenging in a way that I hadn’t last November: after the climactic ending of Book 1, how would I segue effectively into the next part of the story? Things heat up quite a bit in Book 2 — my protagonist has come to terms with her new life touched by the supernatural, but by the end of the first book she’d found herself in quite a pickle, and now more enemies are getting involved.

She has to think fast and evolve even faster, while trying to hold on to her own humanity. I’m having a blast writing Book 2, watching how my heroine handles everything that comes her way.

Last year I took a break from writing all through December and January, but not this year. I simply can’t lay the proverbial pen down this time.

My hubby has shared with me that he’s enjoying the book, even though it’s not his usual genre, but he’s saving more detailed comments until after he’s finished the entire thing. In between prep for the holidays, I’m waiting as patiently as possible for feedback from the beta readers, and I thank them all so much for devoting some of their precious time to help me.

I hope that all my readers are making some delightful plans for a little bit merrier holiday this year, while still staying safe and healthy. The pandemic hasn’t gone away — it’s evolving as well, so we must just keep plugging away as best as we can.

Time capsule fall festivals + photographic art

Fall festivals are some of our favourite activities — they combine great atmosphere, perfect weather for strolling, good food, beautiful colours, fallen leaves to shuffle through. Last year most festivals weren’t running, so this year’s batch are especially welcome.

The two we’ve attended so far couldn’t be more dissimilar; the only common denominator is that they perfectly captured a period in time, one in the late 1800s, the other a modern-day take on art-in-the-park.

I’m on the mailing list for the Royal Botanical Garden in Hamilton, Ontario. If you’ve been following my blog you know that it’s already one of my favourite places to chill out as well as take photographs, and I’m always excited to hear about special events. In early September I received notification of something really intriguing, called “Seeing the Invisible”, i.e. Augmented Reality Art. The marketing described it as:
“Visitors will engage …through an app downloadable to their smartphone or tablet and encounter 13 unique and interactive artworks dotting the…landscape…This cutting-edge AR platform forges new links between the RBG landscape and global artists, harnessing the power of art to connect people to the natural world.”

None of our group really had much idea of what to expect, though, until we got to the first piece of art. With the special app installed on our phone or tablet, when we were in proximity with the artwork, we were prompted to activate it, and suddenly we could see the image on our device: an enormous boulder floating in the air, which we could walk around, lie or crawl under, and have our photo taken with if so desired.

The artist was El Anatsui from Ghana, who produces works of art out of thousands of bottle caps wired together with copper, “thereby catalyzing the transformation of familiar, mundane objects into startlingly poetic works of art”.

There were thirteen art pieces in all, each with specific meaning and style. Some were accompanied by music; some could be walked into to see something different on the interior than the exterior. This piece by Timur Si-Qin was called Biome Gateway and represented a temple cave that connected the garden we were walking through with a parallel landscape on the inside:

The interior was quite startling, a “virtual sacred locus of contemplation”:

One of the most interesting pieces was a massive doughnut-shaped symbolic representation of the number zero and its impact on mathematics.

Apparently the work was originally created for the city of Abu Dhabi, with its diverse population embodying coexistence and peace. The surface of the entire piece is covered in geographic coordinates that represent all the countries of the world. I really liked the concept of this one.

My personal favourite, by Israeli artist Ori Gersht, was called Forget Me Not. It featured a large, visually spectacular arrangement of flowers:

,,, which, when a visitor was close enough to ‘touch’, then exploded, scattering petals through the air of the large lawn where the artwork was located:

It was meant to evoke the creation of the universe and the transience of everything on earth, and included a commentary by three scholars offering different interpretations, but I just enjoyed the effect of walking amid the flower fragments, which lingered in the air for quite a while:

The exhibit was specifically chosen to take place in botanical gardens, to connect nature, art and technology without disturbing the natural environment. It opened simultaneously in only eleven gardens around the world, and we were extraordinarily fortunate to be close to the only exhibit in Canada. If you’re interested in finding out more and perhaps finding a location you can reach, visit the Seeing the Invisible website.

The very next day we traveled back in time at Pioneer Day in Jordan, Ontario.

Jordan is a small community along Twenty Mile Creek that was the first Mennonite settlement in Canada. The settlers had come north from Pennsylvania in 1799, and with the rich soil they soon developed a flourishing agriculture community.

Today the village is charming and trendy in the midst of one of the premiere icewine destinations in Canada, but the festival celebrating the early pioneers in the Niagara Region has been running for 55 years, long before the region became a mecca for wineries. My father used to take us when I was a child, and I remember cool fall days watching apple butter being made in huge kettles over a wood fire, the scents of apples and wood smoke, crisp sausages on buns, and a great family day overall.

My hubby and I have continued going sporadically over the years, but this year in particular it seemed like a nice fall activity to do. There’s a brand new and very modern museum on the site, which perhaps detracts a bit from the back-in-time feel that I used to love as a child, but there were still plenty of old-time enjoyments.

An 1800s steam engine still going strong at the entrance
The Lincoln Concert Band added a nice musical backdrop to the event
Apples are still cooked down into thick, lush apple butter, although the fire underneath is a little less rustic than it used to be
Bushels of fresh apples waiting their turn
A replica of an old covered wagon — pretty uncomfortable looking, on the whole
A sample lesson in the original 1859 schoolhouse – a docent inside recruited children as volunteers for the lesson
A local blacksmith was creating heating metal in these coals to produce fireplace pokers
A very old headstone in the small Haines Cemetery, which holds the remains of early settlers
Freshly-made apple fritters drew a long lineup
One of the shopfronts in a quaint strip across from On the Twenty hotel, which is affiliated with the winery by the same name

The two festivals couldn’t have been more different, but they book-ended a lovely weekend in fine October weather. Let me just say, thank goodness for the coronavirus vaccines that are allowing us to gradually return to normality and the opportunity to attend events again.

I’m also very pleased to announce that some of my photographic art is now available for purchase as wall art or on a variety of products through my site on Fine Art America. If you’ve liked my work that you’ve seen in my blog posts, I’ll just mention that I’ve introduced a special collection called Gothic Dreams — art for anyone who has a darker side that especially comes out in October 😀 Please do check it out!

Have a Day of Imagination

Imagine that you’re spending the summer in a villa on Lake Geneva in 1816. The weather is terrible – it will become known as ‘the year without a summer’. In April the year before, a little-known volcano in Indonesia, Mount Tambora, erupted so powerfully that its ash cloud reached almost 27 miles high, into the Earth’s stratosphere, and it’s still affecting the world’s climate over a year later.

The days are dark, cold and rainy. Stuck inside the villa for the most part, your host Lord Byron suggests that, to pass the time, everyone there should come up with a good ghost story.

This is easier said than done – writers usually work from inspiration, not on command. Then one night you all spend an evening of discussion about the nature of life, and whether a corpse could be reanimated by applying enough electricity, based on the discoveries of Luigi Galvani just a few decades previously.

The gloomy weather and macabre discussion infect your thoughts. Perhaps you have a vision such as young Mary Shelley did:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

That imagined scenario prompted her to produce one of the most original horror stories ever written, Frankenstein.

What a rich life we lead when we use our imagination.

As kids we have nothing but our imaginations; we haven’t experienced much by the age of four, or seven, or even ten, so we make up wildly creative worlds to play in.

If we retain that capacity for crazy ideas and creative mental leaps, as adults we can come up with amazing concepts.

In the 1820s, Charles Babbage created his Difference Engine, basically a mechanical calculator, but it was the forerunner of our modern computers.

J.R.R. Tolkien created such a powerful alternate world, Middle-Earth, in his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stories that he continues to inspire generations of fantasy writers and readers to this day.

Albert Einstein famously developed the theory of relativity by first imagining what it would be like to travel so fast that he could catch up with a beam of light.

Several years ago at work I was on a committee to organize the annual Appreciation Day for staff. The morning schedule always included a team-building activity based on that year’s overall theme. One of the most successful activities we ever devised was inspired by the Harry Potter theme: build a dragon.

All the materials were provided. Since the activity was only 30 minutes long, we decided to give the teams a head start by demonstrating how to build the core of the dragon quickly with shoe boxes and tape; after that they could create the rest of the dragon as they wished. We had a big table strewn with all kinds of decorative materials, from pipe cleaners to feather boas, for them to use. There were no rules; we’d be judging the dragons based entirely on how cool and interesting they looked!

After the demo, we waited nervously to see if the teams could come to a consensus on how they wanted their dragon to look, or devolve into arguments, or decide the whole thing was too lame.

The room quickly erupted in sound and motion. It was clear that the teams were fully engaged and having an absolute blast.

When time was up, the creativity blew our committee away. Each dragon was completely different, and some departed entirely from the body mock-up we’d offered. We did award a prize, to much cheering, but I’m not sure it mattered because the staff had already enjoyed themselves so much.

In the past year, people were extremely creative during the pandemic lock-downs because there wasn’t much else to do while we, much like Mary Shelley and her companions in 1816, were stuck inside, but there’s no reason we can’t continue to think that way as the world slowly begins to move on.

There’s an event coming up this Saturday in New York City called the Day of Imagination. It’s described as “an ode to idealism — a space for the presentation of the most thrilling, ambitious, wildest “dream projects” of musical artists from across the world” – and it gave me the idea for this blog post.

While we’re still dealing with the ongoing effects of the pandemic and the continual bad news in the media, how about taking a break for our own personal Day of Imagination?

Regularly taking the time to engage our imaginations is healthy, even critical. It’s well known by science that stretching our brains is something we need to do, especially as we get older. For example, as reported by CNN, a study by neurologists in 2015 found that “people who engaged in artistic activities… were 73% less likely to have memory and thinking problems, such as mild cognitive impairment, that lead to dementia.”

If you took an entire day to just live in the realm of your imagination, what would you do?

Would you buy some materials and paint a picture, or go out into nature and photograph all kinds of little details you’ve never noticed before?

Would you read a book in a genre that’s new for you? Play with Lego blocks? Do some free-form writing in a journal? Start that vacation scrapbook you’ve been planning for years?

Would you, just for fun, do something way outside your wheelhouse? Maybe you might try your hand at writing a ghost story, or a horror story?

Albert Einstein, in an interview for the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, said, “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Step away from the troubles of the world for a day, whether it’s by yourself, or with friends or family, and spend a day being like children again. Sometimes they’re smarter than we are.

Just try this out, will you!

I’ve been working through a marketing book about honing your message, and one of the questions the book asked its readers was ‘What ticks you off more than anything?’

I had to think about that for a few minutes, since I have a number of pet peeves, like everyone. Eventually one thing particularly came to mind: people who always refuse things.

I’ll readily admit that my hubby and I are more adventurous than just about anyone we know personally. There’s very little we’ll say “no” to, whether it’s a new restaurant, a new activity, a new place to visit.

My mother-in-law said to us once, as we took her to a favourite restaurant in Toronto whose entrance was located down a back alley: “Where do you find these places?”

Well, I explained, a couple of years previously we’d arranged tickets to a theatre performance of Argentinian tango, and we thought it would be fun to have a themed dinner beforehand. I found a book on all the ethnic restaurants in the city, then looked up all the Latin or Spanish restaurants and picked one. It was a fortuitous choice and we’d been going there ever since. Best sangria ever!

In our house we have a standing rule: guests can’t refuse food without at least trying it. (Before they come over I always check on any food issues first, of course.) Once tasted, if someone doesn’t like the dish they certainly don’t have to finish it, but that rarely happens. Most food is delicious if it’s made well, and even if someone’s tried out a dish in a restaurant, that’s not a guarantee that they’ve had a good version of it.

All of us have likes and dislikes, as the interesting individuals we are, but so many people seem to have a much bigger negative list than positive.

Such a narrow little world they create for themselves. They won’t even give something new a chance, and really, how do you know if you’ll like something otherwise?

People who look for perfection and absolute order will always be disappointed. Half the fun of doing anything is being surprised by it – the random roadside café on a trip that served great food, the movie you didn’t expect much from that turned into great entertainment, an outfit that looked blah on the hanger but amazingly good when you tried it on (just bought one of those the other day, as a matter of fact 😊 )

Imperfection makes things interesting. Possibly our all-time favourite golf course is in rural Tennessee. It’s not upscale by any means – it could certainly use a little TLC around some of the greens – but the layout is spectacular and adventurous between and across two flowing rivers, and both times we’ve played there’s hardly been anyone else there. We love it so much that each time we travel down there we make a point of seeking it out.

Our favourite eateries tend to be family-run ethnic restaurants with really great, unpretentious food that feels like you’re eating at their home.

On trips we like to get away from our hotel and wander the streets in town to see what’s there – a great shop on a small street in Paris that had shelves and shelves of inks and writing instruments; food trucks along the harbour in Papeete, Tahiti, where we had fantastic small plates under awnings in the pouring rain; a shaman shop in Cuzco, Peru where I bought a cool carved and feathered gourd rattle.

What experiences we would have missed if we always looked for the posh and controlled! We’d never have met a group of school girls at a temple in Bangkok who asked if they could practice their English with us, or the little alpaca who wanted to have a taste of my hubby’s pant leg in Peru, or have rattled through the crazy dusty truck ride to find the local camel market in southern Egypt.

We’d have never had a Yorkshire barkeep explain what a “vicar’s collar” is (a poured beer with too much foamy head on it), or spent an evening on the banks of the Nile singing Egyptian folk songs with the boat crew, or even discussed our subsidized health system in Canada with an interested waiter in New Orleans.

Stop saying “no” to the unfamiliar, or the less-than-perfect. Approach everything with curiosity and an open mind, and you’ll never be bored. The world is full of fascinating things to explore, if you’re only willing enough to enjoy them exactly as they are.

Reflections

Apologies, folks — I was busily working on the final handful of chapters of my first novel and neglected to post my blog last night!

It’s now been about nine months since I took that first step in creating a book out of the ideas floating around in my head for years. I embarked on the NaNoWriMo November event last fall just to see if I could actually put together the first 50,000 words of a book. For many years there was one thought that held me back: what if I put a lot of time into a writing project and it goes nowhere. In other words, could I actually produce something cohesive to begin with, and see it through to completion?

The answer to that, of course, is that I would never find out if I didn’t try. So last fall I decided that I’d make the attempt — one month wasn’t too much to devote to it, and if I didn’t get anywhere, at least I would have given it a shot. But if I did get somewhere…

I joined one of the NaNoWriMo writing groups; there are hundreds of them in all kinds of configurations, for like-minded writers to chat and support each other. Mine was a small group, comfortable for sharing ideas and questions, and for cheering each other’s progress.

I had a very rough outline for the first novel of what will someday become a published trilogy, I hope — just the Inciting Incident, a few key points of the protagonist’s journey, and the climax. On November 1st I began writing.

When you announce your project on the NaNoWriMo site, your profile allows you to record your progress towards the ultimate goal of having written 50,000 words by the end of the month. I calculated how many words I’d need to write each day (on average) to achieve that goal — to me, that would be a measure of whether I could produce an entire book. And every day, I stuck to it.

You receive badges for a variety of milestones, including whether you write every day, and I wanted that badge to appear, because it meant that I was staying on track. Some might dismiss this approach as gamification, and it is, but as a novice novelist, I found it to be a great motivator.

Soon I had one full chapter under my belt, then a second, then more and more. As I wrote about my protagonist and the challenges she was facing, the story began to flesh itself out. More and more ideas kept popping into my head: what’s going to happen next, how will she react, what if this twist took place? The garden of my book kept growing, often in ways I didn’t anticipate.

My protagonist has taken me along on her journey, not the other way around. One of the things I discovered, and have enjoyed the most, is that the characters in the book have to a large extent taken on a life of their own. They are complete beings in my head, who often say and do things that surprise me, and that’s been one of the things that has kept me writing — I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next!

I can’t speak for everyone who’s tried to write a novel, but for me there’s only been the odd day or two of what I might call ‘writer’s block’, and that’s just been when I wasn’t sure how the next scene should start. When that happened I let the story stew in my head for a couple of days, and soon an idea would pop to the surface.

Our subconscious mind is powerful, if we give it a chance to participate. My best writing has come when I let it flow instead of trying to force it into submission.

My biggest problem, to my mind, has been the flood of ideas, not the lack of them. The novel has become so much larger than I expected. Each chapter sows a bumper crop of possibilities, and very often I have to consider whether that patch of unusual but interesting flowers will add to the story or detract from it. Usually I include them anyway, figuring I’ll leave the weeding and pruning to the first edit.

So in a week or so, after months of challenging but really enjoyable work, I’ll be typing the words “The End”. I plan to uncork a split of champagne. After decades of jotting hundreds of ideas, writing and discarding, and numerous aborted starts, I will have finally written a book. Whatever else happens from there, I will be able to check off that item on my bucket list.

Of course I hope to publish it, even if I decide to take the self-publishing route on Amazon. I think I’d like to try and find an agent, though — but that’s still months away. First, I’ll post to my NaNoWriMo group that I’ve finished it. Then I’ll put the book aside for a month, as per the organization’s instructions — we are to just leave it be for a while. I have a few other things to catch up on in the meantime (like weeding my actual garden in our backyard).

In September, instead of going back to school, I’ll be hauling out the book and doing my first edit: I’ll read the whole thing en masse, and fix things. I’m sure I’ll be tweaking some of the wording, and I’ll spot discontinuities — something I wrote in one chapter that either doesn’t match or wasn’t followed up on in a subsequent chapter. Hopefully there aren’t too many weeds, mostly beautiful flowers.

Once that’s done to my satisfaction, I have a crew of enthusiastic beta readers who are eagerly, I’m happy to say, waiting to read the book and give me feedback. I’m really looking forward to that part — I hope they enjoy the story, but I want to hear what parts of it aren’t working. I’ll need to know where the story might fall flat, where a scene doesn’t make sense or is hard to follow, where the plot has bogged down or dropped the ball, and certainly if the climax is exciting enough. After I review their feedback and make the necessary changes, I hope to have a book I’m proud of, one that will attract an agent.

While all this furious writing has been going on, my hubby and I have gotten our second vaccination, as have most of our friends. The second shot left us a little under-the-weather for two to three days, but nothing that wasn’t manageable, and now we’re confident that we can hold up well against any bugs.

The fact that the world’s researchers were able to come up with a viable vaccine in such a short time is almost miraculous. By contrast, researchers have been trying to develop a vaccine against malaria for decades. I know a lot of people worry about the short timeline, which necessarily means that testing was minimal, but in Ontario alone the number of cases has dropped from over 4,000 a day in April to less than 200 a day now. That’s a massive decrease, partly enabled by the lockdown to contain the spread, but in greater part because of the vaccinations.

In a week or so, I’ll be able to go to see the new Jungle Cruise movie with friends. Our little movie group hasn’t been able to get together in over a year. I consider us all very lucky — we lost one Christmas out of the pandemic, and spent a few months holed up in our homes. Aside from unrelated illnesses, which surely were a challenge during the past year-plus, those of us who took the precautions have stayed safe. Now we can begin looking ahead again, cautiously for now, until Covid-19 becomes a historical footnote, like smallpox.

I dream of finishing my complete trilogy, and maybe one day signing a copy for you in person at Comic-Con, where we can safely shake hands and chat. Wouldn’t that be a fabulous denouement to this grand writing adventure I’ve been on?! For anyone who’s had a long-time dream and been too afraid to start it — too worried about whether they’re worthy, or have the stamina/perseverance, or rich-enough soil to germinate their idea — there really is only one way to find out. You’ll likely surprise yourself with the result!

As always, all photos are by me unless otherwise stated, and all rights reserved.

My alternative to Christmas in July

The first hole of Royal Portrush, where the Open Championship was held in 2019, on a typical damp, chilly day

My hubby and I were in New Zealand on October 31 several years ago, and it was one of the oddest Halloweens we’ve ever spent.

October is a Spring month below the equator, and flowers were blooming all over the place – lots of white or pink flowering trees on front lawns. There wasn’t a pumpkin or anything orange in sight.

In Christchurch on the South Island, our overnight stop, Halloween was pretty much a wash. There were a couple of perfunctory Halloween events, which were sold out, but nothing public was decorated – no glowing jack-o’-lanterns on front porches, or corn stalks, or string lights, or anything for us to drive around and enjoy.

The local grocery store had some cute themed signs at the entrance, but it soon became obvious that trick-or-treating is not a thing in New Zealand: we couldn’t find a single package of Halloween candy on the shelves. Rather dejected, we bought a box of marshmallow cookies and went back to our Top 10 holiday park unit to watch vintage horror movies on the telly.

In the New Zealand media there was some talk of moving their Halloween celebration to the end of March, and we could see their point: at least there would be cool weather, fall colours, and the opportunity to grow pumpkins for pie and jack-o’-lanterns. I’ve never seen anything come of that, however.

Christmas, too, is a little topsy-turvy ‘down under’, taking place smack dab in the middle of their summer, when it’s hot and people go to the beach. So apparently it’s quite a thing in both Australia and New Zealand to celebrate “Christmas in July”, taking advantage of their cold season, and possibly even some snow, to celebrate a second time more atmospherically.

We’ve been to a ‘Christmas in July’ party here at home, where the host strung Christmas lights along the pool fence and served barbecued turkey, but it’s never really caught on in Canada – except on the Hallmark television channel.

My hubby and I have our own version of Christmas in July, and it’s called Open Week – as in the July week when the Open Golf Championship is played somewhere in Great Britain (it rotates through several different courses in England, Scotland and Ireland).

I love Open Week – this very week, as a matter of fact – for several reasons.

Number One is watching the golfers battle some of the nastiest golf weather on the planet. It’s rare to see the sun out during the tournament; more often than not it’s chilly and overcast. Sometimes there are gale-force winds and pouring rain.

I enjoy this because our summers here in southern Ontario are usually unbearably hot and humid, so I spend Open Week sheltered inside the house, not with a fire in the hearth but with the air conditioning blowing, and pretending that I’m in the cool damp of the tournament.

Number Two is the golf. The Open is always full of drama – at least in part because of the wild weather, but also because the courses are challenging and the players can’t just pound it down the fairway. They have to use every ounce of strategy they can devise, often trying to rescue themselves from a pot bunker that’s deeper than they are tall or thick fescue grass that will ensnare their club as they try to hit out of it, all of which makes for great golf.

Number Three is the British food that I make all week long. This is where the ‘Christmas in July’ part comes in.

There aren’t really any decorations to put out, but there’s slow-cooked oatmeal with cream and brown sugar, along with a slice of buttered toast and a cup of tea, for breakfast. For afternoon tea there might be fresh-baked scones with crème fraiche and strawberry jam, shortbread cookies, Eccles cakes and Hobnobs (round oatmeal wafers with a top coat of chocolate). At dinner, while we watch a replay of the day’s rounds (which were played in the wee hours of the morning by Eastern Standard Time), we’ll have hearty food that makes me think of cold weather and my favourite season, Autumn – maybe Shepherd’s Pie, a good curry dish, Sausage and Cider Stew, and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.

Just like at Christmas, we enjoy a little license to have extra desserts – Raspberry Trifle, or perhaps layered deep-chocolate cake with thick chocolate frosting, sliced and sitting in a creamy pool of pouring custard. I could be an honorary Brit just based on our shared love of sweets, of which they make some of the best.

When you combine the 149-year history, tradition and atmosphere of the tournament with great food and a little break from our day-to-day lives, you get something special. If you’re a non-golfer, it might not be your idea of an alternative to Christmas in July. But if you need a break from a long hot summer, find some excuse to chill out for a week, literally and mentally. And if you’re one of the people who love summer and everything about it, well, to each their own 😉