Repacking your holiday boxes

The holidays are going to be really different this year, aren’t they? We’ve all had many years planning to spend them with family and/or friends in some format, whether we necessarily wanted to or not 😉 But this year that grumbly, sometimes overwhelming option isn’t even on the table, and it’s easy to fall into a state of sadness about choices that have been taken away from us.

I’d like to suggest something more uplifting. Gatherings at any time are at their best if they’re about spending quality time with people we care about. They don’t have to be elaborate, or expensive, or perfect. So this is the year to think outside your usual holiday box.

Maybe the best gift you can give someone is to keep them safe. That may mean rethinking what you expect out of the holidays. In Ontario there are quite a few outdoor light displays, so this year instead of meals inside someone’s home, my hubby and I will be getting together with small bubbles of family members to enjoy time together in the fresh air where we can keep a safe distance and appreciate the beautiful lights. The meals will be simplified for tailgating – one of them will include a hearty beef stew kept warm in a hot-air turkey fryer, of all things, with some crusty bread, and chocolate squares for dessert.

Next week the college I worked at is hosting a president’s get-together for everyone who retired this year, via the Zoom platform. It’s not the easiest way to assemble, but it works, and when you consider that ten or fifteen years ago it wouldn’t have been possible, this year it’s great to have that technology so that you can chat and see people’s faces.

I’ve been busy planning lots of meals to add some sparkle to the quiet season that my hubby and I are having in between our two family outings. They’re not elaborate, just yummy.

We have a Sherlock Holmes-themed murder mystery puzzle to exercise our brains on over the holidays when he’s home from work, and I want to write more chapters of my novel. We still have to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and Disney’s gorgeous animated version of A Christmas Carol, as we do every year. He’s seen The Sound of Music so many times, though, that that one is a flat no 😊

On days when I’m not feeling so great, the best remedy I’ve ever found is to do something nice for someone else. Check on a friend – they might be having a bad day too and a chat, or a coffee out of doors (bundled up with layers and a lap blanket), could be great for both of you. Donate groceries to a food bank, or chat with someone in a grocery store. Be kind to others – we’re all having a stressful holiday, no matter where we are

Help someone else to feel better, and you’ll feel better yourself. That may be one of the best forms of self-care.

The days will pass, the world will move on, we’ll all quietly celebrate the end of a crazy year and look forward to a new one that has the words “vaccine” and “heading back toward normal” in it.

The final push

It’s the final five days of the November writing marathon. Some writers have already reached 50,000 words; others haven’t commented for days and I wonder how they’re doing. I have only a little over 6,000 words to go, so I’m on the home stretch as far as the contest target is concerned. The finished book will be quite a bit longer, though, so I have more work to do. On November 1st, though, I couldn’t picture myself getting this far, so I’m pretty pleased.

NaNoWriMo has been a great exercise in perseverance, and it’s shown me that I can actually produce a novel. There will be editing and beta readers down the road, but for now I’m looking forward to typing those golden words, “The End”, in the near future.

While I’m plugging away this week to reach the finish line I offer this tiny peek into my book’s first draft. It’s a dream sequence my heroine has one night after a strange and unsettling experience in an old library. Let me know what you think.

Out of the mind’s eye

It’s week three of the NaNoWriMo writing marathon and some participants are feeling frantic. I’ve seen comments from writers that they’ve got lots of words that in total feel like a confused mess, or they’re just now getting down to the brass tacks of writing after spending the first two weeks laying out the plot. We’re not supposed to worry about editing, but some people feel they need to in order to get back on track.

There are as many writing styles as there are participants. I went into this with a lot of background research already in the can – I’ve often used that type of research to spark ideas – as well as a pretty solid outline of my first book’s plot with threads that will tie into Books Two and Three. I also created detailed diagrams of two key locations in Book One, a small town where the bulk of the action takes place, and a college campus within that town. To me these places are vivid in my mind’s eye, but laying them out on electronic paper in a way that made them work logically solidified them. Now, when my heroine is exploring these places, I can describe her exact path as if she was navigating a real town or college campus, and I’ll be consistent every time the action takes place in these locales (I hope 😊).

Writing reminds me of taking photographs. For a long time on my travels I took photos of the famous places we visited. My slides of Egypt, for example, where my hubby and I went early in our marriage, are pretty standard shots – the Pyramids, each of us sitting on a block of the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx’s enigmatic face, the Nile, cruising up the Nile… Well, you get the idea.

But as time went on I began to use more of a painter’s eye, to capture more scenes that told a story. Paintings by the old Masters like Rembrandt are tiny novels in paint form – you have to study all the components to understand what they’re telling you, from the choice of colours, the use of light/shadow/emphasis, and the artist’s decision of what to include both in the foreground and in the background. Every single detail was put there for a specific reason, and so it is with good photographs, especially travel photographs.

I began to realize that most of my viewers would never actually see or experience what I was standing in front of at that moment, whether it was beautiful or ugly, so I wanted to be able to bring it to them virtually, through my photos.

A couple of years ago my hubby and I visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a microcosm of the American Revolutionary war. The docents were exemplary in explaining in unflinching detail what life was like for residents on both sides of the conflict. Walking through one of the original houses from the time period, that of a wealthy landowner, I was struck by this document in the home and had to take a photo of it.

It lists the family’s possessions and their monetary value, and included in that tally were all the slaves. Along with items of furniture and garden tools, each slave was assigned an amount in pounds sterling, the currency in use in the colonies before the Revolution. Each of these humans were valued as pieces of property, and not even of equal value. If you were a strong adult male, for example, you were worth more than someone aged who couldn’t do as much work any more. There right in front of me was something that brought to life the awfulness of the slave system in a way more compelling than many shows I’ve watched, because it wasn’t just a portrayal, it was a real thing. Any person who sees this photo will likely be able to feel the same emotion I felt standing in front of that piece of paper.

As writers it’s our job to do the same thing as this photo or a piece of art, to create a scene which is in our head so vividly that our readers can see it too, and can feel the emotions of the characters, whether love, fear, anger, revulsion, lust, hope, despair. If we’re writing about something that really happened it’s easier, but if we’re creating an entire imagined world in a book we have to be able to see it as if we’d lived it before we can share it with you the reader. So I empathize with my fellow marathoners in trying to get that out onto paper. We do it because there’s a story that simply must be told.

The distant shore

Well, I’m about one-third of the way through my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) goal of 50,000 written words by the end of November. I’m out in the middle of the lake hoping to reach the half-way point soon, and the far shore is in sight.

I can’t speak for everyone who’s determined to finally write their first/second/fifth novel this month, but so far for me it’s been incredibly rewarding.

Writing stories was my first love when I was growing up, but in my first year of high-school I fell in love with Biology and decided that’s what I wanted to study in university. I came by that honestly – my dad would have done the same if he’d had the opportunity, but when he was a young man in Europe he was expected to help out on the family farm. It was a waste of a great mind, and he supported me fully in pursuing the same dream. Although he’d already passed away by the time my hubby and I were able to go to Africa, I felt like maybe he was watching happily as our safari vehicle took us through so many fascinating landscapes filled with wonderful wild animal encounters.

All through adulthood I continued to want to write a little bit, jotting the beginnings of many different novels. Life got in the way, though, and I never finished any of them. A few years ago, however, I started homing in on an idea I’d had for a long time. I began doing a lot of background research and outlining some plot points.

Research and plot-tinkering are great ways to put off actually putting fingers to keyboard, though. I shared the same fear as many starting writers: can I write well enough to bring this story to life, or will I be wasting my time?

The great thing about this month of marathon writing is that it frees you to just write what’s in your head without worrying yet about getting it just right, and 30 days is not a very big chunk of time out of your life to give it a shot.

I had all the chapters worked out beforehand – the sequence of events that will take my (one-day) readers from the Inciting Event (the event that changes everything for the protagonist) to the (hopefully) thrilling Climax. And in my case, I also hope the first book will be enthralling enough to make my readers want to continue on the rest of the journey through books two and three.

What’s especially interesting about this process is that I started out worrying about how I was going turn my bare skeleton into a seaworthy craft, and then take myself on the actual journey with my heroine. What I’ve been finding is that the ship is in many ways building and sailing itself. When I sit down to write, the ideas are all falling into place. I guess that’s a good sign, and time will tell.

But more than that, the words are – mostly – coming out the way I want to express them. I’m not spilling out a confused mess just to get my word-count in, I’m writing paragraphs and scenes that I’m quite pleased with.

That’s not to say that I may not want or need to do a lot of editing and perhaps some rewriting before I let some beta readers have a look at it, and then some more tweaking based on their feedback. But I see the far shore, and there’s a landing site. And the journey to get there is a revelation.

So for all of you who have a pet project you’ve always wanted to try, just start doing it. You may find, as I am finding, that it’s like a snowball rolling down a hill that keeps gathering more and more snow and momentum as it goes until it becomes a fully-realized snow-person. It’s never too late to start one, and even if it doesn’t become an award-winning snow-person, in the end you can have the satisfaction of saying that you finally did it!

A new chapter

Sadly, Halloween has passed for another year. Our ‘Dr. Frankenstein’s Lab’ candy table turned out well:

We only had about ten kids come trick-or-treating, although apparently that was a good number compared to other neighbourhoods. The kids who did visit our house got quite a kick out of it, and my hubby and I did have a lot of fun handing out (touch-free) treat bags that way and sending puffs of fog out to drift eerily around the circle in the still cool night; we may turn it into a permanent tradition. I have to admit some disappointment that more people in our neighbourhood didn’t hand out candy — granted, my hubby and I have a lot of props on hand from various parties we’ve thrown over the years (in fact, he suggested we could probably have decorated our entire circle) — but this seemed like such a cute and fairly safe tradition to hold up this year, a much-needed breath of lightness into a dismal year.

No one has any idea so far regarding what the December holidays may bring, but in the meantime, this year I’m participating in the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) event this month. If you haven’t heard of it, you can find out much more about it here. Each year thousands of writers attempt to pull a novel out of their heads and put it onto paper (real or electronic, whatever suits their style) with at least 50,000 words. The idea is to just get it written, a first draft unencumbered by worries about making it the perfect book of our dreams. As someone who’s been researching, jotting ideas down and drafting the odd orphan paragraph for years, I can attest to how freeing this process is.

We earn badges along the way for things like updating our word count each day, and we can connect to other writers through different groups with a specific focus, or during “write-ins” (short dedicated marathon writing sessions that encourage us to put more words down).

Personally I’m finding it rather liberating to just let ideas flow wherever my mind’s eye takes me and worry at a later date about which ones I want to keep for the final product, and so far, just sitting down with my fingers on my keyboard seems to bring all kinds of interesting ideas to mind. Maybe at some point I’ll run into writer’s block, but I’m content to enjoy the journey.

If you’re wondering what I’m writing about, for now I’ll just say that it’s an urban fantasy with some touches of sci-fi, about a woman who discovers that, far back in her ancestry, she is descended from a race on another planet, and that her progenitor was placed here for a specific purpose because of certain abilities inherent in her bloodline. The concept sprang from my family’s annual road trips to northern Ontario when I was a child — every time we passed an exit ramp leading away into the mysterious unknown, I’d imagine what it would be like to one day explore those other roads. From there my imagination, inspired heavily by Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, extrapolated to roads that led to other dimensions or other planes of existence.

For now I’ll continue sending my heroine on her warrior/hero journey. I know where she’s going and how she’ll end up by the close of the third and final book, but I’m having a blast getting her there and I hope that one day in the near future you’ll be able to read her story yourself. Today it stands at 6467 words, more than 10% of the ultimate goal. Stay tuned for more, and if you feel so inspired yourself, it doesn’t cost anything to sign up for NaNoWriMo.

Pandemic-style fall mini-adventure – it can be done!

Well, my day started off with a bang today.

The keyboard on my laptop, which was perfectly fine when I shut things down last night, decided it wasn’t going to work today. After much cursing followed by research, I believe it may be fixable, but in the meantime I spent half my day running around to buy a new laptop with an SSD drive that was on sale at Best Buy (since the one I’ve been using is about 4.5 years old and nearing the typical lifespan of its HDD drive, and I also have a 40-minute tea talk to do via Zoom next week which I hope the upgraded equipment will make smoother), and a small wireless keyboard that I hooked up to the old one so I could type this blog without using the slow onscreen keyboard.

So, a few dollars poorer now, I’m a little less aggravated sitting on the couch typing this post. (Wish me luck setting up the new one tomorrow and transferring all the files.)

Hubby and I were very fortunate to be able to take a little vacation break last week. We decided to head to eastern Ontario for the fall colours and some Halloween-themed events. As you might expect, a lot of autumn events have been cancelled this year, but I found a few that were still running. Here’s how the planning went:

  • Checking lodging websites throughout the summer. It was challenging to find accommodations for a week – evidently a lot of Ontarians were travelling within our own ‘backyard’ in order to stay safe. We ended up booking basic rooms at the lodge associated with the golf course we wanted to play a round or two at – sadly all the rooms with fireplaces were booked up, but the basic rooms looked nice enough in photos and frankly we were delighted enough to be able to get away from the house for a few days.
  • Recurring checks on activities from August to September. They seemed to be pretty variable, depending on how the prevailing health wind was blowing. Some places opened in June/July and then closed up again within a few weeks. (I imagine there must have been cost-benefit issues with staffing, maintenance, etc.)

In September I was thrilled to see confirmed October dates for three activities we really wanted to do : Pumpkinferno at Upper Canada Village, Fort Fright at Fort Henry in Kingston, and a 1000 Islands cruise, although we did get a subsequent email from the cruise line that our original choice of date had been cancelled and we needed to pick a different date. We’d kept our itinerary really flexible around the blustery fall weather and any surprises, so it was a minor inconvenience. I did happy dances on the day I secured online tickets.

  • Several hours over the summer researching how many restaurants were still open and offering something gluten-free. A few places that we wouldn’t have minded trying out seemed to have shut their doors due to the pandemic, and others had very limited menus, so I needed to know just how often we might have to forage for meals in local grocery stores.

Here’s how it turned out. On the Saturday morning we threw our luggage into the vehicle and hit the road. We stopped in at a great gluten-free bakery in Oakville called Kelly’s to pick up an assortment of muffins for in-room breakfasts and a tray of their fabulous pumpkin scones for the picnic lunch we’d be having enroute to our final destination. It was a beautiful fall day, a mix of sun and clouds with a cool breeze coming off Lake Ontario.

Our picnic spread
The scones, with a vegan spiced maple frosting

We hurried past Toronto, which always has heavy traffic, then got off onto a more rural road through an assortment of pretty small towns dating back to the 1800s that we’d never explored before. On the outskirts of Port Hope we found a picnic area overlooking the lake and a walking trail, and spread out a plaid blanket on which we laid our lunch fare – a thermos of hot tea, scrambled egg + cheese + bacon sandwiches on gluten-free buns, and the pumpkin scones that had been calling my name for the previous two hours.

A view of Lake Ontario from the walking trail

After a good lunch and leg-stretch along a bit of the trail, we resumed travels with hardly anyone else on the road besides us – one upside to the pandemic, at least. We reached our lodging at dusk, checked in and settled into our riverview room on a hillside, and walked down to the main building for dinner.

Checking into the lodge

Glen House was obviously designed for groups of male golf buddies – our room was essentially a small cabin with a door in back off the parking area and a front door stepping out onto a balcony and a view across a lawn to the riverfront the lodge property sits on the edge of.

Rear entrance to our cabin-style room
Our sleeping & seating area
View from our balcony

There was a small kitchenette with sink, mini-fridge and coffee/tea maker, a nice-enough bathroom with a walk-in shower and a vanity that could have been a bit larger for my taste, and a small flat-screen TV with just a handful of stations. Our seating area/bedroom held two queen-sized beds, and there was a separate bedroom with another two beds. The love-seat in the seating area was actually a fold-out bed, which explained the odd tilt forward the seats had – I had to prop myself up on it to play on my laptop and my hubby in one of the tub chairs had to keep retrieving my mouse for me every time it slid off my lap. All in all, it was clean, comfortable and had good heating, which we really appreciated on the cooler nights north of Lake Ontario. Housekeeping was not allowed to enter our rooms for the duration of our stay, but there were plenty of towels and the front desk gladly supplied anything we ran low on.

Key lime cheesecake

The dining room was warm and welcoming, and the tables were well-spaced. There were indeed several groups of male golfers staying there, so as the rare female guest I was an anomaly, but most of the dining room staff were female and everyone was very nice. The menu was small, but all the food we had, whether breakfast or dinner, was quite delicious, especially the key lime cheesecake that was the featured dessert that week.

Waiting to board our cruise boat while the crew disinfected it between sailings

The next morning we woke to cloudy skies, but the weather held out and we were able to take our 1.5 hour cruise among the famous 1000 Islands that straddle the St. Lawrence River between Ontario and New York State. It was a lovely way to spend an autumn afternoon, with an excellent commentary by the crew as we wound through resplendently rustic island estates.

Gorgeous island shorelines
Gannets perched on rocky outcrops
One of the many ‘cottages’ tucked away on their private islands

The only thing we weren’t able to do was disembark at Boldt Castle, a famous manse with a tragic history that’s on U.S. soil, but the cruise circumnavigated the island and we got a pretty good look at the exterior and grounds, including the huge ‘yacht’ house on its own separate island.

Boldt Castle on Heart Island
The humble yacht house

In the strong chill breeze aboard the boat we’d worked up an appetite, so afterward we decided to have an early dinner at the cozy Cornwall Pub in the tiny town of Rockport where the cruise boats were based. I had an excellent barbecued-chicken pizza on a gluten-free crust – the advantages of a tourist town, even off-season during a pandemic! We doggie-bagged the leftovers for noshing on that evening back in our room.

Cornwall Pub
My delicious g-f pizza

Monday was golfing day, on a beautiful course called Smuggler’s Glen, made spectacular by the brilliant fall colours. The course was busy – a lot of people enjoying what was left of the end of the season here in Ontario (although if we’re lucky we might get a couple more mild days to squeeze in a final round back at home). All of the golf courses in our province have received a lot of bookings this year, since golf as a sport is both amenable to social distancing and a great opportunity to spend time outdoors.

Smuggler’s Glen Golf Course

On Tuesday evening we headed about an hour farther east to the highlight of the trip, Pumpkinferno! Spread through 1 km of historic Upper Canada Village are vignettes built of about 7,000 carved and lit pumpkins that (this year at least) you can slowly walk through and explore in the velvety darkness of a cool autumn night.

The entrance to Pumpkinferno

We’d had to prebook tickets with a specific entry time, and only 360 people total were allowed in for the entire evening, 60 at each entry time with wide spacing between groups. Even the parking spaces were arranged with space between, and there was plenty of parking close up without a long walk just to get to the entrance.

Ticket-holder entrance points

The darkness and dearth of people gave the village an eerie atmosphere, and the wide paths around the property allowed for space to enjoy the displays and music without being crowded at all – even to take my time photographing as many as possible. It was truly impressive and quite magical. It has also sold out for the rest of the month, so I’m glad we booked when we did.

Under the Sea
Superheroes
“Double, double, toil and trouble…”
Psychedelic 60s
A T-rex roars his dominance
The Enchanted Forest

These are just a few of the fantastic creations we saw. Next week, the rest of the trip, especially spooky Fort Fright, the annual haunted attraction at historic Fort Henry, where the dead walk and a sarcastic zombie keeps visitors entertained as they wait their turn to enter!

All photos by me and all rights reserved.